Monarch 16.13

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With Grue’s help, I seated myself on the intact edge of the destroyed swarmbox, scattering my insects to the walls and ceiling of the room.  Grue paced a little, while I eyed Imp and Bitch.  My female teammates didn’t look entirely convinced, and I couldn’t blame them.  They’d just seen someone who matched my description attacking them.  The nighttime darkness and the lack of city lights hadn’t helped, and the obscuring swarm of bugs had helped hide the details from the moment the impostor gave them reason to suspect her.

“What happened?” Grue asked me.

“We arrived at the place he was keeping Dinah, she grabbed my hand, we turned around, and the headlights flashed.  Then I was somewhere else.”

“He switched to his highbeams, momentarily.  Don’t know about the others, but my eyes had adjusted to the dark.  I couldn’t see anything, used my darkness to try to cover us in case he was pulling something, but nothing happened.  Turned around and you were fine.”

“Except it wasn’t me.”

Grue nodded slowly.  “Looked like you, sounded like you.”

“I don’t know how.  Genesis?”

“Didn’t strike me as much of an actor.”

“Then I don’t know,” I said, feeling lame.  I knew I didn’t sound convincing.

“What happened?  Was he only trying to separate you from us?”

“I’m ninety-five percent sure he tried to kill me.”

“What’s the other five percent?”  Grue asked.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure of anything.  But he didn’t have a bomb waiting to go off when I arrived, so that leaves me with some doubt.  He did shoot me, and set the building on fire around me.  And he had soldiers waiting to gun me down if I stepped outside.”

“Did he want you to come here, to frame you?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head.  “Doesn’t make sense.  Just as easy for ‘Skitter’ to disappear with Dinah, leaving you guys angry but still loyal.  I think the way he wanted it, I’d die of the gunshot or burn up in a housefire, and he could use the lack of living reporters in Brockton Bay alongside some bribe money for the Travelers to ensure you guys didn’t know what he’d pulled.  Maybe something comes out later about me betraying you, to put it in perspective and put any lingering doubts to rest.”

“He teleported you into a burning house, shot you, surrounded you with soldiers.  And you escaped,” Imp said.

“Barely.”  I touched the knot of metal where the bullet had settled in my armor.  “I guess it’s bulletproof after all.  I got away because of stuff he wasn’t aware of, mainly.  My costume, tactics I’ve been using in the field, the fact I had a gun.  Don’t know if Calvert knew about that.  Are you okay, Rachel?”

Rachel didn’t respond.  Her head was turned my way, and I could imagine her staring, trying to read me.  Her hand gripped the chain at Bastard’s neck.

“It wasn’t me,” I told her.

“It wasn’t her,” Grue confirmed.  “I saw with her power.  That box was controlling the bugs.”

Bitch nodded slowly.  I couldn’t see her expression to know whether she was glaring at me or narrowing her eyes behind her mask.

“If you have any doubts,” I said, “You can stay in a position to attack me if something happens.  One whistle or one hand signal away from commanding Bastard or Bentley to tear me apart.  I hope you won’t leap to any conclusions, but-”

“It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?  Because I don’t want there to be any hard feelings or… I don’t want there to be hard feelings.”  I’d almost said retaliation, but I’d decided I didn’t want to bring that up.

“It’s fine,” she said, and there was a touch of anger to the words.  “This shadow and dagger shit pisses me off.”

“Cloak and dagger,” Imp offered.

Bitch made a low, grunting noise in her throat that fell somewhere between a huff of anger, a belch and a grunt.  “The way you acted before, the way that person acted when she shot me and the way you’re acting now, none of it makes sense, and maybe that’s ’cause I’m stupid.  But I’m going to handle this my way.  Next time someone shoots at me, I kill them.  Or I have Bastard eat their hands and feet.”

“You shouldn’t maim people,” I said.

“Says the person who just emptied a gun clip at us,” Imp said.  When Grue and I turned her way, she raised her hands, “Kidding.  I’m just kidding.”

“…Want me to kill them instead?”  Bitch asked.

“No!  No.  Just… nevermind.  But hold back a bit for now.  And don’t call yourself stupid.  You think in a different way, that’s all.”

She offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“We should talk rescue plans,” I said.  “Calvert invited Tattletale to join him, probably so she wouldn’t tip us off about the body double.  That means she’s probably caught.  Regent too, since we sent him to look after her.  This is the kind of situation we were hoping to avoid by playing along with his grand plan.”

“Having to tackle his full forces to save Tattletale, Regent and Dinah.”

“Right.  If we go charging into this, we or one of his hostages will get killed.”

“I could go in,” Imp said.  “Get them, walk them out.”

“No.  He knows us.  He’s anticipated something like this.  Probably has for the Travelers, too.  He’ll have planned around our powers, with counters in mind for each of us.  That means video cameras to keep an eye out for you.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“Indirect attack?”  Grue suggested.

“It won’t work if he’s holed up somewhere safe.  Not with the countermeasures he’ll have put in place.  If he’s in his underground base until this all blows over, then he’ll be impossible to access,” I said.  I had to stop to cough.

Nobody chimed in with an answer or idea while I recovered.

I went on.  “If he’s in the PRT offices, then we’ll probably have to get past the Travelers, his soldiers, his PRT officers, any countermeasures he’s put in place and any countermeasures the PRT put in place.  It’d be a question of staggering out his various lines of defense so the more questionable ones are out of sight of the good guys.”

“And he still has his hostages,” Grue said.

Fuck it,” I groaned, then I coughed more.

“You need a hospital,” Grue told me.

I shook my head, then regretted it.  I felt dizzy.  Vaguely nauseous.  It was as though simply stopping and letting the adrenaline kick down a notch was letting symptoms emerge.  “Can’t.  Not now.”

“You’re nearly dead on your feet.”

“I’ll manage,” I said.  I turned my eyes to the place I’d been lying while Imp stood over me.  “What if I was dead?”

“Hm?”

“Calvert doesn’t have a way to know how this turned out.  Do you have phone service?”

Grue reached for his phone, but Imp had hers out first.  “Sure.”

“He cut my phone off.  I threw it away in case it could be used to track me, or in case it was how he was getting a hold on me with that teleportation device.  If he suspected you, wouldn’t he do the same, limit your options?”

“So you think he thinks maybe something happened.  Or he’s waiting to see if we bought his ruse.”

“He knows I was in the area.  I attacked his men trying to save you guys.  He had gunmen and explosives teams ready to wipe you off the map if you caught on to what that impostor was doing.  So what happens if you call him and tell him you killed me?”

“He asks us to meet him at one of those secure locations you mentioned, and we can’t refuse without revealing that we know what he tried to pull.  And destroying that box might have clued him in anyways.”

“Fuck,” I muttered.

“When the other Skitter disappeared with the girl, how did she do it?  Exactly.”

“Teleporting,” I said.  “Threw the first flashbang, teleported out, leaving rubble and another flashbang behind.”

“Mm,” he said, “Okay.”

“Why are you so curious about that?”

“Just thinking something through.  Give me a second to think.”  He pointed at me, “Make sure you’re taking deep breaths in the meantime.  Even if it hurts.”

I nodded and did as he asked.  For a little while, I ignored my bugs and focused on tallying the damage I’d sustained.  My breath wheezed and rattled, my chest hurt every time it or something attached to it moved, and my eyes stung when I opened them.  Not that there was any point.

Grue was pacing, breathing hard, while Imp and Bitch stood by.  It was a bit of a reversal of the norm.  I could sense Bitch scratching around Bastard’s ears, her fingernails digging in deep to get past the areas with armor and bony spikes.  Imp was on the other side of the room, leaning against one of the wooden pillars and watching her brother.

“I’m calling him,” Grue announced, still panting a bit.  Before any of us could protest, he said, “Quiet.”

I closed my mouth.

He put the phone on speaker.  I could hear it ring.

Funny how something so mundane as the ring of a phone could sound so ominous and eerie, given the context of a situation.

“Grue,” It was Calvert’s voice.  “What-”

When Grue spoke, his words were growls, barks.  “You better not have had anything to do with this, or I swear, this is over.  We’re done, gone.”

I could virtually hear Calvert switching mental gears to try to adapt to this.  “Slow down and then explain.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Skitter attacked us and then she used your technology to leave the scene.  I know you wanted to keep that girl, but going so far as to fucking turn on us-”

“Grue,” Calvert’s voice was hard, firm, “Slow down.  It doesn’t make sense that I’d arrange things that way.  Why go through the motions of giving my pet to Skitter, only to… you haven’t fully explained what happened.  You said she attacked you?  Are you sure?”

“Pretty fucking sure, Coil.  She shot Rachel and then turned on me.  Imp disarmed her.  Then she teleported away using the same device you described to us an hour ago.”

“I… I see.  Is Rachel all right?  And who else was with you, my driver?  You’re all unharmed?”

“Your driver went ahead.  No, we’re all fine, except for Skitter.”

“You said she teleported away.”

“She didn’t get more than two blocks away.  We chased her down and stopped her.”

My eyes widened a bit.  I could imagine Calvert’s next words before he spoke them, was already moving.

“Show me.  Send a picture through the phone.”

I shifted position so I lay in the depression that Bastard’s front paws had made in the swarm box.  It was a scene I had to stage in seconds, using dragonflies and wasps to carry hairs across my mask, moving my hand so my wrist bent at an awkward angle where the metal folded.  The final touch was bringing all the bugs from around the swarm box to carpet me and the floor.

Not a half second after I finished, I heard the digitized camera sound.

“I see.  That’s quite unfortunate.  Where’s Dinah?”

You know where Dinah is.

“I don’t know,” Grue said.  “I’m far more interested in hearing how Skitter managed to use your technology to do this.”

“You’re sure?”

“I saw it with my own two eyes,” Grue said.  “She threw a flashbang, but light and darkness don’t affect me the way they do others.  You know that much.”

Grue was lying, adding an element Calvert wasn’t aware of, to throw him off track.  Good.

“I didn’t, believe it or not,” Calvert said.  “And I don’t know how she would have gotten access to the controls.  One moment.  I’ll have to call you right back.”

My swarm felt Grue stiffen.  He raised his voice, “Don’t hang up on me!”

The speaker phone buzzed with the dial tone.

We stared at each other.  Or the others stared and I used my swarm sense to observe.  As a group, we were still and quiet for long seconds, the dial tone still blaring.

Grue hit the button.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Being aggressive, keeping him on his heels.  If he’s constantly defending himself, he won’t be able to turn things back on us.”

“Except he hung up.  He’s going to think through his options and give you an excuse when he’s ready.”

“I didn’t think he’d hang up.”

I frowned.  I was thinking back to the meeting I’d had with the school, when my dad had been with me and we’d accused the trio of bullying.  Both Emma’s dad and the school had played their little power games.

“It’s a tactic,” I said.  “He regains control of the situation by being the one who can call back, and it helps establish the idea of him being an authority figure.”

“Damn,” he said.  “Sorry.  It made sense in my head, but I didn’t think it through, I’m tired.  Didn’t sleep last night.  I figured it was better to call sooner than later.”

“It’s okay.  Maybe call him back?”

He didn’t get a chance.  The phone rang.

“This wasn’t the kind of response I wanted, Coil,” Grue growled into the phone, the second he’d answered.

I heard the beep as he switched it to speaker phone.  Calvert was already talking.  “- have sequestered Regent in my custody, out of concern that he controlled Victor to have the young man hack into my systems.”

“You and I both know that Victor didn’t have that kind of access, and we didn’t know about your teleportation technology until an hour ago.”

“I fear Skitter may have known, and I’m simply covering my bases.  Once we’ve verified what happened and that Regent wasn’t complicit, I’ll release him.  You can understand where I’m wanting to be careful, given this turn of events.”

“I don’t understand anything, Coil,” I heard a tremor of emotion in Grue’s voice.  “I liked Skitter, and she’s dead.  The use of the teleporter says you’re complicit.  I want to look you in the eye and believe you weren’t a part of this.”

“We’ll sort this matter out.  If you’ll come to my headquarters, we can discuss this.”

“No.  Not your headquarters.  Not with the possibility you pulled this shit on us.  We’ll meet somewhere else.  Somewhere open.”

There was a pause.  “As you wish.  Name a location.”

Grue, this time, was the one caught off guard.  Calvert’s response was fast, and Grue clearly didn’t have an area in mind.

A place where we’d be able to set up faster than Calvert, ideally open, not riddled with attack routes and vantage points for his soldiers

I thought of a spot, and the air caught in my throat as I suppressed a small noise.  I almost coughed.  I drew the word in the air with my bugs.

“The market, north end,” Grue said, reading it.  “You know it?”

“I do.  It’s shut down at present.”

“Right.  You come with only one small squad of soldiers, bring Tattletale and Regent.”

“If-”  Calvert started.

Grue hung up on him.  He looked at me, “Authority, right?”

“Right,” I said.  But all I could hear was the emotion in his voice when he’d been talking about the idea that I’d been dead.  Pretending.  Grue wasn’t a guy who showed his emotions, he didn’t strike me as an actor.  Hearing that had affected me more than I thought it would.  I didn’t want to ask if it was because he really cared or if it was because he’d tapped into something else, some vulnerability that his recent trauma had left open to him.

I coughed lightly.  “The market’s a good spot.  His people were at the south end of town.  It’ll take him a bit to get there, so he won’t be able to stage any kind of ambush.”

“It works.  But if we’re meeting him, what are you doing?”

“Staying nearby,” I said.  “I’ll wait in the wings.  In the meantime, we should see if we can get our hands on something that we could have Bastard maul to the point that it looks like my mutilated remains.”

“There a butcher still in service anywhere?” Grue asked.

“We’ll figure something out,” I replied.

The market was almost empty, an expanse of asphalt devoid of cars, surrounded by tall grass.  There were still faint marks where the treads and scoops of bulldozers had pushed the dirt and debris to the far side of the lot.  Only a few stalls were standing, but the displays were empty.

I felt exposed, naked.  I was wearing only my old costume and the built-in makeshift skirt to cover me where the fire had eaten away at the leggings.  My utility compartment was the one that had been damaged during our altercation with the Nine, holding the bare essentials, while my new mask and the upper half of my remade costume were presently being worn by the fake we’d made.  The sacrifice of the costume hurt, and the process of putting the fake together hadn’t been pretty.

The head, upper body and arms were simply taken from a child’s mannequin we’d salvaged from the inside of a store display and stuffed into the top of my costume.  To get the meat for the torn midsection, I’d had to use my bugs to root out and kill a raccoon from the bins of a dumpster.  I’d cut it open and tied the entrails to the base of the mannequin’s torso with my spiders.  A wig that vaguely matched my own hair was simply bound to the head.  We soaked the body, the wig in particular, with the blood of the dead raccoon.

Bentley’s tail wagged as he carried the thing delicately in his heavy jaws, one arm and a bloody mess of hair dangling from the left side of his mouth, raccoon intestines hanging out the other.

I headed into the tall grass and hunkered down.  Volumes of insects and arachnids that I’d picked up during our trek to the market settled around me, hidden at the base of the grass.

Adrenaline kept me awake, despite the fatigue that I was experiencing.  It had been an intense few days, an intense few weeks, with minimal chance to rest.  My body was probably struggling to heal, and draining what little reserves I had remaining.  Still, I wasn’t about to doze off.

Calvert arrived after ten or fifteen minutes, pulling up with one armored van.  All in all, he had only four soldiers with him.  He walked within twenty feet of me as he crossed the tall grass.  I was aware of his footsteps crushing my bugs as he passed over the swarm.

Oblivious, he approached Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs.

“Ah.  You brought Skitter.  It seems there’s little doubt she’s dead.  A terrible shame.”

“No kidding,” Imp said.

“I’d suggest my man look over the body, verify that it was her, but I suppose there’s no point trying.”

“Bentley wouldn’t let you get that close to his treat,” Bitch said.

Bentley growled, as if he understood the words and wanted to make it absolutely clear.

“Don’t talk about her like that,” Grue said.  “Calling her a treat?”

“She betrayed us,” Imp said.  “Why do you care?”

“Enough,” Calvert said, his voice hard.  “Enough bickering.  My time is valuable, and I’m not willing to waste it on entertaining this ruse.”

I didn’t have many bugs deployed on my allies or on Calvert, but I could still feel the others tense in surprise.

“Yes, I know.  I commend you for trying, I might have believed you, but I do have other resources on hand.”

“Then-” Grue started.

“Ah, bup bup,” Calvert raised a hand, “I was talking.  As I was saying, I have other resources available.  I have a small cadre of supervillains, a small group of heroes, all the resources of the PRT and PRT computer systems, and all of their tools.”

He snapped his fingers, and soldiers began to teleport down to the edges of the market.  Most were positioned so that the Undersiders would have to run off the edge of the pavement, over the grass and into the water if they wanted to get away.  Surrounding a target while holding guns only promised to get people shot.  The effect, as it was, was good enough.

The Travelers teleported in behind Calvert, followed by Chariot, Circus, Über and Leet, and a few of his lieutenants.  People in suits.  One held a laptop while the other typed on it.

Every gun, tinker made or otherwise, was pointed at my teammates.

Another gun pressed against the back of my head.  Soldiers had teleported in behind me.

I felt despair sweep through me.  No.  Too many.  Didn’t think he could teleport this many in.

The gun barrel prodded me, and I stood.  I walked with the gun pressed between my shoulderblades, just above the spot where my utility compartment hung.

“Skitter.  How nice of you to join us.”

“Cut the fake civility,” I said.  “Where are our teammates?”

“Regent and Tattletale are safe and locked up, rest assured.  I must say, I’m quite disappointed.  I really had hoped this would work out, and the loss of the Undersiders sets me back by weeks or months in the grand scheme of my plan.  Imp, you can cease trying to run.  My men have cameras on you,” Calvert gestured toward the laptop.

Imp moved her mask to spit on the ground, just to my right.  It was a bit of a shock to find her standing there.

“Farewell, Under-“

“Wait.” I said.  Raising my voice made me cough.

“I don’t see any point to waiting.”

I hurried to recover and speak before he could give the order.  “Dead man’s switch.”

Calvert sighed.  “Ah.  You are irritating, you know?  On more than one occasion, I know, you’ve argued for the sake of the greater good.  I’ve viewed the recordings the PRT has of your appearances at major events and I’ve come to know you fairly well.  It’s rather hypocritical that you’re now working so hard to fight against the greater good.”

“Against your rule.”

“Essentially so.  If you simply would have died quietly, the Undersiders wouldn’t have been stirred to rebellion, I could have established a peace we haven’t seen since the day Scion arrived and everyone involved here could have walked away happier and healthier.  Your friends included.”

“Tattletale excepted,” I responded.

“Tattletale excepted, I admit.  Too dangerous to be left unchecked.  A shame.  Now, you were saying?”

“I arranged a dead man’s switch.  Kind of.  Unless one of my subordinates receives a message from me every twenty minutes, she’ll mass-send emails to everyone important and even a few unimportant people.”

“Detailing the true nature of Thomas Calvert, I suspect?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate to break it to you, dear Skitter, but this isn’t enough leverage for me to let you walk away.”

I turned my head in the direction of my teammates.  With my power, I noted their presence.  Grue, Imp, Bitch, her dog.

“None of us?” I asked.

“No.  I’m more confident in my ability to handle the chaos that any email creates than I am in my ability to get you and your teammates under my thumb again.”

“Okay,” I said.  I could feel sweat running cold down the back of my neck.  “Then I have a few questions, and a couple of requests.  Satisfy that, and I can disable the dead man’s switch.”

“The requests first, if you please.”

“Dinah goes free when you’re done.  You don’t keep her forever.”

“Agreed.”

“My dad, you don’t touch him.”

“I haven’t and I won’t have reason to.”

“And you take care of Rachel’s dogs.”

Calvert nodded, but I could sense his patience was running out.

“You do what you can to stop Jack from doing what he can to end the world.  If you have capes at your disposal, you give them some job related to that.  To stopping it.”

“Fine.  Is that it?”

“If none of us here get to live, at least promise Tattletale gets to.”

“Fine.  That can be arranged.”

“I’ll need to see her, to verify she’s okay.  I get that you can’t prove you haven’t gone after my dad in retaliation for earlier, but you can bring her here.”

Calvert nodded at Chariot, who pressed a button on his wrist.

Tattletale appeared in a flash of light, arms bound behind her, legs shackled.  She wore headgear that had her blindfolded and gagged.  I couldn’t quite tell, but it looked like the ears were plugged too.

“Satisfied?” Calvert asked.

“No.  It could be a body double, like you arranged for me.  I’d like to confirm with her.”

“No.  The restraints are in place for a reason.”

“Then it’s a body double,” I said.  “And I’ll let the timer run down on this damaging piece of email.”

“I’m willing to run that risk.”

“Use your power,” I told him.  “I’m going to say the words rose-L.  She’ll reply with something green, followed by the letter A.”

“I’m familiar with your codes.”

“Great.  And if she doesn’t, shoot us.  If there’s a problem, go with your other world.”

“You know how my power works?” Calvert sighed.  “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised in the end, with the name she chose.  No.”

“It’s all I’m asking for.  You can send your computer experts to the destination I name, they’ll check the computer memory to verify no messages were sent, check the phones of everyone on my call history that you don’t already know, and then you’ll know you’re in the clear.  That’s what I’m offering you in exchange for the assurance that at least Tattletale will get to live.  Peace of mind.”

“I could kill your liaison, you realize.  She’s a loose end.”

I thought of Charlotte, hoped I wouldn’t regret getting her involved.  “I hope you won’t.  All I’ve told her is that she should await my message and send the file I composed if she doesn’t hear from me regularly.  I hope you’ll let Tattletale and my civilian live, but if you won’t, if you break your word, I guess I’ll have to live with you looking a little worse in the eyes of the people who work for you.  Like the Travelers.”

“Don’t bring us into this, Skitter,” Trickster said.  “This is your mess.  Your consequences.”

“I didn’t do anything.  He was the one who turned on us first,” I protested.

I sensed Trickster turn Calvert’s way.

Calvert sighed audibly.  “As Skitter knows about my power and ever so kindly revealed the broad strokes of it to everyone in earshot, I suppose there’s no loss in explaining.  I tortured one member of the Undersiders for information, in another world, days ago.  They revealed that you were plotting to turn on me if I refused to release Dinah.  I cannot afford to release her, so my hand was forced.”

“So it’s our fault?” Imp asked.

“Ultimately, yes.”

“How did you make those body doubles?  Genesis?”

“The old-fashioned way.  The one that replaced you was a Sudanese child soldier.  I was preparing for the eventuality of your betrayal since the day after Leviathan attacked and your… wobbly allegiances became perfectly clear.  It’s amusing, but the files you stole from the PRT offices after rejoining the Undersiders supplied much of the video footage my hired experts used to coach her in the particulars of how you move and speak.  When you went to convince the Mayor of our way of thinking, Trickster carried the devices Leet designed to record the particular signals you use to command your bugs.”

“Which is how you built the swarm box.”

“The Famine Engine,” Leet said.

“Whatever.”

“Any further questions?”

“Why didn’t you drop me on top of a bomb?”

“An unfortunate side effect of Leet’s power.  Leet believes it was the proximity to the bomb or the particular signature of the vat of acid that made it so likely to occur, but with my power I observed that it wasn’t merely a chance that the teleportation would fail and your well-trained body double would be caught instead, but a surety.  No less than twelve tries with the variables changed slightly.  Leet’s power sabotages him, it seems.”

“Is that Leet’s passenger at work?”

“Passenger?  Ah, that’s what Bonesaw calls the agents.  Yes, I suppose that might be the case.  In any event, we nearly ran out of time before verifying that guns, fire and alcohol wouldn’t skew his power.  Whatever the cause of the errors was.”

“Okay.  So I don’t suppose you want to let me confirm it’s Tattletale and tell you who to contact to cancel the dead man’s switch?”

“No.”

“You’ve been careful every step of the way.  Thinking five steps ahead, amassing resources, amassing top-notch underlings, getting us working for you, getting the Travelers.  I’m surprised you’re willing to let things go ass-backwards when you’re so close to tying up the last loose end.”

“It’s precisely because I’m careful that I’m not willing to let Tattletale open her mouth and speak.”

“You’re still pretending it’s Tattletale,” I said.

“It is.  I had no reason to arrange a body double for her as I did for you.”

“You had every reason.  Like you said, you didn’t trust her, you couldn’t let her work unchecked, and it would have been too unusual if the two members of the Undersiders that posed the biggest threat to your goals happened to disappear at once.”

Calvert shook his head and touched fingers to his forehead, as if exasperated.  “Your underling and Tattletale can live.  That’s all I’m willing to offer.  You’ll have to take my word on both points”

“Your word is worth nothing,” Bitch spat the words.

Calvert reacted as if he’d been slapped.

“You promised me safety, security, so long as I joined this team.  I’ve never been less safe, less secure.  Everybody lies through their teeth.  Maybe there’s a couple of them I can stand anyways, but they’re still liars, they’ve made me a liar, and you’re the worst liar of them all.  It’s fitting you wear a snake on your costume.”

Enough,” Calvert said, “Anything more and I’ll order my men to shoot you.”

“Shoot her and you’ll never get the info you need from me,” I said.

“You’re a cheat, Coil!” Bitch barked.

“I’ll have your dogs shot if you say another word,” Calvert said.

Bitch fell silent.

Silence reigned for long seconds.  I was aware of my bugs, knew that I couldn’t have them attack without us getting shot.  I knew my armor was bulletproof, Bitch’s armored jacket was the same way, but the thinner fabric, or a bullet through the lens or eyehole of a mask?  There were a lot of soldiers here.  Even if the suits could stop the bullets from penetrating, we could be pulverized anyways.

I heard a wave crash against the shore, not far away.  Long seconds passed.

“If it settles the matter, then fine,” Calvert said.  He signaled Chariot.

Another Tattletale appeared.  She dropped to her knees the second she materialized.  She wore a similar headset and bindings.

“Free her mouth and one ear.  Be ready to gag her again the second she speaks.”

One of his soldiers approached the kneeling Tattletale.  He undid the gag and freed her ear of the plug that was held in place with wire.

“Rose-L,” I called out.

“Stringbean-A,” she replied.  She grunted as the soldier forced the gag back into her mouth.

“She gets to live,” I told Calvert.  “If nothing else, you guys are going to need her help to figure out how Jack Slash ends the world in twenty-three months.”

“It’s amusing,” Calvert said, “That you keep asking me for things I was already prepared to do.  You wanted me to improve the city, to restore it to a working state.  Already planned.  And this?  Killing Tattletale was never in the cards.  I intend to keep her like I do my pet.  Her power will be invaluable.  Rest assured, I will offer every bit of assistance I can when the end of the world approaches.”

“I suppose it was too much to expect that you’d let her go,” I said.  My heart pounded in my chest.  I wasn’t exactly feeling top-notch, so simply standing was feeling like a bit of a challenge.  Fighting back, acting?  No.  No use.  “Her name is Charlotte.  She’s staying in the red brick house a block to the east of my dad’s place.  She has a laptop, but she doesn’t know what I put on it.”

“Very well.  Men?  Ready-“

“-You’re not going to check?”

“Aim…”

“Calvert!” I said, “Coil!”

“Fire.”

The sound of the gunshots was deafening, debilitating when I was already missing my sense of sight, my bugs not present enough to give me a sense of the surroundings.  I sensed Grue get hit, then Bentley… I took one in the stomach and folded over.

When the smoke cleared, for lack of a better term, we were still standing.  There was the sound of a few isolated scuffles in the ranks of the soldiers.  My bugs moved to the ends of gun barrels and to the soldiers themselves, noting their postures and positions.

Roughly half of the soldiers that surrounded us were holding the other half hostage.  A few had managed to get shots off, but a quick feel-around with my bugs verified that nobody had been hurt enough to be knocked to the ground.  Most of the bullets had gone over our heads.

“What is this?” Calvert asked.  “Travelers-“

“Don’t do a thing, Travelers,” Grue boomed out, in his eerie, hollow voice.  “Someone remove Tattletale’s bindings.”

One of the soldiers approached Tattletale and began undoing the restrictive binding.  She wobbled slightly as she stood, working her jaw in the absence of the gag.

“Glad to see the stringbean plan worked out in the end,” she said.  “Those of you I haven’t been in contact with, please hear me out.  I’m paying twice what Calvert is for a year’s salary, and I’m paying it all upfront.  Look to the other team captains if you don’t believe me.  Fish, Minor, Richards, Meck, I’ve talked to them, and they’ve agreed.”

There was a slight shift in the tension among the soldiers.  The ones at gunpoint began slowly lowering their weapons, and the ones holding them there similarly let it calm a notch.

“Lies,” Calvert said.  There was an uncharacteristic degree of emotion in his voice.  “I’ve tracked your funding.  I know exactly how much money you have.”

“Not exactly.  See, I revealed this to my team, just a little while ago, but I’ve sort of been skimming.”

“From me?”

“A bit.  Not as much as you’d think.  You keep good accounts.  But our targets?  For sure.  Like, we go rob the Brockton Bay central bank, and maybe I skip off for five minutes to go visit the CEO’s room, use his computer to get access to more funds, and shift them into a personal account.  Or I keep a few of the more valuable pieces of paperwork, or I pocket something expensive during a job.  Funny thing about a power like mine, it helps me figure out what I can get away with.”

“You haven’t taken enough to pay twice what I can.”

“You’d be surprised.  And some of your assets are in a position to be picked up by yours truly.  Safe deposit boxes and safes don’t mean much against me.  So that’s a bit more funding of yours that I can borrow to pay these guys.  A year up front, and I’m not asking them to do a single thing.  Most of them, anyways.  I’m just asking that they ship out of Brockton Bay or they stay on the down-low.”
“I’ll pay triple,” Calvert said.

“You can’t pay triple,” Tattletale said, stretching as the chains around her wrists and ankles were undone.  “You’ve dented your coffers too much with the city revitalization.  Didn’t help that you paid such an exorbitant sum to the Dragonslayers for the information they were offering.”

“That was your idea.”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “You were desperate enough to deal with the Dragon threat before your big show at the debate that you didn’t make too big an issue of it.  Either way, you forgot the cardinal rule of employing mercenaries.  They follow the person with the money.”

“I didn’t forget,” Calvert said, “I had that in mind every step of the way.  I was exceedingly careful of how much funding I provided.”

“Okay,” Tattletale sounded almost chirpy.  “But you didn’t account for the possibility that I was picking up as much on my own as I was.”

Calvert made a noise that was a borderline snarl.

“Undersiders,” Trickster said.  “This goes no further.  Call it a stalemate, but we need his assistance.”

“Calvert’s lying, you know,” Tattletale said.  “He can maybe help you, but he can’t help Noelle.  None of the plans he’s been talking about will work, and he knows they won’t work.  He wants Noelle for entirely different reasons.  He thinks he can get her on a leash, so he’s got firepower even if he gets rid of the supervillains working under him.  A threat that only the great PRT leader Thomas Calvert can address.”

“I’d rather see the truth of that for myself.  You touch him and we kill you.”

“You guys aren’t wearing the same kind of durable costume we are,” Tattletale said.  “If you want to make a point of it, my soldiers can gun you down.”

“I can swap your group with mine the second the gunshots happen,” Trickster replied, unfazed.  “You don’t want to do that.”

I tried to speak, coughed once instead.  When I finally had my voice, I said, “Ballistic.  Sundancer.  Any other Traveler with doubts, I know you guys aren’t happy with the status quo.  If you want to stop running, stop moving constantly and move to Brockton Bay permanently, we’ll have you.  We need you, even.”

A long pause stretched out, then Ballistic stepped forward.

“Hey, man,” Trickster said.  “No.”

“I’m done.  This was a doomed quest from the start,” Ballistic said.  He stopped at Grue’s side, turned around to face his teammates.

“Sundancer?” I asked.  “You said before that you were lonely, that all of this was too intense for you.  Even the stuff I’ve done, it didn’t sit right with you.  I get that.  Don’t you want to stop?  To say goodbye to this life?”

Trickster looked at Sundancer, “Mars.”

She shook her head.  “No.  No, Skitter.  I’m staying.  Don’t have another choice.”

“Genesis?”

She was in the form of a girl, but wore a simple mask.  “Someone’s got to stay and be a real leader to this team.  No.  I’m standing by Trickster.”

“Teleport me to safety,” Calvert said.  “Escort me away, and everything I have is yours.”

“Everything you have is mine already,” Tattletale cut in.  “You’ve been dethroned, C-man.  I’m going to rule as the mastermind behind the scene in Brockton Bay, organize the territories, pay the bills.  My partners will see to the territories themselves.  I suppose I won’t be head of the PRT, but I’m suspicious we’ll be able to work out a truce of sorts with the good guys.  Hopefully we’ll get someone more sensible than Piggot and less shady than you.”

“Trickster,” Calvert said.  “I can put you in touch with the woman who can cure her.  Someone who knows as much or more about Parahumans than anyone on the planet.  It won’t be free, but I can subsidize the costs.  But I have to be alive to-“

Trickster collapsed to the ground.  Sundancer and Genesis turned, confused, and Ballistic caught Genesis with a spray of pellets.  She dissipated into gory wisps of whatever substance formed her body.

Sundancer was only just creating her sun when she collapsed as well.  I could see Imp bending over, prodding the bodies.  Über, Leet and Chariot backed away as guns turned to point at them.

“Anyone who shoots one of the Undersiders will receive one million dollars!”  Calvert shouted.

I waited for the inevitable bullet.  It didn’t come.

“Skitter and I had a little talk,” Tattletale said.  “Way back when the city had been freshly sieged by the Endbringer and rejoining the team wasn’t even a consideration.  I raised the idea of going after you, of taking you down.  We knew that if you were going to let down your guard, if you were going to slip up at all, it would be when you were closest to achieving your goals.”

Calvert only glared.

“If you made any one mistake, it was keeping me at your base towards the end of the fiasco with the Nine.  The problem with keeping your friends close and your enemies closer?  It puts your enemies in the midst of your friends, so they can discuss better means of payment with the right team captains.  Or they can maybe arrange to put something in Noelle’s vault during one of the feeding times, a few fire alarms with a low battery, tucked in where the door meets the wall.  Irritate her, so she’s awake that much more, and she then costs you sleep.”

“That metaphor fell apart,” Imp commented.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Not so much a metaphor, but I got off track.”

“Pettiness,” Calvert said.

“Strategic.  Lots of little things add up.  Seeding doubts.  Making you second guess plans.  Keep you up at night wondering, planning just a bit more, in both your realities.  You were too focused on the big picture, on the thing I could find out, keeping me off-balance, that you missed out on my ability to see the little things, to exploit them.  And it wore on you.  You didn’t realize how much, but it did, and maybe that’s why you were that much more susceptible to making the critical mistake here.”

“Damn you,” Calvert said.

“But you made the mistake we needed you to make, using your power here, while you were talking to us.  There’s no escape routes, now.  The only loyalty you have is bought with coin, and I have more cash than you do.”

“Then send me to the Birdcage and be done with it,” Calvert said.

“To jail?” Tattletale asked.  “No, no no no.  I know you have contingency plans.  Arrangements.  We send you to prison and someone breaks you out before you get there.”

I took a step forward, then made myself take another.

“It doesn’t have to be you,” Tattletale told me.

“No,” I told her.  “I think it does.”

Calvert turned my way, let his head sink back so it rested against the ground.  “So it comes down to this.”

I thought of the countless lives I’d put at risk, if not directly, then indirectly: the ABB blowing up parts of the city, the ensuing gang war, Purity leveling buildings because she blamed us for the loss of her daughter.

There was the fat superhero I’d left to die when the tidal wave was incoming.  I recalled leaving the dying Merchant to bleed out when I’d rescued Bryce from the merchant’s festival of blood.  There were the people in my territory, the old doctor who’d had her throat cut because I hadn’t realized Mannequin was close until it was too late.  The gas attack that killed nearly twenty people and the fires Burnscar had set in my territory, both because I’d provoked them and failed to consider how readily they’d go after the vulnerable point that was all the people I’d been trying to protect.

I remembered trying to kill Mannequin with grenades, going all-out in attempting to end a man’s life.  A madman, a monster, but it was what it was.

And, much more recently, there was the case of me bringing Triumph so close to death that he’d needed life support.

I’d come to terms with so much of that by telling myself it was leading to this.  I’d known deep down it would happen.  That my fight against Calvert would have to end here.

I walked forward until Calvert was beneath me.  I drew my gun, checked there was ammo in the clip.

“You’re not a killer,” Calvert said.

“No…” I replied.  I couldn’t see, so I screwed my eyes closed, felt the moisture of tears threatening to spill forth.  I took in a deep breath.

“…But I suppose, in a roundabout way, you made me into one,” I finished.  I aimed the gun and fired.

The gun dropped from my hand as the recoil jarred it.  It clattered to the pavement.  It was quiet enough that I could only hear the ocean water crashing against the shore, just off the beach.

As an afterthought, I kicked the gun a distance away from where Calvert lay.  Not that there was much point.  I tried to learn from my mistakes.

I felt Tattletale’s arm settle around my shoulders.  “We’re done.  This is over.”

“The Travelers will be pissed.  I can’t- we can’t kill them,” I said.

“We won’t.  They’ll move on.  They have no more reason to stay.”

Grue stepped around my left side, bent down, took Calvert’s cell phone from the man’s belt and then tossed it to Tattletale.  As Tattletale withdrew her arm from my shoulders, he stepped forward to give me a hug.  “Let’s go.”

I nodded into his shoulder.

We turned away.  With my swarm sense I was able to recognize Minor, Tattletale’s man, helmetless, opening the doors of one van for us.  I took a seat.

It wasn’t Tattletale or Grue that sat down beside me, but Rachel.  She took my hand in hers, held it fiercely.  I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I simply accepted it.

We stopped at Coil’s underground base.  Tattletale’s underground base.  It was a relief to escape the silence of the van, surreal to be in the dim noise of downtown again.  Much of the area still lacked power, but there were the noises of the occasional car, of people clamoring on the bottom floor of an apartment building.  City noises.

“You okay?” Grue asked.

“More bothered by the fact that I’m not bothered,” I said.  I knew how little sense I was making, but I didn’t feel like elaborating.

“But you’re okay?”

I nodded, coughed fiercely for a few seconds.

“Our next stop after this is the hospital.”

“Okay,” I agreed.

As it had been at sunset, the base was empty.  The metal walkway sang with my footsteps as I walked to the far end of the complex.  I stopped at a door without a handle.

“Here,” Tattletale said.  She held Calvert’s cell phone.  Held it up and pressed a sequence of buttons.

The door clicked open.  I forced my fingers into the gap and hauled it open.  Heavy and metal.

There was one more door, one with a key lock.  Tattletale stepped over to the desk and got the key, opened it.

Dinah was inside with an unassuming man in a turtleneck sweater and corduroy pants.

“Go,” Tattletale told the man.  “Your boss is dead.  Just go.”

He fled.

“I’m going to get Regent,” she said.  “Think we’ll leave Shatterbird in her soundproof cage for now, just to be safe.”

I nodded absently.  I was holding on to Grue for support, watched as Dinah stood from the bed and slowly approached.

Her voice was barely above a whisper as she stared down at the ground between us, “I’ve been waiting for this for so very long.”

It didn’t sound like an accusation.  More the words of someone who had been forced to watch the clock for days, weeks, months.  Anticipating a possible moment that might never come.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’m sorry it took so long.”

She shook her head, “I’m the one who’s sorry, you were trying hard and I set you up, so you’d go the way where your friends tried to kill you.  I shouldn’t have-“

“Hey, it’s okay.  It offered us the best chances in the end, right?”

She bobbed her head in a nod.

A second later, she was running to me, wrapping her arms around my midsection.  I winced in pain as her forehead banged against my chest.

“Medical care,” Grue said.

“For both of us,” I replied.  “Dinah and me.”

“Yeah.”

As a trio, we stepped out onto the walkway, where Tattletale and Regent should have been waiting.

But I could see Regent at the end of the walkway, and Tattletale wasn’t with him.  She was hurrying down the spiral stairs just to Regent’s left.

I leaned over the walkway, as much as I was able with the pain in my chest and Dinah clinging to my midsection.  My eyes went wide.  A moment later, I was hurrying after Tattletale, holding Dinah’s hand in one of my own and Grue’s elbow in the other.

We stopped when we reached Tattletale.  She stood facing the vault door.  The one that was used to seal Noelle within.

There were two vault doors, one set behind the other, and both were ruined, the one closest to us nearly folded in half, hanging by one hinge.

“A final act of spite,” Tattletale said.  She looked at the phone in her hand.  “He made sure she heard our conversation.”

“You didn’t notice?”

“He was using his ability to create alternate worlds to throw my power for a bit of a loop.  I was more focused on the possibility that he had a loyal soldier in the ranks or a sniper waiting in the distance, ready to take a shot at one of us.”

The odor that wafted from the open vault was like sweat and rotten meat.  It was dark.  Nothing about it gave the sense of a teenage girl’s living space.

“On a scale of one to ten,” I asked, “Just how bad is this?”

“Let me answer your question with another question,” Tattletale said.  “You think we could convince the PRT to turn on the air raid sirens?”

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Monarch 16.10

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I pushed open the rusted metal door that marked the first real barrier to entry for Coil’s underground base.  It was unassuming, if secure, easy to ignore for anyone who happened to find their way underground.  It swung open without resistance; unlocked.

Every door was unlocked as I made my way through the series of checkpoints and gates.  There were no guards, and the cameras in the final room before I entered the base proper didn’t move to track my movements.

I pushed on the final door and let it swing open.  The base was empty.  Except empty wasn’t exactly the right word.  It had been cleared out.

The on-duty squads of soldiers were gone, as were the trucks, weapons, supplies and furniture.  The entire ground floor was desolate, with clean patches in the dust where furniture and crates had been.

In groups big enough for me to get full coverage of the area, my swarms took turns roving over my surroundings.  They couldn’t pass through closed doors, but they gave me a sense of my surroundings that my eyes couldn’t.  The results were almost the inverse of what I might expect from my eyesight.  There was no grasp of color, beyond what I could guess from the various clues I got from my other senses, but I had a keen sense of textures.  Where my eyes would have been capable of focusing on one thing at a time, my swarm-sense gave me the ability to pull together complete mental pictures from a thousand different points of focus.  I could ignore line of sight, sensing around objects, and even though my bugs’ senses translated poorly, the sum total of their awareness gave me a sense of the little things, in addition to the big picture.  I could sense where the air currents were traveling and the force with which they moved, the thickness of the dust in one area versus another, and where temperatures where higher, if even by a fraction.

None of this was new, exactly.  I’d always been aware of it to some small degree, but my core senses had always been there as regular, reliable fallback.  I’d never researched the subject, but reports seemed conflicting when it came to the topic of blindness making other senses sharper.  With only half of a day’s experience, I was beginning to think that maybe it didn’t improve my other senses, but seemed to free up the semi-conscious, semi-unconscious intake that my eyes typically used as my dominant sense.  The brainpower that was usually allocated to idle glances, comparing and contrasting, or just taking in ambient sights while my thoughts were preoccupied with other things?  It was freed up to be used for listening and my swarm-sense.

The Travelers were here, I noted.  I wasn’t startled to note their presence, but I was somewhat surprised.  They’d gathered in one room above the vault that Noelle was presumably being kept in.  They’d noticed the bugs and were venturing outside onto the walkway.  I met them halfway between their apartment and the entrance.

They were in civilian wear.  Trickster and Ballistic were in regular shirts, jeans and shoes, but Sundancer was wearing what I took to be pyjamas, her hair tied back in a bun.  Genesis was in her chair, a blanket on her lap, with Oliver standing just behind her.

“Skitter,” Trickster said, “You’re here alone?”

“My teammates are upstairs.  We wanted to have words with Coil, but he wasn’t free to talk until sundown, so we’ve been killing time and waiting around.  There’s still a bit of time, I sensed some movement down here, I needed to stretch my legs to keep my injuries from earlier today from stiffening up, so I decided to take a bit of a walk.”

“And they’re staying put?”  Ballistic asked.

“I can signal them in a heartbeat if I have to,” I responded.

“Just saying, but you know Coil’s dead, right?” Trickster asked.

“I saw it happen,” I answered him.  I chose my words carefully, “So I have a very good idea of how dead the man is.”

“Fair enough.”

“And you guys?” I asked.  “You’re keeping eyes on your teammate?  Noelle?”

“Noelle’s fine,” Trickster said, “You don’t need to concern yourself over her.”

There was just a touch of hostility here.  I turned my head to face the two girls, using my bugs to figure out the orientation so I could appear to be looking at Sundancer and Genesis.  The two of them were, I figured, the closest thing to allies that I had among the Travelers.  That wasn’t to say I was on good terms with them; Sundancer was especially wary of me and had been since I’d carved out Lung’s eyes, and Genesis had been a little weird in how she related to me when I’d delivered Trickster to her at the mayor’s house.  Part of that might have been a reflection or a response to my own paranoia, where I’d thought they were planning to kill me.  Either way, they hadn’t given me the impression of dislike or hostility to quite the same degree that I was seeing with Trickster and Ballistic right now.

This was where my current inability to see was hurting me.  I couldn’t read their expressions or body language, and even though my bugs were giving me a sense of how they were standing and where their head, arm and legs were positioned, I didn’t have that innate human ability to instantaneously assess and process those details.  Time and effort spent trying to figure it out was taken away from my ability to plan and follow the conversation.  It was sort of like talking to an answering machine; I was left trying to hold up my end of a conversation without the ability to assess what the person on the other end was making of it.  End result?  I was left there, silent, while none of the Travelers were volunteering anything.

“If you’re done checking up on us, or visiting, whatever you want to call it,” Trickster said, “You could go.  Your duty’s done, you’ve paid your respects to the other team while you’re in their territory.”

That’s something we’re supposed to do?

“I don’t want us to be enemies,” I said.

“We’re not,” Trickster replied, but his tone was far from friendly.  “We’re on the same side.”

“But?” I asked.  “It sounds like there’s more to that.”

“We’re not friends, Skitter.  Let’s not pretend like we are.  You’ve got your goals, we have ours.  You want to work together to tackle a situation like the Dragon thing?  Fine.  Great.  You want to backdoor Ballistic, going to the boss to recruit that cape he was trying to take down?  Hey, that’s fine too.”

Ballistic folded his arms.

Trickster went on, “Really.  We’re doing what we have to do in order to make this thing work.  I don’t love what you pulled, I’m not jumping for glee, but I get it.”

“So we’re business associates, but not friends.”

“Succinctly put.”

“There has to be more common ground there.  We can’t meet, share a box of donuts and talk about ways to mutually benefit our territories?”

“The fact that you have to ask that is a pretty good indication of how clueless you are about this. Let’s count the ways.  One, I don’t give a ratfuck about my territory or the people in it.  None of us do.”

I could feel Sundancer turning slightly away from him.  Was there disagreement there?

Two,” he continued, “We don’t plan to be here much longer anyways.  Either Coil fulfills his end of the bargain and we’re out of this hellhole, or he doesn’t and we take a hike anyways.  Take our chances elsewhere.”

I could remember how Ballistic had talked about his frustration with the group, the idea that he might stick with this gig regardless of what Trickster and the others did.  If I brought it up, would it refocus the discussion to the point that Trickster wasn’t opposing me, in an abstract sense, or would it derail it with the ensuing drama?

I kept my mouth shut, and I was sort of glad that I couldn’t see, or I might have given in to my impulse to glance at Ballistic and give something away.

Maybe it wasn’t worth worrying about.  I was wearing my full costume, including the additional pieces I’d accumulated over time; I wore the tattered cape, the ragged semi-dress over my leggings, and a heavy carpet of bugs clung to the black fabric and armor panels.  My goggles would hide my eyes.  Nobody would see any tell, if I could see, and I doubted they’d notice I was essentially blind.

Trickster took my silence for an excuse to go on, “Three, again, there’s no common ground to be found, and I’m not interested in hunting for it.  There’s two things I want in this world, and being part of Coil’s thing was my way to get those things.  You were useful only as far as you helped make Coil’s thing work, and that’s over now.  To put it bluntly, you don’t have anything to offer me.”

“I get the picture,” I told him, cutting him off before he could continue.  “Okay.  Friendship’s off the table.  Even a friendly business relationship would be pushing it.”

He nodded once.

I sighed a little.  “Okay.  That said, as one local warlord to another, I’d like to extend an invitation.  We’re going to talk to Coil, and I’m saying you’re free to come.”

“Coil’s dead,” Ballistic made the words a drawl.

That was getting old fast.  “Do we really have to maintain this charade?”

“Coil went to a lot of effort in putting together his grand plan.  He died in a blaze of glory and violence, just like he wanted.  Do you really want to spoil that by going on about how he’s still alive?”

“Like you said,” I retorted, “We’re on the same side.  If you didn’t know, you’d be more upset than you are now.  Why pretend he’s dead when he’s alive?  Especially when it’s getting in the way of the larger conversation about the man and my invitation to come hear what he has to say?”

Trickster leaned against a wall and fumbled in one pocket for a cigarette.  “You mean outside of the possibility that you’re wired and my saying the wrong thing could out him?  Whatever.  I don’t have anything to say to him that I haven’t already said.  Maybe you aren’t getting the point.  We went out of our way to help you once, rescuing Grue, and it nearly got us carved up by Bonesaw.”

Your plan, I thought.

He went on, “I don’t care about the Undersiders.  I don’t care if you get a hundred trillion dollars and wind up kings of the planet, and I don’t care if Coil kills you.  We’ve wrapped up our business with Coil, and that’s as far as my interest goes.”

“Alright,” I said, raising my hands, “Point taken.  Listen, I get that maybe we haven’t gotten along so fantastically, but I really do wish you guys luck with your circumstances, whatever they are.  I hope you get what you’ve been looking for.”

“Sure,” Trickster said.  He turned to leave, making his way to the doorway that led to the pseudo-apartment they stayed in when they weren’t in their individual headquarters.  He beckoned for his teammates to follow, and they did.

Only Genesis lagged behind, her hands on the wheels of her chair.  After Trickster had rounded the corner, she said, “He’s tense.  Too much comes down to what happens in the next forty-eight hours.”

“Believe me,” I replied, “I get that.”

“Then good luck with your thing,” she said.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I hope I never see you again.”

How the hell am I supposed to take that?

I didn’t respond as she wheeled herself to the corridor.

Okay, I thought, learned what I needed to.

Whatever the terms between Coil and the Travelers were, he hadn’t seen fit to invite them to the meeting place.  I’d had to think for some time before making the offer to join us for the meeting.  I knew that whatever Coil had planned, inviting the Travelers wouldn’t hurt.

If Coil fully expected to cooperate, to give us the answers we needed and hand Dinah over, then it didn’t matter if the Travelers were there.  If he was expecting conflict and he had planned to invite them, then we only gained the benefit of knowing in advance that they’d be there.  Finally, if he’d expected trouble but he hadn’t invited them, there was probably a reason, and that reason would be something we could exploit in a pinch.

They hadn’t accepted my invitation anyways, and I hadn’t sensed anything sinister when Trickster had rejected the offer.  He’d been too self-centered.

Funny, as I thought on it, how easily he seemed to slip between talking about ‘I’ as in himself to talking about ‘we’, the group.  It was as if he assumed everyone in the Travelers was on the same page as him, and my discussions with Sundancer and Ballistic had suggested anything but.  Even Cherish’s taunts had pointed to some strife within the ranks.

The second major piece of data that I’d gleaned from my detour was that Dinah wasn’t here.  There were a handful of locked doors my bugs hadn’t been able to slip past, but the room Dinah had been in when we’d first visited was empty.  I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that Dinah wasn’t still in Coil’s underground base, but I had a hard time believing that Coil would leave her there with no armed guards.  She was too valuable to risk losing her to one of his enemies or losing his bargaining chip he had in his dealings with me.

We’d agreed that if I could prove myself as a valuable asset, he’d accept my fealty in exchange for Dinah’s freedom.  I hadn’t earned him any money, not directly, but that had never really been his goal.  He had money, and he could get more by exercising his power in some high-risk, high-reward ventures.  I had gathered more followers under my wing than all of the others put together, with the possible exception of Tattletale.  I’d put life and limb at risk, partially for his benefit.  I’d proved myself as a leader, a soldier and a problem solver.  I’d put up with every challenge he’d set in my way: the false death threat he’d put on my head, convincing the mayor, dealing with Dragon and going up against the Nine.  Hell, I’d tended to my territory while my dad lay bleeding in the hospital.

I couldn’t say for sure whether Coil would actually follow through with his end of the deal.  In his shoes, ignoring what the right thing to do would be, if only because it was pretty fucking obvious he didn’t put much stock in right and wrong, I wasn’t sure I’d give Dinah up.  For a guy like Coil, who did things from behind the scenes, playing the long game and orchestrating events to get the best possible results, Dinah’s power was invaluable.

Trickster had used a chess metaphor, back when the thing with the Nine was just beginning.  Would I be considered a bishop?  Hell, even if I thought of myself as a queen, I wasn’t sure Coil would value having me on his side of the board over having Dinah.

Dinah let him rig the game.

I ventured outside and made my way to the flights of stairs for the building that was still in progress.  It had proceeded nicely in recent days, and the outside was partially complete.  The sun was setting, and my bugs could see and feel the warm light that streamed in through the openings in the outside, where tarps had come free.  The thick dust of concrete and shorn wood layered the area and formed clouds wherever the wind made its way inside.

I’d climbed the stairs to the meeting place only an hour ago, and I’d ventured all the way to the bottom to investigate Coil’s base.  That made this my third trip over the twenty flights of stairs, accessing the roof.  On my third trip, my aches and pains from being tossed around by Coil’s explosion were most definitely making themselves felt.

In a way, I didn’t mind.  I felt restless, and moving made me feel better.  Nervous wasn’t the right word.  Nervousness implied there was uncertainty, and I was pretty sure this wouldn’t go the way I hoped.  Trepidation wasn’t right either.  I might have settled on ‘a sense of encroaching doom’ but that felt over the top.

Then again, this was someone’s life on the line.  Maybe our lives too.  Was it possible to be over the top when the stakes were this high?

The others had arranged themselves around the roof.  Bitch was in a half-sitting, half-lying down position, leaning back against Bentley’s side, Bastard sleeping on her lap.  Tattletale and Regent were having a discussion at the top of the stairwell, while Grue and Imp were at the edge of the building.  Imp sat with her legs dangling off the side of the building, while Grue showed more caution, standing a distance behind her.

“You should be careful,” I spoke up.  “If you’re standing too close to the building’s edge, you’re making yourself a prime target for a sniper.”

“You said these suits were bulletproof,” Imp said.  I noticed how she didn’t move.

“I said they might be.  But judging by the fact that mine let some non-metal shotgun pellets through, I don’t think they’ll stop a bullet.  Either way, I’d really rather not start experimenting tonight.”

Imp pulled herself to her feet and retreated from the edge of the building.  I could feel Grue’s shoulders drop slightly as he relaxed.

Grue and Tattletale drifted my way, while Regent, Imp and Bitch each sort of moved to the periphery of our huddle.  It was Grue who asked, “You think he’s going to take shots at us?”

“I feel exposed,” I said.  “If he opens fire on us, are we really in a position to take cover?  Or if he bombs out the first floor of the building?  Or calls in the teams of heroes he’s in charge of?  Could we really get down?”

“I’m not getting that vibe,” Tattletale said.

“But he’s figured out how to trick your power,” I pointed out.

“Any solutions?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I’ve been working on one, but I’m not sure it’ll work.”

“Share?”

I extended one hand, and a wasp took flight, bearing a trio of spiders.  It was forced to turn and fly in circles to slow its forward movement to account for the speed at which the spiders were spooling out thread.  The ends of the thread were already wrapped around one of my fingers.

It took a minute before they reached the other formation that was doing the same thing.  I began reeling in the thread, until I’d raised a length of cord to the edge of the roof.

Bitch ventured over to see what was going on, and then spun around, “No.”

“My first night out in costume, I got stuck on top of a building.  I’m not going to make the same mistake twice.  We called Thomas Calvert, he agreed to meet us, but just in case he decides to level the building rather than have a conversation, I want us to have a way down.”

“A way down?” Grue asked.

“I’m pretty sure I got the lengths right.  I hope I got the lengths right, because I used up a lot of silk here.  Eight cords, we each hold one, or tie one around our waists, and then jump off the side of the building.  Swing out over the intersection.”

Awesome,” Imp said.

Pretty sure?” Grue asked.

“Pretty sure,” I admitted.  “I’ve tried to stagger it, so the silk stretches out over horizontal lines I set out between buildings, so we aren’t just dropping straight down to the street.  But it’s elastic, and I can’t account for how much stretch there’ll be in the material.  Or how much stretch won’t be there.”

“And if he’s got gunmen, too?  We’re left there dangling out over the middle of a street?”

“It’s one option,” I said.  “One.  We’ll have your darkness so they won’t necessarily have clear shots.”

“And you have your bugs,” Regent said.

“Our opponent here knows exactly what we can do.  He’s worked with us and observed us for weeks.  Excepting Imp and I, he’s worked with you guys for months.  Over a year.  So no, he’s not going to do something like underestimate the range of my bugs.  He’s going to have snipers that are just beyond my usual range and I won’t be able to fight back.”

“Your relay bugs?”  Regent suggested.

“Dying.  But yeah, I’ll bring them out.  I suppose a night like tonight warrants using up the last of their reserves.”

“And you can fly,” he said, pointing straight up, where Atlas was in the skyline, circling around a stationary Shatterbird.

“I can, but I’d almost rather use the cords and swing down to the street level.  If I’m flying and they get a lucky shot off, I’m pretty fucking screwed.  They hit me, Atlas won’t ease me to the ground.  They hit Atlas, nothing I can do to stop falling.  Besides, being on the ground means I have the utility Atlas brings to the table.  Being mounted on him means he and I are essentially one unit.”

“I think you’re overthinking this, dork,” Regent said.

“No,” Grue and I said together.  Grue didn’t say anything more, but I added, “We plan for every possibility and we’re wrong?  We don’t lose anything.  If we plan for a situation that does come up?  We’ll be glad we did it.”

“You’re going to drive yourself insane worrying about it,” he retorted.

“If she hasn’t already, I don’t think she will in the next ten minutes,” Tattletale said.  “You sense them on the ground, Skitter?”

I shook my head.  “My power’s radius is like a bubble, and the bottom end isn’t covering that much ground.  I should have been waiting at a spot lower in the building.”

“They’re on their way up.”

I could sense them as they reached the base of the building.  Thomas Calvert would be the man who led the way, and the men who followed him were outfitted in PRT gear.

It took time for them to ascend.  The building was only partially complete, with floors, some walls and the steel skeleton of beams with tarps stretching between them for the remainder, but no elevators.

Without discussing it, we arranged ourselves on the rooftop, preparing to meet them.  I was a little surprised that Grue and Tattletale positioned themselves so they were each just a little behind me, with Imp, Bitch and Regent behind them.  Bentley prowled at the perimeter of our group, three-quarters of the way to his typical ‘monstrous’ size and slowly growing.

Thomas Calvert was the first to cross the threshold.  Annoying that the first time I would ‘see’ Coil unmasked, I would be blind.  He waved one hand to brush away my bugs as they passed over him, but I managed to pick up the essential details.  Close cropped, coarse hair, trimmed eyebrows, thin lips and a cleft chin.  He wore the body portion of a PRT uniform with an insignia stitched onto his sleeve that I couldn’t make out with my swarmsense.

Most of the squads remained below, but he was joined by a handful of soldiers and three young men in plainclothes, one of whom looked like a bodybuilder.

“Yo, Frenchy,” Tattletale said.  “Sup?”

One of the uniforms nodded a slight response.  Was he backed up by a ‘PRT’ squad or two consisting of his hired mercenaries?

“Undersiders.  After your last interaction with Director Piggot, I assumed you would want to speak to me and try establishing ground rules?”

“We know it’s you, boss,” Regent said.

My bugs caught the slightest exhalation from Director Calvert’s nostrils, a minor expression of annoyance.  “The Travelers were a little more circumspect.”

“Circum-what?” Imp asked.  I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely wondering or if she was being intentionally obtuse.

“Tone it down, guys,” I said.  They’re the types to go after any weakness in authority figures.  They’ll nettle him until someone gets in trouble. “Director Calvert.  Would it be too much to ask for you to ask your squad to wait downstairs?”

There was an extended pause before he offered a slight nod to one side.  His squad turned to return downstairs, and I followed them as they took position by the base of the stairwell.

“I asked you to stay out of costume until further notice,” he spoke.

“With all due respect, Director,” I said.  Tattletale had coached me; I would stroke his ego by reinforcing his new position.  “I was injured as a bystander in Coil’s attack.  I wouldn’t have been hurt if I’d been costumed.  Until everything cools down, I think my team and I will play it safe.”

“I see.  I can respect that.  Nothing serious?”

“Serious?  Yes.  But it’s nothing life threatening and nothing that can’t be fixed.”

Thomas Calvert reached beneath the armored panel of his vest and withdrew a small remote.  He stared at it for several long seconds before putting it away.  That done, he clasped his hands behind his back.  It was a position that was very ‘Coil’.  It was obvious and direct enough that I suspected he was dropping his Director persona and admitting his true nature.  “My apologies.  I am not infallible.”

You let a dozen or more people die and left twice that many people injured in some way.  No, you’re not infallible.

I kept my mouth shut.

“I just checked for listening devices.  You aren’t recording this, which means I can answer any questions you have.”

“How much of that was planned?”  I asked.

“More than you might suspect.  Every person in that room who was not in the audience was accounted for.  Mr. Grove and Mrs. Padillo were selected and recruited well in advance.  Circus and Chariot were hired nearly a year and a half ago, their actions and development in the public eye carefully orchestrated.  Über and Leet were recent acquisitions.  I needed a heavy metal suit that could carry a package, and Trainwreck died at an inconvenient time.  Most reporters were selected and stationed well in advance, claiming the rear of the room where they would bear the brunt of the attack, so to speak.”

“They didn’t die?” I asked.

“As with Circus, Über and Leet,” Director Calvert nodded in the direction of the three individuals in civilian clothes.

“Wait, Circus is a guy?” Regent asked.

“Depends on your definition of guy,” Tattletale said.  “If you’re talking biological or what Circus identifies as.  Not that I have it pinned down; I can’t tell if you’re a guy posing as a girl when in costume or a girl who poses as a guy when in plainclothes.”

Circus spat, directing a loogie to shoot a horsefly out of the air.  “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess.”

“The three of them and most of the reporters were removed from the premises in time,” Coil said.  “The reporters, as I said, were plants.  I needed news reporters in place who would be sure to catch the details I wanted them to catch.  Some editing of the footage just prior to it being sent to the news stations served to smooth rough edges and highlight key points.”

“Making Piggot look worse, for example,” Tattletale said.

“Among other things.  Appearances are one of the most important things, here.  With Chariot’s help, we created a rough emulation of Trickster’s power.  The reporters were swapped out, a sufficient amount of raw biological matter was swapped in.”

Human matter?” I asked.

“That is what the paperwork will say, which is the most important aspect,” Director Calvert answered me.  “Rest assured, no serious harm was done.  Circus’ abilities allowed us to place the knives in nonlethal areas.  Better that Director Piggot looks as ineffectual as possible than simply perish.  The same applies to the mayor.  Thomas Grove and Mrs. Padillo will recover, but Thomas Grove will concede the election, supporting Mrs. Padillo, despite his strong showing.  It will help shake the notion that things were staged.”

“But they were.  Every part of it,” Tattletale said.

“Every part of it.”

“The bomb?” I asked.

“The sabotaged power supply was real, but Über’s metal suit housed a teleportation apparatus to detect when it was removed from the premises, so a replica could be brought into the lobby.  The initial detonation was little more than light and a shockwave primed to make the most of the Manton effect, leaving my agents with little more than bruises and scratches.  They were teleported out, as I already said, just before the final, true detonation.  We estimated how fast the evacuation would proceed and calculated a blast radius that would leave the building standing and the crowd largely untouched.”

I could remember Tattletale mentioning how there were less killed or injured than I might have thought.  Had she guessed this much?

“Every action I’ve carried out has been carefully weighed, with attention given to the aftermath.  Circus, Über and Leet will be leaving Brockton Bay with a sizable reward for their efforts.  I don’t expect they will need to return to a life of crime, but I believe they will use a different identity and modus operandi if they do?”

He’d made it a question, and Über answered, “Yes, sir.”  I could feel Leet and Circus nodding.

“Good,” Director Calvert spoke.  To us, he said, “It just isn’t worth killing good help.  Should my ultimate plans here fall through, it’s better to have individuals like them on reserve.”

“And us?” Grue asked.

“Your part in Brockton Bay isn’t entirely over, yet.  I established you here for a reason.  As Director, I will lead a slow but successful campaign against Brockton Bay’s villains.  The Travelers will be the first.  I expect a strike squad of my PRT agents will catch them off guard, but they will ultimately escape capture.”

“How unfortunate,” Tattletale said.

“Indeed,” Director Calvert replied.  “Doubly unfortunate if other villains should establish a presence in Brockton Bay’s south end, forming a loose alliance with the Undersiders, who maintain a firm hold on the flourishing North end.  Oh, rest assured, you Undersiders will lose your hold on this city over the course of months, but it won’t be quite as bad as it sounds.”

“We’ll avoid being captured, probably,” Tattletale said, “Or we’ll get captured and break out before there’s an issue.  And then we don’t come back to Brockton Bay.  We wind up establishing presences in nearby cities.  One or two Undersiders with a firm grip on a given city with other villains under us, establishing a new kind of villainy, and you, Director, as the valiant hero on the opposing side.  Your power grows in a way the public is very much aware of, and, well, we’re not losing quite so much as it seems, so your power grows in other ways too.”

Thomas Calvert spread his hands, “It seems you have a firm grasp on what’s going on.  I won’t waste our time reiterating.  Any questions?”

“Why become PRT director?” Grue asked.  “Why not mayor?”

“All eyes will be on the mayor after the recent fiasco.  Mr. Grove will serve as a red herring, drawing all suspicious eyes to him before he defers the election to Mrs. Padillo.  Besides, who would you rather rule?  A dozen capes or fifty thousand unpowered civilians?”

“I see,” Grue said.

“The fear this event creates among the public will make requisitioning additional capes and resources that much easier.  The remnants of Coil’s personal army will remain in the city, a sub-gang of highly trained individuals who will serve as an excuse for why the forces of the Undersiders do not grow beyond a certain point.”

“You said the Travelers will be the first to be ousted,” I said.  “Does that mean you’ve found a solution to their problem?”

“No.  But we have several last resort answers, and those will be exhausted soon.”

With my bugs, I noted Tattletale making a hand gesture.  Left index finger and middle finger pressed together, she tapped her thumb against the tips of the other two fingers.

“Any other questions?” he asked.

“Dinah,” I said.

“Mr. Grove’s concession to Mrs. Padillo will involve an offer.  He will push for his constituents to support Mrs. Padillo if she accepts his terms.  Among these will be a restoration project for the North end, employment stimulation for the laborers and a restoration of the ferry service.  In exchange for your continued cooperation, I can give you executive powers in naming the measures you’d like to see pass.  I am well aware of what I agreed to, but I would offer this as a compromise in exchange for a one year delay on that term of our contract.”

“No,” I told him.  “I’m sorry, but you’ve got to let her go.”

“Then I will.  I’m disappointed, but I won’t have it said that I’m not a man of my word.”

My heart was pounding.  Just like that?

Director Calvert clasped his hands in front of him, “How would you have us resolve this?  I can return her to her family, or pass her on to your custody.”

I didn’t think this far ahead.  “Her family, then.”

“Very well.  With your permission, we’ll release her to her parents, with some covert surveillance to ensure she does not reveal any details of my greater mission.”

“Okay.”

“My officer will take you to her.”

I hesitated.

“Your teammates can join you, if you don’t feel secure.”

Grue placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Thank you, Director,” I said.  “I don’t mean to impugn your sense of honor, but I didn’t expect this.”

“I have a healthy respect for paranoia, Skitter.  Go.  Tattletale, could I borrow a few minutes of your time?  The Travelers grow anxious, and you can offer some more answers about Noelle’s situation.”

Tattletale turned our way, “Your call, guys.”

“Take Regent and Shatterbird with you,” Grue said.

“You sure?”

“If he respects paranoia, he’ll respect the fact that I’m as worried for your well-being as I am for Skitter’s.”

“Aw,” Tattletale gave Grue a pat on the cheek, “You’re not a very good liar.  I appreciate the sentiment, though.”

I felt entirely out of my element.  For weeks, months, I’d been bracing myself to hear Coil say no.  To hear him say ‘I promised I’d consider it’ or ‘I promised to release her when my plan reached its conclusion, and that won’t happen for another year.’  I didn’t know what to do with my hands.  If I’d had pockets, I’d have jammed them in there, but I didn’t.  My belt didn’t really suit itself for me hooking my thumbs in there.  I didn’t even trust myself to speak, with the possibility that I could say something to ruin this.

No, it was better to be on my guard.  I swept the area for threats, with bugs on every set of gloved hands and every weapon.

But the PRT uniforms climbed into their vans and the doors slammed shut.

Director Calvert stayed at the gates that marked the construction site from the roads beyond, Tattletale and Regent beside him.

“In the truck,” the remaining PRT officer told us.

“If it’s alright,” I said, “We’ll ride.”

He looked to Coil, who nodded.

I climbed onto Atlas, and Grue settled behind Bitch on Bentley.

It was a fifteen minute flight, following the truck, and I was on edge for every second.

We stopped outside of a brick building, and the driver of the truck stepped out.  I swept the area with my bugs, then swept it again.  The interior featured modest living accommodations, a squad of armed soldiers, a man who wasn’t armed and a little girl.

I set Atlas down and waited outside, bugs poised to attack.  The door opened, and the soldiers stepped out, parting to let Dinah go free.

The little girl stepped out, hesitant, then stopped.  Nothing gave me any indication that she was unhealthy or hurt, but she wasn’t lively either.  She was dressed in a skirt, sweater and uggs, her hair thick with chemical smells that told me it had been recently washed.

“Want to go home?” I asked.  I reached out.

Her hand found mine, and I clutched it tight.

Couldn’t leave on Atlas.  I turned, and she stepped to follow.

Through my bugs, I could feel the thrum of the truck as it started up, I could feel the mild heat and see the flare of light as the highbeams shifted on.  If I could see, they would have been blinding.

I tried to squeeze Dinah’s hand, to reassure her, and found myself clenching an empty fist.

My bugs weren’t where they were supposed to be.  I was momentarily disoriented as I tried to map my surroundings.  When I felt hardwood beneath my feet, I scattered the bugs from beneath my costume.  Containment foam, all around me.  I’d been teleported.

And Calvert.  Calvert and a squad of his people.

“You bastard,” I said.

There was no response.  I could feel how his arm was outstretched, sense the general shape of the weapon in his hand.  The others had weapons too.  I could attack, but it would only make them open fire.

“No monologue?” I asked, “You’re not going to explain how you did it?  How you’re going to deal with my teammates or explain what happened to me?”

He answered with a pull of the trigger.

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Monarch 16.6

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

“We should throw a party,” Imp said.  “Celebrate.  Rub it in a little.”

“Rub it in?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  Party in the streets, maybe some fireworks.  Show the heroes that we know we won and we’re doing fine.”

There were a few chuckles from the others.  Regent and the Travelers, primarily.

“In what way is that even close to being a sensible idea?”  Grue asked.

“I didn’t say it was sensible.  But it’s fun, and that’s why we got into this, right?”

“No.  No it isn’t.  It was maybe a side-bonus when I joined the group, if anything, but things have changed since then.  I warned you this would be hard work, that it wouldn’t be fun and games.  And throwing a party to celebrate a win is a monumentally bad idea when we don’t even want the heroes to know we consider this victory anything out of the ordinary.”

“It is out of the ordinary.  We’re not giving anything away if we’re celebrating scaring off Dragon.”

“I kind of have to agree,” Regent chimed in.  Grue turned his way, and I could imagine the death glare that was behind his mask.  Probably scarier than the mask itself.

“Maybe you’re right,” Grue said, “Maybe, I won’t say you’re absolutely right there-”

“Of course not,” Imp said, sighing.

“-But we definitely don’t need to rub it in the heroes’ noses.  Not if it means they have both an excuse and motivation to try this again, sooner.”

“If you’re afraid of that, we’ll never be able to celebrate a win.”

“I’m okay with that,” Grue said.

“Do we get to chime in?” Trickster asked.  “Because I’m siding with the Imp, here.  Morale could become pretty important if we’re going to be building up individual gangs and collections of henchmen.”

Grue sighed.  “Feeling outnumbered here.  Skitter?”

“What?”  I blinked.  “Sorry, not keeping track of the conversation.”

“She’s out of it.  Tattletale broke Skitter when she said we won,” Regent said.

“I’m… I’m alright.  Lost in thought”

Grue settled a hand on my shoulder.  I couldn’t read his expression with his mask in the way.

I sighed and confessed, “I’m… I guess I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Isn’t that what happens?  The second things start to go right, the next disaster strikes?  Empire Eighty-Eight, Leviathan, The Nine, Dragon…”

“That’s a pretty defeatist way of thinking,” Trickster commented.  “Didn’t Tattletale basically say that there’s nobody left to cause us any problems?”

“There’s always something,” I said.  “I’d rather anticipate it and be ready.”

“Look at it this way,” Genesis spoke.  She was in a human-ish form, not unlike her real self, though she was wheelchair-free.  “If it’s more dangerous than Leviathan, the Nine or the Dragon suits, there’s no way we can make some plan to deal with them until they make the first move.  If they’re less dangerous, we can deal.  Relax.  We’re in good shape.”

I shrugged.

“Sooo,” Imp drew out the word, “Party?”

“No,” Grue and I spoke at the same time.  Imp groaned.

“Coil told us to check on our territories.  We should do that,” I said.  “Take your costumes off, take it easy.  I’m going to see if the food and drink I’d arranged to go to people in my territory is still okay, and make sure that they get fed and don’t have cause to lynch me.  Then I’m probably going to sleep for twelve straight hours.”

“Wait, didn’t you just say no party?” Imp asked.

“It’s not a party.  It’s something I was doing before the Dragon suits came.”

“Do the heroes know that?”

“Dragon could confirm it,” I said.  “She disrupted the preparations.”

“Dunno, that sounds pretty flimsy,” Imp said, sounding way too pleased with herself, “Maybe you better cancel, just to be safe.”

“Imp,” Grue growled the word.

Imp laughed, “I’ll go patrol our territory.  I’ll be using my power, so no worries about being seen in costume.”

“Coil said we shouldn’t go out in costume at all,” I said.  “I thought that part of the message was pretty clear.”

“Fine,” Imp said.  “Whatever.  If I’m not supposed to do anything, I’m going back to our place, gonna to kick back and catch up on some shitty reality shows.”

“No TV,” Grue said.

“Nuh uh.  No way.  If you two want to play hardass mom and dad and be controlling assholes, okay.  But you can’t tell me I can’t watch T.V.”

“I mean you won’t get any channels.  There’s no cable, no digital connection and no satellite.  Only static.”

Imp groaned, an agonized sound one might expect from someone who had just been speared through the gut.

What did it say about me that my metaphors were tending towards that kind of violent imagery?

“Why don’t you come by?” Regent asked her, “Play video games?  I’ve got shows on DVD.  No shitty reality shows, but stuff.”

I looked Grue’s way to gauge his reaction to Imp and Regent hanging out, only for our eyes to meet, so to speak.  We were thinking the same thing.

“I don’t think-” Grue started to speak.

Imp wheeled on him, jabbing a finger in his direction, “Enough!  You don’t dictate how I live my life!”

“No fighting, please,” Sundancer said, from the sidelines, “We’ve been through too much already.”

Grue stepped forward, raising one hand, but Imp didn’t give him a chance to touch her, backing away, swinging one hand through the air, as if to swat his hand away if he tried.  “You’ve said enough!  You don’t want me to celebrate my first legit win where I was actually fucking useful?  Fine!  Don’t want me to go on patrol?  Fine!  I’ll accept that shit because I’ll take orders from the guy who actually pays me.  But if you’re going to whine because I want to play video games with a teammate, I’m not going to stand here and listen to it!  Deal!”

“If you’d just-” Grue started.  He stopped and sighed.

“What?” I asked.

“I was going to say something,” he said, turning around.  “But I can’t remember what.”

We experienced a moment where the conversation died, where nobody was sure what to say next, and nobody was able to tie things back to the prior conversation to resume an earlier topic.

“We did what we were supposed to do,” Trickster said, finally.  “Good work.  Skitter’s right.  Let’s go retreat, tend to any wounds, and we’ll take a breather.”

There were nods and murmurs of assent from everyone present, myself included.

More to his team than the rest of us, Trickster said, “I’m located closest to Coil, so I’m stopping by, going to check on Noelle, see if Tattletale needs help setting our captive Director free, and then I’ll talk to Coil about his progress with our issues.”

“Don’t get on his case,” Genesis said.  “Whatever his plan is, he’s under a lot of pressure right now.  I’d rather wait another few days and then talk about it with him than push it now and risk upsetting him.”

“The difference between us,” Trickster said, terse, “is I’m not willing to wait.”

With that said, he tipped his hat at me and walked away.  He wasn’t three paces out the door before he found something to swap with, leaving a mailbox at the mall’s edge.  The rest of the Travelers began to file off.

“I’ll be off too,” Regent said.  He offered me a sloppy mock-salute, “Good work, chief.”

I winced at that.  I hadn’t wanted to raise the subject of me taking over as leader for the previous confrontation.  I glanced at Grue and found him looking at me.

“Can we talk?” he asked.  Thanks, Regent.

“Yeah,” I said.

“We did make plans.”

“You’re dating?”  Bitch asked.

“I didn’t say that,” Grue said.

“But you’re dating.”

“Yeah,” he admitted.  Bitch looked at me to double check and I nodded.

“Hm.”  She somehow conveyed smugness with the monosyllablic response.

“You want to come?” I asked her.  “Hang out?”

“Nah.”

“You sure?” I asked.  “You’re welcome to spend some time with us, kick back, watch something, eat some good food?”

“Being around people’s too tiring.  Warm night like this, nice weather, figure I’ll go play with my dogs.  Make sure they aren’t too hurt, throw a few balls for ’em in the moonlight, eat when I want to eat, sleep when I feel like sleeping, not having to worry about getting in anyone’s way.”

“You wouldn’t be getting in the way,” I assured her.

“It’s all good.  I’m happiest doing this.”

“Well, stay in touch.  If you feel like some company, come by again?”

She shrugged and turned to leave, Bentley to her right and Bastard to her left.  With every step Bentley was taking, he was getting larger.  When she was nearly out of sight, Bentley was big enough for her to climb on top of.

Leaving Grue and me standing in the mall.

“I’d almost think you didn’t want to spend time alone with me,” he commented.

He was looking at me.  I felt scrutinized, like every movement and every part of me was suddenly under the spotlight, anything I did potentially being read as meaning something.

“No,” I said, very carefully.  Not exactly.  I just didn’t want to hurt him by taking away his role on the team, and I knew it would come up.  I tucked my hair behind the spot where the armor of my mask covered my ear.  “No.  Being alone together is good.”

“Your place?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

My people were active in my territory, but they were busier cleaning up the mess than they were actually getting stuff done.  It was irritating on a lot of levels.  We’d been accomplishing something, and Dragon had interrupted.  We’re in the world on the other side of the looking glass, I thought, where it’s the heroes who get in the way of progress and recovery.

I could understand why Dragon did it.  I wasn’t saying it was her fault, exactly.  Especially if it wasn’t actually her directing the suits.  But it was still irritating.

The silence between us was a tense one.  I wished Bitch had decided to come along.  Not because it would have generated conversation, but because it would have put off the subject of discussing team leadership, and the third wheel would have made for a reason for the quiet.  Was it bad of me to think about using her like that?  Or was it just accepting that she made an uncomfortable silence comfortable by her very nature?

I used my power to scout for any groups of people as we made our way to the beach.  We weren’t supposed to be out in costume, but we didn’t have any great options at this point.  I figured Coil would forgive us this much.  We entered the storm drain and made our way up to my lair.

Charlotte and Sierra looked surprised to see us as I opened the door.  Charlotte had three kids sitting on the couch with her, while Sierra reclined.  She rose to a sitting position.

“What happened?” Sierra asked.  She glanced nervously at Grue.

I saw Charlotte and the kids had plates on their laps.  The pork we’d been cooking earlier in the day.  I headed for the fridge and found a hunk of it wrapped in cling film.  “The PRT didn’t like the fact that we’d claimed control over Brockton Bay, so they sent in seven Dragon suits to root us out.”

“What do you want us to do?” She asked.

“Nothing.  It’s fine.  Stick to business as usual.  I’m glad you managed to get back to the food in time to make sure it finished cooking alright.  Any other problems?”

“We didn’t get a lot of work done,” Charlotte said.

“We weren’t going to anyways,” I said, “That’s fine.  I’m going to grab some food.  Grue, you want any?”

“Yeah.  Please.”

“Seven Dragon suits?” Sierra said.  “If they come back-“

“They’re dealt with,” Grue said.  Was the surprise on Sierra and Charlotte’s faces because of what Grue had said, or was it the way he’d said it with such confidence in his strange, echoey voice?

I set two servings worth of the pork onto one plate and put it in the microwave.  “They may come back, but that’ll be a little while coming.  What I’m worried about is my territory.  Were people upset?”

“Yeah,” Sierra said.  “A few people got shocked by those floating flying saucer things.”

“The drones,” I said.  My heart sank a little.  My promise to protect my people had been broken yet again.

“Yeah.  Drones.  People were pissed.  They were trying to get the drones, catch them in trash cans, but the wings got in the way, so they started using tarps.  They even got hold of a few before the drones started fighting back.”

Grue gave me a look that I couldn’t read.  Stupid masks.

“Anyone seriously hurt?”

Sierra shook her head.

“Ok, good.  Listen, I’m going to be working from the background these next few days.  I won’t be appearing anywhere in costume or overtly using my powers.  Are you okay with keeping things running smoothly?  I’ll be available by phone if you run into any problems.”

“I, um, I don’t know.”

I opened the microwave and withdrew the plate of smoking, herb-rubbed pork.  “What’s the problem?”

“I’m worried people are going to recognize me, and it’ll get around to the people I know.”

“I’m not asking you to do anything criminal.  I’m just looking for someone I can trust enough to put in a management role.  Make sure things are cleaned up and that nobody’s slacking off.  It’s nothing you wouldn’t be doing working for a cleanup crew somewhere else in the city.”

“Except I’m doing it for you.  I’m working for a criminal.  Even doing what I’m doing right now, it doesn’t sit right.  No offense.”

“Okay,” I said, pausing.  I was apparently taking too long to prepare the food, because Grue was edging in to take over the preparation, cutting the meat into two portions and arranging the plates.  How was I supposed to manage this?  “Listen, I’ll take five thousand dollars out of the safe upstairs, sometime late tonight or early tomorrow.”

“It’s not about the money, or the lack of money, or any of that-” she protested.

“I know.  I’m not trying to bribe you.  Not exactly.  I guess, um…” I trailed off.  I was tired, thinking at high intensity for too much of the day.  “Um, I’m trying to say I trust you, and I value the work you put in.  So take that money, then if you know of someone who could do what I’m asking, someone like Charlotte or someone else you think we could trust, give them as much as you think is appropriate.  If there’s any left over, maybe you and Charlotte split it.  Or split an amount between the people who fought the drones, and be sure to tell them that as much as I appreciate them standing up to Dragon, I don’t want them to do anything like that again.”

“You don’t?”

“The last thing I want is people who live in my territory to get hurt for my sake.  And I don’t want you to be inconvenienced either.  Think about what you’ll do with the money tonight.  But don’t overthink it.  It’s a gift, a thank you.”

“I can’t take your money,” Sierra said.

“Then don’t,” I told her, trying to look like I was more focused on the food than anything else.  It wouldn’t do for her to see how much this was gutting me, and I didn’t want her to get guilted into anything.  I grabbed a coke from the fridge.  I gestured with it to Grue, and he nodded.  I grabbed another for him.  I had to swallow and clear my throat before I said, “I hope you’ll stay.  I really do.  But if you’re not comfortable doing what you’re doing, that’s okay too.  You can take a secondary role, or you can leave.  I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t be angry.”

“Okay.”

I looked at Charlotte and the kids, the steaming plate in my hand, a coke in the other, my right foot resting on the bottom stair of the staircase.  I asked Charlotte, “Are you okay with the status quo?”

“Yeah.  But I’m just looking after the little ones, and making sure people get fed.  I’m out of sight, I don’t come off like a second in command or anything.  I- Sierra and I have talked about this, before, her being uncomfortable.  I’m okay because this works for right now, but I understand what she’s saying?”  Her voice quirked with uncertainty as she finished speaking, as if she were asking a question, or asking permission to have that opinion.

“I understand too,” I said, sighing.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been around enough for you to talk to me about this, Sierra.”

“You’ve had bigger things to worry about.”

“And I shouldn’t have forgotten about this stuff while I was doing it.  I’m sorry.  You do what you need to do, decide if there’s any compromises or options you want to ask for.  I think I’ll understand, whatever you do.”

She nodded.

Grue had walked ahead of me and stopped halfway up the stairs.  I followed him, leaving my nanny-cook and reluctant lieutenant behind.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

“You going to work that out?” Grue asked.  He paused on the second floor.  After a moment’s thought, I tilted my head up toward the next set of stairs.

“Don’t know.  Hope I can keep her.  Wouldn’t have made it this far without her to hold things together when I was away.  If there was something I could do for her, maybe I would.  I dunno.”

We stepped into my bedroom.  I was glad I’d left it more or less tidy, but I had to take a second to hastily make my bed and throw some stray clothes in the hamper.  I moved some folded clothes from a wooden chair and let Grue take the seat.  I grabbed a remote and turned on the TV, only to remember that there wouldn’t be anything to watch.  I left it on the display screen for the DVD player.

Edgy with nervous energy, I took a moment to remove my mask and find a pair of glasses from the bedside table before seating myself on the edge of my mattress, my soda at my feet.

Grue had pulled off his helmet in the meantime to start eating, and I saw his face for the first time since we’d left his apartment for Coil’s.  I could see the dark circles under his eyes, which suggested he probably hadn’t slept well last night.  He wasn’t better, but it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to be.

Brian swallowed, “I wish I could offer you advice, but Imp and I are at a point where it’d be nice if we had to worry about retaining… what did you call them, way back when?”

“Employees.”

“Right.  If we had to worry about keeping our employees, it’d be good, because it’d mean we actually had some.  I’m not sure how to get underway on that front.  We’re intimidating.”

“I’m intimidating,” I said, admittedly defensive.

“You are.  But I’d say you’re more intimidating as an idea than you are in person.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“No.  That’s not bad.  You’re more intimidating overall than I am, and yet you’re more approachable than I am.  I’m tall, I’ve got broad shoulders, I’ve got the mask, I’ve got the mass of darkness rolling off me.  People run when they see me coming for them.”

“My costume isn’t exactly lovey-dovey, either.  I’ve got the bugs crawling on me.  Sure, I’m smaller, narrower, but-“

“The idea of being attacked by you might be spooky, but even if you can hold your own most of the time, people don’t imagine getting in a hand to hand fight with you and feel scared.  It’s your power that’s scary.  Me?  I think people look at me and they can imagine me pounding them into a bloody pulp, or worse.  My power’s inconvenient, it’s spooky, but it’s not the scary thing.”

“You can’t really see your darkness, though.”

He shook his head, “I know where it is, but I don’t really see it.”

“I think you underestimate what it’s like.”

“Maybe.  But my point is that people are more likely to run than stick around and talk when I’m approaching.  You can take your bugs off the table, make it clear they aren’t a threat, and people feel less threatened, they’re willing to hear you out.”

“Maybe.  But if that’s the case, don’t give them a chance to run.”

“What?  Pop out from around a corner, scare the living daylights out of them, then offer them a job?”

“Sure.  Why the hell not?  Or have Imp break into apartments and leave a card.”

“I don’t think that would send the right message.  It’s vaguely threatening.”

You’re vaguely threatening.  If your prospective hires can’t deal with that much, then they probably won’t handle the job all that well, either.  If you can’t find anyone, then maybe I send some of my people your way to help get you started, or you could shell out for some decent mercenaries.”

“Maybe.”

“There’s options.  Don’t stress about it.  Whatever else happens, we have a few days before we decide on the next leg of our plan.  Let’s relax.  Movie?”

“Sure.”

I stood from my bed and began going through the box of DVDs that Coil had supplied with the TV.  Most were still in the tight plastic wrap that they’d been bought in.  I looked through, then handed some to Brian before turning back to the bag to keep browsing.

What the hell were we supposed to watch?  I didn’t want anything that would ruin Brian’s mood or remind him what had happened, so horror was probably out, I was sick of the high intensity stuff, but I couldn’t stand romance or bad comedies.

“Going back to the earlier topic,” Brian said, “The subject of leadership, being in charge…”

I winced.

“You took over today.  Are you wanting that to be a permanent thing?”

I turned around.  “No.  Not permanent.  Just until-” I stopped short.  How to put it?

“Until?”

“When I was getting really obsessive about what I was doing, when I was losing sleep and making mistakes, I deferred control.”

“To Trickster,” Brian said.  I could see a shadow pass over his expression.

“Yeah.  And that’s a bad example because it didn’t work.  It’s just that we both know you’re not getting enough rest.  So maybe I can pick up the slack in the meantime.”

Brian sighed.  He didn’t look any happier.

“I don’t want to make you unhappy,” I said.  “I’m not wanting to oust you, or co-opt your role permanently or completely.  You were the leader, even if we didn’t really establish an official title over it.  But we can divide the duties for the time being.  Tattletale handles the information angle of things, I maybe keep Bitch reined in and handle the spur of the moment calls, while you handle Regent and Imp and all the rest.”

“Which is less than it sounds like, especially when you and Tattletale contribute on ‘the rest’ in little ways.”

“No-” I started, then I sighed.  “Maybe, yeah.  I don’t want to come off as manipulative or anything.  Like I said, I don’t want you to be unhappy, but at the same time I do want the whole team to get by in the meantime.”

“You don’t sound manipulative,” he said.  His fork hit the plate with a clatter.  “Jesus, this sucks.  I know you’re right.  I know this is for the good of the team, and if I could just get over this shit-“

“It’s not that easy.  Don’t do yourself a disservice and expect too much.”

“My whole life, I’ve been bigger than my peers, I’ve been stronger than most.  Spent my time around pretty powerful guys.  Boxers, martial artists, other criminals.  I didn’t have many friends, but they were the people who were around me, you know?  And they were the types to go after you if you show any weakness.”

“You get shot, nobody’s going to call you a wimp.  I don’t see why it’s different if the damage is mental or emotional instead of physical.”

“I know, but you’re not getting it.  I was the type to go after someone if they showed a vulnerability.  Wasn’t until I’d had my powers about a year, Aisha tells me I was being an asshole, just like one of her stepdads used to be.  So I tried to be better, but I always wanted to protect her, always wanted to help others.  Teach you and Alec to fight, step up and take charge when a situation demanded it.  Sometimes when a situation didn’t.”

“Yeah.”

“So it isn’t just about me trying to adjust.  Christ, it’s me having my world turned upside down.  It’s others protecting me, others helping me, others covering me in a fight, others taking charge.  Aisha’s the one fixing things for me.  And you-“

“Me?”

“This thing with Coil.  Don’t think I’m so obsessed with what’s going on with me that I don’t see it.  It’s like a burden’s fallen from your shoulders.  You’ve got concerns, but you’re more relaxed.  You’ve got hope that you didn’t have twelve hours ago, and it’s dramatic enough that your posture’s changing.  Even since we left the mall, it’s like you’re slowly convincing yourself that this is over, Coil’s going to follow through, we’ll move on to taking care of our territories and everything works out in the end.”

I folded my arms.  “I don’t think that.  Like I said, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“You say that, you tell yourself that, but I don’t know that you’re feeling it.  I’m worried you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment, and that you’ll be affected enough that you won’t be able to deal when it happens.  But I’m mostly worried that all that will happen and I won’t be in a position to help because I’m distracted by my own shit.”

“You don’t have to take up all the slack.  We have other teammates.”

“Lisa isn’t exactly a heavy hitter, and let’s not fool ourselves into believing that Alec, Rachel or Aisha are going to offer any meaningful emotional support.”

“We’ll manage,” I said.  “We’ve managed this far.”

“More or less.  Problem is, ‘managing’ is fine, up until we don’t manage, if that makes any sense.  Then it’s over.”

I sighed.  “How did Genesis put it?  There’s no use in getting worked up over it if we can’t plan around it or do anything to change it.  So we’ll each do our own imperfect jobs of taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves, and be as ready as we can for whatever comes up.”

He sighed.

“We’re not perfect.  We’re flawed people, and as much as I want to help you in every way I can, I know I can’t.  I don’t- I’m not good at this.  I don’t know how to act, or what to say.  But I like you.  I care about you.  I’m going to do my best, even if I know it’s not good enough.  And I won’t expect any more of you.”

He nodded, but he looked glum.

“No hard feelings?”

He shook his head.  He didn’t look happy.

“I won’t be leader forever.”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Might be better that you keep the job, even if I do bounce back eventually.”

“Except I don’t want the job.”

“That might be why you should take it.  I don’t know.  Can we drop the subject?”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  Just… heavy topics, with lots of ramifications.  And it’s hard to shake the negative thoughts.  I’d rather talk along the lines of what you said before, about taking care of each other.”

“And taking care of ourselves,” I said.  “Getting enough sleep, eating right.”

“Okay,” he said.  There was a pause.  “I slept well the other night.”

“Then stay over.  There’s nothing pressing coming up, so we’ll watch movies until we fall asleep.”

He smiled a little, and for the first time in a long time there was a glimmer of that expression that had gotten my attention in the first place.

I put three DVDs into the drive so I could use the remote to play the next movie without having to get up, then pulled off the armor panels of my costume before settling into bed.  My back pressed against his chest, and I could feel his breath against my hair.

I felt so self conscious that I could barely keep track of what was going on.  I was thinking every unromantic thought there was: worrying if I had body odor from being in costume and running all day, wondering if I should get up to go to the bathroom now so I wouldn’t have to go as desperately as I had the other morning.

I felt his hand on the zipper at the back of my costume, lowering it an inch, then stopping.  A fingertip traced from the ‘v’ where the top of my costume parted, all the way up to the the nape of my neck, then back down.  I could feel his fingers on the zipper, felt every tiny hair on my body standing on end.

A million thoughts raced through my head at once.  All put together, they amounted to a mumbled, “Um.”

There was no response from behind me.  I could hear him breathing, I could feel the warmth of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest against my back.  He was waiting for me to make my decision, and the thing that loomed largest in my mind was the sensation of his fingers on the tiny tag of the zipper, strong, insistent, there.

Any confidence I’d picked up in the past weeks or months fled.  I felt as vulnerable as I had in early April, brought to tears in front of my worst enemies.  Except this… wasn’t wholly negative.  Not entirely: I still felt acutely aware of every vulnerability, I thought of every part of myself that I tried to ignore when I looked in the mirror in the same way I might see my life flash before my eyes before I died.

Again, thinking that way.  Why couldn’t I think in a more romantic way at a moment like this?  Was I broken in my own way?

“Let me get up and turn off the lights?” I asked.

His power blanketed the room.  I could feel the phantom touches of it on against the thin fabric of my costume and my bare face, leaving me blind and deaf as we were plunged into darkness.

As was plunged into darkness; he could see just as well.  This totally wasn’t what I’d wanted.

“That’s not fair,” I murmured.

He placed one hand on the side of my head to get me to turn his way, then pressed his lips against mine.

I didn’t protest any further.

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Monarch 16.3

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Well, we’d gone up against Dragon, the Wards and the Protectorate at the same time, and our pains had earned us our hostage.  I was worried the next part would be harder.

Trickster started fishing through the pockets of the Director’s suit-jacket.

“Looking for this?” Imp held up the Director’s phone.

“Yeah,” Trickster replied.  He took the phone.  “There’s a chance it’s not scrambled.”

“Bad idea,” I said.  “If-”

I stopped when Grue reached over and blanketed the Director’s head in darkness.

“Don’t need her listening in if we’re talking strategy,” Grue explained.  “Go on.”

“If Dragon’s listening in on the call, and it sounded like she was, we might accidentally divulge some crucial info.  Or we could be alerting those suits to our location.  Or the location of whoever you’re calling.”  I finished.

“Might be.” Trickster replied, “But it’s handy to be able to contact others, and that might be worth the chance that we’d have to run again.”

“Maybe.”

Trickster went on, “We could call Tattletale right now, hop in the truck Imp brought and have her meet us somewhere secluded, or we could split up, with one or more people going ahead to pass word on to her, then wait for her to meet us, wasting a hell of a lot of time in the process.  Keep in mind the suits are still disabled.”

“There’s still the Protectorate and the Wards,” Grue said.

“The only ones capable of moving that fast are Assault and maybe Chariot,” I said.

“We’re short enough on time, and we need to know what happened to our other teammates,” Trickster said.

“It’s not a good idea.”  Grue folded his arms.

“I’m making the call anyways.  We can’t afford to wait.”

Grue stood there, literally fuming as the darkness roiled around him.  After a few long seconds, his pose relaxed and he held his hand out, “Then let me talk to her.  We have a password system.  The rest of you, keep an eye on her, and don’t forget to watch out for incoming threats.”

“Good man.  The two of us will be over there,” Trickster said, pointing to one area where sand and debris had been bulldozed into a small hill.  “Need to talk with ‘Dancer for a second.  Shout if you need a hand.”

I nodded.  Grue, Trickster and Sundancer all stepped away, leaving Regent, Shatterbird, Imp and I to watch over our hostage.

A minute passed, and she shifted position, her head leaving Grue’s darkness.

“Back up,” Regent warned.

“I have bad knees,” the Director said.  “I will if you make me, but it’s painful.  I suppose that could be a way of easing into torture, if that’s your style.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Regent said, uncharacteristically cheery.

“No,” I told him.  To her, I said, “Sit however you want.  We’ll cover you again if we start talking work.”

She gave me a curt nod.

“Maybe we should get her to command the suits?”  Regent asked.

“Won’t work,” the Director replied.

“Why’s that?”  Regent asked.

“I can send them in, I can tell them where to go or when to stand by, but they do what they’re programmed to, and they’re programmed to avoid attacking civilians and local heroes.”

“That didn’t stop the foam-spraying-”  Regent started.

“The Cawthorne model,” the Director interrupted.

“Sure.  That didn’t stop the Cawthorne thing from shooting Trickster when he had Kid Win hostage.”

“I expect Dragon accounted for the fact that you might take hostages and use the nonlethality restrictions of the A.I. against it.  She would have given the machines tools or strategies to work around it.”

“And you’re just volunteering this information?” I asked.

“I said it earlier, I think, but you’re not a stupid girl, Skitter.  Reckless, shortsighted, capricious, violent, even vicious… but not stupid.  I’m hoping you have the sense to realize how dangerous your current position is.  There will be more mechanical suits coming.  There will be heroes coming to Brockton Bay to assist us.  You can’t afford to hold this city, and we can’t afford to let you.  Not in the grand scheme of things.”

“She likes to jabber,” Imp said.  “Should we gag her?  Or make her stick her head back in the dark?”

“Might be better,” Regent answered, looking down at the Director.

“Need a cloth.  I could pull off a sock, jam in her mouth, maybe we tie it in there with Skitter’s silk.  My feet are sweating like crazy in these boots, so it’d be really gross.”

“No,” I said.  “We’re not going to humiliate her.  We get the information we need from her, see if we can’t use her as a hostage to leverage for peace.  That’s all.”

The Director shook her head.

“What?”

“Extorting for peace when you started the war.”

“When are you saying we started the war?  When the ABB came after us and we fought back?  When we ambushed the fundraiser to embarrass you?  When we fought Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine and then picked up the pieces ourselves, clearing our territories of the low-level threats while leaving the civilians more or less alone?”

“Except for Bitch.”

“We adjusted Bitch’s territory so she wouldn’t have as much cause to harass the locals, not so long ago.”

“I suppose that’s a consolation to the people she injured.”

“I’m not saying we’re perfect.  We aren’t.  But we’re doing something.

“So are we.”

“You’re not doing enough.”

“And when you subtract the blood you’ve spilled and the pain you’ve caused, have you really done that much more, Skitter?  That’s oversimplifying, obviously.  Right and wrong aren’t a matter of adding the good deeds and subtracting the bad.”

“I’m bad at math anyways,” Regent said.

The Director ignored him, her eyes on me.  “I presume you’ve been paying for the supplies and materials you’ve been importing to your territory with your own money?  You’ve been paying your people, I know.”

“Yeah.”

“How much damage was done in the course of earning that money?  I see the repercussions you don’t.  Things pass my desk: hospital bills, property damage, psychiatrist’s notes.  People lose their jobs, lose precious belongings.  Parents are woken in the middle of the night because their children are seriously injured.   I see the details from detectives in narcotics who track the drug trade-”

“I-”

She interrupted me before I could protest.  “I know you don’t sell drugs, Skitter.  But you’re interacting with people who do.  If you buy a favor from someone who does, the Merchants, Coil, the Chosen, then you’re indirectly supporting that trade.  Just like you’re supporting any number of evils every time you help a fellow villain.  I’ve talked to homicide detectives who have dealt with the bodies in the wake of your shenanigans.”

“We don’t kill.”

“People die when you start feuds.  Bakuda was injured by you in one altercation, and she attacked the city over the course of several days.  Do you know how many people were harmed, then?  Because you set her off?  I could show you photos.  People with flesh melted off, frozen, burned, turned to glass.  When I don’t see these things in person, I see them on my desk, in high-definition glossy photos.  I could arrange for you to see the photos if you don’t believe me, or if you want to see the damage you’ve done for yourself.”

“No.  I don’t need to see them.”

She looked up at me, one eye half closed, both eyes bloodshot.  “Why is that, Skitter?  Are you afraid facing that reality would shatter this nice little delusion you’re living under?”

“I’m not to blame for whatever crimes Bakuda committed.”

“You played a role.”

“Anything she did is on her head, just like anything the Nine did is on them.”

“Where do you draw the line?  When do you start taking responsibility?  Or will you explain away every evil you’ve done and count only the actions you want?”

I could have protested, argued that I did take the blame for some things, I did blame myself for Dinah, for not seeing the bigger picture, for acting when I’d known Coil needed a distraction for something bigger.

“Hey,” Regent said.

I turned to face him.

“This is going nowhere.  Let’s wait until Tattletale can talk to her.”

“Right,” I said.  Not only had it been going nowhere, but she’d had had the upper hand, so to speak.  Not necessarily in the strength or validity of her arguments, but in the psychological and emotional sense.  I’d failed to budge her and she’d provoked a response from me.

The Director didn’t open her mouth again, apparently satisfied.

Grue returned with Trickster and Sundancer following behind him.  “Imp, where’s the truck you used to get here?”

“You passed it as you came here.”

“We’ll have to be careful,” Grue said,  “Anything from the Protectorate, her included, may be bugged.  No talking about anything sensitive on our way back, and we’ll ditch it asap.”

We nodded.  I had only the one good arm, my other shoulder still tender, so I walked around to the Director’s left side to grab her under the shoulder and help haul her to her feet.

I was surprised that she cooperated.  If she’d delayed us by forcing us to carry her, she might have bought time for reinforcements to arrive.  If we’d forced the issue with violence, it would have reinforced her argument.

In her shoes, I might have done it, just to apply that stress to my enemy.  It said something that she didn’t.  I just wasn’t sure what.

We emerged from the truck at the rear of a liquor store.  Tattletale stood in the open doorway of the loading area with Brooks and Minor beside her.

We hauled the Director out of the back of the truck.  Grue had covered her in darkness to keep her unawares, and she looked more than a little disoriented.  Her hair was in disarray and she couldn’t fix it with the cuffs on, and the effects of the capsaicin hadn’t entirely worn off; her eyes were puffy, her face red.

But when she looked at Tattletale, the smallest smile touched her lips.

“What’s this, Piggot?” Tattletale asked, hopping down from the ledge to the parking lot.  “Looking forward to a duel of wits?”

Director Piggot shook her head, still smiling.

“Staying mum?  Lips sealed, so you can’t betray vital information?”

“I trust you’ll get it anyways,” the Director replied.

“First things first,” Grue said, “Are we bugged?”

“The truck is.  But we’ll have my guy drive it a ways and then leave it somewhere.”  Tattletale jerked a thumb towards Minor, and he marched over to the truck, catching the keys as Grue tossed them.

“They’ll know the truck stopped here,” the Director said.

“I know.  We’re going to go for a walk,” Tattletale said.  “Up for that?”

“I don’t think I have a choice, do I?”

“Nope.”

We headed down a back alley.  I saw the Director struggling to keep her feet under her, her pumps sloshing in shallow water.  She stumbled once, and I put a hand out to steady her.  I was more likely to be crushed beneath her than to catch her if she fell, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure we could get her off the ground without uncuffing her if she did slip.

I didn’t like her.  Maybe that was an obvious conclusion for me to come to, but she reminded me of my high school principal in some ways: she was the authority figure, the person who embodied an institution I had no respect for.  On a more concrete level, she was indirectly or directly responsible for Armsmaster, for Sophia and the other bullies getting away with what they did.

Even on a basic, abstract level, she reminded me of Emma in how quickly and easily she’d gone for the throat in trying to cut me down and provoke a reaction from me.  Again, much like Emma, it was all the more nettling because she wasn’t entirely wrong.

“You have our teammates in custody?” Tattletale asked.

The Director didn’t respond.

“That’s a no.  Which means they’re either injured or dead and you aren’t aware, or they’re holed up and can’t leave their territory because of the suits that are sitting there.”

“Perhaps.”  Even with the unsteady footing, the Director was focusing more on Tattletale than where she was going, studying her.  But I knew that if I could see that much, Tattletale would as well.

“Is Dragon in town?”

“Last I saw,” the Director replied, hedging.

“She’s gone,” Tattletale said, for the benefit of the rest of us.  “Another task.  Wouldn’t be an Endbringer.  Not yet.  The Nine.”

“Yes.”

“Want to give up the information now, spare me the hassle of twenty questions?”

“My delaying you means the other models have a chance to find and arrest your teammates.  You’ll have to ask.”

“We have other tools at our disposal,” Tattletale glanced at Regent.

“And I know Regent takes anywhere from fifteen minutes to two and a half hours to take control.”

“After which point you wouldn’t ever be able to work in this town again.”

“Taking the same approach you did with Shadow Stalker?”  The Director asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, like Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale replied.

“We have records from when Regent worked for Heartbreaker, under his previous name, Hijack.  Interviews with people Regent controlled.”

“Good for you,” Regent replied.

“I know his power gets weaker as you spread it thin, control slips.  You can’t afford to loosen your hold on Shatterbird, so no, I don’t think you’ll try to take control of me.”

“And you believe that,” Tattletale said.  “Enough that you’re confident.  You aren’t worried here, even when you’ve been taken hostage.”

“Which leaves you the options of playing twenty questions to get all the information you need, or you can try something more dire.  Torture?”

“That’s the second time she’s brought that up,” I said.

“Because she’s trying to get a sense of us,” Tattletale said.  “She wants to see our reactions and body language as the subject comes up.”

“Yes,” the Director said.  “Based on that much, I’m almost certain you wouldn’t torture me and you aren’t the type to kill unless absolutely backed against the wall.  Which means I can be home before midnight.”

“A little optimistic,” Trickster growled the words.

“I don’t think so,” Director Piggot replied, turning to level a glare at him.  She looked almost feral, even as her voice was controlled.  “See, I know you might try to kill me if these others weren’t around.  But the others won’t let you.  There’s Regent too: little to no compunctions, as we saw with Shadow Stalker.”

Her eye darted to Tattletale, then to Grue, and finally to me.

“Do they know the full story?” the Director asked.

“No,” Tattletale replied.  She sighed a little.

“Tell us what?” I asked.

“I’m interested, too,” Grue added.

The Director only smiled.

“Do you trust me?”  Lisa asked.

“Pretty much,” I replied.  “A little bit less right now than I did a minute ago.”

“Fair.  She’s trying to derail our interrogation.  She knows we won’t get violent with her to get the details we need, but I’ll be able to get the answers out of her with a bit of time to ask and apply my power.  Knowing this, she’s trying to fuck with us, set us against each other, and delay us.”

I nodded slowly, glancing between Tattletale and Director Piggot.

Tattletale shrugged, “If you trust me, can you agree to drop the subject?  I’ll explain before too long.”

“Knowing is half the battle,” the Director said.  “Only half.  Being aware of what I’m doing doesn’t stop me.  I’ve learned a lot since you took me hostage, and I already knew some things from research, observation, paperwork and background checks.  I have a read on your personalities and how you operate, and I know some background details.  How is your brother, Tattletale? Sarah?”

Sarah?

I glanced at Tattletale, saw a flicker of emotion cross her face before she smirked, wagged a finger at the Director and spoke with a touch too much cheer, “Low blow.”

“I’ve been looking forward to having a conversation with you for some time, playing it out in my head.  I paid out of my own pocket for information so I can beat you at your own game.  You would have done well to erase the trail leading back home, Sarah.  But then, that would have required thinking about it, maybe even going back.”

“You’re glad we took you hostage.”

Piggot smiled.  It wasn’t pretty.

“Ball’s still in our court,” Tattletale said.

“But you have a time limit.  Like I said, I expect to be home and in my bed before the night’s out.”

“You have a card up your sleeve, leverage.”

“In a way.  I’m dying.”

Our group had been walking across a street, and we all stopped to look at her.

“You need constant medical care?” Tattletale said.

“I have a setup at home.  Hemodialysis.  I hook myself up to it every night, flush my blood of excess water and pollutants over the course of eight hours while I’m sleeping.  If I don’t get the dialysis, I expect I’ll go downhill very quickly.  My body’s already in rough shape, and I’ve overworked myself these past few weeks.  I wouldn’t die that quickly, but you wouldn’t get any use out of me, either.  So we get to enjoy each other’s company for about five or six hours.  Then you decide whether you let me go home or whether you let me die.”

“And in the meantime, you intend to stall.”

“To the best of my ability,” the Director said.

“What suit did they send against Bitch?  Hellhound?”

“Did you know your parents are still looking for you?  They never stopped.”

Tattletale pursed her lips.  “A model Dragon’s used before?”

“You should have seen the looks on their faces when I told them you were alive and well,” Piggot said.  She measured the look on Tattletale’s face, smiled.  “Yes, I visited them in person.”

Tattletale’s eyes narrowed.  “I could turn the tables on you, pick you apart.”

“Please do.  Waste time.  You won’t accomplish much.  Look at me.  You know as well as I do that I wear my shame and disappointment on the outside, for the world to see.  I had the muscles of my legs torn apart years ago on the job, lost the ability to keep up exercise, coupled with hours behind a desk, hours of the dialysis and recovery from surgeries, no time to take care of myself with work.  I know I’m ugly, I know I’m fat.  There’s nothing you could say to me that I haven’t said to myself a hundred times over.”

“You sound almost proud,” Trickster said, a hint of disgust in his voice.

“I have no powers, Trickster.  I’m lowly, a mere mortal compared to you.  I admit it, I admit I’m weaker, slower, my options are pretty limited in a fight.  But I’m tenacious.  I’m shameless, if I have to be, because I refuse to lose to you.”  Her voice bordered on a growl as she uttered the word ‘refuse’.

This was the director of the PRT?  Hearing her speak, I’d almost thought she was like Coil, at first.  Cultured, proud, arrogant.  Now that she was showing her true colors, it was almost the opposite.  And strangely, it was equally problematic.

A fleck of spit flew from her lips as she continued her rant, “And I find it pretty fucking poetic that I have the upper hand because of the very things that you capes look down on us for.  I’m fat, frail, scarred, and I have old wounds that I’ll never recover from.  But because of that, because I could die in a matter of hours if you don’t let me seek treatment, you’re either going to have to compromise with your personal code or you’re going to have to let me walk away and find another way to beat Dragon.”

This isn’t working.

“Trickster, watch her,” I said.  “Sundancer, you and the medic watch Trickster and the Director.  Rest of you with me.  We’ll talk over there.”

We retreated from the woman.

Regent ran his fingers through his hair.  Tattletale had her arms folded as she leaned against a wall, staring at the ground.  She wasn’t smiling, and she wasn’t venturing to comment.

“What’re you thinking?” I asked.

“This isn’t working, obviously.”

“We could take her to her house, give her the treatment she needs,” Grue said.

“That’s what she wants.  There’s a trap there.  Either she’s got some measures in place at home, guns hidden where she can get at them or some kind of safe room, or the PRT is already there, waiting to ambush us.”

“I could control her,” Regent said.  “Send Shatterbird back, lock her up, get control.”

“Which would take time, again,” Tattletale said.  “The benefits would be negligible, and it would take longer than you think, because she’s trained in resisting mental and emotional attacks.”

“I wouldn’t have thought,” I commented.

Tattletale shook her head, “Let’s figure it’s half an hour for Shatterbird to get snug in her cage.  Two or three hours to get control of her… and for what?  They have an idea we captured her.  If they haven’t revoked her access and powers by now, they will have by the time Regent’s finished with her.  So how do we use her?”

“We’re running out of time,” Grue said.  “It’s maybe two or three in the afternoon.  That gives us maybe twenty hours to get this done by Coil’s schedule.  Brainstorm.  More ideas, come on.”

“We could abandon the job.  Say fuck you to Coil, let his grand plan fall apart,” Regent said.  “Get Bitch and leave town.”

“I don’t like that,” Grue said.  “On a lot of levels.”

“Sure, sure.  But it’s the most obvious choice.”

“Not an option as far as I’m concerned,” I replied.  “I won’t blame you guys if you want to do that, but I gotta do this, finish the job or fail trying.”

“Okay, I sort of expected you to say that.  Um, hear me out on this before jumping down my throat, but why don’t we torture her?  She’s been begging for it, practically.”

I stared at him.

“Torture doesn’t work,” Grue said.

“Without getting into too much detail, I’d say it does.  Sometimes,” Regent replied.

“Not with someone like her,” Tattletale said, sighing.  “Even if she didn’t have a background in that sort of thing, her personality… if anything I think she’d be glad we did it.  Not while we were doing it, but it’d validate her view of the world.”

“Which is?” Grue asked.

“That we’re monsters.  In her eyes, our trigger events highlight a moment at the worst point of our lives and our powers make it so we can never put that behind us.  Good guy or bad, she sees us as walking personifications of whatever issues drove us to get our powers in the first place, inflicting some shadow or abstract representation of those traumas on others with our powers.”

“How can someone educated and professional like her think that way?”  Grue asked.

“For one thing, she’s not all that wrong,” Tattletale replied, shrugging.

“Hm?”

“We are.  But even people without powers are walking issues.  That’s no big surprise.  Having powers just… makes it all more noticeable.  Piggot’s suffering from some tunnel vision, is all.  Happens with any bigot.  Anyways, my point was, if we torture her, we’re only reinforcing her worldview.  It would almost negate any psychological stress we put her under.  No, torture is out for a few reasons.”

“What if we give her treatment?”  I asked.  “Not at her house.  Off-site.”

“We’d be showing our hand, maybe cluing her in to our connection with Coil, and it would still take time we don’t have,” Grue answered.  “Nothing saying we’d get enough in the way of answers to be worth the time spent.”

“I don’t see what was wrong with my suggestion,” Imp said.

“Which was?”

Imp pulled off her boot and then peeled off a knee-high sock, wiggled her toes before jamming her bare foot back in the boot.  She stretched out the sock, “Gag the fatty.”

“I need her to answer if I’m going to get the detail we need in any reasonable length of time,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not answering anyways, right?  Get what you need from her body language.”

Tattletale frowned.  “Yeah.  You’re right.  But it’s going to take time.”

“And we’re operating in the dark until then,” Grue said.

“We did okay with the last fight,” Imp said.

“Barely,” I cut in, at the same moment Grue said, “We didn’t-“

“We walked away,” Imp clarified.

“Where are you on the other thing, what you were talking to Coil about?”  I asked Tattletale.

“Trying to get info.  It’s hard with the way communications are down.  We sent some soldiers out in trucks, each going down a different major road in the hopes of getting far enough away to get cell service.  Then they gotta get back here to bring me what they got.”

“Time’s our most valuable resource here,” Grue said.

I spoke up, “I don’t think we can afford to wait until we hear from your soldiers or the Director.”

“Heading out?”

I nodded, pointing towards the others.  We rejoined Trickster, Sundancer and Brooks.  Imp shoved her sock in the Director’s mouth and took the silk cord I offered, tying it in place.

“Careful,” I said.  “Trouble with this sort of gag is that if she pukes, she could choke on her own vomit.”

“How do you know these things?” Regent asked.

“I’ll be careful,” Tattletale assured me.

“Let’s plan, then.  Tattletale, any idea if the other suits would be active yet?  The ones we had Piggot shut down?”

“Not yet, but soon.”

“Then I’m thinking we should split up into two teams” I said.  “Strike while the other three suits are shut down and waiting for Dragon’s attention.  If we can rescue our teammates, we’ll be half-again as strong.”

“We don’t have the firepower to fight those things,” Trickster said.

“We have lots of firepower,” I replied.  “Problem is they have a lot more.  So pick your fights, strike at the right time and hit hard.  Play dirty, don’t give them a chance if you can help it.  Grue, you should go with Sundancer and Trickster, so we’ve got even numbers on both sides.”

“You sure?”

“Your power works well with Sundancer, keeps the enemy unaware until she can get that miniature sun close, and you can keep them off the machine’s radar, thermals or whatever.  Hopefully.”

“And you?”

“My bugs will give us early warning if a suit’s nearby, and they might alert me if there’s radar or anything subsonic.  If Regent and Imp come with me, we’ll have some firepower from Shatterbird.”

“Okay.”

“My team will go see if we can find Bitch, rescue her from whatever they sent after her.  You guys do what you can to rescue Ballistic, then hunker down.  If you succeed, stay put, wait for us.  If we don’t arrive before dark, assume we lost, mount a rescue.  If you aren’t there, we’ll assume the same.”

“Sounds good,” Grue said.

“Either way, we’ll figure out where we’re going from there.”

The Director raised her head, staring up at the sky.

“You have something you want to say?”  Tattletale asked.

The Director shrugged.

Tattletale removed the gag.  “What?”

“I’m looking forward to this.”

“Which part?”  Tattletale asked.  “The interrogation?  The rescue mission?”

“The fight.  Seven suits in this city right now.  The Melusine-six, Cawthorne M.K. Three, the Glaurung Zero, the Ladon-two, the Astaroth-Nidhug, the Pythios-two.  That’s six ships right there, that Dragon explained were old models.  Previous versions of her suits that were cannibalized for parts, abandoned after taking severe damage and recently repaired or simply outdated.”

“And the seventh?”

“The Azazel.  Note that there’s no version number.  It’s a fresh design, crafted to go up against the Nine and put up a serious fight.  The first truly original suit she’s made in four years, and I assure you that Dragon has advanced her skills in that timeframe.  If that isn’t enough of a pedigree, the Azazel was created by Dragon working in tandem with her new partner, a fellow tinker.”

Armsmaster.

She saw the reaction from us, smiled a little.

“Yes.  A new partner.  It was his suggestion that we park the suits here when they aren’t needed.  And even though I know he’s a new cape, nobody you’d know, certainly nobody who’d have a grudge,” she smirked a little, “I think it’s a safe bet to say he had you in mind when he was building it.”

Tattletale jammed the sock into Piggot’s mouth and turned to us.  “Which ones did you fight?”

“Foam sprayer, drone deployer, forcefield generator and a wheel-dragon with electricity and some electromagnet,” I said.

“Cawthorne, Glaurung, Ladon, Pythios, I’d guess, with only the names and what little I’ve seen of Dragon to go by.  That leaves the Astaroth-Nidhug, Melusine and the Azazel.  One went after Ballistic, another after Genesis, and a third went after Bitch.”

“Meaning that with the way we’re splitting up and taking on whatever machines attacked our missing teammates, each of our groups has a one-in-three chance of going up against this Azazel,” I concluded.

“Better cross your fingers,” Tattletale suggested.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Monarch 16.2

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“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.  I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.  Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

When in doubt, keep it simple.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

“Fuck yeah!”

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.  She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.  Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.  But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.  PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.  The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.  It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.  I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.  They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.  From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.  Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.  Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.  It wouldn’t even be hard.

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.  However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.  Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.  Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.  I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.  They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.  Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.  At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.  Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.  Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.  I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.  “We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.  Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.  More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.  As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.  So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.  But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.  Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.  Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.  Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.  In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.  Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.  I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.  Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.  Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.  It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.  Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.  Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

Maybe I was missing something.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.  I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.  Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.  I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.  I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.  It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.  The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.  The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?  Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.  Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.  The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.  If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

It didn’t.

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.  He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

“Saved your asses,” she said.

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

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Monarch 16.1

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Just because I was miserable wasn’t any reason I should inflict that on my followers.

A solid sixty or so people were gathered in a loose circle.  The roads were impassable, so we’d set up in the middle of an intersection, piling concrete blocks onto one another with a metal rack at the midway point.  A hole in the bottom let us feed the fire, and the pots we’d placed inside contained pork shoulders in baths of beer, carrots, onions and garlic cloves.

The smell had drawn people here from across my territory.  The temptation offered by the block of beer, soda and candy that was wrapped in plastic and sitting on a nearby pallet didn’t hurt either.

Charlotte and the group of older kids I’d assigned to keep people from pestering her were handling the food.  Sierra sat on top of the pallet of supplies, making sure that everyone got one beer at a maximum.  I’d assigned two people to guard her, but it was almost unnecessary.  Anyone here was either aware that I would stop them if they tried or they would have friends to warn them.

On another day, I might have made people get back to work.  The pork shoulders would take four or five hours to cook, and I didn’t want to give up a whole day of good weather while people hung around, waiting for the moment things were served.  I left them be.

Coil knew what we were up to, and he’d shut down Tattletale.  Dinah felt out of reach, and my hopes of regaining some connection with my dad had ended less than perfectly.  Not badly, but not as well as I’d hoped.

Hope wasn’t lost on either count, but I felt pretty low.

This, right here, was the one thing that I could feel good about.  My people, my territory, doing something to rebuild.  Maybe I could have cracked the whip, but I’d rather they were happy.  It would do more in the long run, even if it meant less work got done.  They’d be dicking around waiting for the food to finish, and wouldn’t get anything done tonight, after I gave them less restricted access to the beer and wine I’d had Cranston deliver.  Probably less in the morning, too, now that I thought about it.

Which was fine.  Coil had ordered us to expand our territory and deal with threats.  The people in my territory had cleared enough space for people to sleep, to store necessities and tools, enough that if twenty or thirty new people decided to work for me in the next twenty-four hours, I had space for them.  Expanding my control beyond this point would be a staggered process with phases of clearing followed by phases of settling.  There was no point to going the extra mile to clear more space if neither I nor my enemies would be occupying it before his deadline.

He’d specified three days.  We’d taken one to deal with the Chosen, I’d used the next to talk things over with Parian and visit the mayor.  We were officially done tonight or early tomorrow.

My swarm informed me of a visitor.  I stepped away from the pallet that Sierra was sitting on.  It was a bit disconcerting to see how the crowd parted to give me a path.  In my first night out in costume, I’d seen the ABB do it for Lung.  How much of that was respect, and how much was fear?

Maybe they weren’t so distinct when it came to supervillains.

We met in the middle of the street.  Grue was wearing his new costume, complete with mask, and the semiliquid darkness rolled off him to spread out over the ground, hiding much of his body.

I folded my arms.  Speaking quietly enough that the others wouldn’t hear me, I murmured, “Any problems?”

His voice was hollow with the effects of his power, “Just checking in.  I expected a call after your job.  I had to get the update on how you were doing from Tattletale.”

“Sorry.”

“I also heard about what the boss was planning.”

“Going to give me a hard time for going?”

“No.  I don’t like it, but I understand you didn’t have a choice.  Or you did have a choice, but you weren’t about to take option B.”

“Yeah.  Which turned out to be the right choice.  He was playing us, trying to send us a message without rocking the boat.”

“You’ve got a lot of stake in this.  You holding up?”

I should be asking if you’re holding up, I thought.  “I’m dealing.”

“And dealing involves a barbecue?”

I glanced over my shoulder at the crowd that was watching us.  “Building loyalty.”

“You don’t think you’re going over the top?  Being too nice?”

“They’re working hard.”

“That’s all?”

I almost shrugged, but decided to maintain my composure, look confident in front of my people.  I needed a better term for referring to them.  They were sort of employees, but that was vague.  Should I take the same approach Parian did, identify my territory somehow?  The residents of Spiderville?  The Bugwalk?  The Hive?

“No, not all.  I figured I’d go all out, as much for me as for them.  This is the only thing that I’ve got going on that I can really feel good about right now.”

“The only thing?”

I looked up at him.  Oh.

“No, not the only thing, you’re right.  Though I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing or what we are.  Not like we’re in a position to go out to dinner and a movie.”

My heart was pounding so hard I worried he’d notice.  This would be the moment he’d tell me he was having second thoughts, that it was a mistake, he’d been in a bad place.  Or would he go one step further and accuse me of taking advantage of him, get angry?

“I’ve wondered about that myself,” he said.

“It’s okay, though?  Us?”

“Yeah.  Definitely okay.”

What would my people think if they could overhear?

“I know we can’t exactly go out, but if you’re okay with it, you maybe want to come by tonight?  We’ll let my people celebrate a week of hard work and head into my lair, eat, watch a movie on the couch?”

“Okay.  Not sure if I can get away before dark, if I’m doing a serious check of my territory.  Imp’s doing more than her fair share.”

“It’s fine.  I- I’m not sure how to put it, so I’ll be upfront about this,” I told him.  Which is easier said than done.  It took me a second to organize my thoughts.  “I don’t expect to be priority number one.  We have a job here.  I’m not sure what the boss is planning, or if we’re still going to be doing this a few months from now, or even a week from now.  But I totally get it if the territory comes first.  Or if Imp comes first, or we have a job that interferes with our schedules.  We fit each other into the breaks.”

I caught a glimpse of his arms through the darkness as he folded them.  “You can say that, but I’m not sure it’ll be true when it happens for the third time, or the tenth.”

“It’s not set in stone.  If it doesn’t work, we talk about it.  Maybe it’s best we say whatever’s on our minds, given who we are.  We’re not the best at the social thing, you know?”

“I know.”  He paused, glancing away.  “In the spirit of saying what’s on my mind, I’m kind of wondering how your people would react if I kissed you right now.”

So glad I have the mask.  I felt my face heat up in what would have been an embarrassing flush if anyone could see it.

I swallowed.  “No.  Don’t.  It’s not that I don’t want you to, but it would mess up their image of me.”

“I know.  That’s the only reason I didn’t do it.  That, and the masks would be hard to manage.  Can’t really be spontaneous when fumbling to find a way to lift the mask up.  And the stuff on this mask kind of makes it hard to lift it up.”  He tapped one finger on the criss-crossing fangs I’d designed into the face of his mask.  It would make it rigid, hard to remove without taking the entire thing off.

“Something to fix for a future version.  You want to grab something for lunch?”

“I should be getting back.  There’s some stragglers to deal with, and Imp’s been going full-tilt long enough I think I should relieve her.”

“She’s taking this seriously, huh?”

“Yeah.  I’d be happy about it if it wasn’t so dangerous.”

“With luck, the danger will pass soon.”

“Yeah.  See you later?”

I opened my mouth to respond, then stopped as I felt a tremor.  “You feel that?” I asked.

“No.”

No, I hadn’t felt it with my own body.  My swarm had sensed it.  A vibration through the area.

My bugs could scent exhaust.  The acrid taste of ozone, for the lack of a better explanation.  I honed in on it, and realized that one of the buildings near the edge of my range had a new addition on the roof.  It was big, like two eighteen wheelers parked side-by-side, with two more stacked on top, but all one piece.

“Shit,” I said, as the general shape took form in my mind.  I wheeled around to look in the direction it had settled.  “Trouble.”

Darkness billowed out around Grue, making him look larger.

My first thought was Squealer, but she was supposedly dead.  The other alternative… Shit.

“Listen up!”  I called out, augmenting my voice with my swarm.  Most of the crowd was already paying some attention to me, but my shout got everyone else to turn my way.  “Threat incoming.  Stop what you’re doing and clear out of here, that way!”  I pointed.

Some people started hesitantly heading the way I’d indicated.

“Now!”  I shouted.  The crowd began to move.  Sierra and Charlotte were among them, abandoning the food and the makeshift oven.  Sierra looked my way for confirmation and I gave her a tight nod.

I doubted that my people were in any danger like they’d faced with Mannequin or Burnscar, but I wasn’t taking chances.

“Who?”  Grue asked.

“Pretty sure it’s Dragon.”

She wasn’t moving.  She’d settled on the tallest building in the area, not too far from where I’d started my costumed career, fought Lung and met the others.  She was large enough that her mechanical forelimbs could grip two corners of the building.  She lay there like a resting jungle cat or sphinx, head raised, slowly rotating to take in her surroundings.

“The timing couldn’t be worse for this,” he said.  He settled one hand on my shoulder and pulled me in the direction my people were running.  “Coil wanted us to be done today.  Now the heroes are making a move?”

“Retaliation for the mayor,” I said.  “We pushed things, now they’re bringing in the big guns.  Maybe literally.”

“Plan?”

“No clue.”  I got my phone out and dialed Tattletale.  She picked up on the first ring, as I was clicking through the menu to put it on speaker phone.

“Dragon’s here-” she started.  There was a flare of static, not unlike the noise from an out-of-tune radio station, “-don’t fight.”

“Why?” I asked, but the static flared up again as I spoke, and I couldn’t be sure Tattletale heard me.  “She’s here.  How is she there?”

“Hitting multiple territories at once-” Whatever she said next was obscured.  It was getting worse, fast.  “-fight and heroes come to back her up.  Run, hide.  Meet-”

Then she was gone, lost in the sea of static.  I waited for several tense seconds, hoping she would come back on the line.

“Skitter.”  It was Dragon who spoke over the phone.  “I’m cutting off communications.  I look forward to talking to you once you’ve been brought into custody.”

The phone died.  There wasn’t even a dial tone.

“Oh hell,” Grue said.

“Let’s go.”

We’d been retreating, but we broke out into a full-on run as the phone cut out.

Dragon, for her part, made a move.  Metal objects the size of a beachball were filing out of the sides of her suit.  They floated in the air, spreading out in formations.  Dozens of them.

“She’s trying to beat me at my own game,” I said, panting, “Minions.  Hate tinkers.  Hate tinkers so fucking much.”

A collection of my bugs died all at once, the sphere dropping to the pavement below with a thud that the bugs could feel.

I’d encountered this before.  Armsmaster’s electric pulse, the one he’d used with his halberd.

“And I really hate tinkers who share their work.

As I glanced over my shoulder, I could see the drones flowing into the sky in waves.  I ordered Atlas back to my lair to keep him safe.  I didn’t want to risk him, didn’t want to get shot out of the air while flying and I wasn’t able to bring Grue along, wasn’t willing to leave him behind.

Was this what my enemies experienced?  A vague feeling of dread as an unreachable opponent massed her forces?  I couldn’t necessarily fight back against them and even taking down one drone was useless.  Five or ten more would be ready to take its place.

They were overtaking us.  Any time I gathered more than a handful of bugs together, a drone would obliterate them with a point-blank electrical charge.  That was the only thing slowing them down; they would spend their charge, fall to the ground and then rise again a few seconds later as they rebooted.

I got a better look at the drones as they approached.  Each was an identical black sphere with two wings like the blades of a battleaxe, the tips of one blade connecting with the other.  A camera with a red lens was mounted on a plate that roved across the sphere’s outer surface, while another plate glowed in the same way Kid Win’s antigravity skateboard had, always pointing toward the ground.

One passed over my head, then stopped, hovering in place a few feet above me as I ran.  I turned on my heel and shifted left, and it followed me unerringly.  I zig-zagged and failed to shake it.

Attention citizen,” it blared, in the same voice that I’d heard from the armbands during the Endbringer fight, “For your own safety, drop to the ground and place your hands on your head.  You have ten seconds to comply.”

“Fuck!”

“Here!”  Grue called out.  He was turned toward me, bent to one knee, his fingers interlaced, nearly touching the ground.

“Five seconds.”

I ran towards him, setting my feet in the cup of his hands, while drawing my knife.  He straightened, heaving me up.  My timing was off, and I didn’t manage to jump in time with the push, but I did manage to stay balanced.  As he lifted me, I raised one foot and placed it on his shoulder, using it as a foothold to lunge for the drone.  I stabbed my knife at the antigravity panel.

It raised higher into the air.  I missed by a hair.

Failure to comply.”

I felt the hairs all over my body stand to attention a second before it hit us.  It felt more like getting a truck dropped on me than I would have expected an electrical charge to feel like, but I could feel the not-unfamiliar sensation of snakes writhing across my body.

It had knocked the wind out of me, leaving me lying flat on top of Grue.  The weight of the drone had followed soon after, no less than a hundred pounds landing on top of the two of us.

Grue made a guttural sound.

“On your feet,” I gasped the words as I tried to haul air back into my lungs.  “Hurry.”

“We’re not unconscious?”  He gave me a hand as we climbed to our feet.

“Spider silk’s partially insulated against el-” I stopped to cough.  “Electrical charges.”

Attention Citizen.  For your own safety, drop to the ground and place your hands on your head.  You have ten seconds to comply.”  The broadcasts overlapped, two voices a half-step apart in timing.

I looked up.  Sure enough, there were another two drones in place over me and Grue.

Grue drenched us in darkness, seizing my wrist and hauling me away with enough force that I could barely keep my feet under me.

“Won’t work,” I gasped out the words, “She’s not reliant on conventional senses.  Saw Imp.”

I couldn’t hear a response, of course.  I focused my attention on the drones, getting bugs onto them to track their movements, and getting some onto Dragon to see what she was doing.

The drones were falling.  Grue’s darkness spread throughout the area, and drones were descending slowly from the air to touch ground.  They weren’t discharging their electrical loads either.

Whatever signal Dragon was using to command them, Grue’s darkness was cutting it off.

He banished the darkness in a small clearing around us, “The drones are down.  We could double back, hit her main body.”

I turned my attention to Dragon.  She was rising, planting her claws at the roof’s edge, and turning her head to face us.  Her mouth opened.

“Incoming!”  I shouted.  This time it was my turn to grab Grue and pull him away.  We headed for the side of a series of stone stairs.  Crouching so our heads weren’t sticking out, we pressed our backs against the side of the stairwell that was closest to Dragon.

The attack was silent, but that was par for the course when Grue’s darkness was involved.  It speared down the length of the street like a tightly focused gust of wind.  It scattered Grue’s darkness and made the drones skid hundreds of feet along the road’s surface.  My hair whipped across the face of my mask in the wake of the attack.

We moved in sync, rushing out of the doorway and rounding the first corner to our right.

With the darkness cleared, the drones were rising again.

“She’s prepared for me,” Grue said.

“Maybe planned to come after you when she was done here,” I said.  I glanced nervously at the drones that were turning their red eyes to every surface and object, searching for ‘citizens’ to detain.  “Or it’s part of a more complicated setup.  This way.  There’s a path through the building and out the other side.”

We were halfway through when a trio of drones moved to cut us off, another drone moving to block our retreat.  It was a precise enough maneuver that I knew Dragon had to have some kind of thermal vision at play, or another means of tracking us.

Grue hit the drones with his darkness, shutting off the connection to Dragon.  We pushed our way past as they settled to the ground.  Dragon was orienting herself for another shot. We had cover, but she had to know that.

The blast of hot wind ripped past us.  The building obstructed the worst of it, but it was less focused than the former.  Again, it stripped away much of Grue’s darkness.  He covered them in a fresh layer and we continued running.

Dragon didn’t give chase.

We arrived at Coil’s base and I knew from a single glance at Regent’s posture that we hadn’t all made it.  It was as though we were afraid enough of the answer that we weren’t willing to ask; Nobody spoke as Regent and Shatterbird led the way into the underground base.

Imp was just past the last door.  Grue hugged her, and for once she didn’t fight or complain.

Coil’s soldiers were armed and at the ready, guns resting on knees or from the straps at their shoulders, each man and woman with their specialized body armor strapped on.  Thirty or forty sets of eyes watching us, each of them utterly still.  Coil stood on the walkway opposite us, Trickster to his left, Sundancer and Oliver to his right.

“You made it,” Tattletale called out.  I’d nearly missed spotting her in the midst of the soldiers.  She was in the company of Fish and Minor, two of the squad captains.

“Who are we missing?” Grue called out.

“Ballistic, Genesis and Bitch.”

Damn.  I didn’t particularly like or dislike Genesis, but I didn’t want her to suffer.  Ballistic… I couldn’t bring myself to care that much.

Bitch, though?  That was bad.

We waited while Coil and the Travelers traveled across the walkway and Tattletale crossed the bottom floor to the staircase.

“This is not ideal,” Coil spoke.

“No,” Grue responded.

“Seven of those things,” Tattletale said.  “They hit Sundancer, Genesis, Ballistic, me, Bitch and Skitter.  Tried to hit Trickster, but he was recuperating here.  My gut says Dragon’s controlling these things with an A.I..  Smart A.I., but they didn’t seem quite as sharp as she was in our last run-in with her.  Or her attention’s divided too many ways.  Can’t say.  Her objective seems to be disrupting our control over the city rather than stopping us outright.”

“I think the pair of us only slipped away because she wasn’t expecting me to be there,” Grue said.  “Did she use the drone-deployer against you guys?”

“No,” Tattletale replied.  “She was piloting an updated version on the thing she used against Leviathan.  Spewed containment foam everywhere.  My guys hammered it with rocket launchers and bought me time to run.  Maybe lost half my squad, depending on how things went.  Only Minor and Brooks have returned so far.”

“Came after me with a bloated floating ship, kept drawing forcefields around me,” Sundancer said.  She was hugging her arms to her body.  “My power couldn’t even knock them down.  I burned myself an escape route through the ground.  Nearly got trapped in the molten sludge.  It was stupid, I could have died.”

Oliver put a hand on her shoulder.

“Seven different ships,” Grue said.

“This is well-timed enough that I’d suspect a traitor in our midst,” Coil spoke, pausing for a moment while his head turned fractionally to take us all in, “But I haven’t spoken of my overall plans to anyone, and there is nobody capable of reading minds to figure out my overall strategy, much less in Brockton Bay.”

“Just bad luck and good planning,” Tattletale said.  “Communications are down, no camera feeds, no radio.  Phones too.  No cell or satellite signals are making it out there.”

“So we’re going to have to stick together instead of coordinating attacks,” Grue responded.

“Trouble is,” Tattletale said, “They’ve already laid out their game plan, and it’s a toughie.  Seven suits babysitting our territories and keeping us from settling back in.  If we pick a fight like Ballistic did, then they deploy the Protectorate, the Wards and probably any unoccupied suits as reinforcements.”

Nobody had a response to that.  Dealing with just the one Dragon had been hard enough.  Dealing with Dragon plus a contingent of heroes would be next to impossible.

“Can Grue borrow her power?”  Trickster asked.

Grue shook his head, and the darkness around him seemed to expand a fraction.  “No.  Don’t get much from tinkers.”

“Then there’s Regent,” Trickster said.  “Or, more specifically, Shatterbird.”

“Sure,” Regent said.

“She might have a countermeasure in mind,” I said.  “She knows Shatterbird’s here.  It could be as simple as the long ranged wind cannon thing she used to clear away Grue’s darkness.  She could shoot Shatterbird out of the air the second she shows herself.  Or any number of things.”

“Try a larger scale detonation?”  Trickster asked.  “See if you can’t wipe out a couple of suits at once, without revealing yourself?”

“No,” Regent said.  “Don’t know if I can control the area of it if I push out too hard.  It’s slippery… I’m not good at explaining this stuff.  I can turn the dial to anywhere from one to ten, but for each number you go up, it goes maybe twice as far, maybe five times as far.  The effect… I dunno.”

“It gets exponentially more powerful, as you put more effort in,” I suggested.

“Sure.  Don’t know what that means, but sure.”

Coil cleared his throat, “I’ve invested a great deal of time and money into establishing your two groups here in Brockton Bay, and I did it for precisely this sort of scenario.  Again, the timing is unfortunate, but I still expect you to address this situation.  You’ll want to verify whether Bitch, Ballistic and Genesis are captured or simply pinned down somewhere, rescue them if need be and dispatch Dragon.”

There go my plans with Brian.

“This may be just a smidge above and beyond the call of duty, bossman,” Regent said.

“You’ll have access to all of my resources,” Coil responded.  “But the previous orders about clearing out and establishing your territories by noon tomorrow stand.”

“Or?”

Every set of eyes moved to Imp.

“Beg pardon?” Coil asked.

“Hey, I’m in this for fun, for fame and money.  Getting beat down and arrested isn’t any of those things.”

“I see.  I thought you would be more professional.”

“Me?”  Imp shrugged, “Hell no.”

I could feel the tension in the air.  There were fifty trained soldiers here.  Men and women who could shoot and hit their target.  If Coil gave the order, I wasn’t sure we’d walk away in one piece.  Intentionally or not, Imp was pulling the chair out from under Coil at a time when he was already vulnerable and unsteady on his feet.

Good.

“Do the rest of you feel this way?”

“The Travelers aren’t in a position to walk away.  You know that,” Trickster said, “And we have to rescue Genesis and Ballistic if they need it.  So no.  We’re definitely in.”

Tattletale, Grue and I exchanged glances.  Tattletale’s eyes lingered on me for a long second.  Was it up to me?

“Honestly?” I said.  “I don’t know what call I’d make.  This is pretty dangerous, as stuff goes, and we didn’t exactly sign up for this.  I’d go in just to make sure Bitch comes out of it okay, but doing that and cleaning up this mess in the kind of timeframe you’re talking about?  That’s asking a lot.”

“You’ll be adequately compensated for the risk you face,” Coil said.

“I figured as much.  But I don’t want money.”

“Ah.  What do you want, Skitter?”

“You know that already.”

“I’ve already told you I’ll consider your request.”

“I want a promise.”

He didn’t reply.  Instead, he stared at me, his mask opaque, no holes for the eyes, nose or mouth.  I had to read the little details, the movements in the raised portion of his brow, the set of his chin, the movements and tension of his fingers where he had his hands clasped in front of him.  If I had to venture a guess, I’d think he was offended.

“Then you have it, Skitter.  Provided you deal with this situation in the next twenty-one hours and your team has reclaimed their territory, I will consider your end of the bargain filled.  I’m hoping I have the rest of the Undersiders as well?”

“I’m not promising anything until I get something too,” Imp said.

“What would you require?”

“My own territory.”

“That can be arranged.  Given how critical this situation is, are you content to discuss the matter after the situation is resolved?”

“Come again?”

“He wants to know if you’re okay with deciding what territory you get after the job is done,” Grue said.

“Yeah.”

“Grue, Tattletale, Regent?”

“I’m with her,” Tattletale jerked a thumb my way.  Grue nodded, glancing at Imp.

“I’m not about to be left out,” Regent said.  “But maybe you could pony up a nice cash bonus?”

I could hear the slightest of sighs from Coil.  “That can be arranged.”

“Cool.”

“Then that’s settled.  I’ve been made aware that Dragon is also making a bid to claim, seize and lock out digital goods within the city.  Victor has agreed to work with my teams and do what he can to minimize the damage.  If there’s nothing else-“

“There is something,” Tattletale said.

“Do tell.”

“That data we grabbed from the PRT offices.  You crack it yet?”

“Some.  It’s badly degraded.”

“I need it.  As much as you can give.”

“Done,” Coil said.  “I can show you the way.”

“One other thing.  You said we had access to all of your resources?”

“Yes.”

“Just how much money are you able to spare?”

“We can discuss that on our way to the room where the databases are stored,” he said, firm.  “Undersiders, Travelers, I wish you luck.”

He strode off with Tattletale following.

Too easy, I thought.  He made that promise too easily.

But it was something.

“Let’s go,” I said.

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Colony 15.10

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I passed the invisible boundary between the neatly manicured lawn of the mayor’s expansive backyard to the tall grass at the glade’s edge.  My hands were shaking and my breathing was heavy.  I hadn’t done anything more strenuous in the past few minutes than talking to the mayor and walking at a good pace, but my body was reacting like I’d just sprinted halfway across the mayor’s property.

I put a hand on a tree as I walked, as if it could steady me and keep me from falling.  I wasn’t in any danger of falling that I was aware of, but it was reassuring nonetheless.

Damn him.  How big was his property?  And he could still afford to hire someone to cut his grass?  Eat a nice dinner on a huge wooden table, complete with courses?  Blithely ignoring what was going on in the rest of the city with his superhero son and superheroine date?

No, try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to get angry.  Couldn’t blame him for what I’d done.

I’d deliberately let someone come within seconds of dying, and he hadn’t been a monster, like Lung or the Slaughterhouse Nine.  He hadn’t even necessarily been a bad person.  If I’d waited just ten or twenty seconds longer, he might have stopped breathing.  CPR would be that much more difficult with a closed airway, and he could have died or suffered brain damage while they attempted to revive him.

Of course, my first aid knowledge wasn’t all that recent or complete.

I let go of the tree, adjusted my sling and moved on.  Drawing my cell phone from the armor at my back, I made a call.  “Cranston?”

“What can I do for you, Skitter?”

My voice sounded too calm for how my body seemed to be reacting.  “Need an ambulance to the mayor’s residence, backyard.  There’s a young man having breathing difficulties.  Can you use untraceable channels to get in touch with emergency services?”

“I’ll do that.  Anything else?”

“Tell Coil the job’s done.”

“The second this phone call is over.”

I hung up.

Triumph’s family would probably do that anyways, but it made me feel a little better.

I couldn’t afford to dwell.  I headed for Genesis, stalling her movements by signaling her with my bugs.  I wrote out a message: ‘Job done.  Trickster hurt.  Need help taking him to Coil.’

I directed her to me with my bugs, drawing arrows in the air.  A minute or two passed before she caught up.

Genesis had decided on a form that was an overlarge woman’s face carved out of bone, surrounded by long, thin, branching tentacles.  She would have come up with that as a counter for Triumph and either Prism or Ursa Aurora; something that could take a heavy hit, either from a bear made of forcefields or Triumph’s shouts and punches.  It would also be pretty effective against Prism for the same reasons I was: Multitasking and the ability to handle multiple foes at once.

“Where’s Trickster?” she asked.

I brought him down from above the treeline, unconscious and strapped to Atlas’ back.  “I can’t carry him all the way back.  It’s too far, and it’ll be too slow.  Atlas is leashed to me by my maximum range.”

And as long as I’m on foot, I’m vulnerable to any attacks from Coil or Prism’s reinforcements.

“You want me to carry you?”

I shook my head.  “I want you to carry him.  Flying Atlas is hard enough as it is without an uneven weight on top of him, and if Trickster wakes up and starts moving, he’s going to fall.”

“Fine.  Damn it.  Making a new body’s slow when I’m this far from myself.”

“Can you make it at the far end of this glade?  I can jog there by the time you’re done, and I’ll bring Trickster.”

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she began breaking down into a gelatinous, blurry mess.  Her power was like mine, I supposed.  It took time to prepare.  I had to get my bugs to the battlefield, she had to put herself together.

I checked Trickster was securely in place, adjusted my sling so my arm wouldn’t bounce too much and then hurried for the meeting place.  Atlas followed, flying just above the treeline.

It was times like this that I felt less normal, less human.  It was dark, the foliage overhead dense, branches blocked my way and the ground was riddled with roots, stones and uneven footing.  It barely mattered.  My bugs flowed ahead of me to check surfaces, clinging to branches and carpeting the ground.  I passed through the trees as though I’d spent my life among them, memorizing where everything was.  I extended my foot just a bit further to accommodate the slope ahead of me, ducked a branch with wickedly pointed tips and found a handhold on another branch to help myself hop over a spot where water had pooled.

I liked running.  For months, I’d used running as a way to forget about whatever was plaguing me.  Before, it had been the bullying.  Then it had been the pressures of dealing with the Undersiders, my undercover ruse.  Separating from my dad.  Dinah.  The fallout from the Endbringer attack.  Coil.

The times I hadn’t run, I’d felt like I was losing my mind.  Did correlation equal causation, there?  Or was it just that the moments I was unable to run were the same moments I was  under the most stress?  When the Slaughterhouse Nine had been in town, when I’d been living in the shelters after Leviathan hit the city, before I rejoined the Undersiders?

Either way, it was good to break free of my thoughts on Triumph and what I’d done to him. I could focus on breathing, on putting each foot exactly where it needed to be, keeping my balance and letting my subconscious guide me through the woods.

I felt vaguely disappointed when I reached the point where the small forest ended and the roads began.  One of the busiest streets in Brockton Bay was desolate, a lone car cutting a path through the shallow water as it headed away from the city.  I stayed in the shadow of the trees until it was well out of sight.  I didn’t want to do this, didn’t want to step back into the city and face everything that waited for me there.  The threats on my life from an employer who divided and pruned realities was only a small part of that.

I would have left, if I could afford to.  If Dinah and my people could afford for me to.

My bugs found Genesis, and even with the indirect route I’d taken, I reached her before she was fully formed.  She looked like a bison with wings, but her back had a bowl-shaped depression, and she had stubby little legs and antennae.  Since she didn’t have the means, I was left to try to ease Trickster into the basin.  I could see why she did it, cradling him and ensuring he couldn’t fall, but it was still dangerous and tricky to move him with just the one arm.  I wondered if she’d seen the sling.

We took off, and Atlas proved faster than she was.  She had to ride the air currents and she was heavier overall.  I scouted forward some in case we crossed paths with Legend or any other heroes.

I paused on one rooftop while I waited for her to catch up again.  I drew my cell phone and called Tattletale this time.

“Skitter?” She answered on the first ring.

“Job’s done.  Already told Coil.  Triumph was there, along with Prism.  They hurt Trickster, took Genesis out of action.  I stopped them and finished the job, got the mayor to agree to the terms we wanted.”

“Are you still there?  At the mayor’s place?”

“No.  Just left.”

There was a pause.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she told me.

“What doesn’t?”

“We’re clear to talk, no bugs, I’m ninety-nine percent sure.  So listen, if Coil wanted to assassinate you, that’d be his chance.  Once you leave the mayor’s property, that’s it.  He doesn’t know where you’re going.”

“Trickster got hurt,” I told her.  “Maybe he was supposed to do it?”

“Maybe,” she admitted, “But that still feels wrong.  Why wouldn’t Coil have a backup plan?”

“Or maybe Dinah’s power is working, and he’s got some bigger plan in mind?”

“I’m at his base right now.  It doesn’t fit with his movements.  He’s not really visiting her.”

I shivered.  Visiting her, dosing her with drugs, interrogating her for answers about his grand plan… I hated the images that popped into my mind when I thought about Dinah in captivity.

“Listen,” she said, “I’m going to try to find out more.  I’ll call you back.”

“I don’t like that you’re there without backup.  You said he might want to get rid of you too.”

“I’ll know if he does.”

“Like you knew he’d try to kill me?”

Another pause.

“I’ll call you later,” she said.

The line went dead.

I reluctantly put my phone away.  I had a hollow feeling in the center of my chest.  A huge part of me wanted to call Grue, but I couldn’t convince myself that it was really what I was aching for.  I might have anyways, but I wasn’t sure what I would have said.  Would I have asked for a hug, another cuddle?  For advice, tactical suggestions?  For reassurances?

I wouldn’t have said the thought had ever explicitly crossed my mind, but somehow I’d always assumed that I’d know what to do when I got into a relationship.  I didn’t want this thing to be designated the nice memory that we avoided mentioning until things had returned to the old status quo.

But I wasn’t sure he was the person I wanted to reach out to.  The people in my territory?  Was I seeking some validation there, some cheers, smiles, hugs and other assurances that I was really on the right track, doing the right things?

I couldn’t be sure.

I met with Genesis in the air, flying just beneath her so our heads were as close to one another as possible.  “Is he okay?”

“He was awake a second, then went under again,” she said, “Might be a good thing.  He’s hurting.”

“Probably.  Why?  Why did he pick a fight like that?”

“It’s how he operates.  I’m not saying this is usual, or that this wasn’t an extreme case, but… it’s always how he dealt with things, big or small.  The worse things get, the more stubborn and cocky he gets in going up against them.  It worked when we were just messing around together, just playing around.  But we were never suited to be… I dunno, a family?”

“A family?”

“We’ve spent two years together, with just each other.  I don’t know what you could call us, if not that.”

“Why don’t you quit?  Split up?  Is it Noelle?”

“She’s only half of it,” Genesis said.  She didn’t volunteer anything more.

We flew in silence for a few long seconds.

“Don’t blame him, okay?  He has his way of handling stuff, but those methods don’t scale up so well when we’re dealing with stuff this screwed up.”

“Things are getting better.  The Nine are gone, we’re cleaning up the city, our enemies are getting driven out of Brockton Bay.”

“Better for you, maybe, but those are your priorities.”

I didn’t respond, wasn’t sure how to.

“Just… don’t blame him.  I’m sorry things got so bad tonight.”

“Okay,” I said.  I hadn’t meant to get caught up in a conversation.  I saw a chance to say what I wanted to, “Are you good with going to Coil’s on your own?”

She looked surprised.

It was too dangerous to meet with Coil right now.  I wasn’t thinking straight, and I wasn’t willing to walk into the lion’s den.  Another day, under different circumstances, with backup?  Maybe.  But not now.

“I’m going to head back to my territory,” I lied.

“Yeah.  Sure.”

“Okay.  Good luck?  Coil can call me if he needs anything.”

“Alright.”

I veered off to head north, leaving Genesis to continue in the direction of Coil’s headquarters.

As Tattletale had suggested, the window of opportunity had passed.  If I returned to my territory, would I be walking into a trap?  The same could be true if I went to any familiar place.  Coil had enough soldiers to have one lying in wait in any given area.

On the other hand, if I broke pattern and stayed somewhere off his radar, I’d be letting him know I was suspicious.  That might be all he needed to decide to step up his plans and go all-out.

I came to a decision, all my disparate thoughts and concerns snapping together into one simple, inelegant solution.

Too dangerous to go to my territory.  I set Atlas down on top of the tallest building in the area, climbed off and sent my bugs into my territory instead.  They flowed into my lair as a mass.  I left some in the appropriate terrariums to restock my supply of some of the rarer spiders and larger beetles.  The rest passed through the upper floors of my lair and retrieved the necessities.  They returned, surrounding Atlas as a cloud.

Once Atlas had landed beside me, I began getting everything in order.  Atlas held my rain boots in his front claws and carried my backpack and some of the clothes I’d had him pack on his back.  Using my hand, I swatted other items through the backpack’s opening as my bugs brought them into position – underwear, socks, wallet.

I ran one hand over Atlas’ rough exterior.  “What am I going to do with you?”

Atlas didn’t have the instincts to operate on his own.  He was an entirely unique creation, designed from scratch with no real blueprint or model for behavior.  He couldn’t move, couldn’t eat and couldn’t defend himself if I wasn’t in range to control him.

I’d have to figure something out.  Some place I could stick him so I could keep him close.

I picked out what I wanted to wear, checked there wasn’t anyone nearby and changed on the rooftop.  I had to take off the sling to free my arm, which maybe wasn’t the best idea, but I was gentle with my shoulder as I worked my way into a tank top.

When I was changed, I fixed my sling, I packed my stuff in my bag and bound my costume loosely in silk to keep it compact and tied that package loosely to Atlas’ back.  I wouldn’t be going anywhere without him, and wherever I was, he could probably bring my costume to me faster than I could access whatever hiding place I’d chosen.

I double-checked there wasn’t anyone watching, stepped up onto Atlas’ back and stayed standing as he lowered us to the street.  I skipped down with a bit of a splash, slung the backpack over my good shoulder and started walking.

Things were getting better.  The flooding was more under control, and less streets were sitting beneath inches of water.  The work my people had done in our district had helped, here.  We were downhill, and the efforts in clearing out the storm drains and dismantling the trash and rubble that was trapping water in certain areas had freed the water to flow down towards the beaches.

Still, that wasn’t saying a whole lot.  There were too many areas where it was dangerous to walk without proper boots, due to the glass and the wooden boards with nails in them. Piles of trash sat everywhere, with nobody to clear them away.  When people had run out of plastic bags, they began throwing the trash in cardboard boxes or plastic totes.  When those had proved too short in supply, they’d started throwing debris and litter wherever they pleased; out windows and into alleyways.  I could see rats in the spaces between some houses, not even shy about being out in plain view while I walked by with my oversized rain boots.

Plant life was alternately dying and flourishing, with trees and lawns drowned and algae and moss blooming.  Weeds were cautiously emerging wherever there was ground to take root.

It was funny how nature reclaimed this world in its own way.  It was silly to say humans were destroying the environment; we were simply changing it.  Nature would persevere until the world was a barren wasteland.  Whatever apocalypse Jack was supposed to set in motion, I suspected Jack was right in what he’d said to Bonesaw.  Something would undoubtedly survive, and this sort of thing would likely happen across the world, starting in the cracks, spreading out, only to overwhelm and bury the ruins of civilization.

A weird direction for my train of thought, but this was one circumstance where I didn’t want to think too much on things beforehand.

I stopped, not out of hesitation, but nostalgia.  The wooden staircase in front of me had rotted out on the bottom-most step.  Not recent, not a fault of Leviathan or the city’s conditions.  Older.  I skipped past it and headed up to the front door and rang the bell.

My heart pounded.  I tried not to think about anything particular.  Didn’t want to chicken out.

The door opened, and I found myself face to face with my dad.

It took all the courage I had not to turn around and run.  I was such a coward.  I’d been like this with school; I’d stopped going to classes for reasons that were more or less reasonable in the moments I’d made the decision, and somewhere along the line, I’d continued to avoid school because I didn’t have the courage to own up to my previous absences.

Only this wasn’t school.  It was my dad.  He still had marks all over his body where the glass had cut him, dried scabs in lines and circles all over his face and arms.  He had one large bandage on his shoulder.  Shouldn’t he have healed by now?  Or had it been that bad?

“It’s good to see you,” he said.  His forehead was creased in concern.  “You’re hurt.”

I looked down at the sling.  “It’s not major.”

“Is it why you-” he said, stopping himself as if he didn’t want to jinx things and scare me off with a poor choice of words.

“No,” I said.  I found myself searching for an explanation, opening my mouth to respond and then closing it when that explanation didn’t readily come.

He’s my boy, I could imagine the mayor’s voice, the pain and raw emotion I’d heard.  I only ever wanted what was best for him.

I just had to look my dad in the eyes, and I could see that same expression in my dad’s eyes.

“No,” I said, again.  “I just saw someone nearly lose her daughter.  It made me think of you and mom.”  I’d changed the genders on the spur of the moment to be safe.

As if I’d prodded a wound, I could feel that deep-seated ache from earlier come alive.  I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to meet my dad’s eyes.

“Do you,” he said, pausing, “Want to come in?”

I nodded.  He stepped out of the doorway and I stepped into the house for the first time since Shatterbird had attacked.  That had been the start of June, or thereabouts.  I hadn’t exactly had time to look around, nor had I really been in a stable state of mind.  The last time I’d really been able to look around the house had been the start of May.  Nearly two months ago.

I looked at the mantlepiece above the fireplace.  Things had been rearranged.  There was a small clock with a broken face, a family picture of Dad, Mom and me that had survived Shatterbird’s attack and a little statue/candlestick featuring a woman with a flowing dress.

I touched the statuette.  There were memories there.  Too many things in the house had them.  The statuette was part of a pair.  My mom had bought them at the market.  The overly tall, skinny, exaggerated figures had seemed to match my mom and dad, in a way.

“Where’s the husband statue?  Were you robbed?”

I looked at him, and he looked embarrassed.  “I traded it away.  More than a few things.”

“Why?  For what?”

“Selling and bartering for food,” he answered.

“But there’s supplies.  Did you not get enough, or…” I trailed off.  Why was I attacking him? Accusing him?  Was it guilt, failing to look after my dad and make sure he got the supplies he needed?

“The explosion with the glass.  I suffered some minor kidney damage.  The doctor advised me to up my iron and protein intake while we wait to see if it’ll scar.  Not nutrients you find in good supply in supply kits.”

Kidney damage.

“Is that the worst injury?  You’re otherwise okay?”

“I’m mostly okay.  Better than most, thanks to the warning you gave me about the Slaughterhouse Nine being in town.  Some of my coworkers owe you thanks as well.”

I nodded.  I was glad people were okay, but the fact that word was spreading, it put me in a dangerous spot.

“But I should be the one asking how you’re doing.  What happened to your arm?”

“Foreign body got trapped in there at some point,” I said, “Needed minor surgery.”

I could see the alarm crossing over his face.  Had he heard something?  Flechette passing on a message that people with injured shoulders-

Surgery?” he asked.

“It was only local anesthetic.  Really.  Not that big a deal.”

I looked over the bookshelves.  One of the better pictures of mom and me had been destroyed by the explosion of glass, ripped to shreds.  He had to have picked up that frame and stood it up on its own, sometime after Shatterbird’s attack.  I prodded at the picture, as if I could push the tattered remains back together.

“You’re so different,” he said.  “You’re standing straighter, dressing like you aren’t trying to hide in your clothes, moving with more purpose.  I think you’ve grown, too.  So many people, they seem like they’ve been burdened by what’s going on, they’ve given up a little, lost important things.  That just makes the contrast between you and them that much stronger.”

I turned around.  Was I?  “I don’t feel that much stronger.”

“I spent fifteen years raising you.  Two and a half of those years I spent raising you alone.  I can see a difference.”

“I’m not saying there isn’t a change.  There probably is.  I just- I dunno if I’m better because of it.”

“Oh.”

A silence stretched out.  Neither of us were adept conversationalists, and any familiarity we’d had was gone.

“Do you want to sit?” he asked.

I nodded and seated myself.  There were papers on the coffee table.  Two loose stacks, headed with the title ‘Know where you are’.  They looked as though they had been printed using a fifteen year old photocopier.  I picked one up.

‘Know where you are:

The area extending east of Captain’s hill is believed to be under claim by the supervillains Grue and Imp.  Both are members of a group known as the Undersiders, who have joined with the Travelers in an unnamed alliance.  These villains will not attack civilians unless provoked, and clean-up is tentatively progressing throughout the area with no objections from either villain.

Grue has the ability to create clouds of darkness.  Should you find yourself in one of these clouds, retreat to the nearest cover you remember seeing and assume there is immediate and present danger from vehicles, gunfire, moving pedestrians and fighting between capes…’

I put it down.  There was more, noting a lack of information about Imp as well as the gangs and possible rivals that Grue and Imp might be fighting with, but it was over a week out of date.

The second paper:

‘Know where you are:

The area extending west of the ferry station north, including the factories and the remains of the Boardwalk, is believed to be under claim by the supervillain Skitter.  Skitter is a member of the Undersiders, who are allied with the Travelers in an as-of-yet unnamed alliance.  Skitter is an unpredictable young woman tending towards acts of apparent kindness to those she deems her subjects and bursts of sudden and extreme violence towards those she sees as her enemies.  The city is not funding work in her territory, as Skitter is handling matters there.

Skitter controls insects and senses what they do.  Anyone with allergies to stings or insect bites would be advised to leave this area.  She offers food, shelter and care to anyone who agrees to work under her, but the Dockworkers Association cannot suggest that anyone accept her offers, as her ulterior motives are unknown.

This area is not currently the site of any ongoing disputes between capes.  There is limited power in this area.  There is limited cell service in this area.  There is not water service in this area.’

Again, a little out of date.  Our water was running.  Still, it was startling to see this here.  From the beginning, I’d wanted to keep that part of my life and this part of my life separate. It had been a fierce enough desire that I’d avoided taking revenge on the bullies because of it, at least a little, and it might have had something to do with my running away from home.

“Your DAU has been putting these up?”

“Yes.  Making sure people are informed.  Too many stories of people taking the wrong path through the city and getting cornered by a mutant dog the size of a small tank.”

“Right.”

“You said you were staying outside the city, with Lisa’s family?  At the North end?  How did you get here?”

“I walked across the market, down to the Boardwalk and crossed through Skitter’s territory.”

I was pretty sure I wasn’t acting strange as I said the name.

“They didn’t give you any trouble?”

“They stopped me at the border and I asked permission.  They were nice about it.”

“Okay.”

Lie after lie.

Another uncomfortable pause.

“Have you eaten?  I have some liver and mashed potato in the fridge.”

“I’ve eaten,” I lied.  No use taking some of my dad’s money when he was having to sell stuff to get food.

“Would you like some tea?”

“Please,” I said, grateful for an offer I could accept in good conscience.  He retreated into the kitchen to put the kettle on.

I looked around.  It didn’t feel like my house anymore.  I’d only been gone two months, but things were different.  Things in the house had moved, or been sold, or they’d been damaged by Shatterbird’s attack.

The atmosphere was different too.  I wasn’t sure how much of that was the humidity, the lack of upkeep and the fact that the family of two had been just a family of one for nearly two months and how much of it was me.  It was all too possible that I was viewing my surroundings in a different light, tinting things with my paranoia about my dad making the connection between me and Skitter, viewing things more negatively because of my guilt over leaving him.

My dad rejoined me.  “If you give me a minute, I can make your bed-”

“I’m not staying,” I blurted the words.

“Oh.”  I could see the pain on his face.

In the mutual awkwardness that followed, the vibration of my cell phone was a mercy.  I picked it up and checked the display.  Heart-c-c-apostrophe-square.  Tattletale.

“I’ll be right back,” I said, hopping off the couch and hurrying out the door as I hit the button to pick up.

Please be okay, I thought, shutting the door behind me.

“Hey,” she replied.

“You’re okay?  Cactus-B.”

“Sun-Y.  Or Sun-N.  Whichever you prefer.”

“I’m not sure what color that’s supposed to be.”

“Neither am I.  Um.  So I talked to Coil.  Things have been clarified some.”

“Okay.  Should we-”

“It’s fine, pretty much, even if he’s listening in.  You’re not in danger.  No threat on your life at this present moment.”

“Okay,” I said, not sure how to expand on that.  She hadn’t precisely said it was Coil that was the threat, so maybe she was hedging her words to be safe.

“Which scares me,” she confessed.

“Scares you?”

“Um,” she said.  It wasn’t like her to be lost for words.  “I told Coil that Trickster got injured. I wasn’t sure if you’d told him.  He didn’t seem concerned.  There was zero indication that his plan had been disrupted.  Told him you were on your way back, again, no concern.  Everything that had been telling me he was harboring plans to assassinate you was telling me he wasn’t and hadn’t ever been, this time around.”

“Your power lied to you?”

“Um.  That’s what I thought.  I was thinking maybe I was working under a mistaken impression, tried adding and removing the elements to see if I could get a different result, interpret his earlier behavior differently.  No go.  And I was doing all this while having a perfectly normal conversation with Coil, until he says something like ‘Very dangerous.  You want to be careful who you’re picking a fight with.'”

I felt my blood run cold.  I had to sit down on the stair.  “He meant-”

“Oh, he totally meant.  If I was one-hundred percent sure he was planning on killing you before, I’m five-hundred percent sure he was telling me he knows what we’re up to.”

“What should I do?  What should we do?”

“I don’t know.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  I was still processing what he’d just said when he stepped toward the door to leave.  He put one hand on my shoulder, leaned close, and he spoke in this very quiet voice.  He said, ‘Be careful, Tattletale.  I value your service, but you should know your power isn’t as reliable as you like to think.'”

Sounding civil and caring while expressing a very clear threat.  “So the fact that it lied before-”

“It didn’t lie, Skitter.  I said he was testing me, before.  He was, just not like I thought.  He’s found a way to confuse my power, to counteract it.  This thing with the hit on your head.  It was just to scare us.  To let us know that any security my power afforded us, it doesn’t apply to him.  He can make us think you’re going to be killed when you aren’t, and-”

“And the opposite is true.  He can make us think we’re safe when we aren’t,” I finished.

“Exactly.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” she said, again.  “Listen, I’ve got to call the others.  Are you with Grue?”

“No.  Maybe I’ll head that way before the end of the night.”

“We’ll figure something out,” she said.

Figure something out?  Coil was on to us, he’d effectively taken Tattletale out of the equation, and by all accounts, he seemed confident enough to continue letting us work for him, despite our intended mutiny.

I couldn’t bring myself to agree.  “Bye,” I said.

“Bye.”

I hung up.

Before I could convince myself to head back to my territory and start plotting some counteroffensive, I stood from the stair and walked back inside.

Seeing my dad’s face, I was reminded of the dream I’d had, where my dad had turned out to be Coil, where I’d taken too long and Dinah had died.  I looked away, made my way back to the couch.  My dad set a cup of tea down in front of me, then sat beside me.

I wasn’t religious.  Didn’t believe in a higher power.  Mundane government was crappy enough, the idea of a divine one simultaneously scared me and made me want to laugh.  As a consequence, when I thought of a soul, I was thinking more about some collection of the abstract parts of the mind that covered a person’s mental and emotional well-being, their psyche and the defining aspects of their personality.  A more religious view of the soul would probably add up to a rough equivalent.

Whatever my overall motives might be, some part of what drove me was some desire to patch up the damage, fix that part of myself that had been taking a beating ever since I’d gotten that call about my mom’s death.

Only it wasn’t working.

Try to help the city, help the heroes, shore up my sense of self worth, find myself fumbling, tearing and discovering fresh holes in my subconscious makeup, with Dinah and my betrayal of the people who’d become my friends, betraying myself by failing to keep to that overall goal.  And there were other moments, moments where I’d been brutal and violent, accidental or otherwise.  Moments I’d made sacrifices, or where I’d been callous.  It wasn’t subtle, either.  The stack of papers in front of me said it, clear as day.  Sudden and extreme violence.

Even coming here, it had been at least partially motivated by my desire to fill that hole deep inside, that spot where family was supposed to fit.

I sipped on the tea.  My dad had made it with sugar, not honey.

This… sitting here and drinking tea with my dad, my head someplace else entirely?  It wasn’t fixing anything.  Wasn’t mending or filling anything.

I sipped again, then drank it in big gulps.  It burned going down, and I pounded my collarbone, as if I could banish that sensation.

“Taylor?”

I stood and picked up my backpack and shrugged it over the one shoulder.  “I’ve got to go.”

He stood too.

“I’m sorry.  We’re- we’re heading back, and it’s dark, so we’re going with a group.”

“I’ll come.”

“No.  You’d be alone going back.  It’s okay.”

He looked hurt.  “A hug?”

I hesitated, then stepped close and hugged him with the one arm.  He gingerly wrapped his arms around my shoulders and squeezed.

“I’ll be back,” I mumbled into his shirt.

“No vague promises.  You’re going to promise,” he said.

“Day after tomorrow?”

“Okay.  I don’t have work then, with the mayoral elections.  We can eat lunch here and then go to the town hall.”

Oh shit.  If Coil had something for us to do-

I stepped away, thinking of a way to formulate an excuse.  I saw his forehead creased with worry.  As thin as he’d been before, he looked thinner now.  Looked years older, wounded, tired, lonely.

“I’ll see you then, then,” I told him.

“See you,” he said, smiling sadly.  No pressure to stay.  He had no idea what was going on, I hoped, but he was still letting me do what I needed to.

I felt the need to reward him, to express some kind of gratitude, but I had only one thing to offer that he really wanted.  “I-  don’t know when.  But maybe I’ll come home?”

Vague, again.  Just like with what I’d said before, there was no set date.  I’d said the exact same thing when I’d left in the first place.  It was almost an insult.

But I saw him smile.  “Anytime, any day.  But we can talk about that over lunch, day after tomorrow.”

I nodded and turned to leave.  I wasn’t half a block away from the house before I felt the tears welling up, running down my face.

I couldn’t say whether they were because of my love for my dad or my despair for Dinah.

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Colony 15.8

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The benefit of using my swarm-clone to communicate with Parian was that I had relative privacy to talk to Coil.  He picked up on the fourth ring.  Not quite so prompt as Tattletale tended to be.

“Skitter.”

“I know you wanted me to use Ms. Cranston instead of calling you, but this is sort of important.”

“I’m listening.”

“I’ve talked with Parian, and we’ve come to a tentative agreement.  She’ll need to talk to other people before making a decision, but I think she’d join our alliance.”

“I see.”

There was a long pause.  I was getting ready to speak and ask if he was still there when he spoke once again.

“What are her terms?”

“She holds territory, she’ll defend it against all comers, but she’s not going to do jobs or do anything criminal.  As far as anyone else is concerned, she’s not a part of our takeover.”

“The implication being that we’re too weak to deal with her.”

“That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

“It’s the conclusion others will come to.”

I felt a swell of frustration and anger, powerful enough that I might have snapped at him if I could have come up with what to say any faster.  I had to remind myself that I was anxious over the hit Coil had put on my head, and I felt betrayed.  I recognized that it was stupid to feel betrayed by Coil when I was actively planning to fight him if he didn’t cooperate on the Dinah front, but I also knew I didn’t tend to handle it well when someone I’d trusted stabbed me in the back.

Not that I’d ever trusted Coil but…

Okay, I wasn’t sure what I was thinking on that front.

I forced myself to calm down before saying, “I’m sure there’s a compromise.  Will you talk to her?”

“I will not risk revealing my identity, no,” Coil said.

Damn him.

“But,” he continued, “I will speak to her through a liason.”

“Thank you.”

“Though this could have been done more smoothly, I do appreciate your hard work.”

This from my would-be murderer.

“It’s not a problem.  Ballistic might be upset if he realizes I went behind his back on this, so maybe if anyone asks, she got spooked and came to you?”

“Perhaps.  I’ll be discreet, in any event.  It wouldn’t do to have friction between your two groups.”

“Right.”

“Speaking of inter-group relations, I believe Trickster is preparing to leave for the mission this evening.  You’ll want to contact him to arrange something.”

I’d been hoping to put this off.  It still felt like yesterday that I was watching my back every moment, waiting for an attack from any corner.  I wasn’t eager to return to that state.

“Okay,” I said.

He hung up without another word.

Parian first.

“I’ve raised the subject with others.  They’ll be in touch.  You should talk to Flechette and decide where you stand before then.”

“A lot of pressure.”

I don’t think you understand real pressure, I thought.  But I didn’t say it out loud.

“Yeah,” my swarm said.  The drones and buzzes that made up the syllables helped mask the lack of real sympathy.  I began working to use silk strands and flying bugs to lift a cell phone into the air.  I thumbed through the keypad and sent a text to Ms. Cranston to inform her about what I was doing.  “I’m flying a phone to you, it’ll be in your hands before you’re out of my territory.  Someone will use it to call you before the end of the day.”

“This is you subtly telling me to leave?”

“I’m in the middle of something, yes.  Thank you for hearing me out.”

“It was the least I could do, after the help you’ve offered my friends and family.”

“Whatever you decide, take care of yourself, Parian.”

“You too.”

I scattered the swarm, then paused to think.

The painkiller was starting to wear off, and I could feel the steady ache in my shoulder.  I still had a dart sticking through the bone.  Brooks had only removed the points on either end.  I could only hope the pain kept me sharp.

I’d hoped to take a break and formulate some strategy, some plan.  I had a few small ideas, but they weren’t broad enough to cover every base.  And there were a lot of bases to cover when someone as well equipped as Coil was after me.

Fuck.

I couldn’t do up all of the armor I’d removed with the one hand, so I enlisted Atlas’ help in putting the armor on my injured shoulder, using his forelimbs to hold things steady.

I took a deep breath.  It wasn’t confirmed one-hundred percent, but I had my suspicions that Parian was on board.  I didn’t want to die, exactly, I was prepared to fight tooth and nail to avoid it, but at the same time I was ready to die, now.

I didn’t really have friends, outside the team.  My teammates would miss me, but they’d recover in time.  Death was a reality in our business.

My dad hadn’t heard from me in some time.  If I died, well, perhaps not as great a shock as it might otherwise be.  I knew it would hit him as hard as my mom’s death had, that he’d be devastated… but again, he’d recover.  Maybe it would be easier, because at least here he’d have someone to blame, the city, the thugs, whoever Lisa told him was at fault for my murder.  I was pretty sure she wouldn’t reveal my identity to him when a simpler, to-the-point explanation would do.

And my people?  My territory?

I felt Parian receive the cell phone, a few blocks away, pulling it to her hand with telekinesis.  From the bugs that lingered on it, I could feel it vibrate pretty violently as it moved the short distance through the air.

If I died, Parian could take over my territory.  I had the feeling I could trust her to care about my people the same way I did, more than I could trust even my friends.  The transition wouldn’t be too difficult.

I took in another deep breath, then sighed.  For Dinah.  In any other circumstance, I’d back down, leave Coil’s employ.  But I was willing to brave this if it meant keeping her and her freedom in my reach.

I dialed Trickster.

Atlas carried me into the nice part of town, southwest of the Towers.  The Christian private school wasn’t far from here.  Immaculata.  New Wave was also based here.  I kind of hoped I didn’t cross paths with them.  If they shared any of Flechette’s opinions about me being at least partially to blame for whatever had happened with Panacea and Glory Girl, well, they’d be even less inclined to hold back.

I needed to find out the story there.  Had to ask Tattletale, when I had a free moment.

The area was riddled with hills and glades, with ridiculously large houses gathered in small neighborhoods.  Brockton Bay tended to zig-zag pretty drastically between the poverty-stricken areas and the wealthy.  The contrast seemed even greater here where things were largely untouched by Leviathan’s attack, compared to the rest of the city where streets sat under inches of water.

I didn’t join Trickster and Genesis.  Instead, I set Atlas down in one of the wooded glades close to my destination, glanced at my phone to ensure I’d followed directions to the right spot, and then got my laptop out to prepare.  I was a little early, which meant I could afford to take the time to prepare.

The range would be lower with the trees and any buildings between me and my destination, but I was still better off using my swarm-clone as a body double.  I double checked my equipment and weapons while I waited for my ‘clones’ to gather together.

Centipedes and bugs chained end-to-end for the hair.  Larger bugs formed the bulk of the legs, torso, and the core of the head.  Smaller bugs filled the gaps, while flying insects clustering together to form the arms and the parts too unwieldy to be supported by the rest, like the face.  Once the basic form was there, it was just a question of refining it so the general silhouette was right, and positioning the miniature camera and microphones so they had eyes and ears I could use.

Once they were ready, I gathered one swarm on top of Atlas and flew it to Trickster and Genesis.  I walked with my swarms at my side, my laptop open and held with my good arm so I could see the video feed.  As I gathered more bugs on top of my costume and in my hair to make myself resemble the clones, I used stray bugs to form similar laptops for the other clones.  They didn’t have glowing screens, but the generally rectangular shapes would serve for anyone looking at a distance.

If ‘I’ was in immediate danger, my clone on Atlas’ back would take the hit.  If my enemy or enemies saw through the ruse and came looking for me, they’d have to pick me apart from my clones.  That meant they would have to take the time to find a telltale clue, they’d have to guess with only a one-in-four chance of hitting the real me or they’d have to spread their attacks out among each of my clones.  I had the additional security of bugs filling the area, sweeping over surfaces and ledges to spot anyone who might be in place to stalk or snipe me, and my costume served as a final line of defense.

Redundancies.  It didn’t feel like enough.

Trickster and Genesis were waiting as Atlas descended.  They were crouched with their backs to a stone wall that bordered one property at the edge of a hill.  Trickster was holding binoculars, gazing down at the neighborhood below us.  Genesis was in the form of a ghostly woman wreathed with chains.  Her white hair was smoky, wispy, and covered her face, and her fingers were talons.  She had no lower body extending from the tattered poncho-style cloak she wore, and simply floated as though she were as light as air.  How had she done that?  Some basic flight mechanism?  A gas balloon in her stomach?

So powerful.

“Welcome.  Have a look,” Trickster said.  He extended one hand with the binoculars.  Binoculars I couldn’t use with my camera.

“Don’t need them.  Which property?”

He pointed.  It took me a second to relate the direction his arm was pointing with the camera angle and relate that to my own position relative to my clone.  I could have figured it out in an instant if I’d put a bug on his hand, but I didn’t want to clue him in if I didn’t have to.

The grounds of the building he was pointing to was nearly as large as the city block where I’d grown up and lived until a couple of months ago.  There was a fence, but it seemed to be directed at keeping the family’s dogs in rather than keeping intruders out.  Chain link, no barbed wire.  I knew he had dogs from the flies that were clustered on the feces in the back yard that hadn’t been picked up, and the larval young that festooned each clump.

Not too many bugs inside the house.  There were some in the walls, but the home seemed relatively new, and the insulation was packed tightly enough that nothing was really living in the walls.

It took me a minute, but I did manage to start a headcount.

“There’s guards?”

“There’s a police presence in this area.  I think they’re expecting trouble,” Trickster said.  “Anyways, the reason we’re here at this time and place is that the mayor always eats dinner with his family.  Tattletale says he’s only missed three meals in twenty years, and that was only because he was out of town for work.  His planned trip to Washington is going to be his fourth time away from home, so this is the one place we can be absolutely sure we’ll cross paths with him.”

I found the dining room and started counting the number of shoes under the table.  “Four adults.  I think two male, two female, judging by the footwear.  Two younger girls. Going by their size, I’d guess between eight and twelve.”

“He has a son and two twin daughters,” Trickster said.

I arranged bugs on the ground by Trickster to sketch out a rough floor plan of the house and show the pair where the family was relative to us.

“How do you want to do this?” Genesis asked.

“We scare the wits out of them, then we’ll introduce ourselves to the mayor,” Trickster said.  “You guys start us off.  I’ll keep an eye out for trouble and handle things if any cops show up or if anyone flees.”

“We’re attacking with their family there?” I asked.

“Sure.  Bigger impact if we threaten them too.”

“Not sure I like that.”

“When I was talking to Coil about what Tattletale said about the schedule, he suggested it.  Unless you want to go against him?”

He was talking to Coil.  I made a mental note of that.  Did I need to watch out for an attack from Trickster?  It would be as simple as swapping the positions of an active grenade with a stone near me.

It was possible.  He was ruthless, he didn’t seem to have many compunctions about killing and he was in the best position to do it.  I couldn’t sense any people who might be Coil’s soldiers.

There was the possibility that I was walking into a trap, that everyone in the house we were about to attack was a threat.  I could handle that much.

Too many potential avenues of attack.  Too many potential threats.  And with the possibility of long-range weapons, Trickster or even a surprise attack by Genesis, it could come at any instant.

“Skitter?”  Genesis asked.

“Hm?  Right.  Um.  I suppose not.  We just scare them, right?  We don’t do any physical harm?”

“Right,” Trickster said.

Well, I could do that.  It wasn’t so different from what I’d done in my first job with the Undersiders.  I’d terrorized hostages then for a greater purpose, and I could do the same with a family for the same reason.

“Just give me a second,” I said.

“I’m going, then,” Genesis said, floating over the edge of the hill.

“Not the first time you’ve needed time to get ready,” Trickster commented to me.

“Hm?”

“Just seems like a drawback.”

Is he threatening me?  Letting me know he’s on to one of my weaknesses?

“I’m a general, and it takes time to mobilize my army.  Better to hit hard with all my forces at once.”

“Not always.  You could have built up to a crescendo there.”

“And give them a chance to scatter?  I’d have to divide the swarm to cut each group of people off, which would mean less bugs for each, smaller effect overall.”

He shook his head.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“You seem just a little more hostile than before,” I said.

“Do I?”

My bugs had gathered around the handful of entry points I’d been able to find.  Windows were open, but each window had been set up with either plywood or screens to compensate for the glass Shatterbird had destroyed.  There was a fan system for the bathrooms that was structured to discourage bugs from crawling through in reverse, with flaps that would presumably only open when the fan was active, and that was easy to bypass with some cooperation of the arthropodic collective.

“Yeah.  Any reason for it?”

“Not a huge fan of you stepping on Ballistic’s toes.  He’s sort of a friend.”

Not the way he tells it.  “I didn’t intend any offense.”

More bugs were entering through one of the doors at the side of the house, which was ajar.  I presumed it was to let the warm late-spring/early-summer air flow through the house.  The challenge there was keeping the bugs from being spotted before I was ready.

When I realized what Genesis was planning, I shifted my bugs to follow.  She headed straight for the kitchen window and crashed through the plywood there.  She was followed shortly after by my swarm, spilling into the room to spread over windows, ceiling and floor, only a small few darting around the people.

They turned to run, naturally, running for the door that led to the kitchen and to the hallway.  They were met by the remainder of my swarm, a thick cloud of flies, dragonflies, moths, roaches and beetles.  I could feel them backing away, four adults, two children.

“Police are on their way.  Gonna swap them with us the second they get to the house.  Warning you in advance so we can look confident.”

Damn.

“Appreciate that line of thinking, but there’s one small problem,” I said.

He looked at me, then frowned.  “I can’t get a grip on you.  You’re doing what you did when you were talking to Legend and Miss Militia.”

“A little more refined than that, but yeah.”

“Fuck,” he said.  Then he groaned. “And now I’ve lost sight of the cops.”

“I can deal with them, if you want.”

“Just find them and I’ll handle that.  Where’s your real body?”

I hesitated.  Then I had my clone turn and point to another clone.  Just in case he decided to go on the attack.

“I see you.  Right.  And the cops?”

“Over there, but don’t teleport me,” I said.  “I’ve got something else in mind, and the visual effect will be stronger.”

“If I don’t teleport you, I have to fight whichever cop I’m not teleporting,” he noted.

Cope, I thought.  I deigned not to respond, and dismantled the clone that was standing next to him.  I did draw an arrow pointing him to where the two officers had circled one corner of the property.

Rather than visit the house myself, I gathered some of the bugs I’d sent to the room and began forming a clone there.  From what I’d seen of the process, it was sort of spooky in its own right.  A person materializing from vermin.  I carried the small camera and microphone towards the swarm, using the video feed to remotely see the clone from a short distance so I could match the finer features and body shape.  When I was done, I added the remaining bugs to the swarm, the camera and microphone hidden in their midst, and shifted the camera into place.

I recognized our mayor.  Never someone I’d paid a whole lot of attention to, given how I wasn’t exactly a voter, but I recognized him in a general way.  His face tended to pop up in advertisements and media.  If the city wasn’t in the state it was in right now, it would be on every TV channel, well into the swing of things for the imminent mayoral elections.  He was fifty or sixty, with horseshoe-pattern baldness on a round head and large ears that sort of stuck out.

The woman next to him would be his wife.  She had the look of someone who had purchased their good looks, with stylish clothes, an expensive haircut and top-notch makeup and skin care.  She was clutching her husband, who was holding his two twin daughters.

There were two young adults there too.  Older teenagers or young twenty-somethings.  The guy looked seriously well-built, the girl statuesque;  I got the vibe of an athlete and his cheerleader girlfriend more than I got the impression of a brother and sister with good genetics.  The guy stood a little in front of his parents and girlfriend, as if he wanted to protect them.  Genesis and I stood on the other side of the dining room table.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“A conversation,” Trickster spoke.  He had hopped up to the ledge of the ground-floor window and was now hopping down, one hand on his hat.  He adjusted it.  “Hello, Mr. Mayor.”

The mayor looked at each of us in turn.  Well, at Trickster and the fake-selves that Genesis and I were producing.  “To what do I owe this questionable pleasure?”

“We hear you’re going to Washington tomorrow.”

I saw the son turn to look over his shoulder at his dad.  I also noted that he was discreetly drawing a phone from his pocket, concealed by the way he’d turned his body.  If I couldn’t sense movements through my bugs, I would have missed it.

I could have said something, but I stayed quiet.  Instead, I drew Atlas to a point near the window and began uncoiling and stretching out the lines of pre-prepared silk I’d already drawn out for emergency use.

“I am.”

“Well, I think it would only be fair if you heard from all of your constituents,” Trickster remarked.  “Before you come to a decision.”

“You pay taxes?” The son asked, shifting his position again so his right hand was hidden behind his girlfriend.  I could feel him adjusting his grip on the phone.  As far as I could tell, he hadn’t actually done anything to it.  I waited for him to stop moving his hand, and then threaded a series of flying bugs between his fingers and the device, winding the thread around it.

“Rory,” the mayor spoke, his tone a warning.  He turned his attention to Trickster.  “And?  Which outcome are you hoping for?”

“I think it would be excellent if the city kept on going.  Things are getting better.”

“And you’re putting yourselves in charge,” the mayor noted.

“We’re just keeping the peace,” Trickster said.  “Doing a better job than your local heroes.”

“If you have a liberal interpretation of ‘peace’, maybe,” the mayor said.

Rory moved his fingers, tapping the screen, and I had Atlas fly away from the window.  The phone was torn from his hand and bounced off of the window pane before landing outside.  Atlas reeled it in further while Rory looked around in confusion and alarm.

“No phone calls,” I spoke, buzzing through my swarm.

“Give that back,” he said.

“Is your phone really a priority?” Trickster asked.

“Yeah,” Rory said.  “Yeah it is.”

“Then you should have known better than to use it here,” Trickster said, shrugging.

Give it back,” Rory turned to glare at ‘me’.  At my swarm-double.

Trickster chuckled, “Never really got that smartphone craze.  People go gaga over the things.”

No, I thought.  Something’s off.

What I wouldn’t give for Tattletale’s power.  Or even to have her present.  How would she pull the pieces together, fill in the blanks?  She could have looked at the big picture here and known exactly what was going on, while I was left to guess.

The obsession over the phone?  I couldn’t draw any conclusions.  What else?  The family dinner with the son bringing his girlfriend over?  Nothing too strange.

They weren’t scared.

The little girls were glaring at us as they clutched their dad, Rory was too focused on his phone when his family was in imminent danger, and Rory’s girlfriend was staying very still.  Topping it off, the mayor was too casual in how he was addressing us.

Ah.

“I think it would be in everyone‘s best interests if Brockton Bay kept going.  Not quite fair to judge the fate of the city at its lowest point,” Trickster said.

“Are you being ironic on purpose?” The mayor asked.  “You’re making a very strong case for why the city shouldn’t continue down the path it’s been going down, just by being here.”

Again, that confidence.  One didn’t trade banter with someone who was implicitly threatening them and their family with bodily harm.  Not if they didn’t have some measure of security their would-be assailants weren’t aware of.

I considered the various possibilities.  Not too hard to narrow down the options, with the process of elimination.

I drew the words against the wall, above and behind the gathered family.

Trickster didn’t seem to notice.  “I’m surprised you aren’t showing us more respect.  You’d think we’d almost be equal on a level, current guy in charge of the city talking to the aspiring rulers.”

“I earned my position through hard work, dedication and by convincing the people that it was in their best interests to vote for me.  Which it was.  You three?  You’re criminals.  Thugs.  You didn’t earn anything.”

Thugs?  Do Thugs take on the Slaughterhouse Nine and walk away?”

“All you have going for you is violence and intimidation.  You can’t accomplish anything but destruction that way.”

I made the words on the wall bigger.  Trickster didn’t see them, or he didn’t care.

“Trickster-” I started, speaking through my swarm.  I need to have a word with you.

“Well,” Trickster said, cutting me off, “If you insist, who am I to argue?”

In an instant, one of the two twin girls was replaced by one of the dining room chairs on our side of the table, and vice versa.  Trickster grabbed her hair and pulled her close, drawing a gun and pressing it to her head.

“Trickster,” Genesis said, in the same second I moved forward to stop him.

Was she trying to stop him as well, or had she seen the words?

She settled one talon on his shoulder.  I wasn’t sure what signal she gave, but Trickster paused.

Whatever it was, he must have looked up at the words I’d written, because Rory noticed.  He whipped his head around to see, and I couldn’t disperse the bugs fast enough.

‘Triumph’ written on the wall with bugs with a triangle beneath, pointing at his head.  Above his ‘girlfriend’ were the words ‘Prism or Ursa’.

The mayor’s son was the civilian identity of Triumph.  Enhanced physical prowess and a concussive shout that could punch holes through concrete.

He whipped his head around and stared at Trickster.  Before the teleporter could pull the trigger or do anything else, Triumph shouted.  His sister was untouched, but Trickster was sent flying into the wall hard enough that he was half-buried in the drywall.

“Duck, Kyla!”

The little girl threw herself to the ground as Triumph lunged forward, kicking the dining room table.  It slid halfway across the room, over ‘Kyla’ and into the wall. The side slammed into Trickster’s midsection, and the table’s contents flew into the villain and the wall around him.  Trickster went limp, his upper body flopping over the table.

I mobilized the swarm, but Triumph was already shouting again, slamming Genesis into a wall, much as he’d done with Trickster.  A third bellow annihilated my swarm-clone, and he turned to start eradicating my spread out bugs while his family ran for the hallway, led by the superheroine.

Couldn’t get a serious number of bugs together in one place to mount a serious attack without Triumph obliterating them and he was either too angry or too stubborn to surrender to the stings and bites I was managing to inflict.  The superheroine had her phone out and I wasn’t able to tug it from her hand like I had with Triumph’s.  They would be getting reinforcements shortly.  Even if I took all of them out of action, I’d still have to get Trickster out of there and escape with my own hide intact.

“Damn it,” I cursed.  I broke into a run, accompanied by my swarm-doubles, hurrying for the house.  I couldn’t leave him there, not without jeopardizing everything.  He struck me as being disloyal enough to offer information for his own sake, or information about the Undersiders, at the very leastAnd leaving him behind would leave a permanent rift between our team and the Travelers.  It could even mean being dropped by Coil, an excuse for him to separate me from my teammates.

That said, I couldn’t save him or mount a serious attack with just my doubles.  He was hitting too hard, handling my bugs too effectively.  I could have killed or critically injured his family with the few bugs I did have, brought them down with the more dangerous insects, but I wasn’t willing to go that far.  Not with people who didn’t deserve it.

Atlas wouldn’t be strong or versatile enough to carry an unconscious body to safety.  If I was going to haul Trickster out of there, it would have to be with my own two hands.

I could only pray I wasn’t exposing myself to whatever assassination ploy Coil had in mind.  Or worse, that I wasn’t doing exactly what he wanted me to do.

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Colony 15.4

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Sundancer had once described her life in costume as intense, violent and lonely.  I’d had a hard time understanding the last point.  That had been about the same time that I had been riding the high of having friends for the first time, after a couple of years spent in almost total solitude.

Maybe, if the subject had come up again in recent weeks, I might have understood, nodding my head in sympathy.

Powers raised us above the common people.  It was maybe arrogant to think that way, to say I was better than the likes of Sierra, Charlotte or my father, but I sort of was.  I had all the potential they did and then more.

Even if I looked at how powers elevated us, though, I had to admit we weren’t raised to the same level.  We weren’t all raised up together.  If anything, the powers drove us apart: our trigger events, our reasons for wanting to use our powers, the agendas and missions we took upon ourselves, and even how those powers made us think and operate in different ways… they put barriers between ourselves and others.  I just had to think of Panacea or Bitch, and I had some damn good examples of that.

I couldn’t think of two capes who were in a committed relationship where there wasn’t some degree of fucked-up-ness.  Night and Fog were, if I’d understood Tattletale right, essentially functional sociopaths.  They’d acted out the role of a married couple with none of the affection or fondness.  Victor and Othala were screwed up in a different way, burdened by a shared event in their past.  Brandish and Flashbang?  If their kids were any indication… yeah.  Fucked up.

It was no small wonder we were all so fucked up.  It was the human condition, to need a supporting hand now and again, and yet we could barely help ourselves, let alone each other.

Worse, if by some small miracle two capes managed to find comfort and support in each other, there was no guarantee that those other two points that Sundancer had raised wouldn’t ruin things.  The intensity of our lifestyle and the sheer violence.  Lady Photon had lost her husband in the Leviathan fight.  Glory Girl had, if the magazines and papers were any indication, maintained an on-and-off relationship with Gallant.  He’d died too.

So this?  Lying here beside Brian?  It was sort of bittersweet, with maybe a 60-40 split on the sweet vs. the bitter.

I couldn’t see Brian’s face without raising my head, and I didn’t want to do that and risk waking him.  I’d left my glasses on the table with the knife and gun, so I couldn’t see that well anyways.  I settled for studying the fabric of his sleeveless shirt, the nubs of lint, the weave of the textile, and how it shifted with the slow, deep and rhythmic breaths he was taking.  I could smell his sweat, with the faint traces of his deodorant beneath.  It was funny, because when we’d settled in, I hadn’t been able to smell anything.

I felt warm in the core of my chest.  That wasn’t just the morning light streaming in through the windows.

Not happy, exactly.  I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, not with the responsibilities I wasn’t attending to right now, not with the mistakes I’d made and the people I’d failed.

But I could convince myself that this was something I should be doing.  It was one of the tasks that I had to tend to, no matter how the coming days and weeks unfolded, and we’d settled on making those tasks a priority.  We had to support Grue if we wanted him around to help us when everything started going down.

I wouldn’t rest any hopes on this, not with the way every other parahuman relationship seemed to go.  I’d take these individual moments for what they were.

All of which amounted to a pile of excuses and rationalizations I was layering on top of one another, trying to convince myself this wouldn’t end disastrously, that I wasn’t being irresponsible or that I wasn’t going to regret this on a hundred different levels.  It was enough that I could feel at peace, here.

Mostly at peace.  I had to pee, and yet I didn’t want to move and disturb him.

Nothing was easy, it seemed.

My body won out over my willpower, and I decided to extricate myself.  I didn’t even try to get to my feet, instead easing myself down to the ground as I unwrapped myself from Brian as slowly as I could.

Once I’d disentangled myself from Brian and the couch, I grabbed my glasses, knife, cellphone and gun and rushed to the washroom.

The cell phone rang while I was on the toilet.  Tattletale.  For Brian’s sake and my own sense of decency, I refused the call and texted her instead:

What’s up?

She replied soon after:

R is done.  Bird in the pen 4 now.  C wants a meeting neways.  Get G I and come 4 11am?

So it was time to see if Brian could glean anything from Victor’s power.  I responded:

G sleeping.  Don’t want to wake him.

I could guess her reply before it appeared:

hate to break u 2 lovebirds up but we r tight on time and C is impatient

I texted her an a-ok before hanging up and putting the phone away.

The kitchen had been cleaned up, but my bugs hadn’t alerted me to anyone coming in.  Had Aisha returned and used her power to stay quiet?

I decided to assume she had and began preparing breakfast for three people.

If I had to rouse Brian, I’d do it with the smells of bacon, coffee and toast.  It was as inoffensive a method as I could think of.

Aisha woke up before Brian did, venturing downstairs in a long t-shirt.

“Thanks for cleaning up,” I said, quiet.  I could remember her reaction the last time I’d been talking to Brian, and added, “And for not getting upset.”

“I can’t help him, don’t know how.  So I’m putting it in your hands.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t thank me.  If you screw this up, I can and will make your life a living hell.”

I frowned.  “Honestly?  That’s not very fair.  I think I probably will screw up along the way.  This isn’t going to be smooth sailing, whatever happens.  So maybe it’d be better if you just trust that I’m going into this with the best intentions for him.”

She plucked a piece of bacon from a plate and popped it into her mouth.  “Maybe.  But no. Don’t fuck this up.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I’ve had a lot of practice.  It’s the little things, convincing someone they’re going crazy, nothing they put down is where they left it.  Things go missing.  Furniture gets moved.  Then it gets more serious, they find the stash of drugs they were supposed to barter for stuff is missing-”

“I don’t have any drugs,” I told her.

“Talking hy-po-theticals.  I get them in trouble with people they know.  Then they have little injures they can’t remember getting.  Splinters under their fingernails, papercuts between their fingers or at the corners of their mouths, little cuts on the back of their hands.  That’s usually when they freak out.  They run, go somewhere else, and it stops, just a little while.  Until it comes again, twice as bad as before.  They snap.  Then I leave them a message telling them that it all stops when they leave the city.  Put it on their walls in blood or put it on their bathroom mirror in soap so it shows up when the room gets all steamy.  They’re glad.  They’re happy to have a way out.  Except I wouldn’t leave you that note.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Brian asked, from behind her.  “And where are you getting that blood?”

Aisha wheeled around, not appearing even half as guilty as she should have.

“I asked Coil’s lieutenant for some.  He asked me how many gallons I wanted.  How weird is that?  I mean, seriously, who needs gallons of blood?  Or maybe I could use it.  Paint someone’s house, see if I can’t freak them out hardcore,” Aisha smiled wickedly.

“Ignore that question.  What were you saying to Taylor, about not giving her a note?”

“It’s fine,” I told him.  “She’s being protective of her big brother.”

Aisha plastered a fake smile on her face.

“I didn’t know you cared,” Brian told Aisha, with a touch of sarcasm.  “I’m dropping this only because Taylor’s sticking up for you.”

Aisha rolled her eyes and began serving herself.

It was nine-thirty.  Assuming it would take us half an hour to forty-five minutes to get to Coil’s place, that left us only about an hour to get ready.  We ate in awkward silence.  Aisha took the first turn in the shower, leaving Brian and me alone once again.

I didn’t know what to do with myself.  We had taken a step forward, but I didn’t exactly have any experience on this front.  What was I supposed to do?  What did I say?  I wanted to hug him, to hold his hand or raise the idea of spending time together later, but I didn’t know what was allowed, or what would be pushing boundaries or taking things too far.

He sat down on the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table, and I grabbed a glass of orange juice before sitting down next to him.  Would he put his arm around me, or-

“This thing with Coil.  Do you have a plan?”

Opportunity missed.

I shook my head.  “More like I have a bunch of smaller plans.  Can’t commit to anything, in case things unfold in an unexpected way.”

“Okay.  Let’s talk about them.  Plan A?”

“I whip my territory into shape, Coil decides that it’s more valuable to keep me in his service.  The idea is that he values my ability to keep an area stable more than he values having Dinah.  He lets her go.”

“Not likely.”

I frowned.  “I almost gave up on it after Burnscar torched everything.  It isn’t that impossible.”

“Think about what it would mean in terms of security leaks.  If he let Dinah go home to her family, she wouldn’t be able to return to her normal life.  If Coil was dumb enough to let her go with no safeguards and without people to watch her, then the heroes would swoop in on her and use her to get him.”

I nodded, glum.

“And really, can you honestly say that your services are worth the cost of everything you’re taking from Coil in the way of resources, plus the cost of the agents he’d need watching Dinah at all hours?”

“So you think he’ll say no.”

“Tattletale thinks that Coil may be considering dropping you from the team once he has what he needs.”

I turned to look at Brian.  His forehead was creased in a frown.

“You think I’m expendable.”

“To Coil?  Possibly.”

I nodded.

“It’s something to keep in mind,” he said.

“Thing is, I don’t know how that really changes anything.  Should I stop helping the people in my territory?  I’m not going to.  It wouldn’t be fair to them, and it would tip Coil off.”

“I think it was a bad idea to tip him off by making the deal in the first place.  Now he knows you’ve got pretty strong morals.  On a level, anyways.”

I nodded.  On a level.

He went on, “I imagine it’s troublesome to have someone with those sorts of moral concerns that could throw his long-term plan off course.  He might be looking to replace you.”

“And with his power, that might make for a bit of a pinch.”

“His power?”

I paused.  “Tattletale clued me in.  He creates parallel realities.  Makes two different decisions, and he gets to see the outcome of each as they unfold.  Decides which he wants in the end.”

Brian frowned.  “And he’s been doing that with us?”

“Since before I joined the team.  Send us on a job in one reality, keep us back in another.  If we succeed, great.  If we fail… well, nothing lost.  He deletes the reality where he sent us out.”

He rubbed his chin.  I noticed he had stubble.  “So he gets two tries at everything.  Including dealing with any of us who cause him any trouble.”

I nodded.  “Which is why we need to play along for as long as possible.”

“Fair.  What’s your plan B?”

“Plan B… well, it’s not so much a plan as a fallback.  If I get found out before we make any headway, it means fighting Coil and his underlings.”

“The Travelers and Circus included.”

“Tattletale and I have talked about how we might approach that.  The problem is that Coil would be backing them up.  Normally I’d suggest we go on the offensive, so they don’t have time to go after our weaknesses, but with Coil at work, we have to assume that it’s all the more likely that the Travelers would get that one lucky hit off, or that they’d pick the plan of attack that would work out for them.”

“And they’re powerful enough that they’d really only need to get lucky once,” Brian said.  I saw his expression darken.  He was staring off into space.

“Sorry,” I said.  Impulsively, I leaned closer, so my arm and shoulder pressed against his arm.

“Hm?”

“If you want to talk about something else-”

“I want to make sure we come out of this alive.”

“But it’s stressing you out.”

“I’ll manage,” he answered, putting one arm around my shoulders and hugging me close.

But he didn’t raise the subject again.  Aisha got out of the shower, he took the next turn, ostensibly to clean up after her.  I took the brief period of quiet to get my stuff in order.  I’d worn my costume under my clothes, the top and dress portion  bound around my waist, beneath the sweatshirt.

Once I was free to use the shower, I pulled off the costume and hung it up.  The steam would help with any wrinkles for the parts that weren’t skintight.

I had to admit to being a little disappointed with the way the morning was unfolding.  Part of that was with myself, not knowing how to act, but part of it was with the lack of romance.  RationallyI knew that the movies, TV, books and all that, they didn’t paint a realistic picture.  I knew that we wouldn’t instantaneously click, that everything would be fixed.

But at the core of it all, I wasn’t a hundred percent rational.

Had to take what I could get.  Last night, cuddling?  It had been nice.  Really nice.

All in all, we were ready to move out well ahead of time.

I wracked my brain, trying to think of things to say.  Everything social or romantic seemed forced or awkward, especially with Imp there.  Everything related to our costumed selves seemed too delicate, fraught with reminders for Brian.

Each time I entered Coil’s headquarters, it seemed like it had transformed.  On our first visit it had been a bare bones setup with piles upon piles of crates, and soldiers congregating wherever there was room.  Our last visit had seen some organization.  Now it had finally taken form.

The interior was divided into two levels.  The lower level sported a cafeteria, a bar, a small computer lab and bunk beds for the soldiers on standby.  Doorways leading to what I suspected were washrooms.  I knew that Coil had squads positioned across the city by now, in quarters not unlike the lairs he had assigned us, if a little more austere.  Anyone who stayed here had the bare necessities.

There was an area with more of a focus on the actual ‘war’ part of soldiering, with men at the ready to hand out the guns and ammunition that were tidily arranged on racks and shelves, a massive laundry room that appeared to be devoted to washing and preparing the uniforms and two more stations for heavier gear and more esoteric stuff like walkie-talkies and explosives.

The upper level was pretty plain, with a metal walkway bridging the gaps to the doorways that were recessed in the concrete walls.  Still, things had been added, including whiteboards with shift schedules and maps very similar to the one I’d seen in Tattletale’s base of operations.

I glanced at one map; our territory had expanded somewhat.  Or maybe it was better to say that the pockets of enemy forces that had lurked at the edges of our territory were collapsing.

Cranston, the blond woman who served as one of Coil’s liasons to us, who was my contact when I needed something, was standing outside the door to the conference room.

“Skitter.  How are you?”

“I’m fine, Ms. Cranston.”

“You’re a bit early.  Can I offer you anything while you wait for Coil to arrive?”

I shook my head.

“Grue?  Imp?”

They refused as well.

“It’ll only be a few minutes.”

Grue and Imp stepped away to talk to the fat, short man who I took to be their liason.  I stepped over to the railing and watched the scene below.

A group far to my left caught my eye.  I ventured closer.

Trickster, Sundancer, Genesis and Ballistic were gathered around Tattletale, joined by Coil and a blond boy with striking good looks.  I couldn’t really get a good look at it from my vantage point, but the wall jutted out beneath the walkway, and there was a heavy vault door set into the concrete, similar to the ones I’d seen at the shelters.

Noelle.

Tattletale was shaking her head as she talked.  She gestured toward the door.

I could see the Travelers respond to that.  Trickster folding his arms, Sundancer turning away slightly.  Genesis, in her wheelchair, hung her head just a bit, her mop of hair blocking the view.

They weren’t hearing what they wanted to hear.

Tattletale touched the wall, some panel or button system, said something, and then turned away, walking towards the staircase.  The Travelers and Coil followed behind.

“Everything okay?” I asked Tattletale, as she joined me.

“Oh, not really,” she gave me a tight smile.

“Fill me in later?”

“Can’t.  Sworn to secrecy.”

“Uh huh.  You know, for someone who calls herself Tattletale, you’re way too fond of keeping secrets.”

“Believe me, some secrets aren’t so fun to keep.”

I frowned.  What was going on there?

I could only trust that she’d inform us when we weren’t in earshot of Coil and the Travelers.

Bitch and Regent were waiting outside the conference room as we approached.  I gave Bitch a small nod of acknowledgement, and she returned it.  All together, we got seated; Travelers on one side of the table, Undersiders on the other, Coil at the head.

“I understand that things have been hectic since the Nine departed the city.  Communications are difficult to establish, there’s still lasting damage from the Endbringer attack, and everyone has their individual concerns.  Before our focus fell on the Nine and eliminating Jack Slash, I told you to establish your territories and do what you could to effect some sort of control.  As Tattletale may not have all of the necessary information to draw the right conclusions, I’d like each of you to inform us on your progress.”

He gestured to Trickster.

“Putting me on the spot, huh?”  Trickster asked.  “Dunno.  Nobody’s doing business in my neighborhood, and there aren’t any crooks there that the public knows about, but Purity and her people are still hanging around, and I’m waiting on my teammates to wrap up their stuff so they can lend me a hand.”

“Infrastructure, recruitment?” Coil prompted.

“I’ve made a few small steps forward for each of those things.  I offered some of the low-level thugs the option of moving out of the city or serving under me.  Got a half-and-half split of each, more or less.  Enough people to deal product, if you want, or to scare some people.”

“Good.  Sundancer?”

Sundancer had the posture of someone who’d desperately hoped to avoid being called on in class.  “I don’t know.  I’ve been working with the maps Tattletale provided me, but I’m not good at this.  I burn them out of whatever place they’re holed up in, they run, then half the time it’s like they settle somewhere else that’s nearby.”

“You have to scare them more,” Trickster said.

“I burn their houses down.  I don’t know why that’s not scary enough.”

“You’re too soft about it, being too careful to let them know what you’re doing and when, because you don’t want to hurt them and they can tell.”

Coil cleared his throat.  “How far along?”

Sundancer didn’t look happy.  “I dunno.  I’ve maybe cleared out one in four of the local groups?”

“Genesis?” Coil asked.

“Mostly clear,” Genesis replied, leaning forward and putting her elbows on the table, “Not sure how to get anything going in the way of operations.  It’s not exactly heavily populated territory.”

“You’re keeping Noelle company tonight, yes?”

Genesis nodded.

“Then we’ll discuss it then.”

“Okay.”

“And Ballistic?”

“Further along than him,” Ballistic jerked a thumb toward Trickster.  “Nobody doing business in my area, only two capes hanging around.  Got that girl from Dolltown who’s pretty insistent on holding onto her neighborhood, even if pretty much everyone that lived there is dead, now.  It’s the only spot that I haven’t taken over.”

“I see.  And the second cape?”

“There’s a kid from the old Merchants group.  Has powers.  Going to try to scare off the Doll girl and recruit the Merchant kid.”

“You might start with remembering their names,” Genesis pointed out.

“I’m not a cape geek like you.”

“You’re a cape.”

“Parian and Scrub?” I spoke up, hoping to keep them from going off on a tangent.

“Sure.  Sounds right,” Ballistic conceded.

“If you’re dealing with Parian, can I come along?”

“Actually,” Coil said, “I had a request to make of you, Skitter.”

I turned my attention to him.

“After,” he told me.  “Let me get to the main topic of this meeting before I address it.  For now, I’d like to hear how the Undersiders are coming along.”

“Been busy helping everyone else out,” Tattletale admitted.  “Like Trickster, I guess, I’m waiting for others to finish what they’re doing.  I’m pretty solid for business, though.  Bringing in more cash than I’m spending.”

“What’s the business?”  Trickster asked.

“The big one is reclaiming items and homes.  I offer goodies to any people from the shelter willing to band together and scare them off, anything too difficult, I use the mercenaries you provided.  Coil’s hooked me up with some banking services so we can actually make the transactions.  People don’t have a lot of use for money with the way things are right now, and they do have stuff that they value.  Figure a few hundred to a thousand dollars per job, three or four jobs a day, and they’re sort of doing my work for us, dealing with the gang members.”

“With the idea that your teammates will claim the areas at a later date,” Coil said, his voice firm.

“Right.”

“Grue and Imp?”

I saw Grue hesitate.

“Seventy-five percent clear,” Imp said.  “The Chosen and leftover Merchants mainly moved into our territory and Regent’s.  Maybe we’re not a hundred percent done, but when we scare people off, they stay gone.”

“Good.  Can you drive out the remaining threats in the next two days?”

“Got this far in three, don’t see why not.”

“Excellent.  Regent?”

“About the same.  Nobody wants to cross Shatterbird, but lots of people keep popping up, moving in because they’re oblivious that she’s there.  With no radio or TV, they’re clueless.”

“Make it more obvious, then.”

Regent nodded.

“Bitch?”

“Nobody left in my territory.”

“No threats?”

“Nobody.”

Coil sighed, “I did tell you that you could run your territory as you wished.  Still, that’s not ideal.  Would you object to a rearrangement of territory?  I would grant you more overall area to control, but it would be limited to the outskirts of the city.”

“So long as it’s mine.”

“Good.  And Skitter?”

I shrugged.  “No threats, nobody’s daring to pop their heads in.”

“Then consider working on rooting out the individuals too afraid to show themselves, before they cause a problem.”

“They’re dealt with,” I said.

“Explain?”

“I’m doing two sweeps through my territory every day.  Only one yesterday, but we were busy dealing with the Chosen.  I’m checking every building for trouble.  If I find contraband, drugs or weapons, I confront the individuals in question.  Past two days, I haven’t had to confront anyone.”

“The only people with weapons are your people, then?”

I nodded.  “I’ve got sixty people working under me, and maybe a hundred more who are working for me in an indirect way, joining the community that’s started on the cleanup projects.  Filling, moving and placing sandbags to control and reroute the flooding, clearing the area Burnscar burned down, and setting up accommodations.”

“Impressive,” Coil said.

I nodded.  “I feel like I’m cheating, though.  My power’s suited to this.”

“It remains impressive.  Let me explain just why I find this of interest, Undersiders, Travelers.  The mayoral elections are in one week.  Before this occurs, I would like to have this city firmly in my control.  It will shift the tone and the aim of the election, which would be to my advantage.  Our advantage.”

“So you’re saying we have less than a week to wrap stuff up in our territory,” Trickster said.

“Yes.  I also have some other issues I would like you to address.  Skitter, Genesis, I trust you’re able to step away from your territories to give me a hand?”

Tattletale leaned forward over the table, looking at me.  I glanced at her, then turned to Coil, “Yes.”

“Sure,” Genesis said.

“And Trickster, if you’re idle while you wait for your teammates to come assist with Purity’s group, I’m sure you can lend your assistance for one night?”

Trickster nodded.

“The mayor and several members of the city council will be traveling to Washington to discuss the state of Brockton Bay and the possibility of condemning the city.  Skitter, Imp, Genesis, I would like you to visit him and ensure he argues towards our ends.  Brockton Bay will stand, and it will recover.”

I nodded slowly.  “Sure.  I think I can do that and still help Ballistic with Parian.”

“I haven’t asked for your help,” Ballistic said.

“Coil’s call,” I responded.

“If Skitter feels she can spare the time, I would be glad to have the extra assurance the job will get done.”

Ballistic folded his arms.  Didn’t look happy at that.

“That’s the last point of discussion.  I will provide anything you need to see your tasks to completion.  If there’s no questions, that will be all.”

After a brief pause to check that nobody wanted to speak, we all stood from our seats.  The Travelers headed out the door and turned a right to go back to where Noelle was sealed up.  Tattletale led our group to the cells where Shatterbird and Victor were.

While we waited for Regent to go and bring Victfor out of his cell, Tattletale stepped close, so she was right next to Grue and me.  She murmured,  “One piece of good news, two pieces of bad news and one spot of catastrophic news.  The good news is that Coil is impressed with you, Skitter.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s what we were hoping for, right?”

“But something tells me we’ve got a major snag.  I’d say odds are pretty fucking good that he’s on to us.”

I felt my heart drop.

“How sure are you?” I asked.

“Not positive, but pretty damn sure.  And I’d say there’s a fifty-fifty chance one of ours informed him of our aims.”

“A member of the Undersiders?” Grue asked.

“That, or he’s got our places bugged.  But I didn’t get the sense that anyone who built the place or brought our stuff in knew about any electronic bugging.  Like I said, fifty-fifty chance.”

I nodded.  I glanced around, looking at Bitch, Imp, and the door Regent had disappeared through.

“Fuck,” Tattletale swore under her breath.  “I was trying to signal you to say no to Coil’s request, but you weren’t looking at the right moments and I couldn’t exactly tip anyone off.  I’m positive he’s asking you to go on that errand with Genesis and Trickster because he’s planning on eliminating you.”

I felt Grue’s hand squeeze my shoulder.  He’d gone rigid, as if he was more spooked than I was.

“And of course, he knows I know.  So this is a loyalty test, I’m betting.  If you don’t go, I flunk.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Prey 14.8

Last Chapter                                                                                                Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just us?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Heard that one before,” Imp commented.

“Still true,” Grue replied, sounding annoyed.

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

She shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heads up!”

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

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

“Run!”  Grue shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get to high ground!”  I shouted.

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

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

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

“Tattletale,” I breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It might stop rising,” I protested.

“It won’t.”

“Is that an educated guess or-”

“It’s not.”

I found myself at a loss for words.

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

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

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

Brian.  Rachel.

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

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

“You’re saying I should leave you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?”  I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swallowed past the growing lump in my throat.

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

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

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

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

She didn’t reply.

“Speaking of Jack and Siberian-” I started.

“Go.”

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

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

Something was up, I just had no idea what.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t fighting the Nine.

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

Really wished I could use my bugs to hear.

Had they gone berserk?  Rage?

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

Paranoia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

They?

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

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

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

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

“I just want to help.”

“Leave!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stay down!”  the junior heroine screamed.

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

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

This was going south, fast.

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

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

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

What was her name?

Was I suffering from brain damage?  Another concussion?

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

Amnesia?

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

No problems on that front.

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

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

What would my mom think to see me now?

I tried to picture her expression.

Again, that gap, the chasm.  Nothing.

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

I couldn’t remember my dad, either.

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

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

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

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

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

And it would ruin us.

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

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

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

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

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

“Stay,” he ordered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I checked my cell phone.  No service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was beginning to see where the paranoia came in.

“Skitter!” a voice called out.

I stopped.

A blond girl, waving at me.

I drew my gun and leveled it at her.

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

I hesitated.

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

“How did you get here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prions?”

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

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

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

I swallowed.  “But Panacea could fix it.”

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

“Right.”

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.  “Crews-what?”

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

“And it’s faster here.”

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

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

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

I shook my head.  “Who?”

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

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

“Yeah,” I replied.

“And we confined one?”

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

“Is it safe?” a male voice asked.

“Sure.”

I stayed silent.

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

She nodded.  “Skitter, this is Grue.”

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

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

What would it take?

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, come here,” she offered.

I hesitated.

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

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

I landed Atlas and stepped forward.

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

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

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

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

“Darn it.  Um.  Let me think…”

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

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

“Go somewhere safe,” he suggested.

I frowned.

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

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

I trailed off.

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

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

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

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

“Trust your heart.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was warm.

Grue?

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

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

“Right,” I said.

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

“Coil is?”

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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