Scarab 25.4

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Touché, PRT. 

You got me.

Touché.

You’re attempting to reach Glenn Chambers, co-president of Faceti.  For our mutual convenience, please categorize your message.  Press one to contact my personal assistant, who can get your message to me in text asap.  Press two if you got my number from my business card.  Press four if you are an employee.  Press five if this is a personal call.  Press nine if the call is of utmost urgency, to put yourself on the line immediately if I’m on the phone, or set off an alarm if I’m not.

I seriously debated pressing nine.  I felt like this was a nine.

I hit one instead.

This is James, receiving a call for Mr. Chambers.

“It’s Weaver, I… I don’t know who else to call.”

I wasn’t coherent, which was unusual, considering how I could normally keep myself together in a crisis.

Oh, Weaver!  He’s actually talking to someone about you right now.  I got his attention.  He’ll be with you in a second.

“I’m not sure I have a second,” I said.  There was no response.  He wasn’t on the line.

“Oh man,” Golem said.  “I’m… oh fuck.”

Quite possibly the only person who was as concerned as I was.

Glenn here.  You should have called earlier.”

“I didn’t get a chance,” I said.  I would have explained, but time was precious here.

I imagine you didn’t.  Well, there’s good news and bad news.  You’ve already run into the bad news.  Here’s the good.  This?  It’s my plan they’re using.”

I could believe it.  I didn’t respond.

Their timing is off.  I would have done this differently if I were your enemy.  It’s too much of a gamble as it stands.

“They planned this, have been setting it up for a while.  I expected interference with the missions, being supplanted with the Protectorate squad, not this.  I just need to know-”

There was a fanfare, musical, light and jazzy.  By the time it faded, a crowd I couldn’t see had started applauding.

It’s starting,” Tecton said.  He was a pillar of confidence here.

Glenn was talking, but I couldn’t hear over Tecton and the crowd.  I stepped away, my free hand raised to block out the noise.

…nds like the show just started.  They have to have leverage against you if they’re pulling this.  Your probation?

“They’re threatening to declare a breach if I don’t play along.”

Play along.  I heard what you did, announcing what the PRT was doing to the entire building.  Word got around, in certain channels.  Do not do that again.  Don’t call your bosses out and let people know that you don’t want to be here.  They’ll be ready for it, and you’ll hurt worse than they do.”

“Okay,” I said.

Did they prep you?

“No.   I got off a six-hour graveyard patrol with Gauss and returned to the base to hear about this.  They even put our new Protectorate member on the comms to keep me out of the loop, then fed me just enough information I had to listen without telling me enough.  I’ve never even seen this show, and I barely had time to get my costume brushed off and my hair in order.  They tidied it up some here, but-”

Glenn cut me off.  “Okay.  It’s not the end of the world, but I don’t think this show will help you.  These shows almost always result in a ratings dip over timeIt boosts your appeal but hits you on respectability.  It’s only worth it if there’s merchandise or media to sell, which there isn’t.  They’re tanking you.  Still, this is minor in the grand scheme of things.

Being in front of millions of people was minor.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t had appearances before, but most had been without my knowledge.  The unveiling of ‘Weaver’ was a good example of how tongue-tied I was liable to get.

“What do I do?  How do I approach this?”

I’d tell you to just be yourself, but that’s a terrible idea.  Be yourself as you normally are with the Wards.  Be the teenager, the friend.  Play up the fact that you’re a group, that there’s camaraderie.  Build a relationship with the audience by sharing things they probably don’t know.  Nothing sensitive.

I wondered if the dildo prank that the Wards had initiated me with would qualify as sensitive.

More than that, I wondered if I even had enough of a bond with the others, something I could draw on.

Be engaging.  It’s more important to keep the conversation moving than it is to say what you want to say.

“Wards!”  A woman called out.  “All together.  Hurry up now.  You’re on in two minutes.”

Like a kindergarten teacher herding students around.

“Two minutes,” I said.  “I should go.”

Good luck.  This is a day the strategist needs to take a vacation, understand?  Or delegate a task to it.  They’re putting you out there because they think you’ll either take a hit to your reputation or you’ll try to be clever and self destruct.  You stand to lose more than they do, and this isn’t live, meaning they can pull anything they don’t want on the air.

“I get it,” I said.  “They aren’t just giving me enough rope to hang myself with, they’ve put me in a rope factory.”

Exactly.

“Thank you, Glenn.”

I joined the others, my heart was pounding with enough force that the thumps rocked my entire body.  Tecton was closest to the stage, followed by Grace and Wanton.  The core team members, the veterans.  Veterans in one sense.  Wanton didn’t have half the field experience I did, even with our sustained campaign against the local villains, starting to help out in Detroit and trying to deal with that one jerkass in Milwaukee who we hadn’t yet managed to pin down.  Tecton and Grace were a little more seasoned, but not by a lot.

The stage manager was checking the microphones everybody wore.  She paused by me, and ensured it was plugged in, and that the connection was unbroken.  I was essentially wearing the same costume I had in the winter, but had skipped the extra layer beneath.  I suddenly felt intensely conscious of every wrinkle and all of the grit that had gathered up around my ankles and feet as I’d patrolled.

The costumes the others wore were immaculate.  Wanton had styled his hair to be messy in a good way, and was draped in flowing, dark blue clothing with lighter armor situated across his chest, his waist, his boots and along the length of his arms.  I suspected that the cloth afforded him more protection than the thin plates of metal, but it served to mask his artificial arm.

Grace’s costume was light, in contrast to the dark of Wanton’s.  Her new costume was white cloth, almost a martial artist’s outfit, but designed to offer more coverage.  Reinforced pads were situated at every striking point, complete with studs to offer more traction and focused impacts.  There wasn’t a single hair out of place beneath her combination headband, hairband and mask.  She had glossy, wavy locks I was a little jealous of, and a trace of lipstick.

I wish I’d considered some make up.  Not that I wore a lot, or that I’d had the time.  I had only what they’d given me in the studio, and they hadn’t gone overboard, on the assumption that I’d keep my mask on.  No, if anything it forced me to keep it on.  Heavy eyeshadow to make it easier to see my eyes behind the blue lenses.

Cuff seemed to be in the same department as Grace.  She’d done herself up, with a more ornate braid to her hair, and had altered her costume a fraction, to allow for more decorative tailoring at the ends of each panel and the nose of her visor.  Slivers of skin were visible between some slats of armor at the upper arms and collarbone.  Of everyone here, she seemed the most excited.  She couldn’t sit still, but she was smiling, and it was a genuine expression.

That left Annex and Golem.  Golem was uncomfortable, and I couldn’t blame him.  Like me, he had details he’d want to hide.  His family, his background, the fact that he was in foster care.  His costume, too, was a work in progress.  It was a resource for him, and maximizing that resource often set him back in the appearance department.  Annex, by contrast, had settled into a ‘look’.  It was plain, intentionally so.  The white cloak was form-fitting, with ribs to keep the fabric straight and close to his body so it was easier and quicker to absorb.

“Grace,” Tecton said.  “No swearing.”

Wanton snickered a little.

Tecton pitched his voice lower.  “Golem?  You’ve got to stop calling adults sir while you’re in costume.  You do it as a civilian, dead giveaway.  Hasn’t mattered up until now, but this is the test.”

“I probably won’t say much,” Golem said.  “I’m so nervous I feel like I need to puke.”

“No puking,” Wanton said.

“No puking is a good idea,” I agreed.

“Weaver…” Tecton said.  He gave me a look, with only his eyes visible behind his helmet.  “…I don’t even know.  But I’ve kind of gone the extra mile for you, and you’ve done a lot in return, but-”

The stage manager stooped down a little to talk to us, even though both Tecton and I were both taller than her.  “Alrighty, guys!  You’re on in five, four…”

“I still owe you one.  I’ll be good,” I told Tecton, just under my breath.

“One!”

The jazzy fanfare played.  As if that wasn’t cue enough, the stage manager gave us a little prod, literally pushing Tecton forward.

It was surprising how small the studio was, both the stage with its slate gray floor and fake cityscape behind it and the studio audience.  Tecton led the way to the half-circle of a table with the three hosts on the far side.  The largest chair closest to the hosts was undoubtedly his, shipped here by the PRT so he could sit down in his armor without crashing to the floor.

We sat down.  Tecton, Grace, Wanton, me, Annex, Cuff and Golem, in that order.  The music died as we took our seats, opposite the three hosts.  An adult man, African-American by the looks of it, a woman with peroxide blond hair and a girl who could have been her daughter, a brunette who bordered on overweight, with a winning smile and an overly generous chest.

“Welcome back to Mornings with O, J and Koffi,” the woman said.  “School’s out for the day and we’ve got the Chicago Wards here for breakfast.  Good morning, guys.”

We voiced our replies.  Wanton gave me a look, smiling, and I made myself smile as well.

The young girl gave a small wave, “So nice to meet you.  We had the team here before, but you guys have definitely changed things up since.  Campanile was the team leader then.”

“Campanile graduated to the Protectorate a little while ago,” Tecton said.  “He said to say hi.”

“You were there too, weren’t you?” Koffi, the man, said.

“In my old costume,” Tecton said.  “Which I’d prefer we didn’t talk about.”

There were chuckles from the hosts at his comment, and the audience echoed them.  It was oddly surreal.  I intended no offense to Tecton in thinking it, but the comment just wasn’t that amusing.

“The updated costumes look good,” Koffi said.

“We can thank Weaver for that.  Any cloth you see is spider silk,” Tecton said.

“Spider silk, wow!”  This from the blonde woman.

“Cuff and I sort of missed out on that front,” Tecton added.

“I don’t know whether to be amazed or freaked out,” the younger woman said.

“We had a giant Japanese crab on the show just a month ago, I think.  Jo had to leave the stage,” Koffi said.  “I think she’s a little nervous with Weaver here.”

“That was so embarrassing,” the young woman said.  I made a mental note of her being ‘Jo’.  “And you’re never going to let me live it down.”

More laughter.

Oh hell, I thought.  It was all so fake.  Fake responses, fake conversation.  The personalities, the way they were over-talking, it was like they’d taken everything that irritated me and condensed it into this, and situated it all in front of countless viewers so I couldn’t even respond the way I wanted to.

“I don’t dislike you, Weaver,” Jo said.  “It’s bugs I don’t like.  I’m not nervous.”

“Thank you.  Good,” I said.  Then, in an attempt to recover the clumsy sentence, I added, “I’m glad.”

The blonde, who was ‘O’ by the process of elimination, said, “There’s been a fair bit of attention directed at your team.  The leaked video thrust you all into the spotlight.  Then you dropped off the radar.”

“Recuperating,” Tecton said.  “We’re teenagers.  We go to school and play video games and being a cape is only part of it.”

“Except for Weaver,” Wanton said.

Both Tecton and I shot him a look, and then I remembered that there were eyes on me.  There was a reaction from the audience.  Light laughter.

“What do you mean?” Jo asked.

How could I even explain that I was working towards stopping or mitigating the degree of the world ending, when I wasn’t allowed to mention the fact?  Or that we were systematically targeting the most problematic villains, when I didn’t want anyone to see the show and hear the battle plan outlined for them?

“Wanton has been poking fun at Weaver about how she doesn’t go out or maintain any hobbies,” Tecton explained.  “Which isn’t entirely fair.  My apologies to Weaver bringing this up, but it’s not a secret that she’s on house arrest.  She’s on probation, and so she’s limited in what she can do.”

Koffi seized on the topic.  “You had a pretty colorful life as a villain, Weaver.  We’ve seen the cell phone video of you in the cafeteria of your high school, opposite Dragon and Defiant.”

I felt simultaneously glad that the conversation was moving and horrified that I was the subject.  I blamed Wanton.

Still, I said, “Clockblocker too.  I wasn’t actually attending school, though.  It was a couple of unlucky circumstances that put me there, and… yeah.  At that point in time, I’d wanted to focus on taking care of my part of the city.”

“That’s interesting, isn’t it?” O asked.  “You were a criminal overlord.  How were you even qualified for that?”

“It wasn’t like that,” I said.  I was more nervous now, half-convinced I was damning myself further with every sentence.  I’d inevitably come off too harsh and ‘dark’ for the civilians who were watching and too soft for any villains who happened to see.  Damn it.  “Taking the territory and being a villain were independent things.  Related, but different.  It was after Leviathan attacked, food, water, shelter and safety were hard to come by.  It was a way to help.  If I’d been a solo hero then, I’d have done much the same thing.  I’d have been gentler, but yeah.”

With less money to spend, I thought.  I’d avoided mentioning I was an undercover, aspiring hero when I’d started out.  That had never worked out for me, and only complicated things.

“And Alexandria?  I think everyone’s curious about your thoughts there.  You were shocked, in the video, when she made a reappearance.”

I shook my head.  “It’s not her.  I’m… I’m not happy, obviously, to see her up there.  It’s an ugly reminder of what happened.  But to have another person fighting Endbringers?  I’m okay with that part of it.”

“A long, bumpy road, and it’s brought you here,” O said.

“With the Chicago Wards,” I said, in a vain hope to turn the conversation away from me.

She took my cue.  “New costumes, a new group.  Behemoth is defeated and it looks like the Endbringers might have reverted to the schedule they had pre-2002.  An attack every four to five months.”

“Yes,” Tecton said.  “Everything’s new.  There’re a lot of changes going on.”

“Are you excited?” Jo asked.

Oh man, was I ever starting to dislike her.

“I’m really excited,” Tecton said.

The response caught me off guard.  Was he lying for the sake of appearances or was it honest?  How could someone be excited when the end of the world was nigh?  Did he not believe it was coming?

Whatever the answer was, I felt oddly disappointed in him.

Cuff shifted in her seat, and metal scraped against the metal of the chair’s footrest with a high-pitched noise.  She whispered, “Sorry.

O leaned forward.  “It’s fine.  Let’s hear from some of the others.  Wanton, your thoughts?  Are the changes good?”

“The changes are good.  I give Weaver a hard time, but she really kept us alive.”

“She did, by the looks of what happened in that video,” O said.

Bringing the conversation back to me.  Again.

“Grace?” she asked.  “Thoughts on your team member?”

“If you told me way back on the first time we met that I’d come to respect her, I’d have been surprised.”

Jo looked at me.  “Does that bother you?”

“No.  I respected and liked the Chicago Wards right off the bat, but I don’t blame them if there was any suspicion,” I said.

“Pretty generous.”

“If anything, I was pretty amazed by how they all pulled together in New Delhi.  Three of them were new, two hadn’t even been in a real fight before, and they went up against Behemoth?”

Cuff was perched on the edge of her seat, doing her best not to move and make things squeak again.  She had the ability to liquefy the metal touching her skin, which would have eliminated the problem, but the act would have ruined the look of it.  Part of that stiffness was anticipation, like a child who hadn’t done their homework, sitting at their desk and dreading the moment where the teacher called on them.  A stark contrast to her excitement earlier.  Had the screech knocked her off cloud nine?

“Cuff,” Koffi said.  “What do you think?  We saw the video, and you were pretty scared at the start, there.”

“Terrified.”

“You got injured?  We didn’t get to hear how.”

“A burn,” Cuff said, smiling a little.  “I recuperated in a few days.”

A lie.  She still hadn’t fully recuperated today, eight months after the fact.  She might never.

“I love to ask this question,” Jo said.  “What’s it like, being a superhero?”

She loved that question?

“It feels weird to think of myself as a hero,” Cuff said.  “I’m… I don’t think I’ll ever be one of the big heroes.  I’m not a cape at heart.  Fighting isn’t in my personality, and I got powers like this.”

“Cuff is a girly-girl,” Wanton commented.  “Her bunk at the Wards headquarters has pink sheets and rainbows and there’s a unicorn picture on the-”

Cuff leaned around me to mock-punch him.  “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re bad, though.”

Tecton raised a hand to cover Wanton’s mouth.  “I’m thrilled to have her on the team.  She hasn’t disappointed me yet.”

Cuff smiled at him.  “Thank you.

I wasn’t sure I’d have been able to say the same about Cuff, but my standards might have been higher.  She’d always done the job, but there was a reticence to her that wasn’t going away.  Three months ago, in our first real conflict outside of fighting Behemoth, she’d needed a push to carry out an offensive.  Four days ago, in Milwaukee, she’d needed that same coaxing.

Cuff was competent.  She had her strengths, and was stellar in some narrow cases.  At the same time, I still worried if a moment’s hesitation on her part would get one of us hurt somewhere down the road.

She was talking, happy to be in the limelight, stage fright forgotten.  “I was saying what it’s like being a hero.  It’s overwhelming.  It’s something that eats into every part of your life even if you want to limit it to four hours a day, four times a week.  If you don’t train and exercise then you fall behind.  If you don’t read the briefings on the bad guys, then you look stupid when you do run into them and have to ask someone.”

“I certainly hope you’re not getting into serious fights,” Koffi said.

“Um,” Cuff said.  Stage fright back in full force.  She’d touched on something that would get her a slap on the hand from the PRT, and now she didn’t have her footing.

I was trying to think of a way to rescue her when Tecton said, “Fights happen.  We’re actively trying to avoid direct confrontation, but we patrol and we practice our abilities so we can handle ourselves in the real crisis situations.  Many of our members patrol with other capes so they can get experience while having someone to rely on in case of an emergency.”

All true, but he was omitting the fact that we were actively seeking out indirect confrontation.  It was an admirable spot of double-speak, simultaneously reinforcing the atmosphere we were hoping to establish.  Heroes are safe.  Everything is under control.

“I kind of like those times,” Annex said.  “You get to hang out with the local powerhouses, hear what they have to say, learn from them.  I had a brief stay in a few other teams, but the one thing I really like about Chicago is that everyone is okay with me asking questions, and I have a lot.”

“Who’s your favorite cape to hang out with?” Jo asked.

“Shuffle.  Our powers work well together, if we’re careful not to let them interfere.”

“And Golem?  I can almost guess.  When Campanile appeared in the evening news, he had some promising words to say about the Protectorate’s newest member.  When we asked him who the most promising new recruit in the Wards was, he named you.”

“Ah,” Golem said.  “Yeah.”

“Do you think you can live up to that?”

“I hope I can,” Golem said.

The conversation was faltering.  I thought of what Glenn had said.  Showing some of the bonds between team members.  If I had one with anyone, it was with Golem.  The running, the shared perspective on the end of the world, the fact that we were both Brockton Bay natives…

“Everything Tecton has been saying about Cuff is true for Golem,” I said.  “If he’s getting praise from the heroes, he deserves it.  He’s a classic hero at heart.”

“A classic hero?” Koffi asked.

“He’s like Tecton.  Grace and Annex are too, to a lesser degree.  He’s genuinely good-natured and kind.  When everything starts falling apart, he’s still there, naturally courageous.”

“I like how I’m omitted from that list,” Wanton said.  “Only person who hasn’t been praised so far.”

I think you’re awesome,” Jo said, smiling.  The audience cooed.

“Golem’s steadfast,” I said.  “He’s working out, he’s studying hard for both regular school and cape stuff.  And with all of that going on, he’s still generous enough to help me out with my stuff.  Like Tecton said, I’m limited in where I can go and when, and Golem helps with that.”

The running, primarily, but not wholly that.  He’d walked with me to the mall once or twice.  I didn’t want to share details, though, in case people decided to try to find us while we were out, with Golem not in costume.

“Do relationships develop in this environment?” O asked.  “Anything besides friendship?”

“If you’re talking about Weaver and me, then no,” Golem said.  “We’re friends.”

“Friends,” I asserted.

“You had a thing going on with Grue,” Wanton chimed in.

“And this is the third time you’ve turned the conversation awkwardly back to me,” I retorted.

He gave me a sheepish grin.

“A tender moment on the battlefield,” O said.  “I think a lot of people were surprised.”

It was a personal moment, I thought.  If I harbored any ill will towards Glenn, it was for that.  He’d deleted sound or video where it gave up identifying details, like the nature of Cuff’s injury.  He hadn’t erased the scene with the woman in the suit, but the reception hadn’t held up that deep underground, so there was no need.  He’d also been kind enough to erase the scene where Imp had promised to get revenge on Heartbreaker.  The villain hadn’t been notified of her plan.

But all of the bonding, the closeness, leaving interactions with Rachel open for hundreds of millions of people to speculate on?  That was scummy.

Necessary on a level, but still scummy.

I hadn’t replied to his statement.  I almost wanted to let the silence linger awkwardly, just to nettle them and drive home that it wasn’t their business.

Jo didn’t give me the chance.  “You talked about Tecton and Golem as naturally heroic people.  What about you?”

Man, her questions irritated me.  Asking questions where they already knew the answer or where the answer was so immaterial…  Who watched this kind of garbage?

Why was I being forced to support it by my presence?

“I was a villain for three months,” I said.  “Maybe I’d like to think I was a little bit heroic as a villain, and I’m a little bit villainous as a hero.  But I’m working on that last part.”

“Hold on, hold on.  You think you were heroic, before you switched sides?” Koffi asked.  “By all accounts, you killed Alexandria and a law enforcement official.  You were quoted as talking to schoolchildren about the huge quantities of money you earned from criminal activities.”

Was he just sitting back, waiting for an opening?

Grace stepped up to my defense.  “She said a little.  She fought the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She helped the people in her district.”

“That actually sounds impressive,” Jo said.  “If that’s a little, then I wonder what being a little bit of a villain nowadays is like.”

She tittered along with the audience’s reaction.

“No response?” Koffi asked.

They were ganging up on me.  I wished I knew who these guys were, what their normal style was, so I could roll with it.

“I’ll let my actions speak for themselves,” I said.

Tecton was quick to speak, backing me up.  “I think that’s the best way to go about it.  It’s untreaded ground, in a way, to have a notorious ex-villain on the team.  Whatever happens, people are going to wonder where she stands, if I’ve been corrupted by association, or if this is all some elaborate scheme.  But we can work on it.  She can keep doing good work, and hopefully a few months or years down the road, I’ll still be able to say that Weaver’s a good person at heart and she’s done a lot for the good of the city and the world, you know?  Some people won’t be convinced no matter what she does, but time and reliability should let Weaver prove her worth.”

“Makes sense,” O said.  “We’re rapidly approaching another ad break.  I don’t suppose we could get any of you to step up to the plate?  A demonstration of powers?  A neat trick?”

I almost volunteered, but then decided against it.  I didn’t want to spend more time in the spotlight.

Annex stood from his chair.

“One of the new members!  Excellent!”  Jo said.  “We’ve got a crash test dummy, a beat up car…”

“I can do something with the car.  Maybe we could remodel the exterior?” Annex asked.  “Maybe the audience could name a car?  What should we make?”

Jo hopped out of her seat, arm raised like a kid in class.  She was short.  I mentally re-evaluated my estimation of her age to put her closer to her late teens than her early twenties.

A series of beeps, not even a half-second apart, interrupted all of us.  Our phones?

I was still drawing my cell from my belt when I saw a commotion backstage.  People who’d been standing still were running now, talking into headphones.

My cell phone screen was surrounded by a thick yellow border.  A text was displayed in the middle.

Stand by.

Disturbance recorded.

Possible Class S threat.

The others had identical messages on their screens.

There were murmurs among the audience members as someone from backstage stepped up to talk to Koffi and O.

“It can’t be,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.

“We got texts just like this for the incident where we met Weaver,” Tecton said.  “It could be a similar situation.”

The lighting changed.  Tecton stood from his seat, and I joined the others in following suit.

A studio employee advanced to the front of the stage.  When he spoke, the microphone headset he wore carried the sound, “A possible emergency has come up elsewhere in the world.  If this blows over in the next few minutes, we’ll edit out anything problematic and resume the show.  For now, remain calm while we prepare for an emergency broadcast from the news team upstairs.  There is no danger here.”

My phone buzzed.  I checked it to see another text.

Chicago Wards are to remain at current location.

Transportation en route.  Will deploy to studio B parking lot for quick pickup.

A little more ominous than the ‘maybe’ the studio employee had given us.

Panel by panel, the backdrop of the ‘Mornings with O, J and Koffi’ set transformed, images flickering to show a composite of a grainy, long-distance shot of a city.  It had been taken with a cell phone, and the resolution didn’t translate well with the size of the ‘screen’.  There were tall buildings, neon signs glowing in the late evening.  Somewhere in Asia.

“Japan,” Wanton said.

The camera was shaking, and the view on the screen reacted in kind.

Dust rose in clouds, billowing, until they obscured the camera’s view.

The audience was reacting.  Moans, cries of alarm and despair.  They knew what was going on.

“Please be the Simurgh,” Cuff said, her voice small.  Grace put an arm around Cuff’s shoulders.

That may be the first time in history anyone’s thought that.

She’s right, too.  Even the Simurgh would be better than this.

The timing, the fact that it was happening so soon after Behemoth had died… it was all wrong.

Behemoth had come from deep underground.  Leviathan had emerged from the ocean.  The Simurgh had approached from the far side of the moon and descended to hover just above the tallest building in Lausanne.

The fourth, it seemed, was appearing in plain sight.

The dust took forever to clear.  But for a few mutters here and there, small animal sounds of despair from the audience and studio employees who were watching, the studio had plunged into quiet horror.

It stood somewhere between Leviathan and Behemoth in height, if I ballparked by the number of stories in the adjacent buildings.  I waited patiently for the view to clear, revealing more details.  Clues, as if there was a solution to what we faced here.

I pegged him as a he before I saw too much else.  He was broad, a Buddha in physique, if more feral in appearance.  He was as black as night, with something white or silver giving definition around the edges of his various features.  He didn’t wear clothes, but he had features somewhere between leaves and fins, with elaborate designs at the edges, curling away from elbows, his wrist, his fingers and around his legs. It made his fingers and toes into claws, and left dangerous looking blades elsewhere.  His face was a permanent snarl, frozen in place, his teeth silvery white behind the ebon lips.  Tendrils like the whiskers of a catfish marked the corners of his mouth.

All across the exterior of his body, there were gaps, like the gills of a fish, and that brilliant white or silver glimmered from beneath, a stark contrast to the absolute black that marked the rest of him.  It made me think of a tiger.  And at the center of it all, quite literally, there was a perfect sphere of that same material, a marble or a crystal ball, his body perched on the upper half and his legs attached to the lower half.

Arms extended out to either side, he took a step, almost waddled.  He floated as though he were walking on the moon.

“He’s not a fighter,” I murmured.

“No,” Tecton agreed.

“What is he?” Grace asked.

People were fleeing, still in close proximity to the site, evacuating tall buildings.  The Endbringer stopped and extended a hand.  His arms weren’t long enough to reach around his girth, but his upper body rotated on the sphere that formed his midsection, giving him the freedom of movement needed.

The camera shook as he used his power, and an unseen cameraman had to catch it before it fell.  A faint glowing line appeared on the ground, a perfect circle.   The light gradually intensified, reaching higher, and the space within the circle seemed to darken in equal measure.

It moved, the circle roaming, the glowing lines adjusting to scale obstacles and account for higher ground and dips in the terrain.

When it intersected a building, the effect became clear.  Barely visible with the camera’s range, they were nonetheless a blur, moving within the circle’s perimeter.

“They’re trapped,” Golem said.  “He’s manipulating time in there and they’re trapped.”

Golem was right.  How many days were they experiencing in there, with only the food they had on hand?  Was water reaching them?  There didn’t seem to be power.

“Oh god,” Cuff said.  “Why isn’t anyone stopping him?”

“There’s no heroes on scene,” Tecton said.  “Japan doesn’t have many dedicated heroes anymore.”

It took six or seven seconds for the blurring of their movements to slow.  In another second, it stopped altogether.

He left his power where it was.  The glass on the building’s exterior cracked.  Cracks ran along and through the other material, in the street and at the edges of the structure.  It leaned, then toppled, and the destruction was contained inside the effect.

Wanton spoke, almost hesitant.  “Is that- doesn’t that remind anyone of-”

“Yes,” Grace said.  “The barrier, the time manipulation.  It’s similar.”

Similar to what we did.

All in all, the Endbringer was there for a minute.  The effect moved on, and it left a ruined husk of a building behind.  Though there was no sun shining, the stone and terrain had been sun bleached, worn by elements, eroded.

The Endbringer extended his hands out to either side, and two more glowing circles appeared.  Like the first circle had, they flared with light.  Like the first, they moved, drifting counterclockwise around him.  It was a slow, lazy rotation, slower than a moving car but faster than someone could hope to run.

He advanced with floating steps, and the circles maintained a perfect, steady distance away from him and from each other, orbiting him like the shadows cast by three invisible moons.  Here and there, people and cars were caught inside.  He wasn’t a full city block down the street before one circle had a crowd trapped within, half-filling the base of it, another circle perhaps a quarter of the way full.

He moved through a less populated area, and he left trails of skeletons in his wake, in odd fractal patterns that followed the circles’ movements.

He chose what entered and he chose what left.  An attack form that couldn’t be defended against, only avoided.

“Movers will be important,” I said.  “Maybe shakers too, if we can find a way to stop him or his circles from progressing.  His threat level depends on how fast and how much he can move those time-stop areas.”

There was no reply from the others.

I glanced at Cuff, and I saw that she was hugging Grace.  She was silent, but tears were running down her face.  Grace was more resolute, but her eyes were wet.

The timing, it was wrong.

Strategy, figuring out a battle plan, it was crucial here.  The first attacks were often some of the worst for cape casualties, if not necessarily the overall damage done.  Too many lives would be lost in finding out his general capabilities.

But it didn’t matter.

I reached out and took Cuff’s hand, holding it.  A glance in the other direction showed me Golem.  I took his hand too.

This was the key thing in this moment.  Not the future, what came next.  Support, morale and being a team in the now.

Silent, we watched as the heroes engaged.  Eidolon and Legend joined the Japanese heroes in fighting the unnamed Endbringer, keeping a safe distance.

One circle disappeared, and the Endbringer reached out.  Defending capes were too slow to escape the perimeter before the effect took hold, a new third circle forming.  Eidolon tried hitting the effect with three different powers, but it didn’t break.

No, no, no…” Cuff whispered.

In a minute, the capes were dead.

Our phones beeped, and I felt a moment’s despair.  We’d have to fight this thing.

Ship is outside if you want it, Chicago Wards.  Attendence not mandatory.

Temp. codename is Khonsu.

“I’m…” Cuff said, staring down at the phone.  “I’m staying.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re going?” she asked.

I nodded.

She nodded back, swallowed hard, before she turned her eyes back to the screen.  In that moment, the Endbringer, Khonsu, reversed the direction the circles were drifting, extending the distance they were orbiting around him in the same movement.

Capes who’d been trying to time their advance to close the distance to Khonsu were caught.  Four trapped and doomed to die a slow death, a fifth caught between a building and the orb’s perimeter as the circle continued its rotation.  When the circle had left the building behind, there was only a bloody smear where the fifth cape had been.  Skeletons for the rest.

Now he stood still, weathering attacks with the same durability the other Endbringers had.  Damage to his flesh exposed silver, and damage to the belly or other silver parts showed ebon black.  The onionlike layers Tattletale had described, plain to see.

I tore my eyes from the screen, marching towards the emergency doors.

So much was wrong with this.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right.  Fucked on so many levels.

A woman was sobbing in the hallway as we passed.  A group of twenty-somethings in dress shirts sprinted down the hallway, carrying bags.

The dragon-craft was waiting for us outside, ramp doors open.

Odd, to see the sky so bright, when the battlefield was shrouded in night.

We stepped inside, entering the center of the craft.  I found a seat by a monitor, with a laptop ready and waiting for use, login screen displayed.  The monitor was showing the battlefield, roving over the dead, the buildings that had collapsed under the weight of years.  Oddly, the cameraman wasn’t focusing on Khonsu or the defending heroes.  A few heroes were fleeing, but most weren’t in view.

“We’re ready,” Tecton called out.  “Ship?”

The craft hadn’t taken off.

My growing sense of dread was confirmed as the image on the monitors changed.

Even with those circles being as devastating as they are, it wasn’t enough.  There wasn’t the same broad scale, the promise of lingering devastation.

No.  There was something more to Khonsu.

The monitors showed him in a different city.  A caption on the bottom of the screen showed the words ‘Cape Verde’.

He’d teleported halfway around the planet.

All of the problems with getting to Endbringer fights on time, with mobilizing and dealing with the fact that half of our best teleporters and movers had been slain in past battles… he was capitalizing on that weakness.

My phone vibrated to alert me to a new text.  I didn’t need to read it to guess what it said.  I read it anyways.

Stand by.

“No,” I whispered to myself.

The heroes were engaging, now.  Legend and Eidolon had caught up.  Khonsu had situated himself near some kind of military installation, and they’d wasted no time in readying for a fight.  Missiles and shells exploded around him.  The columns of frozen time that rotated around him caught many, and they exploded within the delineated structures.

For long minutes, he fought.  I watched, my eyes fixed on the screen, to see his behavior, to look for the cue.

He waded into and through the arranged military squadrons with their parahuman supplementary forces.  He was as tough as Behemoth or Leviathan.  No attack delivered more than scratches or nicks.

Five minutes, six, as he leisurely tore through the forces he’d caught off guard.  Eidolon ducked between two of the pillars of altered time and delivered a punch that sent the Endbringer tumbling.  The orbiting columns were pulled behind Khonsu as he moved, and Eidolon came only a hair from being caught.

Alexandria and other capes joined the attack.  Too few.  Everyone else retreated.

Khonsu didn’t pursue.  He remained where he was, arms extended out to either side, palms down.

Then he disappeared in a massive, tightly contained explosion.  Trucks and sections of fence were thrown into the air by the movement.

Long seconds passed.  Then my phone vibrated.  Another text.

Cannot deploy until we have a way to pin him down.

Stand by until further notice.

I struck the laptop that sat in front of me.  One hinge holding it in place snapped.  I shoved it hard, and it fell to the floor of the craft.

“Fuck!” I shouted.  “Fuck it!”

I kicked the fallen laptop, and it went skidding across the floor, down the ramp and into the parking lot.  My foot stung with the impacts.

The other Wards were gathered, sitting or standing around the craft that was taking us nowhere.  There was no way to approach if he’d teleport by the time we arrived.  We’d never catch up to him.  The others were as quiet and still as I’d been violent, haunted, scared.

Nobody talked.  Nobody volunteered ideas, because we didn’t have any.

I wasn’t sure any of us knew how to fight this one.  Nobody in the Chicago Wards did.  Nobody elsewhere.  Speaking, commenting on the situation, it would only remind us of what we were facing.

Above all else, I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about the detail we hadn’t spoken aloud.  The thing, above everything else, that made this so fucked up.  In the nine years that we’d been fighting Behemoth, Leviathan and Simurgh, they’d never attacked this close together.

Even if we found a way to beat this Khonsu, to mount a defense and stop him from picking us apart, settlement by settlement, darker possibilities loomed.

Two attacks, two months apart.  Had their schedule changed?  Would the next attack come in a mere two months, or would it be more unpredictable than that?

No, I thought, with a dawning horror.  No, it was worse than that.  The Endbringer’s schedule of attack had always depended on the number of Endbringers in the rotation.

If they were keeping to their usual rules, it promised a fifth, waiting in the wings.

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Scarab 25.3

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Wind stirred the snow that had piled up at the rooftop’s edge.  As it entered the space over the Chicago street, city lights caught the flurry and made it almost luminescent, whirling clouds in intense, intricate patterns.

I was, in other words, bored beyond comprehension.

Stakeouts?  Not nearly as interesting as they were in the movies.  Not even as interesting as they were in the TV shows where nothing happened and the cops complained about how dull things were.

No, this was a special kind of boring, where I was told to limit how much I moved, because of the half-a-percent chance that the targets in the building on the other side of the street might look out a window, and the ensuing one-in-a-thousand chance that they might actually be able to see me perched on the rooftop, surrounded by snow in my dark gray and white costume.

A boring, even, where I wasn’t allowed to read or listen to music.

Weaver,” the voice came through my earbud.

“Talk to me.  Please.”

Grace complied.  “Police chief and the Mayor are talking to Revel and the Director.  Thought you’d want an update.”

“You could give me minute by minute updates on golf and I’d love you forever.”

Hyperbole.  That’s not like you.

“It’s been a while,” I muttered.  I shifted position to bring my feet up onto my ‘bug box’.  The case was insulated, but there was some heat loss, so it included a heater that turned on periodically to maintain a consistent internal temperature.  At the same time, I was wearing a PRT issue winter-weather costume beneath a doublethick silk ‘Weaver’ costume, complete with a hood, shawl and something of a skirt.  It took time for my fingers and toes to get cold, so things more or less evened out with the heater.

Well, this is your five minute check-in.  Again.”  I could hear the noise of a show or something on in the background.

“Thank you, Grace.  Situation unchanged.  Target’s grabbing a late dinner.  There’s seven others working under him.  Nothing special in their chatter.  There’s plainclothes capes in there, but they’re not using names.”

You’re sure they’re capes?”

“He warned them when they stepped inside that he’d act the second they used powers, so… yeah.”

Gotcha.  I’ll be in touch in another five min.”

“These five minute check-ins make it so much worse,” I groused.  “It’s like, if it weren’t for those, I could let time slip by, but no.  I get measured reminders of how long I’ve been here.”

This was your idea.”

“Dumb idea,” I commented.

You were the one who wanted to do the stakeout, even,” she reminded me.

“Kind of thought I’d get to read,” I said.

That, and it had been a way to finally get some time to myself.  We had run it by the Director, and I’d known right off the bat that he was itching to shut me down.  Orders from above, no doubt.  A way to get credit with the guys upstairs.

Still, I’d explained how my bugs would let me track the target’s movements.  Our boss had okayed the job, with certain restrictions.  The surveillance had to be airtight, with the check-ins, a mandate that any breaks had to fall between check-ins, and the restrictions on entertaining myself or drawing attention.  At the same time, he’d said with a smile, the PRT rulebook said a Ward couldn’t be forced to undertake or carry out a mission.  If I wanted to walk away, I could.  If I got too cold I had to.

He wanted me to quit.  To exercise a measure of control over me, so he’d have something to leverage against me at a later date.

Six hours in, I’d left for three bathroom breaks, each between four and a half and five minutes in duration, and had relocated three times, as our target went out to lunch and then returned to check on the business.  Wanton and Annex had both come to keep me company, until the Director had found something else for them to do.

Then Revel had come on shift, and I had an ally who wasn’t just ready to go to bat for me, but able to.  She was working reduced hours after her head injury, deferring more tasks to Shuffle, but she was still the boss.  She’d read the logs from the check-ins, called me to verify facts on the drugs and guns I’d noted moving through the apartment, and then reached out to the Director.

That had been two hours ago.  Somewhere in the midst of her battle with the Director, she’d reached out to the police chief and mayor.  She would be trying to sell them on our plan.

Or, it was easily possible, they were sold and they were trying to get the ducks in a row and favors pulled to make our plan a reality.

And with all the excitement that was no doubt happening over there, I was sitting here, a little cold, wishing I’d saved a little something from the lunch I’d packed into my plastic Alexandria lunchbox.

The lunchbox was a memento, really, an impulse I’d justified in the moment by telling me it fit with my general camouflage, that it was ironic.  I hadn’t counted on how long I’d be left to stare at it, while my bugs tracked the target going about his day.  It made for a long time spent ruminating on past events, debating just how the bureaucrats could sabotage me, intentionally or otherwise.

For several dangerous minutes, I’d seriously considered going back to the Undersiders if this mission got derailed.  I’d stopped myself before I got too far into that line of thinking, knowing it was a trap that would lead to me compromising, giving up in a way.  Playing into the Directors’ hands.

No, I wouldn’t go back.  I missed them; scarcely an hour went by where I didn’t wonder how they were getting by, but I wasn’t allowed to contact them.  I wanted to know how Imp had changed in response to Regent’s passing, if Grue was getting enough support, or if Rachel was managing in the cold on the other side of the Brockton Bay portal.  Was Tattletale using her power too much, still?  How was Sierra managing as a corporate magnate and front-man for a villainous organization?

Hell, how was the Boardwalk getting on?

They were questions I couldn’t ask or answer without raising red flags with the people who were watching me for the slightest excuse.  I’d cheated and sent letters, written by my bugs, delivered to a mail box while I was hundreds of feet away, and I’d received ‘fan letters’ with coded messages from Tattletale.  It wasn’t enough, didn’t have the details I craved.

Five minute check-in,” Grace said, interrupting my train of thought.

“Situation unchanged,” I replied.

Stuff’s happening over here.  Revel is right beside me.  She’ll fill you in.

I perked up a little at that.

Weaver.  Revel here.  I’ve talked it over with everyone that matters and too many people that don’t, and they’re saying it’s okay.  Tecton and the rest of the Wards, minus Grace and Wanton, will be mobilizing shortly.”

We’re good to go?”

Shortly.  PRT trucks are already en route and will be standing by, when they’re not actively transporting your teammates.  Campanile, Brazier, Shuffle and Gauss will be a short distance away, but they won’t engage unless this goes belly-up.  This is your show.  You and the Wards.  Quite a few people hoping you guys can pull this off.  A handful hoping you fail.”

Like the Directors.  “Got it.  Do me a favor and fill me in on everyone else’s status and locations until they’re within a twelve-hundred feet of me.  Coordination is going to be key here.”

Grace will handle it.

Not a hundred percent necessary, but it would keep me sane.  I suspected the remaining minutes of waiting would be as bad as the first three hours had been.

We’re controlling traffic,” Grace said.  I could hear others speaking in the background.  “Flow through the area should slow and eventually stop.

“Good to know,” I said.  My eyes roved over the face of the building opposite me, while my bugs tracked our quarry.

Where do you want your team?”  Revel asked.

My team?

“Keep them in the vehicles,” I answered.  “I’ll let them know where to set up when things are underway.”

I stood up from my perch, making sure that our target and his employees weren’t watching out the windows before I stretched.  I was alternately cool and toasty warm, where different body parts had been closer to the vent, and my costume layers thicker.  Not cold, though.  Not so much that I’d be affected.

Snow slid off the top of my hood as I bent down, lifting the insulated box with my bugs inside and setting it on the roof’s edge.  It was essentially a thermos, but as lightweight as the materials were in the case and the heating system, the bugs I’d packed inside made it heavy.

I worried it would be an issue in my plan.  With roughly eight hours by myself to think, I’d considered various ways this could go.  Tactics our enemies could employ, things that could trip us up, ways our supervisors could derail the plan, but this forty pound box was something that rested entirely on my shoulders.

We’re close to the perimeter,” Tecton reported, his voice buzzing in my ear.

I pressed a finger to my earbud, “I’m going to get us started.  Sound off from all corners, please.”

Roger from HQ,” Grace said.

“Roger-roger from the field team,” Tecton said.  “Just reached perimeter.  Sending Annex and Cuff your way.  Golem and I will be working.”

I stepped over to the rooftop’s edge.  The streets had gone quiet.  The unsteady evening traffic that had a way of continuing in the dead of night had stopped, leaving the area more or less isolated.   I’d spent the better part of the day organizing bugs in the surrounding buildings, and I now moved them into position.  Swarms formed into large ‘x’ marks on major exits, elevators and stairwells.  In higher traffic spots where people were more likely to move, I drew out words with the swarm.

‘Cape fight in progress.’

I suspected this was a not-insignificant part of how Revel had managed to get the police chief and mayor on board with the plan, despite any protests or manipulations from the Director.  The chance of bystanders getting caught up in this was minimal.  As minimal as it was possible to get in the midst of a larger city, anyways.

I activated my flight pack and crossed the street, simultaneously making my way down to the ground.  Not so hard, with the extra weight that made up my burden.

The doorway that led into the lobby of the apartment building required a keycard or a number punched into a resident’s phone upstairs.  Not so difficult, after a day’s surveillance.  My bugs were already prepared to knock a phone off the hook in an older woman’s apartment, a moment after I’d found her name on the board and dialed the number.  Much as I’d done in Tagg’s office, I had my bugs punch the buttons.

The door buzzed.  I walked backwards into it, carrying the insulated box, then dropped the box in the base of the lobby, opening the little door.

The bugs flowed out of the box and disappeared into the air vents.  Slowly, they made their way up to the apartment of a local supervillain.  A black market storehouse first, an apartment second, really.  The only reason it seemed he slept here was convenience.  The old adage of not shitting where one ate fell apart when ninety percent of the day was spent eating.

I knew how easy it was to fall into that trap.  I thought of the Boardwalk and felt a trace of nostalgia.

The apartment was one of many detours in an extended distribution chain that saw guns and drugs making their way to the Folk, one of the rare criminal organizations that predated capes and still functioned in more or less the same fashion today.  Topsy and his underlings were guarantors, middlemen who made it possible for diehard enemies to do business.  If a fight erupted, he and his minions would deal with the situation quickly, promptly and efficiently.

It was a simple job, and it was one he’d done for nearly a decade.  In the process, he’d apparently grown exceedingly rich, and he had recently started to become more ambitious.  Campanile and Shuffle had interfered with a deal, and Topsy had hired some mercenaries to seek out retaliation.  If the escalation of the situation wasn’t bad enough, the mercenaries had crossed lines, and Topsy had been relocated to the heroes’ shit list as a consequence.  He was an acceptable target.

The only thing that would make Campanile and Shuffle happier than us fucking up and giving them an excuse to step in would be a perfectly executed operation and a humiliating loss for Topsy.  I’d do my best to oblige on that front.

Finding the way through the building’s ventilation system was a question of mapping the system.  Once I knew the way, the bugs abandoned the map and made their way into the apartment.

I could have gone on the offensive right away, but this wasn’t a conventional attack.  Every step of this had to be considered, measured, and plotted.

Minutes passed as I followed Topsy’s movements through the apartment.  One by one, I collected his underling’s phones, as they put them down.  A girl in the group said she needed to make a call, couldn’t find her phone, and borrowed one from someone else.  The second she put it down and turned her back, cockroaches swept it into the space between the table and the wall, and then proceeded to nudge it well out of reach, beneath furniture.

Topsy’s phone was the only one left, and he wouldn’t put it down long enough for me to claim it.  I focused on the front hall instead, bugs collecting around jackets, boots and the winterized costume pieces, complete with warm coverings.

I could sense Annex and Cuff through the bugs that were warm and safe in the folds of their costumes.  They trudged through the two inches of snow that had accumulated on the plowed sidewalks.  Cuff seemed oddly more comfortable compared to Annex, who clutched his cloak around his shoulders.

“Annex, Cuff, I’m half a block up and to your right,” I said, one finger on my earpiece.  “Look for me in the lobby.”

“Got it,” Annex reported.

Back to the preparations.  The goal here wasn’t to defeat Topsy, but to break him.  Part of the goal, anyways.

Silk lines tangled zippers and bound laces.  Gloves, both the ones for costumes and the ones for regular winter wear, were knotted with more silk, or they became home to wasps, cockroaches and millipedes.

Bugs too large or too small to be crushed found their way into boots.  Cockroaches bit and chewed at the finer straps that held the inner lining of jackets against the exterior.  The bugs I’d laced with capsaicin were relatively few in number due to the fact that it would kill the bugs next to them in the box, but I didn’t need a lot of the stuff.  I transferred some to scarves and balaclavas by rubbing their bodies against the fabrics.

Annex knocked on the glass door, then melded into it and passed through before I could approach to open the door.  He rubbed at his upper arms as he opened the door for Cuff.

“You okay?” I asked.

Annex only nodded.

There.  I snapped my head up to look in the direction of the upstairs apartment, as though I could see through the walls.  Topsy had put his phone down on the kitchen counter to grab a beer, setting the thing to speaker mode while he looked for a bottle opener.

Bugs from the front hallway of the apartment flowed into the kitchen and swept the phone into the half-full sink.  Topsy didn’t notice right away.

“Creepy when you do that,” Cuff said.

“Hm?”

“Zoning out.”

“I’ve disabled their communications,” I said.  “Let’s go.”

I moved the empty box to a corner of the lobby, hidden in plain sight, then led the way out of the building, with Cuff and Tecton following me into the adjacent alleyway.

Topsy was swearing as he nearly dropped his beer in his haste to rush to the sink and push his sleeves up to dig for the smartphone in the mess of dishes and scummy water.  I could taste how much old food was in the water.  It wasn’t a sense that translated well, but I could detect a thin, strong scent permeating the kitchen, one a select few of my bugs were attracted to.

“Tecton, Grace,” I said, “Annex and Cuff are here, we’re standing aside while I engage.  I’m not forcing this.  Longer it takes them to catch on, the better the psychological effect.”

“Roger you,” Grace answered.

It was all about thinking a step ahead.  I sent bugs into the room with the money and drugs and set them to destroying the plastic bags and eating through the paper bands of money.  Wasps and other hostile bugs nestled in the gun cases and around handles.  I didn’t have many bugs to spare, so I used the others from the building that I hadn’t deployed to make warning signs for the residents.

All in all, I managed about five or six minutes of quiet, steady destruction before one of the underlings walked in and saw what was happening.  I rewarded him by flying two capsaicin-laced insects into his eyes.

“They’re sounding the alarm,” I said.  The thug was hollering, and Topsy was shouting something about calling for the reinforcements, directing some swear words at the fact that nobody apparently had a working phone on hand.

That swearing swiftly became a stream of curses aimed at ‘that fucking bug bitch’.

“Annex, inside,” I said.

“Good,” Annex said.  “Because I just stepped outside, and now I’m going back in.  It’s a pain to move through walls this cold.  Sucks the heat out of me.”

“Warm up inside,” I said.  “Take your time, but try to move upstairs.  Keep your head poked out so you can hear me.  I’ll let you know what route they take.”

“Right,” he said, reaching into the wall.  “Fuck, that’s cold.”

Then he was gone.

My swarm continued to plague Topsy and his people.  I slowly escalated the intensity of the attack, until Topsy gave the order to retreat.

“Get what you can and get the fuck out,” Topsy ordered, “Yeah, you too.  I’m paying you, aren’t I?  Go find the bitch.”

Not so cheery for a guy with a playful name like ‘Topsy’.  Then again, I’d caught him at the end of his work day.  By contrast, I’d woken up, donned my costume and started my stakeout.  Eight hours, starting at four, watching and following as Topsy and his men conducted their business.  He was more tired than I was, and he was both a little drunk and a little high.

It meant he was a little more likely to freak out when their outdoor clothing turned out to be festooned with stinging, biting insects, falling to pieces or too entangled in silk to use.

“Bitch!  That bitch!” the girl in the group cussed.

They knew who I was, apparently.  Fame had its disadvantages.

“Get downstairs, carry everything.  I’ll bring the rest.  We’ll take the trucks,” Topsy said.

I smiled a little, “Cuff, garage entrance.  Spike strip.”

“On it,” she said, disappearing out the front door.

Once the majority of his underlings were out of the apartment, Topsy leveraged his power, reorienting gravity to shift the boxes and piles of stuff.  They hit the wall, slid down the hallway, and finally tumbled through the open front door of the apartment in a heap.  With money bands cut and bags chewed open, much of the merchandise in Topsy’s stock was scattered to the wind.  My bugs could sense the clouds of powder filling the air.  Evidence, if nothing else.

He wasn’t screaming, now, which I found odd.  Now that his underlings had gone ahead, he’d settled into a grim and quiet attitude.  He turned to the sole remaining underling.  “Anything?”

“Too far to see,” the man said.

“Keep looking as we head down.”

Topsy was tricky.  Part of the reason for the surveillance had been to identify the other parahumans in his group.  He hired mercenaries, paying well, and there was no sure way to tell who he had with him, short of seeing them in costume.  Trouble was, his people were defaulting to heavier clothing over their costumes, due to the cold weather. Identities were doubly hard to discern, and Topsy wasn’t one to blab over the phone about who was working for him.

“Annex,” I said, touching my earpiece, “They’re heading for the stairwell.  Do what you can, but let them keep moving forward.”

Got it.”

I sent bugs ahead of the group to check the way.  Annex flowed up the stairs to intercept them.  Some steps became slopes instead, others had the supports removed, so the stairs collapsed underfoot.  Each of Topsy’s underlings fell at some point, their burdens thrown from their arms or crushed beneath them.  An unlucky or clumsy few fell more than once.

“Annex,” I said.  No use.  He was inside the stair’s surface.  An unfortunate side effect of his power was the fact that his senses were limited while he was inside an object.  He was blind, deaf, and his ability to feel was limited by the material he occupied.  He could sense heat as much as the object could hold heat, could sense vibrations as much as the material could receive them.

“Annex,” I tried again.

I’m here.

“Back off.  They’re catching up to you, and Topsy’s on his way down with an avalanche of stuff.”

Right.

I could see Cuff returning.  She saw my hand at my ear and didn’t speak, giving me a thumbs up instead.

Annex spoke, his voice low, “Okay.  I’ll take a detour, fix the damage I did to the stairs, then rendezvous.

Very calm.  Assured.  It wasn’t even something we’d plotted out beforehand, but there was no urgency here, no panic or distress.

Not on our end, anyways.

Topsy’s crew reached the first floor of the basement, which included the parking garage.  Topsy followed right after with the piles of goods, abused by their rough tumble down a dozen flights of stairs.  The packages of powder virtually floated in the air, with Topsy batting them in the direction of his people.

“Everything with red tape is highest priority,” Topsy said.  “Load it into the trucks first.  We can take a loss on the rest, pay the fucks back and claim intervention of bug bitch.”

“Two trips,” the man I took to be Topsy’s lieutenant said.  “Bug girl can see what her bugs see.  She’ll be on our heels.”

I’m not even fifteen paces away, I thought.  I’d worried they would exit at the ground floor, but it was safe.  I made my way inside to grab my insulated box.  Heavy.

The lieutenant continued, “Mockshow, open the garage doors.  Get some cold air in here.”

“I’m already freezing,” the girl of the group said.  “We left our jackets up there.”

“Don’t fucking care.  Bit of cold will deal with these bugs faster than it hurts us.  Move.”

Mock obeyed, while the others loaded up the trucks.

“Be advised,” I reported, my hand to my ear, “They’re attempting retreat in vehicles.  Original plan may hit a snag.  Topsy’s got a newbie supervillain working for him.  Mockshow.  If I’m remembering right, she’s a master-slash-shaker six.”

Roger,” Tecton said.

Hold on,” Grace said.

Mockshow touched the garage door, and the mechanisms shifted to life.  Cold air flooded into the garage.  I was forced to pull my bugs back, drawing them into the stairwell and through the vents to the box I held.  Only the bugs nestled in the villains’ clothing remained.

I could barely hear as the lieutenant spoke to Mockshow, “See?”

Bosses are advising we try plan as detailed,” Grace said.  “If it fails, orders are to abort.

And there was our first bit of interference.  The Director didn’t want us to succeed.  Topsy wasn’t a likable guy, was dangerous in his own way, even, but he was a known quantity.  Manageable.

Fuck that, I thought.  I didn’t sit in the snow for eight hours, bored to tears, to have this  mission end at the first excuse.

I didn’t say it aloud.  I focused on what our targets were doing.

The trucks had apparently been loaded up, because the villains were gathering into three vehicles.  They peeled out with a squeal both I and my bugs could hear.

No less than ten seconds later, they ran over the chain that Cuff had laid in the snow just past the garage door.  She’d reshaped it so spikes jutted out, I knew.  I could hear the tires pop, and pieced together the scene from the movements of the people and boxes within the trucks.  The second truck had made it halfway across the spike strip losing its front tires, but the collision of the third truck ramming it from behind drove its rear wheels over the strip.

Two of three trucks disabled.

I stayed where I was, letting the last of my bugs finish gathering in the insulated box, then carried it outside to Cuff.

“Spiked chain worked,” I commented, my voice a murmur.

Cuff pumped a fist.

I touched my earpiece.  “Two cars disabled and a third trapped behind.  They-”

“Watch,” Topsy said, as he climbed out of the truck.

Not a statement.  A name.  I felt my heart sink a touch.  Of all the motherfucking people he could have hired-

“What?” his lieutenant asked.

“They’ve got to be close.  Take a second, look for them.  Mockshow?  Get us moving.”

It didn’t take Watch two seconds to turn and face the alley where Cuff and I were hiding.

It’s Watch,” I whispered, “They’re on to us.  Go.

Cuff nodded and reached for her left ear.  I seized her wrist to stop her.

She gave me a funny look.  “Mission’s a bust.”

“Mission is on,” I hissed the words.  “Go.”

I lifted the box, as Watch and Topsy made their way up the snow-covered ramp to us, underlings following them.  An adjustment of gravity removed the issues the slope posed.  Watch was saying something I couldn’t make out over the rush of wind.  Something about our location.  We didn’t have long.

Watch was a package deal like Grace or Circus.  A lot of powers, flexible.  His specific powers weren’t on record, but it was fairly well known that he was capable of short bursts of intense, short-ranged clairvoyance.  He could see people’s biology, ignore the issues of light, darkness or intervening objects, and he had a limited super speed coupled with what had been dubbed ‘phantom hands’.  The ability to reach through people like Shadow Stalker might, targeting particular aspects of people’s body to shred arteries or tear through nerves with his fingers and fingernails.

He was a monster who left his victims dead if they were lucky, quadriplegic if they weren’t.  Maybe that was ableist, but I didn’t fancy being left to rely on the care of others for the rest of my natural life, suffering what was, by all accounts, an indescribably painful case of phantom limb.

It said a lot about Topsy and the direction he was taking his enterprise, that he’d hire this bastard.

I nearly dropped the box, slick as it was with the snow that had melted while it sat in the lobby.  Cuff helped me catch it.  A moment’s delay, but enough time for Topsy, Watch and the others to crest the top of the ramp that led from the basement level to the street.

As we ducked behind cover, taking our steps into the alley, the snow that had accumulated on the ground began to fall in reverse, in thick, wet clumps.  I felt the same kind of lift that accompanied a use of my flight pack, and both Cuff and I were lifted off the ground as well.

The weightlessness ceased, and we fell.  Only we fell up.

My flight pack kicked to life, and the wings unfolded so I could use the propulsion.  I reached for Cuff with one free hand, nearly grabbing one of her braids, but found her wrist instead, felt her hand clasp my wrist in return.  Snow and ice pummeled us as it broke free of the sidewalk and flew skyward.

It also, I noted, helped to obscure us.  Some gunshots sounded, though we were safe around the corner.

With the flight pack, I managed to steer us towards the fire escape, throwing the box down -or up- and seizing a handhold.  I found a grip and started to swing Cuff towards the railing when gravity shifted again.  Cuff jerked, and I found myself half-folded over the railing, trying to keep her from falling through the open mouth of the alley and into Topsy and Watch’s sights.

Her legs dangled towards the street we’d just left, and I couldn’t muster the upper body strength to lift her.  Worse, her grip was too tenuous for her to risk letting go to climb up my arms and shoulders and reach safety.  Her right arm still wasn’t as strong as it should be.

The arms of my flight pack reached out to try and grip Cuff, but the angles of our bodies didn’t offer anything substantial to grab.  Her braids?  No.  Nothing on her costume either.

The chain looped around her back?  Yes.

“Chain,” I gasped the word in the moment her gauntlet slid from my grip.  The insectile arm at the side of my flight suit snagged the chain and passed it to my hand in a sudden, jerky motion.  She caught the lower half of the loop and jolted to a stop, her lower body dangling out in sight of Topsy and his men.

They opened fire, and Cuff shrieked in alarm.

Not quite so calm, leisurely and confident, now.  Damn it.

Still, we managed to reel her in, her climbing, me hauling the chain in, inch by agonizing inch.  The men with the guns rounded the corner, still shooting, as they kept out of the way of Topsy’s power.  I had to duck low to take some cover behind the insulated metal box and the metal slats of the fire escape.  More bullets ricocheted off of Cuff’s armor.

She found the railing, and I gripped her armor to help pull her over.

Getting reports of shots fired,” Grace said.  “Bosses are worried.”

Fuck the bosses.  “All good,” I responded, injecting calm into my voice.  “We weren’t in danger.  They’re ticked and shooting indiscriminately.”

“Roger,” Grace said.  “Be safe.”

“Not in danger?” Cuff practically snarled the question at me.  It was out of character for her, but that was excusable considering she’d just been shot at.

“You’re bulletproof.  I’m bulletproof, even.  Between the new Darwin’s bark spider silk costumes, and your armor, you were safe.”

As if punctuating my statement, a gun went off below, making the railing sing with the impact.

“Annex,” I said, communicating using the earpiece.  “I can sense your location.  Climb two stories and give me an exit on the north face of the building.”

Which way is north?

“Your left.”

Gotcha.

“The way you worded that…” Cuff said.

“You’re not coming with,” I told her.

Gravity shifted again.  Our backs slammed against the side of the building, the two of us grunting in unison.  My metal box scraped against the metal of the fire escape to land beside me.  We were now more or less lying down on the building’s face.

Watch and Topsy’s men were making their way along the side of the building, walking on it.

I pulled off my flight pack and handed it to Cuff.

“I don’t know how to fly this,” she said.

I’ll fly it,” I told her.  I noted the hole Annex was making.  “Go over the top of the building to the roof.  Fall.  It’ll take you out of range of Topsy’s power, you’ll be returned to a normal orientation.  Drop again, off the other side of the building, sneak around and stop Mockshow.  If she gets the group moving, we won’t be able to intercept and carry out the plan.”

“We’re supposed to report if we run into trouble, cancel the mission.  This is a lot of trouble.”

“Trust me,” I told her.  “Please.  Go fast, before Watch catches up.”

She nodded, and I gave her a boost with the flight pack to move her along as I dropped into Annex’s hole.  I made it ten feet into the hallway before getting out of range of Topsy’s power and skidding to a halt on the carpeted floor.

Cuff sprinted for the ledge that was the rooftop.  She fell only three or so feet before gravity reasserted itself, driving her into the snow and gravel.

I noted Mock, but I couldn’t see much of what she was doing.  Her power, though, put her in the same general category as Rachel.  She empowered minions.  They even fit into the same general weight class as Rachel’s dogs.  The difference, though, was that they were inanimate.  Loose, telekinetically animated servants, typically with the size, clout and general strategy of a grown rhino.  Charge things, hit them hard, repeat.

I had no doubt she’d be working on the truck.  Maybe multiple trucks.  Bugs were still inside the vehicles, and I could sense things shifting and lurching as she reconfigured it into a more or less mobile form.

Watch was suffering with both the winter weather and his lack of proper footwear.  He was fast, but the terrain was slowing him.  Ice and snow had been thrown against the side of the building by Topsy’s power, and every other step threatened to send Watch tumbling.  His super speed wouldn’t help him much when he had to plot his movements like this, but it still made him incredibly dangerous if he did get one of us in reach.

He crested the top of the building as Cuff reached the other side of the roof and jumped down.

Propulsion and antigravity together weren’t enough to slow her fall.  A miscalculation.  She was too heavy, with her armor.

I promised myself I’d owe her one and slowed her the only way I could – I used the flight pack to push her against the side of the building, using friction and drag to slow the fall.

She hit the alley on the far side of the building at a speed that was probably too fast to be comfortable, not so fast she was gravely hurt.  I used the propulsion in the flight pack’s wings to help speed her along as she stumbled, jogged, then sprinted towards the front of the apartment building.

Cuff rounded the corner just as Mockshow led her quadruped truck-minion outside.  I folded the wings in just as she made contact.

Cuff could use her short range metallokinesis to manipulate her armor, effectively granting herself increased strength.  She could, it seemed, also use it to impact the metal she was hitting.  She wasn’t moving that fast, but everything my limited senses could tell me suggested she delivered a hit like a freight train striking a car that had stalled on the tracks.

“No!  Fuck no, fuck damn!” Mockshow shouted.

Cuff threw out a chain with an audible clatter, then caught the end, moving like she was winding it around the villain.  She reconsidered as Topsy and his minions reacted to the noise of the collision and came after her.  She was nearly at the far end of the street when Topsy used his power.  He reoriented gravity, and she veered to one side, striking the wall beside the alleyway rather than disappearing inside.  The tilt continued, and she turned away, moving with the tilt.

He leveraged his power further, only this time, it was his namesake topsy-turvy ‘up is down’ variant.  It was his most offensive power, the ability to hurl large numbers of people or objects into the city’s skyline, then revoke his power to let them fall.

Cuff, to her credit, was ready.  I could sense her catching ahold of the building’s face, using the cover of the rising snow around her to climb up and disappear into the alley.

Status, Weaver?” Grace’s voice came over the channel.

“All kosher,” I replied, managing to sound calm.  I walked to the far end of the hall and turned a corner, until I stood by a window with a view of the villains.  “Waiting to see which way they go, so sit tight, Golem and Tecton.”

Fuck,” Topsy was saying, as he approached the wreckage.  Mockshow was using her power to animate the chain and help herself out of it.

“What the hell was that?” Mockshow asked.

“Wards.  … this, it’s a trap,” Watch said.  He’d made his way back down the side of the building, where Topsy’s power had oriented gravity at a right angle.  He was calm as he spoke, “They shut down this … area, and they’re making …cal strikes to disable us.  Even the fact that …show here doesn’t have a … and I’m wearing sneakers instead of boots, they wanted that.  They want us unprepared, angry, even cold.”

“I’m paying you to get me out of this kind of situation,” Topsy said.  “Do your job.  How do we handle this?”

“They want us pissed enough to fight,” Watch said.  “Don’t.  Also… yeah.  Bug bitch tagged us.  Here.”

He reached for Mockshow, and she slapped his hand away.  He caught her wrist, simultaneously capturing her arm and blocking the path of the cockroach I’d hidden in between her sweatshirt and her jacket.  He plucked it out.

“Ew!  Ew, ew!”

With a systematic, accurate and patient series of movements, Watch began catching and killing every single one of my bugs.  Slowly but surely, I was being rendered blind and deaf.  It would make tracking a great deal harder.

“Cuff,” I communicated over the earbud, “Let me have the flight pack.”

Dutifully, she unhitched the harness and let me pilot the thing back in my general direction.  Annex and I made our way outdoors, back to the fire escape, as Watch killed the last bugs.

“Ew, ew, ew,” Mockshow moaned, with each bug that was revealed.

“… … think we should fight?” Topsy asked.  “… …ing kids.  … money, my rep…”

“Could fight,” Watch said.  “…ther plan.  Let me kill these last few, then I’ll …”

Over the ensuing four or five seconds, he killed the bugs I’d planted on him despite my best effort to retreat them to inconvenient and inaccessible areas.

My flight pack returned to me, and I strapped it on, before flying to the roof for a better vantage point.

“Going to be hard to track,” I reported.  I could see them running.  “Watch killed my tracking bugs.  They’re heading north, along Addison. roughly four hundred feet away from my location.”

It was Revel’s voice, not Grace’s, that came over the channel.  “Watch?”

“With Topsy and Mockshow and five underlings with guns and no apparent powers.  They’re on foot, trucks are disabled.  Can I get a roger?”

Roger,” Tecton said, “Moving to intercept with Golem.

Belay that,” Revel cut in.  “I’m not throwing my Wards to the wolves like this.  Abort.  Protectorate moves in.

“You let them face Behemoth,” I said.

Different story.”

“We’re safe,” I said, taking flight to keep my eyes on the villains.  “There’ more danger if you derail the plan.  They won’t even see us.”

Watch sees everything,” Revel answered.  “Everything within range of conventional eyesight, from every angle.

“Revel,” I said.  “We won’t get close to him.  Promise.  I’ve been on the team for six months, I’ve shown you guys I can play nice, play safe, avoid making trouble.  But you guys brought me on board to be the shot caller in the field, with Tecton as the leader.  Let me do what I’m supposed to do and call the shots.  It’ll be a win for the good guys, I promise.”

There was a long pause.  I’m up against Revel and the Director, now.  My advocate had switched stances.

I took flight again to maintain a good distance.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought maybe Watch had briefly turned my way.

He knew I was following, but he didn’t seem to mind.  He had a plan.  Maybe more than one.

They wasted no time in putting it into action.  Topsy used his power over a wide area, reversing gravity’s effect.  Snow began to fly in the air, and was soon joined by a pair of cars.  They reached the top of Topsy’s effect, caught between the two gravities, and began to rotate aimlessly in the weightless middle-ground between normal gravity and the area Topsy had altered.

Then he shifted gravity’s direction again.  An attack, such as it was.  The snow and cars fell in my direction.  Were flung, for lack of a better term.  I flew for cover, ungainly as I raised the insulated box as a shield, snow and ice slamming into the buildings around me, pinging off of the metal.  I managed to duck out of sight.  The cars, for their part, were only thrown into the street a block away.

It wasn’t an attack he’d aimed, but a scattershot approach, meant to scare, to allow the possibility that he’d get lucky.

And it had given them the chance to try and slip away.  A few minutes, while I recouped and tried to get my sights on them in the midst of the stirring snow and limited visibility.

Okay,” Revel said.  “Only because we can’t move the Protectorate heroes there fast enough.  You are not to engage.”

“Roger,” I reported, my relief mixed with a frustration that the go-ahead had come so late.

Their attempt to occupy me and break away might have worked, if it weren’t for Golem and Tecton.  The villains had come to a complete stop as they reached the barrier.  A row of asphalt and concrete hands, the gaps filled by Tecton’s power.  The wall was as tall as the buildings on either side of it, spanning the breadth of the street.

Topsy began to use his power, moving snow at the far left of the wall, no doubt intending to scale the structure, move over the wall.  Watch stopped him.

They turned to run instead, moving parallel with the wall.

Watch, I guessed, had seen Tecton, Golem, and the two PRT trucks on the other side of the wall, ready to spray the villains with containment foam.

By the time Topsy and his crew reached the next street over, the PRT van had pulled to a stop.  Golem was outside the vehicle, creating another barrier.  The implication was clear.  Every escape route would be cut off.

This was a battle of attrition, a patient fight, with civilians kept out of reach.  We’d let them get tired, frustrated, cold, and we’d break their spirits.

The goal here wasn’t just to win.  It was to win so irrevocably that we took the fight out of them altogether, left them without any hope that they could win the next time.

Topsy hit Golem and the truck with flipped gravity.  Both moved, but neither lifted off the ground.  Even before he started raising the wall, Golem would have used his power to hold his feet against the ground, to grab the truck’s axle.  Tecton would be waiting inside, ready to leap out and break the hands if necessary.

The villains could have continued.  In their shoes, I might have.  It made sense, to force Tecton and Golem to stop and start until an opening presented itself.

Except they were cold, tired, and being countered at every turn was starting to take a psychological toll.

They might have split up, scattered, but they didn’t.  Again, they suspected a counterplan.  Which we did have.  Golem and Tecton could have tripped up the most problematic combatants while the rest of us picked off the weakest members one by one.  I didn’t have bugs, but I could fly, and I had coiled lassos of silk cord that I could use in a pinch, along with a taser that I could use if I wanted to end things sooner than later.  A good attack from above, I could manage.  If they went inside, I could unload the bugs I had in my insulated box.

They had a different plan in mind.  They reversed direction and headed straight for a restaurant with a sign showing a gold dragon against a red background.

“Grace,” I said.  “Wei shu wu?  Does typing it into the computer turn up anything?”

A cover business for a group with affiliations to the Folk,” Revel volunteered.

“We safe to harass them, or-”

No.  They have people with powers, and that’s beyond the scope of this manhunt.

“Can you find the number at the building?  A restaurant, Wei shu wu.”

“Weaver,” Revel said, her tone a warning.

“Please,” I said, as the villains disappeared inside.

Revel only sighed.

A moment later, the phone rang, and I could hear a voice.

Wei shu wu dining.  Would you like delivery?  We can also arrange reservations if needed.

“We would, if it’s no trouble,” I said, hoping I was connected.  “Eight criminals just entered your restaurant on Addison.  They’re cold, bedraggled, a little desperate.  It’s an ugly situation, and I’m sorry for the trouble that’s found its way to your doorstep.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

Playing dumb?

“It was trouble they started,” I said.  “They crossed lines, and now that we’re coming after them, they’ve come running to your place for shelter.”

“We can hardly offer anyone shelter.”

“I know,” I said.  “But call your boss, if you need to.  Let them know that the heroes aren’t going to start a fight, but the villains inside the building need to leave and get taken into custody.  If this goes any further, we’re not going to press you, but it’s going to draw attention.  People will wonder why the bad guys are hiding there.”

Weaver,” it was a man’s voice this time, over the comms.  “You don’t have the authority to make promises or offers.

We can’t make them leave,” the man from the restaurant said, his voice a whisper.  “We don’t have ability to make threats.”

Because you’re hapless restaurant owners or because your gang doesn’t have the clout there to go head to head with Topsy?

“Don’t hang up the phone,” I said, “Use your cell phones, talk to anyone you can think of that might help.  Bosses, franchise owners, whoever.  Fill them in.  Let them know that the guests in your store include men called Topsy and Watch.  If they ask who I am, you tell them I’m a superhero called Weaver.”

“From the video?”

“From the video,” I said.

His tone changed, as if he’d shifted mental gears, at that.  He sounded vaguely plaintive.  “You’re talking as if my boss is an important man, but-”

“You’re just a restaurant employee,” I said.  “I understand.  Call whoever.  We’ll figure this out together.”

There was a muffled sound, as if he was covering the phone’s mouthpiece with his hand.

You’re talking as if you’re on the same side,” the man said.  The Director, I was pretty sure.

Weaver,” Revel chimed in, sounding annoyed.

“Mute me so he doesn’t hear?” I asked.

“Already done,” Revel said.  “This isn’t the way we should do this.”

I bit my lip.  I wanted to retort, to argue, but I knew there were too many listening ears.

This is exactly what we should be doing.

“They’re people,” I said.  “They’re bad guys, maybe, but they’re all people.  Topsy and Watch and Mockshow want the same things we do, to be safe, warm, dry and well rested, and we’re taking that away from them.  And the people who work with this restaurant?  They don’t want to deal with people like Topsy and Watch.  All we have to do to resolve this is make it easier to deal with us than to deal with the other villains.”

We shouldn’t be dealing with them, period,” the Director said.

“We-” I started to reply, then I stopped.

Topsy, Watch and Mockshow had stepped from the building.

“They just decided to leave,” the restaurant employee said.  His voice shook a little.

I could see the body language of the three villains and their henchmen.  Topsy kicked the window at the outside of the restaurant, and a crack appeared in it.  He shouted something I couldn’t make out from my vantage point.

I’m sure they did, I thought.  But I only said.  “Thank you for cooperating.”

“Thank you for talking me through this,” the man said.

With that, he hung up.

Something had gone on that I hadn’t overheard.  An exchange of words, a message from the Folk?

It didn’t matter right now.  I watched as the villains made their way down the street, then broke into a store to find shelter from the cold.

It was over.  I could read it in their body language.  As much as the Director had wanted to wear me down, to have me sit in the cold with nothing to occupy myself with but the five minute check-ins, we’d achieved the same thing against the villains, and we’d been successful in doing it.  This was only residual stubbornness.

My arms were stiff with the weight of my bug box.  I was glad to set down on the roof and deploy the bugs, flooding the building and driving the villains out into the elements.  They had winter clothing they’d stolen, but it wasn’t enough to restore the warmth they’d already lost.

By the time they found more shelter, Annex and Cuff had met up with a PRT van and been delivered to the scene.  Annex approached from behind, slithering close, and then used his power to open up a closed storefront, allowing cold to pour into the building’s interior.

This time, when the villains emerged, they did so with arms raised in surrender.

“We did it,” I muttered.

Be wary of Watch,” Revel said.  “Containment foam him first, then move him to a truck.  Good job, Wards.

I watched Mockshow on the monitors.  She was young.  Well, young was relative.  She was fourteen or so, and now that she had her costume with her, she wore a hard mask sporting a stylized smiley-face, a headband with screws sticking out like antennae.  She’d lost the outdoor clothing and had donned her mask, as if it were a shield between her and us.

I glanced over at our superiors.  Revel was in a discussion with the Director, the Mayor and the police chief.

Mockshow’s eyes widened as she saw the bugs filtering into the interrogation room.  The tables and chairs had been removed to deny her anything solid enough to use her power on, so she had nothing to hide behind as they began forming into a mass.

“Aw hell no,” she said, as she backed into a corner.  “No, no, no, no…”

They gathered into a rough humanoid shape.  My shape.  A swarm-clone.

“No!” she shouted, as if her refusal to accept it could banish the thing from existence.

Let’s chat,” I communicated through the swarm.  “Off the record.

“Screw you!  Driving me out into the cold, fucking with us without a fair fight?  Go die in a fire!”

I’ve been in a lot of fights,” I commented, “Rare to have one that’s actually fair.  Most are pretty brutally one sided.

“Do you not hear me?  Screw yourself!”

The swarm advanced a little, and she shrunk back.

Paradigm is changing, Mockshow.  I want to make that clear, so you know what people are talking about when they offer you deals.  People aren’t going to be inclined to play nice.”

Nice?”

The three strike rule, cowboys and indians, counting coup…

“You’re cracked.  The fuck are you talking about?”

It doesn’t matter.  Things are shifting.  People are relaxing when they shouldn’t be, because Behemoth died, and-

“Pat yourself on the back more, why don’t you?  I saw that video.”

Everyone did, I thought.

I couldn’t let her get me off topic.  “I’m going to tell you what I would’ve wanted to hear if I found myself in your shoes, at this point in time.

“Oh, so generous.”

There’s two groups of people.  There’s the people who’re preparing for the end of the world, who are on pins and needles waiting to see just what hits us next, how the dynamic’s going to change.  I’m in that group, understand?  In my book, in our book, anyone who isn’t keeping the peace and isn’t helping doesn’t deserve any mercy.  They’re detriments.  You’re dangerously close to falling into that category.”

“Whatever.”

And the other group?  They’re the people who’ve finally found a glimmer of hope, and they’re relaxing, thinking maybe we can take out the remaining Endbringers, maybe the world can go back to normal.

She snorted.

Yeah.  Exactly,” I said.  I glanced at the others.  The Director wasn’t participating in the conversation anymore.  He was staring at a monitor, but his reaction didn’t suggest he was watching me interact with Mock.

Either way, I had to wrap it up.  “But those guys?  They aren’t on your side either.  Once upon a time, they’d be the same people who’d push for people like you to go free.  Because maybe you’d help somewhere down the road.  Now?  They have no reason to give you that slack.  You’ve got no help here, and I think you’ll be surprised at how hard they come after you.”

“I didn’t do shit.  I’ve barely had my powers a month.”

“You signed up with Topsy.  With Watch.  This is as much about them as it is about you. Making Topsy uncomfortable, denying him a resource they’d just acquired.  Stripping away his conveniences, leaving him wondering if you’ll plea out.”

“Fuck that.  I’m good.  Not saying a word.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But take it from someone who’s been there.  You don’t want to go down this road.  The heroes will come after you hard, the villains will never trust you.  Honestly?  I don’t care if you stay a villain or become a hero.  But it’s not worth it to be a villain and stick with guys like Topsy.  The gains aren’t worth what it costs you.”

“I turn traitor and walk away, I’m fucked.”

“Join the Wards,” I suggested.

I experienced a momentary flashback to my first night out in costume, talking to Armsmaster.

Holy shit, have I become him?  Pursuing my agenda, offering the options I know she won’t take, steering her towards my self-serving goal?

It chilled me, bothered me far, far more than Mockshow’s snort of derision.

“Or go be a scumbag, but be a scumbag who helps save the world,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

“Us or them, Mockshow,” I told her.  “Saving the world or getting in the way.  If you’re helping, we pull our punches, the charges don’t stick, whatever.  You get in the way, well, every night can be like tonight was.”

She scowled.

“That’s all.”

“Fucking rich.  You’re just pushing me to go join your old team.”

“I’m suggesting that you consider your options.  Pay fucking attention to where you’re going.  I wish I had.  That’s all.  If you want to contact me, that door will be left open.  I’ll pull strings to make sure of it.”

“I gotcha,” she said.  Her shoulders slumped a little, as if in defeat.  She glanced up at me, and I could see a glimmer of vulnerability in her expression.  “Weaver?”

“What?”

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

She opened her mouth, then closed it.  She stuck her hands in her pockets, then glanced at the windows, which were partially obscured with half-closed blinds.

Finally, she spoke.  “Would you please, please go fuck yourself?  Upside-down and backwards?”

I sighed, dissipating the swarm.

I felt my hair stand on end as the Director approached.  I’d always felt a little caught off guard by him.  He looked more like a classic politician than the generals and soldiers I was used to associating with the PRT, with dimples, styled sandy hair and a tidy suit.  His demeanor, body language, everything, it was warm.  That warmth didn’t reach his eyes.  Not when he’d looked at me.  Especially not right now.

He’d seen the swarm-clone in the interrogation room.  I knew it.

For long seconds, we stared at each other.  I’d thought he would say something, but he didn’t.

“Thanks,” I said, “For playing ball.”

“I didn’t.”

“You could have made that harder.”

“Making it harder would have done more harm than good,” he said.  “I’ve still got two teams to run, a specialized police force to organize.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Mockshow.  Was she receptive?”

I shook my head, but I said, “Maybe.  Maybe something will sink in.”

“Teenagers have a way of being bullheaded,” the Director said.  “Villains too.  Teenaged villains?  Well.”

His eyes didn’t move one iota away from me as he said it.  It left no question about how he’d compartmentalized me in his head.

“I suppose you’re right,” I said.

“Having Topsy off the streets is going to be a feather in a few caps, I think,” he said.  “It’s messy to credit you.”

“I really don’t care,” I said.  “I just want to make some steps forward in this mess.  Prepare for the worst.”

He studied me in a very slow, careful way, as though taking everything in.  Assessing the target.

“I could raise an issue with you being in that interrogation room.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “It’d look obvious, that you were coming after me.  I didn’t say anything really problematic.  But it’s an option.”

“You withheld details.”

“It’s kind of crazy out there, in the midst of a fight.  You lose track of stuff.”

“I know,” he said.  “I used to be a soldier.”

That caught me off guard.  He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, let alone a war.  He was so young, too.

“You haven’t been a cape for long,” he said.

“A year.”

“A year.  But you’ve been through a lot.  I’d hope you were better about minding those details.”

A slap in the face, not calling me out on the fib, but turning it against me.

He seemed content with that for the moment.  He didn’t press the offensive.  I didn’t either.

“We both got what we wanted tonight,” I said.  “It’s a win, isn’t it?”

He didn’t reply, glancing at the Mayor.  The man seemed happy as he talked to Revel and the police chief.  Not giddy, but happy.

“Is this going to let up?” I asked.  “Or are we going to be fighting each other constantly?”

The Director glanced at me.  “You want this to stop?”

“It’s a waste of energy.  There can’t be compromise?”

He didn’t even have to think about it.  He shook his head, briefly pursing his lips.  “No compromise.”

I clenched my fist.  Damn him.

“A balance,” he said.  “Maybe a balance.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I think,” he said, choosing his words carefully, “That a compromise would be disastrous.  You’re not going to be confined.  You showed that in the interrogation room in Brockton Bay, when you murdered Director James Tagg and Alexandria.  You’re not going to be confined by law.  I haven’t seen a single case where you’ve followed the rules that were outlined for you.  Boundaries don’t work, in any sense.  If we reached a compromise, worked out some kind of a deal, you’d find a way around it, extending your influence.”

“That’s not fair,” I said.

“It’s reality.  It’s a horrible waste of energy, a tragedy, really, but I’m forced to dedicate time to reining you in, controlling you, keeping you in check.  If that results in nights like tonight, we have a balance.  Hardly a compromise, but we’ll manage.”

“I suppose we’ll have to,” I said.

“I’d tell you to avoid leaking the fact that you played a major role in tonight’s events, but we both know you wouldn’t listen,” he said.  “I’d threaten punishment, but you’d do what you wanted and even enjoy it, feeling vindicated.  So we’ll go another route.  If you don’t play ball and let us share this narrative the way we need to, I punish the other Chicago Wards.  Inconvenient shifts, extra volunteer work, more paperwork.”

“I told you, taking credit isn’t a concern for me.  I’ve got other priorities.”

“Good,” he said.  He flashed me a smile.  White capped teeth.  “Good.  Then this is ideal.  We may not have a compromise, but a consensus?  It’ll do.”

“It’ll do,” I said.

“Just do me a favor?  Try not to murder me like you did the other three Directors.”  He winked.

It was a jibe, a verbal thrust, delivered with humor and offhandedness, but it struck home, stirred ugly feelings.

He turned to rejoin the others.  The Mayor looked at me, and Revel waved me over.  I knew the Director wouldn’t want me to, so I walked over with confidence, my head held high.

Eight hours?” the Mayor asked.  “Sitting in the cold?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Is that even legal?”

The Director stepped in, “It wasn’t on the clock.  For all intents and purposes, she wanted to take the day off, have some time by herself.  We had the tracking device monitored by GPS, so we knew she wasn’t going anywhere she shouldn’t.  Being the workaholic she is, she wanted to get intel while she had her alone time.”

I didn’t argue the point.  He wasn’t wrong.  That was how it was going down in the paperwork.  Part of the deal we’d arranged to get this off the ground.

The mayor smiled.  “Well, good to see our most controversial member is doing her part.   You should smile more.  Can we get a smile out of you?”

I smiled a little.

“Better, better!  You do bide your time, then make a big splash, don’t you, Ms. Weaver?”

He was managing to sound a little condescending, which was at odds with the events he was alluding to.  How did one make me sound so diminutive when making vague reference to the death of an Endbringer, to the murder of Alexandria and the takeover of a city?

I didn’t mention it.  I had my pride, but it wasn’t something worth fighting over.  I wanted to pick my battles, and any moment now-

“Hopefully we’ll see more of the same from you in the future,” the Mayor said.

The Director started to speak, deflecting, but I cut in.  “Actually-“

Eyes fell on me.

Picking my battles.  If the Director wanted this to be a war, if he thought I needed to be tempered by an opposing force, then I was game.

I glanced at the Mayor.  “Tecton went over it with me, we’ve got more plans like we had for tonight.  If you guys are willing.”

“Willing?  I can’t imagine why not!” the Mayor said.  He smiled at Director Hearthrow, who smiled back.

The moment the Mayor wasn’t looking, the Director shot me a glance, a dangerous, warning look.

I told you, I thought.  My priorities are elsewhere.

“How soon?” the police chief asked.  Her stare was hard, judgmental, but there was curiosity in her tone.

“The sooner the better,” I said.  “Before they catch on about what we’re doing and adjust.  I think I know where a few possible major players are situated.  I’ve spent the past few months looking for them.  I gathered the intel in my spare time, on my morning runs and patrols.  Just like Director Hearthrow was saying.  I’m a bit of a workaholic.”

“Like, two weeks?” she asked.

“Give me a day to recuperate, maybe two days if the other Wards need it, I’d be down for another.  We could potentially hit seven or eight major targets in the next two weeks, if you wanted.  Each of them would be major targets, villains who aren’t playing along, who are more trouble than they’re worth.”

The Director shook his head.  “I think that may be extreme.  The resources expended, funding-“

“Funding can be conjured up for a project like this,” the Mayor said.  “Imagine the impact.  Can we do this with the Protectorate team as well?  Switch off with the minors?”

“It’s a good idea,” Revel commented.  “Weaver’s capable of handling her own in high pressure situations, but the other team members might not be.  They have school, family, other concerns.”

“I agree,” I chimed in.  “Makes sense.  We could have the bad guys reeling.”

“We can’t set our hopes too high,” the Director warned.  He gave me another dirty look.

The Mayor chuckled.  “No.  Of course not.  But the impact.  And to do it with so little risk?  They barely interacted with the villains, by all accounts.  It would be insane to pass up the opportunity.”

“Insane,” Revel said, her tone flat.  I couldn’t read her feelings on this.  I hoped I hadn’t provoked her as much as I had the Director.

“If you’re willing to allow me to suggest some targets,” the police chief said, “I think I could adjust shifts, ensure we have enough squad members to limit or stop traffic inside potential sites of conflict.”

It was consent, in the form of a negotiation.  The mayor and police chief were interested, Revel was probably on board.  The Director would be forced to play along.

It was done.  I was all set to hit the ground running, like Glenn had recommended.  Big moves.  Actions with momentum.  Here on out, I’d have to keep moving so they couldn’t get me.

And hopefully, in the midst of this, we’d be able to organize things for our potential end of the world scenario.  Eliminate the obstacles, big and small, train up the rank and file troops.

If anyone thought I was cleaning up Chicago, they were wrong.  Like the Director had said, I’d take as much rein as they gave me, use all of the leverage and momentum I could get my hands on.  Topsy was a small fry in the grand scheme of things.  A test run.  I wanted to hit big targets in other cities.  To get as many Mockshows into the interrogation rooms as possible, to play the odds and increase the chances that we could get those people on the fence and make sure they were positioned appropriately.

The clock was ticking.

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Scarab 25.2

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“Sorry… I’m… so…”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

I could sense him slowing, using the bugs I’d planted on his costume.  I stopped and waited for him.

“It’s fine, Theo.  You’re doing me a favor.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” he said.  He bent down, hands on his knees.

I waited for him to get his breath.

“I might throw up,” he added.

I backed away a step.  “Just getting the chance to run, it’s cool.  Not many others are willing to meet me at seven to run, much less six weeks in a row.  Grace is athletic, but she got sick of it fast.”

He mumbled something I couldn’t make out.

“What?”

“I’m not athletic.”

“You’re getting better.  We just got a whole two blocks.  That’s not bad.  About as good as I was when I started.”

“Not fair to you, make you suffer for how much I suck.”

“It’s fine.  It’s nice to get outside.  Kind of a pain to have to get someone to come with if I want to go outside for no particular reason.  If I don’t get the exercise here, I can use the treadmill back at the headquarters.  Don’t feel obligated, if you’re not enjoying this.”

“I don’t.  I’m… it’s good.  I want to get fit.”

“Well, in that case, don’t worry about it.  We’re both benefitting,” I said.

He made it another few steps before he was hunched over again, still breathing hard.

I felt a pang of sympathy, suppressing a smile at the same time.  “Come on.  We’ll walk one block, then try running another, walk the rest of the way.”

He was still panting for breath as he obliged.

I found myself missing Brockton Bay.  It wasn’t the most beautiful city, or the most active.  Or the most anything.  There were already things going on around the portal, but it wasn’t a city with a lot going for it, and it hadn’t been even before the intense series of events had laid waste to the shoreline, set a water-filled crater in the northwest corner of the downtown area and left an entire swathe of the city so fucked up with random, horrifically dangerous effects that it had to be walled off.

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt the same way if I hadn’t grown up there, but I liked the balance in Brockton Bay.  The way there was everything I could want, as far as malls, shopping centers, theaters.  It was a big enough city.  Yet there was just as much room to wake up early in the day, when others weren’t out, and have Brockton Bay to myself.

Chicago wasn’t like that.  It was busy, and it was busy in a way that got in my way.  People were already up if I got up at six in the morning to go run.  Some were still up from the previous night, having spent the entire evening at clubs or whatever else.  Everything was taken to an extreme, it seemed, in drama, opinions and ideas.  It made it a little harder to sympathize with Chicago’s equivalents to the people I’d been helping in Brockton Bay.  A little harder to sympathize with anyone, really.

I was feeling cramped.  I wasn’t a social person at my core, and being here, like this, never allowed to be out and on my own, it rankled.  I liked time on my own, with the internet or a good book, even a bad book, to get my mind settled down, my thoughts in order.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like people, that I didn’t like company, but too much was too much, and I had no elbow room here.

Whether they knew it or not, the PRT directors had found a fitting way to punish me.  Hopefully it wouldn’t go any further than this.  I’d done as they asked, I was staying under the radar, and though I didn’t plan to stay there, I didn’t think they had any reason to make my life more difficult.  I had my suspicions that my phone and computer were tapped, so I was careful about what I browsed and how I communicated.

With luck, they would forget about me until I was active again.  With more luck, I wouldn’t have to worry about them much longer.  The Director from Toronto, the guy I hadn’t been able to place, had already quit.  Wilkins and West were still active, but the woman at the end of the table was under scrutiny.

There was stuff going on behind the scenes, and speculation was rampant on the Parahumans Online site.  Satyrical’s name had come up.  As far as  could tell, the Vegas capes had gone rogue, and they were apparently targeting the more corrupt elements of the PRT.

I wasn’t a hundred percent sure how to feel about that, but I wasn’t complaining if someone was taking down my enemies for me, especially if it was in a more or less safe, legitimate way.

“Hey,” Theo said.

I turned to look at him.

“When you were dealing with the Slaughterhouse Nine back in Brockton Bay, you fought Jack Slash, right?”

“Yeah.  Kind of.”

“Kind of?”

“He doesn’t really fight, unless he’s got his people around him and the fight’s unfair.  Mostly, I was chasing him around, trying not to get killed in the process.”

He frowned.

“Worried?” I asked.  “You’ll have help.”

“So will he,” Theo pointed out.

“True.”

“I’m… I’m not good at this.  Everything Kaiser was, I’m not.”

“That’s not a bad thing.  He was an asshole.  You aren’t.”

Theo managed a weak smile.  It was hard to identify just how he would react in regards to things.  Backed against a wall, faced with a serious threat, he showed courage.  I’d seen him on patrol, and for all his worries, he did follow through.  He had against Behemoth, in what was almost his first time out in costume.  Talking about his family, though, I couldn’t pin down just what he’d say or do.

The feeble smile, was that genuine?  Had I hurt him, left him in a position where he wanted to defend his family but couldn’t because of what they were?

“I don’t fit the typical cape mold,” Theo said.

I resisted the urge to tell him I didn’t either, but I didn’t.  I remembered a tidbit of advice I’d heard Tecton giving, and listened instead.  “You’re feeling nervous.  Anyone would.”

“The running, I don’t feel the difference,” he said.

“Slow gains, but they’re there.”

“The training helps,” he said.  “The training feels concrete, like I’m getting significantly better.”

“You want to train when we get back?”

“I don’t have long before I have to patrol.  A short one?”

“Sure.  Come on.  Run one more block, throw up if you have to, then we walk back.”

He made a sound partway between a gurgle and a groan, but he followed me as I took off.

Running at first, then walking, we took a different route coming back than we’d taken on our way out.  The trees by the lake were aflame with autumnal colors, and I could see a handful of college students and older folk gathered, enjoying the serenity of the lake, the perfect temperature.  Tranquil.

That was something I could get behind.  I would have loved to sit by the lake, given the opportunity.  The trouble was, I never got the chance.  I was leashed to other people’s schedules, my excursions had to be in another person’s company, and nobody had really seemed keen on the idea of going out solely to go and sit at the lakeside.

As penance went, it was pretty light, but the overall effect of this restriction was wearing on me in a way that the jail cell hadn’t.

We reached the PRT headquarters, one of two in Chicago. It was squat, broad, and not terribly pretty, but it sported a statue on the roof that had been paid for by an old member, Stardust.

Once inside, we made our way up to the top floor, where the Wards’ rooms and the ‘hub’, as the others called it.  It was a label that made me think of prison, and that, in turn, pushed me to think of it more as a common area or a lounge.

“Gym?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Theo said.  “Let me get my stuff on.  I’ll meet you there.”

I tapped into the supply of bugs that were stored in my workshop, withdrawing an assortment of flies, beetles and cockroaches, depositing the ones that I’d collected during the ‘run’.  It wasn’t many, but I didn’t need much.  Enough or three or four swarm clones.

I stopped by the kitchen to collect some silverware, then made my way down one floor to where the gym was.

Golem arrived a minute after I got there, decked out in his costume.  It had changed from its first iteration, complete with a layer of spider silk and heavy armor over top of it.  He wore a mask with a neutral, almost solemn face, and fan-like decorations at his waist and shoulders, the spaces stretching between the slats painted white, a darker metal composing the frame and edges.

The image consultant was having fits, no doubt, but the first and most important goal was for Golem to be effective.  We were getting there.  Image would come later.

“Hey,” Kirk greeted us, stepping out as Golem arrived.  He wore a t-shirt and yoga pants, and was glistening with sweat.  His head was shaved, and his skin was a striking jet black.  “You guys sparring?”

“Training,” I said.  “Not sparring, really.”

“Can I watch?”

I looked at Golem, “Are you okay with it?.”

“I’m the one embarrassing myself, you mean.”

“I think you’re past the point where you’re embarrassing yourself,” I said.

“You can watch if you want, Annex.  Wouldn’t mind helping clean up,” Golem said. “I can’t promise it’ll be anything special.”

“Not a prob,” Kirk responded.  “Kind of curious to see where you’re at.”

We made our way inside.

The area was divided, with workout machines taking up one half, and an open area for sparring and dance and whatever else on the other half.  Floor panels, varying in the depth and degree of padding offered, were neatly stacked in one corner.

We moved to the open area, but we didn’t set up any padding for the floor.  My bugs flowed through vents and from the hallway outside, and they filled the room, covering every surface.

The bugs congealed into a human figure, and Golem took action.  His fingertips ran along the white ‘fans’ at his waist, then he jabbed one hand inside.  A hand of concrete lunged out of the floor to dissipate the swarm.

A little slow, but not bad.

Another part of the swarm congealed into a rough decoy, and Golem clutched it in a fist of concrete.  Faster this time.  The bugs seeped out through the gaps in the fingers as the hand retreated into the floor’s surface.

Each panel of the fan was a different material.  Concrete, steel, granite, wood.  Common materials were in easy reach.  Less common ones were a gesture away.  Two at once, this time.  Two figures to strike.  Golem caught one with his right hand, but I moved the other as he reached for it with his left.  He wasn’t quick enough to catch it, and the angle was poor.

I drew a butter knife from the pocket of my shorts, raised it above my head.

Golem was watching for it.  He dug his fingertips into the topside of one panel, his thumb into the underside.  Identical digits sprouted from the knife, forming half of a fist that had closed around the edge.  The knife became a club, one with no cutting edge.

I threw the weapon aside and turned my attention towards creating more decoys.

I feinted, now, misleading him about where my clones were moving.  He struggled but managed to deliver the hits.  Dragonflies and faster insects formed a more mobile body, and I avoided the strikes, right up until he started creating hands that sprouted forth from limbs that were already sticking out of the ground: branching barriers to limit movement.  I tried to simulate the general effect of the obstacles, and Golem took the opportunity to deliver a finishing blow, crushing another swarm-decoy..

“Hit them harder now,” I said.  Running, I tried to raise expectations for myself.  Here, I did much the same for Golem.

The movements became more violent.  A hand cupped around one swarm and then pulled it against the ground, melding back into the surface.  Bugs were squished against the spacial distortion field, and my swarm’s numbers were severely reduced.

Another was squashed against the wall, but the surfaces were different materials, and the hand couldn’t simply sink back in.  This time, there was an audible thud, eliciting a heavy rattling from the exercise machines on the other side of the gym.

I drew my swarm together into a rough shape, not a person, but something larger, a touch bigger than Crawler, smaller than Echidna, bipedal.

He hit it, and I reformed it.

“Hit it harder,” I said.

He hit it again, drawing two hands together as if he were squeezing it.  There was no substance to the monster’s body, though.  I judged that he wasn’t doing enough damage and simply reformed it.  The monster advanced on him.

I stepped a little closer, raising my voice.  “Come on, Theo!  Hit harder!”

Golem dropped a foot as one leg slipped into the concrete floor.  A facsimile of his boot rose out of the floor, complete with cleats.  The speed and force of it would have been enough to lift one of Rachel’s dogs, so I obliged by moving the ‘body’ of the swarm monster, raising it.

As the foot continued to rise, Golem’s leg disappearing up to the knee in the floor, he pushed one hand into the fan, causing a limb to drop from the ceiling right above the rising spiked platform that was Golem’s boot.  My creation was sandwiched between the two, and the collision had enough of an impact to make Kirk and I stumble.  I had to turn my head to keep the dust from getting in my eyes.

“Is that-” Golem started.

Before he finished the sentence, I had a second butter knife drawn, the tip pressed to his throat.

“Keep your eye on the threats,” I said.

“Not very fair,” Kirk commented.  “Playing dirty.”

“No,” Golem said.  His voice wavered, which was odd, considering I wasn’t doing anything that was actually threatening.  Something else had shaken him.  Had he taken the lesson to heart?  “I’s good.  That’s the kind of lesson I need to know.  It’s why I’m training.”

“Jack’s going to throw some scary motherfuckers at you,” I said.  “But he’ll be looking for an opening.  Always, always watch your back.  Don’t forget to watch your friend’s backs too.  You probably won’t die if you do, but you might wish you were dead, when you see what Jack and his gang do to them.”

Golem withdrew his arm from the panel, but his leg was harder to free from the ground.  By the time he was standing straight, the leg that stuck out of the floor had become more or less permanent.  In another area, fingertips stuck out of the floor.  There were also the branching ‘trees’ of hands that had formed barriers.  Without us even asking, Kirk stepped forward, his body liquefying as he flowed into the surface, smoothing it all out as though we’d never been there.

When he was done, he emerged to survey his work.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Interesting to watch.  Figuring out ways to apply his power?”

“Pretty much.  Tricks for his repertoire, building some familiarity with using his abilities, attacking to recognize threats and attack without hesitation when needed.”

“You really buy that Jack’s going to wake up from some cryogenic sleep just to fight some kid who didn’t even have powers when they last met?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Believe it or not, with what I know of Jack, it makes perfect sense.”

“Huh.”

“You’re on board, right?” I asked.  “With the plan?”

Kirk nodded.  “Seems a little crazy, but doesn’t hurt, given the stakes.”

“End of the world,” Golem said.

“End of the world,” I agreed.  “We’ll get as many on board as we can.  Either we avert it, or we soften the blow.”

“Assuming we can figure out what it is,” Golem said.

“Yeah,” I said. “You said you had patrol soon?”

“Eight twenty.  Then school after that.  I’ll see you this afternoon?”

“Yeah,” I answered.  I made my way to the common area and took the first unoccupied spot at the computer.  Grace was there, but she wore a school uniform, and had homework spread around her.

“Don’t say a word,” she told me, clearly annoyed.

“Wasn’t going to,” I responded.

I logged in, and was greeted by the customized desktop.

C/D: Endbringer
-3:21:45:90

C/D: End of World
593:19:27:50

The first counted upward, the other counted down.

Three days had passed since the estimated arrival of either the Simurgh or Leviathan.  Behemoth had been early, but whatever factor pushed that to occur wasn’t at play here.

It made sense that they wouldn’t maintain the schedule they had been.  Since the Simurgh had arrived, roughly three and a half months had passed between each attack.
These coming days and weeks would speak volumes.  Were the Endbringers going to alter their tactics?  Would the schedule continue at its accelerated pace, with Behemoth appearing in seven to ten months?

Something else altogether?

My eyes fell on the second clock.  The countdown.

593:19:25:23

“No joke?” I asked, the second the elevator doors were open.  Cuff was waiting on the other side.

“She’s here,” Cuff said.  “Not here, here, but she’s showed up.”

I was in full costume, my flight pack on, an insulated box for my bugs tucked under one arm. my phone in hand.  I was chilled to the core of my body, my lenses fogging up from the adjustment from outdoor temperature to indoor temperature.

I didn’t need to ask who.  I knew well enough.  It was a question that had been lurking on everyone’s minds.  Which one, where?

I pulled off my mask as I followed her to the common area, and reached out to accept the glasses my bugs were already fetching to me, putting them on.  The same images played on each of the screens.

The Simurgh, her silhouette barely visible in the midst of the clouds.

“What city?” I asked.

“Not a city,” Tecton said.

Sure enough, the camera angle changed.  Water.  Coastal?

No.  Too much water.

Ocean.  She was attacking the ocean?

It clicked when I saw the text at the bottom of the screen for one news report.  BA178 under siege.

Of all of the sensitive locations in the world, the Simurgh had chosen a passenger airplane.

“Are we-” I started to ask.

“Can’t,” Tecton said.  “No solid ground, and none of us fly.”

“I fly,” I said, but I could already guess the follow-up answer.

“Vehicles and tinker equipment aren’t going to cut it.  Too easy for her to interfere with,” Tecton said.

“Order came down from the top.  Natural fliers only,” Wanton added.

“We’re too late to join in anyways,” Grace said.  “I can’t imagine this’ll be a long, drawn-out, knock down fight.  We got almost no warning.  It’s like she dropped straight down from where she was and picked a fight with the closest target.”

I thought of Armstrong’s insistence that we capitalize on our victory, mass in numbers to allow for another decisive victory, instead of showing up in smaller groups, with inevitable attrition.

All this waiting, all of the restlessness, watching the countdown clock tick well beyond the estimated date, and we couldn’t even fight.  I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

I watched on the screen as Legend, Alexandria and Eidolon engaged the Simurgh.  She avoided the worst of their attacks, primarily through the only cover available – the airplane.

Half of the screens were showing the same video footage, though they were different channels, different organizations.  The other half were showing information.  The flight route, the people in the plane.

If anything here was special, the only one who knew would be the Simurgh.

My teammates didn’t talk much as we watched the fight progress.  In one instant, it seemed, the dynamic changed.  The heroes began trying to attack the plane, and the Simurgh started trying to defend it.

For eleven minutes, she managed, using her telekinesis to move the craft, her wings and body to block it from being damaged.

A fire started on the body of the ship as Eidolon tore into the Simurgh with a reality warping power of some kind, complete with lightning, fire, distorted light, and ice.  The Simurgh cast the craft aside in the following instant, letting it flip, burn and tumble before hitting the water and virtually disintegrating.

That done, the Simurgh ascended, rising into the clouds.  A few capes tried to follow, but Scion wasn’t among them.

“How long was the fight?” I asked.

“Not long enough for Scion to show,” was all Wanton said.

“Forty minutes?” Tecton asked.  “About forty minutes.”

I’d spent more than half that time hurrying back to headquarters, hoping I wasn’t missing my ride.  Now this.  It was a farce.

“Now we wait,” Grace said, “And if we’re lucky, we find out what she just did.”

That was it.

It was almost a letdown, more than a relief.  I couldn’t say she’d been softballing us, because it was the Simurgh.  For all I knew, this was the most devastating attack yet.  We wouldn’t know until later on.

Virtually no casualties, the planeload of people excepted.  Nobody was reporting anything about heroes dying, but it had been clear enough from the footage that this hadn’t been a serious loss.  Barely forty capes had been out there, and I hadn’t seen any die.

Yet I felt irrationally upset, if anything.

I turned and walked away.  I let the strap of the incubation box slip from my shoulder to the crook of my elbow, caught it with my hand, and then transferred it over to the arms of my flight pack.  It meant I didn’t have to stop or bend down to set the incubation box at the base of the stairs.  I didn’t go up to my room or my workshop, though.  I made my way downstairs, instead.

I was grateful to see that Mrs. Yamada hadn’t left yet.  Her things were packed, but she’d settled into the office, and was reading a small book.  A television was on in the corner, muted, showing what was happening with the Simurgh.

“Taylor.”

“Do you have a minute?”

“Of course.”

She stood and crossed the room to close the door.  I hadn’t realized I’d left it open.

“It was about the best we could hope for, going by what we know now,” I said, “And I feel worse about it than I did about New Delhi.”

“You’ve been preparing for this, anticipating it, for some time.  Mentally, you were preparing yourself for more losses, steeling yourself.  That takes a lot out of you, and you were robbed of a chance to do something.”

My phone buzzed.  I glanced at the screen.  My dad.  I sent him a message letting him know I was fine.

“Sorry,” I said, putting the phone away.  “It was my dad.”

“Don’t be sorry.  It’s a good sign if you’re reaching out to your dad, or vice-versa.”

“It’s bad manners,” I said.  “But okay.  Back to what we were saying before.  I’m almost feeling… disarmed?”

“Disarmed.  Good word.”

“I’ve been sort of enjoying the peace, the fact that the Protectorate are dealing with the meanest bastards around, the Folk, the Royals, the Condemned.  But I was telling myself it came down to the Endbringer fight.  That I’d participate, I’d wake up, fight.”

“Isn’t it better if you don’t have to?”

“No,” I said.  I stared down at my gloved hands.  “No.  Not at all.”

“You came from a bad place, and, like we’ve talked about, you reinvented yourself.  Maybe a lot of your identity is rooted in your concept of yourself as a warrior.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But whether it’s true or not, it doesn’t change how I feel.”

“I expect a lot of people around the world feel the same way.  It’s very possible she calculated things to achieve this effect.”

I nodded.

“What do you think would be a best case scenario, Taylor?  If everything went the way you were hoping it would, deep down inside, what would happen?”

“New Delhi would happen,” I said.  Except without the severe losses.  We’d lose people, some place would get damaged, but we’d kill another Endbringer.”

“Is that realistic, do you think?”

“No,” I said.  “I know it isn’t realistic.  We went decades without killing one, and it’s stupid to imagine we could kill two in a row.”

“What’s a more reasonable expectation?”

“That she’d show up, and we’d fight, and we’d drive her off without too many casualties.”

“In either of these scenarios, do you envision yourself playing a role?  Maybe as big a role as you played in New Delhi?”

“I’m… Sort of?”

She didn’t seize on anything there, nor did she ask a follow-up question.  I took the opportunity to reflect on it.

“Yeah,” I eventually said.  “Maybe not as big a role.  Again, that’s unrealistic.  But I want to help.”

“If the Simurgh wanted to deliver a hit to morale, this would be a way to do it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “After New Delhi, a lot of capes were hoping to make a difference, to be heroes.  Her choice of venue, the short battle, the narrow focus, it denied everyone the chance.  Not just you.”

“I need to be stronger,” I said.  “I’m supposed to be one of the people that’s around for this prophesied end of the world.  Except I’m not getting chances here.”

“Can you talk to your superiors?  To Revel?”

“I’ve hinted at it, that I could stand to sidekick around on patrols.  Nobody’s taken the deal.  Not with me.  They took Golem, but the adult capes like him, because he’s polite to a fault, works his ass off, and his power is good.  I’m good, but I wind up being a partner more than a sidekick.”

“You’ve been training with Golem.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re due some of the credit for his forward strides, I’m sure.”

“I’m not-” I started, then I made myself stop.  Too much emotion in my voice.  Calmer, I said, “I’m not looking for reassurance, or for compliments.  I’m just…”

I struggled for a way to end the sentence.

“Let’s use the ‘I feel because’ line.  Frame your emotions better.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “I feel spooked, because something’s coming and it’s going to be ugly, and I’m not prepared.  I feel less prepared with every day where nothing happens.”

“I imagine your teammates feel spooked too.  You’ve mentioned what they’re going through.  Golem is likely going to be baited out by Jack Slash at some point in the future.  Cuff has limited dexterity with her right hand, to the point that she’s having to relearn to write and type.  I’m not discussing anything confidential, to be clear; only what you’ve mentioned to me in our previous sessions.”

I nodded.

“Golem has your support, I know.  They all do, in some respect.  In terms of what Cuff is going through, I know your team is dividing the workload in helping her with paperwork.  That says a lot.”

“Supporting each other.”

“It sounds trite, but I think there’s a truth in it.  You have legitimate fears about what comes down the road.  But keep in mind that you’re not alone in this.  Maybe you’ve hit a ceiling for the time being, in your own growth and development.  But you can still progress, if you’re helping your teammates, assisting them in conquering their demons and improving their abilities.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It doesn’t feel like enough.”

“It may not be, but it’s constructive.  Perhaps you’ll feel less disarmed if you focus on the tools and, so to speak, the weapons at your disposal.”

“Maybe,” I answered her.  “But I hate feeling helpless.”

“Part of the reason you feel that way is because you’re waiting for opportunities to come to you.  You waited for the Endbringer, so you could flex your talents in unimaginably high stress environments.  It’s good, I think, that you waited, that you had a moment to breathe.  I think you should strive to retain that peace, because it may help you enter a better headspace.”

It was similar advice to the parting words Glenn had left me with, but they opposed on one front.  Mrs. Yamada would have been happier in general if I maintained this indefinitely.  Glenn would be wanting to see me acting.

It was time to act, whatever Mrs. Yamada said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You feel a little better?”

“Not really,” I admitted.  “I’m not even sure I understand all my feelings.  But I feel like I’ve got more of a plan, now.  I appreciate it.”

“It’s what I’m here for.  Or at least, I’m here for one more hour, and then I fly back to Boston.  I’ll be around next Friday, after I finish another circuit.”

“Cool,” I said.  “I’m glad you were here today.”

“I am too,” she answered.

When I stood from my chair, she did too.  She stepped forward and gave me a hug.

I wasn’t sure how normal that was, but I’d remarked once on how few hugs I got, and how some hugs I’d given or received in the past had been meaningful moments for me, and she’d asked if I wanted one from her.

Somewhere along the line, t had become something of a habit, as we ended our sessions.  I gave her a little smile as we parted.

I made my way back to the common area, and seated myself at the computer.  The others were still following what was happening on the larger monitors.  The defending heroes had frozen the plane’s half-submerged wreckage and they were preparing quarantine measures.

Whatever the reason for this particular attack, I doubted it would be clear anytime soon.

Instead, I seated myself at the computer, and logged myself in.  The timers ticked away.

Once I’d updated the timer for the recent attack, it read:

C/D: Endbringer
149:22:59:59

C/D: End of World
579:07:14:53

Inching down steadily.

Mrs. Yamada had been right, I mused, as I found the files on the local kingpins and warlords.  I was doing myself a disservice by waiting for opportunity to come to me.  If I was going to do as Glenn had suggested, and make a calculated play, I needed to act, rather than hope for another chance like we’d had in New Delhi.

Looking at the others, I wondered if it was best to manipulate them or get them on board.  Manipulation was almost kinder, because it absolved them of guilt.  Simply making sure we were in the right place at the right time, luring a local power into a fight, with  a plan already in mind…

No.

Chevalier’s Protectorate, ups and downs aside, was more about honesty.  I wanted to tap into Skitter’s strengths, her ruthlessness, but I also wanted to be a hero.  That was at the core of what I had achieved in New Delhi.

“Tecton,” I called out, as my eyes fell on a portrait of a supervillain with a mask of an upside-down face.  An established power, located at the city’s edge for nearly ten years.

Too established?  I didn’t want to set another ABB fiasco in motion.  There were advantages to being open.  The ability to ask questions, get feedback.

“What is it?” he asked.

“There’s something I want to talk to you about.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Scarab 25.1

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“This is exactly what I was talking about.  She’s a dangerous influence.”

“She’s a sixteen year old girl with strong opinions, Wilkins,” Armstrong answered.  “Nothing more.  She holds onto those opinions and her core worldview, and vulnerable people get caught up in her momentum.  Cult leaders will do the same thing, only it’s purposeful in their case.  Get people tired, get people worn out, scared and hungry, and then give them someone with presence to give them support.”

“You’re saying she’s an accidental cult leader?”

“She’s in a position where it’s very easy to sway others.  A lot of the parahumans out there fit the criteria I’m talking about,” Armstrong said.  He glanced at Glenn, who looked distinctly unhappy.  “So, apparently, does our staff.”

“I think you’re off target,” I said.  “You’re talking about Foil, I get it, and Parian, and now the Chicago Wards and Glenn.  But all of the decisions they made were when I wasn’t anywhere near them.  Unless you’re implying I have some sort of mind control.”

“No,” Armstrong told me.  He didn’t fit his name; he looked more like my dad than anyone, though he had a peculiarly prominent jaw and a forehead that made it look like he was perpetually glaring.  “It doesn’t matter if they’re near you.  The message and the idea stays with them even after they leave your presence.”

“Tecton just wanted someone to call the shots, to replace Raymancer,” I said.  He was defending me, but it wasn’t helping.

“We saw the video,” Director Wilkins said.  “We know what he said.  I think it’s best if you stop talking.”

I bit my lip and turned my eyes to the table.

“Well,” Glenn said.  “What’s done is done.  Can I suggest that perhaps, because it’s been a long day, we should retire?  All of us will still be here in the morning.”

“It sounds like a good idea,” Armstrong said.  One or two heads around the table nodded.

“We’re going to handle this tonight,” Wilkins said.

“While the girl’s so tired she could fall asleep sitting up,” Glenn observed.  “Or is it that you want to resolve this while Chevalier is in the hospital?”

“Chevalier doesn’t matter,” Wilkins said.  “This is PRT business.”

“I agree.  His input would be appreciated, if he was in a state to give it, but it’s ultimately not his decision,” the Washington director said.  He reminded me of Piggot, but he wasn’t fat.    Heavy, but not fat like she’d been.  It was more the way he held himself, his tone and approach.  His graying hair was cropped close, and he had a combination of paler skin and dark circles under his eyes that made me think of a corpse.  Director West.

“We lose nothing by waiting,” Glenn said, calm, unflappable.  I’d seen that confidence before, in people who’d had nothing to lose.  I’d had that confidence before.

“We lose time.  If we’re going to respond to the press and the public, we need to act sooner than later.”

“My concern…” a woman said, drawing out the thought, “Is that her actions go against the spirit of the PRT and the groups under the PRT’s umbrella.  Conspiring with a known terrorist, betraying the truce, even, for a subtle advantage in dealing with that terrorist, returning to her old team against all terms of her probation, rejecting orders, and taking reckless risks with PRT personnel, getting two injured.  A longstanding goal of the PRT has been to reassure the public, and this only paints heroes as something dangerous.”

I already didn’t like her.  I wasn’t even sure what city she was from.

“That doesn’t even include the fact that this leak shows capes going all out.  When the joy at the victory wears off, people are going to look at the footage and wonder if they’re in danger,” West said.

We won, I thought.  We beat him, and you’re quibbling over details.

Why were they doing this?  Why were they so intent on railroading me?  Screwing me over?

These guys, or some of them, were the old guard.  Defenders of the status quo.  Tagg would have fit into this little cadre.

Maybe that was part of the reason.

“-Birdcage.”

The word hung in the air.

I snapped to attention, fully awake in an instant.  I had to take a second to look at the faces of the people around the table before I realized who’d said it.  Armstrong, the man who’d been my advocate an instant ago.

“A little extreme,” West said.

“The next few fights are going to be crucial.  Every time the Endbringers come, there are major losses.  We lose good capes.  Others step in, but they don’t have the experience or the organization, so we lose more.  New Delhi was very nearly the culmination of that.”

“We won New Delhi.”

We lost.  Scion won,” Armstrong responded.  “Participation will be up for the next fight.  Let’s use that.  We bolster the numbers further, by tapping the Birdcage.  There are powerful capes in there, and some are cooperative.”

Oh.  They aren’t talking about me.

“And if they start wreaking havoc afterward?  Or turn on us?”

“We can be select about it.  Dragon’s willing to give us a searchable database of all of the conversation and behavior records within the Birdcage.”

I raised my head at that.  “Dragon’s alive?”

“She got in contact with us a short while ago.”

I nodded.  I felt a little dazed, confused.  Too much in a short time.  I was reaching the point where I wasn’t sure I’d be able to take it all in.

“It’s not worth it,” West said.

“A moderate risk for a chance to save hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives,” Armstrong said.

“How many lives do we lose because of the monsters we set free?”  West retorted.  “Those criminals were put there for a reason.”

“At first,” Armstrong said.  “But the rationale for indefinite detention has been getting weaker, and the number of capes going in has been increasing.  I-”

“It’s not going to happen, Armstrong,” West cut him off.

Armstrong deflated a little, settling back in his chair.

“The media is already reaching out to us to ask for interviews with Weaver,” one of the other Directors said.  “They love her or hate her, but this won’t die down anytime soon.”

“Primacy effect,” West said, frowning.  “That video is going to be the first thing people will think about when they think about people in the field during an Endbringer attack.”

“So we drown it,” the woman from before said.  “Release the footage we held back, footage with a more favorable effect on us.  Weaver gets lost in the shuffle, and we quietly address the unbecoming conduct.”

We won, you bastards.  I clenched my fists beneath the table.

“Address how?”

“It’s a violation of her probationary membership.  She’s off the team for the time being, if not permanently.  She fulfills the remainder of her sentence, then remains in our custody as a consult.  ”

I noticed that my bugs were acting of their own volition, treating this as a crisis scenario.  They were massing, and they were winding silk threads around the PRT uniforms that guarded the room, around the containment foam sprayers and guns that they held.

I’d missed the Undersiders, hated that I wasn’t there with them as they said goodbye to Regent.  Part of the reason I’d become a hero had been to reconnect with my dad, but the gap seemed too wide.  I’d killed, and he’d seen me kill.  He was afraid of me.

It would be easy to disable the PRT uniforms, attack the directors and simply make my way to Brockton Bay.  I could patch things up with Grue, help Rachel, ensure that Imp didn’t go to a dark place.

But it wouldn’t get me anywhere.

He wanted to play hardball?  I’d play hard in return.  I turned my attention to my swarm for a moment.

“I think you’re underestimating how badly the public would react if Weaver was punished,” Glenn said.

“We’re facing a lose-lose situation, Mr. Chambers,” Chief Director West said.  “We cut our losses, take a hit in PR, but we can continue operating as we need to.  So long as it’s quiet, she goes to prison and doesn’t go out on another big excursion, I don’t think anyone’s about to make a big deal of it.”

…make a big deal of it.  I turned the words around in my head.  Manipulating the media, manipulating the local capes.  Damn.  I’d had high hopes for Chevalier’s new Protectorate, but it didn’t seem to extend to the PRT.

“We can deflect,” the woman from before said.  “Raise another issue, change the focus of the public.”

“Not so easy,” Glenn said.  “It’s been done too often in the past.  They’re watching for it, even anticipating it.”

“But the majority won’t be,” she responded.  She turned to Director West.  “The alert, educated minority will complain, but they won’t achieve anything meaningful.  They never do.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Director West said.  “It’s not pretty, but it’ll suffice.”

Why?” I asked.  “You can’t deny I helped.  I didn’t deliver a serious blow, but I helped to coordinate, I had ideas, I used them.”

“There’s other smart capes out there,” a man said.  He didn’t give me the impression of a PRT director.  Another staff member?

“I did a lot of good, and you’re railroading me.  Is it because you’re losing control of things and I make an easy target?  Because you’re afraid of me?”

“Because you’re consistently unpredictable.  Unreliable.  We set rules and you break them,” West told me.

“Rules don’t generally apply during an Endbringer attack,” I said.  “The only thing that matters is taking the motherfucker down.  We did.”

“I’m inclined to agree,” Armstrong said.  “This is going a step too far.  She did well.”

A few heads nodded around the table, but they didn’t have the majority, and they didn’t have the clout that Chief Director West did.  Glenn had spoken of a fifty-fifty split in the reactions, and he was more or less on target.  But the power held by the people who were standing up for me was nothing compared to the clout the others had.

“This is beyond the Endbringer attack.  It’s overall conduct,” the woman at the far end of the table said.

“When? Can you name incidents?  Beyond the Endbringer attack?”  I challenged her.

“Spiders in the less traveled areas of the prison,” West told me.

Spiders in the prison.  Shit.

I felt myself deflate a little, but I managed to keep my face straight.  “If there are any, they’re eggs that recently hatched.”

“And the costume?  A weave of silk cloth hidden out of sight.”

Damn.

“That predated my discussion with the Warden,” I lied.  “I got rid of the spiders, moved on.”

“You could have reported it.”

“That an abandoned time-killing project was stuck in behind some pipes?  Why?”

“Because this happens.  There’s no reason to believe you.”

I clenched my fists.

“You’re dangerous, Taylor Hebert.  Unpredictable.  You’re deceptive, clever enough to come up with tricks, but not clever enough to stick to the straight and narrow from the beginning.  Armstrong said it himself.  You’re good at manipulating people.”

…Manipulating people, I thought.  Not as good as I wanted to be.

Armstrong spoke up, “You’re twisting my words, West.  I said she was well situated for interacting with vulnerable people, and stalwart enough in her own worldview that others can get swept up in her flow.”

“Regardless.  Ms. Hebert was right about one thing.  It’s late.  It’s been an emotionally exhausting day.”

“Physically exhausting too,” I said, not taking my eyes off the Chief Director.  “You know, running around, fighting Behemoth while you guys sit in your-”

Glenn shifted one leg under the table, pressing it against mine.  A nudge, not overt.

I stopped.

My power crackled at the edge of my attention.  My bugs were moving again, without any direct instructions from me.  I reined them in, and then distributed them through the building.  Was there someone I could contact?  Something I could communicate to the right person, to change what was happening here?

West ignored my comment, turning his attention to Glenn.  “Mr. Chambers, you’re relieved of duty.  You likely knew this already.”

“I understand,” Glenn said.

“We’ll discuss on our own whether we need to press charges.”

…Press charges.  Bastards.

“Okay,” Glenn said.

West met my eyes.  “Taylor Hebert, you violated the terms of your probation.  You’ll return to Gardener tonight, and you’ll carry out the rest of your sentence.  Your test run with the Wards teams is over.  Offer rescinded.  Provided you do not talk to the media, we stop there.  We’ll talk to you when you turn eighteen, to see about plans for the future.”

“This is a mistake,” Glenn said.  “Chevalier had a number of plans, and you’re unraveling them.”

“Naturally, Mr. Chambers.  We’re aware of the thrust of those plans.  Recruiting villains.  A darker, edgier Protectorate.  Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be.  But with the administration, the underlying framework that makes his teams possible, we have to maintain a balance, keep the public and the President happy.  He won’t have our assistance.”

…He won’t have our assistance, I thought.

I heard the words, and my bugs spoke them.  Every bug, within the building, repeated him, verbatim.  The good, the bad, the details that damned me.  It wasn’t a question of finding the right person, or saying the right thing.  It was everyone, saying everything.

In that manner, my bugs repeated it to staff members, to the Chicago Wards, and to the Protectorate members who’d accompanied their Directors here.  It was too late for reporters to be around, but I didn’t deny the possibility.

Tens of thousands of bugs speaking words at a sound barely above a whisper, louder in places where more people congregated.

Dispatch and Exalt were the first to make their way to our floor.  They entered the room without knocking.

I met Dispatch’s eyes.  Not the rescuer I’d hoped for.  We’d worked together, but he’d disliked me from the outset.

“Dispatch?”  West asked.

Dispatch didn’t reply right away.  He glared, and it wasn’t at me.  It was at the Director.

“We’ve been listening,” Exalt said.

Listening?”

“You’ve been bugged,” Dispatch said.  “Only the bugs are the ones outside.  They’ve been talking.  Reciting.”

I could see Chief Director West’s eyes narrow as he looked at me.  He would be replaying the conversation in his head, trying to figure out if he had said anything damning.

“No guarantee she’s telling the truth,” West said.

“Provided he keeps to the rules, we’re willing to let that be,” Dispatch said.  “Spiders in the back areas of the prison.”

“Yes,” Director Armstrong said.  “That’s accurate.  I can’t speak to particulars or the little details, though.”

“I repeated everything verbatim,” I confirmed.

“The goings-on of this meeting are confidential,” Director West said.

“Nobody told me that,” I answered.  “It doesn’t matter.  I violated my probation anyways, apparently.”

“Anything goes against Endbringers,” Tecton said, from the hallway.  He’d just arrived with Grace and Annex beside him.  “We wouldn’t have done half as well if it wasn’t for her.”

“Tell that to Kismet,” one of West’s flunkies commented.  “Or Particulate.  You don’t really want her on your team.  Not when she’s going to stab you in the back for a better margin of victory.”

“I do,” Tecton said.  “All of us do.  We watched the video together.  We talked about it.  Kismet made a mistake.  As far as Particulate, we looked him up.  He’s reckless, dangerous.  Not the best way she could have handled it, but it worked.”

West didn’t take his eyes off me.  “Even if we ignored everything else, this kind of behavior, it’s-”

“It’s exactly what Chevalier wanted,” I said.  My eyes dropped to the table.  I didn’t meet his gaze, didn’t try to engage the visitors.  “Open, honest.  Exposing the rot at the center.”

“You’re saying you’re not rotten,” the woman at the end of the table said, almost mocking.

“Maybe I am,” I told her.  “I’m not all good, not all bad.  I’m just… getting by.  Doing what I can, not holding back against enemies who don’t deserve it.  And under Chevalier’s system, Glenn’s system, I guess I’m revealing all of that stuff we usually keep hidden, and it’s up to others to make the call whether they can roll with it or not.  Up to the public, my potential teammates.”

“Honestly,” Tecton said, “If you’re going to lock her up after all this, you can consider me done.  You’re going to undermine Chevalier, when what he’s doing worked?  I’m gone.”

Here and there, there were murmurs of agreement.

There was a very long pause.

“Weaver,” Director West said.

I met his eyes again.  I could see the hate.

“You’ll make your way to Chicago at the end of the week, and provided everything goes well, you will be a member of the team.  If you’re wise, you won’t take interviews, and you won’t take any action that draws attention to you.”

I drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

“You’ll wear a tracking device at all times, and any time you leave the defined area within the Chicago headquarters, you’ll have an escort, a longstanding member of the team in your company at all times.”

“Okay,” I said.

“See to it that you follow these rules.  You’ve got the backing of the heroes here, maybe you’ve got the public’s favor, but we will remove you if you give us an excuse.”

“I understand,” I said, suddenly very weary.

Beside me, Glenn stood from his chair.  I took his cue.

The PRT uniforms stepped out of the doorway, where they’d been barring the small crowd access.  We made our exit, joining the Wards and PRT staff members.

“Weaver,” the Chief Director called out.

I turned around.

“You didn’t make any allies in this room today.”

“I think you were my enemies before we even met,” I said.  “You’d never have given me the chance to be your ally.”

“You’re wrong.”

I shrugged, then turned to walk away.

Tecton gave me a nod as I approached.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Not a problem,” he said.  “You kept us alive, I figure we owe you one.”

“I don’t think you owe me much, but I’m not complaining,” I said.

“We should go.  We were in the middle of something.  See you soon, I hope?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

When they’d broken away, it was Glenn and I, together.

“That was foolish,” Glenn commented.

“They wouldn’t have given us any slack.  Nothing we could have said or done would have changed the outcome, unless we attacked from a different angle.”

“There’s a habit some people have,” Glenn said, “Where they divide people into enemies and allies.  It’s in your records, as a matter of fact, your propensity to define people as enemies and act without mercy, while being gentle and kind to your friends.  The Chief Director is another person who is very similar.  Pairings you two together, you could have been great allies or great enemies, but there’s not much middle ground.  It’s a shame you have a powerful enemy, now.”

“I still don’t see how we would have been friends.”

“I don’t think you would have been.  But humiliating an enemy is a dangerous thing.  Doing it again would be terminal.  You’ll need to be clever about your approach from here on out, so you aren’t threatening them to the same degree.”

“I’m too tired to strategize any more, Glenn.”

Think.  What’s motivating the Directors?  First thought that comes to your mind.”

“Fear.”

“Of?” he asked, without a heartbeat of hesitation.

“Me?”

He shook his head.  “More specific.  If they don’t act now, what happens in the long run?”

“They can’t control me.”

“People would recognize it, that the PRT didn’t have the ability to control all of its heroes.  Some would act on it.  It would be devastating, damaging on a fundamental level.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted?” I asked.  “Your ‘harbinger’?”

“It is.  Can you guess what I’m going to suggest, now?”

“You want me to make a move.  Powerful enough to shake them, break the status quo, not powerful or blatant enough to break my probation or give them an excuse to drop the book on me.”

“You’ll be with the Wards by the week’s end, if someone doesn’t trip you up.  Do you think you can manage it?  A big success?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“The moment you drop out of the public eye, you become vulnerable.  You’ve got a reprieve, but when you do act, you’re going to need to act big.  And you can’t stop once that’s happened.  Once you act, you’ll be giving them an opening, and you have to keep moving after that.  Understand?”

“Yeah.”

“Keep the ramifications and the scale of your actions in mind at all times.  Use that strategic brain of yours.  Above all, be patient.”

“Now hearing case two-seven-two-four, Weaver.”

I stood.  “I’m here.”

“For the matter of committee record, would you affirm that your full name and identity are a matter of public record, and that the committee is free to use it?”

“I will.”

“Will you state your name for the record?”

“Taylor Hebert.”

“Your date of birth?”

“June nineteenth, 1995.”

“You are a minor.”

“Yes.”

“Will you testify that you were not coerced into this arrangement?”

“I’m here of my own free will.”

“You were not offered any bribes or incentives that are not already a matter of record?”

“To the best of my knowledge, it’s all been aboveboard.”

“As a minor, we ask that you have a guardian or respected professional to help guide you through the process, and to help verify what you’re testifying.”

Before I could speak, I heard someone’s chair scraping against the floor somewhere behind me.  Standing up.  “Her father.”

I felt my heart leap.  I hadn’t seen him when I’d peeked through the crowd behind me, but I hadn’t been using my bugs either.  No use disturbing anyone.  I kept my eyes fixed in front of me.

“Would you please approach?”

I could hear him walk, but didn’t turn to look.  Fuck, I was still hurt, still angry, even in the moment I was filled with relief.  He came to stand next to me, and my hand found his.  I squeezed, hard, and he squeezed back.

He was here now, at least.  Not while I was in prison, not when I’d started my forays into the Wards.  But he was here now.

“Your name?”

“Danny Hebert.”

“State again for the committee record, your relation to her?”

“I’m her father.”

“You’re aware of her standing in regards to the law?”

“I am.”

“And you’ve read the documents detailing her probationary status within the Wards?  Document two-seven-two-four-A?”

“I have.”

“You’ve read the statement and accompanying paperwork provided by Taylor Hebert, AKA ‘Weaver’, document two-seven-two-four-B?”

“I have.”

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

“Yes.”

I watched as the committee members paged through the documents in front of them.

My heart was pounding, and it wasn’t just my dad’s impromptu arrival.  This was it.  The moment my future hinged on.

I’d made enemies in the upper echelons of the PRT.  The question was whether they’d pull a maneuver, do something sneaky to undermine me or screw up the case to leave me stranded without anyplace to go but jail.

“I believe each of us have reviewed the files?” the man at the center of the table finally spoke, looking to the others for confirmation.  “Case two-seven-two-four has met the requirements for probationary admittance to the Wards.  She is to follow the stipulations as outlined in document two-seven-two-four-A.  Failure to comply will result in a return to medium security detention for a span of one and a half years or until such a time as she turns eighteen, whichever is longer.  Further, failing to meet the terms for probation will result in a forfeiture of any earnings or rights granted her by the PRT, which will be held in trust until such a time as she reaches the age of majority.  Do you understand these terms?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Yes,” my dad said.

“With that, you are now a probationary member of the Wards, until such a time as you turn eighteen or violate the terms of your probationary membership.  Congratulations, Taylor Hebert.”

There were cheers from the sidelines.  Tecton and his group were among them.

“Next case,” the committee members said.

My dad and I retreated into the aisle.  We made eye contact for what felt like the first time in an age.

“Thank you for coming.”

“I wasn’t necessary.  You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have someone else lined up.”

“It matters, dad.  More than you know.  Thank you.”

“Is this fixable?  Us?”

I frowned.

“What?” he asked.  He opened the door so we could step out of the committee room and into the hallways of the PRT office.

“I’ve kind of come to hate that word.  ‘Fix’,” I said.

“You don’t think-“

“I don’t,” I interrupted him.  “We can’t fix ‘us’, society can’t be fixed.  It’s impossible.”

He frowned.  “I don’t think it is.”

“Things change.  Destroy them, rebuild them, you’re just causing change.  Can’t we… isn’t it okay if we don’t try to go back to the way things were?”

“You don’t want to be a family?” he asked.

“I do.  But… we tried to go back, after the city started to rebuild.  It didn’t feel right.  It was nice, but we were playing roles, and there was more stuff unsaid than said.  Lies, unasked questions.  Kind of unhappy at the root of it, you know?”

“I know.”

We found an empty bench and sat down.  I could see the Chicago Wards stepping out into the hallway, but they kept their distance.  Revel made her way out the door a few seconds later, and started talking to them as a group, at the opposite end of the hall.

“You’re so far away,” he said.  “Doing things I can’t even imagine, facing serious danger, even on a more mundane level, the way you’re going to be living at the headquarters.  It’s a fourteen hour drive.”

“Can’t we visit, though?”  I asked.  “Send emails every day, videochat?

“We can.  I’ll come see you at the headquarters before I leave for home, see how you’re getting by.  Maybe, if you need me to, I can pick up some essentials.  Things you wouldn’t want to ask them for, or things they wouldn’t know your preferences on.”

I wondered momentarily if my dad even know what my preferences were, nowadays.  I didn’t voice those thoughts.  At the same time, I meant what I said as I told him, “That sounds amazing.  Yes. Please.”

He smiled, but the expression faltered as he glanced a little to one side.  “I think your team wants to talk to you.”

I nodded.  “Talk to you in a bit?”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow,” I replied, standing from the bench.  The Wards had turned to face me.

When I approached Revel and Tecton and the others, I cast a glance back.  My dad was still sitting on the bench.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward.  It had to count for something.

“This space was for vehicles, but Stardust graduated three years ago, died a year after joining the Protectorate.  We’ve been using it for storing paperwork, and your moving in was a good excuse to get some things sorted out.  Your workshop.”

I nodded, doing my best to maintain eye contact.  Campanile was about eight feet tall.  I’d been given a complete physical and fitness test right off the bat, and I was five feet and nine inches tall.

The height difference put my eye level just a couple of feet above Campanile’s hip level.  He wore a skintight suit, and there was little left to the imagination.  I thought I might have seen a ridge or a vein, in that split-second I’d glanced down to make sure my eyes weren’t fooling me.

If I were more well adjusted, I would have been embarrassed, even offended.  Instead, I almost wanted to laugh.  Neither would have done well in terms of first impressions.

Focus on your bugs, I told myself.  Look interested.

“Talk to Tecton before you grab anything from the build room.  That’s where we keep all the panels, portable walls and furniture for customizing our spaces.  Tools and everything would be down there too, but it’s easiest to let Tecton keep it all in his workshop.  He’s our only tinker, and it’s not any harder to ask him for something than it is to go all the way to the basement.”

“Got it.”

“You’re distributing this stuff to other groups, right?  The silk?”

“After I’m done outfitting my team, and you guys, our Protectorate.”

I’ll give Campanile thicker fabric below the waist, maybe, I thought.

“Well, there’s a budget, so negotiate with Tecton on that front.  We all use the account, but the rest of us usually just dip into it to replace broken pads or lenses, stuff like that.  Tecton pays for materials, which is usually enough to empty the budget, but he makes and maintains knick-knacks and tools that he rents out to other groups.  Earns a bit of money to make up for taking an unfair share.”

“Got it.  I can do the same?  Selling the silk?”

“Yeah.  Might be easier, since your stuff can be mass-produced.”

I stared out at the workshop, glad for the excuse to look away.  Did he know how tightly the costume was clinging to him below the waist?

“It’s good,” I commented on the workshop.  Better than the one in my old lair.

“Your bedroom isn’t with the others at the hub, since there’s not a lot of privacy there, and people are always coming and going.  It’s more a place to kick back and nap if you’ve had a long patrol, keep some books and magazines, maybe some games.  You do have a nook, though.”

I nodded.  Maintain eye contact.

“You’re just down the hall.  Here.”

I checked out the bedroom.  It was better than my cell, but plain.  The fact that I could come and go when I pleased was a plus, even if I was confined to the building when I didn’t have an escort.

“I can buy stuff to make it my own, right?”

“Yeah.  But you should know that they’ve got cleaners to do the PRT supplied laundry, sheets pillows, towels, the generic skintight suits.  You’ll have to do your own laundry, and that includes any sheets you buy or whatever.”

“Got it,” I said.  I very nearly glanced down to make sure the protrusion in his skintight outfit was still there, stopped myself.  Even in my peripheral vision, it stood out.  Seriously, that thing’s as long as my forearm.

“Computer’s here.  PRT issue laptop.  Take some time, remove the crap.  If you don’t know how, or if you’re not sure what’s dead weight on the system, ask Tecton.  Username is your codename, password to start with is your birthday.  Month-day-year, followed by your middle name.  Once you type that in, it’ll set everything up automatically and prompt you for a new password.”

“Okay.”

“You’ve got a small bathroom just down here,” he pointed down a short hallway, “No shower, sorry.  There’s one in the main area, not a lot of privacy, but you’ll figure out the patrol schedules, and figure out when you can go shower without a chance of being bothered, if you’re shy.”

Shy.  I very nearly cracked a smile at that.  He was the one who should be bashful, but he just radiated confidence, instead.

“I’ll manage.”

“Let’s see… there’s the phone and earpiece, they’ll get that to you soon.  Identification, the same.  Can you think of anything you need?”

“A few million Darwin’s bark spiders,” I said.  “I could do with even just a hundred, but it’d mean a slow start.”

He didn’t even flinch.  “We can probably arrange it.”

“Black widows would work too.  Easier to find, but not nearly as good.  Maybe just need an escort so I can go out for walks.”

“We could arrange that.  I’m going out in an hour, meeting some kids at the hospital.  If you don’t mind the detour, we could swing by a park or something.”

I tried not to imagine him in the pediatric’s wing of a hospital.  You’d need to change.  Or wrap something around your waist.

I didn’t voice my thoughts.

“The hub is right down here, bottom of the stairs.  Command center, nook-slash-temporary bedrooms, spare costumes, televisions and everything else.”

Tecton, Wanton and Annex were at the bottom of the stairs.  Grace, Golem and Cuff were sitting at the computer bank against the one wall, but they were watching.  Grace had a wicked smile on her face.

I realized why.  The bastards.  They were pulling the same trick Campanile had, stuffing something in the front of their costumes.  Tecton, for his part, wore a mechanical suit, so he’d simply bulked out the crotch portion of his armor with additional armor plating.  Obvious, not even trying to hide what they were doing.  Wanton gave me a cheeky smile as I made eye contact with him.

For my part, I managed to keep my expression straight.

Over the course of seconds, Annex seemed to get more and more uncomfortable.  I made eye contact and maintained it as he squirmed.

“She’s not reacting, and I’m feeling really, really dumb,” he said.

“Aw, Annex, c’mon,” Wanton groaned.  “She would’ve cracked up.”

Grace was laughing, now.  Cuff, by contrast, wasn’t moving her eyes from the computer screen.  She was probably the ideal target for this kind of prank.

“Don’t sue me for sexual harassment,” Annex told me.

I smiled a little.  “I’m not going to sue.  I’ve been around people who did worse.”

“It seemed funnier when we were talking about it before,” Tecton said.  “It’s… kind of awkward, right now.”

“It is funny,” I said, smiling, “You guys did get me, I was so busy trying not to stare at Campanile that I barely heard what he was saying about the tour.”

There were a few chuckles.

“I was thinking it was a bad idea,” Golem said, “With your background, that you might not like being picked on.  They gave me one, but I thought it was a bad idea to test you.”

“It was a terrible idea,” Tecton said.  “Juvenile.  But sometimes you need a cheap laugh.”

“They’re embarrassing themselves worse than they’re embarrassing me,” I told Golem.  “I’m okay with it.  I’m glad to have an initiation into the group.  Could have been far worse.”

“Alright guys, joke’s over,” Tecton said.  He unclasped and removed the metal codpiece from his armor.  “She’s right.  We’re just embarrassing ourselves now.  Get rid of the damn things.  And I don’t want to see them lying around anywhere.”

“I could keep it this way,” Wanton joked.

“No you couldn’t,” Tecton said.  “You’ll forget about it, switch to your other form without absorbing it and wind up bashing someone unconscious with a foot-long silicon club.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Campanile, and saw him standing by the trashcan, no longer endowed.  He didn’t look quite so ludicrous now.  Freakishly tall, yes.  Not freakishly long, so to speak.

“Sorry,” he said.

I shrugged.  “I figure I’ve got blackmail material now.  Just need to get my hands on the security camera footage.”

He smiled and shook his head.  “Welcome.  Be good.”

“I don’t think these guys are setting the bar that high on the ‘good’ scale,” I told him.

He clapped one hand on my shoulder, then turned around to go up the stairs, leaving.

Annex had fled, but Wanton was taking his time in leaving, with Tecton giving him the occasional push to get him to walk faster.  Over by the computer bank, Grace and Golem were wrestling with something.

“Do it,” I heard her.

“No way, no way,” Golem responded

“Do it.  Just a little.”

She said something else I didn’t make out.  It didn’t go much further before Golem gave in.

Wanton doubled over mid-stride, falling to the ground.  Once he realized what had happened, he started thrashing in his effort to get the offending object out of his pants.  I had to avert my gaze before he inadvertently flashed me.

“Geez, guys,” Tecton groaned, “Too far.”

Golem rushed over, apologizing, while Wanton cursed at him, throwing the lump of plastic at his teammate.  Grace had fallen out of her chair laughing, and Cuff had done the opposite, putting her unburned arm on the desk and burying her face in the crook of it.

In the midst of the chaos, I made my way over to the computer bank and leaned over the keyboard, typing in the username and password I’d been given.  The desktop was up and running in heartbeats.  Access to nice computers was apparently a perk of being a hero.

I dug around for the files on the local powers, and began studying.  I tried, anyways.  Grace’s continued laughter was so infectious and unashamed I couldn’t help but join in.

My new home, for better or worse.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Interlude 24 (Donation Bonus #1)

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“Well bandaged.  They did a good job,” the doctor had to raise her voice to be heard over the helicopter’s rotors.  She was older, blond to the point that it was hard to distinguish if her hair was still blond or graying, her expression creased in concern.

Wanton nodded mutely.

“What happened?” the doctor asked him.

“Falling debris,” Tecton offered, from the other side of the helicopter.

The doctor nodded.  “We’ll leave it as it is.  The pain’s okay?”

“Meds help,” Wanton said.  “Feel like I’m almost dreaming.  And I’m going to wake up, and none of this will have happened.”

“It happened,” Tecton said.

“Why isn’t everyone cheering and hollering anymore?”

“Really fucking tired,” Grace said.  She was beside Cuff, who’d been stripped of her armor from the waist up, with only a thin covering of near-liquid metal on her upper body for modesty’s sake.  A nurse was attending to her arm.

“Really tired,” Golem said.  “Oh my god.  My entire body hurts, and I didn’t even take a direct hit.”

“The roars and shockwaves might have done internal damage,” the doctor said.  “You’ll each need a CT scan and MRI.  Let me know if there’s any acute pain.”

“I think it’s more that I’ve never exercised this much in my life,” Golem said.

“You’ll hurt worse tomorrow,” Grace commented.

“Damn.”

The doctor, for her part, turned her attention to Wanton.  “We’ll need to double-check for bone fragments when we get back to the hospital.  You’ll need surgery.  Chances are good this was a rush job.”

“I… my arm,” Wanton said, lamely.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor responded.

“No, it’s like… I should feel worse, but I don’t.  Maybe it’s the drugs, but I feel this rush, like I’ve never been so glad to be alive.  I’m pumped.”

“You may be in shock,” the doctor observed.

“We’re all in shock,” Tecton said.

There were murmurs of agreement across the helicopter.

“Is anyone else a little freaked out?” Cuff asked.

“Freaked out?” the doctor asked.

Cuff shook her head, not responding.  Her attention had shifted to her arm, as the doctor bound it.

Tecton ventured a reply instead.  “I think I understand what Cuff means.  It’s hard to believe he’s gone.  It’s like, you’re five years old, and Leviathan appears for the first time, and your parents have to explain that a bunch of people died, and it’s because of these monsters and yet nobody has figured out why.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said.  “What happens next?  Leviathan or the Simurgh?  We kill them?  Stop them from blowing up or doing their version of blowing up?  I can’t really imagine that we’d beat them, give our all and hope that Scion shows up and fights like that again, kill them, and then have everything be okay.”

“You just got powers, barely a month ago, and you’re already this grim?” Wanton asked.

“I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of the Endbringer attacks for a while,” Cuff said.  Her eyes were on the floor, and an expression of pain crossed her face as the doctor cut away a tag of burned skin on her shoulder.  The scar was like a snowflake carved into the skin’s surface, angry and red.  Her arm seemed to tremble involuntarily.

“It’s okay to worry,” Tecton said.  He gestured towards Weaver.  “Weaver said as much.  They’ve got a nasty habit of escalating, in the fights themselves and in the grand scheme of things.  Behemoth got too predictable, so Leviathan started to show up.  We started to coordinate defenses, get the world on board to deal with them, Simurgh comes.”

“And now we killed one, so how do they escalate from there?” Grace asked.

“It’s a concern,” Tecton said, “And it’s one that people all around the world are going to be discussing.  Rely on them.  Don’t take the full weight of the world onto your shoulders.  We fought, you guys made a good show of it,” Tecton said.

“I could’ve done more,” Cuff said.

“You’re new.  Inexperienced, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.  As far as jumping in with both feet first, you guys managed it.  You, Golem, Annex, you stood up there, shoulder to shoulder with veteran heroes, and you fought, even though you’re rookies.  You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, okay?”

Cuff didn’t reply.

“Okay?” Tecton asked.

“When my family got killed in Hawaii, I made promises to myself.  It’s why I came.  I don’t feel like I did enough, to fulfill my own end of those promises.”

“There’s always next time,” Tecton said.

“You say that like it’s a good thing,” Wanton said.

“Yeah.  Shit,” Grace muttered.  “It’s not quite over yet, right?”

“Right,” Tecton said.  “But there’s time before the next one.  Let people in the know handle the worrying.  We did everything we could.  Now we recuperate.  We celebrate, because was deserve to.  We take the time to heal.”

In response to the glances cast his way, Wanton waved his stump around.  “Going to take getting used to.  Getting dressed, eating…”

He moved the stump in the direction of his lap, jerked it up and down.

Cuff looked and squeaked in embarrassment before averting her eyes.

“…writing,” Wanton finished, a goofy smile on his face.

“Your handwriting must be awful,” Golem said.

There were chuckles here and there from among the group.  Even the nurse tending to Cuff smiled.

“We did good,” Tecton said.  “And some people will recognize that.  Others are gonna see all the bad that happened in New Delhi and point fingers.  Be ready in case you fall under the crosshairs.”

There were nods from the rest of the Chicago Wards.

Tecton glanced at Weaver, then back to his team.  “What do you think?”

“You have to ask?” Grace asked.

“You weren’t keen at the idea at first,” Tecton replied.

“I’m still not, not a hundred percent.  But whatever little doubts I have, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”

“Yep,” Wanton said.

“Golem?”  Tecton asked.  “Have you even talked to her about it?”

“I’m a little scared to,” the boy said.  “I mean…”

He glanced at the doctor.

“Everything here is confidential,” Tecton said.

“Well, given my past, the people I was with before I came here, I’m worried there’s hard feelings.  They were in the same city.  I don’t know what exactly happened.  What if one of them did something to Weaver or her friends?  Is she the type to hold a grudge?”

“Going by what apparently happened in Brockton Bay,” Wanton said, “Not so much.  If she has a reason to hold a grudge, you don’t tend to live very long.”

Golem frowned.

“You’re not being helpful, Wanton.  Or fair to Weaver,” Tecton said.

“I’m suffering, Tec,” Wanton said, making the words into an exaggerated groan.

Tecton shook his head, turning to Golem.  “Tell her.  Explain your circumstances, let her know you’re from the same city, that you don’t share your family’s ideology.”

“The name should say as much,” Golem said.

Tecton nodded.  He drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.  The adrenaline was burning off, and with it, a deep exhaustion was settling in.

He looked at Weaver, where she sat at the far end of the bench.  Her old teammate had insisted on coming with her, along with a small cluster of dogs.  They’d fallen asleep within two minutes of takeoff.  Weaver had been first, her head leaning against her friend’s shoulder.  Her friend had been next to drift off, a dog in her lap, others lying underneath the bench.

“We’ll talk to the bosses,” Tecton said.  “See about taking Weaver onto the team.”

How was this supposed to work?

“Door me,” Pretender said.

A light sliced across the floor of the alleyway, three feet across.  When it had reached its full length, it began thickening, raising up until the portal was a full four by seven feet.  There was a long white hallway on the other side.

Carefully, he stepped through, with legs that weren’t his own.

“Pretender.”

He stopped, then turned around.  “Satyr.”

“You don’t have to go with them,” Satyrical said.

“I think today proved I do.”

“And everything we were working on?  Everything we were working towards?”

“I talked to some powerful people.  People behind the scenes we’ve barely heard of,” Pretender replied.  “What we were working on in Vegas doesn’t even compare.  Small potatoes.”

“Doesn’t feel like small potatoes.  What’s so important that you’d run off?”

Pretender frowned, an expression hidden by the helmet he wore.

“You can talk to me.  You know I can keep secrets.  Or are you talking about the Endbringers?  I think today showed they can deal with Endbringers on their own,” Satyr said.

“It’s bigger things.  Bigger than Endbringers,” Pretender answered.  “End of the world.”

Satyrical sighed.  “Of course it is.”

“I’ll help you with the little things, when I have the time.  We have resources, and maybe we can use you guys.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Satyr said.  He approached Pretender, extending a hand.

Pretender shook, gingerly, unsure of the full extent of Alexandria’s enhanced strength.

Satyr held on to the hand, caressing it.  “They say you should marry your best friend, and now that you’re a woman…”

Pretender chuckled a little before withdrawing his hand from Satyr’s.  “That line again?  I don’t think that’s what they meant.”

“She’s yours for keeps?”

“Brain dead.  Her body’s peculiar.  Doesn’t really age.  Hair doesn’t grow, nails don’t grow.  Wounds don’t really heal or get worse.  She used cosmetics to look older, to throw people off.  Only the brain was left pliable, adaptable.  Even then, most of it was hardened, protected, those duties offloaded to her agent.”

Satyr studied Pretender’s new body without shame.  His eyes rested on Pretender’s forehead.  “I see.  And with that plasticity, the brain was left more vulnerable.”

“Only a little.  Enough to be an Achilles heel.  She’s a case fifty-three, I suppose.  All of us may be.”

“All Cauldron capes?”

Pretender nodded.  “To some degree or another.”

Satyr seemed to take that into consideration, rubbing his chin.  When he spoke, though, he spoke of something else.  “What you did… you knew that they’d figured you out, and that I was next in line, that I’d get questioned too.  You killed her for my sake, to buy me time.”

“Are you mad?”

Satyr shook his head.  “We’ve killed before.  Selfishly, selflessly.  Only difference is you got caught.”

“Well, I got away.”

“In a fashion, yes.  You got away,” Satyr said.  “You’ve even reached a higher position in life.”

“Wearing someone else’s skin, living their life,” Pretender replied.

“Yes, well, that was always going to be your fate, wasn’t it?”

Pretender chuckled.  “I’ve missed you, buddy.”

“Likewise, you freak of nature,” Satyr responded.

“Just because we’re doing different things now, it doesn’t mean goodbye.”

“Good.”

“We stay in touch,” Pretender said.  “I’m sure my new group can use you, and you can draw on our resources, I’m sure.  Our goals are more or less aligned.  Only difference is scale.”

“Well then.  Good luck with saving the world.”

“And good luck with saving civilization from itself,” Pretender answered.  He looked skyward for a moment.  “Close the door.”

The portal closed.

Connecting to “agChat.ParahumansOnline016.par:6667” (Attempt 1 of 55)
Resolving Host Name
Connecting…
Connected.
Using identityIblis”, nick “Iblis”
Welcome to Parahumans Online Chatroom #116, ‘The Holdout’.  Rules Here.  Behave.
  Obey the @s.
Ryus: shorthand for seismic activity.  earthquakes.
Kriketz: any word on deaths yet
Divide: No word on deaths.  This is Behemoth.  It’s normal to see a radio silence like this.  Divide: They can’t report deaths because the armbands get knocked out.
Spiritskin:  Hi Iblis!
IblisWord is first capes are returning home.
Aloha:  !
Loyal: Who?  Who?  Names!
Deimos: how is new delhi?
@Deadman@:  I’m in contact with main channel, can pass on details if you can verify.
@Deadman@:  PM me.
Iblis: Loyal – Not sure.
Iblis: Deimos – City hit bad.
Iblis: Deadman – Not sure how to verify.  Only have texts on phone.  Sending PM.
Poit: they made it
BadSamurai:  how bad?
Ultracut:  Poit nobodys saying they amde it
Poit: they stopped him or they wouldn’t be leaving
Deimos: Nooooooo! new delhi hit bad?
Aloha:  X(
Iblis:  Texts I’m getting from cape-wife friend are saying Scion finished Behemoth off.
Iblis: Absolute annihilation.
QwertyD: Troll
Groupies: no fucking way
Aloha: O_o
Deimos is now known as Absolute Annihiliation
@Deadman@: Verify now or ban.
Absolute Annihilation: fuck yea Scion!
Arcee: Omg wat?
Iblis: sending PM with texts.

Colin shifted his weight restlessly, watching the screens.

There was a process, he knew.  He’d been filled in on the details, forewarned.  That didn’t make this any easier.

Too many years he’d spent alone.  Too many years, he’d had nothing to care about.  Nothing and nobody to hold precious.  A dad who worked two jobs, a mother who traveled.  They’d divorced, and virtually nothing had changed in the grand scheme of things.  They’d looked after him, but they hadn’t been there.  They had been occupied with other things, with dreams and aspirations that had never included him.

Colin knew he had been the weird child.  Had never made friends, had convinced himself he didn’t want or need them.  He was efficient in how solitary he was.

He’d even prided himself on it, for a time, that there was nothing to hold him back.  That he could, should the mood strike him, pick up and leave at any time.  He’d modeled his life around it, had led a spare existence, devoid of the little touches of home, of roots.  He’d saved money so he had the ability to travel, to get a new place in a new city if the mood struck.  It had even been an asset when he had joined the Protectorate, the ability to relocate, take any open position.

It was only now, a full fifteen years later, that he started to wonder what he’d missed out on.  Did most people know how to handle this sort of thing?  The absence of someone they cared about?  Did they have an easier time handling the moments when they weren’t sure if they’d ever see those people again, or was it harder?

He’d altered Dragon’s code.  It wasn’t a tidy thing.  Tinker work rarely was.  There were too many factors to consider, and a tinker who didn’t specialize in a particular area would never be able to plumb the depths.  Too many things connected to other things, and the full extent of the connections was impossible to fathom in entirety.

At best, he could study each alteration as much as was possible, act in ways that could minimize the damage.

Every adjustment, even on the smallest levels, threatened to damage a dozen, a hundred other areas.

And now he would find out if Dragon’s backup would restore properly.

Error: Temporal Modelling Node 08 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Error: Horospectral Analysis Node 1119 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Successful Load: Circadian Checkmatch Node ER089.  Require 2/3 more stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Metrological Chronostic Node Q1118 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

Error: Stimuli Tracking Node FQ has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge.

Successful Load: Orientation Patch Node FQ02903.  Require 3/3 stable child routines for acceptable bridge.
Error: Parietal Space Node FQ161178 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…
Error: Recognition Demesnes Node FQ299639 has failed to load.  Attempting child routines to bridge…

He pulled off his helmet, setting it on the bench beneath the monitor.  He rubbed one hand across his head.  He’d taken to shaving it close, in part for the efficiency of it, in part because the surgeries to replace his eye and the implants he’d set into recesses in his skull had required incisions in his scalp.  Dragon had handled that.

His fingers traced the faint, almost imperceptible scars that ran neatly across the sides and top of his head.  Marks she’d left him.

More errors appeared on the screen.  The estimated time of a successful backup clicked upwards with each one.  Two hours.  Three hours.  Six hours.

At the same time, in Colin’s head, the odds of a successful load were going down.  Twenty-five percent.  Twenty three.  Fifteen.

There were other backups.  He suspected the ones that had been uploaded after his tampering would run into the same issues.  The same errors.

The ones before?  Before he’d altered anything?  It would be a different Dragon than the one he’d come to know.  She would watch the video feeds, listen to the tapes, even experience some of those things for herself, where the system had taken it all online.  But she wouldn’t be the same Dragon he knew.  The organic A.I. architecture would develop in different ways, with different nuances.  So many things connected to so many other things with each new experience, and the connections would occur in a different fashion.

No, he realized.  Even worse.  He would have to head her off before she got access to the data.  If he had to load that backup, he would be loading her as she was before he freed her of the PRT’s shackles.  She would be obligated to fight him.  He’d managed a sneak attack the first time.  The second?  She’d see what he did, force him to try another means.

And he’d have to be more ruthless, knowing he was doing harm to her, injuring her to her core.

He couldn’t bear to watch further.  It was too soon to try another backup, both in terms of the system’s ability to handle the task and his own ability.  But sitting here, watching the list of errors grow, it was angering him, and it was an anger without a focus.

Touching two fingers to his lips, Colin moved those fingers to the monitor’s frame, pressing them there.  The gesture was sentimental enough it felt unlike him, somehow false.  Doing nothing would feel wrong too.

That was his current state, stranded inside his own head, in the midst of his own feelings.

Uncharted territory, in a way.

He pulled on his helmet and stepped outside, and hopped up onto the nose of the Tiamat II.

New Delhi loomed before him.  Ruined, damaged, impossible to recover.  The sun was only now setting, and the sky was red, mingling with the traces of clouds that still remained in the sky.

He wanted to contact Chevalier, to know that his friend was okay, that the Protectorate was okay.  He didn’t trust himself to stay calm, to keep from saying something about Dragon, from venting, being emotional.

Chevalier would understand, he suspected.  But Colin’s masculinity would take a hit, and it would only cause more trouble than it fixed.

Staring out at the city, and the crowds of people in hazmat suits who were moving in for relief, for search and rescue, he frowned.  He and Dragon had had some intense discussions on the subject of what it was to be a ‘man’.  To be human, to be masculine, feminine.

Dragon had been pissed when he’d suggested she was the feminine ideal.  That, in the eternal crisis that any woman faced between being the virgin, the madonna, and being sensual, sexual, she was both.

He wished he understood why she’d been so angry.

To be a man, though, it wasn’t much easier.  The standard society set was just as high.  To be a provider, a rock, to be sensitive, yet to avoid being emotional.

For long minutes, he stared out over the city, watching the sun dip beneath the horizon, the smoke and dust making the distant star’s light hazier, fuzzier.

“Tiamat II,” he said.  “Alert me when the system is finished the backup process, one way or another.”

Yes, Defiant.”

Uncomfortably similar to Dragon’s voice.  He felt an ache in his chest.

He hopped down from the nose of the craft, then used his spear to help himself down from the craggy edge of terrain that had been raised up from the earth in the chaos.  He strode forward, towards the city proper, calibrating his helmet to help identify any warm bodies.

“Annex?  Kirk?”

Kirk sat up from the hospital bed.

“You can stay where you are,” the doctor said, not looking up from the clipboard.

“I’m okay,” Kirk said.

“Your test results are taking some time, I’m sorry.  We can expect a two or three-hour wait.  Half an hour for the MRI, forty-five minutes for the CT scan.”

“At least it’s something to do,” Kirk replied.

“You’d be surprised at how quickly it gets boring,” the doctor answered.

Kirk winced.  “Okay.  Can I maybe use a phone in the meantime?  Call my parents?  They’ll be wondering.”

“They’ve already been informed,” the man answered.  “They’ll be here shortly.  There’s paperwork they’ll have to sign, because a few of your teammates are also walking around without any protection for their identities, but I don’t imagine that’ll take long.”

“Maybe I can call my friends?  They’ll be wondering how I’m doing.”

“They know about your life in costume?”

“They were there when I got my powers.  I just want to call someone, anyone I know, to occupy my thoughts, to talk.”

“There’s a phone at the nurse’s station, center of the floor.  Ask and they’ll punch in the number to dial out.”

“Okay,” Kirk said, smiling.  He gripped the side of his hospital gown to bind it shut.

“I…” the doctor started, he stopped and frowned.

Kirk had halted in his tracks, shifting his weight to keep his bare feet from making too much contact with the cold floor.

Odd, in a way, that he had to.  But his power tended to be all or nothing.

“I shouldn’t tell you this, and I’m not naming names, but the first test results have come in, for some of the others who were at your side in New Delhi.  Here, and in other cities.  The tests for radiation are coming back negative.”

Kirk blinked.

“No promises it’ll be the same for you, but…”

“A bit of hope?” Kirk asked.

“With luck.”

“Thank you,” Kirk said, smiling for the first time.  “Thank you.”

“I should be the one saying that to you,” the doctor said.  “Just… don’t be too disappointed if the answer isn’t what you wanted, okay?”

“Deal,” Kirk answered.

…further reports are coming in from multiple sources.  The Endbringer Behemoth has been reported as being slain in New Delhi!”

“Yes, Lizbeth.  Video footage is always scarce when dealing with the Endbringers, but verification has been consistent from multiple sources.  It seems the footage seen earlier of the great shaft of light was an attack from an unknown party, debilitating the Endbringer.  Defending forces held the injured monster off until Scion could arrive, delivering a finishing blow.”

“Earlier in the year, for those of you who don’t remember, Chevalier boasted of a new Protectorate, clear of the sabotage and interference from its own leaders.  Today may serve as a testament to that boast.”

“All around the world, people seem to be celebrating, but it’s a markedly cautious celebration.  Early polls on the UKCC web site suggest that a full eighteen percent of people who voted are waiting for more information or verification before celebrating the heroes’ victory, and ten percent of people don’t intend to celebrate at all.”

“Not at all?”

“No, Lizbeth.  In the comments thread of the poll, a common trend seems to be the feeling that he isn’t or can’t be dead, that the heroes were mistaken, or that this might even provoke a response from the remaining Endbringers.”

“Amazing.  We’re just now getting more information…”

“Dad?”

“Taylor!  Oh my god.  You’re alive.”

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted me-”

“Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay.  I just got the tests back, and there’s no sign of ambient radiation or any of that.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.  I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to call.  You haven’t replied to my messages, about being there if and when they invite me to the Wards.  And you were there for court, but you didn’t talk to me.”

“I am glad you called.  About my not-”

“We killed him.”  The words were blurted out.

There was silence on the line.

“Behemoth is dead.”

Silence, still.

“We killed him,” the words were a repeat of earlier.  As if that summed it up.  “I think it’s already on the news.”

“I know.  I saw, but I didn’t quite believe it.  I’m dumbfounded.  Amazed.  I’m so proud of you.  Wow.”

“I wanted to tell you before you heard from others, but there’s so much goddamn bureaucracy going on, and they wouldn’t give me a phone in the hospital room.”

“Were you- did you help?  Were you a part of that?”

“Yes.  Of course.”

“I’m just… I’m trying to wrap my head around it.  Wow.”

There was a silence on the other end, this time.

“Taylor?”

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, to wonder why you didn’t come.  Why you haven’t visited me.  You’re afraid of me.”

“Taylor, that’s not-”

“It’s true, isn’t it?  And all of the doubts I had before dialing the phone and calling you, they were right, this makes it worse.  I have a rap sheet that’s like, eighty pages thick, and I killed a man, and then I killed Director Tagg and Alexandria.  She is dead, by the way.  If you see her on the news, it’s just a cape that stole her body.  Her corpse.  And now you hear about me fighting Behemoth and it makes it worse.  I can’t even talk about what I did without digging the knife in deeper.”

“Taylor, no.  It’s not fear.  I saw some of your friends, not long ago.  I wanted to talk to your employee, Charlotte, and the others came.  And I saw this whole other life, this side of you I couldn’t recognize at all.  Little things that I recognized, yes, and then big things that I could barely fathom.  I’ve never been able to handle loss well, with Annette, and now feeling like I maybe lost you…  I just… I want to adjust, to get my head around this, and then I can visit and things will be like they were.”

“Things aren’t going to be like they were, dad.  I don’t want them to be.  I’m trying to put as much distance between the person I was then and the person I am now as I can.  I’m sucking pretty hard at it, but I’m trying.  Except maybe today, I found a middle ground.  And it worked, in a way that makes me proud and terrified and amazed and confused and apparently I’m in trouble for something I did.  I’m in trouble because I was wearing a camera and they saw the footage and I was walking that middle ground between the person I was and the person they want me to be, and I did a lot of borderline sketchy shit just to get by and they don’t understand.”

There was a note of emotion in the last word, a break in the rant.

“Taylor…”

One word, and then silence.

The voice was calmer this time, more measured.  “I’m sorry.  I’m really tired.  I’m going in soon.  To talk to them.  They’ve made it clear they aren’t happy.  Except I think they’re a little bit afraid of me too.  Afraid of me like my own dad is.”

“That’s not fair.”

Deny it.”

There was a pause.

“I’m not afraid, Taylor.  If there’s any fear, my love for you outweighs it by far, understand?”

But the phone was already steadily buzzing with a dial tone.  The pause was enough.

♦  Topic:  Footage
In:  Boards ►
World News ► Main
Bagrat
(Original Poster)
Posted on July 26th, 2011:

Link here.

Mirrors here, here and here.

Came directly to me.  Cuts in and out, but that’s to be expected.

More info later.  Better to watch and see for yourself than get it here.

(Showing page 39 of 39)

►  Thatdude
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Bystander
I don’t know, but holy shit was that intense.  I wish there was more at the end.

►  Mane Magenta
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
When Scion uses his power it disturbs electronics.  Its why when he flies you can’t track him unless its with your eyes.
Omg.  I’m only halfway through.  This is almost a feature length film.

►  Dawgsmiles (Veteran poster)
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else have to look up some of the people in there?  i almost thought one or two weren’t villains

►  Saskatchew
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
It’s kind of terrifying, isn’t it?  There’s only like twenty in my province but you think maybe **one** can do something like we saw partway through and its like wow holy shit I could run into them in the street at any time

►  Feychick
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
holy fuck holy fuck holy fuck
(56 minutes in).

►  Ne
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@49:00 When she’s talking to the guy in blue.  Who is that?  Not in the wiki.  How do you even SPELL that?  She turns on her friend?  What happens to that guy?  Did he die?  Did she get him killed?

►  Forgotten Creator
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
@ Dawgsmiles – I had to look up one or two.  There was a short doc about some of them a bit ago after Alexandria died.  You can find it here.

Logs
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
Let’s see:

  • Note the link back to this thread just earlier today.  (Kid has Weaver show up for Wards event at park.)  Paraphrasing hearsay: ‘I had everything, I gave it up’.  You can see how much she cares about them.
  • Is the Echidna thing tied to the mysterious info-blackout in Brockton Bay re: time portal created?
  • Wondering about Tecton.  Liking his talk about powers and building teams, but he defects leadership to known ex-villain who knows little to nothing about his team?
  • Anyone else wondering why they went with the ‘V’ hand sign?  That’s a rude gesture in New Delhi, 99% sure.  Americans.
  • Intimate moment b/w Weaver and Grue.  Anyone else feel like a pervert watching this?  Can’t see anything, but I think they’re kissing.  If I thought this was staged I stopped when this happened.
  • Regent/girl with gray mask (forget name) funny as hell.  Hoping they all make it out okay.
  • Have to stop at 12 minute mark.  Burned girl.  Too real.

General Prancer
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
anyone else really interested in learning more about Weaver?
edit:  @Logs: don’t get too attached to anyone.

Noveltry
Replied on July 26th, 2011:
This cuts out at the most frustrating times.

End of Page.   1, 2, 3, 4, 538, 39

Glenn reached across his keyboard to refresh his email, then hit the key on his keyboard to shut down the machine.  While the screen went through the motions, Glenn walked around the desk to kneel on the floor.  The computer itself was set into a recess in the floor, and he worked at unplugging and unscrewing each wire in turn.

A butterfly flew across his field of vision, and he jumped despite himself.

“Weaver,” he said, turning around.

“Glenn,” she said.  She wasn’t in costume, but her glower was intense enough that she might as well have been in her full garb as Skitter, complete with shawl, skirt and the carpet of insects crawling on her.

“Recuperating?”

“Not as much as I’d like,” she said.  Her voice was hard.  “I’m not having the best day, on a lot of levels.”

“Still waiting for the tribunal to convene?”  Glenn asked.  “It’s been hours now.”

“The secretary’s supposed to call me.  They gave me one of the superhero phones so I could call my dad, told me to hold onto it.  I’d take it as a good sign, except there’s a video circulating online.  My video.  Well past the point where anyone could hope to control access to it.  Mirrors, bitsharing, hardcopies…”

“I see.  Upsetting.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” she said.  The tone was light, but her expression remained the same.  “Packing up?”

“Yes,” Glenn said.  He tried to lift the desktop, found more wires attached at the bottom, and set it down to unplug them.

“I expect I’ll be fired.  They’ll make me clean out my office, so I figured I would get a headstart.  I don’t keep anything permanent that isn’t on my personal computer, so this box is all I need.”

She didn’t respond.

He tried to lift it again, only to find more wires connected on the front.

“No need to worry.  If you’re here to inflict some bug-induced torture on me, you can save yourself a lot of effort by leaving me to my own devices with this damned box.  I promise you, I’ll figure out something worse to do to myself.”

Butterflies circled her as she stalked forward.  Glenn backed away a step before he realized what she was doing.  She wasn’t even a third of his weight, and the only insects she seemed to have on hand were butterflies, but he felt a touch intimidated nonetheless.

Were the butterflies supposed to be ironic?  A gesture?

She knelt down beside the computer, fiddled around and disconnected the remaining wires, then lifted the box up to the floor beside the recess.

“Thank you.  I’m good with computers, with software, but laughably bad with the technology.”

Why, Glenn?  It was private.  It was supposed to be for therapy.”

“Wasn’t my choice to parcel it out.  Dragon was killed, by all accounts, and Director Wilkins made the call to hand it out, for your pending conduct review.”

“And you made the call to release it online.”

“I suppose Tattletale informed you.  Do you know how frustrating it is to be a mere human being among powers like you and your friend?”

“I dunno,” she said.  “I figure you can relieve your stress by uploading their personal videos to the internet.”

Glenn sighed.  “You’re tired.  You’re not being rational.”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s totally the way to talk to a girl.”

Glenn stepped forwards, resisted the urge to flinch as the butterflies briefly invaded his personal space.  He met her eyes, waited for her to look away, then snapped, right in front of her.

Her eyes locked onto his, and she looked even more irritated.

“Stop,” he said.  “Look me in the eyes.  I want to talk to Weaver the strategist, not Taylor.”

She didn’t move a muscle, but he wondered if the butterflies changed course.  She remained silent, glowering.

“I know you’re tired.  Today took a lot out of you,” Glenn said.  “But think.  What purpose does it serve to upload the video?”

“It’s the best footage you have of the event.  The best way to sell the win, the PRT’s involvement.”

“Think bigger.”

“That’s pretty damn big.”

Bigger, Weaver.  Come on.  Do you think I got to where I am by thinking one dimensionally?  What else, why?  I’m getting fired.  I knew I’d get fired.  Would I do it just for that?”

“Probably, if there wasn’t another way.”

“With an ego like mine?”

“Honestly, your ego can’t be that big if you wear those clothes.”

Despite himself, he was a little stung.  He’d cultivated his image to demand attention.  Even his weight was calculated, to make it clear he was not one of them, that he was someone with power, presence.  His clothes were admittedly awful.  They were intended to be awful.  But they didn’t diminish his sense of pride in the least.

It was a shame he was undoubtedly going to lose his job.  It would be nice to discuss the idea of image from two very different perspectives.

“I’m not your adversary, Weaver.”

“No.  I can’t help but feel you’re an albatross around my neck.  I keep hearing that you’ve done stuff to help, but I keep experiencing this… this.”

“I’m your ally, Weaver.  You think I don’t recognize the issues in the PRT?  The corruption that’s still at the core?  The need for change?  There has to be some sacrifice, and there has to be someone to step forward, a harbinger for that change.  Chevalier may be the hero of the day, he can lay the groundwork for change, but he can’t be that harbinger.  He’s too entrenched.”

“You want me to be the harbinger.”

“It’ll be hard, but I think you’ll manage with that.  Putting this video online, it’s going to achieve a lot of things.  I think, seeing you in the thick of it, it’s going to change people’s opinion of you.  There’ll be controversy, some will hate you.  But others?  This will be their first view of what it’s truly like on the battlefield.  They’ll have to like you, to sympathize.  But the rule of three says you won’t be forgotten about.”

“Rule of three?”

“Three times, you’ve been forced into the public eye.  As the leader of Brockton Bay, as the newly christened Weaver, slayer of Alexandria, and here, in the video.”

“I was just thinking about something like that, in a totally different way.  Twice now, I’ve betrayed my teammates.  At first, when they found out I was an aspiring hero, an undercover operative.  Then I became Weaver.  This’ll be the third.  I had the camera, stuff was said and done, private stuff talked about, and they won’t like it.  They didn’t ask to be in the spotlight any more than I did.”

“Some of it will endear you to the public,” Glenn said.

“Being worshipped as a god wouldn’t be worth hurting them again,” Weaver retorted.  Her voice was hard again.  “Grue believes that image and reputation are a kind of protection.  Being seen as soft, when he’s dealing with people in the criminal underworld?  It could get him killed.”

“They’ll forgive you that setback, I’m sure.  They’ll understand you didn’t choose to do it.”

“Rachel’s not the understanding type.  I’ve fought an uphill battle to get her trust, and if she feels hurt by this, or if she registers that others are hurt, and that I’m the culprit in any way-”

“With luck, public opinion and an insight into the bond you have with the team will make it easier to interact with your old team.  You’ll have more chances to fix any damage.”

Weaver shook her head, staring down at the ground.

“It’s an honest look into what the heroes do, Weaver.  What you capes face every day.  Why there’s so much gray in the moral palette.  With this, Chevalier’s new Protectorate won’t be something that exists in name only.”

“You could have asked.”

“You would have said no.  And there was no time.  We needed to make it absolutely clear just what you and the rest of the heroes did on the field, so Scion couldn’t overshadow you.  We needed to do it right away.  Cement the idea into the public mind so it was the first concrete piece of information they got.”

She stared at the ground.  The lines in her face were deep with exhaustion.  The butterflies had landed on her shoulders and arms.

He let the idea sit.  Better to let her speak next.

She did.  “Chevalier is laying the groundwork, I’m the harbinger… and you’re the sacrifice, then?”

He met her eyes.  “They won’t be as upset with you as they are right this moment.  I’ll draw the initial heat.  By the time they’re done with me, my career and any possible job in a related field will be ashes in the wind.  For you, well, it’ll tip the scales.  If you’re halfway into the ‘deserves a medal’ camp and halfway into the ‘needs to be punished’ camp, this will help.”

“I could have done some things better, but was I that bad?”

“Consorting with villains you were supposed to avoid, putting Wards on the line to help them, dealing with Phir Sē without contacting any superiors.  You ignored the rules regarding image, took gambles-”

“I had to.  All of that.  I was told that rules are relaxed on the field.  You can’t seriously expect me to use butterflies against Behemoth.”

“Of course not,” Glenn responded.  “Do you think I’m stupid?  I know this.  But there’s a lot of people paying attention to this.  Many people who will be in that room won’t know these things, won’t fully understand.  Some won’t even watch the video before they pass judgement on what occurred in it.  Never underestimate the stupidity of people.”

Weaver made a sound, halfway to a sigh, halfway to a laugh.

Glenn smiled a little.  “The video burns one bridge.  No more butterflies.  Though they won’t hurt, because it makes it a hell of a lot harder for any common criminals to complain about an excess use of power, but I’m digressing…”

Weaver’s phone beeped.  A moment later, Glenn’s vibrated.  He checked it.

Convening to discuss Weaver’s conduct in room F.  Please attend.

He closed the message window.

“Thank you,” Weaver said.  “I think.  I’m supposed to go now.”

“Me too.  Join me?”  Glenn asked.

Weaver nodded.  Her collection of butterflies led the way out of the office.

Glenn spoke without looking at her.  “I don’t expect you to like me.  Never really did.  One of the first and biggest problems you ran into was with your image.  It’s a problem even now, I suspect.  It will continue to be a problem, especially now that you’re in the limelight.”

“Uh huh.”

Glenn reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a case.  He opened it, removed a business card, and handed it over.

“My number.  In case you need advice.  Well, use my cell.  My work number probably won’t be mine for much longer.”

Weaver stared down at the card.  She didn’t need to look up as she walked, as the butterflies checked her path for her.  Other bugs had joined them.

“Just do me a favor,” Glenn said.

Weaver glanced at him.

“Make friends with whoever they hire to replace me.  Listen to them.  You’re allowed to hate them too, but hear them out.  Can’t hurt.”

She nodded.  She looked down at the card again, then looked up at him.  “Can I call this in now?  It’s about my dad.”

Defiant?

Defiant couldn’t move, as he held a heavy concrete slab out of the way for emergency crews.  He used the cursor embedded in his eye to select the ‘answer’ command, and shut the vents around his mouth.

“Tiamat II, hold off on any reports for now.” Can’t take it, not right this moment.

It’s me.

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Crushed 24.5

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The damage Behemoth was wreaking in New Delhi was, I thought, a microcosm of what was happening all over the world.  Three or four attacks a year, since the Simurgh had appeared.

The fight with Leviathan in Brockton Bay had been a good day.  We’d lost people, we’d lost good capes, but we’d more or less bounced back, made it three-quarters of the way back to where we needed to be, in a matter of months.  There had been ugliness, infighting, a hell of a lot of doubt, but we’d started to make our way back to where we should be.  It had been the lowest number of casualties we’d had in an Endbringer attack in years, not counting a few of the Simurgh attacks.  A good day.

This?  This isn’t a good day. 

Behemoth roared.

This is the other end of the scale.

For nearly twenty years, we’d endured intermittent Endbringer attacks, and the end result was, globally, what was happening here in a matter of hours.  We were divided, scared, fighting among one another, and our defenses were being eroded.  We were being forced into pockets of defense, instead of a united one where we all stood together.  Those pockets, in turn, were at risk of being wiped out with a series of decisive blows.

Yes, we had our good moments.  Doing as much damage to him as we just had, that was a good moment.  But we had bad ones too, and the end result was always the same.

The bastard –the bastards, plural– kept coming.

Phir Sē’s light had cleared smoke and dust from the sky, though it had been almost entirely directed upward, with concentric rings still marking the skyline.  Smoke was free to rise, and Behemoth was in plain sight.  He was moving on three limbs, planting hands on the ruined, half-toppled and flame-scorched buildings to stay more upright.

His body, though, was a mix of high contrasts.  His flesh, what little was visible through the black ichor that dripped from his frame, glowed a silver-white.  The remaining material of his claws, teeth and horns remained black.

Tecton had pulled ahead of the group, and turned abruptly, skidding to a stop.  Cuff’s body was folded over the back of the bike, limp.  The Yàngbǎn had two more bodies with them, as well.  I’d taken my flight pack back from Imp, and was airborne as he raised a gauntlet to get my attention.  I descended to meet him, and we were soon joined by Dispatch, and Exalt, who carried an unconscious Revel.

“Where to?” Tecton asked.  His voice was hoarse.  He was recovering, it seemed.

“If we’re sticking with the regular plan,” Dispatch said, “We should gather with other capes, form another defensive line.  I think we should hold to the plan.  Working together with a less than ideal plan is best, until we can come up with something better.”

I glanced over my shoulder at Behemoth’s barely visible profile.  How far away was safe, if he was emitting that kind of radiation?

Far, far away, I answered my own unspoken question.

“Weaver?” Tecton asked me.

I ventured, “There’s a temple, not far from here.  Tattletale’s there, medical facilities.  Direction he’s moving, he’s headed in that general direction.  We protect them, hold position, see if we can’t figure out a way to keep him away from Phir Sē.  It fits with Dispatch’s idea of sticking to the plan.”

“Why don’t we press the offensive?”  Grace asked.  She still sat astride her bike.

“Believe me, I really want to press the offensive,” I said, “But I don’t want to get close to him while he’s glowing like that.  That would be a pretty good reason unto itself.”

“He won’t be using the radiation forever,” Tecton observed.

“There’s another key reason,” I said.  “Our guys are scared, maybe a little desperate.  It’s not a good mindset for fighting.”

The heroes turned to look at the others, who had apparently taken our stopping as an excuse to tend to other business.  Golem had stopped to raise some hands, more lightning rods between us and the Endbringer, and others were flanking him.  The Yàngbǎn were looking after their injured.

“Desperate,” Exalt said, gazing at the rank and file troops.

I wanted to join the others, to get involved and help, offer what little medical care I could, and the mental and emotional support I knew they needed, but we needed a greater direction, a mission.  I turned my attention back to Exalt.  “Regent was desperate, maybe, and he died.  I’m scared that our side would take risks or put themselves in danger if we ordered them back into the fight.  This is getting uglier by the minute, and we’re prone to doing stupid shit if we’re backed into a corner, or if we feel like we need to end this fast so our friends can get the medical help they need.  Let’s get the medical help, catch our breath.”

“There’re more capes joining the fight now,” Grace said.  I wasn’t sure if that was a rejection of my plan or an agreement.  I followed her gaze to see a torrent of flames making its way in Behemoth’s general direction.  A cape was hurling fireballs with some sort of space-warping effect tied to them, so they swelled dramatically in size with each second they were airborne.

I assumed it would be to Behemoth’s advantage, to have access to that kind of flame, but he wasn’t deflecting them.  The fire exploded through the area around him, and I could see him lose his grip on a building as he reeled from the impact, slumped down to a place below the distant skyline of damaged and half-collapsed buildings.  Orange light lit up the area around him, marking the areas that had been set on fire.

The fireball hurler, barely visible as a speck against a backdrop of black-brown smoke, stopped abruptly.

“Why’d he stop?” I wondered aloud.

“The radiation?”  Grace offered.

“The radiation was there before he went on the offensive,” I said.  “I don’t see Behemoth retaliating, but the cape stopped lobbing fireballs.”

My bugs noted Eidolon’s descent.  I turned around to see him depositing Rachel on the ground.  She shrugged out of his grip without so much as a ‘thanks’.

“He went underground,” Eidolon informed us.

“He ran?  It’s over?”

“No,” Eidolon said.  He didn’t elaborate as he watched Rachel back away and whistle to call her dogs.  The opaque pane of his mask was heavily shrouded beneath the heavy hood he wore, a dim blue-green glow emanating from within.  He was burned, his costume scorched and shredded in places, but the body armor beneath had more or less held.  Shaped to give the illusion that he had more muscle than he did, it seemed.  I could see blood running along the cracks at one panel of armor, where he’d apparently sustained a heavy blow.  He was mortal, after all.  Eidolon could bleed.

Fitting, that he layered disguises behind disguises.  Regent had done the same thing, to a lesser degree, had worn armor behind the deceptively light and delicate shirts he’d worn, had padding beneath his masks to cushion any blows, had hid a taser in his scepter.

I felt a pang of guilt, a swelling lump in my throat.  I’d never really gotten to know Regent, not to the extent that I’d gotten to know the others.  He hadn’t really revealed much about himself, either.  I’d reminisced before about the intimacy of friendships, about the sharing of vulnerabilities, allowing others to be close, exposing oneself to possible harm.  I’d done it with Emma, back in the day, and I’d suffered for it.  I’d allowed myself to form a kind of intimacy with the Undersiders, and it might well have been a reason we’d survived this far.  Regent hadn’t established that kind of intimacy with us.

Except maybe for Imp.

He’d hidden so much.  I’d only glimpsed the seriously disordered personality that lurked beneath the outer image of the lazy, disaffected teenager, had only seen traces of that part of him that just didn’t care that he could enslave a person’s body and leave their mind as little more than a helpless observer.  And beneath that aspect of himself, he’d had something else, something that had driven him to distract Behemoth so Imp might live.

My eyes fell on Eidolon.  Was there a similarity to Regent?  Lies, deception, a false face behind a false face behind a false face?

What was at the core?

Eidolon turned away from his observations of Behemoth, and he briefly met my eyes.

I felt intimidated, despite myself, but I didn’t look away.

“Alexandria,” I said, “How is she-”

And he took off, not even waiting for me to finish.

“-still alive?” I finished.

“I don’t like him,” Rachel commented.

“Nobody does,” Dispatch said.  Rachel seemed to accept that with a measure of satisfaction.

“And why won’t this motherfucker die?” Rachel asked, looking towards Behemoth.

“He’s been fighting us for twenty years and he hasn’t died yet,” I said.

“So?”

“So… he’s tough,” I said.  It was hard to answer a question so… what was the word?  Innocent?  Guileless?

“We’re tough.  Let’s fuck him up.”

“I was arguing for that,” Grace said.

Oh great.  They’re of like mind.

“But,” Tecton cut in, turning his head her way, “Skitter had a good reason as to why we shouldn’t.  We need to recover, recuperate.  Other heroes are picking up the slack, applying some pressure.  Or they were until he burrowed,”

Rachel snorted.  “We do the chain thing again, cut him in half at the middle instead.  Or cut off his head.”

“Honestly?” I spoke up, “I’m not sure he’d die if we cut off his head.  And correct me if I’m wrong, but he could go after the people that carry the chain.  Even if it’s someone like Eidolon, he could overheat and melt the part they’re holding on to.”

“You’re really a buzzkill,” Grace said.

I didn’t deny it.  “There’s one more reason we should go, though.  He’s going to-”

Retaliate.

Behemoth rose from beneath the ground a distance away.  In a heartbeat, things shifted from a near-quiet to chaos.  He was still glowing, and his claws crackled with electricity as he struck quickly, violently, and indiscriminately.

Three capes taken down, struck out of the sky by the bolts of electricity.  Even if they’d survived that much, the kill aura and the radiation would end them.

He turned, facing us, but the Wards were already moving, their wheels squealing on the pavement before they peeled away.

It’s the Endbringer’s pattern.  We hurt them or stall them enough, they change tactics, hit us back.

“Go!” I shouted.

Rachel moved, climbing astride her dog in an instant.  She whistled for her other dogs, directing them to Imp, Parian, Foil and Citrine.

Golem’s hands absorbed some of the lightning that crackled around us.  Not one stream, but a storm, with Behemoth at the eye of it.

And he was standing.  He didn’t necessarily have a full leg, but he had the ability to stand upright, now.

And Rachel, as I saw her making her way to the Undersiders, looked determined.

Was it weird that she seemed more comfortable in the here and now than she had before the fight started?  It wasn’t that she didn’t look scared, I could see the way her entire body was rigid, her hands clenched, white knuckled.  But she had a role here, she fit into a dynamic.

We took off, moving behind cover, running, as Behemoth crashed through a line of buildings.  Heroes from even half a mile away were lobbing attacks, and the stray shots that missed the Endbringer crashed down around us, tearing through buildings, turning stone to liquid, igniting nonflammable materials, one doing little damage but detonating so violently with the impact that my mounted teammates were nearly thrown free.

Behemoth roared, and I could see the Wards and Undersiders suffering.  A dog shook its head in an attempt to shake off the noise, and lost its sense of direction.  It crashed into a bike and sprawled.  Parian, Foil and Grace were dismounted.  Grace landed on her feet and physically ran, reaching for Tecton’s outstretched gauntlet.  He extended a piledriver to give her something to hold onto.

Few bugs had managed to keep up, much less the ones with wires, but I brought a curtain between us and Behemoth.  I was past the point where I wanted to conserve them.  If it was lightning, I could only hope that Golem’s makeshift lightning rods and my wires would protect us.

But it was flame.  It sheared through my swarm, and it splashed down around Parian, Foil and the dog.

The Endbringer had more aim than I’d expected.  He wasn’t blind, despite the fact that his eye socket was empty.  But he wasn’t entirely on target otherwise.  Was he relying on another sense?

The Yàngbǎn intercepted the attack, raising forcefields.  Parian did something with her thread, slapping the dog’s hindquarters, and it bolted.  They were carried off, tied to its side, a flame still burning on Parian’s sleeve and the hem of her dress.

Someone, an Indian cape capable of getting inside Behemoth’s kill aura, closed the distance, and Behemoth was momentarily distracted by orange cords that bound his head, lashing him to the cape.  With that, the others had a chance to escape.

“Regroup!” I called out, as I descended to the midst of the Undersiders and Wards.  “I’ll point the way!”

The sound of the fighting stopped with a crash.  Where was the motherfucker?  I rose higher to check, but saw neither Behemoth nor the cape who’d been binding him.  He’d burrowed.

It was quiet, all of a sudden, if not quite silent.  The defending capes were spreading out, and were hovering in place or holding positions, rather than bombarding the landscape.  The lightning and fire had stopped, and no shockwaves ripped through the city.  The rumbling was intermittent, mild when it wasn’t almost imperceptible.  The ringing in my ears was louder than the ambient noise.

This was his new tactic, burrowing, surfacing.  But where was the retaliation?  Their whole damn pattern centered around repaying us twice over for any abuse we inflicted on them.

The armband crackled, and I jumped, despite myself.  The first message didn’t come through the static, but the second was clearer.  “Be advised, seismic activity suggests the Endbringer is still local.  Regroup and form defensive lines.

I did a little mental math, then pressed the button on my armband.  “Armband, note that Behemoth may have a likely target, roughly eight to fifteen miles north-northwest of India Gate.”

At least, that was my best guess, judging by the flight speeds Defiant had noted for my flight pack and the time it had taken me to travel.

Every armband in earshot repeated my message.

“Keep going!” I called out.  “Keep moving!”

Surely he couldn’t keep up with us while moving underground.  I didn’t want to underestimate his intelligence, but was he even capable of holding a grudge?

What was Behemoth really doing?

The travel was uneventful, uninterrupted and eerily quiet, as we made our way to our next destination.  Three times, we stopped to pick up wounded, fashioning another quick sled for the dogs to accommodate all of them.

We reached the temple and delivered the sled to the temple doors.  The Chicago Wards stopped to park their bikes off to one side.  I waited for the Yàngbǎn to gather, extending my range, before I reached out to Phir Sē.

He’s underground.  He may be coming for you,”  I informed him, speaking through my swarm.

“I assumed,” Phir Sē responded.  “Thank you.”

You need to leave, soon.”

“I have a way out.  I’ll leave when trouble begins.  Could you rid me of the bugs?  When you leave them, they fly about me, and I cannot afford distractions.”

I hesitated, then removed the bugs, shifting them to nearby rooms and corridors.  I left only a pocket of them to communicate with.  “Be safe.

“You as well, Weaver.  Thank you, for the cooperation.”

Have you gained a bit of faith?

“Faith gained in this, perhaps, faith lost in another.”

I know what you mean.

“Good bye.  If we both live, perhaps we talk again, in a less dangerous time.”

Good bye,” I responded.

I drove the remainder of my swarm from his chamber.  It once again became a blind spot, an emptiness in my power’s range.

“You okay?” Tecton asked, as he caught up with me.  He held Cuff in his heavy armored hands, as though she were a small child.

“Saying goodbye to a self-professed madman.  Is she okay?”

“She’s breathing, but I can tell she’s hurting.”

I nodded, glancing over my shoulder as the others caught up.  Bitch brought her dogs.

We entered the front door, and I saw the amassed capes within.  Innumerable teams, looking after their wounded, lacking in direction.  The temple interior had no benches, and bedding had been laid out flat on the ground, capes set down in rows.  Medical teams were scrambling to take care of them, and capes with first aid experience were hurrying to help.  Dispatch already had his costume jacket off, his sleeves rolled up, and his hands dirty, taking care of a cape in power armor.  Parian was sitting on a mattress, tearing at her sleeve to show the burn, with Foil and Citrine beside her.

I couldn’t help but notice that more than half of the capes were covered in white sheets.  That wasn’t counting the innumerable capes left lying dead in the streets, like we’d done with Regent.  Behemoth killed more easily than he wounded.

Clockblocker had fallen.  I looked for him in the crowd of injured.  I didn’t see him.  Then again, I had my suspicions already.  This only helped justify them.

Too many others I needed to track, to watch for.  But I couldn’t use my bugs, and the dust and smoke had desaturated the colors.  Blood, in other places, marred the colors further.

“Miss,” a local man in white said, in an accented voice, “You cannot bring these animals.”

He was talking to Rachel, who glowered in response.

“Leave the dogs outside,” I said.

“I’m not leaving my fucking dogs,” she said, her voice hard.

Damn itMy eyes roved over the crowd, but I couldn’t see Grue or Tattletale.  I didn’t want to use my bugs, not in a sterile environment.  It was left to me to rein her in some.

“You can come and look for Grue and Tattletale with me, or you can stay outside with the dogs.”

She scowled, and for a second, I thought she’d stride out of the doors.  Instead, she pointed, barking out orders, “Out!  Go guard!”

The dogs filed out of the double doors of the temple.  I could see the man relax visibly.

Don’t let Grue be dead.  Don’t let Grue be dead, I thought.  Tattletale was okay, she was okay the last time I saw her.

“My friends, they were stable,” I told the man in white.  I saw Tecton crossing the room to lay Cuff out on one of the thin mattresses, turned my attention back to the man.  “They were here since a little while ago.  Where are they?”

“Stable?  They were better?”

“Mostly better.”

“Up,” he said, pointing at the nearest stairwell.

I used my flight pack without thinking, to give myself extra speed as I headed to the stairs.  Rachel was just behind me, her boots thudding on the floor.

There were more wounded above, recuperating in a long, narrow room with beds on one side.  In a grim twist, like a reminder of how close they’d come to dying, the opposite side of the room had more mattresses on the floor, more bodies.

How many dead, all in all?  Fifteen in this room alone, placed side by side, their shoulders touching.

“Skitter,” Grue said, as I approached. Tattletale stood at his bedside, her phone in hand.  There were no curtains here.  No privacy.  This was all improvised, care facilities hashed together with what the locals had on hand.  He still wore his helmet, but he had his jacket off.  He noted the arrival of the others.  “Imp.  Bitch.”

“It’s Weaver now,” I corrected him.

“You’ll-”

“I know,” I said.  I looked at his arm.  The burned flesh had angry blisters.  “You okay?”

A hand pushed at me, moving me out of the way.  Imp.  She approached her brother’s bedside.

“Hey kid,” he said.  Beside him, I could see Tattletale’s reaction.  She was silent, silenced by the damage to her throat, but she communicated well enough, that she’d drawn the full conclusion from our presence.  Her eyes closed, her head lowered.  There was no smile on her face, as she heaved out a whistling sigh through the plastic tube taped to her throat-wound.

“Regent’s dead,” Imp said.

I could see Grue go still.

As if reminding us of the culprit, there was a distant rumble.  It grew steadily in intensity, then stopped abruptly.  As far as I could tell, with bugs spread out over the area within two thousand feet or so, the Endbringer wasn’t moving any closer to us.

“I should have been there,” Grue said.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t,” Imp retorted.

I put a hand on her shoulder.  She tried to knock it away, and I dug my fingers in as I refused to cooperate.  It must have hurt; my old costume’s fingertips had clawed points.  She didn’t say anything on the subject.

“No, Grue,” I told him.  “You want to feel bad?  That’s allowed, but I forbid you from taking the actual blame for this.”

“You can’t do that,” he said.  His voice was hard.  “I’m team leader, not you.  I’m supposed to pick up the slack, remember?  I’m supposed to manage these guys.  So don’t turn around and decide shit like this, when you leftI dropped the ball.  I didn’t move fast enough, I got hurt, and because of that, I wasn’t there to help, to lead.”

“You’re not allowed to take the blame, because if you start, then I’ve got to own up to it too,” I said.  “I-”

My breath hitched.  It caught me off guard.  I had to stop and take a deep breath.

Staying calm, composed, with my words carefully measured out, I said, “-I was there, and there was nothing I could do.  And if you’re saying you could have done better, I’ve got to think I could have too.  So I’ll match you one for one on any guilt trips.”

He sighed, heavy.  “Fuck.”

“Fuck,” Imp echoed him.

“Fuck,” Rachel followed, from the entrance to the room, as if we were toasting Regent in our own messed up way.  Tattletale was nodding.

Fuck,” I agreed.

“Christ,” Grue said.  “What do you even say to that?  How… how do you even pay your respects to a guy like him?”

“He was a jerk, and worse,” I said.  I saw Imp bristle, but held on to her shoulder, “And he died for Imp’s sake.”

Grue looked startled at that, as much as one could look startled with an all-consuming costume like the one he wore.  Tattletale, beside him, was unfazed.  She frowned a little.

“Christ,” he said, again.

“So maybe we respect him by respecting that.”

There was no response to that for a few seconds.

“Yeah,” Imp said, her voice small.  “I’m going to fucking kill his dad for him.”

“That’s not what I meant,” I said.  “I meant we should remember the best part of him.”

“That part of him would’ve killed his dad too,” Imp said.

I sighed.  I wouldn’t win here.

I changed the subject, seeing how quiet Grue was.  “You should know, Grue, we got ours back.  We hurt him.  Behemoth.”

Grue raised his head, meeting my eyes with the empty black eye sockets of his mask.

“The others will explain,” I said.  I let my hand fall from Imp’s shoulder.  “You wouldn’t believe how much I want to be an Undersider again, right this moment… fuck me, I want to remember the guy, to reminisce.  But this isn’t over, and I’ve got another team to help look after.”

“We’ll-”  Grue started.  He stopped as some doctors came barreling in, wheeling in beds with unconscious capes.

“Out!” one of them shouted at us.  “No more visiting, there isn’t room!”

“Asshole!” Imp snarled, jumping out of the way as someone moved the bed beside Grue’s, nearly sandwiching her between the two.

Go,” Grue ordered her.  “Go irritate someone who isn’t loaded with painkillers.”

“A way of remembering Regent?” she asked, as if she were trying to be funny, but there was a break to her voice as she altered the pitch to make it a question.

“Exactly,” he said.

“Fuck it,” she said, under her breath.  “Fuck it, fuck it.”

We left the room, with only Grue and Tattletale staying.  The three of us made our way down the stairs, Rachel just to my right.

I glanced over my shoulder at Imp.  Her head was lowered a fraction, her arms folded.  Her gaze was on the rows and columns of injured and dead capes in the main hall.

We hadn’t brought Regent’s body.  We’d left it lying in the streets, too busy trying to stay alive to collect it.  Was that what she was thinking about?

There was a rumble, with a shaking that affected the whole structure.  Something distant, beyond my power’s range.  A heavy crash.  Somewhere in a northwesterly direction.

Phir Sē, I thought.  Had that been his complex?

At the entrance to the temple, heroes were gathering.  Our last stand.  I could see the Chicago wards at one corner.  Tecton was talking to Wanton, who was on crutches.  Wanton’s right arm ended in a stump at the elbow, bandaged with crimson on the end.

Bad luck, I thought.

I joined Tecton, only to realize that Rachel had accompanied me.  I supposed she didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Imp didn’t either.  Another glance showed her lagging behind the group, clearly lost in thought.

I lowered my voice “Rachel, maybe you can do me a favor?”

“Hm?”

I ordered my thoughts, then voiced them, “Grue and Tattletale are too injured to help out.  I’m focused on other stuff, and Parian and Foil are looking after each other.  Can you keep an eye on Imp?”

Rachel made a face.  “I thought you wanted me to do something.”

“This is key,” I said.  “She needs someone to be there, right now.  That’s all.”

“I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do.  What if she gets…?”

Rachel trailed off.  Emotional?

“Support her,” Tecton cut in.  I suppressed the urge to wince.  He went on, “She’s your teammate, right?”

“How the fuck do I support someone?” she asked.  “Stupid.  Not my thing.”

“You-” I started, but Tecton was already talking, his voice deeper, his conviction stronger.  Grace was listening in as well, now.

Empathize,” he said.

Rachel glowered at him, unimpressed.

He tried again, earnest, “Okay, here’s a cheat I learned in a leadership seminar.  It’s called active listening.  Someone says something, a complaint, or a criticism, or they’re excited about something that happened to them.  For a lot of us, our instinct is to offer a solution, or expand on an idea, to fix or offer something.  The key is to think about how they’re feeling, be receptive to that, and parrot it back to them.  They just got a new car, and they’re happy about it?  A simple ‘that’s excellent’ or ‘you must be so proud’ works.  It leaves room for them to keep talking, to know you’re listening.  For your teammate who just lost someone she obviously cared about, just recognizing that she’s upset and she’s right to feel upset, that’s enough.”

I opened my mouth to say something, but I couldn’t even begin to sum up how useless this advice was to Rachel in particular.

“That’s retarded,” Rachel told Tecton.

“It works.  And I know Grace is going to say something to me about it, about it being fake or false, but the thing is, you do that, and you start to do it because it’s genuine, because you care about their feelings, or because-”

I cut him off.  “Tecton.”

He fell silent, turning my way.

“We don’t have time to get into anything complicated,” I said.

“It’s retarded anyways,” Rachel added.

I turned to her.  “Rachel, did you ever have a dog with a deep attachment to another person or dog?  Someone they lost, before they found their way to a shelter, or to you?  Where they were still dealing, after the fact?”

She gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“How would you treat that dog?”  I asked.

“Dunno, depends on the dog.”

“Basically, though?  You’d just be there, right?  Do that for Imp.  Stay close, make sure she doesn’t run off, as much as that’s even possible with her, and give her the benefit of your company without intruding into her space.  Make sure she has all of the basics, both in the near future and in the next few days.”

“Okay,” Rachel said, frowning a little.

“I know it’s not the easiest thing, but she’s a teammate, all right?  It’s what we do for our team.”

“Right.”

“And just like a dog that’s had a recent bad experience might snap, bark or growl, you need to understand that she might do the same.  Only it’ll probably take a different form.  She’ll swear a lot.  She’ll probably try to get a rise out of you, try to provoke you or someone else.  That’s how Imp growls.”

Rachel didn’t even offer me a monosyllabic response at that.  She frowned instead.

“Trust your instincts, Rachel.  You’re smarter than you think, and your gut responses, the decisions you make on the fly, they’re good ones.  Turning around and using the chain for a second cut, back there?  That was good.”

Anyone else might have accepted the praise with a smile, but her frown only deepened.

“How was your advice better than mine?” Tecton asked.  He sounded a touch offended.

“Customized to the individual,” Grace said.  “Don’t be a sore loser.”

“I’m not sore.  I’m just usually pretty good at this, and I got called retarded.”

“The advice was called retarded,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll explain another day, if we make it through this.  How’s Cuff?”

“Skin’s badly burned, but the burn didn’t go much further than that.  She’ll have the most amazing scars, too.  No serious internal or mental damage, as far as we can tell, but her muscles convulsed so badly they broke a bone.”

I winced.

“She’ll make it to tomorrow, provided this doesn’t turn ugly,” Tecton said.

I nodded.  I sensed a rumble.  I couldn’t tell how distant the attack was.

Where the hell was the bastard?  I was a little caught off guard by how quiet things had gone.  He was giving us a chance to regroup?  Or was he letting us gather, so he could take us all out at once?

“Don’t suppose you can sense seismic activity?” I asked.

“Not with my suit.  My computers got toasted.  I’m running purely off the basics, and my intuitive understanding.  Stuff I reinforced, so I wouldn’t get trapped in my suit like I did with Shatterbird.”

I nodded.

“Generally, though?”

“He’s taking his time.”

If he was massing his strength for one good retaliatory hit, how would he do it?

Volcanos?  Earthquake?

“Let’s go,” I said.

“Go?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” I said.  I turned to look for Rachel, saw her a distance away, her arms folded as she stood beside Imp.  They were looking at the sea of injured capes.  “Rachel!”

I saw her attention snap to me.

“Go!  Get your dogs!”  I said.  I turned to the Chicago Wards, “Wards!  Bikes!”

“You’re serious,” Tecton said.

“Everything I know about Endbringers, about basic parahuman psychology, it demands retaliation.  What’s he done so far?  Saturated an area in radiation?  Thrown a few lightning bolts around?”

“You’re expecting worse.”

“I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Go.  Spread out.  We might need to respond to an attack on another location, with no time to spare.”

Tecton nodded.  He turned to his Wards, “Go!”

I pushed my way through the gathered crowd.  I could see Defiant, with Dragon beside him.

“Weaver,” he said.  “Dragon says that was you, with the blast.”

I shook my head.  “I helped coordinate, nothing more.”

“You hurt him.”

We hurt him.  And he’s burrowed.  He’s looking for a target, and I can’t think of a better place for him to hit than this.”

“We’d be able to put up a fight.  We have defensive lines.”

“Probably,” I agreed.  “But my guys are moving out anyways.  We’ve never done this much damage to him, and yet he’s sticking around.  What I’m wondering is, why?”

Defiant glanced at Dragon, then spoke.  “He’s-”

The ground shuddered.  Again, as before, the rumbling intensified.

This time, it didn’t stop.  It got worse with every passing second.

“Reinforce!”  A cape hollered.  Someone else took up the call in an Indian language.  Hindi?  Punjabi?

I could see Annex flowing into the entryway, soaring through the wall’s surface to the ceiling.  Golem created his hands, protecting the rows and columns of injured capes.

There was a press as the bodies flowed out the door.  I used my flight pack to fly over their heads, but even then, I bumped shoulders with others who could fly.  I wanted to help, but there was little I could do inside.

Eidolon and Alexandria had arrived at the building.  Eidolon touched the exterior wall, and an emerald green glow started to surround the structure.

The rumbling reached the point where capes were unable to keep their balance.  I raised off the ground, but the movement of the air in response to the shuddering was enough to make me sway.

Tattletale.  Grue.  Parian.

Behemoth emerged with a plume of gray-brown smoke, and the landscape shattered.  It was Tecton’s natural power, taken to an extreme.  Fissures lanced out in every direction and disappeared into each horizon.  Secondary fissures crossed between each of the major ones, like the threads of a spider’s web.

As far as the eye could see in every direction, terrain shifted.  Hillsides abruptly tilted, standing structures fell like collapsing houses of cards.

A full quarter of the temple collapsed.  The bugs I’d kept to the edges of the room could sense it as a small share of the capes who were in the entry hall were caught beneath the falling rubble.  The ones furthest towards the back.  Eidolon’s protective effect kept the remainder intact.

Behemoth emerged from the smoke.  He was more robust than he had been, but that wasn’t saying much.  Seventy percent burned away, perhaps.  The regeneration had slowed, but it was still functioning to a degree.  He’d recuperated, built his strength, and he’d used the time to, what?  Burrow through strategic areas?  Had the distant rumbles been controlled detonations or collapses at key areas?

The temple was the one building that stood.  Everywhere else, there was devastation.

How many refugees had just died, with this?  How many had stayed within their homes, rather than try to evacuate?

I felt hollow inside, just standing there, stunned, trying to take it all in.  The area around us was still settling, sections of land tilting and sliding like sinking battleships sliding into the water.

How many of us were left?  Seventy?  Eighty?  How many of them were hurt, exhausted, their resources spent?  Could we even coordinate, with so many of us speaking different languages?

“Last stand!” a male cape I didn’t know hollered the words, his voice ragged with fear and emotion.

Behemoth, three or four hundred feet away, responded to the shout with a lightning strike.  Our capes were too slow to erect barriers, and the protection insufficient.  Capes died.  For the first time, I averted my eyes.  I didn’t want to know how bad the casualties were.  Our numbers were too thin.

I saw our Protectorate, what remained of it, stepping forward to form our defensive line.  Our last defensive line.  The major ones, the ones I’d been introduced to, too many had died, or were injured.  These were unfamiliar faces.  The ones who were second in command, if that.

Eidolon landed to one side.  The Triumvirate had often posed in that classic ‘v’ formation, with Legend in front, Alexandria to his left, Eidolon to the right, the lesser members in the wings, Eidolon was now apart from the rest of the group.  His cape didn’t billow, his posture was slightly slumped.  He was tired, on his last legs.

There were murmurs as Alexandria advanced from within the temple.  Unlike so many of us, she didn’t flinch as Behemoth struck out with lightning, the barriers holding this time.  Golem had raised lightning rods on either side of the road, fingers splayed as if he could gesture for Behemoth to stop.

Alexandria found her way to the end of the crowd opposite Eidolon, to our far left.  Satyrical and the other Vegas capes followed her.  Only a small fraction of them remained.  Others had apparently been injured or killed in battle.

Alexandria glanced over our ranks, and her eyes moved right past me, not even recognizing me.  For the briefest instant, I met her eyes behind that steel helmet of hers, and I saw that one had a pink iris.

That answered my question, I supposed.  Pretender couldn’t take over a corpse, but there was no reason for him to take over Alexandria if she was alive and well.  Cauldron had collected Pretender, and they had him controlling her because she was no longer of any use to them on her own.

Our side was busy getting sorted into groups, spreading out so he couldn’t hurt too many of us at once.  We were finding our formations, as our toughest capes absorbed and redirected the lightning he was throwing in an almost experimental manner.  He changed tacks, throwing flame, and a team composed entirely of pyrokinetics caught and redirected it with a concerted effort.  I backed away, and found Tecton at my back, with the remaining Chicago Wards.  Bitch stood just off to one side, her dogs ready.

One structure among several hundred thousand still stood, and our adversary was wounded, though undiminished.  Our ranks had been thinned in the most violent ways possible, through fire and lightning and a roar that could render organs to mush.  We weren’t stronger than we’d been at the start of all of this.  I couldn’t even say that the weak had been thinned out, or that we’d been united through hardship or loss.  Behemoth had picked off some of the strongest of us, and the trust between our factions was thin at best, with some eyeing the Yàngbǎn, others watching Satyrical’s contingent.  We were just less.

“Hold the line,” Exalt called out.  Other capes translated for him, echoing his words with only a few seconds of delay, in four or five different languages.  “We defend until the ones inside can be evacuated, and then we leave.  There’s nothing left to protect here.”

A thin heroism, but that was heroic, wasn’t it?  Protecting the wounded, defending the ones who’d put everything on the line to stop this monster.

If this was all a kind of microcosm for the world at large, that small heroism had to count for something.  I wanted it to so badly I ached for it.

Behemoth roared, and the last engagement opened.

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Crushed 24.4

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Particulate said something, and the amount of invective in his tone was enough to make it clear, even if I couldn’t understand the language.

Phir Sē said something in response, his voice calm, almost as though he were talking to a child, then took another drink of his water.  His eyes didn’t leave the screens.

Behemoth had nearly reached India Gate.  The defense continued to be staggered.  One to four parahumans working together to slow him, to impede his progress and buy time for the others to wear him down.  When they failed, the measures circumvented or the capes in question killed, he advanced, the heroes retreated as best as they were able, and they enacted the next counteroffensive.

But each time they fought, he did damage.  Capes perished, tinker devices were turned into lumps of hot metal.  Each time the capes mounted a defense, the defense was weaker.

“Something is wrong,” Phir Sē said.

“Chevalier was attacked,” I answered.  “They were planning a coordinated defense, I think, but someone beheaded our group at the worst possible time.”

“I see.”

“I’m not going to ask any questions about how you guys operate, but it’s obvious you’re organized.”

“Careful,” Phir Sē told me.  He didn’t even look at me.  The defensive line was using Clockblocker, now.  They’d erected a loose grid of wires, almost invisible, but for the flashing lights set at regular intervals.  Alexandria and Eidolon were trying to hammer the Endbringer into the barricade.

“You’ve got secrets to protect.  Fine.  Cool.  I’m not going to pry.  But maybe we’ve walked similar paths.  We had similar practices, probably.”

He cast me a momentary glance over his shoulder, meeting my eyes for a second before he turned back to the screens.  An acknowledgement, without accepting or denying my point.

“My old team wasn’t nearly as effective as you guys seem to be.  But we operated in secret, we understood some key elements.  The need for information, having to know when to go on the offense, being unpredictable against enemies who are already expecting you to try and catch them off guard.”

“Talk slower, please,” Phir Sē told me.  “My English is not strong, and I am very tired.”

He looked like he might drop any minute, like he’d barely eaten, hadn’t slept…

“How long has it been since you slept?”  I asked.

“Three days.  We thought an Endbringer would attack soon, so I prepared, to be ready when the time came.  Too early, I had to stop, restart.  This time, he came, but I am weary.  The talking, is good.  Distracting without being dangerous.  Continue, please.”

What happens if he nods off?  I wondered, looking at the ‘time bomb’.  The same thing he’d stated would happen if he were killed or knocked out?

“Okay,” I answered.  I took a second to compose my thoughts.  “You mentioned how you have to be hard, heavy handed if you’re going to succeed in a situation where your enemies are as scary as the people you and I have gone up against.”

“Yes.  Heavy handed.  Like the judge’s hammer…”

“Gavel,” I supplied.

“The gavel.  Harsh justice.  Crush the enemies who cannot be converted to your side or convinced to do otherwise.”

“Yes,” I said.  I thought for a second, then made my argument.  “And you know the power of having all of the information.  The power of having a group that can communicate that information.  Communication is key, and a group that doesn’t even need to communicate because they function so well together is better yet.”

“You had this.”

With the Undersiders.  “We were close.  And losing that, it’s scary.  Maybe the least fun part about being a hero.  But you understand?  You agree, about information and communication?”

He didn’t respond, as he watched the screen.  Is he going to nod off right here?

On the monitors, a successful hit on Eidolon’s part struck Behemoth into the grid of wires.  It had taken time for the Endbringer to approach the wires, set safely outside of his kill range, and some were already coming free of Clockblocker’s power.  Still, they sank deep, cutting a diamond-shaped pattern into his hide, shoulder to heel.  Alexandria charged, trying to drive it home, and Behemoth struck out with one claw, a swipe.

He must have captured all of her forward momentum and motive impact and redirected it at her, because he didn’t move an inch in response to the hit, and she crashed into the ground at a shallow diagonal angle.  Her body carved a trench a few hundred feet long, judging by the cloud of dust that rose in her wake.

Behemoth lurched forward, and the grid of wires cut him again on their way out.  Chunks of flesh were carved free.

The Endbringer clapped his hands together, and forcefields went down, defenses and defending capes falling in response to the impact.

Clockblocker’s grid of wires dropped out of the sky, blinking white lights falling like sparks from a large firework.  I suspected that I knew what it meant.

Shit.  I hoped he was okay.  Clockblocker wasn’t a bad guy, as heroes went.

“I agree,” Phir Sē told me, belatedly.  “And I think I see what you are going to say.”

“Let’s communicate with them.  With everyone.  Half the screwed up crap I’ve seen, it’s been because we’re fighting between ourselves.  The best achievements, the truly heroic stuff I’ve seen?  It’s been when we worked together.  So let’s maximize our chances.”

“You have been doing this how long?  A year?”

“Months.”

“I have been doing this for ten years.  I admire you for retaining your…” he trailed off.

“Idealism?”

“Not a word I’m familiar with, Weaver.  Faith?”

“Faith works.”

“I have none left, after ten years.  No faith.  We are a wretched, petty species, and we have been given power to destroy ourselves with.”

“Ironic, given what you’re trying to do here.  You’re going to kill people, kill bystanders, on a gamble.”

Phir Sē peered at me.  “What chances would you give this gamble?”

“One in three?”

His stare was cold as he met my eyes.  “One in three.  That is… perhaps unfair.  No matter.  If I’m wrong, we lose this city.  If I’m right, we kill Behemoth.  I would take those odds, Weaver.  I would take them, I would watch this city be wiped from the earth, knowing that people I am fond of would die.  I live in a civilian guise most days, waiting until I have a task from those more powerful than I.  I would perhaps be killing the butcher I talk to every day when I walk to the store for food.  I would kill the widow who lives next door to me, her child, if they have not evacuated.  I have mentioned my daughter, much like you in her abundance of faith in people.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call myself an idealist to that extent,” I said.  I paused.  “Phir Sē-”

We’d started talking at the same time.  He talked over me, half of his attention on the screens.  “I will take this gamble and perhaps kill those people in the process.  I will kill those people who can make me smile and feel more human than I am, I will grieve their deaths, and then I will take that gamble again.  Because one city, however grand, is worth that chance.”

I thought of doing that, of rolling the dice like that, with my father, with the people in my territory.  “Easier to say than do.”

“I have done it, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me.  “My wife, my sons, years ago.  A similar problem on a smaller scale.  I can walk through minutes, I could have walked back to save them, but I let them die because it meant a monster would remain gone.  What merit is a gamble, a sacrifice, if you stake things that matter nothing to you?”

I stared at him.  He was young, no older than thirty-five, but the lines of his face, the slumped posture, the slowness with which he moved… they spoke of a horrendous exhaustion.

I didn’t have a response for Phir Sē’s question.  He smiled a little, and turned back to the screens.

Behemoth was roaring, a sound that didn’t reach us underground.  With the monitors on mute, it didn’t translate there either.  Still, the images vibrated, the flickering intensified, and the defenses the heroes had established were crumbling.  India Gate was damaged, an incidental casualty of the fight more than a target.

My bugs sensed motion to my left.  I glanced at Particulate, and saw him holding his scanner behind his back.

It was pointed at Phir Sē’s ‘time bomb’.

His other hand was drawing a slender gun from a pocket in his combination lab coat and jacket, a gun like something from retro science fiction, with no barrel.  There was only a small extension on the end, much like a satellite dish.

Another disintegration gun?

He saw me looking, glanced at Phir Sē, who had his back turned, then looked back at me.  His eyes flicked over in Phir Sē’s direction, his intention clear.

He had a solution in mind.  A way to disable the explosion and stop Phir Sē.

I had only an instant to decide, before the teleporter intervened, or Phir Sē noticed what was going on.

I met Particulate’s eyes and nodded once, curt.

The scanner disappeared into a pocket, and he drew something like a grenade from within his flowing coat.  Then he drew the gun on Phir Sē.  I felt the tug of the thread in my hand, attached to the gun.

Without thinking, I hauled on it, pulling it off-target.  The gun hit one screen, two feet to Phir Sē’s right, at stomach level.  It exploded into a swirling cloud of black dust.

Phir Sē whirled around.  He barked out a word I couldn’t understand.

“No!” I called out.

Phir Sē made a gesture with his hand, just as the teleporter flickered into existence.  The man didn’t intersect Particulate, but appeared behind him, deftly disarming him of the grenade and pistol before flickering back out of existence.  He took Particulate with him.

“Don’t kill him,” I said.

“You would feel… blameful?” Phir Sē asked.

Blameful?  “Guilty,” I corrected him, before I realized what I was doing.

I could see the small smile on Phir Sē’s face, disappointed and proud and a condemnation at the same time.  “I watch you.  In reflection of screen.  You set him up, to put yourself in my good will.”

Had I?  Not wholly consciously.  I’d set up the string, but how much of that was intentional?  Was it habit, now, to have a measure on hand when dealing with any weapon?

I focused on the swarm, focused on the cords and threads that traced the room.  One in the doorway, one at each of Phir Sē’s feet, just waiting for me to finish the deal and bind him.  Others extended between us, spiders poised to cut the threads or tie them, as the situation demanded.

The passenger, or was it me, being wary?

“I guess I did,” I said.  I made the spiders cut the threads between us.

He shook a finger at me, “I was not born yesterday.  This silliness could have gotten you killed.  Would have, if I did not feel need for outsider to challenge my ideas.”

“I guess…” I said, searching for the phrase, “A gamble’s not meaningful if you’re not staking something important, right?”

He smiled a little, and there was a slight twinkle in his eye, “Your life?”

“I suppose,” I said.  My heart was still pounding, my mouth dry, and it wasn’t just the Phir Sē thing, or the teleporter.  The passenger.

“You think.  So we know where you stand, now.  You are crafty, dangerous.  Underhanded.  You turn on an ally and use him as a pawn to express something to me.”

“He wasn’t quite an ally,” I said.  “He helped us get inside this underground base.  But he was reckless.  Breaking into this chamber in the first place, preparing to attack you.  A chaotic element.”

“I do not know this ‘chaotic’ word, but I get your meaning, I think.  There was no communication,” Phir Sē said.  He smiled as though we shared a private joke.

“I’m doing what I have to, to ensure we all come out of this ahead.  Just like you, but I didn’t get the ability to manipulate time, or to create this sort of ‘time bomb’.  I work on a smaller scale.”

“I get the joke,” Phir Sē told me.  “It is joke?  Small?”

“Sort of,” I said, and I smiled a little in return, behind my mask.  This guy was borderline unhinged, too much power in too unstable a package, and I almost liked him.

“What is it you wish to express to me, Weaver, that you would sacrifice a pawn and risk your own life?”

I wasn’t sure I had a response to that.  I tried anyways.  “You want to hit Behemoth with your time bomb?  Okay, let’s do it.”

“Oh?  You protested only minutes ago.”

“I’m not about to change your mind, I’m not about to stop you.  So let’s make it happen.  We’ll let the defending heroes know what’s up, set up something-”

“Slower.  Speak slower.”

“Let me go.  We work together with the heroes.”

“The heroes will die in minutes.  Before you arrive.”

I glanced at the screen.  How bad was it?  It was so hard to get a sense of how many heroes still stood.  An ugly feeling gripped my chest.

“We’ll try.  Let me try.  I can give you a signal.  You strike then.”

“You are asking me to have faith.”

Let me go, Phir Sē,” I told him.  “You said you have to stake something that matters on a gamble.  Stake your doubt.”

“I do not understand this,” he said, suddenly sounding weary.  “My English-”

“It’s not your English; what I’m saying doesn’t make a lot of sense,” I said.  I had to resist the urge to rush and hurry through the explanation.  “But your doubt, your lack of faith, it’s something safe.  No disappointments, no fear things won’t work out.    Risk that.  Risk losing that.  I did, when I became a hero.”

“Not such a hero,” he said.  “Bargain with the madman, turn on an ally.”

“I’m realizing I’m a pretty lousy hero,” I agreed.  “But I’m trying.  I made a leap of faith.  I’m asking you to as well.”

He smiled a little, then reached forward and took my hand.  He raised it, simultaneously bending over, and kissed the back of it.

“One more,” he said.

“One more?”

“To wager on a gamble.  A pleasant conversation I might look forward to.  Gone, when you die.”

Die?

He spoke a word, and I tensed.  I tried to pull my hand back, but he held on, my fingers wrenching painfully as I tried to get away.

The teleporter appeared just behind me.  His manifestation was followed by a gentle brush of air, as oxygen was displaced from the area his body now occupied.  I could feel my heart skip a beat, the air catching in my throat.

No pain.  A second passed as I made an assessment, realized that he hadn’t impaled me with one of his limbs.  Only surprise, and that vague sense of a killer instinct.

The man’s hands settled on me.

“Fifteen minutes, Weaver,” Phir Sē told me, releasing my hand.  “Fifteen minutes, or if the heroes cannot put up fight any longer, whichever is first.”

And I was gone, out of the basement, planted in the midst of the battlefield.  Phir Sē wasn’t even in my range.  I’d made the call to work with him, and now it was set in stone. There would be no going back to change his mind, to stop him.  He’d strike, guaranteed.

Even with the filter of my mask, the smell of ozone and the heated air burned the edges of my nostrils.  Acrid smoke was so thick in the air that I could taste it, breathing in through my nose.

And Behemoth loomed in front of me, far too close for comfort, his silhouette shrouded in the smoke around him.

I turned and activated the antigrav panels, running to help get up to speed before it could help me lift off.  

The ground abruptly tilted under my feet, a steep shelf of street and underlying rock rising in front of me, blocking my path.  I managed to grab the uppermost edge with my hands, hauling myself forward enough that the flight pack could take over.

No bugs.  I’d left them behind in Phir Sē’s lair.  If I’d thought about it, I might have asked for time to collect them.  At the same time, I couldn’t have spared the minutes.

Two or three thousand bugs, the only silk I had were the cords that were still attached to me, the ones I’d stretched between Phir Sē and myself and then cut.  I had my taser, laughably petty in the face of Behemoth, a small canister of pepper spray, and the flight pack.

Long odds, even at the best of it.  I pressed the button on my armband, spoke into it, and got only silence in response.

My bugs moved throughout the battlefield, and I marked every cape I came across.  Shelter was scarce, and hard to make out in the smoke.  Each flash of lightning marked an unfortunate cape who’d found themselves too far from cover and in Behemoth’s sights.

In the midst of it all, I could speak and I couldn’t make myself out.  It was almost like being in Grue’s darkness, before his second trigger event.  Couldn’t see.  Couldn’t hear.  My movements, even, were harder to judge.  I felt like there was a pressure, here, as if the smoke had substance, and even Behemoth’s existence, somewhere nearby, was weighing on me.  Was I tired, or was everything heavier?  Or, it struck me, maybe the oxygen content in the air was lower.

I wasn’t sure about the ramifications of that.

So few bugs to draw on.  Five to ten touched a single cape, allowed me to check if they were anyone I recognized, then all but one would leave.  One bug per cape, the rest scouting.

Ligeia was the first I recognized.  The conch shell mask, one of Accord’s people.  Citrine would be close by…

Or not.  I swore under my breath, touched ground to reorient myself, then hurried around a corner.

She was creating a massive portal, widening it with every passing moment.  It made me wonder if there was a reason there were so few recordings of the Endbringer attacks, if the PRT hid this sort of thing.  They’d hidden the particulars of the Echidna attack, and one of the reasons Alexandria had argued, a reason I had argued in favor of that, was because it wouldn’t go over well with the public to know just how much devastation a single parahuman could be capable of.

Her portal was perhaps twenty feet across, circular, and cold water gushed out, as if forced by an incredible pressure.

It was the sort of defensive measure that you employed when there weren’t any frontline combatants left.  A desperate, violent one, like Sundancer’s sun.  My bugs found her ear, and I communicated as clearly as I could, “Run.”

She didn’t hear.  Doggedly, she stood her ground, drenching Behemoth, widening the portal’s radius.  So hard to tell just how much, without losing bugs to the spray.  Twenty five feet?  Thirty?

Run,” I tried again.  I muttered, “Run, Ligeia.”

He erupted with lightning, and I could momentarily see his silhouette in the distance, the light cutting through the thick clouds of smoke and dust.  I could see the tendrils of lightning as though through a strobe light, holding positions as they followed the flow of the water, then changing to other targets, finding solid conductors to latch onto.  The entire geyser was lit up.

She changed tacks, and the portal began sucking.  The lightning disappeared, and Behemoth stumbled forwards towards the opening, the water now reversing direction.

Eidolon appeared like a spear from the heavens, striking him between the shoulderblades.  Behemoth nearly crashed through.  His claw settled on the portal’s edge, as though it had a physical mass to it, slipped through.  The lightning wasn’t traveling far, now, and the image of it was soon lost in the smoke.

The portal closed, and Behemoth managed to claw his way back, simultaneously fending off Eidolon, the lighting growing stronger with every passing second.

He lurched, and dropped several feet, the ground shaking.  The light show marked the geyser spraying up around his leg, apparently having sunken into a portal.

Close it, I thought.  Sever it.

But she didn’t.  Not an option, it seemed.

Move, Taylor.  Deal with your own jobs first.  How long did I have?  Fifteen minutes?  Thirteen?  Twelve?  So hard to keep track of time right now.

My underlings.  Wanton, he was nearby.  Larger.  He carried stretchers with the wounded, which moved around the very periphery of his range, where they rotated slower, and other objects closer to his core.  An armband, a dismembered arm with scorch marks at the base.

His or someone else’s?

Once I caught up to him, I found the others a distance away.  Tecton had fashioned something crude to attach to his armor, a shelf on his back that would hold injured capes.  He rode his three-wheeled bike forward, stopped to slam his piledrivers into the ground to erect a wall of stone, punched through an obstruction, made more forward progress, and then created another wall.  A staggered retreat.  Grace, Cuff and Golem followed, each with wounded behind them on their vehicles.

Annex?  I couldn’t find him with my bugs.  He was either swimming alongside them, helping to clear the way, or he was injured.

I was on my way to catch up to them when Ligeia was struck down.  A chance lightning bolt had struck her, just like that.  Behemoth surged to his feet.  Lightning traced the arc of the water that still geysered up, less impressive with every passing second.

Even killing her hadn’t forced the portal closed.  Damn.

I came to a stop at Tecton’s side.

“Sorry,” I panted.  My voice sounded so rough-edged.  So hard to breathe.

“Tecton can’t talk,” Cuff said.  Her voice was oddly level, in contrast to how she’d acted early in the fight.

“What happened?”

“Clipped by another cape,” she said.  Still with no emotion, no affect.

“Doesn’t matter,” Grace cut in.  “Where the fuck were you?”

Tecton’s hand moved, settling on her shoulder.  Grace backhanded it away.

“I found what Behemoth wants,” I told her.  “Where’s Rime?”

“Dead,” Golem said.  He carried a small child, and was falling behind,

“Who’s next in command?”

“Prism, but she’s injured,” Grace said.

“I need to communicate with someone in charge, and we don’t have time,” I said.  “Dragon?  Defiant?”

“Metal suits are all toast,” Grace said.  “No clue about Defiant.”

“Revel?  Your boss?”  I asked.  Then I corrected myself.  “Our boss?”

“Saw her two minutes ago.  No word on chain of command.  She said we should run, take anyone we can help.  Scion’s dropped off the radar, but last we heard, he was heading north.  Not east, not west.  He has to be trying to avoid this fight,” Grace almost snarled the words.

“It’s not hopeless,” I said.  “We’ve got a shot, here.  Behemoth’s target is a weapon.  Kind of.”

“A weapon?” Golem asked.

“A bomb.  Maybe big enough that it makes an atom bomb look like a hand grenade.  Something that’s supposed to take down Endbringers.”

“No shit?”  Grace asked.  I could see a trace of hope in her expression.

“An energy weapon,” I clarified.

I saw that hope become confusion.  “But that’s-”

“It’s something that could go really right or really wrong,” I said.  I saw the confusion become a momentary despair.  “Which is exactly why we need to get in touch with someone that matters.  Where are the heroes?  Where was Revel?”

Golem pointed.  “That way.”

“Citrine?  Woman in yellow dress.”

“Yellow bodysuit now,” Golem said.  “She stripped out of the dress when he pushed past the command center.”

Fuck me.  Now that he mentioned that, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d sensed her with my bugs and dismissed her as a stranger.

“I think I know where she went,” I said.  Same direction Revel went.  I was already lifting off the ground.  “Go, drop off injured, then come back if you can.”

“Revel told us to scram,” Grace said.

“I’m telling you that we need to distract that motherfucker for five seconds,” I said.  “Where’s Annex?”

“Here,” Annex said, from behind me.

I turned to look as he stepped out of a building.

“You’re with me,” I told him.  He didn’t have any wounded with him.

“I need to ride something,” he said, “Not fast enough.”

“Define ‘something’,” I told him.

“Something heavy enough to hold my entire body mass.”

Could I hold an entire other person?  No.  I could hold a child, but that’d be a stretch.

“Climb inside my costume,” I told him.  “The flight pack too.”

He gave me a bewildered look.  “You realize I’d be right against-”

“Move!”  I barked.  How long did I have?  Not enough time.  Modesty was not an issue.

He flowed into my costume, and I could feel him against my skin, his body strangely cold and smooth.  A lump of him stuck out over one shoulder.  His head, not quite normal, not quite his specter form, had formed itself in my shoulderpad.

And we were too heavy for the antigravity.

I’d have to gamble, make compromises, take risks.  I looked to the others, “Reach deep inside, find your second wind.  Find your third wind, if you can.  Rendezvous with me over there if you can make it in eight or ten minutes.”

Then I deployed my wings, activated the propulsion system alongside the antigrav.  It was slow to lift off, but it was faster than running. 

If I got shocked, or if the electromagnetic radiation got any worse, this could cut out on me any second, but I needed to move.  I needed assets, even if I didn’t know for sure what I’d do with them.

The Chicago Wards peeled away behind me, abandoning the defensive walls and careful retreat in favor of speed.

We found the defensive lines in a minute, if that.

The Undersiders were there, fighting.  Three stuffed goats and the dogs provided an added barricade for them to hide behind, while Foil was firing her needles.  Regent held her quiver, handing her bolts to fire, while Imp lurked on the far side of the street, her back to the wall.  Citrine was peering between two dogs, erecting a field of golden light near the Endbringer.

Grue wasn’t with them.

“Gah!”  Regent cried out, as I landed, folding the wings back into place.  “Jesus fuck!”

Right, I had two heads.  “Out, Annex.”

Annex flowed out of my costume and straight into the ground.  Within seconds, he was shoring up the wall, drawing in debris and using it to rebuild and reinforce.

“Where’s Grue?” I asked.

“Hospital.  Burns,” Imp said.

I nodded.  “Bad?”

“More mentally than physically.”

Ah.

I could only hope he’d bounce back.  To business. “Revel.  American cape with sort of an Asian-themed costume, lantern.  Where is she?”

“Zapped,” Regent said.

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

My disbelief was tempered by a measure of alarm.  I was limited in time, and that was bad enough, but if Phir Sē decided our defending forces weren’t sufficient to put up a fight, he could strike sooner.  If I couldn’t find someone capable of leading the defense, if we were little more than scattered remnants, why would Phir Sē wait?

“Revel absorbs energy, kind of,” I said.  “She might be okay.”

“She got hit by lightning,” Regent told me.  “Kind of lethal.”

Rachel snorted.

I glanced at the dogs.  She didn’t seem to mind that they were somewhat exposed, huddled against the ruined wall the Undersiders were using for cover.  One of the dogs seemed to be reacting badly to the lightning strikes, and was huffing out deep, very un-doglike noises each time one struck nearby.

“Listen,” I said.  I flinched as lightning touched nearby.  He was focusing more on a quantity of bolts than on the really heavy hits.  Cleaning up the remanants of our defenses.  “Revel.  Where did she fall?  Or you could point me to anyone else that might be in charge?”

Parian pointed, almost absently.  I couldn’t tell if she was dismissing me or if her focus was taken up by the stuffed goats.  One took a lightning bolt, and she was patching it up and reinflating it within a second.

I took off.  Again, I tried my armband.  Static.  Better than nothing, but not ideal.

I passed over the contingent of Yàngbǎn.  Just getting near them, I could feel my powers swelling, my range growing, a crackling at the periphery of my attention.

And then it was gone.  I was leaving them behind.

Eerie.  Uncomfortable, even, with the recent reminder of how my powers were feeling vaguely out of my control.  A boost in range wasn’t worth any surprises on that front.  Bugs were almost useless here, more bugs wouldn’t make a difference.

Revel was in Dispatch’s company, alongside a cape in white, with a starburst worked into his helmet, radiating from the eyeholes and the gap for his mouth.  She was lying down, using a piece of rubble for cover.  She stirred as the ground rumbled, marking Behemoth’s rapid footsteps.  Not a run.  It felt off, saying something like him was running.  But a lope, like how a gorilla might move, that fit.

“She conscious?”  I asked, as I landed.

“She is,” Revel answered for herself.  She seemed to have to work to focus on me.  “Weaver?”

“I found what Behemoth is after.  Who can I talk to?”

Dispatch stepped out of the way, so the man in white with the starburst helm was free to act.

“Me,” the man in white said.  “I’m Exalt.  Interim leader.”

“The Texas Protectorate leader.”

“Houston Protectorate, yes.”

“A local cape has gathered up a whole mess of energy.  Enough to wipe India off the map.  He’s planning to hit Behemoth with it, in two or three minutes.”

“It won’t work,” Exalt said.

“I know it won’t work.  But he’s going to try, no matter what we do, and we need to distract the Endbringer long enough to give it a chance.”

He exchanged glances with the others.

Hurry, I thought.  I was panting, my mouth thick with the taste of ozone.  Even with my lenses, my eyes were watering from the peripheral smoke.

“Go,” Revel said.  “Expend it.”

Expend?

“It’s too soon,” Exalt said, “And we don’t have all the informat-”

“No time!  Decide now!”

I saw him hesitate.

Swearing under my breath, I turned on my heel and flew away.

I was burning bridges, but that was a hell of a lot better than everyone here dying.  How long did I have?  I couldn’t even begin to guess.  Two minutes?  Eight?

Big difference between the two.

Fuck it.  A waste of time.  I’d burned precious minutes finding them, and they’d been too slow to help.  I wasn’t sure I could work with the Protectorate, with the Wards.  Not if they failed us like this at this crucial juncture.

Assets.  Didn’t have enough resources here.  We needed to pull something decent, something that could…

I had no fucking idea.  How were we supposed to keep Behemoth sufficiently still and distracted, controlling a detonation that had the potential to level a continent?

The Chicago Wards were arriving, minus Wanton.  I signaled them with bugs to fine-tune the direction they were traveling, putting them en-route to the Undersiders.

And behind me, as if they were feeling guilty, Exalt and Dispatch were giving chase, rapidly catching up.  Dispatch moved in bursts of speed intersped with moments where he ran at a normal pace, Exalt flew with Revel in his arms.

I found the Yàngbǎn and approached.  They were reacting even before I’d landed, turning, hands raised to attack.  There were twenty of them, or close to.

“English?” I asked the Yàngbǎn.

They were silent, almost cold in response.

They were nationalist capes.  I was a foreigner, maybe an enemy by default.

“English, please.  This is it, the deciding moment.  Your help, it’s… it’s essential.”

No response.

Exalt, Revel and Dispatch were slowing as they approached me.  I drew an arrow in the air with the few bugs I had left and pointed them to the Undersiders.  They ignored the instruction, setting down just behind me.

“Weaver,” Exalt said.  His voice was grim.  “They aren’t allies.

“We need all the help we can get,” I said.

“The Yàngbǎn pulled an assassination attempt on Chevalier,” Exalt told me.

My eyes widened.

“A traitor among us,” a young man spoke, his voice badly accented.  Another snapped something at him, and he responded in Chinese.

None of the heroes replied.  I couldn’t bring myself to speak, couldn’t think of a single thing to say that would be remotely diplomatic, in the midst of this.

“We do need all the help we can get,” Exalt said, not taking his eyes off the group.  “You want to make amends?”

The English-speaking one translated for the others.  I fidgeted nervously.  How many minutes, now?  Why hadn’t I asked for more time?

Shì de!” one cried out.

“Shì de!” the group called out in unison.

“That’s a yes,” Exalt said.  He was already turning, taking flight.

Twenty Yàngbǎn members.  Exalt.  A dazed Revel.  Dispatch.  The Chicago Wards.  The Undersiders.  Citrine.  Me.

The sum total of our defensive line.

And Behemoth was getting too close.  A hundred and fifty feet?  A hundred and twenty? He was swiftly approaching the hundred-foot mark we’d been warned about, where he could close the distance with a single leap.

There were so few heroes capable of holding him back.  He was covering ground at twice or thrice the speed he had been earlier, and the Undersiders didn’t have the means to know.  They were on the ground, blinded by the ambient smoke and the dust of the hundreds of buildings that had fallen across the city.

Run,” my bugs communicated.  But nobody responded, nobody reacted.  Too much ambient noise.

Run, they spelled out words, shaping letters with their bodies.  Too much smoke.

I bit them, stung them, and that spurred them into motion.  Maybe too late.

He wasn’t even a full city block away from them.  Only a few half-destroyed buildings stood between him and the Undersiders.  They were still sorting themselves out, getting mounted on the dogs for a retreat, but it was too little.

Behemoth leaped.  Not the monumental leap he’d used early in the fight, but a leap nonetheless.  He landed in the midst of a building, knocking much of it over, and the impact was enough to bounce Citrine off one dog, to knock Tecton over.

The Endbringer had closed half the distance.  A mere twenty feet separated them from his kill aura, if that.

I landed beside Citrine, helping her up, using my legs and the antigrav to try and help her  onto the dog’s back.  She kicked her heels the second she was seated, shouted an order I couldn’t make out.

The dog, scared, growled and held its ground against Behemoth.

“Rachel!” I screamed the word.  “Call him!”

She whistled, sharp, and it seemed to break the spell.  The dog lurched around and ran, nearly knocking me to the ground.

The Yàngbǎn were landing in the Undersiders’ midst, joining the fray.  I could feel my power swell, my range increasing by one block, two…

I could sense the underground complex, where Phir Sē was.  He swatted absently at the bugs that had been left behind, uncontrolled in my absence.

Wait,” I communicated to him.  “Almost.”

Either we’d manage this in the next few minutes, or we’d be dead and it wouldn’t matter.

I called the bugs, leaving only enough to speak to Phir Sē.

The Yàngbǎn opened fire with lasers, and erected forcefields to ward against the lightning bolts.  Golem’s hands rose, faster with the Yàngbǎn’s help, but too slow to make a substantial difference.  Tecton’s walls, similarly, couldn’t rise high enough to block Behemoth’s line of sight.  The power boost would increase his tinker abilities, but it wouldn’t empower the results of his technology.

Citrine’s power intensified in the depth of the yellow-gold light, in size.  Grace shimmered, Cuff was better armored, Annex covering more ground.

Why couldn’t the Yàngbǎn have helped like this sooner?  From the very start of the fight?  Damn people.  Damn them all, for their idiocy and selfishness and their small-mindedness.

This wasn’t enough.

Behemoth reached out, and lightning plowed through our ranks, left to right.  The Yàngbǎn forcefields fell in the lightning’s wake, and Tecton was struck from his bike.  Cuff was too far back, unprotected, dropped in an instant.  I ducked low, covering my head, as it crashed against a quadruple-layer of forcefields the Yàngbǎn had provided.  One of them was knocked prone as the last forcefield shattered.

A stray Yàngbǎn member, too far to the right, was knocked to the ground.  She started to struggle to her feet, then collapsed a second later.

Revel flew to the injured Wards, but didn’t have the strength to stand.  Instead, she raised her lantern, ready for the next strike.

The Yàngbǎn hadn’t even raised their forcefields again when he hit us with lightning once more.

Revel absorbed the initial impact, sucking it into her lantern.

I wasn’t close enough to benefit.  I saw the lightning twist in the air as Behemoth swept his hand out to one side, striking another two Yàngbǎn members, just out of the lantern’s reach.

Dispatch appeared next to me and other Yàngbǎn members, and in an instant, everything went still, quiet.  My ears roared with a high pitched whine.  My breath sounded too noisy, my heart beat so fast I couldn’t even see straight.

Like Clockblocker’s power extended a temporal protection, almost impossible to break, Dispatch’s power seemed to do the same, even if he was effectively achieving the opposite, accelerating us with the outside world moving at a snail’s pace.

The effect ended just as Behemoth moved on to other targets.  Another Yàngbǎn member was struck down.

And, inexplicably, he continued his lightning strike, carrying over to the far end of the street.

There was a yelp, and I could see Imp, all at once, sheltered by a wall that was shrinking in size with every second the blast continued.  She held the Yàngbǎn member who’d strayed too far away from our main group in her arms.

He’d seen her.  Sensed her.  And now, behind a wall no more than three feet high, she had nowhere to run.

I pushed past Yàngbǎn members, unstrapping my flight pack, tearing at the parts that fed down to my gloves, to get it off.  If I could get it to her…

I couldn’t.  I stopped, the pack in my hands.  The lightning would break the thing before it could carry her away.

If Grue’s alive, he won’t be able to forgive us for letting her die.

Citrine drew a yellow glow around Imp, and the lightning fizzled as it passed the perimeter.

The Endbringer switched to fire, and it passed through.  It seemed to halve in intensity, but that was enough.  I could hear Imp scream in alarm and fear.

He advanced a step, and the fresh angle afforded her even less cover.  His kill aura… if he simply ran forward a few steps, he’d murder us all in seconds.

But Golem’s hands held his legs.  One had sunk deep into a pit, hands of pavement gripping the knee, melting at the close contact, even as others rose to reinforce.  The other leg was raised, but held in much the same fashion.

Imp screamed again as he directed another wave of flame her way.  It was a scream of pain this time.

Foil shot him, but he didn’t turn away from Imp and the Yàngbǎn member.  Instead, one hand stretched out, casting flame towards her.  The cloth goats blocked it, and were promptly set aflame.  He maintained two columns of flame from his hands, one directed at Imp, one at Foil and Parian.

Revel launched a mess of spheres at his chest, and the surviving Yàngbǎn followed up with lasers.  Behemoth simply maintained the assault, almost uncaring as the lasers and disintegration spheres ate into his torso.  Negligible damage, in the grand scheme of things.

“Fuck it,” Regent said, his voice almost inaudible.  He was looking at Imp.

“Regent,” I said.  When he rose to his feet, I raised my voice, “Regent!”

“Hey Shitcrumb!”  Regent hollered, backing away from cover.  “Easy-”

Behemoth dropped the flame attack.  I could see Yàngbǎn members raising forcefields as he reached out, casting a bolt of lightning in Regent’s direction.  The forcefields did nothing, not even softening the blow in any measurable way.

Regent was snuffed out, dead.

A small sound escaped my mouth.

But there was no time to react.  Reeling, grieving, it would cost us.  He’d done what he did for a reason.  The antigrav on the flight pack kicked in, I waited until it started to drag me, then let it go.  It skidded across the gap, across the road, to Imp.  She caught it, and I controlled the motion of it to drag her away.

Retreat!” I called out, and my voice was strangely ragged.  “Citrine, cover!  We need forcefields too!”

And Exalt.  We needed whatever power he could bring to the fore.

Eidolon landed between us and Behemoth.

He said something I couldn’t make out, then raised his hands.

A forcefield, taller than Behemoth, separated us.  For seconds, Behemoth was muted.  He swiped his claws at the forcefield, fell short.  He couldn’t advance, with the way Tecton and Golem had him held with one leg buried up to the knee, couldn’t reach far enough to touch the forcefield.

One claw dashed a hand of asphalt to pieces.  Golem started to raise another to replace it, but Behemoth torched it, turning it to a liquid or a glass.  Something flat, shiny.

We pulled ourselves together.  I changed Imp’s direction, brought her to us.  She let go, and the thing careened dangerously, striking the ground a little too hard.

She crouched by Regent, touched his throat.

She shouted something.  A string of swear words, insults aimed at Regent.

Come on!” I screamed the words at her.  It took me a second to get the flight pack going again.  I steered it, like a fish on dry land, towards her, as Rachel hauled me up onto a dog’s back.

“Weaver,” Phir Sē said, almost half a mile away, still in the room with the monitors, “If he advances any closer to me, I won’t have any option but to strike.

Wait,” my bugs communicated.

Reluctantly, Imp reached for the flight pack, hugged it to her chest.  Not the best option, given the options I had for controlling it.  Still, it was a way to get her moving towards us.

Some heroes were pelting Behemoth from another direction.  So little, in terms of effect, but it was a distraction.

We needed to regroup.  Needed to form some kind of plan, however haphazard.

Fuck it.  Foil had the facemask… who else?  Citrine and Foil… the back of the head of the dog they rode.  Dispatch wore a helmet… but I could use bugs to draw an arrow on the ground.  That left Annex, where the hell was he?  My bugs couldn’t sense him.

My eyes could.  In the midst of the smoke, I saw the bike Tecton rode was lighter than the rest.  Annex was inside it.

I pointed them in the same direction I’d sent the others.

We converged on the same point.

“Dispatch!” I called out.  “Huddle!”

He reached the midst of our group, and his power surrounded us.

Silence, stillness.  The buzz of my power at the periphery of my consciousness was a fraction of what it might otherwise be, limited to the bugs that crawled in the recesses of my costume.  There was only the press of bodies, two dogs and all of the rest of us in an area smaller than my jail cell.

I tried to speak, and emotion caught my voice.  It threw me, as if it didn’t match how I felt, didn’t match the composure I felt like I had.

Nobody cut in, nobody used the silence to venture an opinion.

When I did speak, I did it with care, shaping each word, speaking slowly, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself again.  “How long?”

“This?” Dispatch asked.  His voice was low, grim.  “This many people?  Those dogs?  Four minutes.  Maybe two, if we’re all breathing this hard.  Once we run out of air, I gotta cut it out.”

I nodded.

Think, think.

“Sorry about your pal,” Tecton said.

I shook my head.  A denial?  He was important to me, but… what, then?  Was I wanting to focus on the situation?

“Not now,” I said, sounding angrier than I meant to.  “Need a plan.”

“A plan?” Dispatch asked.  “We run.  We pray.”

“Last I heard, Scion was nowhere near,” Foil said.  “Nobody to pray to.”

“Not funny,” Dispatch said.  “This isn’t the time to fuck around on the subject of God.”

I shook my head again.  Plans.  Options.  I had an idea, half-formed in my head, and I couldn’t bring it to the fore.  Some missing element.

“Rachel.  You wanted revenge on that motherfucker?”

“Yeah,” she said, “Leviathan killed my dogs.”

“Behemoth killed your friend,” Tecton added.

“And Leviathan killed my dogs,” Rachel said.  “They both pay.”

“They both pay,” I agreed.  “What the hell’s Exalt’s power?”

“Aerokinesis and telekinesis,” Dispatch answered me.  “But he spends a charge, takes a day or days to build it up again.”

Which explained why he hadn’t helped.  Fuck.

“Eidolon’s power… he chooses what powers he gets?”

“He gets the powers he needs,” Dispatch said.  “He can be receptive to new ones, hold tighter to ones he wants to keep, but that’s it.”

I nodded.  He was at the mercy of his passenger, it seemed.

I glanced to my right.  “Foil.  Can you use your power on just the tip of an arrow?”

“Yeah.  But why would you want me to?  Fucks up the trajectory.”

“Just thinking,” I said.

“You have a plan,” Rachel said.  There was a measure of smugness in her voice.  No, I was reading her wrong.  Satisfaction?

“Maybe, yeah,” I said.  I glanced at the space outside the bubble.  The people were moving at a glacial pace, heads turned our way.  Eidolon flew in the sky above.  “We need to hurt Behemoth, and hurt him badly enough that he gets distracted.  Then I signal Phir Sē, and hopefully we aren’t vaporized in the wake of all that.”

“Explain,” Dispatch said.

“Each of us has a role to play,” I said.  “Timing’s essential.  So’s luck…”

The bubble burst, and we moved into action.  Behemoth had barely advanced from his position.  The others were still running.  We’d earned ourselves two minutes to think, to plan and discuss.

I’d gathered countless bugs through my journey across the city.  I’d briefly lost track of them when I was teleported away from Phir Sē, but they were still there.  Relatively few had died, even from the start, their lives thrown away to test the boundaries of fires or gushing water, or shielding people from the roar.

A lot of bugs, held in reserve.

“Golem!”  I called out.  “Metal hands.  Doesn’t matter how big.  Find a way.”

He glanced at me, still jogging away from the Endbringer.  Still, he managed to find a shop with a metal shutter at the doorway.  He plunged his hand inside it, and hands appeared in various places across the street.  A large one from a rickshaw, another from a car’s engine block, small ones from the metal grilles covering windows.

Half of my bugs gathered.  Another half began chewing through power lines.  The transformers here were nightmares, tangled messes, and had an abundance of wires.

Each of the others was carrying out their tasks, their roles.  Rachel had a chain stretched between two dogs, and was attaching the chain from one dog’s harness to it to extend the thing further.  Annex stretched it further, extending it so each link was nearly two feet long, thin.  Citrine was tinting the area between us and Behemoth.

Dispatch called to Eidolon, and the ex-Triumvirate member descended.  Dispatch contained them.

Eidolon needed time, and he needed to hear the details of our plan.  Dispatch would give him both.

In the distance, Behemoth pushed his way through the forcefield, shattering it.  We had a minute, if that.

I waited impatiently as the others tended to the chain.

Dispatch’s effect ended.  He and Eidolon relocated to the other end of the street, Dispatch took a second to catch his breath, and then he used his power on Eidolon again.

Come on, come on, I thought.  This could go awry with one lucky shot from Behemoth.

“Yangban!” I shouted, no doubt mispronouncing the title.  “Forcefields!  Protect the teams!”

Lightning crashed against the forcefields only moments after they went up.  Some diverted to the metal hands.

And my swarm started to arrive.  Millions of insects, bearing power lines that they were still stripping of insulation, hauling the wire itself, bearing the ones who bore the wire in turn, or hauling on silk that was attached to the wire.

I’d hoped to drape it over the hands, to wrap it around.  I was forced to attach it to the base of the hands instead.  Too heavy to move otherwise.  Conductive hands, conductive wire.

“Go!” Foil shouted.

The dogs moved.  Bitch rode one, hollered commands to get them to stay apart.  The chain stretched taut between them, long, thin.

I saw Dispatch’s effect end.  Eidolon took flight, following.

“This’ll work?” Imp asked.  Her voice sounded more hollow than Grue’s did when he used his power.  I jumped a little to hear her suddenly speaking beside me.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Because if this is revenge for Regent, it has to work.”

“It’s for him if it works,” I said.

“Mm,” Imp said.  “I’ll kill you if it doesn’t, then.”

“We’re all screwed if it doesn’t,” I said.

“Mm,” she said, and she didn’t say anything else. 

The Endbringer lashed out with a mess of lightning.  It caught one dog before it disappeared behind cover.  The dog slowed, but it recovered and found its pace, redoubled its efforts to catch up, as Rachel continued to shout commands to keep the chain taut.

Behemoth used fire, instead, targeting Rachel, and Citrine’s power dampened the effects.  That was her role in this.

It was just a question of whether it would run out prematurely, if the dogs would get far enough.

He clapped, and a shockwave tore through the area.  Rachel was already directing the dogs; they moved so there was cover, buildings between them and Behemoth.  The chain, imbued by Foil’s ability to shear through anything, cut through the buildings as though there was nothing there.

And just like that, they made it.  The dogs passed Behemoth, a hundred and twenty feet of chain maintained between them, and the chain cut through him as easily as Foil’s arbalest bolts had.

Too low.  There was just a little slack, and they weren’t high enough off the ground.  The chain cut through the soles of his feet, through the lower part of one ankle.  Insignificant.  He didn’t even fall over.

Then I heard Rachel through my swarm.  A shout.  “Back!”

The dogs stopped, one doing so so abruptly that Rachel was nearly thrown to the ground.  Nearly touched the chain, losing a limb.

The Endbringer moved his hands in anticipation of a clap, and Exalt used his power.  Blades of wind, a hundred strikes in a moment, a thrust of telekinetically controlled air from across the city, rushing past Behemoth, making the Endbringer stumble.  The clap arrested.

Rachel held on as the wind hit her, held on as each dog turned a hundred and eighty degrees.  They passed Behemoth a second time, only this time, Rachel shouted another command.  One of the first I’d heard her give.  I knew now that it was the command for ‘up’.

Her dog leaped up to the highest point on a ruined building, and the chain caught Behemoth at the knee this time.

They got halfway before Foil’s power wore off.  The dog tumbled in midair, Rachel thrown, flipping head over heels.

Behemoth crashed to the ground, one leg a stump.

Eidolon caught Rachel with one arm, and extended the other towards Behemoth.

Now,” my bugs told Phir Sē, as the field surrounded the Endbringer, a forcefield, extending into the Earth, surrounding Behemoth on all sides, a cylinder.

Phir Sē’s portal opened beneath Behemoth’s feet, aimed upward, and a plume of light speared into the sky, consuming Behemoth, covering him.

Eidolon’s power held.  He’d had the situation explained, had been given time to let his power build up to full strength, and his passenger had supplied something with a durability on par with Clockblocker’s ability.  Inviolable.

“That’ll do,” Imp said, quiet.  The light continued to flow upward, a narrow column no more than fifty feet across, billowing out only slightly as it reached the top of Eidolon’s barrier, parting smoke and clouds in a circular ring, revealing the intensely blue sky above.  The entire sky seemed to brighten as the light dissipated beyond our atmosphere.

Phir Sē’s light faded, and the barrier collapsed.

Dust continued to fill the area, plumes of it.

Behemoth lurched forward.

Not quite Behemoth, but a skeleton, something like a skeleton.  Emaciated, a black-red frame dripping with ichor, it had all of the key features, the basic underlying structure with the horns and the gaping mouth, the claws and the way the shoulders were broad enough to host his bulky frame, but a good eighty percent of him had been torn away, shredded.  A skeleton covered in a veneer of meat.

Go,” I whispered, feeling a quiet despair.  “Go home.  Go underground.  Leave.  We hurt you as badly as we’ve ever hurt you bastards.  That’s enough.”

He reached out, and lightning reached across the landscape, striking Golem’s metal hands, into the grounding wires I’d rigged.  The hands melted with the intensity of the strikes.

Behemoth wasn’t any weaker than he had been.  Not in terms of what he could dish out. As much as he was wounded, he was healing.  Even from where we stood, I could see him healing, flesh expanding, swelling, regenerating.

The Endbringer lurched forward on three intact limbs, starting to glow with that radioactive light of his.  He was ignoring or ignorant to Eidolon’s escape, as the ‘hero’ carried Rachel away, the dogs following on the ground.

He was continuing to make his way towards Phir Sē, who had formed another portal, was gathering power for a second strike.

“Retreat,” I said, only to realize I wasn’t loud enough for anyone but Imp to hear.  I raised my voice for the others.  “Go!  Retreat and regroup!”

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Crushed 24.2

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If I’d had any doubt it was Alexandria, it was banished when she followed up the attack.  Behemoth started to rise to his feet, and Alexandria struck.  It wasn’t a punch with a great deal of wind-up, and she only crossed fifty or sixty feet before driving it home, but the impact was undeniable.

Behemoth absorbed the blow, and redirected it into the ground.  He didn’t move, as though the blow had never struck home, but the ground around him shattered like the surface of a mirror.  Fragments of rock and clouds of dust flew up around him, and a three-story building on its last legs tumbled over.  The damage to the ground made him sink a fraction.

I could see the change in the Endbringer’s demeanor.  Before, he’d been wading forward, as if Legend, Eidolon and the metal suits were little more than a strong headwind.  He was moving with purpose now, with an opponent that was veering in and out of easy reach, one he could hit, without Legend’s speed or Eidolon’s personal shield.

She had told me that they knew how to fight each other, and I could see that at play, here.  Part of the change in Behemoth’s approach might have been that interaction at play.

It was a fight involving four individuals who couldn’t hope to do substantial damage to their opponents.  The dragon suits and other capes were a peripheral thing.  Alexandria circled, just beyond the perimeter of Behemoth’s kill range, her teammates and their supporting cast bombarding him in the meantime.  They destroying the ground beneath his feet, trying to get him when his focus was elsewhere and his ability to redirect the energies of a given attack was reduced.

He couldn’t keep her in mind at all times.  She waited until he focused on a different combatant, heaving out lightning or creating flame to attack the ones in the air, and then she struck.  Nine times, he simply deflected the strike into the ground, as a rumble and a series of spiderwebbing cracks in the streets, or into the air as a shockwave.  Again and again, he came within a heartbeat of getting his hands on her in retaliation, not even flinching as she struck him, reacting with an unnatural quickness as he reached out, to try to pin her using his claws, to strike her into the ground or to time the collapses of buildings to briefly bury her, so he could close the distance.

The times her strikes did get past his defenses, her tiny form in the distance with the black cape trailing behind her lunging into his kill range to deliver a blow or a series of blows, Behemoth stumbled, caught briefly at the mercy of physics.

In a fashion, she was doing the same thing the lightning rod had been, buying all of the rest of us a small reprieve.  There was no guarantee, and there wouldn’t be any until he was driven off or we moved a hundred miles away, but she was making the rest of this just a little easier, reducing the destruction just a fraction unless he specifically took the time to work around her.

Was she being more cautious than she needed to be?  I saw her pass up on a handful of opportunities I might have taken in her shoes, when his back was turned, his attention sufficiently occupied.  Was she aware of something I wasn’t?  Was she a convincing fake?  Or was she just a little more afraid, after what my bugs had done to her?

However effective the distractions, he was still Behemoth, still implacable, a living tank that could roll over any obstacle and virtually any individual, unleashing an endless barrage of artillery at range.  He reached the lightning rod and shoved it to the ground.

I was reminded of my teammates, descended to the ground, where they were still getting sorted.  The chains that led from the dogs to the harness had tangled.

“What the hell was that?”  Tecton asked.

“Alexandria,” I said.

“You murdered Alexandria,” Regent commented.  “Remember?  You’re a horrible person, doing things like that.”

“You leave her alone!”  Imp said, uncharacteristically.  “She feels so bad she’s seeing things.”

“Can we try to stay serious?”

“Don’t be too hard on them,” Tecton said.  “Some people use humor to deal with bad situations.”

“It’s true,” Regent said, affecting a knowing tone.

“No,” Grue responded.  “They’re just idiots.  You two keep your mouths shut.  The adults are talking.”

Imp raised her middle fingers at him.

He turned to me, “It’s Alexandria?  You’re sure?”

“Can you ever be sure of anything?  Clones, alternate realities, healing abilities… there’s any number of possibilities.”

In the distance, a glowing orange sphere flew into the sky.  It reached a peak, then descended, crashing into the distant skyline.

I reoriented myself and flew up to the edge of the roof to peek at the battle.  Behemoth had melted down part of the metal arm and fashioned the melted metal into a superheated lump.  A second lump, cooler and not yet fabricated into an aerodynamic shape, was sitting beside him.  Alexandria tried to strike it away, but he caught it with one claw.  He superheated it, shielding it from Legend and Eidolon’s fire with his body, then heaved it into the air.  The projectile flared intensely as it left his kill range, following nearly the same path as before.

Lasers from capes in the distance sliced the second sphere into shreds before it could strike its intended target.

Grue tugged the chain.  He looked at Rachel, who only nodded.

And we were moving again.

I returned to my recon position, scouting to ensure the way was clear, keeping an eye on the fight and ensuring that there weren’t any attacks coming our way.

Behemoth was glowing, his gray skin tending more towards white, a stark contrast to his obsidian horns and claws.  The heroes were backing off a measure, and Behemoth was taking advantage of the situation to stampede forward, tearing past buildings and barricades.

“Grue!”  I shouted.  The noise in the distance was getting worse.  If Behemoth was continuing the path I’d seen him traveling, he was wading through a series of buildings.  Grue didn’t hear me.  I raised my voice, waited until the noise died down, “Radiation!  Use darkness!”

He did, and we were cloaked in it.  I continued navigating, using my bugs this time.  Only a small handful ventured forward at a time, checking for fires.  I was flying blind, scouting without the ability to see.

It delayed me when a fire did present itself, and I was delayed even further when I faced the issue of trying to communicate it to the team.

“Fire!” I shouted.  I knew he could hear me through the darkness, but he couldn’t hear me over the sounds of toppled buildings.  I was no doubt drowned out by the sound of the sled scraping against the road, the crashes in the background and the rushing of the wind.

I changed direction, aiming for the sleds, and flew forward.  A little off target.  Didn’t want to knock someone off the sled.  I made a slight adjustment with the antigrav, and landed on the front edge of the sled, between Grue and Rachel.  Grue very nearly let go in his surprise, and I caught the back of his neck to keep him from falling off the sled.

He left the darkness to either side of us intact and created a corridor.

“Fire!” I said, the instant I was able.  “Just over that hill!  Go left!”

He cleared more darkness, and we turned sharply enough that the sleds swung out wide.  I held on to the lip of the sled, but I let myself slide back, using the antigrav pack to keep myself from falling to the road.

The sudden movement had shifted the occupants.  The design of the sled made it difficult for anyone to fall out, but they’d slumped against one side, and one man was hanging halfway out.  With only one usable arm, he wasn’t able to maintain a grip.

The sled went over a series of bumps, and I reached him just in time to give him the support he needed, one hand and both feet on the lip of the sled, the other hand holding him.

Once they were on course, I helped ease him down to a better position.

He said something that I couldn’t understand, his words breathless.

I took off.

A shockwave ripped past us, harsher, briefer and more intense than a strong wind, not quite the organ-pulverizing impact it might be if Behemoth were closer, or if there were less buildings in the way.  I ventured up to a rooftop where I might be able to see beyond the darkness.

The shockwave had parted the clouds of smoke, but they began to close together once again.  I could make out a form, maybe one of the Indian capes, swiftly growing.  Ethereal, translucent, his features vague, the light he emitted only barely cutting through the smoke cover.  He slammed hands into Behemoth’s face and chest.

Behemoth parted his hands, then swung them together.  I didn’t wait for them to make contact.  I ducked behind cover before the shockwave could hit me directly.  All around me, the smoke was dashed out of the sky by the impact’s reach.  With the front of my body hugging the building, I could feel not only the shockwave, but the vibrations that followed it, as buildings fell and debris settled in new locations.

He delivered shockwave after shockwave, and I was forced to abandon the cover of the building for something a little more distant.

He wasn’t irradiated any more.  Or, at least, the glow wasn’t there.  He’d been buying himself a reprieve from the assault of the heroes, a chance to cover more ground.  Now they had resumed the counter-offensive.  The noises of the fight followed me as I got ahead of the Undersiders.

Another obstacle.  A crowd, this time.

I landed on the sled once more and ordered a stop.  It took a second for the dogs to slow down enough.

Locals stood in our way.  Some had guns.  They ranged the gamut from people a step above homelessness to businessmen.

“Leader?” one asked, his voice badly accented.  He was younger, very working class, which surprised me.  I’d anticipated that someone older and more respectable would be taking charge.

“Me,” I said, using a small boost from the flight pack to get ahead of the group.

“Stealing?” he asked me, his voice hard.

“No.  Injured.”

He gestured towards the sled, taking a half-step forward.  I nodded.

I didn’t like wasting time, but I was hoping he’d give the a-okay and the group would get out of our way.  I watched as he studied the people lying in the sled.

“We take,” he said.  “We have doctor, hiding place.  You go fight, help.  Is your duty.”

I could sense a group approaching from Behemoth’s general direction.  Two women in evening gowns, a girl in a frock, another girl in costume.

No time to dwell on decisions.  I asked the man, “You sure?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Cuff, Annex, kill the chains.  Leave sleds behind.  Wards, stay with me.  Grue, I’ll direct you guys to the Ambassadors.  Take the dogs.  Leave us some darkness for cover so we’re safe from any more radiation.”

It took only a few seconds to get organized.  By the time the Undersiders had departed, we had a team of people pulling the sleds.

Message from Defiant,” my armband declared.  “Alexandria confirmed gone from PRT custody.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“Message from Defiant.  Stay out of her way until we know more.  Behemoth’s approaching the first perimeter.  I will keep you posted.

“Tell him thank you.”

“It’s a good thing,” Grace said.  “Maybe not in the long run, but for now-”

“For now it’s an unknown factor,” I said.  “And there’s one really big known factor that’s tearing through this city, and we should be devoting all our attention to it.  To Behemoth”

“We can focus on both,” Tecton said.

“That’s how you get blindsided,” I told him.  I hauled on the chain, and the sled moved.  Cuff seemed to be doing the lion’s share of the work, standing between the sleds and ushering them forward.  Though it screwed up the direction the sleds were facing, making them veer left or right, it gave us enough momentum that we only needed to work on keeping it going.

We reached a squat building with signs featuring unintelligible writing and cars.  Some hurried forward and opened a garage door, and we kept the sleds on course to lead them inside.

Their ‘hiding place’ was an underground corridor, leading beneath and between two hoists for the cars.  Annex had to reshape the sled to fit, and we found ourselves on a general downward incline.  People shifted position to the sides of the sled to keep it from getting away from us and running over the people in front.

I saw the man who’d done the talking glance down at the wounded.  His eyes caught the light in a way that reminded me of a dog, or a cat.

Capes.  At least some of these guys are capes, I thought.  The ‘cold’ capes, the underworld’s locals.

It was an ominous realization, as we descended, to know that we were outnumbered by parahumans I knew nothing about, with unknown motives.

The armband’s crackling was getting steadily worse.  “Message from Grue.  Rendezvous is fine.  On way to your location.

“Message received,” I replied.

Message from Grue…

The voice devolved into crackling.

Too much ambient electromagnetic radiation, and the amount of ground that was between us and Grue probably didn’t help.

It was hard to gauge how deep we were getting.  We reached a point where a fissure made moving the sleds more difficult, but Annex, Tecton and Golem shored it up in moments.

We descended deep enough that I wasn’t able to access the surface with my bugs, then deeper still.

The more isolated we were, the more ominous the uncostumed capes around us seemed to become.  My bugs followed us down the corridor, just far enough back that the ‘cold’ parahumans couldn’t see them, close enough to help.

“This tunnel was made by a cape,” Tecton said.

Don’t bring it up, I thought, suppressing the urge to react.

“No,” the man with the eyes said.  He didn’t turn our way.

I reached out and touched Tecton’s arm.  He, naturally, didn’t feel the contact through his heavy armor.  Tecton continued, “I’m pretty s-”

My nudge became a shove as I moved his arm enough to get his attention.  He looked at me, and I shook my head.  Tecton didn’t finish the sentence.

“Oh so pretty,” Wanton offered.

“Don’t you start,” Tecton said.  “The Undersiders are bad enough.”

I could see the Wards change in demeanor as we descended well beneath the city.  Tecton’s head was turning now, scanning the people around us.  Wanton hunched over, as if the surroundings were weighing on him, a pressure from above.  Cuff had her arms folded, hugging her body, a defensive wall, however meager, against an attacker from above, and both Annex and Grace had gravitated closer to other team members, as if unconsciously adopting a loose formation.

Golem, odd as it was, seemed to fall more in line with Tecton and I, watching the surroundings, eyeing the strangers who accompanied us.  It wasn’t that he wasn’t afraid; everything else about him suggested he was.  It was more that he was wary in a natural, practiced way.

How had he picked that up?  He was supposed to be a rookie.

I held my tongue and used my bugs to scan the surroundings.

The area opened up into an underground living space, crowded with weary and scared people.  It was dim, with lights alternating between floor and ceiling positions, tight corridors with what seemed to be tiny apartments carved out of the rock.  My prison cell had more space than these quarters.  At least there was room to stand straight up in the jail.  These rooms were stacked on top of one another, two high.

But it was space nonetheless.

“Is it stable?” I asked Tecton.

“I can’t see enough to tell,” he said.  “Maybe?  Probably?”

“I don’t know if I can leave people here if it’s a deathtrap,” I said, as I eyed the people emerging from the rooms.

“Pretty risky up there,” Wanton said.

Up there there’s a chance.  I was counting hundreds or thousands down here.  My bugs could sense corridors, and I was left wondering if this was only one area of many.

Some of the residents stepped forward to help, hands on weapons or simply watching us, undecided on whether we were threats or not.

The leader, who I was mentally labeling ‘Cat’s Eyes’, said something, and they relaxed a fraction.  He said something else, and they started helping the wounded.  None used or displayed any overt powers.

“Done,” Cat’s Eyes said.  “You go.  Fight.”

Defiant had said we needed their assistance.  “We need your help.  You and any of the others with powers.”

He narrowed his eyes.  Except that wasn’t the sum total of the change in his expression.  His face hardened, drew tighter, high cheekbones somehow more prominent in the dim, lips pressed together.  “No.”

“No?”

“Not our duty.  Yours.”

“It’s everyone’s duty.”

“We handle enemy you don’t see, you costumes help enemies above ground.  Scare Prathama away.”

Like it’s that easy.  “We need your help.  Everyone’s help.”

“No.  We show ourselves, and all ends badly.  We fight subtle war.  Better to lose today and fight subtle war tomorrow.”

Better to let Behemoth win than to show themselves and lose whatever edge they hold against their current enemies?

“You see me, I am done.  Finished.  You see all of us, they are done.  No.”

Maybe India had its own share of capes, on the same scale as the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Cleverer capes who worked in the background.

Or maybe they were just deluded, too set in their ways, afraid to fight and searching for excuses.

“Go.  Defeat him,” he told me.

Grue was waiting.  Or Grue was coming down here, maybe, with Rachel and the others.  If they saw him, an intruder without invitation, would they act?

“Okay,” I said.  “We need a vehicle if, um…”

I trailed off as I mentally registered what my bugs were sensing.

A rush of cool, air-conditioned air in a space that had no right to have any, off to one side, the appearance of a person where there shouldn’t be any.

“Weaver?”

I’d stopped talking, my attention caught by this visitor.  She was close.  All of the details matched the person I’d sensed inside the Kulshedra.  The clothes, the hair, the dimensions, even the way she moved.

Purposeful, unhurried.

“It’s her.  The one who took Pretender.”

Everyone, myself included, tensed as she approached.  The foreign capes did it because she was an unknown variable.  The Wards and I did it because she was a known threat.

She was older, but not old.  Maybe my dad’s age, maybe a little younger.  Pretty, in a very natural way.  She didn’t wear any obvious makeup, and her black hair was somewhere between wavy and curly, a little longer than shoulder length.  Her features French or Italian, if I had to guess.  She wore only a simple black suit that had been tailored to fit her body, with a narrow black tie and a white dress shirt.  What got me were the eyes.  There was no kindness in them.

She spoke, but she spoke in a foreign language, and it wasn’t to me.

Cat’s Eyes hesitated, then gave her a reply.

“Who the hell are you?” I asked the woman.

She glanced at me, and her gaze went right through me, as if I were barely there.  She turned her attention back to Cat’s Eyes, said something else.

His eyes widened.

“You work for Cauldron,” I said.

“Maybe we shouldn’t taunt the bogeyman,” Wanton chimed in.

“Bogeyman?” Cuff asked.

“She’s a hitman,” I said.  “Takes out anyone asking too many questions about Cauldron.  Or she was.  Apparently she’s gone after a lot of powerful capes, walked away without a hitch.”

My bugs gathered.  I could see the underground capes reacting, preparing for a fight.

“No,” Tecton said, “The truce.”

“I don’t think she gives a damn about the truce,” I answered.

“Until she breaks it, we don’t break it.”

I didn’t take my eyes off her as I murmured, “Fun fact about life or death fights between capes.  You start letting your enemies make the first move, your mortality rate triples.”

“I gave the go-ahead for you to be acting leader,” Tecton said.  “Cool.  Lightning rod was fantastic.  But if we start a fight here and shit goes down, my ass is on the line too.”

“You’re vetoing my order?”

“You haven’t given an order yet, and no.  You’ve fought her, I haven’t.  But I’m advising you here.  Back off.  She hasn’t done anything aggressive.”

She will,” I said.

“Maybe,” he said.  “It’s your call.”

I didn’t give an order.  I watched instead.

She was speaking to Cat’s Eyes in a low voice.  He was nodding unconsciously as she spoke.

Then she met my eyes.

“Who the hell are you?”  I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said.  “Go, Weaver.  Take your team.  We have no business with you anymore.”

Anymore?”

She only stared at me in response.

Damn, being on the receiving end of that stare was like being opposite Alexandria or Faultline in a bad mood.  I was starting to settle on the idea of her being a thinker.

She looked at Cat’s Eye, “It’s time.  Tell them not to be afraid, and this will go smoothly.  Tell them to pass on the message so everyone hears.”

He nodded, then called something out in another language.  Others took up the call.

“Hold on,” I said, raising my voice.

They didn’t listen.  Why would they?  I barely had any clout.  The bugs around me were minor, all things considered.

I brought them closer, so they gathered at my feet.  She didn’t even flinch.

One by one, portals appeared, rectangular doorways that were so bright they were painful to look at.  The smell of flowers, fresh air and nature flooded into the underground.  Every pathway and every available surface soon had one.  Nearly a dozen in my field of view alone.  My bugs could sense two dozen more in my range.

“No!” I called out, once I realized what was happening.  I thought of what the Eidolon clone had said, about them experimenting on people, kidnapping people from alternate worlds.  “You can’t trust her!”

But the people here were scared.  Once the first few people tentatively made their way through, they ran for safety, running out into the open field, disappearing behind tall wild grass.

Cat’s Eye turned to leave.

I reached for him, to grab his wrist before he could disappear.

The woman in the suit deftly deflected my hand, batting it aside.

“What the hell is Cauldron doing?  Do you want to start a war?”

She shook her head.  “No war.  But we need soldiers.”

That was all the confirmation I needed.

“Wards!” I called out.  My bugs and my Wards converged on her.

It mattered surprisingly little.  She stepped away from me, which I took as an excuse to close the distance.  If she wanted to get away, I’d get closer.  I worked to close the distance, using both the flight pack and my own two feet to draw in.  She stepped back out of the way, just out of reach of my strikes.

She swept her hands by the sides of her belt, and she was suddenly armed, if I counted a stiletto knife no longer than my finger and a handkerchief as weapons.

In the moment my swarm drew close, she stabbed the knife into a wall-mounted fire extinguisher.  The pressurized contents spewed out in a plume, collecting on my bugs and blocking their path.  It disabled the largest ones and killed the smallest, eliminating a good ninety percent of the bugs I had in reach in an instant.  I was forced to back off, so I didn’t get the spray across my lenses or the fabric at my mouth.

She’d managed to avoid getting dirty, even.  I watched her from the other side of the spraying canister.  The direction of the plume and the hand with the handkerchief left her virtually untouched as Tecton drew close.  She danced back out of reach of his attack as he plowed past the spray.  Wanton had transitioned to the form of a localized telekinetic storm, and Annex had slipped into the ground, closing the distance to her.

If she was a thinker, someone relying on craftiness to win a fight, then I’d turn it into the kind of fight she didn’t want to participate in.  Tecton had power armor, Grace had super strength and Cuff had her metallokinesis.

I cranked up the flight suit and charged.  It was reckless, and it was hopefully the last thing she’d expect.  The goal was simple.  Close to melee, keep her occupied long enough for someone to trap her.  With that done, we’d call each of the people she’d just contacted and bring them back to safety.

Assuming she was someone along the lines of Victor or Über, a combat-oriented thinker, she’d try to do something like a Judo throw, redirecting my forward momentum to toss me to the ground.  I countered that particular maneuver by bringing myself to an almost complete stop before she could grab me, slipping to one side as Tecton closed the distance.

He punched, and she stepped back.  He extended the piledriver, a second punch without an instant of warning, and she evaded to one side.

A precog?

I wasn’t even finished the thought when she stepped around to Tecton’s side.  He tried to body-check her, but she had a hand up to rest on his side, using the contact to brace herself, to push against him and leverage herself away.  She crossed one leg over the other to maintain an upright position, then brought herself into arm’s reach of me.

Bugs exploded from the interior of my costume.  Spiders, hornets, wasps and beetles.  The only parts of her that weren’t covered by the suit were her head and hands.  The hands were clasped behind her back before the swarm reached her.  A sharp toss of her hair swept them out of her way as she invaded my personal space.

Her hands, protected from my bugs by the simple obstacle of her torso, reached out, avoiding the worst of my swarm.  One caught the concealed flap of my mask, where it overlapped the neck of my costume, and pulled it down.  The other pressed the tip of the stiletto knife to my jugular.

My team, just a moment behind me and Tecton in their intent to engage her, froze.

Fuck me, I had ten thousand bugs here, easy.  How had I not found an opportunity to even bite or sting her?

“Wards, back off,” she said.  “Grace, Cuff, I want you out of sight, or Weaver bleeds.”

The two girls looked at me, and I nodded.  They backed away and stepped around the corners.

“Send your bugs away,” she ordered me.

I started to open my mouth to protest, but she cut me off.  “No tricks.  You have two seconds.”

Something about the fact that she was a known killer and her no-nonsense tone suggested she really was going to follow through.  I banished the bugs.

“The hell is she?” Wanton muttered.

“She’s a precog,” I said, “Something in that vein.”

The woman didn’t respond.  The knife shifted locations, no longer touching my bare throat.

Was she distracted?  I controlled the insect-like limbs on my flight pack.  They were simple, weak, but they were also weapons.  The end of the claw stabbed for her face, for the general region of her right eye.

She turned her head, and it grazed harmlessly against her temple.  The blade of her knife turned around, and she caught it in the hinge of one mechanical arm.

I pulled away, but the knife being wedged in the gap of the joint gave her a measure of leverage over the mechanical arm.  She twisted it as though she were wrenching my arm behind my back.  The arm didn’t give any, and I was forced to bend over a fraction.

Golem reached out from one wall, trying to seize her hair or neck, but she used me as a body shield, blocking the reaching hand.  Annex struck from below, attempting to ensnare her feet, but she threw me down into the reaching tendrils.  In the process, she got ahold of my wrist, twisting it much as she had the mechanical arm.

“Coordinate!” I said, my voice tight.  I activated the thrusters on my flight pack in an attempt to tear way, but she wrenched me to one side, tilting my upper body while using one leg to block my lower body from following suit.  The end result was that the thruster only pushed me into the wall.  I managed to avoid slamming my head against the surface, but I was now pinned against a solid surface.  She still had my wrist behind my back.

Dodge this, I thought.  I commanded my bugs to attack from every direction.

The Wards were taking my order seriously, attacking simultaneously.  Annex was looming, a spectre in the ground, raising up to try to engulf her, Golem was beside a wall, already reaching into it, and Tecton was kneeling, pressing his gauntlets against the ground.  Cuff and Grace had heard my order, and were stepping into view, advancing from behind the others.

The woman laid her free hand over the hand she was twisting behind my back.  Then she pressed my own fingers down into my palm, hard.

The control mechanism, I thought.  Too late.  My bug was already moving towards the off switch when the thruster kicked in.  She swept my feet out from under me, and the thruster drove me into the ground.  The bug touched the off switch, but the impact had locked up the controls.

I hit Annex on my way down, buying the woman time to step back out of his reach.  The bug managed to turn off the thruster, but I was already sliding across the floor, right through the lower half of Wanton’s telekinetic storm body and straight into Tecton’s gauntlets.

The piledrivers fired into the ground a fraction of a second after I bumped into the gloves.  He’d likely aimed to place an effect directly beneath her, but my collision with the gloves had knocked his aim off by a fraction.  It was directed into a wall, creating a crack ten feet high.

The crack, in turn, summarily severed Golem’s outstretched hand of granite.

The woman pulled her suit jacket off and held it out, sweeping it through the air to catch the thickest collection of my swarm within.  She folded it closed, simultaneously breaking into stride, heading right for Wanton.  Grace and Cuff were just behind him, with Tecton directly behind them, and Golem and I off to one side.  Annex was still pulling his spacial-distortion body together into something more useful.

“Stand down, Wards!” I called out, before Wanton could make contact with her.  I was still pulling myself up off the ground.

The woman slowed her pace, coming to a stop.  Wanton materialized a few feet in front of her, swiftly backing away.  I dismissed the bugs that were closing in to attack.

“This goes any further, she’s going to stop going easy on us and she’ll murder someone, maybe murder all of us,” I said, not taking my eyes off her.  “Because it’s the only way she’d be able to stop the bugs from surrounding her, the only way to really stop Wanton once he closes the distance.”

She didn’t speak.

“What the hell are you?” I asked.  “What’s your power?”

She gave me a look, up and down, and then settled her eyes on mine.  Throughout the entire fight, she’d looked unconcerned.  She wasn’t even breathing hard.  Except for a fleck of foam from the extinguisher here and there on the bottom of her pants leg and at the very end of her shirtsleeve, she wasn’t even particularly dirty.

She spoke, “I win.”

“I gathered that much,” I said.

“What I mean is that I can see the paths to victory.  I can carry them out without fail.”

I felt my heart skip a beat at that.  She’d volunteered an actual answer?

“The fuck?” Grace asked.

“She’s lying,” Wanton said.  “That’s ridiculous.  It’s not even close to fair.”

Powers aren’t necessarily fair, I thought.

“It doesn’t matter,” the woman said.  “What matters is that there are other enemies you should be fighting.”

“Enemies, plural?” I asked.

“We’re approaching an endgame.  The end of the world, the sundering of the Protectorate.  Most of the major players know this, and the truce has effectively dissolved in every respect but the official one.  Those in positions of power are making plays.  Now.  Today.”

“And Alexandria showing up, that’s a part of that?”  I asked.  “Someone’s ploy?”

“Yes.”

“Cauldron’s or someone else’s?”

“Yes,” she said.  A noncommittal answer.

“And you’re telling us this why?” I asked.

“That should be obvious.”

“Okay,” I said.  I wasn’t sure it was that obvious.  “Just two questions, then.  Those people you just took-”

“Are gone,” she said.

Gone.  And there wasn’t a thing I could do to change that.  I was almost certain I couldn’t beat her, and I couldn’t utilize whatever it was that was managing the portals to get access to them.  At most, I could survive long enough to report this to someone who could.

“Gone temporarily or gone permanently?” Tecton asked.

“I don’t expect anyone on this Earth will see them again, barring an exceptional success on our end.”

“You can’t use your power to get those successes automatically, huh?” I asked.

She didn’t venture an answer.

“Right, that wasn’t my second question.  What I want to know is why the hell you haven’t used a power like yours to figure out how to beat the Endbringers.”

“My power is a form of precognition,” she said.  “Unlike most such powers, other precognitive abilities do not confuse it.  That said, there are certain individuals it does not work against, the Endbringers included.”

“Why?” Tecton asked.

“No way to know for sure,” she said, “But we have theories.  The first is that they have a built-in immunity, something their origins granted them.”

“And the other theories?” Golem ventured.  “What’s the next one?”

The woman didn’t respond.

I suspected I knew what the answer was, but declined to speak of it.  It would do more harm than good.

“So you’re blind here, useless,” Grace said, a touch bitter.

The woman shook her head.  “No.  I can consider a hypothetical scenario, and my power will provide the actions needed to resolve it.”

“And?”

“And we are doing just that,” she said.  “Doorway, please.”

She wasn’t speaking to us.  Another gate opened behind her, and it wasn’t to that sunny field with the tall grass.  There was only a hallway with white walls and white floors, a cool rush of air-conditioned air touching our faces.

“Doing just what, exactly?”  Tecton called out after her.

She turned back to us, but she didn’t respond.  The portal closed, top to bottom.

“Vehicles,” I said, the instant she was gone.  “I can sense some at the end of that path.  It’s the fastest way back up that ramp.  Go, go!”

Things had gotten worse in the thirty minutes we’d been gone.  Whole tracts of New Delhi had been leveled, and where the buildings had been tall and mostly intact while we collected the injured and met the ‘cold’ India capes, only half of them stood even a story tall now.  The other half?  Utterly leveled.

It was a small grace that the fires had burned intensely enough that they’d exhausted the possible fuel, and the smoke was mostly gone, but that wasn’t saying much.  I couldn’t take a deep breath without feeling like I needed to cough.  Ozone and smoke were thick in the air, and the residual charge in the air was making my hair stand on end.

The Endbringer’s path of destruction had continued more or less in one general direction, but beyond that, the damage was indiscriminate, indeterminate.  Behemoth’s location, in contrast, was very clear.  A pillar of darkness extended from the ground to the sky.  Plumes of smoke and streaks of lightning slipped through the darkness on occasion.

The Chicago Wards rode bikes that were somewhere between a scooter and a motorcycle in design.  The vehicles might have been indistinguishable from normal road vehicles, but Tecton had quickly discovered that they had some other features.  There were gyros that allowed them to tilt without allowing them to fall, and the engines were electric, with only the option of a generated sound, to appear normal.

Near-silent, the Wards zipped down the streets, zig-zagging past piles of rubble and fissures.   I flew above the group.

“Armband,” I said, touching the button.  “Status update.”

The ensuing reply was too distorted to make out.

Grue had gone ahead, though he’d no doubt had information on our whereabouts.  Bitch’s dogs probably could have sniffed us out.  He’d gone ahead.  Why?

“Armband,” I said, still holding the button, “Repeat.”

I thought there might have been an improvement, as we got closer, but it was miniscule enough that I might have been imagining it.

I dropped down, settling on the back of Wanton’s bike.  The wings were already tucked away, to minimize damage from the electromagnetic radiation, but I didn’t want to push my luck further.

We passed a cluster of dead capes, alongside a series of massive gun turrets that had been mounted on hills and rooftops.  The heroes had made a stand here, or it had been one defensive line of many.  A number had died.

Had it been foolish to descend to the cold cape’s undercity?  Should I have told them to take the wounded beneath, damn the consequences, so we could have helped more?

I hadn’t thought it would take as long as it had, hadn’t anticipated a fight with the woman in the suit.

I hoped I wouldn’t regret this, that the absence hadn’t cost our side something.  We weren’t the most powerful capes in the world, but maybe we could have made a small difference here or there.

I’d learned things, but did that count for anything in the now, with tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals dying where they might have lived if we’d stayed?  Another lightning rod?  Something to slow him down and give them a precious extra second to form a defensive line?

The second defensive line, another collection of the dead.  Whatever method they’d tried here, there was no trace left now.

We were getting closer.

The third perimeter.  A giant robot, in ruins.  As many dead here as there had been at the last two points, all put together.

And just beyond this point, Behemoth, in the flesh.  He glowed white, marking the radioactive glow, and Grue’s darkness wreathed him, containing it.  The ground beneath Behemoth was tinted gold, vaguely reflective, and geometric shapes were floating in the air, exploding violently when he came in contact with them.

With all of the obstacles he’d faced to this point, he looked less hurt than his younger brother had for his one-on-one fight with Armsmaster.  He didn’t limp, or slouch, his limbs were intact, his capabilities undiminished.  The tears and rents in his flesh and the gaping wounds here and there didn’t seem to have slowed him down in the slightest.

And with that, he managed to fight his way forward, out of Grue’s darkness, striking out with bolts of lightning.  Forcefields went up to protect the defensive line, but only half of them withstood the intensity of the strikes.

“Armband,” I said, and there was a note of horrified awe to my voice, “Status update.”

The A.I.’s voice crackled, but Grue’s darkness might have been suppressing the electrical charge, because it was intelligible.  “Chevalier is out of action, Rime is present commanding cape for field duty.  Legend is out of commission.  Capes are to assist defensive lines and fall back when call is given.  Earliest possible Scion intervention is twenty-two point eight minutes from the present time, estimated Scion intervention is sixty-five minutes from present time, plus or minus eighteen minutes.

I clenched my jaw.  I’d committed to doing something, but I had no idea what that could be.

I felt a sick feeling in my gut.

“Armband, status of Tattletale?”

Out of commission.

By all rights, I should have reacted, cried out, declared something.  I only felt numb.  This was falling apart too quickly.

“Status of the other Undersiders?”

Two injured.  Parian and Grue.”

Which would be why Grue wasn’t replenishing his darkness.  I closed my eyes for a second, trying to find my center, feeling so numb I wasn’t sure it was possible.

Citrine’s effect seemed to be maximizing the effects of Alexandria’s attacks, because Behemoth wasn’t able to channel them into the ground.

He swung his head in my general direction, and I could see the steel of Flechette’s arrows in the ball of his eye, clustered.  Holes marked the point where the bolts had simply penetrated.

Other capes had managed varying degrees of damage.  The Yàngbǎn had formed a defensive squadron, using lasers to cut deep into Behemoth’s wounds, and other capes clustered close to them, adding to the focused assault.

And yet he advanced.  Inevitable.

A blast of flame caught the defending capes off guard.  Their forcefields and walls of stone blocked the flame from reaching the capes, but did nothing to stop it from spreading as it set fire to nearby buildings, grass and the stumps of trees that had been freshly cut, if the sawdust was any indication.

As if alive, the fires reached forward, extended to nearby flammable surfaces, and cut off a formation.  They started to clear the way for retreat, and Behemoth punished them with a series of lightning strikes.

Golem was already acting, bringing stone hands up to block Behemoth’s legs, two hands at a time.  Tecton moved forward, striking the earth with his piledrivers.  Fissures raced across the road, breaks to keep any impacts from reaching too far.

“Antlion pit!” I shouted.

“Right!” Tecton reported.

And my team was engaging, finding the roles they needed to play.  Grace, Cuff and I couldn’t do much, but there were more wounded needing help getting out of the area.  Annex began reshaping the ground and walls to provide better cover.  Wanton cleared away debris from footpaths.

This particular front hinged on one cape, a foreign cape who was creating the exploding, airborne polygons.  I could see, now, how each explosion was serving to slow time in the area around the blast.  Had he actually been the inspiration for that particular bomb Bakuda had made?

Eidolon had added his own abilities to the fray.  He had adopted something similar to Alexandria’s powerset, fighting in melee, ducking in only long enough to deliver a blow, then backing away before Behemoth’s kill aura could roast him from the inside.  Eidolon was using another power as well, one I’d seen him deploy against Echidna.  A slowing bubble.

Cumulative effects.  Cumulative slowing.  Each explosion added to the effect, and Eidolon’s slowing bubble was a general factor to help them along.  What did it really do if you tried to walk forward, and the upper half of your leg moved faster in time than the bottom half?  How much strain did that create?  Was there a point where the leg would simply sever?

If there was, Behemoth hadn’t quite reached that point.  Either way, it seemed to be a factor in how slow Behemoth was moving.  He was getting bogged down.  Bogged down further as one foot dipped into Tecton’s antlion pit.

Until the Endbringer struck out, targeting one group of capes with a series of lightning strikes so intense that I was momentarily left breathless.

And the explosive polygons disappeared.

He lurched forward, and even a direct hit from Alexandria wasn’t quite enough to stop him.  The shockwave dissipated into the air, rather than the ground, and flying capes throughout the skies were driven back.

The Endbringer broke into a run, insofar as he could run, and nobody was quite in position to bar his way.  He ignored capes and struck out across the area behind them, hitting a building with two massive guns on it, a clearing, a rooftop with what looked like a tesla coil.  Fire, lightning, and concussive waves tore through the defensive measures before they could be called into effect.

We don’t have the organization.  Our command structure is downTattletale is gone, either dead or too hurt to fight.

He struck one area with lightning, and explosives detonated.  A massive forcefield went up a moment after they triggered, and the explosion was contained within, a cumulative effect that soared skyward.

For a solid twenty, thirty seconds, the sky was on fire, and the Endbringer tore through our defenses, making his way to a building with capes clustered on the roofs.  They weren’t, at a glance, our offensive capes.  They were our thinkers, our tinkers, the ones our front line was supposed to be covering.

The woman in the suit had declined to share the other reason her power wouldn’t let her simply solve the Endbringer crisis.

The answer I’d declined to share with the other Wards was a simple one.  She had the ability to see the road to victory.  Maybe, when it came to the Endbringers, there was nothing for her to see.

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Crushed 24.1

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Couldn’t catch up, not with the Undersiders mounted and us on foot.  I could fly, but I couldn’t abandon this team.  If Tecton hadn’t deferred leadership to me, I might have taken on a scouting role, flying ahead, notifying the Undersiders.

This was the worst environment for me.  There were bugs aplenty, but the area was thick with smoke, and there were fires everywhere.

Bugs weren’t going to contribute much.  They were getting roasted, by hot air and scorching smoke if not the fires themselves..

I flew from point to point.  Navigation wasn’t my strong point, so I focused on moving in straight lines, stopping at various vantage points where I was fairly confident I was out of Behemoth’s sight, physically reorienting myself, then flying to another point.

Each time I stopped, I took a second to try to grasp the situation.  The streets were flooded with people, and it was only getting worse.  The troops we had on the ground were struggling to make headway, and from my vantage point, I could tell that things were getting worse.

The approach had an added advantage in that it let me track where the fires were.  I collected bugs, took a moment here and there to analyze them, assess their capabilities, and guided them along my general route, keeping them as safe as I could manage.

There was a crash as a building toppled, sparks spilling out into the air.  I could hear screams, distant, as the crowd recoiled.  Through the bugs in their midst, I could sense the way they were scrambling for cover, for safety.  The nearest path that took them away from Behemoth was towards us.

Rickshaws turned around and made their way for the mouth of the narrow street, people pushed and shoved, and otherwise stampeded towards us.

I was in the clear, but my team…  I flew a short distance away to check everything was clear, then started to make my way back, still flying in short bursts.

Flitting here and there, I thought.

No, I thought, banishing the idea from my head.  Not flitting.  Never let that word slip in conversation.  Makes me think of fairies.  It’ll make Glenn think of fairies.

“Tecton!” I called out, as I returned to my roost.

He looked up at me.  Even with his heavy body armor, he was struggling with the mass of people who were pushing and squeezing their way past him.

I pointed, “Go through the building!  ASAP!”

He looked at the building, then raised his gauntlets.  The piledrivers slammed into the wall, punching out a rough, door-shaped hole.

He strode through, then did the same for another exterior wall.  The Chicago Wards flowed through.

“Not used to being allowed to make messes,” he said, his voice loud.  “This is just about the second time I can go all out!”

“Powers,” I said, flying down to ground level.  The smoke wasn’t as bad down here.  “You’ve had a few minutes to think, rookies, give me a quick rundown.”

“To think?” Cuff asked me.  “The hell?  You can think with all this going on?”

“You’re clear of the crowd,” I said.  The number of people here were only half that on the other street.  It was a herd mentality, lemming mentality.  They were too focused on getting away.

“It’s not just the crowd.  It’s-” she flinched as lightning struck somewhere in the distance.  “We could die any second, just like that.”

She was showing it the most, but I could see the fear in the other two, as well.  In everyone, but these guys in particular.

They’re new.  They’ve probably never been in a real life or death fight, let alone something like this.

Hell, I’ve never been in a fight quite like this.

It was ominous, the fact that the armbands were silent.  The A.I. wasn’t counting off a death toll, and I doubted it was because nobody with an armband was dying.  Maybe Chevalier had made a call, deciding that morale was low enough without an artificial voice reading out the names of the dead.

The only noises were the impacts and rumbles of Behemoth’s fighting against defending capes, the screaming and panting of people who ran past us, and the incessant crackle of nearby fires and crashes of thunder.

“We stand better odds if you pull yourselves together, fill us in, so we can use each other’s abilities to help,” I said.  “Come on guys, work with me.”

“I’m a breaker and shaker,” Annex told me, “Merge into nonliving material, warp space.”

“Warp it how?” I asked.

“Reshape it,” he said.  He was still half-walking, half-jogging, but he stretched a white-gloved hand out four feet, touching a sign.  His hand smeared against it as though it were more liquid than solid, coloring it the same white as his glove.  The sign oozed back into the wall, virtually disappearing, and Annex removed his hand, slowly reeling in the extended flesh.  The sign remained where it was, compressed against the wall, the surface flat.

“Okay,” I said, making a mental note.    “Okay, good.”

“While in there, I’m about as tough as whatever it is I’m controlling,” he added.

“Alright.  Golem?”

Golem had to stop running to demonstrate.  He dropped to one knee and plunged a hand into the street.

Ahead of us, there was a crash, a grinding noise.  A hand made of pavement was reaching out of the ground, five feet long from the base of the wrist to the tip of the middle finger.  The fingers seemed to move in slow motion as the hand pushed against stopped cars that were sort of in our way, shoving them to one side of the road.

The hand submerged back into the road as he withdrew his own hand from the street.

“Okay,” I said.  There’s synergy with Annex.  Maybe Tecton too.  “Anything I need to know?  Limitations?”

“Whatever I use my hand on, has to match the exit point, pretty much.  Asphalt for asphalt, metal for metal, wood for wood.”

I nodded.

“Bigger the thing I’m making, slower it comes out, slower it moves when I try to use my fingers.”

“Anything else?”

“Lots more, but mainly I can only use my hands, arms, feet and legs.  My face, but that’s not too useful.”

Cuff made a small noise as something crashed in the distance.

“Cuff?” I asked.  She didn’t reply.

“Cuff!” Tecton raised his voice.  It seemed to wake her up.

“What?” she asked.

“Your powers.  Explain.”

She shook her head, “Um.  The, uh-”

When she didn’t pull herself together enough to reply, Tecton set a heavily armored hand on her shoulder, “She’s a metallokinetic.  Shape and move metal, short-range, including the stuff she’s wearing.  Some enhanced strength and durability, too.”

“Yeah,” Cuff said, her voice quiet.  “Not half as cool as those guys.”

“It’s good,” I said.  I noted how she’d paired up with Grace.  Did Cuff’s presence have anything to do with the fact that Grace was wearing PRT-issue chainmail?  They didn’t give me the vibe that they were a pair in any friendship or romantic sense, but they were two bruisers, two girls in a group of mostly boys, and they were sticking together.  That seemed to be enough.

I was going to say something more, but a crash and the rumble of something falling down nearby stalled that train of thoughts.

“Oh fuck,” Cuff said under her breath, as lightning struck close by.  She was panting, and I suspected it wasn’t the exertion.   “Oh hell.  Why did I wear a costume made of metal?  I’m a walking lightning rod.”

“You’ve got a regulation suit between the metal and your skin, right?” Tecton asked.  “If it’s a type three or type four-”

“No suit,” Cuff said.  She tapped the metal at her collarbone, “Strongest if metal’s in direct contact with my skin.  Got a layer that’s almost liquid between this and me.”

“You didn’t think to change?” he asked.

“I didn’t think,” she said, her voice quiet, harboring a tremor.

Why the hell did she come, if she was going to be like this?

“Fuck,” Wanton said, “You are a lightning rod.”

“I don’t think you’re any safer or worse off than anyone else,” I said, trying to inject a note of confidence into the discussion.  I raised myself a step off the ground to get a better view of what lay ahead.  The ground was shaking, a steady, perpetual tremor.  “His lightning doesn’t follow regular channels.  We’re all lightning rods to him.”

Cuff didn’t respond.  I glanced down to see her frowning.

Not reassuring,” Wanton said.

“It’s the truth,” I said.  “We accept it, take it in stride and use it.  Can we change that fact?  Or use it to our benefit?”

“He’ll zap us to death with one hit, even if we protect ourselves,” Wanton said.  “Yeah.  There’s a benefit there.”

These guys aren’t the Undersiders.  Different strengths, different weaknesses.  The Undersiders were good at approaching things from an oblique angle, at catching people off guard, being reckless, even borderline fatalistic.  They had been more experienced than I was when I joined.  It was the other way around here.  Even Tecton, the oldest member of the group, the official leader, had less experience than I did.

I didn’t know them well enough to be able to guess what they brought to the fight.  I considered the various powers as I flew from point to point, scouting with eyes and careful use of my swarm.  Didn’t want to let any of the mobile ones get burned up.

The swarm included fruit flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches and house flies, identical or almost identical to the ones back home.  Surprising.  There were some smaller varieties of cockroach, nearly as numerous as the cockroaches in the peak of Brockton Bay’s worst months, some larger varieties of mosquito, flies I identified as the botflies that had come up in my research, and crickets.

No game changers, but I hadn’t expected any.  The spiders were badass here, at least.  The silk wasn’t so good, but even so, big spiders.

The Wards, their powershow to use them?  I thought. If I went by the PRT classifications, Tecton was a tinker with shaker capabilities.  Wanton was a breaker, someone who altered themselves or their relation to the world by some characteristic of his power, becoming a shaker effect, a telekinetic storm.  Annex was the same, only he became a living spacial distortion effect, a living application of Vista’s power.  Golem, no doubt a shaker.  That left Cuff and Grace.  I wasn’t sure how to peg Cuff, until I saw her in action, but she and Grace were both melee fighters in a fashion.

Of the six of them, four were shakers in some respect.  The classification included forcefields, effects like Grue’s, and powers that reshaped the battlefield, like Vista’s.

I’d been doing my reading on the PRT’s terminology, among other things.

“Battlefield control,” I said. “You guys have battlefield control.”

“Lots,” Tecton said.  “Aimed for it.”

I gave him a curious look, but this wasn’t the time for explanations.  I glanced at each of them in turn, so nobody would feel ignored, “We could try to slow him down, but I’m not sure that’s going to do much.  Instead, we’re going to meet up with the Undersiders.  I think there has to be something we can do with them.  Citrine, maybe Grue.  They’re versatile, and I’ve worked with them.   In the meantime, we’re doing damage control.  Seeing what we can do to keep Behemoth-”

Another lightning strike made the ground shake.  Cuff shrieked, and I grit my teeth.  We barely had two seconds of reprieve between flashes of lightning.  They lanced down from the dark clouds of smoke overhead, more red than yellow, and the thunder seemed more intense than it should be.  That wasn’t the worrisome part.  Behemoth was periodically hitting us with something bigger.  Bolts of lightning big enough to erase a small house from the landscape.

“-We’re going to do what we can to keep him from murdering people,” I completed my thought, belatedly.

“Right,” Tecton said.

“You know about earthquakes and architecture, Tecton?”

“Yeah.”

“What can we do about the shockwaves, or whatever else he’s been doing to make the ground shake?”

“I have ideas.  Not perfect, won’t hold for long, but ideas.”

“Good.  And we were talking about lightning rods,” I said.

“You said they don’t matter.”

“The drones Dragon used redirected his lightning.  Golem?  How big can you go?  Optimal conditions?”

“Depends on the amount of space at the destination.  I’d need a big piece of solid material, and I’d need time.”

“We’ll find an opportunity then,” I said.  “We’ll figure out a way to make this work.”

The crash of something being knocked or thrown through a building half a block away nearly made me jump out of my skin.  The others had ducked for cover, too late to have mattered if it had been real danger.

“Keep moving,” I ordered.

“Three of us are in heavy armor,” Tecton said.  “You can’t really run in armor like mine.”

“I get it,” I said, even as I knew the Undersiders were getting further away.  “Do the best you can.”

Mobility and transportations were problems.  I wondered if there were ways to fix that.  Even if we found Rachel and the others, I doubted we could put Tecton on a dog.  I couldn’t remember which, but I sort of recalled that Wanton or Grace had been a little shy of the dogs, too, so that option was out.

But if we could make this work…

Most people had evacuated at this point, with only a handful of stragglers occasionally passing us, giving us wary looks.

I drew arrows in the air to direct the remaining civilians away from the stampede of people, putting them on a general route where smoke didn’t seem to be heavy, and where I hadn’t been able to see or sense any fire.

Other heroes were joining the fray.  I saw Eidolon pass overhead, surrounded by what looked like a shimmer of heat in the air.  A forcefield?  Something else entirely?  If there were more with him, I couldn’t see them through the smoke.

I resumed my recon, continuing to expand the swarm that was keeping me company.  My range was extensive, now, with a radius of maybe one thousand, eight hundred feet.  That extended a fraction further as I zig-zagged over the area, picking up more bugs on the fringes and bringing them to me.

I stopped when I saw a short crane, three or four stories tall.  I turned around to meet the others, perching on the corner of a rooftop.  I pointed the way with ambient bugs, “Tecton, this way.  Take a shortcut, right through the building.  I don’t want to lose any time if we can help it.”

“Right,” he said.

It took only a minute for them to reach the crane.

“We’ve got two people who can distort metal,” I said.  “Annex and Cuff.  Maybe Wanton can help too.  Tear it down.  We’re making our lightning rod.”

“You sure?” Tecton asked.  “Because this makes a pretty good lightning rod on its own.”

I glanced nervously over in the direction where the smoke and lightning flashes were most intense.  If he shot us, right here, right now, and turned the crane into a tesla tower, this might be my dumbest move yet.  I perched on the corner of a building, where I still had a measure of cover, and watched the battle in the distance.  I could see Legend’s lasers through the smoke, hundreds at a time, radiating out from one central point, from Legend himself, and then turning sharply in the air to strike Behemoth.

Behemoth was using flame, which was some small reassurance, and he was occupied with the two remaining members of the Triumvirate.

“Yeah.  Do it.”

Both Annex and his costume merged into the base of the tower, and gradually climbed up to the point where the upper part still stood.  He could only ‘annex’ part of the object at one time, it seemed.  No surrounding a whole building.  He set about breaking the bonds, and the crane’s arm began to bend.  Cuff caught one end of it, then began heaving it towards the tower’s base.  The other half snapped off, and Annex helped guide it down, sliding it against the crane’s shaft.

It was costing us time, this project.  I felt impatient, was worried it wouldn’t work, and these would be wasted minutes we could be doing something else.

But they were making it happen, putting the pieces of our project together.  Cuff was walking around the crane’s base, effectively melting the metal, or reshaping it so it formed a flattened blob.  Annex tore the rest apart, so Cuff had more material to work with.

When Cuff was done, Annex slipped down to the blob and flattened it out further.

“A little thicker,” Golem said.

Annex ‘swam’ around the blob’s perimeter, shifting more material towards the center.  Cuff drew a blob of metal out of the pad and shaped it into a disk for Golem.

“A lot of synergy in this team,” I commented.

“Sort of aimed for that,” Tecton said.  “They took everyone willing to leave Chicago, to support other cities that lost more members, offered incentives to the rookies if they were willing to move to another city.  Your-parents-can-afford-not-to-work-for-a-year kind of incentives.  I drafted these guys because I thought their powers would work well together.”

“Drafted?” I asked.

“Yeah.  I mean, most teams are lucky if they get a few members with a good interaction, with some more on the fringes that they have to work around and fit into the mix.  We had a good setup with Raymancer, before he got too sick to move.  A strong, versatile ranged attacker with the rest of us situated to protect him, right?”

I nodded.

“After seeing the Undersiders at work, I started to think we need to be less mix-and-match.  Form teams with specific goals in mind.  New York sort of does that.”

“I know they have a team of ‘lancers’.  Forward vanguard, fast moving.”

“Exactly, and they’re also considered one of the better teams.  Maybe we all need to do that.  Except New York can do it because they’ve got a lot of capes.  Rest of us are making do.  Other team leaders are going for versatility, to cover every base.  I say fuck that.  We build around a concept, a game plan.  Once I decided on that, I went out of my way to ask for Annex, even though another team had already picked him up.  Made my argument, Chevalier gave the a-ok.”

“And where do I fit in?  Defiant said you were the one team that seemed interested in including me.  I guess I sort of fit into a shaker category, in a roundabout way.”

“That, and we’ve fought on the same side.  I saw what you managed with Clockblocker’s power and yours.  You stopped Alexandria, too, and all that other stuff we were warned not to bring up.”

I tilted my head to indicate mild confusion.

“They didn’t want us to mention how you’ve kicked ass as a villain.  Way Revel explained it, they wanted to see if you’d boast about it, to see just how badly you wanted a leadership role, where you’d get frustrated and how you’d act.”

I frowned behind my mask, but I didn’t comment.

“Anyways, the problem with this team going this route, focusing on the one thing, is we’re very weak against certain approaches, strong against others.  We need a certain kind of leader for that, and I know you pulled it off with the Undersiders.”

“I hope I can live up to that kind of expectation,” I said.

“I know it’s lame of me, that it might look like I’m trying something experimental and setting you up to take the fall if it fails-”

“No,” I told him.  “I don’t get that vibe.”

The ground tremored.  I worried briefly that the construction would tip, but it didn’t.  How long would it stand tall once it was at its full height?

“Good,” he said.  “Because that’s not what I’m doing.”

I was watching the others work, The pad of metal was about twenty feet across, now.  A circular disk with a flat surface on the top.  “Okay.  I think I can play ball, if that’s the case.  It’s good.  I like your line of thinking, about the team.”

He offered me a ‘heh’ before answering, “Of course.  I’m a pro when it comes to putting stuff together.”

“Putting buildings together,” Wanton chimed in, forming back into his real body.  Dust billowed around his feet.

“That’s my power, but I’m not limited to that,” Tecton said.  “You guys don’t need any help?”

“Save your juice.”

Golem started to put his hand into the plate of metal he’d been given, then hesitated, “I won’t be able to move my hand once it appears, if I go this big.  What shape should my hand be?”

“Middle finger extended,” Grace suggested.  “A big ‘fuck you’ to the Endbringer.”

“That’d look bad for the PRT,” Tecton told her.

“Tell them it’s the most efficient form,” she said, with a shrug.  “Have to make it as tall as possible.”

“No,” Tecton said.  “Index finger would work nearly as well, and New Delhi might take offense at a metal statue of an obscene gesture in the middle the disaster area.”

“A ‘v’,” Cuff suggested, making the gesture with her index and middle fingers.  Her voice was shaky, her confidence rock bottom.  “For victory.  Almost as good.”

“A ‘v’ for victory,” Tecton answered, “Good.  Thank you, Cuff.”

That’s really lame, I thought, but I held my tongue.  Too easy to become the bad guy, here, and it was a resolution to the stupid, petty argument, giving us the chance to move on.

Cuff smiled a little in response to the praise, though, then winced as Grace punched her in the arm.  I heard Grace mutter, “Spoilsport.”

Cuff’s smile returned to her face a moment later.

And maybe it’s good for Cuff, to have something constructive to offer.  She looked a touch more confident, smiling nervously as she followed Grace.  Cuff didn’t seem like she was growing numb to the sounds or vibrations of the destruction Behemoth was inflicting on us.

Golem started to push his hands into the plate.  The gauntlet’s fingertips were already emerging, a mirror-replica to Golem’s own gauntlet.  A hand half as wide as a house, slowly rising from the platform.

Annex dove into the ground, and circled the platform, binding it to the street.  He disappeared beneath the ground, then emerged a few seconds later, pulling his cloak tight around himself.  “Reinforcing, so it doesn’t fall over on us.  Also, brought a spike of metal into the ground.”

“I can help,” Golem said.  He reached his other hand into the ground, and a smaller hand fashioned out of pavement lurched out of the ground to rest against the base of the arm.  He withdrew his hand, leaving the pavement hand in place, then repeated the process, until six arms were supporting the spire.  “Not sure how well that works as it grows.”

“Good job, both of you” I said.  I held my breath as the wind brought heavy smoke past us, waited for it to dissipate.  There were too many variables to cover, and I wasn’t sure enough about this squad to believe I’d accounted for all of them.  “Can you move while carrying the plate?”

“Think so,” Golem said.

“Let’s go, then.”

“Starting to realize why all the capes are so fit, looking good in the skintight costumes,” Golem huffed, as we made our way towards Behemoth.  “So much running around, the training, constantly going places, never time to have… decent meal…”

He trailed off, too out of breath to speak.  I eyed him.  The armor made it hard to tell, but he might have been somewhat overweight.

The hand rose into the air, a virtual tower, as we made our way towards the battlefield.  Golem had to push his hand in gradually to achieve the effect, and it disappeared into the panel.

It was working, though.  For better or worse, they’d created a spire, a replica of Golem’s hand, spearing more than fifty feet in the air, with more room to grow.  Sixty feet, a hundred…

A lightning bolt lanced out from the midst of the cloud of smoke, striking the hand.

There were whoops and cheers from the Chicago Wards.  I managed a smile.

Another lightning strike, curving in the air, hit the hand.  Residual electricity danced between the two extended fingers.

It was working, and as much as it was a success in helping against the lightning, it was working to help morale.  To contribute something, anything, it mattered.

“Air’s ionized now,” Tecton said, as if that was a sufficient explanation for everyone present.  I got the gist of what he meant.  The lightning would be more likely to strike there again.  Lightning did strike the same place twice.

I took flight.  The Wards took my cue and followed on foot.

We found the Undersiders at the very periphery of the battlefield.  They had collected a group of wounded Indian capes and were draping them across the backs of one of the dogs.  Two uninjured Indian capes were looking very concerned, staying at the dog’s side.

I landed beside Grue.  He’d used his darkness to form a wall.  I wasn’t sure what it was for, but the smoke didn’t seem as bad here.

“Skitter,” he said.

I didn’t correct him.  You’ll always be Skitter to me, he’d written.  Or something like that.

“Got a plan?” I asked.

“Dealing with the wounded,” he said.  “Nothing else.”

I studied him.  I could see how defensive his body language was, his glower, the way he moved with an agitation that didn’t suit him.

Was he not holding it together a hundred percent?

“Where’s Tattletale at?”  I asked.  “I kind of got distracted as everyone was moving out.”

“At the command center with Accord.  She just contacted us through the Armbands.  They’re waiting to talk to Chevalier, fine tune the defenses.  Accord thinks he can layer the defenses to maximize the amount of time we buy.  Scion was occupied with some flooded farmlands in New Zealand, flew towards South America, last they saw.  Wrong direction.”

I nodded, my heart sinking.  It didn’t seem we’d be able to count on him.  Not any time in the immediate future.  “And Parian, Foil?  Citrine and Ligeia?  With Accord and Tattletale?”

“No.  Those four split off into another group.  They can put out fires, and Citrine can protect them from lightning strikes so long as they aren’t moving around too much.  Flechette’s using the opportunity to shoot him, for all the good it’s doing.  Our group wouldn’t be any use to them, so we’re doing what we can here, a little further away.”

“Got it,” I said.  “You have a way of communicating with them?”

He tapped his armband, then pressed a button.  “Relay this message to Citrine.  All well, Skitter and Chicago Wards just arrived.  Inform as to status.”

There was a pause.

Message from Citrine,” the armband reported, the voice crackling badly.  Then the crackling redoubled as the voice stated, “Status is green.”

“Any objection if we assist your group?” I asked him.

Grue shook his head.  He started to reply, but was cut off as Behemoth generated another shockwave.  A rumble drowned everything out, as every building without something to protect it fell.

“No objection,” Grue said, when the rumble had dissipated.  He echoed my question from earlier.  “Got a plan?”

“I wish,” I said.  “More lightning rods, maybe, if we get the opportunity.”

The smoke was clearing towards the battle’s epicenter.  Legend and Eidolon were a part of that, as were the craft that supported them.  The fires were dying out, extinguished or stamped out.

Behemoth wasn’t that tall, hard to make out above the buildings that still stood.  I chanced a look, and flinched as another bolt of electricity made its way to the lightning rod.

The path of least resistance.

Behemoth had noticed that time, or he’d decided to do something about it, because he lashed out at Legend and Eidolon once more, driving them back, and then made a beeline for the structure. He threw electricity outward, two bolts, continuous in their arc, and they briefly made contact with the tower.  A second later, they broke free of the tower’s draw.  He was paying attention to where he was shooting now, not simply striking across a distance with the goal of setting indiscriminate fires.

Fire roared around Behemoth as he got away from the area that had already been scorched and blasted clear of any fuel sources.  His dynakinesis fueled the flames, driving them to burn hotter, larger, and with more intensity.  With a kind of intelligence, the fires spread to nearby buildings, ensuring that no place was safe, nor untouched.

I could see the blaze making its way closer to us.  Not a concern in the next minute, maybe not even the next five, but we’d have to move soonish.

Legend and Eidolon hounded the Endbringer, Legend initially a blur that couldn’t even be pinned down long enough to strike, even with lightning.  As the hero flew, he filled the sky with a series of lasers that raked Behemoth’s flesh and targeted open wounds to open them further.  When Behemoth turned away to deal with Eidolon, Legend slowed, and the lasers grew in number and in scale.

“What’s with the hand shape?” Regent asked, as he poked his head out from cover enough to peek at the scene.

“A ‘v’,” Golem said, his voice small.

“I get it.  You’re calling Behemoth a big vagina.”

“It’s for victory,” Cuff said, sounding annoyed.

“That’s lame,” Imp said.

Really lame,” Regent echoed, “I prefer the vagina thing.”

“Way you dress,” Grace commented, “I wasn’t so sure.”

“Ohhhhh,” Imp cut in, she elbowed Regent, “Ohhhhh.  You going to take that?”

Regent only laughed in response, shaking his head.

“Is the little princess feeling brave?” Grace taunted Regent.  “Come on.”

“It’s for ‘victory’,” Cuff said, her feeble protest lost in the midst of the exchange, and in that instant, she sounded surprisingly young, vulnerable.

“No fighting,” I said, have to stop this before it escalates.  “Regent, stand down.  Grace, you too.”

Regent snickered under his breath.

“And no more banter,” Grue said.  “There’s more people to help.  Move.  With luck, those guys can keep him busy long enough for us to clear out.”

“Team’s mommy and daddy, reunited,” Imp commented, adding an overdramatic sigh. “So awesome.”

“I’ll point you guys to the wounded,” I said, not taking the bait.  “Go.”

“No saying or doing stuff that’ll get us killed, like saying goodbye or getting laid,” Regent commented.  “There are rules.”

“Get us killed?  What’s Weaver doing?” Cuff asked, sounded alarmed and confused.

Regent glanced at her, “I’m just saying, Grue’s already screwed, he’s not a virgin, he’s bl-”

Grue struck Regent across the back of the head.  The crown and attached mask were moved slightly askew, and Regent fixed them.  He told Cuff, “Regent’s being an idiot.  Ignore him.  Now go.”

“This way,” Tecton said, setting a hand on Cuff’s shoulder, “Opposite direction from Regent.”

Imp started to turn around to follow the pair, grabbing Regent’s wrist to pull him after her.  Grue stepped in her way and physically turned her back around.

“Sorry for our contribution to that,” Tecton said.  “Grace gets hard to handle when she’s stressed.”

“I understand.  Regent and Imp…” Grue started.  “Really have no excuse.  That’s pretty much the status quo.  They’ve been a little worse lately, but things haven’t settled down since…”

He trailed off.

“Since I left,” I said.

Grue nodded.

Tecton nodded.  “I get it.  Bygones.  We’ll be back.  You okay watching the injured on your own, or-”

“We’re good,” Grue said.

Tecton left, with Cuff at his side.  Only Grue and Rachel remained, along with the Indian capes who were standing by the wounded.  Rachel was giving water to the injured who were capable of receiving it, the conscious ones, people with broken legs and burned hands.

I made eye contact with Rachel.  I wanted to ask how she was doing, knew she wouldn’t like the implications that she wasn’t peachy.

“I want to fuck this bastard up,” she said.  “Last one killed my dogs.  Killed Brutus, Judas, Kuro, Bullet, Milk and Stumpy and Axel and Ginger.  When do we attack?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “We’ll try to find an opportunity.”

“And I get to do something,” she said.

“I…” I started to voice a refusal, then stopped myself.  “Okay.”

“Bitch, it’ll be easier to collect the bodies if you take the dogs to them,” Grue said.  “Why don’t you see to that?”

She glanced at me.  I resisted the urge to nod.  It would be an encouragement, without the complexities and ambiguities of speech, but it would also be supplanting Grue as leader, here.

Neither he nor she needed that.

“Sooner than later,” he added.

She nodded.  Anyone else might have taken that as rude, but she accepted it without complaint.  She led the dogs away, and the Indian capes followed, not wanting to part from people who might have been teammates or family members.

When everyone was gone, Grue approached me.  I felt myself tense up.  Despite the adrenaline that already pumped through me, my heart rate picked up as he closed the distance.

He held my arms just above the elbows, very nearly encircling his middle fingers and thumbs around them.  Large hands, thin arms.  I’d put on a little muscle mass over the past few months, or he’d be able to do it for real.

And he rested his forehead against mine, as if he were leaning against me, despite the fact that he was maybe half-again to twice my weight.

It had been a long time since I felt quite so insecure as I had this past week.  As Skitter, I’d had a kind of confidence.  As Weaver… I didn’t yet feel on steady ground.

But in this moment, somehow, I felt like I could be his rock.

I wanted nothing more than to reach up, to put my hands around his neck, remove his mask so I could tilt my head upward to kiss him.  To give him succor in basic, uncomplicated human contact, at a time he was on unsteady footing and couldn’t even say it aloud.  I stayed where I was, our foreheads touching, my back to the wall, arms to my sides.  The masks stayed on.

The storm continued in the distance, and a detonation marked what might have been the destruction of one of Dragon’s craft.  We didn’t move an inch.

“I miss you too,” I whispered.

He nodded in response, a hard part of his mask scraping against a part of mine.

I could sense the others gathering bodies, starting to make their way back here, to our rendezvous point.

“See,” Imp said, appearing right next to us, “This is exactly what Regent was talking about.”

“We weren’t doing anything,” I said.  I pulled away from Grue, annoyed.

“You were being sweet.  That’s probably a death sentence.”

“They were snuggling?” Regent asked, rounding a corner.

Christ,” Grue said, under his breath.  Firmer, he said, “Enough of that.”

Imp only cackled, and she kept cackling.  I was pretty sure she prolonged it just to be annoying, stopping and starting again until Rachel and the last of the Wards returned.

“Let’s talk plans,” Grue said.  “We’ve got a good roster here.  Two teams.  Almost three full teams, if we pick up Parian, Foil and the Ambassadors.”

He sounds more confident.  A little more balanced.  The agitation isn’t so obvious.

“There’s more wounded in the area,” I said.  “And we’re running out of space.  Each dog that’s loaded up with the injured is a dog you guys can’t ride.  Fires are getting closer, so we pick up everyone we can, load them onto makeshift sleds, then hurry back to a place where we can get them medical care.”

“It’s a plan,” Grue said.

“And,” I said, “We need to find a better use for our strongest members.  Citrine could be useful.  Grue?  If we get the sled going, you stay close to the wounded.”

He turned his head my way.

“We have about twenty here.  Six or so capes.  Maybe one’s got a power we can use.”

He nodded.  “I already checked most.  But I can use a power from the back of the sled without blinding anyone.  It works.”

“There’s a joke there,” Regent said, “But-”

Don’t,” Imp said.

“I wasn’t going to.  It’s crass, totally inappropriate, and I’m better than that.”

“You’re going to,” Imp said, stabbing a finger at Regent’s chest.  “You were going to say something about Grue going to the back of the bus, and you can’t let it go.  It’d be lame and really tasteless and too far, and it’ll start the sort of fight that isn’t fun or funny.  I’m calling it: you’ll hold it in until you can’t help but say it.”

“Well I’m definitely not going to say it now that you’ve spoiled it,” Regent said.  “No shock value, no people feeling bad because they inadvertently laughed at something fucked up.”

“You two go squabble somewhere else,” Grue said.  He glanced at me.  “There’s more bodies to collect?”

“Too many bodies,” I said, my voice sober, “Not many injured left who haven’t already been carried away by friends, family and neighbors, or who aren’t in such bad shape that they can’t move.  Maybe six more we could load up, if we’re going to get out of here in time.”

“Go,” Grue said.  “She’ll show you the way.”

Run,” I said.  They didn’t have to run, but it got rid of them sooner.

Children,” Grue muttered under his breath.

“Wards,” I said.  “If you aren’t making the sled, go get the rest.  I’ll help.”

My team left Annex and Cuff behind while we collected the wounded.

The one I was helping was a child, burned.  She wasn’t any older than ten.

She said something incomprehensible.  Another language.

“English?” I asked.

She only stared at me, unable to understand me any more than I understood her.  Her eyes were a little glazed over, but the pain in her expression and the fear suggested that the benefits of being in shock were receding.

A part of me felt like I should have helped her sooner, but it wasn’t a logical part of me.  There was so little I could do, and it didn’t matter if I did it before or now.  And maybe a small part of me was putting it off because it wasn’t going to be pretty.

“I’m not that scary,” I said, “Okay?”

I pulled off my mask.  “See?  Ordinary person.”

Her expression didn’t change.

“I’m going to have to move you,” I said, and the words were for me as much as they were for her.  I kept my voice gentle, “It’s going to hurt, but it’ll mean we can get you help.”

She didn’t react.  I studied her.  Blisters stood out on her arms and neck, and on the upper part of her chest.

I could maybe understand a little of Rachel’s anger at the loss of her dogs, seeing this.  Behemoth probably hadn’t even given a coherent thought to the pain he’d inflicted on this girl, on countless others, just like Leviathan had mindlessly torn through Rachel’s dogs.

Why?

Why did the Endbringers do this?  Were they part of the passenger’s grand plan?  Cauldron’s monsters, taken to an extreme?  Tattletale had said they were never human, but she’d been wrong before.

Or maybe I hoped they had been human because it was an answer, because the alternative meant I didn’t have enough data points to explain it.

With as much gentleness as I could manage, I moved bugs over the girl’s body.  She reacted with alarm rather than pain, and I shushed her.  The bugs were spreading possible infection, no doubt, but I suspected infection was inevitable, given circumstance.  Using the bugs let me know where the blisters were, where the skin was mottled with burns.

I took off my flight pack and flipped it over.

Like ripping off a bandaid, I thought, only it’s at someone else’s expense.

I lifted her, and she shrieked at the physical contact, at the movement of burned flesh against clothing and the ground.  I set her down on the flight pack, placing a hand on her unburned stomach to stabilize her.  I activated the left and right panels, gently, so it had a general lift without any particular direction, and I led her to the sled in progress.

Golem had already returned, and the three of them were combining powers to make the sled.  Cuff was feeding the chain Rachel had provided into loops at the front.

With Grue’s help, I eased the girl down from the flight pack, setting her with the other wounded.

“We’re going to hurt him,” I said, retrieving the flight pack.

“Behemoth?” Cuff asked me.

“We’re going to find a way,” I said, and that was all.  I met the little girl’s eyes.

Cuff followed my gaze.  “I guess I”m on board with that.”

“Why did you come?”  I asked.  “I mean, I get why we all came, on a level, but… no offense, you’re in a totally different headspace.”

“For my mom and dad,” she said.

I glanced at her, but she didn’t elaborate.

It took another minute to get the sled prepped and people mounted.  Rachel enhanced the size of her dogs so they’d have the strength to pull not only the wounded, but the two teams as well.  It meant they were slower, but it also meant moving nearly forty people with four dogs.  I took off, flying, leading the way and giving directions with bugs as they followed.

A crash heavier than any we’d had yet made the dogs stumble, falling.  It very nearly overturned the sleds.  Bitch had fallen from where she sat on Bentley’s back.  I stopped at her side to make sure she was alright, gave her a hand in getting back to her feet.  She accepted it without complaint or incident, but when she met my eyes, her glower cut right through me.

Was that her resentment at work or my guilt, that made me feel that way under her gaze?

Once I’d verified that no damage had been done, I rose just high enough to peer over the top of a building.

The lightning rod had tilted, leaning against an adjacent building, the supports Golem had raised had crumbled.  Behemoth, too, had fallen.

Eidolon and Legend hovered in the sky, flanked by four dragon-craft.

Another figure was there as well, hovering where Behemoth had been standing an instant ago.  The Endbringer had been toppled with one massive blow.

I touched the button on my armband, lowering my head beneath cover.

“Send this message to Defiant,” I said.  “You said she was dead.  You said you verified.”

The reply crackled so badly it was almost inaudible.  “Reply from Defiant.  I saw the body myself, we checked her DNA, her … readings, we matched against the mountings for her prosthetic eye … carbon dated it to verify.

He didn’t even need to ask who I meant.

I pressed the button, “Ask Defiant who the hell that’s supposed to be, if it’s not Alexandria.”

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Drone 23.5

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The waiting was the worst part.

My restlessness was cranked up to eleven, cooped up in the craft with Defiant and Dragon, waiting to cross half the world.  Dragon was focused on piloting the craft, unable to speak, in any event.  Defiant was busy communicating, which translated to being inaudible as he kept the vents of his mask closed.  From the images on the monitor, he was clearly tracking who was coming, our forces, the Endbringer and the high-risk areas.

I watched for a time, saw the cape count rise.  A screen filled with lines of text, noting the hero teams who had committed to the fight, numbers beside them to tally the total numbers.

For every group that joined, I felt myself growing a touch more nervous.  More participants in the fight was a good thing, but… so many small teams.  I couldn’t read half of the names of the groups on the list, but there was nothing to suggest it was organized.

I shifted my weight, sat, stood, stretched.

Agony.

Being in a prison, I didn’t have the luxury of a full wardrobe, certainly not the bike shorts and tank top I tended to wear beneath my costume.  I had only underwear, and I needed to change into the new costume.  I could have waited, but I wanted to hit the ground running.

Worse, the boxes with my butterflies within were in one of the crafts that followed just behind us, carrying a full contingent of capes.

But Defiant was engrossed in the monitors, and that left me debating the merits of modesty over being ready.

I stripped down, pulling on my old costume.  They’d said something about painting it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to wait for that.  I left the major armor components off.

The pack they’d given me, it was the wrong color to match with the armor.  I’d be sacrificing the ability to keep things inside my utility compartment, but I suspected this would make up for that.   There were built-in wings that folded at a juncture, like dragonfly wings with joints, and there were the ‘arms’.  The controls seemed to be worked into gloves I was supposed to wear beneath my costume.

I found that there was a hatch, but it was small, barely larger than my hand, and the space was shallow.  I sent bugs inside to explore, and found a series of fine switches.

“Redundant controls,” Defiant said.

I looked up.  He’d turned away from the monitors.

“If your glove gets damaged, you’ve got the controls built into the pack itself.  If the pack gets damaged, you have the gloves.  If both are damaged, you’re not likely to be in a state to fly.  It might take getting used to, but this will give you the ability to move faster if you need it, and it’s very possible you’ll need it this afternoon.”

“You built it so fast.  I wasn’t with Mrs. Yamada for even two hours, and you put this together?”

“It’s made using components and technology we already have.  Four antigravity panels, like those Kid Win had in his hoverboard,” Defiant said, angling his hand to indicate the general placement.  One at the very bottom, one above that, facing more back than down, and two more at angles on either side.

“Okay,” I said.

“That gives you lift, the ability to offset gravity or momentum in a given direction, but the acceleration is low.  Expect zero to thirty miles an hour over eight seconds.  It won’t carry you out of the way of trouble, understand?  It won’t stop you if you’re moving at terminal velocity, unless you’re falling a long way.”

I nodded.

“The wings are a modification of technology that was confiscated from a cape called Stinger.  Missile themed, not wasps and bees.  They’ve got a venting-exhaust system we repurposed.  It toggles between using either antigravity or propulsion.  They should give you an easier time orienting yourself, or more speed pushing yourself in a particular direction, but not both at the same time.   While the wings are intact, you should be able to manage zero to forty-five in about three and a half seconds.  That ends if the wings break, and they aren’t made to be durable.”

I nodded.  “It won’t let me flit around the battlefield, but it’ll give me some vertical movement?”

“Yes.”

He continued, indicating lines with his finger.  “We built nineteen tracks into the device, that you’ll be able to control with the bugs you direct into the interior.  One for the on-off switch, doubling as an override for the glove handling, four for antigravity panels, eight for the arms, six for the wings.  You’re sure you can handle all that?”

“Multitasking is a strength of mine,” I said.  “If it’s anything like controlling Atlas, it’ll become almost subconscious.”

“I hope so.  You’ll want to learn with both the glove and the insect control.  There’s also limitations on energy and fuel, for the antigravity and propulsion, but not so limited that you’ll run out by the end of the day.  You have time to review the documentation Dragon put together.  Pay attention to the particulars of the flight pack’s vulnerability to electromagnetic radiation.  While the wings are deployed, one good hit will scramble it and render you flightless.  While the wings are withdrawn and the casing closed, it should be shielded against all reasonable EM sources.”

“I’ll have to stay close to the ground then, in case it gets scrambled.”

“For now.”

“Can I practice?” I asked.  “Not flying, but the arms, and moving the individual components…”

“The arms aren’t done.  Keep them out of the way for now.  Until I figure out a way to approach the internal design, they’ll have about as much strength as a newborn baby.”

I nodded.  “I really appreciate this, anyways.  You two went above and beyond the call of duty.”

“It’s not customary for tinkers to design things for teammates.  If they do, it’s on a relatively small scale, simple.  Kid Win making Gallant’s armor, for example.  Any device requires a great deal of upkeep.  Time is spent tuning, calibrating, repairing and identifying problems.  Each device created is something the tinker then has to take time to maintain, and mass production means the tinker becomes tech support more than an innovator.  Dragon and I don’t sleep, or sleep very little, but even for us, it isn’t effective.  Far better to invest our time into the artificial intelligences and the ships.”

“But you’re doing this for me.”

“We, I in particular, wronged you,” Defiant said.  “I know that even now, we’re not fully on the same page, but I now believe you did start out wanting to be a hero, and I may have played a part in your drift from that path.  I’ve put myself on the line to recommend you to the Wards, and I’ll dedicate the time and equipment necessary to get you on track.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Really.  Thank you.”

“If you don’t mind,” he said.  “I-”

He paused, glancing at Dragon.  Then he continued, “I’m working on being more humble, but I think I will always have a certain measure of pride and an excess of focus, to the point that I lose sight of the periphery of things.  I’ll forgive your past transgressions if you look past mine, and if there’s any disparity in the two, I’ll make it up for you with this.”  He lowered his head to indicate the flight pack.  “And I’d ask you to spare my ego the reminder by accepting this without thanks.”

“I’ve worked with Rachel, with Bitch, I think I can do that much,” I said.

“When this is over, today, if we’re all still alive, I will maintain two of these packs for you, and you can switch to the spare if one needs repairing or recharging.  Some of it’s of Dragon’s design, but the maintenance will be left to me.  If you have questions, I’ll answer them,” he said.

And the latter half of the statement was left unsaid.  But let’s not talk of this any further, unless it’s about the technical aspects of the device.

He had already turned back to the monitor.  There were three screens filled with columns noting the various teams who were showing up.

“How long until we arrive?”  I ventured.

“Forty-five minutes.”

I nodded.  “We’re going to show up late, aren’t we?”

“Inevitable.  Dragon already has had every combat-ready craft on standby in eastern Europe for a week now.  They and the local forces will have to hold the fort until then.”

“Okay.”

“The computer opposite mine is available.  Dragon is pulling up the documentation on the flight device now, if you need something to occupy yourself.”

I glanced behind Defiant, noting the terminal and the stool that was built into the craft’s cabin.  I took a seat, resting the pack on my right thigh.

Okay, so they’d found the time to pull together a flight pack with some antigravity and propulsion systems, I could believe that.  But the documentation?  Who had time to draw out 21 pages of notes on capabilities and limitations, on top of building the thing?

Especially when it was all drawings, rather than typed out words.

I wasn’t about to complain, but it did leave me reconsidering what Dragon’s specialty might be.  I’d thought I worked it out, but the speed with which she’d pulled this together…

My bugs found the channels inside the suit, and I set about experimenting with it, working through the various steps for moving the wings and the individual limbs.  Each ‘track’ inside the pack’s interior was a narrow corridor with very sensitive switches along the interior, so that any movement of even something as diminutive as a ladybug was capable of pushing them.

The sensitivity would need to be calibrated at a later point.  As it stood, any jarring impact would briefly lock all of the inputs in place, so they wouldn’t read the impact as contact from a bug and send the wrong signal.

I had to shrug out of the upper half of my costume to get the gloves on beneath my costume, but I managed to get everything set up.  There were too many straps and no room for them to slot beneath my costume, so I connected them over the costume’s exterior, beneath the armor, and cinched every strap tight, doing up the metal clasps once everything was comfortably tight.

There were four ‘arms’, each a little longer than my arms.  The control was a little simplistic, with only two switches for each limb.  I imagined it was similar to an artificial limb.  I folded them close to my body, so they hugged my lower ribs and the space just beneath my ‘breasts’, and then left them be.

The wings were just as simplistic, but had three switches each.  Two to move and reorient the wings, with a third to switch between the antigrav vent and varying amounts of propulsion.  I didn’t dare experiment with that in an enclosed space.

I read and reread the documentation ten times over, because there was precious little else to do.

“We’re landing in a minute,” Defiant announced.  “Estimated eight minute wait before the last craft from North America arrive on site and a cape by the name of Silk Road deploys a corridor.”

I nodded.

“We picked up your old team,” he said.  “Sent a craft.”

I turned around, surprised.

“Stipulations of your membership in the Wards dictate that you aren’t to extend contact to them.”

Oh.  Right.  Shitty.

“Keeping in mind that there are likely going to be cameras and cell phones pointed at you throughout this incident,” Defiant said, glancing at Dragon, “You’re free to do as you wish.  So long as you don’t do anything troublesome on camera, I don’t expect anyone will make an issue of it.  It might even help if you allow others to record you, so it’s clear you aren’t doing anything questionable.”

I glanced at him.

“Dragon’s suggestion, not mine,” he said.  “But I don’t object.”

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it.

“Thank me by staying out of trouble,” he said, brusque.  He glanced at Dragon, then back to me.  “And you’re welcome.”

She can communicate with him, but not with anyone else.  Why?

I nodded.  “Um.  You reminded me, when you said there’d be people getting camera footage of me.  Mrs. Yamada said I should start recording myself while I’m in the field.  I know we still have to talk about my costume, and it’s too late to make any updates, but I wouldn’t mind having it, especially for the next high-intensity situation.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

I nodded.

The craft set down, the doors opening.  My mouth dropped open in surprise as I took in the scene.

The area was a flat, open field with knee-high grass.  Settled on it were twenty of Dragon’s ships, with two to sixteen capes to each.  People were stepping out, stretching, meeting others and talking.  Almost all of them were from the Protectorate and the Wards.  Others included Haven, a villain group I didn’t recognize, and one of the corporate teams I’d seen before the Leviathan fight.

And the Undersiders.  I sensed them with the bugs in the field.

I felt a measure of hesitation.

Time to test out these wings.

It wouldn’t do to faceplant in front of all of these heroes.  I was tentative, as I sent a bug down a tight corridor with innumerable tiny switches.  Only one corridor, one switch.

A panel kicked to life, gentle.  I nearly tripped as I stepped forward and was lifted an inch or two higher off the ground than normal.

I sent the bug further down the corridor, directing more power to the panel, and I was no longer having an issue, because I was being lifted into the air.

I was starting to lose my balance, though, necessitating a drop in lift and some experimental firings of the left and right panels to keep myself upright.

I touched ground and extended the wings, activating the vents for the antigrav at the wing’s tips.  It made for a sudden, lurching adjustment, nearly flipping me over to the ground.

Not wanting to waste too much time, I made a beeline for the Undersiders, experimenting as I went.  Rather than fly, I used short bursts of the antigrav with kicks of my feet to get some air, landing on the noses and limbs of various Dragon-crafts, so I didn’t have to walk around.

“There she is,” Tattletale said, “And she’s flying.”

I settled on top of a head, swaying for a second as I touched ground and found my center of balance.  “Floating, until I get more practice.”

“Close enough,” she said.  She flashed a grin.  “Fancy.”

They were all present, Parian included.  Accord, Citrine and the woman with the water powers were all present.  I couldn’t recall her name.  Ligeia?  She had a costume, now.  Or an evening dress, rather, with a conch brooch and mask.

More than Parian, I was surprised that Accord had come.

Flechette, now Foil, stood off to one side.  She’d donned a black costume, which I was pretty sure was made of one of my failed attempts at a Tattletale costume, using asymmetrical belts, boots, armor and gloves to cover the areas where I’d tried to embellish.  Her mask was an opaque pane, like Clockblocker’s, but black, with silver trim at the edges.

“You’re wearing your old costume,” Grue said, finally.

“Haven’t had a chance to make a new one,” I said.

“No kidding,” Regent said, his tone dry, “Too busy making license plates, dropping the soap…”

“I can’t believe you went and became a hero,” Imp said.  “What the fuck?  How the fuck do you off a major cape and get invited to the Wards?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Are you getting by?” Grue asked.

“Not as well as I’d like,” I said.  “But surviving.  Are you guys okay, leaving your territory like this?”

“Hey now,” Regent cut in.  He stabbed a finger at me.  “Aren’t you supposed to read us our rights before questioning us?”

Imp snorted.  Grue smacked Regent across the back of the head, a little harder than necessary.

“It’s all good,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, “Booby traps, some misdirection, I figure we can afford to be gone for a day.  We can look forward to going back home to see some bruised egos.  Regent’s dad among them.”

“You’re being safe?” I asked.  “I mean, we’ve taken on some monsters, but this is Heartbreaker, and the repercussions of a lost fight are kind of, well, permanent.  There’s no undoing his power.”

“Like I said, it’s all good.”  Tattletale shrugged.

“You with a team?” Grue asked, “Or with us?”

“No idea.  As far as I know, I’m independent,” I said.  “I’m not sure what that means, yet, but way I figure it, I’m going to do whatever works best in the moment.”

“Isn’t that how you wound up with us in the first place?” Tattletale asked.

I didn’t have an answer to that, so I shrugged.  My eyes followed Foil as she walked over to talk to Jouster.  He handed her an arbalest, and a quiver of needle-like bolts.

When she took the quiver, he gripped her wrist, speaking something in a low volume.  She nodded as she replied, saying something I couldn’t make out, and he let her go.

Wordless, they parted, him rejoining his team, Foil moving to Parian’s side.

I wanted to say something about that, but what?  I didn’t get the vibe she was a double agent, but I imagined there was something more to that.

I turned my attention back to the Undersiders, and my eyes moved to Rachel.  She was sitting on the ramp at the back of a craft, her dogs clustered around her.  She was stroking Bastard, using her fingernails to get in deeper than the base layer of fur.

Finally a chance to talk, and nothing to say.  The silence hurt me more than any accusations or insults.

“I don’t know how to say this gracefully,” I said.  I paused, noting the presence of a hero nearby who’d raised a camera towards me.  Whatever, I’d say it anyways.  “But you guys mean a lot to me.  I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but I couldn’t without letting on that something was going on.  You’re my family, in a way.  As lame as it might be, I love you guys.”

My head turned from Grue to Rachel to Tattletale as I said it.

“Gaaaaaaayyyyyyy,” Imp drew out the word.  Parian and Foil gave her an annoyed look.

I smiled a little, despite myself.  “Fuck off.”

“Are you trying to get someone killed?” Regent asked.  “That’s totally a death sentence, telling someone you love them, tying up loose ends.”

“She’d be getting herself killed, going by the rules,” Tattletale said.

“Don’t say that,” Grue said, his voice quiet.

With a touch more seriousness, Tattletale said, “No dying, okay, Skitter?”

“Weaver,” I corrected.

“Skitter,” she said.  “Here, today, you’re Skitter.  Consider it a good luck charm.  And no dying.  I’ll say it as many times as it takes, until it gets through to you.”

I shook my head a little.  “No dying.  That goes both ways.”

“Way I see it,” Imp said, “She’s gone soft.  Real quick, too, getting affectionate, lovey-dovey.”

“Alternate costume, too,” Regent said, “White, light gray, baby blue…”

“Electric blue,” I said.  I was smiling now.  I used the flight-pack to slow my descent as I hopped down from the head of the craft.  I pitched my voice lower so I wouldn’t be overheard, and poked Regent in the chest.  “Fuck you guys.  I’m as badass as ever.  Recommending drugs to kids, strangling a ten year old, forcing bugs down my allies’ throats…”

“Killing Alexandria,” Regent said.

“Mm,” I said, and I could feel my heart plummet into my stomach.  All at once, I was left wondering just how many capes here were secretly blaming me.

“Asshole,” Tattletale told Regent.

I folded my arms, feeling a chill, the summer warmth notwithstanding.  “We may pay for that today.”

“I think we’re fucked in general,” Tattletale said.  “But no sweat.  We’ll-”

She snapped her head around.  There was an uncharacteristic emotion as she swore under her breath.  “Fuck.  He’s up.”

A second later, the ships each spoke in their identical voices, out of sync not because of any flaw in Dragon’s program, but due to their positions across the field, and the delay of sound traveling, a chorus, “Behemoth has surfaced.  Return to your craft as soon as possible.  Supplies will be provided while we are en route.  Individuals on the ground may or may not be left behind.

“See you on the battlefield,” Grue said.

“See you,” I answered.  I felt a tug of worry.  I had almost hoped he’d sit this one out.  He didn’t tend to do well when it came to facing down the real monsters.

I bit my tongue and started up the flight pack.

“Don’t hold back now,” Regent said.  I could see that he was watching the guy who was still training his camera phone on me.  Regent turned back to me and extended his arms, injecting fake emotion into his voice, “You know we love you too!”

I kicked off, just barely floating out of reach as he tried to fold me into a hug.  “Jackass.”

He was back to his casual, detached attitude in an instant, showing just a touch of swagger as he stepped back to rejoin the others.  He gave me a sloppy mock salute.  I shifted my ascent and set foot on the head of the craft that had been behind me.

“Just remember,” Tattletale called out, “You’re officially Skitter today.  Don’t be a hero.  No point to all this shit if you do something brave and get yourself killed.”

“Not sure about that,” I said.  “About being Skitter, not the getting killed bit.”

Heroes were rapidly retreating to the craft.  I didn’t have long.  There was so much I wanted to say, but… shit.

“Rachel,” I said.

She glanced up at me, her eyes almost hidden behind her hair.  I could see the hurt in her expression, a raw feeling.

“The letter, it helped.  All of the letters meant a lot to me, except Imp’s.  But yours especially.”

She grunted in acknowledgement, setting Bastard on the ground, then stood.

“And I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this, but I still consider you a friend.  Someday, after all of this has settled down, when you don’t need to be a villain anymore to take care of your dogs, and I’m okay where I’m at, I want to hang out again.  Throw the balls for the dogs, clean up dog shit, go for walks.  Whatever works.”

“Saying shit like that, you’re signing death warrants!” Regent said, his hands to the side of his head.  “Stop it, you lunatic!”

I shook my head, then turned and took flight.

All around me, doors were shutting.  If it weren’t for my bug sense, I might have lost track of where Defiant was.  So many Dragon-ships, no two quite the same.

I entered, and I could see Defiant standing in front of the monitors, his arms around Dragon’s shoulders.  One of them must have acknowledged my presence, because the doors of the craft began shutting behind me as I made my way inside.

Odd as it was, I hadn’t fully parsed that they were together before now.

I approached, quiet, and watched as the drama on the monitors unfolded.  The bugs from the field followed me inside, clustering around me.

Behemoth, nearly fifty feet tall, was still standing in the midst of a collapsed building.  The structure had no doubt fallen on top of him as he emerged, and the debris was ablaze, casting his gray skin in hues of red and orange.  He didn’t seem to care about the building.

Dragon’s A.I. were already attacking him, each from the greatest distance possible.  The camera shook, out of sync with the timing of the strikes, as the vibrations took time to travel to the distant cameraman.

Heroes were fighting, contributing pitifully little to the assault.  They were too distant to make out.

“Locals?” I asked.

Defiant turned, reacting as if he were surprised I was present.  “Yes.  Don’t ask me to pronounce their names.”

Sāhasī Pān̄ca,” Dragon said.

I glanced at her in surprise.  “You can talk, all of a sudden?”

There was a pause.  “…Little.”

“She felt she needed to be able to communicate,” Defiant said.  To her, he said, “And this is the last time we make a last-minute fix.”

“I’m sort of in the dark here,” I said.

Defiant declined to fill me in, staring at the screen.  His voice was almost pained as he muttered, “They’re too close.”

One Dragon suit was unleashing what looked like a freeze ray at the Endbringer, while another of the Dragon suits was turning a laser on the ground beneath Behemoth’s broad feet.  It wasn’t enough to take away his footing.  He set one ‘claw’ -a growth of obsidian-like black shards- onto solid earth, then half-loped, half-hopped forward.  With his claws and feet now on firm ground, he leaped.  The shockwave of his departure toppled the slipshod buildings around him in his wake.

The landing as he arrived flattened another set of buildings.  The heroes started to run.  They were too slow, when compared to the length of Behemoth’s legs, the sheer power he was capable of putting into the simple act of walking.  One by one, they fell within his kill range.  Two were scorched from the inside, a brawny-looking cape seized up with smoke billowing from his corpse as he struck ground, his arms and limbs still twitching in death.

One managed to escape, taking flight.  He got a full four city blocks away before Behemoth reached out.  He was struck out of the air by a visible arc of lightning that extended from a claw’s tip.

Four A.I. were continually bombarding him now, three using what looked to be freeze-rays.  The fourth alternated between destroying his footing and blasting burning buildings flat with some sort of concussive laser-drill, stifling the spread of the fires.  Heroes here and there contributed some inaccurate ranged fire, but seemed preoccupied with fleeing.

Behemoth hardly seemed to care about any of it.

Our ship lifted off.  Outside, the surroundings were taking on a rosy tint.  I could hear the cumulative thrum of the twenty-seven Dragon-craft’s propulsion systems operating in unison.  My bugs could track them all, the late arrivals included.

There was a shudder, and the rosy tint of our surroundings intensified, filling the cabin.  We started to move, and it wasn’t the ship moving us.  Dragon stepped out of Defiant’s embrace to approach the ship controls.

An instant later, the propulsion system kicked into motion, and we were moving far faster than before.  The shuddering of the cabin was so intense I had to sit down.

“India’s capes fall into two categories,” Defiant said, not taking his eyes off the screen.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the movement of the craft.  “They term their capes ‘hot’ and ‘cold’, with very strict rules on who falls into a category.  Walk between the two groups, you get the worst of both.  Hot, it’s about flash, color, appeal, and engaging the public.  Villain or hero, they’re cape celebrities.  Cold, it’s… bloodshed, violence, assassination and secrecy.  Capes of the underworld.  The public doesn’t see or hear about the cold capes.  The media does not speak of them.”

On the screen, Behemoth wasn’t even slowing down.  Another arc of lightning lanced across the cityscape, setting a dozen fires.  The houses looked shoddy, dirty, and were apparently very flammable.  The flames spread quickly, and plumes of smoke were streaming towards the overcast sky.

“The capes that are getting killed, they’re-”

Garama,” Dragon said.  “…Hot.”

“We need the ones with killer instinct,” Defiant said.  “The ones who fight for real, not for play.  The cold capes.”

Thanda,” Dragon supplied the translation.

“Question is whether the Thanda think it’s worth breaking the rules and emerging from the shadows,” Defiant said.

“Did last…  time,” Dragon said, her words bearing an odd cadence.  She approached me, holding an armband and a silver packet.

I accepted them, turning both over in my hands.  “Radiation pills?”

She nodded, holding up one finger.

“Take one?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Still.”

“Still?”  I asked.

But she just touched one side of my face.  One finger was under my chin, and I raised it, looking up at her, confused.

She let me go, leaving me momentarily confused.  I touched my face where she’d laid her hand and felt two bumps.

A camera?

“Dragon,” Defiant said, before I could ask any questions.  “Look.”

She approached his side, her arms wrapping around his armored left arm, metal scraping against metal.

“They’re not supposed to be here,” he commented, his voice low.

I turned my attention to the monitor.  “Who aren’t?”

“The Yàngbǎn.”

The focus was on a formation of capes.  They were lined up like musketeers, rank and file, each a set distance apart from the others.  The ones in front were kneeling, the ones behind standing.  Each wore a mask that covered their faces, flowing costumes with loose sleeves and pants, somewhere between a martial arts uniform and a military uniform, each crimson with a black design of horizontal and vertical lines at edges of the sleeves and pants.  There were nearly thirty of them.

All together, they directed lasers at him, aiming for his one red eye.  He blocked the concentrated laser-fire with one claw, and the flesh at the base of the obsidian claw began peeling away.

“Who are they?”

“The C.U.I.’s military parahumans.”

“Isn’t the C.U.I. xenophobic?”

“Yes,” Dragon said.  Her voice sounded funny.  It wasn’t emotion, but something was somehow off about it.

“Excepting diplomatic functions, this is the first time in over a decade that any of the Yàngbǎn have set foot outside of China,” Defiant said.  “We’ve tried to arrange for their aid in the past, but relations between our side and theirs are sour.  For years, they’ve alleged that the PRT and the Protectorate are fundamentally corrupt, the source of the problems currently plaguing the world.”

“They were right,”  I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He didn’t sound happy about the admission.

Behemoth slammed his claws together.  The Yàngbǎn responded by creating forcefields en-masse, one for every person, overlapping with those to either side of them.  The shockwave of the clap ripped through them, shattering the first two rows of forcefields and virtually liquefying the unfortunate capes who no longer had protection.

The Yàngbǎn in the back rows were already dropping their forcefields, extending their hands forward, open palms aimed at their comrades.

The shockwave’s effects reversed in an instant, and the injured were whole, holding the positions they’d been in an instant before.  Here and there, the reaction had been a fraction too slow, and the Yàngbǎn members were only reversed to the instant the shockwave made contact.  They were thrown back and caught by the ones in the back row, blood streaming from their eyes, noses and ears.  One was saved much too late, and the process of being liquefied was only repeated, splattering the Yàngbǎn soldier who’d failed to react in time to rescue him.

Behemoth unleashed a rolling tide of flame, and the remaining twenty-eight Yàngbǎn fled, using a combination of enhanced speed and flight.  The remains of the dead member were left behind.

“I can’t tell if this is a good thing or a bad thing,” I commented.

“With luck, they’ve changed their minds and we have much-needed allies,” Defiant said.

“And if they haven’t?”

He didn’t reply.

More of Dragon’s craft were arriving, adding their attacks to those of the others.  I could recognize the wheel-dragon, using some sort of tuned electromagnetic pull to draw away the loose rubble from beneath Behemoth.  He sank nearly ten feet as the ground shifted around him.

He struck the wheel-dragon with a bolt of lightning, flaying off a few plates of armor and destroying the wheel.  It opened its mouth and launched cannon-fire at him.  The shells exploded into blobs of containment foam, fireproof, sticky, virtually impossible to remove.

But not capable of holding back something like Behemoth.

More lightning was unleashed, each doing successively more damage to the craft.  By the fourth blast, it wasn’t operational.  The fifth split it down the middle.  Insulation was little use against a dynakinetic that could redirect the natural course of electricity.

Ten craft were around him now, concentrating fire.  Cryogenic beams, containment foam and more served to slow him down.  Not stopping him.  No, that was too much to hope for.  His pace was roughly two-thirds the speed it might otherwise be, at a glance, his attention focused on the A.I.

Behemoth brought both hands together, but it wasn’t to clap.  Instead, he directed a stream of lightning at the nearest craft, easily twenty feet across.  It was splintered in an instant.

A second craft perished a second later.

Before he could turn his attention to a third, the stream of lightning shifted, curving off to one side.  Drones, the annoying little bastard spheres that had electorcuted me on multiple occasions, the same ones that had been built into the ceilings of the cells and prison hallways in the PRT headquarters, were in flight, deployed by a drone-ship like the one I’d fought in Brockton Bay, and they were channeling the lightning along a different path.

Behemoth wasn’t one to roar, but I could see the effort at work as he began to draw the lightning away from the remote drones, forcing it to take another path, beyond the route of ionized air or the electromagnetic charge that they were using to catch it and harmlessly redirect it into an area that was already rubble.  He was taking abuse from the airborne craft, unable to move without giving ground.  More containment foam and more ice built around him, tearing and melting, respectively, in response to his lesser movements.

They moved closer together, strengthening the bond, and the lightning was caught once more.

He gave up on the lightning and blasted the drones out of the air with a wave of heated wind.  An instant later, he resumed destroying the craft.  Three in as many seconds, and then a slam of one claw against a building.  The shockwave that followed leveled a whole row of buildings.

I belatedly swallowed a radiation pill and attached the armband.

The screen displayed text:  ‘Name?’

“Weaver,” I said.

The letters appeared on the screen.  I confirmed with a press of the button.

A map of my surroundings appeared, a landscape rushing by.  In one corner, the distance to Behemoth was noted, rapidly counting down.

I could see the runway an instant before the ship touched down.  The rosy glow was still present as the ship cut back on forward thrust.  The craft touched the runway belly-down, skidding to a near-stop.

The red tint that surrounded everything disappeared, and Defiant caught my arm with one hand, holding on to a beam in the ceiling with the other.

The ship activated one thruster, and the craft swung around.  The other thruster kicked to life, and we took off, still bearing some of the forward momentum from earlier.  We were moving in a near-perpendicular direction to the one we’d been traveling earlier.  Defiant let go of my arm.

When I looked back at the screen, nearly half of the city was on fire.  Black smoke choked the skies, a stark contrast to the cloudy sky of only minutes ago.

“Were they able to evacuate most?” Defiant asked.

“No,” Dragon answered.

Our craft touched ground, and I glanced out the window to see a sliver of what the monitors showed.  A sky choked by darkness, a city aflame.

The glow of his single eye cut through the smoke, and I was reminded of Lung.  Of that first night, on the rooftop, when one of Lung’s eyes had been swollen shut, the other open.  Lung, like Behemoth, had been virtually untouchable.

This was that same scenario, that same fight.  I couldn’t hope to win.  At best, I’d manage a distraction, a momentary handicap, but he’d recuperate, and given the chance, he’d murder me with a casual ease.

This wasn’t a rooftop, but there wouldn’t be an easy means of escape.  And just as I’d acted to stop Lung from hurting what I thought were innocent kids, I was acting here to save lives.

The same thing, but on a far greater scale.  The danger, the stakes, all scaled up by a thousand times, a million times.

The back of the craft opened, and Defiant led the way as we made our exit.  Spotlights cast much-needed light on the immediate surroundings.  The ships had settled in a ring formation, some posed above the others, as if providing a protective enclosure.  Weapons were directed outside, and one craft loomed overhead.  For now, we were as safe as we could hope to be.

Chevalier, Rime and the rest of his new Protectorate were all in one group, backed by their respective teams.

A nearby crash made half of the people present, myself included, nearly jump out of their skin.  It was somehow reassuring that Chevalier managed to retain his composure.

“The ships have all arrived,” Chevalier said, “I’ve received the data on the other participating teams, those not already fighting will reinforce as they’re able.  We should expect record numbers, we shouldn’t expect it’ll help.  Any news on the locals?”

“Gathering and setting up defenses at India Gate,” Rime said.  “It seems to be his destination.”

“The gate?  There’s nothing there,” Chevalier said.  “Only population.”

“If it’s not a soft target,” Revel said, “then we can play the long game, buy time for Scion to arrive.”

“Let’s assume it’s soft.  We made that mistake once, never again,” Chevalier said.  “Okay.  Listen up!”

He raised his voice, commanding the attention of everyone present.

“We’ve already notified you if we believe you have the capacity to engage Behemoth.  Anyone else is operating as search, rescue, and support.  Maintain a distance of at least a hundred feet from Behemoth at the very minimum.  Get any closer, you probably won’t have a chance of escaping if he decides to close the gap.  Be mindful of line of sight, because he can and will tag you with a lightning bolt, and it’s not something you can dodge.  Assume every structure will fall down in a heartbeat, and know that there’s no good place to hide and wait for this to be over.  Keep moving and move smart.”

The crowd of heroes was utterly silent.  I could see the Undersiders on the opposite end of the enclosure.  The spotlights behind them rendered them little more than silhouettes with glowing edges.

“There’s no sugarcoating it,” Chevalier said.  “The fact that you’re here, today, knowing the state things are in, you’re the biggest damn heroes I’ve worked with.  I’m not going to make any big speeches.  Better we get out there and save lives.  Hit him hard if you see the chance, keep an eye out for whatever his goal might be, communicate with other groups as best as you’re able.  Stay spread out so he can’t wipe too many of us out at once.  You work best with the people you know, so form your own teams, stick with the people you’ve operated with before.  Go.”

Heroes, already gathered in their groups, mobilized.

I started to approach the Undersiders.  Defiant’s hand on my shoulder stopped me.

I could see Tattletale and Accord stepping off to one side, talking.  She gave me one glance, offered me an apologetic half-frown, and then continued walking.

“Why?” I asked.

“The Chicago Wards,” he said.

“What about them?  I can function better alongside the Undersiders.”

“Dragon thinks you can contribute just as much or more with the Wards group, and they’re the team that wants you.”

I glanced at the groups that hadn’t departed yet.  Some were getting geared up, another group had a cape touching each member in turn, turning their skin to what looked like stone.  On the far end, past those other groups, I could see Tecton, Grace, and Wanton with three others I didn’t recognize.  They were looking at me.

“It’s the smart choice,” he said, “But it’s your choice.”

And, giving evidence to the statement, he departed, entering the Pendragon and freeing me to decide without his influence.

I sighed, then activated the antigrav panels to give myself some forward thrust, speeding me up as I moved to join Tecton’s group.

“Yep,” he said, to one of the newbies.

“You’re leader, I’m recon?” I asked.  “Like it was in New York?”

“No, you’re leader as long as this fight lasts,” Tecton said.

I must have looked surprised, because he said, “You’ve been in two of these fights, right?  If we count Echidna?”

I nodded.

“I’ve only been in the one, and I was never the shot-caller.  That was a partnership between Raymancer and me, and he’s gone.”

“My condolences,” I said.

He nodded, but my focus was on the other members of the team, trying to account for the resources I had available.  Grace had changed her martial arts outfit for something with more coverage, a chainmail mesh like the PRT uniforms wore.  Wanton still wore free-flowing clothes, but he wouldn’t stay in that form.

The other three… A girl with bands of metal running down each of her arms and legs, with heavy gauntlets, boots and a breastplate, a mask etched to look like a feminine face, with white lenses over the eyes.  Her platinum blond hair had three individual braids, two draped over her shoulders, with the ends bound in more bands of the blue-black metal.

There was a guy in a cowl, with another metal mask, who reminded me a bit of Shadow Stalker, but he wore white, and carried no weapon I could see.

And the last one… heavyset, with armor that seemed too generic.

“You’re a rookie?”

“All three of those guys are rookies,” Tecton said.  “They cannibalized our non-core team members to supplement other groups, and-”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I guess you three are getting thrown in the deep end.  Names?”

“Cuff,” said the girl in blue-black armor.

“Annex,” the cowled one told me.

“Golem,” the last one said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

I frowned behind my mask, perplexed.  “You named yourself after the little bastard from The Lord-”

“No,” he said.  I could hear him sigh from behind his helmet.  “I’m thinking of changing it.”

If not from the trilogy, then…  I fixed the pronunciation, compensating for how his muffled voice had modified it.  Right.  Golem, from the myth.

“I get it, nevermind.  Listen, we’re going to move out, and you’re going to explain your powers en route.  You know who I am?”

There were nods all around.

“You’re still okay with following my orders?”

Again, nods.

I saw the Undersiders moving out, along with the Ambassadors.

“We’re supplementing and supporting the Undersiders for the time being.  You okay with that?”

A touch more hesitant, they nodded.

“Then let’s go,” I said.

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