Colony 15.1

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Bentley lunged in my direction, and I could feel my people backing away behind me.  I stood firm.  The mutant bulldog landed with both front paws first, the impact so heavy that spittle and moisture was flung from his massive body.

A low, guttural noise tore its way from Bentley’s throat as he surged forward again.  I could hear yelps and shouts of alarm from the crowd behind me.

Wood splintered, cracked, and finally gave way.  Behind Bentley, the husk of a fire-scorched building collapsed.  Chains that had been lashed to the building’s wooden supports trailed from the dog’s harness as he bounded toward Bitch.  Of everyone present, only Bitch and I held our ground as the dog barreled into his master, practically bouncing with joy.

Bitch, for her part, wrapped her arms around his head as he lifted her off the ground.  “Good boy!”

He’s just a dog.  Beneath the three-thousand-ish pounds of muscle and the exterior of tangled muscle and bone, he was still a dopey dog who adored his master.  Bitch had given him what he’d been yearning for since he was abandoned or abused in his past life.  She’d offered him the affection and companionship he’d been wanting for years.

I could relate.  Not in terms of Bitch, specifically, but I could relate.

“Get to work clearing that up!” I ordered.  My swarm augmented my voice to carry it across the crowd of my followers.  There were twenty-two adults and twenty kids.  With Coil’s assistance, I’d brought in work gloves and black hazmat suits, but most people were wearing only the lower body of the suits.  It was too warm for the full suits, and the masks were largely unnecessary.  Everyone was dripping from the rain, but nobody was really complaining.  I rather liked it; it was refreshing in the otherwise warm day.

A generator stirred to life a short distance down the street, and there was something of a rush as people hurried to get away from the intimidating presence of the big bad supervillains and their mutant animals.  That, and there was something of a fight to get the power tools.  There were only so many circular saws and chainsaws to go around, and anyone who didn’t have one was tasked with carrying the cut wood instead.

I created a barrier of bugs to stop one of the teenagers from reaching for a circular saw.

“If you’re under eighteen, you don’t get to use power tools,” I called out.  “Priority goes to the people who know how the tools are used.  Able bodied adults get second dibs.  Listen carefully to the guys who know what they’re doing, and work somewhere dry if possible.  We’ve had enough casualties, let’s not have anything stupid happening with someone slipping or losing their grip in the rain.  If someone’s being an idiot, tell Sierra, and she’ll inform me.”

Sierra glanced at me and nodded.

I turned my attention to Bitch.

“You owe me,” she said.  The rain had plastered her short hair against her scalp.  Her gang of four people stood by with dogs on leashes: Barker, Biter, a college-aged kid with the scars of four parallel claw marks running across his face, and a girl with her arm in a sling.  They didn’t look scared, like my people had, but they still didn’t look fantastically thrilled to be in close vicinity to one of Bitch’s dogs on full throttle.

Nevermind that you were the one that came here early.  “Of course.  We’ll get you and your people some lunch.”

She frowned.  “Lunch?”

There was a bit of a pause.  I waited patiently as she considered the idea.

“Fine,” she decided.

“Come on,” I told her.  “We’ll go to my place while we wait for the others.”

While Bentley had been helping to tear down and dismantle the derelict building, I’d been contemplating how I’d leverage Bitch’s early arrival to mend fences and rebuild some trust.  I’d decided on something simple, as that seemed to work best with Bitch.  I imagined that she hadn’t paid a lot of attention to stuff like food as she took hold of her territory.  Odds were good that she’d asked Coil for a lot of easy food she could stuff in her pockets and eat on the go.  She probably wouldn’t pay much attention to stuff like seasonings or variety in courses.

I’d recently spent some time looking back on our past interactions.  Her perspective toward me had zig-zagged between a kind of hesitant acceptance and hostility.  We’d met, she’d attacked me.  We’d gone to the bank robbery, and she’d been open and excited, only to do a one-eighty and start shouting at me after misinterpreting something I said.  Two steps forward, one step back.  Until I’d left the group and then been outed as an undercover operative a short while later.  That had been a good solid one-hundred steps back.

Recovering from that breach of trust had proven far more difficult than anything that came before.  Not quite impossible, though; I’d apparently proved myself in the recent past, because Bitch was making an effort on her end.  She was here earlier than I’d asked, for one thing, and she hadn’t murdered me when I asked for a hand with some things I couldn’t handle with my own power.

She glanced back at her group and whistled once, making a ‘come hither’ gesture.  I couldn’t tell if she was signaling her dogs and expecting the people to follow or if she was treating her own people like she did her dogs.  She grabbed the chain at Bentley’s neck and used it to lead him.

Barker and Biter looked pretty unimpressed, either way.  Barker especially.

We didn’t talk as we made our way to my headquarters, and I was okay with that.  Every exchange between us was one more chance for me to inadvertently offend her, and the silence gave me a bit more time to consider how to tackle all of this.  I was used to feeling like I had to approach every conversation with a strategy, planning out what I was going to say so I didn’t sound like an idiot.  That went double for Bitch, because a slip-up could set me back days or weeks in terms of our friendship.

Should friendship even be my goal?  Maybe I was better off just trying to be a teammate.

If it was just for my sake, I could probably convince myself.  As it stood, though, I was thinking of Bitch.  I felt like I would be abandoning her to a pretty lonely existence if I didn’t at least try.

I let them into my lair, after sweeping the area with my bugs to check for any observers, unlocking and opening the shutter.  Charlotte had experienced a few sleepless nights since the scare three nights ago, so I’d given her permission to take it easy here, with the warning that I’d have guests and would want her assistance.  She still looked a little wary as Bitch, Biter, and Barker entered.

“Hamburgers?” I asked Bitch.  She nodded.  When I looked at her minions, they signaled agreement.  Good.  Easy and simple.

“Charlotte, would you mind?  Maybe fries, too, if you know how to make them on the stove?”

“I don’t, but there’s some in the freezer that I can do.  They aren’t bad,” she replied.

“Good.  When you have a second, some towels for the dogs, too.”

“Okay.”

I led the others into the sitting area on the ground floor.  With the shutter up, some dim light filtered through the rain-streaked windows.  Bitch was outside, tending to Bentley, who had yet to shrink to a more normal size.

I stepped outside to give her directions to where she could stow Bentley until he’d returned to a more normal size, pointing the way to the beach.  She marched off with the one-ton monstrous dog, not offering a response.

Which left me to deal with her people in the meantime.

Barker and Biter gave me something of a George and Lennie vibe, with the smaller guy as the brains of the outfit, the larger one as the big oaf.  While I didn’t have any major clues to Barker’s powers, Biter was clearly a physical powerhouse.  He stood over six feet in height with a severe underbite exaggerated by a metal bear-trap style band of metal around his lower jaw.  His teeth, I saw, were filed into points.  His costume featured spiked knuckle-dusters and a number of leather straps and belts over his clothes.  Each length of leather was studded with sharp spikes.

Barker was an inch or two shorter than me, his hair and beard cut short enough that there was more skin than hair showing.  His eyes seemed overly large for his face, with heavy lids and folds around them that made him look older than he probably was.  His ‘costume’ consisted of a black sleeveless t-shirt, jeans and tattooing around his mouth.  I’d seen him in something more conventional when Coil had introduced him to us, but now the only sign of his parahuman nature was the faint smoke that curled out of his mouth.  Just going by his lack of bulk and short stature, I thought I might be able to take him in a no-powers fist fight.

I’d nearly forgotten about Bitch’s henchpeople in the chaos of dealing with the Nine and all of the fallout that had ensued.  I realized I knew very little about them.

To my surprise, it was Biter who did the talking.  He had a low voice, and his words were muddled by some combination of the mouthgear and the underbite.  “You get along.”

I folded my arms.

He spread his hands, “How?”

“How do Bitch and I get along?” I asked.

He nodded.

“I’m not sure I’m comfortable talking behind her back.”

The girl with her arm in a sling spoke up, “She acts like she’s frustrated with us.  And I think we’re frustrated with her.”

“I don’t want to be rude, but that’s really her business with you.”  They’re her property, her territory.  If I screwed around with her minions or started something, it would effectively be stepping on her toes.

“You can’t offer us any tips?” she asked.

She looked so hopeful.  Damn it.

“I can, but it’s going to sound pretty damn basic.  Be honest, be absolutely clear in what you’re saying.  Be obedient, but be assertive.  Don’t let her walk all over you or she will walk all over you.  At the same time, if you think there’s something worth arguing over, be prepared to fight tooth and nail for it, because you’ll be in a weaker position if you fight over it and lose.  Respect her space and her things, and remember that she’s your boss above all else.”

“She doesn’t act like a boss,” Barker said, and he made it sound almost insulting.  Puffs of the dark smoke spilled from his mouth with each word, but they seemed to carry further than cigarette smoke would.  It seemed to be tied to the stress or emphasis on the sounds that drove it forward.  “She does her own thing and she leaves us to clean up shit.”

“Adapt,” I told him.  “That’s all I can say.  If you’ve proven yourself reliable, showed that you’re willing to clean up after the dogs and take care of them without complaining, she’ll test you in other ways.  That’ll be your chance to prove you’re useful.”

He sneered, looking at the girl and the boy with the scars on his face.  “She’s cutting them more slack than she’s cutting Biter and me.  We shouldn’t have to prove anything.”

“What do you do?  Your powers.”

He looked up at me.  “You want to see?”

I shrugged.

“Whore.”

The puff of smoke that accompanied the word detonated like a small thunder-clap, mere inches from my face.  I flinched, but it hadn’t been intended to harm.  Only to alarm.

He sniggered.  I’d never met anyone who really sniggered before.

I could see how Coil thought Barker and Bitch would be a match.  I could also see where there would be some friction between the two.

I sighed a little, watching as Barker looked to the others, then over at Charlotte, as if they’d be joining him in his amusement.  None did.  Biter earned a brownie point in my book by staying quiet and simply watching.

I caught my baton from behind my back and swung it underhand, still folded up, into Barker’s chin.  His teeth clacked shut with percussive force, and I stepped closer to push at his upper body while hooking at the chair leg with my foot to pull it in my direction.  He toppled backwards, his head hitting the wall behind him.

I didn’t have a full measure of his ability, but I did know his mouth was his weapon.  It made me look weaker, but I stepped back so his legs and the chair seat gave me cover in the event that he decided to attack me.

For extra measure, I drew the bugs out of my costume and sent them straight for his nose and mouth.

He went bug-eyed as he sat up, coughing and sputtering in an attempt to clear the bugs from his airway.  After one rolling cough, he created another detonation in and around his mouth, obliterating a majority of the bugs I’d tried to gag him with.

I glanced at Biter.  He was still seated.  Good.  I’d somehow thought that the guy would be stepping up to defend his partner, making this a two-versus-one fight.

Barker was climbing to his feet.  I saw him falter, then start coughing again, gagging.

The capsaicin had kicked in.

“That’s the sort of thing you have to watch out for,” I told him, as he fell to the ground, writhing and coughing, tears welling in his eyes.  I kept my voice level.  “You’re in my house, my territory, and you fuck with me?  That’s the sort of thing that would get you in your boss’s bad books if you did it to her.”

“He has,” the boy with the scars on his face spoke.

Barker only gagged in response.

“Guess that’s why he deserves shit duty,” I commented.  I leaned against the wall, folding my arms, my telescoped baton still in one hand.

Bitch had chosen that moment to return.  She stared at the scene.  Me standing idly by as Barker was curled up on the floor, wheezing and making pathetic noises, a few stray bugs crawling across his face.

She looked at me, glaring.

“He started it, I finished it,” I told her.

She looked at Biter, who shrugged and nodded agreement with my statement.  Bitch seemed to accept that as answer enough.  She picked up his chair, moved it a few feet so it wouldn’t be in Barker’s way as he kicked and spasmed, and sat down.

“I’m surprised there’s no objections about me attacking your partner,”  I told Biter.

“Your house, your rules, you said.”

“What do you do?  No demonstrations, please.”

“I make parts of myself bigger.”  He pointed to his mouth, then to the fist with the spike-studded knuckle-duster.  “Open wide, swing with bigger hands.”

Nothing that would have been that great against the Nine.  I couldn’t blame Bitch for leaving them behind.

“Fair enough.”  I addressed the two unpowered individuals from Bitch’s group.  “And you two?  Why were you picked for her team?”

“I was just starting my first year as a vet before everything went to hell,” the girl said.  “Needed money to pay my boyfriend’s hospital bill, was offered more than enough.  He got better a week ago, then broke up with me.  Not even a thank you.  Guess I’m still here because I don’t have anywhere else to go, and I like taking care of the dogs.”

I saw an opportunity.  “Did you have a dog growing up?”

“Greyhounds.  Eclaire and Blitzen.”

“Blitzen?  Like the reindeer?”

“No.  Like German for lightning.  And Eclaire is French.”

I could see Bitch was tense.  Something about this line of conversation?

I guessed what it might be and continued the questioning.  “Why greyhounds?  Don’t they need a lot of exercise?”

She shook her head.  “No.  They’re running dogs, but they only need about a half-hour of walking a day.  They work really well living in an apartment, which we were.”

“They howl,” Bitch said.

“Only if they’re unhappy,” the girl protested.  She glanced down as Barker thumped on the ground with one fist, then looked up at Bitch and smiled a little, “And ours were happy.”

Bitch seemed to accept that.

“Do you have a dog now?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I don’t have the money.  Or I didn’t have money, before Leviathan came.  Student loans and living expenses kind of ate up whatever I made.  I’m hoping to save up enough with the work I’m doing now.”

“You buying the dog?” Bitch asked.  She seemed interested, now, but there was still a tension, as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.  One wrong answer, and this could turn ugly.  I could only hope the girl had the right answers.

“I kind of want another greyhound, because it’s what I grew up with… and you’ll get greyhounds from an animal rescue ninety percent of the time.  There’s one I’m pretty fond of that’s in one of your shelters, but he’s yours, of course.”

She’d taken my advice about respecting Bitch’s ownership.  Good.

“Greyhound?  Chase or Ink?”  Bitch asked.

“Ink.”

Bitch frowned.  I tensed, ready to jump in and distract with some mention of food.

Grudgingly, Bitch said, “Rather they have a proper home than stay with me.”

I could see the girl’s eyes widen in surprise.  “I didn’t- um.  Thank you.”

“If I see him in some cage in a shelter after you’ve taken him home, I’m going to track you down and dismember you,” Bitch growled.

I could see from the expression on the girl’s face that she believed Bitch.  Still, I saw her steel herself as she replied, “If I fuck up, I deserve it.”

There wasn’t much more I could do to help that conversation.  I had hope that this would set Bitch’s underlings in the right direction.

While they continued talking, I stepped away to check on the hamburgers that Charlotte was cooking on the stove.

“Is he going to be okay?” she asked me.

It took me a second to realize who she meant.  I looked back at Barker.  “Yeah.”

“I mean, is he going to attack us?”

“I dosed him with pepper spray, basically, as well as a few stings and bites to add to the hurt.  That’ll generally put someone down for half an hour, so I don’t think he’s a threat.  I don’t think he’s stupid enough to attack with Bitch and I here.”

She nodded, but she didn’t look relieved.  I would have asked what was up, tried to pry for more clarification on just why she hadn’t slept well, or why she was so easily spooked, but I was interrupted by the vibration of my phone.

I stepped up into my lair to take the call.

“We’re a few minutes away,” Lisa told me, the second I picked up.

“Bitch is here already,” I answered.  “Come in the front door when you get here.”

“Righty-o.  Ta ta.”

She hung up.

I took a second to compose myself, alone in the second floor of my lair.  Dealing with people, the sensitive management of Bitch and her underlings, pretending confidence where I didn’t necessarily have it, and thinking of all the little details that would help me convey the image of someone confident and powerful… it was draining.  It meant standing straighter, having the answers, thinking two steps ahead and using intimidation and fear to prevent any argument or insubordination like Barker’s little stunt.  It meant retaliating in excess to any slight or disrespect.

Barker had pushed me, I’d left him mewling like a baby.

At the same time, I faced a dilemma on the opposite end of things.  I wanted to help people, and I wanted to build friendships with the others.  With the way Bitch sort of mandated that I go the extra mile, it was hard to be nice to her without seeming weak to others.

Well, what they didn’t see didn’t hurt them.

I stepped downstairs.

“Bitch?” I asked.  “A word?”

She frowned, glancing at the food.

“We’ll be done before the food is,” I promised.

She followed me up the stairs.

“It’s not complete,” I admitted, walking over to where I had fabric draped over a workbench.  I picked up one piece and flicked it out.  “I just figured you’d want to see it and voice any complaints before the others got here, so your voice doesn’t get drowned out.”

She took it from my hands.  It was a jacket, not dissimilar to the one she’d lent me once upon a time, but it was naturally lighter.  There was a hood with a fluffy fur border at the edges, extending around in front of her shoulders.  Besides the zippers and buttons, the fur was the only thing I hadn’t made myself.

“I dyed it dark gray.  I figured if you wanted it any color, you’d want it something dark, so I can tint it dark red, dark blue, dark green, or whatever you want.”

She stared at it, her forehead creased.

“It’s spider silk.  Tensile strength like steel, but flexible enough to resist wear and tear that steel wire would experience.  And it’s lighter than the steel would be.  Knives won’t cut it.  I figured you’d want a heavier feel, judging by the jacket you lent me before, so I put rectangular panels of armor in between the inner and outer layer to give it more substance.  I originally meant for there to be an undershirt or something you can wear to protect your upper body for when you don’t have it zipped up, but I kind of cannibalized it for my own costume, after I burned my legs.  I’ll have the shirt ready for you in a week or two.  Here, there’s leggings, too.  They survived.”

I picked up the leggings.  Unlike the jacket, they were skin-tight.

“I don’t wear tights,” she said.

“I thought you could wear them under your pants if you were expecting a serious fight.  I gave you an inner layer with a really fine weave for the inner thighs, for when you’re riding, so there’s less chafing.”

“Uh huh.”

“I went out of my way to give you lots of pockets like you had in the other jacket.  I don’t think it’ll be too hot.  There’s zippers in the armpits so you can ventilate some cool air inside, and you can detach the hood if you want, but I liked how it looked with the fur.  I’m planning an inside liner for when it’s-”

“It’s fine,” she interrupted me.  “Stop talking.  It’s good.”

“Yeah?  I didn’t get a chance to get your measurements, so I went by memory, based on the jacket you lent me.”

She pulled it on and adjusted the front.  “Fits fine.”

“Here,” I said.  I turned around and grabbed the next piece.  I handed it to her.

She turned it around in her hands.  I’d cheated and formed the base sculpt out of chicken wire, covering the remainder with layers of dragline silk and painting the end result.  It was, as close as I’d been able to manage, a recreation of what her power did to her dogs in the form of a mask.  Except I’d made it half human and half dog.

“Looks like Brutus,” she said.

I didn’t see it, but I didn’t see fit to correct her either.

She pulled it on.

“It’s just a little bit flexible, if you want to bend any bits that are rubbing in the wrong place, or shape it to fit your face better.”

“It’s fine,” she said.  She adjusted her jacket again.

“If you want me to change anything-”

“No.”

Her refusal was so curt it gave me pause.  I couldn’t tell if she was upset or happy.

I forced myself to keep my mouth shut.  I’d give her a few seconds to let me know either way.  If she didn’t, I was ready to escape by pointing out that lunch would be waiting for us.

“You made stuff for the others?”

“Yeah.”

“But I didn’t ask for it.  I told you to fuck off when you asked me for my measurements, remember?”

“I made it anyways.”

She adjusted her mask, turning it so it hung off one side of her head.  She was glowering at me.  “Why didn’t you listen when I told you to fuck off?”

Two ways I could interpret that question.  “Don’t worry about it.  Look, the hamburgers will be ready soon…” I trailed off.

An awkward silence reigned.  I turned to head downstairs.

“What do you want for this?”

I looked over my shoulder.  “What?  Nothing.”

“You’re trying to get some favor from me.”

“No, I’m really not.  It might feel like it, with the timing and what we’re going to talk about with Lisa and the others, but it’s really not.  You’re free to argue and disagree with me or the rest of us, just like usual.  The costume’s a gift.”

“I don’t get many gifts.”

I shrugged.  What was I supposed to say to that?  I couldn’t help but feel that if I were a little more socially adroit, I’d have had a snappy answer.

She kept talking.  “All of the stuff I’ve gotten, it’s been with strings attached.  Used to get gifts from one of my foster dads,” she paused.  “And I get the money from Coil.”

“Those aren’t really presents.  They’re more like bribes or enticements.  Really truly, this is no strings attached.  You can act like you normally would, I won’t expect any different.”

Again, that glower.

I swallowed.  “Wear it or don’t wear it.  It’s okay either way.  It’s not a big deal.”

“I’ll wear it,” she said.

When I turned to head downstairs, she followed.

I guess that means ‘thank you’.

We were greeted by the others in the kitchen.  There was just enough time to grab and prepare our burgers before the others arrived.  Grue, Tattletale, Imp, Regent and Shatterbird.  They turned down the offer of food, and together, we ventured back upstairs.

With everyone gathered in my headquarters, I handed out the costumes.  Like Bitch’s, the other costumes were in various stages of completion, primarily with minor details missing or askew.  I ate while the others tried it all on.

Lisa’s costume was virtually the same.  The complicated aspect had been maintaining the crisp differences in color without any bleeding of black into lavender or vice versa.  There’d also been the issue of getting the mask to fit her face well.  I’d accomplished the former by making the black and lavender pieces separately and attaching them to a gossamer-thin sub-layer when I was done.  We had the boys and Shatterbird turn away while Lisa and Aisha changed at one end of the room.  The mask was a failure, it didn’t sit right around the eyes, but I was left with an idea of what to do.

Grue’s costume was not unlike his motorcycle leathers in terms of thickness and design, making him one of the most heavily armored of our groups in terms of the amount of material he was wearing.  His headwear was the part I’d changed the most: I’d modeled the face-plate after a figurine he’d bought at the market.  It was a step away from the visor he’d worn up to now, more demonic than skeletal.  The only real trick there had been making it non-porous enough that his darkness wouldn’t bleed through.  A quick experiment proved that my efforts had turned out alright.  In costume, the face-mask down, the darkness framed his mask but didn’t cover it unless Grue forced it to.  A demon’s face in dark gray in a vaguely human-shaped twist of darkness.

For Regent and Imp, I’d settled on bodysuits and masks.  Regent would wear his beneath his costume and Imp would wear hers as a simple black bodysuit, complete with a scarf and the horned mask Coil had provided.

There was more to do: belts, Imp’s scarf, Tattletale’s mask and Bitch’s shirt, not to mention finishing my new mask, and my plans for different masks for our various minions.

When we’d been fighting the Slaughterhouse Nine, I’d lamented the fact that I hadn’t better outfitted the team, and people had been hurt where the costumes would have otherwise protected them.  In the days I’d had to wind down, focusing on getting people organized and working on cleaning up the area, I’d been in range to get a serious effort going on the costumes.

I was satisfied with this.

By all appearances, they were too.

“Safe to turn around,” Tattletale told the boys.

They did.  I gestured, and people found seats in the various chairs.

“Feels like we’re different people than we were an hour ago,” Imp said, looking around.

I considered her words.  “I appreciate the sentiment, but I think it’s more accurate to say we’re different people than we were a week ago.”

There were some nods.  I glanced at the scar on Tattletale’s cheek, at Shatterbird, who stood obediently behind Regent, and at Grue, who had transformed more than any of us.

And I couldn’t forget the change I’d undergone, even if I didn’t have the objectivity to nail down exactly what about me was different from a week ago.  Sure, my costume was different, and I had the three hundred pound beetle that was resting on the roof.

“You wanted to touch base?” Brian asked, after he’d pulled off his mask.

“I had some words with Skitter,” Lisa answered.  “I think it’s about time we all got on the same page.”

“In terms of tactics?”

Lisa shrugged, “There’s that.  I think working independently is kind of throwing us off, and it leaves us weak against any coordinated attacks from the Chosen.  We work best when we complement one another.”

Alec shrugged.  “Okay.  That’s easy enough to arrange.  Not really a reason to throw a major group meeting.”

“There’s something else,” I said.  I swallowed, looking at Regent, Imp and Bitch.  “I’ve already talked about this at length with Lisa, and I’ve discussed it some with Brian.  This isn’t an easy topic to broach, because it sort of fucks with the team’s status quo.”

That had their attention.

“I guess the question is, how keen are you guys on continuing to work for Coil?”

“Are we talking quitting in the short-term or what?”

“I don’t know exactly what we’re talking about, because so much depends on how you guys respond and how things unfold in the next while,” I said.  “But this thing with Dinah, I’m not happy with it.  I know Lisa and Brian have their issues with that, even if they don’t share my perspective in how culpable we all are in that.”

“I’m not responsible at all,” Aisha pointed out.

“Aisha,” Brian’s tone was a warning.

“Just saying.”

“You aren’t responsible, I know,” I told her.  “I get the impression you’d side with Brian, Lisa and me if it came down to it.  The people I’m really directing this question at are Alec and Rachel.  I’m under the impression they’re the least invested in helping Dinah out, and they’re most interested in what Coil has to offer.”

“Doesn’t Brian have a stake in this?” Alec asked.

Brian shrugged.  “Coil approached me a few days ago about increasing my pay.  I think he knows I’m not that reliant on him anymore.  I got into this because I wanted to get Aisha away from my mom.  With the way things in the city have been turned upside-down, I know and Coil knows that I don’t need help.  The fact that I can say I’ve got money saved up, I can arrange to get a place and Aisha’s safe and sound with me?  That’s almost enough to decide the court case as is.”

“And mommy’s on a bender,” Aisha said.  “Don’t think it’ll end anytime soon.”

It was odd, but Brian looked more upset at hearing that than Aisha was about saying it aloud.  Hadn’t he grown up with his dad?

“So it’s really down to you two,” I addressed Alec and Rachel.

“If I were to say I wanted to stick around?  That I like the status quo?” Alec asked.

“That’s fine,” Lisa said.  “You’d be an asshole and a prick, but we’d work around you.”

“That’s vague,” Alec commented.

“We can’t exactly share our game plan with you if we’re going to wind up on opposite sides,” I pointed out.

“It’s a hassle.  Why make things complicated for all of us, because one member of our group has a moral quibble?”

“A preadolescent girl was kidnapped, with our help, and she’s spent the last few months in a dungeon, drugged out of her mind, all so Coil can use her power,” I said.  “That’s not a quibble.”

Alec sighed dramatically.  “I’m just pulling your legs.  World’s going to end in a couple of years.  Won’t kill me to help you make peace with yourself before it does.”

There was a long pause where nobody spoke.

Nice, Alec.” Brian said.

Alec chuckled.  “What?  It’s true.  That Dinah kid said it was.  Don’t pretend it’s not going to happen.  Might as well live it up before everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”

“There’s a chance it won’t,” I replied, my voice quiet.  “And with the sheer variety of powers out there, there’s got to be an answer.”

“That optimism’s bound to be wearing thin by now,” Alec commented.

“Enough,” Brian said.

“Why are you guys freaking out?  Because I’m calling you out on your willful blindness?  The world’s gonna end, and I’m okay with that.  Therefore I’m saying I’ll go along with your plan, whatever it is.  Why argue with me?”

Brian sighed.

“Bitch?” I asked.  “I know Coil’s set up your dogs in those shelters, and we’d be asking you to potentially lose that, depending on how this plays out, but…”

“I’ve managed without money before,” Bitch said.  “Smarmy bastard conned me.  Promised me I’d be left alone if I joined the group.  That hasn’t happened.  If he thinks I’ll forget that because of what he’s given me, I’d like to see the look on his face when he finds out how wrong he is.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“So we’re all in?” I asked.

“It was fun,” Alec shrugged, “That’s why we got into this, wasn’t it?  Easy money, fun, get to do what we wanted.  No pressure, no responsibilities.  It’s become something else.  So maybe we end that.”

“I don’t necessarily want to end it,” I said.  “I’m not talking about taking Coil head on, and I do want to preserve my territory, if I can help it.  It’s helping people.”

“So what do you want?” he challenged me.

“For right now?  I mainly wanted to know you’re on my side.  I really appreciate that you are,” I said.  I looked at Bitch and repeated myself, “Really.”

“And for the future?”

“We’ve got an awfully small window,” Lisa said.  “One and a half weeks, roughly, before Dinah’s power is back online.  Once that happens, Coil becomes a thousand times harder to take on.  There’s the mayoral elections, the question of whether the city gets condemned-”

“What?” I cut in.

“It’s arguably more expensive to fix the problems here than it is to abandon the city entirely.  Depends on what the consensus is from the President and all the other folks in charge.”

“If that happens, what will Coil do?” Brian asked.

“Leave.  Start over somewhere else, transporting any resources he can, leaving behind all liabilities.  He might bring some of you with him, offering some hefty bribes.  Somehow I don’t think he’ll bring Skitter.  Even my own currency is running pretty thin,” Lisa shrugged.

“He can’t afford to lose you,” Brian said.  “You’re too dangerous as an enemy.”

“Oh, I think he’s studied me enough to feel pretty confident he can off me if he wants to,” Lisa said. “Trick is making it a sure enough kill that there’s no chance of it backfiring on him.”

“And me?” I asked, feeling a pang of alarm.

“He knows your weak points.  The gaps in your power, your dad, your identity, your morals.  You already know that.”

I did, but hearing it said so clearly, it was one of those cases where having the details laid out in front of me didn’t make me feel more confident.

“So this is going to be a different kind of fight,” Brian mused.  “It’s about control and subterfuge.  If he figures out what we’re doing, if we clue him in, he’s probably better equipped than any of our past opponents when it comes to knowing how to deal with us.  If the city gets condemned, we’re boned.  And if Dinah gets her powers back, he’ll be impossible to beat.”

“That’s the gist of it.  Even I don’t know what he has planned for his endgame, here.  It’s looking pretty ugly, to be honest.”  Lisa counted off the points on her fingers.  “The Chosen will be gunning for us, Coil’s got a small army of pretty excellent, well-equipped soldiers at his disposal, he’s got some pretty fucking heavy hitters with the Travelers, the heroes are going to be going into overdrive to establish some sort of control and last but not least, he’s Coil.”

“Well,” Alec said, chuckling a little, “At least we’ll have something to help pass the time while we wait for the world to end.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.11

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

I continued my search for the pair, but my tentative explorations of the trails of extermination-mist made a sweeping search all but hopeless.

It felt like I was facing a series of decisions where every answer had some merit, but picking the wrong one would spell disaster.  I’d had to make the call between staying at the school in case Jack and Bonesaw were preparing a trap for Amy and Glory Girl, or leaving in case they’d made a run for it.  I’d left, and I’d been lucky enough to be right.

Except the Nine were now covering their tracks with a dozen decoys, mechanical spiders leaving trails of bug-killing smoke, leaving me to guess which direction they’d gone.

Two solid possibilities dwelled with me.

The first was that they’d headed back downtown to rendezvous with Siberian.  If I was drawing the right conclusions from what I’d overheard, Bonesaw had drawn together a cocoon for Siberian similar to the one that Amy had created for Glory Girl.  They could be recovering her real body, maybe doing something to recover Mannequin or Crawler.

It hadn’t even crossed my mind while I was under the miasma’s influence, but I also had to wonder whether Regent would have maintained his control over Shatterbird.

The second possibility was that they’d gone after Cherish.  My conversation with Coil had clued them in.

I checked my phone.  No service.

Damn the Director.  Damn her for making this so hard, and for complicating matters.  We’d been playing by Jack’s rules, more or less, and she’d given him an excuse to pull out all the stops.

He probably would have anyways, but she gave him an excuse.

If I headed away from the downtown area, toward the water, I could put myself in a position to track down Cherish, or to get to another point where the satellite phone would work and make a call to Coil.  If they were checking the harbor for Cherish, going by what she’d revealed on the phone, then I could get there first.  Lay a trap, or get in position to shoot them again.  I figured out how to remove the magazine from the gun and checked the number of rounds remaining.  Six.

The problem was that the whole reason I’d let Panacea keep using her power on me instead of giving chase to Jack was that I was supposed to cure the others.  I could kill and replace the parasites that were carrying the prions.  The sooner I did it, the less damage they’d do in the meantime.  Some of the damage would be permanent, and the potential victims included Brian and Lisa.

wanted to head back downtown, to help my teammates and friends, but I couldn’t shake the nagging doubt in the back of my mind.

The difference between Jack and Bonesaw going downtown and their going to the coastline was that the former was almost kind, taking care of a teammate.  The latter case allowed them to inflict some terrible torture on an ex-teammate of theirs.

It was the most inconvenient possibility, but my gut told me they’d go after Cherish.  If I had to put numbers on it, I’d have said there was a sixty percent chance they’d go that route, a thirty-five percent chance they’d headed downtown.  And there was always the possibility I was wrong, that they had something else in mind, so I was leaving room for that extra five percent.

But if I was wrong, if I went to the harbor to try to get ahead of them and Jack didn’t go that way, then my friends would suffer for it.  Brian had been through enough, and while Lisa had seemed to deal okay after she’d been scarred, I was willing to bet she valued her mind more than she valued her face.

I headed downtown.

No matter which way I chose to go, I’d have that awful feeling of regret in my chest.  I tried to quiet it by telling myself that with Tattletale and the others, I’d actually be able to do something against the Nine.  A gun and knife didn’t cut it, no matter how scattered or few in number they were.

I couldn’t quite manage to convince myself.

As it didn’t cost me anything significant in terms of forward momentum, I let Atlas carry me higher.  I was getting more comfortable flying him, and there was little difference in being a hundred and fifty feet above the ground and being five hundred stories up.  I wanted to assess the situation.  Was my dad one of the people who was depending on this cure?

The topography of the city had impacted where the miasma was spreading.  As far as I could tell, it wasn’t really advancing into the north end of the city.

Bakuda’s bombing campaign and the militarization of the ABB had predominantly focused on the Docks.  Leviathan had arrived in the Docks, and his destruction of the city’s water infrastructure and power had hit that part of the city hardest.  I wondered if this would be the first real instance where the Docks weren’t hit as hard by the ongoing series of disasters and attacks in Brockton Bay.

I descended back to a safer distance, where falling wouldn’t be terminal, and tried to plan.

Finding Tattletale was number one.  With her assistance, everything else would be easier.  As much as I wanted to make Grue my second priority, I knew that there were other things that took precedence.  Siberian was a big one.  Finding a way to distribute the cure was another.  Once I started, it would set up a chain reaction, but I had to decide how to start it off.

Tattletale first.  She could help me find Siberian and figure out how to distribute the antidote.

I tracked the trails of extermination smoke as I flew.  I was faster than they were, but they were elusive, staying out of sight and moving through awkward positions.  I spotted one mechanical spider moving through a trash-littered alleyway and changed my route to close in on another trail.

My second confirmation of a mechanical spider left me with the feeling that I’d made the wrong call.

But it was too late to turn back.  It would be faster to go help Tattletale and get her assistance than to turn around and fumble along on my own.

They were traveling on foot, I hoped, and they still had to find Cherish.  She was bound to be in a remote spot, and they didn’t have many clues to work with.  It would take time.

Things hadn’t exactly been quiet while I’d been gone.

“Calm down!  If we all just stop fighting, then this doesn’t end in tragedy.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“I’ll tell you as soon as I can think of a convincing reason!”

Tattletale was on the street, alone, facing down Bitch, two dogs and one wolf on full-tilt mutation-mode.  They advanced with measured steps, keeping close to their master.

I landed beside Tattletale, and the two of us made eye contact.

“L-mist.”

“A-Carnelian,” she answered.  “You understand if I don’t trust you implicitly, here?”

“I do.  Listen, I’ve got a cure-”

“Who the fuck are you!?”  Rachel shouted.

I shut my mouth and turned to face her.

I was secretly glad the dogs hadn’t turned on her, as that probably would have meant the death of a teammate, but I was getting a firsthand look at what our enemies had to deal with.  The dogs were big and vicious enough that if they attacked, there wasn’t a whole lot I could have done.  Heck, Tattletale and I together couldn’t have managed much of a defense against one of the creatures, let alone three.

“We’re teammates,” I told her.  “I was just fighting the Nine, I’ve got a cure for this thing.”

“Or you’re going to kill me the second I let my guard down.”

I’d been conned by the Nine.  Tricked into letting them get access to certain information.  Bitch wouldn’t have fallen for that, but that came with the caveat that she was that much harder for us to reassure.

“I can put my weapons away.  Or give them to you.”

“I’m not that stupid,” she growled the words.  “Don’t treat me like I’m retarded.  I’m not.  I know you have powers.”

“That wasn’t what I wanted to say,” I said.  I kept my voice low, my tone as calm as I could manage.  “I was just saying I’d disarm myself if it would reassure you.”

“The only thing that’s going to make me feel any better is getting the fuck away from here.  But she wouldn’t get out of my way.”

“If you leave,” Tattletale told her, “You’ll go straight to the Trainyard, to your other dogs, and you’ll get worse.  You’ll wind up isolated from the rest of us.  And I think the Nine want that.  They wanted people for their group, and doesn’t this set their candidates up for easy recruiting?  Separate them from their previous attachments, leave them vulnerable and lost, then give them the hard sell.”

“Not that you’re wrong,” I said, glancing at Tattletale while trying to keep the dogs in sight, “I saw Jack trying that with Panacea.  But Bitch tends to see it as slimy or conniving when someone talks a lot.”

“I see.  You want to try, then?”

Bentley growled.  It didn’t sound like a dog growl.  What worried me, though, was Bastard.  He was untrained enough that he wouldn’t necessarily listen to Bitch, and big enough to feel confident about attacking.

Not that I was positive she would stop him if he attacked.  As much as she felt like she’d feel more secure on her own, Bitch might well decide she could resolve this situation by killing anyone who threatened her.  It wasn’t that she was the murdering type, but she didn’t have the innate sympathy for her fellow humans.  She cared as little about murdering us as I might feel about killing two dogs if I felt like my life was on the line.

I’d been in a similar headspace, trying to figure out who was friendly and who wasn’t.  Jack had been more on the ball than I, and I’d fallen for his ploy.  I’d deal with the guilt over what that might mean at a later point.

“A little while ago, we spent some time in one of your shelters.  I’m guessing you don’t remember who, but you remember chilling out and eating Greek food with someone?”

“You could have found that out through someone else.”

“I know.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I’m just wanting you to think about that feeling.  I’d like to think we got along, as far as people like you and people like me can get along with others.”

“Doesn’t mean anything to me now.”

“Okay.”  I let my arms drop to my sides.

“That’s it?  That’s your argument?”

“I don’t really have much better.  I know that if I tried to convince you using logic and a well worded argument, you’d feel like I was being manipulative.  All I can say is that we had a good time then, we were friendly.  I know we parted ways some time after that, but I’d really like to get back to that point.  So I’m appealing to that emotional attachment, I guess.”

“You think I’m attached to you?”

This again.  This situation seemed to be highlighting the worst parts of people and twisting others.  Amy’s paranoia, Legend’s battle instincts, Bitch’s antisocial tendencies, and my… whatever it was, that led to me trusting Jack.

“Yeah.  I’m making that assumption,” I told her.

“Fuck you.”

She advanced, and I stayed put.  Sirius growled.

“I’m not your enemy,” I said.

“We’ll attack you.”

“If you do, maybe the cure will get transmitted to your dog, and then to you.”

“You’re not that stupid.”

I shook my head.  “Not really.  But I don’t think you’ll attack me, either.”

She advanced closer.  Sirius growled again, and she held one hand out to stop him.

So glad they still listen to her.  This would be a disaster if the dogs were on a rampage.  I supposed the miasma was slower to affect them, given their mass, or the vectors it affected weren’t present or as predominant in dogs.

She stepped close, until her nose was an inch from mine.  She stared unflinching into my eyes.  I met her gaze with that same unforgiving hardness.

“No way I could like someone like you.”  The words were like the twist of a knife.  Hostility and aggression combined with pure, petty malice.

“Just going by looks, when you can’t see half my face?” I asked.  Without breaking eye contact, I reached up and pulled down the lower half of my mask.  “You don’t recognize me?”

She didn’t glance away from my eyes.  “No.  Now move.  I will order them to attack.”

She would.  She could.

I leaned forward and planted a quick kiss on her lips.

Her punch knocked me off my feet and sent my glasses flying off my face to land in the water somewhere nearby.

“The fuck!?”  She shouted.  One of the dogs growled, deep, as if to complement her anger with a threat of his own.

“You’re cured,” I told her.  “That’s it, that’s all it takes.”

She stared down at me.

If this doesn’t work, she might kill me for real.

Tattletale helped me to my feet and handed me my glasses.  I got my mask in place around the lower half of my face and then gathered bugs over the mask and glasses to hide my features.

“How’s that work?”  Tattletale asked.

“The effects are being generated by a parasite.  Panacea changed the parasite to some kind of symbiotic species that overrides the effects of Bonesaw’s work and heals the effects on the brain.  My bodily fluids are carrying it.  That means that right now, the parasites in Bitch’s bodies should be dying or getting replaced or transformed or something.  I hope.”

I dusted myself off, wiped at my costume where I’d landed in the water, and made sure none of my belongings had dropped from their positions in my armor or my belt.

I didn’t hurry to meet Bitch’s eyes, because I knew that when I did, I’d have to maintain that gaze.  Only when I was done did I meet her eyes.

She took her time responding.  “I was going to have Bentley break you.”

It worked.

“Glad you didn’t.”

“Why?”

Why had I done it?  I’d tried to explain it to her so many times.  I couldn’t bring myself to do it again.

“Doesn’t matter.”

Tattletale pointed down at the water just behind me.  I turned around and looked.  Where I’d landed on my back, the water was changing from red to a relatively clear state.  ‘Relatively’ only because the water hadn’t been that clear to begin with.  “Guess it’s working.”

“Good,” I said.  The last swirls of red disappeared from around my feet, and the water around me began to change back to normal.  With increasing speed, the water around us began to transition back to normal at nearly the speed the effect had spread in the first place.  It extended out in every direction, promising to revert most or all of the affected bodies of water.

“You couldn’t have waited until after you’d cured me before you put the bugs on your face?”  Tattletale asked.  She was smiling as she asked it.  “Unless you want me to drink that water.”

“Sorry.  No, I’ll help you out.”

She gave me a stern look, pointed at me, and said, “No tongue.”

I rolled my eyes, scattered the bugs, pulled my mask down and leaned over to give her a quick peck on the lips.

“Now fill me in.  I’ll fill in the blanks as you explain, and hopefully it’ll work fast enough that I can catch up.”

“Jack and Bonesaw tricked me and Coil to figure out where both Cherish and Amy were.  I gave chase, and Jack left before he accomplished anything more than head games.”

“State she’s in, head games are pretty serious.”

“Maybe.  But at least she didn’t cave on his demands.”

“Sure.”

“The bad thing is… Jack knows about Dinah’s prophecy.”

Tattletale looked as though I’d slapped her.  “Shit.”

“I mean, her numbers weren’t that good as far as our mortality rate going up against the Nine, so maybe she’s wrong about-”

I stopped as Tattletale shook her head.

“Depends how you interpret it,” she said. “The kid sounded pretty certain.  Anyways, keep going.”

“Siberian’s somewhere downtown, her real body in some kind of case, maybe.”

“I think we might have run into her,” Tattletale said.  “I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to details, mostly just trying to avoid trouble.  But I’m pretty sure she was hauling around something big.  Fuck, I think she might have had a friend.”

“A friend?”

“Hookwolf.”

I nodded slowly.  “Where was she headed?”

“North.”

“Where did Coil stick Cherish?”

Tattletale made a face.  “North.”

If there had been a wall in reach, I would have punched it.  “Wonderful.”

“Explain?” Bitch asked.

“They’re heading over to Cherish’s location, I’m almost a hundred percent positive,” Tattletale explained.  “If Siberian’s heading there to rendezvous with them, then any further encounters with them are going to be ugly.  Doubly so if they have new blood on their team.”

“Hookwolf’s under the influence of Bonesaw’s miasma,” I added.  “Don’t know what his reasons were for staying here, but the miasma seems to have eliminated that.  He’s with the Nine.  Maybe permanently.  Bonesaw will keep it from killing him, I guess.”

“So they got their candidate?”

“And,” I addressed Bitch as I spoke, “They might be looking for more candidates to round out their group.  If they left Siberian behind to try to recruit Hookwolf, and they tried a pretty aggressive strategy against Panacea, then they might make another stab at recruiting you.  Or Regent.”

“Or Noelle,” Tattletale added.

Why did that give me such a bad feeling?

I sighed.  “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.  I think we should give chase.”

“Head to where Cherish is?”

I nodded.  “It hasn’t been too long, so they won’t have much time to prepare any counterattack.  It does still leave the problem of finding the others and curing them before something bad happens.”

“If the cure is contagious…  Bitch, you think you could work on finding and curing the others?”

“How?”

I spoke up, “Cure your dogs.  Spit in their mouths, whatever.  Then see about tracking down the others, ambushing them, and having the dogs lick their faces?”

She scowled.  “I haven’t trained ’em to do that.”

“You’ve got ten minutes to teach them,” Tattletale grinned.

“Whatever.”

“You’ll see about curing the others?”

“Yeah.”  Bitch pointed, “But it won’t work with my dogs.  They kill any parasites while my power’s working.”

Right.  I could remember curing Sirius of heartworm.

I shrugged.  “Another way?  Maybe if you dose some fresh water with the new parasites, spit in it, then splash people?  People are going to start getting better fast, with the water changing, but let’s make sure our side is okay?”

Bitch nodded once, curt.

“And can you loan me Bentley?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m starting to wonder why I’m on this team,” Bitch grumbled.

“You have to ask?” Tattletale grinned as she approached Bentley.

“I know it’s just words,” I told Bitch, “But I’m glad you’re back.”

She stared at me like I was speaking Klingon.

“Let’s go,” Tattletale said, as she climbed onto Bentley.  He growled, but she didn’t seem to mind.  Maybe his bark was worse than his bite and she knew it?

Either way, I decided to trust her and took off.

I’d done my part, and I’d have to trust Bitch to complete the task.

I was making more forward progress than Tattletale, though I could feel Atlas fatiguing.  It wasn’t the same as the fatigue I experienced, but he was slowing down fractionally in his wingbeats per second.  It stood to reason.  He was big, and he hadn’t eaten since he was created.  That was compounded by the fact that he’d been going full-bore with minimal chance to rest.

Still, we had the advantage of being able to fly over obstacles, which was something I was gaining a greater appreciation of since I’d gotten the hang of flying him.

With Atlas being tired, not wanting to lose track of Tattletale, I kept our flight close to the ground.

“Where is she?” I called out, as I met her pace.

“Boat Graveyard.  Beached ship, she’s in the hold.”

“Coil told you this?”

“No, but he’ll forgive me for figuring it out, given circumstances.”

“If you’re sure.”

It wasn’t a short trip.  Our destination was north of the market, and the market was a distance from my house.  We were making our way from downtown to the Boat Graveyard.

When the local industry had collapsed, the Boat Graveyard had been something of a staging ground for the irate dock workers.  Shipping companies based in Brockton Bay saw the signs of what was coming and trapped other boats in the harbor as a form of protest, to ensure they weren’t walking away empty-handed.  Police had made arrests, but actually moving the ships out of the way required sailors, and the move had mobilized enough of them that clearing the upper areas of the docks of the ships became all but impossible.  Things capped off with fights, gunfire and a deliberate sinking of a container ship by one of the protesters.

Opinions varied on whether the incident had been a symptom or a cause of the collapse.  Either way, the result was the Boat Graveyard- an entire section of the coastline where boats had sat for so long that they’d rusted or taken on water.

We paused at the top of a hill overlooking the scene: forty or fifty derelict ships, some bigger in sheer mass than the skyscrapers downtown.  Leviathan’s waves had slammed them all into the coastline, smashing them against one another and turning more than a few into something unrecognizable.

Even with Tattletale’s hint, I wasn’t sure I could have found where Cherish was lurking.

“How do we find her before she finds us?” I asked.

“We don’t.  She knows where we are.”

I scanned the wreckage with my eyes.  Would Siberian pop out?  Hookwolf?

“They aren’t attacking.”

Tattletale shook her head, but she didn’t speak.

My bugs began searching for signs of life.

“You outrange her,” Tattletale spoke.  “You detect them, you attack before she can whammy us.”

“Yeah.”  Fat lot of good it’ll do with Siberian there.

I was getting a sense of why there wasn’t any foot traffic here.  Even on land, the force of Leviathan’s tidal wave had sent age-worn sheets of metal flying over the landscape.  Ragged edges of rusty sheet metal waited under every step I took, scraping and stabbing against the soles of my costumed feet.  Tattletale was relying on Bentley’s weight and durability to handle anything that waited underfoot.  He was still panting hard from the run.

My swarm sense alerted me to life in the hold of a ship.  The space was half-filled with sand, and water had leaked in through a hole in the side of the ship.  If supplies were delivered by way of remote control, that was a likely route.

Seven people.  Three male, four females, one of whom was young.  A child, long-haired.  That would be Bonesaw.

“There?”  I pointed at the location.  It was barely visible from where we stood; two ships had been slammed against one another, nose to nose, and they formed a precarious arch over the ship in question.

“Yeah.”

“I’ve found them, I think.  I think Siberian’s there.  There’s a lot of people, anyways.  Seven.”

“How much damage do you think you can do?”

“Not enough.”

We paused.

“Cherish should be alerting them,” Tattletale spoke.  “I’m surprised they aren’t mounting a counterattack.”

“Maybe they can’t?  If they split up, Siberian won’t be able to protect everyone,” I said.

“Well, getting closer is a pretty bad idea.”

“Do we have a choice?”

“We hang back, we follow them, we strike if we spot an opportunity.  Between Bentley and Atlas, we can keep at a distance.”

I shook my head.  “Bentley’s tired, and I don’t know how long Atlas is going to be able to keep flying.”

“They’ll manage.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

Pretty sure.  So she wasn’t positive.

“There’s another possibility,” she ventured.

“Do tell.”

“Cherish might not be saying anything because she wants us to attack the others.”

“Or,” I pointed out, “The Nine are giving us that impression because they want us to think that so they can turn the tables.”

“That line of thinking leads to madness.”

“Call me crazy, but I’d rather not gamble.”

“So?  What’s the plan?”

“We wait?  At least a little while.”

“Sure.”  She gave the bulldog a pat on the head.  “Give Bentley a chance to rest.  You can feed Atlas.”

“Pretty narrow window of time,” I added.  “Bitch’s effects on the dogs don’t last that long.  Figure twenty minutes, and we took at least fifteen to get here…”

“But she gave them more juice than usual.  I’d say roughly ten minutes before he’s too small to carry me,” Tattletale said.

“Ten minutes.”

We settled into a position behind cover, and I began drawing bugs to me to feed Atlas.  I wasn’t positive about his diet, and Grue had said that he’d given Atlas a more human digestive system, which left me uncertain.  That said, Atlas was made of bugs, I figured he required the nutrients they provided on a sheer logical level, like how humans would generally get most of the nutrients they needed by eating other humans, if they had to.  That, and I’d pointed out to the rest of the group how bugs were something we could eat as humans, so his digestive tract could probably manage them.

It was also the easiest thing to provide.

“You have eyes on them?”

“Minimal.  My interpretation via the swarm’s eyes and ears is still garbage, as always.  And I didn’t want to have so many around them that they get suspicious.”

“Can’t make out what they’re saying?”

I shook my head.  Still, I could tell that they were talking.

Seven of them.  One of the men was garbed in smooth body armor that covered everything.  Mannequin.  There was another man who could have been Siberian’s real self or Hookwolf.  Long haired, shirtless.  My bugs traced the edges of knives at one man’s belt: He was the quietest, and was pacing without cease, sitting down, then pacing again.  Jack.

Three women, none of whom were Siberian if I accounted for the presence of clothing and the texture of their skin.  Rounding out the group was a little girl with long hair.  One of the women was doing most of the talking.  Would that be Shatterbird or Cherish?  Who was the third?  Had the Nine gotten their hands on Noelle?

It unsettled me that Jack wasn’t taking more of a lead in the conversation.  Maybe Cherish was just dishing out the dirt?

“The dynamic seems wrong,” I said.  “Something’s off.  Not sure if Siberian’s present or not, Bonesaw’s quiet and Jack is mute.”

“Maybe Cherish took control?” Tattletale ventured.

It was a scary thought.  The Nine were strong, and one of the only reasons they weren’t a bigger problem was that they were their own worst enemies.  Most of our victories to date had been because we exploited their character weaknesses.  Under a leader…

“No.  Bonesaw took measures.”

“Maybe Cherish found a way around it?”

I didn’t have a response for that.  Minutes passed, and the Nine lapsed into silence.  Some were resting.  Or pretending to rest.

“They’re napping or something,” I said.

“Could be baiting you.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“And Bentley’s getting too small to help me make an exit.”

“Atlas can manage with just me,” I told her.

“Going alone?  No.  Grue would kill me.  It’s senseless.  I can call Coil, so we can get a squad of soldiers in place to try and take someone out.  Or maybe we get the Director to bomb the area.”

“Because that’s worked so well this far.”

Tattletale smiled a little.  “What would you rather do?  Going in is suicide.  You’d be opening yourself up to Cherish’s power.”

“She’s resting.”

“You think.”

“Not sure which person she is, but her breathing is really regular, has been for a while.”

“And she could be faking it, a hundred percent aware that you’re thinking what you’re thinking.”

“Yeah,” I admitted.

“Why are you so fixated on this?  On going in?”

“I want to end this.”

“That’s not your real reason.”

“And I feel like something’s wrong.  The details don’t jibe.”

“That’s a less than stellar reason to put yourself at that kind of risk.”

“There’s a chance Siberian isn’t here, or isn’t in a state to defend her allies.  But… I can’t bring myself to attack.”

“This is a shitty time to have an attack of conscience.”

“You sound like Jack.  He tried to push me to kill while I thought he was Grue.”

“You’ll have to explain how all that happened at a later date.  Jack’s good at fucking with people’s heads.  It could still be a trap.”

“It could.”

“But?”

“I’ve got this feeling in my gut, like I had when I was around Jack and Bonesaw, and I wish I’d trusted it then.  I don’t want to doubt it now.”

“A gut feeling?”

I nodded, once.

She sighed.  “What can I do?”

“Get out of here.  I don’t want to hurt you if I fall under Cherish’s control, which is supposed to be pretty short-lived.  In case she plans to make it more long-term, maybe call the PRT director and arrange a firebomb if I don’t report back?”

Tattletale made a face.  “This is dumb.”

“I’ve done dumb things.  I somehow don’t feel like this is one of them.”

“Go, then.  Call me as soon as it’s safe.”

I nodded.

She headed out of the graveyard with Bentley.  I waited a few minutes, until she was out of my power’s range.

Atlas and I crossed the gap to the ship.  I waited for the hit of Cherish’s power, but it didn’t come.

My bugs sensed more of Bonesaw’s traps – areas heavy with fog, or where vials had been thrown, placed or dropped.  I was glad there wasn’t any of the extermination smoke.  I set foot on the tilted deck and began slowly making my way into the ship.  My soft soled costumed feet were quiet, barely audible to myself.

I drew my gun, readying myself to fire the second I was in range.  If Cherish was setting up the Nine for me, I was pretty sure I could hit one and get away before trouble arose.  It was a feeble thought – even Jack, one of their most vulnerable members, hadn’t fallen to gunfire.  Still, it was reassuring.

More traps forced me to make slower progress through the labyrinthine ship’s interior.  It was a while before I could stop at the outside of the door at the lowest point of the ship.

I heard sobbing.

I stepped through the doorway and took in the room’s interior.

The floor sloped one way.  Half of the room was metal flooring covered in sand, the lowest half was submerged.

Three men, three women and a girl.  The man with knives in his belt stood, then began the ritual pacing once again.  His feet were raw where the rusted metal deck had cut at them.  The others sat and stood in various points around the hull.

I withdrew my phone and called Tattletale.

“That was fast.”

“It’s not the Nine.  Decoys.”

I stared at them.  The disguises had been rushed but thorough.  Jack and Bonesaw had clearly changed clothes with the people in question, and Bonesaw had whipped up something approximating Mannequin’s armor for one of the men.

“Call Coil, get medics here.  It’s Bonesaw’s work, so he might need to call on some expert surgeons to undo whatever she did.  I’ll use my bugs to mark out the traps that Bonesaw set up inside.”

“On it.”  She hung up.

Paralysis, compulsive movements.  Puppets.  Decoys.  Had this been Jack’s attempt to make me betray my morals?  Setting up decoys with the idea that I’d attack first and check later?  If I’d gone with my first impulse and tried to kill them, I’d have seven civilian deaths on my hands.

“Help is on the way, guys.  I’m sorry about this.”

“Thank you,” the twenty-something woman I’d guessed to be Cherish spoke.  The others were mute.

I saw drag marks in the sand, leading to the water.  Who had that been?

The knife was the last thing I spotted.  It had been slammed into the metal hull of the boat.  I stepped over the chain and collar that had probably been attached to Cherish.  I pulled the knife free of the wall and used my bugs to catch the note before it fluttered to the floor.

We concede our loss to you, Brockton Bay.  As per my agreement with Miss Amelia, we’ll be leaving your fascinating city.  It was fun.

Don’t worry about Cherish.  She’s sleeping somewhere at the bottom of the bay.  Bonesaw was kind enough to crank up her receptive range toward negative emotions and remove her filters.  The girl will personally experience every awful feeling Brockton Bay’s inhabitants do- and with the benefit of Alan’s tech, she’ll get to do it for a very, very, very long time.  

A departure marked not with a bang, but a whimper.  I’m sure you understand.

Yours truly,

Jack.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“How did it go!?”  Tattletale called out to me before I’d even landed.

I set Atlas down on the ground and hopped off.  “Whatever the fuck they just dropped on the city, it apparently took out Crawler and Mannequin.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Tattletale said.  “I think that was Bakuda’s stuff they just used.  What about the other members of the Nine?”

“They’re on the run.  Last I saw, Siberian’s creator looked pretty rough.  Not sure if the spider bites and stings will kill him or if Bonesaw will manage to counteract it.  Depends on whether Legend and the other heroes can keep up the assault long enough to keep Bonesaw from getting to work.”

I could see Bitch react to the mention of Siberian’s creator.  She looked startled, then scowled.

“You found them?”  Tattletale asked.  “Siberian and Legend?”

“Yeah.  Legend told me to scram, in case Bonesaw deploys the threat she’s been holding over our heads, and so I don’t get in the way.  I would have fought to stay, but he’s an intimidating guy to argue with.”

Grue nodded.  “I wouldn’t feel bad about it.  It means we can serve as backup if the heroes lose.”

“And this threat?  Do we know what it is?  Some zombie apocalypse?”  Regent asked.

“No.” Tattletale shook her head.  “She sees herself as an artist.  She’s going to want to do something that catches us off guard, something that scares us in a way that simple horror movie monsters don’t.”

“I don’t know about you guys,” Sundancer spoke up, “But monsters scare me enough.”

“Says the girl who can vaporize buildings and give Leviathan pause for thought,” Regent said, giving her a sidelong glance.

“Leviathan broke half the bones in my body.  The only reason I’m standing here is Panacea,” Sundancer said, a little defensively.

“You two do raise a point, though,” Tattletale cut in.  “Capes are powerful.  If she wanted to scare the locals, she’s done that.  I’d be willing to bet the ace she has up her sleeve is going to be more aimed at scaring people like us, like Legend.  She wants to terrorize the strongest, target people who everyone looks up to and fears.”

Just us?” I asked.

“She’s shown she knows how to disable powers,” Trickster said.  “If she did that on a larger scale, then-”

“No,” Tattletale shook her head.  “She wouldn’t have used the dust and the darts if that was the big reveal.  It doesn’t make sense tactically, because we could have come up with a way to deal, and Skitter’s partially immune anyways.  And it doesn’t make sense artistically, either.  You have to think of her as less of a scientist or doctor and more of a performer.”

A thirty story skyscraper tipped over and crashed to the ground in the distance.  The rumbling crash of the building’s collapse seemed delayed in getting to us.  I could see Legend, more through the flashes of his lasers than anything else, but everyone else was out of sight, specks I couldn’t have made out if they weren’t on the ground.

“If we’re lucky, we won’t have to worry about Bonesaw’s plot,” Trickster said.

“Plan for the worst,” Grue replied, staring into the distance, “If you’re right, you’re prepared.  If you’re wrong, you’re pleasantly surprised.”

“Heard that one before,” Imp commented.

“Still true,” Grue replied, sounding annoyed.

“Can’t plan for this,” I said.  “I’m growing to hate tinkers.  People with enhanced senses and tinkers.  And fire manipulators.  Sorry, Sundancer.”

She shrugged.

I turned back to the subject at hand, “We can’t guess what she’s come up with because her tinker abilities make her so versatile, and that means we can’t preemptively set up any countermeasures.”

Tattletale tucked her hair behind her ear.  “Fits in a vial, assuming that vial she was showing off was the real weapon, something to do with water, she said… you guys haven’t been drinking anything except bottled water?”

There were head shakes and the occasional muttered “No” from the rest of the group.

“I’ve even been making my tea with it,” I said.

“And we know there’s going to be a strategic purpose behind it, beyond causing terror,” Tattletale went on.

“You’re getting into that headspace again, Tattletale,” Grue said.  “Tunnel vision.”

“Right.  I’m done now,” Tattletale replied.

“Is it such a problem?” Trickster leaned forward, “If you can give us answers about this thing, that’s good, right?”

Tattletale shook her head, “If I’m digging deep enough for answers that I’m losing sight of other things, it means I’m probably speculating, and that tends to mean I’m generating false positives, heading down the wrong path to the wrong conclusions.  I told Grue to stop me if I’m doing it, and Skitter’s right when she says we can’t anticipate what Bonesaw’s going to do, so it’s pointless anyways.”

“If we did want to take countermeasures,” I said, “We should maybe think about tracking down Amy.  Or figuring out where she is.”

“Panacea?”  Grue frowned.  “She didn’t exactly leave us on good terms.”

“I know.  But she can counteract whatever Bonesaw does.”

“Unless she falls victim to it,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “After two bad incidents downtown, I’d lay odds she’s heading up toward the docks.  It gives her the best odds of finding a place that’s empty, where she and Glory Girl can hide out for-”

“Heads up!”

I wasn’t sure who had shouted the warning, but I turned to look in the direction of the fighting, and I instantly knew it was Bonesaw’s work.

The water was turning crimson.  Where it was only one or two inches deep above the pavement, it turned a dark red that resembled blood.  That alone might have been spooky enough, but it was spreading over hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, and there was a thin red mist rising in its wake.

“Run!”  Grue shouted.

I was on top of Atlas in an instant, and in the air a second later.

“How is it spreading so fast!?”  I asked, while the others seated themselves on the two dogs.

“She must have set it up beforehand!”  Tattletale called out.  “Just needed the catalyst!”

She checked to make sure Trickster and Sundancer were seated and had Bentley at an all out run a heartbeat later.  Sirius followed just two steps behind, carrying Grue, Imp, Bitch and Ballistic.  Regent joined me in the air, hanging in a less than dignified way from Shatterbird’s embrace.

I needed only one glance to know they weren’t running fast enough.

“Sundancer!”  I shouted.  “Cut it off!”

It took her three or four seconds to pull an orb together, no larger than a basketball.  It grew to twice the size as it flew, raking across the street to turn the pooled water into clouds of steam.  I rose higher in the air to avoid being caught by the plumes of hot water.  The steam turned from a clean white to pink and eventually red as the effect reached it.

Sundancer’s miniature sun had slowed the progression down our flooded street, but it wasn’t enough.  From my perspective, I could see the water on adjacent streets undergoing the same transformation, moving forward until it was adjacent to the others, then extending forward.  It was a matter of time before it reached far enough forward that it passed through the side alleys and cut them off.

“Get to high ground!”  I shouted.

Bentley leaped for the side of a building in an alleyway, scrabbled for a hold, then leaped to the building face behind him, attempting the zig-zag movement that the dogs had done so many times before.

Except he wasn’t as agile as the other dogs, and I suspected he wasn’t as practiced at it as Brutus, Judas and Angelica had been.  Added to that, he was carrying a heavy burden.  One of his paws went through a window, he slipped, dug his claws into the wall and shifted to climbing the wall instead.

It was too slow.  The water turned crimson beneath him, and then the vapor began to rise, faster than Bentley was climbing.

“Tattletale,” I breathed.

I massed thick clusters of bugs between them and the vapor, while Regent and Shatterbird followed Sirius and the others.

It was enough to buy them time, but that meant precious little.  No matter how much I pressed the bugs together into an airborne barrier, the vapor made its way through.  Worse, the mist was rising to either side of them, approaching the top of the building.

They reached the rooftop and Bentley heaved himself over the edge.  They hopped off his back as they reached solid ground, and Tattletale stepped over to the corner of the roof to watch the rise of the red vapor.  It was only a floor beneath them.

Trickster pointed at the top of a building nearby, then looked up at me.

I gathered my bugs there, again, pressing them together.  Trickster looked increasingly impatient as the bugs massed, and the vapor reached the edges of the roof.

I hurried over to the building, instead, then hopped off, sending Atlas over to the other rooftop.  Trickster swapped me with Tattletale, and I hopped over to ferry myself to the roof again.

Didn’t trust my ability to use Atlas to carry someone else, when I had to struggle to process his sensory inputs.  Add someone else’s shifting weight and movements, and I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t drop them.

I was on the building again when Trickster swapped me for Sundancer.  It left him, myself and Bentley standing on the rooftop.

I was on top of Atlas a second later, flying.  The red mist crept in from the outside edges of the rooftop.  He got on top of Bentley, looking less than comfortable holding the reins, and Tattletale whistled.  It wasn’t as good as Bitch’s whistles, but Bentley perked up and ran, leaping for the side of a nearby building.

He and Trickster reached the second rooftop quickly enough.  The mist was still rising, not just below us, but up around buildings nearly as far as the eye could see.

“Shit,”  Tattletale said.  “Not good.”

“There’s a taller building over there,” I pointed.  “We should head there before the mist gets up here.”

“I’d call it miasma,” Tattletale said.  “And is there really any point?”

“It might stop rising,” I protested.

“It won’t.”

“Is that an educated guess or-”

“It’s not.”

I found myself at a loss for words.

“What does it do?”  I asked.  “Poison?  Something else?”

“Probably something else.  Or it’s poison, but it’s designed to do something besides kill us.  How are the others doing?”

I looked for Grue and Regent using my swarm sense.  Grue, Bitch, Ballistic and Sirius were on a rooftop lower than us, Regent directly above them.  Cursory exploration with my bugs revealed a glass dome extending around the rooftop.  My bugs could fit through gaps in the glass, which meant the miasma would as well.  I did what I could to block up the holes, and I knew it was useless.

Brian.  Rachel.

“I think they’re caught,” I said.  “I-I don’t know what to do.”

“You have a gun.  You have your bugs.  If the Nine are going to let their guards down, it’s going to be now.  All the ones who are still left are priority targets.  Finish off Siberian and taking Jack and Bonesaw out of action will be doable.”

“You’re saying I should leave you.”

“Yeah.”  She looked down at the rising mist.

“No.  That’s ridiculous.  Let’s get you to higher ground.”

“It’s futile.  You’d be buying us a little time, but this is looking pretty inevitable.  Your time is better spent going after the Nine.  If you can’t find them, or if it’s too dangerous, find Panacea.”

“This isn’t negotiable.  I- I can’t do anything for Grue and Rachel and Ballistic, Regent tried and he failed.  Let me do this for you.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Fine.  But you’ll have to hurry.  That’s a lot of distance to cover, and the miasma’s nearly here.”

Trickster cut in, “Gather bugs together like you were doing, remember that they’re not as dense as our bodies are, so we need more than you’d think if I’m going to swap them for one of us.”

I nodded and flew for the tallest building in the area.  I turned around and waited for Trickster to swap me.

He didn’t.  They stood at the roof’s edge, looking my way, and the dark red miasma climbed up the sides of the building around them.

It felt like my heart dropped out of my chest.  Brian, Rachel, now Lisa?

I couldn’t afford to turn around and confront them -time was too short- so I focused on gathering my bugs.  I clustered them together, pressing them into a largish human shape.  How many was enough?

I felt a jarring sensation as Trickster swapped my bugs to his location.  Sundancer appeared beside me.

“Why?”  I asked.

She shook her head, “They didn’t say anything.  They were both really quiet while you flew off, and then Tattletale said ‘It doesn’t look like her plan will work out.  Tell her I’m sorry.’  Trickster teleported me here before I could say anything or ask what she meant.”

“Why isn’t he telporting Tattletale out?  Or himself?  There’s still time for…”  I looked at the cloud.  Not enough time to save both, now.  “He could save one of them, and I could probably get Atlas there and get out of harm’s way before the miasma reached me.”

“His power gets slower with distance and difference in mass,”  Sundancer hugged herself, “Maybe it’s too slow, and he doesn’t think you’d have time to run.  Or-”

“Or.”  I said.  The sentence didn’t deserve to be finished.  There was the other reason.  The notion that he was deliberately avoiding using his power, because he knew I didn’t have the time to get back to them before the miasma reached them.  “Are you going to be okay?”

“I don’t know.  When you’ve left, I’ll use my power, and I guess I’ll wait here until-”  she stopped.

Until when?  There was nothing saying this miasma of Bonesaw’s would disappear or settle anytime soon.

“I hate being alone,” Sundancer said.  She settled into a sitting position.  “It’s like, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually been on my own.  When I was little, I was always with my mom, or always in school, always in afterschool activities.  Ballet, violin, lyrical dance, voice lessons, acting lessons… never a moment to think for myself.  Even after I stopped all that, I was with my friends.  Always in a group.”

I stared at Tattletale and Trickster.  I couldn’t make out their faces, but my bugs could make out the shapes of sounds that had to be words.  They were having a conversation, just like we were.

“I remember you said it was lonely, being in the Travelers.”

“It was.  It is.  But I was still with them.  Part of the group.  The time I’ve spent in my territory is the longest I’ve spent on my own.  Actually managing the territory, scaring off Hookwolf’s people, that was easy.  Being all on my own was unfamiliar ground.  Soul crushing.  I wound up going back to Coil’s base and spending time with Noelle and Oliver.  But being alone, agonizing over everything that’s been going on, no distractions…”

The miasma had reached the rooftop where Tattletale and Trickster stood.  Trickster was pacing, while Tattletale stood with her back to me, her hand rubbing Bentley’s blunted snout.

It took only a few seconds for the mist to close in around them.  There was no immediate reaction.  The two teenagers and the dog simply stood, silhouettes in a stirring cloud of vapor that ranged from ruby-red to crimson in shade.

I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.

“And now I’m alone,” Sundancer said.  “You’re going to go after the Nine, and I’ll wait here, all on my own, going crazy as I wait and watch and see just what happens to them.”

“If I’ve picked up on anything over the last few months of wearing a costume, it’s that humans are stronger than you’d expect,” I said.  It was as much to myself as to Sundancer.  “We can endure a hell of a lot of punishment before we break, and even after we’re broken, we tend to keep on going.  Could be physical punishment: getting stabbed, getting scarred, broken bones.  Could be mental: losing a loved one, being tortured, even the way I feel like breaking down and crying over the fact that just about every other member of my team is probably fucked, but I’m holding myself together?  Humans can put up with a hell of a lot.”

“I don’t think this is the right time for optimism,” Sundancer said, bitter.

“Optimism?”  I shook my head.  “No.  It’s a double-edged sword.  If we weren’t so resilient, so tenacious as a species, I don’t think we’d be having this much trouble with Jack.  I don’t think Mannequin or Siberian would even exist like they do now.  I’d almost call it pessimistic.  Almost.”

She didn’t reply.

“Speaking of Jack and Siberian-” I started.

“Go.”

I left, taking off and heading for the spot I’d left Legend.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see Sundancer creating her orb and bringing it down on top of herself.  As it had done back during our fight with Lung, it didn’t burn the area directly around her.

And Tattletale and Trickster… were still standing in the midst of the miasma.  They weren’t reacting or doing anything, but they weren’t signalling for me to come back, either, and they weren’t hopping on top of Bentley to rejoin the action.

Something was up, I just had no idea what.

I consoled myself with the bittersweet idea that Bonesaw would want to draw this out.  It wouldn’t be as simple as murdering my teammates.  It wasn’t exactly reassuring, especially when I thought back to what had happened to Brian, but it gave me hope that this wasn’t the last time I’d see my teammates.  My friends.

I rose higher as I approached the epicenter of the miasma.  It had continued to rise, and the place she’d used the catalyst was the place where the vapor had spread the most.  I could see how it was threaded through the streets like veins, surrounding buildings in a crimson embrace, spilling out into the ocean.

The water of the bay, I noticed, hadn’t changed.  Was the salt killing whatever organisms she’d designed to spread this effect?

There were areas of high ground where the effect was diminished or gone.  There were hills here and there where the area hadn’t flooded and miasma wasn’t reaching so far into those spots.  Hopefully that meant the civilians wouldn’t be so affected; the high ground where flooding wasn’t an issue would also be the place where people congregated for shelter.

A series of bright flashes caught my attention.  Between the distance and the cloud of red vapor, I could only barely make him out, but the staccato lasers let me identify him as Legend.  He was fighting.

I sent my bugs down into the miasma, drawing them together into a swarm and placing them strategically, painting a mental picture of the area, the layout, and the positions of the combatants.

Just to be safe, I drew closer to a rooftop.  It wasn’t safe to land, but I had hopes the building would offer me some cover against Jack.  I held the bulk of my swarm at bay, waiting for the moment I could assist Legend in fighting the Nine.

He wasn’t fighting the Nine.

Legend was shooting at teammates.  He shouted something, but neither my ears nor my bugs were able to pick out the words.

Really wished I could use my bugs to hear.

Had they gone berserk?  Rage?

No.  I could sense others hiding.  In fact, it seemed to be the primary concern of the people in the miasma.  Hiding, staying out of trouble, putting distance between themselves and the others.  Even Legend was pulling his punches.  His lasers were nonlethal, as far as I could see.

Paranoia?

Weld, who I identified by his lack of a costume and the metal growths on his shoulders, was standing with his back to a wall.  His hands were blunt weapons, and he was swinging them through the air to threaten anyone who approached.  A small figure who could only be Vista was backing away from two adults.  She got too close to Legend, and he fired a spray of laser blasts at her.  None hurt her or penetrated her costume, but she staggered and fell.

I could sense the ground bulge, spearing up in a pillar.  As the ground beneath them stretched in the pillar’s vicinity, others staggered or got disoriented.  At the pillar’s top, a roughed-up Vista bent the growth she’d created to place herself close to the rooftop and hopped down onto solid ground.  She coughed.

Okay, at least she wasn’t someone who could kill me if this went the wrong way.  I called out, “Vista!”

She whirled on the spot to look at me, then swiftly began backing away.

I raised my hands to show her I meant no harm, “Hold on!  I’m safe!”

“That’s just what they would say!”  She retorted.

They?

“Who?  The Nine?  In what universe would I be a member of the Nine?”

“Shut up!  Don’t try to convince me!  Just… just back off!  Leave me alone until all this stops!”

She was breathing so hard I could see her shoulders rising and falling through the protective suit she wore.

A thought struck me.  It was working through the suit?  The mask had to have filters for smoke, why hadn’t it worked against this miasma?

“I just want to help.”

“Leave!”

She used her power, extending the pillar she had used to ascend to the rooftop.  It missed me by a wide margin, but the threat was clear enough.

I regretted it the instant I did it, but I moved forward to avoid any further movements from the shaft of asphalt.  If I was going to fall, I wanted to land on the roof, instead of the alleyway a dozen stories below.

“No!”  The word was as much a scream as anything else.  She extended the shaft well over my head and then pinched it off so the top part fell.

I’d seen her fight Leviathan, and she’d done the same thing then, if on a somewhat bigger scale.  I had Atlas carry me out of the way and watched the teardrop shaped piece of asphalt crash to the floor of the alley.

That, apparently, was enough to get Legend’s attention.  He rose from the street level and surveyed the scene.  He’d taken off the hazmat-style mask and filter, and what little I could see of his expression was drawn.  His eyes were narrowed, a vein stood out on his forehead, and he furtively looked from Vista to me and back again.

“Legend,” I started.  How was I supposed to address him when he was like this?  When I didn’t even know what was going on with them?

Not that it mattered.  He raised one hand in my direction, and I veered away, taking evasive maneuvers.  It missed me by a foot, circled around and struck me off of Atlas before I could cancel out his momentum and change direction.

Legend had clearly set his lasers to ‘stun’, but it still hurt.  Hitting the rooftop hurt more.  I could feel a piece of armor crack beneath my weight, hear my things spilling to the ground.

I coughed out half a lungful of air and involuntarily sucked in another breath to cough again.  It was humid, tasting slightly off, almost stagnant.

When I opened my eyes, I was seeing red, and not in the metaphorical sense.  I was in the midst of the miasma.

Still coughing, I struggled to my feet.  The back compartment of my armor had cracked as my weight had come down on the lip of the roof.  My weapons, the epipens, the cell phone and the changepurse lay on the ground.

“Stay down!”  the junior heroine screamed.

If I hadn’t still been reeling from my fall, I might have been able to avoid it.  As it was, the section of rooftop behind me bulged up into a wall and then folded down over on top of me.  It bent to accommodate my shape rather than crush me, leaving only my head and shoulders sticking out.

“If you try that trick on me, little girl, I’ll shoot you,” I heard the threat from the air above us.

This was going south, fast.

“I’m going to turn my back and run,” she responded.  “If you try shooting me in the back, I’ll show you what I can really do.”

There was anger in the threat that caught me off guard.  Was it this miasma that had pushed her to that level of anger?  I wasn’t feeling anything like that.  Had something about the way he had talked provoked her?  Or was that the norm for her?

I tried to think back to my prior experiences with her and found nothing.

What was her name?

Was I suffering from brain damage?  Another concussion?

I did a series of multiplication, addition and subtraction in my head and found no problems on that front.  Not general brain damage, apparently.

Amnesia?

My name is Skitter, I thought, Taylor Anne Hebert.  Sixteen.  Born in Brockton Bay.  Student at Winslow High.  Ex-student.  Member of the Undersiders.

No problems on that front.

My line of thought continued absently, as if I wanted to reassure myself that I was mentally intact.  My parents are Dan Hebert and Annette Rose Hebert.

I struggled, wiggling to try and free myself from the hump of solid concrete.  I could inch myself out.

What would my mom think to see me now?

I tried to picture her expression.

Again, that gap, the chasm.  Nothing.

I could have been hit by five more of those laser blasts on ‘stun’ and it wouldn’t have hit me as hard as the realization that I couldn’t remember my mother.  Couldn’t remember her face, the details, her mannerisms.  Even the happy memories we’d shared, the little moments I’d clung to over the past two years, they were gone.  There was only an empty void where they should have been.

I couldn’t remember my dad, either.

The other Undersiders, their faces, their costumes, their personalities and mannerisms, all gone.  I could remember what we’d done: the bank robbery, fighting Purity’s group, lazing around in the old loft, even the general progression of events from the moment I’d met them.  But the people were blanks waiting to be filled in, and I couldn’t go from thinking about one name to thinking about the events that were related to it.

I felt a rising panic as I struggled to work myself free.  I didn’t know the people who were on the rooftop with me: the man who floated in the air, wearing a sturdy hazmat-style firesuit and a blue and silver mask that left only his mouth, chin and wavy brown hair exposed.  I couldn’t recognize the girl he was shooting in the back.  I saw her fall face first and writhe with pain.  He shot her two more times, and she went limp.  Out cold.

I couldn’t make the mental connection between the Nine and their appearances or their powers.  If I didn’t have the benefit of being able to remember my actions over the past few minutes, it would have been impossible to say whether the two people here were allies or enemies.

Everything suddenly made sense.  The infighting, the tactics they were using, the mixture of hostility and paranoia.  Legend was attacking with nonlethal blasts because he couldn’t be sure if he was attacking a teammate or one of the Nine, so he was striving to take everyone out of action with as little permanent damage as possible.

Sundancer’s worries about being alone struck me.  We were all alone, now.  Every single one of us.  From teams to individuals, everyone was fending for themselves because they couldn’t afford to trust the others.

And it would ruin us.

It would be impossible to mount any kind of defense against the Nine if we were fighting them as individuals.

The man with the blue and silver mask floated over to where I was, ready to dispatch me, to knock me out, just in case I was a threat.

“Help?”  I called out.  It was a spur of the moment response.  My mind raced as I tried to form a plan.  Even a bad one would serve.  I lied, “I’m stuck.  Break me out?”

I stared up at him.  His face was riddled with conflicting emotions, his body language tense.  There was a nervousness there that belied simple amnesia.

We’d been warned about drinking the city’s water.  It might mean the effects were more pronounced for the people who hadn’t been informed.  Or there might be side effects.

“Stay,” he ordered.

He stayed at the level of the rooftop as he floated out above the street, aiming more blasts at the others.

This wasn’t rational for him, it didn’t jibe with my knowledge of him.  That could mean there was something about the miasma that was making him irrational.

I waited for long minutes as he continued firing down on the others.  He cast me one sidelong glance, then flew off in pursuit of someone I couldn’t see.

Even after I was able to start wiggling myself free, it was slow.  I measured my progress in half-inches.  My chest, small as it was, proved an issue.  Coupled with the armor at my front and the remains of the armor at my back, it made getting free an issue.  Several times, I stopped breathing for a good minute before I forced myself back under the concrete sheet to be able to breathe again, then I did it again.  As much through the wear and tear on my armor as anything else, I managed to slide my upper body out on the fifth attempt.  I took a second to breathe and rest, and then began the slow process of getting my midsection and hips past the mouth of the concrete shelf.

I directed every curse word I knew at the belt and armor panels I’d placed around my hips as I tried to work myself free.  My hips and rear end were proving as difficult as my chest had been, and with my upper body being further away, I couldn’t get the same leverage push myself out with my arms.  Minutes passed as I grunted and struggled.  I could hear inarticulate screams, shouted threats, screamed warnings and the noise of destruction on the street below as paranoia gave way to violence.  I brought Atlas to my side, but even with his strength and his horn, he wasn’t strong enough to affect the concrete.  I used his help to squeeze myself out, bracing his horn against the lip of the concrete sheet and pulling.

When I was free, I gathered my knife, baton and gun from where they had fallen and fit them into the few remaining elastic loops in my ruined utility compartment.  Cell phone was a yes, but I didn’t have a spot for it, so I tucked it in the chest compartment of my armor.  Similarly, I stuck the epipens and changepurse through the space between my hip and the belt, wedging them in next to the straps.

I double checked that Atlas hadn’t been hurt by Legend’s lasers and then climbed on top of him.

There was destruction below, and signs of the mad fighting between capes.  Sheets of paper frozen in time, a mailbox destroyed, a light-post toppled, all still in the midst of the red water.  Everyone had fled or been knocked out of commission.  The fighting had migrated to several scattered spots nearby.

I didn’t know exactly what to do, so I focused on helping the wounded, making sure they were okay.  I turned an unconscious girl over into the recovery position, and started to drag a wounded man out of the middle of the road.  I stopped when he started struggling and fighting with me and just left him there.

I felt lost.  Was I helping the enemy when I was propping someone up to make sure they didn’t choke on their own vomit or drown in a puddle?  If I used the plastic cuffs I had in the changepurse, would I be tying someone up, leaving them helpless against one of the Nine?

I checked my cell phone.  No service.

I was alone here.  Everyone in the world was a stranger.

Vibrations rocked the street.  I saw the wounded man stir in response.

A monster.  Bigger than a car, fangs, teeth, claws, and a thorny exterior.  It didn’t act like it had seen me.

One of Bitch’s dogs?  Or is it Crawler?

If it was Crawler, and I acted like he was friendly, he’d tear me to shreds.  I could draw my gun to threaten him, defend myself… except that wouldn’t do a thing to slow Crawler down.

If it was one of Bitch’s dogs sans rider, then there was little point in staying.  I didn’t even know if it was suffering from the miasma’s effect.  If it was Crawler…

I drew my bugs around me as a shroud, simultaneously forming decoy swarms.  I ran, my footsteps splashing, and called Atlas to me.  The second I was out of sight, I climbed on top of him and took to the air once again.

Couldn’t settle down, couldn’t stop.  I had to treat everyone I met as an enemy.

I was beginning to see where the paranoia came in.

“Skitter!” a voice called out.

I stopped.

A blond girl, waving at me.

I drew my gun and leveled it at her.

The smile dropped from her face.  She brought both hands to her mouth as she shouted, “It’s me!  Tattletale!”

I hesitated.

How tragic would it be if I shot my friend, so soon after I’d wanted to scream at the heroes for fighting among one another?

“How did you get here?”

“On the dog.  I don’t remember its name, but it wasn’t as affected as we were.  This effect is tailored for people.”

I looked in the direction of the creature I’d seen.  Had that been the dog they’d come on?

I drew closer, but I kept the gun aimed at her.  I glanced around.  “Where are the others?”

“Most are hiding,” she said.  “My powers kind of let me work around this gas, I think.  I brought Grue, too.”

I looked around.  What she was saying felt right, even if I couldn’t remember her powers, specifically.  “What is this?  Amnesia?”

Agnosia.  We haven’t forgotten.  Just… can’t use the knowledge we have.  Looking at the others, I think they’re hallucinating.  If it’s prions, like Bonesaw used with the power nullification darts, it fits.  Hallucinations would match with heavy prion exposure.”

“Prions?”

“They’re small enough to pass through water filtration and gas masks.  Badly folded proteins that force other proteins into identical shapes, perpetuating the problem.  If she found a way to guide them, or specifically target the parts of the brain she wanted, she might get results like we’re experiencing.  In a really bad case, it’d cause lesions in the brain and give you hallucinations.”

I looked around.  “How long does it last?”

“Forever.  It’s incurable and it’s terminal.”

I swallowed.  “But Panacea could fix it.”

She nodded, then smiled wide.  “There’s hope, right?”

“Right.”

She jerked her head to one side, then used one hand to brush the hair back out of her face.  “Let’s grab Grue and formulate a plan.”

She turned to leave, but I stayed where I was.  After three steps, she turned around.  “What’s wrong?”

I didn’t lower the gun.  “Sorry, a little paranoid.”

She frowned.  “That’s fair, but we’re short on time.  If others are getting lesions on their brain, then that means they could die soon.  Seizures, violent mood swings, loss of motor control…  Creutzfeldt-Jakob was a prion disease, but the progression here’s faster.”

I shook my head.  “Crews-what?”

“Neurological disorder caused by eating the meat of a cow infected with mad cow disease.  You get the prions in your head, and you slowly die while suffering personality changes, memory loss and vivid hallucinations.”

“And it’s faster here.”

She nodded.  Her expression was solemn.  “Hours instead of weeks.  And as people experience mood shifts with anger and fear, or if the hallucinations get worse-”

“The fighting among teammates will, too,” I finished.  “It could get ugly.”

“If we’re going to save everyone, we need Amy.  For that, we need to ask Cherish.”

I shook my head.  “Who?”

“Um.  You remember capturing a member of the Nine?”

Did I?  We’d ambushed them, walked away with captives, yes.  But we’d lost someone too.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“And we confined one?”

I nodded.  This was working.  I could piece together the information.  We’d called that person on a phone, hadn’t we?  “Cell phones aren’t working consistently.”

“Is it safe?” a male voice asked.

“Sure.”

I stayed silent.

He stepped out from around the corner to stand by the blond girl.  “This is Skitter?”

She nodded.  “Skitter, this is Grue.”

I didn’t recognize him any more than he recognized me.  I kept the gun trained on them.

“This is slowing us down.  What’s it going to take to get you to trust me?” she asked.

What would it take?

“The fight with Empire Eighty-Eight’s mooks.  When I made the human-shaped tower of bugs for the first time, and they shot into it while I crouched inside…”

She shook her head “I don’t remember that.”

How many people had I been with, then?  I would have said one, but I felt like someone else was involved.  Had they arrived late?  I could remember hurrying off.

She spread her arms wide.  “I’m sorry.  I might not look like it, but it’s affecting me too.  I’m just using my power to uncover the answers we need.”

I nodded.  That would have been reassuring if I could remember what her powers were, or if I could think of something about her I could quiz her on.  It was like two blind people playing hide and seek.

“Look, come here,” she offered.

I hesitated.

“You can keep the gun.  I’ll keep my hands above my head.  Grue, stand back.”

He stepped away and leaned against a wall, his arms folded.

I landed Atlas and stepped forward.

She got on her knees, and with her hands above her head, she walked through the flooded street on her knees until her forehead was pressed against the barrel of the gun.

“I trust you.  I know I’m a pain in the ass sometimes, I know we’ve had our ups and downs.  I know I’ve kept way too many secrets for someone who calls herself Tattletale…” She smiled. “But I trust you.  Now, even if you don’t recognize me consciously, what’s your heart telling you?”

In truth?  It wasn’t telling me much.  If I didn’t think on it, if I just went with the vague impression I associated with the name Tattletale, the smile, the fountain of information…

I backed away a step.  “I don’t think that’s a good enough reason to trust you.”

“Darn it.  Um.  Let me think…”

“Do you want to go ahead without her?” the guy asked.

I turned to look at him.  The idea of being left alone here-

“Go somewhere safe,” he suggested.

I frowned.

“If the Slaughterhouse Nine find Panacea first, or if things get much worse-”

“I want to help, really,” I said.  “But it’s just that…”

I trailed off.

“You want to help, but you’re suspicious.  And you feel bad for being suspicious, because of everything we’ve been through, our close calls?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I was double checking everything he said against my own awareness.  Was he saying anything that indicated he knew something I couldn’t?

“I know how scared and suspicious you feel because I feel the same way.  Except I trust Tattletale.”

“I do too,” I said, “And I’d trust her if I could be sure she was Tattletale.”

“Trust your heart.”

I wanted so desperately for it to be like in the movies, where people could trust your heart.  Where you were holding the gun and you had to choose between shooting the evil clone and shooting your friend, and you just knew.

He gestured around us with one hand. “This doesn’t work.  This is going to lose us the fight, and all the danger we’ve been through in our fight against the Nine will be for nothing if they win here.”

I shook my head.  “I don’t disagree, but that line of thinking isn’t going to make me drop the gun.”

“Then can I try acting from my heart?”  he asked.

Before I could respond, he started approaching me.  I backed away a step, kept the gun leveled, but I couldn’t bring myself to shoot as he advanced.

He stepped in close, ignoring the gun, and wrapped his arms around me.  My forehead pressed against his shoulder.  It wasn’t the most comfortable hug I’d had, not that I’d had many.  It felt awkward, stiff, clumsy.  But somehow that made it feel more right, like a real hug would have felt off somehow.

He was warm.

Grue?

Then, without waiting for me to give an answer, Grue stepped back, taking hold of my left hand and pulling.  I followed without complaint.  I couldn’t complain.  If I doubted him now, after this-  I’d be ten times as angry at myself as he was with me.

“Priority number one, we get in contact with Cherish,” Tattletale said, grinning.  “From there, we can decide whether we want to track down Panacea or go after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Right,” I said.

“Keep checking your cell phone.  The second we have service, call Coil.”

“Coil is?”

“Our boss, and since he’s hidden away, he won’t be affected, so he’ll be able to place the name and fill us in on the details the agnosia has blocked from us.”

“Okay.”

“It’s not the end of the world after all,” Tattletale smiled.

I nodded.  I was acutely aware of the gun in my right hand.  I felt like I should put it away, but with the way we were moving and my general sense of unease, I couldn’t stop and do it.  Hated this.  It reminded me of school.

The reminder made me angry, and it somehow made all of this seem worse.  I muttered, “Sooner we’re fucking cured of this miasma, the better.”

“Hey!”  Tattletale paused, pointing at me with a stern expression on her face.  “Don’t swear!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.7

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Three places nearby they could have gone,” Tattletale said.  “Two that fit with the direction they were running.  The shelter underneath the central library, and the one near where Scion confronted Leviathan.”

“I remember that one,” I replied.  We were walking at a brisk pace around the perimeter of the bomb site.  The area to our left still burned, and Sundancer was in the lead, clearing away the worst of the fires ahead of us.  I was walking with Tattletale and Grue, Atlas following behind us.  The others rode the dogs behind me.

“If we’re going to check those locations, then…” Tattletale trailed off.

“If I had a preference, I’d rather we check the library first.  Bad associations with the other spot.”

Tattletale turned her head at that.  “I thought you’d be proud.”

I shook my head.

“I only heard secondhand, so I didn’t get the full story, but you stabbed Leviathan with Armsmaster’s weapon and distracted him from going after the civilians that were inside that shelter.”

“Don’t know how many I really saved.  He had a good thirty seconds to a minute to unload everything he had on the people in there, and we all saw how much damage he did to some of our toughest capes.”

Tattletale nodded.

“I dunno.  I think of what happened back then, and I get this ugly feeling in my gut, like I did something wrong, or I didn’t try as hard as I could have because there was someone in that shelter who I sort of hate.  Hated?  I’m not sure if I should use past tense.”

“One of your bullies?”  She asked.

“Teacher.  I think that when I left the Undersiders, I guess I was thinking of considering becoming a hero or something.  But with what happened at that shelter, I almost feel like it was the turning point.  It was the first time I did anything that someone else could point to and call it heroic, and somehow I can’t find it in myself to be proud about it.  And it’s like, that dream of being a hero that I always had just kind of faded away in the face of reality.”

“We’re glad to have you, whatever your reasons,” Tattletale said.

“Thanks,” I told her.

I looked at Grue.  “You okay?”

“I’m getting annoyed that people keep asking that,” he spoke.

“Don’t be a dick,” Tattletale replied.  “She’s asking because she cares.  We’re asking because we care.  And you know that if it was one of us that went through what you did, you’d want to make sure we were in the right headspace to go up against the Nine.”

Grue sighed, but he didn’t respond.

“You’d tell us if you weren’t feeling right, yeah?”  Tattletale asked.

“If I had any idea what I felt, and it wasn’t good, yeah.”

“Good enough.”

We watched as Sundancer cleared away the flames with her flickering sun.  Flames bent toward it as if being influenced by a strong wind, thinned out and disappeared.

She cancelled out her power and turned back to us.  “One minute to cool off and we’re probably okay to go!”

“We should decide where we’re going and how we’re going to make our approach,” Grue spoke.

“If they’re waiting for their teammates, they’ll stay inside the shelter for the time being,” I said. “We’ll be in a better position if we don’t try anything overly complicated, like a pincer attack, if there’s more than one exit.  We can hit them hard enough with Sundancer, Ballistic and my bugs.”

Grue nodded.  “I don’t disagree.  You two will have an idea if they’re making their way out the other exit.”

“The two shelters are close to one another,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m still a little worried they’ll leave one location while we’re checking out the other.  I almost want to split up.”

“Is that worth the risk of having half our group caught off guard by the Nine before the other half can arrive?”  I asked.

“A better question,” Tattletale said, “Is whether we can afford to let them get away.  If we miss this chance to go on the offensive and let them escape, they go into hiding and work out a strategy.”

“And we’re not exactly in their good books,” I said.  “So we’d be a primary target.”

Was I imagining it, or did Grue’s darkness expand around him by a fraction?

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Hm?”  He turned towards me.

No use making it worse, if I was prodding a sensitive area by raising the threat the Nine posed.  “Nevermind.”

“Saddle up!”  Tattletale called out.

Sundancer turned and sprinted back to the dogs.  Regent hopped down from his seat and grabbed Shatterbird’s wrists so she could lift him into the air.  I climbed on top of Atlas.

“What if-” I started.  “No.”

“Keep talking,” Tattletale prodded me.

“What if I scouted the library, while you guys checked out the other site?  I can fly, it’s faster for me to get there.”

“And we’d be one mistake away from you being killed,” Grue said.  “If not worse.”

“Hear me out.  Their only real long-range attacker is Jack, right?  If I’m flying, the others won’t be able to touch me.”

“You think.”

“I think.  But if Jack’s at the location, I’d be able to sense him before he got a bead on me.  If that’s the case… I can just attack without exposing myself, and I can alert you guys.”

“Assuming he’s not two steps ahead of us and waiting at some vantage point somewhere nearby,” Grue said.

“He functions like a sniper,” Tattletale said.  “Ignore the fact that he slashes and stabs, he’s a long-range combatant with a good sense of what the enemy is doing and how his teammates move on the battlefield.  He stays out of the way and makes surgical strikes, then relocates to another vantage point.  The only thing that keeps him from doing that all the time is how he has to stay involved with his team and keep them under control.  Can’t make it look like you’re in charge if you’re not there.  With less teammates to manage, he’s liable to go on the offensive.”

“But I have the ability to find him,” I pointed out.  “Before he finds me.  Amy gave me bugs that increase my range.  I’ll be taking on some risk, but it means we’re able to check both locations at the same time and keep an eye out for the Nine.  It’s the best way to strike the balance we need.”

“The balance,” Grue said.  He was clearly unimpressed.

“Minimal risk to maximum effect.  Your group will be safe because you’re all together and you’ll vastly outnumber them.  I’ll be safe because I’m airborne, and I’ll have the advantage of an early warning.  Offensively, you guys will have the Travelers and Bitch.  I’ll have my bugs.”

“Bonesaw countered your bugs last time around,” Tattletale pointed out.

I nodded.  “I have a few things in mind.”

“If you’re sure.”

“She’s not the only person who gets a say,” Grue said.

“Name a better option, then?” I said.

“We all go to the library’s shelter, then we all go to the shelter Leviathan attacked,” he said.  “Safer, smarter.”

“If you’re worried about me being defenseless,” I suggested, “Regent could come with me.”

“There’s a reason we’re keeping that pair close to us,” Grue said.  “If he gets taken down, you’ll have to deal with Shatterbird on top of everything else.  We’re capable of handling her, I think.  I don’t know if you are.”

I frowned.

Tattletale looked back at the others, then back at me.  “Go.”

I looked at Grue.

Tattletale pointed.  “Go!  Stay in contact!”

I turned and lifted off.

I kept to the cover of nearby buildings, and I flew erratically, so Jack wouldn’t be able to hit me if he saw me coming.  I was getting more used to flying Atlas.  I wouldn’t have said he felt like an extension of my own body in the same manner as my swarm.  He felt more like a prosthetic limb, or how I imagined a prosthetic limb might feel like.  At first, it would be clumsy, every action requiring some level of careful thought and attention.  Over time, it would become more second nature, a learned skill on my end.  It would never match up to the real thing, but I could deal.

Already, I was getting more used to correcting orientation and keeping him level in the air.

We set down on a rooftop a distance away.  There was a shed with a doorway that led into the building’s interior, and we headed there to take cover.

I chained relay bugs together so one connected to the next, then extended them well beyond the range of my power.  Their progress was relatively slow, but it did allow me to sweep over an entire region around the library.  Bugs stirred into action at my order, and they crawled or flew within a few feet of every horizontal surface that Jack or Bonesaw could be standing on.

No sign of them.  The vault door beneath the library was closed and sealed.

I was about to return to the others when an explosion of dust and rock fragments ripped through a group of bugs a few blocks away from me.

A woman, no clothes.  My bugs slid off her skin.  Even the slightest abrasion on the surface of the skin served to tear through the legs and bodies of the bugs.  Had to be Siberian.  If the general shape of the large object she was holding was any indication, she still held the truck.

A handful of my bugs were wiped from existence a fraction of a second before more explosions of varying size ripped through the area around her.  Legend was somewhere up in the air.

I drew my bugs together around Siberian’s head, in the hopes that I could distract her.  It was pretty thin, but there wasn’t much I could do.  Even a direct hit with Legend’s lasers wouldn’t affect her.

I shifted locations, flying half a block before landing again.  I could just barely make out the pair of combatants with my swarm sense.

Something about what Legend was doing seemed odd.  He wasn’t firing constantly.  Rather, his shots seemed to be strategically placed.  He ripped apart the side of a building a moment before Siberian landed there, then tore through the five or six floors beneath her so she had nowhere to go except straight down.  The instant she stepped free of the building’s ground floor, he tore into the ground with a series of laser blasts that expanded outward, thinning as they went.  It created a bowl-shaped indent, with rubble covering the storm drains that had been exposed by the lasers.

Carrying the truck, Siberian headed for the storm drains anyways, tearing through the piles of debris.  Legend unloaded on the entire street, collapsing them around her.  Some of my bugs descended with the pieces of the shattered street, and they could feel the warmth of the outside air mingling with the cold, stagnant air of the storm drains.  He’d exposed her.

I’d seen Legend go all out, and this wasn’t it.  Why was he holding back?  Granted, there was little point in hitting Siberian with everything he had, and it was easily possible that trying to drill a hole in the ground around her could theoretically give her the chance to escape, if she found some underground cavern or tunnel, but it could just as easily drown her.  So long as she had the truck, Siberian had to stay places where there was oxygen.  She couldn’t, I was assuming, dive beneath the water and make her escape from there.  Legend seemed to be going out of his way to keep her aboveground and exposed, attacking only when he had to.

He was conserving his strength.  As much as both he and Siberian were powerhouses with more offensive capability than ninety-nine percent of people on the planet, this was a strategic battle.  It was easily possible he was planning to keep this up for hours, harrying her, keeping her from getting her feet under her.

And with Siberian’s master or controller in that truck, she was forced to move more carefully.  If Siberian’s creator didn’t have food and water, this could turn into a battle of attrition.  One Legend might even win.  He was fit, healthy, athletic.  Siberian’s master, according to Cherish, wasn’t.  Added to that, being in that truck as Siberian leaped around couldn’t be fun.

I felt like I was still missing something.  Why was Legend fighting here, of all places?  Whatever else was going on, they were causing pretty horrific property damage, and it had to be hard to fight Siberian in a place with this many high-rises.  She could disappear into building interiors, and even if he lowered the height he was flying at, Legend was probably having to penetrate three or four stories of building to get to her.

I kept my distance from the fight as I directed Atlas toward the library.  With my bugs, I was able to more or less follow the fight.  I couldn’t touch Siberian directly, but I could sense where Legend was directing his attacks, and how he was positioning himself.

I continued to do what I could to help Legend, sending bugs at Siberian in the hopes of distracting her or finding some way into that truck.  They searched the windows but failed to find a gap.  Some crawled into the exhaust, others into the undercarriage-

She fell into a trench as Legend leveled another series of blasts at her, and the movement of the truck coupled with Siberian’s power and its rough texture murdered a solid ninety-percent of the bugs I’d used.  The remainder made their way deeper inside.

The bugs could scent something they registered as food.  A heavy smell, fetid, like garbage.  It was rank in there.  They crawled through the air conditioning vents and into the truck’s interior.

The driver’s seat was empty.  I sent the bugs into the back.  Nothing.

The truck was empty?

With my bugs, I drew out words in mid-air high above me, informing Legend: ‘TRUCK EMPTY – SIBERIAN BLUFF.’

Had she assessed what Legend was doing, turned it around on him?  If her real self was somewhere safe, somewhere with food and water, that meant Legend would lose any battle of attrition, if that’s what he was aiming for.

I couldn’t think of another reason her creator would leave the safety of the truck.

Hovering over the library, I got my phone out and dialed.

“Tattletale?”

“Sup?”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here, but the maker isn’t in the truck.  I think he’s in the vault with Jack and Bonesaw.”

“Someone’s sealed over this door with a heavy pad of metal, because Leviathan or someone tore it down.  My gut’s telling me the Nine didn’t gather inside and weld it shut behind them, but I can’t ignore the possibility that Bonesaw’s spiders did it.  One in twenty chance, I’d guess?  We’ll know in about thirty seconds, after Sundancer burns through.”

“Right.  A few more things that are bugging me.  Can I use your brain?”

“Go ahead.”

“Legend’s fighting Siberian here.  It feels wrong.  He’s working to pin her down, slow her movements as much as he can.  I know he’s probably buying time, trying to wear her other self out, but why not a place with flatter terrain?  Why not a place where there’ll be less cover for her and less collateral damage?  I know Siberian goes where she wants, and if her other self is in the shelter, that’s probably a big reason she came, but-”

“Your gut is saying something’s off.”

“My gut is saying something’s off.”

“Okay.  I’d guess the Protectorate have more of a plan than the one firebombing.”

“They’re going to do it again?”

“No.  The first one, going by what you’ve said and what I’ve picked up, hasn’t done much for our side.  It’s going to be something else.”

“And we don’t know what?”

“No clue.  What else?”

“Minor, but if her other self is in the shelter, where are Jack and Bonesaw?  And if they’re in the shelter, where’s Siberian’s real body?”

“She’s spent years with them, they have a rapport, and they’re dependent on one another. Maybe he felt it was safe to approach them.”

“Maybe.  Nothing more specific?”

“Don’t have much to work with.  What else is going on?”

“Legend’s holding back.  Conserving his strength.  I get that he’s trying to win a fight of attrition, but as far as I can tell, he hasn’t changed his tactics or the pacing of his attacks much since I informed him that the creator isn’t in the truck.”

“He’s buying time for something?  Someone?  Maybe Scion is headed this way?  No.  Don’t get that vibe.  Hmm,” Tattletale mused.  “We just got inside.  They aren’t here.”

I looked down at the library.  “Vault door, how do I open it?”

“Can’t say until I see the control panel myself.  The shelters are supposed to open with a command from the PHQ-”

“Which was annihilated,” I said.

“Right.  Or the PRT headquarters, on the Director’s order.  There’s bound to be another code that can be used in case those places get knocked out of commission.”

“How did they get in?”

“They have a tinker,” Tattletale said.  “She may work primarily with biology, but that’s not going to be the full extent of Bonesaw’s knowledge.  Look at those spiders.  Some basic hacking isn’t out of the question.  Anyways, I can figure it out when I get there.  Unless you want to take the brute force route.”

I looked down at Atlas.  “I don’t have enough brute force, and neither does Atlas.”

Legend does.  We’re on our way.  See you in a few.”

“Right.”

I hung up.

I drew more words in the air with my bugs, near Legend.

‘FOUND THE 9.  UNDERGROUND SHELTER.’

As an afterthought, I added:

‘MAYBE CIVILIANS INSIDE.’

I drew an arrow by the words.  Then, to make it as clear as possible, I drew a giant arrow in the sky, pointing down at the shelter door.

I was going to look foolish if they weren’t inside, and maybe cost Legend in whatever plan he was operating under.

I could feel him changing directions.  He kept facing Siberian, unloading laser blasts, but he was flying my way.

Siberian dashed forward.  I could feel her cutting a swath through the swarm as she ran, the truck in one hand, one corner of it dragging on the ground, cutting a line into the pavement.  She leaped into the air, out of the reach of my swarm-sense.  I felt something massive collide with the bugs that were in the air around Legend, felt more die as he shot a laser and caught them in the area.

She’d thrown the truck, and he’d obliterated it.

Legend shifted into high gear, flying out of reach of Siberian as she lunged for him.  He dove, hard, and I could imagine her leaping off the side of a second building, trying to get her hands on him.

Legend turned my way and flew towards the library.  I hurried out of the way, directing Atlas to higher altitude, just in case Legend decided to level the place.

The leader of the Protectorate had arrived on the scene, and I could sense Siberian on the ground, hot on his heels.  He raised one hand, and a laser beam shot forth, splitting into eight smaller beams that bent in the air.  They hit the outside edge of the vault door with precision, evenly spaced out, then drifted in a clockwise direction.  The door toppled free.

Legend spread his arms, and hundreds of individual beams radiated out from his body.  Three quarters of them turned in sync to spear towards the library, stabbing through the architecture.  Other beams split off to strike through doorways and windows and across rooftops.  No less than three struck me.

I flinched and nearly lost my seat on Atlas, but found it wasn’t much hotter than steaming tap water, and it only lasted two or three seconds before cutting out.  Siberian had approached close enough to demand Legend’s attention, and he’d terminated whatever it was he’d been doing.

I turned my mind away from whatever the beams had been intended to do and toward my own contributions to this fight.   Had to strike before they got their bearings.  I took advantage of the pause to send bugs flowing into the shelter.

I could count a number of people, young and old.  The mosquitoes in my swarm could scent blood.  Twenty or so people were inside the shelter, standing there.  There was metal on their bodies, like backpacks or prosthetic body parts, but they didn’t seem to be hurt.

There were three more inside, but I wasn’t feeling so generous as to call them ‘people’.  They stood apart: two men and a preadolescent girl.

It was them.  The Nine.

I couldn’t trust my ability to get to Legend and communicate the necessary details in time, and I might even be endangering him by getting too close to Siberian.  I couldn’t say for sure how he would really act in the field, but his PR sold the idea of a legitimate good guy who would balk at attacking an enemy with a hostage.

Or maybe he wouldn’t.  It could even be a mercy, sparing someone from one of the Nine’s clutches.  Siberian devoured people alive.

Either way, it was better to try to catch his attention with a written message: ’20 CIVILIAN, JS, BS, SIB’.

He was too distracted by Siberian to see it.  She wasn’t as fast as Battery or Velocity, but she had the physical power to move quickly, and she was leaping between buildings to throw herself at him with the speed and aim of an arrow shot from a bow.

I tried leaving another message for Legend, stating the same thing.  Glancing over my shoulder, I saw him looking at me.  Our eyes met.  He nodded, and I turned my attention to the shelter.

I didn’t want to do this half-assed.  No mistakes this time around.  I gathered a swarm of generous size, but I held it at bay.  There were more preparations to carry out.  I drew the capsaicin bugs from beneath my armor and added them to the swarm.  I drew out silk threads and held them suspended in the air, ready for use.  For a final measure, I withdrew a lighter and the changepurse from the utility compartment at my back.

Primary swarm in first.  As one singular mass, they flowed inside.  The capsaicin-laced bugs joined them, going straight for the eyes.

Jack reacted, as did the man, but Bonesaw was unfazed.  I saw Siberian flicker.  Legend noticed as well.  He snapped his eyes to me, and then the shelter.

The creator needs to concentrate?

My heart was pounding so hard I felt like it would dislodge me from Altas.  Bugs settled on the three members of the Nine and then they attacked.  It wasn’t the sort of attack I’d ever done before.  I’d had bugs bite, I’d had them sting, I’d even used them to deliver payloads of their various venoms.

I’d always held back to some degree.  The only ones I hadn’t held back against had been untouchable.  These three weren’t so lucky.

Mandibles bit into flesh, seeking not to pinch and inflict pain.  Ants scissored flesh away, beetles tore and rent into the flesh, flies spat their digestive enzymes onto the exposed flesh.

I buried them in every kind of insect I had that could eat, cut or pierce meat.  The bugs didn’t eat their fill: they simply bit, chewed, let the food fall from their mouths, then bit again.

Bonesaw’s hands were smooth as glass as she reached for her belt.  She was cool and collected, even as the bugs slowly flayed her.

She was stopped short as the silk strands tangled her ceramic fingers.

My bugs could hear her speak.  Though I could barely make out the words, I thought maybe the first one was ‘Jack’.  She held out her hands.

I tried to bind him, but tying his arm to his side was harder than using silk cords to lash fingers together.  At least partially blinded by the capsaicin, he swiped his knife a few times in Bonesaw’s direction.  He cut her several times, and my bugs could feel her flesh part around her collarbone and face.  Some of the cuts were on target, however, and the threads around her fingers were severed.  An instant later, she was free to put together her anti-bug smoke, working her hands to break the threads as I tried to tangle her fingers again.

Okay.  Not the end of the world.  The bugs were still devouring the three, and I still had a plan in mind.  An idle hope.

I withdrew the tissues I’d wadded in the changepurse to keep the contents from jingling or rattling around.  My bugs took hold of them and carried them into the air, two or three dozen in all.

I tested the lighter, then held it out to ignite the first tissue.

It was a slow burn, taking fifteen or twenty seconds to consume the paper.  The flies that carried it died as the flame reached them, consuming them.

By the time the first was burned, my bugs were positioning the second, allowing it to ignite.  In this manner, I chained them one after the other.  A slow-moving relay of flame.

Bonesaw had her smoke going, despite my efforts to rebind her fingers, and I could feel it murdering my bugs en-masse.  I pulled them away and out of the shelter, leaving only a few to track the movements of the Nine.

The trail of burning tissues made their way inside the shelter.  I ignited the last few tissues and sent them to Bonesaw.  I could feel the bugs die as they hit the smoke.

Nothing.  I swore.

It had been too much to hope for, that the smoke was flammable.  Even if the smoke had exploded in the mildest possible way, it would have at least given me a countermeasure.

I turned away from the area.  I’d told the others I would play safe.  I’d tried what I could, I’d maybe even done a little damage to them, now I’d back off.  I’d earned Siberian’s attention by attacking her creator, but she was preoccupied with Legend, so that was one threat I didn’t have to worry about.  The rest of the Nine were still inside.

Legend, for his part, was keeping up the measured, carefully paced assault.  I saw him raise one hand to his ear.

A communication from his team?  Had something happened with the rest of the Protectorate?  Or the other members of the Nine?

He dove straight for the shelter.  Siberian gave chase, and without slowing in the slightest, he raked a laser across the street to render her footing less stable.  It couldn’t have bought him more than a fraction of a second, if it even made a difference at all;  I could see her placing one foot on a shattered piece of road that wouldn’t have held a squirrel without collapsing.  She used it to kick herself forward, soaring after Legend, hands curled into claws.  He was ahead of her by only ten or fifteen feet.

The scattered bugs I had at the fringes of the extermination smoke gave me only a half-completed picture.  Legend inside, blasting a laser in the direction of the cloud where Jack, Bonesaw and Siberian’s creator were.  He grabbed one of the civilians that were standing dumbly in the shelter, only to get mobbed.  She latched onto him, and the others did the same, trying to drag him down.  My bugs felt a flash of heat as he used his laser to blast at them and free himself.  Another laser speared out of the top of the Library, followed soon after by Legend, spearing up toward the sky.  He directed another laser straight down at the library, continuing to fly straight up.

That was reason for me to do the same.  I rose with one hand on Atlas’ horn, and I drew my phone with the other.  I speed dialed Tattletale.  Trusting to her penchant for picking up the phone on the first ring, I started shouting before I heard any response, “Something’s up!  Take cover and get back!”

The stealth bomber streaked across the sky, just as it had before.  Its payload this time was smaller, barely visible.

The devastation wasn’t so easy to miss.

The only word for it was chaos.  I could hardly pick out the individual effects as they mingled.  A cloud of yellow-green smoke being pulled into a spiral around a vortex, which was causing the section of the library that had turned to glass to shatter and implode.  There was a flare of brilliant mixed colors I could barely look at, frying a scattered assortment of boneless, faceless, fleshy monsters.  One monster made it four steps before being turned to dust.  Where the dust touched, more dust was created, until the vortex expanded enough to start pulling it all in, stopping what might have been an endless chain reaction.

I could see time slowing in one spot, I could see pavement heating into a liquid in another.  I could see one area that was serene, untouched, a bubble where a newspaper that had been scattered on the ground was flapping violently with the movement of air.  Half a building was annihilated by the flash of an explosion, and it toppled into the midst of the bomb site.  In seconds, it was obliterated and chewed up.

The effects spread and expanded all down the street, a stripe of this madness three blocks wide, extending into the midst of the blaze from the previous bombing run.

I drifted toward Legend, raising my hands over my head to show I meant no harm.

“Thank you for the assistance,” he spoke, when I was in earshot.  “Some was misguided or off target, but it did make a difference.”

I could only nod.

He put one hand to his ear, then paused for several long seconds.  When he spoke, it was vague.  “Acknowledged.”

I waited, staring down at the disaster area below.

“Crawler and Mannequin observed to be in the blast site.”

“How did they disengage while keeping them there?  They- they did disengage?”

“Clockblocker managed to tether Mannequin in place.  Crawler freed himself from the same trap by tearing himself in two against the immovable object.  It was Piggot who managed to keep Crawler in the blast area.”

“How?”

“She had Weld pass on a message, telling Crawler what we had planned.  He was so tickled at the idea that we would be able to hurt him that he stayed where he was while the teams made their retreat.”

“Just like that?”

“Apparently so.”

“If he survives-”

“He didn’t.”

There was a series of smaller explosions below.  I could see a section of ruined building glowing red, then detonating in a blast of light that sent a nearby glacier spinning into a patch of burning ground.

“And the other three?”

“Remains to be seen.  The civilians are dead, but it’s something of a mercy.  Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders were welded to their skeletons, allowing her to remotely control them.  Like zombies, only they were aware and in incredible pain.  I expect she had measures to inflict agonizing deaths on them if we attempted to disconnect them from her spider-frames.  Maybe I could have saved them, can’t say.  From the glimpses I saw of them, I don’t know if they would have thanked me.”

We spent a minute staring down at the devastation.

I ventured to ask him a question, “Can Brockton Bay take this?  It feels like it was on the verge of collapse already.  Add this mess, the firebombing… can we really come back from it?”

“You know this city better than I do, I’m sure.  I like to think people are stronger than they appear at first glance.  Perhaps the same goes for cities as well?”

“I’d like to think so.  But if I’m being realistic-”

I stopped mid-sentence.

My bugs had found a group of individuals on the edge of the blast radius.

“No fucking way.”  I pointed.

Siberian flickered violently as she crouched beside Jack and Bonesaw, one hand on each.  In between the three of them was a man, hunched over.

Legend raised one hand, but he didn’t shoot.

“Legend?”

“They haven’t seen us.  I would like to take out Jack or Bonesaw while they’re distracted and unguarded, I just need Siberian to step away or let go of them.”

The group shifted positions, so the man had an arm around Jack’s chest and an arm around Bonesaw’s shoulders, Siberian behind him.

“See that?” Legend asked.

“What?”  I could barely make them out from our vantage point.  “I can’t.”

“My eyes are better than most.  A minor benefit of my powers.  The backs of his hands, perhaps you can make out the tattoos?  A cauldron on the left hand, a swan on the right.”

“I- I don’t follow.”

“No,” he sighed a little.  “I suppose you wouldn’t.  It does mean we know who he is.”

“Someone I’d know?  An old costume?”

He shook his head.  “A scholar.”

Jack glanced up, and Legend fired in the same instant.  With Siberian’s strength, the group  of the Nine lunged to one side, disappearing behind cover.  I sent bugs after them.

My swarm sensed other arrivals.  The Undersiders and Travelers came from the west, taking a circuitous route around the top end of the bomb site.  Legend fired a series of blasts after Siberian and gave chase, but she was keeping a building between her group and Legend.   He stopped where he was, one hand outstretched, and touched his ear.

“My teams are on their way,” he said.

“That’s good,” I said.  “The Undersiders and Travelers are too.  I’m going to go fill them-”

“We need them to back off,” he interrupted.

“Another bombing?”  I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  It seems we’re facing the worst case scenario.”

“We’re winning,” I said, incredulous.  “You guys took out two of them, we’ve got them on the defensive-”

“Exactly,” he interrupted me.  “We’re winning.  And we’ve broken enough of Jack’s rules for his ‘game’.  Now I fear we’re about to see whatever ‘punishment’ it was that Bonesaw prepared for us.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Wards!”  Weld hollered.  “Crawler and Mannequin, like we discussed!  Close ranks around Victoria!”

His words broke the spell that the scene had over Vista and Flechette.  Surprising that there were so few Wards here, on a level.  Kid Win wasn’t in sight, nor was Chariot, and Clockblocker was under the sway of his own powers. Shadow Stalker, Aegis, Gallant and Browbeat were dead or gone.

The final sorta-maybe member of their group, Glory Girl, was being eaten alive by Crawler’s acid.

Vista and Flechette moved to positions just behind and to either side of Weld.  The group blocked Crawler’s view of Glory Girl.

Miss Militia directed the adult heroes with a series of short commands and hand signals.  Ursa and Assault led the way with Miss Militia, Prism, Battery and Triumph following, clearly aiming to flank Crawler and close the distance between them and Mannequin.

Crawler spat, and Vista used her power, reducing the distance the spit traveled to a tenth of what it might have been.  Crawler leaped, and she widened the distance between him and everyone else so he stood in the midst of a clearing.

Flechette fired a bolt straight into Crawler.  It penetrated his face and stuck there.  Little surprise on that front; I’d seen her stick Leviathan with one of those giant needles.  Crawler’s face bubbled around the wound where it was rejecting the foreign object.  Almost imperceptibly, it began to slide out.

He rumbled with a low, guttural laugh, mocking.  Was he enjoying himself?  He was a masochist, and it was the rare thing that could hurt him.

Miss Militia interrupted his gloating with a shot from a rocket launcher.  His claws dug deep into pavement as he resisted being knocked over.  She used her power to reload the rocket launcher and shot him again, uprooting him.  Triumph used a full-power shout to send Crawler sliding across the clearing Vista had made.  Vista widened the distance by stretching the landscape.

Prism and Battery went after Mannequin.  Prism split into three copies of herself, complete with fireproof suit, closing in as Battery used her power to cross the distance and trade blows.  I was only peripherally aware of Prism, given how she was based in New York, but seeing her in action reminded me of how she operated.

She was a self-duplicator, always producing two other versions of herself, but there were nuances.  So long as one duplicate lived, she would survive whatever happened to the others, but they didn’t last long.  She could also expend them to enhance herself.

It made her an effective partner for Battery.  Both were all about the setup followed by execution.  Prism formed her duplicates and spread them out while Battery attacked, then drew her duplicates back into herself in a flash of light before delivering a crushing strike.

Mannequin was holding his own.  The hits that did land seemed to have little effect, as he went limp and bent with them.  It seemed he was keeping to the old adage of a supple willow bending in a hurricane that topples a sturdy oak.  Even when Battery was moving at super speed, he was quick to take the advantage of a kick that went too high or a sweep aiming to knock his feet out from under him.  He ducked beneath the former and hopped over the latter, then using his grappling-hook hands to haul himself a distance away.

He managed to get close enough to cut down two of Prism’s duplicates, then pointed his hand at her third self, extending a blade from the base of his hand and firing it like a harpoon.  Battery used up her charge and swept it aside before it could strike home and finish off the heroine.

Ursa, Triumph and Assault were getting into the thick of things with Crawler while Miss Militia and Flechette aided them from a distance.  Ursa was creating forcefields in the rough shape of bears, two at a time.  Weld stood, defending the two female members of the Wards.  Glory Girl was looking worse for wear with every passing second.

“Weld!”  I shouted, drawing the beetle as close as I dared with the heat and smoke beneath me.  “What can I do!?”

“More bombs on Mannequin!”  He shouted.

“I’m out!”  I replied.

“Then get out of here!  You’ll be one less person we have to protect!  Our front line’s pretty thin!”

Weld half-turned to glance back at Glory Girl, and I could see his expression change as he saw how bad she was.  It was reaching the point that we might have to leave her for dead. There were spots where the muscle had necrotized enough that I could make out her internal organs.  If the redness was any indication, the acid was extending to her vitals.

“Evac Victoria and Cache on your way out!”

Evac.  The last time I’d had a scale to check, months ago, I’d weighed a hundred and eighteen pounds.  With my gear, my costume, maybe that added up to one hundred and twenty.  I had my doubts the beetle could manage me if I was even ten pounds heavier.  How could I carry someone larger than me, in addition to myself?

Maybe I didn’t have to.

Had to think out of the box.  If I could get her out of here, and if the beetle could manage her, I could remotely pilot it to Amy.  Those were two pretty huge ifs.  No, couldn’t pin my hopes on that.

I saw Cache using his power on himself.  He was barely able to crawl, but he surrounded himself in his dark geometry, disappearing as it condensed down to a point.  He’d taken himself out of this dimension.  I wasn’t sure if it was a journey of no return or a way to get some respite.

But his use of his power gave me another idea.  Glory Girl had powers too.

“Can she fly!?”  I shouted.

“What?”  Weld asked.  He glanced up at me, then turned his attention back to the fight.  His body was tensed and ready to act the second Crawler made a move for his teammates.

“Ask her if she can fly!”

“She’s insensate!”

“Try!”

He turned back to the superheroine and said something I couldn’t make out.

If she responded, I didn’t hear it.

Weld extended his arms into two long poles.  They extended ten feet, then fifteen, then thirty.  Reaching back, he caught Glory Girl with the ends, bending the tips to encircle her body.

“Wait!” I said.

He glanced up at me, then over at Crawler.  The villain was spitting at Assault, who slid on the ground to evade the spray.  Crawler took advantage of the gap in the defensive wall to stampede toward Vista and Flechette.  Vista increased the distance, but not as fast as Crawler crossed it.

Under pressure, choosing the protection of his teammates as his top priority, Weld ignored my plea for a moment to think.  He twisted his entire body to haul Glory Girl into the air, throwing her at me like a catapult might throw a boulder.

I changed my orientation so I’d be ready to catch her.  Rather than try to wrap my arms around her, I moved so we were racing alongside her as she arced through the air.  It gave me only a second or two to make the call about grabbing her.  I didn’t want to get that acid on me.

I grabbed at the two things that seemed safe – the intact portion of her lower costume and her hair.  I pulled back, hauling on both, but the beetle wasn’t able to offer the necessary lift.

She was insensate with pain, and she struggled at what I was doing to her.  I momentarily wondered if she’d hit me or the beetle with one of those punches that could crush stone. Worse, if she grabbed me and I couldn’t break away, I’d plummet to the ground with her.

“Fly!” I screamed the word.  “Lift up, Glory Girl!”

Her face was melting on one side, her eyes a ruin, her ear and the surrounding area of her head a bloody mess.  I wondered if she could even hear me.

I was getting dragged down.  How long before I had to make the call about letting go?  It would mean letting her fall back into the burning city street.  Maybe her forcefield would protect her, but the acid would continue to eat into her, until it got at something especially vital.  She would die, slowly and painfully.  Burning to death would almost be a mercy.

“Rise!  Fly!”  I shouted.

She began to lift up.  I took the opportunity to let go of her hair, grabbing at the one hand that wasn’t covered in acid.  I pulled on her hand, and she followed my lead.

We moved as fast as my beetle was able.  I knew she could fly faster, would have compelled her to even push me and the beetle forward if I thought I could have handled the navigation.  As a group, we passed over a red scaled wingless dragon that I took to be Genesis, wading through the flames on her way to the site of the battle.

My beetle needed a name.  Had to have a better way of referring to it.  A hercules beetle, but bigger, a giant.  I thought about Hercules, about the myth; Hercules had borrowed the burden of the giant who carried the world.  Atlas.

“Come on, Atlas,” I urged him, “Faster.”

Dumb to talk to him, when I knew for an absolute fact that he couldn’t understand me.  Maybe I was talking to myself.

We found my teammates still clearing a path through the edge of the area.  They were all walking, the dogs in a formation around them, Bitch holding up the distant rear with Bastard.

I landed.  Glory Girl didn’t have the strength to stand, and collapsed like a rag doll.

“Holy shit!”  Regent said, as he saw the extent of the damage.

Amy went white as a sheet.

“Heal her!  Just don’t touch the spots where the acid hit her!”

“I don’t know- what happened?”

“Crawler spit on her, then knocked out her forcefield.  Move!  Fix your sister!

She staggered forward and reached out toward Victoria.

“No,” Victoria mumbled.

“You’re dying,” Grue spoke.

“No,” Victoria repeated herself.  “Not-”

She coughed sharply and mumbled in the same breath, and didn’t bother trying to correct herself.

“Do it anyways,” Tattletale said.

Victoria swung with her good hand, slamming it into the sidewalk.  Cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact site.  She coughed.  “No.”

“If she hits me, she’ll kill me,” Amy said.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “If she doesn’t want help, you shouldn’t give it.”

“She’s not thinking straight.  What I did-”

“Doesn’t matter,” Tattletale said.

Amy shook her head, talking over her, “She’s always been emotional, passionate, unrestrained, and she’s channeling all this new emotion into hate, because it’s the closest equivalent.”

“New emotion?” Regent asked.  “You mean you mindraped her.”

Amy looked like she’d been slapped across the face.  I wasn’t surprised, but hearing it said out loud was unsettling.

“Seriously?”  Imp voiced the incredulity that everyone else seemed to be feeling.

“It was an accident,” Amy said.

“How do you do that by accident?”  Imp asked.

“Enough,” Tattletale cut in.  “Victoria, listen, I’m going to pour some sterile water over you, and hopefully it’ll flush some of the acid away, okay?  I don’t know what else we can do for you.  I know you can’t see, so don’t be surprised when it happens.”

Victoria turned her head slightly, but she didn’t respond.

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  She didn’t have water in her hand.  Instead, she grabbed Amy and shoved her in Glory Girl’s direction.  Amy looked at her, scandalized and horrified, but Tattletale only mouthed the word ‘go’.

Amy knelt by her sister and touched her hand.  Glory Girl’s back arched as if she’d been electrocuted, and then she went limp.  Paralyzed, unable to resist.

“I’m sorry,” Amy said.  “So, so sorry.  Oh god, this is bad.”

None of the rest of us spoke.

“I can’t- can’t figure out what this venom is.  I can’t touch it to see if it’s organic, um, I can only see what it’s doing.  At least part of it is enzymes.  It’s denaturing proteins in her cells and using the byproducts to build more enzymes, and it’s breaking down lipids as a side effect, shit.  Oh god, and there’s more to it.  The fluid the enzymes are swimming in is some kind of acid.”

“Can you fix her?”  Tattletale asked.

“So much to do,” Amy mumbled, “Have to counter the acid with some kind of physiological byproduct, have to stop the enzymes from liquefying her entire body, and repair the damage.  Trying to make some kind of firebreak to stop the spread of the venom, withdraw the proteins the venom is using to propagate itself.  There isn’t enough tissue in her body for everything I need to do to fix her.”

“Fixing her body and healing all the damage can come later,” Tattletale said, as if she were reassuring Amy.  “For now, keep her alive and fix what you did to her head.”

“I have enough to manage without worrying about that.”  There was a note of desperation in Amy’s voice.

“It’s as much a priority as anything else.  I said it before, if you don’t do it now-”

“Shut up,” Amy snapped.  “I need to focus.”

We watched her work.  The dissolving began to slow, then fix.  The wounds weren’t closing, but the necrotized edges of the ruined flesh was turning from black to crimson.

“You going to go back?”  Tattletale asked me.

I shook my head and glanced over to where the clouds was glowing orange with the reflected flames.  “Nothing I could do.  Too much fire, it cancels out my power, and it’s dangerous for Atlas.”

“Atlas.  I like that.”

I shrugged.

I turned to Amy.  “Do you want me to bring bugs?  Maggots eat only dead flesh, which might be helpful if-”

“No.  I can handle that.”

“Or I could get some of the more useless bugs, like the ones you used to make Atlas, for raw material.”

Amy turned to give me an incredulous look.

“You said you didn’t have enough tissue to patch everything together.  If you wanted to put together a placeholder…”  I trailed off.

“Nice,” Regent said.  “She could be a human-spider hybrid.  Add some insult to injury with the mindrape thing.”

I could see Amy tense.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” I told him.  “Amy was saying the enzymes were dissolving proteins and other stuff.  The bugs would be a source of protein, vitamins, carbs…”

“I’m a little surprised you know that,” Grue commented.  He didn’t take his eyes off of Amy and Glory Girl.

“My power tells me some of it,” I said, “And I did some reading after we took over our territories, trying to research that stuff.  It was an idle thought, but I was thinking that if we got into a food shortage, I could feed my people with bugs.”

Imp made a gagging noise.

“Wow,” Regent said.  “See, you just started off by making me think you were warped and creepy because you were suggesting Panacea turn Glory Girl into some sort of bug-borg, and now you’re making me think you’re creepy and weird because you wanted to feed bugs to people who aren’t your enemy.”

“It was just an idea,” I said, maybe more defensively than I should have, “And bugs are nutritious.  People all over the world eat them.”

“Have you?” Grue asked.

I shook my head, “But I would have tried them first, if I decided to go ahead with that plan.”

“Please,” Amy cut in.  “Can you?”

I turned to her.  It took me a second to realize what she meant, after the line of questioning from the others.

“Yeah, of course,” I told her.  I began calling a swarm to me.  I’d already exhausted the surrounding area of most, and the ones I hadn’t already called forth were buried in the deepest recesses and most awkward areas, where it was so inefficient and time-consuming to bring them to me that I’d left them where they were.

It took some time to bring them to the area.

“How was the battle going?”  Grue asked.

“The heroes seemed to be managing, but I don’t know how things are going to turn out,” I said.  I looked at Shatterbird, who floated above us.  “We could use her help.”

“Don’t trust myself to control her if she’s too far away,” Regent spoke.

I made a face.  “Right.  But she could carry you?”

“She almost dropped me once before.  It’s pretty hard to hold on to someone, especially without the leverage you have when you’re on the ground.

The first bugs were arriving in front of Amy.  She began dissolving them into their constituent parts and pressing them into Glory Girl’s abdomen.  When she raised her hand, they were gone.  She held her hand out for more to gather while keeping one hand on Glory Girl.

Minutes passed before Amy stood and wiped her bloody hands on her pants.  “Done as much as I can.”

Glory Girl didn’t look ‘done’.  Scars crawled across her body, angry-looking, surrounded by burns from the acid and flames.  Her skin in areas where the flesh had melted away was so new and stretched so thin that it was translucent, and there was little to no body fat to pad the area between skin and muscle.

“Fix her,” Tattletale said.  “You know what you did to her, you know it was wrong, undo it and walk away.”

“Can’t,” Amy shook her head, “I said I’ve done as much as I can, but there’s so much more I need to fix.  The parts I made with the bits I took from bugs will need to be replaced with real flesh.”

“That’s her choice.  You saved her life, good on you, but you need to let her make the call.”

“Why do you care so much?  You’re a bad guy.”

“Oh yeah,” Tattletale replied in a dry tone, “I’m evil, right?  Maybe that’s all the more reason to listen if I’m saying that something’s fucked up and wrong?”

Amy shook her head, “She needs to eat, and I need to rest.  I can speed up her digestion, like I did with breaking down the bugs inside her.  But I need so much material that it’s going to take a lot of food if I’m going to get everything she needs.  One night, and I can make her normal.”

Tattletale shrugged, “That’s fine.  Just undo what you did first.”

“If she fights me and doesn’t let me finish-”

“That’s her choice.”  Tattletale repeated herself.

“No!  That’s- that’s not her.  That’s the change I made doing the talking, or the aftermath of it.  Even if I removed all the neural connections that have been made since, there’s so much more in the emotional cocktails and hormonal balances.  She’s channeling it into anger instead of… instead of love.”

Love.  The implications were so fucked up.  It was the sort of thing Heartbreaker did.

She hugged her arms against her body.  There were tears in her eyes.

“You need to fix her mind now.  For you, not for her.  Maybe she’ll forgive you at a later date, when she’s thinking clearly again,” Tattletale said.  “Maybe then she can approach you, you two can start interacting again, you rebuild that trust over months or years, and you can finish healing her body when she gives you her permission.”

“Or I can fix her now, undo what I did and then walk away forever, because I don’t deserve forgiveness and she shouldn’t have to live like this because- because a wrong I committed fucked with her focus or made her too aggressive or-”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  “She didn’t have time to react.  I was watching.  These injuries Crawler inflicted were not your fault.”

“Doesn’t matter.  She would have reacted sooner if she’d been getting enough sleep, if her emotions weren’t off kilter.”

“Amy-” I started.

She shook her head so violently that I stopped mid-sentence.  “I can almost feel right about this.  I patch things up, and then I go.”

Amy bent down and touched her sister.  Glory Girl stirred and sat up.  With Amy’s help she stood.

“You’re lying to yourself,” Tattletale said.  “And you’re making things worse.”

“Just- I’m just keeping her complacent.  I’m okay with it if she doesn’t forgive me for it.  Don’t deserve it anyways.  I do this, and then I’ll go somewhere I can be useful.  Only reason I haven’t made more of myself and my power is because of the rules and regulations about exploiting minors with powers.  Either go into government or don’t work at all, and didn’t want to go into government because they would have made me a weapon.  And because I needed to be with my family.”

She smiled, but it wasn’t a happy expression.  “Burned that bridge.  But I’m sixteen now, I can get a job somewhere, start making a real difference with my power.”

“And the last thing you’ll do for your family is this?  Hypnotizing your sister when she’s already mad at you for assaulting her and fucking with her head?”  Tattletale asked.

“The last thing I’m going to do is fix her.”

“A means to an end.”  I stepped forward a little. “Trust me when I say I’ve been down that road.  I don’t recommend it.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Wasn’t it only a little while ago that you admitted you couldn’t figure out what you needed to do to put things right?  You asked me to make the call.”

“Because you had the experience in making calls on morality in dangerous situations, situations where I can’t even think straight,” Amy said.  Her voice hardened a little, “But I have the impression that you don’t have that same expertise when it comes to family.”

I thought of my dad, and it sat heavily enough in my mind’s eye that I couldn’t formulate a response.

Grue formulated one for me.  “You’re one to talk.”

“I’m trying to fix this!”  Amy raised her voice.  “Why are you making this a thing?  Why do you even care?”

Tattletale shrugged.  “I talked about it with Grue, Bitch and Regent.  We were considering offering you a place on the team.”

I looked at Tattletale in surprise.  I glanced at Bitch.  Even her?

Amy scowled, “As if.  You’re such hypocrites.  Regent mind controls people all the time!”

“Regent mind controls the monsters, the bad guys,” I said.

“Taking advantage of bad people for selfish ends.”

“What you’re doing is selfish,” Tattletale cut in.  “You think you’re doing it for her, but you’re only doing it to soothe your own guilt.”

“No,” Amy said, as if that was that.

She glanced at me.  “Thank you for bringing her to me so I could help her.  Um.  I don’t want it to be a nasty surprise, so you should know I didn’t give the bugs I designed any proper digestive systems.  They’ll starve to death before the week’s over, but the Nine will be gone by then.  If they aren’t, we’re all fucked anyways, aren’t we?”

I looked down at Atlas, then back to her.  I clenched my fists.  “I’m using them to help people.”

“For now, sure.  In the future?  I couldn’t be sure.  So I put a time limit on them.  Let’s go, Victoria.”

“Hey!”  I shouted.  My swarm stirred around me as the pair turned to walk away.

“No,” Tattletale said, putting a hand on my shoulder.

“But she-”

“She’s not thinking straight.  We’ve all been there.  You don’t want to start a fight.  We’ve got other enemies to focus on without making more.”

I was pissed off enough that I wanted to hit someone.  I couldn’t even articulate the entirety of why I was so angry.  I’d gone out of my way to be nice to her, to empathize, to save her sister, and save both of their lives.  And this was how she repaid me?  A slap in the face, a final gesture to make her distrust for me as blatant as possible?

“I could try,” Grue said, “I’ve seen her power, but I don’t get the full picture, I might kill it.  Or fuck it up somehow.”

“Please,” I said.

He raised one hand and created a wave of darkness.  It passed over the two girls.

I brought Atlas to Grue, and he laid one hand on the shell.  I could feel shifting in Atlas’ mandibles, head, thorax and abdomen.

The shifting stopped the same instant I saw Glory Girl spear straight out of the top of the cloud of darkness, flying high with Amy in her arms.

“Did you finish?”  I asked.

“Couldn’t say,” he sighed.

I searched Atlas with my power, trying to get a feel for his physiology.  As with all the other instances, everything about him was invisible if I wasn’t looking specifically for it, a black hole in the database of knowledge my power provided.  He was created, and there was no genetic blueprint that my power could decrypt and analyze to figure out what part served a given function.

When I reached the area Grue had affected, I found it even darker, untouchable.  The nervous system wasn’t something my power could interface with.

“I had to model it off of something, and I get the feeling I don’t have the same innate knowledge that Panacea does,” Grue told me.  “The only thing I have any knowledge about is myself.  I don’t know if it’s going to work, but he has a human digestive system.  Or something close to it, that worked with his body.  Near as I can figure, everything connects to what it’s supposed to.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.”

Tattletale was still watching Glory Girl and Amy disappear.  She glanced down at Atlas, “You’ll have to figure out a diet that gives him every nutrient he needs, and pay a hell of a lot of attention to him.  If you give him something his body can’t process, it could poison him like that.”  She snapped her fingers.

I nodded.  It was still better than nothing.

Sundancer was still clearing a path.  I climbed on top of Atlas and rose above the ground, swaying a little in midair as I tried to control his flight enough to hover.

“Go,” Grue said.

“What?”

“Scout, search.  Check on the fight.  You’re restless.”

“Don’t like how that thing with Panacea ended.”

Grue shook his head, “Me either, but we should focus on what we can do in the here and now.”

“And I’m restless because I’m frustrated.  There’s nothing for me to do here.  I can’t handle the fire, can’t do anything if I’m with you guys.”

“Search for Jack and Bonesaw so we can put them down,” Regent said.

I shook my head.  “They disappeared.  Literally.  I’m not sure if they’re dead or if they found a hiding spot.”

“That’s something we can work on,” Tattletale said.  “Siberian was heading to a destination, right?  Heading southeast?”

“Sure.”

“Did you see what direction Jack and Bonesaw were headed?”

I nodded.  “Northeast from a point a few blocks that way.”  I pointed.

“Then I think I know where they went.  It’s quite obvious when you think about it.  A place they could have researched in advance, unoccupied by anyone of consequence, capable of withstanding hits from virtually anything, supplied with food and water…”

Obvious?  Maybe only to Tattletale.  Still, with her hints, I could follow her line of thought to its conclusion.

“The emergency shelters for Endbringer attacks,”  I finished for her.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

In the time we had remaining, I directed my mount as high as he could manage.  My power gave me a sense of how far I was above the ground.  My range formed a loose sphere around me, and as I made my way skyward, my power covered less and less ground, on a literal level.  It wasn’t long before my power didn’t reach the ground beneath me.

A little daunting, being so high when I was so new to flying.

But I was flying.  It was as close to unassisted flight as anything I could hope to experience.  I felt what he felt, his every movement was as much an extension of my will as moving my hands, blinking or controlling my breathing.

It was almost eerie, the quiet.  The buzz of signals and responses from my swarm grew as quiet as it had been since my powers manifested.  I had the capsaicin-laced bugs in my armor, a few hundred bugs stored in my utility compartment and shoulderpads, as well as the outside fabric of my costume.  I’d brought the relay bugs up into the air around me for safety, and directed everything else to find cover.  Compared to my dim awareness of the tens of thousands of bugs that I could feel from anywhere in the city, this was almost silence.

How long had I been relying on my bugs to provide sensory input?  Using my own eyes, I followed my teammates as they raced for cover.  I felt distracted, as if it was something I wanted to relegate to my bugs while I glanced over my surroundings for potential threats.

The plane wasn’t as fast as I’d thought it would be.  It appeared from the clouds and crossed the skyline a distance away, at an altitude not much higher than me.  It left a muted roar in its wake, and the payload of bombs.  Black specks, smaller than I would have guessed, but more numerous.  Fifty?  A hundred?  I couldn’t tell from my vantage point, and I doubted I could have made an accurate estimate.

The bombs were targeted at the parking lot where Jack and Bonesaw had been.  They detonated across the surrounding neighborhood, a carpet of explosions and flame that ripped through everything.  In a heartbeat, an area that had been drowning in stagnant water was lit up by fires that rose higher than the smallest buildings.

A wash of heated air hit me just moments after the bombs hit.  The effect on a flying creature was the same as a wave or a current in water.  It took all I had to keep from panicking, to maintain my concentration and control the giant beetle.  Rather than fight the turbulence, I rolled with it, letting it push and accepting the instability.  As it passed, I focused on righting myself and regaining my sense of orientation.

The bomb had hit close to where we’d been, but not so close that we would have been in the impact site.  That said, I wasn’t sure the heat -or the shockwave, if there was one- wouldn’t have done us in.

My phone rang.

“Frog R,” Tattletale’s voice greeted me.

“Leaf L,” I replied.  “We’re all okay?”

“All of us.  Amy’s here.”

“Any idea if that did anything to Jack and Bonesaw?  Or Crawler?”

“Crawler’s probably taken worse.  I can picture him crawling into an incinerator and sitting in there for long enough that he can take this.”

“The fire will have undone the silk bindings,” I said.

“Can you do it again?”

“Not here, not anytime soon.”

“Okay.”

“What are the odds that Bonesaw and Jack survived?”

“Too high.”

I stared down at the inferno.  The tallest fires had dwindled, but a carpet of fire covered everything for a five block radius.  Cars that had been mostly intact were charred hulks now, and the explosions had torn chunks out of buildings, or the flames hollowed out the interiors.  “How would he survive this?”

“How would you survive this?” she asked.  “Or- if you didn’t know precisely what was happening, where would you find the most secure cover?”

I thought back to the options I had considered.  “The sewer?  Or find a bank vault?  Not sure if the sewers or storm drains wouldn’t collapse, and the bank vault could easily become an oven.”

“Places to look, anyways.”

“We can’t get to them if they are there.”

“And they can’t get away, either.  Jack’s slippery, but he’s pinned down for the time being.  Just one second.”

I could hear other voices in the background.

A few seconds later, Tattletale was back on the phone, “Genesis is already making a body that can withstand the fire.  Sundancer thinks she can clear away some of the blaze by flash-burning the oxygen from the area and drawing the heat and flame into her sun.  If she can, it might give us some elbow room.”

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Scout.  See if there’s any clues about the opposition’s movements.  If you can’t figure anything out on that front, track Crawler from above.  They’ll have some agreed-upon place to meet, and he could lead us to the other four… you haven’t seen Legend?”

“No.”

“Then I’d bet he’s still chasing Siberian.  Or minimizing the damage she can do, anyways. He can’t hurt her, but she’s at a disadvantage as long as she has to carry that truck and protect the occupant.  Legend will know how to use that.”

“Right.”

“So Crawler will maybe lead us to the other three.”

“On it.”  I hung up.

I’d dealt with it against Lung, I’d dealt with it against Burnscar.  Fire was something of a problem when it came to using my power.

So few bugs were alive down there.  Some had retreated beneath the pavement, or into the lowermost parts of nearby buildings, but the heat and the hot air was killing them.  Some died quickly, others slow.  I was careful about how close I got, devoting extra attention to ensuring that the beetle didn’t perish or find himself unable to fly as the heat damaged his wings.

Amy had made him durable, but there was a limit to how far I wanted to push my luck when there was two hundred feet of open air between me and the ground, and a sea of fire waiting for any scenario where I managed to survive the impact.

It was a bit of a task, to focus on flying -there was no autopilot like there was with my other bugs- and to track the remaining bugs on the ground.  The sewers and storm drains were hot, but hospitable.  Navigation would be difficult for Jack and Bonesaw underground.  Between Leviathan’s active destruction of the storm drains and the more passive deterioration as they got clogged with rubble and debris and flooded, there were few spaces underground where the villains would be able to navigate.

Had they died?  It was possible, and I was swiftly eliminating areas where there was both a population of bugs and space for the Nine to hide.

Crawler- I could see him prowling the streets, soaking up the flame without a care.  He was headed in the general direction of the parking lot where the heroes were, taking his time, his movements languid.

The heroes were still frozen in time, I noted.  It was hard to make them out, as they’d been at the epicenter of the blast.  Ursa was fading away, and Weld-

Weld was fighting.

Cache and Clockblocker stood frozen in time as Weld defended them against a series of attacks.  The boy’s skin was glowing from the ambient heat, the fine wire strands of his hair melted into a single smooth layer.  He might have been rendered nude as the flames ate at his clothing and costume, but he wore the same fireproof suit as his teammates, the arms and upper body tied around the waist.

It was Mannequin.  Of all of them, he was the hardest to make out as he moved close to the ground, slipping between cars and through the flames to disappear from Weld’s sight. He had four arms, one set longer than the other, which combined with his jerky movements to give him an almost bug-like demeanor.

I watched as he paused at the rear of one car, crouching with his two sets of arms at the bumper, then unfolded explosively, steam or vapor billowing around him as he launched the car through the air.  It wasn’t much distance, only ten or so feet, but the car rolled and slammed into Weld, knocking the junior hero into his frozen teammates and pinning him there.

Weld pushed hard against the flaming hulk of the car, attempting to make room to free himself, but another car sailed through the air to land on top of Cache and Weld.

While Weld hacked at the cars, shearing through the undercarriage to make for pieces that were smaller to move, Mannequin began moving through the parking lot, pushing at more cars to get them closer to Weld and his teammates.  A minivan, a sedan, a pickup, pushed into Weld’s immediate surroundings.

There was no swagger, no monologue, nothing from Mannequin but the methodical execution of his simple plan.  He approached the front of the pickup, tore off the hood and grabbed the engine block with all four arms.  Again, the billowing vapor and that explosive strength, as he brought it over his head and down on top of the second car he’d thrown, stacking them two high.  He crouched beneath the sedan and prepared to launch it as he had with the first two cars.

Cache and Clockblocker wouldn’t be frozen forever.  It could be as short a time as thirty seconds.  If Cache or Clockblocker emerged from the effects of Clockblocker’s power, and there were two cars piled on top of them?  It would be grim.

Worse, Cache was storing a number of the other heroes in his personal dimension.  What would happen to them if he died?

They had to have anticipated the possibility of Crawler interfering before they all recovered, but Mannequin?  I was surprised he was able to function in the midst of this blaze.

I had to remind myself he was a specialist in hostile environments, and they didn’t get much more hostile than this.  He was a genius, a problem solver, and a survivor.  He was relentless, and as much as I’d managed to take the advantage in our previous confrontations, that was because he’d been out of his element, taking us on directly.

This was Mannequin’s specialty: attacking from the indirect angle, at the unexpected moment to target the weak.  He favored Tinkers both because they were often vulnerable if you caught them without their gear, and for his own neuroses.

Weld managed to push the car that was pinning him from the side.  Holding the stack of vehicles up over his head, he found a point where he could set his foot without the scorched frame collapsing and kicked the car away.

As he tried to figure out how to manage the pile of flaming cars that sat atop him and his teammates, Mannequin struck.  Like a piston, Mannequin slammed into him, thrusting him away, then danced back into the cover of the flames and smoke.  Weld slid on the pavement until he collided with a car, and the cars that he’d been supporting collapsed.  At least one fell so that Cache’s upper body speared through its undercarriage.  The top one tipped over and landed so it was propped up on a diagonal.

What could I do?  I didn’t have a long ranged weapon.  I didn’t trust my beetle’s ability to hold me and some heavy weight I could drop on Mannequin from above.

I turned around and headed for my companions.  I withdrew my cell phone.

“Need gear,” I told Tattletale.  “Mannequin’s attacking the heroes and Crawler’s approaching.”

“Got it.”

Sundancer’s orb appeared in the sky, flickered, and disappeared.  A flare.  I headed in that direction.

As Tattletale had said, Sundancer was using her orb to try to clear the way.  Grue was also using his darkness, oddly enough.  The others stood by, watching, arranged so they were watching all potential avenues of attack.

I landed, and I couldn’t get the beetle’s legs under him to brace our landing.  He hit his stomach, his legs squashing against his underside.

“What?” I hurried to get off him.  “Is he okay?”

“It’s a he?”  Tattletale asked.

Amy stepped forward a little, “Its legs work through something like hydraulics.  When it’s flying, it diverts those fluids to the flight system.  Do you know how hard it was to make that thing able to fly?  It’s not like I’ve practiced this sort of thing.”

“It’s fantastic,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.  Do you think you could work on making him a little bigger while I get prepared?  I can supply the bugs.”

“No.”

I was midway to turning towards Tattletale when Amy refused me.  “No?  If it’s the physical limitations of something that big, then maybe the nervous system, or if you could copy over some flight instincts so I don’t need to devote so much focus-”

“No, Skitter.  It’s not that I can’t.  I won’t.”

I turned back to Amy.

She shook her head, “This isn’t a luxury.  It’s not a present from me to you.  You said you needed some help escaping, you needed some mobility?  Fine.  This is it.”

“Right now, Mannequin and Crawler are attacking the Wards.  Your sister is with them.”

I could see her expression change at hearing that.

“She’s tough, she’ll be okay.”

“Not in this case.  She was stored away in some other dimension by Cache’s power.  If he dies before he gets her out-”

She paled.

“Idiot,” I muttered.  “Can’t waste any more time on you.”

Before she could reply, I turned to my teammates, “I need bombs.  Grenades, something I can drop from above and do some damage.”

“Here,” Ballistic said.  He undid one of his belts and handed it to me.  Six grenades were placed around it.  It was too wide for my waist, so I hung it around my neck instead.

Amy stepped forward and put her hands on my bug.  I went out of my way to ignore her.

“Take this,” Trickster said.  He drew a small handgun and handed it to me.  He pointed as he explained.  “Ten rounds.  Thumb safety.  Grip safety.  It’s my spare.”

It was heavier than it looked.  There was also a weight to it that had more to do with what the gun meant.  I stuck it through one of the loops in my utility compartment that I hadn’t used since I started out, then double checked it was firmly in place.  “Thanks.”

I turned and climbed on top of the beetle.

“Can’t make any promises, but flying should require less of your attention,” Amy said.

“Okay,” I said.

“So you focus on helping my sister.”

“I’ll help anyone that needs it,” I said.  With one false start, I managed to take off.  I stayed low to the ground for as long as I could, to try to judge what Amy had done to the beetle.

There was some underlying logic, but it wasn’t the same sort of instinctual behavior I was used to.  As far as I could tell, she had set him up to continue whatever I’d last instructed him to do, so I didn’t need to maintain focus to keep him going.

I frowned and suppressed that instinct.  As it stood, it was dangerous.  If he was flying and I got knocked out, he might keep flying.  The same might apply if I was turning, or adjusting to compensate for my weight and got distracted partway through.

No, after testing it I didn’t like how slippery it made the navigation feel.  I’d only use it on a case-by-case basis.  Besides, it was something I could do with my power anyways, with greater effect and nuance.  I’d been knocked out once, and my power had continued directing insects by my last given order.

Irritating.

I hurried back to the scene of the fight.  Clockblocker’s power lasted anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes.  Weld had been on the defensive when I’d left, and the Wards were relying on pure chance to determine if they’d make it out of this okay.

I could hear the fight before I could make anything out through the smoke.  The fires were still burning, but most seemed to have burned through whatever fuel sources they’d found. Beyond what was in the bombs themselves, anyways.

It was probably dangerous to be taking in too much smoke, both for me and for the beetle, but I had to be close.

There were crunching sounds and the noise of metal striking metal.  I directed the beetle around one particularly thick cloud of black smoke and saw Weld hacking the cars to pieces, his arms a pair of oversized blades.  Mannequin threw a car at him, and Weld lunged forward to slam it down into the ground with both hands.  Mannequin used the opening to leap forward, his feet momentarily resting on Weld’s shoulders, before he hopped down to the ground.  Spools of chain unfolded in Mannequin’s wake, and he bound Weld, dragging him away from his allies.

Weld had undone much of Mannequin’s setup, but there was still one flaming truck leaning against Cache.  It was heavy enough to crush Legend’s teammate beneath it if Clockblocker wasn’t quick enough to reach out and freeze it.

Carefully, I positioned myself, noted the wind, and then grabbed a grenade from the sash that hung around my neck.

I really shouldn’t be using this without any training, I thought.

I pulled the pin free, then dropped it straight down.

Wind carried the grenade further than I expected.  It landed somewhere a few feet behind Cache, rolled, then detonated.  The car that had been propped up against Cache was thrown off, rolling onto its roof.  The other debris scattered.

I felt a wave of relief that I hadn’t managed to hit them with the grenade just as they came out of stasis.

Mannequin backed away from Weld to stare up at me.  Weld, for his part, had absorbed the metal of the chains and disconnected the excess from his body.  When he reshaped his hands into weapons, it was faster than I’d seen him do it during our attack on the PRT headquarters.

Weld gave me a salute, using a knife-hand that was as long as he was tall.

We went on the offense, going after Mannequin.  I used two more grenades to drive him out of cover and to stop him from flinging any more cars at the heroes, while Weld maintained the pressure by constantly closing in.

Both Weld and Mannequin had seemingly unlimited physical reserves.  Both had equipment they could spring from nowhere – Mannequin had his concealed equipment and weapons, Weld had his crude shapeshifting abilities.

That wasn’t to say they were evenly matched.

Mannequin could have hit Weld with everything he had, and I doubted he would have even slowed Weld down.  The opposite wasn’t so true – I suspected that one solid blow from Weld would leave Mannequin a wreck.

The problem was that even though Weld was strong, he was heavy, and this put him somewhere near the upper limits of what you’d expect an athlete to be able to perform.  Mannequin, by contrast, was faster than any olympic runner, more agile than any gymnast.  He could contort and slide through the space beneath a car, change directions on a dime, and that was without getting into the other advantages he brought to the table.  I suspected he could see through the fire and smoke, and where Weld’s shapeshifting was largely limited to hitting stuff, Mannequin could use his arms like grappling hooks to cover more ground and keep his distance.

If we had any advantage, it was that we were buying time.  Mannequin couldn’t stop to throw vehicles at the frozen heroes.

The counterpoint to that was that Crawler had heard the commotion and was approaching.  He shifted from a walk to a head-on charge as he got a block away.

“Crawler!”  I shouted the words at full volume.  Weld snapped his head up to look at me, and I extended one arm out to inform him on the direction.

The problem was that Mannequin could hear too.  He shifted positions and prepared to heave another car at the heroes.

I pulled the pin on another grenade and lobbed it in Mannequin’s direction.

Call it chemistry, rhythm, or just the nuances one picked up after fighting alongside someone else, there was a flow to working with a member of your team, a way I could trust others to have my back and vice versa.  Weld and I didn’t have that.  It was my understanding, my assumption, that the bruiser would take on the heaviest hitter on the opposing side, and the others in the team would focus their efforts on the secondary threats with using utility and technique.  It was how the Undersiders tended to handle matters.

Weld… I don’t know what his assumption was, but maybe he was used to having people like Clockblocker and Vista handle the most threatening and problematic enemies, while he threw himself at the enemy ranks and drew the secondary fire.  Maybe they were even tactics he’d been drilled on with his previous team.  Maybe he was too focused on protecting his teammates from Mannequin and didn’t trust me to handle it.

I didn’t know what his reasons were, but Weld turned toward Mannequin in the same moment the grenade left my hand.

It was disastrous on two levels.  Whatever surprise I’d hoped to retain was lost when I was forced to shout out, “Grenade!”

Mannequin abandoned his hold on the car as he leaped to one side to get clear well before it exploded.  Weld, too, managed to stay out of the way, stopping in his tracks.

Crawler came tearing through the blazing parking booth and blindsided Weld.  In terms of raw power, the junior hero might as well have been a powerless human for all the defense he could muster.  Crawler’s claws tore into him, revealing bones in silver, organs in copper and gold.

Two grenades left.  I threw one down at them.  Mannequin backed away, and Crawler, though his head was directed at Weld, rose up onto his two hind legs and batted at the grenade with Weld’s body.

The explosive went off a second after the impact, and Weld was thrown free of Crawler’s grip.  I saw him stagger to his feet, his wounds closing as he shapeshifted them.  He couldn’t do much about the material that had been raked off of him.

This wasn’t going well.

Mannequin made a gesture at Crawler, fingertips of two hands all touching, pressed to his ‘mouth’, then he pulled his hands away, splaying his fingers.  Crawler cocked his head and Mannequin pointed at the frozen heroes.  I heard Crawler rumble with guttural laughter.

No.

What could I do?  I was a bystander here, effectively powerless, but for my beetle.  I had the gun, but it wouldn’t do anything to Crawler and I didn’t trust myself to hit Mannequin at this range.  I had a single grenade, and I knew that wouldn’t even make Crawler flinch.

Crawler spat a caustic spray onto Cache and Clockblocker.  I could see the mucus fizz and pop from my vantage point high above.

If I used a grenade, could I clear it away?  Or was it too viscous?  Would I be losing something I couldn’t afford to throw away?

I didn’t get a chance to see.  Cache came to life.

I couldn’t even imagine what went through his mind.  He went from disengaging from a fight with Jack and Bonesaw in a flooded parking lot to facing down Crawler and Mannequin in the middle of a sea of fire.

Maybe he’d anticipated that, but he couldn’t have anticipated the acid spittle.  Holes began to appear in the fabric of his fireproof costume.

He managed to maintain his composure- I had no idea how.  I couldn’t imagine how it must have felt to be down there, feeling the heat and smoke coming in through the widening holes in the fabric.  He began using his power, calling up the shadowy geometry that would deposit the heroes onto the battlefield.

The two members of the Nine, it seemed, didn’t intend to give him the chance.  Both charged for the hero.

This time, at least, Weld took on the heavy hitter.  He leaped at Crawler from the side, his hand becoming needle-fine as he plunged it into one of Crawler’s largest eye sockets.  I knew that Crawler could dodge Ballistic’s hits.  He must have seen Weld coming and simply not cared.  The needle barely penetrated Crawler’s eye, but Weld used the leverage to wrap himself around Crawler’s face.

I drew the gun and leveled it at Mannequin’s back.  He was running in a straight line, I remembered to click the thumb safety, squeezing the handle with both hands to get the grip safety on the back of the gun, and put him in the crosshairs, leading just a bit.  I could remember the tip you always heard in the movies.  Squeeze, don’t pull.  Exhale as you squeeze…

Visions of the dead Mannequin had left in my district flashed through my mind’s eye.  The paramedics, the bitchy old doctor, the people he’d gassed.  My people.

I could feel the recoil jolt its way through my arms to rattle my body at its core.

Mannequin fell.

How the hell did I manage that?  Between the recoil and the shock of what I’d just managed, it was all I could do to stay seated.

I aimed and fired again at his prone form, the shot going off just before he rolled to his feet.  I couldn’t make out if I hit or not.

Crawler was distracted just long enough for Cache to bring out the first heroes.  Glory Girl, Prism, Miss Militia, Triumph…

Weld tumbled to the ground, and switched targets to the retreating Mannequin.  Maybe he’d coordinated something with the others.  I couldn’t say.  Glory Girl, in her all-concealing fireproof suit, certainly seemed ready to serve as the frontline defense.

I was so busy tracking Mannequin, looking for an opportunity to shoot him again, that I nearly missed what happened next.

Crawler got close enough for Glory Girl to swing a punch.  She took the bait and swung, then twisted in mid-air to deliver a kick.  He pulled just out of reach of both hits, then opened his mouth to retch spittle and bile all over her.

It had the same effect on her costume that it did on Cache, only far, far faster.  In moments, she was down to the skin-tight costume she wore beneath her white and gold dress, her forcefield protecting her.

I pulled a grenade free.  Maybe it could distract him long enough for her to-

Crawler surged forward, slamming his head into her.  Like a spiked volleyball, she slammed hard into the ground.

I could see her skin turning red, then black, where the spittle had covered it.  Flesh melted away to reveal muscle, then the acidic vomit began to eat away at that.  She screamed, frantic, thrashing, oblivious to the flaming patches of ground that she was rolling into.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates told me they weren’t close.  Glory Girl and Cache were down and needed immediate medical attention – Cache had managed to call in the rest of the Protectorate and the remaining Wards, but he’d collapsed into the arms of one of the adults.

Crawler paced forward with an almost anticipatory slowness.  I could make out his tongue, licking around his lips.

This was going south fast, and I wasn’t sure what I could even do.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.4

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“Me?”  Tattletale quirked an eyebrow.

“Sure,” Chariot said.  Just behind and to one side of him, Glory Girl was glaring at Tattletale.  She looked like she was ready to hit people.  It was the kind of latent hostility I was used to seeing in Bitch.

“Not terribly fair to my teammates, if it’s just a one-on-one conversation.”

“Are you going to take this or not?” Chariot asked, his hand still extended in her direction.

“No real point,” Tattletale shrugged.  She tucked her hair behind her ear and turned her head.  “Already have one.”

Battery stepped forward, glancing over at our team, “This one is already set to the encrypted channel, it’s faster if-”

Tattletale interrupted, “Uplink three-three-five, encryption forty-two mod three-four-two-one-zero-zero-six-six-three-one-zero-”

“You have access to our channel,” Battery growled, interrupting Tattletale’s spiel of numbers.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Have for a while now.”

Battery raised one hand to her ear.

“Yeah, Battery,” Tattletale grinned, “Let’s do as the Director says and get down to business.”

Battery drew a phone from her belt and tapped her fingers on the keypad for a moment.  She gave Tattletale a dark look as she held the phone out.

A woman’s voice said, “Not like you to tip your hand, Tattletale.”

“Director.  Are we really going to pretend you didn’t know I was listening in?  You’ve been putting out misleading details to screw with my information gathering.  Done quite a good job of it, if I may say so myself.  Very subtle, all of it just right enough that even I was thrown off.  Couldn’t trust much of it.”

“Thank you.”

“And you did catch me off guard here.  I didn’t expect you to contact me.”

“You’ve been busy, your groups.  Fighting Burnscar in the Docks, I gather that didn’t go so well,” the Director said, pausing.

I didn’t even want to think about that.  I hadn’t been back to check on my people or my territory since then.  We had been busy.

“Then you ambush the Nine, capturing two, one of whom you enslaved, but you lose one of your own in the process.  You mount a rescue attempt.  I take it that you were successful?”

“Grue’s here,” Battery informed her.  “But he looks different.”

“So they were successful.  And now we find the Undersiders mounting a pincer attack, with this group targeting Siberian?  I suspect you’re crossing the threshold of fearlessness and entering into foolishness.”

That last comment nettled me.  I spoke up, “The Nine don’t really leave you alone once you’ve scored a win.  We had to seize our advantage.”

“I see.”

“And she has a weakness.  Siberian, I mean,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell?”

“She’s a projection.  Like Genesis is, as I’m sure you’re aware.  Like Crusader’s duplicates.  A quirk in reality that draws from her creator’s brain to create a body complete with all the physiological substructure.  Which is largely for aesthetic effect, and I’d guess it gives her real self something the brain is familiar with controlling anyways.”

“And the controller is vulnerable?”  There was a note of interest in the Director’s voice.

“Particularly vulnerable.  She can’t extend her invincibility over her real body.”

“I’m not sure I believe this.  The Nine would have discovered this and I doubt the baser members could resist taking advantage of such a weakness.”

“The power has range.  I suspect the creator can stay miles away and still manage some control, but ventures closer for voyeuristic purposes or because it offers more control and faster response times.”

“Much like Regent, hmm?”

Tattletale paused.  “So you know that.”

From the tone of the conversation, I would have expected a ‘No, you just told me.‘, but Tattletale wouldn’t have done that.  More likely that her power confirmed her thoughts.

“Shadow Stalker debriefed us.  What do we know about this woman who controls-”

“Man.  The person who projects Siberian is male.  But he creates a female body.  I think it’s tied into his trigger event.  Someone he lost.  If I had to guess, he sought revenge for her, but something happened.  A side effect of the power, or just a seriously unhinged mental state… he lost it.”

“I see.  Thank you for the information.  Unfortunately none of those possibilities are narrow enough that we can use them to track him down.”

“Not in the short-term.  In the long-term-”

“I don’t intend for there to be a long-term, Tattletale.  This ends today.”

Tattletale paused.  “What did you do?”

“Hmm?”

“You’re planning something.  Something you’re wanting to keep a secret, and it’s big.”

“Tattletale, you’ve been observing and gathering information on the PRT for some time now.  Do you think I’m a stupid woman?”

Stupid?  No.  Genius?  No.”

There was the sound of a dry laugh from the other end of the phone.  “No, I admit that’s true.  But I’d like to think I’m resourceful.  I’m fighting in a ring where my opponents are bigger, stronger, smarter, faster and better equipped than I am, and the cost of failure on my end is far greater than it is for any of you.  You understand?  I’m competent, and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to pull the wool over your eyes.”

“So?”

“No secrets.  I’d planned to bait you here with the same subtle offers of information you praised me for earlier, but you’re here anyways, so I’ll tell you what I’m planning.  In a matter of minutes, we firebomb the area where the main group of the Nine are situated.”

“That’s insane,” I spoke.

“Was that Skitter?”

“Yeah,” Battery replied.

“It’s necessary, Skitter,” the Director told me.

“It’s breaking the rules between capes.  The same rules that hold things together in an Endbringer event.  We’re fighting a common enemy.”

“True, but not the full story.  We made no agreement of cooperation, and so there can be no betrayal here.”

“My teammates are there, fighting the Nine, and they’re doing it for this city.  You’d be punishing them for that.”

“Legend did warn them that they shouldn’t.  He was told to, I quote, ‘suck shit’.”

That would be BitchOr maybe ImpProbably Bitch.

Tattletale quirked an eyebrow, “Did he specifically tell them they shouldn’t because you’re bombing the neighborhood?”

“Would you believe me if I said he didn’t get the chance?”

“I’d say fifty percent of it is that he didn’t get the chance, and fifty percent is that he didn’t try that hard.”

The Director offered a noncommittal ‘mm hmm’ in reply.

“And you’re telling us this because?”

“Because we’ve studied you.  We know what you prioritize, and I believe that you’ll enter the fray to save your teammates.”

“Or we could phone them.”

“Do you want to try?”

Tattletale glanced at me and Grue.  “No point, I guess.  You’re blocking unofficial communications in the area.”

“Yes.  We have to hamper communication between the Nine if we want to catch them off guard.  You understand.”

“I do, and that’s totally the entire reason you’re doing that,” Tattletale said.  She glanced over in the direction of the fighting.  “How long before the area is bombed?”

“Can’t say.  On the record, as with your teammates, we’re forbidding you from entering the area, but I expect you’re doing so anyways.  Against my recommendation.”

“Absolved of blame,” Grue spoke.  His voice was tight, his body tense.

The Director ignored him.  “The moment I heard you were in the picture, I told my subordinates to change the time.  They’ll inform me about the new time of attack as soon as I’ve hung up.  It’s not a perfect solution, but perhaps your actions from this point will reveal something about your power and its limitations.  But please understand that we just can’t risk that you’ll inform the Slaughterhouse Nine about the scheduled attack.”

“And there’s a chance we’ll be collateral damage, out of the picture and out of your hair after the Nine are gone.”

“How sad, that you see monsters where none exist.”

“Right.”

“It was nice to finally talk with you, Tattletale.  You should go help your teammates, if you’re going to.”

“Fuck you, Piggot.”

There was no response, and Battery deemed the conversation over, putting away the phone.

In the brief period of silence that followed, while we got ourselves ready, a voice broke through, “Victoria-”

“Don’t,” Glory Girl snapped.  “I didn’t tell anyone what you did, but that’s the last nice thing I’m going to do for you, understand?  We’re not teammates.  We’re not sisters.  We’re not friends.”

“I’m sorry, Amy,” Tattletale said, “But we’ve got to go.”

We were moving a minute later, leaving the squad of heroes behind.  Looking over my shoulder, I could see them getting in formation, clustering around Cache, who was regaining consciousness.  Only Glory Girl stood apart, her arms folded.

Wasn’t quite sure about the story there, but I was getting a sense of it.

I could feel Amy tapping my arm.

“What?” I had to raise my voice to be heard.

“Drop me off,” she spoke into my ear.

It took a few seconds to get the message to Grue and come to a complete stop.  Tattletale stopped Bentley a hundred feet ahead.  Trickster and Sundancer looked back with mild curiosity.  Their costumes didn’t reveal much about their expressions.

“Not thinking straight,” Amy said, “Not enough to go into a situation like this.  Don’t want to get bombed.  Um.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Still willing to help?”

She nodded.

“I’m going to send you the bugs I can’t use.  If you want to make more bugs that can relay my signal, that’d be great.  If you can think of something else… I need firepower.”

“And we’re going to be short on mobility if we need to make a run for it,” Grue said.  “Too many of us for two dogs that can carry people, unless we’re lucky and Genesis picked a form that works.”

We’d sent Regent’s group out with Shatterbird, Imp and Ballistic, with the idea that Genesis would meet them there.  They’d taken one of Coil’s trucks, since Bastard wasn’t old enough, big enough or trained enough to carry a rider.

“What am I supposed to make?”

“Figure it out, Amy.  If you can’t think of anything, the relay bugs are excellent.  Really.”

“Okay.”  She let me help her down.

“Skitter,”  Tattletale called out, “We should be close enough.  Want to pass them a message?”

I nodded.  I had six of the relay bugs, and it took only a minute to set them up so they formed a chain, extending my reach for an additional six city blocks in one direction.  Eight and a half in total.

I swept them outward, and the one at the furthest point lagged behind.  Still, it gave me the opportunity to cover a wide area.  Bugs mobilized throughout, and I began funneling the less offensive ones back toward Amy.  No-see-ums, earthworms, caterpillars and roughly half of the houseflies in the area began filtering back.  I maintained some of the dragonflies and other mobile bugs for the sake of getting a feel for the area.

I could sense Regent’s group, running to cover.  Ballistic was bombarding Crawler, relying on the impacts to drive the brute back.  Crawler was fast -and he was agile, with preternatural reflexes- but Ballistic was unloading on him with projectiles that moved faster than sound.  Crawler dodged only two in three, and Ballistic followed up on any successful hits with a series of shots to pound Crawler into the nearest available surface and pin him there.  Genesis had formed a body that was winged.  It resembled a pterodactyl with arms, a griffon or something in that vein.  She was making an effort to drop large chunks of rubble onto Crawler.  He was strong enough that it barely slowed him down, but time he spent hauling a section of wall off of himself was time for Ballistic to get his hands on material for another shot.  Shatterbird offered support with a constant hail of glass to harry Crawler and keep him from finding traction on the pavement.

Jack, Bonesaw, Mannequin… I found the former two in a parking lot.  My bugs sensed what I judged were Bonesaw’s mechanical spiders, tearing cars apart and converting the components into more spiders.  There was a group of people with her, shuffling behind them.

Mannequin was MIA.  That was bothersome.  He was able to detect and avoid my bugs, which meant he was a factor I had to keep in the back of my mind.

“Found them, except for Mannequin.  Amy?  Be careful.  I don’t know if Jack’s team is going to break the rules they set, but Mannequin could come after you.”

I was so used to dealing with my teammates, people who were experienced in this sort of thing, that I hadn’t expected much more than confirmation.  She looked legitimately scared at the prospect.

“Here,” I directed a ladybug into my palm and extended it towards her.  “Crush it, and I’ll come.  Or transmit some signal with my power.  You have my backup, understand?”

“Okay.”  She took it, but she didn’t look reassured.  The first bugs were flowing into her cupped hands.  I could feel nervous systems intermingling, two bugs becoming one, and that strange hollowness that told me I didn’t have a complete grasp on how they functioned, that there was a part of them that was beyond the reach of my power.

I drew out words with my bugs, on a surface of wall where Regent would be able to see.  ‘Evacuate.’

He ran his fingers through the bugs.  After a moment’s thought, I gathered them into a square, organized by rank and file.  It took me two tries, but I managed to make them move to form letters, then regroup.

He dragged his fingertip through the bugs to spell out a reply.  ‘Can’t.  We run we can’t keep crawler down’.

‘We’re coming,’ I wrote to him.

“Let’s go!”  I called out.  Tattletale turned in her seat and kicked Bentley to get him going.  Grue did the same for Sirius.

Having gathered as many bugs as I could, I drew my relay bugs back and spaced them around the perimeter of my own range, effectively extending it by a block in every direction.

“Have to stall Crawler long enough to make a run for it!”  I shouted.

“Have to do it in the next eight minutes!”  Tattletale called out.  Grue was getting Sirius to keep pace with Bentley, who was brawnier and slower.

“Bomb hits then?”

“Sometime after then.  Could be eight minutes and ten seconds, could be fifteen minutes!”

I swore under my breath.  Eight minutes made for a deceptively small amount of time.

The heroes were gathered.  I couldn’t set them apart.  With few exceptions, they each wore an identical costume with full body coverage.  There were subtle differences in height  and body shape, which let me identify the people at the extreme ends of the physical spectrum: Vista, who was the smallest, and Triumph, the most musclebound.  Weld wasn’t in the concealing costume, presumably to retain more of his shapeshifting capability.

Vista, Clockblocker, Weld, Flechette, Triumph, Miss Militia, Assault… Glory Girl, Battery, Cache and the ghostly bear were joining them.  That left two more I couldn’t place.  They moved in formation.

Might as well do what I could to help.  I drew out arrows and words on the ground, with names by each arrow to point them to Jack, Bonesaw and Crawler.  With the arrow length, I tried to indicate how far the distance was to each of the enemies in question.

They spent about ten seconds discussing it, then broke into a run, going for Jack and Bonesaw.  Good.

We reached the scene of the ongoing fight with Crawler.  Sundancer was off the dog and on the ground the second we could see him, creating her orb and increasing its size.  She was fireproof, but she didn’t have the ability to grant that benefit to others.  Once she was standing, the orb was free to grow.

There wasn’t much my bugs could do.  They settled on Crawler and found his flesh impenetrable.  I began preparing web nets, drawing lines of silk between my airborne bugs.  Amy’s relay bugs had afforded me the chance to pick up far more bugs than I otherwise might have.  My attention flickered over my swarm.

Nearly a million spiders.  They were only a relatively small percentage of the swarm itself.  I had more ants, termites, flies, aphids, gnats and beetles to form the bulk of my army.

I sent the more useless ones toward Amy.  Not so many that I overwhelmed her, but enough that she always had more at hand.

He’s big, he’s strong, he’s ridiculously tough, but he’s no Leviathan.

My spiders began weaving their threads into braids, the flying bugs directing them in and through loops of silk as the threads spooled out.  Where bugs couldn’t hover, they directed their flight into tight corkscrews to slow themselves.

I wondered if this was the most bugs I’d ever controlled.  The buzz of my power thrummed through me to the point that I was barely aware of myself and where I was standing.  It wasn’t just the number of  bugs, but the number of instructions.  Spiders were spooling thread, organizing by the amounts they had remaining.  Flying bugs were gathering in formations, carrying the slower bugs forward and maneuvering the spiders to spin webs.  Smaller bugs, the useless ones, I directed to Amy and formed into dozens of decoys.  Millions of instructions a second.

Estimates said that insects outnumbered people by two hundred million to one in worldwide population.  Part of that distribution was biased toward rainforests and other areas humans left uninhabited.

At the end of the day, that was just insects, and there were more creatures under my sway than the six-legged variety.  I could feel them in the earth, in the walls, beneath the pavement, even.  Even from the weeks after I’d left the hospital, I’d dismissed them as background noise, just sources to draw from in amassing my swarms.

Now, it felt different.  My range was extended, and it wasn’t because I was distracted, cornered, trapped.  As Crawler noticed us and shifted his position to keep us all in line of sight with his innumerable eyes, I had a few moments to think, to experience my power at its best.

We were so small.  Even in the scope of a single neighborhood, my power extending for roughly a thousand feet in every direction, it made us all seem tiny.  Even Crawler.

“Don’t use your orb on him,” Tattletale cautioned.  “Won’t do us any favors, and it’ll only make him stronger for the future.”

“Then what should I do?”

“There’s no civilians here.  Legend and the others have evacuated.”  I told her.  “The buildings are empty.

She nodded, apparently grasping my meaning.

“You go high, ‘Dancer, I go low?” Grue asked.

She nodded.

I held back as they advanced, ready to make their move.  Ballistic caught Crawler with a projectile, and the monster went sliding.  Shatterbird hit him with a wave of glass to keep him down, and Genesis swooped down to smash him over the head with the wreckage of a small car.

It did surprisingly little to keep him down.

Grue and Sundancer made their moves, Grue swamping Crawler in darkness while Sundancer brought her orb around into the face of the building.  With her miniature sun, she sheared through the concrete and metal, zig-zagging the orb through one floor.

The supports obliterated or melted, the building crashed down to the street with enough force that the rolling cloud of dust and was enough to drive us back.

He had to weigh several tons, but the building had him beat in that regard.

We hurried to gather.  Genesis landed.

“One minute, forty-five seconds,” Tattletale said, “More if we’re lucky.”

“Until?”  Regent asked.

“They’re bombing the area,” I explained.

Tattletale, Sundancer and Trickster found seats on Bentley’s back.  Bitch climbed up behind me.  Imp materialized, for lack of a better word, dropping the effect of her power.  That left her and Ballistic.

“Three people, two fliers?” Tattletale asked.

“Can carry one,” Regent said.  “Too tired to carry more.”  Shatterbird landed and wrapped her arms around him.

“I can try to carry the others,” Genesis’s voice sounded very normal considering her gargoyle-like face.  Bitch handed her a length of chain.

“One minute and fifteen seconds.  Not sure if it’s paranoia or my power, but I think the bomb’s going to hit closer to the deadline than not.”

Genesis gathered the chain into a loop.  As Imp and Ballistic found their seats and Genesis made motions to take off, there was the sound of shifting rubble.

“Damn it!”  Grue swore.  “Go!  Go!’

One minute, give or take.

We ran.  There was the sound of more rubble shifting out of place, and then a guttural laughter.  It sounded more like it came from multiple gargantuan people laughing in sync than it did from the one monster.

“More!”  His voice was even more unnatural, a jumble of individual sounds that only barely came together into something like a word.  Not so different from when I spoke through my swarm.  “Fight me!”

The impacts of heavy footfalls were audible as Crawler broke into a run, giving chase.  They were even tactile.  He was more than a hundred feet behind us, but I could feel his impacts shake Sirius.

As my bugs struggled to catch up, my swarm sense felt Crawler stop, rearing up on his two hindmost legs.  He caught at one corner of a building and tore, twisting his body to throw a chunk of brick.

“Look out!”  I shouted.

My words were too slow.  The rock collided with Genesis, catching one wing.  She collapsed to the ground, and both Ballistic and Imp fell the fifteen or so feet to the ground.  Imp shrieked as she landed.

No.

Crawler’s pause to grab concrete had bought me time to get my bugs into position.  They swept over Crawler, laying down braided ropes of silk joined by adhesive lines and thin gossamer.  Even caterpillars began offering their assistance, using the silk they produced for cocoons.

He was a big guy, but it was a lot of silk.

I could see how it hampered his movements.  There was even something approximating surprise on his face as he dropped down so all six legs were firmly on the ground, and his forelimbs didn’t extend as far as he’d expected.  He tried to run and found himself hampered further.

Crawler sported two or three tons of physical prowess, and his power had fine tuned him into a physical specimen like few others.  My bugs had millions of years of evolution to refine the quality of their silk and their ability to produce it.

For now, at the very least, I had the advantage.

“Genesis, can you run?”

Fuck.  No,” Genesis spoke.  “Made these claws for grabbing.”

True enough, her forelimbs and rear limbs were more like clawed hands than feet or hooves.

“Imp, Ballistic, run!”

It wasn’t enough.  We had too much distance to cover before we could be sure of our safety.  Or of Imp and Ballistic’s safety, anyways.  Even with another two minutes, or another five- well, people weren’t that fast as a rule, and neither Imp nor Ballistic were runners.  It looked like Imp had hurt herself in the fall.

“Tattletale!”  I shouted.  “Take Imp!  Bentley’s strong enough to take four!”

“Got it!”  She cried, steering Bentley around and their group scooped up Imp, pulling her up onto Tattletale’s lap.  Four people, but three of them were girls in good shape.

Sirius wasn’t as strong, and Grue was heavy, Bitch wasn’t exactly slight, and Ballistic was built like a football player.  Between the four of us, I doubted Sirius had it in him.  Not if we wanted to move fast.

“Grue!”  I called out.

“Don’t you fucking dare!”  He turned his head around.

I disentangled from Bitch’s grip, avoided Grue’s clutching hand and slid to the ground.  I didn’t land with both feet under me, so I tipped over and rolled.

“Ballistic, take my seat!”  I shouted, as I got my feet under me.  I glanced behind me at Crawler and broke into a run.

“Skitter!”  Grue barked the word.

“Just go!  I have a plan!”

Easier to lie when I was shouting, my face hidden.

They picked up Ballistic and bolted.

I was left behind in moments.

“Run, little girl!”  Crawler’s broken voice carried, a rumble so low I could feel it.  “I’ll get free!  I’ll catch you!  I’ll hold you down and lick your skin until it melts!  I’ll pluck your eyes out with the tip of my tongue!  I have your scent and you cannot ever stop me!  You cannot ever escape!”

Even the practiced motions of running couldn’t take the edge off.  Running had been my reprieve for so long, my escape long before I’d had costumes and the distractions of everything that was involved there.  It wasn’t doing anything to help the panic that was taking hold of me.

I wracked my mind for something, anything that might serve as an option.  Sewer?  Could I get down into the sewer or storm drain?

It was a possibility, though with the structural integrity of the city being what it was, it could just as easily be suicidal.

My bugs.  Could I lift myself up the same way I’d lifted up the small tools?  More silk, millions more bugs?

I couldn’t take the chance it wouldn’t work.

The one minute mark had surely passed.  I was on borrowed time, now, trusting my fate to luck.

Could Genesis form a new body in time?  It took her minutes, and I didn’t have that time to spare.  She would have to find me, too.

No.  Genesis couldn’t help.

And the heroes?  I searched in the direction of Jack and Bonesaw.  The heroes were fending off a group of people.  The group was larger than it had been the last time my focus was on them.  She was recruiting civilians?

The heroes were falling back, gathering in formation.  Cache was using his power, if I was judging right.  I felt some of my bugs disappear from existence as he used his power on members of his team.  Putting them in some extradimensional compartment.  The others around him, one member of the Wards, Ursa and Weld.

The good guys were preparing for an imminent bombing run.  Jack and Bonesaw were making a run for it, too.  They’d sensed something was wrong from the way the heroes were acting.

Their chances were about as good as mine.

Amy.  She was turning to run.  The others crossed her path, shouted a warning.

She used her power on the bug she was touching, making a final, haphazard connection.

My grip over the relay bugs had been tenuous.  This wasn’t much better.  One bug, and I couldn’t sense enough about it.  I didn’t have that innate grasp of its biology, of how it operated, or the instincts that drove it.

It would have to do.

I chanced a look over my shoulder and regretted it.  Crawler was bound tighter than ever, caught by my bugs, but the look threw me off-balance.  I stumbled, nearly falling over.

I managed to keep my feet under me, righting myself, but the movement of my leg made me aware of the strain.

Come on, come on.

We met each other halfway.  Listening to my power, it turned in midair, so its back was to me.  It skidded on the ground.

Six and a half feet long, five feet across and five feet tall.  A giant beetle.  It looked like she had used a Hercules beetle as a starting point, but built it broader, with larger, longer legs and two forelimbs with what looked like praying mantis style blades.  Sporting a black shell that looked almost ragged, the tips a gray-white, it also featured a single large horn that curved overhand, pointing down at the ground.

“Please,” I prayed.  I swung one leg over its thorax and gripped the horn.  It was an awkward posture, making me feel like I’d fall forward and face-plant on the ground with the slightest excuse.  “Come on.”

It ran on the ground, slower than me.  Its shell parted behind me, revealing an overlarge, complicated set of wings.  They began to beat, thrumming with sixty or seventy flaps a second, powered by an efficient machine of what I took to be a combination of biological hydraulics and musculature.

“Come on,” I begged it.

I felt it begin to lift.  I even pushed with my toes, as if that could give it what it needed.

We accelerated, my hair whipping behind me as we gained a dramatic boost in speed.  But our trajectory was almost directly forward, not up.  I kicked at the ground as we landed, as if that could lift us into the air.  It wasn’t working.

It dawned on me why.

My bugs normally had ingrained knowledge of how to function.  This was a new lifeform.  It had all the necessary parts.  Amy had probably scaled everything up, given it every advantage in design I could want, counteracting all the problems that came with being proportionately larger.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t know how to fly.

I used my power to control every movement.  I felt it accelerate again, and tilted our orientation.  I felt myself shift slightly as I found myself almost directly on top, my legs gripping the underside of his thorax, and I overcompensated.  We both crashed to the ground.  A ten or twelve foot drop for me.  My armor absorbed the worst of the impact, but I felt my forehead hit pavement.  I always thought of the concussion I’d suffered whenever I took a blow to the head.

“Come on!”  I growled the words, scrambling to my feet.  “Don’t be hurt, don’t be hurt.”

He was okay.  I could examine him with my power, I just couldn’t comprehend him in the same natural, instinctive manner.  It took attention, focus.  With my direction, he used a flutter of his wings and the points of his scythe-tipped claws to flip over so he was ready as I reached him.  I mounted him and tried again.  We repeated the takeoff process, faster this time.

We lifted off on the first try.  I controlled my breathing, focused my attention on him, tried to avoid that same reflexive compensation that came with a shift of my balance.

When I account for the wing compartments and the amount of space that the wings take up at the back of the shell, He’s not much bigger than a motorcycle.

Relating him to a motorcycle helped, giving me the confidence to lean gently into the turns he needed to make in shifting with the air currents.

A laugh bubbled out from between my lips, one part hysteria to two parts relief and three parts exhilaration.  I was higher up than some six-story buildings and I’d barely realized it.

Amy had heard what Grue said about our possible shortage of transportation and my lack of firepower.  She’d supplied something to serve in the time allotted, with the resources I’d provided.  She’d put this together in minutes.

Growing confident in the mechanics of flying, I swooped us down.  We were faster than the others on the ground, and we passed them with ease.  I loosened my deathgrip on the horn to extend one arm out to one side.  A wave, a salute.

That done, I pulled up.

Crawler, still bound, was unable to tear through the silk as fast as the millions of spiders were connecting it.  If there was only a way to stop the bombing, I could do something to pin him down, buy time for the heroes to arrange more permanent accommodations.

But there wasn’t.  I could feel the effects as Clockblocker froze Cache in time, then froze himself.  His suit, at least.  It was only the four of them – Clockblocker, Cache, Ursa and Weld.

The bomb was about to hit, and I could only guess if we were going to be out of the blast zone.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.3

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

“They’re not answering,” Tattletale reported, as she lowered the phone from her ear.  “They’re already engaged.”

“You fucking idiot.  I swear,” Trickster stabbed one finger in her direction, “If Ballistic dies because you fucking gave it away-”

I could see Tattletale’s eyes narrow, “My power told me there was a damn good chance she’d just run for it.  Eighty, ninety percent.”

“Well, your power was wrong, wasn’t it?” Trickster retorted.

Tattletale ignored him, looking at me, “Anything?  Can you find him?”

I shook my head.  “No.  I think he might be in a vehicle, so he can keep up with Siberian.  I realized it late, I haven’t been looking for one this whole time, but I’m sweeping the area now.”

“Shouldn’t we go?” Sundancer asked.  “We can go help Ballistic and your team.”

“Would love to,” Grue said, “But Bitch warned us about using her dogs past the fifteen minute mark.  It’s wearing off, they’re getting smaller and weaker, and if it gets to the point that they’re not comfortable carrying the load, they may lash out.”

“How many minutes has it been?”  Trickster asked, glancing at Bentley.

“Long enough I wouldn’t risk it,” Grue said.

I looked at Sirius.  I hadn’t noticed while we’d been riding him, but he was smaller.  His exterior tissues were fitting looser, in the same way skin tended to hang loose on someone who had been morbidly obese and recently lost weight.

And just to his left, I could see Amy backing away, holding her hand.

“Amy,” I spoke.

She startled as if I’d slapped her.  Everyone’s eyes turned to her.

“You okay?”  I asked.

“No, I’m not okay.”  Her head trembled a little as she turned to glance at the others.  She returned her attention to me.  “She bit off my fingers.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  I raised my hands to show her I wasn’t armed.  “We tried to get to you as fast as we could.”

“My fingers,” she moaned, as she looked at her hand.  “I ran as fast as I could, but it wasn’t fast enough.  She kept catching me.”

“I know.  There was nothing you could have done,” I said.

“It’s not right,” Amy shook her head.  She was still backing away. “This isn’t the way things should be.  Superpowers and Endbringers and things like Siberian… it’s so fucked up.  We- there should be a way to fight back, but there isn’t, so much of the time.”

“There is,” I said.  “It’s hard to find, but there’s always a way.”

Tattletale turned her head, “Hey, Amy, listen.  Can I ask you a quest-”

“Don’t,” Amy snapped, shifting gears from self-pity to fury in a heartbeat.  “Don’t talk to me.  Don’t even look at me, you bitch.”

“This is important.”

“What part of what I just said did you not understand!?”

“You’d think we didn’t just save your life,” Trickster said, folding his arms.

“You did it to delay Siberian.  Or so she said,” Amy replied, glancing at Tattletale.

“It was one of the reasons,” Tattletale started, “Skitter-”

“Shut up!”  The words were a screech as they came out of Amy’s mouth.

Tattletale turned a hundred and eighty degrees, so her back was to Amy, and looked in the direction of Grue and I.  “I’m done.  No point, fuck it.  I’m going to try calling the others again while you handle this.”

There were a few long seconds of tension as we all stood there, Tattletale a short distance away, phone to her ear.

I decided to break the silence.  “How are your fingers?  You’re using your power to keep the bleeding down?”

Amy glanced at her hand, and a dark look crossed her face.  “Yeah.”

“I’ve got bandages, if you want them.  Only the most basic first aid supplies, but maybe they’ll help?”

“Okay.”

I got the small kit from my utility compartment and approached her.  She kept still while I got out the disinfectant, bandages and tape and covered the fingers Siberian had shortened by one segment.

“How can you even be teammates with her?”  Amy asked me.  “Are you friends?”

“We are.”

“Everything that happened to me, it’s like it all snowballed out from the moment you assholes robbed the bank.”

Me too.  I’d met and ultimately joined the Undersiders because of Tattletale, and everything had followed from that.

“She didn’t plan that.  It might have started that way, but she wasn’t the cause of everything that followed,” I said.  I wondered if I was trying to convince myself.

Amy glared down at the ground.  A quick glance showed that Grue, Trickster and Sundancer were all trying to avoid engaging in this conversation.

She spoke at a low enough volume that I doubted the words were reaching the others.  “I’ve had nightmares about her.  Not saying I take back how I shouted at her, but she brought up shit, and the fact that Victoria heard it, I couldn’t shake it.  It affected the way I thought, the way I acted.  Victoria knew something was up, she respected my privacy, but she had suspicions.  If Tattletale hadn’t said anything, I could have dealt with Bonesaw coming to my house and fucking with me, getting me to break my code.  Or Bonesaw might not have come at all.  I don’t know.  Victoria would have listened to me, maybe.  Given me the benefit of the doubt.”

“We didn’t expect you to be at the bank.  We were cornered, Tattletale used the power she was given to get us out of that spot.  I’m sorry it happened.”

“She was the catalyst in my whole life falling apart.  Tattletale was.”

“Maybe.”

“And you can be friends with her, and you still think of yourself as a good person?”

“I… don’t know that I do think of myself that way.  I’ve probably done more damage than good, by trying to help others.”  Dinah, the people in my territory, now Brian.

“But your intentions were good, then?  You were trying to help?”

“Yeah.”

“Then tell me what to do.”  She didn’t meet my eyes.  “I don’t know anymore.  I’ve spent so long helping others, and I’m so scared, I feel numb.  My brain isn’t working.  Can’t think straight.  I-  I just don’t know anymore.  I’m not making any promises, I won’t fight, won’t face the Nine, don’t want to talk to Tattletale, but…” she trailed off, unable to finish her thought.

I swallowed.  I couldn’t even manage with myself, and now she wanted me to guide her?

“Okay,” I said.  My mind was going a mile a minute.  She was one of the most powerful parahumans native to Brockton Bay.  How was I supposed to use her?

One idea crossed my mind, and I hated myself for thinking it, for the stark fear I felt at the thought.  “Okay.  I won’t ask you to face the Nine.  But you can give us the ability to go after them, to fight them.  There’s this part of the brain that Bonesaw called the… Corona something.  Corona potential?  Can you access mine?  Tweak my power, give me more range?  As much as you can.”

The mental image of Bonesaw cutting through my skull with her saw was so real I could almost feel the sensation of it.

But we had to stop Siberian.

“I can’t affect brains.”

“You can’t-”  I sighed.  We all had our limitations and barriers.  I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.  I didn’t argue the point.  “Fuck.  Okay.  The dogs.  Can you charge them up?  Figure out how Bitch’s power is affecting them, and either make them big again or keep them from getting any smaller?”

She glanced at Sirius.  I’d gotten so used to them I’d nearly forgotten just how horrifying they were to look at.

“I’d have to touch them.”

“Yeah.  They’re not as bad as they look.  They’re regular dogs, it’s only appearances and size.”

“Regular dogs still bite people.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t want to lose more fingers.”

“I know.  You don’t have to.  Let me think.  We can come up with another way for you to contribute.”

“Can you grow us wings?” Trickster asked, in a wry tone.

“I can’t generate flesh from nothing, and it’s slow to convert something into a part your body won’t reject.”

“Of course,” Trickster said, with a note of sarcasm.

Not helping, I thought.  Amy was willing to do something.  It was useful.  We didn’t need to discourage that.

Before I could finish my thought, I saw Amy walk up to Sirius and offer him one hand to sniff.  She flinched as he moved his head, pulling her arm away.

I joined her side, and put one hand on the side of Sirius’ neck, digging my fingertips into a meaty cord of muscle.  I scratched with enough force that I might have left tracks in normal skin.  “Hey, boy.  You’re a good dog, aren’t you?  Yes you are.”

His bone-crusted tail lashed behind him in something approximating a wag.

Amy put out her hand again, and Sirius sniffed it.  Gingerly, she laid her hand on the length of his snout, running her fingers over calcified muscle, bone spurs and braided lengths of muscle and other tissue.

“The hell?” she muttered.  “Can’t wrap my head around this.”

“You can’t make him bigger?”

“No, I don’t think I can.  Can’t make something from nothing.  But I think I can stall the shrinking.  Whatever I do might get undone the second he’s back in range of Hell- of Bitch.  It’s hard to describe.  I can see the aftermath of what she does, but not the process.  It’s like the tissue grows, then it dies as it gets pushed out of the core, but some of it stays functional… there’s a normal dog inside there?  Intact?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.  Think I’ve got it.  He’s not going to shrink anytime soon.”

I signaled Tattletale to return.  “Thank you.”

She walked over to Bentley, giving Trickster a wary look as she walked by him.  I joined her, in part to give Bentley the reassurance that this angry stranger wasn’t so dangerous.

“There,” Amy said.  “You’re going to save your friends?”

“And if we can, we’re going to put down the Nine.  We figured out Siberian’s weakness.”

Her eyes widened slightly at that.  “What?”

“What did you think we meant when we were talking about her other self?”

“A secret identity?  I- I wasn’t really paying attention.”

Tattletale climbed up onto Bentley’s back, studiously ignoring Amy.

“Kind of a secret identity.  She’s a projection,” I said.  “Like Crusader has with his duplicates.  Best case scenario, we can find her real body and put her down.”

“Just like that?  You’ll kill her?”

“Ideal world,” I said.  Grue had climbed up onto Sirius’s back, and he offered me a hand up.  “Won’t know if we’re capable until it happens, but I’d like to think we have the courage.”

“But you’re risking your lives.”

“Yeah.”  I got settled and wrapped my arms around Grue’s body.  He didn’t react or protest.  My head just inches from his back, I turned to look down at Amy, “See, it helps that we’re pissed.”

“I’m pissed too,” Amy said.

I offered my hand to her, in case she wanted to climb up behind me and join us, but she stepped away.

“But you’re more scared than pissed,” I said.  She looked away.

“We should get going,” Trickster said, as Sundancer got in position behind him.  We were all seated and ready to head to the rescue.

“One second,” I told him.  “Amy.  Listen.  It’s okay.  I’ve thought of another way you can help, and it doesn’t put you in any danger.”

“What is it?”  She still didn’t meet my eyes.

“You’re going to cut loose with your power.  I can feed you the raw materials, you do what you can.  You know how my power works?”

“Pretty much.”

“Send the bugs my way when you’re done with them, then.”

“You’re a villain, you know.  You’re asking me to betray the family I grew up with if I’m helping you.”

I stared at her.  We were so similar in such different ways, but I couldn’t even begin to comprehend her train of thought.

Why were the people who clung so fiercely to the notions of right and wrong the very same individuals that had the worst grasp of what they meant?

Maybe I wasn’t one to talk.

“I don’t think you’re one to talk about betraying family,” Tattletale spoke.

I could see all the color drain out of Amy’s face.

“Hey, Tattle,” I started.

“No.  Sorry, Skitter, but it’s my turn to talk now.  We’re short on time, and we really should leave now, but if we leave it like this, you’re going to be distracted.”

I shut my mouth.

“Amy?  I know what you did.”

“Don’t you dare-” Amy started.

“You fucked up.  You crossed one of the lines that’s reserved for the real monsters.  You know it, I know it.”

Amy’s face crumpled.  I didn’t have a better way of describing it, the way her expression twisted, going from plain to almost inhuman from emotion alone.

I almost spoke up.  I wasn’t sure why I didn’t.

“You think you’re the lowest of the low, that you’re scum.  You despise yourself.”

Amy couldn’t even mount a response.

“You’re wrong.  You’re not there.  Not yet.”

Amy looked up at Tattletale, wide-eyed.  The look was utterly defenseless.  I was put in mind, for just an instant, of just who Tattletale could have been.  I had a mental image of her as a cult leader, tearing people down with an almost surgical precision, then molding them into who she wanted them to be when they were emotionally and mentally unable to mount a defense.

“Not yet?” Amy asked.

“Not yet.  You shouldn’t hate yourself for what you did in a moment of desperation.  Hate yourself for what you do after.  Hate yourself for your cowardice, your refusal to step up and help at this moment, right now, your refusal to participate in this world that you never even tried to understand.  That’s a conscious call you’re making, and you know it’s the wrong one.”

Amy hugged her arms to her chest.  She shook her head a little, as if she was denying what Tattletale was saying.

Tattletale went on.  “You need to make the right calls, and you need to start now, because you’re approaching the point of no return.  You start making amends, you start doing your part, and you undo what you did, and you do it ASAP, because if you don’t, you’re going to hit the hard ground at the bottom of that slippery slope.”

“But-”

Tattletale didn’t give Amy a chance to finish.  She kicked her heels and Bentley charged off.

Grue moved to follow, and I turned to Amy, “If I send my bugs to you, will you-”

“I’ll-  I’ll come.”

I blinked.

She stuck her hand in my direction, and I caught it, helping her up to a seat behind me.  Sirius shook slightly, as if he could shake us off.  Were we too heavy?

Apparently not.  He bolted after Bentley, and we were off, Amy clinging to me like her life depended on it.  I suspected that had little to do with the fact that we were riding on one of Bitch’s dogs.

The clawed feet of the dogs pounded pavement as we made our way towards central downtown.

I could feel the sensation of Amy doing something to interfere with my powers.  It began to get worse, reaching a peak, and then getting worse.  Just when it had reached the point where I was going to tear her hands from around me and let her fall off Sirius’s back, it began to clear up.

I could feel the bugs, but they weren’t anything like what I’d seen in Brockton Bay.  Superficially like dragonflies, with fatter bodies.  I couldn’t grasp every process in their body, making them feel strangely hollow and artificial.  What I could feel was a kind of echo in my power.  It made control harder.

She had to have a reason for doing what she was doing.  I tried directing them to move, and they took off.  No problem on that front.

I couldn’t ask what she’d done, because we were moving fast enough that the wind in our ears would drown out my voice, and the run was jarring enough that I worried I would bite my tongue if I tried talking.

Instead, I experimented.  I tried operating their bodies, engaged in the usual practices for injecting venom, nothing.  They weren’t weaponized, I was almost sure.  I even placed some aphids on them to get a feel for their exteriors.

It was only when I moved them out to either side of me that it dawned on me what the echo was.  Experimenting, I sent them to the limits of my range to confirm my suspicions.

Whatever signal my power sent to my bugs, these bugs were there to intercept it and transmit it to their immediate area.  Each extended my range by three hundred or so feet around them.

Letting go of Grue with one hand, I patted Amy’s hand and then reached back to give her a thumbs up.  I set more dragonflies and other various bugs down on the backs of her hand.

In another minute, I had four more relay bugs.  I paired them up and sent them forward, so one relay could transmit to the next.  Two extra city blocks of range.  I started gathering a swarm with the bugs in question.

Amy had balked at the idea of outfitting me with altered bugs.  Had she maybe settled on these, because she thought they wouldn’t give me as much offensive potential?

I had them in place for less than ten seconds before I found a moving vehicle.  It was a truck with plastic sheeting over the windows, four-wheeled, with a compact rear.  A small moving truck?  It was moving faster than was safe, veering wildly as it to get through the water and over the damaged streets, and it was heading straight for central downtown.  Straight for the others.

“Found him!”  I hollered, at the top of my lungs.  Tattletale looked over at me, and I signaled, extending my arm to the ten o’clock position.

I felt strangely calm as I shifted my focus to the attack.

If it came down to it, I’d have to kill the man.

My bugs clustered on the ‘windshield’ of flapping plastic, gathering in heavy numbers.  The faster moving dragonflies and hornets began to pelt the plastic, attempting to drive themselves through it.  Most died in the process.

He swerved sharply to try to throw the bugs off, but there wasn’t enough in the way of momentum or wind.  My other flying insects began to ferry larger black carpenter ants onto the windscreen, to use their sharp bites to penetrate the plastic sheeting.  We were making holes, but the attempts of my swarm to worm their way through the holes and open them enough for the more dangerous bugs to get inside were stymied by the wind and the flapping of the plastic.  Every movement, however small, threw off my ability to track where the existing holes were.

We had a bead on him, and the dogs were better suited for rough terrain than the moving vehicle.  It was only a minute before we caught up.  As I’d guessed, a white moving van with a giant icon of a hand on the back with the words ‘Haul It!’

I might have found it amusing if the circumstances were slightly different.

He noticed us shortly after we noticed him.  Siberian flickered into existence on top of the vehicle, standing, her legs shifting to adjust her balance as it hit a crack in the pavement and rocked slightly to one side.  I heard Amy shriek as she saw Siberian.

Tattletale veered left, hard, and Grue turned us right.  We each cut into side streets, running parallel with the truck.  Bentley was lagging slightly behind, but I caught a glimpse of the other group as we made our way past a major intersection.  Two blocks away, slightly behind us.

I heard an explosion, and Amy clutched me tighter in reaction.  Glancing down, I could see her arms around my ribcage, the hand with the maimed fingers held slightly off and away so it wouldn’t get bumped or jostled.

Trickster was handling the opening salvo.  The objects he was swapping for grenades weren’t even close in size -signs and traffic cones- so the timing was horribly off.  Siberian didn’t move from her perch.

Grue steered Sirius into a sharp left, and the dog’s claws skidded for a grip on the flooded street before we turned.  We got one block and then turned right, putting us directly behind them.

I could see Siberian tense, as if intending to jump, but another explosion from Trickster kept her in place.  She was protecting the truck, surrounding it with her forcefield.  I wasn’t sure how it was able to interact with the road, but a grenade going off under the front of the truck failed to achieve anything.

There would be nothing to stop her from staying there until the truck reached
the other Nine.  It would out Siberian’s real nature to any of the Nine who didn’t know, and that wasn’t a total loss, but it also meant our teammates would be blindsided by her arrival.

I felt something bump my hands.  Grue was holding the chains that led to Sirius’s muzzle.  He bumped my hands agan, and I took hold of them.

With his own hands free, leaning hard against me for support, he reached out and buried Siberian and the truck in a carpet of darkness.  Following, we soon plunged into the wake.

The second we were out of sight, I shifted our position so we were running in the left hand lane, rather than the center of the road.  Didn’t want Siberian guessing our position and pouncing on us.

I could sense the surroundings with my bugs, but my power was diminished.  I was aware of Grue, Amy and Bentley, of Tattletale, Trickster and Sundancer a short distance away, keeping pace.  I could see Siberian and the truck.

I couldn’t detect any sign that Grue was projecting anything with Siberian’s power.  Whatever she was doing to the truck, it was protecting her from him.

The upside was that the driver was blind.

I could tell because he drifted.  It was gradual at best, but he veered slightly to the left.  With no point of reference, he didn’t know he needed to correct.  A moment later, he smashed into the face of a tall building.  Siberian’s power meant the truck took no damage, and the driver corrected course, but soon enough, he began to veer again.

This wasn’t getting us anywhere, and we were running the risk that he’d hit someone, crash into or through an inhabited area.

Through my swarm, I could feel Tattletale waving.  Grue hadn’t swamped her in darkness, so there was nothing hampering her progress.  What did she want?

More to the point, how the hell were we supposed to communicate?  I reached a block ahead of her and formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her hand to her eye, then to the top of her head.

Again, I formed my bugs into a word.  ‘WHAT?’

She tapped her head a few more times.

I was disappointed that a girl with superpowered intuition couldn’t come up with a better signal.  What did she want?  Eyes could mean see, head could be about thinking?  Her power?

She reached back over Trickster’s shoulder with one hand while holding the reins with the other.  My bugs had to settle on her finger to follow her gesture.  Pointing?  She was pointing behind him.  At Sundancer.

Eyes, brain, Sundancer.

She wanted to see, to use her power, to use Sundancer?

Tattletale was waving now.  The opposite of a beckoning gesture.  A scooping motion, as if to push us away.

She wanted us to go away?  To get back?  She wanted to deploy Sundancer’s power.  That made sense.  And she wanted to be sure we were out of the line of fire?  She could only do that if she saw us, and she could only use her power if she could follow what was going on.

From my seat behind Grue, I steered Sirius around another corner, then brought us up behind Tattletale’s group.  We gradually caught up.

“Do it!”  I shouted as we began to pull alongside them.  Siberian would be out of range of Grue’s darkness in moments if Grue wasn’t behind her, replenishing and extending his power.

“Where is she!?”  Tattletale shouted.  Sundancer was leaning back, her hand out to one side.  The orb she was creating was small.

I pointed.

The orb was getting larger.  The size of a baseball, a beachball, an armchair.  As it grew, it drifted farther away, higher.

By the time it was directly overhead, it was large enough to swallow up my bedroom whole.

“Gotta stop them!”  Tattletale called out, “We blindside them!”

“Civilians!?”  Sundancer cried out.

“Some!”

“Let me know-”  She grunted as Bentley stumbled over a pothole.  “Let-”

“Got it!”  I replied.

I tracked the people in nearby buildings, and kept my arm extended to point at Siberian.

“Got to use my power again!”  Grue shouted.

“Signal us!”  Tattletale called out.

We pulled right, plunging into the darkness.  It was thinning out, and faint shafts of light were piercing through.We crossed the road behind Siberian, and Grue blasted them with darkness, replenishing the effect.  We continued across the street, moving behind cover.

Only a few people in the upcoming area.  We had to be close to Regent’s group.  Time was short.

I drew images with my bugs to point her in the right direction, and then formed the word with my bugs as the other group continued forward.  ‘NOW’.

We passed out of the darkness just in time for me to catch sight of the orb.  It was larger now.  Large enough that when it fell, it had to be touching both of the sidewalks on the four lane road.  Even with a building between us and the impact zone, I could feel the wave of heated air, and I saw the billowing steam.  Grue took the reins and guided Sirius away before it could reach us.

Sundancer hadn’t hit Siberian.  She’d dropped the orb straight into the road a hundred feet ahead of them, and she’d plunged it down, hard.

My bugs died as Siberian approached the impact site, burned up by the heated air.  I could imagine what had happened.  The miniature sun would have burned a hole into the ground, melted or even vaporized pavement.

Affected by Siberian’s power or not, they were still affected by gravity.

I couldn’t say what would have happened in the long run.  Had they hit the wall or floor of the pit and used Siberian’s power to make it as invulnerable as they were?  Or had they plunged through it, burying themselves some distance underground.

A nearby building was burning.  I saw Sundancer forming another orb near the site, I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but the flames on the building were shrinking and dying out.

This wasn’t a victory.  It was a stall.  We couldn’t stop Siberian so long as she was able to grant invulnerability to her other self, but we could keep her from reaching her teammates in any meaningful amount of time.

It was interesting, I had to note, that she was affecting the truck and not her maker.

A limitation?  A drawback?  Could she not use her power on her real body?

Clouds of white steam intermingled with the black tendrils of Grue’s darkness.  We stopped running, but we didn’t approach.  I focused my power on the bugs in the ground.  Ants, earthworms.  Was she tunneling?  No.  As far as I could tell, the ground was intact.  She wasn’t moving.

“What did you do?”  Amy whispered from behind me.

I didn’t have the breath to explain.

“Drop the darkness?”  I asked.

Grue nodded.  The darkness cleared, but the steam didn’t make it any easier to see.  I saw the shadowy silhouette of Tattletale, a distance away.  I practically had to peel Amy off of me to get to my cell phone.

“Tattletale?” I asked, the second she picked up.

“She’s still down there.”  Tattletale replied.

“Why?  Hurt?”

“Don’t know.  Planning her next move?  Don’t get the impression she’s tunneling.”

“My bugs don’t either.  Hey, I’m wondering if Siberian can affect her real self?  Why doesn’t she just grab him and run?”

“Good question.  But that’s not our real concern.”

“What is?”

“Them.”

It took three or four seconds before I saw them arrive, stepping through the mist to stop a distance from the hole.  Identical costumes, all-concealing, with gas mask filters on the front and tinted panes for the upper faces.  Each was color coded.  Four flew, one using a jetpack.  One was on the ground, a style of super-speed I recognized as Battery’s.  Rounding out their group was the ghostly image of a bear.  Ursa something, from Legend’s squad.  She had three forms, or she duplicated herself into three states, or something.  I wasn’t sure about the naming convention.  One for the big bear, one for the small, and one for the woman.

“Legend, Battery, Cache,” Tattletale rattled off names through the phone, “Chariot, Glory Girl.”

Amy squeaked, barely audible, a failed attempt to speak.

The flying man in the lead pointed his hand towards Tattletale.  If that was Legend, one laser blast could take all of them out.  I wasn’t sure if he’d spotted us through the mist and smoke.

“Want me to use my power?” Grue asked.

“No,” Tattletale’s voice came from my phone.  “Skitter?  Inform them.”

I drew words out with the flying insects, big and bold, with an arrow pointing down at the crater.  ‘SIBERIAN + HER CREATOR’

Legend snapped his head from the words to us.

Shit,” Tattletale said.  No sooner was the word out of her mouth than Siberian came tearing out of the hole, truck held over her head.  A section of the street was torn free and flipped through the air.  Legend blasted it out of existence with an indigo flash of light.

“Cash!”  Legend bellowed the word.  He began pelting Siberian with lasers.  Beams capable of leveling buildings, and she ignored them.

Cash?  I saw the man in the black costume raising his hands.  Dark lines began to surround Siberian and the truck, forming complex geometric angles.

In the blink of an eye, as Siberian reached the peak of her leap, panes of glossy black material snapped into place between the dark lines.  The resulting geometry contracted as if he meant to squish Siberian.  It shattered instead.

She hit the ground in a crouch, holding the truck in one hand, and the man in the black robe staggered, blood gushing from his nose.  Legend caught him before he could collapse.

Cache.  Right.  I was dimly aware of him, though I’d never seen his picture.

Siberian charged the heroes, and they cleared out of the way in an instant.  The one in power armor -Chariot- slid across the ground with the aid of his jetpack and built-in roller skates. Legend and the one in red, Glory Girl by process of elimination, took flight.  Ursa whatever leaped to one side.  They were the mobile group, the group that was able to get here fastest.  They’d seen the sun appear, they’d seen it hit, and they’d come to step in.

Siberian didn’t stop to engage the enemy.  She continued on her course, charging through the ground floor of a building as she swung the truck in a lazy back and forth arc.  I could see the roof buckling as vital supports disappeared.

Legend handed Cache to Ursa and gave chase.  I could see Chariot raising his hand to his right ear, pausing.

He, Battery and Glory Girl turned and advanced towards Tattletale’s group.

“Can we go?”  Amy asked, from behind me.  “I didn’t- I didn’t think-”

There was a pause.  We could fight.  My power would be largely foiled by those suits, but Grue had his power.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “Come here, and bring Amy.  They want to talk.”

Amy pulled back, and I grabbed her wrist.  Before she could hop off Sirius, Grue was directing the dog across the road.

Chariot and Glory Girl pulled off their helmets as we arrived.  Chariot was black, his narrow, triangular face largely covered in power armor.  He had the scruff of a weak teenage beard on his chin.

Glory Girl bore little resemblance to any of the last times I’d seen her.  There were dark circles under her eyes.  She stared at me.  No- at Amy.  The glare seethed with raw, seething hatred.  It made every line of her face hard.

“You’ve joined them, now?”  She spoke, breaking the brief silence.

“I just wanted to help against the Nine,” Amy said.  Her voice was small, defeated.  “Can I-”

“If you open your mouth and ask if you can use your power on me, I won’t be held responsible for what I do,” Glory Girl growled.

“Don’t hate me, please.  I don’t care what you think of me, but hate is too close to…”  Amy trailed off.

“Too close to what?” Glory Girl asked.  She shrugged.  Anger gave an edge to her words.  “Aren’t you going to say it?  Can’t you admit what you did?”

Amy hung her head, and her forehead rested between my shoulders, hair hanging down.  She shook her head, but I doubted Glory Girl could see it.

“Let’s put vendettas aside,” Chariot spoke.  He smirked.  “We have bigger fish to fry.”

“The Nine,” Trickster spoke.

“The Nine,” Chariot said.  “But it’s not my place to talk tactics.  I’m just the rookie.  The messenger.”

He extended one hand toward Tattletale.  There was an earbud in his palm.

“The Director of the PRT would like to have a word with you.”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Amy Dallon ran for her life.  It wasn’t the kind of run one saw in marathons or anything like that.  It was mindless, panicked, like a herd animal in a stampede.  She took the easiest and most obvious paths available to her, stumbling as often as not, her sole and all-consuming purpose being to put distance between herself and her pursuer.  Her left hand was cradled against her chest, the very ends of her pinky, ring and middle fingers missing.  Was that intentional?  Harming the healing hands?

Siberian didn’t even have to run to keep up.  The chase was something she’d honed into an art.  Amy had to run around buildings, hurdle over piles of debris, and climb fences.  Siberian anticipated her movements, pushed through walls of stone, brick, wood and plaster as though they were tissue paper and ultimately took the shortest, most direct paths.  If Amy happened to get a little too far away, Siberian would use a short hop to cross half a city block, often crashing through a wall or the side of a truck in the process.

She could have closed the gap and gotten her hands on Amy at any moment, but she didn’t.  She was a cat with its prey, and Amy didn’t have anything that could help her get away.  Amy ran and created some distance, getting just far enough that she might think she’d escaped, then Siberian would appear in front of her, or to one side.  It happened once, twice, then three times.  Each time, Siberian drew closer.

The fourth time she closed the distance, she leaped up to a spot behind Amy and caught hold of Amy’s wrist.  Amy jerked as the hold interrupted her forward momentum.  She screamed, her legs buckling under her.

Siberian took her time, grabbing at Amy’s other wrist, then prying at her fingers.  Three were already missing segments, and Siberian seized the index finger.  Slowly, inexorably, she guided the finger to her mouth, her lips parting.  Amy thrashed, but couldn’t free herself from Siberian’s grip.

“Shouldn’t we do something?”  Sundancer asked.  Her hand trembled as she lowered the binoculars.  I wasn’t sure how useful Sundancer was going to be, on several levels.  Our group consisted of Trickster, Grue, Tattletale, Sundancer and myself, with two of Bitch’s dogs to get us from A to B.  The seven of us were gathered behind the wall of a ruined building, a considerable distance from Siberian.

I glanced at Grue.  He was tense, rigid enough that I could see his stillness through the darkness.  Anything I’d say to him would hurt more than it helped.  I turned my attention back to Amy and Siberian, looking through the binoculars.  Instead of addressing Grue, I told Sundancer, “Nothing we can do.  But I think Siberian is going to-”

As if she’d heard, Siberian closed her mouth.  Amy recoiled with her whole body, pulling away, and Siberian let her go, giving her a little push.  As her quarry stumbled and started to run, Siberian simply stood there, waiting.

She wanted to give Amy a head start.

Amy wasn’t bleeding as much as she should have been.  I knew she couldn’t use her power to affect herself, or this fight would be playing out much differently.  But maybe she was using her power to affect microbes on her hands?  Changing them into something that could breed, coagulate, and staunch the wounds?

It was what I’d be doing.

But I’d also be trying to use microbes to form some kind of defense.  I’d be reaching out for algae or other plant life I could use to obscure my retreat.  Something to produce an opaque gas, to block line of sight or give me hiding places.  Amy had far, far more versatility than I did, and I had little doubt she’d be able to mimic my power with a little time for preparation.  With some forethought, preparation and strategic thinking, she was capable of holding her own, getting away.  She had so much potential.

But Amy Dallon wasn’t that sort of person.  She hadn’t gravitated toward front-line combat, nor had she gotten in any real fights, to the best of my knowledge.  When Leviathan had hit the city, she’d stayed behind to give medical care instead of using her power against him.  Now she was panicking, up against an unstoppable enemy and an inevitable fate, and she didn’t have the tools, mental or otherwise, to hold her own.  Siberian would catch her and release her over and over, taking her apart piece by piece.  Eventually the blood loss would mean Amy couldn’t run any more.

Or maybe Siberian was waiting for Amy to break, mentally.  How long could she put up with this before she lost all hope and surrendered herself to a fate of being eaten alive?

Using my power, I began to gather a swarm around Amy.  Her initial reaction was to freak out.  She thrashed, stumbled, and fell.  She landed in the shallow water with her good hand thrust out to prevent herself from landing face first.

Her second reaction, beyond the knee-jerk fear, was to use her power to start shutting mine down.

Idiot,” I hissed the word.

“What?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m trying to save her life, and she’s turning my power against me.”

Two ways this would go.  Either she clued in that I was trying to help, or she died.  I was really hoping it wouldn’t be the latter.  I didn’t like her, but she didn’t deserve to die.  There were very few people in the world who deserved to die like this.

I could feel a not-unfamiliar headache building as I leveraged my power to draw more of a swarm around her.  Siberian was watching, uncaring.  As was so often the case, my timing had to be specific.  She wouldn’t let Amy go as a matter of principle, but she’d let hope dangle in front of both of us.  That penchant for offering hope and then dashing it was a weapon she and virtually every other member of the Nine had at their disposal, but it was also a tendency we could exploit.  A weakness, if you could call it that.

This would have been easier if we’d had another mannequin like we used in our first victory against the Nine, using Trickster’s power to evacuate Amy, but we hadn’t been near my lair and we’d used every mannequin we had in that fight.  We could have kludged something together, something vaguely Amy-sized and Amy-shaped, but time had been tight, and we hadn’t found anything that would serve that would also fit on the dogs.  Deploying on the one job with the explosives, mannequins and two or three people riding each dog had been our limit, before.

Siberian took hold of a length of her long hair and combed her fingers slowly through it, her back twisting and arching a little as she reached behind her head, the flank of her body exposed to the diffuse light of the overcast sky above.  If Cherish wasn’t fucking with us, the real Siberian was a middle-aged man.  What, then, was the projection?  Why was it female, when Brian’s had been male and so very similar to him?  I would have asked Grue something to try to shed light on the subject, but I didn’t want to get him thinking about what had happened back then.

My head was starting to pound, my power getting more sluggish.  Where possible, I used my bugs to find, catch and kill the bugs Amy had altered with her power.  It wasn’t enough; my power was still getting steadily weaker.  Amy fell again, climbed to her feet and swatted her good hand through the swarm, disabling those bugs who stayed on her skin for any longer than a second.

It was also making it harder to sweep the area for Siberian’s real body.  There were pockets of people here and there.  I needed to keep tabs on the ones who fit Cherish’s description; middle-aged, male, probably unkempt, thin.  What made it trickier was that I had to find him without him catching on and sending Siberian after us.  There was one man nearby, but he was fit.  Another there: fat, startling and trembling at the distant sounds of Siberian tearing through the landscape in her pursuit of Amy.  I found another, but he was clutching a small child to him, and she clutched him back.  Father and daughter, no doubt.  The little girl wasn’t Bonesaw, either.  Too small.  In the next cluster of people-  I had to stop and press my fingers to my temples.  It hurt.  Damn that girl.

I had to cover her, though, so having my bugs near her was unavoidable.  Amy needed to be one-hundred percent out of Siberian’s sight before we acted.  As if she was actively seeking to make things harder on us, she took a route that carried her out of sight of our binoculars, behind a building.  Not that she knew we were there.  It was bad luck.

I focused my binoculars on Siberian, instead.  Her hair drifted in the wind.  The length she wasn’t holding in her hand fanned out, briefly.

“If the wind moves her hair like that, is that a clue?” I asked, looking at Tattletale.  “Like the dust on Glory Girl’s clothes hinting that she wasn’t covered by her forcefield?”

“Ninety-five percent sure I’m right on this score, but her power probably copies her real body’s physiology to some degree, molding all the internal organs and whatever else with whatever reality-scrambling-stuff she’s made of.  Her call about what parts of her are affected by what, so I don’t-”  She stopped, “Heads up.”

Siberian was letting her hair fall from her hands.  She flicked the last strand back over her shoulder.

I collected the swarm into a dozen decoys in the same instant Siberian started striding forward, then scattered them.

Siberian stopped, pivoting on the spot, then lunged for one side of the street.  She threw herself through the side of a parked pickup truck, shearing through the fiberglass and metal, and landed in a crouch on the far side of it.  She gripped the two sections of the vehicle, tearing where they were still connected on the underside, and then spun in place, holding each half out to one side.

I couldn’t be sure, but as I looked through the binoculars, I was pretty sure that I caught a glimpse of her holding one half of the truck by a glass pane of a side window, index and middle finger on either side of the broken glass.

In most cases, a cape trying to pick up a car by anything but the undercarriage would find it falling apart, the weight of the vehicle pulling it free of whatever section the cape was holding.  Siberian didn’t have that problem.  She simply extended her power through whatever she was holding to keep it intact.

With a throwing motion, she whipped one section of the truck over her head, hurling it forward so it crashed through no less than five of my decoy swarms.  She did a tight spin as she stepped forward and made the second throw into a smooth continuation of the first.

Her accuracy wasn’t quite so good for the second hit.  It crashed through the water and hit the ground before it rolled out of my line of sight.  It was only through my swarm that I felt it hit Amy and my decoy swarms.  Most of the momentum was lost in the initial impact, and it didn’t pulverize her.  She was in one piece, at least.

In retrospect, that might have been intentional on Siberian’s part.

“She’s advancing,” Tattletale reported.

“Yeah,” I replied, absently.  I was focusing on getting my bugs on site.  The bugs that had surrounded Amy and formed the decoys in her immediate vicinity were still there, and I gathered them into humanoid shapes again.  I didn’t have line of sight to her, but I could feel them rising in what must have looked like a very human way.

I’d known that using the decoys would provoke Siberian.  She wanted to drive home that inevitability of her target’s fate, and that meant she would stop playing around the second she thought Amy might really escape.  That was the bad.

The good side of things caught me by surprise.  As though a switch was flicked, my power suddenly surged back to its normal strength.  Amy was killing the bugs she’d fucked up, so they weren’t scrambling my power anymore.  She’d realized I was trying to help.

“Should I attack?”  Sundancer asked.

“No,” Grue almost barked the word.  “You’ll give away our location.”

“Let me,” Trickster said.

While Trickster unclipped grenades from the belt of his costume, I focused on Amy.  She was standing, slowly, masked by a swarm.  If I sent a decoy running in one direction, I was almost positive it would get Amy killed.  She couldn’t run faster than Siberian, and however much I scattered the decoys, Siberian could dispatch them all and get her hands on the real Amy in a matter of seconds.  If I moved a decoy too fast, it would be a dead giveaway as a fake.

“Really need a distraction,” I said.

“Are you still looking for the real Siberian?”  Tattletale asked.

“Of course I am!”  I snapped.  I might have gone on to point out how we were also here to save her.  To save Amy Dallon.  I kept my mouth shut: pointless to waste my breath or dedicate any focus to arguing when I could be trying to deal with Siberian.

Trickster was looking through his binoculars, holding one grenade.  I saw him pull the pin a second before the grenade in his hand was replaced by a fragment of building.

An explosion erupted a matter of feet from Siberian.  The smoke cleared quickly enough, and I saw her turning her head, looking for the unseen attacker.  I ducked my head low to get more cover from the ruined wall we all lurked behind.

“Grue?” I asked.

He hesitated.

“Please.”

“Right.”  His darkness began to flow from his hands.  I climbed up onto Sirius’s back, and Grue was a step behind, taking a seat in front of me.

“Any luck?” Tattletale asked.  She’d seated herself on Bentley, her hands on the chain around his neck, and both Trickster and Sundancer were behind her.

My bugs were still searching for the real Siberian.  Or her creator, depending on how one wanted to look at it.  I was reaching the edges of my range and I hadn’t found anyone suitable.  I did find two adult men that were together.  Could she have made a friend in her real identity?

Just to be safe, I set my bugs on the pair of them.  I didn’t use anything deadly, but I had bugs biting and stinging without flexing their abdomens to inject the accompanying venom.  Siberian didn’t react to my assault of the men.  I put each of them down as a ‘maybe’, planting bugs in the folds of their clothes to mark them.

“Can’t find her maker,” I said.

“My power’s not detecting him either,” Grue replied, “But my coverage is bad.  Give me a second and I’ll let you know the second my darkness connects with him.”

Siberian had noticed the darkness, and I could see her contemplating coming after us, striking at the source of the darkness.  Instead, she turned and began making her way toward Amy.  The darkness continued to flow, low to the ground, tendrils rising to bind together and fill in gaps, and my view of Siberian was soon blocked.  There was another explosion as Trickster deployed another grenade, but it wouldn’t serve as anything but a split-second distraction.

I could feel Siberian.  Through my bugs, I could tell the darkness hadn’t reached around that corner to where Amy, my newly reformed decoys and the two sections of truck were.

It was as good a time as any.  We needed to delay, so I wrote the words ‘run in 3’ in front of Amy, along with an arrow.  The three transformed into a two.  Then a one.

I sent the decoys off in different directions.

Siberian lunged just as I’d expected her to, crashing through the decoy that was moving fastest.  She plunged her hands into the nearby wall and ripped out a chunk of brick and mortar, flinging it.  It broke apart as it left her hands, forming a scattershot spray.

More than one fragment of brick hit Amy, judging from the way she stumbled.  None of the hits had been too serious, at least, because she managed to keep moving.

Using my swarm-sense, I formed a mental map of the area.  Buildings, cover, features of the terrain.  What was a good option?  Should I drive her to keep running or to find cover?  Would Siberian be able to second-guess my suggestions?

She was experienced in this sort of thing, and would be an experienced tracker.  The water that layered the street was something of a blessing, I suspected.  Even as it slowed Amy down, it meant there weren’t tracks of mud or anything for Siberian to follow.  At worst, there would be clouds of muck stirred up by Amy’s footfalls, and there was little enough sunlight that I wasn’t sure how much of it Siberian would be able to see.

I waited, tense, as Amy ran.  I felt the darkness roll over the bugs I’d gathered on and around her, and crossed my fingers that Siberian didn’t have any tricks up her sleeve.

Needed a way to communicate with her.  Shifting a small group of bugs onto Amy’s right hand, I felt her shake them off.  I tried again, and she left them there.  I moved them gradually, until they were gathered on the tips of her ring and pinky fingers.  She moved her hand to the right, and I shifted the bugs to her middle and index fingers.

Would she figure it out?

She moved her hand again, and I adjusted the placement of the bugs.  From the way she picked up speed, I could tell she was taking my directions.  The bugs would serve her as a compass.  She wasn’t running as fast as she might, otherwise, but she seemed willing to trust that I wouldn’t direct her straight into a wall.

That left the problem of Siberian and whether she would come after us when she lost Amy’s trail.

“Let’s go,” I spoke.  “Let’s check the twelve o’clock position from Siberian to see if we can’t find her creator further on.  Loop around.”

Grue and Tattletale kicked the dogs into action.

I judged that Amy and Siberian were far enough apart, now.  I used my bugs to direct her to a door that was ajar, leading her into a small shopping mall.

I tapped hard on Grue’s shoulder, and the darkness immediately around us began to fade.  I asked, “You can tell where Amy is?”

“I have a bit of her power.  Don’t trust myself to use it,” he grunted.  “Missing something in the interpretation and analysis part of it.”

“Clear the darkness around her so she can find a spot to hide.”

He grunted a response, and the darkness folded around us a second time.

I was focusing on four things at once: staying seated behind Grue, guiding Amy, tracking Siberian’s location and trying to find Siberian’s real body.  I could sense her as she made her way up the side of a building.

Grue’s darkness was heavier, now.  It sat lower on the streets.  From her vantage point, Siberian couldn’t see us, couldn’t see Amy, but she could see the tops of taller buildings.

What was she looking at?

Through my swarm-sense, I could feel her dropping back down to ground level.  I expected a splash or shattered pavement, but there was nothing.  She was snapping her invulnerability out to affect the surface she was landing on.

She was heading in Amy’s general direction.

I reached up and pulled on Grue’s right arm.  He veered in that direction.

Couldn’t find Siberian’s real body.  Was it really close, like Cherish had said?  I noted one man who fit the general description, but he was barricaded in his room, surrounded by cans of food.  There was no reason for Siberian’s real persona to situate himself here.  Even so, I tested him, attacking him with bugs to see if it got a response.

Not that I was sure that there was a link connecting his real self and her projected form.  It was an assumption, and maybe a dangerous one.  I wasn’t sure exactly how much control Brian had managed with his own projection when he’d borrowed that fragment of Siberian’s powers.

No.  My gut told me Siberian wouldn’t operate like this if there wasn’t some link.  There had to be some kind of range limit on the projection, or he wouldn’t have any reason to follow Siberian from city to city.  The fact that he was supposedly in this area meant it might even be a fairly short range.  If he was an unwilling participant, a recipient of a power with unfortunate side effects, like Labyrinth, then she’d have to direct him from one place to another with threats.  It would require more interactions between her selves, and that would mean something would have been given away.

Along similar lines, if she depended on him to keep her going, then she had to keep him safe from the other members of the Nine.  There was infighting in the group, apparently, though I’d seen no sign of it with the team thus far.  Keeping the ordinary man safe wouldn’t be a problem if he shared Siberian’s senses like I shared those of my bugs.  She could keep an eye out for trouble and he could slip away or hide if a member of the Nine came around.

Until Cherish joined the group.  I wonder how that had played out.  Some sort of deal?  Threats, overt or implied?

Siberian was on the far side of the two-lane road that stood beside Amy’s hideout.  She didn’t walk straight for Amy, but walked down the street with an almost casual slowness.  She had one arm out, a hand tracing the side of the building she was walking by, as if to guide her through the effects Grue’s lightless world.

My swarm felt dust shower onto them in her wake.  It was unexpected, and it demanded investigation.  I moved them across the wall, and felt a gap.  She wasn’t just putting her hand on the wall, but her hand and forearm through it.  What did that mean?

My bugs felt more dust fall from above.  A moth was bludgeoned by a rock that fell from above.

I felt realization hit me like a bucket of cold water.

Her hand was punching through the exterior wall of the building, but it was also tearing through the supports and load bearing areas.  She’d made her way halfway through the ground floor.  By the time she finished, part of the building was going to collapse and fall.

If the building tipped in the direction of the shattered area, it could easily fall on the mall where Amy was hiding.

My bugs formed a picture on a wall near Amy.  A rectangle to represent the skyscraper Siberian intended to bring down, a squatter rectangle to represent the mall, a ladybug for Amy and a moth to represent Siberian.  I demonstrated what was about to happen.

Faster and easier than explaining with words.

Still, I included one word for good measure:  ‘RUN’.

I could feel Amy making a break for it.  She headed in the wrong direction at first, northwest instead of northeast, and I used a giant arrow to direct her.

The building began to collapse only ten or fifteen seconds after I’d transmitted the message.  Grue’s power didn’t do anything to stop the rumble from reaching us.  From what my bugs could gather in the chaos that followed, the building seemed to slump, the lower levels buckling and crackling.  Just when I thought it had settled, the upper portion tipped over, crashing into the small parking lot and the entrance of the mall.

Amy wasn’t in the impact site, and she probably wouldn’t have been even if I hadn’t warned her.  Still, it was a demonstration of power, it was intended to scare an already terrified Amy, and it served both purposes.  She was running directly away from the site of the devastation, ignoring the bugs I had on her hand.  In her pell-mell run , Amy stumbled into a post meant to keep carts from being taken out of the mall and fell hard.

“Right,” I spoke into Grue’s darkness.  He obeyed.

Siberian was giving chase, entering one end of the mall at the same time Amy made her way out of the opposite side.  Siberian had guessed the most likely hiding spot and then used the falling building to dash Amy’s hopes of safety and get her out of hiding and running.  With the way the roads funneled together into one four-lane road, Amy would either have to take a left, take a right, or go straight.  Chances were good she would take the latter, because it put her the furthest from Siberian.

With my directions, we looped around the mall and made a beeline for Amy.  Siberian was advancing too, but while she was in the right general area, she didn’t have a means of finding Amy, specifically.  Instead, she leaped from one area to another, pausing for a second or two at a time.

What was she doing?

I swept the area with my power, but I couldn’t find anyone resembling Cherish’s description of Siberian’s real self.

Was I missing something?  If Cherish had been lying outright, I was under the impression that Lisa would have caught some tell.  There had to be something else to it.  Something I could use to identify the man behind the monster.

What was she?  Unstoppable, a deceptively strong, deceptively tough juggernaut of a woman.

Something caught her attention.  A vibration in the road?  Or had she used her power to protect the ground, and sensed some impact as the dogs walked on it?

Either way, she started to chase us.  We could have turned at a right angle, to hopefully throw her off, but both Grue and I knew that if we did, and she continued straight, she’d run straight into Amy.

Fast.  She was fast.  Not as much as Battery or Velocity might have been on a good day, but highly mobile.

The thought clicked into the blank I was looking to fill.  How was her alter ego getting around?  I’d assumed he was traveling on foot because that was how ninety-percent of the city was getting by.  Very few cars on the road had access to gas and the ability to traverse the broken, flooded streets.  But if there was a range limit to the projection, how was he keeping up with the woman who could ignore air resistance and leap across a city block in a single bound?

I shouldn’t have been looking for people.  I should have been looking for vehicles.  Had I overlooked anything like a truck or a van interior he could be hiding inside?  Or was he still in a location outside of my range?  Or -I wasn’t ignoring the possibility- had Cherish lied or misled us?

Damn it!  The extra possibility threw my hopes of finding the man totally out of whack.

My respect for Grue grew a hundredfold as he veered straight for Amy without my asking him to.  We swept past her, and I caught her around the shoulder.  Grue offered one hand, and we lifted her together, kicking and struggling, onto my lap.  I wrapped one arm around her chest, to keep her securely in place.  She was breathing hard, almost hyperventilating.

It took her a few seconds to realize we weren’t Siberian.  She might have calmed down at that realization, but she didn’t get a chance.

Siberian closed the gap in a single bound, crashing into Bentley, Lisa, Trickster and Sundancer and shoving them forward into the rest of us.  We sprawled, and I felt my leg bend painfully as Sirius rolled over it.

Grue banished his darkness.  I could see the six of us and the two dogs, lying on the road. Nobody dead.

And there was Siberian.  Faintly glowing eyes, black and white striped skin, straight hair in similar variations of black and white, trailing to her tailbone.

“Thank you, Grue,” Tattletale said.  Had she asked him to cancel out his power?  It wasn’t like he was borrowing any power that would work on Siberian, and as for the concealment effects, they wouldn’t do much.

And, as it turned out, she wanted to talk.  She pulled herself up to a standing position and raised one hand, palm facing Siberian.  “Hold on.”

Siberian stopped.

“I think you should know,” Tattletale smiled, “We’re here for three reasons.”

Siberian’s eyes narrowed.

“Reason number one, we’re trying to save that girl.  I mean, if I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t know if I would have risked it, but we do have some more compassionate people on our team.”  She glanced at me.  “For better or worse.”

I could see Siberian flex her fingers.  Her nails were long, and they were sharp.  There wasn’t anything special about them, on an aesthetic level, but they did have the benefit of her power.  If she raked those across a surface, they would leave gouges.  Didn’t matter how hard or dense the material was.

“Reason number two, we’re aiming to kill you.  See, we know about your… other self.”

There wasn’t the slightest reaction from Siberian.

“And the third reason, I think you should know, is sort of tied into the first.  We’re making you waste time.  Longer you take to kill Panacea, here, the better off we are.  Awfully arrogant of you to leave your team and go off to pick off candidates like Amy.  The rest of your team?  Crawler, Jack, Mannequin and Bonesaw?  Right this second, they’re getting a surprise visit from the rest of our team.  What do you think-”

Siberian flickered and disappeared.  Tattletale’s jaw dropped.

Shit,” Trickster cursed, “She-”

“Just get a phone!  Warn them!”

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Prey 14.1

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

The noise of the microwave beeping jarred me from the first restful sleep I’d had in some time.  I moved my head, and my pillow moved in response.

“Tried to tell them to stay quiet,” Brian said, his voice low, “They’re not the most considerate pair in the world.”

“Muh?” I mumbled something, and even I wasn’t sure what I’d intended to say.  I’d been deep in the throes of some dream that felt strangely familiar, and I’d been pulled out of it quickly enough that I felt momentarily disoriented.  I wiped at my mouth where I’d drooled a little, and was suddenly aware that Brian was there.  I felt my face heat up as I realized I’d been leaning -and drooling- on his arm.  Alec and Aisha were unmasked and rifling through the ‘kitchen’ to find something to eat.

Brian and I both spoke at the same time, with me mumbling something to the effect of, “Sorry, I must have fallen-” before shutting my mouth.

He waited, giving me a chance to talk as he wiped at the damp spot on his arm, then finally broke the awkward silence with,  “I’m glad one of us slept.”

“You didn’t?”

“Not a wink.”

He did look tired.  Not just like someone who had spent the night sitting upright, but like someone who had just finished a swim from one edge of the bay to the other.

“I hope I didn’t keep you awake by leaning on you.  Don’t even know when I nodded off.”

“It wasn’t you, and I didn’t mind.  It was…” he searched for the word.  “Okay.”

‘Okay’.  How was I supposed to interpret that?  Or did he intend for it to be vague and noncommittal?

I shouldn’t even have been worrying about that.  I blamed the fact that I was just waking up.  Brian was in a bad state.  Was there something I was supposed to say?  Something I should do?  Every gesture that normally demonstrated caring or sympathy or whatever else was a tender point for him.  A touch on the arm was an invasion of his personal space, which he was keenly aware of at this point.  Asking how he was doing was a reminder that he wasn’t ok.  Would offering to help him out or giving him support make him feel more powerless, like he’d felt when Bonesaw had gone to work on him?

No.  That last one was probably okay.  “You want anything?  Breakfast?  Coffee?”

“Coffee, please.”

I nodded, stood and rolled my shoulders.  Outside of the fact that none of the sleep I’d picked up over the previous night had been in a bed, I felt recharged.  Scrapes and bruises I’d only been dimly aware of were gone, as were the more obvious, attention-grabbing injuries.  That, in turn, made me think of the circumstances that had led to my good night’s sleep and healing job.  It was bittersweet.  Like a young child that was being forced to stand in a corner, feeling as low as she ever had, her stomach full with the entire birthday cake she’d just devoured.

Okay.  Still a little out of it.

I joined Aisha and Alec in the kitchen.  “Morning.”

“Sup,” Aisha said, curt.  She’d found some frosted cereal and was pouring herself a bowl.  She gave me a sidelong glance that wasn’t so flattering.

“How is the man?”  Alec asked.

“Stressed, anxious, not sleeping.  Can’t blame him.”

“And you’re using all that to get closer to him?”  Aisha asked.

I blinked.  “No.”

“Looked awfully cozy,” she replied.

I glanced back in Brian’s direction.  He was standing at the window at the other side of the building, peering outside, his back to us.

“I drifted off.  An accident.  Trust me when I say I feel bad enough about doing anything to make him feel less than a hundred percent comfortable when he needed rest.”

“Bet you a thousand bucks he didn’t mind,” Alec said.  Aisha gave him a dirty look.

“He’s nice enough that he wouldn’t want to disturb me, even feeling like he does right now.  He must have gone out of his way to stay still.”  I didn’t look at either of them as I filled the kettle the rest of the way and put it on the stove.

“Sure,” Alec drawled.  In a more normal voice, he said, “But what I’m saying is he wouldn’t mind.  Now, it’s been a little while, but there was a time when I had someone in my bed every night.”

“When you were with Heartbreaker,” I said.  From the look of disgust on Aisha’s face, and what I imagined was a similar expression on my own, I suspected we were on the same page.  At least on this one thing.

“Sure.  Cape groupies, my dad’s girls, people I used my powers on toward the end.”

There wasn’t even a trace of guilt or shame on his expression, no regret in his tone.  He just looked bored.

He went on, “What I’m saying is that I’m speaking from experience.  Having someone cuddled up beside you, even if it’s a little bit of a pain in the ass, having that body contact isn’t so bad.  Especially when you’ve had a bad day.”

Was that Alec trying to be supportive?  I glanced at Aisha, and she gave me something of a dirty look.

I was awkward, screwed up and feeling guilty on a lot of levels, from Brian to Dinah to the people in my territory that I hadn’t seen to.  Brian was traumatized, and that was layered on what he’d described to me as an unfamiliarity with social situations and emotions.  Alec was fucked up in a way I couldn’t even label.  Aisha wanted to protect her brother but didn’t know how, lashing out at me instead.  Damaged people.

Much of the water in the kettle had been heated, already, and it didn’t take long to boil as we got our individual breakfasts together.  I took it off the stove and began preparing Brian’s coffee and my tea.  After a moment’s consideration, I began preparing bacon and eggs, and rummaging around for toast, bagels or english muffins.  I’d use whatever I found first.

Tattletale, Bitch and three of the dogs came in through the front door.  I didn’t miss how Brian turned to face the door, tendrils of darkness creeping through the gaps between his fingers and crawling up his arm.  It took him a second to relax.  Tattletale threw me a package.  I opened it and found a pair of glasses.  I slid them on.

Leaving the food cooking on the stove, I brought Brian his coffee.  Maybe some normalcy would help.

“Morning,” I said.

“Morn,” Lisa replied.  “We were out making sure there wasn’t trouble.  Very, very quiet, after the last couple of days.”

Rachel glanced at me but didn’t say a word.

“Want food?”  I offered.  “I’ve got some stuff on the stove.  There’s some bacon if you want to give some to the dogs, Rachel.”

“It’s bad for them.  And I don’t give my dogs human food.”

“Right.  Thought they might want a treat, sorry.”

“But I’ll have some,” she said.

“Cool.”

I returned to the stove and started preparing breakfasts.  I served Brian first, then prepared some toast and bacon for Bitch and some scrambled egg for Lisa.  It was almost a relief, having something concrete to do, a way to help, when I didn’t know how to act around Brian.

By the time I had Bitch and Lisa served, the Travelers had been roused by the smell of breakfast.  I offered them some breakfast, and Ballistic took over at the stove to cook for his team.

We arranged ourselves on the ground floor, Alec and Aisha sitting on the stairs, Lisa and I sitting on the couch, and Brian in the corner by the window, looking distracted.  Bitch seated herself on the floor, her back to the wall, her dogs at her side.

While we waited for the Travelers to get settled, I asked, “I’ve been meaning to ask.  What is Bastard?”

“You mean what breed is he?” Aisha asked.

“No,” I said.  I left it at that.

“He’s a wolf.”  Bitch scratched the skin at his shoulders, digging deep.

“No shit?” Alec said.

“Where do you even find a wolf?” I asked.

Bitch didn’t venture an answer, so Lisa spoke, “She didn’t find him.  He was a gift.  And since it didn’t come from Coil, that means-”

“Siberian,” Bitch finished.

“That’s crazy,” I said.  How long has it been since we had a chance to talk and touch base like this?  “She’s crazy powerful.  Majorly scary.  And she just, what?  Handed you the wolf cub and told you that she’s picking you to be a member of her team… how?”

“She told me with words.”

“She doesn’t talk,” Brian spoke up.

“She told me,” Bitch repeated.  “She showed up, I tried to fight her, didn’t work.  She explained, she left.  Left the cub at my place.”

I saw Lisa glancing between Bitch and me with a curious look on her face.  When I raised an eyebrow at her, she shook her head a little and then turned to Bitch, “That’s potentially a problem.  What’s to say Bonesaw or Mannequin didn’t put some sort of tracking device in him?”

“They didn’t,” Bitch said.

“How can you be sure?”

“He smelled like the forest when I got him.”

“It would have taken them seconds to stick it in him.  It would mean there was a way to find you.  Find us.”

“No.  Doesn’t make sense, what she was talking about.  Being free.  Accepting that we’re animals.”

“I wonder about that,” Lisa said, pulling her feet up so she was sitting cross-legged on the sofa.  “Maybe she was playing you?”

“Is she really that smart?” Alec asked.  “Jack is smart.  Bonesaw, Mannequin, sure, to varying degrees.  But Siberian?”

“My instinct?” Lisa shrugged.  “She’s an actor.  Playing up the feral angle, hiding a deeper strategy.  She might even be playing a long con on her team.  Or maybe her intentions are pure but she’s keeping them in the dark about the key stuff.”

“Like?” Trickster asked, as he found a seat on the arm of the chair Sundancer was sitting in.

Lisa said, “Brian’s new powers.  He was copying powers from the people who were in the darkness, yeah?”

Brian nodded.

“He got the ability to grant healing from Othala.  Regeneration from Crawler.  But who was the shadowy figure he used to pulverize Burnscar?”

“You’re thinking Siberian,” I said.

Lisa nodded.  “Sure.  What if she’s like Genesis?  Or Crusader?  What if Siberian has a very real, vulnerable human body somewhere nearby, always has, and the body she’s using is a projection?  Maybe it’s something even Jack doesn’t know.”

That gave us pause.  An in.  A way to stop the unstoppable beast-woman.

“No,” Bitch clenched her fist, and I could see her dogs responding to her body language, tensing.  “Don’t buy it.”

“Why not?”  Lisa asked, her voice gentle.

“What she said made too much sense.  She said things and she understood.  I’m fucked up.  I know I’m fucked up.  Not good at dealing with people.  But I could deal with her.  I understood her.”

“That doesn’t mean she didn’t lie, Rachel,” Lisa said.  “It only means she understood you well enough to know how to deceive you.”

“No.  It’s not-”  Bitch stood abruptly, and Bastard yipped.

“Rachel,” Lisa tried, but Bitch turned away.

“There’s one way we could try to find out,” I said.

Bitch turned at me and glared.  There was a viciousness in the look that I couldn’t blame entirely on her grudge against me or the current conversation.  Just like Brian, there was a minefield there.  I couldn’t hope to guess at what would press her buttons.

“You’d want to know, right?” I asked.  “You wouldn’t want to give her the benefit of a doubt if she was playing you.”

“You assholes are saying I’m gullible.”  If Bitch had hackles, they’d be standing on end.  Her fists were clenched at her side, her feet planted apart, as if she’d be ready to start swinging, whistling for her dogs to attack, at any moment.

“Hey,” I raised my voice.  “Answer the question!  Would you want to know?”

“Yeah, but-”

“Then we get in touch with Cherish.  We get an answer from her.  She’d know.”

“I’ll get in touch with Coil, then,” Lisa said.  She got up and headed into the room where she and Aisha had been sleeping.

I focused on my breakfast, hurrying to finish it before it got cold.  I’d been distracted by the conversation, and cold toast was depressing.

When I looked up from my plate, glancing at the others to double-check that they were okay, that I wasn’t missing anything, I saw Bitch staring at me.

“You want more food?”  I offered.

“You mean what you said?”

About the food?  “I don’t follow.”

“Last night.  You mean what you said?”

“You’ll have to remind me.”

“You said something about doing the same thing for the rest of us for what you did for Brian.”  She broke eye contact, looking down at Bastard.

My fight with Brian.  “You heard that.”

“Mm,” she grunted.

I glanced at the others.  Trickster was talking with his two teammates, Genesis still elsewhere, and Alec and Aisha were talking.  Alec was apparently demonstrating his power, making Aisha’s fingers twitch.  Brian looked on with a glower on his face, but I got the impression his attention was divided between that dialogue and my own discussion with Bitch.

“Yeah,” I told Bitch.  “We’ve been over this.  I really don’t know how to make it clearer.  If it came down to it, I’d risk my life to save yours.”

Why?”

“I- I don’t know if I can really say.  You’re my friend.  We’ve been through a hell of a lot of crap together.  We back each other up because we have to.”

“You think I’d back you up?”  The question was a challenge, brusque, barely-but-not-quite-anger.

“Don’t know.  Does it matter?”  I glanced at Brian.  He was paying attention to what I was saying.  I felt momentarily self-conscious, struggled to find words that wouldn’t provoke a negative response from one of them.  I settled for a middle ground as I thought aloud.  “Life’s not fair.  It’s not even, not balanced, not right.  Why should relationships between people be any different?  There’s always going to be an imbalance in power.  The other person might have a higher social standing, they might have money, or more social graces.  Isn’t it better to stop stressing about quid pro quo and just do what you want or what you can?”

“Words,” Bitch dismissed me.

“Words, sure.  I’ll make it simple, then.  I consider you a friend, I’ll help you when stuff goes down.  And you… do whatever you think is right.  Do what you want to do.  I won’t stress about it, and unless you fuck with me like you did when we fought Dragon, I’m not going to hold it against you.”

She set her jaw, clearly irritated at the reminder.  Whatever.  I’d needed to make my point.

If she had been intending to give me a response, I didn’t hear it.  Lisa ventured back into the room, and all eyes turned to her.  She held her hand over the lower half of the phone.

“For those of you who haven’t been in contact with Coil, we ended up locking Cherish in an overturned boat’s hold in the Boat Graveyard.  She’s there now, with food and water, totally isolated, several layers of confinement, including but not limited to chains.  She wants to strike a deal, in exchange for details on Siberian and the Nine.”

“Letting her go?  No,” Brian said.

“Not what she wants.  She just wants a chance to talk to us,” Lisa looked at each of us in turn.  “Two minutes to address us, and then she dishes out the dirt, gives us the location on the Nine, the details on Siberian and answers any other questions.”

“Nothing saying she’ll tell the truth,” Alec said.

“And she’s in a position to say stuff that could create doubt or tension in our ranks,” Trickster pointed out.

“True,” Lisa conceded.  “But here’s the thing.  I’m getting the vibe she wants us to turn her down, so we’ll figure out the real scoop later and regret it.”

“What, you mean something like Siberian being here?  ‘Don’t you wish you’d asked me to tell you where she was, because she’s standing fifteen feet away from you’?” Alec asked.  “Yeah, that sounds like my sister.”

“How sure are you?” Brian asked Lisa.

“That there’s more to it?  Seventy five percent, to ballpark it.”

“Bad idea,” Brian said.  I found myself nodding in agreement.

Lisa raised the phone to her ear.  “Nope.  Don’t suppose we can change your mind?”

There was a pause before Lisa hung up.  “Eighty-five percent sure there’s more to this story than she’s letting on.  She was all too okay with saying goodbye for someone chained up in a hot metal prison cell.  That, or she thinks we’re going to call back.”

Sundancer spoke up, “Can’t we?  What are we really risking, here?  I mean, what’s at stake?  The worst case scenario, if we let her talk?”

“Can’t say, can we?” Lisa said.  She tossed the phone in the air and then caught it.  “Say one of us has something to hide that Cherish could reveal to the others.  Nobody’s about to admit it.”

There were glances all around.

“But I think I have an idea.”  Lisa smiled.  It was her old smile.  The scar was there, but it no longer pulled her mouth into a perpetual half-frown.  “Brian, got any books here?  Or magazines?”

“Upstairs.  Aisha, go grab something.  Any book on the floor of my room.”

“Why-”  She hesitated when she met his eyes.  “Whatever.”

It was a minute before Aisha ventured back downstairs with a novel.  It looked like a suspense thriller.

“Here’s the deal.  Everyone closes their eyes.  We close our eyes while the others take their turns tearing a page out of the book.  The higher the page number, the worse our inner thoughts and secrets.  The last page, Uh, three hundred and fifty-five, we’ll say, is the worst of the worst.  Unforgiveable to the point that someone here would kill you and the rest would be okay with it.”

She rifled through the pages of the book, “Anything below one hundred and fifty, it’s tolerable.  Stuff we’d be ashamed for others to know, but we’d be okay with them knowing for the greater good.  We each stuff it in between the couch cushions, until we’ve got a crumpled mess and none of us know who tore out which page.  If we’re more or less safe, if the numbers aren’t too high and we think we can stand to have Cherish dish out the dirt on the others, we’ll take her up on the deal.”

Nobody disagreed with the plan, but I supposed that doing so would look bad.  I closed my eyes as we went around the room, until Lisa tapped me on the shoulder and handed me the book.

Where did I stand?  What secrets was I keeping, and how highly did I value them?

I had my deal with Coil, with the real possibility that I might wind up his adversary.  Lisa knew that, as did Brian, but the others didn’t.  I suspected that Aisha could be convinced to roll with it when Brian did, so long as we didn’t push too hard.  Alec and Bitch would go with the majority.  The Travelers?  They had other stakes in this.  That was more dangerous.

One-sixty.  I tore it out and stuck it in the couch, sat down and handed the book to Lisa.

It took another minute for the rest to decide.

“So, in order… twenty-six, one-twenty-two, one-forty, one-forty-one, one-fifty-five, one-sixty, one-seventy-five, two hundred twenty-two, and three-twenty-five.”

Three-twenty-five?

“That’s a no, then?” Brian asked.

“Something like that,” Lisa replied.  She picked up the phone and dialed.

“What are you doing?”  Trickster asked.  “You said we wouldn’t go ahead if we didn’t all agree.”

“You’re right.  But I’m going to try to haggle with her,” Lisa replied.  “Hello?  Yeah, you already know the answer.  No-go.  Uh-huh.  Sure.  What if I asked for the Travelers to leave?  You could address the rest of us.  You and I both know you’re doing this to sate your boredom than for any grander purpose.”

There was a pause.

“Good.”  Lisa put her hand over the mouthpiece.

“Does that really work?”  Trickster asked.  “What if we wanted to keep stuff from you?  She could tell you while we’re out of the room.”

Do you want to keep anything particular from us?”

He shook his head.  “But how do you know your teammates didn’t pick the high numbers?”

“I don’t,” Lisa flipped through the pages.  “But just going by what I know about our groups, I think our team is going to be more concerned about what outsiders think.  You guys are going to be more concerned about what your teammates think.  Am I wrong?”

Nobody spoke.

“We could do another blind vote,” she suggested, “In case anyone wants to say they’re not cool with these new terms.”

“Speaking as the person who took two-twenty-two, I really don’t care all that much,” Alec said.  “I picked a higher number because I thought it would bother those guys.  I figure my team knows enough.”

“Exactly as I said before,” Lisa said.  “Anyone else have any major objections?”

I shook my head.  I could deal with the team knowing about my plan.  If things went south, they’d find out anyways.

The Travelers made their exit, Shatterbird came inside to stand guard by the door, and the rest of us settled down.  Lisa dialed and put her cell on speaker phone.  It rang twice before Cherish answered.

“Finally,” her voice came through the line.

“Your two minutes start now,” Lisa spoke.

“I should get four, since I’m dealing with only one group.”

“One minute, fifty-five seconds,” Lisa replied.

“Where should I start?  Hey, little brother.  Want me to tell them the sort of things you really did when you were back home?”

“It’s sort of tedious,” Alec replied.

“I wonder.  Rape culture is a funny thing.  People gloss over some pretty shitty, creepy, wrong behavior, little brother, when they know the person in question.  But you raise the reality of what they’re doing, and it’s a whole lot harder to shrug it off.”

Rape.  It was a loaded word, but Cherish was right.  She was a horrible person, to be sure, but she was right.  Did I really want to face what Regent had done, before we knew him?  Rape.  Murder.  He’d said, this very morning, that he’d done what he did because he’d been young, but that was just an excuse.  The deeds were still done, the consequences very real.

“You’re really one to talk, Cherie.  You’ve done what I’ve done, many times over.”

“I’m not pretending anything.  I am what I am, I don’t put on a facade,” Cherish retorted.

“That’s a blatant lie.  If you showed your true nature to the world at large, your face would be too ugly to look at.”

Ouch,” Cherish layered on the sarcasm.  “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do.  You’re delaying me, so I have less time to work with.  Why don’t I get started?  Let’s talk about your first kill?  Gang member, a kid.  You used him to kill his boss.  His older brother, in fact.  Because daddy wanted you to.  Then dad ordered you to kill him.  But you didn’t make it fast, did you?  You made him stab himself with a fork, over and over, and over…”

“Keeping in mind that I was hanging out with you and the dirty old man and our brothers and sisters.  Nature and nurture, I was kind of fucked on both fronts.  It was a matter of self-preservation to keep you guys entertained, and that was the sort of thing you liked.  Sorrylike, present tense.”

“Maybe, maybe.  And the drugs?  When daddy had you practicing your powers, you ‘hijacked’ a few people at a time, used their bodies to get high with no consequences for you, you threw orgies for yourself…”

“Again.  I was a kid.”

“How much does that excuse?”

There was a pause.  I looked at Alec, and he rolled his eyes at me.  Was he like Brian?  His emotions buried deep inside?  Or were they simply not there?

“What about darkness-boy?  Want to talk about what happened yesterday?”

I clenched my fists.  Lisa raised a hand, telling me to stop.

“You’re running low on time, Cherie,” Alec said.

“I’m happy for the chance to talk.  Bonesaw’s alive, you know.  She has hands, borrowed from Mannequin.  She’s plotting what she’s going to do to Grue.  Think about that.  She’s going to take him apart, and it’ll hurt worse the second time around, because she makes that sort of thing a matter of personal pride.  She’s thinking about it, daydreaming on the subject, and she’s a smart enough cookie that she’ll figure it out.”

Brian turned his back on the phone, staring out the window.  I wanted to reach out to him, to help ease the weight that idea must have set on his shoulders, somehow.

“Bitch, you know that Skitter’s going to betray you again.  Look at her.  She prides herself on being smart, and you know the best way for someone to make themselves feel smart? They make others look stupid, and you’re the stupidest person she has access to.”

I tensed.  I would have been lying if I hadn’t said I hadn’t seen something along these lines coming, but it ultimately depended on Bitch’s reaction.

“I fucking hate people who try to manipulate me,” Bitch growled.  “Next time I see you, I’m knocking your teeth in.”

There was a pause.

“Ah well,” Cherish said.

“And your time is up,” Alec said.  “So, now’s the point where you fuck us over and don’t say a thing.”

“Why would I do that?  I want you to deal with the Nine.  You killed Burnscar, didn’t you?  If you dealt with Siberian, life would be a lot easier for me.”

“So we’re right?”  Lisa leaned forward.  “There’s a weakness.  She has a real body somewhere?”

“She does.  Right now it’s actually not too far from you.”

Fifteen feet away.  I remembered Alec’s joke.

“Near that hole the Endbringer made,” Cherish said.  “Both of them, the real Siberian and the body.”

“You know what she looks like?”

“He.  A man.  Middle aged or older.  Unkempt.  Doesn’t eat much, probably thin.”

That wasn’t what I would have expected.

“Right now?  Siberian’s chasing down one of the candidates.  She’s taken on the next round of testing.  Simple test.  Hunt them down and if she catches you, you fail.  She eats you alive as punishment.  Wonder how many she can knock off before you take him down.  If you take him down.”

“Who’s she after?  We gotta know.”

“No you don’t.  Way I figure it, you go into the fight blind, you still stand a pretty good chance of offing her.  No skin off my back if a few of you die in the process.”

“You need enough of us alive to deal with the rest of the Nine.”

“Maybe, maybe,” Cherish taunted us with her tone.  “But shouldn’t you hurry?  The hero is going to die.”

It was Panacea or Armsmaster.  Both were complicated.  Panacea wouldn’t be able to defend herself, but Armsmaster was a whole mess of complications.

We hurried to get suited up.  My mask in ruins, I wrapped a scarf around my lower face and covered it with bugs.  I drew them around my eyes to hide the frames of my glasses.

As I finished up, I glanced at Bitch.  Her knuckles were white, her posture rigid.

She was pissed.

I made sure I had all my gear, then joined the rest in filing out.  Grue and Tattletale were the last out the door.

Glancing back to check on Grue, finding his posture and expressions unreadable beneath his darkness and costumes, I caught a glimpse of Tattletale messing with one of the pouches on her belt.  The pages we’d torn from the book were folded into a tight square, and she was pocketing them for later study.  She saw me looking.

“You going to be okay with this?”  She asked me.  “You’re the best equipped to find Siberian’s real body and stop her.  Him.  Them.”

“I’ll deal somehow.”

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