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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Drone 23.3

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“Mr. Chambers?  Weaver’s here to see you.”

He called out from the opposite end of the room, “Send her in!”

I ventured into his realm, staring around me as I entered the space that was apparently the hub of costume design and marketing for the PRT.

The wall to my left had a map of North America.  Cities had been identified, with clusters of portraits around each major city.  Protectorate members on top, Wards on the bottom.

To my right, there were glass cases showing off costume designs, old and new.  A woman was inside the case, dressing a dummy.

Further down, there was Glenn.

Power was a funny thing.  I’d seen it expressed in a number of ways, with parahumans, but the unpowered weren’t quite so flexible.  There were people like Tagg, who relied on bluster and bullying, and people like Calle, with sheer confidence and a strict reliance on their own abilities in a particular field.  Piggot had been something else, someone who had known how to leverage people and situations, more like Calle than anyone, but with the added advantage that she’d had the authority to call in airstrikes and requisition Dragon’s A.I. driven craft.  Like Tattletale had said, Piggot wasn’t a genius, but she had her strengths.

I’d suspected that Glenn Chambers would be more like Calle, with a touch of Tagg’s tendency to bulldoze through problems.  Seeing him operating in his home territory, I wasn’t so sure that was the case.

Glenn Chambers wore plaid pants with red and green, and a pink dress shirt, His belt bore a buckle with the PRT logo on it.  His hair had changed too, parted neatly into what I assumed was ‘geek chic’, and the glasses had changed as well, with thick, round frames.  An ID card hung around his neck.  He didn’t fit any of those particular archetypes.

I looked at him and the person who came to mind was Skidmark.  Brockton Bay’s onetime loser villain, meth-head and drug dealer, later the head of the depraved, anarchist Merchants.  It was hard to pinpoint why, at first.  They were nothing alike, on an aesthetic level.  Their demeanor, their status in society, their appearance or goals, there were no similarities.

People milled around him.  Twenty-something men and women, who carried coffees and portfolios, cloth and paperwork.  Fat as he was, Glenn moved swiftly.  He sipped a coffee, handed it back to the assistant who’d delivered it, and sent her off with a command or clarification.  Men and women with portfolios were told to set up at his desk while he examined action figures in the light of the window.  His pudgy hands, almost childlike, took hold of an action figure by the arm.  He shook it violently, his cluster of minions backing away at the sudden flailing of his arm and the plastic figure.  The arm snapped off, and the toy went sailing through the air.  Someone scooped it up and brought it back to the group.

“Go, and hurry,” Glenn said.  “Tell them to fix it and cast another prototype before the run starts.  These are toys, they’ll be in the hands of children and collectors both.  The people who are buying these are fans.  What’s it going to say if their most immediate association with Esoteric is the broken toy sitting on a shelf?  It’s going to convey that he’s flimsy.”

The action figure people fled, and Glenn approached his desk, where the portfolios had been set out.  I approached, a touch lost in the midst of all of this, and nearly stumbled as another group entered the room, vacating to fill the void left by the group that was exiting.

“Weaver, come.  Look and tell me what you think.”

I approached the desk, and the group parted to give me space.  It was hard to put my finger on why, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were doing it at Glenn’s bequest and not mine.

The massive portfolio folders were open, showing poster images of various Protectorate members.  The leaders of the new teams.  The images were stylized, with splashes in pale watercolor in the background, an almost sketchier appearance to the heroes.  But the masks, necks and shoulders, the emblems and their characteristic tools were all done in hyper-realistic detail.  Chevalier, Rime and Exalt, with backgrounds in gray, blue and yellow, respectively.  There looked to be more behind them.

“They’re good,” I said.

“They’re crap,” Glenn countered.  One finger tapped on a blossoming of yellow and red watercolors at the tip of Chevalier’s Cannonblade.  “The last thing we want to convey are that things are a mess, and that’s exactly what the blobs in the background will do.”

I’d buy one,” I said.  “If I wasn’t already a cape, anyways.  Things are a mess.  I don’t see how you’d convince a non-cape me otherwise.”

Glenn sighed.  “We’re treading into philosophical and hypothetical territories there.  It’s a no-go.”

He turned to one of the artists,  “Something cleaner, tighter.  And don’t use a side-profile of Rime.  If she doesn’t want the post-effects, she’ll have to accept that her waist isn’t quite poster material.”

The poster people disappeared, fleeing Glenn’s presence.

I stepped into the gap, “I wanted to talk to you-”

“One minute,” Glenn dismissed me.  He turned to the group that had just arrived, “The interview?”

“It’s good,” a young man said, handing over a print-out.  “Chevalier is personable, but different from the old leaders.  Fits the ‘New Protectorate’ atmosphere you described.”

“Of course it does,” Glenn said.  He skimmed the paper, turning pages.  “I based it all around him.  Good call on the interview’s quality.  Quite good.”

Skidmark, I thought again.  Skidmark, who had built up a kind of momentum around himself, like-minded people falling into his orbit.  Despite being utterly repulsive and foul-mouthed, Skidmark had charisma.  People followed him.  Glenn wasn’t repulsive, but he grated.

Maybe that was part of their charisma.  Maybe the natural, casual narcissism, as much as it didn’t jibe with Skidmark’s meth-mouth or Glenn’s obesity, conveyed that they were the center of the universe.  Everyone wouldn’t necessarily be swept up in their delusion, but the fact that they drew in weak-willed sheep lent them a measure of clout that forced people to acknowledge them.  For Skidmark, it had been depraved homeless, addicts and thugs.  For Glenn, it was a cadre of college students hoping for a career in marketing, advertising or public relations within the PRT.

Or maybe I wasn’t thinking too generously about Glenn Chambers, given how pissed I was.  Maybe he wasn’t that bad.

“Well?” he asked me, as if I was making him wait.

I resisted the urge to react, forced myself to stay calm.

If he was really like Skidmark, in how he surrounded himself with loyal and terrified sheep and minions, there were two ways to mount an attack.  I could take the fight straight to him, like Faultline had with Skidmark, or I could strip him of his flock.

“I’d like to speak to you in private.”

“Impossible, I’m afraid.  I’m busy enough I shouldn’t even be taking the time to talk with you,” he said.  He offered me a smile, “But you’re my most interesting project.”

“It’s a matter of courtesy,” I said.  He wanted to play this on a political level?  “Please.”

Put him on the spot.  Force him to play along or look bad.

Glenn only smiled.  “Isn’t it just as discourteous to interrupt me in the middle of my work, when I’m already doing you a favor by meeting you?”

Fine.  He wanted to play it that way?

“Last night, Pretender got broken out of Dragon’s craft, our team crushed, and Rime shot.  I almost died.”

“I heard,” he said.  He looked at the woman who was just arriving with his new coffee, “Kayleigh, can you go talk to Mr. Payet?  He was supposed to call me in ten minutes and it’s been fifteen.”

“Yes sir,” she said, running off.

He either doesn’t care or he’s deflecting.

“Your insane restrictions on powers were a big part of that, Mr. Chambers.  The bad guys won, and it’s partially your fault.”

The heads that turned my way, silent and staring, only confirmed my suspicions.  The crowd of twenty-something assistants and designers around him were a defense system.  Not a power, but power in general.

“My fault? I wasn’t even there.”

“I asked to speak to you because I wanted you to know about the damage that’s being done.”

“Ah, this is about the butterflies.”

“It’s about a lot more than butterflies.  It’s the whole mindset.  The attitude of the heroes.  I’d talk to Chevalier, but he’s too busy.  I’d talk to Rime, but she’s recovering from being shot three times.  You’re the only other person I’ve met so far who really seems to be in a position to know what I’m talking about.  Besides, as far as I can figure, image and PR seem to be at the heart of the problem.”

“A complicated issue, something you could study for six years in college,” he said.  “But you’ve figured it out after two brawls?  The rumors of your intelligence must be true after all.”

“I wouldn’t make light of it.  Pretender got captured.  Either he’s in enemy hands, and there’s a body snatcher out there, or he’s dead.  Because of a fight we could have won.” I said.

“You’re sure?”

“There’re no certainties, but come on.  There’s got to be a point where the kiddie gloves come off and we actually put up a fight.  I saw the Wards struggling in Brockton Bay, as they faced pressure from outside forces, me included, and serious threats.  They got whittled down because, as powerful as they are, they didn’t get the chance to put up a fight.  Now the rest of us are starting to face the same pressures, and the PRT isn’t learning from past mistakes.”

“I’m trying to understand what you’re wanting to argue.  Are you saying our Wards, children with powers, should take your cue?  Fight more viciously?  Intimidate?  Be merciless?”

All your capes could stand to stop holding back.  Wards and Protectorate both.  At least in situations like this.  We lost Pretender, and we didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the Vegas teams.  That played a part in losing them.”

Glenn frowned, glancing at his collection of underlings.  “Everyone but Weaver, out.  I hope each of you can find something to do.”

The flock scattered.

“You already know what happens if you speak on the subject,” Glenn called out to them, raising his voice as they got further away.  “I personally know everyone you might try to leak details to.  It’s not worth the risk!  Discretion!”

A moment later, they were gone.  His office seemed so empty without the young professionals running around.

“We must have a talk about which things can be said when,” Glenn said.  He took a second to tidy up stray pictures on his desk.

“I did ask if we could speak alone,” I told him.

“And I said no.  I’m much too busy, and as much as I relish our future discussions, hearing how you did what you did in Brockton Bay, the Vegas Wards are a large part of why I’m racing to provide the public with our new, upgraded Protectorate.”

“Misdirection and deception,” I said.  “You know, I do know about subtlety.  I kind of ran a group that ruled a city.”

“And I’m sure you did an excellent job,” Glenn said.  “But you’re a dog in a duck pond here.  You’re out of place, you don’t know the usual precautions, the customs and conventions.  You gave evidence to that when you talked about the Vegas wards, something that should be kept more discreet.”

That would be his mode of attack then.  I was the ignorant child, who didn’t quite know how the Protectorate worked.

“I’m not sure what you want, Glenn.  You guys know I can hold my own, but you ignore the fact that I took down Alexandria, that I’ve fought against three class-S threats.”

Glenn sighed.  He walked around his desk and plunked down in his chair.  “You’re going to be one of the challenging ones, aren’t you?”

“I only want to help people.  The PRT and the hero teams are falling apart, but you’re more focused on testing me than letting me do something.”

“Chevalier would be a better person to talk to about this,” Glenn said.

“You want me to fight with nerf weapons?  I can.  Put me up against just about any Ward, I could probably give them a pretty hard time, whether I’m using regular bugs or just butterflies.  I could win against most.”

“Your strength isn’t in question.  We’re not sure you’re dependable.”

“I can show you that I can make the butterflies work.  I just want the a-ok to use my full assortment of powers against the real threats.  Like the sniper and whoever that woman in the suit was, last night.  If I’d had a real arsenal in reserve, I could have attacked either of them before they really get underway.  Give me the ability to match the strength of the tools I’m using to the strength of my enemies.”

“Beginning an endless loop of serial escalations,” Glenn said.  “No, Weaver, that’s not what I mean when I say ‘dependable’.  Wrong word.  We have footage of you snapping, shifting from calm to homicidal in an instant.  Was there motivation?  Yes.  But it doesn’t inspire confidence in your allies.  We wanted to see how you functioned in high pressure situations, your willingness to follow our restrictions, as unfair as they might seem.”

“Always testing me,” I said.  “Okay.  I listened, I followed your orders, and the test doesn’t serve a purpose as long as I know about it.  Can we call it quits, at least with the butterflies?”

“You didn’t follow the orders,” Glenn said.  When I glanced at him, he locked his eyes onto mine.  “You stung Bambina.”

“To save people.  She was going to pick us off.  Would you blame me if I picked up a dropped gun and shot someone who was aiming a surface-to-air missile launcher at me?”

“It’s a little different.”

“It’s an almost exact parallel to what I was doing!  She’s a living surface to air missile, only she ricochets all over the place, and she keeps going.  I didn’t even use a gun.  I debilitated her, maybe enough that Vantage could hit her with his bolas.  Nonlethal weapons, exactly like what the Wards are supposed to use.”

“The focus isn’t on lethal or nonlethal,” Glenn said.  “It’s on whether we can trust you to keep on the path you’re walking.  If you start taking shortcuts now, what happens a year down the line?  If we decide you can go all-out in one specific situation, does that open the door for another?”

“Maybe, instead of setting rules and restrictions in place, you could ask.  Talk to me like a human being, negotiate certain rules.”

“Rules you then break or circumvent.  You take rather naturally to it, and no, that isn’t a jab at your iniquitous backgroundIt’s a statement about your particular abilities.”

I grit my teeth.  “I’m good.  I have more experience than some of your Wards who’ve been on their teams for two years.  I’m versatile.  If you need someone in Vegas to deal with thinkers and strangers, I can hold my own, the embarrassment with August Prince aside.  If you need someone to track down groups like the Nine, I can do that.  Recon, assassination, communication…”

“The public’s watching this too closely for us to let you off your leash so soon after Alexandria’s death.  When things quiet down, it might be a possibility.  Our heroes in Vegas tend to be a little grayer than white, and an ex-villain would fit.  But not now.”

I exhaled slowly.  “You guys wanted a newer, shinier protectorate.  You guys need wins.  Give me the chance, I’ll give them to you.  But this isn’t me.  I’m not about butterflies.”

“We know what you’re about,” Glenn said.  He touched his keyboard, then typed out what I presumed was a password.  A second passed, “Look.”

He spun his monitor around.

It was me, entering the PRT office in Brockton Bay.  A video feed from a surveillance camera.

It was me, crawling through a window.  That would be from the night I retaliated against Tagg.  Odd, seeing how the bugs moved in coordination with me.  When I turned my head in the video, the orientation of every bug in the swarm changed in the same moment.

All around me, PRT employees were howling in pain, their cries silenced by the lack of an audio feed.  Either the camera hadn’t picked it up, or Glenn had muted it.  They thrashed.  One reached for me, for the me on the screen, and I could see how I moved out of the way without even glancing at him.  The swarm concealed me at the same time, briefly obscuring the Skitter in the video from both the man on the ground and the security camera.  When it parted, she had shifted two or three feet to the left.  A simple step to one side in the half-second she couldn’t be seen, but it misled the eyes.

And I couldn’t remember doing it.  I’d never consciously added the trick to my repertoire.

“If you told me that girl was a member of the Slaughterhouse Nine,” Glenn said, “I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.”

It was like hearing my voice played back to me, but it was compounded over several levels.  The movements, the movements of the swarm, it wasn’t familiar to me.

The head turned towards the security camera for a moment, and I could see the yellow eyes of my lenses in the midst of the thick black swarm.

“That isn’t marketable,” Glenn said, oblivious to just what I found so bothersome.

“There’s a middle ground,” I said.

“When I asked you to use butterflies, it was to break a habit, see if it changed how you functioned in the midst of a fight, just like I might ask someone to try on a particular outfit and see how it fits them.  I didn’t think it would throw you off kilter as much as it has.  But that isn’t a bad thing.”

“It is if it means Rime nearly dies and Pretender gets taken.”

“We collected the three members of Bambina’s group.  Not a complete loss.”

“They’ll get free and continue their rampage,” I said.

“Most likely.  We’ll strive to hold on to Bambina at the very least.  With luck we’ll be able to recruit the little prince, maybe Starlet as well.”

I looked at the video.  Glenn had paused it.  The momentary turn of the head, the yellow lenses…

“I can work on being a little less nightmarish,” I said.  “But there’s got to be a way for me to be more effective.  How long are these restrictions in effect?”

“Until you come of age and join the Protectorate,” a voice spoke from behind me.

It was Chevalier, accompanied by Defiant, my ride.  Chevalier wore his gold and silver armor, heavily decorated and etched until every square inch looked like a miniature work of art.  It didn’t strike me as something that would hold up to any abuse, but I’d heard how tough it really was.

“Until I turn eighteen,” I said, feeling a little hollow.

Chevalier approached.  “You murdered two people.  Three, going by your admission while in custody.  Two PRT directors, one major hero.  When Dragon and Defiant suggested we bring you on board, we were divided.  It was Glenn who offered the compromise that we ultimately agreed to.  This compromise.”

I glanced at Glenn, who shrugged.

Glenn?

“You have blood on your hands.  We need to know that you can hold back, that you won’t simply snap as you did when you were in custody in Brockton Bay.  We’re still wanting to ensure that this isn’t a long-term scheme on the Undersider’s part, as unlikely as it might be.”

That’s why you’re waiting two years?  You think that it’ll take that long to vet me, before you can give me actual responsibility?”

“It’s one consideration of many.”

“It’s ridiculous.  The world is going to end before I have my eighteenth birthday.  I’m giving you full permission to use me.  Send me to round up tinkers who could find the Nine’s pocket dimension I’ve been a villian.  I’ve got some reputation I can fall back on.  I can talk to people you guys can’t.”

“I won’t say this is set in stone,” Chevalier said.  “Maybe in a few weeks or a few months, we can discuss options.  For now, we’ll find you a team, get you settled.  Once we know where we’re situating you, we’ll find a different institution to keep you in.  Possibly low security, or in the Wards headquarters, depending.  The rest… there’s time to figure that out.”

I sighed, closing my eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Chevalier said.  “Really.  I was there for the fight against Echidna.  I saw the Undersiders in action.  I saw you in action, and I’m willing to credit you with the maneuver that turned the situation around in the final stages.  As long as your rap sheet may be, I’ve heard of the good you did.  It strikes me that you’ve likely saved one person from death and injury for each person you’ve assaulted, if I were to count what you did before Shatterbird hit your city.”

“But that doesn’t matter in the end.”

“It does.  More than you suspect, but you have to be patient.”

“You’ve faced a great deal in the span of half a year,” Defiant said.  “Take this for the reprieve it is.”

I grit my teeth.  No use.  The legitimate avenues were failing me.

I couldn’t put up with this.

“Then there’s one last thing,” I said.  “If I can’t help directly, let me help indirectly.  I can outfit your heroes.  Most of them.”

Glenn and Chevalier exchanged glances.

“We were going to raise the idea somewhere down the road,” Chevalier said.  “We can work out a deal, like we have with our tinkers.  An allowance, with payment for each costume produced.”

“I don’t want money,” I said.  “But so long as you’re offering, maybe we could talk about a workshop?”

I glanced at Defiant, “And equipment?”

Spiders moved through the back corridors of the prison.  It was a space where the plumbing and heating for the two interconnected prisons ran through pipes, and where the flooring was little more than metal grates, easily removed and replaced in a pinch.  Almost lightless, but that didn’t bother me.  My spiders could manage, and it only meant I had some time to hide them if someone entered and hit a switch to turn the lights on.

I’d thought of ‘Weaver’ as a hero on the straight and narrow.  That was out.

Being a villain with good PR just wouldn’t work either.

No.  A middle ground, then.

The spiders found a rat.  It backed away from the mass, hissed.

A spider dropped on it from above and delivered the first of what soon became a series of bites.  Fatal.

Working together, the spiders set to devouring it.  They weren’t natural scavengers, but meat was meat.  Meat meant the spiders could get the sustenance they needed for breeding.  Breeding, in turn, meant I could start mass-producing silk.

It was calming, a relief to do something concrete after an afternoon in Glenn Chamber’s company.  When the time came, I could carry any materials and the spiders onto the bottom of the Pendragon, moving them to my workshop.

“Hebert,” the guard said.

I raised my head.

“Mail day.  You’re a popular one.”

It was a bundle of mail, bound together with tape marked ‘USPS’.

“They’re already open?”

“Rules.  We don’t read it, or we’re not supposed to.  But they check there’s nothing illegal inside, and the dogs give it a sniff.”

I nodded.  She studied me for a second, then moved on to the next cell.

Mail from all around the United states.  From strangers, from fans.

Words of support.  Criticism.  Death threats.

I opened the ones from Brockton Bay last.

Taylor.  Weaver.  Skitter.  Is it bad that you’ll always be Skitter to me?

I could hit you, hug you, yell at you and hold onto you for hours all at the same time.  It’s fitting that I want to kiss you and throttle you at the same time because that’s what you were to me for a long time.  You drive me crazy and I can never understand what’s going through your head.

This isn’t easy.  I’m not good at this.  Not with where we left off.  It felt like an incomplete break, but I don’t think it would be much better if we were still together or if we’d broken it off completely.  I’m not the type to write heartfelt letters.

I hope they don’t read your mail and give you a hard time because of this.  I’d erase that part but I’ve already started over three times.

What ever am I even supposed to write?  That I want to yell at you because I told you I couldn’t be leader and you left anyways?  That you shouldn’t worry and Tattletale and I have it covered?

You’re an idiot.  I want you to know that.  You’re an idiot, Skitter.  You’re brilliant and reckless and I’m betting it makes sense to you to do this but you’re an idiot.

I’ll write again, when I can figure out what to write.

Grue.

I read it three times.  I could almost hear his voice.

I opened the next one.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! what the fuck???

There was only a little circle with devil horns at the bottom, in place of a signature.  I rolled my eyes and moved on.

Tt here.

You probably want to know the situation.  We’re all alive, Accord hasn’t turned on us yet, things are getting more exciting but we’ll manage.  Heroes are leaving us alone, like you arranged.  Trick will be to get Regent and Imp to stop prodding them for reactions when they cross ways.

Heartbreaker making initial forays, decided to pay a visit.  Can’t tell if he’s invading or after Regent.  Red Hands are a little more aggressive but not too bad.  Meeting for negotiations tonight.  Lost Garden approacheth, sending members after us and trying to clear way for Barrow to advance.  Annoying but no problem until they enter city limits.

Grue wasn’t okay at first.  Worst days since right after Bsaw.  He won’t say in his letter but you would want to know.  Got better when Red Hand and Heartbreaker came.  Busier, something to do other than wallow.

Regent&Imp constantly together.  Mucho annoying since you gone.  They’re testing the waters, seeing what they can get away with.  Will see how it turns out.

We got Flechette.  She a pair with Parian.  Lovey-dovey.  Best case scenario, really.  Not sure if you arranged that, good call if you did.  Flechette’s going by Foil now.  Likes those F names.

My head’s better as of yesterday.  Tryng to take it easier.

Managed to get hold of Rachel.  She said she’d send letter.  She can’t read/write but she insisted she would anyways.  Interesting to see how that turns out.

Everyone on edge of their seat waiting for Endbringer to hit.  Won’t be Bbay but we participating.

See you there, hun?

P.S.  To the asshats reading Taylor’s mail, there’s no codes in this message.  Promise.  Don’t bother.  You want to know what we’re up to, call me.  I’ll fucking tell you.

P.S.S.  Gathering all letters together, 12 hours ltr.  None from Reg, he said to say hi.  Meeting with Red Hands went ok.  No alliance but nonaggression pact mebbe

I took it in and sighed.  There were no less than three villainous groups converging on the Undersiders, and Grue had been in bad shape.

And yet it was still reassuring.  Things were, for better or worse, normal.  Much as I’d expected.

Atlas died.  I wanted to let you know.  Tattletale had him, but he wouldn’t eat or move.  We asked for him, and we found a place for him.  The guys say they think they know a good way to make a mold.  They’re covering him in brass.

A way of saying you’re still with us.  Take care of yourself.

-Char

It affected me more than I would have thought.  Not him dying – he’d never been more than an automaton, a freak of nature made to do little more than obey my commands.

But it was one more tie to the Undersiders that had broken.

The last letter was handwritten in a spidery script.

(She said to write what she said.  All of it.)

(She hasn’t said anything for a long while.  She growled at me when I started to walk away tho.  Oh here.)

I did what you said.  Is quiet.  Have tents and dogs and am hunting with dogs.  Hunting fucked up bull things.

(Bison)

Very quiet with no people.  Learning to cut them up.  (The bison not people).

People are cutting down trees to clear space around portal, but easy to stay away from them.  Simple way to live.  Nice but miss toilets.

(We all miss toilets)

Tattletale visits, brings dog food and tools, tents.

Is what I wanted for long time.  Except others, my people, but they are okay and I can take a break and ride for while if they get on my case.

Being around you wasn’t simple or quiet but things made more sense.  Your minion with dark hair said we need to be around people but I’m around people and still feel somethings missing.

Fucked up.  Makes me angry.  Tattletale tried explaining but whatever.

Going to take puppies to your place again soon.  Show the kids to them.  Might help.

You have plan, okay.  But if your plan means you’re thinking about fighting us you should know I am getting very good at hunting and skinning things.

Sucks somehow but can’t really understand why.  Maybe see you at next Endbringer fight.  We both stay alive.  Try hard.

That’s all.

(Signing off – Rachel and Rachel’s excellent minion/henchperson/letter writer)

Stay alive until we can see each other again?

Doable.

‘Try hard’?

Maybe that was the push I needed, such as it was.

I collected the mail, wedging it into a space between two of the library books on the little table in my cell.

Withdrawing a notepad, I started sketching out the designs I was thinking of.  Alterations to the costume, weapon ideas, tools and concepts.

Payloads for bugs?  Something I can drop?  Caltrops?  Something toxic?

Back to my roots, to where I’d been after my powers had manifested.  Only then, I’d been writing in a black speckled notebook.

Darker fabric?  Must talk to Glenn about costume style.  Butterflies are in, but can I complement them?  Need official word.

It was moronic to have a white costume.  Equally moronic to have butterflies.

What about containment foam?  If Dovetail can use it what does it take for me to get permission?

I’d pay homage to Atlas and push Defiant and Dragon to create something that would let me fly.  Pay homage to Skitter and settle on a middle ground in costume design, in combat effectiveness, weapons and utility.

I thought of Atlas, and added a note – jetpack?  With beetle wings?  Flight system?

I was nearly through the pad, and it was pushing four in the morning by the time I had the sketches and outlines at an acceptable point.

The costume Defiant and Dragon had given me was theirs, not mine.  The fighting style that had been dictated was Glenn’s and Chevalier’s.

This, this would be me.

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Imago 21.6

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Hate to do this with the weather like this, I thought.  I thought about the meeting Parian had arranged with Miss Militia.  But my hand is being inadvertently forced.

One more step forward.  One more phase in the plan.

The wind was worse than the rain.  I had to wonder how much of it was the aftermath of the Leviathan attack.  The city had been flooded, and those same floodwaters had evaporated into the air, trapped within Brockton Bay by the surrounding trees and hills… how wide-reaching were the effects of that one incident?

The downpour was steady, moderate.  The wind was what turned it into a barrage, a persistent pelting of droplets that moved horizontally as much as it moved vertically.  The noise of it, tapping against my armor and lenses, made for a steady patter.  My bugs were lurking and gathering in spots where there was shelter, and where things were dry.  With only the light of the moon above, these were the same areas that had shadows, by and large.  The masses of bugs only seemed to give those shadows substance, made them seem deeper, through the masses of dark brown, gray and black bodies.

Through other bugs I felt the movements of the wind, felt how it formed eddies, curling into itself when it met with dead ends, large or small.  I could, with a small number of bugs, feel how strong and steady the gale was where the buildings weren’t tall enough to break it up.  They helped me track the others around me, through bugs that took shelter in the drier folds of their costumes.

The Undersiders were here.  Minus Tattletale, we were all standing in the street a distance away from a squat building.  Regent was off to one side, ready to trip up our enemy if they made a sudden appearance.  Rachel hung back, corralling her forces, while the rest of us watched the building for any hint of trouble.

But Grue stood next to me.  I appreciated his presence, his casualness in light of the way we’d effectively parted.

I could sense the Ambassadors.  Citrine and Othello were there.  So were four new recruits: Jacklight, Ligeia, Lizardtail and Codex.  The fifth potential recruit hadn’t been so lucky.  The four of them stood off to one side, in the shelter of Citrine’s power, listening as she gave instructions.  The area around them was somehow faded in terms of the colors there, the area she was affecting looked as though I were viewing it through colorblind eyes that were capable of only seeing yellow.  Water wicked off of them as though they were waterproof, leaving them utterly dry even in the wind and rain.

Lizardtail’s power was pressing against me, even from the other side of the street.  It penetrated my costume to the skin, making my skin tingle and ensuring that I was always aware of where he was.  It was like the sensation of standing in front of a fire, just close enough to feel as though that heat had a physical form, just close enough to be bearable.  It wasn’t hot, though.  It was cold, if anything.

The rest of our forces were marshaled throughout the area.  A handful of volunteers from my territory, surviving members of the O’Daly family, had made their way to rooftops, stood at the ready with walkie-talkies and binoculars.  They’d have to make up for the fact that my bugs weren’t as mobile in this weather.

Tattletale’s mercenaries were here, though she was still largely incapacitated.  Minor, Brooks, Pritt, Senegal, and Jaw.  Regent had two followers, and I was doing my best to avoid paying attention to them.  It wasn’t the time to investigate whether he was controlling people or legitimately hiring them.

Rachel’s underlings were present too, hanging back enough that they were out of sight of the building.  Biter, Barker, the veterinarian, the boy with the eyepatch, others I didn’t recognize: a young teenager with darker skin, a tall man with a broad belly.  Each of them held a chain -the tall man and Biter held two- and each chain had a dog harnessed on the other end of it, grown to a fair size by Rachel’s power.  Only Bentley and Bastard were full size.

Inside the building, the Teeth were recuperating from a recent conflict with Miss Militia and the other heroes followed soon after by an attack from Parian’s stuffed animals. As a whole, the Teeth amounted to twenty or so unpowered troops, plus a half-dozen or so powered ones.  Even the unpowered Teeth had ‘costumes’ of a sort, were dressed in a hodgepodge of armor that made it hard to tell them apart from the powered members.

As a whole, they were bandaging minor injuries, preparing food, talking, joking, relaxing.  There were two televisions on, each playing something different, volume turned up, and the noise was discordant, even to the muted, confused senses of my swarm.  Porn on one television, I was pretty sure.  The other channel was either a cartoon or a news broadcast, judging by the words I was able to hear.

There was a fight in progress, a duel, between two unpowered members.  One was getting the better of the other, pounding his face in while others jeered and laughed.

One of the female members of the Teeth, I suspected Hemorrhagia, was cooking food for her team.  A distance away, Butcher was sitting on a stool, her feet up on a table, her mask off.  She had a cloth in hand and was wiping her gun clean, oddly disconnected from the clatter and chaos of her team.

I supposed the thirteen other voices in her head kept her company.

It had taken time to analyze them, to assess what each of the Teeth were doing and make a note of every individual part of it.  To do it discreetly, with no more than the bugs that were already in the building.

The Ambassadors were patient.  I got the sense that they could have waited for two hours in this wind and rain, and their only concern would be that their clothes and hair were a little worse for wear.  My teammates were a touch more restless.  Rachel moved from dog to dog, enforcing her authority, keeping them in line, and making sure they were listening to the underlings.  She was putting her trust in me, but I could tell she was getting tired of this.  Tired of the minutes passing with nothing happening.

Regent, too, was reacting.  He was maintaining a running commentary on everything from the weather to the surroundings, our allies and me.

“And… twenty minutes in, the rain’s still pouring, the wind’s still threatening to drop a house on our heads, and we’re still not doing anything.  I think our fearless leader needs to remember that some of us aren’t as good at being imposing when we’re drenched and standing around in the dark.  She does that whole schtick where being gloomy and creepy only make her scarier.  You know how scary I am with a wet shirt clinging to me?”

“Shut up, Regent,” Grue said.

“I’m just saying.  She could be more considerate.  Maybe we could wait indoors, and she could stand out here in the rain, using her power to investigate our enemies.  If she’s even using it.  Maybe she fell asleep standing up.  Been a hard week for her-.”

“Regent,” I said.  “Be quiet.”

“She’s awake!  Excellent,” Regent’s jovial tone was forced enough to border on the sarcastic.

“There are no vantage points that are also indoors,” I said.  “I’d bet that’s why Butcher chose that building.  The parking lot that surrounds it, the terrain, it’s all to her benefit.”

“So we pick a mediocre vantage point.  Or a shitty one.  So long as it’s dry.  Or, here’s an idea, maybe we attack.  We have them outnumbered, we have better powers than most of them-”

“We win absolutely,” I said.  “Or we don’t fight at all.  Too many of them have powers that could help them escape.  Vex fills an area with her power and runs, Animos transforms and runs, or Spree masks their retreat with his power.  This way, we take all of them down, or we at least affect them on a psychological level.”

“Then why don’t we have them surrounded?”

“Because we don’t need to,” I said.  “Keeping Butcher from picking us off is a bigger priority.  We do that by forming battle lines.”

“Huh,” he said.  There was a pause.  “Twenty three minutes, standing in the rain…”

Inside the building, Hemorrhagia called out, “…st ready.”

The Teeth collectively began to make their way to the kitchen, while Spree headed for the washroom.

There.

We’re attacking,” I said, and I spoke through the bugs that were near each of my allies.  “Be ready.”

The bugs I’d kept in reserve swept into the building, not from the direction our forces were standing, but from the opposite direction.  They flowed in, swarming over the Teeth.

Less useful bugs plunged themselves into the food.  They scattered money, where money was left out in the open, caught unattended weapons and pieces of armor and either buried them or started to drag them from sight.

“No!” Hemorrhagia shouted, trying to cover her chili with a lid,  “No, no, fuck you, no!”

Hearing the shouting, Spree stood from the toilet, only to find a handcuff connecting him to the towel rack.

“Fight!” one of the Teeth shouted, rather unnecessarily.  He was joined by others.  “Kick their asses!  Kill them!”

Spree managed to tear the towel rack from the wall and made his way out of the washroom, working to get his belt buckled, other armor gathered under one arm.  I was well aware of how costumes made using washrooms a pain in the ass on the best of days: getting everything necessary off, getting it back on again, attaching everything essential… Spree had the added issue of innumerable trophies and pieces of armor in his suit, all loaded down with spikes and hooks, and he was now in a rush, running forward into a swarm of biting, stinging insects.  He dropped one piece of armor, and bugs swarmed it.  He cast one backwards glance at the item in question, an elbow pad or knee pad, and then decided to leave it behind.

It was the little things that would deliver a hit to their morale.  Attacking while they were tired, spoiling a meal they were anticipating, throwing everything into disarray.  If they happened to come out ahead in this fight, or if any of them slipped away, they might return to reclaim their things, they’d find cockroaches had chewed through the cords and internal wires of their televisions, that pantry moths infested their food supplies, and every article of clothing was infested with lice.

And if they entered this fight mad, all the better.  It would mean they were gunning for us instead of running.

The first person out the door was caught by a tripline of spider silk.  Others trampled over him.  One fired a gun into the darkness beyond.

Wrong door, wrong end of the building.  And the door had somehow closed and locked behind them.

The powered members weren’t in that group, though.  As disorganized as the rank and file members were, the capes in the gang were only looking to their boss, gathering in the kitchen.

Butcher didn’t react as bugs bit and stung, and capsaicin-laden bugs found her eyes and nose.  Her skin was too tough, and she didn’t feel pain, thanks to Butcher twelve’s powers.  She was composed as she lifted a gun that would normally have been mounted on the back of a truck.  Without putting it down, she held it with one hand and donned her mask.

She turned our way, as though it wasn’t even a question.  A sensory power.

Butcher two, the ability to see people’s veins, arteries and hearts through walls.

She had the powers of thirteen capes, watered down, plus her own.  Some of those capes had possessed multiple abilities.  By power or by cunning, each had managed to kill the last.  This Butcher had the resources of each of them.

She led her group through the doors towards us, as silent as they were noisy.  I’d almost expected her to do the inverse of what she was doing and send her foot-troops in first.  Instead, she was the first through the doors, her powered allies immediately behind her.  Her foot troops were last to arrive, traveling around the full length of the building, swearing all the way.  They filled in the gaps of her group and gathered behind.

It was a different dynamic than some groups we’d fought.  These weren’t loyal soldiers or people fighting because they had nothing to lose.  They were opportunists, riding the coattails of the ones with the real power, hyenas picking at the scraps that were left behind after the lions had supped.

Spree was the first to use his power, and I got a sense of just how and why the group had arrived at this present strategy.  It wasn’t just that Butcher was dangerous enough to walk face-first into danger.  They had Spree to form their front ranks.

Four Sprees split off from him as he stood there, slightly hunched over as if bracing himself against recoil.  They were produced with such force and speed that they briefly flew through the air, stumbling slightly as they hit the ground running.  Three more Sprees were a fraction of a second after the first wave, with even more following a half-second behind them.

Fifteen or so Sprees in three seconds, before I’d even had a chance to call out an order.  Duplicates produced at the rate that a machine gun spat bullets.

They ran, some screaming, others swearing aloud as they closed the distance between our two groups, charging as a mass, limbs flailing, weapons-

Weapons?

It was hard to see in the rain, but the Sprees were all subtly different.  Some had knives or pipes they could bludgeon with, others had guns, and more had improvised weapons.  The mixing and matching of their armor was different as well.

There was a drawback, though.  Whatever they were, as solid and innumerable as they might have been, they were dumb, getting dumber every second they were alive.  He was producing a living tide of bodies, but they weren’t capable.  They were good for little more than sheer body mass and violence.

By the time the first ones reached us, they were barely able to put one foot in front of the other.  One reached me, swung a table leg at me in a wide, predictable swing.  I caught it, twisted his arm, and pushed him into a Spree that was stumbling forward from behind him. They both fell, and neither seemed to have the wherewithal to climb to their feet before they were trampled underfoot.

It was like fighting an infant with the size and strength of a grown man, except there were fifty or sixty of them.  A hundred?  The street was nearly filled with the bastards, from sidewalk to sidewalk, a mob between the Teeth and us.

They didn’t seem to be smart enough to realize they could actually shoot the guns, where the occasional Spree had one in hand, but the sound of a gunshot going off suggested that one had accidentally pulled a trigger.  The shot rang through the air, cutting through the thrum of raindrops striking ground.

Like the gunshot that marked the start of a race, it was the moment that brought the real fighting to a peak.  The Teeth and our side all jumped into action.

My bugs flooded into the group, condensing on the key members.  I couldn’t seem to touch the Spree that was generating the mindless clones, as his body vibrated and rippled, but I could attack Hemorrhagia, Animos, Butcher, Reaver, Vex and the underlings.  The press of near-identical bodies was almost useful, giving my bugs shelter and dry surfaces to move on.

Codex advanced, breaking away from the rest of the Ambassadors.  She was a pale woman dressed in a white evening gown, wearing a simple, featureless white mask.  A temporary costume.

She reached towards the crowd.  I could see the eyes of the Sprees lighting up as the effect reached further back into the crowd.  They stumbled, slowing, blocking the ones behind them from advancing.  Groans and grunts echoed from the crowd, all eerily similar.

Their powers were new.  Less than six hours old.  Accord had agreed to lend them to us, though their costumes hadn’t yet been designed, their powers not fully explored.  We’d offered Tattletale’s analysis of their capabilities in exchange.  She’d barely been capable, hadn’t yet recuperated from the migraines she’d suffered earlier in the week, and the use of her power had only brought the migraines back with a vengeance.

Still, we’d talked it over and agreed that the assistance of the Ambassadors as a whole was that much more useful in this scenario than a worn and weary Tattletale.  Tattletale’s feedback was essential, but we already had a sense of who the Teeth were, and Tattletale had been able to fill us in on the new Ambassadors just as readily as she’d filled Accord in.

Codex was a blaster-thinker hybrid.  Tattletale had speculated that the woman caused permanent brain damage and memory loss , briefly augmenting her own processing power in exchange.  The duplicates Spree was generating weren’t gifted with much in the way of brains to begin with.  Even a little damage was having devastating results.

Jacklight was launching forth the miniscule orbs of light, each growing as it traveled before stopping in mid-air.  Each warped space around it, accelerated movement, enhanced the output of certain forms of energy.  Where one of his lights was set next to a wall, it redirected one running duplicate into a wall.  Another, closer to the ground, swung a Spree that stepped over it into the ground face first.

It was Ligeia, though, who slowed down the enemy the most.  She created water out of nothing, geysers of the stuff that drove the mob back and sent them sprawling.

Then she sucked up the water.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but I got the impression she caught one or two duplicates in the process, drawing them into whatever place she’d taken the water from.

It took her a second each time she switched from creating water to drawing it in.  Clones slipped through the gaps in the defensive line as she changed gears.

“Rachel!” I gave the order.  Before Jacklight’s power makes it impossible to go further or more slip through.

Her responding whistle cut through the night.  Bentley and three more dogs were released, charging forward, leaping over our defensive line to crash into a sea of duplicates.  The duplicates were now too closely packed together to even fall down, and were literally climbing over top of one another.  The dogs stumbled or slipped as the Jacklights tugged at one or two of their legs, then proceeded to tear their way through the crowd.

They were brought to a stop when they found the second of the Teeth’s defensive powers waiting for them.  Vex’s forcefields were countless, numbering in the hundreds, each sharp enough to cut exposed flesh.  Alone, they weren’t strong, but the shards had a collective, cumulative resistance.  I’d hoped Rachel’s dogs would have enough raw strength to power through.

Still, we had the advantage here.  The tide of the duplicates was slowed as the bludgeoning power of the dogs crumpled them underfoot or crushed them against one another, and both Barker and Biter were free to join the defensive line.  I was able to step back and get a brief respite from the hand to hand fighting with the Spree duplicates.

“Kip up!” Rachel bellowed the words.

One dog leaped to the side, planting its feet on a wall, then leaped for the Teeth on the far side.

A four-legged creature just a little smaller than the dog lunged into the air, brought the two of them crashing down into the midst of the sea of tiny forcefields.  Animos.

Cape teams naturally found their own synergies and strategies.  This was how the Teeth fought.  Two defensive lines protecting the reserve forces while the truly dangerous members acted.

Butcher raised her gun, setting one finger on a trigger of her gun.  It started spinning up.

“Butcher incoming!” I called out.

She teleported past the worst of Vex’s forcefield barrier.  Flame billowed around her in a muted explosion as she appeared.

Butcher six’s explosive teleporting.  It’s weaker than it was when six had it, shorter range, and the intensity of the explosion isn’t nearly what it once was.

She pushed past the remainder, and leveled the gatling gun at the nearest dog, pulled the trigger before anyone, Regent included, could do anything to trip her up.

Ten bullets were fired in a half-second.  A moment later, the weapon jammed.

Wounded but intact, the dog turned and snapped at her.

She was gone a heartbeat before the teeth snapped together.

Butcher three’s danger sense.  Didn’t do him much good.  Driven mad, died in a suicidal attack against the Teeth.  Window of opportunity is lower, application limited to more physical danger.

She reappeared in a cloud of rolling flame, reversed her grip on her gatling gun and swung it like a club, knocking Bentley clean off his feet.

Super strength, courtesy of one, three, six, nine, eleven and thirteen.  Cumulative effects.  A little bit of super strength from multiple sources added up.

Animos was pinned by another dog, a yellow light surrounding both of the unnatural beasts.  He screeched at the dog, a high-pitched noise that made me wince, but the effect didn’t take hold.  Animos’ scream could strip someone temporarily of their powers, but Citrine was dampening the effect.  That, or there was nothing to take away from the dog.  The mutation was Rachel’s power, technically.

Butcher approached the pair, and Citrine abandoned her assault, letting up.

As Tattletale had warned Grue, she’d warned Citrine as well. Butcher’s power was too dangerous to muck with.  Grue risked absorbing the consciousness of the prior Butchers, and Citrine risked striking on the right ‘attunement’ and accidentally killing Butcher.

But Citrine was still a leader, didn’t waste a moment.  She gave the signal, shouted something I couldn’t make out, and her followers opened fire.  Jacklight and Codex lobbed their attacks towards Butcher, and the leader of the Teeth teleported away before either could do any real damage.  Ligeia produced a geyser of water that sent duplicates flying ten or twelve feet in the air.  Othello, for his part, was standing by, his hands in his pockets, his two-tone mask expressionless.

Which wasn’t to say he wasn’t contributing.  Hemorrhagia was enduring an assault from an invisible, immaterial foe.  I could feel him, feel the movement against my bugs, but the bugs didn’t settle on him, simply passed through.  He was only partially there, focusing on allowing certain aspects of himself, his weapon, to affect our world.

Shallow cuts appeared on Hemmorhagia’s face, chest and arms as she tried ineffectually to shield herself, and those same cuts exploded violently as she used her power to draw her blood from her body and turn it into hard, physical, cutting weapons.  More blood congealed into broad scabs that protected her and reduced the damage of the continuous slashes.

A distance away, Imp appeared, electrocuting Spree with a jab of her taser and bringing an end to the stream of duplicates.  Not that the duplicates were doing as much damage as they had been.  Like lemmings running off a cliff, many were scaling the piles of fallen clones and promptly running into Vex’s forcefields, only adding more corpses to the virtual hill of corpses that separated us from the other members of the Teeth.

Our two Strangers were doing much of the work in dealing with the back line.  That left us to deal with Butcher.

Bentley had recovered and charged her.  She responded by hitting him with a wave of pain, putting him off his guard so she could strike him aside.

Butcher oneInflicted agony at range.

Bentley was quick to recover, quick to push past the pain that she was inflicting and attack.  She prepared to strike him again.

Regent knocked her off-balance, and she was caught off guard as Bentley struck her with one paw.

She teleported out of Bentley’s way before he could follow through with the attack, appeared in between Regent and I, surrounded by our capes.  We staggered back as flame washed over us.

I felt my focus begin to slip, thoughts of violence filling my mind.  I itched to attack, to hurt her.

I sent my bugs in, but that was the one gesture that set the others in motion.  Without realizing it, I found myself charging her.

Biter and Regent were among those caught in her spell.  We attacked her as mindlessly as Spree duplicates had attacked us.

My knife stabbed at her armor, doing too little damage.  I stabbed again, found a vulnerable spot at the back of her neck, just below her hairline.  I dragged the knife through her flesh.

Without even turning to face me, she elbowed me, and all the strength I had went out of me.  I careened a distance away, tumbled, landed amidst Spree clones.

They clutched feebly at me while I reeled.

Lizardtail’s power pressed even harder against me.  I could feel the edges of my injuries tingling, the wounds slowly knitting closed.  Far slower than they should have been, given the earlier demonstration of Lizardtail’s power.  Either he was weaker, or her ability to inflict wounds that progressively got worse over time was taking away from the power of his regeneration.

Butcher had a grip on Regent, threw him into Biter with enough strength to take the two of them out of the fight.

Possibly enough strength to kill one, if Lizardtail’s power wasn’t able to outpace the internal damage done.

Induces mindless rage.  Power from Butcher Nine.  Very low range.

Inflicts wounds that fester.  Power from Butcher Four.  Less effect than Four had.  Far shorter duration.

She teleported.  I could sense where she’d arrived as my bugs died en-masse.  She was going after Rachel.

I had lines of silk prepared, did what I could to bind Butcher.  She struggled briefly, then teleported free of them.

Codex and Ligeia directed attacks her way, and again, Butcher disappeared before either could really affect her.

I felt something shift inside me, and the pain dropped to a fraction of what it had been.  I got to my feet.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Get the wounded!”

Rachel whistled, and the dogs converged on our location.  Butcher had appeared in the midst of the Ambassadors, but the variety and ferocity of their attacks had her teleporting from moment to moment, doing more damage with the flames that appeared around her than through any action she could carry out.

It seemed that even though Codex’s attack hadn’t connected full force, Butcher wasn’t keen on giving her an opportunity to deliver any more grazing hits.

Rachel stopped next to me, offered me a hand up.

“Fetch Codex,” I said.  “The Ambassador in white.  Butcher’s going after her.  It might mean Codex is doing the most damage.”

Rachel gave me a curt nod, and we charged, leaving Grue to help Regent.

Butcher teleported away as Bentley hurtled at her.  I reached for Codex, took her hand.  She looked at Citrine, as if asking permission.

“Go,” Citrine said.

I helped Codex up onto Bentley’s back.  She had to sit sidesaddle.  Those ridiculous dresses.  They weren’t meant for fighting.

But, then, I suspected that Accord was used to ‘shock and awe’ tactics, when he had to engage in a direct assault.  How many of his enemies were as tough, versatile or persistent as Butcher?

She’d teleported away, effectively leaving her team to fend for themselves.  Only Reaver, Vex and, to a lesser degree, Hemorrhagia, were in fighting shape.  Butcher was interested only in the fight.  She was the central pillar of the Teeth, and stopping her would stop them, and for much that reason, her team was a secondary concern to us as well.

“Run!” I told Rachel.  “Codex, hit her where you can.”

I was versed in fighting teleporting foes, had engaged in a similar conflict against Oni Lee.  Butcher wasn’t him.  She didn’t obsessively use knives.

No, she was drawing a configuration of metal rods and panels from her back.  Her gun abandoned in the course of the fighting, she was unfolding the device into a different weapon.

A compound bow.

I already knew which power she was using next.  Imp had sabotaged the gun, jamming the ammo feed, but she hadn’t been able to get at the bow.  It was massive when fully unfolded, nearly six feet long, not counting the extra length as part of the curve.  Large enough that it required superhuman strength to draw.

Less than a year ago, Butcher had been known as Quarrel, and as Tattletale told it, Quarrel had used a much smaller version of that same bow to kill Butcher Thirteen in a drawn-out fight in New York.

Regent wasn’t in fighting shape.  My bugs weren’t able to move fast enough to reach her.  Ligeia wasn’t in a position to hit her with water, and Jacklight’s orbs didn’t reach nearly that far.

If she started shooting, we’d drop like flies.

“Hit her,” I said.  “Codex!”

Codex reached out to use her brain-drain attack.  It was visible only by the effects it had, but I’d seen it move through the Spree clones.  It was slow.

Butcher had time to string her bow before she had to teleport out of the way, appearing on top of a building with a vantage point of the battlefield.  She knelt, touching the rooftop, and reformed the stone into arrows.

That power was Butcher Eight’s, except he’d had more reach, was faster.

Bugs clustered at her eyes, but she barely seemed to notice.  Nearly blind, she drew her string, pointed the arrow at us.

Before I could react, shout a warning, Codex hit me with enough force to nearly unseat me, despite how I was sitting astride Bentley.  Something else struck my shoulder with enough force to tear half the armor away.

The new villain slumped and fell, joined by the piece of my armor that had been shorn off.  An arrow neatly penetrated her neck.

Butcher drew her bow again.

She didn’t miss.  She did something to warp space or adjust the very fabric of reality, so her shots always struck the intended target.

She aimed towards my teammates, paused, lowered her weapon a second as if momentarily confused.

The bow swept in the Ambassador’s direction.

Then she turned, her body rotating, the massive bow and long arrow pointing at us.  Rachel and I.

“Go!” I shouted.  “Go, go!”

We could only get out of range.

How far could a bow like that send an arrow flying?

Apparently Butcher didn’t think it would be this far.  She teleported, paused, then teleported again.  A small fire erupted at each destination point.

Another teleport, and she killed a swarm of bugs I’d left lying in wait.  I’d hoped she would fall short, and that I could bind her weapon with silk.  No such luck.

“She’s following!” I shouted.

Rachel grunted a response, kicked Bentley to drive him to run faster, then whistled.

Her dogs broke away from the rest of the Ambassadors and Undersiders, trailing after us.  Butcher had to teleport as one spry, smaller dog noticed her and ascended to the rooftop to give chase.

Buying time, but she was closing the distance.

I drew from the silk I had stored in my utility compartment.  Coils of it, braided together into lines strong enough to suspend a grown man.

Hopefully strong enough to hold Butcher.

We had a plan, I just hadn’t counted on her being quite as tenacious as she was.  I’d looked at the teleportation power, had failed to account for what it meant in conjunction with her danger sense.

I formed the silk into nets.  I could guess at her next destination, track her possible arrival points.

Again, she teleported right on top of a net.  The flames destroyed it.

One net left.

We’d reached the edge of the city.  There were fewer buildings, fewer rooftops.  Wet clumps of sand flew behind Bentley’s feet as he dug deep to find traction.

Butcher appeared on one of the last remaining rooftops, killing a cloud of bugs.  Other ambient bugs clustered on her, biting and stinging, doing ineffectual damage. Too tough, courtesy of Butcher number… fuck it.  Didn’t matter, really.

She deemed herself close enough to take a shot, drew her arrow back, raising the bow so it pointed nearly at the sky.

The net closed around her, unseated her arrow from its mount.

Bugs wound more strands around her knees.  The wind pushed at her, and she tried to extend one foot to catch her balance, succeeded only in tipping herself over.  She fell from the roof of the five-story building.

She teleported herself right to the ground, cutting the height of her fall in half and freeing herself of the net.

It was still a hard landing.

“Get her!  Fetch her!”

Rachel nodded, whistled three times, pointed.

The dogs that trailed after us were quick to follow the order, snatching up Butcher.

She’d heal, was probably healing the brain damage Codex had inflicted.  Butcher was tough enough that the dogs probably wouldn’t do enough damage before she regained her senses.

I might have been wrong in that assumption, but we couldn’t afford to think otherwise.

“Go!”  I shouted.

We ran.  Rachel and I on Bentley, a pack of her dogs following behind.

There was no telling how much time we had.

We’d gone into this with one plan.  One solid way of putting an end to Butcher.  It was why we weren’t hiding in the safety of Grue’s darkness.

Though we were in less danger than we’d been since the battle started, my heart was pounding harder than ever.

“Stop!” I called out, to be heard over the wind.

Rachel pulled Bentley to a stop.  She knew what came next, gave a hand signal.  “Dogs, stop!  Rat-dog, forward!’

The dog that had Butcher ran on a little further, passing over a line of stones in the wet sand.

“Shake!”

Rat-dog shook Butcher like she was a chew toy.

“Good dog,” Rachel said.  “Drop her.”

Rat-dog dropped Butcher.

“Come.”

Rat-dog whimpered.

“Good boy, come.”

Tail between his legs, Rat-dog approached, passing over the line of stones in the wet sand.

Long seconds passed.  Bentley virtually heaved with the exertion of the run.

My eyes didn’t leave Butcher.

Butcher roused, and it wasn’t a slow affair.  One instant she was lying prone, the next she’d teleported, appeared next to the narrow, light-bodied dog and bludgeoned it, sending it flying.

“Dakota, go!  Bear, go!”

Two more dogs charged Butcher, drove her back.

“Stop,” I warned Rachel.  I lowered my voice, “She has that rage aura.”

It didn’t matter.  Butcher dispatched the two dogs just as easily, eyed us warily as Rachel commanded them to retreat.

“Good dogs,” Rachel said, as they hurried to her side.

My eyes still didn’t leave Butcher.  I watched, waited.

She didn’t understand what was going on, why we weren’t pressing the attack.

But she wasn’t confident either.

She strung her bow, as if testing us.  She started to create an arrow out of sand, condensing it into a more solid form.

Then she gave up, stepped back.  The hardened rod of sand crumbled.

“Stop it,” she said.

I shook my head.

She lashed out, hit us with raw pain.

In the agony, the feeling of fire running through my veins, I toppled from Bentley’s back.

I’d anticipated this, or something like it, knew it was temporary.  I could only grit my teeth and tell myself it was almost the best case scenario, even when it didn’t quite feel like it.

Rachel’s dogs bristled, but the pain dissipated, and she found herself free to command them to stand down.

It didn’t matter.  Butcher was on her knees now, face turned toward the ground.

“Don’t say anything,” I murmured.

With more focus than before, Butcher formed a spike out of hard sand.

She was murmuring to herself now.  Conversing under her breath with the voices in her head.  She sounded oddly insistent, plaintive in a very childish manner.

When the weapon was formed, she glanced skyward, murmured something indistinct.

Then teleported a distance into the air, directly above the spike.

There was a wet sound, a pause.

“Nothing?” I asked Rachel.  “You… don’t feel her powers?”

She shook her head.

“Then let’s go.”

We began our long journey back to the others, leaving Butcher with a spike through her heart.

No rush.  The fight was over.  One more foe taken down.

If the PRT happened to wonder if any of the Undersiders or Ambassadors had acquired Butcher’s powers, all the better.

“Mind if I come by tonight?” I asked, my voice low.

Rachel shot me a glower over her shoulder, “Why?”

“To talk.”

“We can talk now.”

“And so I can see how you’re coping with your minions.”

“Whatever,” she said.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a whatever,” she said.  “Do whatever you want.”

“Okay,” I said.

There was no more conversation as we closed the distance to the others.

They were more or less in ship-shape when we arrived.  Regent was propped up against a wall, but he wasn’t pulverized.  The only one we’d lost was Codex.

“Success?” Grue asked.

“Success,” I said.

The entire group, even the straight-backed Ambassadors, seemed to react with relief.

“Guess my sister has one more kill under her belt,” Regent commented.  “Fourteen voices in Cherish’s head to keep her company as she spends the next few centuries alone at the bottom of the bay.”

“Daddy!” a toddler squealed.  No older than three, the small child waded past a pack of dogs to her father, the tall, large-bellied man who I’d seen handling some of Rachel’s dogs.

Rachel ignored the reunion, greeted the dogs who milled around her, barking and whining in joy as their master returned.

“Food?” she asked me, almost as if it were an afterthought.

“Sure.”

“Someone make food,” she declared.

“I will!” a darker-skinned teenage girl declared.  She looked to be of mixed race, with brilliant blue eyes that didn’t match up with her brown, coarse hair and skin.

“Hamburger,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” the kid said.  “Anything else?”

“No.”

“Vegetables,” I cut in.  “Something healthier.”

Rachel shrugged.  “That grilled crap you made before, with the… long green vegetables.”

“The asparagus?”

“Yeah.  That was good.”

The kid looked like she’d just won the lottery, almost bursting with joy.

Barker, Biter and the veterinarian all set to basic chores around the place, as if it were routine.  No one seemed to begrudge the fact that Bitch was taking it easy while they worked, not even Barker, who had been somewhat prickly the last time I’d run across him.

Either she’d earned their respect, or they’d learned how stubborn she was.

“I wanted to talk to you about the future,” I said.

“Mm,” Rachel said, reclining.  The dogs were clustered around her feet, the larger ones laying their heads in her lap.

“It’s… problematic, having you patrolling the area out here, scaring the locals.  You know that, right?”

Rachel shrugged, apparently unconcerned.

I watched as the man with the three year old girl joined one of Bitch’s other followers, a woman who had apparently been babysitting the child.  He fished in one pocket for money, then handed it over.

His voice was quiet, a mumble, “When some’dy helps you out, what d’you say?”

“Thank you!” the toddler chirped.

The woman only scowled.  I saw Rachel out of the corner of one eye, watching.

The man made his way past the kitchen, nearly running into the darker-skinned girl who was already cooking, past Barker and Biter, before finding a place to sit with his child.

Despite his size, his presence, the man with the child didn’t make eye contact with anyone.  Almost flinched at it, even in the face of a hundred-pound girl.

Mentally disabled?  Developmentally delayed?  Or had he suffered a trauma?

Between the way the girl had been so overjoyed at the slightest praise, and this man’s attitude, I was wondering if maybe Rachel’s people were somehow just as damaged as she was.

“There’s one possibility,” I said to Rachel.  “A role you could play in this.  You don’t have to.  Just putting it out there.”

“What’s that?”

“The portal, it sounds like it’s going to be a thing.  There’s a whole world out there with nobody around.  People will be settling there, establishing a society.  I’m imagining there’ll be something of a society popping up around the portal, a mirror city to Brockton Bay.  But there’ll be pioneers as well.  People striking out on their own.  And some of the Undersider’s enemies are going to try to slip through, control things on the other side.”

“And?”

“If you’re willing, maybe you could serve as an aide to the Undersiders, but you patrol for trouble, track down troublemakers and fugitives.  That could be your territory, more than just the fringes of this city.”

She frowned.

“It’s just an idea.”

“It’d be hard to feed my dogs.”

“Manageable,” I said.  “Tattletale aims to control one of the fleets that brings supplies to the other side.  We don’t know how restrictive the government will be with the portal, or where ownership will lie, but… I don’t imagine getting dog food to you will be a problem.  And as the area gets settled, maybe you could supply trained dogs to pioneers or hunters looking to capitalize on the area.”

She didn’t reply, focusing on her adoring dogs, instead.  Two hands, no less than twenty ears to scratch in her reach.

“Think about it,” I said.

“Mm,” she grunted.

The man was playing with his daughter, who was squealing and reaching out to pet the dogs who were standing by, almost protective.

“They’re okay?” I asked.  “The dogs won’t hurt the kid?”

“None of the dogs at this shelter,” Rachel said.  “Picked them carefully.”

I was a little stunned at that.  To give that much thought to something like that… it wasn’t in her character.

“Why?” I asked.

“You said I should think about what people need from dogs.  If I’m going to find them homes, the dogs need to be able to live with families.”

I nodded.  There were more questions I wanted to ask, but I didn’t want to spoil the quiet relief I felt at hearing her say that.

We sat for ten more minutes before Bitch rose and began playing with dogs.  She incorporated training into the play, dividing dogs into teams and having them fetch in shifts, among other things.  I stood, joining her, and she handed me a ball.

There wasn’t much more conversation beyond that.  Most of the talking was reserved for the dogs.

Time passed quickly enough that I was surprised that Rachel’s henchperson announced that the food was ready.  Not everyone collected some.  Barker and Biter held off.  The vet had her hands full.  Rachel loaded up a plate with two burgers and a pile of grilled vegetables.  I took about half the portions she did.

It wasn’t very good, but the kid seemed so pleased with herself that I couldn’t say anything to that effect.  Rachel didn’t seem to care, nor did the big man and his daughter.

“Thank you,” the toddler piped up, sing-song, when she was done eating the bits of crumbled up hamburger and bun.

Rachel, for her part, only stood to grab a soda.  She mussed up the cook’s hair on the way back, as if she were petting a dog.

…Not quite a leadership style I might have suggested, but the kid looked happy.

I finished what I could, considered throwing the rest to the dogs, then decided it was best not to risk angering Rachel.

It was late at night, now, but I didn’t return to my lair.  We tended to the dogs, grooming them, cleaning their ears and brushing their teeth.  Certain dogs were due pills, and Rachel saw to it that they got the pills.

It was an endless sequence of those little tasks I’d always found frustrating.  Cleaning up, doing jobs that would only be undone by the next day, if not within minutes.  I’d always found them frustrating, found it tolerable only now that I could delegate bugs to many of them.

Rachel reveled in it.  It seemed to calm her, center her.

The others found their way to their beds, or made their way out the front door to head back to wherever they lived.  Many dogs retreated to the kennels that were set out for each of them, and Rachel took the time to lock them in.

The night was creeping on, and I wasn’t leaving.  I knew why, didn’t want to admit it to myself.

Exhaustion overtook me eventually, though I would have been hard pressed to say exactly when.

I woke in the middle of the evening, found myself slumped on a couch with a crick in my neck, a blanket over me.

Rachel was on another couch, and the blue-eyed girl, the cook, was lying beside her, her back pressed to Rachel’s front.

I stood, stretched, winced at the knot at the muscle where my neck met my shoulder.  The movement seemed to stir Rachel.  She started to extricate herself from behind the girl.

“Don’t let me disturb you,” I murmured, keeping my voice quiet enough that it wouldn’t disturb anyone.

She shifted position, keeping herself propped up, “You leaving?”

I frowned, “Yeah.”

“Okay.”  She settled back down, and the kid curled up against her.  Kid.  The teenager was probably older than Aisha or Vista.  I couldn’t help but see her as younger, because there was something about her that screamed ‘lost’.

Maybe that was the role that Rachel filled, here.  Forming a screwed up, antisocial family with those who had nobody else.  Damaged people.

I was okay with that.  I could believe that, even if she didn’t heal them or help them get better in any explicit way, she wouldn’t make them worse.

I felt like I should say something more, but I was tired, my thoughts increasingly occupied by greater matters.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” she said.

I headed to the door.  I was already gathering bugs to me, just to ensure I had a safe walk back.  A walk home in the dark would be nice.  Time to think.

“Thanks.”

I stopped in my tracks, looked back.

Rachel had her head down against the armrest of the couch.  I couldn’t see her through the other girl’s head.

But it had been her voice.

I revised my opinion.  Maybe they could heal each other, in their own ways.

It helped, as I stepped outside and started my long, quiet trek home.  I was riddled with doubts, with countless worries, but knowing that Rachel was in a better place was a light in the darkness.

I had let two days pass since my conversation with Miss Militia.  Dealt with the Teeth.  They weren’t all gone.  Hemorrhagia had slipped away, as had Reaver, and there were rank and file troops.  Parian still had some cleaning up to do, at the very least, but the Teeth weren’t the presence they had been.

Now I had to face everything I’d been dreading.  I’d spent time here because I was procrastinating.  Putting off the inevitable.  I couldn’t put it off any longer: if I didn’t bring myself to do it soon, it would only get harder to bring myself to do it.

Tomorrow morning, I thought.  I face off with Tagg and the rest of the PRT.

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