Interlude 20 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Park there,” Stan said, pointing to a space off the side of the road.

“We’ll be facing uphill, and we still have to unload the equipment,” Nipper piped up, from the back seat.

“There’s a method to my madness.  Park, Marshall.  I’ll even deign to help unload and carry this time.”

He got a glimpse of Marshall rolling his eyes, but the boy steered the van to a parking spot.

True to his word, Stan was out the door, rolling up his sleeves.  Didn’t hurt: the humidity was brutal outside the air-conditioned van.  His dress shirt was already sticking to his back.

They were on a hill, and the vantage point afforded them a view of the city.  Cranes dotted the skyline, and the buildings themselves were gleaming, the whites and colors brightened by the ambient moisture in the air.  It might have looked attractive, but there were spots where buildings were missing, whole areas where the construction was only just beginning.

He could see the white building, not too far away, which was taller than even the skyscrapers immediately around it.  He’d investigated it just a few days ago.  They’d erected a tall white tent, holding it up with a crane, they’d reinforced it with plexiglass panels and iron reinforcement, and now a more solid construction was going up around it.  Slow, painstaking, careful work, filled with redundancies.  The workers would be glad to be free of the hazmat suits in this heat.

Brockton Bay wasn’t lacking in stories to tell.  The quarantine building alone was one.

“Need a hand,” Nipper said.

He hurried around to the back of the truck.  The van had been parked at the side of the road, emergency brake cranked, wheels turned so it would ride up onto the sidewalk if the brake failed, but the steep incline was making it hard to unload the equipment.  Much of it was set up to be slid out of the back of the van at a moment’s notice, but that same convenience was an obstacle, here.  The stuff was expensive, and if it slid to the road…

He found a space beside her and reached to get a grip on the far end of the camera.  It might not have been a problem, but Nipper was short, petite, built more like a thirteen year old than a twenty-three year old college graduate.

She wasn’t suited for the job.  She knew the equipment, she was capable with a computer, she had good eyesight, and the tattoos and array of piercings on her right ear were as good an indicator of her creative edge as anything else.

But this wasn’t the job she’d been working towards.  She wasn’t one to complain, but she didn’t have stamina, she didn’t have strength, and this, all of this, it was too fast paced for her.  She’d have been better, maybe even happier in the newsroom, managing the feeds, maintaining the systems and working on post production.

Marshall hefted the bag out of the back of the van.  All the wires, the tripod, the lighting, packed into a dense case.  The boy didn’t look like a professional, hadn’t quite adapted to the job he’d been pulled into: from intern to a jack of all trades, filling in the gaps in Stan’s team.  Set up, interviewing, driving, gopher… anything and everything.  He was drawing in a paycheck, but he was definitely working for it, facing all of the hassles, the intense stresses and dangers of the job, for eleven dollars an hour.

Dangers, Stan thought.  Images flickered through his mind.  Everyone at the station had seen the feeds, had watched them several times over.  Purity taking the camera from Manzaneres, a guy from channel four, then setting her monsters on the man.  A man with a wife and a newborn had been murdered, just to make a point.

There was a reason for the shortage of field reporters.  It wasn’t limited to Manzaneres, either.  The problem was a chronic one.  This was a job that put ordinary people on the fringes of events that were dangerous for capes.

“Set?”

Marshall closed the back of the van and locked it.  “Set.”

Stan set off, with Nipper and Marshall following, Nipper almost jogging to keep up with his long strides.  “Reason we’re parked here is that the school’s on top of the hill.  We don’t know how much parking there’ll be, with students possibly taking up spaces, and if we have to drive by, searching for a spot, then someone’s liable to spot us and take measures.”

“Measures?” Nipper asked, a touch breathlessly.

Right.  She didn’t have the experience to know.  “You’ll see what I mean.”

There were students gathered outside the walls that bordered the school.  Police cars were parked at the front, along with PRT vans, but it was the uniformed guards with ‘Arcadia High School’ stenciled on their sleeves that caught his attention.

Guards?  It conjured up an image of a prison, rather than a school.

“Nip, get some footage of the uniforms,” Stan said.

She hefted the camera and trained it on the nearest of the uniformed guards.  She had to slow her pace to keep the shot steady, but she kept following him.  When a group of students obstructed her vision, she shut off the feed and hurried to catch up.

They reached the gate, where a woman with a colorful scarf was talking to a PRT uniform.  He signaled Nipper, and the young woman raised the camera.

“Damn it,” the woman with the scarf groaned, as she saw them.  The police officer took the opportunity to step away.

“Don’t jump to conclusions,” Stan said, “We’re not the enemy.”

“You’re here to bog down an overcomplicated situation,” she said.  “I have enough problems without vultures descending.”

“We’re here for the story, that’s all.  You’re in charge here?”

“I’m in charge of the school.  Principal Howell.”

He made a mental note.  Howell, Howell, Howell.  She wasn’t the prettiest woman, with old acne scars riddled across her cheeks, a short stature and a nose that didn’t quite fit her face.

“Stan Vickery, channel twelve news,” he flashed her his best smile and extended a hand.  She didn’t take it.

“You’re not allowed on school property.”

“I would be if you gave me permission,” he said, dropping his hand.  The job was politics as much as it was investigation, creativity and presentation.  What did she want?  Peace and quiet.  “Give us fifteen minutes to talk to your students and shoot a few takes in front of the doors, and I’ll get the word out that we got the story first.  Other stations are playing it safer, these days, less crew, less willing to act on sloppy seconds.”

The principal made a face.

Stan smiled, “Sorry.  You get what I mean.  Give us fifteen minutes, and we’re one less thing you have to worry about today.  With luck, I’ll be the only local reporter you see today.”

“With all due respect, Mr…”

“Vickery,” he said, already told you my name.  “But you can call me Stan, Mrs. Howell.  Fact of the matter is, you let me in the school, and I owe you one.  I pull strings or emphasize certain aspects of a story.  Not just this one either.  Who knows?  The next incident could be worse, or more sensitive.”

“Mr. Vickers,” she said.  “I’m fully aware that you’re trying to bait me into giving you a sound bite.  I won’t comment on this situation, and I won’t be letting you onto school grounds.  I don’t want you talking to any of my students.”

“Fine,” he said.  “Come on, guys.  Let’s go talk to the cops.”

“Seriously?  We’re giving up?” Nipper asked.

“Yes,” he said, he took long strides away from the front gate of the school, until he was sure the principal wasn’t in immediate earshot.  “No.  She’s liable to get on our case if we don’t pretend to play along.  Howell has no authority outside of the school walls, so we interview students there.  Marshall, head back in the direction of the van.  Talk to students, see if they want to be on TV.  Look for the talkative ones and the emotional ones, and point them my way.”

“What about the cops?” Marshall asked.

“They’ll be around later, and cops have better memories than civilians.  It’s the students who were at the scene.  Go.  We don’t know how long we have before other crews show.”

It was a shame the principal hadn’t let him into the school, Stan mused.  Silly of her, too.  That favor he’d offered her was gold, all things considered.  Something she could use to bail a superior out of an awkward position and advance her own.

Your guanxi could be better, Mrs. Howell, he thought.  He loved the idea behind the Chinese concept of guanxi.  It fit in the same general category as the concepts of friends, family, acquaintances, but it was more based in business and politics.  Guanxi was about being able to call up a person one hadn’t seen in years and ask for a favor.  To have enough people in one’s debt that there was more implied leverage to use when seeking favors from others.

He’d been introduced to the idea a few years ago, and he attributed much of his recent career advancement to it.  It was something to be aware of at all times, and it changed his perspective on things.

He approached a group of teenage girls who were gathered in a group, observing the police and PRT officers.  He flashed one of his best smiles at them.  He could see one of them glance him over, her body language changing subtly.  He directed the smile at her, “I bet you’re dying to talk about what happened here.  Exciting stuff.”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  “Supervillain doesn’t attack the school every day.”

“Wasn’t an attack.  She showed up, and they came after her in her civilian ID.”

“I know it wasn’t an attack,” the first girl replied.  “I was just… It’s what others have been saying.”

“Skitter, wasn’t it?”  Stan chimed in.  He snapped his fingers, and Nipper pointed the camera at the girls.

“Yeah.  The bug girl,” another girl spoke up.  “I guess she goes to Arcadia.”

“No way.  I heard she was a student at Winslow, before Leviathan came.  Geeky kid, was having a hard time with some jerks, apparently.  I think her name was Taylor, but you’d have to ask someone from Winslow.”

He prodded, “What happened?  Was there a fight?”

“Dragon and this new guy Defiant showed up, along with the two new heroes.  Don’t know their names.”

He’d memorized the names.  “Adamant?  Clasp?  Dovetail?  Halo?  Crucible? Rosary? Sere?”

“Sere and Adamant,” one girl replied.

“Sere and Adamant,” he said, making a mental note.

“And two of the Wards.  Clockblocker was one of them.  Anyways, she got away.”

“She didn’t do anything to provoke them?”

“Didn’t hear about anything.”

“And they mobilized on the school?”

“Sure.”

He started to ask for more details, then stopped.  Marshall was approaching, with a kid in tow.

“Cell phone video,” Marshall said.  “Long conversation between Defiant, Dragon and Skitter in the cafeteria.

Stan raised his eyebrows, looking at the girl with the phone, “Pay you twenty bucks to let us copy it.”

“A hundred,” she said.

“Twenty.  If you got it on camera, others did too, and someone‘s going to take the twenty.”

She glanced at Marshall, then back to Stan.  “Fine.”

“You have the equipment?” Stan asked Marshall.

“Laptop and a cord.  Give me a minute.”

“We’ll watch it later,” Stan said, absently.  He turned his attention back to the girls.

This wasn’t the first time he’d walked into a situation almost blind.  The job was a stressful one, but he thrived on stress.  Racing against the clock, to be the first to the scene, the first to report on the situation.  But even reporting was a kind of challenge unto itself.  The scene had to be investigated, the story teased out, details verified.  To top it off, it had to be presentable.

He’d been the producer, before Coil had blown up the camera crew and reporter that had been covering the mayoral debate.  He had an eye for this.  Had to, because there was nobody back at the studio that would be able to cover this base for him.  Sad and ironic, really.  There weren’t enough people in the bay, resources weren’t consistent.  So they’d reduced the size of the staff, cut back on hours.  Then six people had died, including their lead reporter.

Nevermind the rumors that the PRT was, on Miss Militia’s behalf, investigating ties between Coil and the killed reporters and camera crews.  He’d itched to look into that more, but it didn’t fit with his philosophy.

“Were you there, in the cafeteria?” he asked the girls.

“No.”

“Right.  Alright.  Any thoughts?  Were you scared, knowing there were so many capes in the school?”

Twenty more seconds, to grab more details and reaction clips, and then he was moving, searching for others to talk to.

Two more groups questioned, and he didn’t have much else.  He knew Skitter’s name, and Channel four had arrived, and the race was on.

“Got the video!” Marshall called out.

Stan took the offered laptop.  To watch now, it would mean delaying interviews.  Memories would fade.

But he needed the narrative.  How had things unfolded?  What were the key, crucial points at the heart of this?  That the school was unsafe?  It would work, grab attention and viewers, but it felt cheap.  No, the public knew that the Protectorate was imploding.  There had to be a connection, tying this to something greater.

“Thank you,” he said.  He’d decided.  “Now, I need you to find me someone who knew Skitter in her civilian guise.”

Marshall nodded.

“He or she will be one of the students who attended Winslow.”

“On it.”

Stan retreated to the van with the laptop.  He took the extra time to open the video in an editing suite before playing it.

Without being asked, Nipper hooked it into the van’s computers.  A little icon notified him that he was connected to the studio.

…There for the S-class threat downtown.  I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I think maybe I deserve to, a little.  I’ve done my share.  You don’t turn around and reveal my identity in front of a crowd.”

On a notepad of lined paper, he penned down ’20th’ followed by a question mark.  The video continued playing, and he noted down times and key phrases, along with questions.  When a critical comment was shown, he was sure to copy the clip.  There were a few times where the volume was too quiet, the voices too low or things were drowned out by background noise.  Nipper worked to tune the sound so they could make it out, raising the volume or filtering out the noise.

D&D picked fight?  Pushed by authorities?Drag past convo with Skitter.  When?
Putting children at risk
Violation of truce

“…And you seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months…”

What does Skitter know?  App’tly important.

“…the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Either you’ve abandoned that chase, or you’re about to tell me that there’s something more important than stopping them…”

S9?  D-check events post-Boston.

Hospital?  Skitter & Defiant?

D&D negotiating with villains?  Possible cooperation?  Corruption?

“…Stand if you side with me!

Both video and audio were distorted by the movements of students, rising from tables, pushing away from the jumble of bodies.

Stan smiled.  There.

He cut out the scene in question, the students siding with Skitter over the heroes, and gave the clip a title.  ‘The heart of this story?’

A second later, a note appeared on the side of the window.  The crew at the studio had a R.A.T. connecting them to the laptop, and freedom to make changes or add their own details.

Yes – Ed

He had it.  The editors at the station were on board.

Now to cobble it together into a story.

He opened a file and began sketching out the script.  At the very top, he put up notes, clips he’d need from the station.

There was a knock on the door of the van.  Stan opened it to see Marshall with an awkward looking young man.  Fifteen or sixteen.  He looked despondent.  Hangdog.

“He says he was her friend, once.”

“No,” the boy said.  “Not exactly.  But we sort of knew each other.  Had classes together, did group work.  And I owe her.”

Stan smiled.

…take you now to reporter Stan Vickery.”

Thank you, Nick.  One thousand and two hundred students made their way to Arcadia High for their first day back at school, earlier on this sunny day.  They hoped to readjust and get a taste of normal life after weeks spent away from home, or enduring the long series of incidents to afflict Brockton Bay.  Less than halfway through their day, those hopes were dashed.

A video clip replaced the blond man with the mustache and a face lined by years of stress.  A massive metal suit, looming at the far end of the school’s parking lot, a mechanized dragon.

The school became the site of a confrontation between Dragon, a heroine known across the world, and local warlord and leader of the Undersiders, Skitter.  Within moments of their meeting on school grounds, Dragon revealed Skitter’s identity as Taylor Hebert, a sixteen year old student.  With this revelation came a dozen more questions…

“Change the channel,” a boy in prison sweats said.  “News is boring shit.”

“No,” Sophia said.

Skitter was Taylor.  A dozen things fell into place.

Anger boiled within her.  Outrage.  That cringing, whiny, pathetic little scarecrow was the ruler of Brockton Bay’s underworld?  It didn’t fit.  It demanded an answer of some sort.

But she couldn’t.  As the voice droned on, Sophia turned her attention to the bracelets she wore.  There was a live current running through them, and they could be joined together to fashion handcuffs, but even like this, they were bondage.  She couldn’t enter her shadow state without passing through the insulated sheath that protected her.

She couldn’t leave, as much as she wanted to, right this moment.

Glowering, a confused, impotent frustration building within her, she fixed her eyes on the television.  It swelled within her until she could barely think.  She clenched her hands, but she couldn’t squeeze hard enough to release any of the building emotion.  She unclenched her fists, extended her fingers, as if reaching for something, but there was nothing she could grab.

There was no release valve for this, no way to vent.

Taylor’s face appeared on the screen in the same moment she hit her limit.  She rose from her seat, aware of the guards advancing on her, and kicked the television screen, shattering it, amid the protests and swearing of her fellow inmates.

A second later, they were tackling her.  Two guards at once, forcing her to the ground.

She screamed something so incoherent that even she would have been hard pressed to interpret it.

Who was she?  And what motivated these professed heroes to mobilize on a school, risking the lives of students and staff?  Skitter herself wondered aloud about their willingness to put hostages within her reach…

A clip appeared on the screen.  Taylor, sitting on the edge of a counter.  She spoke, filled with confidence, almost nonchalant.  “You put me in a room with three hundred people I could theoretically take hostage.  Why?  You can’t be that confident I wouldn’t hurt someone…

A student abruptly shrieked, thrashing and falling to the ground in her haste to get away.

“Danny,” Kurt said, settling a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “You don’t need to watch this.”

Danny shook his head.  Kurt looked down the man.  He hadn’t even spoken, from the moment he’d opened the door and Lacey had wrapped her arms around him.

This is bait, isn’t it?” Taylor’s voice, oddly out of place coming from the television.

The tone of the conversation even implied there were unspoken secrets that Skitter was aware of, that the Protectorate sought to silence,” Stan Vickery spoke, reappearing, with Arcadia High behind him as a backdrop.  “Raising questions about what those secrets might be.

…You seriously expect me to keep my mouth shut about all the dirty little secrets I’ve picked up on over the last few months?”  Taylor’s voice, again.

Danny put his face into his hands, pushing his glasses up to his forehead in the process.  Kurt rubbed his back, while Lacey looked on, sympathetic.

What did Skitter know, and does it relate to the event  on the twentieth of June?  Why were Defiant and Dragon willing to abandon their pursuit of the Slaughterhouse Nine?

“Is…” Danny started to speak, but his voice cracked.  He paused, then spoke again.  “Is this on me?”

“No!” Lacey said.  “No, honey.”

“Those aren’t questions I’d hope to pose any answers to today,” the news reporter said.  “The real question is bigger than that, and smaller at the same time.  What forces drive a child from this…

A teenage boy, his eyes downcast.  “She was nice, quiet.  I know people won’t believe me when I say it, but she was a genuinely good person.  Is.  Is a good person.  At heart.  I’m sorry, Taylor.

To this?

It switched to Taylor’s voice, calm, unruffled, accompanied by the same long-distance, low resolution footage of her sitting on the counter in the school cafeteria.  “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of-

Kurt turned off the television.  Danny was frozen, unmoving, staring down at his hands.

“It was context,” Lacey said, quiet.  “She was acting.  I’m sure-“

She broke off as Kurt shook his head.  Doing more damage than good.

“We’re going to stick by you, okay, Dan?” Kurt spoke.  “Let’s have you come by our place.  Better you aren’t alone right now, yeah?  And it’ll get you away from those reporters.”

Danny didn’t respond.  He stayed hunched over the kitchen table.

“Unless you want to wait here for her, in case?” Lacey asked.

“She already said goodbye,” Danny replied, pushing against the table to help himself rise to a standing position.  “I think that’s it.”

You’d be surprised what I’m capable of.  I’ve mutilated people.  Carved out a man’s eyes, emasculated him.  I’ve chopped off a woman’s toes.  Flayed people alive with the bites of thousands of insects.  Hell, what I did to Triumph… he nearly died, choking on insects, the venom of a hundred bee stings making his throat close up.

And what drives dozens of students to reject the heroes of this city in favor of the villain in charge?”  Stan asked.

The widescreen television showed the students rising from the tables, joining Skitter.  Another clip followed, showing students actively wrestling with the heroes.

“Christ,” the Director spoke.

Beside her successor, Piggot was watching in silence, elbows on the table, hands folded in front of her mouth.

“This could have been avoided,” the Director said.  “On multiple levels.”

“Most likely,” Defiant replied.  He stood at one end of the long table, Dragon beside him.

“If you would have cut off the feed, deleted the footage from phones, we would have had time to do damage control.”

“We won’t ignore people’s first amendment rights,” Defiant said.

…The PRT and the Protectorate have refused to comment, and the silence is damning, in light of what occurred today,” the reporting continued in the background.  “Brockton Bay has become the latest, greatest representation of the troubles the world faces in this new age, and perhaps a representation of the world’s hopes…

“You’re better than this, Dragon,” Piggot spoke.  “To the point that I’m left wondering… did you steer all of this in this direction?”

“If you try to place the blame on us,” Defiant replied, “I think you’ll be unpleasantly surprised.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

Director Tagg, Piggot’s latest successor, picked up the remote and muted the television.

Defiant shifted his weight, clasping his hands behind his back.  The body language was smug, somehow.

Piggot glanced at each of the people who were seated at the table.  Mr. Tagg, the Director of Brockton Bay’s PRT, Director Armstrong from Boston, and Director Wilkins from New York were all present.  Mr. Keene sat opposite her.  A camera mounted on the table gave the Chief Director of the PRT eyes on the meeting, where she watched from Washington.

Nobody else seemed willing to answer Defiant, some simply staring at him, others watching the segment on the wall-mounted television.  She spoke, “I would remind you that you are on a strict probation, with terms you agreed to.”

“I am,” Defiant said.  “Would you arrest me for being insubordinate?  Or would it take something more substantial?”

“Test us and you’ll find out,” Director Tagg responded.

“And what would happen then?  Would you send me to the Birdcage?” Defiant asked.

The question was heavy with the reminder that it was Dragon who maintained and managed the Birdcage.

Emily Piggot was caught between a desire to feel smug and quiet fear.  She’d warned them.  She’d communicated her concerns at every opportunity, through channels that Dragon wouldn’t be able to track.  She’d been dismissed, shrugged off, when she raised the question of what might happen if Dragon was killed in battle, or if Dragon turned against them.

“I’d like to hear a response from Dragon,” Piggot said.

Dragon turned her head to look at her, face hidden behind an expressionless mask and unblinking, opaque lenses.  There was something about the movement that seemed off.  Both the movement and the silence that followed was oddly disturbing.

“No?  No response?”

“A consequence of our recent visit to Brockton Bay,” Defiant said.  “I’m hoping she’ll be better in a few days.”

Curious, Piggot observed, the note of emotion in his voice, at that simple statement.

As if eager to change the subject, Director Armstrong said, “Mr. Keene.  Thoughts?  How does this affect your department?”

Piggot turned her attention to the man.  She’d only had limited interactions with him, but the man had earned her respect quickly enough.  He wasn’t a Director, but rather the liaison between the Protectorate and various other superhero teams worldwide, organizing deals, ensuring that everyone held to the same code of conduct, and ensuring that the groups could all coordinate in times of emergency.

“It’s catastrophic,” Keene said.  “I can manage some damage control, offer further aid, manipulate the grants available, but I can’t build on a foundation that isn’t there.”

“Where do our biggest problems lie?”

“The C.U.I. is first to mind.  The Suits and the King’s Men will cooperate, because they have to.  For the American teams, it varies from case to case.  But we’re in the middle of negotiations with the C.U.I., and this won’t reflect well on us.  That is, it won’t if we can’t get our footing here and make a strong showing at the next major event.”

The next major event.  The idea seemed to give everyone pause.

“Something needs to change,” Defiant said.

“Somehow, Colin,” Piggot replied, “I think our ideas on what needs to change are very different.”

“Very likely,” he said, his voice hard.  “But this was a last straw for us, in many ways.  We have a few stipulations for our continued assistance.”

“Defiant,” Tagg interrupted him.  “You’re not in a position to make demands.”

He’s a hard man, Piggot thought.  Army, PRT squad leader, a general, not a politician.  Ironic, that they’d butt heads.  “Director Tagg, you asked me here as a consultant, so allow me to consult.”

Tagg turned his attention to her.

She continued, “I don’t like this scenario any more than you do.  But let’s hear Defiant’s demands before you reject him out of hand.”

Director Tagg didn’t reply, but he turned his attention back to Defiant and he didn’t speak.

“Dragon and I have discussed this in-depth.  We need the present Directors to admit culpability for the incident, and we need to clean house, with in-depth background checks and investigations into any prominent member of the PRT.  We can’t maintain things as they are with the spectre of Cauldron looming over us.”

“You’d have us fire any number of PRT employees at a time when we’re struggling to retain members?”  Tagg asked, almost aghast.

“And relieving capes from duty at the same time,” Defiant said.  “With so few employees, it’s ridiculous to continue working to shut down leaks and control the flow of information.  Dragon has expressed concerns over having to do this in the past, and between the two of us, we’ve agreed that the censorship stops tonight, at midnight.”

Tagg rose from his seat, opening his mouth to speak-

“I agree,” Piggot spoke before her successor could.

Heads turned.

“It’s a misuse of resources,” she said, “And we do need to clean house.”

“You don’t have a position to lose,” Tagg replied.

“I wouldn’t lose it anyways,” she retorted, “I’ve had no contact with Cauldron.”

Keene clapped his hands together once, then smiled, “Well said.  We have nothing to fear if we aren’t connected to them.”

“You realize what they’re doing, don’t you?” Tagg asked.  “How does this investigation happen?  Dragon has her A.I. rifle through all known records and databases.  We defeat the sole purpose of the PRT, by putting the parahumans themselves in a position of power!”

“That ship has long sailed,” Keene commented, “With the revelations about Chief Director Costa-Brown, if you’ll pardon my saying.”

“You’re pardoned,” the Chief Director’s voice sounded over the speaker, crystal clear.  “I think this would pose more problems than it solves.  We’ll have to turn you down, Defiant.”

“Then I don’t see much of a reason for us to stay,” Defiant replied.

“And if you leave, the assumption is that we’ll be left without Dragon’s ability to maintain every system and device she’s created for us.  The PRT without a Birdcage, without our computer systems or database, without the specialized grenade loadouts or the containment foam dispensers.”

“An unfortunate consequence,” Defiant said.

“Not a concern at all,” the Chief Director replied.

There was a pause.  Dragon glanced at Defiant.

“No?” Defiant asked.

“No.  We’ve been in contact with an individual who has a proven track record with Dragon’s technology.  He feels equipped, eager, almost, to step into Dragon’s shoes should she take a leave of absence.”

“Saint,” Defiant said.  “You’re talking about the leader of the Dragonslayers.  Criminal mercenaries.”

“My first priority is and always has been protecting people.  If it’s a question between abandoning the security the Birdcage offers the world at large or requesting the assistance of a scoundrel-”

“A known murderer,” Defiant said.

“I wouldn’t throw stones,” Tagg replied, his voice a growl.

“-A known murderer, even,” the Chief Director continued, as if she hadn’t been interrupted.  “I will take security without question.”

Defiant looked at Dragon.

“The second dilemma I have to pose to you two,” the Chief Director continued, “Is simple.  What do you expect will happen when the next Endbringer arrives?  Between Dragon’s brilliant mind and Defiant’s analysis technologies, I’m sure you’ve given the matter some consideration.  Without the Protectorate, how does the event tend to unfold?”

Piggot studied the pair, trying to read their reactions.  They were so hard to gauge, even if she ignored the armor.

“It doesn’t go well,” Defiant said.  “It doesn’t go well even if we assume the present Protectorate is coordinated and in peak fighting condition.”

“We can’t afford a loss,” the Chief Director said.  “You know it as well as I do.  Now, tell me there isn’t room for a middle ground.”

Dragon turned to Defiant, and moved with a careful slowness as she set one hand on his arm.

“We get through the next fight,” Defiant said.  “Then we clean house.”

“I think that’s an acceptable compromise.”

This event,” the reporter spoke, “Points to something else entirely, a fatal flaw in the system, the latest and greatest representation of the Protectorate’s steady collapse.

“Too rich,” Jack commented, smirking.  “Across the board, I love it.  Fantastic.”

Hookwolf, pacing on the opposite side of the television, grunted a response.

Bonesaw was crouched by the side of a machine.  She watched with hands on hips as Blasto ratcheted in a bolt at the base of a tall, black-handled lever, his movements jerky with the internal and external mechanisms that forced them.

The Protectorate declined to comment, and in light of recent events and allegations of deep-seated secrets, their silence is damning.

“Almost ready,” Bonesaw said, her voice sing-song.  “You’re next, Hooksie.”

Hookwolf glanced at her, and then at the contraption.

“Don’t tell me you’re scared,” she said, her tone a taunt.

“Not of… this.  I’m questioning if this is the path we should take.”

“I’m expected to bring about the end of the world,” Jack said, still watching the television.  “But this is rather tepid for my tastes.  I’d like to hurry it along, inject some more drama into the affair.”

“…event at Arcadia High School is sure to draw attention from aross America.  We, the public, want answers.  The death of Vikare marked the end of the golden age, the end of an era where becoming a superhero was the expectation for anyone and everyone with powers, and even those who decided to work in business or public affairs with their abilities were termed ‘rogues’…

Bonesaw took ahold of Hookwolf’s hand and led him to his seat.  She stepped back, glancing over the contraption.  The only light was cast by a small desk lamp and the glow of a computer monitor, an island of light in the middle of an expansive, wide-reaching darkness.  Desk, engine, and tinker-designed seats, surrounded by an absolute, oppressive darkness.

“It doesn’t sit well,” Hookwolf said.  “I can’t articulate why.  My thoughts are still cloudy.”

Bonesaw hit a button, and the lights began to flicker, the engine beside her starting to hum with a progressively higher pitch.  With the flickering of the lights came glimpses of the things beyond.  Light on glass and wires.

“I’d rather a Ragnarök than-“

Bonesaw hauled on a white-handled lever, and Hookwolf’s voice cut off.  The flickering of the lights ceased, and the room returned to darkness.

Jack sighed.

…threatens to mark a similar occasion…

Bonesaw stepped over the body of a dead tinker in a lab coat, stopping in front of Jack.  “Strip.”

Jack shucked off his shirt, and then pulled off his pants and boxer briefs.  The blades that hung heavy on his belt made an ugly metal sound as they dropped to the tiled floor.

“…and cover yourself up,” Bonesaw said, averting her eyes.  “Shameful!  You’re in the company of a child, and a girl, no less.”

“Terribly sorry,” Jack said, his voice thick with irony, as he cupped his nether regions in both hands.  He stepped back and took a seat, leaning back against the diagonal surface behind the short bench.  Cold.

“...The reality is clear.  The repercussions of what happened today will change the relationship between hero, villain and civilian.  It remains up to them to decide whether it will be a change for the better, or a change for the worse.”

The segment ended, and the television turned back to the news anchors at their desks.

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.

“Likes to hear himself talk,” Bonesaw replied.  “Which do you think it’ll be?  Change for the better or change for the worse?”

Jack smiled.

“It’s a given?” she asked.  She pressed the button, and the lights started to flicker again.

“I think so,” Jack commented.  “But I almost hope things do turn out well.”

The lights were flickering more violently now, to the point that periods of light matched the periods of darkness.  Between the spots in his vision, Jack could see more and more of their surroundings.

Row upon row of glass case lined the underground chamber, each large enough to house a full-grown man, though there were only fetal shapes within at present.  Each was labeled.  One row had cases marked ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’, ‘Crawler’… ten iterations in total.  The next row had ten cases labeled with the word ‘Siberian’.  The one after with ten repetitions of ‘Chuckles’.

One column of cases dedicated to each member of the Nine, past and present, with the exception of Jack and one other.

“Makes for a greater fall?” Bonesaw asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He glanced at the one isolated case, felt his pulse quicken a notch.  It was the only one that was standalone.  ‘Gray Boy.’

“I guess we find out soon!” he said, raising his voice to be heard over the whine of the engine.

Bonesaw only laughed.  She hauled on the switch with both hands, and the room was plunged into silence and darkness.

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Interlude 19

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“Ballet, horseback riding, modeling classes or violin.  Pick one, Emma.  One.”

“Or, or, or, maybe I don’t pick any, and…”

“And?” she could hear a weariness in her father’s voice.  He checked over his shoulder and then turned the car into a side street.  A bag with assorted tubs of ice cream sat on the divider between the pair of them.

“Maybe you give a second thought to moving?   There’s really nice places just a little way South, and I’d still be going to the same school, and-”

“Nope.”

“Dad!”

“There’s three jobs I absolutely despise in this world.  One is matching socks, the second is ironing, and the third is moving.  I can foist the first two off on your mom, but the third is a lifestyle choice.  My lifestyle, specifically, is owning the house I’m going to live in until I die.”

Emma frowned, turning to look out the window.  She pouted a little, “This place sucks.  Brockton Bay sucks.

“What’s so bad about it?”

“Everything’s falling apart.  It’s like… show me any house, and I can point out ten things that are wrong with it.”

“Every house has something wrong with it.”

“Not every house!  Like, when I went to Chris’ birthday party?  I-”

“Chris?”

“Christine,” Emma injected a note of condescension into her voice, “Last weekend?  Or did you forget already?”

“Why not call her Christine?  Perfectly nice name.”

“Because androgyne is cool, dad.  It’s the thing in modelling.  Like, I could never have my hair short, but-”  She stopped mid-sentence, answering her phone mid-ring.  “Hello?”

“Emma!”  The voice on the other end was breathy, excited.  There was a babble of other voices in the background.  She could imagine the other youths lined up to use the pay phones.

“Taylor,” Emma said, smiling.

“Ok I gotta talk fast because I only have two minutes and I need my other fifty cents to call my dad.  We rowed across the lake this morning to this waterfall, only it wasn’t exactly a waterfall, more like a water stair, and we were all taking turns sliding and falling down this set of slick rocks, and Elsa, she’s this girl wearing a bikini, she’s been spending the last three days acting like she’s hot stuff, she slides down the wrong part, and it catches on the strap, right?  It doesn’t tear it off, but it stretches, so it doesn’t even fit her anymore

Emma laughed, leaning back against her car seat.

It was something of a relief, to hear Taylor getting excited about something, to hear her getting excited over nothing.  She’d lost her mother a year ago, and hadn’t bounced back, not entirely.  Her smiles not quite as wide, she was a second later to laugh, as if she had to wait, to give herself permission to do it, had to hold back.  Before, it had been almost no holds barred.  Anything went, however they wanted to amuse themselves, whatever they wanted to talk about.  Complete and total openness.  Lately there had been too many movies, too many activities and topics of conversation, that Taylor preferred to avoid.

It hadn’t been easy, Emma mused, as Taylor yammered on.  Sometimes she’d call, they’d do their customary hanging out, and she’d feel like the time was wasted, afternoons and weekends spent with her best friend that she didn’t enjoy.

Not that Taylor was a wet blanket, but, like, maybe she was a damp blanket?

This?  This inane, aimless, stupid, one-sided conversation where she’d said one word?  This was the good stuff.  It gave her hope that things could get back to normal.

“…and I wish I’d listened to my dad, because he suggested at least ten times that I might want to take more books, and I only brought three, and I’ve read each of them twice already.  My…”

Taylor’s voice continued over the phone, but Emma felt her dad’s hand on her wrist, lowered her phone to pay more attention to her surroundings.

The car had stopped in the middle of a narrow one-way street.  A dumpster had been shifted to block the end of the alley.

She looked over her shoulder, down the other end of the alley.  A white van had stopped there, the taillights glowing.  There were a group of twenty-something Asian-Americans approaching, sliding over the hood of the van to get into the alley and approach.  Members of the ABB.

This isn’t supposed to happen in broad daylight, Emma thought.

Taylor’s voice was faint, “…I could probably recite this one book word for word for you by the time I get back.  Maybe if I asked one of the counselors, I could get more.”

Her heart pounding as hard as it ever had, Emma hung up.  Some part of her rationalized it as needing to eliminate the distraction, to focus on the more immediate problem.

“Hold tight,” her father said.

She did, and he put his foot to the gas.  The car started rolling toward the dumpster, and the gang members behind them began running after them.

Too slow, she thought.

The car barely tapped the dumpster.  It was only after contact had already been made that her dad put his foot on the gas, pushing against the blockade instead of ramming or crashing into it.

The dumpster didn’t budge.

They blocked it.  Or they took the wheels offOr both.

There were too many people behind them for the car to reverse.  Not unless her dad wanted to hurt or kill a bunch of people.  Even if he did want to hurt them, he couldn’t be sure he’d hit them, and where could he go?  There wasn’t any guarantee he’d be able to move the dumpster if he backed up and rammed into it.

“Call the police,” her father said.

She barely registered it.

“Emma!  Call the police!”

She fumbled with the phone.  Nine-nine…

Why won’t my hands work?

Nine-one-one.

The window to her right shattered.  She screamed, then screamed again as hands clutched her hair, hauled her partially out of her seat, until the seatbelt strained against her shoulder and pelvis.  He wasn’t strong enough to actually lift her, but it hurt.  She wasn’t thinking, only wanted the pain to stop.  Her mind was flooded with images of what might happen if the person outside tugged in a slightly different direction and dragged her face against the broken glass of the window.  The phone clattered to the floor as she gripped her attacker’s wrists, tried to alleviate the pain of hair tearing free from her scalp.

She put her feet flat on the floor of the car, pushed herself up and away from her seat, almost helping her attacker.

Emma regretted it almost as she did it, but in the panic and pain, she undid the seatbelt.

She’d just wanted the pain to stop, and now there were two sets of hands gripping her, hauling her up and out through the car window.  Glass broke away against the fabric of her denim jacket, and she fell hard enough against the pavement that grit was pushed into her skin.

I hope the jacket didn’t get torn.  It was so expensive, she thought.  It was inane, stupid, almost hilariously out of sync with reality.  Delirious.

Her father’s screams of almost mindless panic sounded so far away, as he cried out her name, over and over again.

The gang members who stood above her each wore crimson and pale green.  There were other colors, predominantly black, but the constrast of red and green stood out.  Some had their faces exposed, others wore kerchiefs over the lower halves of their faces.  One had a bandanna folded so it covered one eye.  She couldn’t think straight enough to count them.

They had knives, she belatedly noted.

Her father screamed for her again.

Stop, dad.  You’re embarassing me.  She was more cognizant of how irrational the thought was, this time.  Odd, how calm she felt.  Except that wasn’t right.  Her heart was pounding, she could barely breathe, her thoughts were jumbled and irrational, and yet she somehow felt more together than she might have guessed she would.

She wasn’t hysterical, at least.  She was oddly pleased with that, even as she wondered if she might wet herself.

“Turn over, ginger bitch,” one of the girls standing above her said.  The order was punctuated by a sharp kick to Emma’s ribs.

She flopped over, face pressing against the hot pavement.  Hands took hold of her jacket and pulled it off.  The sleeves turned inside out, the half-folded cuffs catching around her hands.

If she’d been taking it off herself, that would have been cause for some rearrangement, to get her hands free.  Instead, they pulled.  It hurt briefly, and then they had the jacket.

“Here, Yan,” one of the guys said, his accent almost musical.  “You owe me.”

“Sweet!”  The voice sounded young.

My jacket, Emma thought, plaintive.

“We could send this bitch out of town,” one of the guys said.  “Stick her in one of the farms and hold her for a while.  She’s got tits, could auction her off.

“Don’t be a moron.  White girl goes missing, they look.”

Someone opened the car door and climbed in.  There was the sound of the glove compartment opening, of items falling to the floor, where her cell phone was.

For the life of her, she couldn’t remember if she had hit ‘call’ on her cell phone before she’d dropped it.  It would mean the difference between her phone sitting on the floor of the car, the numbers displayed on the screen, and authorities using the phone to find her location, sending help.

Someone grabbed her hair, again.  This time, there was a tearing sensation, and the tugging abruptly stopped.  Her face cracked against the pavement beneath, one cheekbone catching almost all of the impact.

They’d cut her hair, and she’d just bruised her face.

“Face,” she mumbled.

“What’s that, ginger?” the girl standing over her asked.  Emma twisted her head around to see the girl holding a length of red hair in her hand.

“Not- not the face, please.  I’ll do anything you want, just… not the face.”

It was the delirium that had taken hold of her the second her father had seized her arm.  It wasn’t really her, was it?  She couldn’t be this stupidly vain when it all came down to the wire.  She didn’t want to be that kind of person.

“You’ll do anything?” One of the guys asked.  The one with one eye.  “Like what?”

She reached for an answer, but her thoughts were little more than white noise.

The answers that did come to mind weren’t possibilities.  Not really.

“Then it’s the face after all.  Hold her.”

Ten minutes ago, she’d never been afraid.  Not really.  Stage fright, sure.  Fear of not getting the Christmas present she wanted?  Sure.  But she’d never been afraid.

And before the one-eyed thug spoke that last sentence, she’d never known terror.  Had never known what it might be like to be a deer in the moment the wolves set tooth to flesh, the rabbit fleeing the bird of prey.  It was like being possessed, and the white noise that had subsumed her her thoughts when she searched for an argument now consumed her brain in entirety.  She felt a kind of surge of strength as her fight or flight instincts kicked into gear, and it wasn’t enough.

She was outnumbered, and many of them were stronger than her, even with the adrenaline feeding into her.  Two held her arms out to either side, and someone knelt just behind her, knees pressing hard against the side of her head, keeping her from turning it.  Looking up, she could see a girl, not much older than her, sporting a nose ring and a startling purple eye shadow.  She was wearing Emma’s jacket.

Emma could hear her father screaming, still, and it sounded further away than ever.

One-eye straddled her, planting his left hand on top of her hair, helping to hold her head down to the ground.

He held a knife that was long and thin, the blade no wider across than a finger, tapering to a wicked point.  What was it called?  A stiletto?  He rested the flat of the blade on the tip of her nose.

“Nose,” he murmured.  The blade moved to her eye, and she couldn’t move away.  She could only shut it, feel it twitching mercilessly as he laid the flat of the blade against her eyelid, “Eye…”

The blade touched her lips, a steel kiss.

“Mouth…”

He used the blade to brush the hair away from the side of her head, hooked an earring with the point of the blade.

“Well, you can hide the ears with the hair,” he said, his voice barely over a whisper.  The knife point pulled at the earring until her face contorted in pain.  “So maybe I’ll take both.  Which will it be?”

She couldn’t process, couldn’t sort out the information in the mist of the terror that gripped her.  “Unh?”

Again, the knife traveled over her face, almost gentle as it touched the areas in question.  “One eye, the nose, the mouth, or both ears.  Yan here thinks she has what it takes to be a member, instead of a common whore, so you choose one of the above, and she goes to town on the part in question, proves her worth.”

“Holy shit, Lao,” the girl with the eye shadow said.  She sounded almost gleeful, “That’s fucked up.”

Pick,” he said, again, as if he hadn’t heard.

Emma blinked tears out of her eyes, looked for an escape, an answer.

And she saw a figure crouched on top of her father’s car, dressed in black, with a hood and a cape that fluttered out of sync with the warm sea breeze that flowed from the general direction of the beach.  She could see the whites of the girl’s eyes through the eyeholes of what looked like a metal hockey mask.

Help me.

The dark figure didn’t move.

Lao, the one eyed man, reversed the knife in his hands and handed it to the girl with the eye shadow.  The girl, for her part, dragged the knife’s point over Emma’s eyelid, a feather touch.

“Pick,” the girl said.  “No, wait…”

She shoved the handful of hair she’d cut away into Emma’s mouth.  “Eat it, then pick.”

Emma opened her mouth to plead for help, but she couldn’t find the breath.  The hair wasn’t it, not really.  Some of it was the weight of the young man sitting on her chest, crushing her under his weight.  Mostly, it was the fear, like a physical thing.

She thought of Taylor, of all people.  Taylor had, in her way, been put to the knife, had had an irreplaceable part of herself carved away.  Not a nose or an eye, but a mother.  And in the moment she’d found out, a light had gone out inside Emma’s best friend, a vibrancy had faded.  She’d ceased to be the same person.

If she’d experienced her first real taste of fear when the gang members attacked the car, her first real taste of terror when Lao proclaimed he’d cut her face, then it was the thought of Taylor, of becoming Taylor, that gripped her with panic, a whole new level of fear.

I won’t become Taylor.

I’m not-

I’m not strong enough to come back from that.

The knife momentarily forgotten, she bucked, thrashed, fought.  An inarticulate noise tore out of her throat, a scream, a grunt, and a wail of despair all together, an ugly sound she couldn’t ever have imagined she’d make.  Lao was dislodged, one hand freed, and she brought it up, not in self defense, but to attack.  Her nails found his one good eye, caught on flesh, dug into the softest tissues she could find and dragged through them, through eyelid and across eyeball, through cheekbone and the meat of his cheek.

He screamed, struck her with enough force that she wondered if he’d had knuckle dusters she hadn’t seen.

Knuckle dusters… a weapon.  She belatedly remembered the knife, looked up at the girl with the eye shadow.

The figure in the black cloak had the knife-wielding girl, the knife hand twisted behind the girl’s back.

With a sharp, calculated motion, the arm was twisted a measure too far, the eye shadow girl jerked off balance so the weight of her body would only help twist it further.  The girl screamed, dropping the knife, and she flopped to the ground, her arm gone limp, dangling from the shoulder at an angle that shouldn’t have been possible.

The figure in black turned on Lao.  She swept her cape to one side, and momentarily became a living shadow, a transparent blur.  When she returned to normal, her posture was different, and the knife had disappeared from the ground.  It was in her hand.

Emma watched in numb horror and awe as the girl advanced on Lao, who crab-walked backward to get away.  She closed the distance, stretched out one arm, and delivered a single scratch with the knife, cutting into Lao’s right eye.

Other thugs had already fallen.  The one who’d held her arm before she pulled it free was slumping over, unconscious.  The woman who must have been standing next to Emma’s father, was lying prone on the ground on the other side of the car, a pool of blood spreading beneath her.

That left only one, the thug who’d held Yan’s left arm.  He was on his feet in a moment, running, Emma’s backpack in one hand, open, the contents from the glove compartment falling free.  Useless, trivial items.  A bag of candy, the driver’s handbook.  Things he’d taken only because he could.

The girl in the cloak was small, Emma noted.  Younger.  Again, the cloaked vigilante became a virtual living shadow, flung herself down the length of the alleyway, faster than the man was running.  She moved past him, ducking low as she materialized into a normal form.  The knife raked across the side of his knee, and he fell.  He twisted as he hit the ground, kicked out with one leg, and caught the girl in the side of one knee.  She tumbled landing on top of him.

The ensuing struggle was brief and one sided.  He tried to grab his attacker, found only immaterial shadow.  He turned over, getting on hands and knees to push himself to a standing position, but she moved faster, going solid as she loomed over him, one hand on the wall for balance.  She tipped, let herself fall, and drove his face into the pavement with all the weight she could bring down on him.

A second later, the cloaked girl was holding one of his hands against a door just to his right.  She used the stiletto to impale his hand to the wood, bent the blade until the handle snapped away.

“Emma,” her father said.  He was out of the car, embracing her.  “Are you hurt?  Emma?”

One hand absently tried to claw her own strands of hair from her mouth, failing to get all of them.  She settled for leaving the hand mashed against her mouth, as incoherent a gesture as anything she might have said if she’d been able to speak.

Wordless, the girl in the black cloak limped a few steps away from the fallen boy before adopting her shadow form, floating away, untouchable.

“Emma?”

Emma stared at her bedroom ceiling.  It was her sister’s voice.

“I went to that store, got that shampoo you liked.”

Emma turned over, pulling the covers tight, staring at the wall instead.

“I just thought a shower must sound pretty good right about now.”

There were still scraps of paper stuck to the wall with blue tack, the corners of the posters she’d torn down in a fit of emotion.  All the words in the English language, and there wasn’t one for what she’d felt.  Not anger, not fear, not resentment… some combination of those things that was duller, heavier, suffocating.  The eyes of the boys from the posters had been too much.

“…Okay,” her sister said, from the other side of the bedroom door.  “We love you, Emma.  You know that, right?”

Her mother spoke through the door, “Emma?  Taylor’s on the phone.  She’s still at summer camp.  Do you-“

Emma sat up in bed, swung her legs around until they hung off the end of the bed.

“No.”  Her voice was a croak.  How many days had it been since she spoke?

“If I explained, maybe she could-“

An image flashed across her mind’s eye.  Taylor, on the other end of the phone, laughing, blabbering on, happy, just before the incident.

The tables had turned.

“If you tell her, I’m never coming out,” she croaked.

There wasn’t a reply.  Emma stood from the bed and approached the door.  She could hear her mother on the other side.

“-doesn’t want to talk to you right now.  I’m sorry.”

A pause.

“No.  No, I don’t.”

Another pause, briefer.

“Bye, honey,” Emma’s mom said.

Floorboards creaked as her mother walked away.

“…a therapist.  You could go alone, or we could go together.”

She grit her teeth.

“I… I left her number by the phone.  We’re all going to be out.  Your sister’s at a thing related to the college dorms, a pre-moving in orientation.  Your mom and I have work.  You know our phone numbers, but I was thinking, uh.”

A pause.

“If you were thinking of doing something drastic, and you didn’t feel like you could talk to any of us, the therapist’s number’s there.”

Emma hugged her knees.  Her back pressed hard against the door, the bones of her spine grinding against the door’s surface.

“I love you.  We love you.  The doors are all double locked, so you’re safe, and there’s food in the fridge.  Your sister bought that stuff from the store you like.  Soaps and shampoos.”

Emma clutched the fabric of her pyjamas.

“It’s been a week.  You can’t- you can’t be happy like this.  We won’t be here to bother you, so warm yourself up some food, treat yourself to a nice bath, maybe, watch some television?  Get things a step back to normal?”

She stood, abrupt, paced halfway across her bedroom, then stopped.  Nowhere to go, nothing to do.

She stood there, staring at the wall with the torn corners of poster still stuck to it, fists clenched.

“Bye, honey.”

She was rooted to the spot, staring at a blank surface, listening as her family went about their routines.  There were murmurs of conversation as they got organized, orchestrated who was going in which car, what everyone was doing for lunch.  Quieter fragments of conversation where they were discussing her.

The door slammed, and she heard the locks click, a sound so faint she might have imagined it.

It was only after everyone had left that she ventured out of her room.

Coffee.  Cereal.  She went through the motions, reheating a mug of the former and preparing the latter.

She hadn’t finished either when she stood and ventured into the bathroom.  She didn’t touch the bag of expensive soaps and shampoos, instead using her father’s regular shampoo.  She soaped up with the bar soap, rinsed off, then stepped out of the shower to dry herself.

Once she was dressed, her hair still damp, she approached the front door, hesitated.

She pushed through, left it unlocked behind her.  She couldn’t shake the worry that if she stepped back inside to find keys, she might not be able to step through the threshold again.

Her teeth were chattering by the time she was at the end of the street, and it wasn’t cold out.

Her thoughts were a chaotic jumble as she walked.  Her stomach felt like a blob of gelatin, quivering with every step she took.

The stares were worst of all.  As much as she tried to tell herself that she wasn’t in the middle of a giant spotlight, that people didn’t care, she couldn’t shake the idea that they were watching her, analyzing her every move, noting her wet hair, noting the hunk of hair at the back that was shorter than the rest, crudely chopped off.  Were they seeing her as a victim, someone so full of fear and anxiety that her every movement practically screamed ‘easy target’?

Perhaps the dumbest insecurity of all was the worry that somehow they could read her mind, that they knew she was doing the dumbest thing she’d ever done.

Every step she took, the white noise of her fear consumed a bit of her rational mind.

She found herself back at the mouth of the narrow one-way road.  The dumpster had been moved, the van was nowhere in sight.

This was different from feeling like a victim, because here, she knew she really was begging to be attacked.  To loiter around in known gang territory, unarmed?  It was senseless.  This time, they might really carry through with their threats.  All it would take was the wrong person seeing her.

Emma couldn’t bring herself to care.  She was scared, but she was scared every moment of every day, had been for the last seven days.  Right now?  She was more desperate than scared.

She’d hoped she would run into the girl in the black cloak.  She wasn’t so lucky.  Her stomach started protesting that the half-bowl of cereal hadn’t been enough, but she stayed where she was.  She hadn’t brought a wallet, a phone or watch, so she had no way of getting food, nor any idea of how long she was really waiting.

When the sun was directly overhead, she turned to leave.

There was no place to go.  Home?  It would be too easy to shut herself in her room, to hide from the world.  There was nothing she wanted to do, nobody she wanted to talk to.

The world was an ugly place, filled with ugly scenes, and unlike before, she couldn’t shut it out, couldn’t shake the idea that something horrible was happening around every corner.  Thousands of people suffering every second, around the world.

What got her, the nebulous idea that haunted her, was the impact those scenes had.  There were so many defining moments, so many crises, big and small, that shaped the people they touched.  The biggest and most critical moments were the sorts that wiped the slate clean, that ignored or invalidated the person who had existed before, only to create another.

Emma had fought in a moment of desperation, as if fighting could make her stronger than Taylor, set herself apart.  Except she’d failed.  It was unbearable.  She hated herself.

Her eyes watched the crowd, searching for the people who were eyeing her, judging her.  She couldn’t find any obvious ones, but she couldn’t shake the belief that they were there.

“Takes guts.”

She could feel her heart leap into her throat, wheeling around, imagining the Asian girl with the eye shadow standing behind her.

It wasn’t.  The girl was dark-skinned, slender, with long, straight hair.  She had a hard stare, penetrating.

“Guts?”  Emma couldn’t imagine any word less appropriate.

“Coming back.  The only reason you’d do it is because you were looking for revenge, or you were looking for me.  Or both, depending on how cracked you are.”

Emma opened her mouth, then closed it.  The realization hit her.  This was the girl with the black cloak, announcing herself.

She asked the question she’d gone to such risk to pose to the girl, “Why… why did you wait?  You saw me in trouble, but you didn’t do a thing.”

“Because I wanted to see who you were.”

Before, Emma suspected she’d have been offended, aghast at the idea that this girl would leave her to suffer, leave her life at risk, just for an answer to a question.  Now?  Now she could almost understand it, oddly enough.  “Who was I?”

“There’s two people in the world.  Those who get stronger when they come through a crisis and those who get weaker.  The ones who get stronger naturally come out on top.  There’s ups and downs, but they’ll win out.”

“Who was I?” Emma asked, again.

“You’re here, aren’t you?”  The girl smiled.

Emma didn’t have an answer to that.  She shut her mouth, all too aware of the people walking past them, going about their everyday lives, overhearing snippets of their conversation and yet failing to pick up anything essential.

“I want to be one of the stronger ones.”

“I don’t do the partner thing, or the team thing.”

Emma nodded.  She didn’t have an answer ready.

The other girl’s eyes studied her, and she seemed to come to a decision.  “It’s a philosophy, a way of looking at it all. You can look at the world as a… what’s the word?  One thing and another?”

“A binary?”

“A binary thing.  But not black and white.  It’s about the divide of winners and losers.  Strong and weak, predators and prey.  I kind of like that last one, but I’m a hunter.”

Emma thought back to how readily the girl had taken the thugs apart.  “I can believe that.”

The girl smiled.  “And what you have to keep in mind, is the biggest question of all is one you’re answering for yourself, right now.  Survivor or victim?”

“What’s the difference?”

“On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.”

Emma stood from the kitchen table, aware that her entire family was watching her.

It’s all mental.

Three weeks ago, she might never have imagined that she’d be able to resume life as normal, to not be afraid.

Perhaps it was more correct to say that she was afraid, she just wasn’t acting it.  Faking it until she could make it the truth.

“You’re going out?” her sister couldn’t quite keep the note of suprise out of her voice.

“Sophia’s dropping by,” Emma said.

Just want to forget it happened, put it behind me.  Move forward.

“Taylor got back from camp this morning,” her mother said.

Emma paused.  “Okay.”

“She might stop by.”

“Okay.”

Emma couldn’t resist hurrying a little as she collected her dishes and rinsed them in the sink.

“If she comes by when you’re not here-”

“I’ll talk to her,” Emma said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

She made her way to the front hall, stopped by the mirror to run a brush through her hair.  It had all been cut to match the piece that had been cut shorter with the knife.

She couldn’t wait for it to grow in, as that alone would erase just one more memory that reminded her of her moment of weakness and humiliation, of how close she’d come to dying or being mutilated.  Until it did grow in, it was yet another reminder of all the ugliness she wanted to be able to look past.

Sophia was waiting outside by the time she had her shoes on.

“Heya, vigilante,” Emma said, smiling.

“Heya, survivor.”

She could see Taylor approaching, tan, still wearing the shirt from camp in the bright primary blue, with the logo, shorts and sandals.  It only made her look more kiddish.  Broomstick arms and legs, gawky, with a wide, guileless smile, her eyes just a fraction larger behind the glasses she wore, a little too old fashioned.  Her long dark curls were tied into a loose set of twin braids, one bearing a series of colorful ‘friendship braclet’ style ties at the end.  Only her height gave her age away.

She looks like she did years ago.  Way before her mom diedLike she’s nine, not thirteen.

“Who the fuck is that?” Sophia murmured.

Emma didn’t reply.  She watched as Taylor approached the gate at the front of the house, walked up the path to the stairs where she and Sophia stood.

“Emma!”

“Who the fuck are you?” Sophia asked.

Taylor’s smile faltered.  A brief look of confusion flickered across her face.  “We’re friends.  Emma and I have been friends for a long time.”

Sophia smirked.  “Really.”

Emma resisted the urge to cringe.  Fake it until I make it.

“Really,” Taylor echoed Sophia.  The smallest furrow appeared between her eyebrows.  “What’s going on Emma?  I haven’t heard from you in a good while.  Your mom said you weren’t taking calls?”

Emma hesitated.

To just explain, to talk to Taylor…

Taylor would give her sympathy, would listen to everything she had to say, give an unbiased ear to every thought, every wondering and anxiety.  Emma almost couldn’t bear the idea.

But there would be friendship too.  Support.  It would be so easy to reach out and take it.

“I love the haircut,” Taylor filled the silence, talking and smiling like she couldn’t contain herself.  “You manage to make any style look great.”

Emma closed her eyes, taking a second to compose herself.  Then she smiled back, though not so wide.  She could feel Sophia’s eyes on her.

She stepped down one stair to get closer to Taylor, put a hand on her shoulder.  Taylor raised one arm to wrap Emma in a hug, stopped short when Emma’s arm proved unyielding, stopping her from closing the distance.

“Go home, Taylor.  I didn’t ask you to come over.”

She could see the smile fall from Taylor’s face.  Only a trace of it lingered, a faltering half-smile.  “It’s… it’s never been a problem before.  I’m sorry.  I was just excited to see you, it’s been weeks since we even talked.”

“There’s a reason for that.  This was just an excuse to cut a cord I’ve been wanting to cut for a long time.”

There it went.  The last half smile, wiped from Taylor’s expression.  “I… what?  Why?”

“Do you think it was fun?  Spending time with you, this past year?”  The words came too easily.  Things she’d wanted to say, not the whole truth, but feelings she’d bottled up, held back.  “I wanted to break off our friendship a long while back, even before your mom kicked the bucket, but I couldn’t find the chance.  Then you got that call, and you were so down in the dumps that I thought you’d hurt yourself if I told you the truth, and I didn’t want to get saddled with that kind of guilt.”

It was surprising how easily the words came.  Half truths.

“So you lied to me, strung me along.”

“You lied to yourself more than I lied to you.”

“Fuck you,” Taylor snapped back.  She turned to leave, and Sophia stuck one foot out.  Taylor didn’t fall, but she stumbled, had to catch the gate for balance.

Taylor turned around, eyes wide, as if she could barely comprehend that Sophia had done what she’d done, that Emma had stood by and watched it.

Then she was gone, running.

“Feel better?”  Sophia asked.

Better?  No.  Emma couldn’t bring herself to feel guilty or ashamed, but… it didn’t feel good.

That knot of negative emotion was tempered by a sense of profound relief.  One less reminder of the old, weak, pathetic vain Emma, one more step towards the new.

Emma’s cell phone vibrated.  She rose from her bed, suppressing a sigh.

As quiet as she could, she collected the tackle box from beneath her bed, dressed and headed downstairs.

Her father was at the kitchen table.  His eyes went wide, and he stood.

She pressed her finger to her lips, and he stopped, his mouth open.

She hesitated, then spoke in a whisper, “I need your help.  Please.  Can- can you not ask any questions just yet?”

He hesitated, then nodded.

She handed him the keys, and climbed into the passenger seat.

He started up the car, then drove in the directions she dictated, her eyes on the phone.

They found themselves downtown, in the midst of a collection of bodies.

And in the center, leaning against a wall, Shadow Stalker was hunched over, using her hands to staunch a leg wound.

Emma bent down, opened the tackle box, and began gathering the first aid supplies.

Wordless, her father joined her.

We owe her this, at least.

“Give it back,” Taylor’s voice was quiet, but level.

“Give what back?”

“You guys broke into my locker.  You took my flute.  It’s something my mom left me, something she used, that my dad gave to me so I could remember her.  Just… if you’ve decided you hate me, if I said the wrong thing, or led you to believe something that wasn’t true, okay.  But don’t do that to my mom.  She was good to you.  Don’t disrespect her memory.”

“If it was so valuable to you, then you shouldn’t have brought it.”

Taylor didn’t speak for long seconds.  “Can you blame me?  Since school started, you’ve been… after me.  As if you’re trying to make a point or something.  Except I don’t know what it is.”

“The point is that you’re a loser.”

Taylor wasn’t able to keep the emotion off her face.  “…Even if it’s just a flute and a memory, maybe I wanted to feel like I had some backup here.  I thought you were better than that, screwing with me on that level.”

“I guess you’re wrong,” Emma replied.  She let the words sit for a few seconds, then added, “Doesn’t look like she’s offering you any backup at all.”

Emma had mused, back in the week she’d been reeling from her near-miss with death or disfigurement, that there were moments that changed destinies, that altered people’s trajectories in life.  Some were small, the changes minor, others large to the point they were irreversible.  It was so easy, just to utter the words, and the reaction was so profound.  A mixture of emotions that briefly stripped Taylor bare, revealed everything in a series of changing facial expressions.

She didn’t enjoy it.  Didn’t revel in it.  But it was… reassuring?  The world made sense.  Predators and prey.  Attackers and victims.  It was like a drug, only she’d never experienced the high, the pure joy of it.  There was only the withdrawal, the need for a hit just to get centered again.

Fight back, get angry, hit me.

Challenge me.

It took Taylor long seconds to get her mental footing.  She met Emma’s eyes, and then stared down at the ground.  She mumbled her response.  “I think that says a lot more about you than it does about me.”

That wasn’t what I meant, Emma thought.

She felt irrationally angry, annoyed, and couldn’t put her finger on why.

It took her a minute to find Sophia, not helped by the fact that the two of them had classes on opposite sides of the building.

Sophia was putting coins into the vending machine.  She looked up at Emma.  “What?”

“Did you break into her locker?”

“Yeah.”

“Stole a flute?”

“Yeah.”

Emma paused for long seconds.  To give the flute back, surreptitiously, it would go a ways towards breaking the rhythm, the cycle.

Taylor’s words nettled her.  To back down now, it would be a step towards the old Emma, the victim.

“Fuck with it.  Do something disgusting to it, and make sure to wreck it so she can’t use it ever again.”

Sophia smiled.

“Do you hereby attest that all statements disclosed in this document are the truth, to the best of your knowledge?”

“I do,” Emma’s father spoke.

Emma reached out and took his hand, squeezing it.  He glanced at her, and she mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

There was a shuffling of papers at the other end of the long table.  “We, the committee, have reviewed the documents, and agree that case one-six-three-one, Shadow Stalker, has met the necessary requirements.  With stipulations to be named at a future date, specific to her powers and the charges previously laid against her, she is now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as she turns eighteen or violates the terms of this probationary status.  Congratulations, Shadow Stalker.”

“Thank you,” Shadow Stalker’s tone was subdued, her eyes directing a glare at the center of the table rather than anyone present.

Emma watched as the capes and official bigwigs around her got out of their chairs, fell into groups.

Dauntless approached her dad.  She only caught two murmured words of Dauntless’ question.  “-divorce attorney?”

Shadow Stalker, for her part, stood and strode out of the room.  Emma hurried to follow.  By the time she reached the staircase, Shadow Stalker was halfway to the roof.

“You’re angry.”

“Of course I’m angry.  Stipulations, rules and regulations.  I’ve had my powers for two and a half years and I’ve stopped more bad guys than half the capes in that room!”

Emma couldn’t stop the memory from hitting her.

The man struggled, and as much as Shadow Stalker was able to make herself immaterial, to loosen any grip or free herself from any bonds, she didn’t have the ability to tighten that same grip.  He tipped backwards, off the edge of the roof, and a gesture meant to intimidate became manslaughter.

Shadow Stalker stared off the edge of the roof at the body, then turned to look at Emma.

“Is- is he?”  Emma asked.

“Probably best if you don’t come on patrol with me again.”

“You have,” Emma replied, snapping back to reality.  How many have you ‘stopped’?

“It’s like putting a wolf among sheep and expecting it to bleat!”

“It’s only three years.  Better than prison.”

“Three years and four months.”

“Better than prison,” Emma repeated herself.

“It is prison, fuck it!”

“It’s like you said.  Just… just fake it until you make it the truth, put away the lethal ammunition for a few years.”

Shadow Stalker wheeled on her, stabbed a finger in her direction, “Fuck that.”

Emma stared at her best friend, saw the look in Sophia’s eyes, the anger, the hardness.

For a moment, she regretted the choice she’d made.

Then she had her head in order again, the little things she was faking contorted with reality until she couldn’t tell the difference anymore.

People could convince themselves of anything, and there were worse things than convincing oneself that they were strong, capable, one of the ones on top, rather than one of the ones on the bottom.

The door of the bathroom stall swung open.  Sophia had flung one arm around Emma’s shoulders, and Emma joined her in laughing.  To their right, the third member of their trio was giggling so hard she had hiccups.

Taylor kneeled in the middle of a massive puddle of juices and sodas, some of it still fizzing around her.  She was drenched, head to toe, trickles still running off of the lengths of her hair.  Her style of dress had changed over the past little while, in ways Taylor probably wasn’t fully aware of.  She wore darker clothes now, cloaked herself in sweatshirts and loose fitting jeans.  Her long hair was a shield, a barrier around her face.  All measures to hide, signals and gestures of defeat.

More than that, she’d changed in behavior, had stopped fighting back. She’d stopped reacting, for the most part.  Her expression was impassive.  It took some of the fun out of it.  It was almost disappointing.

I’ll have to think of a better one than this.  Crack that facade, Emma thought.  She smirked as Madison led the way out of the bathroom, and they left Taylor behind.

Taylor had become the archetypical victim, Emma mused, in one sober moment, as she parted ways with the other two girls, and I’ve found myself becoming the type of person who could genuinely laugh at something like this.

She dismissed the thought, shifting mental gears, re-establishing the construction of self confidence she’d built.  It was a little easier every time she did it.

The fan on the other side of the room had a piece loose.  It squeaked on every third rotation.

She examined her nails, picked at a fleck of something white that had stick to the end of one nail, then checked her cuticles.

The fan squeaked, and she turned her head, as if she could spot the offending flaw and fix it.

“You come all this way, and you don’t have anything to say?”  Sophia asked.

Emma shrugged.  It was on our way.

“Say what’s on your mind.”

“It’s all backwards, isn’t it?”

“Backwards how?”

“Upside down, Turned around.  Two wrongs make a right.”

“What wrongs?”  Sophia’s voice was hard.

“Not you.  Not your thing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  We’re moving back to Brockton Bay.  As in, it’s in progress.  Half our stuff’s still back in Portland, half’s in the Bay.  We finally moved.”

“Someplace nice?”

“Further north.”

Sophia smirked.

“But that’s why I’m saying it’s all backwards.  Things got flipped around.  The north end is nicer, now.  They’re rebuilding, and it’s all coming together.  Downtown is the place that got hit hard.  You’ve got three big areas you can’t go, with the crater, the quarantine and the place I heard people calling the scar, where they did some bombing run with Bakuda’s stuff.  Construction’s slower towards the south, because there’s so much traffic and not a lot of roads.”

“Huh.”

“The bad guys are keeping the law, but things are better, and you talk to anyone, there’s hope.  I don’t know how that happens, how you visit every tragedy imaginable on a place, drop a dozen different nightmare scenarios on it, and things get better.  How does that work?”

“I don’t really care,” Shadow Stalker said.

“It’s your city.”

“The world ends in less than two years.  I won’t be out of here before then.  I… what’s the word?  I reiterate, I don’t really care.”

“I’m trying to make conversation.”

“You’re doing a shitty job of it,” Sophia replied.

Emma shut her mouth, stared at her friend.

“World ends in two years,” Sophia added.  “It’s a joke, pretending like things are getting better, like there’s hope.  The world turns a few hundred more times and then it all ends.”

Sour grapes?

“It’s kind of neat in terms of the big picture,” Emma said, ignoring Sophia.  “It’s like, the future hasn’t looked this bright in a while.  There’s promise, if this rumor about an open interdimensional portal is for real.  Multiple portals, if you believe the really out-there rumors.  Escape routes, resources, work.  And Brockton Bay is at the center of it all.”

Sophia snorted.

“And, more than that, it’s like, if we’re talking about hope, about the future, who’s more iconic for all that than kids?  You know, that line about how kids are the future?  Heroes too, they’re icons of hope too.  And put those things together, you get Arcadia High.  Winslow High’s gone, and there’s not quite enough students, so they’re herding us all together.”

“So?”

“So, it’s like, all this hope, you’ve got Brockton Bay at the center of it all.  And at the center of Brockton Bay’s hope, it’s Arcadia High.  And at the center of that?  You’ve got the heroes and the winners.  I fully intend to be the latter.  In a way, it’s like being queen of the world.”

“The popular kid in high school?”

“In the high school,” Emma said.  She shrugged.  “It’s one way of looking at it.”

“It’s sad.”

Emma smirked.  “Someone’s grumpy.”

“It’s sad because you’re making a fool of yourself, you’re missing a key detail.”

“Which?”

Sophia shrugged.  “Better if you find out for yourself.  I won’t spoon-feed you.”

Emma rolled her eyes.  Sophia was just toying with her head.  Easy enough to ignore.

“I’m going to go.  I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but…”

Sophia caught the ‘but’.  “Bitch.”

“Yeah.  Def,” Emma replied, before hanging up the phone.  She stood from the stool that was bolted to the floor, stretched, then offered a small wave.

Sophia raised both hands together to offer a miniscule wave with her right.  They were cuffed together, LEDs standing out on the cuffs, marking the live current.

Emma couldn’t tell herself she’d be back.  To stick around and be loyal now would betray every reason she’d given herself for dropping Taylor as a friend.  Taylor had been a wet blanket, a loser.  Sophia was no better, now.

It was ironic, but Sophia had proven herself to be more prey than predator, in the very philosophy she’d espoused.

“Hey dad?”

Her dad turned his head to acknowledge her, while keeping his eyes on the road. “What is it?”

“Mind making a detour?  I wouldn’t mind seeing Taylor’s house.”

“I thought you weren’t friends anymore.”

Emma shook her head.  “I’m… trying to put it all into perspective.  It’s really changed, and it’s easiest to get my head around the changes if I can look at the familiar places, and her house is pretty familiar.”

“Sure.  If nobody else minds?”

There were no objections from her mom or sister.

The city had always had its highs and lows, its peaks and valleys, but it seemed it was an even starker contrast now.  She’d commented, once, that for any one house, she could find three things wrong with it.  It had been flipped around, in its own way.  For every ten houses, there was one ruin, a dilapidated structure or pile of wreckage.  For every ten stretches of road that were intact, there was one that a car couldn’t pass over.

They turned off Lord Street, onto the street that Taylor’s house was on.

As they approached, Emma could see Taylor helping her dad unload a box from what looked to be a new or newly washed car.  He said something and she laughed.

The casual display of emotion was startling.  It was equally startling when, in the moment Emma’s dad slowed the car down, Taylor’s head turned, her eyes falling on them, her head and upper body turning to follow them as they passed.

She didn’t even resemble the person Emma had known way back then, not the girl who’d approached her house after coming back from camp, and not the girl who’d been drenched in juice.  The lines of her cheekbones and chin were more defined, her skin baked to a light tan by the sun, her long black curls grown a touch wild by long exposure to wind.  Light muscles stood out on her arms as she held a box, her dad standing back to direct.

Even her clothes.  She wasn’t hiding under a hood and long sleeves.  A trace of her stomach was exposed between the bottom of her yellow tank top and the top of her jeans.  The frayed cuffs were rolled up at the bottom, around new running shoes, and neither Taylor nor her dad seemed to be paying any attention to the knife that was sheathed at her back.

It surprised Emma, all the little clues coming together to point to one fact; that Taylor had stayed.  She’d stayed, and she’d come out of it okay.  Judging by the new car, the shoes and her clothes, the Heberts were doing better for money than they had been the last time Emma had run into either of them.  Were they early beneficiaries of Brockton Bay’s upswing in fortune?

It unsettled her, and she had a hard time putting her finger on why.

It didn’t hit her until they’d reached their new house, a recollection of something Sophia had said.

On this violent, brutish little planet of ours, it’s the survivors who wind up the strongest ones of all.

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Scourge 19.1

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The school’s bell tolled, oddly deep, with an echo that continued, unending.  I couldn’t see it through the cloudy haze that consumed my vision, but I felt as though the lockers were straining against their hinges in keeping with the rhythm.  The same went for the floor tiles, and the hundreds of footfalls of the students milling around me.  A pounding rhythm.

I couldn’t keep my footing.  I was blind, still, but that wasn’t the source of the problem.  It seemed vaguely familiar, the way every impact seemed designed to hit me where it hurt, to knock me off-balance and leave me in a state where I was spending too much time reeling and staggering to push back or find safety.

Someone tall shoved past me, and his bag caught on my nose.  It tore at the skin between the nostrils, and I could feel warm blood fountaining from the wound.  I staggered, bending over with my hands to my face, and someone walked straight into me, as though they didn’t know I was there.  My head hit a locker and I fell.  Someone stepped on my hand as their vague shape walked by, and I could hear something break, could feel it break.  The pain dashed all rational thought from my mind.

I screamed, brought my hand to my chest, cradling it.  I was tougher than that, wasn’t I?  I wasn’t made of glass, to have bone fracture or-

“You’re so pathetic, Taylor,” Emma intoned.

No.  Not now.  Not like this.

I could hear Madison tittering.  Sophia was silent, and her presence was all the more ominous for it.  I’d done something reprehensible to her.  I couldn’t recall what it was, but I knew she was here for retaliation.

They struck me, and I fell.  Emma and Madison took turns kicking me, and every effort I made to defend myself fell short.  It wasn’t just that I didn’t know how to fight, or that I was blind.  It was somehow worse, as though every effort I made were being actively punished.

I’d reach out with my good hand to grab one of them and pull them off their feet, and my elbow would get stepped on, forcing it to bend the wrong way.  I tried to push myself to a standing position, only for someone to kick me in the back, slamming my chest and face into the tile, hard.

I tried to speak and a kick caught me in the throat.

And all around me, there was the steady rhythm of footsteps and the bell’s echo.

The point was clear.  I was supposed to give up.  I really should have given up.

If I wasn’t able to do something on my own, maybe a weapon?  Some tool?  My thoughts were confused and disordered, but I searched through them, as if I could remember if I’d stashed some tool or weapon on my person.

No, something else, I was supposed to have another weapon, though my instinct told me it wasn’t anywhere I could reach, and that was normal.  I searched for it-

The scene was visible through a thousand times a thousand eyes, the colors strangely muted in favor of texture, the images blurring except where they moved, when they became oddly sharp.

Tattletale managed to leap back from the metal walkway as Noelle lunged and caught on the fixture.  As Noelle fell, her claws scraping gouges into the concrete walls, the walkway was pulled free.  Tattletale had put herself in one of the rooms that extended off the walkway.  Coil’s room.  There was a doorway to nowhere between herself and Noelle, surrounded by concrete walls that were two or three feet thick at their narrowest point.

Most of the construction of this place had taken place after Coil had found out about Noelle.  He’d known there was the possibility that she would go rogue.

Tattletale stepped up to the doorway, drew her gun, and fired, gunning down a Grue that had been vomited out.  Blood spattered and he went limp.

-and I couldn’t find anything.  I was unarmed here.

One kick caught me in between the eyebrows, and my head exploded with pain.

That spooked me.  I had to protect my head.  If I suffered another concussion…

That was the breaking point.  My brain was more important than whatever else I was trying to protect.  Anything else was fixable.  I stopped fighting back, tucking battered legs against my bruised upper body, drawing my hands around my head.

Immediately, the assault stopped being an attempt to break me and destroy my every effort to stand up for myself.  It became something more tolerable, with periodic kicks and stomps instead.  The accompanying shame and humiliation was almost nostalgic.  Horrible, but familiar.

Then Sophia stepped close, and I felt something sliding beneath my hands and arms, settling around my neck.  A noose.  She used it to lift me, choking, off the ground.

Madison opened the locker, and the rancid smell of it wafted around me.  I would have gagged if I could breathe.

Sophia shoved me inside, planting one foot between my shoulder blades as she hauled back on the rope.  My unbroken fingers scrabbled for purchase, found only trash and cotton that tore when I tried to grab it.  Bugs bit at my flesh and there was nothing I could do to stop them.

Bugs?  There was something I thought I should know, something-

The bugs observed as Tattletale pulled the pin from a grenade.  She waited while it sat in her hand.  It was dangerous and reckless to ‘cook’ a grenade like they did in the movies, but then again, this was Tattletale.  It fit with her nature, and if anyone knew how long the fuse really was, it was her.  She tossed it down to where Noelle lurked below.

The grenade detonated just before it made contact, billowing with smoke and radiating enough heat to kill the bugs that were finding their way into the underground base.  Other bugs could see the shifting radiance of the flames.

Tattletale shouted, “Rachel!  Now!”

-that eluded me, like the water that escaped the ever-thirsty Tantalus.

As I scrabbled for purchase, the contents of the locker shifted, falling and collapsing against me, pressing tight against my body, smelling like old blood and rancid flesh.

My heart skipped a few beats and I felt as though my blood was turning to sludge in my veins, slowing down.  My thoughts dissolved into a slush of memories, speeding through my life in choppy, fragmented, distorted images.  I felt momentarily disembodied, as though the line between myself and my surroundings, my mind and my feelings were all blended in together.

When it pulled back, I could finally breathe.  I let out a deep, shuddering breath.  I could breathe.  I could think again.

I heard the sound of blades rasping against one another, the ringing of steel building with each repetition of the sound.  I blinked, and the blind haze lifted as though I’d only had tears in my eyes.

Mannequin stood in the center of the room.  He had four arms, each ending in three-foot blades, and was sharpening each weapon against the others without pause.

Around him, the factory.  Machinery churned, pumps and pistons and levers moved, and furnaces glowed to cast long shadows, casting Mannequin in a crimson light.  The people from my territory were there too, along with Sierra, Charlotte, Lisa, Brian, Rachel, my dad, and my teachers.  Each of them fought to hide in the shadows and the corners, but there wasn’t enough room.

I carefully assessed the tools I had at my disposal.  My gun, my knife, my baton.  In a more general sense, there were my bugs.  I called for them-

Tattletale jerked toward the doorway, stopped as one arm stretched behind her with a clink.  She’d handcuffed herself to a length of chain, fastening that chain to a rubber-sheathed cluster of wires at the far end of the room.  Tattletale’s free hand gripped her gun, pointed it at something narrow… The bugs who were touching the object in question were being absorbed, dying.  It was one of Noelle’s tongues, wrapped around Tattletale’s waist.

The gunshot went off, severing the tongue, and the chain went slack.  Tattletale dropped to her knees, pressing her gun hand to her shoulder.

The three largest dogs attacked.  Bitch sent three, and the result was predictable.  Noelle absorbed them as they made contact, though each dog was nearly a third of her own size.  Her flesh stretched thin around the mass of each dog, then stretched thinner as they started to swell in size.

Noelle’s flesh crept over them faster than they grew.  The growth ceased the instant the flesh finished enveloping them, and their struggles slowed.  It took long seconds for them to stop struggling, but each dog eventually went limp.

Tattletale and Rachel watched as two figures stepped out from behind Noelle.  Regent and a Skitter.  Me.

Regent whipped his head up in Tattletale’s direction, and she dropped her gun.  As her good hand snapped up to her throat, gripping it, it became apparent that dropping the gun had been quite intentional.  If she’d been holding it-

The perspective of the scene shifted abruptly as the Skitter bid every bug in the area, Noelle’s included, to turn toward Rachel.

Rachel clenched her fists.

-and barely any responded.  A hundred?  If that?  The heat of the furnaces killed many of the ones who were trying to approach.  It left me with a mere thirty-nine bugs.  I might as well have been unarmed.

Mannequin extended one arm with the blade outstretched, pointing at the crowd.  His ‘eyes’ were on me as he did so, moving the blade slowly.  Pointing at faces that were familiar, but who I couldn’t name.

Pointing at my dad.

And there was nothing I could do to save him.  Not saving him wasn’t an option, either.  I drew my gun, fired.

Only one bullet in the chamber.  There was a sound as it hit Mannequin, but he barely reacted as he turned toward my father.

I drew my knife and baton, charging.

Futile.  He ignored me completely, raising one hand and then stabbing down.  I couldn’t even look at what was happening.  Refused to look.

I struck Mannequin, aiming for the joints, the small of his back, his hips and knees.  Nothing worked.

Without even looking, Mannequin reached over to one side and thrust one blade at me.  His weapon penetrated my armor like it was Armsmaster’s special halberd.

I screamed, but it was more rage than pain.  I howled like I might against a hurricane, a storm that was destroying everything I loved, that I was helpless to fight.  I battered him, struck him with my weapons, gave everything I had and more, to no avail.

He folded his arms around me in a bear hug, squeezed, crushed.

More of him folded around me, pulling tight against my head, my throat, arms, chest and legs.

My life flashed before my eyes, every event, every memory and recalled feeling distilled into a single point.

When the crushing sensation passed, I was left standing, disoriented, in the middle of a flooded ruin.

The momentary relief faded swiftly.

All around me, desolation.  Blasted buildings, bodies, flooded streets.  Graffiti covered the walls around me, the letter-number combination ‘s9’ repeated in endless permutations and styles.

I flinched as an explosion took the top off a building two blocks away.  Blue flames roared on the upper floors.

I couldn’t breathe.  My skin prickled, burned, just on contact with the air.  I felt nauseous, disoriented.

Radiation?  Plague?

A fleet of cockroaches scurried over one of the nearby ruins, like cattle stampeding away.

They were fleeing from something.  Multiple somethings.

I took cover.

Where are you?”

The voice might have been sing-song if it weren’t for the filter that reduced it to a mechanical hiss.

“Where are you?” another voice echoed the first.  Younger, female.  A girl’s giggle followed.

“Hush, Bonesaw,” Jack’s voice reached me, like a sibilant whisper in my ear.  The water that flooded the streets served as a surface for the sound to bounce off of, letting it carry throughout the area.

My costume was more tatters than actual fabric.  It wasn’t like there were spiders anymore.  Only cockroaches, and fewer than I might hope.  The water that flooded the streets wasn’t so kind to them.

“What game shall we play today?” Bonesaw asked.  “Did you make anything?  Please tell me you made something.”

I did,” Bakuda responded.  “I borrowed from your work for this one.”

They were close.  Nine of them.  I couldn’t run without making noise.

The cockroaches, then.  I reached for them-

“Regent,” Noelle gasped out the word.  She was far bigger than she had been before.  “Come.”

Regent hesitated, gave her a sidelong glance.

“Come!” she roared.

He reluctantly obeyed.  She raised one massive limb, slammed it into the wall where the walkway had once been attached.  The mutant Regent clambered up her arm to the doorway.

That would be the doorway that leads to the corridor with the cells.

The same cells where Shatterbird was in sound proof containment.

Tattletale had descended to the ground floor and was backing up as two Skitters and a Grue approached, with Bentley advancing to her side.  Rachel was prone, lying at the point where the wall met the floor, with Bastard on the ground and pressed up against her, as if he were using his bulk to keep the worst of the bugs from reaching her.  Her other dogs were smaller.  Big, but much smaller than they could be.

“You take fliers, I take ground?” one Skitter asked the other.

“Mm-hmm,” the other Skitter grunted her reply.

“Have to share, be smart about this one.  Grue, hang back.  She might try pulling something,” Skitter One ordered.  “Harder to make a counter-plan against bugs.”

“Me?  Pull something?” Tattletale asked.  She was cradling one arm, and covered in vomit.  Judging by the body parts that surrounded her, Bentley had taken apart the clones that Noelle had vomited at her.

“Yeah, you,” Skitter One said.  “You’re the type, aren’t you?  Awfully fond of keeping secrets for someone who calls themselves Tattletale.  Keeping secrets from me, even at the best of times.  Even though you knew what I’d gone through.”

“I’ve been pretty open,” Tattletale said.  She retreated a step, and Bentley advanced.  The swarm stirred around the two Skitters and the Grue.

“You haven’t mentioned your trigger event, have you?  Perfectly happy to dig through other people’s sordid pasts, but you won’t get into your own darkest moment.”

“Really not that interesting,” Tattletale said.

Skitter One’s voice was thick with restrained emotion.  “It’s still a betrayal, staying silent.  How can we have a partnership, a friendship, without equity?”

“Maybe.  I think you’re exaggerating.  Does the other Skitter have any input?  Awfully quiet.”

Skitter Two made a growling sound that might have sent a small dog running for cover.  “I’m the quiet type.”

“That you are,” Tattletale said.

“No commentary?  No manipulations?” Skitter One asked.  “Nothing nasty to say, to throw us off-balance?”

“You’re already off-balance enough.  Besides, I don’t think anything I had to say would get through.  How can I target your weak points when you’re nothing but?”

“That so?” Skitter One asked.  “Doesn’t happen often, does it?  You’re not as cocky, now.  Do you feel scared?”

“Just a bit,” Tattletale said.  She’d backed up enough that she’d reached the wall.  The mangled staircase stretched out beside her, almost entirely torn free of the wall.

“Why don’t we turn the tables, then?  Let’s see how I do, trying to fuck with your head,” Skitter One suggested.

“I’ll pass.  Bentley, attack!”

The dog hesitated, hearing the command from an unfamiliar person, but he did obey.  Skitter Two ran towards him, surrounding herself with crawling bugs.  At the last second, she took a sharp left, sending a mass of bugs flowing to the right.

Bentley managed to follow her, struck her with his front paws, and shattered her legs.  Skitter One’s flying swarm flew over him, and began binding him with threads of silk.  It was too little, a distraction at best.

Tattletale fired her gun, and Skitter One went down.  The bullet didn’t make for an instant kill, and the bugs continued doing their work.  Tattletale thrashed as the bugs started to cluster on her, took aim again-

And the Grue swept darkness over Skitter One.  She disintegrated, reappeared as the darkness sloshed against the far wall.

Teleporting things via his darkness.  As divergences from the base powerset went, it was pretty extreme.

“Heroes are on their way!” Skitter One shouted to Noelle, one hand pressed to the flowing chest wound.

I could sense them, observing with the same bugs that Skitter One was using.  Tattletale had left each of the doors unlocked as she’d made her way into the base, and Miss Militia was leading a squadron of Protectorate members and her Wards through the series of rooms and tunnels.

More bugs sought Rachel out, and she kicked her legs at the gap where they were flowing in beneath the left side of Bastard’s stomach.

Shatterbird appeared in the doorway at the end of the tunnel.  She was holding the Regent-clone by the throat.  She pushed him forward and let his limp body fall.  It landed in the heaping mass of Noelle’s flesh.

Shatterbird panted, her face was beaded with sweat, and it wasn’t related to the scene she was looking at, not the underground base filled with flesh and bodies.  Her hand shook as she pushed her hair out of her face.  Emotion?

Miss Militia chose that moment to open the door.  She, like Shatterbird, stared at the scene, but she was distracted as she was forced to grab the door frame to avoid stepping out onto the ruined walkway.

Tattletale’s voice was muffled by the bugs that were crawling on her face.  To actually open her mouth, in the face of all that, I wasn’t sure I could have done it.  I knew better than she did what the result might be, but… yeah.

But she did it.  Tattletale opened her mouth and shouted, “Shut the door!”

Miss Militia moved to obey.  Too late.

Shatterbird screamed, using her power of her own free will for the first time since we’d captured her.

-and the cockroaches obeyed.  They formed a rough human shape, then another.  Swarm-clones, as close as I could get to making them, without a concealing costume for my real self.

And the Nine didn’t fall for it.  Bakuda turned my way, and I belatedly remembered the heat-tracking goggles.  She could follow me by my body heat.

I ran, and I knew it was futile.

Night caught up to me first.  It would have been a simple matter for her to kill me right then, but she had different aims.  Her claw cut at the back of my legs, and I fell, crippled.  My fear pushed the pain into a distant second place on my priority list.

In a matter of moments, I was surrounded.  Night at one side of me, Crawler on the other.  Jack, Bonesaw, Siberian, Bakuda, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Panacea.

It was Weld who seized my wrists.

“Run,” I tried to warn him, but the words didn’t reach him.  Fluid bubbled out of my lips, and it came out as a mumble.  The radiation?  Plague?  Had Bonesaw or Panacea done something to me without my knowledge?

He said something I couldn’t make out.  It sounded like I was underwater.

Then he pulled.

He wasn’t gentle about it.  He threw me over one of his shoulders with enough force that bile rose in my throat and the sharper parts of his shoulders poked at my stomach.  I tried to move my hand to raise my mask, so I wouldn’t choke if I threw up, but my arm didn’t respond.

My head swam, and half of my attempts to breathe were met with only chokes and wet coughs.

Was this another delusion?  A dream?  Could I afford to treat it as though it was?

I was still blind, but my power was waking up.  I could feel the bugs in the area, and I was getting a greater picture of the surroundings as my range slowly extended.

Shatterbird was still perched in that doorway-turned window.  Noelle was beneath her, and I had only the bug-sight to view her with.  Her already grotesque form was distorted further by the three dogs she’d absorbed into herself.

Instinctively, I tried to move my bugs to get a better sense of the current situation.  They didn’t budge.

Instead, I felt the pull of the other two Skitters, wresting control of my bugs from me as though they were taking a toy from a baby, ordering those bugs to hurt my teammates and allies.

Rachel and Tattletale were down, and Imp was crouched beside Tattletale.  Imp had pulled up the spider-silk hood that I’d worked into her scarf, covering the back of her head, and cinched it tight.  It wasn’t perfect, but it was leaving her almost totally protected.

Almost.  Bugs had reached her scalp, and there were spiders working thread around her legs.  I wasn’t sure if she was aware of the latter.

The Wards and Protectorate in the upstairs hallway- some were hurt.  The fallen and the wounded were numerous enough that the heroes had lost any momentum they’d had.  Their focus was in the hallway, now, in saving their teammates.  Maybe they’d deemed the situation unsalvageable.

I exerted a greater effort, trying to reduce the impact the swarm was having on everyone present, but there was nothing.  My doppelgangers had a complete and total override, and the pair definitely noticed my attempts.  They turned my way.

What would I be doing in their shoes?  They couldn’t hurt Weld, but they could hurt me.

Or they’d find another avenue for attack.

“Weld,” Skitter One spoke up.  Her voice was quiet.  “Surprised you’re here.  Did Imp help you get close?”

Do I really sound like that?  I wondered.  And Imp?

Weld wasn’t replying.

Really surprised you’re with her,” Skitter One said.  She had one hand pressed to a chest wound.

Weld glanced over his other shoulder at her.  The other Skitter was a distance away, with shattered legs.

“Did she tell you?” Skitter One said, “She set someone on fire.  Maimed a minor, slicing his forehead open.  She cut off Bakuda’s toes, carved out a helpless man’s eyes.  I can keep going.”

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  He wasn’t moving.  Why?  He was waist deep in Noelle’s belly, holding me…  it dawned on me that he couldn’t throw me to some point clear of Noelle without giving me to the Skitter.

“You should care.  I could tell you about the critically injured man she left to bleed out and die.  She stood by and let people get attacked by Mannequin so she could buy herself time to think of a plan to make a counterattack.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t draw in enough breath to manage more than a hoarse whisper, and Weld wouldn’t have heard me.

“I don’t care,” Weld said.  “I know she’s done bad things.  After this is over, we’ll find her, beat her and take her into custody.”

“You don’t care?” Skitter One asked.  “She murdered your boss.  Shot Thomas Calvert in cold blood, not that long ago.”

Weld froze.  Or he went more still than usual.

“Whoopsie,” Imp said.  She’d appeared behind Skitter One.  A slash of her knife ended Skitter One’s contributions to the discussion.  “Sorry to interrupt.”

I couldn’t say whether Skitter One’s feedback had done anything to change his behavior, but Weld wasn’t gentle when he grabbed me and flung me overhand.  My legs tore free of Noelle, where her flesh had closed firmly around my legs, and I was sent flying.

Unable to move to protect myself or react to the landing, I sprawled where I landed, fifteen or so feet from Noelle.

Weld turned back to Noelle.  His left hand changed to become a blade, and he used it to hack and slash his way through Noelle’s side.  His other hand dug and scraped for purchase as he deliberately and intentionally submerged himself.

My bugs found their way to the others.  I did what I could with my bugs to drive Shatterbird away from the doorway and put her out of reach of Noelle’s tongue.  Once she’d started staggering back, I set about finding and destroying the bug clones who were attacking people and ignoring my powers.

The door where the Wards and Protectorate had been lurking opened.  Miss Militia tested her weight on the staircase, then leaped down to ground level.

She trained a gun on Imp as she noticed the girl crouching over Skitter Two, the taciturn Skitter with the broken legs.  Imp executed the girl, glanced at Miss Militia and shrugged.

I tried to speak, coughed.  I pulled my bugs away from Rachel and Tattletale.

Miss Militia stared at Noelle, her eyes adjusting to the poor lighting.

“You fed her!?” Miss Militia asked.

“Rachel,” Tattletale said, “Come on!”

There was a clapping or slapping noise, and Bastard lurched to his feet.  Rachel stood, and the other three dogs spread out around her.

“You fed Echidna?” Miss Militia asked, disbelieving.

Echidna?  Right.  They’d coined a name for her, then.

“And we’ll feed her more,” Tattletale said.  “Rachel!  All of the spare dogs!  Try not to get in Weld’s way!”

The dogs began to grow, flesh splitting, bone spurs growing, and muscles swelling to greater size.

Rachel hesitated.

“Do it!” Tattletale shouted.

Rachel gave the orders, shouting, “All of you, hold!  Malcolm, go left!”

She slapped one dog on the shoulder, and he bolted.

“Coco, go right!  Twinkie, go right!”

The other two dogs gave chase, stampeding past me as they ran along the right side of the room.

“Hurt!”  Rachel gave the order.

The dogs attacked the closet target – Noelle.  They got stuck in her like she was tar.

But, I realized, that the converse was also true.  Noelle was absorbing them, but she was unable to move so freely as long as this much extra mass was stuck to her.  It was like the way we’d fought Weld, sticking metal to him.

The problem would be when she spat out the dogs.

I tried to move, but I felt like I had fifty pound weights strapped each of my arms and legs.  My face burned hot, and my vision swam.

It wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling.  I felt sick.

With that thought, it dawned on me.  Noelle absorbed living things, and that apparently extended to bacteria.  Where others had bacteria in their digestive systems to help them digest food, Noelle, Echidna, had no need for such.  When she absorbed the ambient bacteria and molds from her surroundings, she was storing them, weaponizing them like she did with rats and insects.  They were used to debilitate her victims, render them unable to fight back while her clones got the upper hand.

It meant I was sick, and I’d have to hope that whatever the illness was, it would be short-lived.

Shatterbird was still thrashing, trying to do something with her glass and failing because she couldn’t breathe or see.  Echidna couldn’t move, as her legs were caught on the dogs.  The other clones had been executed by Imp, as far as I knew.

The sticking point was Weld.  Tattletale had apparently figured out that he was immune to Echidna’s absorption ability, but he wouldn’t be immune to her basic shapeshifting ability.  She didn’t have a lot of control over her form, or she surely would have chosen something without that number of legs, without the three mutant dog heads, but she did have the ability to shift her flesh around, and Weld was limited in how fast he could cut that flesh away.

Rachel had moved to my side.  She put her arms under my shoulders and my knees and lifted me, grunting.

I twisted around to cough and gag.  I managed to move one arm to my face, but didn’t have the strength in my fingers to move the fabric at my neck.

Rachel found it instead, pulling it up and halfway up my face.  I coughed up lumps of stuff that tasted the way raw meat smelled.

“Careful!” Tattletale said.  “Incoming!  Dogs!”

Noelle had apparently moved one of her heads around, because she managed to spray a stream of vomit our way.

There was a pause as her body heaved, my bugs could sense the movement as one of the bulkier dogs was repositioned inside her monstrous lower body, and then she puked up one of the dogs, along with a handful of humans.

It wasn’t large, wasn’t mutant.  Well, it was a mutant, but it wasn’t one of Rachel’s mutants.

“Bentley,” Rachel ordered.  “Kill.”

The bulldog lunged and seized the smaller dog in its jaws in a matter of seconds, crushed it in a heartbeat.

“Yeah,” Rachel said, her voice low enough that only I heard it.  “Feels wrong.”

“Why?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why was it small?”

“When we were hanging out with Panacea during the Slaughterhouse Nine fiasco, she put her hand on Sirius,” Tattletale said.  “And she said that the tissues die as they get pushed out from the center.  They’re more like super zombie dogs, really, with a juicy, living center.”

“And Echidna doesn’t copy dead things,” Miss Militia said.

Tattletale nodded.  “We got lucky.  I was worried it would only be a little smaller.”

Weld was fighting to emerge.  He had his hands on Grue and one of the dogs.  He hurled them out, and Miss Militia caught the dog.  Imp and Tattletale hurried to drag Grue away.

“Did you bring all the stuff I asked for?” Tattletale asked.

“Yes.  It won’t be enough.”

“So long as you’ve got some, it’ll help.  Just need to buy time,” Tattletale said.

Echidna’s bulk shifted.  I couldn’t see it with my own eyes, but with the blurry vision the bugs offered, I could track how she was getting her legs under her.  I could see that there weren’t any distinct bulges anymore.  She was breaking down the mutant flesh she’d stripped away from Rachel’s dogs and she was making it her own.  Six dogs… if my estimates about them being roughly a third her mass were right, she could be three times as big as she’d been before.

“She’ll be stronger,” Miss Militia said, putting the dog down.  “If this doesn’t work, we just gave her a power boost for nothing.”

“We’re saving the people she took,” Tattletale said, “And we’re buying time.  It’s not nothing.”

Echidna heaved herself up to her feet.  She vomited forth a geyser of fluids and flying clones.  Our ranks were scattered, knocked over and pushed away from Echidna by the force and quantity of the fluids.

It was stronger than before.  Whatever the source she was drawing from was, she’d reinforced it with the mass she’d gained from eating the dogs.  No less than fifteen clones littered the floor, and there were another twelve or so dogs and rats in their mass.

Miss Militia didn’t even stand before opening fire.  Twin assault rifles tore into the ranks of the clones as she emptied both clips, reforged the guns with her power, and then unloaded two more clips.  Several clones were avoiding the bullets more by sheer chance than any effort on their part.  One Grace-clone managed to shield the bullets, moving her hands to block the incoming fire.  One stray shot clipped her shoulder, but she was holding out.

Echidna spat up another wave, and I hurried to get my flying bugs out of the way.  I still couldn’t move, but I held my breath.  The wave hit us on two fronts, an initial crush of fluid and bodies, and the bodies from the first wave that had been shoved up against us.  As the fluid receded, my bugs moved back down to the ground to track how many clones she’d created.  It made for a pile of bodies, with snarling dogs and clones struggling for footing as they reached for us.

Bentley and Bastard provided our side with the muscle we needed to shove the worst of the enemy numbers away, bulldozing them with snouts and shoving them aside with the sides of their large bodies.  Miss Militia followed up by sweeping the area with a flamethrower.  She stopped, waiting for the smoke to clear, and Tattletale shouted, “Again!  Weld’s still inside!”

Another wave of flame washed over the clones.  They were Regents, Tectons and Graces, as well as various dogs, and none were able to withstand the heat.  Each and every one of them burned.

But this much heat and smoke, even with this space being as large as it was, it wasn’t an assault we could sustain.

Echidna opened her mouth for a third spray, then stopped.  One by one, bodies were dropping from her gut.

“No!”  Noelle screamed, from her vantage point on top of the monstrous form.

Weld forced another dog free, and Echidna moved one leg to step on it.

Grace and Tecton fell, and Weld dropped after them.  He turned the blade of one hand into a scythe, then chopped a segment of Echidna’s foot free.  With one motion of the scythe, he sent Tecton, Regent and some of the dogs skidding our way, sliding them on the vomit-slick floor like a hockey player might with a puck on ice.

Echidna deliberately dropped, belly-flopping onto Weld, Grace and the dismembered foot that had stepped on the sixth dog.

Miss Militia was already drawing together a rocket launcher.  She fired a shot at the general location where Weld was.  He forced his way free of the resulting wound a moment later, the dog tucked under one arm, Grace under the other.

Echidna swiped at him, but he hurled the others forward to safety a second before it connected.  He was slammed into the wall, but he didn’t even reel from the blow.  He made a dash for us.

“Retreat!” Miss Militia gave the order.

The staircase shook precariously as we made our ascent, one group at a time.  One of the capes had frozen the staircase of the metal walkway to the wall to stabilize it.  They started getting organized to hand each of us and the dogs up to the door, but Rachel barreled past, carrying me and two dogs, with Bastard and Bentley following behind.

As we reached the doorway, dogs were handed to the able-bodied.  Others were helping the wounded.  Clockblocker had fallen, and Kid Win was being moved with a makeshift stretcher formed of one of the chain-link doors that had been in the hallway.  There was a lot of blood.

It was Shatterbird’s power, I realized.  I’d barely registered the event.  Shatterbird was still in the hallway on the other side of the underground complex.  Standing away from the main fighting, perhaps, or waiting for an opportunity.  She’d found the locker where Regent kept her costume, was using her power to put it on while simultaneously fighting off the bugs that were still biting her.

Echidna reared back, apparently gearing up to vomit, and Miss Militia fired a rocket launcher straight into the monster’s open mouth.

It barely seemed to slow Echidna down.  Vomit spilled around her, crawling with vermin and bugs.

The monster was moving slower, now.  The entire structure shook as she advanced on us, sections of the walkway crumpling and screeching where her bulk scraped against it.

But the door was just that – a door.  Three feet wide and six feet tall.  The tunnels the trucks had used were too small for her mass, even if one ignored the fact that they’d been strategically collapsed.

The entire area shook with the impact of her furious struggles.  She was trying to tear her way free.  The violence only ramped up as we made our escape, to the point that I was worried the building above us would come down on top of our heads as we headed outside.

The warm, fresh air was chill against the damp fabric of my costume as we escaped from beneath the building.  I could sense other heroes and trucks stationed nearby, no doubt surrounding the area.

The second we’d reached the perimeter, Tattletale collapsed to the ground, propping herself up with her back to a wall.  Grue and Regent were placed next to us.

We were covered in blood and vomit, half of us so weak we could barely move.  It didn’t convey the best image.

“Vista wasn’t inside Echidna,” Weld said.  “If she’s still in the building-”

“Triumph, phone her,” Miss Militia ordered.

“Yes’m,” Triumph replied.

Miss Militia turned to Tattletale.  She gestured at the nearby vehicles.  “You said you wanted containment foam.”

“I did,” Tattletale said.

“You think she’ll fight free?”

“Almost definitely,” Tattletale said.  “She had a Grue with her.  One with teleportation powers.  He disappeared partway through the fight, lurking somewhere out of sight.  Being pragmatic about the situation.  So unless someone can testify to having killed the guy, we can expect her to pop up in a matter of minutes.”

“Minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“No reply from Vista,” Triumph reported.

“Keep trying.”

“She gets free in a few minutes, and we’ll use the containment foam then?” Assault asked.  I jumped a little at the realization it was him.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll use it as soon as the dust settles.”

“Dust?”  Assault asked.

She withdrew her cell phone, raised her voice, “If any of you have force fields, put them up now!”

Tattletale started punching something into the keypad.  Miss Militia grabbed her wrist, prying the cellphone from her hand.  “Stop.”

“It’s our only option.”

What’s our only option?”

Buying time,” Tattletale said.  She wrenched her hand free, but Miss Militia still had the phone.

“How?”

“You could punch the last two digits, one and four, into that keypad, see for yourself,” Tattletale said.  “Or you could give me the phone, let me do it, and then if Vista’s in there, your conscience is… less muddy, if not exactly clear.”

Miss Militia turned her face toward the phone, stared at the building that loomed over Coil’s not-so-secret base.

“Shatterbird-” I started to speak, had to catch my breath, “She’s in there too.  She was talking to Noelle.  To Echidna.  Last I saw.  They might be deciding to work together.”

“I won’t have a clear conscience, no matter what I do,” Miss Militia said.  “But I might as well own up to it.”

Miss Militia touched the phone twice.  Long, quiet seconds reigned.

“Didn’t think you had it in you,” Tattletale commented.

There was a rumble.  My bugs couldn’t reach far enough to see, but they could see the blur.  A cloud, at the top floor of the building.

Another cloud expanded out from the top of the building, one floor down from the first.

The explosions continued, escalating, ripping through the building in stages.  I couldn’t even breathe as I experienced the resulting aftershock, the vibrations as the building folded in on itself, plummeting down to the construction area.

“What-” Assault started.

There was another explosion, muffled, and my bugs were in range for the explosion that followed.  Plumes of earth rose in a rough circle around the building, and then the ground sank.  The entire underground base, folding in on itself.  Even with the debris of the fallen building on top of it, the area seemed to form a loose depression.

Fitting for the criminal mastermind, I thought.

“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiit,” Regent said, his voice reedy.

“He didn’t use it on us?” I asked Tattletale.  “Coil?”

She was staring at what must have been a massive cloud of dust.

“He tried, sort of,” she said.  “His computer was rigged to blow everything up if someone tampered too much.  I found the stuff when I went looking for his files, as I moved in.  Scared the pants off me when I realized that it was already in motion.”

“Before that?”  I asked.  “When we were waiting for the meeting?”

“Couldn’t afford to let ‘Echidna’ loose,” she said.  “And I think I would’ve known.  Can’t say for sure.”

It took minutes for everything to finish settling.

“Containment foam on the wreckage!”  Miss Militia shouted.  “I want cape escorts for each truck and equipped PRT member, do not engage if you see her!”

She was rattling off more orders.  I couldn’t focus enough to follow it all.

“She’s not dead,” Tattletale said, “But we bought an hour, at least.  Maybe a few.  With luck, they’ll upgrade this to a class-S.  We’ll get reinforcements… which we’ll need.”

“She’s stronger,” Grue said.  He didn’t sound good.  “You fed her.”

“Had to.  Or she would have escaped before the explosion.”

“But she’s stronger,” Grue repeated himself.

Tattletale nodded.

“Do you have a plan?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “Not really.  Ideas.”

“I have a few too,” I said.  “Not good ones, though.”

“I’ll take bad ideas,” she said.  She sighed wistfully, “Fuck.  I really wanted an evil mastermind headquarters of my own.  It’ll be years before I can build one for myself,” Tattletale groused.

“So impatient,” Regent clucked his tongue.

Tattletale pushed herself to her feet.  “The next part’s going to be three times as bad.  I’m going to go see if we can scrounge up some healing.”

I brought my legs up to my chest and folded my arms on my knees, resting my head on them.  The visions I’d seen were swiftly fading into memory, but the ideas behind them lingered.  For the first time in a long time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to fight, to step up and save others.  A large part of me wanted to say it was up to the heroes, to take the unsure thing over doing it myself and knowing I’d done everything I could.

I turned to Grue.  “You okay?”

He didn’t respond.

“Grue?” I asked.

Nothing.

I used my bugs to search for someone who might be able to give medical attention.  Everyone was milling around, active, busy.

Us Undersiders aside, there were only two people nearby who weren’t active, trying to contain and prepare for a potential second attack.  Weld and Miss Militia.

They were talking, and they were looking at me.

Thomas Calvert.  My clone had informed them.  And they’d seen our faces.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 10

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“I’m letting you go,” Regent lied.

He made Shadow Stalker drop to all fours on the ground and forced a grunt from her mouth.  With the same ease as he moved his own body, he made her load her bolt and spin to point her crossbow at him.  There was no danger of her shooting him; he was fully in control from start to finish.

He could feel her striving and straining to move her finger, to pull the trigger and plant an arrow just above his collarbone.  Every iota of her willpower must have been focused on the task.

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

He had her raise her crossbow and point it at her temple.

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

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

He had her nod, stiffly, awkwardly.  He felt her rising heartbeat, the slight increase in her breathing, which he managed, controlled.  Her muscles clenched, an involuntary reaction just beyond the scope of his control.  She’d realized what he was doing.  Rather, she knew what he wasn’t doing.

He wasn’t letting her go.

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

That said, he turned her around, activated her power and walked her through the door.

Regent looked at the others, shrugged.  “Good enough?”

Using the shadow form, she could cover a lot of ground very quickly.  For long minutes, he exercised her power, the ability to be as light as a feather, enjoyed it.  He even liked the running, too, when he turned off her power and just legged it.  This girl was in good shape.  He could tell she exercised regularly, that she ran on a regular basis.  Running was almost effortless, and it felt good, even with the aches and pains of the recent brawl. Months or years of practice had fine tuned her body.

Fighting had been much the same way, but it had been even better.  Her muscle memory had been so primed for punching, kicking, takedowns and evading that he’d almost been able to let her go on autopilot, let her body handle things on its own.

Not that he could, really.  But it had been easy.  He loved that sort of thing.  Maximum reward for minimum effort.

That same philosophy of minimizing the work he had to put in, sticking to what he enjoyed and the things that interested him, it was an advantage here.  Brian, Lisa and Taylor had their own dynamic.  They were friends.  He considered Brian a friend, but it was more along the lines of someone he could play video games with, talk about movies.  It wasn’t much different from if they were coworkers or roommates.  He smiled at the thought.  They kind of were, when it came down to it.

Regent knew he was a background character, for the most part.  He played along, he didn’t make waves, he didn’t stand out.  He wasn’t close to any of the others.

He was cool with that.  In fact, it suited him perfectly.

He was cool with it because it meant that when they were all heading out to meet Coil, nobody noticed that he was distracted, or that he wasn’t joining in the conversation.  His control got worse as the distance between himself and his puppets widened, which meant he had to devote more focus to Shadow Stalker and the act of keeping her movements fluid.  He ran into the same issues when he controlled more people, and there was the irritating side effect that his own coordination, speech and fluidity of movement all suffered to the same extent that his ‘puppets’ did.  Were he to open his own mouth now and speak to Brian or Taylor, he might stutter or slur his words.  It was almost more trouble than it was worth.

Almost.  He was surprised to realize how much he’d missed this.  It was like a high, a whole other set of emotions, of physical sensations.  Real life, just being Alec, only Alec?  It paled in comparison.  It was dull.

He wondered sometimes if dealing with his father had messed up something inside him.

He could remember being young, maybe eight or so, fighting with two of his sisters over the fact that he’d wanted to watch the music channel and they wanted to watch some craptastic stop motion cartoon.  They’d outnumbered him two to one, and he’d known he would lose the argument.  So he’d thrown a tantrum, started screaming.

The entire atmosphere in the house had changed in a second.  His sisters went from argumentative to conciliatory in an instant, changed the channel to the music, tried to give him the remote.  One of father’s ‘girls’ came in and tried to quiet him down.  When he hadn’t, she’d clamped a hand over his mouth.

It hadn’t been enough.  Dear Old Dad had come marching out of the master bedroom.  Nikos Vasil.  Heartbreaker.  Tall, wearing only boxer briefs, with a muscled, lanky physique, long hair plastered to his head with sweat.  Father had taken two or three seconds to assess the situation before using his power on Alec, his two sisters and the ‘girl’ with a hand over Alec’s mouth.  He hit each of them with stark terror.  The kind of fear you experienced when you were claustrophobic and you woke up in a coffin six feet underground.

Then father had gone back into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him.

It had been around summer when that happened, Alec mused.  He didn’t have many ways to tell time, back then, since he hadn’t gone to school, and the days kind of passed.  Still, it had been hot, he remembered.  Between that summer and Christmas, Alec hadn’t opened his mouth to speak once.

That was only one of a dozen or so experiences that came to mind.  So yeah, maybe father had broken something in the process.  Maybe it had been the emotional equivalent of staring into the sun for far too long, too many times, being left almost half blind.

Or maybe it was his own power.  He could be two, three or four people at the same time, feeling what they felt.  By the time he was a teenager, he’d experienced every kind of drug, in someone else’s body, had slept with himself as various boys and girls.  How was being just ordinary Alec supposed to compare?

Shadow Stalker wasn’t emotionally dulled.  Her emotions were rich, uninhibited.  She was  passionate in her emotions: angry, judgemental.  Even the negative feelings were something he could savor in their own way.  He wasn’t really experiencing them – it was more of a very involved spectator role.  Her fear was thrilling in the same way a fantastic scary movie was, with the detail and the immersion cranked up to eleven.

He leaped straight up into the air, then activated the shadow state.  When she was as high as she would get, he had her grip her cloak in her hands and use it to guide her descent so she could land atop the roof of the gas station.  He stopped, stretched her arms.  She was breathing hard, but not as much as his Alec-self would be after even half as much running.  He could feel the endorphins being pumped into her body from the hard exercise, and he was all the more aware of it because he had his other body to compare to.  She was an athlete.

He ran her hands down her chest, felt her breasts, the muscles of her stomach.  Stretching once more, he clenched her hands, felt the muscles in her arms flex.  He felt her shudder in revulsion.

“Almost forgot you were in there,” he murmured, barely loud enough for her to catch.  Not that it mattered.  She was as aware of the movements of her mouth as he was.  He could mouth the words and she would probably understand.  He smirked for her benefit as much as his own.

“So.  Bet you’re wondering what’s up,” he commented.  “Funny thing about having this control over you, I can feel your emotions, your body’s reactions.  Like a really, really good polygraph test.  I wasn’t even half done saying my piece back there when I caught on to the fact that you were too pissed and too angry to back down and walk away.  There’s no way you’re going to leave town if I let you go, right?”

He felt her struggle to open her mouth and respond.  He could have let her, by giving her some limited control over her own movements, but he didn’t.

“Right.  So I’m taking it upon myself to ensure this all goes smoothly.  My teammates have other shit to worry about, and I’m kind of enjoying flexing my powers.  So I’m dealing with this situation myself.  You and I?  We’re going to go another route.”

He fished in her belt and pockets and began withdrawing the contents.  He tossed the things he couldn’t use over the edge of the roof.  Billfold, spare cartridges for the crossbow, a small knife, spare strings for the crossbows, bandages, keys and a Wards ID card fell to the ground by the side of the gas station, in and near an overflowing dumpster.  There were plastic cuffs in the belt, but he couldn’t be bothered to fish out every last one and throw them all away.  At the right hip, he found two cell phones.  Success.

One of the phones looked years out of date.  The screen was scuffed so badly it was barely readable, and the plastic cover for the plug slot at the bottom was missing.  The other was a touch screen smart phone.  He didn’t recognize the make or the model, and the interface when he turned it on and touched the screen was unfamiliar.  Special issue from the Wards?  Whatever.  Not important.

The smart phone was password protected.  That was more Lisa’s thing, but he did have one trick up his sleeve.  Holding her fingers above the keypad, he let them follow through with the most natural feeling sequence of numbers, ingrained into the mind-body connection through the habitual repetition of a sequence of movements over weeks or months.  Muscle memory.

It took two tries.  The first felt slightly off at the end.  The second was spot on, and was rewarded with a vibration of the phone and a menu.

“Contacts,” he murmured, pressing a button, “Weld, Clockblocker, Vista, Flechette, Kid Win… boring.  Nothing I can work with, here.”  Director Piggot?  No.  Some potential there, maybe, but she was probably on top of this body-snatching situation.  Fully informed.

He scrolled down.  Beyond the contacts that had been pinned to the top of the list, there was a short list of contacts that were sorted in order of who had been contacted most recently.  At the top of the list was an ‘Emma Barnes’.

He checked the other, older phone.  No password.  A quick examination showed it was her civilian phone.

“Taking this out on patrol?  Is that stupidity or arrogance?  What if you lost it?”  He shook his head, then offered her a dramatic gasp, “What if it got into the wrong hands?”  Her voice was far better for the gasp than his own was.  He couldn’t help but chuckle after hearing it.

This Emma girl was listed in both of the phones.  Now he had a strong suspicion as to who it was.  A quick read of the received texts gave away Shadow Stalker’s name, but he already knew that.  Taylor had let it slip, before.

Her pulse was pounding now, and he could feel a growing sense of… what was that?  Outrage?  She was pissed at the invasion of privacy.

He tried a giggle on for size, to see if he could, and to see if it irritated her.  It worked on both counts.

No text messages had been exchanged on the smart phone, so he dug through the archive of old texts on the crummy old phone.  Lots sent to Emma.  Some sent to a Madison.  Others, relatively few, to a mom, a Terry and an Alan.

When he’d gotten sick of paging through the texts in the order that they’d been sent, he went looking for the saved texts, the messages Sophia had deemed important or noteworthy enough to save from being deleted.  What he uncovered was telling.  He had to do more digging to find the rest of the discussions for each message Sophia had saved, in order to get as much a sense of things as he could.  It was hard, when each series of texts was in response to some event he hadn’t participated in.

Some were inane, others he just didn’t understand.  Then he found one that gave him pause, that confirmed his suspicions about who Emma was.

Emma: what r u doing with her bag?

Sophia:  am in art class atm.  was thinking i can fill it with paint when teach leaves room.  put it in lost&found.  her art midterm is inside so she might look for it and find it and

Sophia: be all yay i found it and then she looks inside and sees its fucked

Emma: lol.

Sophia: what did you say to make her cry?  that was awesome.  blew my mind.

Emma: (SAVED MESSAGE) crying hrself to sleep for a week?  she told me she did after her mommy died

Sophia:  you r so evil

Emma: ya ya

Sophia: can i use that one on her?  saving that one for posterity btw

Emma: won’t have same bite to it.  brilliant bit was the suprise.  that slow realization abt what i meant.

Sophia: teach me o master

Emma: lol

Emma: wont be as good but i was thinking of that day.  think i remember musc we were listening to when she got the phone call abt her mom.

Emma: we shld wait a while and then see if she cries agn if we play it in hallways or b4 class.

Sophia:  and we cant get in trouble for just listening to music

Emma: ya

Sophia: cant believe you were her friend.

Emma: she was lame but not depressing and lame @ same time.

Regent closed the phone, threw it casually into the air, and then caught it on the way down.  He did that a few more times, thinking.

“Huh,” he said.

Long seconds passed.  He knew he should feel bad for the dork, but he only felt annoyed.  He felt worse about the fact that he didn’t feel bad than he did about what he’d just read.

Something to thank father for, maybe.

“You are not a nice person,” he spoke to Sophia with a note of irony in his voice.  He could feel her try to respond.

He smiled slowly, “Let’s see…”

He thumbed through the phone’s menus until he found an email option.  He verified it could send attachments.

The smart phone in his other hand, he found the web browser and did a search for local high schools.

“Hmmm.  What school do you go to?  Arcadia?  No.  Immaculata?  No.  Clarendon?  Nope.  Winslow?”

He felt the slightest of reactions from her.  A hitching of breath, maybe.  And there was nothing she could do to stop it, because the reactions were hers only because they were involuntary.

“Awesome.”  He searched for the web site for Winslow High School, and whistled tunelessly to annoy Shadow Stalker as he found the teacher’s emails.  He began painstakingly entering them into the recipient field.

When he’d done that, he began the process of attaching the texts to the email.  It would have been mind-numbingly dull if it wasn’t for that gradually building sense of trepidation he was experiencing from his gracious host.

He typed out a message for the email itself:

found phone.  stuff inside is concerning.  thought u should see what ur students r doing.

Her thumb hovered over the button that would send the email.

“Nah,” he decided.  He felt a wave of relief from his host.

That relief swiftly faded as he turned her eyes to the smart phone and searched for Brockton Bay’s police force.

When he’d added that email to the list, he added another line:

contacting police to make sure something is done

He sent the email.

He felt an explosion of rage from within Shadow Stalker’s body.  Her hands even shook with it.  He laughed, and her anger mixed with his amusement to create something that sounded unhinged.

Probably was, when he thought about it.  She had multiple personalities, in a way.

He stepped from the roof, and waited until the last second to use her power.  Her body exploded into a cloud of shadows.  As she pulled back together, he felt a strong discomfort.  Not quite pain.  In seconds, she had condensed back to her normal form.  The pain his hosts felt was something distant.  It didn’t bother him half as much. He couldn’t be sure if it was because he instinctually prevented it or if it was something else.

He resumed his whistling as he hopped up onto the railing of a bridge and walked atop it.  He dialed Emma, felt a mild reaction from his host: Annoyance with a note of anxiety.

Emma picked up on the fourth ring.  “What the fuck soph… what the fuck!?  It’s three AM!”

“Terribly sorry,” Regent tried to sound convincing, but it came out sounding sarcastic.

“You said you’d call me hours ago, to give me a recap.”

“I’m sorry,” Regent didn’t trust himself to pull off a sincere apology, so he lowered her voice to a hush instead.

“What’s going on?”

“I needed to talk to someone,” he spoke.

“…Are you hurt?  What happened?”

“Nothing.  There was this brawl at the headquarters, Dragon showed up, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.”

Regent held his breath, waited.

“Seriously, you’ve got me worried.  You’re making it sound like this important thing, and you woke me up at ten past three in the morning, so it had better be important.  Dish.  Explain.”

“I’m lonely.”

Emma’s voice rose in pitch, irritated, “SeriouslyThat‘s your issue!?”

“I miss you.”  He knew she wasn’t in town from the most recent texts he’d read on the phone.

“This doesn’t sound like you.  Are you high, or did you get poisoned or something?”

“I really miss you,” Regent breathed into the phone.

“What.”

“I’ve been in love with you from the beginning.”

“Sophia, stop.  If this is a prank-”

“Why do you think I pushed you to turn on that depressing little shit of a friend, way back then?  I was jealous of her.”

“This is retarded.  Don’t fucking call me again until you’re ready to grow up,” Emma growled.

“Please,” Regent managed to pull off a pleading tone, but Emma was already hanging up.  He heard the dial tone and swore, “Fuck.”

He hopped down from the railing as he reached the end of the bridge.  He commented,  “Don’t think she bought it.”

Sophia tried to respond, and for the first time, she almost succeeded.  The distance between Alec and Shadow Stalker was too wide, now.  It would only get worse.  He could feel it in his other body, too.

“Let’s see,” he grinned, raising the smart phone.  Her hand shook as she held it.  “Ooh, maps.”

The map application still showed the last route Shadow Stalker had requested from it, detailing directions from a point in the south end of the Docks to a place downtown.

“Thirty-three Stonemast avenue.”

Again, that slight reaction from her that told him he’d found something.

“That got your attention.  Let’s go pay a visit.”

He set the phone to display directions from their current location to Stonemast avenue, and then he ran once more.

Her movements were more awkward, now.  Her reflexes were slower, her balance worse.  Activating her power was becoming a chore, a slower, harder process.  Above all, it required more of his attention.  He had his Regent-self put his headphones in and turn on some music.  It was an excuse to ignore the others, and to have his attention elsewhere.  They weren’t at their destination yet.

Shadow Stalker reached Stonemast avenue before Regent, Tattletale, Skitter, Imp and Grue got to Coil.  It was funny, but with the route they were taking, if the timing was a little different, the group could have theoretically crossed paths with Shadow Stalker.  At least his control was improving as the gap between them closed.

Thirty-five, thirty-four, thirty-three.  It was a residential area.  The houses here weren’t in the best shape, and a lot of houses had trash or belongings in the yard.  Thirty-three Stonemast avenue had a toddler’s toys sitting on the front lawn.  The hedges between the property and the neighbors was overgrown, and the tree at the front of the property looked dead.  It might have seemed deserted, but someone had taken up the effort of picking up the detritus the tidal wave had brought in and piling it at the front corner of the lawn, by the driveway.

He walked her through the front door, felt rising anger and worry from his host.

That anger and worry peaked when a young man, nineteen or twenty, stepped from the living room to the front hall, heading towards the kitchen, and saw her.  The man stopped and stared.

“Mom!”  He shouted.

A tired looking middle-aged woman entered from the kitchen, holding a four-year old girl in her arms.  Regent had grown up around lots of kids.  He liked to think he was a good judge of ages.

The woman stared at Shadow Stalker, then turned, “Terry, take your sister upstairs.”

“But-”

“Now!” the woman barked.

Terry moved to pick up the child, who was looking increasingly concerned over the raised emotions and the strange person in their hallway.  Regent reached out and grabbed Terry’s arm.

“Chill, bro,”  Regent was making a guess here.  From the way the boy stared at Shadow Stalker, he knew he’d hit the mark.

Sophia!?”

“Yeah,” Regent grinned behind her mask.  “Duh, moron.”

The woman stepped between Shadow Stalker and Terry, a look of fury on her face, “Sophia!  Kitchen.  Now!”

With a swagger, Regent walked Shadow Stalker into the kitchen.  There was a flurry of hissed words between Terry and Shadow Stalker’s mother.  Among them was a surprised, hurt, “You knew!?”

Regent sat down at the kitchen table and put her feet up.  Dirty water pooled on the table’s surface.

It was nearly a minute before the mother came storming into the kitchen.  She pushed Shadow Stalker’s feet off the table.

“Explain!” she demanded.

“What?” Regent lifted one shoulder in a shrug.

“We had a deal.  You could do this thing of yours, but your siblings were not to know!”

“It’s a pain in the ass,” Regent said.  He pulled off Shadow Stalker’s mask and started tapping the edge against the table, idly.

“It’s the rules in my house!  If it’s going to keep you out of prison and on the straight and narrow, fine.  But I will not have you glorifying violence-”

The mother stopped mid-sentence as Regent opened Shadow Stalker’s mouth in a very real yawn.  Funny that his other self yawned as well, in that sympathetic reaction to someone else yawning.  The mother slapped the mask from Sophia’s hand.  It clattered to the ground.  “Listen to me!”

“Whatever,” Regent drew a crossbow and turned it over in his hands.

The mother stared at it.  Her voice was hushed as she spoke, “That doesn’t look like the tranquilizer dart the Director showed me.”

Regent quirked an eyebrow, “Oops.”

“What are you doing, Sophia?  Do you want to go to jail?”

“I’m bored,” Regent replied.

“You do not have the right to complain about something like being bored!  I work two jobs for you three!  I put in overtime, I attend every school function, I come into the office every time you get reprimanded because you’ve got anger issues!  You aren’t even taking care of your sister, or helping out around this house!  What do you think-”

“And now you’re making me even more bored,” Regent cut her off.

The mother slapped Sophia so hard that her head turned to one side.  Her cheek burned.

“Don’t you dare,” the mother intoned.

Shadow Stalker stood at Regent’s directions, then pointed the crossbow at the mother.  The woman’s eyes widened, and she hurried to back away as Shadow Stalker advanced.  They stopped when the mother’s back was to the wall by the kitchen door, with Shadow Stalker’s crossbow bolt pressed against her throat.

“I think I’m done with listening to you whinge,” Regent whispered.

“What are you doing?  What’s wrong with you?”

“Like you said,” Regent shrugged, “Anger problems.  I promise you, you don’t have the slightest idea of what I go through.”

When in doubt, be vague.

“If you’re talking about Steven…”

Steven.  Regent could feel a reaction from Shadow Stalker at the name.  “I’m not talking about Steven.”  He put some inflection in the name.  He dropped the crossbow to one side, stepped away and stretched.  The mother didn’t budge from where she was pressed up against the wall.  “I’m going to my room.  Don’t disturb me.”

He bent down and grabbed the mask, but he didn’t put it back on.  He stepped out into the hallway, and saw a vacuum cleaner parked in the corner.  An extension cord trailed from it to a neighboring room.  An office?  He unplugged the cord from the wall and the vacuum, and then headed upstairs, winding the cord into a simple coil.

Shadow Stalker’s body was a cocktail of emotion.  Fear, anger, anxiety, worry, panic and sheer fury.  Regent staved off the worst of the physical reactions, the trembling and the heavy breathing, and managed to make Shadow Stalker seem calm as she reached the top of the stairs.  Terry was up there in the hallway, staring, uncomprehending.

Regent found her room, then shut the door.  It was small, old-fashioned, with wood paneling on the walls.  The furniture was limited to a twin-sized bed, a vanity with a mirror, candles and cosmetics littering the top, a bookshelf and a combination computer desk and dresser with a computer and a printer perched on top.  The wall behind the pictures showed Shadow Stalker with a redheaded girl.  There were a lot of photos with them laughing.  Emma?

“Emma?” he asked.  That slight alteration in her heartbeat and her breathing told him he was right.

He found a picture of Shadow Stalker – Sophia – with her family.  Her mom looked younger and far less tired there, and was pregnant.  Shadow Stalker looked twelve or so, and her brother looked sixteen or seventeen, sporting a fantastic looking afro and a less fantastic attempt at a moustache.  They were clustered around one another, but only the mom was smiling.

Regent’s eyes fell on the man who was cut out of the photo, only his hand on the mom’s shoulder, and a sliver of his torso and leg were visible at the edge of the picture.

“Steven?” he asked.  Raw hatred boiled up inside Shadow Stalker, for both Regent and the man that couldn’t be seen in the picture.  “Steven.  So what did he do do you?  Believe me, I’ve seen it all.  Hit you?  Touch you?”

No reaction from either of those.  Verbal abuse?  Emotional?  Something else?  He didn’t care enough to quiz her more.

He grabbed the lighter from beside the scented candles and began pulling the photos off of the wall.  Using the lighter, he burned a hole in the photograph where Emma’s face was.

“Well,” he said, his tone dry.  He had to cough to keep himself from letting her anger turn his voice into a growl.  “You sure rose above that shit, treating your classmates like you do, getting in fights, not helping out dear old mom.”

Again, he had to struggle to maintain control as she exploded with emotion.  It didn’t help that his other self was trying to listen to what Coil was saying.  Better to avoid testing her.

“You and I are more alike than you’d suspect, I think,” he said. “We’re both arrogant assholes, yeah?  Difference is, I admit it, I don’t dress it up and tell myself that I’m a bitch and that that’s a good thing.”  He burned Emma’s face out of another photo.

“So, let’s tie all this shit together.  I have been working with a goal in mind, believe me.”

He got a piece of paper out of the printer, then found a pen in one of the drawers.  He was careful to rely on her muscle memory when it came to the handwriting.

I thought I could manage.

I’m too angry.  Too lonely.  I hate myself for what I’m doing.  Hurting people.

I hurt my mom.  I hurt my classmates as Sophia.  I hurt people as Shadow Stalker, and I hate myself for enjoying it.

I thought I could manage it.  I had Emma.  She had my back.

Except she turned me down.  I loved her, really loved her, and when I confessed she turned me away.  Acted like it was a joke.

This is the right thing to do.  I won’t be able to hurt anyone anymore.

Terror surged through her body like ice water.  When he laughed in reaction, it came out shaky.  He littered the burned photographs around the piece of paper, with Emma’s face missing from each, then drew an arrow from the crossbow’s cartridge and laid it across the bottom edge of the paper.  It was overdramatic enough to work.

He stood on the chair and began wrapping the extension cord around the base of the light fixture.  He grabbed the cord and hung off it for a few seconds to verify it could hold her weight.  The light fixture itself was flimsy , but the frame it was attached to was bolted securely into the wooden beams of the ceiling.

He found moisturizers and soaps on top of the vanity.  Using them, he rubbed the end of the extension cord, making it slick.  Holding the end, he began tying it into a crude hangman’s knot.  When he failed to do it right, he used the smart phone to find a video of how to tie one, then turned the volume all the way down.

“Here’s the thousand dollar question,” he mused, as he began following the steps outlined in the video, putting the knot together, “Will your boss tell your mom what happened with me controlling you?  If she keeps her mouth shut, well, this paints a pretty ugly picture, doesn’t it?”

A tear rolled down his cheek.  He scoffed a little, blinked the tears out of her eyes.

“But if she does tell, if she lets mommy know, then shit hits the fan.  It looks pretty fucking bad for her, and if word gets out, it’s as bad as it gets for public relations.  Scary, dangerous parahumans.  Not just lives at risk, but you could be controlled.  Ooooh, scary.  Nobody would ever be able to trust their coworkers or neighbors.  It’s the kind of stuff they want to keep quiet.”

“Looks bad for me, sure, but you saw the fight earlier.  It’s not like you guys are that big a threat.  Like I said, I’m arrogant that way.”

He reached to plug the extension cord into the wall, but found it too short.  He sighed and went to unplug everything from the computer’s power bar and use that to extend the length of the cord so he could plug it in.  He grabbed her alarm clock, stood on the chair, and plugged it into the noose.  He put her hood down, and then set the alarm clock inside her hood, blinking 12:00, 12:00, 12:00.

“Any last words?”  He slid the noose around her neck.  It was slimy with the soaps and other shit he’d poured on it.

He gave her enough control to speak, but retained control of her arms, legs so she couldn’t escape, and held her diaphragm so she couldn’t draw in enough air to scream for help.

“Why?” she breathed.

“You fucked with my teammate,” he shrugged her shoulder.

“Grue?  I-”

He didn’t let her finish.  “I dunno if I care all that much, but it’s the sort of thing I’ll do because it feels like I should.  Dunno.  There’s also the fact that you’re dangerous, and you’ve outlived your usefulness, so… unless you can give me a convincing reason.”

“Please.”

“Not that convincing.”  He raised one foot, then kicked the chair, hard.

It rocked, but didn’t tip over.

He chuckled lightly, feeling the confusion and the relief from his host.  It was a thrill unlike any other.  “I think I made my point.”

She wanted to respond, but he didn’t let her.  She was bewildered, just as scared as she had been before.

“I’d like to think that you have much less reason to hang around this city than you did an hour ago.  Even if she hears how you were controlled by yours truly, mom’s not going to be so comfortable having you around in the future, given the dim possibility of a repeat performance.  Things are going to be awkward with Emma there, too.  Your career as a hero here isn’t looking good, either.  Eff why eye, I was telling the truth about my ability to assume total control faster, easier, if I’ve controlled someone before.”

He fished out a set of the plastic cuffs and put them around her wrists, then worked her fingers to pull the end and cinch the cuffs tight, behind her back.

“I can feel your emotions.  I know I’ve convinced you.  You leave town, and if you don’t want me paying a visit, wherever you wind up, you keep your mouth closed about tonight.  They don’t need to know this was all my doing.  Things get messy that way, yeah?”

He gave her limited control, and she nodded, fractionally, as if afraid to move.

“If I do get control again?  I won’t pull my punches.  Or my kicks.”  He tapped her foot against the back of the chair.  Her heart leaped in her chest.  “You can’t feel my emotions, so you’ll have to trust that I’m capable of it.  You know I’m Heartbreaker’s kid.  You know I’ve killed before.”

Again, she offered a slight nod.  She tried to speak, but he didn’t let her.  No need, he could guess, from what she was feeling.  The anger was gone now.  There was only fear.

He glanced out the window.  There were flashing lights.  A PRT van?  Or maybe a police car.

A chuckle escaped her lips.  “Well, I’ll leave it to you to get out of this situation.  When you do?  Get the fuck out of my city.”

He let out a breath, and then relinquished control of her body back to its owner.

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.6

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

“Hey, Skitter!” Tattletale grabbed my shoulder.

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

Shit,” she swore, “Hey, listen-”

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

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

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

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

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

Why the smoke?

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

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

“She’s coming!” I shouted.

In retrospect, that was a mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kaput, thanks to Tattletale,” I spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Tattletale asked me.

“That question seems to come up a lot.”

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

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

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

Bitch’s eyes widened fractionally as she saw me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed.

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

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

She looked away, down at the ground, scowling.

“Take it or leave it.”

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

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

“We could keep her,” Imp spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m letting you go,” he spoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Stalker turned and walked through the door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?” Dinah asked.

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

“Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm,” Dinah said.

“What is it, pet?” Coil murmured.

“It’s him.”

“Who?”

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

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

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

I shivered.  What?

“Everyone here?”

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

“Try,” he urged her.

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

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

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

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

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

That was disquieting.

“No,” Dinah spoke.  “He doesn’t.”

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

“Eighty three point four percent.”

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

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

“So it still happens?” Coil asked.

“Yes.  Always happens.”

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

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

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

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

“My head hurts.”

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

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

“And the Undersiders?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sixty percent,” Dinah muttered.

“Sixty percent, pet?”

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

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

“Got it,” Grue spoke.

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

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

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

Grue nodded.

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

Regent nodded.

“Bitch is absent?”

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

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

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

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

“Cool.”

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

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

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

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

There were nods all around.

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

Lovely.  He’d get along great with Bitch.

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

“Yeah.”

“Did she explain how?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  I’ve made a decision.”

“Do tell.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“And you’ve decided.”

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

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

I hurried to cut him off, “No.”

He stopped, tilted his head slightly.

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

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

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

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

No.  My heart sank.

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

I nodded, numbly.

“Anything else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.5

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d been reading up.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a disadvantage?” Regent asked.

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

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

Dragon didn’t seem to notice or care.

“Can she see me?” Imp asked.

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

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

“She’s not,” Regent interrupted.

“What?” Tattletale asked him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imp!” Tattletale shouted, “No!”

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

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

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

“The fucking fuck!?” she shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dragon’s here!?” he shouted, aghast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which left me in the gift shop with Dragon.

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

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

“Where are they taking it?”

I stayed silent.

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

“Something like that.”

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

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

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

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

“Why would I-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d saved me?

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

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

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

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

But was that Dragon?

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

So what the hell had I just seen?

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

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

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

Bitch.

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Parasite 10.4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kid Win’s room, had to be.

“Gear up,” Tattletale said.

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the hell is that nonlethal?

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t-” Tattletale started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parasite 10.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We did?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t come without a plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Had I found a solution?  Not so much.

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

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

So yeah.  It worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A backfire?  So easily?

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

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

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

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

“H-h-help.”  She stuttered.

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

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

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

“Since a little while ago,” Regent answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That left one option.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, it was Bitch.

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

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

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

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

“Come on!” Tattletale urged us.

I looked back at Grue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Two minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Elevator’s down.”

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

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

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

“Someone cut the power?” Imp asked.

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

“So this is bad?” Imp asked.

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

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

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

Parasite 10.2

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

3 Days Ago

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

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

With a push, the door swung wide open.

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

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

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

His little sister?  Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Point made,” Lisa told her. “Stop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can vouch-” Lisa started to speak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ahhhh,” Alec responded.

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

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

“Bullshit,” Alec retorted.

“What?” Brian turned toward Alec.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who says I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’d swallowed mine.

Now

There were so many ways this could go wrong.

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

“Go,” Grue ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it easy, Regent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if Grue uses his power-“

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So many ways this could go wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You alright, Imp?” Grue asked.

“Duh,” she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was Weld?

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

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

“Yeah,” Shadow Stalker replied.

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

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

There was a pause.

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

Another pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatever,” Shadow Stalker replied.

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” Shadow Stalker said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Clockblocker,” she guessed.

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

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

“Heads up!  Trap!” Weld shouted.

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Parasite 10.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed, “Just get the generator.”

“I just lay down.”

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

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

Grue, for his part, ignored her.

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

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

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

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

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

Our captive hadn’t budged an inch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We have an idea,” Tattletale interrupted.

“Fuck you!”  Shadow Stalker shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Stalker grunted, long and loud.

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

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

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

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

“We could cover one of the windows!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay with this?” Tattletale asked.

“All-in,” was all I could say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck!” I shouted, standing.  How?

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Totally got you, Dork,” she chuckled.

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