Sting 26.5

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Unholy screams and screeches followed us as we made our retreat, landing beyond the walls of Ellisburg.  In moments, Nilbog’s fairy wonderland had become a hell on earth, thousands of demons crawling from the literal woodwork to attack.  The ground split as subterranean creatures emerged, while others climbed out of buildings that seemed to have been built around them.  One was somewhere between a dragon and a gargoyle in appearance.  Big, leathery wings, with a gnarled body and a leering, fanged face.

The flying creatures, the gargoyle-dragon included, took flight perching atop the walls, then backed down as a barrage of gunfire and superpowered attacks assaulted them.

“Shuffle!” Revel cried out her lieutenant’s name.

Shuffle stepped forward and used his power.  Teleportation, but not teleportation of living things.  Not people, anyways.  Grass didn’t hinder him much.

He teleported the landscape.  A hill was bisected and placed against the ruined entrance of the facility.

His power was unpredictable.  There were metrics he couldn’t quite grasp or understand.  Teleporting things in sometimes teleported things out.  In attempting to shore up the wall, he created gaps.

But this was a known issue, one he’d been dealing with for some time.  Unsurprised, he fixed the resulting hole with two more followup teleports.  If any terrain was removed, it was inside the structure, unimportant.

Something inside Goblintown struck the wall, hard, and then started clawing at it.  I could sense it’s silhouette with the few bugs I had near the area.  It was four-legged, with all of the most effective parts of a rhino, bear and elephant combined, and it was big enough that I suspected it could make its way through the great concrete wall.

Defending capes had gathered in a loose ring around Ellisburg.  Revel and Shuffle were among them, which I took to be a sign that Golem’s group had handled whatever issues had arisen in Norfolk.  The heroes opened fire as the gargoyle-dragon thing explored the upper edge of the wall again, and it disappeared, only to make an appearance further down, trying to find a spot where the defensive line was weaker.

This was the worst case scenario, on so many levels.  We couldn’t afford to be dealing with this.

“Two more attacks,” Revel said.  “Just minutes ago.  Two different cities.  The situation in Redfield is still ongoing, which means we have three crisis situations set up by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“Four, if you count this,” Shuffle said.

The creature hit the wall again.  Shuffle shored it up, placing the other half of the hill against it.

“This is getting out of control,” Revel said.

“You’re implying we had control,” Jouster said.  He stood off to one side, with the defensive line of capes.

More out of control,” she said.

I’d been placed on the ground as the capes landed.  I was aware that someone was checking me for injuries, but it seemed secondary.  I stared up at the overcast sky, watching the rare raindrop tap the lens of my mask.  My mind was whirling while my swarm was feeding me information on the ongoing fight, both inside and outside the walls.

I stirred as I heard Golem’s voice.  He was sitting a short distance from me.  “This is my fault.”

“It was a lose-lose situation,” I said.  I moved my arm to allow the medic to check my ribs.  “Jack set it up this way.”

“I could have done something.  Said something different.”

“No.  We played the cards we had available, it wasn’t enough.  Bonesaw’s power and Siberian’s invulnerability made for ugly trump cards.”

“There had to be a way.”

“We’re coping,” I said.

“Are we?” he asked.  “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“We came through every challenge he set in front of us so far.”

“That doesn’t mean we’re doing okay,” he responded.

I didn’t have a response to that.

He stood.  “I’m going to go talk to some of the people in charge, find out where I can be useful.”

“Okay,” I told him.

He walked off, and I let my head rest against the ground.

Jack had a game plan here, and the more I thought about it, the more the ‘game’ seemed to be a farce.  He knew we were helping.  He was setting up situations where we had to help.  When we’d started winning, maybe even winning faster than he’d anticipated, he’d ratcheted things up.

Just as it had at the outset, the situation now seemed to offer Theo the same dilemma as Jack had aimed to provide early on.  To go after Jack or focus on bigger things.

It was measured, calculated, and it suggested that Jack was fully aware and fully in control of what was going on.

A cape knelt beside me.  “Are you alright?”

We’d only gone through a small fraction of the Nine.  Even assuming every group we had run into had been exterminated, there were so many left to deal with.

My strengths lay in problem solving.  Jack’s strength lay in problem creation.

We came up with a solution to whatever crisis he posed, he responded by creating another, something offbeat enough that we had to change things up.  Specialized groups of his pet monsters, two scenarios at once, and now we had new issues popping up before we’d finished with the last round.

The clones weren’t as fleshed out as the originals.  A little more reckless.  They were being set up to fail.  Were they scary?  Yes.  Were they effective?  Yes.  But we were winning, and Jack wasn’t using them in a way that kept them alive.  They were expendable assets.

It was all too possible that we could keep winning, if the game continued down this road.  We’ll lose some, but we’ll come out ah-

No.

Golem was right.  We’d achieve a steady stream of victoriesNothing more.

“Weaver?”

I pushed myself to my feet.  A cape put his hands on my shoulders, to try to get me to stay still.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I got the wind knocked out of me.”

“If you have an injury-”

“I’m pretty experienced when it comes to being injured.  I’m fine.  Really,” I said.

He didn’t move, but he did let his arms drop from my shoulders when I pushed them off me.  I found my feet, straightened, and felt aches all across my back where I’d collided with the ground.  I’d be one giant bruise tomorrow.

Then again, if we saw tomorrow, it would be a bonus.

The fighting against Nilbog’s creations was still ongoing.  The flying gargoyle-thing had made it over the wall and was being swarmed by defending capes.  Others were just now starting to climb over, and did their best to avoid the ranged fire that pelted them.  Eight or nine more creatures flew over, only these ones carried smaller ‘goblins’.  The winged ones were shot out of the sky, but many of the smaller creatures managed to survive the fall into trees and the midst of the heroes.   The ones that did went on the offensive with zero hesitation.

“Need the Azazels!” someone shouted.

I directed the few bugs I had in the area to attack, assisting with bites, stings and silk cord.

I would help, but I wouldn’t join the battle.  Not this one.

No, I’d used up every bug in my reach, and the damned goblin-things were too good at killing them.  Nilbog had no doubt designed them to live off of a diet of insects, to supplement their diminishing supply of protein.

I made my way to the Dragonfly, my flight pack dangling from the damaged straps I’d looped around my shoulders.

I’d very nearly told myself that we were coming out ahead.  Golem had been a dose of reality on that front.  We weren’t coming out ahead.  Jack was spreading fear, he was killing innocents, and he was whittling us down.  Doing so with such expendable forces cost him nothing.  Now, with Nilbog in his possession, he had access to that many more monsters and freaks that he could just throw away.

There was no guarantee we would continue down this road unfettered.  Just the opposite.  I fully expected Jack to turn to the rules he’d established at the very beginning and state how blatantly we were cheating.  Then he’d carry out his threat, murder those one thousand people, and move on.

I reached the console, shrugged out of my flight pack and sat down.

I pressed a button, “Defiant.  Not a priority, but get in touch when you can.”

It took a minute before I had all of the individual windows open.  I set it so I could track the feeds provided by the various members of the Wards and Protectorate.  Some were here, others were investigating the sites where more members of the Nine were taking action.

Redfield.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards were holding a defensive position, their backs facing one another.  Foil took a shot at a flesh toned blob that leaped between rooftops, then swiftly reloaded.  Skinslip.

Skinslip was a minor regenerator with a changer ability, allowing him to manipulate his own skin.  I could see him using it to scale a surface.  He extended that ability by flaying people and crudely stitching or stapling their skin to his own.  The regeneration connected the tissues and extended his power’s breadth and reach, but it didn’t prevent all rejection or decay, forcing him to replenish it from time to time.  He was a newer member, but they’d still cloned him.

A quick check of the computer noted the members of the Nine they’d seen and fought.  Three Skinslips.  Three Hatchet Faces.  Three Miasmas.  Three Murder Rats.

Hatchet face excepted, they were enemies who were exceedingly mobile.  Skinslip’s skin acted like a grappling hook, it let him climb, and it broke any fall.  He could also smother and bludgeon his opponents with it, if he felt the need.

Miasma was a stranger, invisible and undetectable but for an odorless gas he gave off that wore away at other’s minds, causing headaches, ringing in the ears, watery eyes and eventual blindness, memory loss and coma.

Murder Rat, for her part, was agile.

It meant they were up against nine opponents that were fast or slippery enough that they couldn’t be caught.  That group was supported by a trio of Hatchet Faces that could steadily lumber towards the group, keeping them moving, ensuring they couldn’t simply maintain a defensive position.

The camera images that Clockblocker and company wore shifted as they scrambled away.  There was a shudder as a mass landed in their midst.

Hatchet Face, dropping down from a vantage point somewhere above them.

Rachel’s dogs went on the offensive, attacking him, but their flesh was already sloughing off, their connection to Rachel shut off, their bodies disintegrating.

Parian’s creations were already deflating.

More range than the Tyrant had possessed, and the power loss was immediate.

Foil shot her crossbow, but it did surprisingly little damage.  Hatchet Face pulled the bolt from his shoulder with no difficulty.

“Behind us!”

The camera swiftly changed direction.  A Murder Rat had landed opposite the Hatchet Face, sandwiching the group between the two villains.  The camera panned, taking in the area, and I could see the silhouettes of other villains on nearby rooftops.  More Murder Rats and Skinslips.

Hatchet Face threw the last dog aside.  It collapsed in a slurry mess of loose skin and muscle.  The dog fought its way free, shaking itself dry.  Bastard was already free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Imp said.  “My power’s gone.

Mine too,” Crucible said.  “Turned off like someone flipped a switch.

I closed my eyes.  I was too far away to help, couldn’t think of advice to offer.

We’re not powerless,” Grue said.  “We’ve got strong costumes.  We know how to fight.

Tattletale’s voice came over the comms, “He’s strong enough to swing that axe through a car, tough enough you could flatten him with a steamroller and he’d get back up when you were done.

We run then,” Grue said.  “We deal with Murder Rat and then we scram.  Make some distance.

He’s not fast, but he’s not a slowpoke either.  You don’t have muscles like that and find yourself unable to run.

Be constructive,” Grue said.  “Solutions?  Options?  Any ideas?

Yeah,” Rachel said.  “This.

She wheeled around, pointing.  Both of her dogs bounded towards the Murder Rat.

I couldn’t see Hatchet Face with the directions the cameras were pointed, but I could see the groups converge on Murder Rat, bull-rushing her as a mass.

Murder Rat swatted at the dogs, slashing Bastard along the ribs, but Rachel stepped in the way, blocking the follow-up attacks with the sleeves of her silk-weave jacket.

Murder Rat, about to be surrounded, leaped up to position herself on a wall, slamming her claws through a plate-glass window to grab the inside of the windowframe.  Blood ran down her wrists.

Foil took aim and fired, and Murder Rat leaped before the bolt made contact.

She tagged the dog.  Mouse Protector’s power,” Tattletale said.  “Watch out.

A camera, Vista’s, focused on the dog.

“Hatchet Face incoming!”

Clockblocker, Crucible and Toggle turned around, but Vista remained fixated on the animal.

The moment the group was distracted by the incoming titan, Murder Rat appeared.  She drove her elbow into the side of Crucible’s throat, bringing one foot up to rake the side of his leg, but didn’t get any further.

Vista fired her gun straight into the villain’s back, then wheeled around and shot Hatchet Face in the chest.

Grue blanketed the area in darkness a moment later, the monitors going silent and dark.

I realized I’d been clenching my fists.  I loosened them, then opened and closed them a few times to ease the strain.

Escalations, I thought.

The situation outside was worsening, but the Azazels had mobilized.  They laid down the metal poles along the tops of the wall, opening fire with their lasers.  That done, they joined the fight against the dragon-gargoyle thing that was continuing its suicidal attack against the defending capes.  Chunks of it were being blasted and torn away, but it was doing a little damage to the defending capes.

The metal poles blossomed into the branching ‘gray blur’ nanotech barrier that would disintegrate on touch.

On the set of screens to my left, the Chicago Wards were joined by others as they ventured into what seemed to be a warzone.  Civilians were fleeing in a panic, while the heroes advanced against the press of the crowd with a steady, wary caution.

The nature of the threat became clear.  Rounding the corner, a single entity trudged forward.  It was tiny, and it bore a large white cube on its back.

To look at it, I almost thought it was an Endbringer.

It wasn’t.  It was only the second-scariest member of the Nine, xeroxed.

Eight Siberians.

One carried the cube, no doubt a container bearing the Mantons within.  The other seven followed a pattern, lazy loops that brought them back to the cube every few minutes.  They plunged through walls and into apartments and businesses, they returned with blood wicking off of their hands, feet and faces like water off a duck’s back.

I opened a communications channel.

“Weaver here.  Don’t fight.”

Wasn’t going to, but what the hell are we supposed to do?” Tecton asked.

Eight Siberians.  Even without any other members of the Nine on the sidelines, it was an impossible fight.

“You need to run.”

Run?  The civilians-

“Will have to run as well,” I said.  “There’s nothing you can do.  Accept it.  You can’t slow her down, you can’t deny her what she wants.”

We have to be able to do something,” he said.

“There are options,” I said, “But it’s not worth it.”

What?  Saving civilians is-

“You’d die,” I said.  “It would be a distraction, but you’d die.  The civilians would die all the same.”

What is it?

“She’s still subject to gravity.  Far as I know, she can’t fly.  You drop her into a hole, she’ll climb out.”

No point,” Grace said.

“No point,” I agreed.  “Unless you get lucky.”

Lucky?

“Drop the one that’s carrying the cube into a fissure or pit, if she falls far enough and the cube gets wedged in the crack, you’ll separate her from the cube.  You’d have to destroy it before another Siberian makes contact with it, kill all of the Masters that are generating the Siberians.”

It could work,” Wanton said.

“Unless she moves fast enough to avoid the fissure,” I said.  “Which she can.  Unless she’s digging her claws into the outside of the cube for a handhold, which she might be.  Unless another Siberian returns before you manage to break into that cube, which is very possible, considering that cube looks like something a Mannequin made.”

“We have Grace, and we’ve got Cuff.  We have Cadence and Enforce here, too.”

Enforce?  Oh.  N-Force.

“I don’t think it’ll be enough,” I said.  “There’s too many maybes.  You become a target of the Siberians the instant you try something, and you die if this doesn’t work out perfectly, which it won’t.”

You want us to let civilians die.

I stared at the screen.  They were backing away swiftly now.  A Siberian hopped onto the top of the cube, then looked directly at the group of heroes.

A moment later, she leaped off to one side.

Flaunting their invulnerability.  Taunting.

“Walk away,” I said.  “We’ll send others in.  Others who can do something.”

Who?”

I thought of how Rachel had changed tacks, ignoring the biggest target to go after the Murder Rat.  It hadn’t been much, but it had caught the villain off guard, baited the Hatchet Face into an aggressive charge rather than a slower, more strategic advance.

“Switch it up.  Go to Redfield.  You guys specialize in containing and crushing the enemy.  The Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards can head to your location at the first opportunity.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  My console was displaying an incoming message.

“Gotta go,” I said, closing the comms channel, hanging up on Tecton.  I responded to the message.

Defiant here.”

“Was just about to contact the Undersiders.”

I heard.  I’m already giving orders for them to back out.  Sent a helicopter in to pick them up, hoping it gets to take off again.”

“Helicopter?”

A.I. suits aren’t cooperating.  I’d send one against Hatchet if they were-“

Defiant?

“One suit just took off.  Reinforcing the Undersiders.”

I could sense the fighting outside.  My bugs were doing precious little against Nilbog’s rioting army.  The capes were whittling them down, killing them in droves, but it was time and effort taken away from containing the Nine.  Which was exactly what Jack wanted.

In the same instant Defiant had talked about the suit taking off, one of the Azazels had gone still.

Something was seriously wrong.

What do you need, Weaver?  I have things to handle.”

“Two years ago, I was told we couldn’t go after the Nine, because we can’t decode the portal without knowing the exit point.  They just used one.”

It’s in Ellisburg.

“It’s our fastest route to Jack.  How long does it take to tap into the portal?”

Depends on the means we use.  It doesn’t matter.  The portal isn’t accessible.

“We’re losing, Defiant.  We’re winning the fights but we’re losing in the long run.  We need to act decisively.  End this.”

You want to use the portal entrance, knowing where it is?

“Yes.  We just… we need capes that we can count on, on a lot of levels.  And I need your help.  Can you arrange for a sturdier ship?  The Dragonfly won’t cut it.”

Yes,” he said.  “That can be arranged.  I’ll have to pilot it myself.

“If this doesn’t work out, if we get overwhelmed, then that’s it.  We can’t afford the losses at this juncture. I get that.  But we can’t afford to not take this opportunity.”

Another pause.  Was he typing something?

“What’s the status?”

“We’re losing containment in Ellisburg.  Siberians are racking up casualties, and Redfield isn’t doing great either.  Your Undersiders will be evacuating if they can make it another two blocks to the helicopter without getting intercepted… I’m not sure what they can do against eight Siberians.

“More than the Chicago Wards can.  But that’s not enough on it’s own.  We need to call in the big guns.  We know Jack’s nowhere nearby.  It’s a safe time to put them into play.”

We have people on call, but we’re holding them back,” Defiant replied.  “Jack will hold his strongest cards in reserve for last.  Chevalier advised that we catch him off guard.

“There’s no point anymore.  Stop holding back.  Jack’s escalating when we do.  We established a tempo, he’s matching us.  Let’s go all-in.  We’ll get him to play every card he has on hand, and maybe in the process, we’ll see him make a mistake.”

He’s not one to make mistakes.

“We lose nothing, and we gain time,” I said.  “Which big guns do we have?”

The Thanda.  Cauldron has volunteered the services of their two elite members.  The Las Vegas Capes offered help, as did the Ambassadors.  The Alcott girl has her ability to foresee the future, but she’s trying to reduce the strain she experiences so she can offer more assistance at the most critical juncture.

“The fight with Jack.”

Yes.

“Okay.  That… probably makes sense.  Listen, I’ll handle what I can from here, take some of the load off your hands.  I’ll see if I can’t get recruits from among the capes I trust to handle their own.”

Do.  And I would appreciate it if you would consider me one of them.  I’ll be there with the Pendragon in twenty minutes, I just need to pick up the technology for hacking the portal.”

“Bring me some bugs when you come.”

“Yes.”

That said, he hung up.  No pleasantries.

It was a relief.  Down to business.

Fifteen minutes to go.

I waited impatiently for the capes in question to gather.  We needed good capes, powerful capes.  Too many were occupied elsewhere.

A whole contingent had deployed to Hyde Park.  None of my teams.  Dragon’s Teeth, the New York teams, the Texas teams.

I picked Jouster’s point of view.  I knew him, and it would afford me the most opportunities to see other capes and figure out their identities.

Population of three thousand five hundred, and the place was empty.  No victims, no members of the Nine.  No blood, no violence, no signs of any disruption.

But the first wave of capes had been whittled down, going silent on the radio before disappearing entirely.

Now, as the teams moved through the city, there was nothing on the video, which ruled out Nice Guy.  That left only a few options.

Stranger protocols in effect,” the captain of the Dragon’s Teeth reported.  “We’re going full dark.  Eyes on the lightning.

“Eyes on the lightning,” I responded.  For the moment, I was filling in for Dragon’s absence and Defiant’s preoccupation.  I knew about the Dragon’s teeth, had studied their operations book.  I wasn’t an armchair general, but I’d have to settle for being one here..

They were using those full-face helmets to block off all sight, to shut out all sound.  Their uniforms offered full coverage.  The only things they would rely on were video cameras on their helmets and the battle computers that were wired into their helmets.

It wasn’t enough, apparently, to see anyone or anything.  Things seemed eerily quiet.

Jouster jumped as one cape cried out.  The man’s back arched, first one way, then the other.

“Psychosoma,” I reported.  “Stranger four, master seven.  First squad, get guns trained on him, everyone else, scan the area.  Master protocols.  Confirm everything.”

“Don’t shoot without confirmation,” someone warned, off-camera.

“How the fuck are we supposed to confirm?  Let them attack us?”

Nobody responded to that.

Still, they obeyed the instructions.  Jouster was among the ones who turned to search the surroundings.  The point of his lance was visible in the corner of the screen, as he held it ready.

Nothing.

The man screamed louder.

He twisted, his ribs distending, his mouth yawning open.

It’s an illusion, I thought.

Kind of.  Sort of.

Not really.

It was really nice to think of it as a really convincing illusion.  That was a reassuring way of handling it.

Because the alternative was that Psychosoma was doing the sort of thing Labyrinth did, pulling otherworldly things into our reality to replace objects and people.

When killed, they’d revert back to how they’d been before.

The man continued to twist and distort until he wasn’t recognizable anymore.

The thing whirled around, reaching back with one claw, preparing to strike at a comrade.

A cape incinerated him before he could get any further.

The illusion was dispelled.  The wrong illusion.  Purple smoke flowed out from around the corpse of the young hero.

Nyx!” someone spat the word.

Jouster swiftly backed away.  Every cape in the group was wearing a gas mask, but that was not an absolute guarantee.

Two more people in the group began changing.

A mix of Psychosomas and Nyxes.  Who else?

“She’s covering the area with her smoke,” I spoke, over the channel.  “You need to clear it.”

“On it.  Cover your eyes!”  Jouster hollered.

Jouster raised his lance, then struck out at a light pole.  Lightning flared out, impossibly bright, and the camera briefly went on the fritz.

Somewhere in the midst of that, reality became clear.  Bloodstains everywhere.  Corpses were draped over every surface where the investigating capes weren’t likely to step – on car hoods and roofs, on light poles and in trees.

And in the midst of the crowd, there were the enemies, simply standing and observing.  Nyxes, Psychosomas and Night Hags.  The Nyx were women with pale red skin and black eyes, fog bleeding out of the vents at their arms and backs.  The Psychosomas were men, tall, bald and narrow, with pencil-thin mustaches and beards, spidery fingers and clothing that hung off them like it had been draped on.  The Night hags, by contrast, were women, dark haired, dressed in black, with skin as white as chalk.  Their dresses seemed to bleed into the surrounding landscape, so that everything within fifteen feet of them was covered in that crumpled-looking black cloth.

The Nyx clones and Psychosomas ran for cover.  The Night Hags were the cover.  D.T. soldiers and Wards opened fire.  Hoyden struck a car with literal explosive force, and sent it flying.  Ninety percent of the offense was directed at the Night Hags.

The women practically disintegrated as the bullets, flames and other projectiles made contact.  Their bodies shattered into thousands of black shards.

Moments later, they emerged from the landscape.  One park bench distorted and reconfigured into a new Night Hag.  That Night Hag was summarily slain, and reformed herself out of a nearby patch of grass.

Location possession, in a way, but it was shallow.  She was most effective with materials that stood above the ground’s surface.

In the midst of dealing with the approaching Hags, the D.T. officers and heroes were left to handle the victims who had appeared to be transforming.  When the smoke had burned away, one had been revealed to be fine, crouching with his hands over his head, the other was still afflicted.  They shot the victim and broke the effect.

More smoke was flowing in with surprising speed and quantity, erasing the images of blood and bodies.  The Night Hags were turning translucent, nearly invisible-

And they were gone.

Jouster moved to strike the light-post again, only for black hands to grab him and pull him into darkness and illusory fog.

The image on my screen distorted, then went utterly black.

There was a sound, like a slow, wet grinding sound.  Chewing, as if from a dozen mouths at once.

I changed camera perspectives.

“-break up the fog!”  someone shouted.  Two more of their allies were starting to change.

Someone threw a flashbang.  It didn’t disrupt the smoke.

What do we do!?” one of the capes shouted.  He was almost more frantic than the Dragon’s Tooth soldiers around him.

The sound of a gun being cocked turned heads.

The camera turned as well.

It was Contessa, accompanied by the Number Man.  Both held guns.

She shot one of the afflicted, then walked past the other, ignoring him.  She opened fire in the fog.  One clip, each shot aimed and measured, fired with a peculiar rhythm.  One, then two in rapid succession, one, then two in rapid succession.  She reloaded with an almost casual ease, then slid the gun into its holster.

The Number Man had her back.  He fired into the darkness three times.

It took two minutes for the smoke to clear.

Two Nyx dead.  Three Psychosomas.  Four Night Hags.

The doorway was already opening for the pair to make their exit.

“Dude, who the hell are they?”

“The bogeymen,” Hoyden said.

“Shit,” someone said.  One of the capes.

“They’re on our side?”  Another asked.

“Apparently.”

“Then why don’t they go after Jack?” a cape asked.

Because she fits in the same category as Eidolon, I thought.  Too dangerous to allow her to make contact with the man.

I wasn’t even that comfortable with them helping here, but there weren’t a lot of excellent options for thinker capes who could simply cut right through the layers of deceptions the enemy had been using.

I noted the capes who were present and still in fighting shape.  I’d hoped for Jouster.  No such luck.

I dialed Hoyden’s phone, watched her pick up on the video.

“Need a hand with something,” I said.  “I’m going to send a ship your way.”

Ten minutes to go.

The Undersiders stood far enough away from the Siberian cube that the camera couldn’t even make out the one who carried the thing.

“This,” Imp said, “Is your classic case of putting all your eggs in one basket.  Really.”

He finds the Siberians boring, I imagine,” Tattletale commented, over the channel.  “Before, they were an enigma.  Now they’re just… the same thing, over and over.  Tearing people apart.”

“Just tell me this isn’t going to be the moment of idiocy that ends the world,” I said.

No way,” Tattletale said.  “I promise.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

Ninety… three percent certain.

“That’s not good enough.”

Geez.  You’ve lost your sense of humor these past few years.  I’m kidding.  I’m sure.

“You’ve been wrong.”

I’m right.  I swear.  Now stop fretting!  Wait…

The Siberians left, engaging in another brief spree, attacking civilians.

“Let’s not wait too long,” I said.  I felt a sick feeling in my gut.  Had I been right to send away the Chicago Wards?  Seven or so people were dying every one or two minutes.

Wait…

The last group of Siberians abandoned the cube, leaving the carrier holding it.

Wait…

One more returned after a very brief trip, cast a glance around, and then fled.

Now.

Clockblocker fired his threads from his gauntlet.  They surrounded the cube-carrier, and he froze them.

Unstoppable force against an immovable object.

Which won?

The Siberian made contact with the thread and flickered out of existence, and the thread went limp.  The cube fell with a crash.

Others began to return.  Vista was distorting the cube, creating gaps, weak points.

Thanda,” Tattletale said.

Clockblocker activated the device on his back.  A dome unfolded around him, almost like a tent, though more rigid.

Rachel had already fled with her dogs.  Even so, it was tight, everyone pressed together inside.

He froze the dome.

I regretted that I didn’t get to see the follow-up attack.

The Thanda had a cape that was sort of in the same vein as Shuffle.  A teleporter of landmasses.

This cape didn’t need to teleport things onto solid ground.  In fact, he specialized in the opposite.

A large building was teleported into the stratosphere, where it summarily fell on the cube.  I could hear the crash through the cameras the Brockton Bay Wards wore.

Siberians down, I thought.

One more group to handle.

“Rachel’s on her way to me,” I said.  Grue was out – I didn’t trust him in a face to face confrontation against the Nine, and he hadn’t volunteered.  Imp was out as well.  Too risky, too much of a coin toss, whether her power would be seen through.  “Foil?  You know what we’re doing.”

On my way.

I’m coming too,” Parian said.

I’ll be on the comms,” Tattletale responded.

Tecton slammed his gauntlets into the ground.  Murder Rats were knocked down from the walls.  The streets had been shattered, and the dismantled craft lay in the streets, with one dead Miasma nearby.

Another slam, combined with an activation of both piledrivers, and he created a fissure, breaking up the ground beneath the two remaining Hatchet Faces.

They made steady progress anyways.  They were too strong, their stride too long.  Tattletale had been right.  Running was difficult at best.

Cuff used her metallokinesis to heave a small disc of metal.  Effective enhanced strength, along with the ability to control the rotation of the projectile, the ability to control the flight of it after it left her hand…

It slammed into a Hatchet Face’s collarbone, burying into his flesh.

He broke into a run, axe held aloft.

She prepared to throw another disc, only for a Murder Rat to leap onto her from above.

The metal blades of Murder Rat’s claws were swept aside as if Cuff had parried it with something physical.  Cuff settled for striking Murder Rat across the eyes with the razor edge of the discus.

Grace followed up with a crushing kick from a steel-toed boot.  A Murder Rat pounced on her, then vaulted off with enough force that Grace’s head struck the ground.  Grace didn’t get up.

Skinslips moved to flank, simultaneously reaching out with cloaks made of skin and shielding their real bodies with the amorphous limbs of stolen flesh.

Romp’s animated constructions stumped forward, providing just as much raw mass to defend against the reaching attacks.  They picked up speed as they moved, charging like bulls, catching the Skinslips well off guard.

The fight was well in hand.  Murder Rats leaped up onto building faces so they might be able to leap down and strike a vulnerable target, but Tecton made the entire neighborhood shake.  The Murder Rats were trapped where they were, clinging to the surfaces, unable to attack.

One caught a discus with her claws, then let it fall to the ground.

No.  There was one more threat.  Tecton’s helmet caught it on camera as it loomed on a nearby building.  A Mannequin.

Only it was three times the usual size.  Fat.

Cuff flung another discus.

It’ll glance off, I thought.

It penetrated.

Pressurized moisture exploded outward, crusted immediately into a small, spiky mass of ice.

Ah.

It leaped down, and the ground shook.

Then, casually, it grabbed the most unhurt Hatchet Face with both hands and whipped its upper body a full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around to fling him into the mass of defending heroes.

Tecton punched, his piledriver extending, but it did surprisingly little damage.

And with the Hatchet Face so close, the Chicago Wards were left powerless.  Only tinker devices worked.

The Mannequin charged.

Being a tinker, the Mannequin didn’t suffer at all in the midst of Hatchet Face’s power.

Direct your attacks on the Hatchet Face, now!” I ordered.

A piledriver-gauntlet hit him, followed by another.  Cuff used a discus to slash at his throat, but it barely cut.

He was still alive – his power wasn’t canceled out.

The Mannequin let blades extend from his wrists and elbows.   Not long, sleek, elegant blades like the original Mannequin had used, but heavy, crude ones, like axe heads.  Cuff screamed as he brought one down onto her armored shoulder.  She folded over in an awkward way as she collapsed to the ground.

He spun around, almost skipped to one side to avoid Tecton, then directed attacks at Romp.

She took shelter behind her no-longer-animated creation, and the Mannequin-thing turned away, directing his attention at Tecton, who was trying to bash the Hatchet Face’s head in.  It was a narrow window of opportunity, here.  The other, injured Hatchet Face was approaching.  If he didn’t manage it in five or so seconds, there would be two to contend with.

A heavy bullet caught the Mannequin in the back of the head.  Ice cascaded out the back in a giant spike.

Tecton used the opportunity to slam the upper ridge of his gauntlet into the Hatchet Face’s mouth and extend the piledriver full-force.

That did it.

More bullets pummeled the Mannequin.  One resulting chunk of ice partially encased Tecton, only to shatter when he pulled back.

Further shots followed, but they veered in awkward directions, sinking to hit the ground too early.

He has another power.  One that was being canceled by Hatchet Face.

Winter’s Power, I realized.

But Grace had powers now too.  She grabbed Hatchet Face’s weapon and swung it, was nearly trapped in the ice that exploded out from the wound.

Romp’s creation charged the ceramic man, and Tecton raised a shelf of ground around him to limit his movements.

He was being abused, battered.

Tecton’s head turned, and I could see Chevalier on the camera.  Revel was beside him.

Chevalier fired his cannonblade again.  One shot to polish off the remaining Hatchet Face that was closing the distance, and another directed at the Winter-Mannequin.  The Winter-Mannequin’s power took the impetus out of the second shot.

The Wards were moving slower now too.  Reacting slower.  Tecton barely resisted as the Mannequin seized him in one hand.

Didn’t even get up after the Mannequin virtually punched him into the ground.

Blades extended from his palms, the Mannequin spun like a top.

Chevalier charged, and the Mannequin changed tacks immediately, using a chain to draw himself up to a rooftop, where he clumsily climbed over the edge.

Ranged attacks didn’t work, and he was deceptively dangerous in short range.

Revel launched energy-orbs, but they barely seemed to touch the Winter-Mannequin hybrid.

Then Wanton closed the distance.

Ice chipped away, and the resulting chunks flaked away at the other pieces of ice.  It was soon a localized blizzard, and the large hunks of ice that clung to the Mannequin’s suit began to break away.

More ice appeared, but it, in turn, was broken by the yet-larger chunks that had been picked up.

The storm began to slow as the Winter-Mannequin concentrated his power on a smaller area.  The storm came to a standstill.

Chevalier raised his cannonblade to fire, only to stumble, dropping his weapon.

Miasma.

Indiscriminate attack, Chevalier!” I said.  “Revel, get down!”

Chevalier swung, very nearly striking Revel as she dropped flat to the ground.  He connected with something, and Miasma appeared in an explosion of thick green smoke.

The villain rolled, then disappeared again.

But Revel was following up, spitting orbs of energy out of her lantern.  Miasma wasn’t fast enough to dodge all of them.  He, and another Miasma behind him were burned, holes the size of softballs punched through their torsos.

Cuff was helping Tecton stand, using her metallokinesis to push at his armor.  Once he was standing, they worked together to outfit Tecton with one of the specialized shots we’d prepared.

The Mannequin wasn’t going to go down to fast moving projectiles or short-range attacks.

They’d take him down the same way I’d fought him ages ago.

Tecton used his piledrivers as a sort of gun, launching two cup-shaped hunks of metal with material strung between them.

The net unfolded in the air, and it draped over the Mannequin.  Spider Silk and metal wire interwoven.  It caught on the ice and the extended blades, and snagged on fingers and chains.

The Mannequin was still struggling to escape when Chevalier slowly closed the gap, bringing his sword down like a great guillotine.  He had one hand pressed to the side of his helmet.  Blood streaked down his arm.

Last group, for now.  I watched as they checked on the injured.  Chevalier’s eye had been stabbed, but not perforated, and Grace had suffered a heavy blow to the head.  Cuff’s shoulder socket had been broken by the Mannequin.

I almost hated to ask.

“Tecton,” I said.  “We’ve got a game plan.  Maybe a way to get Jack.  You up for helping?”

My team isn’t in good shape.

“If you want to stay, keep doing this-”

No,” he said.  “No.  Just… maybe my team should sit the rest of this out.”

You’ve all done good work,” Chevalier said.  “Above and beyond the call of duty.  You don’t even have to ask.

I’ll come on this mission, if you have a use for me,” Tecton said.

“I do.”

I’ll come as well,” Chevalier said.

“You’re injured.”

A pause, as if waiting for me to realize what I was saying.  This was the guy that had gone up against Behemoth face to face, scarcely an hour after suffering critical injuries in an assassination attempt.

I’ll come,” he said, again.

“Glad to have you,” I said.

It was suicidal.  Returning to Nilbog’s kingdom, where his creations had riled themselves up, hungry for blood.  I could only hope that their forces would be thinner towards the center, with the sustained attack on the surrounding capes.

I glanced around the back of the craft.

Chevalier.  Revel.  Hoyden.  Tecton.  Bitch.  Two dogs and Bastard.  Foil.  Parian.  Me.

Two Dragon’s Teeth to round out the group, so we had people trained in the use of containment foam and other PRT munitions.  Veteran PRT soldiers outfitted with the best gear the Guild could provide.

And Defiant up at the cockpit, rounding out our group.

I felt my pulse quicken.  My hand traced over the box that Defiant had brought, with all the bugs I needed.

Nilbog’s army seemed endless.  We’d only seen a fraction of it.  It flowed over, under and through the walls, in numbers that tied up the defending capes.  Our battle lines couldn’t hold a position for long before something threw them off.  Someone vital would get injured, or a creature would burrow out from beneath the ground.  Something would fly over to land in the middle of the back line, forcing a reorganization.

We weren’t being overwhelmed.  Any cape was stronger than the typical starved, desperate, reckless monster.  But this was definitely not helping.

A man’s voice came over the comms.  “Three new locations with attacks.  Coordinated strikes.  Harbingers sighted.  They are reinforced by Nilbog’s creations.

Bonesaw got something set up already, I thought.

Defiant was clenching his fist.

Who was the man?

“Doesn’t matter,” Defiant said.  “Our focus is here.”

“Fuckin’ right,” Hoyden said.  She turned to smile at Rachel.  “Right?”

Rachel only frowned, turning her attention to the dogs that sat between and on either side of her legs.

Hoyden punched Rachel in one arm, then grinned. “Right?”

“Right.”

“Right!”  Hoyden grinned.

Heavy metal boots banged against the ramp as our last attendee made his way into the back of the craft.

Golem sat down opposite me, silent.  He briefly met my eyes, and I nodded.

He didn’t react, casting his eyes downward.

It was nothing.  A minor thing in the grand scheme of it all.  I tried to tell myself that he was strong when it counted, whatever his doubt in the quiet moments.

The ramp closed with a bang.  Golem jumped a little at that.

It didn’t do a lot for my confidence.  I glanced around at the others, wondered who else had seen it.

The Pendragon took off.

And off we go, into the lion’s den.

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Sting 26.2

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It started at the center of town, a rolling plume of fire, sparks and smoke that seemed to almost lurch skyward, in fits and starts.  Each set of charges that went off pushed the flame up through the smoke of the ones that had come before.

Then the charges around the perimeter of the city went off, each focused inward.  The rolling mass of fire and superheated air at the center of the city shot through the cloud cover, and the entire sky turned colors.  Reds, oranges and yellows, interlaced with the gray and near-black shadows of the smoke.

Killington was officially gone, the buildings leveled, the bodies and bloodstains scoured from the earth.  Families wouldn’t get to put their loved ones to rest the way they wanted, but that was on the Nine, not on us.  There was no safe way to recover the bodies, to ensure that there weren’t any traps or time delayed tricks in each and every one of the corpses.  It also meant Breed’s minions were torched before they reached an adult stage.

The area would be marked off for a duration after this, in case there were any heat-resistant bacteria or the like.  Cheap, prefabricated walls would seal in the area, and roads would be put in to allow people to make detours.

Quarantine, I thought.  Every step of the way, we had to be on guard.

It was time to move on.  I looked to the book in my lap, turned down the corner of the page to mark it, and then stood, stretching.  It was a nice spot, a long porch just outside a cabin, one that was probably rented out at a premium price during the skiing months.  Far enough away to be safe, high enough to serve as a vantage point while letting me reach to the necessary areas with my bugs.

The entire porch was layered with pieces of paper, organized into rows and columns with some overlap.  The edge of each paper was weighed down by a mass of bugs, almost insufficient as the hot air from the quarantine measure blew past us.  Millipedes that had been moving across the various pages remained still, striving only to stay in place.

The moment the wind died down, I bid the bugs to shift position, carrying the pages to me, sorting them into the appropriate order.

I bent down and began collecting the pieces of paper.  I could feel the raised bumps on the pages as I brushed them free of specks of dirt and leaves.  Each set of bumps corresponded with a letter or punctuation mark, which had been printed over the dots in thick, bold, letters.

I gathered the pages into file folders, then clipped them shut, stacking them on the patio chair.  I made my way to the patio table, bending down to collect the pages as they made their way to me.  The writing on these was different; the letters were drawn in thick, bold strokes, fat, almost as if I’d drawn them in marker.  My notes: thoughts, things that needed clarification, ideas.

At the patio table, I took hold of a beetle and used its pincers to pick some petals out of the shallow bowl, grabbed the caterpillar I’d been using as a brush, then tossed the two bugs over the porch’s railing.  I tipped the ink from the bowl back into a small jar, then screwed it tight, sliding it into a pocket at the small of my back.

I was still getting organized when Defiant appeared, ascending the stairs on the far end of the porch.

“Quite a view,” he commented.

I looked at the resort town.  The fire hadn’t yet gone out.  It was flattening out, scouring everything from the area.

Almost everything.  One or two things would remain.  Probably until well after the sun went out.

“Pyrotechnical’s stuff?”  I asked, distracting myself.

“And some of Dragon’s.  Are you ready to go?”

“I’m ready,” I said.  I picked up the files, then passed them around behind me, where the arms of my flight pack pinned them in place.  I was left with only the book to hold.

He walked beside me as we made our way down to where the craft had landed. His suit had been augmented and altered, and he now stood a foot and a half taller than he had when I’d first met him.  Broad ‘toes’ on either side of his boots helped stabilize him, while his gloves ended in clawed gauntlets that extended a little beyond where his hands should be.  His spear was longer, and both ends of the weapon were heavy with the devices he’d loaded into it.

On his forearms, shoulders and knees there were panels that were like narrow shields, each three or four feet long, each marked with designs like a dragon’s wings, or with a dragon’s face engraved on the front, mouth open, with red lights glowing from within.  Wings on his back served less to let him fly and more to accentuate his movements, a more complex, bulkier system than I had with my flight pack.  Then again, I was only a hundred and thirty pounds at five feet, ten inches in height, and Defiant must have weighed six hundred pounds, with all that armor.

I’d seen him fight Endbringers in that suit, seen how he could move as fast as anyone who wasn’t a speedster, turning his spinning weapon and those shield-like extensions on his armor into a whirling flurry of nano-thorns, cutting through seventy to eighty percent of the Endbringer’s flesh before they reached material too dense to penetrate.

Which was when he’d use his other weapons.

I envied him a little, that he could take the fight to the enemy like that.  We were similar, on a lot of levels, but we differed on that front.  On a good day or otherwise, I’d never be able to truly fight an Endbringer.  I had to depend on others.  The best I could do was coordinate.

“The moment you or one of your teams lets something slip, this falls apart.”

“I won’t fuck up.”

“You will.  Or someone working under you will.  You’re good, but we can’t account for every contingency.  Something’s going to go wrong at some point.  The later that occurs, the better.”

“Yeah,” I responded.

“Every minute that passes is a minute where we can gather information, close in on Jack and figure things out.  We’ve got a lot of good minds and good eyes working on this, but there are a lot of bases to cover.  We let Golem get close, mop up everything we can and contain everything else, and then we take Jack down.”

I nodded.  “But we don’t want to stand back and wait when people could be hurt, or when every second that passes is a second that Jack could be making contact with that critical person.  Causing a certain trigger event, saying the wrong thing to the wrong individual…”

“There’s a balance.  I trust you’ll find it.”

“I hope I can,” I said.

We’d interacted less and less in recent months, and those interactions had been short and to the point by necessity.  It didn’t hurt that the two of us weren’t terribly social people.  We didn’t revel in small talk.  We could be adroit when circumstances forced our hands, but we could also stumble, say things in a way that was just a little off, or give the wrong impression.

I liked that we had a professional relationship, that we didn’t have other stuff getting in the way.  No pleases and thank yous.  We both knew what was at stake, we were on the same page, and we were doing what we felt we had to in order to get the necessary shit done.

“I spoke with Alcott,” he said.

I drew in a breath, then sighed.  “What does she say?”

“The numbers haven’t changed dramatically.  The window’s closed, but not considerably, which suggests a lot of things.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Ninety-three point eight percent chance the world ends,” Defiant said.

Up from Eighty three point four percentThat’s not considerable?

“She’s done us the favor of plotting the changes in the numbers over time.  When things stabilized for a considerable length of time, she scaled down from noting the numbers twice a day to noting them once.  Eighty-three point four percent, as of the beginning of the crisis in Brockton Bay, the Nine’s attempt to test and recruit new members.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Eighty-eight point six percent after they escaped the city.  It was quite possibly our best opportunity at killing Jack, and we missed it.”

I frowned.

“With each destination the Nine reached after Brockton Bay, the numbers shifted, and not for the better.  Half a percent here, two percent there.”

“Chances where someone could have theoretically killed him but didn’t.”

Defiant nodded.  “We ran things by the thinkers, and that’s the general consensus.  Low chances, but he had the Siberian with him up until the fight in Boston.

The same fight where Dragon and Defiant had taken on the Nine, and the Siberian had been killed.

“We had one opportunity there.  That failure is on me.”

He turned his head slightly, then amended his statement.  “On us.”

I didn’t disagree.  Denying that would mean denying my own responsibility in failing to kill Jack in Brockton Bay.

“Ninety-three point eight,” Defiant repeated, for emphasis.

“Six point two percent chance we’ll pull this off,” I said.

“It remains tied to him.  If we kill him in the next ninety hours, the chances vastly, vastly improve.  Depending on how we kill him, it could mean reducing things to a mere twenty-two percent chance or a one percent chance.”

I nodded, making a mental note.  “Theoretically, if we nuked the northeast corner of America…”

“Only a sixty percent chance of working, with some decimal points that Dragon’s urging me to include as I speak, and a high chance we set things in motion anyways.  Twenty eight or so.”

He asked Dinah, I thought to myself.  The same question I had in mind, give or take.

There were clues there.  “A nuke won’t kill him for sure.  Bomb shelter?”

“Possible.  Or he’s keeping Siberian close at hand.”

“And whatever role he plays… he greases the wheels, he doesn’t guarantee it.  You’re saying there’s a chance things get set off even if he dies.  If that doesn’t happen, then there’s some point in the future, roughly fourteen years from now, where things get set off anyways.”

Defiant nodded.

“Every time I think about it, I can’t help but think it’s a trigger event,” I said.  “Someone getting a power that finally breaks something essential, or a power without the limits that keep other powers in check.  But I don’t want to think along those lines if it keeps me from seeing the obvious.”

“Sensible.  But let’s not dwell on it.  The thinkers are handling it, as best as they can, and we have to devote attention to this crisis.  We’ve got all of the big guns lined up.  The moment things fall apart and Jack decides the rules of his game, Dragon is going to try and jam communications, and each of us moves in for a quick decisive victory over the members of the Nine on site.”

I nodded.

We were just arriving at the perimeter of Killington.  I could see some of the big guns Defiant had been talking about.

Two Azazels had set up thick hedges of that blurry gray material just behind the barriers the heroes had erected to protect themselves and contain the fire.  I also saw the Dragon’s Teeth.

Soldiers was the wrong word, but it was close.

Each wore armor in gun-metal and black, with parallels to the standard PRT uniforms I was more familiar with.  Their helmets, however, had three eyeholes, with blue lenses glowing faintly from beneath.  Two lenses for their eyes, a third for a camera.  The armor was bulky, offering thick protection around the neck and joints, with a heavy pack on the back for both oxygen and for the computers they wore.

They were, in large part, wearing stripped-down versions of Defiant’s outfit.  Sacrifices had been made to account for the fact that their suits didn’t render them seven and a half feet tall.  Each carried a sword and a laser pistol.

I’d never liked the cameras.  Heads turned as I approached, and I knew they were recording, tracking details about me and feeding them back to a main server, where they compiled information, discarded excess.

The combat engines that the Dragon’s Teeth were wearing were still in early stages, the data patchy, depending on the target.  The people in uniform had spent weeks and months training with the things, learning to shift fluidly between their own tactics and awareness of the situation and the data that was provided.  Protectorate Capes and Wards that were just starting out were being trained with the things, but those of us that had experience fighting tended to find them a distraction.

Useful?  Yes.  A bit of a boost, a bit of an edge.  But not quite at the point where everyone could benefit.

Not yet.

Not that there was much room for developing any of it if the end of the world went ahead on schedule.

I could see Narwhal, standing off to one side, two of the Dragon’s Teeth flanking her.  Masamune wasn’t present, but from what I knew of the guy, he wasn’t even close to being a front-lines combatant.   They’d recruited him from the ruined area of Japan, a somewhat crazed hermit, and gave him work in figuring out how to mass produce their stuff without the maintenance issues snowballing out of control, like tinker tech tended to do in large quantities.

Thanks to him, they had the Dragon’s Teeth, they had the combat engines and they had top of the line gear for various members of the Protectorate and Wards.

Of the other members of the Guild, the only other one who could theoretically be on the front lines of the fight would be Glyph.  I could only assume she was somewhere close.

The Thanda weren’t here.  If Dragon had managed to get in touch with others, they hadn’t yet arrived.  I could only guess as to what Cauldron might be doing.  Faultline’s crew, the Irregulars…

Too many maybes.  With Endbringers attacking every two months, a lot of people were busy reeling from recent attacks or preparing for the next.

I looked at the assembled capes.  The Undersiders, two Wards teams, the Protectorate, the Guild.  Clockblocker, Vista and Kid Win were in the other Wards team.  A little older.  Clockblocker had expanded his costume, adding some light power armor that seemed primarily focused on holding a heavy construction at his back.  Vista, for her part, was a little taller, her hair longer, tied in a french braid that was clipped just in front of one shoulder. She was packing a heavier gun.  Probably something Kid Win had made.

And Kid Win was hardly a kid anymore.  I hesitated to call him a teenager, even.  His rig looked like it packed more artillery than any of Dragon’s craft.  No neck, no arms, he barely looked capable of walking.  Just two stumpy legs, a simple gold helmet with a red pane covering his face and enough gun nozzles that he looked like a hedgehog.

“This is probably the last time we’ll all be standing here together before this ends,” Chevalier said.  “I won’t do a big speech.”

He turned his head to take us all in.  “I’ve done too many of them over the past two years, I’d only repeat myself.  Everyone here knows what we’re here for, why we’re doing this.  We’ve talked this over with each of you in turn and you don’t need convincing, you don’t need a reminder of what’s at stake.  You already know the role you’re going to play in this.  Words aren’t going to change any of that.  Good luck, be proud, and maybe say a little prayer to God, or ask for a little help from whoever or whatever you believe in.”

The instant he finished, the Azazels and other Dragon-craft began opening up, doors sliding apart and ramps lowering.

“The one time I do show up for one of these things, and no speech.  I feel gypped.”

I didn’t see who had muttered the comment, but I could guess it was Imp.

“No dying,” I said, as everyone started moving.

“No dying,” others echoed me.  The voices of the Undersiders and the Chicago Wards were loudest among them.

My teams gathered in the Dragonfly, while the Chicago Protectorate and Brockton Bay Wards made their way to Defiant’s larger ship, along with a contingent of the Dragon’s Teeth.

Golem stood apart, until my ship was nearly at full capacity.

“It all comes down to this,” he said, as I joined him at the base of the ramp,  “All the training, all the planning and preparation, studying about the Nine backwards and forwards…”

“Yeah,” I responded, as I stepped up to stand beside him.  Our teams were getting sorted out, finding benches and seats.  I reached behind my back to get the file folders I’d brought with me.

“I’m sorry if I was harsh yesterday.”

I shook my head and reached out to put my hand on his shoulder.  It was support, and maybe a bit of a push.  He made his way up the ramp.

Stepping inside just behind Golem, I used the same controls that managed my flight pack to indicate that the ship could close the door.

The Chicago Wards had seated themselves on one side of the ship, the Undersiders on the other.  Something of a mistake, that, because it meant they sat facing one another as we made our way to our destination.

A little awkward.  I sat with them behind me as I took the cockpit.  The thing flew itself, but it freed me to focus on other things.

Chevalier had talked about making peace with the powers that be.  I frowned, staring at the control panel as the ship lifted off.

Passenger, I thought.  Been a while, trying to figure out how to make peace with the fact that you’re there, that you’re affecting me somehow, taking control whenever I’m not in my own mind.  I think we’ve made strides.  I’ve sort of accepted that you’re going to do what you’re going to do, whether that helps me or hurts me. 

So maybe, just maybe, you could help me out today.  Whatever it is you do, whatever motivates you, I can continue to play along, but I need a bit of backup here.

My eyes fell on the bugs that crawled on the back of my hand.  Not even a whisper of a movement.

Yeah, didn’t think I’d get a reply.  Guess we’ll see.

The ship’s acceleration kicked in, and the bugs took flight.

My eyes scanned the screens in front of me.  I had camera feeds from Clockblocker and Revel, from Chevalier, Imp, and the airborne Azazel.  They all focused on a single area, each from a different direction.

A thick white mist lingered throughout an area.  It was early in the morning, and that might have played a role, but there were no people.  Even for a smaller city like Schenectady, that wasn’t so usual.  At nearly eight in the morning, there should have been people leaving for work, people running errands.

Desolate.  White fog.

“Winter’s here,” I said, speaking over the comms.  “Others to be confirmed.  We’ve talked about this one, Golem.”

I turned the computer off and strode out of the ship.  Rachel was waiting for me outside, standing guard with her dogs and her wolf.

Winter means Crimson too, doesn’t it?” Golem asked.

“Probably.  Probably means-“

We see you,” The words were like a whisper, barely audible.  See you standing there.  Oh, I do hope you’re not Theodore.  Tell me you aren’t, because it means we get to play all we want.”

“Screamer,” I informed the others.  Early Nine member, psychological warfare, pressure, distraction.  Sound manipulation.  Her power meant her voice didn’t get quieter as it traveled great distances.  That wasn’t the full extent of-

“Nice weapon,”  Her voice sounded in my ear, at a normal speaking volume.  I didn’t flinch.  I could sense my surroundings with my bugs, and I could hear things with them, hear how the sound panned out in a weird way over the entire area.

“You’ve got friends, Theodore.  I sure hope they aren’t planning on helping you.”

It was a sinuous sound, seductive in how convincing it was.  Every time she spoke, she sounded a little more like me.  It would be the same for the others, hearing themselves.

She was somewhere in the area.  The question was how she’d gotten a sense of our voices so quickly.  There was supposed to be a limit to how quickly she could pick up on that stuff just from overhearing us.

Confirm, team leader,” Golem said, over the channel.  “And can we use the password system we talked about?

“Queen.  Password system is a go.  What do you need confirmation on?”

Ring.  Enemy headcount.

“Stag.  No headcount given, I think that’s Screamer fucking with you.  Others include Winter, probably Crimson, and probably Cherish, if she’s finding us like she is.  All allied capes, be advised, we’re putting passwords into effect.  Stay calm, don’t panic.”

I do like it when they make it challenging,” Screamer’s whisper hissed in my ear.  It had changed in tone, pitch, cadence.

The Dragonfly took off as I made my way closer to the site.  Outside of the area, there were people reacting.  Some fled, others were taking cover, followed by disparate voices.

Haymaker.  I’m engaging,” Golem said.  “Recommendation?

Screamer interrupted, “Getting advice is against the spirit of this challenge, isn’t it, Theodore?  You are Theodore, aren’t you?  I think you should confirm for us.”

“Mantis,” I said, voicing the password,  “Don’t respond to her.  It’s what she wants.  Take out Cherish ASAP, if she’s here, Screamer after that.”

I’m hurtI rate second after the new girl who barely lasted a month?

Have to find them first,” Golem said.

I’ll help with that, I thought.  Then I stopped.  “Golem, the password?  Horsefly.”

Steeple.  And gauntlet, to reply to the last one,” his voice came over the comms.

I stopped.  We’d agreed on a simple password set.  There was a pattern, each corresponding to our powers and the various pieces on a chessboard.  Mine were related to bugs, his to hands.  It was abstract, something that tended to only make sense in retrospect.  The chess ones we knew off by heart, because they were the first ones we’d practiced.

And steeple wasn’t one of them.

“Steeple?” I asked.

I’m drawing a mental blank,” Golem responded.  “It works, doesn’t it?  Pinkie.

Screamer wasn’t stupid, but was she that smart?  The ‘stag’ should have thrown her off regarding our pattern.

“It works,” I said.  “Ant.  I’m close.

If that was Golem, he wasn’t as focused as we needed him to be.

I could feel the effect as my bugs entered the radius of Winter’s power.  She wasn’t concentrating it, so it was mild at best.  Slowing the movements of molecules, cutting down the ambient temperature, to the point that the moisture in the air froze.  It also affected my bugs.  Torpor.

For anyone within, it would include a mental torpor.

If the only members of the Nine who were present were Crimson, Winter, Cherish and Screamer, then this was a fight that involved attrition.  Attacking Russia in the wintertime.  Psychological warfare, emotional warfare, the effects of Winter’s power… it meant that Winter’s guns and Crimson’s power were the only physical threats.

They were going easy on him at the outset.

Golem was walking on rooftops at the edge of the effect, and he was surrounded by a nimbus of whirling material.  By Wanton.  We’d already altered all of the data on the group, to imply by news reports and Golem’s powers on the websites that Wanton’s telekinetic storm was Golem’s power.

The vantage point put him high enough that he could stand above the mist without being in it.  From the moment he engaged, he’d have to move fast.  He’d have to be indirect-

Weaver,” Golem said, interrupting my thoughts.  “Iron fist.  She’s offering to tell me where Jack is.

“We expected this,” I answered.  Iron fist was the ‘king’ in our chess sequence of passwords.  Crab.  Get the info and go.”

I’m not that foolish,” Screamer whispered, her voice extending throughout the entire area.  “Underestimating me, for shame.  I give up the information, and you leave me for your clean up squad to executeI want concessions.”

Concessions?”  Golem had left his channel open.

Let’s ensure your friends aren’t in a good state to mop up.  We’ll start with this Weaver.  Why don’t you cut off your toes, Weaver?  Keep you from running after us.

I frowned.

Oh, you’ve got an alternative?  Something you can cut off or throw away?  Yes.  Let’s put off the self-mutilation and have you throw that off the edge of a building.

Chances were good that she was in Cherish’s company, getting information from the source.

What if she tosses it, then walks into the mist?” Golem suggested.

No, not Golem.  Her.  Screamer.  An easier suggestion to acknowledge if I thought it came from a teammate.

Not buying it, huh?” he asked.  She asked.

She’d narrowed down my location, was refining her voices.  That had been convincing.  I had to move, make it harder for her.

I advanced, but I didn’t step into the mist.  The closer I got, the more of the affected area I could sense.  The torpor forced me to be efficient, to manage where bugs went and how, to check areas in a cursory way.  There were a number of people still in Winter’s area of influence.  People were standing utterly still, slowly dying as the cold ate away at them.

I want to kill myself.

My own voice, indistinguishable from the one in my head.  Fuck me.  She had a bead on me, now.

It’ll be painless, a way to avoid all of the horror, so I don’t have to watch my friends die.  So I won’t have to watch Bitch or Tattletale or Imp die the way Regent didSo I don’t have to watch Grue die.

No, a moment’s consideration and the spell was broken.  I’d stopped thinking of Rachel as ‘Bitch’ some time ago.

Aw,” Screamer whispered.  “Golem’s refusing my deal, and Cherish says you’re not playing along with the rest of it, so I’m gonna have words with some of the others.”

I raised a hand to my ear, opening my mouth to warn them, “…”

My lips moved, but my voice didn’t come out.  Bare whispers of sound formed, instead, even as I raised my voice to a near shout.

That would be the next stage in her tactics.  Isolate.  She had a sense of my voice, the way I spoke, and was canceling it out.

I signaled Golem with my bugs.  I drew a smiley face in the air with my bugs, crossing out the mouth with an ‘x’.

He nodded.

So he was on mute as well.

There.

In the midst of a small duplex, there were two young women huddled together on an upper floor.  There were computers arranged around them, and each was playing a different video.  In some cases, it was the same video playing, just from a different point in time.  Me in the lunchroom with Defiant and Dragon.  The New Delhi Endbringer fight.  Golem on the news with Campanile.

She had to be almost as good a multitasker as me to take all of that in.

Tattletale here.  Wormtongue.  Doing damage controlI’ve got your video feed, so you can spell things out for me if you want to give the signal.

I spelled out the word ‘thanks’.

My bugs had died inside the area of cold.  The people inside wouldn’t be doing much better.  I had to send another batch in.  This time, I knew the destination.

Cherish was acting as the eyes, Screamer as communications.  No doubt Screamer -all nine of the Screamers- was providing communications between this group and the nearest group of Nine.  She was talking, in a low and steady voice, but her voice wasn’t more than a murmur.  No doubt someone in a more distant location was receiving the intel at a normal volume.

And all of that raised the question of what Winter and Crimson were doing.  I scanned the building.  Nothing on the top floor, or the next lowest.  Further downstairs, a number of people were in the sway of Winter’s power, their thoughts slowed to a crawl.

The basement of the same building.  Winter, Crimson, and their hostages.  Some would be the ones from Killington.  Others were ones that had fallen into the sway of Winter’s torpor.  Crimson was feeding on them.

His schtick was a little bit of a vampire one, but the end result was more Mr. Hyde.  Big, muscular, fueled by rage and impulse.

The ones lying on the floor, cold, they’d be dead already.

I spelled out basic instructions for Golem, pointing the way to the building, drawing a cloud over the building to mark it.  He gave me a thumbs up.

Another arrow pointed him to the concrete rooftop behind him.  There, I drew out a basic layout.

And in that same moment, Cherish cottoned on to what we were doing.

“They’re attacking,” Cherish said.

Screamer’s voice reached all of us.  “Cocky, cocky.

Screamer turned her head, swatted at the bugs that crawled on her face, and then spoke, silent to the insect’s hearing.

Winter and Crimson reacted.

Sure hope your boy can fight.  Screamer was talking in my head again.  Not telepathy, only hearing a voice that sounded damn close to the one in my head.

“Fuck off, Screamer,” I muttered.

“Grue no!” Imp’s voice.  I flinched despite myself, before I remembered they weren’t anywhere nearby.

Screamer laughed, her voice floating through the area.

Crimson made his way outside.  His flesh would be engorged, purple-red, the veins would be standing out.  He’d be as hard as iron, strong.  His sword was as long as he was tall.  I couldn’t get a good measure of its appearance or quality.

Winter hung back with the hostages.

I wrote out the information with bugs.  Tattletale relayed it.  “Crimson Incoming.  QuislingGot confirmation and you’re good to go.  Six stories, elbow deep.

Golem turned his head, no doubt in response to the warning, then turned back to my diagram.

I’d given it a title, words running along the top.  ‘Slap them down.’

Golem’s uniform was roughly the same as the early incarnations, though solidified into a more solid color scheme, dark iron and silver.  The materials differed, but it matched.

There had been one or two additions, though.  The rigging of different panels included a frame that looped over the shoulders, much like a rollcage.  Golem paused, then drew out a panel, attaching it to the right.  He began to reach inside.

And a hand emerged from the center of the street, large enough that it could hold a car inside it.  Crimson paused as he watched it appear.

Then he moved.  It was the kind of movement that came with super strength, a bounding, powerful stride that could have carried him through a wall.  He had to pause before he reached the base of the building Golem stood atop.

The hand had emerged up to the second knuckle.

Abandon the fight,” Tecton’s voice.  “Run!  Move!  You’ve got six Siberians headed your way.”

No password?

“Tecton, confirm.”

Confirm what?

And a chuckle from Screamer, just in my ear.

Crimson ascended, climbing the outside of the building while holding his six-foot blade in his teeth, blood trickling down from the corners of his mouth where the blade was cutting into flesh.

My bugs died of the cold before I saw what happened next.  I was forced to send in a second wave to see.

The bugs were too slow, but the upper edge of the roof was outside of Winter’s realm of influence.  I could sense Golem reaching out with a hand of brick, a gentle push on Crimson’s collarbone with his left hand, pushing him away from the roof, away from any point where he could get a grip.

Crimson reached out and up for the hand, but the material broke apart as he put too much weight on it.  He dropped.  I’d bemoaned the effectiveness of rooftop combat, but Golem made it his own.

Golem advanced to the edge of the roof and created more hands, trying to bind the villain to the street.  An arm lock, a headlock…

Crimson pulled his way free of the asphalt shackles through sheer brute strength.  More appeared, but he destroyed them faster than they could be created.

Screamer and Cherish had to know what we were doing, yet they weren’t moving.  Cockiness?

No.  They had to have an escape route.

Except they didn’t have a teleporter.  That left only a few options.  Siberian wasn’t one I could do a whole lot about, but she’d be fighting if she were anywhere nearby.  The others…

I drew out silk thread in their direction.  Only so much to spare.  I knotted it between their necks and the computers that surrounded them.

Theo’s massive hand was still growing, the wrist exposed.  Almost halfway there.

Crimson ascended the building once more.  This time, he had support.

Together, we’d gone over the various members of the Nine, past and present, we’d detailed battle plans, the techniques we knew about, even contacted heroes who had encountered them in the past, for stuff that might not have gone on record.

But Screamer was called screamer for a reason, and there wasn’t a lot we could do to stop it, not unless we wanted to deafen ourselves.

Crimson was three stories up the side of the building when Screamer used her namesake power.  She could ensure that everyone within a mile’s radius could hear her voice as if she was right next to them, and she used it now, producing a high-pitched, full volume scream, right in my ears.  In Golem’s ears.  Everyone’s ears.

I joined Golem in doubling over, using my hands to try and ward off the sound.  It didn’t help as much as it should have.  It was loud, deafening, and it was leaving Golem vulnerable as Crimson closed the distance.  He wasn’t recovering fast enough.

Bugs flowed into Screamer’s open mouth, much as they had with Alexandria.

I gave Tattletale the signal.  All out attack.

This was it.  They’d been okay with a little bit of involvement on our part.  Tattletale had speculated they would.  There were only a few who were so regimented they would report it to Jack at the first opportunity.  Winter was among them, but she was largely in the dark, here.  Screamer wouldn’t fill her in if it meant spoiling the fun.

In truth, the only ones who wouldn’t let us get away with this were Mannequin and King.  King was distinct enough for me to notice, and Tattletale was ninety-five percent sure Mannequin would need more time to set up.  This was an approach we could only use with this first skirmish.

But whoever we were up against, the moment they started losing, the moment we actually pulled an offensive, the line was crossed.  This was an all or nothing.

Stinging bugs attacked Cherish, going for the eyes, nose and mouth.  Screamer choked.  Somewhere in the midst of it, they managed to give a signal.  It wouldn’t be Screamer.  Cherish?  Creating an emotional push?

Winter made her way out from downstairs, hefting a grenade launcher.

I spelled out words for the camera: Need Reinforcements.

The other teams are getting harassed, can’t close the distance.

I was going to spell out a response, get further details, but my focus shifted as Winter caught sight of Golem and Crimson and advanced.

Her dynamic with Crimson was one of synergy.  She captured people so he could feed.  He was the front line so she could safely attack from range.  She slowed down opponents so he could advance.  He was immune to her munitions fire, in large part.

My bugs swarmed her, but she was already concentrating her power.  Smaller area, greater effect.  She still held the people in the building in the area, but my bugs were lasting only a fraction of the time.  Seconds.  I activated my flight pack and approached.

Golem finished creating his hand, but there was a limit to what he could do with it.  It stood there, tall and useless.

No, his focus was on escape.  He thrust both hands into two different panels, slightly out of sync.  One hand was created, almost twice the usual size, and another was simultaneously created from the palm of that same hand, a fraction smaller.

Campanile’s idea.

Both hands thrust out at virtually the same speed that Golem might have stuck his own hand out into the air, but that speed was compounded by the fact that both hands thrust out in unison.  Golem set one foot down and vaulted himself up and out to land on the adjacent building, one story up.  He spun around as he landed.

Crimson gave chase, crossing the rooftop with heavy footsteps.

Golem jabbed out with one hand as Crimson bent his knees to leap.  The hand that appeared jabbed at the underside of one foot, lifting it.

It was the sort of trick that would only work once on an enemy.  The next time, the enemy would adjust, or jump off one foot.  Here, it caused Crimson to stumble.  He missed his mark, the jump failing, and he nearly ran straight off the end of the rooftop.  He struck out with his sword, slamming it into the brick of the building face opposite him.

Winter raised her grenade launcher and fired.  Golem managed to vault himself away as he had earlier, a shallow movement that was forceful enough to nearly launch him off the building.  He rolled on landing as the grenade disintegrated a corner of the building.

These two were warriors.  Crimson was a mainstay of King’s era, when he’d ruled the Nine as more of a brute squad, not dissimilar to the Teeth back in Brockton Bay.  I had trouble marking why Winter had been recruited, but it likely had more to do with how she was off the battlefield, her predilections for torturing people she’d caught in her torpor.

I reached the edge of the battlefield.  My bugs streamed forth, a silk cord trailing between and behind them.  The silk streamed out from the spinning spool at my belt.  Hundreds of feet of material, and it extended out towards Winter.

It was only a matter of feet from her when she jumped, startled, leaping to one side.  I missed, and my bugs were dying in a matter of seconds.  The cord went slack.

A moment later, she was looking around, confused.

Cherish, I thought.  She alerted her, a burst of alarm.

It didn’t matter.  My swarm approached from the other direction, finding and picking up the dropped cord.  Moving them within Winter’s effect range was a matter of relay, handing off to fresh bugs as they died.  Slow but steady progress.

The moment the silk thread was around Winter’s neck, I dropped down to the edge of the rooftop, and used the mechanical arms on my flight pack to reel in the cord.

Darwin’s spider silk.  Stronger than kevlar, a narrow cord of it made for a thin, almost unbreakable cord.  The noose cut into her neck, and my arms and legs provided leverage to keep me still as the combined efforts of the mechanical arms provided the strength.

When she reached the base of the building I stood on, she was lifted off the ground.  I shifted my position to improve my leverage and waited, hiding.

I could barely tell in the midst of her power, but I sensed her raising her arm.  Raising the grenade launcher.

Nets of spider silk peeled away from the gray-white portions of my costume as my bugs pulled them free.  I drew it out, connected the narrow sheets with knots of more silk.

It moved into place just in time to catch the projectile out of the air.

Golem managed to find a moment to use his power.  A hand of stone struck the grenade launcher from Winter’s hands.

He was holding his own against Crimson, who was adapting.  Golem thrust one hand into his armor to create a hand beneath Crimson, and the villain leaped closer, forcing Golem to vault himself away and maintain a safe distance.  The sword swipe that followed after Golem’s retreat passed within a foot of the hero.

Wanton, surrounding Golem, advanced on Crimson, and Golem tossed out a bag.

Wanton took hold of the bag and emptied it of its contents.  Razor blades, caltrops, hooks and my threads joined the miniature maelstrom, and Crimson was slowly bound.  He tore some free, but it found its way into his flesh again a moment later.

Then Golem slid his right hand into his armor.  Crimson leaped in anticipation of an imminent attack, landed, and then glanced back at the point where he’d come.

Nothing.

Golem continued sliding his hand into his armor, slow, inexorable.

Crimson charged, and Golem backed away, using his free hand to erect barriers.  Wanton ran defense, and Crimson stumbled.

A rumble marked Golem’s real direction of attack.  A second hand, down on the street below, gripping the large, six-story tower he’d created earlier in the fight, pulling it down.

It toppled on top of the building that Winter and Crimson had emerged from.

Toppled towards Screamer and Cherish.

In that same moment, Chuckles made an appearance.  He moved so fast it was almost as though he teleported, appearing beside the two girls.  My bugs barely had time to make contact and try to get a sense of him before he was moving again, holding the two villains this time.

They jerked to a stop.  I felt a fraction of the same confusion Chuckles no doubt did.  I sensed his arms, extended to ridiculous lengths.  He realized they were caught, bound to the computers.  Too entangled to take along.

And then he was gone, out of the building as the hand struck home.  Two floors crushed, the two villains crushed with them.

Tecton had provided the calculations on what the building could withstand, I’d provided the general data and information on where the hostages were.  The damage was controlled, the hand crashing a specific, certain distance into the building before coming to a halt.

Bitch and Foil tried to intercept Chuckles just now as he left the city.  He escaped, but Foil hit him with one shot,” Tattletale said.

“Right,” I said, even as I swore to myself.  Shit, shit shit shit.

Far too soon for Jack to get a report on the fact that we’d helped.

Chuckles can’t talk,” Tattletale said.  “He laughs, but he can’t talk.

I shook my head.  Couldn’t worry about that right now.

Crimson was only staring at the wreckage.  He mumbled something around a bloated tongue.

Does he think Winter’s still in there?

Then Crimson charged Golem once again.

Golem had both hands free, and he used the same double-hand technique to strike again.  A second hand, sprouting from the first, which emerged from the rooftop in turn.  The hands caught Crimson in the side of the leg, slamming into the knee, using the curve of the thumb to catch the leg and limit the range of movement.

Strong as Crimson was, he was still bound by physics and general physical limitations.  Being struck in the knees hurt, and he still needed to maintain a sense of balance.  He toppled.

Another double-hand strike, and Golem caught Crimson in the groin as he landed on his hands and feet, shoved him off to the right.

Two more strikes, this time not doubled-up, catching Crimson in the left arm and left leg, respectively, keeping him off-balance.

The key was to deny leverage.

An arm looped over one leg and one arm, binding them to the rooftop.  Crimson tore free with little effort, but the act meant he shifted his weight to one side.  Golem capitalized on it with another double-speed strike to his side, pushing in the same direction the blood-gorged killer was already moving.  That was followed in turn by one larger hand, moving slower, to scoop Crimson up and tip him off the edge of the rooftop.

Crimson fell.  Not a fatal fall, but it would hurt some.

A gauntlet of concrete seized the large hand Golem had just created and tore it free of the rooftop, then let it roll free to fall right on top of Crimson.

With the villain in an alley, the ensuing takedown was just as brutal and tenacious as before, with the added advantage that there were walls on either side to strike from.  Hands struck out, and they remained there.  As the villain was denied any footing, any balance, the hands around him increased in number, folding around him, sliding into gaps.

It was a parallel to Kaiser’s pyramid of blades technique, that he’d used to try to entrap Lung.  I’d passed it on to Golem, but I hadn’t told him the source.  I got the sense he wouldn’t appreciate it.

I turned my attention to Winter, who dangled beneath me.  She’d gone silent and still.  I continued to wait, but I raised one hand to my ear.  “Tattletale?  All four are down.”

I could speak.  A benefit to Screamer being dead.

Good.  Too soon to tell if Jack’s got wind of what you’re doingBut if Chuckles passes on word, or if there’s a Nice Guy in the area…

“I wouldn’t think he’d use the same guy twice in a row.”

No,” Tattletale agreed.  “The numbers fit, makes sense he’d start with four with a fifth as backup, considering how he can scale up the numbers in successive attacks.  Still-

“There was no graceful way to do it with Cherish there, and I couldn’t not help.  Golem was incapacitated.”

I’ll let Chevalier know what happened?” she made it a question.

I sighed.  No point in keeping secrets amongst ourselves.

“Do.  And send Foil here,” I said.  “She can punch a few holes in Crimson while he’s trapped.”

Will do.”

I waited another minute as Winter dangled from the thread, then cut her free.  Her body crumpled in a heap at the base of the building.  I made my way over to Golem and Wanton, where Wanton was still in his breaker form.

This was the warm-up, for the Nine, for us.  Four down, two hundred and seventy-some to go.  Jack had a little information on us, no doubt.

I didn’t dare hope it would stay this simple.  We still needed to find a way to narrow down Jack’s location, killing him.  He already had an advantage, wearing us down, costing us time, and he surely had some intel on us.

I could only hope that intel didn’t include the fact that Golem had help.

Chevalier here.  We have reports that they’re showing themselves for the next locations.

I met Golem’s eyes.

“Locations, plural?”  Golem asked.

“They want you to choose,” I answered him, as the realization dawned on me.

He stared at me, lost.  He was heaving for breath, his hands shaking visibly, even with gauntlets on.

“Go with the Chicago teams.  I’ll take the Undersiders and Brockton Bay Wards to the other location,” I said.

He nodded, pressing one hand to his ear as he started making his way to the ground.  I watched him for a moment, then took off.

This was a statement, I suspected.  I could guess what that statement was.  Jack fully intended to double down on the challenge each time we came out ahead.

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Interlude 25

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July 8th, 2011

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

“Pretentious, isn’t he?” Jack asked.  He was naked, covering himself with both hands, sitting on a metal bench with more brushed stainless steel behind him.  With the angle of the device, he faced the ceiling.

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

Jack only smiled, his eyes crinkling a bit at the edges.  He was getting older.  It was reassuring and spooky at the same time.  He’s the daddy of the group and I’m the kid and he’s getting older which makes him more daddylike.

But it meant he moved slower and got tired more easily.  It was only a matter of time before he made a mistake, lost a fight.

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

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

The flickering steadily increased.  The progression had to be slow, or they could set off a cascade cycle and overwhelm the power cell they had liberated from Toybox.  If that happened, then the shell that was keeping this reality together would break, the holding grid for the pocket dimension’s substrata would become fluid and leak out into other hardened realities.  They would likely be crushed by the air, pulped as gravity twisted into eddies and condensed points of hyperconcentration.

Which would be funny, really.  A reckless, violent, unpredictable death would be awfully ironic, really.  An artful death, almost, in an anticlimactic way.  It would be better if there was an audience, if anyone could even know and tell the story.  But art wasn’t art without an audience.

“Makes for a greater fall?” she asked.

“Exactly,” Jack replied.  He had to raise his voice to be heard over the whine of the generator.  “I guess we find out soon!”

She laughed in response, giddy with the idea, with possibilities, ideas.

Then she pulled the switch.  In a heartbeat, Jack was frozen in stasis, contained.

She walked over to the computer.  Flowers, rainbows and gray-green smiley faces with the eyes crossed out in death bounced around the screen.  She moved the mouse to end the screensaver, giggles still periodically finding their way out of her mouth.

She set the timer, the alarm clock for the stasis to end.

The giggles trailed off.

Silence.

The lights slowly flickered back to life, and Bonesaw found herself standing in front of the keyboard.  The smile fell from her face.

Jack had assumed she would freeze herself.  The empty pod reinforced the idea.

Except… she was telling herself she had to be there to wake them up, and that wasn’t wholly true.  It was smart, but it wasn’t true.  She wasn’t one to be afraid of something, but she felt a touch of trepidation at the idea of entering stasis without someone to handle the exit process, without assurance she would wake up.  That was without touching on the issue of the power cell, watching that things didn’t go tilt with the pocket dimension.

No, that wasn’t wholly true either.  It was a one percent chance.  Five percent, if she counted her lack of knowledge about other tinker’s stuff.  But she hadn’t touched it, even to move it.  It should be safe.

Her eyes tracked the rows and columns of incubation chambers.  They weren’t her field either.  A different row for each member of the Slaughterhouse Nine, past or present.

King
Screamer
Harbinger
Breed
Crimson
Gray Boy
Nyx
Psychosoma

There were ten of each in various glass chambers. The original members.

With many, many more besides.  She looked down the length of the room.  Most members of the Nine had lasted only weeks or months.  She could count the ones who’d lasted longer than that on the one hand.  A shame she didn’t have samples for all of the past members, but she had most of the good ones.

Her, Jack, Mannequin, Siberian, Shatterbird.

Crawler had managed pretty well, too.

He’d been a doofus in the end, though.

She smiled.  It would be a family reunion, really.  But there was work to be done.

They’d come out blank.  Wouldn’t do.  She had access to some of the toys they’d liberated from the Toybox.  She’d have to put the new Slaughterhouse’s memories together herself.  Brains.  Memories, or things close enough to memories.  She had notes and records, all of the bedtime stories Jack had told her as she drifted off to sleep these past few years.  There was information saved on the computer.  She could hodgepodge it together.

This would be real art.  How well could she rebuild them?

Cranial had been selling memories on the black market, selling skills.  She’d kept bad memories too, took them from people, even gave them to some people.  Silly, really.  A lot of them had wanted trigger events, except the trigger events didn’t work like that.

This computer was only an access point.  The other computers took up vast amounts of space, out of sight, out of mind.  If something failed, she’d have to go fix it, but she would spend most of her time here, surrounded by her family, some she’d never met.

Mannequin had lost his wife and children in a Simurgh attack.  How to approach it?  A file here, with a woman who had lost her spouse and children in a car accident she’d driven.  Close enough.  She could leave gaps and it would fill in all on its own.  Build it all on a foundation of an academic background, a doctor with confidence to spare, an architect in the same vein, a celebrity singer who’d come in wanting inspiration at the press of a button… run everything in parallel, with the ideas of the former two and the experience of the other…

But that wasn’t enough.  He’d been driven, haunted.  How was she supposed to put it all together?  Could she make it a recurring idea, so this Mannequin-clone would see the events flashing before his eyes with every waking moment?  Something he could only quench with a quiet, cold rage?  Or was it something he’d put behind him?

Winter had been an arms dealer, sadistic, ruthless, cold.

Bonesaw giggled at the private joke.  The noise echoed in the utter silence.  It was quiet enough that she could hear her own heartbeat and the blood rushing in her ears, the creak of her muscles shifting, even.  That wasn’t anything she had enhanced.  Humans simply never experienced true quiet.  Those that had come close tended to go insane.

Another giggle, smaller.  No worry on that score.

How to model Winter?  She wasn’t truly a person who created or manipulated cold.  It was a different power.  A dampening power, causing objects and people both to lose inertia.  The ambient effect was one of altered physics, the effect on people was one of will.  The woman had gained power, money and more, and she’d found she liked tormenting people as much as anything else.  She’d turned to the slave trade, then crossed paths with the Nine.

How to make the Winters with the materials she had?  A child that had a gun in her hand before she could read, someone who had found the drive necessary to rise above her roots, meeting all expectations.  She’d taught herself numbers and business, she’d ruthlessly eliminated competition, and then when she had everything she’d wanted, she had stagnated, rotted like an overripe fruit.

Searches for keywords in Cranial’s notes failed to turn up any of the necessary elements.

“Hey, Blasto, buddy,” she said, and her voice sounded artificially chirpy, even to her.  She looked at her minion, who stood at the other end of the desk, staring off into space, his entire body rigid.  A tear was running down his cheek.

Would have to cauterize his tear ducts, maybe.

“Speak,” she ordered.  She tapped a key to open a menu, then released the lock on his lung control and breathing.  “Try now.”

“Ungh,” he rasped.  “Ugh.”

Would have to exercise his vocal cords, or he might lose the ability to speak.

“It’s too quiet.  Let’s see… do you know the theme song to Love Bug?”

“Ugh.  Guh.  Fuh- fuck-”

She hit the key to lock him down, feeling irritated.

“Swearing is so crass!  Okay.  Guess you don’t know them.  Let’s see.  I’ve got something in my backpack…”

It took only moments to rig.  Her spider boxes ran on interconnected lumps of gray matter, basic impulses, motor control and storage, with some computer chips to handle functions that were more trouble than they were worth to implement.  One of those chips managed rote movements.  She removed a defunct spider box from the backpack she was keeping beneath her desk and attached it to Blasto’s spine, between his shoulder blades.

Overriding motor control, rote movement operation, hook it to the lungs and mouth, tongue, jaw…

Her hands were crimson halfway up to the elbow by the time she was done setting it all up.  She handed the task over to a spider box to handle stitches and cauterizing the bleeds.  A quickie job.

Would be better with a real eyeball, but she’d settle for a camera.

She set a video to play.  Furry cartoon bugs with hearts, peace symbols and other icons on their backs began to dance with cartoon children.

Love bug love hug!  A, B, C, D!
There they are, coming to say hi!
Love bugs are here, no need to cry!
When you’re feeling lonely, when you’re alone,
Who can you count on, to be in the zone?”

“Get a love bug love hug!” Bonesaw sang along, pulling up a chair.  She used a pencil to press the buttons on the keyboard so she didn’t get it mucky.  Few things were quite as fun as letting the blood dry and then peeling it all off in one congealed strip.

Behind her, Blasto watched the video.  She set it to repeat, and the bug box kicked in the second time around.  Blasto’s reedy voice sang along.  It was so pathetic and mournful that she laughed aloud.

Better give him some exercise too.

By the time the fourth repeat had finished, he was all set up.  He started dancing along with the fifth, mimicking characters on the screen.  Each repeat would be a little more precise, as the camera captured the necessary elements.

There.

Something to occupy herself with, for the next year and a half.

September 28th, 2011

“I’m going to take over the world!”

“Wonderful,” Bonesaw commented, feigning a cultured voice.  “More tea?”

“Tea, yes!  Obey, serve me.  Give me tea.”

Bonesaw dutifully poured a beakerful of hot water into the cup, then set a spoon by the saucer.  “No milk?  You’re sure?”

“Milk is for weaklings and children.  I’ll drink it black,” Damsel said.

“We are children, Damsel.”

A biologically seven year old Damsel of Distress glared across the table at Bonesaw as she took a sip, then had to momentarily steel herself to keep from making a face.  Her face was gaunt, but that was her natural appearance.  Her pale blue eyes deep set, platinum blond hair simultaneously fine and thick, matted together.  The chemical stew the clones were growing in didn’t make for typical looking hair growth.

“I could end you, for that insult.”

“Yes,” Bonesaw said.  “But then you wouldn’t have anybody to pour you tea.”

“This tea is too hot anyways.”

“I’ll strive to do better,” Bonesaw said.  “World domination, hm?  Sounds like a bother.”

“It’s my natural place.”

“Maybe,” Bonesaw said.  “Well, I don’t envy you.  You’ll need to hurry, too.  World’s going to end soon, I think.”

“I’ll rule the ashes.”

“I see.  That’s even harder, isn’t it?  If there’s no way to communicate, then how do you manage it all?  There won’t be phones or internet after everything else is gone.”

Damsel’s forehead furrowed in concern.  “I’ll delegate.”

“Can you trust the people you delegate to?”

“No.  I trust nobody.”

“Well,” Bonesaw said, pausing as she took a sip of tea.  “That’s a problem.”

“Yes,” Damsel agreed.  She swayed in her seat for a moment, then gripped the table with foot-long, clawed fingers to steady herself.  Bonesaw’s design, replacing the skeletal structure.  A way to channel Damsel’s power and -if needed- briefly shut it off.

“I put a little something in your tea to help you sleep,” Bonesaw commented.  “Best to see you off to bed.”

“I’m not…”

“Not sleepy?  You’re going to faceplant in your tea.”

Damsel’s confusion became a swift, violent anger.  “You poisoned me, wretch!”

“Yes.  I thought you didn’t trust anyone.  What a shame that you couldn’t be constructive in that distrust,” Bonesaw said.  She stood and walked around the table, then took the little girl’s hand, leading her back to the incubation chamber.  The girl obeyed, though she spat epithets.

“I’ll flay your skin from your bones, irrevocably destroy everything you cherish,” Damsel said, her voice fainter.  “You’ll cry your rage to the heavens until your torment subsumes everything.  Madness will be a refuge.”

She was virtually whispering by the time she was done.

“Yes, sweetie,” Bonesaw answered, dropping the fake accent.  She leaned forward and gave Damsel a kiss on the cheek.  Damsel blinked, as if in slow motion, opened her eyes briefly, then shut them.

A press of a button and a flick of a switch bid the glass case to rise and surround Damsel before she could tip over.  The tube rapidly filled with a soupy liquid, rich in nutrients.  Damsel was fully asleep before the fluid raised her from the ground to float buoyantly in the middle of the tube.  Her tea party outfit billowed out around her, making her look like a jellyfish in the pale lighting.  Her hat, a wide-brimmed, shallow-topped hat with a false flower on the ribbon, drifted off her head and gradually sank to the base of the tube.

She sought out the other clone, finding him at the far end of her lab.  He was a boy, narrow, with long blond hair and a very worried expression.  A complex pyramid of beakers and glass measuring cups was arranged around him.

He was muttering to himself, “Wall them in.  Wall myself in.  Wall them in.  Wall myself in.”

“Come on, A.G.,” Bonesaw said.  She reached through the structure and took his hand.  “Out through the door.”

“Not a door.  Trap.  Safest way to ward off attackers.  Used my hair, made a tripwire, tying ends together.  Maximum devastation if intruder breaks perimeter.”

“Through the window, then.  I’ll wall you in.  Promise.”

He nodded.  With excessive care, he climbed on top of the jars that were precariously balanced on one another and slipped out through another aperture in the arrangement, higher up.  He stumbled as he landed.

“This way.  We’ll wall you in.”

He followed obediently.  “Where’s my Catherine?  She’s my…”

“Your mom, silly billy.”  Cognitive dissonance would be bad.  He could lash out.  Not that he was that dangerous, like this.

“I was going to say wife.  And I have two children.  They’re seven and five.  Except I’m…”

“You’re seven.  You’re thinking of your sisters.”

“I’m confused,” he almost mewled the words.  “It hurts, so much of it hurts to think about.  I- I let a lot of people down.  I can feel their disappointment like… like it’s pressing in on me from all sides.  I can’t hide from it and I can’t stop myself from caring.  I-“

“Hush,” she said.  “It all gets better when you wall yourself in, doesn’t it?”

He nodded mutely.

“Walling you in,” she said, as she put him on top of the stand.  A press of the button raised the glass enclosure.  She could see him relax a fraction at that.

A bit of a problem, Bonesaw mused, as the container filled with the nutrient fluid.

Various elements that were unique to every individual served as a signal that the passenger could reach out to in an attempt at reconnecting with a host.  DNA, electromagnetic patterns, patterns she could barely measure with instruments, all contributed, none was absolute.  Once the connection was established, powers were possible as well.  A moment of trauma sped the process along considerably.  Her initial assumption had been that coming to life would be enough for the clones.

But the clones were dreaming, and those dreams were founded in the fabricated memories she was providing.  It was something of an art, an interesting experiment, to strike all the right notes, to get geography and birthplace right, culture, custom, habit and every other detail, along with the major, defining moments of their lives.

The Corona Pollentia was developing as the originals did, drawing from DNA to form as a lobe in the brain, right from the outset.  The dreams formed the connections between the corona and the clone.  The bonds were forming too quickly and easily.

It was interfering with the cloning process, as the passenger’s typically indistinct and subtle influence on the subject was becoming rather dramatic.  The brain was too pliable while the clones were in their formative ages, the passenger too insistent.

She’d have to scrap everything.  Wipe them clean, grow a new batch of clones.  Nearly three weeks of work down the drain.

Already, she was figuring out how to solve the problem.  She’d have to stagger it, introduce memories in phases, starting with earliest and working her way forward.  Maybe it would be easier, organized.  She could consider each member of the Nine in turn and decide if they had been treated well as babies, if their home and school lives were comfortable… that would be a yes for someone like Mannequin, less so for Ned, for Crawler.

She typed on the computer for a minute.  Special disposal procedures for Crawler.  The rest could be boiled to death.

She watched until the bubbles started to rise.  One or two woke.  It didn’t matter.

She returned to her makeshift bedroom.  There hadn’t been a mattress, so she’d made a hammock instead.

Blasto lay on the floor.  His voice was barely audible.  He couldn’t stand, and his attempts at trying to dance were scraping his arms against the floor.

Bug… hug.  I, J, K, L.”

“Forgot to turn the music off,” she said.  She found the smartphone and switched off the music.  “Have a bit of an errand.  Sleep for now, I’ll patch you up when I get back.”

Her hair dyed black, a bit of makeup and clothes made the same way she’d made her mattress, creating a lifeform that could spin and ink fabric.

A touch roughspun, but it would do.

She found the remote and hit the button.  There was a quiet whoosh, and she was on the other side.

Back in Earth Bet.

Her heart was pounding.  If Jack found out about this, he’d be furious.  The risk, the idea that someone would be checking this one spot for a signal, or using a parahuman ability to search for her here

But, she thought, she needed supplies she couldn’t make on her own.  Resources, information, materials.

She entered a small grocery store.

“Good morning,” the man at the counter said.  Thirty-two or thirty-three, to judge by his appearance.  His hair was too long in the back, just starting to recede in the front, his stare intense, but he wasn’t unattractive otherwise.

“Good morning,” she responded, upbeat.  Don’t talk to me.  It would be messy if I had to kill you.  She corrected herself.  I’ll fix your hair and then I’d kill you.

“We don’t get many new people here.  Kind of out of the way.”  He smiled.

“Driving through,” she said.  “My mom is shopping down the street.”

“Dollar store or the boutique?”

“Boutique.”

“Don’t blame you for not wanting to go,” he said.  “Let me know if you need help finding something.”

She made her way through the store.  Lemon juice, vinegar, sugar, salt, a box of Frooty Toots, some milk, pancake mix.  Nutrient slop was great when she needed to work without cooking, but it was still slop.

Glancing up, she could see the man at the counter looking at her in the mirror that had been positioned to give him a view of the aisle.

She wondered momentarily if he’d recognized her.  No, the reaction would be different.

A distrust of outsiders?  No, he seemed too at ease for that.

Something else, then.

She felt more at ease, realizing what it had to be.

She deposited the things on the counter, then paid.  He bagged it and she waved goodbye as she left, offering him a winning smile.

She’d need to stop by a library, there were a few things she needed to look up.  There wasn’t enough information on Harbinger, for one thing.  King’s background was another blank.  People Jack didn’t talk about much, even if he talked about them fondly.

He’d be so pleased, she could imagine, if she hit the right notes with them and got their basic personalities right.

Then she could buy clothes and sheets. If there was a good hardware store, she could imagine some tools that would serve.  Her scalpels were getting dull.

This little bumhole of a town didn’t have much, and she’d seen maybe one car on the road since she had arrived, but still, she looked both ways before crossing the street.

A pale, dark-haired woman stepped out of the bank, wearing a black suit.

Her attitude, her demeanor, casual.  Nothing combative in the slightest.

Bonesaw still felt a twang of alarm.  The timing with which she’d appeared, the way the clothes didn’t fit the area…

Better to guess and be wrong.  “Are you picking a fight with me?”

“No,” the woman replied.  “No I’m not, Bonesaw.”

Gosh darn ding darn… golly.  Jack was going to be maaaaad if he found out about this.

“Because if you kill me, it doesn’t change anything.”

“You worked a biological key into the transporter device.  Unless you are alive, calm and holding the device, it won’t work.  It will only transport you.  We can’t use it to get inside, and killing you wouldn’t stop the stasis period from ending.”

“Yeah.  That’s why.”

“I understand.  But I wasn’t sent here to assassinate you.  We could.  We could even reach Jack, I think, now that we know where to make an entrance.  Still, that’s a dangerous prospect, putting powerful parahumans in the same space as a man who’s been prophesied to end the world.”

“I’m not a pushover, you know,” Bonesaw said.  She stabbed a finger in the woman’s direction.

It would be so easy to fire a poison needle into her throat.

“I only want to talk.  I’ll ask a favor, then leave you alone,” the woman said.

“You don’t know how the Slaughterhouse Nine work, do you?  We don’t do favors.”

“You’ll do this one.  The Slaughterhouse Nine you’re mass producing, you’re going to install a control switch.  You’ll give that switch to me.  Not soon, but later.  Later than you think.”

Bonesaw laughed, high and shrill.  Then she laughed some more.

The woman only waited patiently.

“Silly!  You couldn’t be more wrong,” Bonesaw said.  “Betray Jack?  Betray the others?”

“You will.”

Bonesaw laughed again, not for quite so long.  Through the giggles, she said, “If you’re going to try to mind control me, I can tell you you’ve got another thing coming.  I’ve got safeguards.  You’ll only activate my berserker mode.”

“No mind control.  There’s a great deal at work here, and this is the best way to go about it, even with the blind spot looming.”

“That’s the best argument you can give me?”

“No.  I can tell you two things.”

Bonesaw raised her eyebrows, smiling.  “Two things?”

“Breadth and Depth.”

“I don’t get it.  Those are the things?”

“No.  There’s another.  Each of these things is a sentence, an idea.  The second sentence is simple.  Say goodbye.”

Bonesaw bristled.  Mechanical traps, spring-loaded needles and venom venting systems readied throughout her body.  She let the bags drop to the ground.

The woman didn’t attack.  Instead, she turned to leave.

An empty threat?

She debated firing her hollow needles at the woman’s back.  But if she missed, she’d be largely unarmed.  She’d have to get even closer to use a venom spray, or poison spit, or her telescoping humerus with flesh dissolving acid capsules beneath her fingernails.

The woman entered the bank, and Bonesaw hurried across the street to follow.

But her quarry was gone.

January 20th, 2005

Riley panted for breath.  Her body wasn’t listening, now.

She reached her mommy’s room, then collapsed on the floor, head turned towards the foot of the bed.

The carpet was stained with blood.  On it, just beside the bed, her mother lay face down, head turned to one side just like Riley’s was.  She was covered in stitches.  There wasn’t a place where Riley could have reached out and placed a hand down flat without touching one of the marks.

An entire row had been cut open, the stitches severed, from temple, down the side of her throat, along the side of her body to her pelvis.

Too much blood loss.  Her mind leaped into action, reaching for knowledge she hadn’t had earlier in the night, knowledge of how to fix people.  She took in details, grasped everything from the amount of blood her mommy had to heart rate and the amount of air she was breathing, just from the clues in how fast the blood flowed and the color of the skin.  She knew the order she’d have to fix things.  Ideas fired through her mind, telling her how to close the wounds, to draw the blood out of the carpet and clean it, or even making something that would do the same thing blood did, out of water and some junk from the kitchen, all with the exact right amount of electricity, to fill the veins and carry a low amount of air throughout the body, staving off the shut down of her brain long enough for Riley to figure out something else.

But she was too tired.

“Hurry,” Mister Jack’s voice was almost gentle.  “You have time.  You can fix her, can’t you?”

She could.  Maybe she even had the strength to do it, to get downstairs and climb up onto the kitchen counter to get the things she needed out of the cabinets, and get back up here.  She could cut the lamp cord and use the frayed end with… with a lot of salt, to get the right frequency.

But she was too tired.  The moment she was done saving her mommy, she’d have to run to the bathroom and save daddy.  Then she’d have to run downstairs and save Drew.  After that she’d save Muffles, and hurry back to mommy.  In each room, one or two scary people waited for her.  Waited and watched while she worked, then undid her work or came up with worse things to do.

She knew because she’d been doing this for hours.

“Come on,” Mister Jack whispered.  “You can do it.  Don’t you love your mommy?”

She stared across the room at her mommy.  They were lying with their heads pointed in different direction, so her mommy’s face was upside down, almost covered with as many stitches as skin.

She’d done a bad job, she knew.  She couldn’t even cut a straight line with the scissors in school, how was she supposed to do this?

Mommy mouthed some words, but the stitches pulled her lips in funny directions.

She thought maybe she knew what mommy was saying.

“No,” she told Mister Jack.

“No?”

“I don’t love her,” she answered.  She blinked, slow, so she wouldn’t have to look her mommy in the eyes, and tears were squeezed out.

“Alrighty,” Mister Jack said.  “Say goodbye, then.”

Say goodbye.

“Goodbye, mommy,” Riley said, obediently.

Silent, her mom mouthed a reply.

It took a long time.

A long, long time, watching the blood volume tick down, seeing how the breathing rate changed, and the heartbeat slowed.  Knowing how the brain would be affected, knowing what the organs were doing, and the order they were shutting down.

At some point, it ceased to be mommy, became something else.  A moment when her mommy became only a dying thing, a machine of flesh and blood that was winding down.

It was easier.

Didn’t make her chest hurt as much.

Lips that had been fixed up with imperfect stitches mouthed one final sentence.

“There we go,” Mister Jack whispered.  “…There.  That’s it.”

For a little while longer, the three of them rested on the floor of the room.  Mister Jack, Riley, and her mommy.

Others appeared in the doorway, casting the room in shadow.

“She done?”

“She’s done,” Mister Jack said, standing.  He stretched.  “As for what we do with her, we-”

He broke off as the clown in the hallway laughed, an eerie, offbeat sound that seemed to be missing something most laughs had.  It seemed to take Jack a moment to gather why the clown had laughed.

When he looked down, Riley was looking up at him, smiling.  It was a forced expression.

“What’s this?” Jack asked.  He smiled back.  “Something funny?”

“No.  I just… I wanted to smile.”

“Well,” he said.  “Me too.  Let’s smile together.”

She looked momentarily uncertain, but kept the strained smile in place.

“Yes.  Come with us.  We’ll keep you safe.”

She didn’t want to.  She wanted nothing less.

But she had nowhere else to go.

“Yes please,” she said.  “That… that sounds nice.”

Her mother’s final words rang through Riley’s head, the last words she’d before she had become a machine that had stopped working.

Be a good girl.

She’d be good.  She’d be polite and cheerful and she’d do her chores and she would mind her manners and she’d eat all of her dinner and she’d keep her hair nice and she wouldn’t swear and…

November 15th, 2011

She woke from a nightmare that was becoming all too familiar.  Usually it was only a few times a week, fragments.  Now it was more distinct, more cohesive.

She didn’t like it.

As was her habit, she reached across the bed, holding her companion close.

Not enough.  Not warm enough, not responsive, not caring.

He wasn’t family.

She pushed her covers away, annoyed.

Blasto lay there, unmoving.

“Up,” she said.

The hardware worked throughout his body bid him to move.

She stared at him, unfamiliar feelings warring inside her.  The dream was fresh in her mind and she couldn’t banish it, just like she hadn’t been able to banish it yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that.

It was just a little harder every day.

She felt a flare of anger, but pasted a smile on her face instead.  Think happy.

Be good, she thought, and the thought was too close to an idea in her dream.  It had the opposite effect, dashed her resolve to the wind.

She was left only with a mingled sense of unease and frustration.

No mind control?  My fanny!  The darn woman in the suit had put a mind-whammy on her!

It made her upset, which was a terrible way to start the day.  Most days, she could cuddle with whoever was sleeping beside her.  Blasto wasn’t so good at that.

It didn’t help that Blasto had died a week ago.  A stroke, no doubt from stress, in the midst of a refrain of the Love Bugs theme song.  The only thing that let him move now were the control mechanisms she’d set up.

Not so good for snuggling.

Most days, if snuggling didn’t quite cut it, Jack would keep her busy, give her something to do, and entertain her.  Always, his voice in her ear, always ushering her forwards, praising her for being a good girl, for her art, for her talent.  Others were interested.  Her family.

Now she was alone.

She left the closet that was her bedroom, with Blasto standing beside the fleshy mattress, and she approached the cases.

The third draft, still in a foetal state, nine of each.  She had a good feeling about it.  There were a few more brains to create, more personalities to research and draw up, but she felt fairly confident about her ability to piece it all together.

The only rub was the Bonesaws.  A whole row, empty.

They didn’t need as long to gestate, but she had yet to begin figuring out how to create them.

She could have scanned her own brain and copied over the results, but the setup was awkward to manage, best done with a sleeping subject.  She could have set Blasto up to manage it, but… that was tricky in its own way.

She wasn’t used to feeling a lack of confidence.  The thing about art was that one could create anything, could incorporate mistakes.  But art needed an audience and she had none here.

She’d set herself the task of having everything ready for when Jack and the others woke up, and now she felt she was unraveling, coming apart in the quiet and the solitude.

She stared at the seeds of the Bonesaws that hadn’t grown and wondered if she really could look long enough to see the real her, to fabricate anything like herself.  Her test runs with the others had all worked.  They were close enough to feel familiar, even if little details were off.  Their personalities, their approaches, all would be close enough.  Here and there, she’d fixed things, corrected the most detrimental personality traits that had been turned against them and allowed them to be captured or killed.

Sighing, she turned away.  She took the time to dress in the clothes she’d bought, and then used the remote to teleport to Earth Bet.

“Our regular is back,” the man at the counter said.  “You get out a lot, with that home schooling.”

“Yeah,” she said.  She folded her hands on the edge of the counter and rested her chin on them.  “Your haircut looks good, Eli.”

“Thank you,” he said.  He looked genuinely embarrassed.  She smiled a little at that.

“See any good movies lately?” she asked.

“You like horror movies right?”

“Mm hmm.”

“The Darkness.  You’d like it, it comes from a good pedigree.  It’s about a mafia-“

A woman entered the store, and Eli jumped as though he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Can I- can I put up a sign in the window?” the woman asked.

“I’d have to see it first,” Eli responded.  “Might have to ask my dad.  He owns the store, even if I run it.  If there’s any question, it’d be his call.  He gets back this Monday.”

The woman’s face was grave as she handed over the paper.

Eli took the time to read it.  “I think everyone in town knows about this, Mrs. Hemston.”

“Can I put it up anyways?  If someone passes through and sees it-“

Eli shifted, uncomfortable.  “I don’t see any reason you couldn’t.  My dad wouldn’t say no.”

Without responding, Mrs. Hemston set about taping it to a spot at eye level on the back of the glass door.

She glanced at Bonesaw.  “You shouldn’t be out without a guardian.  Go home.”

“Yes ma’am,” Bonesaw replied, smiling.

And then the woman was gone.

Bonesaw opened the door and held it open so she could see the sign.  A missing person sign, with a picture of a girl.  She let the door swing closed.

Eli hesitated.  “Riley, I was thinking, if you wanted to come over and watch that movie…”

“No.”

“No?  Why?”

“You know why,” she said.  She walked down the aisle to grab some snacks.  Gummy candies, more Frooty Toots, some more milk.

“I wouldn’t, you know I-“

“You’d be a gentleman, I’m sure,” she replied.  The funny thing was, she was sure.  She knew her monsters.

He struggled to recover.  “I… you’re talking about the home schooling.  Strict parents?”

It was feeble.  She knew it was feeble.

“Exactly,” she responded, setting the stuff on the counter.  “Sorry.”

“Eight ninety-five,” was all he said.

He was hurt.  He’d recover.  She collected her things, gave him a small wave, and then made her way back.  She glanced at the woman who was making her way into the next store.

She stepped out of sight, then used the remote to exit back to the pocket realm.

She felt a growing sense of unease as she set the milk in the fridge and put the Frooty Toots on the counter with the candy.  Not an unease with what had happened with Eli.  That would resolve itself.  She’d see him in two or three days, and it would be awkward.  Then she’d see him after that, and things would be okay again.

No.  That wasn’t what was resting heavily on her heart.

She called for Blasto and then entered one of the other closets.

Melanie, the girl’s name was.

A week and a half ago, it had been so commonsense.  A solution to her problems.  The girl had been right there.  So easy to approach.  A tranquilizer shot to the neck, calculated on the fly to fit with body weight and overall health.  Recalibrating the teleporting remote with the unconscious girl in the back lot had been a little riskier, but it was a quiet town.

Bonesaw had found herself busy enough that the girl could be left here, an IV in her neck, catheter and poop tube inserted.  Now that she had free time, she could handle the Winter issue.

She needed a child soldier.  This was a way to make one.  To insert the wartime memories from Cranial’s database into the girl, let it steep, then harvest the results.  The rest could be tweaked, rebalanced, fixed.

And there, again, that unease.

She couldn’t think of her mother’s face, only stitches.  Her father she hadn’t even seen.  His face was a vague idea in her head, a few isolated features with nothing to bind them together.

Yet when she tried to visualize herself going ahead with it, it was Eli’s face that intruded.  Disappointed, confused.

Eli and Mrs. Hemston both, now.

The girl was meat.  A tool, a collection of resources to be taken apart and put together in a different configuration, a machine.  Any number of things, but not a person.

But the people from the periphery of the girl’s life… they were harder to compartmentalize.  Distant.  They weren’t at arm’s reach to use as resources.

An emotional factor.

Darn it, she thought.  She’d stopped talking to herself, after she’d gotten in the habit and weirded Eli out.

She turned her attention to the computer, crossing the room.  Need a distraction.

Except it backfired.  She thought of the woman in the suit, and the statement.  Breadth and depth.

As things tended to do, a connection drew across her mind’s eye.  All of the problems at hand, the challenges, dealing with the clones, figuring out how to program them.

The first batch had failed because they were too young, and the connection with the passenger had become too broad, consuming too much of their personality, leaving room for little growth as a human being.  Things were missing, other things bloated or exaggerated as the passenger needed.

Jack had a different kind of connection.  A deep connection.  He was in alignment with the particular nature of his passenger.  The passengers naturally sought conflict, and Jack had fed that need from very early on, and he had sustained it for years.  The line between the two was so thin as to be impossible to mark, but Jack’s personality remained his own.  Altered, but not subsumed.

And Bonesaw… well, she was talented.  There was little doubt her passenger fed her a great amount of detail.

But what kind of connection was it?

Darn mind whammies!  Darn it, drat, gosh, golly fuck!

She stared down at her hands, splayed and resting on either side of the keyboard.

What kind of connection was it?

Young age?  Check.  That had meant breadth for the others.

Fed by conflict?  Check.  Depth, if the single data point that was Jack was any indication.

How much of me is me?

She stared at the backs of her hands.

What difference does it make?  It wasn’t a rhetorical question.  There was a difference, it did matter in the grand scheme of things.  She just wasn’t sure what that difference was, how it mattered.

She hadn’t had to make many of her own decisions before.  Or, it was better to say, she hadn’t had to make important ones.  There was a security in being with Jack, because it meant she didn’t have to face this sort of thing.  One comment, and the question was decided.

She turned to look at Melanie.  The girl was her age.

Odd to think about.

The girl had seen her face.  She couldn’t trust her ability to erase memories, not without test subjects, which was a new set of risks, a new set of problems.  It would only compound the problem she was trying to solve.

She wasn’t used to thinking like this, considering ways to minimize chaos.

Couldn’t trust that she’d scrub the right memory.  It wasn’t her tinker tech.

Couldn’t trust that she could overwrite the memories either.  Inserting memories, yes, but the brain was a funny thing.  Again, it wasn’t her tinker tech.

Going ahead would be safest.

She thought of Eli.  A friend.  Not family, like the Nine had become, but a friend.

She thought of the effect of the passenger on her personality.  Was the art hers or did it belong to it?  Her sense of family among the other Nine, again, who did it belong to?

She bit a thumbnail, cut deep into the material with the special cutting materials she’d laced her incisors with, and then tore the end off in one swift motion.  The quick of her nail started bleeding.

The pain gave her clarity.

Maybe the family thing was the passenger’s.  Maybe the art was too.

But Eli?  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t normal.  But if the passenger had never made contact, and she’d still lived a life a little like the one she lived now, she could see herself being Eli’s friend.

That in mind, she made her decision.

November 12th, 2012

She shifted her weight from foot to foot.

A lot of time alone.  A lot of time to think.

Every decision now was made on a fulcrum.  Was she acting as Riley or as Bonesaw?

This… it wasn’t a hard decision.  In a way, she’d imagined she’d always make it.  But it, like every other call, had to be carefully measured.

First menstruation, check.

Might as well get it over with.  She made notes on the computer.

Auto-hysterectomy.

Auto-masectomy.

Limb shortening.

Bone shaving.

Plastic surgery.

Bonesaw would approve.  Maybe it would be better to be taller, to have more room for equipment.  Still, she could reverse the procedure.  It wouldn’t be her parts, but that wasn’t such a problem.

But for Riley, this was essential.  It was a matter of months before Jack woke.  She needed time to recover.  The clones were in a good state.  Only the Bonesaw vats were empty.  Each of the others had an adolescent or nearly-adult clone inside.  A month or two before the others woke from cryo-stasis, she’d start doing the surgeries, adding the augments, combining a handful of them together.

She laid out everything on the table next to her.  Scalpels, blood bags, IV drips, screwdrivers, wire, staple, cauterizing gun, hammer, stapler… a mix and match.

She hefted the bonesaw and frowned a little.  The word had taken on a different meaning for her, in recent months.  It had stopped being her name somewhere along the line, had become her passenger’s.

Anesthetic?  No.  She needed optimal awareness of her own body.  Anything that dulled her senses would spoil that.

She had the ability to switch off pain at will.  She wouldn’t use it.

No.  She wouldn’t say she felt guilty about the things she’d done, but she recognized that she was broken, now.  She recognized that maybe she should.

A part of her wished she could reach inside and find that carefree perspective, the innocence she’d enjoyed.  Another part of her was glad.  Everything about herself was modifiable, reversible, pliable.  Pieces in the machine.  But this?  She wasn’t sure she could alter it, nor that she wanted to.

This wouldn’t be a penance.  That would suggest penitence.  But it’d be just, as best as she could figure.

She started cutting.

January 24th, 2013

“The sign’s down,” she commented.

“Riley!”  Eli looked startled.  He glanced back at his dad, who was stocking shelves.  “It’s been… a really long time.  I was worried I said something.”

“No.  Went to live with my dad,” she said.  The lie was smooth, effortless.  She didn’t even feel bad.

“You’re back?”

“Stopping by, like the first time you saw me.”

He nodded, still a little stunned.  “Uh… they found the girl dead in the woods.  Some dogs had chewed her up pretty badly.”

“Oh,” she responded.  She’d practiced the look of concern in the mirror.  Even now, she didn’t really feel guilt, but nothing was reliable, like it once had been.  “I stopped in to say goodbye, Eli.”

“Goodbye?”  He seemed more surprised than disappointed.

Maybe he already said goodbye to me, she thought.  She didn’t feel hurt.  Growing up with the Slaughterhouse Nine had numbed her in many respects.  It made sense, little more.

“I wanted to give you a gift,” she said.  “As thanks for the movie advice, and the conversation over the past while.  You helped me, gave me a friend when I needed one.”

He frowned.  “After your parent’s divorce, you mean.”

“Yes.”  Another easy lie.

“I get that,” he said.  He looked at the card.  “Can I open it?”

“No.  There’s a date on it.  Wait, then read it on the date in question.  Break that rule and I’ll be mad, understand?”

“I understand,” he responded.  He looked down at the envelope.  “My birthday.”

“Yeah.  And I don’t think you do understand,” she said, “But that’s okay.  Just don’t break the rule, and don’t lose the letter.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Um.  I would’ve gotten you something, but… oh.”

He rummaged in his bag, then handed her a video tape.

“I… I rented it, but I’ll pay the fee to replace it.  One of my favorites from the last year.”

A horror movie.  A child werewolf?

A child monster.

She glanced at him, but there was nothing in his expression.  She’d become exceptionally good at reading people, and… no.  He had no idea how ironic the gift was.

“Thank you,” she said, holding it to her stomach.  “It’s probably okay if we just say hi and bye like usual, isn’t it?  Fits?”

“You look different,” he blurted out the words, a non-sequitur.

She’d hoped the winter clothes would hide any of the reversions she’d made.

“You look good,” he added.

“Be fucking good, Eli,” she retorted, staring at him.

Before, he might have protested, feigned confusion.  He’d changed, much as she had.

Now, he only nodded a little.  “I will.”

May 25th, 2013

She sat with her feet propped up on the table, a bowl of Frooty Toots on her stomach, as the alarm went off.

She felt a momentary sadness.  She tapped her pinky with her thumb twice, and the embedded magnets noted the signal.  She’d recorded her own brain activity and movements when contemplating the Bonesaw clones, and it was this that she drew on, manipulating her own body much as she had manipulated Blasto’s.

Her body language wasn’t her own.  Her smile, the way she walked, the gestures, all were fine tuned to match the Bonesaw of before.

Her height, too, had changed.  She’d cut her hair to match, had downgraded her body so the last year and a half of development had never happened.

It was the burning of a bridge, in a way.  It would retard her growth in the future, and that would arouse suspicion.

In a way, she couldn’t carry on her relationship with the Nine.  There would be too many tells, no time to herself to make changes in secret.

The individual cases opened, and slowly but surely, the members of the current Slaughterhouse Nine stepped out.  Jack, Hookwolf, Skinslip, Night Hag.

She could see the conscious effort on Jack’s part to maintain his composure.  He was barely able to stand.

His eyes fixed on her.

Somehow, she knew.  She knew he knew.  But that was no surprise.

All she really needed was reasonable doubt.  He would harbor suspicions, and he would pull something on her.  Later.

In the meantime, she’d have options.

“You’re awake,” he commented.

“And you’re nude,” she said, covering her eyes.  “Where are your manners?”

Like riding a bike.  Back to her old self.  Playing the role.

“I’ll remedy that in an instant.  Cereal?”

“Made it myself.  Took me a whole three hours to get it right.  Felt like keeping busy.”

“And the milk?”

“Made it myself,” she responded.  She grinned, and the device took over, gave it that width, that guilelessness she couldn’t manage on her own.

“I won’t ask.  My clothes?”

She pointed him in the direction of the closet where she’d placed all of the roughspun uniforms, alongside the clothes Jack and the others had removed before stepping into the cryostasis chambers.

He took a step, then stumbled.

“I’m… not as coordinated as I should be,” he said.

“Seems there’s trouble with the recovery phase,” Riley said.  “Be a month or two before you’re on your feet.”

“We have a schedule.”

“I know.  But I can’t fix this.  Not my stuff.”

He stared at her, brushed ice-crusted hair away from his face.

But she wasn’t lying.  There was no falsehood to pick out.

“You could have woken us sooner.”

“Nope, nope,” she said.  “Would’ve mucked up the scheduling.”

Still, that penetrating stare.  This was the make or break moment.

“Well,” Jack said, smiling, “Unavoidable.  We’ll have to make it extra special.”

“Triple special,” she answered.  “Things have been interesting while we’ve been gone.”

“Interesting?”

“I’ll show you later.”

“And the clones?”

“I was waiting for you to wake up before we greeted them.”

“Good,” Jack said.  “Excellent.”

She smiled wide as he turned, covering his bare rear end on his way to the closet, even as she felt coldness in her heart.

Hookwolf, for his part, only drew blades around his body, forming into a giant metal form.  She wondered if he looked a little introspective, before his head was covered in the mass of shifting, skirring hooks and needles.

She chewed on her cereal, and watched more of her movie.

She did like it, after all.  Eli had been right.

She smiled, hiding the sense of loss as she deleted it from the system and cleaned up the evidence.

One by one, the recently unfrozen members of the Nine rejoined them, dressed in their outfits and costumes.

Jack gestured, and she hit the key on the keyboard.  Lights.

Spotlights went on beneath each of the glass chambers.

Drain.

The fluids poured out, draining into the openings in the floor.  Blurry figures became more distinct, marred only by the residual droplets clinging to the interior of each chamber.

“You didn’t do yours,” Jack commented.

“Didn’t work out.”

“I see,” he said.

Every line of dialogue felt like a nail in the coffin.

But that coffin wasn’t a concern today, or even tomorrow.

For now, Jack needed her.  For now, she had options.

She smiled, wide, with a glee she didn’t feel.

The woman in the suit had options.  She would come to Riley and claim the remote.

Countless enemies would be mustering their forces, ready to deal with this.

Eli had the letter.  He’d find a plane ticket inside, along with an urging to leave and stay gone.  To drive the point home, she’d revealed her identity.

Yet Riley still felt a moment’s doubt.

Some rose from their knees.  Others had managed to remain standing from the moments the fluid left the chambers.  As they roused, powers flickered into action.

Siberians flickered into being near the Mantons.  Six like the daughter, three more like Manton himself, all in black and white.

Chuckles, tall, fat, with arms that zig-zagged, her own addition.  Thirty-one elbows, and arms that dragged behind them as they moved.  Here and there, one of them would twitch, a tic.  The clown makeup was a series of scars, tattooed on.  One activated his speedster abilities experimentally, crossing the room in a flash.

Nostalgic, in a way.  Chuckles had been around when she’d joined.

Murder Rat.  Not stapled together as the original had been.  She’d taken the time to do it well.  When membership had been down, Bonesaw had made Murder Rat as a created addition to the Slaughterhouse Nine.  She’d passed the tests, but degradation in mental and physical faculties over time had seen to her demotion.

Winter, white-haired, with white irises edged in black, nude, her eyes peering.  Madeline’s eyes, Riley thought.  Winter would need guns, of course.

Crimson, Winter’s brief-lived lover.  Riley had taken the time to program their relationship into them.  Crimson had been one of the first members in the group, Winter one of the more recent ones to die.  Winter had been followed by Hatchet Face -there he was, over there, nine of them- and Hatchet Face had been followed by Cherish.

Nine Cherishes, gathering in a huddle.  She’d forgotten to give them the tattoos.  It didn’t matter.  A glance suggested they were discussing different ways to do their hair.

The smile on her own face was so wide it hurt, but it wasn’t her smile.

King, tall and blond, unabashed in his nudity.  All nine Kings were broad-shouldered, each half a foot taller than Jack.

Their interaction would be an interesting one.  She’d wondered if she should program King with the knowledge that Jack had been the one to kill him, reconsidered.

Oh, and there were others.  Some were harder to recognize.  Nine Alan Grammes, who lacked his armor.  Nine Neds, narrow shouldered and only five and a half feet tall.  When the others had done some damage and given him a chance to regenerate, he’d resemble his true self a little better.  He’d be Crawler.

“And the last one?”  Jack pointed at the remaining chamber.

She hit a button, and for a moment, her expression slipped.  She closed her eyes, a brief moment too long, as nutrient soup drained out of the chamber and the glass lowered.

But nobody was looking at her.

The boy stepped out, and there was no sign of any difficulty.  He didn’t struggle as others had, nor have trouble finding his feet.  He was prepubescent, to look at him, older than ten but younger than fourteen.  His hair was neatly parted, and he wore a private school uniform, complete with glossy black shoes.  Dry.

Even though he was naked in the tube.

Then again, that was sort of his thing.  One of them, anyways.

Visually, the most notable part of him was the effect that surrounded him.  He was monochrome, all grays and whites and blacks, with spots of light and shadow flickering around him.  Here and there, he flickered, a double image momentarily overlapping him, ghostly, looking in a different direction.

As far as parahuman powers went, his was as unfair as they got.

“Jack,” Gray Boy said.  His voice was high, clear as a bell.

“Nicholas.”

Jack extended a hand and Nicholas shook it.

Riley felt her stomach sink.

It would be like Gray Boy to use his power and take out someone in the room, just because he could.  Jack had only wanted one, and the unspoken reality was that he only wanted one because he could only control one.

If he wasn’t going after Jack, then… she was the only other person in the room without clones surrounding her.

He approached her, his expression placid.

For a brief moment, she felt stark fear.

It was perhaps her salvation that the fear was buried under the expressions that her system pasted on her face.  The false smile that spread across her face was the push she needed to hop down from her seat, approaching him.  She leaned in close to kiss him on the cheeks, her hands on his shoulders, one leg cocking upward like she’d seen women in older films doing.

“Little brother,” she murmured.

“Bonesaw,” he said, voicing a name she hadn’t programmed into him.  His hand found hers, and he held it.  She felt a chill.  “We’ll be inseparable, I think.”

“Inseparable,” she answered, smiling falsely.

The others from rows further down in the chamber slowly approached.  She watched Jack taking it all in.  Two hundred and seventy-five in all.  Two hundred and seventy regulars, five special makes.  Snowmann, Nighty Night, Laughjob, Tyrant, Spawner.

The names had never been a strength of hers.

I’ve given you everything you want, she thought.  Now we see who comes out ahead.  Succeed, and Bonesaw comes to the fore.  Fail, and Riley wins.

She wanted Riley to win, but that wasn’t as simple as making a decision.  She had to bury her life with the Nine.  Bury Jack, and see him defeated.

Gray Boy squeezed her hand.  She would have jumped, if her body language wasn’t in the system’s control.  She looked at him, and he winked.

Her expression hadn’t wavered, she hadn’t allowed herself the slightest tell, but somehow he fell in the same category as Jack.

He knew.

Staring out at the gathered crowd, Jack seemed to reach a conclusion.  He glanced at her, as Gray Boy was doing.

“Good,” he said.

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