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One Bad Day (Worm AU fic)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Jun 4, 2016.

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  1. rooster

    rooster I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    That's what I'm getting at. There are so many stories that the time between chapter releases for each particular story is very slow even if Ack writes a lot overall.
     
  2. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    I like how most of the events in the "One Bad Day" can be traced back to Sophia's murder of Brian. Too bad Mark's suicide can't also be traced back to it. But I suppose that both events happened because of the Simurgh's interference.
     
  3. Potates

    Potates Getting out there.

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    Brian gets murdered and GG investigates. This keeps her out of her home more than usual. Without her at home, her Glory aura isn't around as often. No aura means Mark isn't as exposed to love, happiness, and awe for Vicky as much and thus falls into deeper, more frequent depression spirals than what he's used to. So he kills himself.
    Or I'm spouting complete nonsense. You decide!
     
    Last edited: Jun 6, 2016
  4. Psyckosama

    Psyckosama Well worn.

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    That... makes a lot of sense.
     
  5. kokuenDG

    kokuenDG Altera my Love~❤

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    Fucking Ziz man.

    And it's really terrifying that she managed to do something that causes some of the scariest girls in Worm - and Glory Girl - to willingly team up.

    This is gonna cause some fireworks, I can tell. And many other explosions...
     
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  6. DS@27

    DS@27 Know what you're doing yet?

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    That's Earth Bet for you. Lisa phone didn't work for two minutes. It's a Simurgh plot, bad communication kills Brian and then everything gets worse.
     
  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Going through my Worm fics on Fanfiction.net:

    EDIT: nvm. Read your next post.

    I write as much as I can. But my job is now a lot more demanding of my time.
     
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  8. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    You do write a lot. And you update more often than many fanfiction authors, even ones with more free time and no demanding job. But you have dozens of stories all competing for attention, so it's no surprise that your individual stories update infrequently.
     
  9. godzillahomer

    godzillahomer Know what you're doing yet?

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    Some of the slower ones might be unpopular on the voting thread
     
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  10. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    Even the most popular fics on the voting list have months between updates. That's probably why voters chose to not replace Security! with anything when it finished.
     
    blind-conductor and Ack like this.
  11. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    Obligatory:



    In all seriousness, I hope it's going well for you.
     
  12. Beyogi

    Beyogi I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    There's a voting thread?
     
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  13. Firedon

    Firedon Lazy Sleepy Cat

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    It's in his sig, but here's a link anyway. Thread
     
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  14. KingofDiscord

    KingofDiscord Getting some practice in, huh?

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    • Please do not necro. This is against Rule 7.
    This is a good story.

    However I do wonder, what name this team-up will get/take?
     
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  15. Mr. Tebbs

    Mr. Tebbs Know what you're doing yet?

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    The flower patch girls, with a smiley face as their logo. It's a complete 180 from everything they've done, and it's a bit degrading to say especially when you have to tell your superiors who beat the piss outta ya
     
    GW_Yoda, Tsotate, Ack and 1 other person like this.
  16. Threadmarks: Part Three: Opposite and Unequal Reaction
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One Bad Day

    Part Three: Opposite and Unequal Reaction

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Wednesday Afternoon, December 22, 2010
    Sarah Pelham


    “Here you go, honey.” Neil's rumbling voice brought Sarah out of an uneasy doze. At the same time, the delicious scent of chamomile tea drifted across her nostrils, giving her the impetus to open her eyes. Reaching up, she accepted the cup from him and sipped at it, enjoying the flavour as it spread through her mouth.

    “Thanks,” she sighed. “This is just what I needed.” A moment later, she frowned. “Did I ask you to make this? Because I don't remember doing that.” She took another sip anyway, feeling the tension easing from her body. As tough as things were out there on the streets, having Neil to support and care for her made all the difference.

    “Nope.” He settled on to the sofa beside her, one arm automatically going around behind her neck. Just as automatically, she snuggled into the embrace, making a small contented sound in the back of her throat. “But you looked beat, and I know you like it.” Leaning over, he planted a kiss on the top of her head. “You're pushing yourself too hard, honey.”

    “Holiday madness.” It was a common phrase among capes and cops alike. Just as normal crime spiked around Christmas and Easter, so did the incidence of offences either perpetrated by parahumans or to parahumans; quite often, both at the same time. Along with the rest of New Wave, Sarah had been doing her best to help keep the insanity down to a manageable level. She wasn't at all sure they were succeeding. “I mean, the Empire's not just roughing people up these days; they're murdering them. From what Vicky told me, they're even marking their kills. That's a shift toward the disturbing.”

    Neil grimaced. “I heard. I just hope—”

    What he hoped went by the wayside as the landline rang at Sarah's elbow. Plucking the cordless phone off its cradle, she checked the caller ID as she hit the answer button. “Hi, Carol. What's up?”

    Are Vicky and Amy at your house?” asked Carol without preamble. “Because they never came home from school. When I called Arcadia, I was informed that Vicky had cut class after first period, and Amy never attended any classes after lunch. If they're there, send them home at once. I have serious words for them.” Her tone was tight and controlled, but Sarah could hear a certain amount of suppressed tension under it. Carol had already lost Mark, and quite understandably didn't like not having her girls where she could see them. If Sarah lost Neil, she knew damn well she'd become a lot more protective of Eric and Crystal, and rightfully so.

    “Uh, I haven't seen them, but Neil might know where they are,” Sarah said, then turned to her husband. Putting the phone to her chest to cover the microphone, she asked, “Have you seen Amy or Vicky? Carol says they never came home.”

    He frowned. “Uh, no. Are they out with Eric and Crystal?” His expression became a lot more concerned when she shook her head. “Crap. Are they home?” By 'they', she knew he meant their own two children. She nodded. “Okay, I'll go ask them if they know.” With a sigh, he took his arm away from her shoulders, then stood. “Tell her … tell her not to worry. Vicky's as tough as they come, and nobody in their right mind would hurt Amy.”

    Yeah, but there's any number of people in the city who aren't in their right minds. Sarah took a deep breath and lifted the phone to her ear again. “Neil hasn't seen them either, but he's just gone to ask Eric and Crystal if they know. Have you tried their phones?” She knew quite well that both the Dallon girls—as well as Carol herself, and Sarah and her family—carried cell-phones as a matter of course.

    Yes, I tried their phones.” Sarah winced as the unspoken phrase 'you idiot' came across quite clearly. “They're either out of battery, out of range of towers, or switched off.” Which was all the more concerning, as the first two were quite difficult to achieve; as a favour to Carol, Armsmaster had worked on the phones and made them much more efficient, both in reception range and in battery life.

    “There's probably nothing to worry about,” she said soothingly, casting about in her mind for a reasonable explanation. “They've probably just gone to the movies or something. I haven't heard of any major action by any of the gangs today; have you?”

    Well, no,” Carol replied, sounding slightly less tense. “Though they should know better than that by now. I've told them and told them. One of them always has to have her phone on, even if it's just on silent, for situations exactly like this.”

    “Teenagers will teenage,” Sarah said soothingly. “They're probably off somewhere having fun. You can yell at them when they get back, you'll feel better, they'll be typically resentful, and everything will be back to normal.” She looked around as familiar steps descended the stairs. “Here's Neil now. Let's see what's going on.”

    The look on his face gave her pause. “I'm not sure what's going on,” he said slowly, obviously having caught the tail-end of what she was saying. “There's been something going on on the PHO boards for the last quarter-hour. Eric's trying to catch up with it now, but the mods have locked three threads so far and issued a record number of temp bans on top of that.” He shook his head. “It all started with a comment from some Empire guy who says Vicky nearly killed him.”

    What? What's going on? What's that about Vicky?” Carol sounded more anxious than ever. “Put me on speaker!”

    Sarah pressed the appropriate button and held the phone up between herself and Neil. “He says there's something going on with the PHO boards, and some Empire guy claims Vicky nearly killed him.”

    Neil opened his mouth to speak, but Carol got in first. “Ridiculous! I want to see his injuries! If he can post to PHO, he can't be that badly hurt.”

    Sarah didn't voice the obvious. If Vicky had called Amy to leave school and heal the guy, it would make sense. For a certain definition of 'sense', that is. And she had noticed Vicky was letting loose a little more frequently of late.

    “No, that's not the thing they're locking threads over,” Neil stated carefully. “Carol, I need to ask you something. Are Amy and Vicky an item? Because this guy says that before he ran off, Panacea and Glory Girl were kissing each other like there was no tomorrow.”

    Sarah's train of thought locked up on all brakes and derailed; there were no survivors. She stared at Neil. “Please tell me you're kidding.” His expression, as he stared back at her, was not his 'gotcha' face. It was his 'I have no idea what to do next' face.

    No.” Carol sounded like she was hanging on to her last shred of normalcy for dear life. “I refuse to believe that. Vicky is seeing Dean Stansfield. I have no idea which way Amy swings, but Vicky is straight; I'd bet my life on it.”

    “And even if they have just now decided they're in love, why would they have gone dark?” Sarah interjected. “They're not related, after all. It'll blow over.” But even as she said the words, she knew she was wrong. She shuddered at the thought of the shitstorm that had to be tearing apart PHO, especially given that Amy's adopted status wasn't well known. Some people would even be deliberately ignoring it for the sake of pushing the controversy even harder. The chance to smear New Wave with a a teenage lesbian incest scandal would be too tempting for certain interests to pass up.

    There was a beep, and Sarah checked the phone. Another call was incoming; caller ID had it as the news desk of the Brockton Bay Bulletin. “Uh, I've got a call incoming from the newspapers.”

    I've got three,” Carol snapped. “Don't answer them, or if you do, don't give any substantial replies. Everything's fine in the team, no comment. Especially not to the tabloids.”

    “Got it,” Sarah agreed. “I'll let you know if we hear from the girls before you do. Talk to you later.” She ended the call, then took a deep breath before she pressed the button to answer the incoming call. No comment. Everything is fine.

    <><>​

    Carol

    “So you're aware that this supposed witness is not only hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, but he's also a self-described member of a criminal-led gang, correct? Not necessarily the most unbiased of people when it comes to making claims about a superhero team. Think about that for just a moment.” Carol deliberately paused to give the reporter on the other end of the line time to try to regain some ground.

    But there's still the claim he made …”

    “Yes, the claim,” she said flatly. “Let's talk about that for a second. Let's suppose just for a second that it's not a total fabrication to smear the good name of New Wave. Which, by the way, the Empire would just love. Let's say it was true. Glory Girl and Panacea are both sixteen, and Panacea is adopted. They've also grown up with each other. So even if it wasn't a simple affectionate kiss—which sisters the world over will give one another—there'd still be nothing illicit or illegal about it. For the record, I don't believe for a moment that it is true, and if you print anything to the contrary without absolute proof, you'll be knowingly assisting a bunch of supervillains in weakening public support for one of the few superhero teams that practises true public accountability. Do you really want that?”

    There really was only one answer that he could give. “Well, no, but …”

    “... but if you really want to go farther with this, I suggest the following course of action,” Carol talked over the top of him. “Find this so-called witness and publish his name and address. I fully intend to sue him for defamation of character, on behalf of Glory Girl and Panacea. If he can't be found, or if he's not willing to face me in court, what does that tell you about his spurious claim?”

    A few moments later, she ended the call. Then she threw the phone across the room, bouncing it off of an armchair, which absorbed the force of the impact. She couldn't have gotten away with talking to no reporters; the news crews would start making up their own news at that point. But talking to one reporter from the relatively staid Brockton Bay Chronicle meant that everyone else would swarm around that publication and steal snippets for their own papers. Or at least, that was the plan.

    Getting up, she went into the kitchen and took a bottle out of the liquor cabinet. It was a prime aged whiskey she'd gotten Mark for Christmas; the night after his funeral, she'd had one glass from it, in private, and cried herself to sleep. Now, she unscrewed the top and poured herself a glass. She wasn't a drinker by habit but the alcohol slid down her throat with ease, burning pleasantly as it went. It didn't do much to put distance between her and the rest of the world, so she poured another one.

    That one went down easily, too.

    <><>​

    PRT Building
    Director Emily Piggot


    I need a drink.

    It was a thought Emily had had more than once during her tenure as regional Director of PRT ENE. Fortunately for her ruined kidneys, these days it was less of a direct urge and more of a lingering wish. That didn't prevent it from recurring at times like this, when it seemed all the troubles of the world seemed intent on landing on the back of her neck, all at once. For all that Brockton Bay was in the top ten cities in the continental US for cape presence (with a correspondingly high proportion of criminal capes) she'd never had a Ward murdered on her watch before.

    Taking a deep breath and letting it out again, she looked up at Armsmaster as he stood on the far side of her desk. “So you've got a witness and a name?” It was heartening that they had so much already. Of course, she would much prefer not have had one of her Wards murdered at all, but the universe was rather good at not letting her have what she wanted. With any luck, if they got this solved fast enough, the Youth Guard might not even get involved at all.

    “And a timeline,” he confirmed. Taking a miniaturised projector from his belt, he slotted a chip into it and placed it on her desk. “I carried out the interview myself.” He stepped back out of the way of the projection as the device came to life, throwing a still picture up on the blank wall of her office. A time/date stamp was visible at the top left corner of the image.

    As with all of his inventions, the picture and sound were very impressive for something so small.

    The girl on the screen was sixteen or seventeen, with well-styled red hair and definitely above-average looks, for all that she looked like she'd recently been crying. Flanking her as she sat at the table was an older man, also with fading red hair. The familial resemblance was easy to see, but that wasn't what caught Emily's eye. “I know that man,” she said suddenly. “I've seen his face before.”

    “Yes,” Armsmaster agreed. “He provided a character witness for Stalker when she was inducted into the Wards. He and his daughter are on record as being in the know about her secret identity, from before she joined the Wards. Playing back the footage now.”

    The picture jerked into life, as Armsmaster's voice spoke over the top. “This is Armsmaster, conducting preliminary witness interview regarding the murder of Shadow Stalker, on December twenty-second of two thousand ten. Please identify yourselves for the record.”

    The bulky older man raised his head slightly. In a practised tone, he spoke clearly and firmly. “My name is Alan Barnes. This is my daughter Emma.”

    There was a moment's pause, then he visibly nudged the girl—Emma—with his elbow. With a start, she spoke up. “Uh, sorry. I thought Dad—uh, my name is Emma Barnes. I'm a student here at Winslow.”

    That's all right, Emma.” As far as Emily could tell, Armsmaster was working on his people skills. He still wasn't exactly good at it, but at least he was making the effort. “I understand that you're acquainted with the alleged assailant?”

    Yeah.” Emma tightened her jaw and looked directly at the camera. At the same time, her hand took hold of her father's, and held it tightly. “We used to be best friends, you know? Back in elementary and middle school. But when we came to Winslow, I made new friends and she never really got over that.” There was another nudge from her father's elbow. “What? Oh, yeah. Her name's Taylor Hebert. That's H-E-B-E-R-T. Anyway, she went from being a nice kid, bit quiet, to being one of those weird loner psychos. The type you expect to bring a gun to school or something.”

    Emily frowned. The girl's delivery was … if anything, a little too polished. Almost as if she'd rehearsed saying her lines. “Pause it,” she said, and the picture froze. “Does the Barnes girl have acting experience?”

    “She's modelled teenagers' lines for local stores,” Armsmaster responded. “Is that what you mean?”

    Leaning back in her chair, Emily nodded slowly. “Yes, that sounds about right. Keep it going.”

    The footage rolled on as Armsmaster's voice came over the top again. “Are you aware of the nature of the wounds we found on Shadow Stalker?”

    Emma looked a little puzzled. “I heard she got stabbed. Is that what you mean?”

    For the first time, the alignment of the image altered, swaying a little from side to side. Emily guessed that Armsmaster had shaken his head. “Part of the wounding involved a swastika. Was Taylor involved with the Empire in any way?”

    That, Emily saw, brought the girl up short. “Uh, not that I know of. But I didn't know everything she did. I knew she didn't like Sophia, but I thought it was because, well, because she was my friend.” She seemed to think about her next words. “If she was connected to the Empire, she wasn't big with them. Maybe she was trying to get in by doing that?”

    “Pause.” Emily waited till the image froze again. “Do you have any evidence that the Hebert girl has Empire ties of any kind?”

    “Nothing direct,” he admitted. “But the way Stalker was killed was positively brutal. She was stabbed in the chest, puncturing her lung, then three more times in the back while she was trying to get away, then her head was pulled back by the hair and her throat was slashed. Then someone carved a swastika across her back. There's a lot of hatred there. A lot of anger.”

    Lips pursed, Emily nodded. She'd seen the aftermath of gang slayings before, especially ones motivated by racial tensions. They could get ugly. “Have the forensics people located the knife yet? Prints would be very useful around now. Also, is there any indication that her parents or siblings have Empire ties?”

    “She's an only child, and her mother's dead,” Armsmaster reported crisply. “The father's actually head of hiring for the Dockworkers Association. No known gang ties, but we're still looking into that. And no, they haven't located the knife. Best approximation is that it's a double-edged leaf-shaped blade about six inches in length. The Empire uses several types of blade that follow this model. Preliminary forensics say that it was either the same knife that did all the wounds, or virtually identical ones.”

    “Her mother's dead?” Emily's interest was sharpened. “Any chance it's what pushed her into the Empire?” It was entirely possible; the ABB was aggressive enough from time to time to murder people, and of the other two gangs actively recruiting in Winslow, the Merchants were hardly viable to be called a gang. Moreover, their ethos was more about selling drugs and shooting up than taking revenge for a dead mother.

    Armsmaster shook his head. When he spoke, his tone was regretful. “Probably not. She was killed a couple of years ago in a single-vehicle accident. The police report stated that she was probably texting and driving. She didn't have anything in her background that might link her to the Empire, though there was an arrest back in her college days that links her to Lustrum's movement.”

    Emily frowned. A decades-old link to a now-Birdcaged cape with fanatical feminist tendencies didn't offer much of a reason to join a neo-Nazi organisation in the present day. Unless, of course, the tendency to join extremist groups was somehow genetic in nature. There was almost certainly a study about it somewhere. Certain modes of thought, she surmised, might actually make it more likely to join such groups, and such things did run in families …

    That was something to consider later, she decided. "So noted. Continue the playback."

    "That's something that has yet to be determined," Armsmaster's voice stated. "Please walk me through what happened. When did it start?"

    On the makeshift screen, Emma took a deep breath, then licked her lips. "After third period. Sophia and I met up with Madison outside Mr Gladly's classroom to go to lunch together, but Mads said she needed to go to the bathroom. So we went to the third floor one and waited--"

    "I'm sorry to interrupt, but why did you go up there?" Armsmaster broke in with the question. "Aren't there bathrooms on lower floors?"

    "Yeah, but most everyone wants to go to the bathroom at the beginning of lunch break," Emma replied. "We—I mean she—didn't want to have to wait too long."

    Emily filed away the slip of the tongue—if it even was one—without comment. It wasn't something she could really call out, and in any case there was something else that had caught her attention.

    "So what happened then?" prompted Armsmaster's voice.

    "Sophia and me didn't need to go, so we waited outside the bathroom while Madison went in. The next thing, we heard her scream, so we ran in. Taylor was just standing there with a kind of sick grin on her face, and Madison was screaming and thrashing around. She was covered in bugs. When Soph and I burst in, a few came for us, but not as many as there were on poor Mads." Emma clutched her father's hand convulsively. "It was horrible." Turning to her father, she buried her face in his shoulder. He wrapped his free arm around her and held her tightly.

    Armsmaster paused the playback. "We pulled up the interview for a few moments until she regained her composure," he explained. "It seemed to have affected her badly."

    "I'm not surprised," Emily said dryly. "Though there are a few things that don't seem to be adding up. It could be her memory playing tricks on her, but I'm a little dubious about them."

    When Armsmaster spoke next, he sounded puzzled. "I'm not sure what you're talking about. I mean, there are some things about this case that don't make sense to me, but not in that part of the interview."

    "I'm going to assume that you know very little about teenage girls." There was no change in Armsmaster's visible expression, but Emily almost smiled at the air of confusion radiating off the man. "There is no way two would wait outside while one went in. Was there a mirror in there?"

    "Well, yes, but I don't see the connection.” Thus spoke, Emily mused, a man who'd never had to share a bathroom with a teenage girl. Or, for that matter, a woman of virtually any age.

    “Run it back a little.” She waited till he complied, then pointed. “See? You can see she's been crying, but her makeup is perfect. I'm willing to bet that during the break before you resumed, she went to the bathroom and fixed it all up again.”

    “So you're saying she would've gone in with Madison. Both of them would have.” Armsmaster finally seemed to be getting it.

    “Exactly.” Again, Emily indicated the face of Emma Barnes, frozen in mid-word. “I'm not saying all teenage girls are so image-conscious but with her looks and her background in modelling, it'd be basically impossible for her not to be. Her not going in there with Madison, especially just before she goes to lunch with all the other students, is within the realms of possibility, but extremely unlikely. So there's that. Also, something else.”

    “Something else?” Armsmaster's tone seemed to be asking another question: what else did I miss?

    “She said the Hebert girl already had her bug powers; specifically, she was attacking Madison with them when they entered.” Emily waited for him to get the inference.

    “You're saying that because she may have lied with one part of her statement, she lied about that too?” Armsmaster sounded dubious. “You realise, that doesn't necessarily follow.”

    “No, you're right. It doesn't.” Emily heard the satisfaction in her own voice. “But we have the swastika carving, which indicates Empire involvement. The thing is, if she wanted to get into the Empire and she had bug powers, all she'd have to do is present herself complete with powers, and they'd welcome her with open arms. So if she had the bug powers before today … why hasn't this already happened?”

    Armsmaster nodded slowly. “So either she hasn't had the bug powers for that long, or someone else carved the swastika. And presumably finished off Shadow Stalker.” His lips compressed as he presumably frowned. “I had been wondering how a brand-new cape with no formal training that we know of managed to beat Stalker so comprehensively.”

    “Exactly.” In a fight between Shadow Stalker and a bug controller, even one armed with a knife, she would've bet on the Ward. As much as Emily had disliked the volatile teenager, she was aware that Shadow Stalker had pursued a middling-successful career as a vigilante for some months before being snared by the PRT for her lack of care and attention. “Do you think the Hebert girl had help from the Empire? Or perhaps other powers that Trumped Stalker's?” It was the only thing that made sense, really. “Or even both?”

    “Too many anomalous data points to reach any firm conclusions at this time,” decided Armsmaster. “There's a little bit more to go with the interview.”

    “Show me,” Emily ordered, settling back into her seat. Belatedly, it occurred to her that the swastika carving may have been carried out to frame the Empire for the killing. She made a mental note to look into that possibility as well. Too many variables.

    The footage skipped ahead, showing Emma back in control of her emotions. As Emily had predicted, her makeup was perfect once more.

    "So you entered the bathroom," Armsmaster said. "What happened then?"

    On screen, Emma licked her lips again. Emily wondered if it was some kind of tell. "I—I wanted to save Madison, but Soph just grabbed me and shoved me out the door. She told me to go, that she'd hold Taylor off." She sniffled and dabbed at the corner of her eye, though Emily was fairly certain there hadn't been any tears there. "It was the most heroic thing I've ever seen."

    Already inclined to be dubious, Emily decided to take the dramatics with a large grain of salt. Given that Emma was alive and Sophia was dead, she was willing to accept that Emma left while Sophia stayed. How it had come about was something she did not intend to blindly accept from Emma's testimony.

    "What did you do?" Armsmaster's voice was non-judgmental.

    "I ran downstairs," Emma supplied. "Went straight to Principal Blackwell's office and raised the alarm." She paused. "Oh, and I think I saw the knife, too. Just as I went out the door, I looked back and I thought I saw something in Taylor's hand. Something shiny."

    "Can you describe it for me?" asked Armsmaster, an increase of interest now evident in his tone. "How long was the blade? How was it shaped? Were there any distinguishing markings on it? Any details at all would be very helpful."

    The teenage girl hesitated, and Emily made a private bet with herself that no pertinent details would be forthcoming. “I—I didn't see very much,” she confessed. “Just a glint, you know? I didn't even realise what it was until I heard that Sophia had been stabbed. Then I knew what it must've been. I think she must've brought the knife to school on purpose. To kill me, or Sophia, or Madison. Or all three of us.”

    Emily held up her hand, and Armsmaster paused the footage once more. “She never saw the knife,” she said flatly. “I would bet a large amount of money that Taylor wasn't holding it when Emma went out the door.”

    “I'm forced to agree.” He sounded a little hurt; she suspected he'd been feeling a certain degree of sympathy toward the redheaded girl. Which, of course, had been Emma's aim all along. The teen was really good at presenting herself as an innocent victim. “But why play that up?”

    “To fix in our minds that Taylor had a weapon on her from the beginning, and ignore the fact that she had bug powers.” She rubbed her chin. “How many capes with a reliable ranged power also pick up a weapon like a knife to augment that? I'm not being rhetorical here; I really don't know. It just seems to me if you can swarm someone to death with bugs, being able to stab them is a little superfluous.”

    “Not many that I know of. Still, Stalker was stabbed,” he pointed out. “There was a patch of aspirated blood in the middle of the floor that I'm willing to bet she coughed up once she was wounded. And as I said earlier, if our forensics techs are correct, all the wounds were done with either the same weapon or blades that were virtually identical to one another. But if we can't actually put the knife in Taylor's hand, did she even do it? Or did someone else come in and take over? Someone connected to the Empire?”

    “Maybe we don't even need the Empire connection,” Emily said, recalling her earlier thought. “What if whoever killed her did it for their own reasons, and only carved the swastika to throw investigators off the scent?” Which, if she thought about it, made Taylor a possible suspect once more. She wasn't sure why the girl would've stabbed Stalker, or even how Taylor could have overcome her in a straight fight, but reading between the lines of Emma's description of her, she got the strong indication that Emma disliked Taylor Hebert intensely. Is that why she was in that bathroom?

    “But it's got similarities to a murder that happened a few weeks ago,” Armsmaster said. “We found Grue of the Undersiders, a young black man, stabbed to death with a broken-off broomstick. They carved a swastika on him as well. The Empire denied responsibility, but Shadow Stalker's report clearly put them on the scene at the time …” His voice trailed off. “That's a really odd coincidence. Two murders, two swastikas when they've never made a practice of doing that before, and Stalker just happens to be involved in both of them.”

    “She's the victim in this case, don't forget,” Emily said flatly. “But I agree; it is odd. If the same people did both, or even if this one's a copycat, it follows that Stalker's killer almost has to be Empire. Maybe they figured out who she was and thought she could identify them, so they came to Winslow to shut her up?”

    “Doesn't hold water,” Armsmaster replied. “That was nearly three weeks ago. They'd assume they're free and clear by now.”

    “Unless they're Winslow students, new in the Empire and cocky with it.” Emily was having a hard time getting over the double coincidence. “Suppose they came up to the third floor to do whatever; steal from the classrooms, have a smoke somewhere, settle a gang difference. Stalker's been stabbed. She's coughing up blood, so she ghosts out through the wall or door, and they see this. They recognise her as Shadow Stalker and that she's wounded, so they go in for the kill, and mark her the same way they did the other guy. Once the deed's done, they scatter.”

    Armsmaster paused. “That's a really, really big coincidence,” he objected, but she heard the doubt in his voice. “There's still the problem with the knife wounds all being from the same blade. Forensics has a blood-mark inside the bathroom that's consistent with a knife being dropped on the floor.”

    “From the same type of blade,” Emily pointed out. “And what about this; Taylor has the knife and stabs Stalker somehow. Stalker backs off and coughs blood. Taylor drops the knife for whatever reason. Stalker's able to pick up weapons on the way through while she's ghosted; I've read her reports. She does this and ends up outside the bathroom with a bloody knife, but the wound and the passage through the wall weakens her so when the Empire recruits see her, they overpower her, take the knife off her and kill her with it.”

    “Which would solve the mystery of where the knife went to,” Armsmaster conceded. “We've searched every trashcan and dumpster in and around Winslow. There was actually an amazing amount of contraband there, including several knives that fit the type of the one that killed Stalker, but none with any traces of fresh blood on them.”

    “We'll go with that for a working theory,” Emily decided. “Let's see what the rest of the interview has to offer.”

    The action started again. “What did Principal Blackwell do?” asked Armsmaster's voice.

    She set off the fire alarm and put the school on lockdown,” Emma said promptly. “Standard procedure for cape attack. Then she called the police and the PRT and sent me to the school nurse to make sure I was OK. I had a few bug bites, but that was all.” Her shiver looked entirely unfeigned. “Seeing all those bugs swarming over poor Madison like that …”

    Can you recall any more details of your encounter with Miss Hebert?” Armsmaster prompted. Emma shook her head. “All right, then. Thank you for your assistance. You've been very brave.” A card skated into view across the table; Emily knew for a fact that Armsmaster had a dispenser in the cuff of one of his gauntlets. “Call me at any time of night or day if you think of anything else.”

    The picture cut off there, and the projector shut down. Armsmaster stowed the device on his belt once more. “After that, I escorted them to their vehicle and went back to see how the forensics techs were doing with the crime scene.”

    “Anything of note there?” Emily began going over in her mind what she was due to do once Armsmaster left. There was paperwork from Requisitions to look over, and …

    “Something odd, yes.” The somewhat puzzled tone to his voice brought her attention right back to him. “Inside the bathroom it reeked of bleach. As in, very recently applied bleach. I checked, and they only have cleaners come in once a week, on Saturday. It's a budgetary thing.”

    “They weren't cleaning up the blood, were they?” Emily felt her ire rising at such a concept. Destroying evidence could and would land someone in jail, if anyone on the faculty was stupid enough to do it.

    “No, the blood was still there.” Armsmaster shook his head slightly. “It was as if they'd picked one cubicle and scrubbed it to within an inch of its life, for no discernible reason. It wasn't even near where the blood was.”

    “Do you have photos of the scene?” The question was superfluous; of course Armsmaster had photos.

    “I do. Emailing them to your computer now.” As the desktop terminal pinged to alert her of the incoming mail, Emily mused that the man was an incurable showoff.

    She clicked the mouse on the appropriate icon and opened the folder. Two were of Shadow Stalker's sprawled body at the top of a set of stairs, while the rest portrayed a series of views of a typical high school bathroom. She bypassed the sheet-covered body in the middle of the floor and concentrated on the other details. Grimy mirror, tiled walls and floor, six cubicles … “Wait, the doors open outward?”

    “Seems to be the way they were constructed.” Armsmaster shrugged slightly. “It's not unknown.”

    “Sounds ridiculous to me.” Emily studied the photos. “Which one had the smell of bleach?” Something nagged at her as she looked them over, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

    “Second one from the door,” Armsmaster said helpfully. “In photo four, it's in the middle of the frame.”

    “Hm.” Emily rubbed her chin. “If they thought it was worth walking past the body of a Ward to clean this one cubicle, I want to know why they cleaned it.” She looked up at Armsmaster. “I need you to go back there with the most powerful black light emitter you can build or adapt for the purpose. Bleach is used to clean up biological contamination, and I'm strongly convinced there was some sort of spill there. Maybe more blood, even.” Which would definitely change the whole scenario, right there. To what, she wasn't certain. “Hopefully you can find something they didn't clean up, and get a sample.”

    “Roger that, ma'am.” Armsmaster didn't sound thrilled by the prospect. “Anything else?”

    She considered the question, then looked over the photos again. That nagging feeling came again, and she tapped a fingernail on the screen. “Those feminine product bins don't look quite right. What's going on with them?” The angle wasn't great, but to her point of view, they looked a little bulkier than they really ought to be.

    “I'll ask about that, too.” If she knew him, he was making a note as he spoke.

    “Good.” She leaned back in her chair. “We don't have enough data on what happened when Emma and her friends first entered that bathroom. Did Taylor attack them, or did they attack her? Either way, why? One girl against three, with one of the three being Stalker? It's not great odds. In fact, it's shitty odds.”

    “We're reasonably certain she has bug powers, and there was a knife involved somewhere there as well,” Armsmaster reminded her. “Stalker first got stabbed inside the bathroom, not outside.”

    “Yes, but still. Masters, by and large, are squishy. This is why Brutes protect them. They just don't tend to step up and go on the attack.” Sitting forward, she propped her chin on her hand as she looked over the photos one more time. “We just don't have enough information.”

    Correctly taking that as a dismissal, Armsmaster moved toward the door, then stopped and turned around. “There's already a BOLO out on the Hebert girl. Are we treating her as a suspect? Approach with caution?”

    Emily frowned. “We'll be calling her a person of interest in the case for the moment. If Emma's lying about what happened, maybe Miss Hebert can clear things up.” As a person of interest, it wouldn't be hard to get warrants to search the Hebert girl's house and school locker. With any luck, whatever they found there would bring order to the current chaos.

    “And if it turns out she snapped, murdered Shadow Stalker, and carved the swastika into her back?” Armsmaster's voice held a note of inquiry.

    “Then we throw the book at her, and ask her why she's copying an Empire kill.” Emily shook her head. “But I don't think it's going to come to that.”

    She didn't pay attention when Armsmaster closed the door behind him. Staring at the photos of Shadow Stalker's fallen body, she frowned. Did she attack you or did you attack her? What happened in that bathroom?

    After a while, she sagged back into her chair with a sigh. There was something missing; a crucial piece of data that was consistently eluding her. The missing link that would help her make sense of this whole mess.

    And she still needed a drink, dammit.

    <><>​

    The Next Morning
    Thursday, December 23, 2010
    Taylor


    It had been one of the worst nights of my life; not only was I sleeping on concrete with a piece of wood for a pillow, but I kept getting flashbacks to the bathroom, with side thoughts of how Dad was going to be taking this. The word 'badly' just didn't seem to be descriptive enough.

    I had murdered a Ward.

    I had murdered a Ward.

    I had murdered a Ward.

    I had murdered a Ward.

    It didn't matter that she'd been bullying me, or even that she'd murdered a guy (well, that part did matter, but I was fairly certain that the PRT neither knew nor cared about Brian Laborn's death at Sophia's hands). They'd just care that a bug-controlling parahuman (me, just to be clear) had murdered a teenage girl with her bugs, and stabbed another teenage girl (who also happened to be a Ward) to death. Did they Birdcage people for that? I was pretty sure they did. Bug powers aside, I was fifteen years old and skinny with it. Imposing, I was not. Intimidating, even less so. They didn't have any rules or guards inside the Birdcage. I'd be a plaything. If I was lucky, the women would get hold of me, and even then that was a very loose definition of 'lucky'.

    A delicious smell assaulted my nostrils, dragging me bodily out of my restless doze. Opening my eyes revealed blurry forms around me, sitting up and looking around. I did the same, fumbling for my glasses. Once I found them, I looked around for the source of the tantalising odours.

    It wasn't hard to find. On the floor directly in front of me was a Fugly Bob's takeout bag. Lisa was just opening another one, and Glory Girl and Panacea had one each. I stretched reflexively, feeling about eighty years old from the cramps and creakiness, then stared at the bags. “Did we order takeout or something?” I asked, feeling more than a little confused. “Because I don't remember that.”

    “We didn't,” Panacea said as she unwrapped a burger. Beside her, Glory Girl had her mouth blissfully stuffed full of fries. “Lisa?”

    “I didn't do it,” Lisa said, eating a couple of her fries. She raised her head, looking around. “Someone else did it, and I think they're still here.”

    A wash of fear went through me, and I climbed painfully to my feet. An order from me sent my bugs into high gear, swarming through the building. They found nobody, but that didn't change anything. If someone could get into our hiding place and leave Fugly Bobs bags with us without being spotted, they had to be really good at being sneaky. “If they're here, I can't find them,” I said, slowly sitting down again. Then I looked dubiously at my bag. “Maybe we shouldn't eat it. Maybe it's got a sedative or something in it.”

    Panacea put her hand on her sister's arm. “Sugar, salt, grease and MSG, sure, but no sedatives,” she reported. “Maybe they should've included some. She's gonna be hyper for hours now.” She looked back over at Lisa. “You're certain they're still around?”

    Lisa, caught in the act of taking a large bite out of her burger, waggled her free hand in the air. I reached into my own bag and pulled out a wrapped burger, still warm from the oven. My stomach, which had been silently protesting its lack of food to that point, decided that loud was the way to go. If there'd been windows, they would've rattled. Panacea smirked as I flushed, but she sent a semi-apologetic look my way. “Sorry,” she said. “I shouldn't laugh.”

    Lisa swallowed the bite of burger, then cleared her throat. “I'm about sixty to seventy percent sure there's someone still hanging around. Pretty sure they don't mean us any harm. But there's something I can't figure out.” Closing her eyes for a moment, she rubbed at her forehead with forefinger and thumb.

    I'd just taken a bite out of my burger (I was hungry, and if I was going to be arrested, I'd rather have a good meal first) when something white flew past my vision. My head turned so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash, but it was just … a paper plane? What the hell was a paper plane doing here? And who threw it?

    Even as it spiralled down to the ground—it seemed set up to turn really fast—I sent bugs swarming through the area it had come from. They didn't catch anyone. Nor did they smack into an invisible man, or even a visible one; bug eyesight might've been crap, but it could pick up a human form with ease.

    That wasn't to say there was nobody there. My bugs kept hitting a fuzzy space, which confused them and threatened to give me a headache. Worse, the fuzzy space kept moving around in a way that prevented me from getting a fix with my bugs. I really hoped Lisa was right about whoever—or whatever—it was not meaning us harm.

    The plane hit the ground with a tiny thud, and Lisa leaned over to pick it up. Unfolding it one-handed—the other hand was still occupied with her burger—she squinted at it. “Yo, peeps,” she read, then frowned. “You promise not to gank me if I show my face? Friendly, I promise. I'm totes the awesome person who brung you the Fugly. Peace?”

    Lisa read through the note again, then folded it carefully and tucked it into her pocket. Panacea and I stared at her, while Glory Girl seemed to be searching through her bag for more fries. “Well?” I asked.

    “Well, what?” Lisa retorted as she got to her feet. “Do I think it's genuine? Yeah. Do I think they're telling the truth? Sure. Do I think they're standing right in front of me?” Her hand lashed out and grabbed something, then pulled it close to her. “You can drop the effect now,” she added, and I was pretty sure she wasn't talking to me or Panacea.

    One moment I was wondering why she was acting this way, and the next I was staring at a black girl, a year or so younger than myself. She had a purple streak in her hair and wore trashy clothes almost certainly intended to shock and irritate others. In deference to the chill in the air, she also wore a light jacket; Lisa had a firm grim on its collar.

    “All right, all right,” groused the girl sullenly. “You can let go now.” She turned to face the rest of us. “Hi. Hope you like Fugly's.”

    “Aisha,” Lisa said warningly. “What've you been up to? Did you go after Shadow Stalker on your own after I told you not to?”

    “Yeah, you told me.” The black girl—Aisha—shot Lisa an impudent grin. “But I still fuckin' got her, didn't I?”

    I raised a hand tentatively. “Uh, I think it was actually me that got her. Just saying.” As I put my hand down, I wondered why I'd even spoken up. It wasn't something I was exactly proud of, after all. Then something else caught up with me. “Wait, you know each other?”

    “Yeah, Bri was my big brother,” Aisha said. “She was the one who told me about Shadow Stinker killing him.“ She pulled free of Lisa's grasp—or rather, Lisa let her pull free—and came over to sit next to me. “Remember the knife? Who do you think gave it to you?”

    A lot of things made sense all of a sudden. I'd thought things had gone a bit weird at Winslow. “And you made me into a fucking murderer,” I told her bitterly. “The PRT's gonna fuckin' Birdcage me for that. A cape who killed two girls, one of them a Ward? My feet won't even touch the ground.”

    “It probably won't come to that,” Lisa assured me. “But you're right. There's people looking for all of us, and we're probably safer sticking together. Except you, Aisha. You should go home. Nobody's after you for anything.”

    “Nuh uh,” Aisha said, shaking her head vigorously. “Mom's a druggie who brings home pervert boyfriends. Dad's got a stick so far up his ass it scratches his tonsils. Bri's the only one who ever made it tolerable. I'm never goin' home again. If I get shit for you guys, can I hang with you?”

    Lisa looked over at me, then at Panacea. I shrugged; while I was still a little irritated with Aisha for giving me the knife, I couldn't help but recall Sophia's look of murderous rage. She probably would've killed me, if not for Aisha. “I guess?” I mumbled.

    “Couldn't hurt,” Panacea agreed in the same mildly dubious tone.

    “I guess that settles it,” Lisa said. “Looks like you're in.”

    “Awesome!” Aisha bounced to her feet again. “I always wanted to be in a supervillain team. So what are we gonna do next? I vote we rob a bank. I've never robbed a bank before.”

    Lisa facepalmed, while I shared a look with Panacea. Oh, boy.

    Life on the run was definitely not going to be boring.



    End of Part Three

    Part Four
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2018
  17. steamrick

    steamrick Wisdom is in pursuit, but I'm faster!

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    Oh wow, it's been a while. I'll have to reread, I think.
     
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  18. Radek

    Radek Promethean

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    Push a few people to the breaking point and watch the chaos unfold. Sounds like a Simurgh plot alright.
     
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  19. rooster

    rooster I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Runaways, run away!

    Wow, last update was over a year ago. I re-read the whole thing since there wasn't much anyway.

    It's nice to see that PRT aren't either Super-idiots that can't figure anything out and pin definite blame on the first suspect or Super-geniuses that already know everything the audience knows. This kind of independent thinking and information-separation is a rare skill for a writer to have.
     
  20. Tsotate

    Tsotate Getting sticky.

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    Nice to see this back. A bit jarring to see Piggot referring to a suspect she's never met by first name, though.
     
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  21. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    But... but... Pigot being reasonable? NOT going on a warpath against the bug cape that 'killed her Ward' based on flimsy, at best, evidence? You always did post some radical ideas in your stories Ack. ;)

    And we all know that the search of Taylor's room will turn up the notebook (and again, nothing there to denote Empire ties, the swastika mystery deepens!).
     
  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It's her name. I refer to people I've never met by their first names too.
     
  23. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Experienced.

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    They might have meant that it's jarring for Piggot, specifically, to refer to a suspect by her first name.
     
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  24. Darkarma

    Darkarma Not too sore, are you?

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    I had nearly the same reaction. First time I've seen this fic though.

    All we need is Dinah as a standin for Molly.

    One critique Ack, trigger powers seem identical to Canon however the circumstances are different. Both for Aisha and Taylor despite both being in proximity to capes for them to ping off of.

    Given Taylor's quick recovery though... did she get her full double trigger in just one trigger or being near Sophia result some other aspect?
     
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  25. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The powers are superficially the same, but there's a little bit here and there that's different.

    1) Aisha triggered with a smidge of Lisa's power, that basically acts as an intuitive guide for getting to her goals. Kind of like a cut-rate Coil. (She was gonna prank the fuck out of them, but her power told her it would be a bad idea for future relations, so she didn't). Note that this is entirely unconscious. So if Aisha seems to be acting a little more ... level-headed, this is why.

    2) Taylor did double-trigger (she genuinely thought she was suffocating, and indeed she was, until Aisha got the bin off of her head). She got a little bit of both Aisha and Sophia's Stranger abilities, which will basically give her a low-level Stranger power when she's got bugs moving around her; peoples' attention will slide off her, and it will be much harder to target her in the swarm.

    Killing Madison with her bugs, while it's gonna give her nightmares for a while, gave her a solid grounding in her power so she doesn't spend a week thinking she's insane. She knows she's got bug control, and she knows she can sense through them.
     
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  26. magic9mushroom

    magic9mushroom BEST END.

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    The issues are "why bugs", "why double trigger" and "why does Aisha get a Stranger power from hearing her brother's dead". Taylor got bugs because bugs were crawling on her in the locker, and the second trigger was because she was still stuck in the locker for a while after her first trigger. A situation that only lasted a few minutes shouldn't ordinarily suffice to give a second trigger, and without the bugs it's a bit odd for her to get bugs (as opposed to the various other things QA can do). Aisha's canon power is tailored for stealth, which fits her canon trigger of being pursued, but it seems almost entirely unrelated to "your brother's been murdered". You'd expect something tailored to fix her home life or help get revenge.

    But meh, whatever. It's Worm triggers, people can argue about them forever.
     
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  27. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Hmm, you're right.

    Okay, to amend my previous answer:

    1) When Aisha heard her brother was dead, she wanted the world to go away. Her incipient power couldn't do that, so it made her appear to go away from the world.

    2) When Taylor was suffocating, QA gifted her not specifically with bug control but with control over all nearby organisms, but with much more effectiveness (and range) over more simple-brained creatures (such as bugs, rats and politicians). People, she can't so much control as influence (again, subconsciously). Sort of like a cut-rate Jack Slash with a dash of Khepri thrown in :p

    As a tradeoff, her range (even with bugs) isn't nearly as far.

    And yes, Brockton Bay is in for a time.
     
  28. Darkarma

    Darkarma Not too sore, are you?

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    So tracking people with organisms in general will come much more easily to her. I'm guessing that only works with things that have some form of nervous system
     
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  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yup.
     
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  30. Threadmarks: Part Four: Escalating Matters
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One Bad Day

    Part Four: Escalating Matters

    [A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]



    Taylor

    Lisa covered her eyes with her hand. "No, Aisha." Her voice was almost a groan. "We are not going to be robbing a bank. For a start, I'm the only professional villain here. The last thing I want to do is raise my profile right now, and I'm pretty sure Taylor wants to keep her head down for her own reasons. And of course, even if Panacea was willing to break the law so blatantly, there's a good chance that Glory Girl would eviscerate anyone who threatened her."

    I looked at Amy, hoping she'd deny the charge. Sure, Glory Girl was different now, but I wasn't quite sure just how badly she'd been affected. Amy dropped her eyes rather than contest the point, causing my stomach to lurch. "She wouldn't ... would she?" I asked.

    "If I tell her not to, no," Amy said quietly. "But I can fix her. I know I can. I just need time to get it right."

    “You won't be able to, not like that,” Lisa informed her bluntly. “You're thinking you can go by your memories of what she's like, and rebuild her like that? Won't work. All you'll get is a caricature, based on what you think you remember about her. One that you'll be tweaking for the rest of your life. Until she gets enough self-awareness to understand what you've truly done to her, and either kills you or kills herself. Or both.”

    “I've got to try!” shrieked Amy, clenching her hands in her hair and squeezing her eyes shut. “I'm not a monster! I'm not!”

    The wave of fear made me take a step back, and I was pretty sure I was on the edge of it. Lisa must have caught the full force because she doubled up, gagging. When I looked at Victoria, she was hovering in place with her finger pointed at the erstwhile villain. “Don't upset Amy,” she said in her childlike tone. “I will be angry if you do.”

    “It's all right,” I said soothingly, moving forward again and holding my open hands up to show I was harmless. “Nobody's upsetting Amy. And I bet Lisa has a plan to make it work. Right, Lisa?” I prayed I was reading the situation correctly. If Lisa didn't have an alternate, she wouldn't have said 'not like that' … I hoped, anyway. I'd already noted her tendency to go overboard in destroying opposing ideas before putting her own up in their place.

    It took Amy a few seconds to register what I was saying, then she turned to Lisa. “Is that true? Do you know how to fix this?” The raw hope in her face was almost too much for me to bear; for all of our sakes, I prayed Lisa did actually have a solution.

    Fortunately, Vicky caught Amy's change in mood, and the fear aura died away. She drifted back down to the ground, but her eyes never left Lisa.

    Lisa hacked and coughed a few times, then spat off to the side. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she straightened up again. “Yeah, of course I've got a plan,” she said. “I've even got a backup plan. It's dangerous and difficult as fuck, but that's what you get when you pull this sort of shit. If monumental fuckups were easy to unravel, they wouldn't be monumental fuckups.”

    I winced at the momentary flare of anger on Amy's face, but the healer seemed to accept the judgemental words in the spirit they were offered. “I'll do it,” she declared. “Anything. Just tell me how to fix her.”

    “Well, here's the thing,” Lisa stated baldly. “You don't fix her. Your power isn't set up that way, any more than a pencil with an eraser on the end is good at reconstructing what's been written after the eraser's been over it. We're going to have to go farther afield for this. Ever hear of Toybox?”

    I blinked. “Uh, is that a cape?” To me, it sounded like something a Tinker would call himself. Though what a toy-based Tinker had to do with this situation, I had no idea.

    “No, it's not.” Amy shook her head. For the first time, she seemed to be engaging with Lisa. “It's a bunch of rogue capes, though they are all Tinkers. You think one of them could …” She paused, enlightenment spreading over her face. “Shit, of course. Cranial?”

    “Cranial,” Lisa confirmed. “Apparently she's the go-to person for memory transfer and personality implantation. Not that I figure there's much in the way of a legitimate market for that sort of thing.” She must've been feeling better, because her trademark grin had returned to her face. “However, in Vicky's case, it's just what the doctor ordered.”

    Amy nodded slowly, but then she grimaced. “Okay, I get that. But after all that, we're still stuck with the problem that my memories of her are probably unreliable. How do we get around that?”

    That got her an eye-roll from Lisa. “Seriously, were you even listening when I said it was going to be difficult and dangerous?”

    I decided to stick my oar in at this point. “Uh, I thought you were saying that contacting Toybox was going to be the difficult and dangerous bit. Or maybe they'd make us go and do stuff for them before they'd help us.”

    “Hah, nope.” Lisa's grin was back in full force by now. She shook her head. “Finding Toybox is easy, if you have the right contacts, and I've got those. Paying for the service will be a bit harder, but money's easy to come by if you know what you're doing and you're not too fussed about legalities.”

    “Hah!” I jumped as Aisha faded back into view. Holy shit, Brian had a sister, and she's been standing here all this time, and I didn't know she was there! “I knew we were gonna be robbing a bank! Someone hand me the phone, 'cause I called it!”

    Lisa facepalmed, properly this time. “Bank robbery is about the worst way to make money there is,” she explained patiently. “But we can burn that bridge when we come to it. No, that's not the difficult or dangerous part.”

    “So what is it?” Amy had a peculiar expression on her face, as if she wasn't sure that she wanted to know.

    Steepling her fingers, Lisa looked at us over them, obviously doing her best to portray a notorious supervillain. Her shit-eating grin didn't hurt the image, either. “We have to kidnap Glory Girl's friends and family, of course.”

    <><>​

    Danny

    “Okay, Hebert. Up an' at 'em. Your ride's here.”

    The words sliced through Danny's uneasy sleep like a hot knife through soft butter. He blinked his eyes open, then rubbed at them to get rid of the crap in the corners. As he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bench, he felt his spine pop in half a dozen places. Either he was getting old, or that was seriously not a good place to sleep. At first glance, he was going with 'both'.

    Fumbling around half-blind, he located his glasses on the floor beside the bench, wondering for the first time since he'd woken up exactly why he was sleeping on a hard bench rather than his soft bed. Or who it was that had woken him up with those brisk words. Putting his glasses on, he looked in the direction of the speaker and found his questions were being answered with more questions.

    Staring around the interior of the jail cell, he frowned. “What the hell am I doing here?” he asked almost plaintively.

    The police officer on the other side of the bars shrugged. “You punched a cop,” he said. “That shit tends to get you arrested. But hey, it's your lucky day.”

    Punched a … what the fuck? “Wait, why … ?” Danny's question trailed off as his treacherous memory started replaying scenes from the previous night in his head. “Ah.” And now that he thought about it, his knuckles were kind of sore. Also, he had two sore spots under his shirt. Those were where the taser darts had gone in. He wasn't surprised he had trouble remembering what had happened after that. Or before it, for that matter.

    “Yeah, ah,” the cop snorted. “But we aren't runnin' a bed and breakfast here, and word's come down from on high that you're to be handed over to the PRT. Who just showed up. So get on your feet and back up to the bars.” By way of explanation, he waved a pair of handcuffs. “You might look like a skinny drink of water, but from the way you laid out Bannon last night, I'm taking zero chances with you.”

    “PRT?” asked Danny, feeling as though he still had some mileage to catch up in this conversation. “What does the PRT want with me?”

    “Buddy, I am sincerely fucked if I know,” the cop replied. “But it's not my job to ask. It's my job to escort you out there so we can hand you over. So unless you really feel like staying in there and being charged with assaulting a police officer, be a pal and back up to the bars, huh?” He jingled the handcuffs again.

    “Right. Yeah.” Climbing to his feet, Danny shambled up to the bars. As he did so, he saw a second officer standing off to the side, hand on his taser. It seemed they really weren't taking any chances with him. Resignedly, he turned around and shoved his hands awkwardly through the bars.

    “That's the way.” A hand roughly grabbed one of his wrists and he felt the cold metal closing over it, then the process was repeated with his other wrist. “Okay, good. Now, we're gonna escort you out there and hand you over. The paperwork's been filed. Give us any trouble and we will tase your sorry ass and drag you out. Got it?”

    “Got it,” Danny replied numbly.

    “Good. Now step forward away from the bars.”

    Obediently, Danny moved away from the entrance to the cell. He heard it open, and turned around as the two police officers entered the cell. Each of them took hold of one of his arms, and they walked him out of the cell and down the corridor. He didn't try to resist, which was a good thing, because it wouldn't have done him any good.

    Waiting for him was a single PRT soldier, accompanied by a superhero. Shorter than him—the only capes in Brockton Bay that weren't were some of the villains—she wore well-cut camouflage fatigues and a flag-patterned scarf across her face, as well as a similarly-themed sash around her waist. The cops around her seemed more concerned by the M-60 she was carrying across her shoulders than by the weapon held by the PRT trooper. He knew who she was, of course; Miss Militia was a household name.

    “Here's your boy,” announced the officer who was holding his left arm. “One Daniel Hebert, in good condition. Not sure exactly what you want him for, but the paperwork all checks out.”

    “Thanks, guys,” Miss Militia said. “We'll take him from here.” She nodded to the PRT soldier, who stepped forward and took hold of Danny's arm. She hadn't answered the implied question, and he suspected it would've stayed unanswered even if the cop had asked it directly.

    They went out through the back of the station, where a PRT van waited patiently. The soldier holding his arm never spoke, and Danny wasn't even sure if it was a guy or a girl behind that opaque faceplate, though he suspected the former due to their sheer bulk. He was made to stand and wait while they took his cuffs off. The back of the van was opened and the trooper directed him to climb inside, then followed him in.

    If he'd thought they were going to be any less vigilant about him than the police were, he would've been somewhat mistaken. Manacles were locked around his wrists and the chain led down through a ring-bolt on his chair to another one on the floor. So long as he sat back in the reasonably-comfortable seat, he had no problems, but any attempt to get up and escape or attack his guard would end very quickly.

    The rear doors (open so that Miss Militia could observe the procedure, he was certain) closed, and a few moments later he heard the passenger-side door open and close as well. The engine started, and the van began to move.

    Danny turned his head to look at the guard, seeing only his distorted reflection in the faceplate. “Can I ask you what's going on?”

    He didn't really expect an answer so when the guard did speak, he was somewhat surprised. “Sir, my job is to guard you,” the hollow disembodied voice replied. “If you attempt to get out of those chains, I will foam you. Do you understand?” The tone was so matter-of-fact that the guy had to have said that exact same thing many times before.

    “Oh, uh, sure.” Danny subsided. “But can I ask you what's going on?”

    Yes, you can ask questions.” Miss Militia's voice came over speakers mounted toward the front of the compartment. “But this vehicle isn't secure, so we're limited in the answers we can give. We'll have more information for you when we get to the PRT building.”

    “Right. Gotcha.” Danny still wasn't sure what was going on, and why the PRT wanted to talk to him about the bullshit charges against Taylor—because really, what other reason did anyone in authority want him for right now?—so he settled back to enjoy the ride. Or at least, not hate it too much.

    <><>​

    Sarah Pelham

    Outside the Dallon Household

    Neil knocked again. “She's not answering,” he said. The comment was unnecessary; Sarah could easily see that her sister wasn't answering the door. More worryingly, neither of her nieces had answered the door either. Which meant they were either sleeping in after whatever adventures they'd had being out and about, or they were still out and about. The second scenario was the problematic one.

    “Fine, I'll use my key,” she said, bowing to the inevitable. As she dug it out of her purse, she wondered if Carol had actually taken the girls out somewhere. The garage doors were closed, so she couldn't tell one way or the other. No, she decided as she fitted the key into the lock. The state of mind that Carol had been in, she wouldn't be likely to give Amy a lift anywhere. Or let them out of her sight for at least twenty-four hours.

    The lock clicked, and she dropped the keyring back into her purse. Turning the handle, she pushed the door open. As she stepped inside, she sniffed as she smelled a strong odour.

    “Whew,” Neil said as he followed her inside. “Smells like a distillery in here.”

    It didn't, quite, but the whiff of alcohol was strong in the still air inside the house. That was when she heard the disjointed snoring, which was quite unlike Carol or either of the kids. Her eyes met Neil's in a silent question, and he shrugged in reply. All right, then. Hoping that Carol hadn't brought some strange guy home, but not sure what else it could be, Sarah drifted into the air and threw a light shield around herself. Probably overreacting but better safe than sorry. Silently, she floated through the doorway into the living room … and stopped dead in mid-air.

    “Carol?” she exclaimed in shock, her feet hitting the ground again with a thud.

    Neil crowded in past her, then came to a halt as well. “Fuck,” he said almost admiringly. “She's plastered.”

    He wasn't wrong. Carol lay sprawled on the couch, emitting snores that wouldn't have been out of place coming from a malfunctioning rock-crusher. Her hair was a mess, and one arm trailed off the side of the couch, a glass lying on its side a few inches from her fingertips. A large discoloured patch in the carpet next to the glass, along with the residual pooling of amber liquid in the glass itself, told them where the smell was coming from. On the coffee table, a bottle sat with only half an inch or so of matching fluid in the bottom of it.

    “Carol doesn't drink,” Sarah said automatically, then flushed as the evidence of the scene before her made it plain that yes, Carol had taken at least one drink. “Well, I didn't think she drank.”

    “Looks like she took it up in a hurry,” Neil observed. “Need a hand getting her upstairs?” He frowned as she stared at him in puzzlement. “Well, I figured you'd want to get her cleaned up and into bed, is all. 'Cause she's not gonna be waking up from a bender like that till at least midday.”

    Sarah sighed. “Good point. I got this.” Carefully, she formed a force field between Carol and the couch and lifted her sister into the air. Neil helpfully lifted Carol's dangling arm and draped it over her stomach. Turning, she made her burden waft its way toward the stairs. Literally hovering over Carol, she accompanied her sister upward to the second floor, then stopped. “Do me a favour?” she called over her shoulder.

    Neil paused in the act of picking up the dropped glass. “Sure, babe, what do you want?”

    “Check on the girls? Just open their bedroom doors and look in? If they're home and still asleep, I don't want to be worrying while I'm dealing with Carol.” She kept going, up the stairs and toward the bathroom. Hopefully a shower would wake Carol up. And if not, she needed to sleep it off in her own bed, not on that couch.

    “Not a problem,” her husband replied from downstairs. “I'll just put this in the sink.”

    Sarah allowed herself a tiny smile as she navigated her snoring—and yes, drooling—sister in through the bathroom door. Same old Neil. He was always careful about leaving things lying around on the floor, usually because if he stood on anything like that, it broke.

    Undressing a sleeping person wasn't exactly the easiest thing in the world, especially as Sarah had to make sure to keep a skin-level force field up at all times. While she didn't think Carol would spontaneously manifest an energy blade and try to kill her, she'd never seen her sister drunk like this ever. So safe was definitely better than sorry.

    Eventually, however, she got Carol undressed and into the shower, supported by a rough framework of force fields. Her sister mumbled and moved a little under the pounding spray of hot water, but never truly woke up, even when Sarah washed her face with a wet cloth. Maybe I should use cold water instead. But she didn't want to be cruel to Carol, and there was still going to be a massive hangover to deal with once her sister woke up.

    The shower done with, she dressed Carol in pyjamas she had Neil locate and hand in around the door, then floated her off to bed using the same forcefield-stretcher she'd used to get her up the stairs. None of this was physically strenuous, but by the time she pulled the covers over her sister and sat back on the edge of the bed, she felt like she'd been through the wringer. “Gah.” Looking around as Neil leaned into the room, she raised her eyebrows interrogatively. “Please tell me the girls are in their rooms.”

    His grimace told her everything she didn't want to know. “Sorry. No sign of them. Not even a note on the fridge telling her they were going out.”

    Gusting out a sigh, Sarah stood up. “Okay, this is starting to seriously concern me. Let's go downstairs, then you call Eric and I'll call Crystal, and see if between us we can't get a list of friends they might be staying with.”

    Neil nodded, his face set in lines of worry. “Should we alert the PRT that they're missing?”

    Up until now, Sarah had dismissed the idea, but now she began to seriously consider it. With the PRT, Protectorate and Wards all looking for the two girls, the chances of locating them would go up dramatically. On the other hand … “Let's hold off on that until we've checked with their friends,” she decided. “The last thing we want is to spread any sort of rumour that New Wave is coming apart at the seams.” After Mark's death, that had become a major concern for the both of them. “But if we can't find them then …” She didn't have to say any more.

    Her husband nodded. “Got it.”

    Together, they went downstairs.

    <><>​

    Coil

    Thomas Calvert was pissed.

    In a series of events that he was still working to sort out, one of his catspaw groups—including the very useful Tattletale—had slipped from his grasp. The death of Grue he could have gotten around, and in fact he'd thought Hardcase had things in hand. He'd advised the young man to keep Tattletale on a tight rein because he had no illusions about how she could twist orders to suit herself, given no oversight. The condition—or rather, the state of dress—in which he'd found Hardcase suggested that maybe he should've been a little more circumspect in how he worded his orders, but that was beyond the point.

    The point was that his Tattletale had defied his orders and killed his subordinate, who was also her team leader. He'd known she wanted to cut loose from his leadership, but murder was a line she'd never crossed before. She tended to destroy people with words, not weapons. Now she'd done it once, he couldn't trust her not to do it again, and he definitely couldn't trust her not to try to put a bullet in him at some point. She had to die, or appear to die, in such a way that sent a message to the rest of his minions: cross me and this is what happens to you.

    Of course, if he could get hold of her on the quiet, her death wasn't totally necessary. He'd been working on a backup plan for a while, just in case he managed to get his hands on another Thinker. It involved copious amounts of addictive drugs, though in order to strike just the right balance (he didn't want the end result to be babbling uselessness or death, after all) he'd need someone with the right skills to keep the subject alive, well and mostly lucid. Lacking another Thinker, and with her field usefulness at an end, Tattletale would make a perfect test subject.

    An almost equally irritating aspect was that he now had no real way to maintain his control over Regent or Bitch without revealing himself to them as their mysterious boss. They were far more useful masquerading as part of an independent team than as two disparate capes without Thinker or Shaker support. With the deaths of both Grue and Hardcase and the defection of Tattletale, the reputation of the Undersiders as the untouchable escape artist team was gone forever. In fact, the Undersiders themselves were finished as a team, unless the indolent Regent and the savagely uncaring Bitch could be persuaded to keep up the pretext. Maybe if he ordered Circus to join … but the androgynous cape had already made it clear that she worked alone.

    God damn it.

    As was his habit, he'd spent the previous night both in his base keeping up with the current situation in Brockton Bay—and trying to find Tattletale!—and getting a restful night's sleep. On rising, he'd dropped the 'base' timeline, split time again, and called in sick with one of his timelines. That timeline had him now in the base again, micro-managing the day-to-day operations in an effort to get a lead on his wayward Thinker. In the other, he was in his office, dealing with the inevitable paperwork that cropped up for a PRT strike team commander.

    The entire purpose of the visit had been to observe the interaction between Hardcase and Tattletale. While the new team leader had been boastfully confident about his ability to keep 'his people' in line, Calvert was all too aware that field reports could often differ drastically from the objective reality on the ground, so he'd wanted to drop in unexpectedly—while Regent and Bitch were both out, of course—and see for himself.

    He'd seen, all right. Hardcase was dead, with an arrow in his eye—where the hell had the bitch gotten an arrow from?—and Tattletale was in the wind. A cursory search of the base had assured him that the other two capes had not bolted in the same way; all their belongings were still there. The trouble was, what to do with them?

    With a sigh, the version of him in the base picked up his landline and selected Circus' number from the directory. A tap of the finger and the phone began to ring.

    Hello?” The tone was cautious. Circus must have recognised his number.

    “Circus, are you busy?” It never hurt to pretend to be caring about his subordinates' time.

    A little. Why?” He heard a shuffling noise, then a grunt. However, she'd answered the phone, so it couldn't be too drastic.

    It was time to get her attention. “I'd like to double your remittance, for additional duties.”

    The money would be nice, but what additional duties?” She hadn't lost the cautious tone. Some people, he decided, were just too paranoid.

    Oh, well. In for a penny. “I need someone to step in as leader of the Undersiders, and you're the first person I thought of.”

    There was a rude noise over the phone. “First person after Hardcase, you mean. Why, what happened to him?”

    Well, at least she hadn't heard that much about what was going on. Though how she knew about Hardcase in the first place, he wasn't sure. “He's no longer in the picture. Tattletale murdered him and ran. Without strong leadership, Bitch and Regent are likely to just wander off. I need you to provide that strong leadership.”

    Four times.” She grunted again. “Final offer.”

    “Four times … ?” He wasn't quite sure what she meant. Surely she didn't intend …

    Not double my usual. Four times. Those two are trouble for any team leader, and I don't do teams. I want four times the usual pay, or no deal.”

    He grimaced, but she had him over a barrel and he knew it. “Fine, on one condition.”

    No promises.” At least she wasn't shooting him down before even hearing it.

    “You make it your priority to hunt down Tattletale and deliver her to me, alive. Any other level of injury, I don't care. She just has to be able to hear and speak.” And feel, but that was a given. Torture might be only so-so at getting specific information out of people, but it was a wonderful way of breaking them.

    You're going to send her two previous teammates to help hunt her down? You realise that's got the potential to backfire really badly.” Her tone was thoughtful rather than dismissive, which was encouraging.

    “Bitch only cares about her dogs, and Regent doesn't care about anyone,” he pointed out. Still, Circus had a point. “But I'll be doubling their pay for this particular mission, just in case,” he decided.

    And a bonus on completion,” she added, apparently just to yank his chain. “We want 'em to feel good about it afterward, right?”

    He gritted his teeth. Next she'd be demanding the pound of flesh closest to his heart. Still, she was a professional, and her words made sense. “Including yourself, I have no doubt?”

    Naturally.” He could almost see the shit-eating grin on her face. “So, we have a deal?”

    At some point in the future, he decided, he and Circus were going to have a long talk about why she shouldn't antagonise her boss. There was likely to be a lot of screaming involved. If she was lucky (for a given definition of 'lucky') it would be in a disposable timeline. “We have a deal,” he conceded.

    Good,” she said brightly. “I'll get right on it.”

    He put the phone down again and leaned back in his ergonomic chair. It was time to check on the Pitter situation, he decided. Now that Tattletale had essentially volunteered to be his captive Thinker, he needed to push forward on that front faster than ever. Still trying to decide whether he was going to take one or both of her eyes as payback for the trouble she was putting him through, he picked up the phone again.

    <><>​

    Danny

    The interrogation room seemed to be an exact duplicate of the ones he'd seen in cop shows, from the uncomfortable-looking chair behind the bolted-down table to the wide mirror on the opposite wall. He wondered absently if anyone was actually fooled by the one-way glass any more, or if it was just tradition.

    The PRT trooper pointed at the chair and he sat down, fully aware that any show of defiance on his part would be remarkably unwise at this point. After all, they'd taken him away from the police, who would've otherwise been charging him with punching that one cop. Which made him wonder what the PRT wanted him for. Is this about Taylor? He couldn't imagine why. As messy as it was, he couldn't imagine the PRT involving themselves in a school stabbing—whoever it was who'd done it. He spread his hands on the table, glad that they'd at least left the cuffs off of him.

    The door opened again, and a heavy-set woman wearing a blue business suit entered, carrying a briefcase. The PRT trooper saluted, and she casually returned it. Miss Militia followed her into the room, carrying a folding chair. Unfolded, the chair was placed on the other side of the table and the overweight woman lowered herself into it, placing the briefcase on the floor beside her. Miss Militia moved to the other side of the room to the guard and took up a similar posture. Danny didn't miss the large pistol in the holster at her side, however.

    “Mr Hebert, my name is Emily Piggot,” the woman opposite him said, her steel-grey eyes fixed on his face. “Do you know who I am?”

    “You're the Director of the PRT in Brockton Bay,” Danny replied. He hadn't known that all at once, but the salute plus a few half-remembered TV appearances had clued him in. The name had just nailed it down for him. He thought he could see dark roots in her blonde pageboy bob. Underneath the softening effect of the extra weight, he caught a glimpse of a frighteningly intense woman, one who'd never stepped aside for anything. What happened to you? he wondered. “What I don't know is why I'm here, and what you want from me.”

    “It's about your daughter,” Piggot said bluntly. Her eyes never left his face.

    “Let me guess: the bullshit murder accusation? Because that's all it is. Total bullshit. Taylor would never hurt anyone.” As he spoke, his mind sought out possibilities. Why was the PRT interrogating him over this? Again, he drew a total blank. He considered clamming up and asking for a lawyer, but if he did that, he'd never find out what they really wanted.

    “Yes and no,” Piggot retorted. “Taylor did stab someone, but she's not the murderer. Someone else is. We're trying to find out who, and why, and what happened.”

    Danny felt the world waver slightly, but he took a deep breath and forced himself to focus. Okay, so they're not trying to pin the murder on Taylor. Still, it's not good. “What do you need me for?”

    “We need Taylor to come in, to tell us her side of things,” Piggot explained briefly. “But before that happens, we need to find out some information from you.”

    “Okay ...” He wasn't sure quite what was going on, but at least they weren't screaming accusations at him. “What do you want to know?”

    What Piggot said next came in from left field. “Would it surprise you to know that the victim was black?”

    “Why would that make a difference?” Danny shot back. “Black, white, Asian, Hispanic; what's your point?”

    Director Piggot never hesitated. “The point is that we're certain the murder was racially motivated, and we're trying to find out if Taylor is involved in anything to do with that.”

    He placed both hands flat on the table and leaned forward. In his peripheral vision, he saw both Miss Militia and the PRT guard take a step closer, but he didn't care. “She's not. I taught my little girl better than to think like that. No way is she one of those racist assholes. No how, no way, never. You've got a better chance of getting Martin Luther King to join up.” Breathing heavily, he subsided back into his chair.

    “Understood.” Reaching down, Piggot took up the briefcase and put it on the table. The clicks of the latches opening echoed in the room, then she lifted the lid and took out a form. “We're legally not allowed to tell you any more until you sign this.” Placing a cheap plastic pen on top of the form, she skated it over to Danny.

    He took it and turned it around. Looking at the top of the form, he discovered that it was a non-disclosure agreement with his name and details already filled out. Unfortunately, it didn't tell him what information he was enjoined not to disclose, except that it referred to 'details pertinent to the secret identity of a cape or capes' which could apparently be found in 'Document 3A'.

    Do they think Taylor stabbed a cape? It was the only conclusion that made any sense. No wonder they were so anxious to get me away from the cops.

    He ran his eye down the NDA, looking for any clauses that might lock him into anything else. Nothing jumped out at him, so he took up the pen and signed it, then leaned back in his chair. “So, how exactly do you think a fifteen year old girl got the better of a cape, knife or no knife?”

    “That's what we're trying to find out.” Her expression sour, the Director retrieved the NDA. “Sophia Hess was the Ward known as Shadow Stalker. Yesterday, there was an altercation between your daughter and her, as well as two other girls. Shadow Stalker was stabbed repeatedly, then her throat was cut and a swastika carved in her back. Another girl was swarmed by a mass of venomous bugs, and died as a result. The third girl got away and raised the alarm, specifically naming your daughter as the instigator. Taylor escaped in the confusion, and is still at large. Due to a mix-up in communication, the police reached your house before we did, and you were apparently arrested for attacking them.”

    “I didn't attack them,” Danny said defensively. “One of the assholes told me my daughter was going away for murder, so I punched him out.”

    “I understand he has a fractured jaw,” Piggot replied blandly. “For the record, that charge has been dropped, but don't try that here.”

    Danny nodded. “Okay. Got it. So this Sophia Hess was the Ward called Shadow Stalker. I think I saw her on TV once. And you think Taylor attacked her because she was black?”

    “It was a working theory, especially after we saw the swastika,” Miss Militia interjected. “So you're absolutely sure that your daughter doesn't have Empire leanings.” It wasn't a question.

    “One hundred percent,” Danny said. “She's got no tattoos that I know of. She hasn't shaved her head. Hell, ask her best friend. Emma Barnes. She'll vouch for Taylor.”

    “Mr Hebert …” Director Piggot's voice was almost gentle. “Emma Barnes was the third girl. The one who raised the alarm.”

    What. The. Fuck?

    <><>​

    Emily Piggot

    Danny Hebert's face went utterly slack at that piece of information. Either he'd been unaware of the rift between his daughter and Emma Barnes, or he was the best actor Emily had ever met, bar none. Just as Emily was going to push for further information, her phone rang.

    God damn it. Of all the timing. She took the phone from her pocket and checked the number, then stood up. “I have to take this,” she said. “We'll resume when I return.”

    Stepping out of the interrogation room, she pressed the icon to answer the phone. “What is it, Armsmaster?” she asked tersely. “I was in the middle of something important.”

    Your hunch paid off, Director,” the Tinker replied, sounding as happy as he ever did. “There was definitely something strange going on in this bathroom.”

    Emily's head came up and she instinctively took a couple of steps down the hall, away from the interrogation room. “Explain.” 'Something strange' could mean a lot of things.

    I built the black-light emitter as you suggested. It's a little strong—the paint's bubbled in a few places—but I got readings that suggest something biological got splattered all over that stall. Something they tried really hard to eliminate.” He sounded immensely satisfied with himself.

    Emily wondered just how powerful a UV emitter had to be to make paint bubble, but shook her head. She had more important things to worry about. “Did you get a sample?”

    Yes. There was a single droplet on the underside of the toilet seat. I missed it on my first two passes, but got it on my third. My portable crime lab analysed it as containing traces of a bactericide, blood, insect remains and a fibrous material. But it's the blood that's interesting.”

    Armsmaster's portable crime lab took up about two cubic feet of his motorcycle and contained the most miniaturised automated analysis equipment that Piggot had ever seen. She was curious about the bactericide, but it seemed he wanted her to ask about the blood. “How is the blood interesting?”

    Because it's menstrual blood. Different in composition from normal blood. That droplet came from a feminine waste product bin. One that bugs had gotten into.”

    His conclusion was absolutely inescapable, and triggered a memory of a photo. “Wasn't there something about the bins there …?”

    Yes. I asked about those. It seemed some of the students were using the regular ones for stashing drugs and weapons, so they got in a special model, a little larger, that could be locked. Of course, the locks all went missing in the first two weeks, and they never bothered replacing them.”

    Emily was somehow not surprised. This was Winslow, after all. “So you're saying that a sanitary bin got emptied into that toilet stall. Was there any trace of it on Miss Clements or Shadow Stalker or Miss Barnes?”

    None that I saw. But again, you're correct. After I figured that out, I checked the toilets on either side for rubber residue on the seats or lids. And I found some. One set matches the tread patterns of the shoes Miss Clements was wearing. I haven't matched the other set.”

    The visual imagery matched. Two girls standing on the toilet lids, hoisting sanitary bins over the top of the divider, to dump the contents on … “This was an attack on Taylor Hebert.”

    Agreed. I checked on the bins throughout the school. They were reluctant to let me, so I had to lean on them a bit, but I found a pair in the teachers' restrooms which hadn't been used at all, and had been scrubbed clean on the outside.”

    “The school actively tried to cover up the prior attack, and pin it all on the Hebert girl.” Emily felt her anger rising. “I'm betting the other set of tread patterns you find matches either Miss Barnes or Shadow Stalker.”

    That's my conclusion.” Armsmaster didn't sound as angry as Emily was, but he tended to get more absorbed in his work. “I'll be writing it all up in my report, and I'll be checking Shadow Stalker's effects once I return to base.”

    “Good.” This was going to lead to serious legal trouble for Winslow. How much legal trouble depended on what Taylor Hebert had to say for herself once she was brought in, but Emily was sure Blackwell would lose her job over this. “I need to get back to what I was doing. Good work, Armsmaster.”

    Thank you, Director.” He cut the call off then, about two seconds before she would've done so herself. She headed back toward the interrogation room, mulling over the new information. Would having a sanitary bin dumped over her have caused the Hebert girl to trigger? It seemed at least vaguely plausible, and would explain where the powers had come from.

    Still, a knife wasn't powers, so she had to have had it before the whole confrontation. Which indicated at least a certain amount of intent to cause harm. She could've been carrying it to protect herself, but a knife usually worked better as a deterrent than an actual close-in weapon. Unless, of course, she didn't show it to anyone until she was in a clinch, and then she stabbed Shadow Stalker.

    Emily pushed open the door and entered the interrogation room. Everyone was where she'd left them; Danny still sitting at the table, with Miss Militia and the guard doing a good impression of bookends at either side of the room. “Now, then,” she said as she took a seat once more. “Where were we?”

    <><>​

    Danny

    “Emma Barnes.” Danny still had trouble saying the name in that context. “You're saying she said Taylor killed those girls?” It was just not believable.

    “Exactly.” Piggot leaned forward. “Moreover, she claims that she and your daughter drifted apart after they reached high school. However, I've just received information suggesting that not only were Emma and Taylor on the outs, but Emma and some of her friends may have been victimising Taylor. Had you heard if she'd been having trouble at school with anyone at all?”

    Danny shook his head, his mind spinning. “No. Nothing at all.” Recalling the reason for the lack of communication, he had the grace to look sheepish. “But we haven't been talking all that much recently. My wife, Taylor's mother, died just a few years ago, and we're still not totally recovered from that.”

    Piggot's expression softened slightly. “My condolences. I know what it's like to lose someone.” It didn't last long. “So, you had no idea that anyone was picking on Taylor? That she may have decided to bring something to school to defend herself with? A knife, for instance?”

    “No.” Danny shook his head decisively. “Definitely not. What sort of a knife was it, anyway? A kitchen knife?”

    “We don't think so.” The Director held out her hands about ten inches apart. “From the shape of the wounds, it was a double-edged fighting knife of some sort. Do you have any idea where she might have gotten her hands on one of those?”

    This was getting more and more surreal for Danny. “No. I keep telling you. Taylor's not a violent person. If you'd told me she had a kitchen knife, we'd have had something to talk about, because she could've grabbed one on the way to school. But if you're talking about a combat knife, not a chance. Taylor doesn't have that many friends, and none at all who'd be able to get a knife like that for her.”

    Director Piggot nodded. “Understood. Well, when we bring her in, we can ask her. In the meantime, I need to ask you one more question. And I want you to think carefully about the answer.”

    “No promises.” Danny was being cautious about this. Nothing they'd asked him so far had threatened to pin any crimes on him, which was why he hadn't asked for a lawyer in earnest yet, but that could change.

    “That's fair.” Piggot leaned forward slightly. “Are you aware your daughter has powers?”

    What. The. Fuck?

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “No, wait, what the fuck?” Amy waved her hands back and forth in the classic 'cut off' gesture. “No way. We're not kidnapping her friends and my family.” She paused, frowning. “Why do you want to kidnap them? We aren't villains. At least, I'm not. And nor is Vicky.”

    “I really gotta chime in here,” I added. “Kidnapping is not the way to keep ourselves on the down-low. Just saying.”

    “It's for a good cause,” Lisa insisted. “We get everyone together in Cranial's lab, wherever that is. Then she records all their memories of Vicky. The good, the bad, the mediocre, whatever. Everything that they ever saw her do. Then she meshes it all together and uses that to build a gestalt personality. That gets overlaid on Vicky's brain, tying in with what's already there.” She made a flourishing gesture with her hand. “Voila.”

    It made sense. I hadn't even known about Cranial's existence, but Lisa made it sound so simple.

    “Yeah,” protested Amy. “But kidnapping? That means we have to fight them, and if they all come after us at once, we'll probably lose.”

    She definitely had a point. “Suppose we don't kidnap them,” I suggested. “Why don't we just ask them? I'm sure they'd volunteer to help Vicky get her mind back.”

    Lisa sighed and looked pointedly at Amy. “Brandish,” she said bluntly.

    “Well, she might not freak out,” Amy said defensively.

    Lisa's expression was dubious at best. “Your stepmom has gone even more crazy-bitch since your stepdad died. I give it a seventy-thirty chance that the moment you even hint about what you've done to her prize daughter, she'll come after you with her discount lightsaber. And what if they just refuse to go along with it? I know I'd be justifiably concerned about letting a rogue Tinker rummage around in my head.”

    “Well, we've got to do something,” argued Amy.

    “Okay, how about this.” Aisha stepped forward. “Why don't we go with the 'ask them nicely' thing and if they don't go along with it, we jump straight to 'kidnap'?”

    I shared a glance with Lisa. “That could work … I guess?” I ventured.

    “Better than nothing,” Lisa agreed, then looked at Amy. “Well?”

    Amy tangled both hands in her hair and clenched her eyes shut. “Arrgh,” she groaned. “Why does this shit keep happening to me?”

    “That's not a no,” Lisa observed.

    “No, it ain't,” Aisha agreed.

    “Plan 'kidnapping is plan B' is a go,” I said, wondering when my world got so weird.

    “Arrgh.”



    End of Part Four
     
    Last edited: Aug 15, 2018
    Hind, G.A. Kyoki, Zackarix and 42 others like this.
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