Venom 29.3

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“We knew it would come to this,” Legend said.

I turned around.  My hands were full as I unbelted a tightly folded blanket and draped it over one of the wounded.

A surprising number of wounded, in the end.  Twenty or so injured from an aircraft that had been partially obliterated, eighteen more people who’d had their legs sliced off.  Nearly forty Dragon’s Teeth with mild injuries, their armor melted to their faces, chests, arms and legs.  Scion had tried his usual assortment of attacks, and they’d evaded them.  Enhanced strength from the costumes, predictive technology from the onboard artificial intelligences.

So he’d used a power they couldn’t dodge, a power they couldn’t block.  A light that radiated outward and melted the materials of their costumes.

Cauldron hadn’t been there to reinforce the group.  If they had been, it might have been a staging ground.  Instead, the group had folded and Scion had come after the portal that was closest.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“When we were predicting what would happen with the Endbringers, we said that we’d be forced to regroup, consolidate our forces.  Every fight would result in losses, so we’d have to abandon positions, move people from an abandoned post to keep numbers up.”

“I can see that,” I said.

An outpost abandoned.  The world Defiant and Dragon had been looking after was being abandoned as a lost cause.  There were countless people still alive, but they were spread out, and there was no way to mount a proper defense with our forces spread too thin.

“If there’s an upside,” Legend said, his tone changing as if he were forcing himself to be less grim.  “Tattletale said we’re making headway.  It doesn’t look like it, but we’re taking chunks out of him.  The strongest of us survive, we regroup, see what works, we’re stronger when it comes to the next fight.”

Except he’s indiscriminate.  He’s killing the ones who can actually affect him, because he’s being reactive.  We’re not stronger by virtue of the strongest surviving and consolidating because the only difference between this fight and the next is that we’ll be less.

I kept my mouth shut.

“Defiant and Dragon will be joining you guys here, to make up for the ones you lost.  You’ll have Leviathan, at the very least.  Chevalier and I will be a matter of minutes away.”

A few minutes is too long, I thought.  But I didn’t want to state the obvious, didn’t want to argue.

I was trying to be good, trying not to raise any problems with a guy who could well be sensitive over the fact that I’d murdered one of his closest companions a few years back.

Besides, I knew that this pep talk was most likely Legend trying to reassure the wounded.  Maybe even him trying to reassure himself.

He took his time, putting fresh bandages on a wound.

“I’ve followed your career,” Legend said.  “I’ve seen you on the battlefields, fighting the Endbringers, old and new.  The bugs are noticeable.”

“I’m nothing special.”

“You rendered Alexandria brain dead,” Legend told me.  “That warrants attention.”

“Fair enough,” I said.  I managed to get another blanket unbelted from the arrangement of straps that kept it in a folded position and then draped it over someone.  Legend moved the end of the blanket, where it rested on the patient’s wounded foot.

“I wanted to know who it was that had killed Rebecca.  I kept an eye on everything you did in the Protectorate, looked for the details about your past.  I understand if that seems creepy…”

“I think I get it.  You were close to her.”

“I felt close to her.  In the end, though, there was a gap between my feelings and the reality.  Still is, I suppose.  Go through enough with people, build something from the ground up, you form ties.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I looked over my shoulder.  Mai, one of the kids Charlotte and Forrest were looking after, was there, alongside one of Rachel’s henchmen and a puppy.   Giving comfort to a child from the other settlement who’d been burned by the same effect that melted the costumes of the Dragon’s Teeth.  The burns weren’t horrible, but it made it hard to tell the child’s ethnicity or gender.

But the child was scratching the puppy behind the ear.  Rachel stood nearby, arms folded, stern and ominous.  I felt a kind of fondness, tempered by a kind of hesitance, like I couldn’t let myself hold on too tight to the friendship and familiarity because she could be dead by the end of the day.  Though it was sharper than it had been in the past, it wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling.

Legend was looking at me when I turned back to him.  “Yeah.”

“It doesn’t always make for the most sound decisions.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I agreed.  I had to scoot out of the way as some doctors hurried by with fresh tools and equipment.  Removing the dissolved materials from burned flesh was something of a task, and there were a lot of people to help.

“I always knew there was something wrong, underneath it all, but there were bigger things to focus on.  You finish dealing with one Endbringer attack or a potential war with parahuman attacks on both sides, it demands all of your focus.  You’re left drained, dealing with the event or the aftermath, and then you need to recuperate, you have an organization to manage.  There’s never a moment where you can stop, take a deep breath, and then say, ‘now is the moment where I address that nagging doubt I had the other day’.  Now is the moment I call so-and-so out on that less-than-complete truth they used while we were elbow-deep in Indonesian cyborg super-soldiers.”

“I think I know exactly what you mean.”

“I think it’s very possible you do,” he said.

“But you can’t dwell on it,” I said.

“If you don’t give it the necessary attention, then how do you prevent it from becoming a cycle?”

“You don’t.  You look back at your reasons for making the choices when you made the choices, you recognize that you didn’t address or act on your suspicions and doubts because you had higher priorities at the time, and you make peace with it.”

“Have you?  Made peace with it?”

“I’m on my way there, Legend.”

“I’m not sure I want to go there,” he said.  “Give me a hand?  Hold his leg up?”

I nodded.

Gore.  A foot reduced to something unrecognizable.  The man would probably lose it.

But Legend still tended to the limb with care.  Almost gentle.  I tried to be as graceful in keeping the leg in the air.

The soldier made a noise of pain as Legend cleaned the foot, using a laser to sever a tag of flesh that was holding a piece of boot on.  I reached out and held the man’s hand.

“You came in here for a reason,” Legend said.

I looked up.

“It’s not about taking care of the wounded,” he said.  “You’re not devoting a great deal of attention to keeping an eye on Hellhound, either.  Yes, you could use your swarm to discreetly observe her, to discreetly observe anyone in your range, but I don’t think that’s why you came here.”

I started to respond, but the soldier’s leg started kicking, an almost involuntary nerve reaction.  I had to pull my hand from his to hold his leg as still as possible.

We eased it down until he was lying flat, his leg on the bed.  I pulled a blanket over him, as carefully as I could.

“You have a question, or questions,” Legend said, “But you’re not asking them because you’re worried about the response.  Either it’s something touchy, or there’s another reason why you’re holding back.”

I sighed.  “If you don’t have an answer for me, then I’m not sure I know what I’m going to do next.”

“So this is about something only I would know?”

“Basically,” I said.  “We don’t have access to that broad a pool of people, right now.”

“Okay,” Legend said.  “What do you need to know?”

“Cauldron’s portals.”

“Closed.  They’re created by a parahuman called Doormaker.  The Doctor told me he was blind and deaf to his surroundings, but I think it’s far more likely that it’s to do with another parahuman she partnered him with.  Someone who grants sensory awareness.  I think the Doctor gave Doormaker too much exposure to this parahuman and destroyed or atrophied his other senses.  One of those nagging doubts I never acted on.”

We passed by Rachel, Rachel’s minion and Mai.  I gave Rachel a little nod of acknowledgement as we stepped outside.

Then we stepped outside.  There was a shattered sign over the boarded-up windows.  Apparently Tattletale had made some business deals and tried to get things in place for this to become a city like any one in Earth Bet.  The pieces were there, but the furniture had yet to be installed, the food yet to be supplied.  An empty fast food place, now a makeshift hospital.

Eat fresh?  I thought.  Not likely.

I took in the scene.  Capes were still reeling from the attack, and again, it was the monsters and the lunatics that seemed to be standing, while others sat, recovering, catching their breath, mustering their courage.

Nilbog, engaged in conversation with Glaistig Uaine.

Four of the Heartbroken, with Imp and Romp.  A maskless Imp gave Bonesaw a glare as the girl hurried, in the company of Marquis and Panacea, to the fast food place Legend and I had just left.

Lung was alone, looking angry, frustrated, almost more agitated than he’d been before or during the fight.  His eyes were on Leviathan, who was down by the water, but I didn’t get the impression Leviathan was the source of the frustration.

Parian and Foil were together, Foil with her mask off.  They’d curled up in a space between two large bins of food, Foil resting her head on Parian’s shoulder, their hands and fingers entwined.

Tattletale was caught up in a conversation with Knave of Clubs, and fell under the Simurgh’s shadow.  The Simurgh, for her part, seemed to be busy building other tinker devices, drawing on the abilities of tinkers in the immediate area.

Vista was sitting on a rooftop, two stories high.  Her eyes were closed, her hands set behind her so she could lean back a bit.  Her face turned towards the sky.

There were other capes in the area, looking a little more serious, focused on business.  Chevalier was with Defiant and Dragon, Black Kaze, Saint, Masamune and Canary.  Some of them drifted off, making their way towards us.

“If it helps,” Legend said, “I don’t think Doormaker is dead.  There have been two interruptions in his power, to date.  One followed an earthquake.  He was unhurt, but his partner… well, it was a clue that a partner existed.  His doors all went down simultaneously the moment the earthquake hit the facility.  I don’t think his power is the type that would outlast him after death, if it was so easily interrupted while he was alive.”

“So he’s alive because the doors are still open in places.”

“Alive and unable or unwilling to use his power,” Legend said.

I nodded.  “So is it Cauldron running or is it another agency?”

I could see Legend’s expression change.  I’d heard him talk before, saying as much, but his face was what told me, above all else, that he was burdened by regrets.  “I wish I could say it was the latter.”

“But you don’t know.”

“I remain in the dark when it comes to Cauldron.”

“What about Satyrical?” I asked.  “He was investigating with his team, wasn’t he?”

“He was, but he tends towards radio silence, Pretender’s people have since well before the Vegas teams cut ties with the Protectorate.  They claimed it was because there would inevitably be a parahuman who could uncover them if they left channels open.  Now… well, isn’t that the way most things were?  Secrets, lies, conspiracies.”

“It is, but-” I tried to find a way to politely say what I was trying to say.

“But?”

“With all due respect, and I really do mean that because I respect you, I respect that you’ve participated in the fights, I get where you’re coming from…”

“You’re spending too much time couching what you’re saying,” Legend said.  “Rest assured, I can handle what you’re about to throw at me.  I think worse things to myself all the time.”

“I’m impatient.  That’s all.  Scion’s going to attack again, and I don’t plan to be here,” I said.

“You want a portal to get out of here,” Legend said.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t want an escape.  I want to act.”

“We’re acting,” Legend said.

“We’re reacting.”

“If you have ideas for something pre-emptive, I think we could all stand to hear it.”

I shook my head.  “Nothing definitive.”

“Even something that isn’t definitive.”

“I want to find Cauldron.  They have contingency plans we know they haven’t put into effect yet, and they have answers they’ve yet to provide.”

“Cauldron is very good at leading people to believe that they have the answers and then disappointing,” Legend said.  “Take it from someone who knows.  Ah.  I’m doing it again, aren’t I?  Like an old man.”

He smiled, and I smiled a little too.

“You’re an old man?”  Chevalier asked.  His group had just joined us.

“Taylor here was just very politely trying to tell me I’m wasting her time on reminiscing and regrets.”

“You have something better to do?” Defiant asked me.

Defiant,” Dragon said, admonishing him.  She was in her armor, but had her helmet off.  The face was real.  Plain, but real.

She’s an A.I.  A false person.  What else had Saint said?  She’s deceiving us?  It’s all an act?

“…came out wrong,” Defiant was saying.  Very deliberately, he said, “I am genuinely curious what you’re doing, Weaver.”

Dragon smiled a little, as if a private thought had crossed her mind.

The doubts Saint had seeded dissipated.

Ninety percent of them.

“I was telling Legend I want to go after Cauldron,” I said.  “A member of the Chicago Wards was saying that sending Satyrical to go investigate is like sending a fox to guard the henhouse.”

“Satyrical has definite ties to Cauldron,” Dragon said.  “If nothing else, Pretender maintains connections to the group.  If Cauldron is running, or if they are pulling something covert, then it’s very possible Satyrical is on board or is going to be brought on board.”

Chevalier shifted the Cannonblade to his other hand, then stabbed the point into the ground.  It looked different.  His armor looked different.  Gold and black, instead of gold and silver.  “It also means he and the Las Vegas capes are well equipped to know how Cauldron operates, and identify clues others would miss.  We sent them with others we could trust.  They’ve been reporting in on schedule.”

I opened my mouth.  Chevalier spoke before I could.  “-With stranger and master precautions in place.”

I frowned.

“You’re strong when it comes to improvising,” Chevalier told me.  “We’ve got a moment to breathe.  We think he’s hitting another world, one we don’t have access to.  We’re regrouping, figuring out who goes where, and we’re trying to set things up so we can mobilize faster.  I can’t tell you what to do.  I wouldn’t if I could.  But we could use you here.”

“We’re losing, here,” I said.  “Legend was being positive, but… I don’t think we can really delude ourselves that far.  He’s tearing us apart while holding back.  If we put up a fight or if we don’t hold back, he hits us harder, like he hit the Guild.  He can always top us, and he can always say he’s had enough and then just nuke the continent.  That’s not a recipe for an eventual win.”

“I don’t even think that’s the worst of it,” Tattletale said, finally having broken away from Knave of Clubs to join this conversation.  “He’s evolving, maturing.  If you can even call it that.  He was a blank slate, then almost like a baby, flinging destruction around like a baby practices moving their arms, as if to remind himself he could… and then he was like a child in this fight… except for the bit about Queen of Swords.  That suggested he’s almost entering an adolescent phase.  Something more complex than just raw fear and awe.  Loss, despair.  He’s going to start looking for ways to really hurt us.”

“Instead of just annihilating us?” Legend asked.  “Torture?”

“Mental, emotional, more involved physical torture.  Up until he hits adulthood.  Then he probably destroys us, completely and utterly.  I’d be surprised if we lasted more than two days, rate he’s developing.”

“You’re talking about him as if he were human,” Saint said.

“He is,” Tattletale said.  “It’s the only reason he’s doing this, and it’s the only way we have to truly make sense of him, and it’s his primary means of making sense of us.  Which is why he did it.  He’s got our general biological makeup.  He thinks, he feels, he dreams, he hurts, but it’s all buried so far under mounds and mounds and mounds of power and security, it doesn’t really supplant him.  It’s never been exposed to the real world, really, so the human side of him hasn’t matured or developed.”

“A weakness?”  Chevalier asked.

“Yes, but not a weakness we’re going to be able to exploit,” Tattletale said.  “He’s too careful, and he would have foreseen it.  Adapted around it, probably.  Be awfully stupid for something like him to adapt traits of their targets and adapt vulnerabilities at the same time.  Knowing this could help, but it’s not going to be the weak point we can target to finish him off.  That makes zero sense.”

“We know a lot of things like that,” I said.  “A lot of tidbits about his behavior or who he is or what he is.  But a lot of it isn’t reliable information.  He cared a lot about my clone decoys multiplying during the fight on the oil rig, but he didn’t give a damn this time.”

“He’s advancing, evolving.  His focus is changing,” Tattletale interjected.

“We know so many critical details,” I said, “And we need more.  We need a way of paring truth away from fiction, or determining what’s no longer true.  I don’t know for sure what we’re going to do to stop him, but I think any plans I have are going to start or end with Cauldron.”

I looked around the group.  Men and women, all in armor that made them stronger, bulkier or taller, it seemed.  Legend was comparatively small, but he had presence to make up for it, even as tired and worn out as he seemed to be.  Flying, casual flying as Legend tended to do, gave one a little more stature.

I wasn’t short, but it felt like Tattletale and I were mortals in the midst of giants.  Defiant, in particular, seemed somehow imposing.  His body language was familiar with the way he’d naturally set his feet apart, his hand on his weapon.

Even the place we were standing, it stirred memories.  We were at the north end of the Bay, even.

“Yes.  The plan makes sense,” Defiant said.  “I’ll trust you on this one.”

Dragon reached out to grab and squeeze his hand.

“What do you need?” Defiant asked me.

“I was thinking I’d bring some of the capes that can’t or won’t participate in the fight against Scion,” I said.  My eyes fell on Canary.

Me?”  Canary squeaked.

“Anyone, but capes like you,” I said.  “Support capes who can’t support in circumstances like this.  Strangers who can’t use their power on Scion.  Capes like that.”

“And if you can’t access Cauldron?” Chevalier asked.  “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but your actions when you assumed control of the Simurgh were… heavy handed.  You told an ex-teammate in the Wards that you weren’t intending to be a hero anymore.  I don’t want to tell you I won’t cooperate any more than I want to tell anyone I won’t cooperate, but you’d be asking us to put a fair amount of power in your hands by sending capes your way.  I… don’t know that I feel confident sending capes to you, if I don’t know how they’ll be put to use.”

“Would you allow me to talk to other capes?” I asked.  “You don’t have to send them my way, but maybe I could inquire?”

“I’m not going to stand in anyone’s way,” Chevalier said.  “I’m not the bad guy, here.  But I’ve got to lead this battle, and I’ve got to do what I can to make sure things don’t get worse.  If a cape needs to go, if they don’t have the courage to stand and fight, I’m not going to make them.  I’ll try to convince them otherwise, but I won’t make them.  And if they think they’ll be more useful elsewhere, I won’t stop them there, either.”

I nodded.  “I’ll settle for that.”

“What else?”

“Access to computers,” I said.  “Tools.  Resupplies.  The Dragonfly.”

He reached out of his pocket and withdrew a knife.  He reversed it and extended it to me, handle first.

I reached for the weapon, then saw Defiant pull his hand back.  “Be aware of the safety and the activation switch.”

I saw one of the switches, then took hold of the knife.

“Keep it away from heat.  If the growths start knuckling together, then it’s probably clogged at the air intake.  You can unscrew the cap at the butt of the knife and access the air intake there.  Bake it at roughly five hundred degrees to clear it, then thoroughly vacuum.  Pay attention to how long it takes the growths to hit maximum length… you’ll know because the colors at the ends are a lighter gray.  Three point seven seconds is the optimum time.  If it takes shorter then you’ll know something’s wrong with-“

“The knife won’t degrade too much in the next day,” Dragon said.  “And we have spares, thanks to Masamune.”

“You didn’t make this much of a fuss with my flight pack,” I said.

“I included documentation,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  I found the holster for my old knife, then put it through the belt at my back, holstering the new knife.

“Where’s the Dragonfly?” he asked.  I pointed.

Dragon said something in Japanese to Masamune and Black Kaze.  There were two nods.

Defiant led the way to the Dragonfly, all business, Dragon, Canary, Tattletale, and me following.  He seemed almost happy to have something to focus on.  A problem that could be solved.

Did he genuinely trust me?  Was there a modicum of hope, here, with me mobilizing to go look into the Cauldron situation?

He continued to hold his weapon, though the fight wasn’t about to start.

I could imagine his outlook, the security the weapon afforded him, a hundred solutions in his hands.  The ability to defend himself, to defend others, to move out of the way of danger.  It made sense.

Dragon, conversely… what was her security blanket?

Different.  I couldn’t put my thumb on it.  But she’d lost to Saint, to the Dragonslayers.  She’d been taken captive, effectively killed.  Killed by a man who saw her as subhuman.

She’d been altered by Teacher.  Not so much she was a slave to him, but something had happened, and that was no doubt a large part of how she was disconnected from reality in the here and now.

I looked back at Saint, Masamune and Black Kaze.  Saint was taking a seat, his back to a chunk of destroyed aircraft, cross-legged.  Calm, relaxed.

“How can you stand to be near them?” I asked.

“Keep your enemies closer,” Dragon said, her voice tight.

“Don’t forget about the friends part,” I said.

She shook her head a little.  “I won’t.”

“When we were waiting for the fight to start, I went around, looking for people I needed to thank.  Important people to me, people who I wasn’t sure I’d get a chance to talk to again.  I missed a few important ones.  My dad… you two.  I know the only reason I got my shot at being a hero, the only reason I didn’t go to jail, was because you vouched for me, because you agreed to cart me back and forth and interrupt your schedule.  I probably didn’t even deserve it, but you backed me up.  I’m just… I’ve never been good at saying thank you and sounding as sincere as I feel.”

“I think we benefited as much as you did,” Dragon said.  “You needed to join the Wards to… make amends, shall we say?  It was the same for us.”

“For me,” Defiant cut in.

“I had my own regrets,” Dragon said.

“You had no choice.”

“Regrets nonetheless,” she said, again.  Her head turned towards Canary, and Canary smiled just a little.  Dragon then looked to me.

Was it possible for an artificial human to look weary?  To look wounded, in the sense that she was bearing some grievous injury from recent events?

We’d stopped outside the Dragonfly.  I bid the ramp to open, controlling the bugs in the operating mechanism.

Then, as it opened, I impulsively gave Dragon a hug.  Returning a favor she’d given me some time ago.

“Let’s get you set up,” Defiant said.

“Hook me in while you’re at it?” Tattletale made it a question.  “Whatever you need to do, so I can communicate with her and her peeps.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Tattletale glanced at me.  “Ops?”

“Please.”

We circled twice before coming in for a landing.  A cave just above water level, inaccessible except from the air.

The receiving party consisted of Exalt and Revel from the Protectorate core group, with half of the Vegas team.  Nix, Leonid, Floret and Spur.  Vantage was waving a rod around, listening to steady beeps.

“Oh god, finallySomething to take my mind off the beeping,” Floret said.  She was petite, her hair in carefully layered waves of pink, with green at the roots.

“Find anything?” I asked.

“No signs of any portals that have been opened in the past.  Harder than cracking Dodger’s gateways, apparently,” Vantage said.  “Or they gave us bad instructions.  How’re you doing, Weaver?”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Wearing black,” he said.

“Is everyone going to comment on that?” I asked.

“It’s comment worthy.  How’d the fight… nevermind.  I can guess.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Grim group,” Floret commented.  “I know black’s ‘in’ with the end of the world, but damn.  Only one person with style.”

I looked over my shoulder.  Golem, in silver and gunmetal, his mask solemn.  Cuff, again, in a dark metal costume.  Imp, with her dark gray mask and black bodysuit that actually fit her.  Shadow Stalker, in a black, form-fitting bodysuit like the one I’d given Imp, along with a flowing cloak with a heavy hood.  All spidersilk, but the mask was hers, as was the crossbow.  Rachel followed, her jacket, tank top and pants black, only the fur ruff at her shoulders, where it flowed around the edges of her hood, was white.  Huntress and Bastard flanked her.  Lung was still inside the Dragonfly, but I knew he had only his mask and jeans on.  Barefoot, shirtless.

Canary was the only one, apparently, who met Floret’s standards.  Yellow body armor, her helmet in one hand, her hair and feathers free.

“I remember you,” Spur said.  He smiled.  Teeth that had been professionally done, no doubt.  He wasn’t bad looking, but not quite my type.  Spiky hair, and a costume that mingled barbed wire tattoos with real barbed wire, where his skin was exposed.  Mid twenties, with hair bleached to a near-white and acid washed jeans.  His mask was simple, black, covering the upper half of his face, with only a circle of barbed wire at the brow.  A trademark of thinker powers, to do the whole forehead thing.  A precog who was most effective in the midst of chaos and heightened emotions, and fairly competent otherwise.  “Bad Canary?”

Canary’s eyes widened.  “You remember my stage name?”

“You were famous,” he said.  “The whole trial thing.  You-“

Canary’s expression fell.

“-got robbed,” he said.

Dick,” Floret said.  “Like that’s how she wants to be remembered.”

“I remember the music too,” he protested.

“Yeah,” Canary said.  She rubbed the back of her neck, avoiding eye contact.  “It doesn’t matter anyways, does it?  Long time ago, and we’ve got better things to worry about.”

Vulgarishous,” he said.  “Ur-soundLineless?”

“You’re probably cheating,” she said.

“I could sing the lyrics,” he answered.

“It would make me sure you’re cheating.  I barely remember the lyrics.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Spur answered her.  “Eh, guys?  Back me up.  My power doesn’t give me a way to cheat, does it?”

“No,” Floret said.  “He’s genuine.  And none of us have ways to clue him in.”

I glanced at Revel, who only rolled her eyes a little.  Exalt looked bored.  He saw me looking and commented, “It’s fine here.  We’re using substandard tools to find a portal that used to exist, and we don’t know exactly where it was.”

Imp pushed her mask up until it sat on top of her head.  “Finding a transparent needle outside of the haystack.”

“Well put,” Leonine said.

“Don’t encourage her,” I told him.

He only smiled, which made Imp smirk at me in turn.

Spur was murmuring the lyrics to the song, and he was actually doing a good job of it.  Canary was trying to look like she wasn’t pleased as punch.  It was cute.  Cute and just a little ominous, considering who these guys were.

Some things had come to light after they’d departed their positions in the Protectorate and Wards.  Nothing definitive, but it raised questions that had yet to be answered.  Questions that would probably never be answered, now that evidence lockers and court records throughout Earth Bet had been obliterated.  Problems that had resolved themselves just a little too neatly.  People, both bad guys and witnesses, who’d disappeared.

“If I’m the lion, and you’re the goat…” Leonine was saying.

“I guarantee I’m more dangerous than you,” Imp retorted.

I could sense others in the group getting restless.

“We’ll let you know if anything turns up,” Revel said, as if she’d sensed it.  She smiled a little, a bit awkward, or apologetic.  “Don’t let us waste your time.  It’s the end of the world, spend it with people you care about.”

Her eyes moved to Cuff and Golem, who were hanging back.  The pair were the heroes of our group, so to speak.  They’d feel the betrayal of the Vegas capes more sharply, even now.  They looked at each other.

I did too.  Not that I counted myself as a hero.  But I’d been there.

“I could come with,” Exalt said.  “If you’re going back.  I’m only here to relieve Revel.  I’ll be able to participate in the coming fight.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But I’d like to hear the password.  From Revel.”

“Good thinking.  Belord, six-two, spauld,” she said.

“On my seventeenth birthday,” I said.  “What color was the cake?”

“Seriously?” she asked.  “Do you even remember?  I should get a brownie point for this one.  Because I care about my Wards.  It was white.”

“The frosting?” I asked.

“Blue,” she said, sounding just a bit put out.  “And you barely ate any.”

I nodded, satisfied.  “And… Leonine.”

Me?”  Leonine laughed a bit.  “What kind of shenanigans do you think we’re pulling?”

“He’s one of the Vegas capes,” Imp said, speaking very slowly, like I was mentally disabled.

“I know he’s one of the Vegas capes.  But I think I have to cover all of the bases.  Who was your kindergarten teacher?”

“You researched that?” Spur asked.  “Dug through our entire histories to find something obscure?”

He sounded offended.  Every head had turned his way.

“Do you have a problem with that?”  I asked.

He frowned, but he shook his head, sticking his hands in his pockets as he leaned against the wall beside Canary.  “No.  No problem.”

“Richie,” Leonine said.  “Mrs. Richie.”

“Great,” I said.  “Great.  Now let’s drop the fucking act.”

“I gave you the answer you wanted,” Leonine said, smirking.  “What the fuck?”

“Spur?” I said, “Raise your right hand?”

He did.  There were bugs on the fingers.

“He was moving his hand.  A one-handed sign language.  I assume everyone on your team knows it.”

“I was thinking of Canary’s music,” Spur told me.  He stepped forward, putting a hand on Canary’s shoulder as he did so.  She turned, so they were both facing me.  “Piano keys.  Mnemonic tool.  That is something our team uses.”

“You’re being a little crazy paranoid,” Imp said.  “Just a little.”

“They’ve been playing us since the start,” I said.  “The men were batting their eyelashes at you and Canary, probably the targets they thought they could work.  Revel… I’d think she’s under some kind of compulsion.”

“A lot crazy,” Imp said.  “Way crazy.”

“Maybe Tattletale can chime in,” I suggested.  “Tattle?”

Mostly right.  Exalt, Revel, Vantage, Leonine, Floret, all fakes.”

“No shit,” Imp said.  Her mouth dropped open.  “No way.”

“Jig’s up,” I said.  “We know.”

One by one, the Vegas capes changed.  Flesh altered, and they assumed identical appearances.

Six copies of Satyrical.  Leaving only Spur and Nix.

One of the Satyricals looked at the two who remained.  “Take care of yourself.  I’ll see you shortly.”

“I know,” Spur said.

Satyr looked at us, as if taking us all in.  “And you, I suppose, we’ll run into.  Sooner or later.”

Then the Satyrs died.  Flesh withered, and the Satyrs crumpled up.  They made bloody messes as they hit the ground, like overripe tomatoes might, but with teeth and the occasional bit of withered organ.

Self duplication, and each duplicate had shapeshifting abilities.

I bent down and picked up the devices from the heads of Revel, Exalt and Vantage’s clones.  Earbuds, phones…

“Revel,” Cuff said, her voice small.

“Where are the real ones?” Golem asked.

“With the real Satyr,” I guessed.

“And how did he know the passwords?” Golem asked.

He guessed the cake thing through cold reading.  White with blue, like Weaver’s costume.  Made sense.  That Taylor didn’t eat much… well, look at herThe rest… torture?  Coercion through other means?”

“Torture?” I asked.

Spur raised his chin a bit, but didn’t do or say anything to suggest otherwise.

“Ew.”  Imp said, under her breath, “Ew, ew, ew.  He’s like, forty?  And he was hitting on me.”

“Where’s the portal?” I asked Spur, ignoring Imp.

“No portal.  Or weren’t you paying attention?”

I looked at Nix.  “You know where this goes, if you don’t cooperate.  Circumstances are a little too dire.  We knock you out, your power fades.  So why don’t you drop the illusion and let us see the portal?”

“My power stays up while I’m out,” she said.

I drew my knife.  The one that wasn’t special.

“Woah,” Golem said.  He put his hand on my wrist.  “Woah, woah, woah.”

“She’s bluffing,” Spur said, unfazed.  “She’s scary, she’s got a reputation, but she’s bluffing here.  There’s no way she follows through.”

“I think you’re badly underestimating how pissed off I am,” I said.  I was surprised at just how right I was.  The mounting anger caught me off guard.  “Doing this, screwing around, stabbing people in the back, screwing with the system when we’re trying to save humanity?”

“We’re saving it too,” Spur said.  “Satyr, the others, they’ve got this situation handled.  Give them… two or three more hours, and the threats are going to be dealt with, Cauldron will be secure, or as secure as they can be, after you account for injuries and deaths at the hands of the invading group.  You go in there, you’re just going to muck up a delicate exfiltration operation.”

“Invading?” Golem asked.

“The deviants.  The case-fifty-threes.  Weld’s group.”

Weld?  No.  He’d been one of the only decent ones out there, during my stay in Brockton Bay.  Respectable, honest, kind.  He’d saluted me the first time we’d crossed paths, because we were both going up against an Endbringer.

Fuck it all.

Either Spur was fucking with me, or things were fucked.  Fuck it all.

“People like you are the reason we deserve to lose,” I said, gripping the knife.  “Every step of the way, it’s been people refusing to cooperate, refusing to talk plain truth.  From day one, even.  You’re the reason humanity deserves to get wiped out.”

“Great,” he said.  “You’re still not going to use that knife on either of us.”

It was said with the smug tone of someone who could see the future.

I glanced at Canary.  I could see the hurt on her face.

“I get it,” Spur said.  “See it coming.  If it helps, I do remember the music.”

Rachel stepped forward, giving me a little push to get me out of the way, and then slugged him.

He dropped, unconscious.

Golem set about binding him to the cave floor with hands of stone.

I looked at Nix.  “Her too.”

Golem reached into his costume, and hands of stone gripped Nix.

“To the ceiling,” I decided, at the last second.

“Sure,” Golem said.  Hands of stone emerged, passing Nix up.  She struggled a bit, but she was at an unsafe height by the time she realized what he was doing.

She was bound to the cave ceiling with armholds, leg holds and an arm set across her collarbone.

“What the hell?” she asked.

“I don’t think any of your friends have powers that can break those hands,” I said.

“The hell?” she asked, again.  She tested her bonds.  “The fuck?”

“You better hope we make it out okay,” I said.  “Tattletale?”

“Pretty sure it’s to your left.  Start by going ten paces that way.”

I nodded.

We followed the directions.

The illusion broke, dissolving into harmless smoke, as we reached it and pressed hard enough against the wall in question.

With the barrier gone, I could feel the warm air from within, see a dark hallway without lights.

I looked at my teammates.

Maybe humanity deserves to lose, but these guys are why we’re going to win, I promised myself.

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Cockroaches 28.5

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At least she’s stopped screaming.

The Simurgh floated in the air, remaining in a kind of stasis, much like she’d been in when we’d approached her, but there was an entire rig of devices surrounding her.  A halo, almost, studded with guns and cannons at regular intervals.  The sky behind her was overcast, clouds rolling past us with the strong winds, and mingled dust and smoke slowly shifting beneath her, brown-gray.  The juxtaposition was eerie, the clouds of the sky moving faster than the smoke and dust, and the Simurgh between the two, utterly still.

On TV, back in the days when we’d had television, there had been the various talk shows, news segments and interviews where the Endbringers would come up.  I’d listened, even though television wasn’t really my thing.  I’d heard people theorize on the Simurgh’s scream, wondering out loud about just how many of the disasters that followed in her wake were her, and how many were our own overblown paranoia.

It helped to remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who was debating the possibilities.  I’d listened for too long.  Was I tainted?  If this was all a trap, then I might already be seeded with some destructive or disastrous impulse.  Should I be hypervigilant?  Should I not stress over it?

It was a debate millions of individuals had maintained amongst themselves, in the wake of the Simurgh’s attacks.  Invariably, there wasn’t a right answer.  If she wanted to fuck with me, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything could and would fit into her game plan.

It wasn’t just me, either.  I was very aware of Lung’s presence, and of Shadow Stalker’s.

The Yàngbǎn were dealt with.  There were two major raiding parties, if we judged solely by the colors of their masks, and three or four other sub-groups tasked with different functions.  One raiding party was annihilated, and I could hope the Endbringer’s presence would scare off the other group.

There was an upside of sorts, in that the Yàngbǎn didn’t have access to Cauldron’s doormaking parahuman.  It meant they moved exclusively through the portals that dotted Earth Bet, the same portals the refugees had used, which some stragglers were still using.  Various factions and governments were gathering small armies at each of the remaining portals.  One Earth was already lost to us, destroyed by Scion in the first day he’d been traveling universes.  The South American refugees who had fled through there would be either eradicated or reduced to such a small population that it barely mattered.  Earth Zayin, too, was gone, subsumed by the Sleeper.

Still, a dozen Earths remained, with people scattered all over them.  The C.U.I. had claimed one, and they’d be ready for retaliation, maintaining a defensive line.

I doubted that defensive line would hold if an Endbringer decided to march through.  No, they would be gathering their forces in anticipation of a possible attack.  Good.

I took in my surroundings.  One ramshackle settlement, more than half of it obliterated by bombs.  Relatively little in the way of collateral damage on the Simurgh’s part.

Psychological damage?  Quite possible.  The Simurgh was a terror weapon, her very presence enough to rout armies, and these refugees weren’t an army.  Morale had been low to start with.

I sighed.  We’d scared people off, and they’d fled to the hills, quite literally.  In a movie, this would have been the moment that people slowly began returning, the orchestral music swelling as they overcame their fear.

Ridiculous, in context.  They’d hide for days, and they’d flee the second they saw the Simurgh again.

This wasn’t a case where we’d be able to stop the imminent threat and then recruit a select few people from among the survivors.

“Yo,” Tattletale said.  She had to run to get up the last stretch of the little hill that overlooked Tav’s primary settlement.

“Yo,” I responded.

“Total deadpan?  You can be a little excited,” she said.

“I am.  Quiet terror is a kind of excitement, isn’t it?  Pulse pounding, heart in my throat, and I’m so tense I’m getting a headache, because I’m almost afraid to think.”

“You think I’m notFuck.  There’s very few things that genuinely terrify me.  One of them is hanging out right above us, building something, and I can’t even read her, which makes her one of the few things out there that surprise me.”

Building something?  I looked up.

True enough, the Simurgh had her hands in front of her, and was manipulating debris in between her hands.

“What is she-”

‘I don’t know,” Tattletale said, interrupting me.  “What do you want me to do?  Ask her?”

I shook my head.  “How are the Pendragon’s occupants doing?”

“Ship shape, but Defiant’s wanting to be careful.  He’s demanding they get triple-checked.  Kind of funny, seeing that from him.”

I shrugged.  It would be a bigger leap for Tattletale to see the changes in him than for me to see it.  I’d been acquainted with him over the past two years, while she only saw him here and there.

“They’ll be up for it if we have a fight?” I asked.

Tattletale shrugged.  “For sure.  Scratches, bruises, but that’s about it.  We’re down to fight at a moment’s notice.  Sad thing is, the worst thing Scion could do to us is wait a month or two before he comes back.”

“True,” I agreed.

Not a pleasant thought.  If he took a leave of absence while we were trying to wrangle the Endbringers, odds were we’d get taken out by other factions or by the Endbringers themselves.

“I dunno,” Imp said.  I managed to not be startled as she appeared.  “Killing us all is pretty awful.”

“Awful, but not awful in the ‘let humanity destroy itself’ sort of way,” I pointed out.  “Let us come up with a plan for fighting back, then disappearing?  Letting that plan fester and fuck us over?”

Imp shrugged.  “So?  What do we do?”

“Handle what we can,” I said.  “Let’s go talk to the others and hash out a plan of action.”

The three of us made our way down the hill to the settlement.  In the doing, we passed through a darker patch where the Simurgh’s wingspan blocked out a portion of the sun.  What little sunlight could pass through the cloud cover, anyways.  I glanced up and saw her in shadow, the light behind her outlining her body, hair, feathers and the halo of improvised weapons.

Defiant had his helmet off.  His hair had grown in just a little, but wasn’t much more than a buzz cut, stubble on one side of his face was much the same.  But for the lack of stubble on his cheek, I might not have noticed his face was partially a prosthetic.  A gift from the Nine.

“It worked,” he said.

“More or less,” I responded.  “One civilian death and seven civilian injuries in the fighting, the death and two of the injuries were the Simurgh’s fault.”

“Only that many,” Defiant said.

“She was letting us know she could,” Tattletale said.  “Which is something we really should pay attention to, so long as we’re trying to make sense of Endbringer psychology.  I’m wondering if you could say that they’re primarily a warped super-ego, devoid of any real ego or advanced id.  Built in codes and rulesets, not human social rules, but still rules established by a creator.”

“Sigmund Freud,” Defiant said.  “I remember being back in University.  Second year psychology elective.  The professor said one word, ‘Freud‘, and the entire auditorium of students exploded in laughter.”

Tattletale smiled.  “You’re calling my analysis into question?”

“If you’re basing it on the Freudian structural model, yes.”

“Freud was big on the whole Oedipus, Electra thing.  Mommy issues, daddy issues.  I’d say if we have any understanding of the Endbringers at all, there’s definitely something going on there.  Not sexual, but you get what I mean.”

“You’re way overstating my intelligence,” Imp said.  “I don’t get what you mean at all.”

“The Endbringers have a fucked up connection with whoever made them,” I said.  “Be it Eidolon or someone else.”

“I understand that.”

“So if they’re unmoored from whatever’s anchoring them to reality,” Tattletale said, “What’s motivating them now?”

“A better question,” I said, “Is… well, who the fuck is she following?”

“Us,” Imp said.  “You guys are overthinking this.”

I sighed.  “She is following us, probably.  Leviathan was following the Azazel, Simurgh followed the Dragonfly.  Both maintained consistent speeds, matching pace, keeping a short distance.  What I’m asking is, which of us, exactly, does the Simurgh follow?”

“Who’s in control of her, for the time being?”  Tattletale summed up the question.

“There’s an easy way to check that,” Defiant murmured.  Odd, that his voice had a vaguely mechanical twang to it even with his helmet off.  “Each person that was on the Dragonfly walks in a different direction, and we see who she follows.”

I frowned, glancing skyward for a moment.  No sign of any movement or response from the Simurgh.

“What?” Tattletale asked.

“I wouldn’t say anyone’s in control of her,” I said.  “Because I don’t think anyone is in control of her except her, and-”

I stopped there.

What?” Tattletale asked, again.

“When she was first attacking the settlement and I was musing aloud at the possibility of betrayal, she very deliberately looked at me.  It was a communication, all on its lonesome.  Letting me know the whole betrayal thing was a possibility, that she had some self-volition, and letting me know she was listening.”

“We know she hears.  We know she’s aware of everything around her, present or future.  Simurgh S.O.P.,” Tattletale said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m not just saying she heard me.  I’m saying she was listening.  She’s hearing every word we say here and she’s paying attention to all of it, processing it, applying it, maybe.”

“You may be reading too much into a momentary eye contact,” Defiant said.  “I’m watching the video footage in question right now… yes.  I see what you’re talking about.”

“Right?” I asked.  “So you agree?”

But he shook his head.  “I suspect It’s a bad sign if you’re getting paranoid over this.  It’s counterproductive, and the moment your fear or second-guessing is detrimental enough, you need to step down and walk away.”

I took a deep breath, then sighed.  “I’m fine.”

“If there’s an issue…”

“No issue.  All I’m saying, the only reason I brought this up, is because I don’t want to get on her bad side.  I’d very much appreciate it if we treated her with due respect.  Let’s not upset her by talking about her in a negative light.  Electra complexes, talking about who’s controlling her, or experimenting on her.  I don’t think it’s that easy to understand her, and we’re only going to upset her if we keep going down that road.”

“She doesn’t get upset,” Defiant said.  “Didn’t we just spend an inordinate amount of time talking about how Endbringers don’t have conventional emotions?”

“Better safe than sorry,” I said.

“Yes,” he sighed the word.  “Yes.  Of course.  I’m mentally exhausted, I’m being stubborn.”

“We’re all mentally exhausted,” I said.  I glanced up at the Simurgh.  “Keep that in mind.”

There were nods all around.

“The Pendragon won’t fly until I fix it,” Defiant said, standing.  He pulled on his helmet, and there was an audible sound as it locked into place.  “I’ll need parts from elsewhere.  It also means leaving some people behind.  You can’t fit everyone into the Dragonfly.”

“We’ll do something low-risk in the meantime, then,” I said.  “Reduced group.”

“Sensible.  I’ll go see after the others, then.  This would be a good time to eat, stock up on supplies or use the facilities.”

Defiant wasn’t one for goodbyes or formalities.  He said he’d leave, and he left, his boots making heavy sounds with each footfall.

“Well, I’m going to go make water,” Tattletale said, jerking a thumb towards one of the outhouses.  “I’d be all girl-code and invite you with, but I actually like you guys, and I don’t want to subject you to that atmosphere.”

“Thanks,” I said.

When Tattletale had disappeared, Imp and I sort of meandered over towards the others.

Canary was closest, helmet off, her hair plastered to her head with sweat, making her feathers that much more prominent where they stuck out of her hairline.

“This is crazy,” she said.

“This is a Tuesday for us,” Imp replied, overly casual in a way that was almost forced.

I saw the dawning alarm on Canary’s features.  I hurried to reassure her, “It’s really not.  Ignore her.”

Canary nodded.

“Holding up okay?”  I asked.

“Pretty much.  There’s one thing, but it… it’s pretty trivially stupid in the grand scheme of things.”

“We’re killing time while we wait to get organized,” I said.  “Go ahead.”

“There were two people I was talking to.  Forget their names.  One’s really forgettable and the other’s obscure.”

“Foil and Parian,” I said.

“Yes.  Right, yeah.  I was talking to them, and we had a lot in common, and then they went from warm to ice cold in a flash.  Couldn’t understand why.”

I frowned.  “That doesn’t sound like either of them.”

“They didn’t really say anything.  They just talked about going somewhere, and I asked if I could come, and they looked at me like I had three heads.”

“They probably wanted to be alone,” I said.

“Yeah.  I get that,” Canary said.

Alone alone,” Imp responded.  “End of the world, making every minute count?  Nudge, nudge, wink wink?”

Imp held her mask in one hand, using it to nudge Canary twice, then tipping it to the side as she winked, keeping time with the four words.

Canary’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.  Oh!”

“Dudette, with all the hugging and reassuring they were doing, how was this even in question?”

“I don’t follow the cape scene.  I don’t know how close teammates get.  I just figured, shitty situation, life and death, maybe you cling tighter to any buoy in a storm… oh god.  I asked if I could come with them.”

Imp nodded sagely.  “I can see where you’d get confused.  We’re very close, here, after all.”

Canary was blushing, humiliated, the pink of her skin contrasting her yellow hair.

Imp continued, “After all, Skitter… Weaver and I… well…”

She tried to make bedroom eyes at me, holding her hands in front of her, twisting her arms as she drew her shoulders forward, the very picture of a lovestruck schoolgirl.

Canary’s face reddened further as Imp continued to poke fun.

Imp, for her part, gave it up after only two or three seconds.  “Fuck.  Can’t do it.  Weaver here has diddled my brother, and it just feels squick and incestuous.”

That’s the reason we haven’t ever done the relationship thing,” I said, my voice flat.  “It’d be weird in an almost incestuous way.”

Imp cackled.  One of very few people I knew who could cackle.  She was enjoying herself.  This was her medium.  One of them.  “You’d do better with Tattletale, or Rachel.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I injected a little more sarcasm into my voice, “for the mental pictures that evokes.”

She cackled again.

Eager to change the topic, I glanced at the others.  The Wards were sitting a short distance away, Kid Win, Golem, Vista and Cuff, sitting together.  Cuff was fixing up Golem’s costume.

I’d feel weird about approaching them.  Technically, I was still a Ward, though my eighteenth birthday had come and gone.  I should have moved up to the Protectorate, but I’d never been sworn in, had never filled in the paperwork.

The Slaughterhouse Nine, Scion and the mass-evacuation from Earth Bet sort of gave me an excuse, but I still didn’t want to face the questions.

I glanced at Saint, who was sitting between Narwhal and Miss Militia.  They were pretty clearly talking guns.

Lung stood alone.  He was holding a skewer with meat all along the length.  A glance around didn’t show any possible source.

A check with my swarm did.  A few hundred feet away, there was a cooking fire that had gone out in the aftermath of the Yàngbǎn attack.  Lung had apparently claimed some food as a matter of course.

“Lung,” I said, almost absently.

“You know him?” Canary asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“He was kind of notorious in the Birdcage.  A lot of people, they come in, and they do something to make a statement.  Kill someone, pick someone suitable and claim them, challenge someone suitably impressive to a fight, that sort of thing.”

“What did Lung do?” I asked.

“He marched into the women’s side of the prison, killed his underling, and then killed and maimed a bunch of others before the cell block leaders ordered people to pull back.  I got called into a meeting, too, where a bunch of people in charge of cell blocks asked me to come and tell them what I knew about him, since we arrived at the same time.”

I nodded.  “But you didn’t know anything.”

“No.  I think some of them were really worried, too.  I thought they were going to hurt me, until Lustrum, uh, my cell block leader, backed me up, gave me her protection.”

“Geez,” Imp said.  “That’s messed up.”

Canary shrugged.  “How did you put it?  A Tuesday?  A Tuesday in the Birdcage.”

“No, I’m not talking about that,” Imp said.  “I’m talking about the fact that Lustrum the feminazi was in charge of your cell block and you still didn’t pick up on the thing between Parian and Foil.  Isn’t that, like, Sappho central?”

Sappho?

Canary blushed again.  “I… uh.”

“I mean, seriously,” Imp said.

“Ease up,” I warned her.

“I… I live and let live,” Canary said.  “I just didn’t want to step on toes.”

“And you never got any?”

“I had somebody, but like I said…”

They were still going as I focused on my swarm.  I gave some commands to the Dragonfly, which I had landed a mile and a half out of town, and brought it our way.

With the relay bugs, I could sense most of the settlement, the surrounding landscape, everything above and below.  That was only using half of them.

The remainder were fertilized, bearing eggs.

I’d flipped the switches, shifted them into breeding mode, and I was working on keeping them warm and well fed.  I’d have to wait until the eggs hatched before I found out whether the young had any range extension ability.  If I had to wait until they were adult, well, the world might end before I got that far.

Defiant was returning.  I stepped away from Canary and Imp to greet him.

“Let’s go,” he said.

Smaller team, while the Pendragon was out of action, smaller job.

The ones who were grounded would be looking after the settlement, ensuring the survivors were able to make it through the next few nights.

Tattletale was with me.  Imp and Rachel had come with for much the same reason Lung had.  They were restless personalities, unwilling to relax when there was a possibility of a conflict.  I wanted to think that Rachel’s intentions were a little kinder in nature than Lung’s, that she wanted to protect her friends, but I wasn’t going to ask, nor was I going to set any hopes on it.

A pleasant idea, nothing more.

Lung was eerily quiet.  He’d acted to stop Shadow Stalker from attacking me, but he hadn’t shown a glimmer of his power.

After we’d decided who went where, before we’d left, Canary had found a moment to talk to me.  To finish what she’d been about to say when Imp had interrupted to poke fun at her.

Information about Lung.

He coasted on reputation for some time.  Didn’t use his power, didn’t fight, just intimidated.  Nobody was willing to start something because nobody really knew what he was about.  Until this guy from Brockton Bay came in.  Had some info.  Except, by then, Lung was entrenched in Marquis’ cell block, and even if someone wanted to go after him, they didn’t want to deal with Marquis in the process.

Lung hadn’t been using his power.  Why?  Was there a reason?

A deep seated concern about his passenger, maybe?  No.  What would excuse that?

I needed to ask Tattletale, now that I knew, but there hadn’t been a moment where we’d both been alone.

We had Shadow Stalker, who had no interest in rebuilding and resettling.  Defiant was with us as well, relying on remote monitoring to perform the occasional check-in on Saint.  Narwhal would manage the rest.

Miss Militia had come along, and nobody had said anything to mark it as fact, but I got the distinct impression it was for Defiant‘s sake.

And, of course, we had the Simurgh.  Following.  She’d finished building what she’d been working on as she hovered over the aftermath of the fight at the Tav settlement.

A shortsword, four feet long, without any guard to protect the hand from an enemy’s weapon, both sides of the blade serrated.  Black.

Defiant had called it a Gladius.

Defiant had the cockpit and Miss Militia’s company, and so I was left to hang out in the cabin, with Rachel sleeping beside me, Bastard and Huntress sleeping at her feet.

I admired her ability to rest in such stressful situations.  I glanced at Shadow Stalker, who seemed to be filled with nervous energy.  When we’d kidnapped her for Regent to control, Rachel had been able to sleep then, too.

I felt like I had to be responsible, somehow.  I’d taken on three very dangerous individuals, with reputations ranging from bloodthirsty vigilante to Endbringer, and I knew I’d blame myself if something went wrong on any count.  I couldn’t sleep when there was information to take in, when there were people to watch, people to watch over, and personalities to keep in check.

Threats and conflicts, within and without.

Many of the monitors were focused on Bohu, the towering Endbringer, tall enough that her heads reached the cloud cover.  Five miles tall, give or take.  Gaunt, expressionless, without legs to walk with.  No, she moved like a block of stone that someone was pushing, not with lurching movements, but a steady, grinding progression that left bulldozed terrain in her wake.  Overlapping rings marked the area she traveled as well, as she continued switching between her typical combat-mode cycles, altering the terrain, raising walls, creating traps and deadfalls, generating architecture.

The monitors abruptly changed.  One shaky image, from one cameraman at just the right vantage point.

A golden streak crossing the evening sky, appearing out of nowhere.

Just about everyone in the Dragonfly tensed.  I felt myself draw in a breath, my meager chest swelling as if I could draw in confidence as well as air, preparing to give orders, to provide the call to arms.

But the golden light disappeared as soon as it had appeared.  Like the jet stream of an aircraft passing overhead, except it was light, not smoke, and it only marked a brief period where he’d passed through our world on his way to other things.

We relaxed.

Rachel hadn’t even woken up.  She was exhausted, though we’d barely participated in any fighting.

The Dragonfly moved closer to the ground as we approached the next portal.  It was squatter, broader, allowing for more ground traffic at a moment’s notice, though it made the passage of flying vehicles more difficult.

Like Scion, exiting one world, passing through Bet on our way to the next.  It reminded me of my discussion with Panacea.  People who build and people who destroy.  We were trying to do the former, Scion the latter.

The Dragonfly passed through the portal.

Heavy rain showered down around us.  The Dragonfly faltered for an instant as it changed settings, very nearly nosediving into the ground beneath us.

Defiant pulled the craft up.

Agnes Court, I thought.  I’d studied all of the major players in anticipation of the end of the world, I knew who the Elite were, and I knew who had built this.

She fit somewhere between Labyrinth and the Yàngbǎn’s Ziggurat.  Organically grown structures.  Seeds that swelled into pillars, stairs, houses and bigger things, given enough time in proximity to their master.  The wood-like substance hardened to stone of varying colors after she terminated the growth.

In the span of two and a half days, she’d grown a walled city, one with an elaborate castle at the northmost end, with shelters and what looked like a sewer system, if I was judging the perfectly round hole in the cliff face below right.  It was gushing water.

Two days to make this.

Leviathan had taken less than an hour to demolish it.

The wall, taller than some skyscrapers, was shattered in three places, damaged enough to serve little purpose in others.  A shallow river flowed through the spots where the damage to the wall reached the ground.

Leviathan had perched himself atop the castle’s highest tower, though the tower wasn’t broad enough for him to put anything more than two clawed hands and two feet on the very top.  His tail wound around the structure, in one window and out another.

Even through the rain, his five eyes glowed.

“Oh no,” I said.  “The civilians.  The refugees.”

“Relatively few,” Tattletale said.  “That’s… yeah.  I don’t think we offed people in any substantial numbers.”

In any substantial numbers, I thought.

“I didn’t think they’d get this kind of structure up in time,” I said.

“Court grows things exponentially, given time,” Tattletale said.

She frowned.

Grew things exponentially.”

If that was the case, then we’d lost a possible asset.  Fuck this, fuck the Elite for bringing things to this point.

“There were a thousand people here,” Defiant said.  “Many who were managing supplies and resources for the rebuilding and resettlement efforts.”

“I’d explain,” Tattletale said, “But I’d rather not explain twice.”

“Twice?”  Miss Militia asked.

Tattletale pointed.

The Azazel had parked on top of a tower at the wall’s edge, almost opposite to where Leviathan was.  A crowd had gathered around it.

Too many to be just the Dragon’s Teeth.  Far too many.

I swallowed.

Cameras zoomed in on the individuals.  Hard to make out through the rain, but I could draw the appropriate conclusions.

The Dragonfly landed, far gentler in the process than I would have managed on my own.

“Time to face the music,” Tattletale said.

I took the time to restructure my costume, raising my hood to protect my head before I stepped out into the pouring rain.  Defiant was in step to my right, Tattletale to my left.

No, not pouring.  Pounding.  As heavy a rainfall as I’d ever experienced.

The other major players had arrived.  The Thanda, Faultline, the Irregulars, the Meisters, the remnants of the Suits…  Cauldron.

It took time for everyone from the Dragonfly to make their way outside.  We looked so small in comparison to the group arrayed before us.  People had disappeared here and there.  Dead or gone in the wake of the disaster on the oil rig, or the fighting that had followed.

Even after we’d arrived, after the ramp had closed, the group before us remained utterly silent.  There was only the sound of the rain, so deafening I might have been unable to hear people if they’d shouted.  I clenched my fists, tried not to shiver.  If I started, I wouldn’t stop.  Staying calm, staying confident, my attention on my bugs as a way of escaping the stresses here… it made for an almost zen moment.

It was in that same moment that the Simurgh descended.

Descended was the wrong word.  She fell.  It was as though she’d stopped lifting herself into the air, and let herself drop.  Her wings moved to control her descent, keep her facing towards the ground as she plummeted.  In the gloom of the rain and the heavy stormclouds above, her silver-white body was the easiest thing to make out.  If the assembled capes hadn’t already been keeping a wary eye on her, the movement would have turned heads anyways.

A white streak, plummeting from the sky, striking Leviathan.

The shockwave that accompanied the impact tore through the tower.  Superficial features broke away first, followed by the internal structures that had provided structural integrity.  The end result was a gradual, almost slow-motion collapse, a lingering view of the Simurgh and Leviathan as they’d been at the moment of impact.

They tilted as the tower did, but neither Endbringer moved.  The Simurgh had both feet pressed against Leviathan’s stomach, one hand reaching up to grip his face, the other hand holding the gladius she’d made, buried so deep in Leviathan’s sternum that only a little bit of the handle stuck out.

Pieces of her halo began to fall, including her fabricated guns and the other debris she’d arranged to form the ring itself.  It rained down like a localized meteor shower, striking the castle, the base of the tower, the wall, and Leviathan.

The Simurgh managed to avoid being struck, even with her vast wingspan.  She leaped up, kicking herself off of Leviathan, and found a perch on the wall, folding her wings around herself and the top of the wall, as if to ward off the worst of the rain.

Maybe six or seven seconds later, the tower finished collapsing, and Leviathan’s massive, dense body hit ground, crashing through several buildings before settling, the handle of the sword still sticking out of the wound.

He didn’t rise.  He twitched, lashed out with his tail, dashing three already tattered buildings to smithereens, then gushed with water, producing four or five times his body weight in water without even moving.

Death throes?

She’d hit his core.

Beside me, Imp wiped at the lenses of her mask, tried again, and then pulled it off entirely.  She stared at the scene with her mouth agape, then looked to Tattletale, mouthing three words in a voice too quiet to make out through the pounding rain.

Tattletale’s hair was soaked through, streaming with rivulets of water that ran down her back.  Dark makeup ran from the eye sockets of her costume.

However bedraggled she appeared, just after a minute of standing in the rain, she also looked contemplative, rubbing her chin as she hugged her other arm close for warmth.

Leviathan went utterly still.

I watched the faces of the others.  Every set of eyes was fixed on Leviathan’s body.  Nobody seemed like they were willing or able to tear their eyes away from the scene.

Slowly, almost at a glacial pace, Leviathan moved.  One hand with the disproportionately long claws was planted on the ground, then another.  His tail provided some of the support and strength to leverage himself to his feet.

That, oddly enough, seemed to surprise Tattletale.  Her hand dropped from her face to her side.  She fumbled to hook her thumb over her belt as if she needed the extra leverage.

When Leviathan had pulled himself to an upright position with both feet beneath him, his head hanging down, the tail snaked around the handle of the sword.

He wrenched it free, and tore out chunks of his own chest in the process.  There was little left but the handle and the base of the sword.  Needle-like lengths of metal speared out from the base, but the bulk of the sword’s material was gone.

Leviathan continued to move with an almost excruciating slowness as he reached out with his claws, extending each arm to his sides, like a figure crucified.

The wound was superficial, but he was acting like he’d received a more grievous wound than any of us had dealt in the past.

The wind turned, and the wall ceased to provide a curtain against the rain.  For a moment, Leviathan was only a silhouette.

I could see his shape distort.

Others reacted before I saw anything different.  The Number Man, Tattletale, Dinah, Faultline… they saw something I couldn’t make out through the curtains of torrential rain.  The Number Man said something to Doctor Mother, and I saw Dinah fall back just an instant before Faultline gave a hand signal to her crew.  They adopted fighting stances.

Did they really think we could fight, if it came down to it?  Against two Endbringers?

It was maybe twenty seconds of stillness, seeing only vague shapes through the shifting downpour, before the wind turned again.  I got a glimpse of what the Simurgh had done.

I could hear a squeak from beside me.  I expected it to be Imp, saw it was Shadow Stalker, instead.  She clutched her crossbow in both hands.

Fins.  Leviathan had fins.

They were like blades, points sweeping backwards.  A fin rooted in the side of his arm, from wrist to elbow, the point scything back.  Had it not been limp enough to trail on the ground, it might have reached his shoulder.  More at the sides of his neck and along the length of his spine, forming an almost serrated pattern where multiple fins overlapped.  Perhaps some at his legs.  The fins ran down the length of his tail, and ended in a cluster at the end, like the tuft of fur at the end of a lion’s tail, exaggerated many times over in size.

He flexed a claw, and I could see webbing between each finger, mottled in black and an iridescent green that matched his eyes.  It made me think of the bioluminescence of a jellyfish in the deep ocean.

In synchronous motions, the Simurgh unfurled her wings, stretching them to their full length, and Leviathan flexed his fins, letting them unfold in kind.  Each fin was the same as the webbing, mottled black and a eerie green, and the echo-image of water that accompanied his movement produced mist as it washed over the fins.  It obscured him almost completely, and as much as the pouring rain served to drive it away, the rainwater produced more mist as it touched the fins.

It took some time to clear, and even then, it only cleared because Leviathan had folded the fins up again.  When we could see Leviathan again, he had collapsed into a sitting position, one overlong arm draped over his legs, ‘chin’ resting on one shoulder, completely at ease.

Above him, the Simurgh slowly folded her wings closed, like a reversal of a flower blossoming.

Doctor Mother turned to face us.

“Wha-  The-” she stuttered.

Contessa, holding an umbrella to keep the both of them dry, set an arm on the Doctor’s shoulder.  The Doctor fell silent, stopping only to look at Leviathan, then turned back to Tattletale.

Tattletale managed a grin.  “I’d say there’s a silver lining in all this, but that phrase has sort of lost it’s cachet over the last decade or so.”

She gestured in the vague direction of the Simurgh before hugging her arms against her body.  “…He’s probably stronger, which helps if he’s going up against Scion, right?”

“I think,” Doctor Mother said.  She paused very deliberately.  “It would be very wise to keep the Endbringers separated from here on out.”

“We might have to fight them, before or after we take on Scion,” King of Swords, leader of one division of the Suits voiced the concerns that everyone was harboring.

Lung was the next one to speak.  “What did she do?”

“Upgraded Leviathan,” Tattletale said.  “Attuned some device to the right frequency or setting, then tapped into his core without doing too much harm to Leviathan.  Fed things into there.  Knowledge, data, nanotechnology.”

Defiant’s head turned, as if Tattletale had said something.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Nanotech.  Why do you think the fins were turning water to mist?”

My tech?”  Defiant asked.

“Among one or two other advancements.  If the density rules are in effect, I’d bet those fins are just as hard to cut through as Leviathan’s arm or torso.  Disintegration effect, maybe something else.”

“Mecha-Leviathan?” Imp murmured.

“That’s not- it doesn’t fit with what we know of them,” Defiant said.

Tattletale spread her arms, a massive, exaggerated ‘who knows?‘ gesture.

“It’s the fucking Simurgh,” Rachel said.

“I hope you can understand why we’re… distressed with you,” the Doctor said.

Fuck you,” Tattletale retorted.  “Cope.”

I put my hand on her shoulder.  She didn’t relent, nor did she release any of her tension.

“You wiped out two defending forces,” the Doctor said.  “We lost the Yàngbǎn’s support when you took out their infiltration squads, and the Elite are wiped out.”

I squeezed Tattletale’s shoulder.  She gave me an annoyed look, but she backed away.

I took in a deep breath.  I could see the Doctor fold her arms.  Like a mother or schoolteacher awaiting an apology from the recalcitrant student.

“Fuck you,” I said.

“You don’t want us for enemies,” the Doctor said.

“We have the fucking Simu-” Imp started.  Tattletale elbowed her.

“The Yàngbǎn were doing more harm than good,” I said.

“They were limiting their strikes to civilians.  Not something I agree with, but with Earth, with every Earth on the line, I’d forego two or three thousand lives for the help of over two hundred of the C.U.I.’s trained parahumans.”

“They’d given up,” Tattletale said.  “They were taking territory to run and hide.”

“Contessa would have changed their minds.”

Tattletale shrugged.  “Don’t blame us for not taking your plans into account, when you don’t share your plans with anyone.”

“This is common sense.  No matter.  The Elite, though?”

“They were attacking civilians.”

“They were nonviolent.  Refugees in the vicinity of the portal were evacuated.  The Elite then made contact with possible settlers who they thought would be interested in paying a premium for good shelter, for resources and supplies.  If not paying with cash, then paying with skills.  Doctors, talented artists, scholars… it was one of our best bets for re-establishing a hub of development across all of the Earths.”

“They broke the truce,” Tattletale said.

“Again, they were an asset.  They were cooperating.  The truce hardly stands in this dark hour.”

“They broke the truce,” I echoed Tattletale.  “The code has been there since the beginning.  If a bigger threat shows up, we band together.  We don’t distract each other with attacks or murder attempts, we don’t take advantage of the situation to fuck with civilians.  The truce is there for a reasonand it has weight because everyone knows that they can’t handle the trouble that gets express-delivered to their doorsteps when they’ve defied it.”

“Siding with Endbringers could be seen as a violation,” Queen of Wands said.  “I seem to recall you participated in an effort to drive out a gang that had escalated too much, too violently, too fast.”

Her eyes fell on Lung.

Were they serious?

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Faultline said.  “If you start going after the Undersiders and Guild for trying to amass enough firepower to take down Scion, then nobody’s going to be able to put up a fight.”

“Hey,” Tattletale said.  “Faultline, sticking up for me?  This is a first.”

“So you agree with this?  Using the Endbringers?”  one of the Thanda asked.

Tattletale grinned.  “Agree?  It was her idea.”

Faultline whipped her head around.  “No.  No it wasn’t.”

“Talking to the monsters.  Well, you said talk to Scion, but this is close.  You can have partial credit.”

“I’ll have no such thing.  I don’t disagree with this, but I won’t condone it either.  This is the Undersider’s plan, they can reap the consequences if it goes wrong.”

Tattletale smiled, but it wasn’t quite a grin.  Confident, calm.  I doubted anyone but the perception thinkers on the other side could see, but Tattletale was clenching her jaw in an effort to keep her teeth from chattering.

I felt just a little warmer, owing to my hood.  I spoke so Tattletale wouldn’t have to try and risk an ill-timed chattering of teeth.  “That’s fair.  We’ll deal with the consequences, be it a stab in the back from the Endbringers or punishment that follows from any real issues that follow from this.  But we will keep going after anyone who violates the truce.”

Rachel stepped forward, her arm pressing against my shoulder and side, as if she was bolstering me with physical presence.  Through the bugs I’d planted on him, I could sense Lung folding his arms.

“You will not be taking charge of all of the Endbringers,” the Doctor said.  “Teacher emerged with a small force at his disposal.  He defeated the Protectorate squads that were deployed at one empty location…”

“The place Khonsu or Tohu were supposed to appear,” Tattletale said.

“Quite.  It was Khonsu.  The Endbringer has imprinted on Teacher’s group, and he has offered to sell that squad, along with the Endbringer, to a sufficiently wealthy buyer.  We agreed, if only to keep this from becoming a monopoly on Endbringers.”

Tattletale smiled a little, but didn’t talk.

“How good of you,” Defiant said.

“We strongly advise you leave Tohu for another party to claim,” the Doctor said.  “Focus on the three you have.”

Defiant glanced at Tattletale and I.  I looked at Tattletale, reading her expression, before coming to a conclusion.  “That’s fine.”

“Then we’re one step closer to a resolution,” the Doctor said.  “Much better than the alternative.”

Veiled threats, now?  Just how badly had we fucked her plans?

“This is more firepower than we expected to have at this juncture,” the Doctor said.  “But not enough by itself.  Without sufficient distraction, Scion will treat the Endbringers as he treated Behemoth.  We’ll step forward and unveil our own plan B and plan C at the time of battle.”

“Armies,” Tattletale said.  “You were collecting people for a reason, and you didn’t release every Case Fifty-three you made.”

“Essentially,” the Doctor said.

“Five groups,” I said, and my eyes fell on Dinah, who was standing beside Faultline.  “We should split up so we can respond the instant Scion appears.  We make sure every group has some way to maybe occupy him or pin him down, and we move to reinforce.”

Dinah, standing beside Faultline, nodded slowly.

“Four Endbringers, and then Dragon and Teacher to comprise the final group,” the Doctor said.  “If Tohu arrives, she can reinforce the weakest group.  Quite possibly Bohu.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  He was clutching his spear so tight I thought it would break.  He looked to Miss Militia for clarification.

“I’ll run it by Chevalier,” she said, “But I don’t see a problem with this.”

There were heads nodding.

Not enough.  We don’t have enough people here.  There’s groups missing.  People still hidingPeople like the Yàngbǎn who are fighting us instead of helping.

I was all too aware of the Simurgh and Leviathan at the corner of my peripheral vision, of Lung and Shadow Stalker, who I could sense with my swarm.

Too many people ready to stab us in the back.

“I would recommend,” the Doctor said, speaking slowly, “That you take your time to visit loved ones, say goodbyes and make your peace.  I don’t think there will be another fight after this.”

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Cockroaches 28.4

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“We’re here,” I said.

It was enough.  All the different personalities in the Dragonfly, the… how had Tattletale put it, once upon a time?  The people who weren’t inclined to play ‘cops and robbers’, who weren’t the types to follow the rules or codes, and were dangerous without a firm hand.  Rachel, Lung, Sophia… they fell silent.  The fighting stopped.

Because they, even with their unique and personal issues, acknowledged that this wasn’t a situation where you fucked around.

Monitors switched settings without any cue from me.  Showing the Simurgh from a distance away, from a different angle.  Defiant had switched on his long-ranged cameras.

A moment later, he switched on the cameras in the Dragonfly.  The two sets of images alternated across the innumerable displays in the craft.  Only the display directly in front of me in the cockpit remained untouched, showing altitude, heading, speed, distance from target, and alerts regarding Scion’s latest appearances.

The Dragonfly changed course, angling to maintain a set distance from the Endbringer.  Again, not me.

Defiant seemed content to handle the mechanical end of things.  I stood from my seat, stretching a little, before gathering my bugs.  Two relay bugs, for safety’s sake.  They exited the craft.

No scream from the Simurgh.  At least, not one I could detect.  It would fit her to keep it beyond our notice, influencing us, the sort of card she would keep up her sleeve.  To make the psychic scream ‘audible’, for lack of a better word, purely for spreading fear, then use it subtly at a time when she wasn’t attacking.

The others in the ship hadn’t only gone silent.  They’d gone still.  I might have taken it for an almost hypnotic paralysis, a sign that something was deeply wrong, but Rachel turned and found a seat on the bench opposite Shadow Stalker.

No, they were still themselves.

My bugs made their way towards the Simurgh, while I chained the two relay bugs together to extend my range.

Fragile, as it only required the death of one bug to sever my connection with the swarm.  I didn’t mind.  If she acted on my swarm, that was likely to be the least of our worries.

Cameras changed focus, zooming in on the Simurgh’s face, hands and various wingtips, different cameras taking over as the Pendragon and the Dragonfly rotated around her and the cameras lost sight of the features in question.  Mosaic views of her features, broken up like I might see if I were looking through the eyes of my bugs, but without my power to coodinate the picture, draw it into something cohesive.

In the corner of each image, metrics, numbers, measurements, as if Defiant hoped to track the slightest movement.

It was the hair that got me.  Gossamer-fine, silver-white, straight, it blew in the wind as if each strand were a separate entity.  Not in clumps or locks, but a curtain of strands ten times as dramatic as something one might see in a digitally altered hair commercial.

Artificial.

“Seventy,” Tattletale said.

“Hm?” I asked.

“I said I was sixty-five percent sure before.  I’m revising it to seventy.”

I nodded.

Hello, Simurgh, I thought.  We finally meet.

The Protectorate was strict about who could join the fights against the Simurgh.  Capes needed psychological evaluations, they needed to sign documents agreeing to the quarantine procedures, and they needed to be on board with the timetables.

I’d been unable to participate when the Simurgh had attacked flight BA178.  When she’d attacked Manchester, I’d been barred from joining the fight by bureaucratic red tape.  I had a bad history and I was still on probation.  Too likely that I was mentally unstable.

When the Simurgh had hit Paris, I’d gone to Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a therapist’s bill of clean mental health.  Or, if not quite that, then at least a go-ahead.

She’d advised me to see it as a good thing, instead.  That my participation would be another black mark on my record, another reason for people to be suspicious of me or second guess my decisions.

She’d also very elegantly avoided spelling out that she wasn’t willing to give me that clean bill of mental health.  I’d noticed, but hadn’t pressed her on it.  She would have been forced to say it straight, and I would have had to hear her say it.

“Ready?” I asked.

“I do the talking, you pass it on,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.

Tattletale sighed.  “Look at her.  The folly of man, am I right?”

“I don’t know.  You have a better idea about whether you’re right, but it… doesn’t fit to me.”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re seventy percent sure.”

“Seventy percent, yes.  If I’m wrong, then I’ll be approaching this entire conversation from the wrong angle, and we might wind up siccing an otherwise passive Endbringer on humanity.”

“Let’s hope you’re right, then,” I said.

She nodded.

“Everyone ready?” I asked.  I looked around the craft.  No responses.  Only silent nods.

One head that was shaking.  Shadow Stalker.

I touched the screen on the console.  “Defiant?”

Ready when you are,” he said.

“We’re starting right now,” I said.  I nodded at Tattletale.

She rolled her shoulders, took in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Hello, Endbringer, this-”

I echoed her words, speaking through my bugs as an interpreter might speak in another language.

The instant I had the first word out, alarms went off throughout the ship.  The Dragonfly shuddered as meager weapons unfolded from the sides.  My visual of the Pendragon showed it was reacting much the same way.

Simurgh had reacted.

She hadn’t attacked, but she had reacted.

She rotated in the air, holding her position, wings flat at her sides.  The wings were purely ornamental, much as Behemoth’s bulk and musculature had been.  She used telekinesis to move, and she used it now to keep herself oriented in the air, rotating so she matched our orbit around her, her eyes and attention fully fixed on the Dragonfly.

“Oh, shit,” Imp spoke, her voice wavering breathlessly halfway through the ‘shit’.

Long seconds passed, but the Simurgh didn’t take any other action.

“Th- this is Tattletale speaking, one face in that vast, crazy crowd of humans you’ve been murdering,” Tattletale finished.  “Good to see you’re listening.  I thought it was about time we had a chat.”

No response, no movement.  Odd, to see the screens showing her depicting the zoomed-in images of her face, hands, wings and body and not see them rotating in the picture as they had been before.

Her expression was neutral, but then again, the Simurgh’s expression was always neutral.  A face like a doll’s, a cold stare.  Beautiful in every conventional sense, in that every classically attractive feature was there, from the delicate, thin frame to the high cheekbones to the luxurious hair… horrifying in the manner it was all framed.  The height that put her two to three times the height of an ordinary adult, the wings that filled the space around her.  The feathers were surprisingly tough and dense, the edges capable of scoring steel.

Not that she really fought in close quarters, where she could help it.

“Let’s face the facts, Simurgh.  Ziz.  Israfel.  Ulama.  Whatever you want to go by.  You started acting funny pretty much right away, after Eidolon bit it.  Maybe that’s mourning.  Maybe you respected him as an enemy, ’cause he was one of only two individuals who could really give you guys a run for your money.  Or maybe you had a different relationship.”

Tattletale let the words hang in the air.

“Maybe a parent-child relationship?  Maybe he created you.”

The Simurgh didn’t move a muscle.  Her hair blew in the wind, and it caught on the features of her face, not even eliciting a blink of her eyes.

I leaned over my chair to hit the button on my cockpit, giving me a view of the inside of the Pendragon.

Defiant, Narwhal, Miss Militia, Saint, Canary, Parian, Foil, Golem, Vista and Kid Win were all present within.  Defiant had collected the heroes, the capes who might have been less inclined to throw their hat into the ring if I showed up in the company of Tattletale, Imp and Rachel.  He’d been closer to Parian and Foil when I approached him with the plan.

I watched the expressions on their faces, the concern, the alarm and confusion I’d felt only minutes ago.  I knew Tattletale hadn’t shared this particular detail.  They had to be listening in with some microphone, either a directional one aimed at my swarm outside or one in the Dragonfly.

“They say loneliness breeds the best masters, and it’s awfully lonely at the top,” Tattletale said.  “Nobody that can really put up a fight, no excuse to flex his abilities to their fullest, nothing that can really give the man any real stature, next to Legend, who had all the face time with the media.  No real role to play, compared to Alexandria, who was managing the PRT.  Odd man out.”

I thought of Eidolon, the first time I’d seen him in person.  Meeting in preparation for the Leviathan fight in Brockton Bay… Eidolon had been standing off to one side, in a corner, lost in thought.

“Symbiotic, odd as it sounds, what with you trying to kill him and him trying to kill you.”

Still no reaction.  No response.

I noted the surroundings.  The Simurgh had situated herself above the ocean, an eerie parallel to how Scion had first appeared before humanity.  As battlegrounds went, it left her relatively little to manipulate when using her telekinesis, but it also gave us very little ground to stand on if a fight erupted.  She’d torn apart Flight BA178.  She could tear apart the Dragonfly or the Pendragon if she had a mind to.

Hopefully the other ship would be able to flee, if we couldn’t manage an outright fight.

Tattletale held up a hand, then spoke.  “She’s not giving me anything.”

I didn’t repeat it for the Simurgh.  I only stared at the screens.

“Did you expect her to?”  Imp asked.

“Yeah.  Kind of,” Tattletale said.

“She’s not human,” I said.  “And, if you’re right about this, she’s only a projection.  Her brain doesn’t work like ours does, if it’s even active.”

“She responded when we communicated,” Tattletale said.

I nodded.  “Defiant, you listening in?”

On the screen in front of us, Defiant turned to the camera, then nodded once.

“Open to suggestions,” I said.

“We could use powers to try and communicate,” Narwhal said.  “Can we express a signal through some other channel?  Through our powers?”

“It might be taken as an attack,” I said.

“She’s smart enough to figure out convoluted chains of cause and effect, but not to take a gesture of communication for what it is?”  Tattletale asked.  “I say we try it.”

“Oh my god,” Shadow Stalker said, her voice quiet.  “You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Well, it might be a mercy,” Imp said.  “Going out like that, not having to watch the golden man take humanity down piece by piece.”

“Could we try Canary?” I suggested.  “If she has any understanding of powers, or if Canary has any influence with things other than humans…”

I don’t,” Canary said, from within the Pendragon.  “I tried using my power on dogs, cats, birds, monkeys…

Tattletale nodded, like this was something expected.  “Bonesaw said something like that.  When we get our powers, the passenger manages this sort of scan, trying to figure out a way to apply a part of itself.  So Taylor gets a power that’s restricted to bugs, Canary gets a power that’s limited to people.  At the same time, the passenger kind of figures out if there’s any danger of the power harming us, physically or mentally, and it sets down safeguards and limits.  Headaches like Dinah or I get are part of that.  And Eidolon…”

“I don’t… I can’t believe all this,” a woman said.  Miss Militia.

“He’s really their creator?”  Defiant asked.  “Eidolon?”

“…Sixty percent sure.  Eidolon’s some kind of exception, on a lot of levels.  His power works by different vectors, the innate limits aren’t there… something broke, and I’m betting the Endbringers are tied to it.  Like, this entity is fissioning off into countless fragments that impregnate hosts and somehow a little extra gets tacked on.  Or Cauldron’s method of replicating the fragments gets that little extra.”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “But how does that help us here?”

“Getting to that.  Sort of.  Every power has secondary uses, uses that are locked away.  But maybe there’s something we can express using the powers, like a kind of parahuman charades.  Not, you know, actually miming something, but giving off a vibe.”

“I’ll try whatever,” I said.  “Who?  How?”

Tattletale smiled.  “Oh, this is fun.  It’s like a puzzle, but it’s not one with a clear cut answer.  Rachel, Canary.  Um.  Imp too.  And Taylor’s right.  Any use of power in a way that could be seen as violent might give the wrong cue.  So… none of that.  Let’s move people between ships.  Bitch, to the Pendragon.  Leave Bastard behind.  Canary, can you get out on top of your ship?  And Imp, same for you.  We need to distance you from the rest of us.”

Outside?” Imp asked.

“Outside and away.  Where your power doesn’t necessarily have a target.  You get me?”

“Three people using their powers,” Defiant said, “Without any valid targets?”

Exactly,” Tattletale said.

“I could lose my bugs,” I said.  “But I’m not sure I can express my power in a case like that.”

“Even if you could, but that would be pretty heavy handed.  It’s what we try next if this fails.  For now, let’s work with the existing plan.”

I pulled off my flight pack, then handed it to Imp.

“Oh, fun,” she said.  “God damn it.”

“No quips?  No jokes?”  I asked.  I helped her find the buckles and straps.

“When I’m done, maybe,” Imp said.  She glanced at Tattletale.  “I can’t turn my power on.  It’s always on.  I can turn it off, but that only works so long as I’m paying attention.”

“Don’t pay attention then.  Leave it running.  We’re trying to express an attitude.”

Imp nodded.

“What attitude is Imp?” I asked.

“Nonviolence, passivity,” Tattletale said.  “At least as far as we’re concerned.”

“And Rachel?”

“A call to arms, expression of strength.”

“And Canary is… cooperation?”

“Something along those lines.”

I nodded.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Lung would be too violent, and the focus of Vista’s power is too… location-driven?  I have no idea how she’d take Narwhal’s power, because it’s pretty evenly split between offense and defense.”

“Kind of abstract,” I said.

“I’m… reaching,” Tattletale confessed.  “Definitely reaching.  But reaching and abstract thought bought us the portal to Gimel, and I’ve got to flex my power somehow.”

“Somehow,” I agreed.  “No, it’s worth a try.  Or it will be if it doesn’t provoke her to violently murder us all.  Can I make a suggestion, though?”

“Any suggestions are good,” Tattletale said.

“Send Shadow Stalker instead of Imp.”

“You bitch,” Shadow Stalker said.  “No.”

Awesome idea,” Imp said.

“Shadow Stalker’s power doesn’t express itself over an area or any particular medium,” Tattletale said.  “It’s more personal.”

“Can’t she represent us?”  I asked.  “Or can’t the personal effect represent us?  If we had Imp flying up there way out of range of any of us, we’re still expecting her to represent our group, or humanity as a whole, aren’t we?”

“Sort of,” Tattletale said.

“Then I’m not sure I see the difference,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Shadow Stalker said.  “This is moronic.  Charades and acting like powers are some kind of massive signal flag for the Endbringer?  You’re lunatics.”

“Send them both?” I suggested.

“Oh, that’s less fun,” Imp said.  “You had a working plan, and you’re letting Tattletale convince you otherwise.  Come on.  Send the psycho crossbow girl and I’ll hang back here.  My power would send the total wrong message.  Totally.”

“Shh,” Tattletale said.  She frowned.  “Why Shadow Stalker?”

“Because Imp… is too passive.”

Way too passive,” Imp murmured.

“So’s Shadow Stalker,” Tattletale said.

“But Shadow Stalker’s passenger isn’t.  If there are any undertones, any way that the passengers influence our actions, then Shadow Stalker was definitely influenced.  I dug through her old records, read up on her history.”

“What?” Shadow Stalker asked.

“She got aggressive after she got her powers.  Generally more…” I searched for the way to phrase it.

“You fucking looked at my records?”

“…More violent than most people would be, in her shoes.  Lashing out, aimlessly at first, and then with a target, channeling the aggression.  Except it was the same amount of violence, just concentrated into fewer incidents, alongside a pretty extensive bullying campaign.”

“You’re doing this because of a grudge?”

“Let’s do it,” Tattletale said.  “Go with our guts.  Imp and Shadow Stalker, up on the roof.  Bitch, either you or Bastard need to head over to the Pendragon.  Canary on the roof of the Pendragon, singing with nobody listening.”

“You’re not getting me outside or any of that shit,” Shadow Stalker said.

“You’re scared,” Imp said.  “That’s so cute!  Is it a fear of heights or a fear of the Simurgh?”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker replied.  “I’m being sensible.  This is lunacy, and for what?  Charades with the Endbringer?”

“That was a metaphor,” Tattletale said.

“It sounds fucking stupid.”

“I’ve changed my mind,” Imp said.  “I’m going.  I’m not going to get lumped in with Sissy McNancypants over here and get called a coward.”

“I’m not scared,” Shadow Stalker said.

“We never really got to meet,” Imp said.  “Fight or any of that.  So I’ve only got the stories I’ve heard about you.  Like when you shot Grue with your crossbow and it went right through his stomach?  Took him a month to recover?  I used to think, you know, you were a badass.  But you’re a pussycat.”

“She’s a bully,” I said.  “At the end of the day, she only wants to fight opponents she knows she can beat.”

“I’ve fought two Endbringers,” Shadow Stalker said, stabbing a finger in my direction.  “I know what you’re trying to do.  Fucking manipulating me, getting me into a dangerous situation where you’ll get me killed.  Fuck you.”

“Fought two Endbringers as part of an army.  But going up alone, putting yourself in the line of fire against something that much bigger and stronger than you?  No.  You’re a bully at heart, and that’s the antithesis of your usual M.O.”

“Fuck you, Hebert.  Fuck you.”

The sentence left her mouth, and then she stalked to my right, making her way to the cockpit.  She passed through the glass, making her way onto the nose of the ship, where she crouched.  Her flapping cloak obstructed the view, even as translucent as it was, but there was no chance we’d hit anything.

It took a minute to arrange.  Narwhal created a force field platform and carefully moved Rachel over to the Pendragon.  I watched their glacially slow movement and the utterly still Simurgh.

More alarms went off as she moved her head a fraction to watch the floating platform.

It took a few long seconds for my heart to stop trying to jump out of my chest.  Not completely oblivious to us petty humans.

“The girl is right.  This seems… ridiculous,” Lung rumbled.

Oh, Lung and Shadow Stalker are of like mind, that’s wonderful.

“It is, just a little,” Tattletale said.  “But I’m hoping that if this doesn’t exactly work, she’ll give us credit for trying.”

“The Endbringers do not give you credit,” Lung said.

“No, guess not,” Tattletale said.  She bent down to scratch Bastard around the ears, then stopped short when he pulled back, clearly uncomfortable with the stranger.

“Ridiculous,” Lung repeated himself.  “And you stopped in the middle of a conversation.  She is waiting for you to continue.”

“She doesn’t care.  Ninety-nine percent sure.  Gotta understand, she’s not even close to human, especially once you scratch the surface.  We think in black and white, she thinks in… void and substance.  In abstracts or in causative contexts, looking into the future and seeing how things unfold.  So we’re going to try this, and maybe something sticks.”

“Mm,” Lung said, clearly unimpressed.

“Start us up again?”  Tattletale asked me.

I nodded.

“So, Simmy, Eidolon made you, or he’s been enough of an opponent that you’ve kind of got that weird frenemy thing going on.  Not in the shitty high school way, but a real love-hate relationship.  You know what I mean.  You fight them so long you get to know them, you almost respect them on a level, and that respect becomes something more.”

“You’re rambling,” I murmured.

Tattletale shook her head a little.  “Whatever the case, you’re reacting to his being gone.  We’re here because we’re asking you…”

Tattletale trailed off.  She’d noticed something.

My head turned.  Canary was singing, and I could hear it through my bugs.

Wordless, insistent, filled with a lot of repressed emotion.

Almost angry.

I shut it out as best as I could, took a second to focus wholly on keeping my power from communicating any sound to me.  I hit a button on the dashboard, then spent a few seconds tracking down one of Dragon’s programs.

Defiant found it first, loading it onto the Dragonfly’s system.  It began filtering out the singing.  Most of it.

But no sooner had Canary’s Song gone away than the Simurgh began screaming.

Not as intense as I’d heard it described.  Barely audible.

More ominous than anything.

Not full strength,” Miss Militia’s voice came over the comms.  “I give us five minutes.  Wrap this up.”

I unclenched my hands, belatedly realizing I’d been squeezing them so hard they almost hurt.  My fingernails throbbed where they’d been almost bent against my palms.  If I’d not been wearing my gloves, I might have pierced the skin.  I flexed my hands to work out the tension that had accumulated and exhaled slowly.

“We’re here,” Tattletale started again, “Because we’re asking you for help.  For vengeance.  For your strength.  We want you and the rest of the Endbringers on board to stop Scion.”

The Simurgh didn’t react.

“I don’t care if you’re doing it to fuck with us, though I’d prefer it if you saved any backstabbing for when Scion’s dead and gone.  Fucking wipe us out.  I don’t care.  Just so long as we go out with a bang, taking him out with us.”

I made a hand gesture, urging Tattletale to move on.

“…Do it for the psychological impact, leave a mark.  Or do it because Scion killed Behemoth, your brother, and some part of you is programmed with a sense of kinship or whatever.  But above all else, I’m hoping you’ll help us murder that golden alien motherfucker because he killed Eidolon, and he stripped you of your purpose.”

Sixty percent sure, I thought.  Tattletale had revised her number.  How confident was she now?

The speech had no meat to it if Eidolon hadn’t made the Endbringers.

Very little if he had.

Tattletale held up her hand to me again, another sign that I shouldn’t repeat what she was saying, because she was talking to us.  “Fuck this.  It’s like talking to a fucking answering machine.  I feel like some dim asshole with no idea what I’m talking about.  There’s no feedback, no responses to read and judge for the next line.”

“Well,” I said.  “She’s not exactly your usual target.”

What do you usually do?”  Narwhal asked.

“Needle someone until they get upset, then find cues in that.  I’d do that here, except irritating the Simurgh seems like an excuse to get a Darwin Award.”

Tattletale’s being cautious.  Must be the end of the world after all,” someone said.  Might have been Foil.

“She’s singing,” Tattletale said.  “So that’s either a good sign or a very bad sign.”

Going by the numbers,” Miss Militia said, “If we assume it’s half strength, I’d say three minutes before we have to abort.

“Maybe tell Canary to stop,” I said.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re getting a response.  Let’s hold out.”

Then keep talking,” Defiant said.

Tattletale sighed.  She perched herself on the bench, hands on her head.  “I don’t know if I should continue buying into this Eidolon thing.  Less convinced the further we go.  Most times, you get that key piece of information, and you can coast from there.”

“It’s very possible we don’t have enough information,” I said.

“I’m trying to communicate with something that doesn’t communicate back,” Tattletale said.

Reduce,” Defiant said.  “We’re trying to convey a message to a being that we don’t wholly understand.  You’re appealing to sympathy, to revenge.  Something simpler?

Like?” Tattletale asked.

They have a sense of self preservation,” Narwhal said.  “They run when we hurt them enough.  Fear?

“Because it allows them to maintain their mission,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think we can actually scare her, either.  Scion might, but we can’t.”

The screaming was getting worse.  Warbling, with highs and lows.  It snagged on my attention, making it harder to maintain a train of thought.

Maybe she was reaching out to us, communicating.  Maybe she was just doing her thing, trying to worm her way into our heads so she could figure out how we functioned, put her plans into motion.

Anger,” Rachel said.

I turned my head.

There was a long pause.  I glanced at the screen on the cockpit to see what she was doing, but she’d stopped by the time I got there to look.  “When I cut Behemoth’s leg off, after we’d melted most of him away, he was angry.  Stomped around, attacked more.  Kept fighting until he died.  Didn’t he?

“He did,” Tattletale said.  “But now we’re getting back to the whole ‘needling them’ issue of the debate.  I’m pretty sure I don’t want to provoke her.”

“Dunno,” Rachel said.  “Just saying.”

“No,” I said, “It’s good thinking.  It’s a possibility.”

I could think back to the images of the Simurgh going all-out.

I remembered the various incidents that had unfolded in her wake.  Echidna, the sundering of the PRT.  Things with ramifications that were affecting us even now.

“…A very scary possibility,” I amended.

Lung gave me a funny look.

“Yes,” he said, agreeing with me.

Tattletale made a gesture, pointing at herself.

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Okay, Ziz.  I’m going to be honest.  You’re pretty fucked.  You and I both know you were made by somebody or something.  Accidentally, probably.  You were designed to give us as hard a time as possible without exterminating us altogether, probably to feed someone’s ego, unbeknownst to them.  But what happens when we’re all gone?  What’s the fucking point of you?”

Tattletale paused.  Waiting, watching.

No reaction from Tattletale.

“What happens when we’re all gone?  You’re tapped into a power source.  Maybe most power sources.  You’re draining them dry just to keep yourselves going.  There’s nothing for you to do but linger, when there’s no humans left.  To hibernate.  So you’re gathering your forces.  You’re planning one last act, probably for a few days from now, where you wipe out humanity, and I’m betting it’s one last desperate, sad attempt to validate your existence.”

Alarms went off once more.  The Simurgh had moved, her head turning to look over one shoulder, flexing wings to move them out of the way, as if she couldn’t see through them but she could see well past the horizon.

She returned to the same posture as before.

“What was that about?” I asked.

Checking,” Defiant said.  “Keep going.  Any reaction is a good reaction.”

Maybe it was Scion, arriving just in time to pick a fight with the Simurgh.

I could hope.

Tattletale continued, and I repeated what she was saying verbatim, trying to even match her in tone and pitch.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  Shot in the dark.  You’re wanting to fight humanity because you’re trying to carry out the old programming, and Scion invalidated that by killing Eidolon, by killing someone else or destroying something.  I think that fighting and nearly killing a few billion humans is the equivalent of fighting and nearly killing Eidolon.  Or whoever.”

“One hundred and eighty integers of longitude to the west,” Defiant said.  “Leviathan just arrived.  That’s what got her attention.  We expected one to appear there, so Chevalier ordered us to put crews there with cameras for monitoring.  They’re there right now, reporting to me.”

A monitor shifted, depicting Leviathan, standing on the water’s surface in the midst of a heavy rainstorm.  The water around him was rippling, though he was utterly still.

Tattletale continued without pause, not responding or reacting to this information.  “All I’m saying, all I’m proposing, is that Scion’s a better bet than we are.  You want to give someone a fucking hard time?  Make that someone Scion.  You want to terrorize people?  Terrorize Scion.  Bigger challenge, and you’ll probably have the rest of us fucking scared out of our minds if you pull it off.  You want to fucking end the world?  Get in line, chickadee, because Scion’s going to beat you to the punch if you don’t stop him.”

Tattletale was almost breathless, speaking faster, with more emotion.  It was a challenge to convey that with a voice generated by the swarm.

“Or maybe you don’t care.  Maybe you’re nothing more than what you appear to be on the surface.  Head games and taking credit for shit you didn’t do.  Maybe you’re just a projection, blank between the ears, mindless, heartless, pointless.”

The ship moved a fraction, then adjusted, the autopilot kicking in.

“Did you feel that?”  I asked.  Tattletale had gone silent, and there were no words left for me to translate.

We did.

A reaction?  I adjusted the monitors, turning everything back to the Simurgh, looking for any clue, any hint.

But she didn’t have body language.  Every action was deliberate.  She didn’t have any that weren’t.

Tattletale’s voice was low.  I did what I could to match it, speaking through a swarm of over a million individual insects and arachnids.  “You’re supposedly this magnificent genius, and this is how you go out?  With a whimper?  Petering out like a stream without a source?  You’re honestly telling me there isn’t anything more to you?”

Another rumble, another shift, somewhat more violent.

Enough, Tattletale.”  Defiant’s voice.

“They run on different patterns.  Fair bit of anger, room for some vengeance.  Cleverness, sure.  More in her than in Behemoth.  Some killer instinct, maybe… a blend of fear and caution.  Not so they’re afraid, but so they can temper their actions.  This?  Right here?  It’s the closest we’re about to get to communicating directly with a passenger.”

I understand,” Defiant said.  “But that’s enough.

“They’re passengers?” I asked.

“The shell?  No.  The outer shell, the concept, the execution, they’re tapping into religious metaphors.  The devil, the serpent, the angel, buddha, mother earth, the maiden, each connected in turn to fundamental forces.  Flame, water, fate, time, earth, the self.  Things deep-seated and fundamental to their creator’s belief system, because that’s how the passengers interpret our world.  Through us.  But deep down?  Beyond that surface, beyond the basic programming that drives them to do what they’ve been doing for thirty years?  It’s the passenger’s brush strokes.  And I’m getting to her.”

No you’re not,” Defiant said.  “Because you’re stopping now.

“Fuck that,” Tattletale said.

“You’re stopping now because it worked.”

One by one, the monitors throughout the Dragonfly shifted, until the one at the very front was the only one that still showed the Simurgh.

The Dragonfly changed course as we looked at the scene that was showing on every other monitor.

The Azazel, airborne.  D.T. officers within were standing by the windows, while one with a camera was holding it above their heads, aiming it towards the window, pointed at the water.

A dark mass was beneath.

Leviathan, matching pace with the ship.

The Dragonfly and Pendragon broke from their orbit around the Simurgh.

The Simurgh followed.

The Yàngbǎn tore through the settlement, barely visible, as fast as arrows loosed from a bow.

One set of powers to give them speed, another to give them the ability to create crude images, illusions, blurry and indistinct.

A weak power, but far less so when coupled with the fact that they were making themselves just as blurry and indistinct.  To top it off, they were making themselves invisible for fractions of a second, and they were lashing out with short blades of cutting energy when they reappeared, slicing through the Australian refugees.

Bombs went off, coordinated, ripping through the spaces the Yàngbǎn had already passed through, cleaning up the ones who’d survived, killing the rescue personnel who were trying to save lives.

Earth Tav, barely two million people spread out across the globe, with this being the largest population center, based around the portal that Faultline, Labyrinth and Scrub had erected.

Without this base for supplies and communication, the other settlements would falter.  Disease would be crippling, food would be scarce at best.

And the Yàngbǎn would no doubt reap the rewards, claiming the planet for the C.U.I.

The Pendragon led the way through the portal, and it suffered the brunt of the bombs that the Yàngbǎn had left in their wake, no doubt to stop any reinforcements.

The Pendragon sank, no longer fully airborne, and the Dragonfly’s cameras could see as Golem, Vista and Cuff did what they could to patch it together.

Not enough.  It landed, hard.

Another bomb went off as the Pendragon hit ground.  Had the Yàngbǎn plotted that?  A second line of defense?

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

Give us a minute.  Nobody dead.

At least the Pendragon was a combat ship, meant to take a beating.  If the Dragonfly had been the first one through, we would have been obliterated.  At best, we’d have managed to evacuate with parachutes, flight packs and shadow-form powers.

We passed through the area the Pendragon had cleared.  One small ship against what had to be thirty Yàngbǎn members.  They didn’t move, but flickered, existing as scarce smudges and streaks of black and an odd midnight blue from the regions of their heads.  They cast out more smudges in matching colors with their image generation powers, turned invisible for one or two seconds at a time when they saw opportunities to catch refugees off guard.  Some merely killed.  Others slashed at eyes or ears, removed hands.  Butchered.

What would the C.U.I. want with scores of butchered people?

It wasn’t really the fault of the individual Yàngbǎn members.  They were brainwashed, subsumed into this collective of shared powers, their identities erased.

But that didn’t make their actions forgivable.

The Simurgh followed behind the Dragonfly, moving each wing until it was pointed straight behind her as she sailed through the narrow, oddly-shaped portal.

When she unfolded her wings, extending each until a veritable halo of them surrounded her, a complete circle, I could feel my heart skip a beat.

“We need to give her orders,” Tattletale said.

I nodded, mustering my swarm into a group large enough to communicate.

But there was no need.  She flew past us.

The singing had died down, but it welled up at full strength.  I almost staggered.

Rubble began to peel away from the demolished settlement beneath us.  Metal, bombs, pieces of structures.

As she reached less damaged areas, she picked up construction vehicles.

The fragments of metal around her were like a dense cloud, almost obscuring her, massive wings and all.

The singing increased in pitch.

A bomb detonated in the midst of the storm of debris, breaking up a bulldozer in the process.

Below her, the scene had gone still.  Yàngbǎn raider and civilian alike had gone still.  The smudges consolidated into forms.

Not the same Yàngbǎn I’d encountered before.  These ones wore similar outfits, but there were bodysuits beneath, no bare skin.  The multifaceted gem designs that covered their faces were dark blue, their costumes black.

Infiltrators.  A sub-set.  One of five sub-groups, apparently.

The debris settled into a single shape, drawing together.  Nothing welded, nothing screwed in together.  Merely a crude device, held together by telekinesis.

A fat, snub-nosed cannon, twice as long as she was tall.  She fired it, and the resulting bullet was nearly ten feet across, a sphere of hot metal.

It crashed into a trio of Yàngbǎn.

She used her telekinesis to sweep it off to the right.  The misshapen bullet was compressed into a rough sphere in the time it took to soar down a long road, smashing through two members of the Yàngbǎn.  A bystander was clipped, spinning violently before collapsing in a heap.  Shattered arm and ribs, if not dead.

I bit my lip.

Don’t injure civilians,” I communicated through the swarm.

She gave no sign she’d listened.  Her telekinesis grabbed four members of the Yàngbǎn who’d gotten too close, lifting them by their costumes or by some other debris that had surrounded them.

As if launched by catapults, they flew straight up, where they disappeared into the clouds above.

I winced as the screaming increased in intensity by another notch.

Did she have to do that?

I felt a touch of paranoia, not just at the idea, but at the fact that I’d been concerned.  Paranoia over the fact I was feeling paranoid.

The Simurgh had crafted another gun.  They floated around her like satellites, firing only in those intermittent moments when she’d formed and loaded the necessary ammunition.

Those are my guns,” Kid Win reported over the comms.  “Bigger, but mine.

I didn’t like that she was screaming.  It set an ugly tone to this whole venture.

I really didn’t like that we couldn’t direct her that well.  We were ending this confrontation decisively, we were probably even doing it more cleanly and with less damage to civilians than there would be if we’d handled it ourselves.

But we’d brought the Simurgh here and people were getting hurt as collateral damage.  That was on us, everything else aside.

“I… don’t know what to feel right now,” Imp said.

“It doesn’t feel good,” I said.

“I wish I knew what I’d said that got her on board,” Tattletale said.  “I went with the shotgun approach, trying to see what stuck… and now I don’t know what to leverage if we need to do it again.”

“You’re so whiny,” Rachel said.  “You say we need her help, we got it.  Good.  Maybe now we can fight.”

“Mm,” Lung grunted.  “This is true.  But I’ve seen what happens if you do something like this, something big, and you fall.  You fall hard.”

I nodded at that.  “Wise words, Lung.  Well said.”

“Do not talk to me,” he rumbled.

I only shook my head.

“Fuck me, you guys are serious?”  Shadow Stalker murmured.  “This is good?  This is luck.  There’s a reason I stick to my fists and my crossbow.  They’re reliable.  This Endbringer thing most definitely isn’t.”

“Of course it isn’t,” I said.  “But you know that whole saying, finding a boyfriend?  Young, smart, wealthy, pick two?  We don’t get to pick two, here.  Options at the end of the world: clean, safe, effective, pick one.”

“We got Bohu, but she doesn’t move fast at all,” Tattletale said.  “Leviathan’s on his way to pay the Elite a visit.  Collateral damage could be ugly there.”

“It isn’t sustainable,” I said.  “Somehow, I don’t think they’re going to sit still if we ask them to.  What happens if we run out of enemies to attack?  If we need to put Leviathan to work and there aren’t any targets that don’t involve even more collateral damage than we’ll see when he attacks the Elite?”

“People are going to fall in line damn fast,” Tattletale said.

“Probably,” I said.  “Or they’ll run for the hills.”

“Win-win,” Tattletale said.  “We were saying we needed people to split up more.”

The Simurgh opened fire, striking out with three guns, striking a neighborhood that had already been reduced to dust and flame by a series of bomb blasts.

“Somehow,” Imp commented, “This doesn’t scream win-win to me.”

I nodded.

“Nothing saying this isn’t another clever plan, set up to fuck with us, destroy our last shreds of hope,” I said.

The Yàngbǎn were opening fire.  Projectiles that moved slowly, splitting in the air until there was a virtual storm of them.  Had they been aimed at the Dragonfly, we wouldn’t have been able to dodge.  The Simurgh flew between the bullets like they weren’t even a concern.  Debris blocked the shots.

In the midst of her maneuvering, she drew together a third gun from the storm of debris.

Then she somersaulted, heels over head as she rapidly shifted direction.

In the moment it took her to build acceleration, she looked directly at the camera.

Directly at me.

She’d heard me, she understood, and she had responded.

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Extinction 27.1

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The news came through the earbuds, and it was like a shockwave rippled through our assembled ranks.  Some of the strongest of us dropped to their knees, staggered, or planted their feet further apart as though they were bracing against a physical impact.

The one Azazel that was still in the area landed atop one of Bohu’s buildings, nearly falling as a section slid off to drop to the empty street below.  It found its footing and roosted there.

The pilot couldn’t fly, and the A.I. wasn’t willing or able to take over.

The other capes were talking, shouting, asking questions, sometimes to nobody in particular.  With the blood churning in my ears, I couldn’t make out the words.  I’d used my bugs to find Hookwolf’s core, but they’d been decimated twice over in the process, and I wasn’t interested in trying to use them to figure out what was being said.

I could guess.

I raised my arms, then found myself unsure what to do with them.  Hug them against my body?  Hit something?  Reach out to someone?

I let my hands drop to my sides.

I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to cry out, swear at the overcast sky above us.

Then I shut it.

There were no words.  Anything I could do or say felt insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.  I could have used every bug in the city to utter something, something meaningful or crude, and it still would have felt petty.

I looked at the others.  Clockblocker was with Kid Win and Vista, Crucible and Toggle were nearby, on the back of a PRT van, bandaged.  They were looking over their shoulders at the screen mounted on the wall of the van.  Footage, covering ruined landscapes, and what had used to be the United Kingdom.

Parian and Foil were hugging.  Odd, to see Foil hunched over, leaning on Parian for support, her forehead resting at the corner of Parian’s neck and shoulder.  The crossbow had fallen to the ground, forgotten.

I wanted something like that.  To have a team close, to hold someone.  I hadn’t had something like that in a good while.

Chevalier was a distance away, his cannonblade plunged into the ground so he didn’t need to hold it, a phone to his ear.  He was talking, giving orders, and demanding information.

Revel was stock still, not far from him.  I watched as she stepped back, leaning against a wall, then let herself slide down until she was sitting on the street.  She placed her head in her hands.

I’d never known her to show any weakness.  She’d always been on the ball, always the leader.  I knew how much concussions sucked, and I’d seen her carry on and contribute to the Behemoth fight when she was reeling from one.

It hit me harder than I might have expected, to see that.

Tecton was standing a distance away, almost frozen, his eyes on the screen of his armband.  Golem did the same, but he wasn’t still.  He paced, looking around for guidance and finding none, then turned back to the screen, watching.

Glancing at the images from a distance, I could see the figure, the speck visible on the long range camera, surrounded by a golden nimbus.

I wasn’t close enough to make out details.  Only staccato flares of golden-white light.  On the third, the screens fizzled, showing only brief gray static, then darkness.

Another target hit.  He’d taken his time on that one, measured the attacks.

I took out my earbud before the report could come in.  Not my focus right now.

Instead, I reached for my phone.  I dialed the Dragonfly.

Would the A.I. be able to cope?  Saint had apparently pulled something.

If there was any hint he fucked us here, he’d pay for it.

The phone responded with a message.  An ETA.

My eyes turned to Rachel.  She was more agitated than Golem, her attention on her dogs.  She used a knife to cut away the excess flesh and retrieve the animals from the placenta-like sacs within their bodies, and the actions were aggressive, vicious, savage.  Her expression was neutral, but I could see the way the muscles shifted in her back, beneath the sleeveless t-shirt she wore, the tension, the way she was hunched over.

The attitude fit the Bitch I’d been introduced to, way back when I’d first joined the Undersiders, not the Rachel I’d come to know, who’d found a kind of peace.

Angry, defensive, bewildered.  Scared of a world she didn’t comprehend.  Aggressiveness was the default, the go-to route when there weren’t any answers.

It dawned on me.  I sympathized.  Given a chance, given something to do in that same vein, hacking through dead meat with a knife for some defined purpose, I might have acted exactly the same way.

She flinched as I approached, as if I were invading her personal space.  When she turned and glanced at me out of the corner of one eye, glowering, the tension faded.

I drew my own knife and started helping.  Bugs flowed into the gap and gave me a sense of where the sac was.  I was able to cut without risking cutting the dog inside.  It helped that my knife was sharp.

We were both sweating by the time we finished.  Rachel had already been sweating from more physical exertion, and her hair was stuck to her shoulders at the ends.  The German Shepherd got free, walked a polite distance away and then shook herself dry.

I looked at my phone, my gray gloves crimson with the dog’s blood.  There were incoming messages.  Updates on the damage, the disaster, and on Scion’s current location.

I ignored them, looking for the Dragonfly’s status.

Minutes away.  It had already been headed into the area by default, tracking me by my GPS, ready to maintain a constant distance until I was prepared to call for it.

That was fine.  I started walking down the length of the street, my back to the others, to the Azazels and the heroes.  Rachel fell into step just a bit behind me, her dogs and Bastard accompanying us.

Parian and Foil were still hugging.  I paused as we passed them, tried to think of how to word the invitation.

Parian’s eyes weren’t visible, hidden behind the lenses on the white porcelain mask she wore.  I hadn’t thought she was looking at me, but she shook her head a little.

Good.  Easier.  I left them behind.

The Dragonfly started to land in an open area, an intersection of two streets.  Moments later, the ground began to crumble.  The craft shifted position, coming perilously close to striking a building as it avoided falling into the hole that had appeared in the street.  A trap.

Rachel boarded the craft.  As I waited for the dogs and Bastard to join us, I looked into the pit.  As deep as a six or seven story building was tall.

I turned away, boarding the Dragonfly.  I plotted a course, then took manual control of the craft.

The A.I. was better at flying than I was, but flying meant I didn’t have to think.  Didn’t have to worry about what I was about to find out.

Rachel didn’t seat herself at the bench along the wall, or even at the chair behind mine.  She sat down beside me, on the floor of the Dragonfly, her back against the side of my seat, the side of my leg, staring out the narrow side window.  It was physical contact, reassurance, seeking that same reassurance from me.  Her dogs settled on either side of her, Bastard resting his head on her lap.

We had the whole country to cross.  Every few minutes brought more visuals, more reminders of what had occurred.  Highways grew choked with cars.  Countless vehicles had stopped at the sides of roads, at the edges of fields and at the fringes of small towns.

Innumerable people running, seeking escape.  Except there wasn’t anyplace good to escape to.

No.  That wasn’t true.  There was.

But the degree of the damage done was becoming clear.  Before we even reached the East coast, I could see the damage done to the landscape.  Smoke was only just settling around the cracks and fissures, fallen bridges and ruined highways.  People were making concerted attempts to move, to leave, but every step of the way brought more difficulties, more forced detours.  Some had abandoned cars altogether, wading or swimming across rivers to make their way.

Every step of the trip revealed more devastation, successively more vehicles choking roads and highways, forging paths around impassable roads.  More and more people were forging ahead on foot, in crowds, because walking was faster than travel by car.

More helicopters, marked with red crosses, had taken to the skies.  Travel by ambulance wasn’t doable.

This was one place.  One moment’s attack.  The display in the cockpit was showing more locations hit.  Libya, Russia, France, Sweden, Iran, Russia again, China…

Time passed.  Forty-five minutes from the point in time I started paying attention to the clock, searching for a yardstick to try to track the scale of what I was seeing on the surface.  How much worse did things get in five more minutes of traveling?  In ten?  It all seemed to get exponentially worse as the Dragonfly took flight.  It wasn’t just that we were getting closer to the point where the attack had hit.  Enough time had passed that people could react, now, realizing just how severe this was.  All of the power of Behemoth, mobility almost on par with Khonsu.

The psychological toll of a Simurgh attack.

These were the people with a strategy.  Doing just what I’d be doing if I were one of the unpowered.  The world was doomed, so they sought to flee to another world.  Problem was, there were tens of millions of them, and the escape routes were scarce at best.

The best known escape route: Brockton Bay.

I felt my heart sink as we approached the coast.  Mountains I’d grown up with weren’t there.  I let the autopilot take over as we got closer, approaching an airspace choked by rescue aircraft.

I didn’t trust my own hands.

It had collapsed.  The blast had only struck the northern edge of Brockton Bay, then changed orientation, striking through the bay itself to slice through the very foundation the city sat on.  Everything had been dropped a solid thirty or forty feet.  Tall buildings had collapsed and only the squatter, sturdier structures and those fortunate enough to come to rest against other buildings were still mostly erect.

Folding and collapsing, the entire city had been shattered, no section of the ground more than twenty-five feet across remained fully intact.  The landscape rose and fell like waves, petrified and left frozen in time.

The portal tower had fallen, but the portal remained there, oddly bright, too high to reach on foot.  Work crews were struggling to erect something beneath, so the civilians could finish their journeys.  The new arrivals were alternately joining in with the construction and making their way inside by way of rope ladders.

Elsewhere, there were capes and rescue crews trying to contain the fallout around the scar.  A structure had been raised to seal it off, but the collapse of the city had released the contents.  A lot of containment foam was being deployed to slow the spread of a pale patch of earth, and there was one spot of fire that didn’t seem to be going out.

But the most eye-catching thing was a thin, scintillating forcefield that was holding off the water.  It was taller than any building that had stood in the city, an artificial dam.  Every few minutes, it flickered for a tenth of a second, and water would flood through to seep into the gaps and fissures.  In time, I suspected, the water would cover everything in the area but the tallest buildings and the hills.  Arcadia High might stick around.  Maybe.

I recognized the rainbow hues.  It was the same force field that had been intended to protect the Protectorate headquarters.  Leviathan had torn the structure apart at the roots, and the tidal wave had knocked it into the city proper.  In the time since I’d left, they’d repurposed the fallen structure and the forcefield setup.

Not, apparently, to try to block Scion’s attack.  No.  This was more to stop the water, to break that initial wave, so it wouldn’t simply sweep the ruins out to sea.

I could only hope they’d done similar things elsewhere, to minimize the damage.

We circled the city twice before I gave the go-ahead for the A.I. to start descending.

My second sense extended through the area as we approached the ground, extending out to the bugs that were scattered throughout the ruined, shattered city.  I immediately set them to work, searching, scanning, investigating.

I changed the course, dictating a final, slow, sweep of the city.

Not everyone had made it.  Stupid to think they might.

My dad’s house was gone, collapsed.  Nobody inside.

Winslow High, gone.

The mall, the library, Fugly Bob’s, the boat graveyard, my old hideout, gone.

My old territory, unrecognizable.  The Boardwalk was underwater now.

It didn’t even take him seconds to do.

Too many dead, not enough who were merely wounded and unable to walk.  Humans were so fragile in the end.  I stopped the Dragonfly and stepped out to seek out the first wounded.  My bugs signaled rescue teams to get their attention.

The wounded here could have been my dad’s coworkers.  People he went out to drinks with.  They could have been Charlotte’s underlings.

So easy, in the midst of it all, to lose track of the fact that these were people.  People with families, friends, with dreams, lives and goals.

Golem had said something like that, hadn’t he?

How many people had simply been erased in the wake of something this random, so instantaneous?  So inexplicable?  I still wasn’t sure what had happened.  Tattletale was supposed to fill people in, but she hadn’t gotten in contact with me.

Or had she?  I’d taken my earbud out.  I looked to my phone, looked for transmissions.

A burst of messages, following just after takeoff.  From the Chicago Protectorate, people who might have been my teammates if I’d ever been inaugurated.  More messages, from Chevalier and the Brockton Bay teams.

I didn’t read them all.  My eyes on the phone, I pointed the search and rescue to the next batch of wounded.  I knew it was cold, but the corpses would have to wait.  There were living people to find.

There were no shortage of corpses.  The number of living people, by contrast, well… we’d see what happened in the next twenty-four hours.

The number of messages declined about thirty minutes after takeoff, then stopped altogether.  Everyone who might have wanted to talk to me had found other things that needed doing.  Other priorities, personal or professional.

Which was exactly why I was here.  I’d just arrived at that conclusion earlier than they had.  I put my phone away.

My mouth was pressed into a firm line as I helped the rescue workers.

We lifted a corner of a second floor’s floor, making room for someone get under and start retrieving a pair of women.  Rachel whistled and pointed, and her German Shepherd seized the floor in its jaws.

The rescue workers seemed to hesitate with the dog’s presence, so I took the lead, crawling inside on my stomach.  I used my hands with the arms on my flight pack to move enough debris that we could slide the second woman out.

There were more.  Almost without thinking about it, I let myself slide back into the mindset I’d held for the past two years.  Sublimating what I wanted to do in favor of doing what needed to be done.

Minutes ran into one another as we worked.  I could see Rachel growing progressively more short-tempered, slower to give the orders, hanging back, rushing with the jobs.

That ended when we rescued a child that had a puppy wrapped in her arms.  She clutched the limp animal like it was a security blanket, not crying, not speaking.  She only stared at the ground, coughing hoarsely whenever she had to move.  Her parents had been on either side of her, and neither had made it.

The paramedics fit her with an oxygen mask, but they failed to pry the animal from her arms.

I looked at Rachel, but she only shook her head.

Rachel’s power healed animals, but this one was gone.

From the moment we left that girl to be loaded onto a stretcher and carried off to firmer ground, Rachel moved a little more quickly, a little more decisively.

We finished with one site where the ground had collapsed and people had fallen into a depression, and then moved on to the next area.  Some heroes were working alongside the authorities to try to rescue people from a building that had partially tipped over.

Clockblocker was there, along with Vista.  I joined my powers to theirs in finding people and opening the way.  Frozen time was used on panels, which were subsequently layered, so that one could offer support if another stopped working prematurely.  Vista reinforced areas, then opened doorways, as I designated rooms where people were trapped within.

A golden light streaked across the sky in the wake of Scion’s flight, just along the horizon.  A thinner beam being directed from Scion to the ground as he passed.

The aftershock of his passing took time to reach us.  Steam started to billow, but the forcefield absorbed it.

The shuddering of the ground was more problematic.  The entire city rumbled in response to the distant attack, a blow that was no doubt slicing deep into the earth’s crust, forcing everything to resettle.

The building we were working on was among those things that resettled.  I watched as the building started to slide where it was resting against the building beside it, slowly descending, building speed.

My flight pack kicked in, and I flew through a window.  I could feel the glass scrape against my scalp and the fabric of my costume.

I found one person, a twenty-something guy, took hold of their wrist, and pulled them behind me, running and using my flight pack at the same time.

Tearing him through the window meant slashing him against the shattered glass, and the weight wasn’t something I could manage with my flight pack.  The building fell down around the people on the ground as I fell too far, too fast.

The wing on my flight pack was still broken.  Couldn’t trust the propulsion.

I let him fall into a tree instead, from a solid two stories above, and then focused the rest of my energy into pulling out of the plunge.

The building was still crumbling as I landed a distance away.  The rumble brought other, smaller structures down.  I stood and watched as it continued its course.

There’d been seven more people to rescue inside.  The other buildings in the area that had been caught up in the domino effect had contained three more.  That was just in my range.  How many more were dying as he continued towards the mainland, cutting deep into the plate of land that the landmass was perched on?

He hadn’t even been near us.  Closer to New York or Philadelphia than anything.  More lives taken, purely collateral.

When the dust settled, I moved in to help the people who had been on the ground.  Vista and Clockblocker had protected most, between a dome and a shelf of land to provide shelter.  Rachel, for her part, had helped others run in time, snatching them up with her dogs, but I counted three more dead, one dying.

Seeing them like that, bleeding, still warm, it caught me off guard.  A kind of anxiety rose in the pit of my stomach, like an impulse to do something coupled with the frustration of knowing that everything I could manage to come up with was futile, hopeless.  I either couldn’t do anything or I couldn’t think of what to do.  It put me in mind of being back at high school, before I had my powers.  Of being a child, powerless and unable to act.

I saw the image of Parian holding Foil in my mind’s eye, and it was joined by an almost sick feeling of mingled relief and fear.  I knew exactly what I wanted and I was terrified to seek it out.

I could feel that same impatience Rachel had expressed earlier, but I couldn’t turn my back on this.  I got the guy out of the tree and found him okay, but for a broken arm.  He didn’t thank me, but I let myself chalk that up to him being in shock.  I almost stumbled over to the latest injured and I attended to the wounded until the medics pulled themselves together, got organized and relieved me.

Then I backed away, flexing my hands, feeling how stiff they were, battered by my attempts at moving things, at pushing things aside.  My gloves, too, were stiff, crusted with dried blood, layered with dirt and fresh blood.

I looked at Rachel, and saw her gazing at the portal.

I didn’t really have a home anymore.  Knowing my old house was leveled, that the cemetery where my mother had been laid to rest was gone, and that I’d never really come back here to hang out with the Undersiders… it hurt in a way that was very different from a knife wound, being shot or being burned.  A crushing feeling, more like.  But it was tough for reasons beyond the fact that I considered it home.  I’d relinquished Brockton Bay, and my concern right now was more to do with the residents than the place itself.

I didn’t have a home in Chicago.  Not in the jails, either.

But Rachel had forged a home for herself, and it had been in arm’s reach since we’d arrived.

Bastard and the dogs seemed to know I’d decided before I said or did anything.  Rachel and I fell in step behind them.

Rachel mounted Bastard before we got to the portal.  The efforts to erect a proper support beneath the portal had been set back by Scion’s strafing run, which left the portal hanging in the sky.  Train tracks extended out from the portal in every direction, twisted and broken where collapsing ground had pulled other sections away.

There had been a tower erected around the portal, but it had collapsed into shambles as the ground dropped.  Now they were using the pieces to form the general structure for a tower of ramps that would lead up to the portal.

Bastard picked up speed as he approached the tower, then set his claws on one of the ramps.  The tower wavered perilously as Bastard leaped up to a higher point, coming to a rest on the very top of the dilapidated structure.  It didn’t look like there were nearly enough reinforcements, and I could see everyone present tense as they saw the mutated wolf’s weight come to rest.

That tension redoubled as the wolf flexed its muscles, hunching down, and then leaped, more up than across, to get to the portal itself.  A few planks of wood broke in that sudden, powerful movement, and one rail of the train track fell free as the wolf scrabbled for a grip on the ground beneath the portal.

When she was gone, the people beneath simply resumed work, heads down, dirty, defeated.

I took flight, entering the portal for the first time.

Earth Gimel.

The tower that contained the portal had a counterpart in Gimel, a matching tower, tall and riddled with train tracks, like a train station designed by Escher, tall rather than squat, with wide doorways for the trains to exit, and complicated reinforcements for the aboveground tracks, positioned so as not to interfere with the tracks below.

I flew out through one of those gates, catching up with Rachel.

Trains extended in every direction from the portal, on tracks that extended out into the middle of nowhere, into pristine forest and mountains.  They were long, almost absurdly long.

Then again, the whole idea had been to have instant evacuation.  Rather than have people make their way to trains, they’d had eight trains that simply spanned the length of Brockton Bay, so any given individual had to find the nearest train car and make their way down the aisle to an empty seat.

Around the tower, a small, odd settlement had sprung up.  All of the sensibility of the city, but contained to a small area.  Tall buildings, wide streets, and a look that matched up with a city proper rather than a smaller town.  It was as though someone had cut and pasted the big city into the middle of this landscape.

On any other day, it would have been energizing, the fresh air, the sunny day, the green and the blue water of the bay, subtly different from the shape of the bay I knew.  But today wasn’t that day.

People at benches were clipping the corners off of refugee’s drivers licenses and trading them for food rations and tents.  Everything was prepped, set up in advance, and people were being orderly, even though the lines were so lengthy it looked like it might be hours before they got what they wanted.

Those that already had their kits were setting up or settling into spaces they’d designated for themselves.  Some clustered close to the settlement, while others spaced out, where they’d have more elbow room.  The tents were identical, dotting the area.  The kits, apparently, included signs, and these same signs listed family names and details.

John and Jane Roe.  1 Diabetic.

Hurles family. 
Two infants.

Jason Ao.  Looking for Sharon Ao my wife.  A crude picture was drawn beside the message.

I scanned the signs, looking for names I might recognize.  I headed in the direction Rachel had gone, but I moved carefully, making a mental note of everything I saw.

It was an extension of what I’d seen back in Los Angeles.  People trying to cope against something where coping was a pipe dream.  There were some breaking down in tears, people getting angry, those who had withdrawn into themselves.

In each expression, there was something that echoed my own feelings.  A part of me wanted to hide from that, but another part of me knew I couldn’t.

It wouldn’t do any good, but I made a mental note of faces, of the pain, the loss.  People who’d been removed from their homes and had all hopes for the future dashed.  If I ever had the opportunity to get revenge, to get back at Scion for doing this, I wanted to remember these faces, find just a little more strength, make it hurt that much more.

But I wasn’t one for simply wanting to help, paying lip service and promising vengeance felt hollow.  Instead, as a token gesture, something that might not even be noticed, I gathered up every mosquito in range and proceeded to murder them with other bugs.  I kept the biting flies.

I wrapped the bugs around me.  Fuck PR.  The faint weight of the insects was reassuring, like a blanket.  A barrier against the world, like Tecton’s armor or Rachel’s intimidating nature.

A sign caught my eye.  I stopped, looking over the people in the small campsite.

Barnes.

No further details, no requests.  I almost hadn’t recognized them.

Alan, Emma’s dad, had lost weight since I’d seen him last.  He’d noticed me, and looked up, staring, his eyes red.  His wife sat in a lawn chair beside him, while Emma’s older sister sat on a blanket at her mother’s feet, her mother resting one hand on her head.

Zoe’s -Emma’s mom’s- eyes were wet.  Emma’s sister looked equally upset.

Emma wasn’t in sight.  I could guess what they were crying about.

Alan was staring at me now, and there was an inexplicable accusation in the look.  His wife took his hand and held it, but he didn’t move his eyes a fraction.

When Anne, Emma’s sister, looked up at me, there was a glimmer of the same.  A hint of blame.

Emma hadn’t made it.  How?  Why?  Why could they all leave while Emma wouldn’t be able to?  I might have thought Emma had been somewhere out of reach, but that didn’t fit.  There would be no certainty she was dead.  They’d be putting her name on a sign and hoping she turned up?

And why would they blame me?  For failing to stop this from happening?

Fuck that.

I turned and walked away.

Once I was out of their immediate vicinity, I took a few running steps and let my flight pack lift me up.  Better than zig-zagging between the campsites.

I floated over a sea of people with their heads down, their expressions alternately emotional and rigidly stoic in defeat.  Hundreds or thousands of tents surrounded the area, and string fences no higher than one’s calf bounded off each of the sites.

Rachel had made her way outside the city limits, past even the tents that were set a five or six minute walk from any of the others.  I followed her over the hill, to another small set of buildings.  Cabins set on what had been Captain’s Hill in Earth Bet.  I knew they were Rachel’s because of the dogs that were scattered around the premises, a small crowd milling around Bastard and the other mutant canines.

The largest cabin had three large bison skulls placed over the cabin door.  Bastard and the other dogs had been tied up outside like horses, left to shrink, with a trough of water to drink from.

I landed, and I was struck by the realization that my flight pack might not be so easy to recharge, now.  I still had the spare, fully charged, but Defiant might have his hands full, and the infrastructure or resources might not be available.

It was a minor thing.  Inconsequential, in terms of everything that was going on.  It wasn’t like the flight pack was going to matter a bit against Scion.  But it was one more reminder of what was truly happening.

I stopped and turned to look over the landscape.  I turned my head right until the small settlement and the sea of tents wasn’t quite visible, then turned it to the left to do the same.  Focusing on the nature, the untouched wilderness.

Is this what Brockton Bay will look like, if we can’t win this fight?  How many years does it take for the last building to collapse, for dirt and grass to drown away any and all signs we were ever there?

It was a daunting thought, a heavy thought that joined countless others.

The dogs barked as I approached on foot.  I kept calm and waited.

I recognized the girl with the funny colored eyes and darker skin from Rachel’s hideout.  I’d met her on my last week in Brockton Bay.  With her presence alone, the animals collectively quieted.  A single dog barked one last time, with two others reflexively following with barks of their own, but that ended it.  The girl held the door open from me, and the dogs didn’t protest as I made my way inside.

Rachel was sitting on a couch with dogs arranged around her.  Angelica was afforded a bit of favoritism, and received a touch of extra attention from her master.  She, in turn, was extending a gentleness to Rachel that went beyond Angelica’s poor health and the glacial movements that accompanied chronic pain.  Rachel looked defensive, her eyes cast down at the ground.  Something more severe than the whole Scion business.

Charlotte, Forrest, and Sierra were present too, keeping their distance, keeping silent as we met again for the first time in over a year and a half, not moving from where they stood.

The kids gathered at the far end of the room, silently occupying themselves with a mass of puppies.  I recognized Mason and Kathy, and didn’t recognize Ephraim at first glance.  Jessie was conspicuously absent, but nobody seemed to be reacting to that gap.  She’d left on her own, maybe.  Found family.

Aidan sat off on his own, a pigeon sitting on his knee.  He opened and closed his hands, and the bird hopped from the one knee to the other, then back again.  Something had happened there, but it wasn’t a focus.  Not right now.

Tattletale sat in her computer chair, but the computer screens were dark, the computers themselves unlit, quiet and still.

I didn’t like the emotion I saw on her face any more than I liked what I saw with the others.

Pity.  Sympathy.

It wouldn’t be Grue.  No.  That didn’t fit.  He’d been flying back, and he hadn’t been so far away that he’d be in the path of danger.

Not Imp either.  Parian and Foil had been fine the last time I’d seen.

No.

Tattletale was best situated to focus on Brockton Bay.  Who had made it.  Who hadn’t.  And there was only one Brockton Bay resident who truly mattered, that hadn’t been accounted for.

I felt a lump in my throat growing with every heartbeat, expanding every time I tried to swallow and failed.

Without waiting for a response, for any words of pity, or even verification, I turned and pushed my way out the door, taking flight.

I flew.  Up over the bay, away from the city, away from this alien Earth.  I blinded myself with my own swarm, drowned everything out with their drone, their buzz, their roar.

All of this time, the sacrifices, the loss of security.

The loss of me.

To do what?  To stop this?

It had happened despite our attempts to the contrary.

To reconnect with my dad?

We had reconnected.  I’d come clean about who and what I was.  We’d built up a relationship that was new, accounting for the fact that we were changed people.  Now, as I continued to fly, to put distance between myself and everything, I wasn’t sure it had been worth it.

The wind blew my hair, and I let my swarm move away, revealing the open ocean all around me.  There was only the wind and the sound of the water to hear.  The smell of salt water I’d come to miss.

My dad was gone, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back and get verification.  I couldn’t handle it if there wasn’t verification.

I was cognizant of the fuel gauge, of the dwindling power of the flight pack.  I knew I’d have to go back.  I knew there was stuff to do.

But I’d spent the last age trying to build towards something, to prepare for the pivotal moment.  I’d played my role, helped stop Hookwolf.  I’d communicated with Foil to urge her to play possum, tracking where the enemy was and what they could see.  It had led to us taking down Gray Boy and Siberian, trapping Jack.

And now the death toll was climbing.  Scion continued his rampage, and I hadn’t even had the guts to own up to the failure.

I couldn’t bring myself to go back and do something minor.  It was arrogant, proud, but I couldn’t bring myself to do search and rescue while the population was steadily scoured from the planet, the major cities wiped out like a human child might kick down anthills.

There was nothing in the worlds that I wanted more than a hug and I couldn’t bring myself to ask for one.  My dad and Rachel were the only ones I could trust to offer one without further questions, without platitude or commentary, and I couldn’t get to Rachel without going through the others.  My dad was even farther from my reach.

The mask I’d erected to see things through to this point was cracking and I couldn’t bear to show anyone my face.

The fuel gauge ticked down.  I noted it reaching a critical point, where reaching land before I ran out might be difficult, if not impossible.

The sky was darkening.  No clouds, no city lights.  A cloud passed over sunset and the moon overhead, and it was startling just how dark things became.

A fluorescent glare cut through the darkness.  My hair and my swarm stirred.  I could feel the breeze from behind me.

I didn’t turn around.

“Your call,” Tattletale said, her voice quiet.  “I’d like you to have my back, but I understand if-”

I shook my head, my hair flying out to either side.  I turned around and floated over to the doorway that hung in the air.

I set foot on solid ground, and felt weirdly heavy when I did.  It took me a moment to find my balance.

Tattletale caught me as the door closed beside us.  Then she wrapped her arms around me in a hug.  Odd, that she was shorter than me.  When did that happen?  I could remember her giving me a one-armed hug once, a long time ago.  She’d been just a little taller than me then.  Just the right height for a hug.  Now we were like Foil and Parian.  I was taller, receiving comfort from someone shorter than me.

I’d underestimated her.  She didn’t ask any questions or offer any sympathy.

“They’re all here,” she said.  “Ready?”

I hesitated, then spoke.  My voice was rough.  “Ready.”

We didn’t budge.  She didn’t break the hug.

Fuck it all,” I muttered.  My voice was still weird with emotion.  Maybe I’d keep my mouth shut at this meeting.

“Fuck it,” she agreed.

That said, we broke apart, took a second to breathe, and then made our way into the meeting room.

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Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.3

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“Hey, Weaver?”

I had to twist around to look at Crucible.  We were in the hallway just outside a set of elevators, windows on one side, doors at either end of the hallway leading into offices.  This was something of a waiting game, as Tecton and Revel got their teams into position to support Golem.

Through countless stakeouts, I’d found a routine.  Cheating on the ‘can’t do anything but sit there’ rule and reading while my bugs saw to everything else was a part of that routine.  I was nestled in between two pillars that sat between clusters of windows, my back against one, one knee propped up, a file in my lap.  My cliff notes on the various members of the Nine.

“I wanted to say thanks,” Crucible said, “Appreciate the invite.  Hundreds of superpowered lunatics, some of the scariest guys around, and that’s not even the scariest part of all of this!  But Chevalier’s all, ‘Weaver specifically asked if you’d help.’  How the hell am I supposed to say no to him?”

“You just say no,” Clockblocker said, before I could respond.  “You’re team leader, I’d even argue it’s your job to say no when the situation calls for it.  More than leading the team, more than strategy or handling double the paperwork or attending the meetings.  You decide what jobs are out of your team’s depth and you tell the bosses to go fuck themselves, in the politest terms possible.”

“It’s Chevalier.  Important guy.”

“And when we asked you if you were okay with me taking command, that was your opportunity to say no.  His rank doesn’t matter.  He’d probably respect you more if you told him your team wasn’t prepared and then stuck to your guns.”

You didn’t tell anyone to go fuck themselves,” Crucible said.

“No.  And I agreed to help out with this because this is important.  My old teammates have been preparing for this in their own time, and-”

“-And you’ve got a thing for Weaver,” the Ward I hadn’t yet met said.  It was a girl, flanked by five shadowy silhouettes of herself, who were sitting around her on the other side of the hallway.  I’d read up on her, and I knew her as Toggle.  The ‘baby’ of the team, it seemed, at fourteen.  She held what looked like a mace, but it, along with the layered body armor she wore, had circles of light glowing in shifting colors.

There was a long, awkward silence.  I glanced at Clockblocker, but he appeared unfazed.  Not that I could really tell.  His armor still had animated clock faces digitally displayed on the open spaces, and there was one in the middle of his face.  Was the varying speed and position of the hands supposed to indicate something, or was I reading too much into it?

“That was a joke,” Toggle said.

“I’m not dignifying it with a response,” Clockblocker said.

“Clocksie’s sweet on Weaver,” Imp said.  “Aww.”

Clocksie,” Clockblocker said, deadpan, “Has been the target of a lot of criticism, because he was in charge of the Wards at the time a lot of stuff went down.  Some dingbats online speculated that I had a thing for Weaver, and it took off.  The people online like to find stuff that fills in blanks, and there were a hell of a lot of blanks around the whole thing with Weaver defecting, and our pseudo-truce with the Undersiders.”

“They latched onto the idea,” I said.

“Yep.”

“Sorry,” I told him.

“Not your fault, not exactly.  The city’s pretty peaceful, pretty safe, and nobody even hints about why, but people know.  My bosses know why, and that means my career might never recover.  The only thing keeping things remotely interesting is the challenge of trying to get to any new bad guys before the Undersiders do, to enforce real justice instead of vigilante scare tactics-”

“We’re awesomely good at the scare tactics though,” Imp cut in.

Clockblocker ignored her.  “-Except we barely even get to do that, because Tattletale’s always a few steps ahead.  Then, to top it all off, I hear about the Weaver-Clockblocker thing every single day, to the point that it’s sad.  Salt in a wound.”

Silence lingered.

“Jesus, Clock,” Vista said, after that.  “Pent up much?”

“Fuck, you’re right.  I’m stressed, ignore me,” Clockblocker said.  “Like Crucible said, it’s a lot to manage.  Sorry.”

“I just wanted to make a funny,” Toggle said.

“Don’t worry.  Clockblocker used to be the funny one,” Vista said.  “Now he’s the asshole grown up that tears the funny kid to shreds.”

Clockblocker didn’t respond to that.  Instead, he shifted the device he’d been wearing on his back against the wall and sat down between the elevators.

Waiting on my lonesome was easier.

My bugs crawled all around the exterior of our target.  The buildings in this town were smallish, the tallest being five stories, and this contingent of the Nine had chosen it as their destination.

Not a single gap.  They’d barely had any time, but they had hermetically sealed the structure, containing themselves and every single resident within.  The windows and doors had been sprayed with something red that trickled out of cracks only to harden.  My bugs explored cracks in the foundation, and found that same vaguely tacky, amber-like barrier blocking the openings where they should have been able to enter the building.

Doors, windows, cracks, vents, all protected.

I could estimate seven apartments per floor.  One on the ground floor, for the building manager.  Assuming they weren’t bachelor apartments, that suggested fifty-five to sixty people in total, trapped within, along with hostages and an unknown number and composition of the Nine.

“I have to ask,” I said, not looking in Clockblocker’s direction, “This end of the world thing.  The way you talk about the future, life beyond this supposed apocalypse event.  Can you do that because you’re optimistic,  or because you don’t think it’ll happen?”

“I do it because I have to.  You can’t stay sane, thinking it’s all going to end soon.  There has to be something beyond it.  If you get to that point and then we figure out a way to resolve it, then what happens after that?  You need a real life.”

“If you get to that point and you’ve plotted out the rest of your life, and we lose, then aren’t you going to be devastated?” I asked.

“I’m good at handling devastation,” Clockblocker said.  “Don’t worry about me.”

I shrugged.

I can’t really believe it,” Crucible said.  “World ending situation?”

“Oh, I believe it,” Clockblocker said.  “The crazy powers we get?  One of them’s bound to break something somehow.”

“The wrong power in the wrong hands,” Kid Win said.  He’d reconfigured the outside of his suit so the armored upper body folded down into a pair of gauntlets, allowing him to walk forward like a gorilla, the two halves acting as massive fingerless gauntlets.  It wasn’t pretty, and it left his head and upper body more exposed, but it let him maneuver inside.  He seemed to muse a second, then agreed, “Yeah.”

Interesting to see the divide, I thought.  The veteran members vs. the newer ones.

“See, I don’t think it’s the wrong power in the wrong hands,” Clockblocker said.  “I think it’s a joke.  Humanity destroys itself, and all these powers, they just open the door to let it happen.  It’s not going to be some villain overlord or even a monster like Jack who does it.   I’m more liable to believe the world ends because of some deluded, fat, pimply faced punk kid that lives off pizza and mountain dew.  There’s no damn point to it, but sometimes I look at the idiots, the selfish assholes and the maniacs that fill this world and I think that’s all we deserve.”

“I like your line of thinking,” Imp said.  “The world gets destroyed by some loser who jacks off twelve times a day to the freakiest, nastiest parahumans.”

“Thank you,” Clockblocker said.  “For so eloquently demonstrating what I was saying about us deserving it.”

“No problemo,” Imp said.

“That doesn’t exist, does it?”  Toggle asked.  “Case fifty-three porn?”

“Everything exists,” Kid Win said.

“Um, it just hit me.  When you were saying we deserve it, were you talking about pimple-face the world destroying freak-fetishist or were you talking about me?”

I shut my eyes and tuned out the conversation.  It was good that they were talking, staying calm, more or less getting along.

Grue and Rachel arrived from the stairwell.

“Anything?” Imp asked.

“No,” Grue said.

“The Red Hands leave already?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Grue said.  “Listen, about all that, it’s-”

I raised my hand to stop him.  “Not important.  Not a big deal.  I was only going to ask if maybe Crucible or Toggle could be taken along.  It’s a way out, now that things are getting heavier.”

“No.  It’s fine, I’ll stay,” Crucible said.

“Ditto.”

I nodded, then looked at Grue, shrugging.  “That’s all.”

“We’re okay?”

“Copacetic,” I said, turning my attention back to the file.  Skinslip.

I reread the page four times before I was sufficiently distracted and able to register what I was reading.

Rachel directed her dogs to watch the stairwell, then crossed to the middle of the hallway to me.  She sat with her back to the same pillar I had my back to, her shoulder pressing against mine, squishing me a little bit further into the crevice I’d settled in.  Not uncomfortable.  Or it was, but the body contact was comforting enough that it didn’t bother me.  It was reassuring without being in my face or distracting me from my study of the folder.

All stuff I’d read backwards and forwards, but I couldn’t focus on a book, and refreshers could only help.

I turned the page.  Night Hag.

“How’s life on the dark side?” Kid Win asked.

I turned my head.  He was talking to Foil, who sat at the furthest point from the stairwell.

“More wholesome than you’d think,” Foil said.  “Playing into every stereotype ever, moving in before we’d even been on a date, but it’s nice.”

“Nice?” Clockblocker said.  “Not what I expected.  Not that I’m not happy for you, but-”

She shifted position, resting her head on Parian’s shoulder.  “It’s… free.  Pleasant.  The times between the fights with the brain-shatteringly terrifying god-monsters, anyways.  Cooking breakfast, having breakfast cooked for you, going on walks with the dogs, maybe a bit of bodyguard duty while Parian handles a meeting, whatev, picnic for lunch, patrol the territory, do stuff for my University course, whoever didn’t cook breakfast makes dinner…”

“They’re like a newlywed couple!  It’s so sweet,” Imp said.  “Of course, they’re skipping the-”

“No,” Foil said.  “We don’t need to go into any detail about my personal life with Parian.”

“But I was just going to say-”

“No,” Foil said again.

“-they’ve got crazy good interior design, what with Parian and all,” Imp finished.  She made a smug little sound, like she was very pleased with herself.

Foil flicked a dart at Imp.  It sank into the wall just to the left of Imp’s head.

Vista leaned back, smiling, “This is the second time in four minutes where she’s alluded to rude stuff.  Feeling lonely, Imp?”

“I’m offended!  Unfair accusations!”

“Now I’m going to start wondering what someone with pseudo-invisibility powers gets up to in her alone time,” Kid Win said.

“She’s gone there,” Grue said.  I looked at him, and saw he was glancing my way.

“Lies and slander!”

“Wait,” Clockblocker said.  “I thought I heard something at some point about you being her…”

He trailed off.

“Hm?” Grue asked.

“Train of thought derailed.  What were we talking about?”

It was a puzzling change in the ambient tone, and I almost gave the word for people to switch to high alert.

I was distracted by the vibration of my phone.

A quick check and I verified that it was what we’d been waiting for.

Golem engaging. 3x Burnscar, 3x Shatterbird, 2x Winter, 1x Skinslip, 1x Psychosoma identified.

You’re clear to go.

“We’re moving,” I said, hopping to my feet.

Just like that, the mood shifted.  Everyone was standing, picking up the equipment they’d put down.  The joking atmosphere was gone, the… not peace, but the stillness, it was broken.  Nerves were suddenly on edge, the opportunity to joke and comment gone.

“Scouting with the bugs didn’t turn up anything,” I said.  “Place is sealed.  Vista, we’ll be counting on you to give us an in.”

She nodded.

“We’re going in blind.  We suspect there’s at least two Mannequins, but that’s it.  Mannequin specializes in indirect attacks.  Catching people off guard, while being durable and flexible enough that he can escape from any situation that doesn’t go his way.  I hope the rest of you have read up on the other members of the Nine, past and present.”

There were nods all around.

“Parian, Foil, Kid Win, you’re staying here.  Set up, keep an eye out and an ear out.”

“Will do,” Parian said.  She was already inflating a stuffed scorpion.  Cloth bound around one of Foil’s bolts to help form a tail.

“Grue,” I said.  “Hit the building, inside and out, but leave the inside clear.  With luck, we can shut off their communications.  With more luck, you can get a bead on what powers we’re dealing with.”

He nodded.

With that, we were down the stairs and out the front door.

A joint attack maximized the chaos and minimized the chance of reinforcements.  Golem was attacking the other location.  Ten members of the Nine there.  Ten here?

If so, that was a big step up from the last fight.  From four or five to twenty.

Grue used his power, surrounding the area.  Slowly but surely, the area was consumed in darkness.  Not just Grue’s power, but the fact that the massive cloud of darkness was blocking out the ambient light.  Though he kept the smoke out of the center of the area, it grew darker with every passing second.

I joined the Brockton Bay Wards as they switched on flashlights, both handheld and gun-mounted ones.  Each of us flicked on the smaller lights that were part of our masks or helmets.  The latter were feeble at best, but it was still light.  Mine came from smaller lenses that sat around the larger ones that covered my eyes.  They filtered out as a faint blue.  The pattern and color would hopefully make me more identifiable.

“It’s kind of dumb that we don’t have those things,” Imp commented.

“Perk of being a hero,” Clockblocker said.  He handed her a spare flashlight.

I gave one to Rachel, but she didn’t turn it on.  Instead, she slid the loop over her wrist, hopping onto her dog’s back.

The walls of darkness that surrounded the structure connected at the very top, and we were plunged into the deep sort of darkness one might expect from being a thousand feet underground.  The headlamps and flashlights were the only real light, making it look almost as if the exposed pavement, sidewalk and the foot of the building were the only things that remained in the world.

Vista used her power as we got closer.  I could see a depression appearing in the wall, as if a giant, invisible finger were pressing into it.

A hole appeared, and a small explosion tore out through the space, opening the hole wider.  We staggered, and some of our smaller members were even thrown to the ground.

Pale mist cleared slowly as we got to our feet.  My bugs scanned the area, searching for threats who might have been alerted to our presence.

Nothing.  Apparently they didn’t want to engage.  They were happy hunkering down, staying eerily quiet.

And the explosion… there was a byproduct.  Or maybe it was the source.  A small glacier had formed around the hole, jagged, as if water had spewed forth and immediately frozen.

“The hell?”  Clockblocker muttered.

Good thing it wasn’t Tecton knocking down the wall, I thought.

Vista tried again, higher up, on the fourth story, off to the far side.

We were braced for the detonation this time.  I kept bugs close to get a sense of what was going on.  The moment there was a gap, the air rushed out, cold and wet, and was followed soon after by a crushing manifestation of a small iceberg.

It creaked, a long, drawn out sound, then cracked abruptly.  The iceberg came free, and the resulting gap was almost instantaneously filled by a third detonation.  A chunk of ice the size of a large car dropped to the street and shattered into a million individual fragments.

Or maybe Tecton would be an asset here.  How the fuck do we break into this?

“Has to be Mannequin,” I said.  “Or Sphere.  Used to specialize in closed systems.  It makes sense, on a level, but this isn’t in Mannequin’s usual repertoire.  Maybe they stole it from… what was the name?  Toybox tinker, Gelid?  Glace, that’s it.”

“A cloned tinker is the smallest threat,” Clockblocker said.  “Takes them time to build, and if you figure Jack didn’t exactly save anything of his, and… well, I don’t even know how they replaced memories, but there’s no way he’s just going to pick up where he left off.”

“Mannequin in a different vein,” I said.  “Same psychosis, different direction taken?”

“Looks like, doesn’t it?”

I frowned.

“We could wait for the ice to melt,” Imp suggested.  “Warm out.”

“Would take forever,” Vista said.

“And it would only get replaced, probably,” Clockblocker said.

“Go big?” I suggested.  “Whatever’s producing the ice, there’s got to be a limit in terms of materials.”

Vista nodded.

This time, rather than a depression, it was a line, running from one corner at the bottom of the building to the opposite corner on the top.

It took ten or fifteen seconds, and then the ice blasted out, barely visible with only our flashlights to illuminate it.

Nothing.  Ground to roof, the ice remained.

“I could do it again,” Vista suggested.

“Faster to get Kid Win to just tear the outside of the building apart,” Clockblocker said.  “Not like they don’t know we’re here, now.”

“I’m thinking,” I said.  “You know that draft of cool air you feel when the automatic doors of a big-name store swing open?”

“Sure,” Clockblocker said.

“It’s designed like that, to use air pressure and air flow and whatever else to keep bugs and debris out.”

“Of course you know that,” Imp said.  “Because of the bugs.”

“I looked into it when I started paying attention to places where there aren’t a lot of bugs, to see why.  There’s sonic countermeasures, and there’s that.”

“Whatever,” Imp said.  “Still pretty random.”

“This is the same thing, except it’s weaponized.  Or made into a defense system, depending on how you want to look at it.  I’d bet most of the building is rigged with some crazy high pressure, as well as whatever devices he’s got that are detonating on exposure to the outside.”

“Okay, with you so far,” Clockblocker said.

“But where are they keeping the hostages?  Option one is that they’ve got them in some sealed area, like they stuck Cherish into, and all of the Nine members in the building are immune to that pressure and cold.  Multiple Mannequins, maybe a Siberian in a sealed case?”

“What’s option two?” Grue asked.

“The inside is safe.  Apartments or offices bordering on exterior walls would be pressurized, but the interior walls, all of the rooms of the building that aren’t rigged, they’d be safe, with hostages and the Nine inside.”

Clockblocker nodded.  “Makes sense, but that’s a lot of speculation.”

“Theory two is a lot easier to prove,” I said.  “We either need to go in through the top, and hope the roof isn’t as protected-”

“-or access the interior without passing into exterior rooms,” Vista said.

Shuffle could have done that, I thought.  Had we sent the wrong teams to the wrong locations?  It had sounded like there was a hell of a lot of offensive power at the other location.

“I’ll try,” Vista said.  “Hold on.”

This was a more refined use of her power.  She drew on the exterior of the building, and created a depression, but the goal this time wasn’t to create a hole.  She extended the depression inward, but she fed enough of the surrounding material into it to keep the resulting walls intact.

It stopped, and she merged it into another wall.  I couldn’t see the wall, but I could sense it with my bugs.  To my eyes, it was a black void, a hole too deep for my bugs to reach.

She paused, then began opening an experimental hole in the far wall.  I pulled my bugs back to make it easier for her.

I could feel the warm air blow past my bugs.  I could smell it using their senses.  An alien sensation, but I noted the scent of blood, the acrid chemical odor of the sealing materials.

“Way’s open,” Vista said.

“It’s messy in there,” I said.  “Be prepared.  Sending bugs in now.  Grue?  Darkness.”

We waited as he pumped the building full of darkness.  My bugs made their way through, scanning the surroundings.

“Murder Rat,” Grue said.  “Three of her.  I can… kind of sense what others are sensing around me, and there’s a glimmer of something that might be a teleportation power.  I don’t trust myself to use it without any ability to sense where I’m going.  Breeds… And… I can’t even get a bead on this guy’s powers.”

Was it?  I could sense figures moving throughout the darkness, but they were swift, and moved in unpredictable directions.  The elevator shaft’s doors had been opened, and they climbed up and through with no difficulty.  There were countless people, hanging from the ceiling by chains, countless pieces of armor, as though Mannequin was trying to reinvent his own gear, and then on the penthouse level…

A man, easily eight feet tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, sitting at a computer chair with one foot propped up on a desk.  His chest was bare, his pants no doubt a normal size, but rendered skintight by his sheer mass, left unzipped.  He was watching something violent on a laptop as he sat there.  The hostages who weren’t strung up with chains were in the room, cowering behind him as a full cluster.  In the midst of them, there was something that looked like a coffin.

“Try using his power?”

“Not sure I want to,” Grue said, “But okay.  Um.”

I felt my powers dim, my range swiftly dropping.  Others stepped away from him in surprise.

“Stop,” I said.

He did.  My powers started to return.

“That’s one.  Jesus, that’s a rush.  The other… I think it’s the sort of power you need the built-in second sense to grasp.”

“That has to be Hatchet Face.  I guess you can use his power nullification,” I said, “That’s something, if we hit a pinch.  I just don’t understand this other power.  Bonesaw’s work?  A hybrid?”

Grue nodded.  “Possible.”

I frowned.  “Not sure how to do this.  If we entered through the top floor, we could access the hostages right away, defeat Hatchet Face.”

“Sounds good,” Clockblocker said.

“Except… what do the rest do?” I asked.  “Some signal goes off, or they realize something’s up… they’re not fighting types, not exactly.  They’re assassins, indirect attackers.  They wouldn’t just converge on us.  I don’t know how they’d react, and it’s not the kind of situation where I can say that in a good way.”

“We need to make a call soon,” Grue said.  “You said the other team is already attacking?”

“I thought this would be simpler,” I said.  “Let’s go in the ground floor.  Clear each floor, block off escape routes, so they can’t just exit the building and go wreak mayhem elsewhere, or notify Jack.  They can fall back to the main room where Hatchet Face is waiting, and-”

“And then we’ve got a hell of a fight on our hands,” Grue said.  “Against enemies with hostages.”

“Cornered rats with hostages,” Vista said.  The little of her face I could see in the flashlight-illuminated gloom was somber.

“Ground floor,” I said.  “If nothing else, it buys us time to think of something before we reach a crisis point.  The alternative… I don’t like the idea that so many of these guys could escape.  They’ve bottled themselves up nicely.  Stay on your guard.”

“Are you staying outside?” Clockblocker asked me.

I shook my head.  “Need to maintain communications against this team, and I don’t like how long it would take to communicate using my bugs, or the chance you could get cut off.  I’ll come with, help watch your backs.”

There were nods all around.

“Go,” I said, before touching my earbud.  “Tattletale.”

There was a pause.

Weaver.  Kind of busy watching over the other team.  Sup?”

“Entering the fray.  Looks like Mannequins, Murder Rats, Breeds and one Hatchet Face hybrid.”

Got itG’luck.”

Rachel had kept the dogs at a smaller size so they could patrol the building we’d been hiding out in.  It meant they were big, but not so big that they filled the entire hallway.  They passed through the corridor Vista had made without trouble.

We filed in, shoulder to shoulder, and I did what I could to track the various villains in the building.  Grue dissipated the darkness as we got close enough to the respective areas to shine our flashlights on the objects in question.

Ominous, being in the midst of this building, almost like being in a submarine.  There was an incredible, devastating pressure all around us.  A leak meant a possible terminal end to all of us.  The darkness was oppressive, and every surface was covered in the red sealant, scabrous, hard, removing the human touch from everything around us.

I was so caught up in it that I nearly missed it.  A figure in the ducts.

“There,” I said, keeping my voice low.  I pointed.

Our side turned to look.

Mannequin, I thought.  I immediately switched mental gears.  Who to protect, what to do tactically.

I hit the briefest stumbling block when the recollection of what Clockblocker had been talking about crossed my mind.  Why does he remember his suit?

The same outfit, with alterations.  The all-concealing, all-protecting shell surrounding his body, even the joints.

Bastard lunged for him, jaws snapping shut, but the Mannequin cartwheeled back and away.

Vista fired her gun, sending a single green spark zipping ahead.  Mannequin swayed to one side, bending his body at impossible angles to avoid the shot.  The bullet hit the wall, then briefly flared, disintegrating a scab-covered vending machine.

Lines exploded forward from Clockblocker’s hands, one from each finger, and the Mannequin staggered back.  The narrow cables flew past him, glanced off his armor to ricochet into the surrounding area, and one or two even managed to wind around his arm or leg.

Clockblocker used his power, freezing the Mannequin in place.

“Vista,” he said, “Another shot!”

She still had her gun leveled at Mannequin.  She aimed-

And the Mannequin let a blade spring from his palm.  It punched through the wall at the very edge of our tunnel.

Ice exploded into the interior of the hallway, consuming the Mannequin entirely.

Vista dropped her gun.

“No escape route,” Crucible said.

“Can’t shoot without putting us at risk,” Vista said.  “I can make another exit, but it’s going to take a minute.”

“Not a focus,” I said.  “Upstairs first.  Hostages first.  We’ll cross that bridge after.”

We had to walk around in a semicircle before we found ourselves by the elevators and stairwells of the lobby.  The stairwell was framed by two bodies, hung by their feet.  No wounds were visible.

I felt with my bugs, and I could sense warmth from them.  Still alive.

Breed.

What were we even supposed to do with his victims?

For the second time in as many minutes, I found myself saying, “We deal with them after.”

We entered the stairwell.  I was aware of a Murder Rat popping in on the ground floor, crawling on hands and feet that each had excessively long blades on the ends.  She moved faster than she should have been able to, considering her means of locomotion, but she had an exceedingly strong, flexible body.  Enhanced senses, too, with her conical nose close to the ground, long greasy hair brushing against the surface.  I almost turned back to deal with her, but she was already gone, moving faster than my bugs could.

Claustrophobic.  I was acutely aware of the dimensions of the space, the fact that only a fraction of the building could actually hold people.  Of that portion of the building interior, the elevator shafts took up an awful lot of space.

Their territory, really.

The stairs hadn’t received as much of the ‘scab’ treatment, but they were still treacherous ground.  The stairs blocked our view of what was above or below us.  I was careful to check for threats every step of the way, watching doors, sweeping over surfaces, all too aware that Mannequin had evaded my bugs before.

Had this one somehow retained the lessons the original had learned?  I could use thread to cover more ground, spread out my bugs.

An air vent at the very top floor was punched free of the wall.  My bugs could sense the long claws, the conical nose.  They started chewing on her, devouring and biting, but her skin was tough, as though most of it was scar tissue.  I could feel the hot air as she rapidly inhaled and exhaled.

“Murder Rat, she’s on the top-”

She pushed herself free of the vent, lunging, drawing her claws together as if she were diving into water from a height.  Her narrow, emaciated body slipped right between the railings of the ascending and descending stairs.

“Incoming!” I shouted.  I pushed the others back as I could reach them.  The only ones in reach were Rachel and Crucible.

She reached the stairwell just above us and kicked off it, changing her orientation and the trajectory of her dive.  She slammed into the largest, most obvious target -Grue- all of her claw-tips drawn together into one long spike.

He was thrown against the walls and the stairs, and his tumble down the stairs just below him drove him into Toggle and Vista, who nearly fell down the stairs along with him.

Murder Rat was still on top of him, shifting the movements of her limbs to remain more or less upright as she perched on his body.  Her head cocked quizzically.  The blades hadn’t penetrated.

She lashed out, striking, only her target was exposed skin, this time.  Vista’s face, Crucible’s jaw.  Bastard’s shoulder.

And then she kicked the wall, drawing her shoulders together as she slid between Clockblocker’s legs, her nose pointed at the gap in the railing.

Clockblocker shifted his foot to make contact with the long blades at her toes, touching her, and froze her in place.

“My face,” Vista whispered.

“Put pressure on it,” Crucible said.  His own face was bleeding badly, but he didn’t even seem to notice.

And, more troubling, the wound was smoking.  Murder Rat’s power.

I turned my attention to Grue.  “Are you hurt?”

“No.  I… shit, how did that not break a rib?”

I shook my head.  Still using the costume I made, and it saved your life.

He accepted my help in standing.  I turned my attention to the Brockton Bay Wards, but there were too many people crowded there for me to jump in and help.  I focused on the other threats.

I could sense the others swarming around us, on stairs above and below.  I drew out lines of silk to stop them from using the same approach this Murder Rat had managed.

For extra measure, I tied thread around the frozen Murder Rat’s throat, tying it to the railing.

She was a composite of two ‘kitchen sink’ capes.  Mouse Protector and Ravager.  Two primary powers that had blended into the one, a dozen other minor powers.  Flexibility, a bizarre kind of enhanced strength, reflexes and agility that had peaks and valleys, and skin as tough as leather.

“Pinch it shut, tape it,” Clockblocker was saying.  “We spray it to keep it closed.  Smells awful.”

“I kind of like the smell,” Vista said, her words muffled by the hand Crucible was pressing to her face.  “Hey, this’ll be a badass scar, huh?”

“Quiet,” Clockblocker said.

I could hear another Murder Rat on the stairs below us.  She let her claw drag on the wall, and the metal on concrete made a sound like five nails on a chalkboard.   Loud, slowly increasing in volume as she approached us.

I set my bugs on her.  She persisted, simply enduring what they were doing to her.  I tried to go for the tiny eyes that were nearly buried behind her altered face and brow, but she shut them, relying on touch and smell to move.  I started to pack bugs around her nose and mouth, and found that slowed her just a fraction.

But the noise continued.  I could see the effect it was having on the others.

A rattling noise from above, joined by another nails-on-blackboard screech.  A Mannequin, using the blades he’d extended from his forearms to scrape the wall and hit the individual bars that held the railing up at chest level, the same bars that the Murder Rat had tried to slip between to make her escape.

“It burns,” Vista said.  Her fingers raised to the mark that ran from the side of her chin to her cheekbone.

“The meds?” Clockblocker asked.

“The smoke.  Stinging my eyes, and feels like it’s fizzing.  I read the file, this is her power, right?  It’s what she does?”

“It’s going to take a long time to heal,” Clockblocker said.  “Pretty much guarantees a scar.  But we stopped the bleeding, which is better than most get.”

The dog growled as another Murder Rat joined the fray, her clawed feet clicking against the steps as she made her descent, the screeches of her claws against the concrete joining what was quickly becoming a cacophony.  The blades at the fingertips of her other hand struck the bars of the railing, which set them to ringing.

Then, from the first and fourth floors, I could sense Breed’s minions make their approach.  In the midst of the banging and screeching, their hissing was almost impossible to make out.

One more Mannequin hung back, letting the little bastards climb on him.  They were smallish.  Smaller than the ones in Killington had been.

I shifted my weight, ready for one of them to make an attack at any moment.  Indirect attacks, surprise attacks, all from directions that were hard to anticipate.

“Three Mannequins and a Rat above us,” I said.  “Two rats below us.  Lots of Breed’s bastard parasites on both sides.”

“I could use my darkness, but it wouldn’t help much,” Grue said.

“They don’t sense things like we do.  My bugs aren’t going to do much either,” I said.  “Laying tripwires and trying to bind them here and there, but these aren’t guys my bugs can sting.”

“So?” Rachel asked.

“We die,” Imp said, with an odd cheerfulness.  “Horribly, gruesomely.  They’ll break or sever our arms and legs and cap them with Mannequin’s stuff so we don’t bleed out, and then they’ll let Breed’s bugs devour us from the inside out.”

“Not helping, Imp,” Grue said.

“I’m only saying what we already know.  Kind of counterproductive, morale-wise, to have us read all the dossiers on these bastards.”

“Yeah.  Just a little,” Crucible agreed.

“Why are we waiting here?” Rachel asked, her voice a little too loud.  “Why don’t we just fucking attack them?”

I didn’t have a good rebuttal to that.

No, that wasn’t right.  I had a dozen rebuttals.  That these guys would take any offensive action on our part as an excuse to slip past us and murder our more vulnerable members.

But I didn’t have a better strategy.  Not one I was eager to use so prematurely.

“Attack,” I said.  “Now.”

Rachel whistled, a long sharp sound that cut through the various noises the Nine’s members had created.  There was only silence as the whistle echoed through the stairwell.

She snapped her fingers and pointed up the stairs, snapped again and pointed down.

The two dogs charged in the alternate direction.

“Wards, go up.  Grue, Imp, Rachel, help cover the rear,” I gave the orders.  “Watch your backs!”

We split into two groups, the Wards leading the charge, while the Undersiders covered the flanks.  I remained in the center, my knife drawn.

A Murder Rat tried to jump down through the gap, as the first had, but got tangled in the threads I’d woven.  She began severing them, one by one, but too slow to slip through.  Vista shot her.

With her death scream, the others shifted tactics, abandoning the offense.  Mannequins advanced to take over the assault.

Another got caught in the threads, but blades sprung out all over his body, the individual components rotating, and the threads were cut.  He dropped down.

Crucible caught him.  A forcefield bubble surrounded the figure, pale blue, then flared a brilliant orange-white.

Mannequin would be fireproof, though.  Even an extreme heat like Crucible could create wouldn’t have an effect.  Still, it meant one was contained.

Yet as soon as we captured one, another slipped the net.  The Murder Rat Clockblocker had frozen animated again, slipping through the railing, only to find herself hanging by her throat, a silk cord binding her.  My bugs could sense blood trickling, but the movement suggested her neck hadn’t snapped.

Two ways she’d escape.  The first was obvious, cutting the cord.

The second?

“Vista, Crucible!” I hollered their names.

They whipped around to face me, saw me holding my knife, ready to drive it forward.

The smoke on Vista’s face flared, blossoming like a smoke grenade that had just gone off, and Murder Rat materialized, one claw already poised with the points facing upward, ready to drive upward into Vista’s unprotected jawline.

I’d seen her gesture as she hung on the rope, in preparation for her materialization.  I had to lunge forward, striking the stairs with the boniest parts of my shins to catch the villain’s wrist with my free hand, pulling her off-balance.

She rolled with it, almost doing a backflip as she threw one leg back to drive a point towards Imp’s scalp.  Grue caught Murder Rat’s leg, and between us, we held her.  I punched the blade into her throat.

Grue heaved her over the railing.  He covered our retreat with darkness, then lunged ahead of the group.  Murder Rat’s powers, it seemed.

Reckless, not like him, but he joined the front lines, where Bastard was giving two Mannequins a hard time.

Clockblocker threw out lines of silk, then froze them.  The dog lunged, and the Mannequins were sandwiched between the dog and the silk.

Blood spurted at the dog’s shoulder where the lines had made contact.  One Mannequin lost an arm, but they both managed to contort and angle themselves so they could slip over, under or between the threads.

Of course it wouldn’t be easy.  Fuck.

“Back!” Rachel called out, before the dog decided to charge through the cables Clockblocker had used.  The dog retreated a pace.  Grue only hopped up, grabbing the railing, managed a grip, and then descended on them.  He grabbed one and flung it towards the wires.

It only contorted, arching its back like a high jumper to slip through a gap.  It got halfway before Bastard closed his jaws on his upper body.

Shit.  My bugs were so useless here.  I couldn’t go after the Breeds until I knew which of the people in the building were them.  The original Breed had died when someone had hit a building with an incendiary missile, and the bugs had stopped appearing.  He wasn’t altered in appearance.  For all respects, he was just an ordinary man.

Besides the whole ‘I create horrifying space bugs’ thing.

The Mannequin that crawled with Breed’s creations leaped down, only to get caught in more strands.  He started to cut his way free, but Vista opened fire.  Her shots glanced off his outer shell.

The creatures, though, fell through the gaps.  More than a handful landed in our midst.

“I thought you said they don’t go after people!”

“They don’t!” I said.  “So long as there’s other food sources available.”  I kicked at one as it advanced on my right foot.

“There are dozens of bodies here!”

Already infected, I realized.  These parasites were seeking fresh hosts, ones not already occupied by anything.

I caught the ones I could with my own bugs, used thread to haul them free, but there were twenty, and their dozens of legs were sharp, capable of punching through flesh and clothing to maintain a grip.  Difficult to dislodge.

One had landed on my shoulder.  I tried to pull it free and failed, stabbed at the legs with my knife, only for it to fold them into its carapace.  It lashed at the lens of my mask with its spike-tipped tail.  It didn’t penetrate, and rolled off my shoulder before I could get a hold on it.

Its legs extended, and it found a grip on my flight pack.  In an instant, it was racing up towards my head again.  It stopped twice, pausing for one second as it transitioned from my flight pack to my costume, then stopping again as it reached the area where the mask and body of my costume overlapped at my neck.  The needle points of its legs were pricking through the fabric of my costume, no doubt as it tried to find a way under.  I got a grip on its tail, but failed to dislodge it.  Too slick.

The others weren’t faring a lot better.  Crucible shouted something incoherent as he used both hands to stop a softball sized creature from advancing on his mouth.  Its millipede-like limbs left bloody tracks in his skin as it made excruciating progress towards the orifice.

It was a critical distraction as we were dealing with highly mobile foes.  A Murder Rat leaped up to find a grip on the underside of the stairs we were standing on, then vaulted herself to one side and up, slipping between the bars and into our midst.

Rachel whistled, hard, and the dog from downstairs came barreling through our group.  We were knocked aside, pushed to the ground by the dog’s mass as it charged Murder Rat.  She leaped up, stepping on the dog’s back, then jumped back down to the lower end of the flight of stairs.

The dog growled and turned around, preparing to charge through us again.

“Hold,” Rachel said.  She had to pull off her jacket to access the trilobite-parasite bastard thing that was crawling on the small of her back, heading south.  Toggle struck it with her baton, and lights flared.

Imp stepped up just in front of Crucible, impaling the bug on his face with her own knife.

Progress, but we were still in the midst of a lot of dangerous enemies.  Elusive ones.  Of the six here, we’d only achieved two kills.

Tattletale here.”

“In an ugly spot,” I said.

“Help’s on the way.

“Help?”

Eidolon.  We tried to keep things quiet, keep everything off the radar, but he caught on.  Legend’s at the other site with Pretender.

“Turn them away!” I hissed the words.

“Um, not about to turn away help,” Imp said.  She was benefiting as Crucible created his superheated forcefield dome to burn away the Breed-parasites too dumb to walk around.

“Turn them away,” I repeated myself.  “All three.”

More of Breed’s bugs were starting to make their way to us, from above and below.  One Murder Rat, one Mannequin, and the guy upstairs we still hadn’t even interacted with.

With his fucked up coffin.

I can’t get in touch with them.  Not like their number is in the phone book.”

“Contact Cauldron?”  I used my swarm to attack the Breed-bugs, but it was slow going.  Twenty bugs with strong mandibles could kill one, but it took a minute, maybe two, before they reached something resembling soft tissue.

No go.”

I could sense him, now, approaching the building cautiously.  He used a laser to pierce the roof.  Ice blossomed out to fill the gap, a glacier in summer.

I began drawing from the bugs outside, forming a swarm-clone.  Eidolon ignored it, firing again.  Multiple blasts, multiple creations of ice.  He swore under his breath.

Rachel’s dog leaped over us to attack the Murder Rat.  She slipped to one side, and a wound at Toggle’s shoulder began blossoming with smoke.

The Murder Rat appeared in our midst.  Clockblocker was quick enough to tag her this time.

It wasn’t the most ideal maneuver.  Grue’s stolen power disappeared in that same instant.  Bad timing – he was in the midst of fighting the Mannequins.  One had been taken out by Bastard, but another had joined the fray as it brought the bugs down.

Grue reached out for another power.  Mannequin’s power wasn’t useful, but the other-.

I felt my power fading, just as the swarm-decoy was gaining enough bulk.

I wasn’t the only one.  Crucible’s forcefield shorted out.  Clockblocker had been in the midst of reaching for Breed-bugs to lock down, and found himself only giving them easier access in climbing up his arms.

The Mannequin staggered back, tripping on the stairs.  Just a little less coordinated.

Still, it wasn’t useful.  One dog was entirely disabled, crawling with countless Breed-parasites.  Only the fact that it clenched its jaw kept them from getting in its mouth, but its nose-

“Cancel it, Grue!” I shouted.

He didn’t.  Instead, he reached down to grab Mannequin by the throat.  He ascended the stairs three at a time, dragging two struggling Mannequins with him.

A bad situation was turning into a nightmare.  My radius shrank to a mere hundred feet, then fifty.

Twenty.

The bugs were crawling on us, Crucible wasn’t the only one struggling to keep them from worming beneath his hands and into his mouth.

Then he was gone, the radius of his power nullification too small.  If the Hatchet Face upstairs was a hybrid, Grue’s copy of his power was a fraction of a half of a power.

Still, he seemed to have Hatchet Face’s strength and durability.

Our powers began to return, and with the threats of the other capes dealt with, we were free to focus on stopping them.

Clockblocker paused the most dangerous ones, closest to mouths, anuses and private parts, to ears and nostrils.  We backed away as he freed us of the worst of them, and Crucible barred the path with his superheated forcefield.

“I’m not… I’m not useful,” Toggle said.

“Different threats, you would be,” Crucible said.  “Fuck, this stings.”

“Medical treatment after,” Clockblocker said.  “One more to take down.”

We hurried up the stairs.  Two flights to the penthouse floor.

Eidolon,” my swarm-clone spoke.

“Weaver.”  He had created a kind of portal and was widening it.  It seemed slow, inefficient.

Go home, Eidolon.  You aren’t a help here.

“I’m to take orders from the one who murdered Alexandria?”

Yes.  Leave.  You’re more danger than help.

“I can end this.”

So can I.  I will end this.  Your choice as to how.  Do I handle this situation myself, or do I have to kill you, then handle this myself?

There was only silence from him.  He stared at my swarm-clone.

“You dare make that threat, after killing my comrade-in-arms?”

I do.  If there’s a trace of doubt in your mind that I could do it-

“Your bugs couldn’t touch me.”

Inside the building, we were approaching the penthouse floor.

Your power is dying.  It’s obvious enough that people are speculating on it online, in the media.  How Eidolon isn’t as strong as he was in the early days.  Why aren’t you inside already?  Are you so sure that your power would stop me?

“I’m here to help.  That’s all.  Attacking me now would be like the violation of the Endbringer Truce.”

You’re one of the biggest dangers, Eidolon.  Jack’s supposed to be the catalyst for an event, a great catastrophe.  Are you honestly telling me that there’s no danger here?  That you’re absolutely certain that you don’t have a weakness he could capitalize on?

Eidolon didn’t speak.

Don’t tell me you don’t.  That you aren’t potentially powerful enough to end the world if it came down to it.  If he somehow opened that floodgate-

“It won’t come to that.  I control my powers.”

Or played a head-game with you?  Are you telling me your mind is a fortressThat you don’t have that capacity for great evil inside you?

“I’m not evil.”

You participated in business that people felt was so horrifying that they seceded from the Protectorate.  How many thousands died or suffered gruesome transformations because of the atrocities Cauldron committed?

Inside the building, we opened the door.  Grue was staring down the last member of this particular group of Nine.  Tall, muscular in the way that suggested he was in his physical prime, with a wild mop of dark hair.  He was masculine in a way that exaggerated the qualities to a fault, with an overly square jaw, massive hands, an almost Neanderthal brow.  It made him look like a bad guy from an old animated film about princesses.  As if echoing that sentiment, a word was tattooed across his chest.

Tyrant.

I recognized the other half of the pair.  Hatchet Face and King together.

Untouchable.  King’s power took any physical harm he suffered and transferred it among his pawns.  People he’d touched within the last twenty-four hours.  Hatchet Face’s power meant we couldn’t even use abilities to circumvent it.  Tyrant here had the enhanced strength each of the two had possessed, the enhanced durability.

“Are you saying you’re blameless, little murderer?” Eidolon asked, just above us.  “That you don’t have a potential for evil?”

No,” I answered.  The hybrid crossed the room, and I could feel my powers fading.  Grue’s darkness dissipated around the building, and light streamed in through the red windows, casting a tint over everything.

I shifted my bugs outside the building.

No, I know I have some ugliness inside me,” I spoke through my swarm.  My swarm was dissipating, my focus and control over my bugs failing.  I had to maintain the formation.

“Then what qualifies you to be here when I can’t?”

Maybe arrogant of me to say so,” I said.  The swarm was quieter as my fine control swiftly dissolved.  “But I’ve recognized that ugliness, and I’ve got it harnessed.

I gave the signal, gesturing for emphasis.  Tyrant paused.  The swarms outside the building shifted in the same moment, uttering the word faintly.

Now.

Outside the building, Foil fired, and she used the line I’d drawn out with my bugs for guidance.  Not perfect, not ungodly straight, but the thread I’d drawn out helped.

There was a concentrated explosion of ice at the edge of the penthouse as the shot punctured the wall, passed within a foot of Tyrant.

He advanced, and I stepped forward to meet him, my eyes on his.  My power was almost entirely gone.  Dampened to the point that it was just me and the bugs that crawled on me.  Every step he took reduced it another fraction.  Half a foot, then an inch away from my skin…

Another bolt, between us, closer to Tyrant than to me.

And then an explosion that seemed to shake the entire building.  Everyone present was thrown to the ground.

Kid Win had blasted a hole in the side of the penthouse, firing what had to be every single weapon at the same time.  Ice was swelling from the open area in fits and starts.

But it was enough of an opening for Foil to get a clear shot.

She shot Tyrant, and the bolt pierced his brain.

He collapsed onto his hands and knees, then staggered, starting to rise.

Another bolt through the spine.

A third through the heart.

He collapsed onto his face.

Foil’s bolts broke the rules.  Apparently his power didn’t work on them.

I slowly climbed to my feet, then stared up through the closing hole in the building at Eidolon.

“Go home,” I called out.

He was still, hovering there.  I didn’t break eye contact as he floated closer to me, until he stood only a few feet away.

“Sit this one out, for all of our sakes.”

He broke eye contact first.  His eyes fell on Foil and Kid Win.

“Please,” I said.

He didn’t move, looking across the street at the others.

Then, as if the courtesy of the please had given him the ability, he spoke.  His voice was quiet enough that I was probably the only one who could hear.

“I live for this,” he said.  “It’s what I do.”

It was an admission of weakness, not a boast.

“I know,” I answered him.  “But it’s not worth it.  Even here, that coffin up there that Mannequin made… if it’s hiding Jack, keeping people from sensing him until the end of this lunatic game he set up, then he could say something.  Do something, and you could become everything you’re trying to stop.”

No.  I’d said something that was off the mark.  I saw Eidolon hesitate, as if he was considering going ahead anyways.

“And you’re all so safe?” Eidolon asked me.  “You’re not such a danger, with the right trigger event, the right saying?  You couldn’t murder a town full of innocents as readily as you murdered Alexandria?”

“The difference between you and me,” I said, “Is if I go off the rails, if I somehow become an agent of the apocalypse, I can be stopped.  I can be killed.”

He stared at me, the shadows of his eyes only barely visible behind the blue-green expanse of the concave mask he wore.  The shadow cast by his hood didn’t help.

“There’s a quarantine, Eidolon.  Everything we’re bringing to the table here, everyone who’s on the front lines, they’ve talked about this, they’ve agreed.  We’re all willing to die if it comes down to it, for the sake of maintaining that quarantine, keeping the end of the world from coming to pass.”

He looked past me at the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards.

“I’m willing to die if I have to,” he said, in his eerie chorus of a voice.  “I’ve proven that enough times… but it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“There’s no guarantee we could stop you before it was too late.”

“I see.”

He cast a glance over our assembled ranks, then took off.

I waited long moments before turning my attention to the crowd at the far end of the room.  They were already moving, running like they could make their way downstairs and escape out the front doors.

I drew my knife, stepping into their path.

“Weaver?”

My bugs flowed past them.  I could see, hear, smell, taste.

The swarm went on the attack.  People in the crowd screamed and ran.

Of the three I’d targeted in their midst, I saw one open his mouth wide.  Four small trilobite parasites crawled out, dropping to the ground.

His nostril bulged, and one crawled from his nasal cavity.    One crawled from each of his ears.

His pants bulged, a great deal in the back, then a little in front.  They fell out of the bottom of his pant legs.

The others were producing some now too.

Crucible caught the first in his forcefield.  He paused a second, then turned it on full burn.  The forcefield dissipated, and man, parasites and a circular section of floor were scorched black.

The other two were still fighting off the bugs when Crucible burned them as well.

Silence reigned.  The crowd, I think, was a little too horrified to cheer for us.

“First kill?” Imp asked, quiet.

“Yeah”

“How the fuck did you get to be a hero with a power like that?”

“Kept it a secret from you guys, kept it a secret from the public.  You can do a lot with a solid forcefield bubble.”

Grue and Clockblocker joined me as we approached the coffin.

It opened easily, and we stepped back, as Crucible surrounded it in a bubble.

Jack?

He lay inside, opened his eyes, and frowned.

“This didn’t go according to plan,” he said.

I could see the forcefield start to change hues, ready to bake before Jack could say anything devastating.

“Stop,” I said.

“But the idea was-”

“Just stop.  It’s not him.  Doesn’t fit.”

Jack only smiled.  “That so?  Well, it’s the bug girl.  I can’t even remember your name.”

I could see the tension in the other’s bodies.

He stepped forward, staggered a little, then poked at the forcefield bubble with his knife.

“Shall we put an end to all of this?  You got me.  Victory is yours.  Murder me, and they all go off leash.”

“It’s not Jack,” I repeated myself.  “It’s Nyx’s power.”

Jack’s expression became a frown.  Then he dissipated.

It was only a teenager, trapped inside.  He was in the middle of asking a question.  “-you let me out?”

“Holy fuck.  I almost burned him,” Crucible said.

The boy pounded one hand on the forcefield.  “Please!”

“I’ll let him out,” Crucible said.

I hesitated, holding up a hand.

No.  Not enough grounding to say for sure.  I let my hand drop.

“Weaver?”

I was about to give the go-ahead, but Tattletale’s voice came over the comm.  “That’s Nyx you’re looking at.  Her range is too short, she’d have to be in the building, and she’s too distinctive looking to pass in a crowd.

I stared at the teenage boy.  I’d almost said he could leave.

“Last chance, Nyx,” I told the ‘boy’.  “Last words?  Share a juicy tidbit?”

The ‘boy’ faded away.  An illusion in an illusion.  It was only a woman with pale red skin, overlarge black eyes and vents along her hairline, the back of her neck and down the backs of her arms.  A fog seeped out from the holes.  A small Cauldron emblem was tattooed on her face like a beauty mark.

“No way I can convince you to let me go?”

“You could,” I said.

“Hey,” Grue said.  “She’s too dangerous.”

“For good enough information?  I’m willing to risk it.”

“I agree,” Clockblocker said.

“Good information?”

“Tell us where Jack is,” I told her.

She smiled.  “And I get to go free?”

“My word as a hero,” Clockblocker answered her.

“He’s on his way to visit Nilbog.”

It’s true,” Tattletale said.

“Now let me go,” Nyx said.  She rolled her shoulders, “Take me into custody, if you have to.  All I want is to live.”

“No,” Grue said.  “We can’t let her go.”

“No,” Clockblocker agreed.  “Crucible?”

Nyx snarled, and the fog blasted out of the vents along her body, forming into a shape.

She didn’t get any further before the orb flared.  Her scream was high, loud, and exceedingly brief.

“Nilbog,” I said.

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Cell 22.6

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Dragon’s craft closed the distance to the rooftop’s edge, using precise adjustments to almost freeze in mid-air as it hovered.  It was gentle and graceful in comparison to Defiant’s squat, durable tank.  I wondered how intentional that was.  Just looking at it, I had little doubt that it was even longer range than any of the other models I’d crossed paths with.  I was put in mind of a sniper rifle, long, narrow, sleek and focused in its almost singular design.  The stability it had fit with the idea.  A stark contrast to Defiant’s craft, which seemed more like the type to be in the thick of a fight, fighting alongside him and complementing his fighting style.

Not that the aesthetics of Dragon’s work was really a priority right this moment.

“A mistake,” I said.

“We know how she operates,” Defiant said.  “Dragon, Miss Militia and I have each worked directly under Alexandria at some point.  It’s something of an unofficial policy to have anyone that’s being considered for a leadership position working under each member of the triumvirate for a time.”

“Must have been real fun for you guys when you found out what they’re really like, last month.”

“Not fun at all,” Miss Militia said.  She had to stoop to exit the ship and step onto the roof’s edge.

“We’ve seen how Alexandria handles interrogations,” Defiant said.  “She reads microexpressions.  Shapes every statement and action to get the responses she wants.”

“And she wanted this?” I asked.

Defiant shook his head.  “Knowing her, this was a gambit.  It wouldn’t do to have one workable outcome.  She pushes you, and if you attack, she has cause to finish you off or send you straight to the birdcage without a trial.  If you don’t attack, she knows she has leverage against you and the Undersiders.  She’d see which way you were leaning, then refine her approach further.”

“And here I was,” Miss Militia mused, “Thinking you didn’t have a head for this sort of thing, Defiant.”

“I’ve had help,” he said, glancing at Dragon.

“But she didn’t get either of those results,” I said.  “At least, not like she wanted.  For all her brains, for all this apparent ability to read me, she… didn’t understand what my friends mean to me.”

“I think she understood well enough,” Defiant said.  “But the mistake, the tragedy in all of this, was that she didn’t get an accurate read on you.  Much, I expect, for the same reason my lie detector could never seem to.  She was working with bad information, and she pushed you too far, too fast.”

An eerie parallel to mistakes Tattletale had made in the past.  And I killed Alexandria and Tagg because of it.

“And… my friends?  Just to make sure.  They’re okay?”

“Alexandria didn’t touch them.  The ones she brought into the building were body doubles, and the real Undersiders are poised to attack in-”  Miss Militia reached for her phone.

“Fifteen minutes,” Defiant said.

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.  “In the meantime, we’re trying to deal with your lawyer, who got his hands on the footage of the interrogation and is threatening to bring hell down on our heads-”

Earning his pay, I thought.

She continued without pause.  “-And we still have to find a way to handle this without a complete PR catastrophe.  Once the media gets hold of this, we lose the ability to control the situation.”

“Dragon is managing the details as we speak,” Defiant said.  “She can isolate and track digital communication, but she can’t stop the spread of word of mouth.  Chevalier’s doing what he can on his end, but the PRT agents that confirmed Alexandria’s death won’t be able to keep their mouths shut forever, not with something as grave as this.”

“Fifteen minutes,” Miss Militia said.

“Fourteen,” Defiant cut in, correcting her.

Fourteen minutes,” she said, “That’s our working timeline.  Even if Skitter were to call off the Undersiders, we have information leaks.”

“Then what if we let it leak?” I asked.  “We say ‘fuck it, the PRT is fucked, Alexandria is a monster, let people figure it out for themselves.'”

“You don’t really want that,” Miss Militia said.

“The system is fucked,” I said.  “Everything that’s happened, it’s taught me a few things.  People are fucked up, for one thing.  And any organization that has people in control is going to be fucked on an exponential level.  But for all that, people are a hell of a lot tougher than we give them credit for.  We survive.  We innovate.  So yeah, I’m seriously thinking along those lines.  I wouldn’t mind seeing the PRT burn, damn it, because I think we’ll make it regardless.”

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “What changed your mind from the moment you decided to surrender?  Your friends weren’t at risk, you already knew something about Tagg and Alexandria.”

“You,” I told her.  “You were part of it.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Exactly.”

“You can’t blame me for standing out of the way.  You had a plan, Alexandria told me she had a plan, and nobody shared anything substantial with me.  I couldn’t take a step without risking that I’d get in someone’s way.”

I frowned.

“You’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re still reeling from what you thought happened,” Miss Militia said.  “Fine.  That’s fair.  But we don’t have time to work through that.  You said you wanted to work together, to compromise.  Do you stand by that?  Are you willing to at least try a workable solution?  Or are you going to keep fighting us?”

I glanced at Defiant.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“We need you to call your team and get them to stand down.  We can’t have bloodshed, and we can’t have Tattletale divulging critical information.”

I folded my arms.  “Meet me halfway.”

“Twelve minutes,” Defiant said.  “This isn’t the time to be hard-nosed.  You don’t want this fight any more than we do.  If this happens, your team will be at a very real risk of death or arrest.  Three of the A.I. models, Dragon’s, mine, the Brockton Bay heroes and no less than ten visiting heroes.”

“This is exactly the time to be hard-nosed.  The Undersiders get left alone.  Those are my terms.  Figure it the fuck out.”

There was a pause, an exchange of looks between Defiant and Dragon.

“We’re talking to Chevalier and the Chief Director,” Defiant said.

“Good,” I answered him.

A few seconds passed.  I glanced at the sun, dipping beneath the mountains to the west.

Miss Militia will fill in as an interim PRT director,” a male voice sounded from the speaker at Dragon’s shoulder.  Chevalier.  “I’ll arrange it.  We have leverage, with the current state of emergency and the issues that are liable to come up with the announcement that we can make use of the portal.

“And I’ll remain hands off, unless I’m replaced or I have no other choice?” Miss Militia said.

We’ll keep you in position for as long as we can, postpone any changes or replacements until people get more comfortable with the idea.  With luck, we can segue into keeping you in position on a permanent basis. Failing that, we tap someone sympathetic to our aims.

“Damn it,” Miss Militia muttered.  “I feel like my lifespan just got cut short.  Double the work, too.”

“We’ll figure out a way to make it work,” Defiant said.  He looked at me.  “Satisfactory?”

“Yes.  Phone?”

Miss Militia tapped out a password, then handed me hers.

I dialed Tattletale’s number.

When Tattletale didn’t pick up on the first ring, I felt my heart jump into my throat.  She’d never done that.

“‘Lo,” Tattletale said.  I let myself breathe a sigh of relief.  She continued, “Call display says PRT Phone server.  Who am I talking to?

“It’s me,” I said.

You!  You wouldn’t believe how worried I’ve been.  Or the headache I have.  You know they gave you bad info?

“I know,” I said.

The stuff you were writing, it didn’t match up.  Tried to tell you, but you couldn’t understand me.

“I know,” I said.  “Just tell me… everyone’s safe?”

Everyone’s accounted for.  Shit, what did they do?

“Tattletale-”

They tried something.  What happened?”

“Tattletale,” I said, raising my voice a notch.  “Time’s short.  Call off the hounds, literal or otherwise.  Delay.”

Delay?”

“They’re making temporary offers,” I said, eyeing the heroes, “We can make some temporary concessions.”

Okay.  But I can’t hold back some of the bastards we put into play.  I can stop them, but that’s it.  They’ll leave, and we’re that much weaker.

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “These guys are at a bit of a disadvantage too.”

Okay… let’s see… alright.  Holding off for… half an hour?  Adding fifteen minutes to the clock?” Tattletale asked.

“Longer?” I asked.

Any longer and more mercenaries start walking away, deciding to take the half we paid up front.

“That’ll do, then, I guess.”  I said, giving the heroes a thumbs up.

You said they’re weaker, huh?  So it’s true.  I didn’t want to use my power to verify… but the rumor mill is right?  Alexandria bit it?

“Yes.  I-” I stopped.

You?  You did it?”  Tattletale asked.  “Guys-

Her voice faded as she turned away from the phone.

“Don’t tell them,” I said, once I realized what she was saying.

It was too late.  I could hear jeers and whooping from Regent and Imp in the background.  I couldn’t make out everything Grue was saying, but I caught something along the lines of ‘Jesus H. Fucking Christ.

It’s too late to matter, honey bear,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t have much juice powerwise, but I don’t need any to know this much.  Word’s already out about Alexandria.

“Word’s out about Alexandria,” I said, for the benefit of the heroes.

Defiant folded his arms.

Anything else I can do?” she asked.

“Stay near a phone.  Thank you,” I said.  And keep the jailbreak specialists on hand, I thought.  Not that I could say that with the Protectorate members around me.

“One disaster averted,” Miss Militia said.

“Held at bay,” Defiant said.  “The word’s spreading.  It’s starting to pop up on isolated channels.”

“We’ll need to get our official word out first,” Miss Militia said.

“What do you even say?” I asked.  “She’s dead.”

“And that will make a lot of people lose hope,” Miss Militia said.  “We have other ideas, but we need something bigger, more concrete.”

“But she’s dead,” I said.  “The only way to change the reaction is to convince everyone we have a winning game plan anyways.  That the PRT isn’t fucked, which it is.”

“The A.I. craft,” Defiant said, turning to look at the Pendragon.  “Expendable, versatile, devastating in their own right, and there’s image attached to them.  They’ll get the public’s imagination fired up.”

Miss Militia shook her head.  “There’ll be doubts, it’s not enough.  Behemoth can generate electromagnetic waves that wipe out electronics.  Even many reinforced electronics, if he’s close enough.  The Simurgh can scramble coding.  We don’t just have to convince the public.  We need to convince the heroes, and they know these things.”

“And they know what the difference is going to be, without Alexandria on the front lines,” Defiant said.  He sighed audibly.  “Four times now, she’s been the deciding factor in beating the Simurgh back early.  Once with Leviathan, when I was new to the Protectorate.”

“We can reduce the impact of the loss with careful word choice and a good speech,” Miss Militia said.  “If Skitter is willing to call off her other dogs.”

I glanced at the phone in my hand.  “Okay.”

“No demands this time?”

“Believe it or not, I want to fix things,” I said, as I dialed Mr. Calle’s number.  “We’re on the same side here.  The difference is I consider my friends to be a part of a workable scenario.  I have my issues with you guys, but I’m extending the benefit of a doubt again, and I’m hoping it doesn’t come back to bite me in the ass.  Again.”

The phone rang.  Mr. Calle answered.  “Quinn Calle speaking.

“It’s Taylor Hebert.”

Ah, excellent.  I’d feared they’d executed you or sent you to be incarcerated.

“I’m sorry for, um, that,” I said.

They had one of your good friends in a body bag, or they led you to believe they did.  You reacted as many would, with anger and pain.  You were simply, how to put it… better equipped than the rest of us mere mortals to express that anger and pain.

“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d left.”

Rest assured, Ms. Hebert, I’ve dealt with worse.

“Okay,” I said.  “I need you to back off on whatever threats you’re directing at the PRT.”

No can do, I’m afraid.

“Why the hell not?”

Because, right at this moment, you’re in the custody of the heroes.  They’ve given you a phone, no doubt, and they’ve caught you at an emotionally vulnerable moment.  For your benefit, I can’t assume you’re of sound mind or that you aren’t being coerced.

“How do we change your mind?”

I wouldn’t mind an invitation to the discussion.

“We’re sending a vehicle your way,” I said.  “Where are you?”

The lovely little shop with the donuts I visited this morning.

“Okay,” I said, putting my hand over the mouthpiece, “He says-”

I stopped.  The armored suit Miss Militia had left was already moving, heading directly for my territory.  She’d been listening in.

“Never mind.”

“Let’s talk about our game plan,” Miss Militia said.  “We’ve got the peripheral stuff in the works.  You’re bringing the suits in?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.  “She is.  Chevalier is on the way as well, and we’ve contacted the media.”

Miss Militia nodded.  “The two major crises are being held at bay, thanks to Skitter’s cooperation.  We can’t keep the word from spreading through other channels, so let’s cover every base we can.  We only get one shot at this.”

“Key points being Skitter’s role in this, and addressing how we deal with Alexandria’s demise,” Defiant said.

“My role?” I asked.  “I thought you wanted me to call off the attack?”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  “There’s more.”

I narrowed my eyes, very conscious of the fact that there were three rather powerful capes and one mechanized suit in my immediate vicinity.  “What more?”

She glanced at Defiant, then back to me.  “We’d like you to be there for the conference with the media.  Dragon’s going over footage, and so long as your lawyer doesn’t release the unedited content, we can hide the worst of the details from the media.  Shape the narrative.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“We’re revising the truth,” she said.  She paused.  “Yes.  We’re lying.”

“And you want me to participate in that?”

“Yes.  Your presence will lend a degree of legitimacy to what we’re saying.  We’re on opposite sides, in the public eye, making it all the more meaningful if we agree on what happened.”

“Are you fighting to keep the PRT going, or are you working to rebuild it?” I asked.

“Rebuild it,” she said.  No hesitation.

“And you’re doing it by starting with a lie.  Just like they did.”

“Yes,” she said.  Again, there was no hesitation.  “There’s no pretty, perfect answers, and concessions have to be made.  Questions and issues on a greater scale mean more repercussions for failure, and they call for bigger concessions if we want to ensure success.”

“And this is a big event, a lot of power,” I said.  “Big concessions?”

“Yes,” she said.  She looked ten times as tired as she said it.

I folded my arms.  I couldn’t disagree.  I didn’t like it.  But I’d been a leader.  I’d made shady calls.  I’d hurt people.  Had lied, cheated, stolen, killed.

The sun was gone, hidden by the mountains, and the clouds were changing from purple to black.  How long until the new deadline?  Twenty minutes?

I could see Defiant, saw him conversing with Dragon and Miss Militia.

I saw how he folded his arms, still holding his spear, so it rested against his shoulder.  How he planted his feet further apart.  A warrior’s stance.

It inspired a memory, of my first night out in costume.  The bad guy lying defeated on the street below, the city quiet around us, the dark sky overhead, with only meager light illuminating us.  Framing the situation, talking about options and priorities.

Not so different from the scene here.  The villain wasn’t here.  Alexandria had fallen a distance away.  But the city was quiet, the area still blockaded, the sky was dark, and the topic of discussion…

I thought of something, one moment in that night’s discussion when I’d thought that maybe Armsmaster could live up to the reputation, that he could really truly be someone who I could look up to.

“Hey,” I said.

Heads turned my way.

“As far as Alexandria goes, what if we turn it around?”

“Turn it around?”

“Way back, when I first started out in costume, I had a talk with Armsmaster.  He told me that I should be happy I was mistaken for a villain, because it meant I didn’t have to fight the Undersiders.  This was before I joined them.  It reminded me of how I’d been trying to deal with the shit I was going through back then, turning negatives into positives.  I think we can do that here.”

“How?” Miss Militia asked.  She glanced at Dragon’s craft, just now arriving to bring my lawyer to us.

“So long as we’re lying,” I said, “Let’s go wholesale.  We present Alexandria as the villain she was.”

“That’ll make the situation worse,” Miss Militia said.

“It depends on how we present the idea,” I said.

Dragon’s suit once again came to a stop at the edge of the roof, as it had when it had delivered Miss Militia.  It turned sideways, and the body opened, revealing my lawyer, looking more stressed than I’d seen him, in the midst of a rather compact cockpit.

Mr. Calle accepted Miss Militia’s offered hand in stepping down to the rooftop, and seemed to relax the instant his feet touched solid ground.

“Whoo,” he said.  “Never let it be said that my job isn’t an adventure.  You’re well, Ms. Hebert?”

“I am.”

“You haven’t made any deals?”

“Nothing permanent.”

“Good.”

Dragon touched my shoulder.  When I turned her way, she set her fingers in my hand, pulling me after her with the light contact of two of her fingertips.  Gentle, easy to avoid, but clear enough.

I followed as she led me to her hovering Dragon-craft, Mr. Calle a step behind me.  Mr. Calle had longer legs than I did, but he was the one who hesitated at the gap before stepping into the open cockpit.

Once I was on board, Dragon reached over to the wall and opened a shallow drawer, no more than three inches deep.  The drawer opened with a noise like something from a science fiction movie.

I stared at the contents.

“How?” I asked, and all of the confidence was gone from my voice.  “Wait, nevermind. You’re fu- you’re tinkers, damn it.”

Mr. Calle stepped up beside me, placing one hand on my shoulder in an uncharacteristic need for some support.  He looked down.  “I take it we’ve reached something of a consensus here?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Yes,” Defiant said, from the rooftop.

“Then it seems I need to draw up some paperwork,” Mr. Calle said.  “For formality’s sake, if nothing else.”

“Do it in five minutes,” Miss Militia said, from Defiant’s side.  “We’re out of time.  The media’s here.”

“Five?”  Mr. Calle seemed momentarily pained.  “Paper, fast.”

Dragon handed him a sleek keyboard, pointing to a screen.  He started typing.

“I’ll credit you this, Ms. Hebert,” my lawyer said, as he typed away, tabbing to different windows to draw up pages he could copy-paste from.  “You manage a great deal of grief and chaos in very short spans of time.”

Chevalier had arrived, and stepped into the cockpit.  Gold and silver armor, his cannonblade resting against one shoulder.  He briefly clasped hands with Defiant.

I stopped tidying my hair long enough to take the stylus from Dragon, scribbling my signature on the offered pad.  Others were already present – Miss Militia’s and Defiant’s.  The Chief Director’s signature appeared as the document was signed from a remote location.

“You’re ready?” Chevalier asked me.

I shook my head.  “No.”

“But you’re willing?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I rubbed my arms, then  zipped up my prison-issue sweatshirt.  “Has to be done, doesn’t it?”

“It’s not pretty,” he said.  “There’s a lot of ugliness in this.  But yes.  This gives us the best chance.”

I nodded.  I still had Miss Militia’s phone.  I dialed Tattletale.

Yo?

“Turn on the TV,” I said.  “And call them off.  Unless something goes horribly wrong, this is it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah,” I said.  No, I thought.

I hung up.

All together, we stepped out of the cockpit and walked around the craft.

The Wards were here.  Clockblocker, Vista, Kid Win and Crucible, standing on guard.

Rounding the corner, we approached the open street where the crowd of reporters waited.  Television cameras shifted to focus on the reporters announcing our arrival, or to follow us as we walked.  Tripod-mounted lights cast shafts of light across the road, all converging on one point, the makeshift stage – the flat ledge of the Dragon-suit’s wing, five feet off the ground.  Voices bubbled around us, a million questions, almost a singular noise.

Chevalier stepped forward, and they simultaneously drew quiet.  He had a presence, a kind of nobility that garnered respect.

“Today, not two hours ago, Alexandria was killed.”

I could barely see the reporters past the massive lights that were shedding light on the stage, on us.  They were solemn, focused on every single word.  They didn’t even flinch at the news.  They’d already known.

“Alexandria was a veteran among capes.  She was one of the first capes, one who was present for almost every major catastrophe in the last twenty years.  With every challenge she surmounted, she reaffirmed our belief in her, showed us how strong she was, how impervious and noble she was.”

He lowered his head.  I resisted the urge to fidget.  This was showing live, to homes across America.

On a rooftop nearby, capes teleported in.  Other capes, flying, were touching down on top of a news car.  Dovetail, with Sere beside her.

“If that was it, this would be hard enough,” he spoke.  “But she was a mythic figure in her own way.  She was a living symbol, recognized across the world.  She was a leader among us.  She was a friend to some of us.”

I sensed rather than saw Eidolon, hovering well above the reach of the lights.  Legend was close too, though less intent on hiding.

I steeled myself for what came next, willing myself to stay calm, to not give anything away.

“And she was a traitor.”

That garnered a response from the news reporters.  Shouted questions pierced the silence that loomed in the wake of Chevalier’s words.

He continued.  “When Alexandria was slain, earlier today, it was done by individuals standing on this stage.”

Every word carefully chosen, so it was technically or at least partially true.  Alexandria was a traitor, with her involvement with Cauldron, she had been slain at the hands of someone on the stage.

“There are individuals out there right now, who have kept quiet about recent events.  Only last month, there was an event in this city, a threat that was theorized to be a nascent Endbringer.  In the wake of that event, Alexandria was revealed to be partially responsible.”

The reporters, I noted, were deathly still.  Deer in the headlights.

Good capes,” Chevalier said, “Burdened by conscience, walked away from the PRT.  Without them to serve as our backbone, we were left gutted.  There has been rampant speculation on what has been going on within the PRT, on what might have caused so many capes to abandon it.  We –they– couldn’t speak because Alexandria held a position of power, because she was purportedly invincible, unassailable.  Because of the threat she posed, and the resources she had at her disposal.”

Others were joining the crowd of reporters.  Civilians, returning now that the blockades had been taken down, maybe going home, only to see the scene, the heroes in the spotlight.  They clustered, or parked at the periphery of the crowd, getting out of their cars.

How many millions were tuning in right this moment?

“Some of us left, because their consciences couldn’t bear serving a corrupt power.  Others, many of us on the stage included, stayed, because we felt the PRT, the Protectorate, the Wards program and the teams that draw on us for resources were too important.  I’m not here to say one decision was better than the other, or to lay blame with those who sided with her.  In coming weeks and months, our capes, accountants and lawyers will be meeting with anyone and everyone in a position of power within the Protectorate program or the PRT, ensuring nothing of this scale occurs again.”

Something moved into my range.  An insect.  Large.

Atlas.

I moved him experimentally, and felt how incredibly weary he was.  His reserves of energy were drained, his body dying.  His forelegs touched the walls around him.  He’d been placed in the back of a van.

And the occupants of that van – bugs entered open windows to make contact with the others.  Lisa, Brian, Alec and Aisha.  I could hear the echo, time delayed by five seconds, as they watched Chevalier speak on a tablet PC.

 “Alexandria betrayed us on a fundamental level, and the whole cape community has felt that.  The public has felt that.  I urge people not to blame her.  She had no less than eighteen fights against the Simurgh.  We had been led to believe her powers rendered her immune, but she was clever enough to hide and alter the evidence.  She was a victim, and it’s a testament to her character that she fought off the Simurgh’s influence for as long as she did.”

And there’s the first egregious lie, I thought.

With luck, nobody would believe anyone that was callous enough to point it out.  Nobody would want to believe them.  It was an ugly thought, that Alexandria could be twisted to act against our interests just because of who she was.  She’d worked with Cauldron, had experimented on humans, all in the interest of… what?  Creating powers?  Selling them?

I swallowed hard.  I knew what came next.

“It was due to a concerted effort this evening that we were able to stop Alexandria before more damage could be done.”

Chevalier reached out, put a hand on my shoulder.  He drew me closer to him, until I stood in front of him and he had both hands resting on my shoulders.

“Many will recognize Taylor Hebert, revealed to be Skitter in a controversial confrontation at the school just a week ago, a confrontation Alexandria ordered.  Taylor Hebert played a crucial role in stopping Alexandria in a moment of crisis, ending the fight.”

And now half the world hates me, I thought, staring forward.  The glare was so intense I thought my eyes might start crossing.  And the other half… I don’t know what the other half thinks.

I’d agreed to share ‘credit’ for the kill, but only because there had been a consensus that people wouldn’t believe it if I took sole responsibility.

Chevalier wasn’t speaking.  I saw a red light go on at the corner of my collar.  The microphone Dragon had clipped there was live.  The signals would be received by all equipped, official cameras.  Something the PRT had arranged for convenience’s sake some time ago.

I had a chance to speak in my own defense, in front of countless tens or hundreds of millions of eyes, and the words were dying in my throat.

My thoughts were grinding to a standstill.  What was I supposed to say?  We’d barely had any time to prepare.  We hadn’t had time to prepare.

There were whole lines I was supposed to give.  Ideas I was supposed to express, striking the right tone, and I’d gone blank.

I couldn’t defend myself like this, even with rehearsed lines.

Chevalier rescued me.  He spoke, his voice clear.  “This isn’t a happy day.”

It was a reminder of what my line was supposed to be.  I’m not proud, I’m not happy that it came to this…

“It’s not a happy day, but it’s a good day,” he said, skipping ahead two or so minutes.  “It marks change, and it marks a step forward.  A chance to fight Endbringers and other threats without sabotage, without worrying who stands beside us, or whether our leadership is compromised.”

Dragon’s ships descended from the sky above.  My hair and the hood of my sweatshirt flapped as the vessels landed to either side of us.  Eleven vessels.  The ones we’d destroyed had been rebuilt, updated.  Others, old Dragon suits, had apparently been set up with A.I. to fly on their own.  They gleamed, various shades of chrome and gunmetal, with trim in different metals and colors for decoration and highlighting.

She had more made, I thought.

“A chance to fight Endbringers without as many casualties,” Chevalier said.  “And hope.  We’ve investigated the portal to another world, and confirmed that there are resources and even shelter, a possibility of escape in a time of emergency.”

I stared at the van where the Undersiders were.

“And new allies, as unlikely as they might be.”

His hands dropped from my shoulders.

I reached up to the zipper of my sweatshirt.  I pulled it down, then shrugged out of it.  Chevalier took the piece of clothing in one hand.

I bent over and stepped out of the loose-fitting prison sweats as well.

Defiant handed me my new mask, and I pulled it on.  Electric blue lenses, the opposite of the yellow I’d worn before.  They helped with the glare, though they weren’t so good against it as my old lenses.

Light gray fabric where I’d had black.  Armor panels in the same dark gray as before, albeit with cleaner lines, less bulk, and less in the way of edges.  I had no points at the tips of my gloves, and both the mantle around my shoulders and the cloth that hung around my belt were marked with an electric blue border, with my gang emblem in miniature at each corner, flipped upside down so they faced skyward, altered to match my new color scheme.

“I admitted to reprehensible things,” I said.  “I won’t challenge that, or pretend I didn’t say or do those things.  By all rights, I should go to jail.  I may serve a sentence, if the courts will it.  I won’t challenge that.”

I paused.  For a terrifying moment, I thought I’d forget what to say again.  Then I fixed my eyes on the windshield of the van, at the far end of the crowd.

It struck me that I hadn’t suffered stage fright.  It had been something else entirely.  I hadn’t wanted to speak, because there would be no going back.

When I finally spoke, I didn’t follow the cues I’d been given.  My eyes didn’t leave the spot where the Undersiders were watching from.

“I seized a territory in Brockton Bay.  I led the local villains, and we defeated all comers.  I was secure in my position.  I had wealth, friendship, love and respect.  People depended on me.  It was everything I’d ever wanted, if not quite the way I’d initially imagined it.  I could have stayed and been comfortable.

“Except there are bigger things.  More important things.”

The eyes and cameras on me made me feel like I was deep in the ocean, a crushing weight pressing down on me.

“I believe in the idea of a new PRT that Chevalier is talking about.  I believe in it enough that I was willing to turn myself in and take action to bring it to fruition.  That I was willing to leave everything I had behind.  If I have to serve time in jail first, then so be it.  If I face the Birdcage… I hope I don’t.  But at least I could tell myself that seeing the supervillain step up might convince others to come back.  Change the minds of heroes who gave up on the PRT for one reason or another.”

A lump welled in my throat.  I knew I didn’t have many more words left before I wouldn’t be able to speak.

“This is what I want to do, above all else,” I said, and I said it to the Undersiders.  “Given the chance, I’ll serve the people.  As I fought Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine and other evils, I’ll fight to the last gasp to protect all of you.  When-“

A howling in the distance interrupted me.

Moments later, others took up the cry.  Ten dogs, then twenty.  Others took up the cry around the city, from various shelters and homes.  A hundred, two hundred dogs, and the wolf cub that had started them off.

“-When and if I do take up the job,” I finished, speaking around the growing lump in my throat, “You can call me Weaver.”

Chevalier set a hand on my shoulder.

“That’ll be all,” the hero said.  “We’ll have another statement and a conference to answer questions early tomorrow, when we know more for sure.”

The reporters were already calling out questions.  Is this the first time you’ve recruited a villain?  How did Alexandria die?  What crimes did she commit, exactly?

More questions, until it was a jumble.

He led me away, one hand steady and firm on my shoulder, and Miss Militia, Defiant, Dragon and my lawyer fell into step behind us.

I cast one last glance at the van, then entered Dragon’s ship.

“You stumbled,” Defiant said.  “Improvised.  But that was good.”

I didn’t respond.

“You know you can’t stay here.  There’s a conflict of-“

Dragon reached out and pressed an index finger against the ‘mouth’ of his mask.

Then she folded her arms around me.  She was cold to the touch, hard and unyielding, but she still managed a motherly embrace.

My face pressed against her shoulder, I found myself glad that my mask hid my face from view.

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Cell 22.4

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I watched my dad’s expression change.  “I don’t understand.”

“Like I said,” Tagg said, “Peace of mind.”

“Let’s get started,” Alexandria said.  “I believe I’m fully up to speed, unless Director Tagg has agreed to any deals or made any concessions.”

“Sadly, he hasn’t,” my lawyer said.

“This is common knowledge?” my dad murmured to me.

“Since roughly ten days ago,” I said, not taking my eyes off the woman.  She was looking at me like Tattletale sometimes did.  It made me distinctly uncomfortable.

“Let’s not make this the focus of our discussion.  You wanted to be on board, I presume.  You had to be informed, so you understood exactly what it means when I make a threat.”

“You’re planning to make threats?” I asked.

“Threats is the wrong word,” she said.  “But English is a limited language in some ways.  There’s really no word to articulate what I mean.  A threat with a measure of inevitability to it.  A promise?  Too feeble.  People break promises too often.  A curse?  A malediction?  Too… magical.  An oath?  The connotations are wrong.  When I say I’ll do something, I make it happen.”

I didn’t respond.  Mr. Calle did.  “You seem rather confident.”

Overconfident?  I imagine I seem that way.  It doesn’t matter.”

I studied her, “When you say you’re going to do something?  What is it you’re doing?”

“Putting an end to this nonsense, for one thing.  The PRT, flawed as it is, is my legacy, and I truly believe that it saves lives, or I wouldn’t try to protect it.”

I’m trying to protect it,” I said.

“I know,” she said.  “But the timing is wrong.  Things are too fragile at this moment.  It won’t do.  We’ll arrange this discussion for another time, weeks or months from now, when things have stabilized.”

“I… don’t think it works that way,” I said.

“It does.  Truth be told, I’ve relinquished all authority.  I’m serving under the new Chief Director, and I’m carrying out his instructions, between the times where I’m instructing him in the particulars of his job.  Alexandria, however, remains with the Protectorate, having given her notice that she quits within the week.  She’ll continue as a solo operative.”

An operative for Cauldron, I thought.  I didn’t say it aloud.  Best to let her dictate what information was acceptable to mention aloud.  And she refers to her costumed self as someone else entirely.

I could see the confusion in my father’s face, the dawning realization of how far in over his head he was.

“So you’re following orders,” I said.  “That’s the worst and scariest excuse in the world, really.”

“It’s a reality,” she said.  “When you’re dealing with organizations as big as these.”

“And it’s also a reality that you’ll have people at the top who don’t understand how things work on the ground, giving orders that don’t jibe with reality.”

“You’d be surprised at what I’m capable of understanding,” Alexandria told me.

“You’re forgetting about the Undersiders.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t forget anything.  Your team is now my bargaining chip.”

I narrowed my eyes.  “How’s that?”

“It’s twenty minutes to six.  I’m not in a particular rush, and I actually enjoy the idea of some field work.  We can talk for five minutes, and then have ‘Alexandria’ remove one of your teammates from the field.  Depending on the situation, I will either arrest them and take them to PRT offices in New York and Boston, or I’ll kill them.”

I could feel my blood run cold.

“After, we can talk for another five or ten minutes, and then I will, again, depart to dispatch one of your teammates.  I expect that by the time the sun sets at eight thirty, the Undersiders will be either dealt with or so neutered that they aren’t a consideration.”

“You’re talking about killing teenagers,” my dad said.  “Without a trial?”

“I’m talking about self-defense, if it comes down to it.  Tattletale can see through weaknesses.  I can’t imagine that she’d be able to leverage mine in the spur of the moment, but I won’t rule anything out.”

I stared at her.  “You’re willing to go this far, yet you couldn’t bring yourself to show up to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Or Echidna, when she first showed.”

“There were extenuating circumstances.”

“Tattletale, you mean.”

“No.  Tattletale was only a small part of it,” she said.  “And it should be obvious that the rest isn’t up for discussion.  Three minutes and forty-five seconds.  Negotiate.”

“You mean you want me to make concessions.”

“I’m saying I’m willing to hear you out.  Convince me.”

“You’re underestimating my team.”

“And now you’re referring to them as ‘your team’.  I thought you left.  You committed to this idea of yours, did you not?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do.  But as much as I may be underestimating them, I find that others underestimate me.  Strength, durability, flight.  It doesn’t lend itself to much imagination, does it?  Yet others acknowledge me as one of the strongest heroes in the world.  ‘Cape geeks’ debate my effectiveness, protesting that I’m only seen as powerful by association with Legend and Eidolon.  Do feel free to interrupt me if you want to talk about more concrete things.”

I would have, if I could have thought of something to say.

“My reputation isn’t so different from yours, Taylor Hebert.  It’s a reputation that was forged.  There have been fifty-six Endbringer attacks in the last nineteen years.  I have personally participated in forty-nine of them, and in each fight I’ve attended, I’ve been in the thick of the fighting, personally trading blows with the abominations.  The creatures know me.  They know how to fight me, and I know how to fight them.  Yet I’m still here.  Strength, invulnerability, flight.  Those are my core powers, but my other power is greater.”

“Other power?” my dad asked.  “I remember.  When you started off… you explained the reason for your name.”

“A reference to the burned library of Alexandria.  It’s been mythologized as that era’s sum of human knowledge.  I am much the same.  I think faster, I think more easily.  I know martial arts and I remember everything that crosses my path.”

Miss Militia reacted to that, giving Alexandria a look I couldn’t interpret.

She went on.  “I would say I am one of three or four people in this world who truly understands what is going on.  I don’t have all of the answers, and there are some riddles in particular that we’re desperately seeking to unravel.”

We, of course, being…” I said, trailing off.  It wasn’t a question.  Something about the gravity of the word made my dad look at me, startled.

“I won’t discuss the others.  I’ve been disconnected from my former partners, so it’s a moot point.  A debatable point, to use the true meaning of the word.”

I saw a possible piece of leverage and grasped for it, “If you need answers, then we’re the last people you should be attacking.  Tattletale can offer input.  Leave the Undersiders in place, and they can work with you where necessary.  Treat me fairly, and I’m sure Tattletale will play ball.”

“There’s two problems with that offer,” Alexandria said.  She stood from her seat and adjusted her suit jacket, then turned her attention to her cuffs.  “First of all, I believe I mentioned that there’s only a small number of people who truly understand what’s going on.  We haven’t shared this information.  Why?”

I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“This isn’t a riddle.  It’s quite simple: we don’t want people to know.  And we don’t want people to know for good reason.  Having Tattletale off leash with all of the information she might discover is a dangerous prospect.”

“She’s not that unpredictable.”

“But it’s not a variable we can afford to have in play.  As I’ve said, things are fragile.  Which brings me to my second point.  There’s no reason to leave her here if we can bring her into custody and use her freedom or probationary freedom as leverage to obtain her talents.”

I frowned.

Alexandria glanced at Tagg, “It’s time.  Five forty-five.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Ten minutes.

She was at the door, waiting for the guard to open it, when I called out, “Tattletale won’t listen.  She’s too rebellious, wants to be the smartest person in the room.  If you force her, she’ll sabotage you, or she’ll just make you put her in the Birdcage, having her here, it’s the only way to get her help.”

Alexandria paused, then looked back at me.  “That will do.  Information I can use, that changes how I’ll respond to this particular confrontation.  I don’t agree, but we can discuss that after.  I’ll target one of the others in the meantime.”

The metal door slammed shut.

Miss Militia stood.  “I need some fresh air.”

She didn’t ask for permission, and she didn’t even look at anyone as she made her way to the door and knocked for the PRT guard to let her through.

“Everything she was talking about,” my dad said, “I can’t wrap my head around this.”

“This is what I’ve been living,” I said.  “This has been my day-to-day.  My friends and I, facing terminal risk, facing down monsters like her, like Alexandria.”

“She’s one of the heroes.”

“Yeah,” I said, meeting my dad’s eyes.  It hadn’t been so long ago that I’d been able to cling to that basic idea.  The image, as I’d heard it phrased, of the heroes, of the Triumvirate.  It had been Armsmaster who instilled the seed of doubt in me, as far as the heroes went.  “Do you think she’s that heroic, now that you’ve met her in person?”

“No,” he said.  He looked troubled.

Shit.  I was stuck in a box while one of the scariest heroes around was going after my friends.  I’d expected retaliation, had told Tattletale to expect it, but this was… I hadn’t expected Alexandria.  She wasn’t even supposed to be with the PRT.  Eidolon, we possibly could have dealt with.  Or Tattletale could have.  Even Legend, possibly.  Alexandria was something else.  The heroic equivalent of a cruise missile.

There was Grue’s power, Imp’s power… did Alexandria have the ability to see through it?

Alexandria was taking her time.  She’d said ten minutes, but she wasn’t in a hurry, making her way out of the building.

“You know, now,” I said.  “After the Echidna incident-”

I could see Tagg stiffen, kept talking, “-Stuff went down.  Alexandria was outed as head of the PRT, other secrets came to light.  You know the PRT is supposed to be led by non-capes, there was scandal, and now the PRT is falling apart.”

“I see,” my dad said.  “Other secrets?”

“You don’t want to know,” I said.  “And Tagg would be exceedingly upset if I shared.”

My dad frowned and stared down at the table.  “I believe you.”

I nodded.

Alexandria had found an alley and promptly took to the air, zig-zagging between buildings and flying with enough speed that people couldn’t follow her with their eyes.

“My phone isn’t working,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have you warning them,” Tagg replied.

“I’m offended at the implication,” Mr. Calle said.

“Can’t have her warning them either,” Tagg replied.

Warning them.  I needed a way to contact my team. Cells wouldn’t work.  A land line?  An unoccupied office… Tagg’s office would do.  My bugs made their way there.

Too small to affect anything, to press a key on the computer, even if I could see the screen.  Too small to transmit a message of any sort.

I needed a larger bug.  There were larger beetles and cockroaches outside.  Everything else had been wiped out by Kid Win’s drones.

I could see Mr. Calle and Tagg watching my dad and I, looking between us.  “What?”

Mr. Calle answered, “I’ve represented a lot of supervillains.  I can count on one hand the ones who had parents show up at their trial, let alone pre-trial.  When they did show up, half of them were a nightmare.  Bambina’s mother, for example, all of the worst aspects of a showbiz parent, but the kid’s a vandal and a mass murderer.  Don’t even get me started on how toxic that dynamic was.  You two are civil with one another, at the very least.  That’s… something.  Hold onto it.”

“Hold onto it?” Tagg commented, from the opposite end of the table.  “I think you’re forgetting your client’s circumstances.”

Again, interjecting himself in between my dad and I.  Driving in wedges.  I felt a momentary urge to do something painful to him.

I couldn’t rise to the bait, though.  I had to channel the anger.  Bugs were finding their way through vents and down hallways, spreading out so the two or three remaining drones couldn’t eradicate them.

Others clustered on Tagg’s phone.  Silk allowed multiple bugs to effectively ‘grip’ the phone handle.  Larger bugs found their way under the base of it, wedging their bodies beneath as the pull on the cord tilted it.  A little bit of progress, driving in the wedge to make sure the phone didn’t simply fall back into place.

“You’re going to jail, Skitter,” Tagg said.  “And if you’re very, very lucky, it won’t be the Birdcage or a death sentence.”

“She’s a minor,” my dad said.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr. Calle sighed.

“Look at me, Tagg,” I said.  “You said you weren’t going to underestimate me.  Do you really think I’m worried?  Do you think I would have surrendered if I didn’t have confidence that I’d be able to manage?”

My dad was staring at me.

“No,” he said.  “I think you have a number of plans in the works.  But it doesn’t matter.  Alexandria can out-think your plans, counter anything your Tattletale throws at us.

His phone handset fell from its perch, clattering across the keys before it fell from the desk, swinging.  I could see the flare of light on the phone, marking that the line was active.  I hoped there wasn’t a secretary who’d notice.

I flew the largest beetle I had into the number pad, driving him into the number five.  The bugs on the mouthpiece heard a sound I took to be the answering beep.

Five again.  Second number in the sequence.

Not hard enough.  No beep.

Five again.

Seven numbers.

The message that came through was odd, rhythmic somehow, though I couldn’t make out the words.  A recording.

I had to dial an outside line.

Eight numbers this time, starting with… Nine.  It took a full minute to hit the buttons.

Nothing.

Eight numbers starting with eight…  No.

Seven.

The call went through.  I got a response.

Please be Lisa.

I tried buzzing out words.  It didn’t feel like enough.

So I retired the abused beetle and set to using cockroaches.  My bugs felt the indents of the characters on the number pad.

Two, five, three, nine, two, six…

The voice interrupted me.

The number of syllables was right.  She understood.  The numbers each corresponded to three possible letters, and each number pressed on the phone generated a different sound.  Anyone else might have struggled, but Tattletale picked up on it right away.  ‘Alexandria’.

I could only hope it helped.  A little forewarning, at best.

Still couldn’t make out words that followed.  The filter of both the phone and my bugs was too much, and I couldn’t begin to guess where the speaker phone button was.  Wasn’t sure I wanted to risk using it in case someone stepped into the office.  A phone being off the hook was far better than a voice talking to nothing.

“You meant it, when you said they were your friends,” my dad said.

“We’ve been through thick and thin.  They saved me, in some ways.  I’d like to think I saved them.”

Tagg snorted.  I ignored him.

“They did… bad things, didn’t they?” my dad asked.

“So have I,” I said.

“But you’re willing to martyr yourself for them?”

“No,” I said.  “I didn’t come here to be a martyr, I had other hopes.  But… things didn’t work out like that.  It’s down to secondary goals… and if those fail, then I’m willing to go to jail for their sakes.  Not just my friends.  The people in my territory, and maybe just a little, everyone.”

I looked at Tagg as I said that last word.  He gave me a dirty look, then more or less turned his attention to his phone, watching me with one eye while texting with one hand.

“Everyone?” my dad asked.

“We can’t lose the next Endbringer fight,” was all I could say.

“No, I don’t imagine we can,” he said.

That was something he understood in full, even if he didn’t know the particulars.  The Endbringers were something we all understood.  A fact of reality, something that touched everyone, struck a chord of fear in cape and civilian alike.

My heart sank as Alexandria appeared.  She plunged past the cloud of bugs that had collected over the roof, into an opening aperture in the ceiling.  She passed down a shaft that ran parallel to the elevator, and into the Wards’ quarters.

From there, she reached the elevator and made her way up to the cells.

Alexandria rejoined us in the cell, virtually the same, though her hair was disheveled, her suit jacket folded over one arm.  She laid it across the back of Miss Militia’s empty chair and stayed there, leaning on the back of the chair that was bolted to the floor.

Noting Miss Militia’s absence led to me double checking on her.  She was on the roof.  No, I couldn’t count on anything from her.  I’d hoped to have one more piece in play, but she was leaning over a railing at the edge of a helicopter landing pad, staring out over the city.

Alexandria had to be my focus.  She was staring at me, scrutinizing me.  I met her eyes, and she locked hers onto mine.

“I’d thought Tattletale had figured it out…” she paused, “But no.  You told them.  You have an open line of communication with them.”

I shrugged, thinking of Tagg’s phone, with the handset still dangling over the edge of the desk.

Wished I could hear her response.  What had happened to my teammates?

“Let’s take five minutes more to talk.  Then I’ll take care of another of the Undersiders.”

“Another?”

“A PRT van will be along shortly.  I wanted to keep to my time commitment, so I sent a truck.”

“Why should I say anything?” I asked her.

“Because as long as we’re talking, I’m not out there, taking your team to pieces, and you have a shot at passing them information.  It gives them time to recuperate and strategize.  Five minutes gives them time to make a getaway, or contact help.  I imagine you arranged for backup.  Hired mercenaries to help break you out if this went badly enough that you faced jail without getting anything you wanted or needed.”

I set my jaw.

“I know the general value of the properties you acquired, the proposed value of it.  Your team would spend it.  Ninety two million dollars, spent on hired soldiers, hired parahumans.  That’s only your liquid assets.”

I didn’t reply.  I set to typing the next message on Tagg’s phone.  K-N-O-W-S-A-B-O-U-T-M-E-R-C-S

She straightened, removing her hands from the back of the chair.  “If you’re not going to say anything, I might as well go now.  You’re rather partial to Grue, aren’t you?  Or should I take Tattletale out of the picture?”

“We can talk,” I told her.

“Excellent,” she said.  She stepped around the corner of the table and sat in her chair, opposite me.  “Do you need anything?  Water?  Coffee?  Soda?”

I shook my head.

“Mr. Calle?  Mr. Hebert?”

Two refusals.

She removed her phone from her jacket pocket.  “Forgive me for using this in the midst of our discussion.  Chevalier is likely to become the head of the Protectorate once the Triumvirate has departed, and he’s insisting that I keep tabs with him, what with the scandal and all.  I’d show you, but that would be a breach of confidence.”

She smiled, as though at a private joke.  The smile didn’t matter to me.  It was the way her eyes didn’t leave me.

“You’re cold reading me,” I said.

“Cold reading?” My dad asked.

“Tattletale does it too.  Mixes details she knows with ones she doesn’t, with very careful wording and a bit of an edge with her thinker powers.”

“Mm hmm,” Alexandria said.  She typed expertly on her phone, almost absently.  “I know you’ve probably got someone in the lobby or outside, receiving coded messages.  I know about the mercenaries.  More mercenaries than I implied.  I expect Tattletale called in favors.  Probably not the Irregulars, but I didn’t read that.  Simple logic.  They wouldn’t work for you.  I know that you’re still feeling confident, but not entirely so.  If you were very close to breaking or very, very confident, you would have accepted my offer of a drink.  And I know that your bugs can’t see computer screens.”

Was she bluffing on that last part?  Did it matter if she was?  I could refuse, play some kind of trick, and she’d see right through it.

“I could make some noise about my client’s rights being trampled, a lack of consent to that kind of analysis,” Mr. Calle said.

“But you know the law doesn’t apply here.  We’re in a gray area, up until the moment we decide to press charges and set this into motion, or you decide to force the issue.  But neither of us want that.  For now, this is… somewhere between her being in our custody and us having a friendly chat.”

My lawyer glanced at me.  I frowned.  “Yeah.  So long as she doesn’t start grilling me.”

“As you wish,” Mr. Calle said.

My head turned as I sensed the truck arriving.   Bugs clustered to it as it found a spot at the side of the building, PRT uniforms moving their target on a stretcher.  My bugs shifted position, tracking what they were moving.  The white mask, the curls, the shirt, with a tightly woven fabric beneath… a spider silk shirt?  It was Regent, unconscious.

The bugs moved, tracing down the length of his arm.  It was broken in two places, virtually zig-zagging.  His leg was the same.  I caught the words ‘medical’ and ‘doctor’.  ‘Tranquilizer’.

“He’s arrived, I take it.” Alexandria said.

I nodded tightly.

“The paradigm has changed,” Alexandria said.  “In… two minutes and thirty seconds, I go and dispatch another of your teammates.  I’ll hear concessions, offers or relevant information, and I’ll adjust my methods and the severity of my attack where appropriate.”

“This is extortion,” my dad said.

“She makes the process easier for us, we make it easier on her and her friends.”

I frowned.  “That’s still extortion.”

“Two minutes and eight seconds,” she said, not even bothering to deny it.  She had the same habit as Tattletale, of knowing the time without looking at a clock.  “They’re going to be running, now, trying to throw me off their trail.  I’ll find them.  I can study the environment, I’ve studied the case histories and I know where they own property.”

Another alert I needed to give.  I was still typing in the last one.  The cockroaches weren’t strong enough to hit the keys with enough force, so it was more of a case of having to leverage the key down through the combined efforts of several larger roaches and carefully arranged silk.

I grit my teeth, trying to focus on the spelling while keeping track of what Alexandria was saying.  Started on the next message.  X-K-N-O-W-S-P-R-O-P-E-R-T-I-E-S

“You’re backing me into a corner,” I said.  “Backing them into a corner.  Someone’s bound to snap.”

“Most likely,” she said, and there wasn’t a trace of concern in her expression.  It was almost eerie, how little she seemed to care.  Was that her passenger at work, or was she simply good enough at what she did, comfortable enough in her invincibility, that she’d grown able to shrug off the insignificant things?

I shook my head.  “I’m not making concessions.  The terms I gave still stand.  If you want to discuss the reasons behind-”

She was already getting out of her chair.

“-behind why I made the demands I made, we can.  I think you’ll find it reasonable.”

“I’ve heard this,” Alexandria said.  She donned her suit jacket, buttoning it up in front.  “Read it, rather.  I’ve thought about all the permutations and unless you’re willing to change tack or tell me something I don’t know, there’s no point to this discussion.”

She walked to the door and knocked.  While waiting for the officer to open the door, she turned, “One last chance to offer me something.  Any detail I can use, things to watch out for.”

Bitch, I thought.  Her power, it screwed with her headShe can’t relate to people.  She doesn’t understand facial expressions, body language or our social constructs.  It’s all replaced by dog behavior. 

Grue.  Post traumatic stress.  He doesn’t like doctors, doesn’t like being confined, or the dark.  But he’s stable otherwise.

Information that could be used to protect Bitch, protect Grue.  To keep a bad situation from getting worse.  It felt like it would be a betrayal anyways.  It was an eerie reversal of the rationalization I’d done back at the bank robbery, on my first job as a villain.  Telling myself that terrorizing the hostages was for their own good.

But I couldn’t bring myself to betray them on that level.  Not to people who trusted me.

And she was gone.

I grit my teeth.  I looked at Calle, but he shook his head.

Tagg reached for his phone, where it sat on the table.

Long minutes passed, as Tagg texted and I sat in anxious silence.

“You said you’ve worked with cape families,” my dad spoke.  It took me a second to realize he was talking to Calle.

“Yes,” my lawyer answered.

“Can I ask you some questions?”

“I was just about to step outside, call some colleagues.”

“Oh.”

“After.  Unless you want to join me?”

“Isn’t it better if she isn’t alone?”

“Everything’s recorded.  Short of her being threatened with serious bodily injury or death, I don’t see a problem.”

My dad cast me a look.  I nodded.

He left with Mr. Calle.

“You and I,” Tagg said.

I folded my arms as best as I was able, then leaned forward to rest my head.  Not worth giving him the benefit of a conversation.

The table shook, and I briefly looked up, only to see Tagg setting his feet on the metal surface.

He took his time getting comfortable, and kicked the table several times in the process.

When I set my head down, he started humming.

He’s trying to get to me, I thought to myself, for the Nth time.

They were bullies.  Tagg and Alexandria both.  They were the equivalent of the older child picking on the kindergartener, or the adult picking on the child.  They had power to throw around that I didn’t, they had freedom, liberty, the power of choice.  They wanted to punish me, to put me off-balance for their own ends.

Just… bullies in a grander scale.

I simultaneously felt like I understood Tagg a little more, and a little less.

Mr. Calle answered a ton of my father’s questions, big and small.  About things I’d thought were common knowledge, like trigger events, and more specific, grave matters, like the prospect of my receiving the death penalty.  When he’d exhausted each of those questions, he asked about other things.  Smarter things, like the degree to which he might be able to stand up to Alexandria or Tagg, about how he could work with Calle to throw them off-balance, and signals to arrange a plan of attack.

My dad, entirely out of place, out of his depth, confused and utterly unarmed, fighting to get up to speed, in the hopes that he could do something to help.

It was a step forward.  A small step, but a step forward.

Tagg stood, approaching me, then leaned on the table just beside me, so he loomed over me, not speaking, invading my personal space, denying me the ability to rest or relax.

And my bugs, in his office, continued punching away as best as they were able.  Me, communicating with Tattletale, unable to hear her response, straining to hear some sign of the violence.  Had they split up?

Regent’s arms and legs had been set, and he lay on a bed identical to the one I’d had, apparently tranquilized.

I was the target, the mastermind, the one they were trying to break.

Alexandria only took six minutes.  She arrived by the same route, only she held a girl this time.  A hard mask with horns and slanted lenses that tapered into points at the corners, a skin-tight bodysuit.  Imp.

Alexandria had found a way around Imp’s power.  Or her mental powers had overridden them.

One more body in the cells.  One more Undersider down.

Alexandria found her way back to the cells before my dad and my lawyer did, accompanied by Miss Militia.  Alexandria grabbed one of Kid Win’s active drones from the air and tucked it under one arm like a football as she made her way down, and held it up as she visited the cell where they were checking an unconscious, tranquilized Imp.  Every bug was eradicated by the mist that appeared, leaving me utterly blind.

I didn’t see her again until she opened the door and joined us.  She was drenched, her hair soaked, swept back away from her face, and the makeup that had hidden the seam of her prosthetic eye had been washed away, leaving a conspicuous line in place.  Miss Militia looked grim and very dry beside her.

“They fought back?”  I asked.

“A firehose, and a cape with a water geyser power.  They tried to drown me.  It didn’t work.  Others have tried the same thing, in many different variations.  Old hat.”

A cape with water generating powers?  The Ambassadors.

She looked around, “Your lawyer?”

“Out,” Tagg said, not looking up from his phone.

“I suppose it would be bad manners to talk to you while he’s occupied,” Alexandria said.

I didn’t reply.

“Well, five minutes before I go again.  If this is a delaying tactic, it won’t work.”

“Read my face,” I said, “It’s not a delaying tactic.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said.  “I’m keeping to a schedule.  Roughly half an hour at a time, collecting one Undersider with each excursion.  I told you I’d hold off on collecting Tattletale, so I’ll save her for last.  Four minutes and forty seconds.”

Tattletale was still periodically speaking into the phone, while I typed out letters.  She’d stopped talking as much when I’d typed out a few words to let her know I couldn’t understand.  No, her focus right now would be on arranging her remaining forces, handling what she could, dealing with Alexandria.

“I’d like to stay,” Alexandria said.  “May I sit?”

“If you want,” I said.  I gestured towards the chair, best as I was able with the cuffs.

“Excellent.  So cooperative.”  She sat down.  “And we can talk?”

I nodded mutely.

Alexandria, a bully, believing herself untouchable.  I felt a grim sort of loathing stirring in the depths of my gut.

“My terms, to you.  You surrender.  The Undersiders receive no amnesty, but I let captives go, with all required medical care.  They fend for themselves from here on out.  Tagg remains in position.  He’s here for a reason.  Miss Militia is promoted elsewhere.  With the fall of the Triumvirate, we need a new core group.  We can market it.”

“That’s not what I wanted.”

“It’s what I’m offering.  And you… provided you cooperate fully, giving us all the information we desire on you, your histories, and the Undersiders, we put you in juvenile detention.  Two years, followed by a long probation and acknowledgement that any conceivable violation of that probation will be counted as a third strike and cause for sentencing to the Birdcage.”

My dad and lawyer were just arriving.

“What’s this?” Mr. Calle asked.

“Skitter’s hearing my revised terms,” Alexandria said.

“And?” Mr. Calle asked.

“They want me to turn myself in.  I get virtually nothing, except the prompt release of the Undersiders she’s picked up and a stay in juvenile detention until I’m eighteen.”

I could see my dad’s eyes light up.  He saw this as a way out, when he was seeing just how deep we were in the midst of this.

Which broke my heart, in a way.

“And your thoughts?” Mr. Calle asked.

“No,” I said.  I looked at Alexandria.  “No.”

“This isn’t the sort of offer that stays on the table,” she said.  “If you want to push this further, we could keep the Undersiders.”

“You need the Undersiders,” I told her.  “You need someone on the ground, keeping the real monsters out of the city.  You need us, so don’t pretend you’re really going to keep them.”

“There’s other options,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “Because even if there wasn’t that security, no.”

“That’s a disappointment,” she said.

“You wanted compromise, Skitter,” Miss Militia said, “But you’re asking for the impossible.”

“I’m asking for the improbable,” I said.  “But it wouldn’t be worth fighting for if it was easy.  Alexandria isn’t asking me to meet her halfway.  She’s threatening people I love.”

“From teammates to friends to people you love.”

I grit my teeth.

“I don’t blame you,” she said.  “I loved Hero.  I loved Legend, and Eidolon, and Myrddin.  I know what it means to pass through hell together, to take a desperate breath for air, to clutch for clarity of mind, and help each other find the briefest of respite in the little things, only to plunge into that hell once more.  The little jokes, the familiarity, the gestures and small kindnesses, they count for a lot, when you’ve been through what we’ve been through-”

“Don’t compare us,” I cut in.

“-and you learn to look past their faults.  The little evils,” she said.  “And they learn to look past yours.”

Miss Militia gave Alexandria a curious look, then turned to me, “The offer, it’s the most reasonable one we can give you.  It’s generous, considering all you’ve done.”

“It’s not enough,” I said.  “Until my team has amnesty, I can’t back down.  I can’t abandon them to fight lunatics like Tagg and Alexandria the second I’m gone.”

“That’s what you want?” Alexandria asked.  “Amnesty, release for captured teammates, and a sentence to juvenile detention?”

My dad reached out, taking my hand, a silent plea.  Saying everything without doing me the disservice of interjecting.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.  I could trust my teammates to hold their own.  I could… I could find my way.  Two years made for such a small length of time.  It… it would mean I was in custody when Dinah’s deadline came.  But maybe that was what she’d wanted.  For me to be somewhere secure when it all started.  I couldn’t rule it out.

And all it would take was for me to do what I’d done for so long before I had my powers, for months after I’d had my powers.  To capitulate, to let go of my pride.  To let them win, those people who wanted to use their power, their prestige and superiority against me.

My dad squeezed my hand, hard.

“I named my terms,” I told Alexandria.  “I trust my teammates, and I trust that they’ll win where it counts.  No.”

I met Tagg’s eyes, and my voice was a growl, “And if you fucking hurt another hair on their heads, I’ll see you pay for it.  Like Lung, like Valefor, and if it comes down to it, I’ll come after you like I did with Butcher, and Coil- Calvert.”

I directed my glare at Alexandria as I said that last part.

“You’re admitting-” Miss Militia started.

“Let’s not pretend we don’t all know,” I said.

I felt my dad’s hand drop away from mine.  I might have met his eyes, to take in the hurt and the pain that came with seeing who I really was, but I wasn’t willing to break eye contact with Alexandria.

You can read facial expressions?  Read this.  Know I’m telling the truthKnow that I’ll take you apart, given the slightest excuse.

I was pressing the keys on the telephone before Alexandria had even stood from her seat.  Another warning that Alexandria was en route.

She stood, wordless.  There was no negotiation, no offer for leniency, and I didn’t ask for either.

I could only hope.

In a matter of minutes, she was gone, flying away.  A third mission.  A third hunt.

Bugs found their way through vents to Regent, but Imp’s cell was sealed tight, no doubt due to the Stranger-class precautions that had led to the note being pasted on her cell door, notifying the PRT of the special precautions.  It didn’t matter.  Regent was still unconscious, and Imp was likely to be as well.

Grue, Rachel, Tattletale and Parian.  Flechette too, if it came down to it.

Flechette… could she hurt Alexandria?

It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have answers, couldn’t get them.  I could only wait, keeping my bugs out of the way of the drones that Kid Win had finally recharged.

“You had a way out,” Miss Militia said.

“You said you understand me,” I told her.  “That you had insight into who I was as a person, now that you knew my history.  If that’s true, you understand why I had to say no.”

“For your sake.  Because of what you’ve been through.”

“And because of them.  They’d never forgive me if I betrayed everything they helped me become, because I didn’t think they could fend for themselves.”

“And me?” my dad asked.  “I know it’s asking a lot.  I failed you where it counted.”

“Dad-”

“And maybe it’s selfish, to want my daughter, when you’re talking about things on this scale…” he said, pausing as if he was going to follow that with an argument.  But no argument followed.

And I couldn’t give him a good response.

Eight minutes passed.  I could count the progression of time on the clock hands, when I dared let a bug pass through open spaces.

Nine minutes in, I could see Tagg suddenly tense, lines in his neck standing out as he read the newest message on his phone.  He glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask.

The PRT van arrived before Alexandria did, this time.  The PRT officers took their time before they finally emerged.

Restless, I shifted position.  My forearms were digging into the table where the cuffs held my arms in front of me.  Leaning forward made my back hurt.

They opened the back of the van, and there were no precautions this time.  Their weapons were holstered, and they didn’t stand in any particular formation.

The only thing in the back was a single body bag.

Back pain forgotten, I went as stiff as Tagg.  I drew more bugs in to get a better picture of the scene.

They took a different route this time, using their phones to make their way through the various doors and checkpoints.  They entered the attached building.  A small hospital, or a special office with medical facilities.  It didn’t matter.

And they made their way to the morgue.

The size of the bag… it couldn’t be Lizardtail.  He was too large.  Was the wrong size and shape to be one of the dogs.  That left only three real possibilities.  A PRT officer, Rachel, or Brian.

I closed my eyes, clenched my hands.

Then one of the PRT officers who was escorting the body said something, and others laughed in response.  It was one of those rare moments I could discern tone, and it wasn’t a kind one.  That was enough for me to know it wasn’t one of them.  It wasn’t a civilian.

Metal clicked as they unlocked the heavy clasps and locks that were likely meant to prevent any parahumans from getting up from the dead.

They unzipped the bag, and lifted the body onto the drawer.  The drawer slid into the recess, the lid was closed and locked.

I didn’t want to know which of them it was.  I couldn’t. Whether it was Brian or Rachel, it didn’t matter.  Neither of them would get up from the dead.  They weren’t so lucky.

I stared down at my hands, and I felt myself go cold, my thoughts crystal clear, singular.

“Taylor,” my dad murmured, so quiet I could barely hear him.

“Yes?”

I sounded so calm, like an entirely different person was speaking.

“You’re shaking,” he whispered.

“Oh,” I said.  I couldn’t really think of anything else to say.  He was right.  My fingers were trembling.

I looked at Tagg, to see if he’d heard or if he’d noticed.  No indication, but his hand was close to his gun.  The text he’d read… he knew.  He probably wasn’t aware he was doing it, but he was ready for a fight to erupt any second.

Miss Militia’s hand wasn’t, but I could read a tension in her, as she exchanged words with Calle.  But then, I suspected she could draw faster than Tagg in virtually any circumstance.  Or maybe she wasn’t as ready or willing to deal out violence as Tagg was.

Then I had to lower my eyes, to hide the tears that were welling.  Needed just a few moments.  Just a few more seconds.

Alexandria arrived the same way she had after her last two excursions, through the hole in the roof.  With the speed she moved, she didn’t risk being spotted.  Even photography wasn’t in the cards.

With the speed she moved, she didn’t seem to notice the bugs that followed after her as the aperture began to close behind her.

She got as far as the Wards HQ before she stopped and the bugs had a chance to catch up to her.

As though I’d thrown a javelin, they speared right for her nose and open mouth, the fastest moving bugs I had at my disposal, and spiders.

She was invincible, the flesh inside her throat untouchable.  The flap that kept food out of her lungs kept the bugs at bay.  At first.  They bound themselves together, spiders fixing themselves and others to the inside of her throat with adhesive.

As strong as she was, air didn’t move past the mass of bugs that filled her mouth, as they fought to move into positions where they could block her throat.  She coughed in an instinctive attempt to dislodge them.

Even with super strength, even with a diaphragm like hers, the coughs didn’t remove every bug, and the greedy gasp of air allowed those who remained to find their way inside, filling her lungs.  They were just as impervious inside, but the bugs arranged themselves side by side, forming a layer that blocked the flow of oxygen to the membranes of the lung itself.  Spiders drew out silk, filling gaps.

If she could choke, if Leviathan saw submerging her in water as a viable tactic, if Tattletale saw fit to try to do the same, then I could drown her in insects.

The Wards were watching, realizing what was going on.  Clockblocker ran, pressing a button for the alarm.

And in front of me, Tagg moved, drawing his gun.  His voice was a roar, “She knows!”

A thread caught it before he could point it at me, and it fell to the ground.

With each entry that had been made into the interrogation room, barring the one where she’d used the drone in Imp’s cell, I’d brought more bugs inside.  Spiders, hornets, black widows, brown recluses and more.

I’d warned him.  He jumped as he felt the bites.  Shouted as hornets found the soft tissues of his eyes, his tongue and eardrums.  Black widows and brown recluses found crevices.

Miss Militia moved too, but the silk I’d used only bound her hand, didn’t serve to stop her.

“Taylor!” my dad’s voice sounded so far away.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t let the bullies win again, I thought.  That I’d stop the monsters.

But the thoughts sounded disconnected, false.

No, this was revenge.  Something simpler than any of that.

Miss Militia raised a gun, pointing it at me, where I had my head bowed, hands still chained in front of me.  My dad was shaking me, but I wasn’t a hard target to hurt.

And my bugs weren’t hurting her.  Weren’t touching my dad, or Mr. Calle, who was backed up into a corner, trying to make as much distance from me as he could.

She didn’t shoot.  Her gun clattered to the ground.

“Taylor!” she called out, as if she could reach me that way.  “I’m not going to shoot, but you have to stop!”

“Not a promise, not an oath, or a malediction or a curse,” I said, sounding calm, probably inaudible in the midst of Tagg’s screaming.  “Inevitable.  Wasn’t that how she put it?  I told them.  Warned them.”

Alexandria, in the basement, still choking, drowning on dry land with lungs full of dragonflies, spiders and cockroaches, soared.  She flew through the closed barrier in the roof, and debris showered down on the Wards who’d approached her, wanting to help but finding themselves unable.

In moments, she was out of my range, too high in the air.  I wasn’t sure it mattered.

And Tagg- Tagg was staggering towards me, roaring something incoherent, chewing and spitting in a feeble attempt to remove bugs from his mouth.  His tongue was likely swollen already.  The black widow venom would take effect soon.

He tried to push my dad out of the way, and my dad blocked him, shielding me with his body.

Tagg kicked my father hard enough to drive him to the ground.  The Director was still shouting, nearly blind.  He gripped me by the hair and slammed my head down on the table, hard.

I saw stars, felt tears welling out freely, as if the dam had finally broken.

Blind, writhing in pain and a struggle to get the insects off him, Tagg still managed to hold me down as the PRT officers burst into the room.  They had darts like the one that Shadow Stalker had kept in her crossbow, jammed one into my neck.

I had only the chance to think of how they’d just signed Tagg’s death warrant, that my power would work while I was unconscious.  I could have rescinded the order in the last moments.  I didn’t.

And then it was only darkness.  Oblivion.  A false kind of death.

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Cell 22.3

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The door slammed shut as the last of the heroes departed.  They joined the PRT uniforms and Wards who had gathered just in front of the elevator, leaving me and my lawyer to talk in private.

It should have been quieter, but things got more disruptive.  The moment the door was shut, a handful of seconds passed, and then everyone started talking.  Mr. Calle saying something to me, Director Tagg talking to his deputy and Miss Militia, Clockblocker talking with his teammates.

“This is more or less what we expected…” Mr. Calle was saying.

“Call him.  And let me know when he arrives.” Director Tagg, talking about my dad.

“She wanted to defect,” Clockblocker told the waiting Wards.  “Join Defiant and Dragon, go hunt the Slaughterhouse Nine…”

“You created pressure with the deadline, he’s trying to turn it around on you…” Mr. Calle said.

“I know he’s trying to turn it around on me,” I said.  I slid forward until I was sitting on the very edge of the chair, my elbows on the table, forehead resting against my hands.  “I didn’t think he’d be this stupid, and I kind of hoped someone would speak up, give a little momentum to what I was proposing.”

“People are stupid,” Mr. Calle said.  “The question is how we can use that.  If we-”

Some heroes simultaneously began to voice their thoughts, to the point that I failed to take any of it in.  It was too much.  Too much input, all together.  I couldn’t track it all.  I shut my eyes.  “Do me a favor?”

“You’re the client.”

“Five minutes,” I said.  “Five minutes to think, with some quiet.”

“Would pen scratches bother you?”

I shook my head.

Mr. Calle didn’t reply to that.  Instead, he started writing on a pad of yellow, lined paper, apparently unconcerned that I’d just brushed him off.

“…a hot button for her,” Mrs. Yamada was telling the Director.  “It’s a pattern, with the timeline we established.  Something happens to her father, and she escalates.”

“Yes,” the Director replied.  “But let’s not talk about that here.  Not while she could be listening.  We give Kid Win’s drones a chance to check us over before talking about any of that…”

“Hunting the Slaughterhouse Nine?” Vista was asking.  The Wards were lagging a short distance behind the adult members of the PRT and Protectorate.

“Yeah.  As in, step down from her position here, stop the guys who are supposed to end the world,” Clockblocker said.

“She didn’t kill any, did she?” Kid Win asked.

“Grue supposedly killed Burnscar, Piggot killed Crawler and Mannequin, they killed Cherish themselves, basically, Vista finished off Shatterbird after things caved in on them at the Echidna fight… no, Skitter didn’t kill any, I don’t think.  She was there, though.  Have to give her credit, she made a difference in that last fight with Mannequin and Crawler.”

“Which doesn’t matter,” Tagg said.  He’d overheard, it seemed, and stopped at the open elevator door.  “Because she also wanted us to condone criminal activity in this city.  Think about what that really means.  Your careers would be dead in the water once people caught on to the fact that you weren’t going after the real threats.  You’d be known for being corrupt.  Flechette’s actions threaten to taint this organization for some time to come..”

“Wait, wait,” Kid Win said, “Flechette?”

“We’re telling them?” Clockblocker asked.  “It’s confirmed?  It’s not a trick?”

“It’s not Regent,” Miss Militia said.  “The timing doesn’t fit.  No, it doesn’t look like it’s a trick.  She sent us an email and the details include only things she knows.  It feels right.”

There was a pause.

“What happened?” Crucible asked.

“Flechette is stepping down from the Wards program.  She is going to be assisting the Undersiders in the future, helping Parian,” Miss Militia said.

“No!”  Vista said, raising her voice.  “No!  She became a villain?  What… what the hell!?

“Vista,” Clockblocker said.  “She was in love.”

“She was still one of us.  Did you do something?”

I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, until Tagg responded, “No.  We didn’t do a thing to her.  Everyone that’s been in Brockton Bay over the past weeks and months has dealt with a lot, and I think this is her wrestling with something on her own.  I have immense respect for Flechette, and all I can do, all we can do, is hope she comes to her senses.”

“What about her parents?  Her family?”  Vista asked.

“I can’t talk about anything my patients discuss with me in my office,” Mrs. Yamada replied.  “I’m sorry.”

“She came from a broken home,” Miss Militia supplied the information instead.  “She bounced between her mother, her father and the surrogate mother who had attempted to renege on the deal they’d made and keep her.  With the number of times she changed between them and moved, I can’t imagine she has strong ties to the idea of ‘home’.  Even within the Wards… New York has five small teams, and she moved between them as she changed residences.”

“She didn’t say anything about that.”

“It didn’t matter in the here and now.  Her focus, her path, was school, her career with the Wards.  She didn’t have much in the way of roots, but she had direction.  I think that the events following the Echidna crisis left her more devastated than she let on.”

“Can I call her?” Vista asked.

“I don’t know if that would be wise,” Miss Militia said.

“Do,” Tagg said.  “Remind her what she’s leaving behind, tell her how you feel, then let her be.  Too much pressure and she’s liable to be stubborn.  Give her time to think, and you may sway her.”

“Okay,” Vista said.

“When you’re done, join the others in discussing battle plans.  I’d rather not wait for Skitter’s forces to strike.  If it comes down to it, we mobilize first.”

“We’ll be fighting Flechette,” Vista said.

Tagg nodded.  “Very possible.  If you don’t feel confident you can do it in good conscience, then I won’t make you.  In the meantime, I’m requisitioning capes from nearby areas.  If it comes down to it, I want to be ready for a fight.”

“And if they don’t give us the chance?” Miss Militia asked.

I missed Tagg’s response.  It was monosyllabic.

“If the Undersiders try to avoid direct engagement and attempt to come at us from another angle?  Media?  Revealing telling details?  Financially?  Through our families?”

“Oh shit,” Clockblocker said.

“They wouldn’t, would they?” Crucible asked.

“They would,” Kid Win said.  “Probably.”

“They would,” Director Tagg agreed.  “And I already have ideas in mind.  This situation is far from unmanageable.  Rest assured.  I’ll need to make some calls.  Miss Militia, are you up for another walk?”

“Yes.”

Tagg stepped into the elevator, holding the door open.  It was too small for everyone to fit inside, but Miss Militia, the deputy and Clockblocker joined him.

Mrs. Yamada started to step inside, then paused while standing in the doorway.  “I’ll be in my office all day.  If any of you need to talk about Flechette, or anything else that’s going on, come see me.”

There was no reply.  There might have been nods, but I didn’t have bugs on top of any of the Ward’s heads.

The doors shut, and a few seconds passed, Kid Win, Crucible and Vista standing in the hallway with a handful of PRT officers.

“Fuck,” Vista said.  “Fuck this.  Fuck you, Skitter, if you can hear me.”

I waited to see if there was more, but neither she nor her teammates said anything.  The drones Kid Win had made were doing a number on my bugs, catching me by surprise when they opened fire with lasers, striking from the other side of the room.  It wasn’t easy to avoid them completely, when an exposed bug could get zapped, but keeping my bugs in hiding prevented me from seeing the drones themselves.

Miss Militia left the building, walking.  She wasn’t quite out of my range when she made her first call.

“Mr. Hebert?”

I sighed, then shifted position.

“Everything alright?” Mr. Calle asked me.  “Needed to get centered?”

“Was listening in,” I said.

“Listening in?”

“I can hear what my insects hear.  Tagg is confident.  He’s calling in more capes, and preparing for a fight.  He’s apparently not too worried about the Undersiders pulling something that isn’t a direct attack, but I don’t know what he’s got in mind, as far as trump cards go.  Miss Militia is apparently calling my dad, so Tagg can talk with him.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Calle said.  “Anything else?”

“The Wards are upset over Flechette defecting.”

“Okay.  Something to keep in mind.  Now, this is difficult to say, but-”

Mr. Calle paused very deliberately.

“What?”

“I would never recommend my clients do anything illegal,” he said.

“But you maybe suspect that if I had any leverage, I should exercise it?”

“I would never say any such thing,” Mr. Calle said.  He smiled.  “But now that you mention it…”

“There are options,” I said.  I thought about the areas of attack that Miss Militia had outlined.  Family would cross a line.  Something to shake their confidence in the coming conflict.  “Can you pass on a message?”

“That would be a mistake, I think.  I walk a fine line as it is, and I won’t have a hand in anything direct.”

I frowned.

“Let’s talk about what I can do.  First off, I think we should change things up.  As it stands, the Protectorate East-North-East holds Brockton Bay in a specialized state of emergency.  It’s a legal wild west, with very little precedent holding things together.  Director Tagg reports to his superiors, who report to the United States government.  This circumvents a great many of the usual checks and balances.  Checks and balances I think we should put back into play.”

“How?”

“Contacting the District Attorney and bringing her to the discussion would tie Tagg’s hands, but it would also tie yours.  We’d be working entirely within the law, certain items would be taken off the table.  You couldn’t ask for condoned villainy, for example.  Charges would inevitably move forward against you, but these same things would tie him up in managing things.”

“Doesn’t seem worth it.”

“It depends.  It’s… pressure.  The Director is focused on a half-dozen things at once.  There’s a lot to be said for putting one more thing on his plate.  I know he’s not trained in the particulars of law.  He’d be forced out of his depth, made to consult others, made to wrap his head around terms he’s not familiar with.  It would mandate that you, as a minor, would need a guardian present.  Failing that, there’s a great many hoops they’d have to jump through.  He’s a soldier.  So long as this is a battlefield of some sort, he has a leg up.  We can make it something else.”

“Okay,” I said.  “We’d be adding pressure, turning things around so he’s the one on his heels, but I’m still not convinced it’s worth the price of admission.  Other options?”

“Media.”

“He doesn’t care about image,” I said.  “He said he figures it’ll get patched up with good PR in a matter of time, a few days back.”

“It won’t hurt him as badly, then, but he’s more likely to make a mistake if it’s not something he pays attention to.”

“An option,” I said.  “It sets a bad tone, though.  I’m really looking for cooperation.  I’m putting everything on the line in the hopes of getting it.  I don’t want them to be enemies, not any more than they are.  And I don’t know that just talking to the media is going to be enough to get the results I want.”

“It isn’t, frankly.  Are there points you’re willing to compromise on?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Because he’s not willing to meet me halfway.”

Mr. Calle rubbed his chin.  “Okay.”

“So we need leverage, and it can’t be legal.  Going to the District Attorney or the media has drawbacks.”

“Yes.”

“Then I need you to get in contact with Tattletale.  Only we’ll be above-board, mostly, about how we handle it.  She’s been arranging things for a while.  Now it’s time to figure out just how much clout she has.  We’ll hit them with the biggest card we have.  We’ll make a play for ownership of the portal.  Successful or not, it’ll distract them.”

“I’ll do what I can to get in touch with her, then.  My firm’s assets will be at your disposal, of course.”

I nodded.

He stood from his seat to make the call.  Apparently he didn’t find them much more comfortable than I did.  He paced as he waited for the phone to ring.  “Cecily?  Need you to pull some strings.  And route me to someone, best if it’s untraceable.”

It wouldn’t be a direct call.  That didn’t make sense.  I focused my attention elsewhere in the building.  The outlet that fed Kid Win’s anti-bug drones… I found the wiring in the walls and ordered cockroaches to start chewing through it.

Petty, maybe, but I didn’t want to be disarmed, not with the way things were going.

The heroes were returning, Sere and Dovetail entering the lobby.  I planted bugs on Dovetail as she made her way indoors, and as discreetly as I was able, I transferred the bugs to Tagg and Miss Militia, who were waiting.

“They’re moving,” Dovetail said, “… soldiers.  Arming civilians.  Squads no larger than five people, across the city.”

“Good,” Tagg said.

“That’s all.”

“Tell the others,” Miss Militia said, “Adamant’s getting a cycle retooled to handle more weight before he leaves again.  He’ll go with Triumph.  Log it all in the system.”

“Will do,” Dovetail said.  Miss Militia patted her on the shoulder as she made her way inside.

Miss Militia and Tagg remained in the lobby, by the hallway to the elevators.  They didn’t say much.  A few words on degrees of lethal force, but no camraderie, not even much in the way of small talk.

My cockroaches found their way through the wire, and promptly died as they came in contact with the live circuit.  A breaker blew, but Kid Win didn’t seem to react.

Hopefully the drones wouldn’t get a chance to recharge.

A few minutes passed, as my lawyer got in touch with someone, and started talking about media contacts.  Then my father arrived.

I could sense him as he got out of a truck in the parking lot, making his way inside.

“Mr. Hebert,” Miss Militia said, extending a hand.

My dad shook it.

“Thank you for coming in again,” Director Tagg said.  He extended a hand.  Again, my father shook it.

“My office?” Tagg asked.

My dad nodded.

My pulse was pounding as Miss Militia, Tagg and my father entered the elevator and made their way upstairs.

“She’s here?” my dad asked.

“In a room downstairs with her lawyer,” Miss Militia answered.

“She hired him herself?”

“I imagine she did,” Miss Militia said.  “With the speed he pulled things together, I suspect she may have more working in the background.  Crime does pay, if she’s paying their salaries.  They’re apparently top of the line, as parahuman defense attorneys go.”

“I can’t believe this is all real.”

“It is,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s very real.”

“And very real blood will be shed tonight,” Tagg said, “If we can’t rein her in.”

Rein me in.

They exited the elevator and made their way to Tagg’s office.

“These,” Tagg leaned forward, and my bugs could hear something move.  “Are the charges as they stand.”

I didn’t sense it, but my bugs could hear papers rustle.  I might not have identified the sound if I hadn’t had the context.

A few long seconds passed, and I could hear the rustling again.  The turning of a page.

I clenched my fist.

“Problem?”  Mr. Calle asked, covering the mouthpiece of his phone.

“My dad’s here.  They’ve got him in Tagg’s office, and they’re filling him in on their version of events.”

“Right.  Let’s put a stop to that.  I’ll be back.”

Phone still pressed to his ear, he picked up his briefcase, tapping on the door three times with the side of his shoe.

A PRT uniform unlocked and opened the door, and my lawyer strode out.  It shut behind him.

Upstairs, my dad turned another page.

He was reading through it all.  All the details I’d gone over with my lawyer, only without my feedback, without my voice to point out the places where they were going a little overboard, naming charges they could throw at me, without checking whether they could stick.  Not that the difference was that big, comparing what I’d actually done to what they were accusing me of.

I heard the sound of him flipping through the last few pages before he dropped the pad on the table.  “Okay.”

“She’s in a lot of trouble,” Tagg said.

“This isn’t news to me,” my dad answered, his voice quiet.

“If the charges went through, she would face being charged as an adult.  The three strikes protection act wouldn’t mitigate things.  I’d say the worst case scenario is execution, or indefinite detention in the Birdcage, but the best case scenario for her isn’t much better.”

My dad didn’t reply to that.

“Her power means we can’t keep her in a conventional prison.  She’s too flexible, too versatile for us to use any of our current means of keeping her from using her ability.  Even today, contained in a cell, she’s been literally ‘bugging’ us to track our movements and listen in on conversations.  We had our tinker put together a countermeasure, but it’s not perfect.”

Again, my dad was silent.

“I have two daughters.  Four and six years older than Taylor,” the Director said.  “I can’t imagine.”

“I can’t either,” my dad said.  “Like I said, it doesn’t feel real.”

“I’d like you to come with me the next time I speak to your daughter.”

“She didn’t listen to me before, she won’t listen now,” my dad said.

“I didn’t ask you to come because I thought you could convince her,” Tagg said.  “You don’t have to say anything, as a matter of fact.”

What was he up to?

My lawyer had reached the top floor, and was striding between cubicles and desks.  He raised his voice to ask a question I couldn’t make out, and someone answered him.  He altered his course slightly in response, walked with more purpose, directly for Tagg, Miss Militia and my father.

“I’d like to talk to her alone,” my dad said.

“We can arrange that,” Tagg said.

I clenched my fists.  Using my dad as a pawn?  Damn right I was going to escalate.  Which, I suspected, was exactly what Tagg was aiming to achieve.  This was something to put me off balance, just like we were looking to do to him by way of leveraging control of the portal.

My lawyer knocked on the door and then opened it without waiting for a response.  “My client would like a word.”

“Of course,” Tagg said.  As the four of them exited his office and made their way to the elevator, I turned the two words around in my head.  Had he sounded sarcastic?  Did he simply expect me to interrupt?

I couldn’t say.  I could only wait as they made their way downstairs.  I was stuck, my back hurting where my arms were in a more or less fixed position.  I stood, stretched as well as I was able, tossed my head to one side in an attempt to get my hair out of my face.  When that didn’t work, I bent over and lowered my face to my hands to tidy my hair.

Then I sat, stewing in unidentifiable emotions.  Trepidation, dread, fear, guilt, shame, anger, relief… none I could put a finger on.

“Did you know?” Miss Militia asked.

“Me?” my dad asked, by way of response.

“Who she was?  What she was?”

“Yes,” he said.  I could feel alarm sing through me, inexplicable, but jarring.  Then he seemed to change his mind, “No.”

And the emotion that hit me at that was just as strong as that misplaced sense of alarm.

Damn Tagg.  Damn him for bringing my dad into this.

The four of them stopped outside of the cell.  Miss Militia used her phone to unlock it, and Tagg gestured for my dad to enter.

I saw him hesitate as he stepped into the room, dark sheet metal, a reflective pane of one-way glass, the metal table bolted to the floor, my handcuffs, locked to the table in turn.  Me, with my hair in some disarray, a touch damp from the shower and ineffectual toweling, from sweat, in my black uniform with the word ‘villain’ marked clearly across it.

I could see it, his expression changing, the disbelief he’d professed to becoming something else entirely.

His feelings were as mixed as mine.  I could tell just by looking at him, by imagining what he’d been through, the person standing by, dealing with the aftermath of everything I’d done.  His frustration, his confusion, pain, and embarrassment.  His loneliness, disappointment, his fear.

And, somehow, as though it were too much to bottle in, it seemed to boil over in the form of one singular emotion.  I could see his jaw shift as he clenched his teeth, met my eyes and looked away.  The sudden agitation that seemed to grip him, as he opened and closed his fists.

Tagg and Miss Militia had reached the interior of the room on the other side of the one way mirror, while Mr. Calle stood in the hallway, speaking on the phone.  I stood from the chair as my dad approached, his body language making it all too clear what he was about to do.  Miss Militia took one look and reacted, turning around to hurry back out of the room, to intervene.  Tagg said something, two words I couldn’t be bothered to decipher, and she stopped in her tracks.

My dad raised his hand, palm open, and I closed my eyes, lifting my chin to take the hit.

It didn’t come.  My dad wrapped his arms around my shoulders instead.  I squeaked, and I couldn’t say whether it was because he was squeezing me too tight or if it was because of an overflow of emotion similar to the one he’d just displayed.  I stood there, unable to return the hug with the way I was cuffed to the table, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.

When minutes passed and we hadn’t exchanged a single word, Tagg and Miss Militia stepped out of the observation room, signaling Mr. Calle.

“Let’s talk,” Tagg said.

I broke away from my dad.  Blinked where there were tears in the corners of my eyes.  I didn’t care if Tagg saw.

“I’m waiting on a response from my colleagues,” Mr. Calle said.  “There’s no reason to speak further, unless you’re capitulating.”

“No,” Tagg answered.  “But I’d like to go over the main points.”

This was why he wanted my dad here, I thought.

“You’ve informed me that your teammates, many of whom are known murderers, are going to declare war against the PRT in three hours and twenty minutes, without word from you.”

My dad took a seat to my left, watching me carefully.

“Yes,” I said.

“You’ve described them as unpredictable.  They’re undeniably dangerous.  You think they’ll hurt people.  They’ll pull out all the stops, to get you back, and to hurt us.  The good guys.”

“Yes,” I said, not taking my eyes off Tagg.  “But I don’t think you’re a good guy, Director.”

“I don’t think you’re a good person either,” Tagg said, “and the court of public opinion is likely to agree with me before they agree with you.”

“Let’s not resort to name calling this early in the discussion,” Mr. Calle said.

“Right,” Tagg said, “It wastes time, and you have very little.”

“Neither of us want this to happen, Director,” I said.  “Neither of us have time, and neither of us want a war.  Except maybe you do.  Maybe you think you’d win, and it’d be a bump in the PRT’s ratings.”

“No,” he said, “I think, like any altercation, both sides would lose something.  But let’s talk about your terms.  You want amnesty for your criminal friends?’

I was acutely aware of my dad watching me.

“Yes,” I said.

“You want to depose me, raising Miss Militia to my place, and in the doing, force the PRT to relinquish all ideas of humans governing parahumans, to help keep those with incredible power in check.”

“Yes.”

“And you wanted me to allow you to become an official vigilante, leaving your group behind while you worked to hunt down psychopaths with powers.  I’ve explained why that can’t happen.  I’m not sure if you intend to change your demands, or-”

“I’ll go to the Birdcage if I have to,” I said.  “Because the rest of it, I believe in it enough to make the sacrifice.”

“Taylor,” my dad said.  The first words he’d said to me since the breakfast we’d had together, on the day I’d been outed.  “Why?”

“Because we’re losing.  We’re so focused on the little things, on petty squabbles and factions and vendettas, that we’re losing against the real dangers.  The Class S threats.  The fact that the world’s going to end in a year and eleven months.  Did you hear about that?”

He shook his head.  “I… I read the letter you left me, at Annette’s grave.  Realized it was probably what you were trying to write, the night you left.  Before you changed your mind.”

The night I left, so long ago.  When I’d first met Coil.

“A lot of what I did, it was to stop the man who really wanted to take over the city.  Who would have been far worse than any of us Undersiders.  And I did that because he had a little girl captive.  Dinah Alcott.  She could see the future, and she says the world ends in two years.”

My dad shook his head, “No.”

“Yes.  The heroes know it.  It’s a big part of why the PRT is falling apart.  You’ve heard about that on the news?”

“I… some.  But I haven’t paid much attention since I found out that you-”

“That I’m a supervillain,” I said.

He flinched visibly at that.

“Interesting,” Tagg cut in.  “That you call yourself that.  You say you’ve had justifications for what you’ve done, but you call yourself a villain.”

I wanted to hit him, for cutting into my conversation with my dad, for polluting my attempts to explain things.

“I am,” I told him.  “I’ve done bad things.”

“Left a trail of devastation in your wake.”

“Yes,” I said.  “And I’m willing to pay the price.  I’ll go to the Birdcage, a place you described as a literal hell on Earth.  A place where people just as scary as the ones I’ve spent the last few months fighting stay.  A place where some of those very people are currently imprisoned.  Lung, Bakuda, Trickster.  They probably want to inflict fates worse than death on me.  But I’ll do it.  Because I really truly believe the world needs the PRT, or a PRT, one without lunatics like you in charge, and maybe bringing me in helps keep a handful more capes in the roster, keeps my friends secure where they are, so they can help.”

I was heated, my words angry.

“Your friends,” he said.

“My friends.”

“That’s the rapist, Jean-paul?  Alec?  A murderer.”

“Regent.  He was the son of a supervillain, screwed from the get go, and yeah, maybe some shady stuff went down, way back then.  I think he’s… not in love, but he’s close to Imp.  Somewhere between love and friendship, maybe.”

“Imp.  She’s the one who makes it a game, to psychologically and mentally torture gang members who step foot in her territory, until they have mental break downs.”

“Yes,” I said, through grit teeth.  “It’s more complicated than that, she’s been through a lot, but yes.  And I heard directly from people who were grateful to her for scaring off the real rapists and murderers.”

He didn’t pay me any mind.  “Who else is there?  Hellhound.”

“She prefers Bitch,” I said.  “But she’s Rachel to me.”

“Who had her monster dogs chew up innocents who’d gotten in her way.”

“It was a bad time for her.  Weren’t you just excusing Flechette, because we’ve all been through some shit?  I know Rachel as the person who takes care of wayward souls, grown men and children who are lost in a way even we can’t fathom, with the things we’ve been through.”

“And Grue?  Do tell me how you see him.”

“I liked him,” I said.  “If I’d stayed with them, maybe he and I would have tried to make it work.”

“Romance.”

I met my dad’s eyes.  His forehead was creased with worry.  My power was buzzing around the periphery of my consciousness.

I found refuge in the bugs, paid attention to their movements as they avoided the remaining drones, found my center, so to speak.  Calm.  He wants me upset.

“Romance,” I said.  “He was my rock, when I needed a rock.  And I was his, when-”

“When he snapped,” Tagg cut in.

“It wasn’t like that.”

“He was the stable one, until he wasn’t stable,” Tagg said.  “Until he killed Burnscar.  Yet I suspect he’s the one in charge, now that you’ve left?”

“Yes,” I said.  “And with the dozens, hundreds of people I’ve tried to take care of or whose lives I’ve saved, I trust Grue to look after them and keep the peace.  I wouldn’t give him that responsibility, with all the time and effort I’ve invested in them, if I didn’t trust him.”

“Very generous,” Tagg told me.  “And Tattletale.  Where do I even start?”

“With the fact that she was my best friend.  That she’s maybe our best bet at understanding what’s going on?  Understanding the Endbringers and what they’re doing?  Understanding powers?  Finding the Nine before they bring about the end of the world?  Understanding how the world ends?”

“All of this, from the girl who used her power to convince her brother to kill himself, before fleeing, spending years on the streets, stealing wallets and using the account numbers to take whole fortunes?”

“All wrong,” I said.

“And who planted the seeds that led to Panacea breaking down and mutilating her sister.”

“Those seeds were planted a long time before we talked to Panacea,” I said.

This was what Tagg had wanted.  He’d devastated my defenses, bringing my dad into this.

“Nonetheless,” Tagg said, leaning back.  “So, Danny Hebert, what do you think about your daughter’s friends?”

My dad glanced at me, then looked at the Director.  “I know less about them than either of you.”

“That’s not important,” the Director said.  “I just want you to answer one question for me.  Assume we’re both right.  Me and your daughter.  Assume that they’re everything we described them as.  Do you really want them in control of this city’s underworld?”

Again, my dad looked at me.

“No need to double-check with your daughter.  I’m wanting your honest opinion, as a man on the streets, from someone who has to live in this city without any real say over what happens in the cape-on-cape fights and politics.  Do you really want them in charge?”

“No,” my dad said.

I did my best not to show it, but the word was like a punch in the gut.

“I’m sorry, Taylor, but-”

“Are they really that much worse than the ABB?  Than Empire Eighty-Eight?”

“With them, we…” my dad trailed off.

“With them, we could pretend things weren’t bad!” I said, “But they were worse.  You know they were worse.  The people you worked with, the addicts, the people without money…”

“Does it matter?” Tagg asked.  “You don’t have your dad’s support, what makes you think you’d get anyone else’s?”

I grit my teeth.

“No,” my father said.

“Hm?”  Tagg raised his bushy eyebrows.

“No.  I think you’re wrong there,” my dad told Tagg.  “She has support.  When you attacked her in the school, there were people who stood by her.  If I’m being honest, I don’t get it, I don’t want those people in charge, but I don’t want any villains in charge.  I don’t understand the politics behind this, or the context, but I trust my daughter.”

“Of course you trust your daughter.  The curse of being a parent, I know it well.”

“You wanted my opinion,” my dad said, his voice a little firmer, “You get my opinion.  Others believe in her.  I trust her, even if I don’t know enough to follow what this is all about. Even if I barely feel like I know her right now, I can look her in the eye and know that’s the same girl I’ve spent the last sixteen years with.  With some of the worst qualities of my wife and I, and a lot more of the better ones.”

“I wonder how long that opinion will hold,” Tagg said.  “Because we have, what is it?  Three hours and a handful of minutes?  Then the war she set in motion hits this city.”

“It can be avoided,” I said.

“If we cave in to your extortion,” Tagg said.  “Except you think too small, Skitter.  It’s a common flaw among teenagers, however powerful they are.  They attend high school, and all they can see is the school, their peers.  Tunnel vision.  You’re the same.  You’re focused on this city, but you don’t see what happens elsewhere.  You don’t see the ramifications.”

“Which are?”

“You’d be strengthening the PRT a little in the short-term, but the long-term?  Letting villains take charge, taking the humans out of the PRT, condoning villainy?  It would doom us all.  What you’re threatening us with?  It’s only one fight.  And maybe it’s ugly, but it’s one fight.  If they kill us, if they become monsters of the Slaughterhouse Nine’s caliber to defeat us, then we win.  Your side wins the battle, loses the war.  If you don’t go that far?  If you leave us in a state to recover?  We pick ourselves up and we lick our wounds, and then we rebuild.”

Tagg cupped his hands, moving them as if balancing a scale.  “One fight, one set of casualties in one area of one medium-sized city, compared to consequences that reach across North America?  Across the world?  It doesn’t measure up.”

I glanced at my lawyer.

“You don’t have an answer for me?” Tagg asked.

“I have one,” I said.  I hope.

Mr. Calle looked at his phone, then gave me one curt nod.

“What?” Tagg asked.

“It’s in the news,” Mr. Calle said.

Tagg and Miss Militia simultaneously reached for their smartphones.  I was probably as tense as they were, as they thumbed past the security screens and found news sites.  Miss Militia was a few seconds faster than Tagg.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“It’s all legitimate,” I said.  “I’m pretty sure.  Legal enough.”

“What is it?” my dad asked.

“Property,” I said.  “I expect a great amount of property just changed hands.”

“Who’s Sierra Kiley?” Miss Militia asked.

It was all I could do to keep from smiling with joy.  Of all the people to serve as a public face, Tattletale had found Sierra.  Someone I owed, in many ways.  Someone who’d, maybe, followed recent events and rethought her initial doubts.

“No idea,” I said, maintaining my poker face.

“I don’t understand,” my dad said.

“Quite simple,” Mr. Calle told him.  “I believe the PRT has become aware that properties in a wide area around the portal in downtown Brockton Bay, previously under the control of various individuals and groups, just exchanged hands, finding itself in the hands of one singular individual.”

“And that one individual is in thrall to the villains who control this town,” Tagg said.

“I resent the notion,” I told him, and I allowed myself a small smile.  “But it would be amusing, if it were true.  You might even have to rethink what you were saying about how narrow my worldview is.  I mean, that’s a whole other world.  Anything but narrow, when you think about it.”

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” he said.

“Probably not,” I said.

“You’re playing out your hand.”

“And you’re bringing my family into this.  Remember how our little feud started?  You crossed the line.  You made the call to out me, because you wanted me in custody.  Congratulations, you got me in custody.  You broke the unwritten rules, because you think that you don’t have to obey them, since you aren’t a cape.  Except you’re forgetting why they exist in the first place.  The rules keep the game afloat.  They keep everything afloat, at the core of it.  We all know the PRT is a sinking ship.  You don’t agree with what I’m doing?  Fine.  But at least I’m trying to keep it afloat.”

“And you?” my dad asked.  It took me a second to realize he was looking at Miss Militia.

“What about me?” she asked.

“You’ve been quiet.  Are you here just in case my daughter turns violent?”

“No.  She’s not violent.  Not in that sense.”

“You don’t have anything to say?”

“As grateful as I am for the right to free speech,” Miss Militia said, “I’m grateful for the right to silence as well.”

“Then you don’t agree with your Director?”

“I didn’t say that.  What I’m saying is that there’s no right answer here, and I’m glad I don’t have to be the one to make the decision.”

“Isn’t that cowardly?”  I asked.

“No.  It’s human, to not want to make the hard choices,” she said.  She raised one boot off the ground and placed it on the corner of her chair.  “And it’s good strategy to conserve your strength.”

“We’re not fighting,” I said.  “We’re not going to get tired.”

“Physically?” she asked.  “No.  Emotionally?  Mentally? Yes.”

“You’re anticipating the fight,” I said.  “You don’t think there’ll be a consensus in time.”

She shook her head, then used one hand to fix her hair, tucking it behind one ear.  “No.  I don’t think there will be a fight.  I hope there’ll be a consensus, but it’s not necessary.  Your ploys with the portal, controlling the territory around it, it’s clever, it’ll take a lot of time before we can pass legislation or conduct a thorough enough investigation to justifiably seize it.  But I’m not worried about that, either, nor am I concerned about the damage Tattletale could do in other areas.”

“Then why do you need to conserve your strength?” I asked.

“Because we’re dealing with the devil,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m angry at you, Taylor, and half of that is because you put us in this situation, a set of circumstances where we’re liable to lose either way.  Because I agree with the conclusions you came to, how the PRT is needed, the need for compromise, and because I can’t condone how you approached those conclusions.”

She shifted position, and the black-green energy of her flickered from her right hip to her right hand, appearing in her hand, amorphous and shapeless, as if searching for a form to take.  When she didn’t grasp it, it darted to her left hip, and the metal of a cutlass clinked against her seat.

“But I really hate you because we had to call her,” Miss Militia intoned.

Her?

Tagg looked at his phone.  “Assuming she’s on time, it’ll be less than ten minutes.”

“Her?” my dad asked.

“You’ve played your part,” Tagg responded.  “Go.  It’d be better in the long run.  Wash your hands of this, leave.  Your daughter’s in custody, she’s going to one prison or another.  You can go home and know that it was inevitable, and that this was the best outcome.  It takes a few years maybe, but you lament your mistakes, and you eventually make an uneasy peace with what happened to your daughter.”

“And if I stay?”

“You won’t have any of that peace of mind,” Tagg said, and that was all.

My dad looked at me, “I think you’re wrong.  Everything before this, it was the times where I thought I had to walk away, look away, times where I thought things were inevitable, that I regretted the most.”

He took my hand.  “I’ll stay.”

“Thank you,” I murmured the words.

Our guest didn’t arrive right away.  It might have been fitting, in a dramatic way, for her to appear as we finished our dialogue, but things weren’t so carefully orchestrated in the real world.

“Those things they said you did?” my dad murmured.

“Mostly true,” I said.

He squeezed my hand for a moment, but it wasn’t reassuring.  Something else.  Concern, maybe, channeled through a simple gesture.  Concern for me, for what I’d become.

I wanted nothing more than for my dad and I to talk for a month straight, just to hash things out, to form some kind of balance, some semblance of a connection like we’d once had.  Instead, there was only this, like the father-daughter relationship distilled.  Not enough communication, barely any familiarity, both of us flooded with very different sorts of fear, confusion, and frustration.  I imagined it was much like the bonds that had kept primitive families together in an era when living from week to week was a challenge.  Basic, crude, but almost primeval.

She arrived, minutes later.  A woman, tall, in a suit, carrying nothing with her.  I sensed her at the periphery of my range, walking with a steady, strong stride.

I was reminded of the Siberian, almost.  The way she moved with the confidence of the indomitable, the way that she was almost careful as she moved among people.  Except that where the Siberian was only careful among her teammates, this woman was careful with everybody.

It took her five minutes to reach us, walking through the crowds, using the pedestrian crossings.

But the person I found myself comparing her to, as she approached the PRT building, wasn’t the Siberian.  It was me.  She reached her home ground, and people started to recognize her.  They reacted, moving out of her way.  Showing respect.  Showing fear, in some cases.

Three of the Wards were in the elevator when it stopped at the ground floor.  Kid Win was taking his drone recharge station apart, which meant it was just Clockblocker, Crucible and Vista that crossed paths with her.

The Wards took only a moment to recognize her as she entered the elevator, and the two native Brocktonites left, pulling a protesting, confused Crucible after them.

In a matter of a minute, she was opening the door to the cell.  A woman, the sort who could be forty but looked like she was in her late twenties.  Hispanic, insofar as that was a descriptor, with darker skin and long, straight black hair.

But more than her description, the part of her that hit me was her presence.  Almost without thinking about it, I got out of my chair, standing, the chains of my cuffs pulling taut against the lock on the table.  My lawyer, Miss Militia and Tagg all stood, my dad a step behind them, bewildered.  The only one not in the know.

“Chief Director,” I said.

Deputy Chief.  I’ve stepped down from my position, but I still have to train my replacement,” she said, her gaze piercing through me.  I couldn’t even tell that one of her eyes was a prosthetic.  “And seeing to some leftover crises.  Hello, Ms. Hebert.”

She extended a hand.  As though driven to accept the handshake by a peculiar gravity, I extended my own hand and shook it.  Her firm grip could have pulverized me.  I might have been less intimidated if I were trapped in a small pen with an angry bull elephant.

“And Mr. Danny Hebert,” she said.  She shook my father’s hand.

Tagg stood from the chair at the table and moved over one left, leaving the seat for his superior.  “Since you’ve made up your mind about staying, you’ll need to know.  This is Deputy Chief Director Costa-Brown of the PRT.”

My father nodded.  I was getting the feeling he was almost shell-shocked.  To find out about the end of the world, the situation his daughter was in, and countless other things, the name of this woman might not have even processed for him.

“Otherwise known as Alexandria,” Alexandria said, taking the chair opposite me.

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Cell 22.1

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I remained where I was, hands folded on the back of my head, kneeling, while the PRT officers bellowed at me, almost incoherent, impossible to obey as they gave me contradictory orders.  Down on the ground, stand up, throw any weapons to the side, do not touch anything.

They were afraid to approach, too, apparently.  Maybe word had gotten out about what happened to Armsmaster when he’d gotten ahold of me at the fundraiser.  They each stopped about ten feet from me, forming a loose ring.  I’d thought they might have hit me with one of their nonlethal weapons, but they didn’t shoot.  Maybe the audience was giving them second thoughts.

Miss Militia broke the stalemate, such as it was.  I could see her put one hand on Clockblocker’s shoulder, giving him a gentle push.

In his white costume, he advanced.  He was inscribed with images of clocks in gray, some animated, little hands spinning at different speeds at his shoulder, the center of his chest, and the backs of his hands, places where the armor panels were broadest.  He crossed the perimeter of guards, getting closer to me.

When I didn’t react, they seemed to take that as permission to move closer.  The bellowing reached a crescendo, and one officer was apparently unhappy that I wasn’t already lying prone on the ground.  He planted a heavy boot between my shoulder blades, then thrust me into the ground.  I only barely managed to turn my head to avoid cracking my chin on the floor, pulling my head back so I didn’t smash it.  I felt the air huff out of my chest, pain jolting through me.  My chest wasn’t large, was a ways from ‘medium’, even, but that didn’t make it any better when it bore the brunt of the impact.

The other guards were alternately herding the civilians out of the area or forming a wall to keep them from watching.

“Hey!” Clockblocker said.  “That’s enough.  I got this.”

The shouting stopped.  There was only the noise of the guards on the far ends of the room, giving orders to tourists and staff members, taking charge of the situation and escorting people out.

I had to twist my head to look up at Clockblocker.   For his part, he stared down at me, his expression hidden by the featureless white pane of his mask.

“This is a trick,” he said.

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “But not the way you’re thinking.”

He didn’t respond to that.

“Do you need me to take a different position?” I asked.

“Once upon a time, I would have had something clever to say in response to that,” he said, quiet.

“What?”

“Nevermind.  Kneel, with your arms behind you.”

I moved slowly, so I wouldn’t provoke any rash actions from the uniforms, climbing to my knees, then extending my arms behind me.

He reached out and touched the top of my head.

What felt like an instant later, my arms were weighed down.  Clockblocker was behind me, his hand on the heavy metal restraints to keep them from slamming into my tailbone.  Everyone else in the lobby had moved.  The Wards filled the area, along with the members of the Protectorate, new and old.  Flechette was only a short distance away, while Miss Militia stood just beside Clockblocker.  Even heroes that had presumably been on patrol were back, along with more PRT members than I’d counted in the building when I’d surrendered.

Tagg was there too, flanked by two PRT uniforms and one man who was wearing a suit, rather than a uniform.  The deputy director?

I’d lost control of my bugs while I’d been timed out.  In many cases, it wasn’t a problem.  Still, I’d lost the ability to track most of those who were present, as mosquitoes, flies and ants went about their merry way.

“Stand,” Miss Militia told me.

I tried to stand, but found more restraints on my ankles.  They were connected to the massive metal handcuffs I wore, which only made an awkward setup worse.

“Clockblocker,” Miss Militia said.  She reached under one of my arms.  Clockblocker took her cue and did the same.  Together, they hauled me to my feet.  They stayed beside me, holding my arms, as they led me past all of the gathered heroes and PRT officers.  All people I’d hurt, people I’d humiliated.

I had no friends here.

Director Tagg was lighting up a cigarette, despite the prominent ‘no smoking’ signs nearby.  As I passed, he gave me a hard stare, heavily lined eyes glaring beneath thick black eyebrows, his face otherwise expressionless.  He pointed, and a PRT uniform joined our group.

Miss Militia handed me off to Triumph, and he helped Clockblocker lead me through the corridor to the PRT elevator.  The doors whisked shut, sealing the four of us inside.

Damn, these handcuffs were uncomfortable.  They had to be a design meant for the heavy hitters, for capes who could rend steel with their bare hands.  Was it spite that made them use these cuffs?

They weren’t reading me my rights.  Was there a reason?  I might have asked, but I didn’t want to show ignorance.  Better to be confident, to act as if I knew exactly what was going on.

Above us, Tagg extinguished his cigarette, barely touched, fished in a nearby trashcan for a soda can, and dropped the butt inside before disposing of it.

I couldn’t quite make out his words.  Not enough bugs in position.  “- now.  PRT-”

All of the capes mobilized, joining Tagg and his immediate underlings in entering the stairwell.  The PRT moved as well, but in a wholly different direction.  They were taking defensive positions, leaders barking out orders.

I couldn’t be absolutely sure, given how little I knew about guns, but I was pretty sure the PRT was packing more in the way of lethal weapons than they had been on my last visit.

The elevator stopped, so gently I might have missed it if my bugs didn’t give me perspective on a larger scale.  We stepped out into a brightly lit hallway.

“This is an E-type containment cell.  Countermeasures include containment foam and these beauties,” Triumph said.

Beauties?

He was pointing up.  I followed the direction and looked.  Spheres the size of beach balls, chrome, with small windows on the bottom.  Familiar.

“Touch the door, make too much noise or use your power, and the room gets flooded with an electric charge,” Triumph explained.  “Calculated so it’s only a little less powerful than it’d need to be to do permanent damage.  Push it any further and the room is flooded with containment foam.  The same measures are packed into this whole hallway.”

Ah.  They were the same devices that had been loaded into the drones that one of Dragon’s suits had deployed.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I don’t plan on escaping.”

“What are you planning?” Clockblocker asked.

“Don’t engage her,” Triumph said.  He brought us to a stop by one metal door.  There was a letter etched on the surface of the metal, a large ‘E’, and smaller codes in boxes beside it.  M-21, CC-2, Bat-4

He tapped his phone against the wall, and two sets of metal doors slid open.  Very similar to the elevatorSame design?

Thick walls, I noted.  The walls that framed the door were a foot and a half deep.  It somehow made the small cell a little more claustrophobic.  It was daunting as it was, six feet by six feet, with sheet metal laid out over the floor and walls, welded together where they joined, with openings cut in where necessary.  There was a vent above me, pumping in a constant flow of fresh air, a little too cold, and another vent beneath the bed, blocked off by a grid of metal bars that extended between the bed and the floor.

The bed itself featured a mattress no thicker than my hand, covered in plastic and laid out on an arrangement of metal strips that wove into one another.  The ‘toilet’ wasn’t a toilet at all, but looked to be a urinal, horizontal and sunken into the ground, a shallow chrome basin with a drain and three thick buttons where it met the wall.  On the opposite wall, a television was set into the wall, protected by a clear pane.  I didn’t see controls or anything resembling a remote.

Above me, another one of those beachball-sized orbs was embedded into the ceiling.  Ominous.

Everything was sealed and reinforced twice over.  Everything but the vents, but they were too small to crawl through.  Was this the kind of cell they put Lung in?  With all the metal and the relatively meager amounts of cloth, I didn’t imagine even his pyrokinesis would do much, unless he’d grown considerably.

I turned around to look at my three escorts, and noted that Clockblocker and Triumph had backed off.  It was just the PRT uniform, now.

I felt a moment’s trepidation.  Was this the point where the PRT officer beat me within an inch of my life, while everyone else turned a blind eye?

“Kit, and one bundle,” the PRT told Clockblocker.  I was surprised to note that it was a woman’s voice, behind the featureless helmet.  The junior hero hurried off to the end of the hall opposite the elevator.  She wrenched me around until my back was to her, then bent down to remove the leg restraints.  Triumph stared at me, arms folded, while she did it, the threat implicit.  She removed my hand restraints as well, then handed the gear to the hero.

The officer stepped into the cell with me, and the door shut behind her.  “Clothes off.”

Oh.  Worse than a beating, then.

I tried to tell myself to stay calm, to not be embarrassed.  This was a combination of procedure and psychology.  They wanted me off guard, feeling vulnerable.  In the time Clockblocker had me on pause, Tagg had likely outlined orders to this extent.

I kicked off my shoes, removed my top and running pants, folded them, and set them aside.  There were no shelves, so I left them in one corner of the room.

The PRT officer undid the neat folding, rifling through pockets for something, anything, then left my clothes in a heap.

Once I had my underwear off, she checked it, then gave me my next order.  “Glasses.”

I removed my glasses and handed them over.  She turned them over in her hands, twisted and manhandled them until I worried the frames would snap.

“Shower.  Rinse off until I say stop.”

I gave her a quizzical look, and she pointed.

I crossed the room to investigate.  Above the toilet, there was an opening in the wall, about four feet above the ground.

“Three buttons,” the uniform said.  “Flush, sink and shower.  Squat to use the bathroom, get on all fours or squat to shower.  If the screen flashes yellow and beeps, that means cameras are going on and someone’s got something to say to you.  You’ll have six seconds to finish your business and cover up.  Screen flashes red, beeps twice, it means door’s opening.  Again, six seconds to cover up.”

A little inhumane, I thought.  Would that be more psychological pressure?  Regular visits?  Interrupting my sleep?  Unreliable privacy?

“Rinse,” she repeated.

Maybe Tagg wants me to snap and attack her, I mused.

But I did as she’d asked.  The spray was lukewarm, and the stream was directed into the toilet, using the same drain, which made it awkward to get underneath without actually crouching in the toilet itself.  That was only compounded by the fact that the vent was still blasting in cool air, chilling the parts of me that weren’t immediately under the stream.

I grit my teeth, told myself that Lung had probably dealt with it, wedging his six-foot-plus frame beneath the stream.  It would have been worse for him, being larger, blind, missing something between the legs.  Except he maybe hadn’t had a guard in the room with him.  Too dangerous.

For an instant, I wished I had enough of a reputation that this woman wouldn’t be there, watching me.

The door opened partway, while I stood there dripping.  She was kind enough to block the opening with her body, so I didn’t flash the two young heroes.

She threw a bundle onto the bed.  A towel?  Clothes?

I started to move towards it and she barked out, “Stop.”

Apparently I wasn’t allowed to dress.  She had more things in her hands.  A tool kit.  She fished out a set of sterile gloves.  “Allergies?”

“I’m allergic to bee stings,” I said, trying to inject some levity into the proceedings. I couldn’t see her expression.

Damn it.  I was wet, beaded with moisture, my hair clinging to my scalp, and doing my best not to shiver as I cursed the cold air that flooded the room.  I used my fingers and fingernails to comb my hair back away from my face.

“Latex allergy?”

“No,” I said, “And I was joking about the bee stings.”

Not even a recognition of the joke.  “Are you on any medications?”

“No.”

“Birth control?”

“No.”  Condoms, I thought.

“Two ways we can do this.  You cooperate, takes five to ten minutes to do a full search.  You fail to cooperate, if you fight me, bite or struggle, I step outside and we turn on the countermeasure, and then do a search while you’re incapacitated.”

Her head lifted fractionally, as if she was glancing up at the electricity-dispensing orb above.

“I’ll cooperate,” I said.

Oh, how glad I was, that I could focus my power elsewhere, distract myself.

Tagg had arranged everyone in a conference room upstairs.  The heroes, suits and uniforms I presumed were key members of the PRT, and one or two more, who sat a distance away from the Director and his people.

“Plans,” Tagg said, “Go.”

“We bring Defiant and Dragon in,” Miss Militia said.  “They ship her to another PRT office where we can hold her until a trial.”

“Sensible,” Tagg said, “Except we expose ourselves to attack while …ing her.”

“We’re vulnerable to attack here,” Miss Militia said.

“We can’t act until we know what she’s doing,” another cape said.  A woman with a high collar.  Dovetail.  “What’s her plan?”

There was a silence.

“Thoughts, Miss Militia?” Tagg asked.

“She’s… intelligent.  In every case we’ve crossed paths with her, she’s proved resourceful.  She was confident and self-assured when she turned herself in.  Whatever this maneuver is, it was calculated.”

“Mrs. Yamada?” Tagg asked one of the people in suits at the far end of the table.

“I’ve read up on her, studied the records you have of her, talked to the students that knew her best, for better or worse.  Greg Veder, Emma Barnes, Sophia Hess, Madison Clements… her teachers, her father… I’m not so convinced.”

“You disagree with Miss Militia?”

“I can’t say for sure without talking to the girl, but actual surrender isn’t impossible, given my understanding of her.”

“I’m not saying she’s not surrendering,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m saying she’s plotting something.  The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“She could be attempting to bring down the PRT,” Assault said.  “Do it from within.  With the charges we have lined up against her, she can request a jury trial.  She uses that as a platform to dish out dirty secrets.  Confidential data on Armsmaster, details from records they stole from the database, the Echidna event and the fallout therein…”

“Given how that’s gone,” Dovetail said, “She’d be digging her own grave.  We all thought the details would leak, but Cauldron’s cleanup is efficient.  Anyone who tries to leak details gets… censored.”

“Killed,” Adamant clarified.  “Or disappeared.”

“It would be unfortunate if she were killed in our custody,” Tagg said.  “She’d be safer in the Birdcage.”

“With the public support she has within the city?” Miss Militia asked.  “Good luck getting her there without a fair trial.  There’s going to be a lot of eyes on this.”

“So she’s forcing our hand,” Tagg said.  “The question is why.”

“To oust you,” Miss Militia said.

“Revenge?” Tagg asked.

“I don’t know, but I had a conversation with her a few days ago, and she said she had something in mind that she could use against you.  I didn’t know what it was before now.”

“I see,” Tagg said, rubbing his chin.

Back in the cell, I sighed.  I could see the uniform flinch in reaction.  She had her fingers in my mouth, feeling beneath my tongue and around the base of my gums.  When I didn’t bite like she’d feared, she finished and removed her fingers from my mouth.  She removed the gloves, where they joined the first pair she’d donned.

Miss Militia had told Tagg.  I wasn’t surprised; she gave me the impression of someone who followed the letter of the law.  As willing as she’d been to open negotiations, she would still do what it took to keep her job and maintain the peace.

I was maybe a little disappointed.  I hadn’t demanded she keep it a secret, and it wasn’t liable to change anything, but it made for a small breach of faith.

The PRT officer finished off the search by combing my hair with a metal comb that I suspected was sharpened at the points to double as a wood saw.  It felt like it, at least.  The combing wasn’t done to look tidy, but to search my hair for any foreign matter or tools.  I was just glad they hadn’t decided to shave it all off.  I wouldn’t have put it past them.

“Towel is in the bag,” the PRT officer said.  She shook a plastic bag to open it, then began putting my clothes inside, leaving me only the underwear.

I opened the drawstring bag, which was missing a drawstring, then sorted out the contents.  A thin towel, a single sheet so thin it was translucent, a pillow and pillowcase that looked to be the same fabric as the mattress, folded double, half the size of a normal pillow.  There were prison sweats, black, with the word ‘Villain’ printed across the shoulders and down the right leg in white, with a white t-shirt with the same word in black.  There was a small kit with a rubbery, flexible thimble-toothbrush that fit over one finger and a small tube of toothpaste, three tampons with soap, three cardboard applicators, and three pads.

Not that it mattered.  I’d been under enough stress the past few months that I’d missed my periods entirely.  I might have panicked, if the timing of it had been different.  I was safe.  Ninety-nine point nine percent sure I was safe.

She waited until I had quickly toweled dry, put the underwear and prison sweats on, then handed me my glasses and opened the door.  I caught a glimpse of Triumph and Clockblocker before she blocked my line of sight.

“Sit tight, princess,” she said.

The door whisked shut, leaving me confined in a space so narrow that I could lay down and touch two opposing walls with toe and outstretched hand.  Only the ceiling was out of reach.

I adjusted the sweats, leaving the front open, headed to the bed, laid down the pillow and stretched out.

“…Alcott girl,” Tagg was saying.  “Is she here?”

“On her way,” the deputy director answered.

“Then I think it’s time to settle on a game plan,” the Director said.  “I’m Skitter’s target, or one of them.  …ssination?”

“Coercion,” Miss Militia said.

“I see.  Her power extends to the remainder of this building, even now, am I right?”

“Arthropodokinesis, arthropodovoyance,” the Deputy Director said.  “She’s on record as a master eight, thinker one.  The thinker classification is key here: ex-Director Piggot noted Skitter can see through her bugs’ eyes.”

“Can she lipread?” Tagg asked.

“No idea,” the Deputy Director replied.

“I said it before,” Miss Militia said.  Her voice was a fraction quieter than before, but I couldn’t read her tone with the bugs’ hearing.  “She’s resourceful.  I’d assume she took the time to learn, if it would expand her capabilities.”

Director Tagg nodded slowly, then rubbed his chin again.  The movement of his wrist against his armrest nearly killed the bug I had in between his dress shirt and jacket.  “Agreed.  I already informed each of my officers to treat her as though she had a two point classification in every category, or two points higher in cases where she’s already received scores.  Brute two, mover two… all the way down the list.  It won’t do to underestimate her.  Let’s anticipate that she’s put herself in this position to have full access to the building by way of her power.  Until further notice, staff aren’t to access any confidential files, we don’t speak on any private matters while within her reach, capes are to remain masked at all times while on the premises, and we’ll devote all remaining resources to preparing for any conflict.”

Clockblocker and Triumph had entered just as he finished speaking.

“Conflict?” Clockblocker asked.  He took a chair among the other Wards.

“It remains a possibility.  If her teammates were to attack, she’d be positioned to use her power to hamper us, up until we used the nonlethal measures to incapacitate her,” Tagg replied.

“I could use my power,” Clockblocker said.  “Put her on pause, repeat the process until we have other measures in place.”

“No,” Tagg said.  “We need you elsewhere, and each contact gives her a chance to act against you or escape.  She’s confined, and we can use countermeasures to incapacitate her if need be.”

The Director set his elbows on the table and leaned over, covering his mouth with his hands.  I missed some of what he said, as his words were muffled.  “And … her stew for a while.”

Ah.  So the psychological pressure extended another step.  A strip search, a claustrophobic cell, stripping away my possessions, and now he planned to keep me cooped up in here until my composure cracked.  Not so effective if I was being put on pause, with only a fraction of the time passing.

“The alternative,” Assault said, “Is that this is exactly what she wants.  She wants us to react.”

“It’s possible,” Tagg said.  “Getting us agitated, getting media attention, having us call in assistance, only to humiliate us further.”

“You’re bringing in help?” Miss Militia asked.

“We’ll see,” Tagg said.  He touched his face as he spoke, and it muddled his words, “In the …, see to the … I recommended in dealing with her.  It would be best if you didn’t use your computer, with her … watching-”

“No need.  I remember what we discussed,” Miss Militia said.  “I’ll arrange it.”

“Make any and all calls outside of her power’s range.”

“We will,” Miss Militia said.

“If she’s … fight a war over the city’s heart, let’s make the first move.  We contact the media, control … … they have access to, make sure the first thing the public hears is our side.  Make sure we make some mention of Accord, and Hellhound’s penchant for chewing up people who trespass on her territory.”

“I’ll see to it,” the deputy director said.

Odd, to be so utterly helpless while I watched my enemies maneuver against me.  I couldn’t, wouldn’t use my power here.  I couldn’t talk to them, or request anything.

I shifted position, and the metal bands squeaked.  I couldn’t find a position to lie down, and wound up sitting.  I toweled my hair ineffectually in an attempt to get it dry.

An officer, out of uniform, appeared at the door to the conference room.  “Media already has the story.  Vickery, with channel twelve.  He’s asking us for final comments before the story goes live.”

“Is he on the phone right now?”

“Yes sir.”

Tagg stood, “Tell him I’ll talk to him when I’m done here, and I’ll make any wait worth his while.”

“Yes sir.”

As the uniform left, Tagg remained standing at the end of the table.  “Anticipate confrontation, but don’t seek it out.  Whatever they have planned, they’ll want to rescue her.”

“We can seal off the stairwell access with containment foam,” Kid Win spoke up.  “Seize the elevator, to prevent access to the cells.  If there’s an attack, we shut down the elevator.  In the worst case scenario, they can’t get her out before reinforcements arrived from other cities.”

“You can do it fast?”  Tagg asked.

“Very,” Kid Win said.

“See to it.  Where do things stand with the defense system against the bugs?”

“Not done, but I could wrap it up soonish with Sere’s help, maybe.”

“Sere?  You’ll cooperate?”

“Yes,” Sere replied.  “Of course.”

“Then it’s settled.  Everyone else, double the number of patrols, form pairs at a bare minimum, focus on recon more than fighting.  Track the Undersiders, meet with contacts.  Consider this a mid-to-high priority situation, keep that in mind if you’ve any favors to call in and you’re weighing whether you should.  Miss Militia?  Ready the measures we discussed, and use the Wards.  We don’t want them in a direct confrontation, and they can fend for themselves if ambushed.”

“Yes sir.”

With that, the meeting was broken up.  Tagg headed to his office, the Wards moved to the elevator to head down to their headquarters, below the cell that held me, and the Protectorate headed out on patrols.

My power’s range was about five blocks.  It should have been larger, going by the running theory that feeling ‘trapped’ extended my reach, but I was in here by my own device.  I couldn’t necessarily force it.

Five blocks felt oppressively small, in the grand scheme of things.  I was in a six-foot by six-foot cell with thick walls, nothing to read, no television to watch, and only dull metal and chrome to look at.  The vague blur of my reflection in the walls was only a dark shadow, the occasional gleam of light of my glasses.

Around me, the PRT office buzzed like an anthill I’d kicked.  People were heading here and there on tasks and missions, reacting, preparing, anticipating some form of attack.  The higher-ranking members of the PRT made calls to contacts, prepared, and set security measures in place.  PRT uniforms got geared up, off-duty teams were called in and prepared, organized in defensive lines around the building.

Miss Militia, for her part, sent Flechette on an errand, instructing her to make a phone call and return as soon as possible, and then started organizing the Wards.

I set bugs on the minute and hour hands of a clock.  It was both a curse and a blessing, because it made me acutely aware of how slowly time was passing.

“Things are going crazy,” Crucible said.

“This is big,” Clockblocker said.

“I’m just saying, you’d think things get calmer when the kingpin- queenpin-“

“Crime lord,” Clockblocker said, “It’s easier.”

“When the crime lord of the city turns themselves in.”

Vista spun around in her chair to face Crucible, “She’s probably planning something like getting put in jail, then breaking out and showing us there’s no point in trying to catch her, because we can’t keep her.  And she’ll do it with teeny-weeny bugs, make Tagg look bad, maybe get him fired.”

“Fits,” Clockblocker mused.

“But she can’t know she’ll escape.  What if we did have Dragon and Defiant move her halfway across the country?”

“She used my power to cut Echidna in half,” Clockblocker said.  “She could deal with that, too.”

“Again with the Echidna thing,” Crucible said.  “Can’t you tell-”

“Classified,” Clockblocker, Kid Win and Vista said, at the same time.  Kid Win didn’t even look up from the containment foam dispenser he was tinkering with.

“Fuck you guys.”

The screen in my cell flashed yellow, then beeped once, a sound loud enough that it made me jump.

I stood from the bed and walked around until I faced the screen.

It stayed yellow for long seconds, then went dark.

Checking on me?

I sat back down.

The minutes were ticking away.  Tagg was counting on this confinement wearing on me.  Putting me in a different headspace for when he finally decided to come down and grill me.  It… was working, but probably not to the degree he was thinking.  Being manhandled by the PRT officer had been another attempt at getting me outside of my comfort zone, no doubt a gambit, where any resistance from me would be met by a shout from Triumph, a beating and a use of Clockblocker’s power before the door was shut in my face.  A lack of resistance only making me uncomfortable, putting me in my place, for lack of a better phrase.

But again, it didn’t matter.  My concerns were on bigger things, on the space beyond this cell, on everything I needed to achieve.

A family made their way to the lobby.  I assumed them to be tourists, until the guards let them into the building.  Two adults and a young girl.  The Alcotts.

Dinah had cut her hair short.

Reinventing herself?  Distancing herself from being Coil’s ‘pet’?

Tagg met them at the end of the lobby, then ushered them upstairs to the conference room.  They were joined by Mrs. Yamada, her cousin Triumph, and Miss Militia.

Tagg waited until everyone else was seated before sitting at the head of the table.

He pressed a key, and the monitor in my room beeped.  I lay down on the bed before the six seconds were up and the cameras went on.

When he was done looking in on me, he closed the laptop.

“She turned herself in,” Dinah said.

“Your power pick up on that?”  Triumph asked.

“We watched the news,” Dinah’s mom said.

“When you said sending Defiant and Dragon into the school would virtually guarantee that Skitter was brought into custody,” Tagg said, and his phrasing was odd, as if he were choosing words carefully or there was a tone my bugs’ hearing wasn’t picking up on, “you didn’t say anything about this.”

I did catch the emphasis on ‘this’ as he finished.

“This?” Dinah’s father asked.

“That she’d surrender, nearly a week later.  The timing of it, the fact that it could be a ploy.”

“I didn’t know,” Dinah said.

“If you have an accusation,” Mr. Alcott said, “Say it outright.”

“I’m saying your daughter was helping Skitter, not us.  That everything seems to suggest she was aiding and abetting a known criminal.”

“Are you insane?” Mr. Alcott asked.  The volume of his voice rose.  “Those thoughts don’t even connect!”

“I don’t necessarily agree with the Director’s line of reasoning, Dinah,” Miss Militia said, “But Skitter’s a known criminal mastermind, with an emphasis on the latter.  She’s a capable strategist and a battlefield tactician.  As far as we were aware, she was well situated as one of the more powerful villains in North America, judging by her control over this city.  In the past week alone, she’s … two villainous organizations and folded a third into her own.  There’s no reason for her to surrender.  The only way any of this makes sense is if there’s a greater plan at work.”

“And you think Dinah had something to do with that plan?”  Mrs. Alcott asked.

Mrs. Yamada leaned forward, “It’s very understandable if Dinah feels indebted or attached to Skitter, to Taylor Hebert.  She owes her a great deal.”

Dinah mumbled something.  I wasn’t sure if it was even a word.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “We’re only trying to make sense of this.  Wanting to help someone who’s done a great deal for you isn’t a bad thing, Dinah, understand?  But there’s other things going on.  Sensitive things.  Skitter may unwittingly do a lot of damage or put herself at risk, if she says the wrong things and the wrong people hear.”

“…,” Dinah said something under her breath.

“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Good.  If she does a lot of damage, then good.”

Director Tagg started to speak, but Mrs. Yamada cut him off.  “Why is that good, Dinah?”

“Can’t say.  Won’t say.”

“You are working with her, then,” Tagg said.  He shifted position in his chair.

“No.  Yes.  Both.  I’m working for everyone.  I don’t think Skitter’s very happy with me, really.  But she’s still here, because I told her to be.”

“You’ve been in communication with her?” Miss Militia asked.  I could tell how much gentler her voice was than Tagg’s.

“No.”

“Oh my lord,” Tagg said, leaning back in his chair and staring up at the ceiling.  “I think I’m about to have an aneurysm.”

Dinah didn’t reply.

“Do you hate the PRT, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.

“No.”

“Or heroes?  Do you blame us for not helping you when you needed it?”

“No.  A little, but that’s not important.”

“But you want Skitter to do damage?  To hurt us?”

“She’ll do damage, one way or another.  If she didn’t come here voluntarily, she probably would have become meaner.  It would have turned into a big fight, and she would make a mistake eventually and get brought in.  But she decided to surrender, so the same thing happens.  I’m glad that happened.”

“All because we revealed her identity,” Yamada said.

“Yes.”

“But we don’t know the ramifications of this ploy of hers,” Miss Militia said.

“I do,” Dinah replied.  “But I’m not telling.  And I’m charging ten times as much if you ask me for a number, and then I’ll lie, and I won’t be able to use my power for a while after.  And your bosses don’t want that.  Not with an Endbringer coming soon.”

“You’ll charge us for a number you won’t provide?”  Tagg asked.

“Yes.  Because I charge you for asking.  I can’t help but look for the numbers, so I have to look.  And that makes my head hurt if I do it too much.”

Tagg let his hand drop to the table with enough force to make a noise and make the lid of the laptop in front of him clatter.

“Why, Dinah?” Miss Militia asked.  “Why do this?”

“For everyone.  Because we got this far, it makes the numbers a little better.  Whatever happens from here on out, it makes the end of the world a little less bad.”

“A little less bad,” Triumph echoed her.

“But it still happens,” Tagg said.

“Almost always.  The world ends, in two years or in fifteen or sixteen.”

Tagg opened his laptop, “Do you have anything to say to Skitter?”

“No,” Dinah said.  “I’m done.”

“Done.”

“Yes.  I’m busy.  It’s only because my cousin works here that I even came.”

“You seem to be playing a dangerous game,” Tagg said, “Testing our goodwill, manipulating us for your own ends.”

Everyone’s ends, and I didn’t manipulate you.  You asked for a number, I gave it.”

He ignored her.  “Helping her when you should be helping us.”

“I don’t have to help you,” she said.  “I’m not a good guy.  I’m not a bad guy.  I’m done working for other people, answering their questions when I don’t want to.  I work for me, and for everyone.”

Odd, to think how much time I’d dedicated to Dinah, and how little I really knew her.  There was this, only now, and the discussions we had prior to me taking her home.  So little.

Tagg was rubbing his temples.  “Fine.  Now, when you said that the outcome of this improves the numbers, I understand that includes sending her to the Birdcage?”

“When I said I was done, I meant it,” Dinah said.  She pushed her chair back.  Her parents joined her, standing.  “You want more answers, get in contact with my dad, he’ll let you know my rates.  They change every day.”

“Not a wise business decision for a rogue starting out,” Tagg said, without rising from his chair.  “Offending an organization like the PRT, a young lady like you mouthing off.  We could cooperate, instead.”

He was threatening her?  I clenched a fist.

Dinah looked back at him.  “I don’t think you have any conception how valuable my answers are.  I could answer one question a week for people in Asia and I’d be set for life.  I don’t care if I offend you.”

“And you don’t care about your savior, locked away in that cell?” Tagg asked.

Dinah stopped in her tracks.  “Are you threatening Taylor?”

“I don’t know,” the Director said.  “You said she’ll do damage in some form.  Maybe we need to stop that from happening.  And you said that no matter what happens, the outcome’s more in our favor than it was before she surrendered.  Why?  Is it that important to remove her from Brockton Bay?  To unseat her from her throne?”

“I’m not answering any more questions.”

“You’ll answer what I ask you to answer,” Tagg said, “Because we need to go into this with our eyes open.  We can’t have Skitter damage us.”

“Director,” Mrs. Yamada said, “This isn’t constructive.  The last thing she wants-”

“The last thing I want is another arrogant dickface telling me what to do,” Dinah said.  “You want answers, Director?  Fine.  Twenty two point eight one three percent chance you die painfully, over long, slow minutes or hours.  Maybe soon, maybe in twenty years, but it’ll bring you to tears, and you’ll wail in pain.  That’s a freebie.  Want more details?”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said.

“You assume I care about that,” the Director said.

“You will.”

“Guys,” Miss Militia said, louder.

“If you refuse to give us assistance, and people get hurt, then that’s on your head,” Director Tagg said.

“I deal with that every day,” Dinah said.  “I’ll cope.”

“Guys!”  Miss Militia stood from her chair, the feet screeching against the ground.  She raised her voice another notch.  “Look.”

She pointed at the window.

I moved my bugs to check for whatever it was she was pointing at, then stopped.

She was pointing at the bugs.  They’d reacted to my irritation, and were swirling just beyond the window of the conference room, clustering on the glass surface.

“Is she making a move?”  Tagg asked.

“No.  They’re… just there.  Reacting,” Miss Militia said.  “To this.  Here.”

“She’s watching,” Tagg said.

“Watching what?  There’s nothing to look at,” Miss Militia said.  “Think about it.  What this is to her.”

“She hears,” Mrs. Yamada finished the thought.

I shut my eyes, swore under my breath.  I’d let my guard down.  I’d been too focused on what was going on inside the building, letting bugs cluster on the outside, that I’d given my reactions away.  So much for gathering intel.

Tagg faced the window, no doubt staring at it, at the bugs.

“Arthropodaudience,” Miss Militia said.  “She’s fully aware of everything that’s been going on in this building.”

“I’m gone,” Dinah said.  “I can’t communicate with her or the numbers change.  I’ll be letting the PRT know you pissed me off.  They can expect prices to go up five percent from here on out.”

With that, Dinah was gone, saying something to her parents that I couldn’t make out.

My focus was more on Tagg.

“So,” he said, his voice low, “You can hear me.”

Yes,” my bugs replied, speaking throughout the building.  They were distributed evenly enough that it would barely be audible.  A thin, almost imperceptible sound.  More than a few people jumped in reaction to it.

“I see,” the Director said.  “You tipped your hand.”

I didn’t have a response to that.  I had.

He turned to Miss Militia.  “See that Kid Win gets the defense system online sooner than later.  I’d like this building cleared of bugs.”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“And you,” the Director said.  I was getting used to his voice.  I caught the emphasis there.  “You stay put and be good.”

I shifted position, sitting on the end of the bed, elbows on my knees, staring at the floor.

Waiting, listening, watching.

Another twenty minutes, forty minutes, sixty minutes passing, with irregular check-ins by way of the monitor.  Every member of the PRT was set in place, some near the PRT headquarters, others elsewhere in the city.  Heroes went on patrol and came back, making short trips, no longer than half an hour each.  Each hero in a pairing took turns reporting to Tagg.

Rachel had been seen crossing the city earlier, as had Grue.  A meeting at the Forsberg Gallery.  If they were following Tagg’s orders, there was now a PRT wagon stationed nearby, ready with a containment foam turret, in case the villains decided to meet there again.

Miss Militia got a list of phone calls to make from Tagg, then left, exiting my range.

Another half hour.  Another check-in, a group of four heroes teleported in, Miss Militia returned and whispered back and forth with Tagg.  There was a long discussion between the new heroes, Assault, Miss Militia and Tagg about how concentrated the forces were, now.  Too many PRT uniforms and heroes in one place, the danger if they were all wiped out.

In a matter of minutes, they’d organized another distribution.  Expanding control over the area, keeping two major groups out of my reach.

Only five minutes after the groups had departed, Kid Win activated his system.  Floating drones started to roam the PRT headquarters, each no larger than a toaster, each with multiple settings that they rotated between.  They emulated Sere’s power on a low enough level to kill bugs in the area without doing undue harm to any people, then became laser turrets, firing an invisible beam every second for about a minute, killing a bug with each shot.  Then they shifted focus and accelerated, veering to a different location with unpredictable trajectories.

Kid Win was making more, too.  He was joined by one of the heroes that had just arrived.  Another tinker.  I caught a snippet of what they were talking about before the next drone kicked to life and killed the bugs I had on the new arrival.  Workshop talk.  Improving designs.

Damn tinkers.

Avoiding the drones became something of a game, occupying my attention to the point that I was still able to keep tabs on a few important people, but I was badly limited in terms of my ability to listen in.  Fifteen minutes passed without me seeing or hearing anything significant.  The monitor flared yellow for another check-in.  Two minutes later, there was another.  Irregular, unpredictable.

As a plus, Tagg seemed to be getting restless, if the movements of his blurry form within his office were any indication.  He’d arranged his forces, and the only thing he could do now was wait.

We were both waiting.  Both biding our time in the hopes that the other would crack first, make the first move and initiate conversation.

Miss Militia left to make another batch of calls outside my range.  She returned sooner than before, made a beeline straight for Tagg, and exchanged a few more whispered words.

Together, they made their way to the elevator.  The Protectorate tinker that had just arrived was sealing off the staircase, and there was only one way down.

As a pair, Miss Militia and Tagg walked down the length of the hallway, stopping outside of my cell.  I combed my hair out of my face, squared my shoulders and faced the door.

The screen turned red.  A matter of seconds later, the doors slid open.

“Flechette?” Miss Militia asked.

Flechette?  Had my allies done something?

“Did you plan this?” Miss Militia asked.

I elected not to answer.  This was a small victory, no matter what they were referring to.  Tagg had broken first, had come to me more on my terms than his.  I was going to play it for everything it was worth.

I met Tagg’s glare with a level stare of my own.

“If you used Regent to make this happen-” Miss Militia said.

Regent?

“Not Regent,” I said.  I hope it’s not Regent.

“You’re admitting you planned her defection, then?”

Defection?  I thought of Parian.

“I… left the door open for it to happen,” I said.  True, though not nearly to the extent I was implying.

“And this plays a role in your greater plan?” Miss Militia asked.  She was doing all the talking, here.  It seemed Tagg didn’t want to break the silence.

I thought for a second.  “Consider it symbolic.”

“Of?”

I smiled a little, then shrugged.

That seemed to be the point where Tagg lost his cool.  He didn’t get angry.  Instead, he merely said, “Interrogation room B.”

Miss Militia held a pair of ordinary handcuffs in one hand, a taser in the other.  I turned and extended my hands behind me, and she set the handcuffs in place, holding my arm as she led me down the length of the hall, around the corner and into a large room with only a table, a chair, and more sheet metal covering everything.

“One o’clock,” I said, when I’d taken my seat.  Miss Militia was unclipping my cuffs, moving my hands around in front of me to slip them through the reinforced table.

“I think it’s about one,” Miss Militia said.

“Exactly one,” I said.

“Is the time important?” she stepped away from the table.

“Her friends will move to attack at a set time,” Tagg said.  “She won’t share that time, because she wants us to squirm, to be on high alert.”

“Eight thirty,” I said.  “Sunset.”

I could see his heavy eyebrows rise in mild surprise.

“You planned something for eight-thirty?”

“No,” I said.  I smiled a little, looking down at the table.  “I didn’t plan anything.  I didn’t say goodbye.  I walked away, and I turned myself in.”

“You’re acting like that’s something special,” Tagg said, leaning against the wall by the door, his arms folded.

“The only instruction I gave was to Tattletale, to hold the others back until sunset, and to give them direction when they do act.  They’ll have time to get angry in the meantime.  They’ll be mad at me, but they’ll take it out on you.  You have to understand, even at my worst, even when I’m as mad as I was the other night, when you’d outed me, I was sensible, reasonable in terms of how I dealt with you and held back.  Now you get to see how unreasonable the rest of the Undersiders can be, without me to rein them in.”

“I thought this might be it.  A lesson in the role you play here.  Leading us to think that we need you,” Tagg said, “To keep them in line.”

“That’s not it,” I said.

“No?”

“It’s not even secondary, in terms of what I’m looking to achieve.  I don’t think I could go back to them and return to my position if I wanted to.  And I don’t.”

“Then what?” he asked.

“It’s a time limit.  You saw what we were willing to do to Butcher, to Valefor.  Even with that, even there, we were holding back as a group.  Trust me when I say that I know my friends.  If you stand between them and me?  If you hurt me?  They’re going to go thermonuclear on you.  On the PRT as a whole.  Tattletale will make sure of it.  She’ll keep them on target, guide them, and maximize the damage.  She’ll do most of the damage.”

“You said you weren’t going to do any harm to the PRT,” Miss Militia said.

“If things go that way,” I said, “It’s because the PRT is hurting the PRT.  Which wouldn’t be an isolated incident.”

“Cute,” Tagg said.

I met his eyes.  “I’m just saying.  It’s really up to you guys.  Send me to the Birdcage, you lose everything.  Things get ugly for the PRT at a critical point in time.  I suffer, the Undersiders suffer, you suffer, the world suffers.”

I stopped, watching him for any sign of doubt, for a waver in his eyes, for a change in his expression or posture.  His poker face was good.

Miss Militia shifted position, but didn’t speak.

“Or?” Tagg finally asked.

“Or you let me call my lawyer, and then you hear my demands,” I said.

“Demands?” he growled the word.

“Demands.  I have several conditions you guys will have to meet before I capitulate.  I’ll bow my head, appear in public, plea bargain, do whatever you want.  You get me, wholesale, no contest, and no complications.  The PRT gets a victory at a point in time when, like I said, it’s most vulnerable.”

I studied his expression, then looked at Miss Militia.

“It’s your choice.  You won’t like my demands.  They call for big changes.  But the alternative is an all-out war.  I think Miss Militia will agree with me here, if the PRT doesn’t hear me out, it deserves what it gets.”

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