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One More Trigger (Worm AU)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Dec 21, 2014.

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  1. Threadmarks: Index
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Taylor triggers in the locker, as per normal.

    But what if someone else had triggered, years earlier?

    What would change?

    Disclaimers:
    1) This story is set in the Wormverse, which is owned by Wildbow. Thanks for letting me use it.
    2) I will follow canon as closely as I can. If I find something that canon does not cover, I will make stuff up. If canon then refutes me, I will revise. Do not bother me with fanon; corrections require citations.
    3) I welcome criticism of my works, but if you tell me that something is wrong, I also expect an explanation of what is wrong, and a suggestion of how to fix it. Note that I do not promise to follow any given suggestion.



    Index
    Part One: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
    Part Two: What Came Before
    Part Three: In the Heat of the Moment
    Part Four: Meet the Wards
    Part Five: Dance, Baby, Dance
    Part Six: The Party is Over, Now We Are Three
    Part Seven: Awakenings and Revelations
    Part Eight: Payoff
    Part Nine: A Spot of Robbery
    Part Ten: Friendly Enemies
    Part Eleven: Panacea Interlude
    Part Twelve: She Followed Us Home, Can We Keep Her?
    Part Thirteen: Into the Lion's Den
    Part Fourteen: All Together Now
    Part Fifteen: The Best-Laid Plans
    Part Sixteen: Assault!
    Part Seventeen: And So It Goes
    Part Eighteen: Bad End
    Part Nineteen: Consolidation
    Part Twenty: Surprise Party
    Part Twenty-One: Being Proactive
    Part Twenty-Two: Suddenly, the Nine
    Part Twenty-Three: Winding Down
    Part Twenty-Four: Turnabout
    Part Twenty-Five: Preparations for War
    Part Twenty-Six: Nine, Again
    Part Twenty-Seven: Three, Two, One ...
    Part Twenty-Eight: A New Challenge
    Part Twenty-Nine: Director Piggot is Unhappy (It Must Be Tuesday)

    Fanart: Sparx by Selwyn
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2020
    Starfox5, solitare, TanaNari and 7 others like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Part One: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part One: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same


    Emma blinked tears out of her eyes, looked for an escape, an answer.

    And she saw a figure crouched on top of her father’s car, dressed in black, with a hood and a cape that fluttered out of sync with the warm sea breeze that flowed from the general direction of the beach. She could see the whites of the girl’s eyes through the eyeholes of what looked like a metal hockey mask.

    Help me.

    The dark figure didn’t move.

    Lao, the one eyed man, reversed the knife in his hands and handed it to the girl with the eye shadow. The girl, for her part, dragged the knife’s point over Emma’s eyelid, a feather touch.

    “Pick,” the girl said. “No, wait…”

    She shoved the handful of hair she’d cut away into Emma’s mouth. “Eat it, then pick.”

    Emma had a mouthful of her own hair, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. The dark figure, watching, made no move to help her.

    She could hear her father screaming. He was a big man, powerful, but he was no fighter. He couldn’t do anything to help her.

    I’m going to die here.

    ***

    Reality went away.

    She floated in space. Planets and stars glittered in the void around her. Great creatures – whales? Worms? Fish of some indescribable genus? – swam through space, writhing and twisting about one another. Fragments, shards, something, drifted away from them.

    ***

    She jerked back to reality. A shallow cut on her cheek stung.

    “Hey, ginger bitch, don’t you go away on us! You still gotta pick!”

    Her mouth was full of hair.

    My hair.

    She liked her hair a lot. It was long, and wavy, and showed up well in her modelling portfolio. It had character. It was one of her best features, really.

    And this gang bitch just cut some of it off, and shoved it in her mouth.

    She felt herself getting angry. And something awoke inside of her.

    The first indications that the ABB thugs got that something was wrong was when her hair began to extend in all directions, growing at an impossible rate. The second was when said hair, dividing into what could easily be called tendrils or tentacles, wrapped around those holding her down, and threw them away from her.

    She got to her feet, feeling a newfound energy coursing down her limbs, running through her hair. She looked at the hair; it was at least ten feet long, waving like seaweed underwater, and there were sparks, lines, crackles of energy running through it.

    The girl with the knife got up. Emma didn’t even bother moving; three tendrils lashed out, caught her about the throat, the wrists. They pulled her arms out straight, lifted her until she was on her toes. And then power crackled down the lengths of hair, and the girl convulsed, dropping the knife.

    Emma didn’t want to kill her, so she cut the power, letting the girl hang there, unconscious. She looked around, spitting out the hair in her mouth.

    The ABB were either down and unconscious, or up and running away. Dealing with a cape was the last thing they wanted to do.

    Emma dropped the girl, flicked up the knife with a tendril of hair, and threw it hard at the wall. It stuck, quivering, in the middle of an ABB tag.

    “Holy shit, that was awesome!”

    She whirled, her hair-tentacles coming up in a defensive position. It was the girl in the dark cape and hockey mask.

    “Shit, girl, you really screwed them up!” said the girl, jumping down from the roof of the car.

    In the next instant, Emma had her spreadeagled on the hood of the car with a tendril at each wrist, one at the throat, and one for each ankle, for good measure.

    “You goddamn fucking bitch,” she hissed. “You could have saved me at any time. You stood there and watched them. You were going to let them cut my eye out, or my ears off, or rape me, or whatever they wanted to do. And you didn’t do a goddamn thing.”

    “Hey, hey, go easy,” said the girl. She shimmered slightly, went to pull free, then jerked back to solidity when something sparked in Emma’s hair. “Holy fuck! That’s live current! What the fuck?”

    Emma picked her up from the car, and then slammed her down again with a hollow booming noise; the wind went out of her with a whoosh. “Why the hell didn’t you help me?” she snarled.

    “Hey, go easy! I wanted to see who you were, that’s all!”

    The statement made no sense at all to Emma. “Who I was? Who the hell did you think I was?”

    “Predator or prey,” said the girl simply. “And shit, you’re obviously a predator.”

    The car door opened, and her father got out.

    “Emma?” he said, as if not quite sure if he was addressing his daughter.

    “I’m okay, Dad,” she said, answering the unspoken question. “This bitch, however ... was going to let them do whatever they wanted. Unless I fought back, or something, I guess.”

    “Well, well, well,” he said, recovering quickly. “You’re some kind of cape, I take it.”

    “Fuck you,” she said, struggling to get out of the bonds. Emma let her have a trickle of power. “Hey, fuck, that hurts!”

    “Wait a minute, wait a minute ...” said Emma, looking into the middle distance. Then she looked down at the girl. “Nope, still don’t care.”

    Reaching forward, her father plucked the mask from the girl's face. She opened her eyes wide in outrage, which turned to outright fear when he snapped a photo with his phone.

    “Jesus fuck, what the fuck are you doing?” she screamed. He dropped the mask carelessly back on her chest.

    “If I ever see you in the news for any reason,” he said coldly, “I will publish your face, and what you did here tonight – or rather, what you didn’t do. My advice? Give up the mask. Because you think my daughter’s scary? I’m a lawyer. I can bury you.”

    The girl lay quiet, unresisting. She was dark-skinned, attractive, with black hair under her hood. But Emma sensed that she wasn’t as beaten as she looked. When next she spoke, she addressed Emma.

    “Hey, Emma, isn’t it? Look, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but seriously, we can –“

    “We can do nothing,” said Emma bluntly. “I never want to see you again.” She picked up the mask with a small tendril, flicked it high in the air to land, clattering, on a nearby rooftop. “Dad, get in the car.”

    He got in the car. She let the girl go. “Fetch,” she said.

    “Seriously, Emma, we could make a great team –“

    “Still not caring,” said Emma, and leaned in the window. “Back up a bit, Dad.”

    Alan Barnes put the car in reverse, and moved back several yards. He ran over the hand of an unconscious ABB thug, but didn’t particularly care.

    Emma let her hair tentacles settle on the dumpster, and braced herself, heaving backward. It grated toward her, one end swinging around like a large gate. Small pieces of rubble sat beyond it; those she simply threw out of the way.

    It was incredible. The girl was still there.

    Emma walked toward her. “Go away. I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to hear from you.”

    “But you’re so fucking badass. You just owned these guys. We could kick serious ass together.” She paused. “Look, my name’s Sophia, okay?”

    Emma shook her head. “I don’t want to know you. I’m not looking to kick anyone’s ass. I just want to go home and have a long hot bath. Goodbye.”

    She got in the car. After a moment, she reached down to find the phone she had dropped. It read 911, but she had not pressed the call button. “Drive, Dad. Please. Get us away from here.” As she slumped in the seat, her hair tendrils retracted, until the hair was just ordinary length.

    He drove.

    ***

    “Taylor got back from camp this morning,” her mother said.

    Emma paused. “Yeah?”

    “She might stop by.”

    “Excellent!”

    Emma couldn’t resist hurrying a little as she collected her dishes and rinsed them in the sink.

    “If she comes by when you’re not here-”

    “I’ll call her back,” Emma said. “Don’t worry about it.”

    She made her way to the front hall, stopped by the mirror to run a brush through her hair. It had all been cut to match the piece that had been cut shorter with the knife.

    It had been three weeks. Three weeks, during which time she had barely dared access the power within her. Three weeks, during which time she had waited for Taylor to get back from her summer camp. Her family was helping her get over the trauma, but she really needed to see her best friend.

    When she walked outside, there was someone standing at the gate. She frowned. That’s not Taylor. Dark skin, long black hair ...

    Anger propelled her off the porch and down to the gate. “What the hell are you doing here?” she snapped.

    “Found out where you lived,” said the girl – Sophia, that was her name. “Came over to see if you’d come round yet.”

    Emma shook her head. “You don’t get it. We’re not the same. We’re nothing like each other. I would not sit by and watch someone else get mutilated, just because they were too frightened to fight back.”

    “But you’ve got it wrong,” said Sophia insistently. “There’s people who survive through adversity, and people who don’t. You survive. So do I. We are the same. We’re badass. We’re top of the heap.”

    Emma saw a familiar figure approaching. Taylor. Still wearing the camp gear, all bright clothing. She smiled. Sophia misunderstood; she smiled in return, and started to open the gate. Emma put her hand on it. Sophia frowned.

    Emma watched Taylor’s approach fondly. Broomstick arms and legs, gawky, with a wide, guileless smile, her eyes just a fraction larger behind the glasses she wore, a little too old fashioned. Her long dark curls were tied into a loose set of twin braids, one bearing a series of colorful ‘friendship braclet’ style ties at the end. Only her height gave her age away.

    Same old Taylor. Dependable.

    Sophia looked around. “Who the fuck is that?” she asked.

    “Emma!” said Taylor, smiling widely.

    “Who the fuck are you?” Sophia asked.

    Taylor’s smile faltered. A brief look of confusion flickered across her face. “We’re friends. Emma and I have been friends for a long time.”

    Sophia smirked. “Really.”

    “Really,” Taylor echoed Sophia.

    Taylor was her rock; she would give her sympathy, would listen to everything she had to say, give an unbiased ear to every thought, every wondering and anxiety.

    She would give her friendship, too. Support. Just what Emma needed.

    “I love the haircut,” Taylor filled the silence, talking and smiling like she couldn’t contain herself. Emma had missed that. “You manage to make any style look great.”

    Emma took a deep breath. “Sophia,” she said firmly. “Go away. Now. Taylor is my friend, and is welcome here. You are neither.”

    Sophia looked at Emma as though she really couldn’t parse what had been said. It was as if there was a filter in her brain, and certain statements just never made it through. Then she looked at Taylor, and a certain expression crossed her face, for just a moment.

    “I’m going,” she said. “But I’ll be in touch. And we’ll kick ass together.”

    She headed off down the street, as if she owned the whole footpath.

    Taylor looked over her shoulder as she went, and then back at Emma. “What was that all about?”

    Emma smiled, opened the gate, and pulled her into a hug. “I have so missed you.”

    Taylor hugged her back. “Missed you too, Ems. What’s been happening? You’ve been all secretive on the phone.”

    “Seriously,” said Emma, “you will never believe what happened.” Linking arms with Taylor, she led her inside. What she really needed was a good long toenail-painting session, and a shoulder to cry on. And Taylor was good for both.

    I used to think Taylor was starting to get dull and boring. But she’s just ... normal. And right now, I really need normal.

    ***

    Sophia strode along as if she had a personal grudge against the pavement. Taylor, huh? Emma’s friends with that little stick figure? Well, once she sees how pathetic her precious Taylor is, she’ll drop her like a hot potato. And then we’ll see who she wants to be friends with.

    ***

    Emma leaned over Taylor as she knelt at the bottom of the stairs, concerned. “You okay?”

    Taylor nodded. She felt her knee, and winced; her hand came away with a spot of blood. “I think it’s just a scrape.”

    Emma looked up; Sophia was half a dozen steps up, with a few other girls clustered around her. “Did you push her?”

    “Me? Would I do that?” asked Sophia, doing her best to look innocent. “She’s just got such long stick legs that she probably tripped over herself. Just an accident, is all.” The other girls giggled in chorus.

    Emma’s eyes narrowed. “She seems to have a lot of ‘accidents’ around you.”

    Sophia shrugged. “Not my problem.” She led her bevy down around Emma and Taylor. “See you laterz, Emma.”

    Emma stared after her. Ever since she was transferred here, she’s been on Taylor’s case. And I think I know why. And that worries me.

    She offered Taylor her hand. “Come on, let’s get you to the nurse. She’ll fix that up.”

    Taylor smiled as she accepted the help. “You’re such a good friend, Emma. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She leaned heavily on her with every other step. “I don’t know what I did to upset Sophia, but I wish I could make it better.”

    Emma shook her head. “It’s nothing you did.”

    Her concern grew, however. What will she do next?

    ***

    Emma heard the screaming and banging as she bolted into the locker room, past laughing girls who were on the way out. No-one seemed to be paying much attention to it, but she knew who it was, who it had to be.

    She had had classes separate from Taylor’s, and had only heard by chance the remark by one of Sophia’s cronies that ‘the little stick-figure dweeb was locked in her locker’ as she went in for her second class for the beginning of the year.

    Ignoring the teacher’s startled shout, she had turned and run from the room, sprinting down the hallways.

    Taylor’s been locked in a locker since the beginning of first period? Oh god, I hope she’s all right.

    But in her heart, she knew otherwise.

    Sophia, I am going to kill you.

    Halfway down the hallway, she had slipped ... or something. She came to, face-down on the floor, a string of drool running from her mouth, and a rapidly fading memory of ... what? She couldn’t recall.

    But Taylor still needed her help. So she got up and ran.

    ***

    She zeroed in on the right locker, aided by a horrible smell from the same area. When she found it, there were ... oh god, were those tampons? ... scattered around it, on the floor. The stench was incredible. And Taylor was trapped in that locker.

    She couldn’t hold back. There was no time to waste. Taylor had no time. She reached inside herself, tapped that power. Her hair grew out, waving around her head, crackling with energy. She latched on to the door, pushed on surrounding lockers. Heaved.

    The door came off with a shriek of tearing metal. She tossed it aside lightly, uncaring. Taylor lurched forward, screaming and swinging. Emma caught her in an embrace of long hair, binding her gently. Taylor struggled and writhed in her grip. She stank, abominably, as did the foul, reeking mess that had spilled from the locker.

    Emma moved away from that locker, bearing Taylor with her. “Taylor,” she said urgently. “Taylor, it’s me. Emma.” She ignored the smell, bringing Taylor up close to her. Reaching out with her hand, she brushed hair back from Taylor’s face.

    “Taylor,” she said. “It’s me. Emma. You’re safe.”

    Taylor blinked. “Emma?” she said, in a small voice.

    “Yeah,” said Emma. “Hang on, shower time.”

    She bore Taylor into the shower recesses, turned on one to hot and hard, carried Taylor under the stream.

    As the water hit her hair, the power that animated it fell away, and it shrank back to normal length. Taylor slumped under the spray, hugging herself. She still smelled; used sanitary products clung to her.

    Emma stepped under the spray with Taylor. Gently, with soft words and coaxing, she eased Taylor out of her stinking, horrible clothes, down to her underwear, and tossed them away from the shower. Then she began to scrub Taylor down, from head to toe.

    Taylor began to cry, great heaving sobs. She clung to Emma, and Emma held her close.

    "It's all right," she said. "I'm here. You're safe. You're not in the locker any more."

    Taylor blinked. "Emma?" she said again. "Emma? You came?"

    Emma hugged Taylor tightly. "Of course I came, silly," she said. "Why wouldn't I?"

    Taylor began to shudder. "The locker was so dark, and it smelled, and I couldn't breathe, and I couldn't get out ..."

    Emma stroked her hair. "It's all right, Taylor," she said softly. "You're out of there, now."

    "Whoa, Barnes! Didn't know you had a hot lezzie thing going with stick-figure Hebert!"

    Emma looked around. Sophia. Of course.

    She stood there, near the shower recesses, with her usual coterie of yes-girls. Others, filtering in, stood looking with some curiosity, but no-one else intervened.

    "Yeah, we're a gay couple, for sure!" she called back. "'Cause that's the way we roll!"

    Sophia looked annoyed that Emma had called her bluff.

    "Hey!" she called. "We don't want those two spreading their gay around the school, do we?"

    "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" asked one girl, leaning back from her locker. "My sister's gay."

    Another girl stuck her oar in. "So's my cousin."

    A third walked up to the group. "So's Legend."

    Someone else added, "And what a waste that is." Laughter followed.

    And then a girl Emma knew from a few classes stepped right up to Sophia. "And I'm gay," she said defiantly. "You gonna have me kicked out of school too?"

    "You're gay, Clements?" asked Sophia. "I've never seen you kiss any girls."

    Madison Clements bared her teeth in a grin. "I've never seen you kiss any boys, Hess. Sure you're straight?" More laughter, all directed at Sophia.

    "Fuck you all," snarled Sophia, and stamped out of the locker area. The other girls dispersed, robbed of their entertainment.

    Madison strolled over to the shower, staying just out of the spray. "They're gone," she said conversationally. "You can get out now."

    With relief, Emma did so. Taylor still clung to her, trembling.

    Emma turned off the water and helped Taylor to a bench, where she sat with Emma holding her. "Could I have a towel, please?" Emma asked. "Two, for preference."

    Madison brought over two towels, and Emma wrapped Taylor in one, then took her wet clothes off and began to dry herself on the other.

    "You're not really gay, are you?" commented Madison dryly.

    "No," confirmed Emma. "But I've always found the quickest way to have a rumour spread is to deny it. Play along, and there's no drama, and it's forgotten." She grinned at Madison. "And you're not either, are you?"

    Madison shook her head with an answering grin. "Nope, but it seemed the thing to say. Good thinking on your part, though." She bent in to help Taylor dry her hair. "What happened to you?"

    "Locker," mumbled Taylor. "Locked in."

    "That locker," Emma filled in, pointing down the row to the one locker with the door missing, and the reeking filth spilling from it.

    "Oh god," said Madison. "I'll get you clothes."

    “Thanks,” said Emma. “Mine are pretty well soaked, too.”

    Madison brought clothes for both of them; they hung on Taylor, but not overly much. The ones she got for Emma fitted well enough, if a little tight in the chest. And then they marched Taylor, against her protests, to the school infirmary.

    “Madison, could you please stay here with Taylor?” asked Emma. “I need to go see someone about something.”

    Madison nodded, eyes full of curiosity, but she said nothing.

    ***

    Emma found Sophia in the hallway with her cronies, laughing about something. She could guess what.

    “Sophia,” she said, loudly and clearly.

    One of the girls looked around. “Oh, hey, Barnes,” she said snidely. “Didn’t recognise you with your clothes on. Doing a photo shoot, were we?”

    Sophia backhanded the girl without even looking. She fell to her knees, nursing a trickle of blood from her nose. “What the hell was that for?”

    “You don’t get to back-answer Emma,” said Sophia. She turned to Emma. “Seen the light, hey?” she asked. “I see you don’t have that third wheel with you anymore.”

    “Yeah,” said Emma. “You could say I’ve seen the light. I’m ready to go kicking ass.”

    “Excellent,” said Sophia. And then she stared, as Emma activated her powers. Tendrils reached for Sophia, who uttered a yelp, turned insubstantial, and leaped for the ceiling. A tendril intercepted her, popping a spark, and she fell back to ground, curled up in agony.

    The other girls had scattered, Emma noted distantly. She didn’t care. She stepped forward to Sophia, and picked her up. With one hand, she held her against the wall. With the other hand, she started punching her. With each punch, she snapped a word.

    “What.” Smack.

    “Does.” Smack.

    “It.” Smack.

    “Take.” Smack.

    “For.” Smack.

    “You.” Smack.

    “To.” Smack.

    “Get.” Smack.

    “The.” Smack.

    “Message?” Smack.

    Her fist was starting to hurt; her knuckles were bleeding. Then again, so was Sophia’s face. She let the semi-conscious girl slump to the floor, then kicked her in the ribs, hard. Bending down, she lifted Sophia by the collar. “Stay away from Taylor Hebert,” she hissed. Dropping her back to the floor and kicking her one more time, she turned and strode away, her hair gradually assuming more normal proportions.

    ***

    When Emma got back to the infirmary, Taylor was lying in the bed with a blanket over her. Madison met her at the door. “The nurse said she’s traumatised and needs a bit of rest,” she said. “They’ve called her father.” She eyed Emma’s knuckles. “What happened to you?”

    Emma smiled grimly. “I saw someone about something.” She walked through to where Taylor lay. At once, she saw that her friend was groggy from some sort of sedative, but was not totally out of it yet.

    “Hey, Tails,” she murmured, putting her undamaged hand on Taylor’s where it protruded from under the blanket.

    “Hey, Sonic,” Taylor responded blearily, using her old nickname. “Where were you? I missed you.”

    Emma grinned. “Just taking care of business. Sophia won’t be bothering you any more.”

    Taylor managed to look worried. “You didn’t get in trouble, did you?”

    Emma shrugged. “If I do, hella worth it.”

    ***

    She was sitting on the chair, allowing the nurse to tend to her split knuckles, when the PRT troopers entered the infirmary.


    End of Part One
     
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  3. Threadmarks: Part Two: What Came Before
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Two: What Came Before

    August 2009

    Sophia Hess slipped in through the upstairs window to her bedroom and stood before the mirror to admire herself for a moment. She liked the costume; it was what separated the weak from the strong, the quick from the dead, the predator from the prey.

    But she'd screwed up tonight, she knew. For all that she'd found Emma, someone who wouldn’t slow her down, someone to be badass with, somehow it had all gone wrong. She frowned. Emma was the same as her; she could feel it. They would work so well together, if only she could make Emma see that a partnership like theirs was the only way things could be. I'll show her, she vowed. She's seriously kickass already; she just needs me to show her the ropes, show her how satisfying it is to be strong in a world of weaklings.

    But her father got my picture,
    she mused. When Emma and I get to be known and feared, he might use it. And I can't hurt him; she might not understand. She grimaced as she took the costume off and folded it away carefully. Well, shit. It looks like I'm gonna have to be a good girl for a while. Brockton Bay Wards, here I come. She grinned in the semi-darkness. He can't out me then; that's against the law. Her grin became sharp-edged. About time it worked in my favour.

    ***

    September, 2009

    Emma looked around at the school hallway. So this is Winslow High, she mused. I have to be here. Taylor doesn't. Taylor could have gone on to Arcadia; she was smart. But Emma knew that she had chosen to attend Winslow, to be in the same school as her friend. Emma smiled to herself. Now that's friendship.

    Besides, her world had taken a sharp turn into the Twilight Zone just a month ago, and nothing would ever be the same again. Somehow, the whole 'pretty and popular' scene just seemed so ... shallow to her, now.

    She didn't want vacuous girls and adoring boys crowding around her, telling her how great she was. Well,maybe one or two adoring boys ... She grinned to herself as she spotted a couple likely candidates in the crowd.

    And of course, I don't think I could make it through without my real friends. She glanced sideways to where Taylor stood watching the crowd. "Well, Tails," she said cheerfully, "Winslow High. Our seat of education until we graduate. What do you think?"

    Taylor grinned, her eyes happy and almost childlike behind the large round lenses of her glasses. “Well, I’m looking forward to it,” she declared.

    A hand slapped on to Emma’s shoulder, and she spun around to see Sophia standing there, grinning at her.

    “What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded.

    “Good to see you too, Emma,” said Sophia, without a hint of sarcasm. “I’m enrolled, just like you.” She leaned close and whispered, “I’m in the Wards now. Sure you don’t want to come out kicking ass with me?”

    Emma shook her head. “No. Seriously, no. Go away, Sophia. Just ... go away.”

    Sophia put her hands up, surrender-style. “Going, going.” Her teeth flashed white. “But I’m gonna be around a lot. You’ll see. It’ll be fun.”

    Taylor’s eyes were troubled as she watched Sophia walk away, her entire posture an expression of arrogance and self-confidence. “What’s she want with you, Emma?” She stared at her friend for a moment. “She isn’t, you know, trying to …”

    Emma shook her head, a chuckle escaping her lips. “No, she’s not that way inclined.” She took a deep breath. “No, there’s something else she wants. Something I can’t really talk about right now.” Especially not right now, she realised. If she’s telling the truth about being a Ward, then just telling Taylor who she really is would be breaking the law. She paused, a thought striking her. I’d better tell Dad to be careful with that picture.

    “Is this anything I can help you with?” asked Taylor.

    Emma looked at her fondly. She knew Taylor would do just that – help her with anything she wanted or needed, because she was that sort of friend.

    However … she shook her head. “No,” she said, hating herself for the flash of hurt in Taylor’s eyes. “Sorry, Tails. This is something I’m going to have to work through on my own.”

    “But we’re still … you know … friends, right?” said Taylor hopefully. She tended to be a bit of a loner; the geek girl who sat alone and read books. Emma figured herself to be Taylor’s only real friend.

    She laughed and hugged Taylor. “Of course we’re still friends, you big dope,” she chuckled, mussing Taylor’s hair. “There’s no force on Earth strong enough to change that.”

    Taylor grinned and hugged her back. “It’s just that that girl …”

    “Sophia,” supplied Emma absently.

    “Yeah, Sophia … it’s just that the way she looked at me … she worries me.”

    “Me too,” said Emma. She looked around, her arm around Taylor’s shoulders. “But hey,” she said. “Let’s not get too frazzled yet. It’s the first day of school. We’ve got plenty of other things to worry about.”

    ***

    “Seriously,” said Emma. “Leave Taylor alone.”

    Sophia leaned casually against the wall. “I still don’t get what you see in that loser,” she said. “Look at her, she’s all knees and elbows. Seriously, you don’t need her. What does she do for you?”

    Emma sighed. This was the part that she was starting to regret. She’d made the conscious choice to not be part of the ‘in’ crowd, and so she was now on the outs with most of the people she’d associated with, before. She had her circle of friends, but nor were they themselves very popular, and so when peer opinion turned against one of them, they generally found themselves very much alone.

    Taylor was even lower on the social strata than Emma; however, Emma was known to be pretty and rich, even if she didn’t make a big deal of it, and so most people left Taylor alone, as her friend.

    Not so Sophia, and her little band of mean-spirited like-minded cronies.

    Sophia was a rising star at Winslow. She had serious athletic capability, and she regularly placed in the track meets. This, and her attractive looks and aggressive personality, had gotten her a place in the ‘in’ crowd, which she had leveraged ruthlessly.

    This part didn’t bother Emma overmuch. She found it a positive rest cure to not have to worry about the day-to-day of whether she was still the most popular girl in school or not; a quiet hour spent with Taylor, discussing TV shows or reading old comic books was far more her speed these days.

    The part that bothered her was that Sophia and her group had apparently decided that Taylor was persona non grata, and had begun harassing her on a regular occasion. She was pushed, shoved, tripped, and her bag had been stolen on occasion. Emma stood up for her, going so far as to physically interpose herself in front of Taylor. Sophia always called that sort of thing off before any teachers could see, and Emma herself was never touched. And quite often, Emma had been able to get Taylor’s stuff back with little harm done.

    Emma had tried complaining a couple of times, but the other girls always backed Sophia up, and in fact it wasn’t always Sophia, and there were never any witnesses who were willing to talk.

    She herself was not as diplomatic or persuasive as she had before the incident with the ABB; she ascribed this to the sudden realignment of her worldview. And so, when she pressed the case, she somehow found herself to be at fault, and being asked if she would prefer to be suspended for a time, until she cooled down.

    Eventually, she would figure it out; the school, mindful of Sophia’s status as a Ward, and as their very own track star, was willing to bend over backward to keep her in the curriculum and not going off to another school.

    For herself, she didn’t want to draw too much attention; as a parahuman herself, albeit with secret powers, she wanted to fly under the radar as much as possible. And that was the other problem; once that cat was out of the bag, it would never be stuffed back in. And there was always the possibility that Sophia would let it slip one fine day, and her life would be overturned. Again.

    “I don’t need to defend my choice of friends to you,” she snapped. “Anyway, it’s not about her. It’s about you. Just leave her alone, okay?”

    Sophia just rolled her eyes and stood up from the wall. “Someday you’ll see the light, Emma. Someday you’ll see I was right all along.”

    She strolled off, whistling off-key.

    Emma watched her go. I could make her stop, she thought. But that … that could go very bad, very quickly.

    Surely she’ll see reason sooner or later. Before someone gets hurt.


    ***

    “Emma?” said Taylor, looking into her locker. “Have you seen my flute?”

    Emma looked around. “No. Did you bring it to school today?”

    Taylor nodded. “I’ve been practising scales on it, and I wanted to show the music teacher. I’m sure I left it in my locker, and now I can’t find it.”

    Emma frowned. She recalled the flute. It was a beautiful instrument; not intrinsically valuable, but Taylor had had it from her mother, who could coax music out of it that left Emma in tears afterward. Taylor wasn’t that good with it yet, but she enjoyed working at it.

    She got down on her hands and knees, looking around to see if it had been kicked under anything. “Can’t see it,” she said at last.

    Taylor had been going through each shelf on her locker, lifting everything out, then putting it back. She even looked among the gym shoes on the floor of the locker, and ran her hand over the top, in case she had absent-mindedly put it up there. “It’s not here,” she said despairingly. “I’ve lost it. My mother’s flute. It’s gone.”

    The desolation in her voice hit Emma hard, and she enfolded Taylor in a hug. “I’m sure it will turn up,” she said, trying to be comforting. “I’ll keep an eye out for it. Maybe we can put up notices.”

    Taylor sniffled. “Thanks, but … there’s not much hope, is there?”

    Emma smiled, more confidently than she felt. “There’s always hope,” she assured Taylor.

    And I think I know who did it.

    ***

    “Sophia.”

    The girls turned around at Emma’s voice.

    “Emma,” said Sophia. “Come to say hi?”

    “Taylor’s flute,” said Emma flatly. “Give it back, and I won’t say anything more about it.”

    “Flute?” asked Sophia archly. “Do I look like I’d have anything to do with a flute?” The girls around her laughed.

    “You took it from Taylor’s locker,” said Emma. “I want it back.” She took a step forward.

    The girls around Sophia went, “Oooo,” in a mocking tone of voice. One even went so far as to say, “Ooh, she’s so tough.”

    But Sophia straightened up from her relaxed posture, her eyes just the faintest bit wary. “Not that I’m saying I took it,” she said carelessly, “but I did happen to see something that might have looked a little bit like a flute …” Her voice trailed off.

    “Where is it?” snapped Emma. Something went pop, very quietly, between the tips of two strands of her hair. The girls didn’t notice. Sophia did, and her eyes widened very slightly.

    “Well, you did say something about nothing more said about it, right?” she said, trying for a casual tone.

    “Yes, sure, whatever,” Emma ground out. “Now spill.”

    “The big trash dumpster. Down the back, near the incinerator. Someone looking for a flute might find it there.”

    But Emma was already gone.

    One of the girls looked at Sophia and pouted. “Aww,” she said. “I wanted to see you make her beg for it.”

    Sophia gave her a flat look. “Sometimes, Marcy,” she said, “you need to learn how to shut the f**k up.”

    ***

    Emma pulled back the lid to the dumpster, and gagged. The flute was on top of the pile of trash. But it was … what they’d done to it was …

    She turned aside and dry-retched for a moment, before searching around for a plastic bag. I need to wrap it in something watertight and airtight, she told herself. Maybe two or three bags.

    She never even once considered leaving it where it lay.

    ***

    “Oh my god!” exclaimed Taylor. “My flute! You found it!”

    She clutched the instrument tightly, and Emma scarcely less tightly.

    Emma smiled. “You left it in the music room, you ditz,” she said with a grin. “Someone else took it home by accident. I asked around, and finally got ahold of it yesterday.”

    The reality was slightly different. She had finally used her powers, picking it up with a tendril of hair that she faithfully promised she would cut off and burn once she was done. Finding a faucet, she had washed it off as best she could, then took it home and cleaned it more thoroughly. A music store she knew of had a repair shop out back; they had tut-tutted at the damage, but had done a bang-up job of fixing it like new.

    It had cost her more than a little bit, but for Taylor, it was worth it. For the look on Taylor’s face, it was definitely worth it.

    “I’m sure I left it in my locker,” said Taylor doubtfully.

    Emma rolled her eyes. “And yet, it wasn’t there,” she pointed out. She hated lying to Taylor more than anything, but she didn’t want Taylor confronting Sophia’s gang directly. Without Emma there to intervene, Taylor might get hurt. And she knew that Sophia would hurt her.

    “Uhh,” said Taylor, with the mercurial change of subject that was one of the things that Emma loved about her, “what’s with your hair? Looks like there’s a little bit missing.”

    Emma grinned ruefully. “Accident with the scissors,” she said. “You’re not the only ditz.”

    Taylor laughed.

    ***

    “We need to take this to the Protectorate, to the PRT,” said Alan Barnes. “If half of what you’re saying is true, then the school’s at least guilty of criminal negligence.”

    “No,” said Emma, very reluctantly. “Dad, Sophia’s careful. She has lookouts, and any time a teacher, or someone who’s not part of their little in-group, or not scared of them, comes near, they’re all innocent and nice.”

    She shook her head. “And if we push it, and let them know, sure as hell Sophia will out me. Even though I’ve never gone out and so much as saved a cat from a tree. And she’ll spread it just as far and wide as she can manage, just to make my life hell.”

    He looked concerned. “Maybe you should apply to the Wards?”

    “Hell, no,” she said. “Sophia’s a part of that already. That’ll just make her think I’m subscribing to her twisted little world-view, and she’ll creep on to me more than ever.” She closed her eyes, then opened them. “I’m just going to have to stick it out, protect Taylor, and maybe next year we can go to a different school.”

    “Actually, I’ve had ideas for that,” Alan said. “Protecting Taylor, I mean. I can sign you up for self-defense classes. They probably wouldn’t help Taylor much, but you’ve got muscle tone you can put to good use. If you’re willing?”

    She nodded. “That’ll be a great help, actually, Dad. But seriously, don’t worry. I’ve got it under control.”

    He frowned, eyes troubled. “If you say so, Emma.”

    She nodded. “I do say so, Dad.” She shrugged. “She hasn’t done anything actually actionable yet,” she added. “Just a lot of petty stuff, that they can pass off as school rough-housing. Most of which I’ve managed to intercept. So Taylor’s not doing too badly.” She grinned at him. “I’ve invited her over for a pizza and movie night, Saturday. Is that okay?”

    “Sure,” he said. “I’ll call up Danny, ask him over too. Been a while since we caught up.”

    She grinned and hugged him. “It’s all gonna be okay. You’ll see.”

    He hugged her back. “I hope you’re right, honey. I hope you’re right.”


    End of Part Two
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Part Three: In the Heat of the Moment
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Three: In the Heat of the Moment

    Emma only saw two troopers to begin with. At almost the same time, the PA system came to life, the ancient wiring putting a crackling overlay on the principal's voice. "Attention all students. Attention all students and staff. There is a dangerous parahuman on school grounds. Please make your way immediately to the cafeteria. I repeat, please make your way immediately to the cafeteria."

    Emma frowned. She sounds worried. Who is she –

    The penny dropped, just as the two troopers reached the door to the infirmary and entered.

    "Excuse me, ladies," said one of them, a pleasant-faced young man in an open helmet. "If you can –"

    His partner was a little more on the ball; he spotted Emma's red hair and began to bring up his rifle. "Christ!" he yelled. "It's her!"

    Emma reacted without thinking; she wrenched her hand free from the nurse's grip and came up out of the chair. Her hair blossomed outward; she hadn't done much with her powers before this day, but she could swear that it was reacting faster each time she used it. Bright red streamers of hair wrapped the troopers up like mummies, while more tendrils plucked the guns from their hands.

    "Please," she said, "no guns. I don't want anyone getting hurt. And guns are so unpredictable."

    They stared at her, frozen. She stared back, totally at a loss as to what to do.

    "Look," she said. "This is all a huge misunderstanding –"

    "There is indeed," came a deeper voice from the door. "And you made it."

    She turned; an armoured figure stood there, with a metal halberd in his hands. Armsmaster.

    "Wait," she said. "It doesn't have to be –"

    He took a deliberate pace forward. "You've taken officers of the law hostage, as well as three civilians," he stated deliberately. "That's a criminal offence, which makes you a villain." He didn't touch any controls, but the halberd began to hum ominously. "And I don't negotiate with villains."

    With painful clarity, she recalled the Armsmaster action figure that she had above her bed. I'm about to be killed by one of my idols.

    "I'm not a villain!" she screamed.

    He paused, seeming slightly confused. "Perhaps you believe that," he said. "But your actions say differently."

    She whipped her hair away from the PRT troopers. "See? Not hurt! They were pointing guns at me and my friends! I don't like guns, or weapons." Discreetly, her hair tendrils deposited the rifles on the floor, near the door.

    "I still have to bring you in," stated Armsmaster. "You assaulted a Ward. That's a serious crime in itself." His voice was implacable, his demeanour intimidating.

    "Yes, I beat the living shit out of Sophia Hess," she said with exasperation, "but that's only because she hurt my friend."

    "What did she do to your friend?" he asked; for the first time, his voice became more interested, less accusatory. She noticed the neatly trimmed beard. Does he shave it to fit the helmet?

    Emma took a deep breath. "In the girls' locker room, there's a locker with the door ripped all the way off. I did that. In the locker, and scattered around it, is a heap of used feminine products that were put in there before the Christmas break. It's Taylor's locker. She opened it, Sophia shoved her in there, and locked the door on her. I didn't find out till the end of the period. She was in there for an hour. Up to her waist in stuff I don't even want to think about."

    She stared at him defiantly. "And that's why I went and beat the living goddamn shit out of Sophia goddamn Hess."

    Armsmaster paused again. His lips were moving very slightly. He must be speaking on the radio.

    "Your story will be checked out," he said. "In the meantime, let these people go."

    "I wasn't holding them," she protested. "Well, okay, those guys, yes, but they can go if they want. And these are my friends, and this is the school nurse. She was treating my hand when they came in."

    Taylor half sat up, roused by the noise. "Emma?" she said. "What's going on?" She spotted the armoured cape in the doorway. "Wow, Armsmaster's here? C'n you get his autograph for me? 'M feeling kinda sleepy ..." She settled down again, pulling the blanket over herself.

    "Taylor can't be moved right now," said the nurse unexpectedly. "She's suffering from extreme mental trauma, and she has numerous small cuts and abrasions that need observation; from the description of where she was, even a tiny cut could lead to a very nasty infection." She gave Armsmaster a level stare. "And I'm not leaving her here alone."

    "And I'm staying too," said Madison. "I wouldn't miss this for the world."

    "No, miss, you are not," said Armsmaster firmly. "You have no official reason to be here, and all students have been told to report to the cafeteria."

    Madison looked stubborn, but Emma nodded to her. "Go," she said quietly. "And thanks for all your help."

    Reluctantly, Madison edged past Emma and the troopers, then squeezed past Armsmaster. Pausing in the doorway, she called back, "Get me an autograph too, will you, Emma?"

    "I'll try!" called back Emma. Can't guarantee anything though, she thought glumly.

    The nurse came over to where Emma stood, her hair still waving gently in the air. "I haven't finished treating your hand," she said, taking the offending appendage in hers. "So you beat up the girl who did this to Taylor?"

    Emma nodded, becoming more and more aware that having done so, no matter how satisfying it had been, was probably not going to be as worth it as she had thought.

    "Yeah," she said. "I just got so pissed off – sorry," she added hastily, suddenly aware that she had sworn in front of the nurse.

    The nurse grinned unexpectedly. "So would I. Good for you," she said. "It's good to see friends sticking up for one another." She tut-tutted as she finished cleaning and bandaging the cuts. "Though you made an awful mess of your hand."

    "Trust me," said Armsmaster unexpectedly, "the other girl's face is much worse off."

    Startled, Emma looked at him. But the armoured crimefighter seemed to have simply meant it as a statement of fact. He waited, apparently content to watch her. So she waited, too.

    ***

    A few minutes later, Armsmaster tilted his head slightly, as if listening. He said something under his breath, then appeared to look directly at Emma. "Your story checks out," he said. There was ... what? Surprise in his voice?

    "Which means ...?" began Emma, having belatedly begun to learn not to take things at face value.

    "Which means that I escort you to the principal's office, and we talk to her about why one of our Wards apparently locked someone in a locker full of biological waste, and how she thought she could get away with it." What she could see of his mouth was set in a grim line. "Our medical techs have sealed off that entire area, until all the waste has been cleaned up."

    "... right," said Emma. "I really don't want any more trouble."

    "That's not up to me," stated Armsmaster unequivocally. "You did commit assault and battery upon a Ward in her civilian identity, and caused her to be unmasked as a result. You also assaulted two members of the Parahuman Response Teams, in the commission of their duties, which is also a crime. I have recorded your statement that you were acting under emotional distress when you committed these crimes; perhaps this will count in your favour with Director Piggot."

    He hefted the halberd slightly. "However, we are wasting time. We need to get to the principal's office. It would be in your best interests to come quietly."

    "Oh, I'm coming quietly," said Emma hastily. She paused to squeeze Taylor's hand and give a nod to the nurse. The nurse nodded back, and gave her a discreet thumbs-up.

    ***

    Emma let her hair reduce to its normal proportions as she stepped into the hall. To all appearances, she was a normal, if strikingly pretty, teenage student.

    "Very useful," observed Armsmaster as they walked along. "I was going to ask how you got around with that much hair, but I see now that the question is immaterial." He paused. "Do you grow it, or simply create it from thin air?"

    "I'm not entirely sure," she admitted. "Umm ... just a question. What's my best-case outcome, here?"

    "Best case?" repeated Armsmaster. "Best case is that Director Piggot decides that you were justified, or at least not unjustified, in your actions, and has all charges dropped." He paused a beat. "A much more likely scenario, given that you harmed no-one except Shadow Stalker, is that you would be given probation, to be served as a member of the Wards."

    "No," said Emma. "I don't like that one."

    He tilted his head slightly. "Why is that? It is preferable to simply going to prison, I can assure you."

    "Because Shadow Stalker, Sophia, call her what you want, has been creeping on to me for the last year and a bit, trying to get me to come out and be a badass crimefighter with her," said Emma in a rush. "And because I won't, she's been getting her friends to pick on Taylor all this time."

    "Hmm," replied Armsmaster. "I believe you. However, you're going to have to repeat that to Director Piggot."

    "Don't you at least care that she's been doing all this?" burst out Emma.

    "Oh, I care," Armsmaster replied imperturbably. "It's just that, right now, my responsibility is to bring you to see Director Piggot. Dealing with Shadow Stalker, we can do after we get there."

    Emma had nothing to say to that. The rest of the walk passed in silence.

    ***

    The first person that Emma saw when she entered the principal's office was her father. She broke forward and hugged him tightly; he hugged her back.

    "I'm so glad you're okay," he said, his voice breaking slightly. "But what on earth are you wearing? I know I never bought that for you."

    "No, you didn't," giggled Emma. "Madison gave it to me. My clothes were all grungy."

    He went to ask another question, then closed his eyes and shook his head for a moment. "No, that can wait." He looked around the office, at the other people in it. "My biggest question here is, what the hell happened?"

    "My question," said a tall, skinny man with glasses, "is what happened to Taylor, and where is she now?"

    "Mr Hebert," said Emma. She went over and hugged him too. "Taylor's okay now. She had a really bad time, but she's resting in the infirmary. The nurse is with her."

    "But what happened?" he repeated, his voice rising.

    "She was shut into a locker containing toxic biological waste for approximately one hour, Mr Hebert," Armsmaster said bluntly. "Whereupon Miss Barnes here found her, got her out of the locker, and apparently cleaned her up and got her to the infirmary." He turned to Emma. "That is what you did, isn't it?" he asked.

    Emma nodded. "That's basically it," she agreed. "There are other details, but nothing important."

    Danny headed for the door. "I want to see her," he said. "How do I find the infirmary?"

    The principal turned to her deputy. "Show Mr Hebert the way to the infirmary, please," she said. "I can deal with this for the time being."

    ***

    Danny Hebert sat on the chair beside the bed. Taylor's hand protruded from under the blanket, and he took it in his work-roughened hands.

    She stirred, and blinked at him. "Is that you, Dad?" she said muzzily.

    "It's me, kiddo," he replied warmly. "How are you feeling?"

    "Tired and sore," she said softly. "The nurse gave me something to help me rest, but I think it's wearing off. And I'm all cut and bruised from ..." She trailed off, and shuddered.

    "Oh,Taylor," said Danny, leaning forward and putting his arm around her blanketed shoulders.

    She buried her face in his shoulder. "Oh god, Dad," she whimpered, "it was so horrible. It was dark, and it stank, and I couldn't breathe, and there were all these bugs, and I couldn't get out..."

    Danny held her, feeling her hot tears soaking his shoulder, and he felt a slow, steady burn of anger toward the people who let this happen, who allowed that girl to get to the point where she thought she could hurt his little girl in this way, and get away with it .

    Hell no, he thought. Not gonna happen. Not to my little girl. Not this time.

    As he stroked her hair, one other thought kept running through his mind.

    Thank God Emma was there.

    ***

    Taylor let her father hold her close, and she cried on his shoulder. But even as one part of her let the emotional response pour out, another part held back and worried.

    Because she had gone insane in that locker; she was sure she had. Because she had started seeing and hearing things, in her head, that weren't there.

    But she was out of the locker now. It was all good. Dad was here, and he would make everything better.

    Except that, in the back of her mind, she could still hear strange noises and see strange shapes, moving, shifting.

    If I ask myself am I insane, does that make me sane?

    She didn't know, and was afraid to ask.

    ***

    In the principal's office, things had settled down. Emma sat next to her father, across from the principal and her deputy. To one side sat a heavily overweight woman, who had been introduced as Director Emily Piggot of the Parahuman Response Teams.

    To the other side stood Armsmaster; directly beside him sat Sophia, her face bruised and puffy, with butterfly bandages and small sticky-plaster patches on the damage that Emma had inflicted. She would not meet Emma's eye; her head was down, her expression sullen.

    "I confess, I find much of this hard to believe," said Principal Blackwell. "Sophia's always been an exemplary student ... well, not exemplary, mind, but definitely well within our boundaries. She doesn't smoke, she doesn't start fights, she makes friends readily. And she's a real star on the track."

    "Look," said Emma. "Dad and I encountered her ... when? Two thousand nine? Just before she ended up here?"

    Armsmaster nodded. "She requested this school. I was puzzled, but she had volunteered for the Wards, and so she was given a little leeway."

    Emma nodded. "That does not surprise me. We ran into her before she joined the Wards. We were in a bad part of town, our car got trapped by some ABB thugs. They dragged me out of the car. They were going to cut my eye out or my ears off, or something even worse, and then I saw her. Just watching. To see what I'd do, I looked her right in the eye, and she looked right back at me. She did nothing."

    All eyes turned to Sophia. She hung her head a little farther, looked a little more sullen. Emma frowned. She doesn't give up this easily.

    "So what happened?" asked Director Piggot. "Your eyes and ears are obviously whole. Or did they ..." she let the question trail off.

    Emma shook her head. "No, thank God. I manifested my powers right about that point. Knocked half of them out, the other half ran for it." Her voice rose with indignation. "And then she tried to congratulate me!"

    "And what happened then?" asked Armsmaster. His hand was on Sophia's shoulder; Emma did not think it was there for reassurance.

    "I was a little peeved, that's what happened," Emma said. "I grabbed her and slammed her on the hood of the car. Asked her why the hell she didn't help."

    "And ...?" prompted Director Piggot.

    "And she said, and I quote, 'I wanted to see who you were.'"

    Director Piggot frowned. "Is that true, Armsmaster?"

    "As far as I can tell, yes," he responded.

    Emma blinked. He's got a lie detector in his helmet? No wonder he believed what I had to say.

    "Sophia," said the Director.

    Sophia did not respond.

    "Sophia!" she said more sharply.

    Slowly, Sophia raised her head.

    "What did you mean by that?" asked the Director. "When you told her that."

    "How would I know?" replied Sophia almost rudely. "It was a year ago. Do you remember what you had for breakfast a year ago?"

    Piggot's lips thinned. "Be careful what you say, young lady," she said warningly. "If these allegations prove true, you're going to be in a great deal of trouble. You don't want to make things worse for yourself."

    Sophia rolled her eyes. "I've been a Ward for more than a year now. I've been a good girl. I've toed the goddamn line, regurgitated the party line so often I must say it in my sleep. But the first time someone comes along and makes some sort of complaint about me, who do you believe? Me or them?"

    She went to rise; Armsmaster pressed down on her shoulder. "Sit. Down," he ordered.

    "Go screw yourself," she told him, and dissolved into her shadow-form. And then there was a pop, as of an electrical discharge, and she reformed again with a scream of pain, curled up on the floor. A tendril of Emma's hair was visible, wrapped around her ankle.

    Armsmaster reached down, picked up Sophia with one hand, and set her in the chair again. Then he snapped some sort of elaborate bracelet around her wrist. "I have to admit, I did not think she would try to flee," he said. "That was quick thinking, young lady." He nodded to her hair tendril. "You can put that away, now."

    Emma nodded, and the hair retracted until it was no longer noticeable among the rest of her tresses.

    "Well, that was a somewhat extreme reaction, but we have to take emotional instability into account," observed Director Piggot. "However, for the moment, I am inclined to take Ms Barnes' account at face value."

    "Thank you, uh, Director," said Emma. "But that wasn't the worst bit."

    "What was the worst bit?" asked the Director.

    "That she decided that I was her ideal partner in rooftop jumping, and that me not wanting to do it just meant that Taylor was holding me back. So she set about trying to denigrate Taylor in my eyes, make her look weak, so I'd cut ties with her and take up with Sophia."

    She looked the Director in the eye. "So for the last year, more or less, she has harassed Taylor and had her friends do the same. And the school's ignored any complaints I made for her, because Sophia's a Ward, and she's popular, and she's a track star, and gosh, we can't have her miss any track meets."

    She was a little ashamed of the sarcasm that crept into her voice at the end of this speech, but quickly decided that she didn't care anymore.

    Behind her desk, the principal squirmed. "I'm sure it hasn't been as bad as you are making out, Miss Barnes," she began. "If there's been any property damage, I'm sure it can be reimbursed ..."

    Emma nodded. "What a great idea," she said sweetly. "I have a receipt at home for a repair bill of four hundred seventy-three dollars. That's just one item."

    "Four hundred ..." The principal trailed off. "What was that for?"

    "Sophia stole a flute out of Taylor's locker and she and her coterie basically did their best to make sure it could never be used again. They damaged it badly, then ... did disgusting things to it."

    She paused. "I found it, and had it repaired with my own money, just so Taylor wouldn't confront Sophia about it. Because Sophia would pick a fight, and she would hurt Taylor badly. All she would need is half an excuse."

    There was silence then, as all eyes found Sophia, who remained hunched up in her chair.

    Alan Barnes broke it first. "The school, of course, will pay reparations to Taylor and her father, for all the mental anguish, all the lost property, and all the medical bills that are likely to ensue from this," he said. "Also, no matter what else happens to Sophia Hess, I want her and all of her friends that assisted her in bullying Taylor Hebert to be gone from Winslow by the end of the week." He looked at Emma. "You will, no doubt, have a comprehensive list of names?"

    Emma nodded. "I do indeed, Dad," she said.

    "Now just wait one minute," said the principal. "Throw out how many students on the say-so of one girl? Someone who assaulted another student, and destroyed a locker?"

    Alan Barnes stood up, and stepped forward until he was leaning over the principal's desk. "You will do it," he said softly, "or I will bring suit against the school, and against every single teacher who could possibly have spotted some of the bullying, and did nothing about it."

    His voice grew harder. "This went on for more than a year, Ms Blackwell. My daughter complained several times, but nothing ever happened. Well now, something is happening. And you will do as I say, or I will make it my personal lifelong goal to ensure that you never administrate anything more important than a hot-dog cart, ever again."

    He straightened his tie, stepped back, and sat down again. "Think it over, ma’am," he said quietly. "I'm sure you'll see it from my point of view."

    Director Piggot cleared her throat. "Be that as it may; that is outside the purview of the PRT." She looked at Emma. "I am forced to conclude that Miss Barnes acted only in the best interests of the Hebert girl, and was justified in her actions toward Sophia Hess."

    Armsmaster nodded. "And the assault on the troopers who first encountered her?"

    Piggot considered. "They were released unharmed, so I am willing to make allowances for the circumstances," she said, carefully enunciating every word. She turned a probing glare on Emma. "Especially since it will not happen again." The meaning was implicit. It had better not.

    Emma shook her head violently in negation. "Oh, no, no, no," she said fervently. She paused. "So ... what happens now?" she asked.

    "Now?" said Armsmaster. "Shadow Stalker is stripped of her Wards status as of right now. She will be tried for her offenses and very probably remanded to juvenile hall. While she was an effective crimefighter, this shows a side of her that we do not want in the Wards under any circumstances."

    He paused. "As per your father's recommendation, she will be removed from Winslow High. I presume the others will be gone in short order as well."

    "As for you,"said Director Piggot, "I would like to extend an invitation for you to join the Wards. You have an admirable level of dedication to your friends, and Armsmaster tells me you showed considerable self-restraint when dealing with the troopers. You can get proper training with your powers, and perhaps find new applications for their use."

    Emma thought about this, then shook her head. "Sorry," she said. "But I'm going to have to decline."

    Everyone stared at her.

    "What?" asked her father. "Why? It sounds like a great offer."

    Emma shrugged helplessly. "Taylor's been hurt really badly. Not on the outside, but on the inside. I saw the look in her eyes. I've been there. She's going to need someone to be there for her, a shoulder to cry on, a rock to cling to. She did that for me, year before last. I owe it to her, now."

    There was silence for a time, and then Director Piggot spoke up. "I cannot argue with that," she said. "Just understand this; the offer is open, any time you want to take it up. In fact, feel free to visit; any one of our Wards would be happy to give you a tour of the facilities."

    Emma nodded. "Thank you, uh, Director," she said awkwardly. "I appreciate it, I really do." She smiled. "And who knows, someday I might take you up on it. But right now, my friends come first."

    ***

    On the way out of the building, Armsmaster chose a quiet moment to comment, "You didn't push too hard to get the Barnes girl on the team, Director. May I enquire why?"

    Emily Piggot turned to look at him. "Are you questioning my decisions?"

    "No, Madam Director," he said. "I'm merely trying to ascertain your reasons for doing it that way."

    Piggot nodded. "Well, it's simple. She's under a certain level of mental stress right now, and she's obviously devoted to the Hebert girl. Pushing harder would have achieved nothing; in fact, it would have driven her away from us. As it is, once things settle down for her, she may well decide to see what she's missing out on."

    Armsmaster nodded. "I think I see," he said doubtfully.

    Piggot nodded. "Of course, if Miss Barnes does show up, try not to let Clockblocker give her the tour. We don't want her turned off us altogether."

    Armsmaster nodded. "Understood, Madam Director."

    The rest of the walk passed in silence.

    ***

    A Few Days Later

    "So you really turned down an offer to join the Wards?" asked Taylor. She was stretched out comfortably on the sofa behind Emma's head; Emma was seated on the floor, leaning against the sofa.

    Emma finished painting one thumbnail and held it out at arm's length, to see how it looked. "Yeah," she said. "Told 'em I wouldn't join anything that wouldn't take you as a member."

    "You could have joined," said Taylor uncomfortably. "I would have been okay with that." She grinned. "Some of those boys in the Wards are some kind of hunky."

    "Well, there is that," admitted Emma, "but to be honest, I think I'd prefer to be here with you, doing this." She turned toward Taylor's feet. "What shade do you want your toenails done in? I have Seashell Pink, Magenta Blast, and something called Rainbow Dazzle."

    "Uhh ... " said Taylor. "There's actually something I've been meaning to talk to you about, while there's no-one else around." She sounded troubled, and Emma immediately put the cap back on the nail polish.

    "Okay, Tails, what's up?" she asked. "It's not some undying declaration of love for me, is it?" She grinned to show it was a joke.

    Taylor shook her head. "No, it's serious." She took a deep breath. "I think I went insane in that locker."

    Emma moved closer to her, and took her hand. "Taylor, it must have been hugely stressful in there. I wouldn't be surprised if you weren't firing on all cylinders when you got out. But you've had time to rest and recuperate now; you should be okay by now, right?" Her voice held a hopeful edge. Please be all right.

    "Physically, I'm fine," Taylor assured her. "But ... the first thing was, I kept on seeing bursts of light inside my head, and hearing weird noises. And when I got out of the locker, it didn't stop. It's like a thousand TV sets, all running at the same time, all badly tuned. But I haven't looked too closely at the pictures. I'm scared of what I might see."

    Emma tried to absorb this. "You don't get voices in your head telling you to go and kill every second person you see, do you?" she asked, trying to make a joke out of it.

    Taylor shook her head. "Thankfully, no," she said. "Just noises fading in and out, lots of them. All in the back of my head." She took a deep breath. "And then there's the second thing."

    "Second thing?" asked Emma.

    "Yeah," said Taylor. "Sometimes when I'm just relaxing, drifting, letting my mind wander, I see insects flying or crawling around ... and I can predict where they're going to go."

    "Wait, what?" asked Emma. "For reals?"

    Taylor nodded. "I'll try to relax now," she said. "Let me know if you see a fly or something."

    "Okay," said Emma. Taylor lay back on the sofa and closed her eyes.

    For a moment, Emma wondered if this was a trick by Taylor to snatch a five-minute nap, but she dismissed the thought. If she wanted a nap, she'd say so, she told herself.

    After a few moments, she saw a fly buzzing through the house. "Fly," she murmured.

    "Over near the door, right?" Taylor answered, without opening her eyes.

    "Yeah," said Emma. "It's –"

    "Coming this way," said Taylor. "It's gonna circle your head and land on your hand."

    And to Emma's astonishment, it did just that.

    "How do you do that?" she asked.

    Still with her eyes closed, Taylor shrugged. "I just decide that I want to know what it's going to do, and whatever pops into my head is what happens."

    "Huh," said Emma. She frowned, looking at the fly. "Taylor, have you ever tried making an insect do what you want?"

    "Huh?" said Taylor, opening her eyes. The fly took off. "I'd have to be insane to believe I could do that."

    Emma shook her head. "What if you think you're predicting it, when really you're thinking up behaviour a fly would do, and telling the fly to do it?"

    Taylor frowned. "So I'm telling it what to do?"

    Emma shrugged. "Only one way to find out."

    Taylor nodded. "Okay. I'll give it a shot." She spoke out loud. "The fly will come back, land on your other hand, and walk in a circle."

    The fly came back, landed on Emma's other hand, and walked in a circle.

    "Holy crap," said Taylor.

    "Yeah," said Emma. "Holy crap."

    "No, no," said Taylor. "When the fly walked in a circle, one of those fuzzy TVs? I caught a picture of you and me in it. I think I'm seeing through its eyes."

    Emma turned to face Taylor. Their eyes met, and they stared at each other.

    "You can control insects, and see through their eyes, hear through their ears?" asked Emma. "That's ... crap, that's insane. How many can you do at once?"

    Taylor shrugged. "No idea," she said. "I only just now realised it's not me being nuts after all."

    Emma grinned. "Well, I wouldn't say that," she said.

    Taylor threw a cushion at her.


    End of Part Three
     
    Last edited: Apr 21, 2020
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  5. Threadmarks: Part Four: Meet the Wards
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Four: Meet the Wards

    Danny and Alan sat at each end of the Heberts' smallish dining table; the girls sat opposite one another. They ate at each others' houses at least once a month, sometimes more often, and this night was the turn of Danny and Taylor to play host.

    Up till now, the conversation had wandered from topic to desultory topic, but the meal was over, and the talk died away.

    "How about a board game?" suggested Danny. "I've got one that came in from Earth Aleph awhile ago, called Pandemic. It's apparently quite good."

    "What, we play diseases or something?" asked Alan good-naturedly.

    "Ew, Dad, that sounds disgusting," said Emma, screwing her face up.

    "No, no, you fight diseases. It's a cooperative game," Danny explained, starting to get up.

    "Wait, Dad," said Taylor. "Before you get the game, Emma and I need to talk to the both of you about something important."

    Danny sat down again, looking to Emma and then to Taylor and back again. "What do you want to talk about?" He looked at Emma's father. "Alan?"

    Alan shrugged. "Search me. Whenever they're at my place, they're always whispering quietly together."

    Danny frowned. "You two haven't become a couple, have you?" He hastened to add, "I mean, it's perfectly okay with me if you have."

    "Sure," said Alan. "Me too."

    Emma looked from Danny to Alan and back again, and then burst into giggles. Across the table, Taylor did her best not to follow suit, then Emma caught her eye, and she was gone too.

    Danny looked at them both, then at Alan. "Not a couple then."

    Alan sighed. "Apparently not. Though I have to admit, with these two, it would be kind of superfluous; I see Taylor almost as much as I see Emma anyway."

    Danny nodded. He frowned at Taylor. "Though I wish I knew what was so funny."

    Emma sobered a little; studiously not looking at Taylor, she said, "It's funny because there's a rumour going around school that we are together. We're not, but we don't care if people think we are."

    "So if it's not that, then what is it?" asked Alan. "What's had you two all conspiratorial all of a sudden?"

    Taylor took a deep breath. "Dad, Mr Barnes, I've got powers."

    Both men looked at her in silent consternation, then to Emma.

    Emma nodded. "Yeah. It's true. Taylor, show them."

    Taylor took another deep breath, and concentrated. From all over the room, insects converged; some large, some small. They formed a whirling spiral over the table, then landed, one after the other, forming concentric circles on the cloth as they came to rest.

    Danny blinked. "You can control insects?"

    "Not just insects," Emma put in. "Other bugs, plus anything small like that."

    "Yeah," said Taylor. "I get a sort of TV channel in my head, and an idea of what it is and where it is, but I have to sort of 'click' on it to get control. But I've got lots of channels running at any time, and I can click on any number at once. It's pretty cool, actually."

    "Have you hit an upper limit yet?" asked Alan.

    Taylor shook her head. "I haven't dared go too high – people might talk if they saw a really big swarm sweeping across the sky – but I haven't found a limit yet, that I know of. I'm still finding out my range, but I think it's about one or two blocks."

    Emma took another deep breath. "We're still working on training Taylor with them, but ... we've decided to become superheroes together. Maybe form our own team."

    "Wait," exclaimed Alan Barnes. "Team? What? Going out and fighting crime? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?"

    Emma nodded. "Yes, Dad, I actually do," she said in a voice that could cut steel. "Remember?" She stared him in the eyes. He stared back for a few moments, then dropped his own eyes.

    "I could never forget," he muttered. "Sorry, honey."

    For his part, Danny was speaking earnestly to Taylor. "Kiddo, it's a huge, huge step from being able to tell bugs what to do, to being able to fight off an armed attacker. Especially one that might have powers of his own." He took a deep breath. "I mean, what if someone comes at you with a knife? Or a gun? What can your powers do for you?"

    "Well," said Taylor seriously, "if he can see through the bugs crawling into his eyes, and breathe through the ones crawling into his mouth and nose, and I'm not even going to go into stinging insects and venomous spiders right now, then he'll be doing better than most people." She paused. "Dad, we have thought about this."

    Danny leaned back. "Sorry. Of course you have. You never do anything without planning it through first." He took a deep breath. "Okay, I've known about Emma's powers for some time, but Taylor ... when did you get yours?"

    Taylor took a deep breath. "Um ... back at school. When I was ... in the locker." Emma reached across the table and took her hand. Taylor squeezed it gratefully.

    "Well, this is definitely something to think about," said Danny. "You haven't actually gone out and done anything yet?" The girls both shook their heads. "Good. I think it's a really good idea for you both to think very long and hard about what you intend to do."

    "Maybe you should join the Wards, as Director Piggot suggested," said Alan. "They have a lot of backup and support, as well as medical assistance in case you get hurt." He frowned. "I mean, I know you can take care of yourself, Emma, but things can still go very wrong out there. And not just from criminals; I've been studying cape law ever since you got your powers, and there are many ways that rogue capes can come seriously adrift."

    Emma nodded. "We know this, Dad. We'll be careful, and we'll train up first."

    Taylor spoke up. "I've been looking up insects and bugs of all sorts, and black widow spiders have the second strongest webbing in the world. They are native to the area, so I should be able to find and gather enough to make us spider-silk costumes, once I learn their basic signal type."

    "Um, spider silk costumes?" asked Danny, looking a little lost.

    Taylor grinned. "Tougher and lighter than Kevlar. And I think I can convince spiders to literally weave me a costume from their webs. And I can make one for Emma too. If I do them right, we should be proof against knives at least, and maybe even bullets."

    "Well, that's something, at least," said Alan. "Emma, how are your self defense classes going?"

    "Pretty well, Dad," Emma responded. "Actually, Taylor, you could probably learn something there too. If only to break free of someone holding you so you can run away."

    "Running away sounds good to me," agreed Taylor. "I think I'll actually take up running too." She patted her belly. "I might want to firm this up, or I'll look like an upright frog in my costume." Everyone chuckled at that.

    "So have you decided on names for yourselves?" asked Danny.

    "Not really," confessed Taylor. "There's not many bug-related names that don't sound creepy or villainous."

    "Yeah," agreed Emma. "And my hair is basically my power. What do you call that?"

    "Dreadlocks," suggested Danny.

    "Static," said Alan.

    "Medusa," Taylor offered.

    "Ew, no," said Emma. "Medusa had snakes. Speaking of villain names. No thanks."

    "Siren," suggested Danny suddenly.

    "How does that fit?" asked Taylor. "Emma doesn't sing."

    "No," said Danny. "But sirens traditionally sat on rocks, coming their long hair."

    Emma frowned. "A little too obscure for me." She looked pensive. "Rapunzel, maybe?"

    "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down you hair," quoted Alan with a grin.

    "I suppose," said Danny. "But I think I like Static better. Or Spark."

    "Spark," said Emma. "I like Spark."

    Danny nodded. "Okay, how about Taylor, now?"

    "Um," said Emma.

    "Swarm?" said Alan. Taylor shook her head.

    "Hive?" suggested Danny. Taylor shook her head again.

    "Um, Skitter?" said Emma. Taylor looked at her, she looked back, and they said in chorus, "Nope."

    "Insect Girl? Miss Bug?" suggested Alan.

    "No," said Danny, his face lighting up. "Ladybug."

    "Ladybug," said Emma. "I like it."

    "Ladybug," agreed Taylor. "Let's see, red costume, black spots, maybe a helmet patterned after a ladybug."

    "Okay, so Ladybug and Spark," said Danny. He paused, his face looking pensive. "Look, up till now, this has been more of a game than anything else, but I'm sure Alan's with me on this. Are you girls absolutely certain you want to go out there and do this thing? We can't convince you to wait a couple of years, until you're at least eighteen?"

    Emma took a deep breath. "I'm sure."

    Taylor nodded. "Me too. There are bad people out there, Dad. If we can make a difference ..."

    Alan frowned. "Actually, I'm wondering about something. When you were offered a place in the Wards, Emma, you turned them down flat. And ever since you got your powers, you never went out to use them even once. Why are you thinking about it now?"

    Emma smiled at her father. "Simple. I didn't want to start doing anything where Taylor couldn't be there to give me a hand."

    Taylor got up and walked around the table. When she reached where Emma was sitting, she gave her friend a heartfelt hug. "Thanks," she said softly, her voice just a little muffled. "That's maybe the nicest thing anyone's said to me, in ... a long time."

    Emma reached up and hugged her back. "You're my best friend. What else could I do?"

    After a while, Danny went and fetched the board game. It was fun and interesting, and they played till late in the night, braving outbreaks in Baghdad and epidemics in Hong Kong, to wring victory from the very jaws of defeat.

    ***

    Madison stared at them both. "Oh, no way,"she exclaimed, but kept her voice down so as to not draw attention in the crowded cafeteria.

    Taylor grinned and nodded. "Yes way."

    "So wait ... you both have powers?"

    Taylor and Emma nodded cheerfully, in unison.

    Madison shook her head. "I am so jealous right now. How did you get them?"

    Emma took a deep breath. "It's not fun," she admitted. "You have to go through a really horrible experience. You have to basically know that you're gonna die, before something happens, the switch flicks, and you have powers."

    Madison frowned. "So ... you have to basically think you're about to die? Um ... so why has the entire Modern History class not gained powers yet?"

    Emma and Taylor both burst out laughing.

    "It's okay, Mads," said Taylor, still giggling. "You can still hang with us. We'll let you be our token normal."

    Madison stuck her tongue out at her.

    Two Days Later

    Taylor's eyes were wide as she stared around at the PRT building. "Oh, wow," she said. "I'm here. I'm actually here."

    "Yeah," agreed Madison. "Isn't it awesome?"

    "It is indeed," agreed Aegis, offering them a pleasant smile. He glanced at Emma, who was looking around with almost as much interest, and lowered his voice to an undertone. "So ... do they ..." His eyes flicked to Taylor and Madison.

    "Oh, they know," said Emma cheerfully. "They're my best friends. Though if I went visiting the Wards without inviting them along, that might have changed." She had discussed the matter with Taylor and Madison earlier, and they had decided to not let anyone know about Taylor's powers quite yet.

    "If you'd done that," Madison growled mock-threateningly, "I would never have spoken to you ever again."

    Aegis grinned. "Well, it's good to meet all three of you, but I've got duties to get to." A door opened, and a petite, blonde costumed girl entered. "I'd like you to meet Vista. She can handle your tour." He nodded to the newcomer. "Vista, I'd like you to meet Emma Barnes, Taylor Hebert and Madison Clements." He pointed them each out in turn. "Emma's the one who beat up on Shadow Stalker two weeks ago. Taylor's the one that Sophia was giving all the grief to."

    Vista was wearing a green and teal costume in the form of a dress, with armour panels and a green visor over her eyes. She also looked about eleven years old.

    "Hi," she said, seeming a little reserved. "I'm very pleased to meet you." She paused. "I'm curious; how exactly did you do it? She's normally very good at not being hit."

    "Two words," said Aegis with a grin. "Taser hair." He nodded to the group. "Have fun, gotta go." The door hissed shut behind him.

    "Taser hair? Really?" asked Vista. "That sounds ... interesting. Would you be able to demonstrate?"

    "Okay," said Emma obligingly, and let her hair grow out to its full extent. She was sure it was longer than it had been when she first manifested it, nearly three years previously. It spread out from her head in a vast cloud, waving gently as if suspended underwater. Ripples and sparks of energy ran through it.

    She separated it into several large tendrils, basically so she could see what she was doing, and brought two up between her and Vista. When the tips of the tendrils were a foot apart, she exerted her power, and a large spark went pop, quite loudly, between the tips. There was the sharp smell of ozone.

    Vista jumped and looked startled, even as Emma retracted her hair. "That was ... very impressive," she said. "Can you project it?"

    Emma nodded. "Sorry, but it's a touch only thing." She grinned. "And it's hell on my split ends." She paused. "Actually, I'm joking. Using my power doesn't affect my hair in the slightest. And it's really hard to damage when it's grown out, I'm not sure why."

    "So what are you going to call yourself?" asked Vista. "And does your hair actually grow, or expand, or whatever, or do you just create more of it out of nothing?"

    "Um, I'm thinking of Spark for the name," said Emma. "And does it matter how my hair gets that way, so long as it does?"

    "Oh, sure," said Vista. "There's all sorts of inferences you can make about your powers and their consequences if you know how it works." She paused. "Well anyway," she went on, "you didn't come here to talk about how your powers work. You came here to see the Wards base, and meet us in person too, I guess."

    "Well, yeah," said Emma. "Armsmaster wanted me to join the Wards." She shrugged. "Probably to make up for me having Sophia kicked out."

    Unexpectedly, Vista grinned at her. "Well, just between you and me, I'm not totally surprised about what happened. She never quite broke the rules here, but she could be a bit unpleasant from time to time, especially if things weren't going her way." She sighed. "Still, it means we lose our infiltration expert." She looked from Madison to Taylor. "So ... Taylor?' she began.

    "Yeah?" Taylor acknowledged.

    "Did she really shut you in a locker? And did it really have all that ... stuff in it?"

    Taylor nodded, her face growing taut. "Yeah," she said flatly. "I ... really don't want to talk about it."

    Emma pulled her into a hug. Taylor relaxed, putting her arms around her friend.

    "It was a really horrible time for her," Emma explained over Taylor's shoulder.

    "Ah," said Vista. "Sorry." She looked around, for something to say. "Hey," she said. "Why don't we go to the cafeteria? We've got ice cream," she added brightly.

    Madison grinned. "I like ice cream." Emma nodded and smiled in agreement, and even Taylor managed a weak smile.

    "So let's go have some ice cream," Vista declared.

    The ice cream was good; Emma and Madison chatted with Vista about inconsequential subjects, and gradually, Taylor joined in, with something like her previous enthusiasm.

    As they left the cafeteria, Vista turned to the other three. "Where would you like to see next?" she asked. The PRT side, or where the Wards live?"

    "Wards," said Madison promptly.

    Emma nodded. "Wards, I think," she agreed. "Taylor?"

    Taylor smiled. "Well, duh, Wards," she said cheerfully.

    Vista nodded. "A few of them might be in. Aegis is busy, but you've already met him. I'll introduce you to anyone else we meet."

    Madison cleared her throat. "Umm ..." she said.

    "Yes?" said Vista.

    "Would it be totally rude if I asked them for autographs?" said Madison. "And you too?" She pulled a slim book out of her purse. "I ... kind of brought this ... but I haven't had the nerve to ask until now." She opened to a page where a scrap of paper was pasted into it. "Emma got me Armsmaster's autograph, but I'd really love to have you and the other Wards' as well ... if that's okay?"

    Vista chuckled. "Sure, I can sign that for you." She turned to Taylor. "Would you like an autograph too?"

    Taylor grinned. "Sure," she said. "Why not?"

    So Vista signed the book, and then a piece of paper that Taylor found in her purse, which turned out to be the back of a shopping list. And then they moved on.

    "Well, this is the general living area for the Wards," said Vista. She paused outside the door to press a large green button with a stylised domino mask on it. A muted alarm sounded through the door; Vista waited. She appeared to be counting under her breath.

    "What's that for?" asked Taylor.

    "Uh, it's a warning that there are non-Wards on the premises, and anyone without a mask should cover up," Vista explained. She smiled at Emma. "If and when you join, of course, you won't have to worry about people masking up for you."

    "So wait," said Madison with a giggle. "We could walk in there, and Kid Win or someone could be coming out of the shower with just a mask and a towel on?" She looked intrigued. "Maybe I should have brought my camera."

    Vista shook her head. "They wouldn't have let you bring it in. Your phones were held, weren't they?"

    Emma nodded. "Yeah, but I thought that was a general 'no communications devices' thing. Like in airplanes."

    Vista shook her head. "Phone calls are fine. Taking pictures of the inside of the base, not so fine. Taking pictures of Wards without their masks on, or in various stages of undress, really not so fine." A pause. "Though, come to think of it, Clockblocker would probably pose." She seemed to reach a decision. "Okay, that's long enough." Leaning forward, she let a retina scanner read through her visor; the door hissed open.

    The first person they met was a tall, slim girl with vaguely Oriental features under her visor, and a costume with detailing reminiscent of downward-pointing arrows or darts. Across her back was slung something that looked like a large crossbow with some kind of crank on it. She looked at the girls with interest as they entered.

    "Ah, Flechette," said Vista. "I'd like you to meet Emma Barnes, Taylor, uh, Herbert?"

    "Hebert," corrected Taylor with a smile. "It's a common mistake."

    "Hebert, that's right," agreed Vista. "And Madison Clements."

    "Nice to meet you," said Flechette, with a warm smile. "So, are you joining us or something? I seem to recall Emma's name ..."

    "I haven't actually decided yet," admitted Emma. "I'm the one who was in the trouble with Shadow Stalker. Director Piggot and Armsmaster said I could visit and tour the base, and of course I couldn't do that without my friends. Especially Taylor, who was the one Shadow Stalker was giving all the grief to. I think she's earned it, don't you?"

    "Oh, definitely," said Flechette. She gave Taylor a sympathetic look. "I didn't know Shadow Stalker, but what she did was just wrong. Something should have been done. Someone should have taken notice."

    Taylor shrugged. "How could anyone know?" she asked. "She was only doing it in her civilian identity, in the school. I mean, outside, sometimes I'd get the feeling someone was following me or stalking me, but nothing much ever happened. She was really careful never to let me see her in costume when she was harassing me."

    Flechette nodded. "Still," she said. "I feel kinda responsible. She was a Ward, after all."

    "Don't let it bother you," said Taylor. "I survived, and now it's done." She breathed deeply. "I still have nightmares from time to time, but not every night now, thank God."

    Flechette frowned. "Wait, what, were you the one ...?"

    Vista leaned in and whispered something in her ear. Emma only caught the word 'locker'. Flechette's eyes went wide.

    "That was you?" she exclaimed. "Oh, geez, I'm sorry. I should have realised."

    Taylor laughed wearily. "It's okay," she said. "Really. You can stop apologising now. You weren't to blame, you didn't do any of it." But she had wrapped her arms around herself, and her voice had an uncertain wobble in it.

    Emma recognised the signs, and took her in her arms. "Can we have someplace to sit down, please?" she asked. "And some privacy?"

    Vista found them a chair, and Emma sat Taylor down in it. Taylor was shaking quite violently now, and she began to weep uncontrollably as Emma knelt beside the chair, holding her. For her part, Emma spoke softly and soothingly, rubbing her back gently and stroking her hair.

    And then she felt another set of arms go around them both; she looked around in surprise. Madison gave her a concerned look. "Hey, it can't hurt, right?" she said quietly.

    Emma smiled gratefully at her; she didn't need to answer.

    Taylor came out of it reasonably quickly; these episodes, Emma noted, were happening less and less, and were of a shorter duration each time. But they were still very wrenching on both Taylor and herself.

    Tissues were procured from somewhere, and eyes and noses were wiped. Taylor was looking better already by the time she got up from the chair; only a redness around her eyes betrayed her breakdown.

    By now, a third Ward had joined the other two; a tall young man in a white costume which featured animated clocks wandering to and fro upon it, and a helmet with an opaque faceplate. Emma recognised him as Clockblocker, the perennial jokester of the Wards.

    "What did you do to her, Flechette?" said Clockblocker. "You didn't give her the line about how she just missed Gallant doing his table-top dance number in his skivvies, did you?"

    That jerked a reluctant laugh from Taylor and Emma both, while Madison giggled. "I'd pay money to see that,"she said.

    "So would I," sighed Vista. She looked around guiltily. "I mean ..."

    "It's okay," said Clockpblocker. "We know you're carrying a torch for him."

    "In fact, I think the only one who doesn't know is Gallant himself," added Flechette.

    "Um, he knows," said Vista awkwardly. "He senses emotions, remember?" She blushed vividly. "He was so nice about it, too."

    "Gallant, even," added Clockblocker. Everyone groaned. "What?"

    "Well, at least Glory Girl doesn't know," ventured Flechette, with an apologetic look at Vista. "Which is probably a good thing."

    "Why is that a good thing?" asked Emma curiously.

    "Because she's Gallant's girlfriend, and she has ... let's say ... anger issues," explained Clockblocker.

    "Oh," said Taylor. "Oh. That could be bad." She seemed to be recovering well now, but didn't seem to mind Emma keeping an arm around her waist.

    "It's not fair," said Vista. "I've been a Ward longer than most of the guys here. Longer than Clockblocker or Kid Win, nearly as long as Aegis. But because I'm the youngest, no-one notices me. I didn't even have a chance with Gallant, once Glory Girl set her sights on him."

    "Wow," said Madison. "How long have you been a Ward?"

    "Uh, about two and a half years," Vista said. "Since just before my eleventh birthday."

    Emma stared. "How old are you now?"

    "Thirteen," said Vista defensively. "Look, I'm a late bloomer, okay?" She looked down at herself morosely. "Everyone else I know around my age is showing something; I barely even need a training bra."

    "Hey," said Taylor. "Trust me. I know what you're going through." She nodded at Vista's lack of development. "When I was your age, I had less than that. And meanwhile, Emma..." She sighed. "Unfair's not the half of it."

    "Hey hey," said Emma. "I can't help it if I have more assets than most."

    "Whoa, whoa," said Clockblocker, holding his hands up. "Much as I like to talk about girls' assets, I really don't think this is a conversation I'm supposed to be taking part in. And I'm feeling kind of outnumbered here."

    He tipped them a sketchy salute. "I'll be elsewhere, ladies. Just remember; if you feel the need to take them out and compare, I'll be willing to offer my services as an impartial judge." With that, he escaped.

    Flechette began to giggle. "Oh, man," she said. "I wish I could have seen his face under the helmet."

    Vista shook her head. "Take them out and compare, indeed. That boy is an immature, disgusting pig."

    Flechette grinned. "That boy is three years older than you are."

    Vista shook her head. "Doesn't stop him from being immature and disgusting. Or a pig."

    Madison giggled. "You did start the conversation about ... assets," she pointed out.

    "And trust me," said Emma to Vista. "With this level of development?" She indicated her not inconsequential bosom. "If I ever go out superheroing, I will be definitely wearing a sports bra. Because otherwise, any sort of running, jumping, stuff like that? Absolutely no fun whatsoever." She nodded to Vista. "You and Taylor? You're lucky in that regard."

    "She's right, you know," observed Flechette. "I might not be as ... asset-rich ... as Emma is, but given any level of development whatsoever, a sports bra is a definite requirement for rooftop running."

    Vista sighed. "Yeah, but still," she said. "With a chest like mine, guys treat me like I'm still a kid. And I want them to notice me!"

    "You'll get there," said Emma, cheerfully comfortable in the knowledge that she was already 'there'. "After all, we are women. And women all share the superpower of boobs."

    Everyone started laughing at that; Flechette managed to add, "If boobs were a super-power, Emma, you'd be an S-class threat!" They laughed harder.

    Across the living area, Clockblocker looked up from his computer terminal as the laughter broke out. They're laughing at me, aren't they? he told himself. Yeah, they're laughing at me. I think I'll just stay out of this one.

    That Evening

    "Wow," said Madison. "That was kinda cool. The Wards are really fun to be around." She waved her autograph book. "And they all signed. Even Clockblocker."

    "Yeah," said Taylor. She looked up from where she was sitting on the floor to where Emma was lounging on the sofa. "I think Flechette was checking out your assets there, Ems. You might have an admirer."

    "Wait, what?" said Emma, looking slightly flustered. "Flechette? Really?"

    Madison nodded. "Really and truly. I kinda noticed it myself." She grinned. "She gave me a bit of a once up and down too." She stretched luxuriantly, lying on the richly carpeted floor of the Barnes house. "I think it's sort of flattering, myself. And if I ever decided to switch teams, I know who I could go to for a reference."

    "Not me," said Emma firmly. "I like boys too much." She smiled. "Though you're right; it is kinda flattering, in a weird sort of way."

    "You realise," said Madison, "once Ladybug and Spark start their career as daredevil superheroes, everyone on the Parahumans Online boards will be automatically assuming that you're a couple." She grinned at the expressions on their faces. "There'll be more shipping online than there is in the Bay."

    Taylor and Emma both threw cushions at her.


    To be continued ...
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2020
  6. Threadmarks: Part Five
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger


    Part Five: Dance, Baby, Dance


    Emma sat on the floor of the Hebert household, leaning back against the sofa. Taylor lay on her back on the sofa, her legs up against the wall and the back of her head resting on Emma’s shoulder. She was resting a sketch-pad up against her legs and drawing on it.

    Madison lounged at the far end of the sofa, her legs curled under her as she sketched on her own pad, trying to capture the odd postures of Taylor and Emma. For her part, Emma had some hair strands extended; she had her hands resting in her lap and was trying to thread a needle using only her hair, and was not doing too well at it. Single strands of hair, she could easily insert through the eye of the needle, but manipulating both thread and needle at the same time was harder than it looked.

    “How about this, then?” asked Taylor, handing down the sketch-pad to Emma.

    Two more tendrils of hair reached up and took the sketch-pad, and brought it to rest in front of Emma. She studied Taylor’s efforts critically.

    “Not bad,” she said eventually, “but there are still some changes that need to be done.”

    “What?” said Taylor. “Where?”

    In the next moment, she found herself being lifted, turned and placed on the floor beside Emma, courtesy of the redhead’s hair-tendrils. “Hey!” she protested. “I was comfortable!”

    “You were also in totally the wrong place for me to show you where you went wrong,” pointed out Emma.

    “Okay,” said Taylor, “so show me.”

    “One of the things I learned when I was doing modelling,” said Emma, “was that anything you wear should be good for walking, running, crouching, bending over and twisting. Otherwise you can get into awkward situations, with dishevelled clothes at best and wardrobe malfunctions at worst.”

    She tapped her nail on a point. “See this breastplate thingy? I like how it fills your body out, but it extends too far down, and is too close up to your chin. Crouch down, and you’ve just jammed it up under your chin, and probably bitten your tongue.”

    “Oh, right,” said Taylor.

    “I do like the arm-guards,” said Emma, “but they shouldn’t extend so far over the wrists. If you want to bring your hand back –“ she demonstrated with her own slim hand, “ – then that would get in the way.”

    “Okay, arm-guards smaller, check,” said Taylor. “Anything else?”

    “Well, I do like the helmet,” said Emma. “But the bit hanging down the back, is it flexible, or rigid and hinged? Because you might want to look up from time to time.”

    “I was thinking flexible,” said Taylor.

    “Then it’s good,” agreed Emma. “Gives you protection but lets you move unhindered.”

    “Thanks,” said Taylor. “Now I just have to get the measurements, and start the spiders to work.” She paused. “Hey, Mads,” she said, looking at the far end of the sofa, “I called you up last night, to see if you wanted to hang, and your dad said you were out. What gives?”

    Madison blushed slightly. “I was on a date,” she said defensively. “It’s no big deal.”

    Emma frowned. “I didn’t know you were seeing anyone, Mads,” she said. “I mean, I’m glad and all that you’ve got a social life, unlike me and Taylor, but ... was he anyone we know from school?”

    Madison’s blush deepened slightly. “Not from school, no,” she admitted. “It was, uh, someone from outside school. And it’s a girl.”

    Taylor and Emma both sat up, staring at Madison. “No way,” breathed Emma.

    “Um, Mads, I thought you liked boys,” ventured Taylor carefully.

    “I do,” said Madison. “I’ve kissed boys before, and I liked it. But ... well ... I met her awhile ago, so I sort of called up on Saturday and asked to speak to her, and we got to talking, and she was really nice on the phone, so when she asked if I wanted to go get a bite to eat, I said sure.”

    “I’m stunned,” said Emma.

    “Flabbergasted,” put in Taylor.

    “What happened then?” pressed Emma.

    “Yeah!” prompted Taylor. “Was it all romantic and stuff?”

    “No!” protested Madison. “We just went to a burger bar and sat there talking. She’s really nice to talk to. Told me lots of funny stories about the – the people she’s worked with.” She stopped talking, her face suffused with pink.

    “Well?” said Emma, making ‘go on’ motions. “Give with the juicy stuff.”

    Taylor grinned. “Full disclosure. We want it all.”

    “That was it,” said Madison. “I went home, and she went back to – to where she’s living.”

    “Uh huh ...” said Emma. “And what are you hiding?”

    Madison’s face was now flaming crimson. “She might have kissed me, just a bit, before I came home.”

    Taylor’s lips shaped a soundless whistle. “And of course you fought her off and told her that you weren’t that sort of girl.”

    “No,” mumbled Madison. “I kinda kissed her back. It was nice.”

    “No way!” said Taylor. “I thought you said you were into boys!”

    “I am, I am,” said Madison uncomfortably. “But ... I think I might like girls too.” She lowered her head. “It was really nice.”

    Emma smiled. “So, are you going to be seeing her again?”

    Madison mumbled something into the neckline of her shirt.

    “I’m sorry,” said Taylor, “but we didn’t quite get that.” She was grinning broadly.

    “I said, next Saturday night,” muttered Madison. “We’re going dancing.”

    “And you weren’t going to invite us along?” demanded Emma.

    Madison looked up. “I didn’t think you’d want to come,” she confessed. “You don’t have anyone to go with.”

    Taylor grinned. “Silly Madison,” she said. “Sure we do. Each other.”

    Madison stared. “But I know you like boys, Emma,” she said, “and I’m fairly certain you do too, Tails.”

    “Oh yeah,” said Emma. “Solid hetero, both of us. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dance with each other.”

    “Or with you,” put in Taylor. “Or your girlfriend.”

    “We want to meet her properly,” said Emma.

    “Give her the third degree,” agreed Taylor.

    “Make sure that her intentions are honourable,” added Emma.

    “Or get juicy details if they aren’t,” grinned Taylor.

    “Just so long as she intends to treat you right,” continued Emma.

    “Or at least show you a good time,” concluded Taylor.

    Madison stared at them, stunned by the rapid-fire back-and-forth delivery. “But ... you don’t mind?” she asked.

    “Mind? That our best friend has found someone to be with?” asked Emma. “Why the hell should we mind?”

    “What we mind is not being told,” Taylor said severely. “We want to meet your girlfriend.”

    “She’s not my girlfriend,” muttered Madison. “We’ve only kissed the once.”

    “Still want to meet her,” said Emma cheerfully. “What’s her name?”

    Madison looked warily at them. “You know, if I tell you, you can’t tell anyone,” she warned them.

    Taylor shrugged. “Okay. We don’t tell anyone. Ems?”

    Emma nodded. “Cross my heart. Now spill.”

    Madison smiled slightly. “Her name is Lily.”

    ***

    “Now, here are the ground rules,” said Alan Barnes, leaning over the table. He had a map of the city on the table, and he was drawing on it with erasable marker. “Stay away from the Merchants if you can. Those people are really, really nasty. They don’t even abide by the unwritten rules that everyone else does.”

    “Empire Eighty-Eight, too,” added Danny Hebert. “I’ve been reading up on them, and they’ve got some really big hitters. Hookwolf could chew you both up and spit you out, Purity’s a blaster with flight powers, and Kaiser’s pretty scary too. Neither of you are on their target list, but you don’t want to get them angry at you.”

    “Wait, wait,” said Emma. “Dad ... Danny ... if we decide to never mess with any of the criminal gangs in the city, we’d never set foot outdoors. They aren’t going to go out hell-for-leather to avenge one of their thugs being taken down.”

    “S’right,” mumbled Taylor around a mouthful of cookie. She swallowed, and went on. “So long as we only disrupt their small-scale stuff, and don’t pose a real danger to them, we should be too much trouble to hunt down and kill.”

    Alan frowned, but conceded the point. “Okay then. You’ll be operating within a radius of our respective houses then, all right?” He drew freehand circles around each of the Hebert and Barnes residences, large enough to overlap and take in a good portion of the city.

    “Each night you go out, you inform us. One or both of us will stay on call. We’ll drop you off someplace quiet, and if you need help or immediate pickup, call.” His face showed his worry. “I know it sounds restrictive, but if you’re set on doing this, then we’re going to help you as much as we can.”

    “Me too,” piped up Madison from the other end of the table. “I’ve got my license, so I could drive someone somewhere, or pick someone up if it came to that.”

    Danny shook his head. “No, Madison. I appreciate the offer – we all appreciate the offer – but it’s too dangerous.”

    “Why?” insisted Madison stubbornly. “They’re my friends too, and I want to help.” She stared at Emma appealingly. “You know I’m willing to help you, any way I can.”

    Emma looked back at her, and recalled the scene in the locker room, Madison standing up to Sophia and her cronies, claiming to be gay in order to take the heat off of Emma and Taylor. She smiled to herself. You were more right than you knew.

    She nodded. “I get that, I do,” she agreed. “Dad ... Danny ... maybe Madison could ride along with you, be a lookout or a spotter or something. I think she’s earned it.”

    “I’m better at first aid than either of you big-time superheroes too,” Madison pointed out. “So I’m useful there, too.”

    “Well, I hope it never comes to that,” commented Danny. “But it makes sense.”

    “Yay!” exclaimed Madison. “I get to be a sidekick!”

    Alan Barnes frowned. “But you do exactly what we tell you, understand? No showboating. None.”

    Madison nodded. “I’ll be good,” she said. “If I screw up, my two best friends might get hurt. So I won’t screw up.”

    ***

    The underage dance was being held in a community hall, sponsored by Winslow and Arcadia high schools. Teachers from both schools were there to keep order, as were some college students. When Taylor and Danny arrived, there were plenty of people there, and quite a few cars in the carpark.

    Taylor climbed out of the truck, wondering if she should have gone with jeans after all. But Emma had insisted on a dress for her. The dress was black, with red trim, and Emma and Madison had spent an hour making her hair look nice. A red hairband completed her ensemble.

    “You look beautiful, kiddo,” Danny said. “Go have fun. I’ll be back at ten.”

    “Thanks, Dad,” she said, and gave him a hug. “Sure you don’t want to stay?”

    He shook his head. “I trust you to not do anything really stupid, and anyway, I’ve got some paperwork to sort out.” He shook his head. “Fred screwed up the rosters pretty badly, so I’m gonna be up half the night unscrewing them.”

    He gave her a kiss on the cheek and climbed back into the truck. The engine rattled into life, and he pulled out of the parking space.

    Taylor walked toward the lit-up community hall, glad she had worn flats instead of heels, as the crumbling asphalt crunched under her soles. She had been running every morning for weeks now, and she could feel that her wind was better, and her muscles were more toned; however, she knew that if she had to run, she would be better off taking off the shoes.

    Why am I even thinking like that? she asked herself. This isn’t a superhero outing. This is a dance that I’m attending with my friends.

    But all the same, she found herself accessing the senses of the insects and other ‘bugs’ in the area, locating them and building up a picture of the surroundings. She still had trouble making a coherent image with any detail, but she was getting better with practise.

    “Taylor! There you are!” called out Madison. Taylor turned, and there she was, wearing a deep sea-green dress with a blue wrap around her shoulders. A necklace made of seashells depended around her neck, each one lacquered a different colour, all contrasting nicely with her dress.

    Taylor went over to her, and they hugged; moments later, they spotted Emma approaching as well. Emma had gone with a deep maroon creation that set off her hair, which was itself gathered in fanciful coils on her head, with artfully dangling strands here and there. Taylor would have sworn that it had taken three solid hours to prepare, but she knew that Emma could just concentrate and her hair would arrange itself just so. Which I still think is totally unfair.

    “So, is Lily here yet?” asked Taylor.

    Madison shook her head. “She said she’d meet me here. It’s not past time yet.”

    As Emma got up to them, she smiled widely at Madison. “I love your dress! Where did you get it from? It brings out your eyes so well!”

    Madison smiled shyly. “It was on special. I just liked the look of it.”

    Emma nodded firmly. “You have good taste. I love it.”

    “Madison!” came another voice. All three girls turned, to see a tall slim girl with an Oriental cast to her features walking toward them. She was clad in a midnight-black sheath that was split up one side to show an amazing length of thigh. Her long dark hair was arranged in a tasteful fall over one shoulder, and she smiled warmly in greeting.

    Taylor frowned. She thought there was something familiar about the girl ...

    “Guys, this is Lily,” said Madison. “Lily, this is Taylor and Emma.” She seemed to be trying to hold back laughter, as if there was a joke that only she was privy to.

    Lily smiled. “It’s really good to meet you,” she said, then continued, “... again.”

    “We’ve met before?” asked Emma blankly. “I don’t think ...”

    The penny dropped for Taylor, an instant before Madison burst out laughing.

    “Madison, you didn’t!” she exclaimed.

    Madison, still laughing, nodded her head vigorously, sending her shoulder-length brown hair dancing about her face.

    Emma blinked a couple of times, then held up her hand in front of her eyes, as if shading them. “Oh, wait!” she said. “You’re ...” She bit back the next word.

    Lily nodded. “I am, yes,” she agreed. “Madison wanted to see how long it would take you to realise, but she let the cat out of the bag by laughing, I’m afraid.”

    “I got it, just before she laughed,” said Taylor. “I thought your voice sounded familiar.” She smiled at Lily. “So, you and Mads are a thing, huh?”

    “Well, not as such, not yet,” said Lily with a private smile. “But ... we shall see.”

    She took Madison by the arms and leaned down slightly to kiss her gently on the lips. Madison closed her eyes and sighed, putting her arms around Lily and holding her close.

    “For someone who’s never kissed a girl before last Saturday, you’re certainly taking to it,” observed Emma with a grin.

    Madison opened her eyes and turned to face Emma. “The boys I’ve kissed have all been about shoving their lips at mine, and then groping me, like it’s a videogame and kissing me unlocks the ability to grope. I mean, I really enjoyed the kisses, but I wanted them to last, you know?” She smiled, leaning her head into Lily’s shoulder. “Lily knows how to make a kiss last.”

    “It certainly looks like it,” grinned Taylor. “You look like your feet are about three inches off the ground.”

    Madison giggled, then disentangled herself from Lily so that she could take the taller girl’s arm. Emma courteously held out her elbow for Taylor to take, whereupon Taylor smiled and took it.

    “Let’s go dancing,” said Emma, and led the way.

    ***

    Emma danced with Taylor at first; it was a fast-moving, flowing dance which required both participants to be fast on their feet and quick with their reflexes. Nearby, Lily and Madison were enjoying themselves immensely; Taylor noted that Madison was leading and Lily was following her movements exactly.

    After a while, they stopped to get something to drink; Madison’s wrap had proved unnecessary in the warmth generated by perhaps a hundred dancing teenagers. They got cups of punch from a large bowl; Taylor was dubious about this, until she noted the teacher who was keeping a careful eye on it.

    “Wow,” said Madison, fanning her wrap in front of her face. “This is lots of fun!” She smiled at Lily. “Thanks for inviting me. This is a real blast.”

    Lily grinned in return. “I’m enjoying myself too, Madison. You dance really well.” She reached out and caressed Madison’s cheek with one long-fingered hand. Madison turned her face into nuzzle Lily's palm, then reached up to put her hand on the back of Lily’s neck, and pulled her head down for a kiss. Lily was just reciprocating when someone cleared her throat just behind them.

    “Excuse me,” said a severe adult voice, “no inappropriate displays of affection on the premises, thank you very much.”

    All four girls turned to look; a teacher stood there, accompanied by a dark-skinned girl of Middle Eastern appearance. The girl looked at them apologetically. “Mrs Howell,” she said, “it was only a kiss, really.”

    “It was still inappropriate,” said Mrs Howell sternly. “This dance is supposed to be about young people meeting and socialising in a safe environment. Hugging is permitted; kissing and fondling is not. You should know that, Sabah.” She turned back to Lily and Madison. “One of you must take a dance with someone else, to give your ardour time to settle.”

    Madison and Lily looked at each other, then Lily turned to Taylor. “Would you like to take this dance with me, Taylor?”

    “Sure,” said Taylor. “Anything to get you out of trouble.”

    “Thanks,” grinned Lily. “See you soon, Mads.”

    ***

    This dance was a slower one, and couples circled the dancefloor in rough approximations of a waltz. With Lily’s hand on the small of her back, guiding her through the steps, she found herself rather enjoying it.

    “You’ve done this before,” observed Lily.

    “Yeah, Emma made me get lessons,” confessed Taylor. “Even dragged me out to a few dances, so we could meet some nice boys.”

    “And how did that go?” asked Lily, sweeping her through a turn.

    “About as well as you’d expect,” grinned Taylor. “She met a nice boy. I didn’t.”

    But I still had fun, she recalled. Just not enough fun to make it worth going again.

    “I notice she doesn’t have a boy on her arm tonight,” observed Lily. “Are you and her ...?”

    Taylor giggled. “Everyone keeps thinking that. No, we are not. He was a nice boy, but he moved out of town.”

    She looked down at her feet. “How are you doing that?” she asked. “I know I’m not the greatest dancer in the world, but you’re keeping perfect time with me.”

    “It’s one of my minor powers, literally,” Lily said. “Perfect timing. When I see you move, I can move with you.”

    “Huh, cool,” said Taylor. She took a breath. “So, you and Madison. How serious is it?”

    Lily gave her a penetrating look. “You care for her. I can respect that. She’s a sweet girl. I like her, and I’m attracted to her.” She shrugged. “Long term? Not sure. I’m new in town, and I may meet someone I like more. I don’t want to disappoint her or hurt her, but I’ve made no promises so far.”

    She looked over Taylor’s shoulder and smiled. “And there, I think, is the answer to the other question, the one you didn’t ask her.”

    Taylor glanced backward, to see Madison dancing with a boy she knew vaguely from Winslow. She seemed to be rather enjoying herself; the boy seemed to be having a good time too. Huh, she does get the best of both worlds.

    “So I see,” replied Taylor. “Well, you’ve been totally fair and open. I appreciate it.” She leaned in and kissed Lily on the cheek as the dance ended. “Thanks for the dance.”

    Lily smiled. “No, thank you. And thanks for being nice about it.”

    They headed back toward where Emma had been standing; she was still there, talking with the dark-haired girl who had been with the teacher.

    “Oh, hi, Taylor, Lily,” said Emma as they approached. “Sabah here’s a fashion student. We were just comparing notes.”

    “It’s interesting to find out about fashion from the point of view of the models,” said Sabah; her accent was slight, but exotic enough to get Lily’s attention.

    Madison reappeared, slightly flushed and breathless from the dancing. But her eyes were bright, and she looked with interest at Lily. “Want to get another dance?” she asked.

    "Okay," said Lily readily. She took Madison in her arms, and they moved off on to the dance floor.

    ***

    Madison snuggled into Lily as they circled the floor. "Thanks for inviting me," she said softly. "I'm really enjoying myself."

    Lily smiled down at her. "Madison ..." she said quietly.

    "Yeah?" asked Madison, looking up at her.

    Lily sighed. This is not going to be easy.. "What we have ..." She stopped, and began again. "I like you, and you like me, but I think we're looking for different things."

    Madison looked at her, a little lost. "I guess?" she said doubtfully.

    Lily leaned down and kissed her gently on the lips. "Really," she said. "It's fun flirting with you, and I know you're enjoying it a lot, but I'll be wanting to get more serious than I think you'll be really comfortable with." She caressed Madison's cheek with her thumb. "I know you're not really serious about having a relationship with me ... or even sleeping with me, if it came to that."

    Madison coloured. "I guess you're right," she said at last. "I hadn't really thought about it. I was just enjoying it too much. But no, I'm not after anything long-term or serious, especially not actually sleeping with anyone, even someone as nice as you." She paused. "Not yet, anyway."

    Lily smiled. "A cute girl like you will find someone to be with, trust me on this."

    Madison laid her head against Lily's chest. "I guess you're right. I suppose I got all excited over the idea of kissing girls, and forgot that there's more girls than you around. And boys too, for that matter."

    Lily grinned. "You'll kiss a lot more, believe you me. And who knows, one day you might decide to settle down with someone nice."

    Madison giggled. "Well, I can only keep looking, right?"

    Lily smiled and kissed her gently again. "That's the spirit."

    Madison kissed her back. "Friends?"

    Lily held her close. "Always."

    Madison snuggled in to her, and the rest of the dance went by in comfortable silence.

    ***

    They grabbed a drink when they got back to the punch bowl, then Madison asked Lily hopefully if she wanted to go around again.

    Lily smiled politely. “I’m a bit tired,” she said. “I think I’ll sit this next dance out,” she said. “You can go ahead if you want.” She moved over to stand near Sabah. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Lily.”

    “Well, fine,” said Madison, pretending to pout. “Be like that. Emma, I’m stealing you.”

    “Take me, I’m yours,” giggled Emma, and Madison whirled her away.

    Taylor grinned, watching them go, and was startled by a tap on the shoulder.

    “Excuse me, miss? May I have this dance?” said a polite voice ... one that she knew.

    She turned to see a student from Winslow High, his hand raised as if to tap again. As she watched, his face changed from polite interest to puzzlement to startled recognition.

    “Taylor?” he queried. “Taylor Hebert?”

    She sighed. “Hi, Greg,” she said resignedly.

    ***

    Greg Veder was a boy from Winslow, a bit of a geek and a loner like herself. When in classes without Emma – or lately, Madison – he had often been paired with her for class projects, as he had no real friends.

    But whereas Taylor was happy to get the work done and end the partnership, Greg had tried to be social about it. And he sucked at being social. At best, he came across as so awkward as to make one want to hide under the desk. At worst, utterly creepy. And he had no idea that he was drifting into either extreme.

    Also, Taylor recalled belatedly, he had no idea what a hint even looked like.

    “Taylor,” he was saying, “I heard about the locker thing. That must have been awful!”

    And thank you, Captain Obvious, she thought. Because I had forgotten exactly how bad it was, and I so wanted to be reminded.

    She felt the trembles coming on, and steeled herself. I will not cry in front of this boy, she told herself. I will not.

    With barely a quiver in her voice, she said, “Yes, thank you, Greg. It was just a little traumatic.”

    He hardly even heard her, his mind leaping on to the next topic like a hamster with ADHD. “And I heard this rumour that you and Emma were lesbians!” He lowered his voice, but hissed the last word so loudly that several people looked around curiously.

    She had to get him away from this spot. And so, she chose the lesser of two evils. Sighing, she said, “Greg, would you like to dance?”

    ***

    Aegis hit the alarm button. Wards tumbled in from all locations; Clockblocker arrived wearing shampoo suds and a towel.

    “Urgent call-out,” reported Aegis. “Two weeks ago, Empire Eighty-Eight pulled a spoiler on an ABB operation. We just got word that the ABB is retaliating, hard. They lost a lot of mechandise the last time, so they’re looking to make it up now.”

    “Merchandise?” asked Gallant.

    “Girls,” stated Aegis bluntly. “They’re trafficking in girls. Word is, they’re going to hit an underage dance, grab the girls, disappear into the night. One of our thinkers just put it all together. Oni Lee's across town causing havoc; the Protectorate's been decoyed out to chase him. This is down to us."

    “Christ,” said Kid Win. “Anyone seen Flechette?”

    “She went out on a date,” said Vista. “Said something about ... going ... dancing.” Her voice trailed off. Her eyes reflected the horror in those of her teammates.

    “Move!” barked Aegis. “Now!”

    ***

    Once they were out on the dance floor, Greg picked up the conversation where he had left off. “I can’t believe you’re a lesbian, Taylor. You were always nice to me, and I always thought we had a ... connection.”

    He lowered his voice and drew out the last word, and Taylor felt her stomach clench. And that’s the other thing I forgot, she told herself. Greg thinks I’m interested in him. Oh boy. I really do not need this.

    He looked around. “So who did you come with?”

    “Greg,” she said carefully, “Emma asked me to come to this dance, as her partner.”

    He stared at her, like a kicked puppy. “You’re really a lesbian?” he asked. “Oh, uh ...” Taking a deep breath, he said, “I support your choice. I think you’re very brave to come out like this.”

    Taylor wanted to find a wall to beat her head against. Even trying to be noble, he’s so aggravating I want to run away screaming. Everyone else stopped talking about it weeks ago. If I let this go, he will start spreading it all over again. I do not need this.

    Trying not to grind her teeth together, she said, “I’m not really gay, Greg. It’s just a story that’s going around. I don’t care if people think I’m gay, but I’m really not.”

    Rather than quelling his interest, he actually perked up. “So you’re still interested in ... boys, then?”

    “Yes, Greg,” she replied, her patience starting to wear thin despite herself. “That’s what not being lesbian means.”

    She realised her mistake seconds later, when his hand began wandering southward from the small of her back. “So,” he said, apparently sounding roguish, at least to himself, “do you want to go and find somewhere ... private?”

    Oh crap, was the thought that went through her mind, he thought I was coming on to him.

    Such was her consternation that she almost welcomed the sudden burst of gunfire that killed the music.


    End of Part Five
     
  7. Threadmarks: Part Six: The Party is Over, Now We Are Three
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger


    Part Six: The Party is Over, Now We Are Three


    Before


    Sabah stood at the door. Mrs Howell had put her there, with an admonition not to let anyone in without paying for the privilege. Her job was also to watch for adults trying to sneak in; if they weren’t working here, as she was, she had to get them to show their school ID.

    It had been really nice meeting Lily. The other girl was smart and beautiful and funny, and had a knowing way of looking at her that gave Sabah a warm feeling deep inside. Her parents and relatives were old-country and old-school, and there was no talking to them about the feelings she had. But Lily, she suspected, knew very well what she felt, and even perhaps reciprocated those feelings.

    It’s certainly worth spending the time to find out, she thought, with a secret smile.

    Lily had mentioned that she was thirsty, and had asked her if she wanted a drink as well. So of course she had smiled and accepted the offer. Lily had gone off through the crowd, moving easily and smoothly. Sabah had appreciated her back view before she was hidden by the press of people.

    And then more people approached the door. She looked up with a smile and said, “Excuse me, but this is a private party. Do you have school identification?”

    The young man at the head of the group nodded. “Yeah,” he said in accented English. “I got identification.” Leaning close in to the table, he reached into his jacket; it opened, and she saw that his hand was gripping the butt of a pistol.

    “Are you going to let us in, or do I take it out and show you better?” he asked.

    Her mind froze up. She had only just recently begun experimenting with animated cloth animals, and she had none here.

    “Please,” she quavered. “Don’t hurt anyone. We have money. Take it, please.”

    “Yeah, we might,” he said, and entered. Rounding the table, he stood at her side, holding her arm, grinning at her obvious fear, as more of his cronies entered.

    What do I do? she asked herself. What do they want?

    ***

    Lily pushed through the crowd to the punchbowl. Sabah was cute, and sweet, and adorably shy. She was so petite, it was hard to believe that she was older than Lily. But yet ... there was something about her, something that betrayed a loneliness. Loneliness that Lily recognised; she herself had felt on more than one occasion.

    While Sabah had not said as much, it seemed to Lily that she had caught several glances filled with sharp interest. She wanted to know more, to see if Sabah really thought that way about her.

    I do believe I will ask her on a date. The worst that can happen is that she will say no ... and somehow I don’t think that will happen. Lily smiled as she reached the punch bowl and picked up a cup.

    ***

    Emma and Madison circled the dance-floor. Madison seemed to be enjoying herself immensely, but there was something concerning Emma.

    “Are you okay?” she asked.

    “What?” asked Madison, as the music hit a high point.

    “I said, are you okay?” repeated Emma. “Lily seems to have abandoned you.”

    “Yeah, I know,” said Madison with a fatalistic shrug. “She was nice, but I think we were both just seeing how we went together.”

    “I thought you went together quite well,” Emma commented.

    “She’s fun to flirt with and kiss,” said Madison, “but we had a talk and I'm not really after the same things in a relationship that she is.” She shrugged again. “But I did enjoy meeting her.” A grin. “And she's a wonderful kisser.”

    Emma grinned back. “So, have you met any nice boys?”

    “Nice ones?” asked Madison. “No. Hot ones? Yes.” She grinned. “I might try kissing some of them. Just for comparison purposes, you understand.”

    Emma chuckled. “Of course.”

    ***

    Taylor glared at Greg.

    ***

    During


    The Azn Bad Boys moved into the centre casually, easing along the walls. When most of their number were inside, spread out along the walls, their nominal leader stepped up to the stereo system that was supplying the music, pulled his pistol, and pumped several rounds into it.

    Everyone turned at the gunshots as the music spluttered to a halt. There was a moderate amount of screaming. He called out over the hubbub, his voice loud and harsh, with Asian intonations.

    “Everyone, down on the ground! Hands where we can see them! We hear sirens, we shoot people! Down! Down! Down!”

    People started lowering themselves to the ground; slowly at first, to try to protect their good clothes, impatiently, he fired two more gunshots into the ceiling. After that, they hugged the ground.

    ***

    Taylor ran through all the curse words she knew in her head, then started again. This is the last time I go anywhere without a sizeable swarm at my command. Even if I’m just going out for a burger.

    There was a substantial number of spiders in the ceiling of the community centre, however. Not so many mosquitoes around, and very few bees or other stinging insects. January wasn’t so good for that. I’ll have to make do.

    She began bringing the spiders into groups, putting together an ad hoc swarm. There were holes allowing access to the ceiling space; the spiders could get out that way.

    Greg went to lie down beside her, then started to half-crawl on top of her.

    “Greg!” she hissed. “What are you doing?”

    “Protecting you if they start shooting!” he hissed back.

    If they want to kill me, they’ll shoot you, roll your body off me and then shoot me, she didn’t say. “Get off me!” she whispered, jabbing him in the ribs with her elbow. He looked hurt but got off her.

    ***

    Lily spun around at the first shot. She saw the young men arranged along the walls and felt sick. We are in so much trouble.

    The order was given to get down on the floor. Thinking quickly, she grabbed a handful of discarded plastic butter-knives from the table, then obediently got down on the ground.

    ***

    Emma was still dancing with Madison when the gunfire went off. She turned, shocked, along with everyone else. “Emma?” quavered Madison.

    “Sh,” said Emma, just as the command to lie down was given. She hated to do this to the dress, but if it was her or the dress that was to survive ... well, she could always get another dress.

    Madison was looking particularly nervous, for which Emma did not blame her. “I’m sorry I got you into this,” she whispered.

    Emma squeezed her hand supportively. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “We’ll get out of this.” She didn’t feel as certain as she sounded, but she had to keep Madison calm. Raising her head slightly, she tried to keep an eye on what was going on.

    ***

    Kenta strode in through the entrance to the community centre, flanked by two of his men. He had to duck slightly to avoid the lintel. This is good, he thought. That Empire bitch Purity released our last shipment. She tried to tell us that we could not transact business here in Brockton Bay. She will learn that the ABB do business where and when we like. And if that means a few white girls disappear from a dance in Brockton Bay, destined for Thai brothels, then so be it. We will have our way.

    “All of you, be quiet!” he commanded, his voice quelling the whimpers and sobs that had been arising from the supine dancers. “Some of you will be coming with us. The rest of you will not be harmed – so long as those that come do not resist. The ransom demands will be delivered shortly.”

    Let them think of this as a simple kidnapping, he thought, with a smile behind the metal mask. By the time they learn otherwise, it will be far, far too late.

    He turned to the men flanking the door. “[Start sending them out,]” he said in Chinese. “[When we have enough, kill the rest. Make it look like a robbery gone wrong.]”

    “[It will be hard to make it look like a robbery,]” protested one of the men. “[It will look suspicious.]”

    “[All we need to do is muddy the trail a little. Take their jewellery and wallets. But only after they are dead. For now – the girls. The young and pretty ones.]”

    He stepped out through the door.

    ***

    Taylor saw the tall Chinese man, clad all in black, wearing a metal mask. She thought she knew who he was; she had read about him on the Parahumans Online boards. His name was Lung and he’d once taken on Leviathan and driven him off. That means that these guys are ABB, Azn Bad Boys. Bad news.

    He spoke in some language which she supposed was Chinese, and then left again. Two of the men started moving between the people, bending down to look. Almost immediately, a girl was jerked to her feet.

    Her blood ran cold. They’re kidnapping girls. This can in no way be good. “Outside! Outside!” shouted the men, gesturing with their guns.

    Taylor gritted her teeth. It was hard to coordinate swarms. Practise was making it easier, but it didn’t help that men were pointing guns at the crowd. She tried to look toward Emma, then suddenly realised that Greg had slid his phone from his pocket and was fiddling with it.

    “What the hell are you doing?” she whispered. “They said not to call the police!”

    “I’m not,” he whispered in return. “I’m posting to the Parahumans Online boards! I’m telling them Lung’s here!”

    Oh god, he’s going to get us both killed, she decided with dread. She had just decided to try to grab the phone from him when a foot smashed down on it. Plastic shattered and bones crunched; Greg let out an agonised scream. Taylor looked up at a Chinese man, who was pointing a gun at Greg’s head.

    “We say you do not call for help, little boy,” said the man in accented English. “You call. Maybe I should kill you.”

    Greg moaned and hugged his hand to his chest. The man kicked him in the ribs, then bent down and seized Taylor by the wrist. He lifted her up a little, looked down at her, then sniffed and let her go again. “You’re lucky, boy. Your girl stays behind.”

    Never before in my life, thought Taylor, have I considered myself lucky for not being pretty enough. Because she could see it was only the pretty girls being chosen. She looked around, saw Emma.

    ***

    Emma lifted her head slightly and looked around. A man was standing over where Taylor was lying; he lifted her up, then let her go again. Across the room, they made eye contact. Ready when you are.

    A hand roughly grabbed her arm; at the same time, Madison gave a frightened squeak. She had been looking in the wrong direction; two men had come up to where she was lying without her seeing them.

    Emma saw Madison’s frightened face as she was half-lifted, half-dragged away toward the door. Her own captor lifted her, looked approvingly at her face and body, then frowned.

    “You look familiar,” he began to say.

    She recognised him also; he was the thug who had given the girl the knife in the alley, two and a half years ago. He was a little older, a little more scarred, but it was the same guy.

    “Yeah,” she said. “It’s me. The ginger bitch.”

    And she let go with a punch that collected him cleanly on the jaw, rocking him back on his heels.

    At the same time, she unleashed her growing terror and anger; her hair unravelled and sprang outward in all directions. It wrapped around the thug, and every one of his comrades that she could see. As the tendrils made contact, she sent a burst of power flowing outward, causing them to convulse and then drop to the ground, twitching feebly.

    Distantly, she was surprised by the reach she now had. When she first got her powers, she couldn’t reach more than about ten feet with her hair tendrils. Now, she was stretching them thirty feet with ease.

    ***

    Taylor saw Emma go on the offensive, and blinked. That was ... impressive.

    But even as she climbed to her feet, she saw that there was one man left. He had been too close to Sabah, and had been holding her arm. Tendrils had wrapped around him but Emma had dared not electrocute him, because it might harm her.

    ***

    Lily blinked, but she decided to be impressed later. All but one of the bad guys in the hall were down, and that one had a hostage. Sabah.

    Struggling against the tendrils holding him he brought the gun to her head. A tendril was wrapped around his mouth, preventing him from shouting a warning to those outside, but his meaning was obvious. Let me go or I shoot.

    ***

    Emma froze. If I zap him, his finger will spasm on the trigger, she thought.

    ***

    Lily threw the butter knife.

    It should not have reached so far. It should certainly not have travelled in such a straight trajectory. But she had imbued it with her power, and such minor things as gravity and air resistance meant nothing to it.

    It came to rest partially inside his hand, partially inside his gun ... and partially inside his throat.

    He made an odd choking noise, and let Sabah go, before falling to his knees.

    ***

    Lily moved forward; Sabah pulled away from the ABB thug and ran to her. They met, held each other. Lily smiled down at Sabah; there was a moment of perfect understanding.

    “After this shit ... we’ll talk, okay?” said Lily softly.

    Sabah nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “We’ll talk.” Her eyes said a lot more.

    Lily kissed her once, then disentangled herself and headed for the door, all business once more.

    ***

    Taylor got up, ignoring Greg, and followed Lily. She sent her spiders swarming on ahead,

    Emma’s hair had contracted slightly, but it still waved about her head in its typical seaweed effect. Taylor noted that she had put two tendrils down to act as a makeshift mask around her eyes.

    ***

    They made it to the doorway and looked outside. A large moving van stood nearby, the doors open; the girls were being forced at gunpoint to climb into the back.

    But that was as much as they saw, because Lung himself was moving toward them, to see what the delay was.

    “Come on,” he shouted. “Move, or you will regret it!”

    ***

    Madison climbed into the back of the truck. The movement was awkward and disarranged her dress enough that the two guards stationed within saw more than they really should have.

    One of them turned to the other and said something in Chinese. The other said something that sounded argumentative. The first said something else; the second one laughed.

    The first one grabbed her arm. She cowered back. "Oh god please no," she whimpered. For all that she flirted shamelessly, she was still a virgin. And for all they they had spoken in Chinese, she had a very good idea of what they intended.

    She struggled, but they were too strong.

    Forcing her down on the bed of the truck, the first guard pushed her skirt up to her waist.

    Leaving the other guard to hold her down, he began unbuckling his trousers.

    ***

    I’ll make you regret it, thought Taylor.

    Despite the chill night air, there were a few insects out here, and the spiders from in the hall. Taylor was finding it easier to control them now; perhaps it was the combat conditions, perhaps that she knew she had to get it right the first time

    The bugs swarmed across the ground, attacking Lung’s men, causing them to flail about and take their eyes off the girls. More attacked Lung; he grunted and swatted at them, but did not seem overly hampered.

    “What is this?” he bellowed. “Capes? I face little girls!”

    ***

    There was an odd discontinuity, where Emma, Taylor and Lily all staggered, disoriented. Even Lung seemed to falter. Something had happened, they knew. But they didn’t know what. At least, not then.

    ***

    Madison sagged back against the wall of the truck. She remembered to push her skirt down again. She was breathing hard, her heart pumping rapidly.

    Something had happened. She had a fading memory of ... something. But she didn’t know what. And now the two guards were lying unconscious - or dead - on the other side of the truck. And she had no idea how they had gotten there.

    The other girls in the truck were staring at her with a mixture of fear and respect.

    "How did you do that?" whispered one of them.

    ***

    Some of the men raised guns in their direction; Lily threw more of her plastic butter-knives. Each one penetrated a gun, became one with its mechanism.

    Emma’s hair lashed out, tendrils seeking the foe. A red streamer latched on to an arm or a leg, and power crackled down it. The men convulsed, dropped. Lung staggered, fell to one knee.

    And then he rose again.

    “I am Lung!” he bellowed, grasping the tendrils, wrenching them away from him. Metal plates burst from his skin, covered him like scales. Fire burst outward from him, incinerating those insects on or near him.

    Emma gritted her teeth and sent more tendrils snaking toward him. They wrapped around him, binding his arms to his sides. She noted that his fire did not burn her hair, did not destroy it.

    That’s actually a good thing.

    She tried another taser-burst on him; he roared in pain, but the metal plates conducted it to the ground.

    I have to try something different.

    ***

    Crouched in the truck, Madison looked around at the girls in there with her. I can't let it affect me. I have to be brave. I have to show the others that I’m not scared. I have no idea what happened just now, but I'm glad it did.

    “Come on,” she urged. “Let’s get out of here.”

    Staring first at her, then at the supine guards, the girls quickly nodded agreement.

    They moved to the rear of the truck and pushed open the door, which had swung mostly shut.

    ***

    Lily balanced her last butter knife in her hand. If I go for a shot, it has to be a kill shot, or it won’t even bother him.

    She watched Emma with concern; the redhaired girl’s face was taut with concentration. If she can’t stop him ... I will.

    ***

    Lung hunched his shoulders and bellowed again, pulling the encircling tendrils apart, forcing Emma’s grip to loosen. The metal scales on his body had grown, making him even taller and wider. A gout of flame roared from his mouth; Emma shrieked and threw a mass of hair into its way. It dissipated, but the hot air still rolled over them, making them cough and choke.

    “I am LUNG!” he bellowed once more, and again fire burst out from him.

    This time it was much fiercer; blasting in all directions, scorching the front of the community hall. Emma was driven back a step from the sheer force of it, and the three girls felt fire licking at their clothing before it receded.

    From beyond Lung, they heard a scream.

    ***

    Madison was just helping the last of the girls down from the truck – tight dresses and high heels do not make for ease of climbing – when the wave of flame came at them. She screamed, instinctively shielding the other girls with her body, throwing out her hand, palm out, in a futile shielding gesture.

    The flames roared toward them ... and inexplicably parted, just short of her hand. Only the radiant heat reached them, drying the sweat from their faces.

    But the fire never got closer than three feet.

    They existed, unharmed, in a bubble of cool air.

    ***

    Emma went cold all over. Madison.

    Her tendrils lashed out at Lung once more, but this time they did not try to hold him. Instead, they burrowed between his scales, down to find his bare flesh, all over his body. He inhaled, ready to blast them with another fireball ... but before he could do so, she struck.

    Every erg of electricity that she could generate slashed down the hair tendrils, down between the scales ... and grounded out in his body.

    Lung arched his back and screamed in agony. His armour lit up from within, sparks flying off him, arcing to anything metal in the vicinity. He convulsed, jerking spasmodically. His fire sputtered and went out.

    And then he crashed to the ground. Emma withdrew her tendrils. Wisps of smoke rose slowly from his supine body.

    ***

    Taylor ran past him, past the ABB thugs. Some of these, especially the ones that had been closest to Lung’s temper tantrum, were definitively dead, or they would soon wish they were. But somehow, she could not feel much sympathy for them.

    “Taylor?” she heard from in front of her.

    “Madison!” she cried out with relief.

    “Madison?” repeated Emma. “You’re alive? Oh, thank god!”

    Madison stumbled out of the darkness, with several other girls. Taylor hugged her tightly. “Are you all right?” she asked.

    “I’m good,” Madison murmured. “The fire never touched us.”

    Emma reached them, wrapping her arms around the both of them in a tight hug. “Mads, you’re alive!” she said, her voice breaking. “I thought you were ...”

    “No, I’m good,” said Madison again. “The fire just ... went around me. Us. We never got touched.” She shivered. "i can still see it coming at me. I thought I was going to die."

    "Well, it's okay now," said Emma comfortingly. "You're safe."

    Madison closed her eyes. She could still feel the guard's rough hands on her body. I don't know if I'll ever feel safe again.

    ***

    After


    Turbines sounded in the night sky, and a PRT transport grounded; the Wards emerged.

    By this time, Emma had gotten the surviving ABB members into one group, where they were groaning their way back to consciousness. No-one was even sure how to check for life signs with Lung.

    Aegis took charge, getting the ABB people secured and ensuring that there were no other dangers in the area. He approached Emma and Taylor, who were standing with Madison, Lily and Sabah.

    “Well,” he said. “This is impressive. I’m presuming you took down Lung?”

    Emma nodded wanly. “I thought he’d killed Madison,” she said. “I just got so mad.”

    Aegis nodded. “It seems you had a lucky escape.” He frowned. “And what’s this I hear about bugs attacking some of the men? Is this a new power you’ve gotten?”

    Emma shook her head. “It’s a long story,” she said. “I’ll tell you all about it later.”

    He nodded. “So, have you made your mind up about joining the Wards? We could really use someone like you.”

    Emma took a deep breath and leaned on Taylor and Madison. “That’s not a decision I want to make right now,” she said softly. “Too much has happened, and right now I just want to curl up on the sofa for some ice cream therapy.”

    Aegis nodded again. “I can understand that.” He smiled. “Well, keep in touch.”

    ***

    Lily watched him walk away. “He’ll debrief me later, of course,” she said quietly. “I’ll have to tell him what I saw you do.”

    Taylor nodded. “I understand.” She smiled at Lily. “That was some awesome throwing skills.”

    Lily shrugged slightly. “It’s my power, mainly. And I had to get it right first time, so I did.” She smiled down at Sabah, who had not moved from her side.

    Sabah returned the smile, then reached up to kiss her gently on the lips.

    ***

    From next to Taylor, Madison said softly, “They look so complete together.”

    “Jealous?” asked Emma lightly.

    “Hardly,” Madison smiled wanly. “She looks so happy. I can’t even begin to compete with that.” She tried to giggle. “And she showed me how much fun it is to kiss girls. I can’t be mad at her for that.”

    “Okay,’ said Taylor. “I have just one question.”

    “What?” asked Madison.

    “Just how did you get out of that without being burned to a crisp?”

    Madison told them. They looked at one another.

    “Well holy crap,” said Emma.

    “With cheddar cheese on top,” Taylor added.

    “We’re gonna have to talk about this later,” said Emma.

    "Definitely," agreed Taylor.

    Madison wrapped her arms around her body. I really don't want to talk about this, she thought. But these are my friends. How can I say no to them?

    ***

    Sabah and Lily watched the PRT transports lift off with the prisoners. Lung, it appeared, had survived, but he would be a long time mending. Emma had basically fried his entire nervous system. Fire, he was immune to. Electricity, not so much. Only his regeneration had even kept him alive.

    PRT troops were working at getting witness statements from the people on site. At the same time, parents and friends were arriving to pick up those who did not have their own transport.

    “So,” said Sabah softly. “You’re really Flechette, of the Wards.”

    Lily nodded. “Yeah. Is that going to make things weird?”

    Sabah shook her head. “Oh no, it isn’t.” She smiled up at Lily. “So you live on base?”

    Lily nodded. “I’m from New York. I don’t have a place here.”

    “Do you have to go back to base tonight?” asked Sabah.

    Lily considered. “Not right this minute, no,” she admitted. “Why?”

    “Because I’ve got a dorm room to myself, back at the college, and I really, really don’t want to be alone for the rest of the night,” said Sabah softly.

    Lily smiled down at her. “I think that can be arranged.”

    Sabah laid her head on Lily’s shoulder. “I’ve only got the one bed,” she warned playfully. “We’re going to have to share.”

    Lily rested her cheek on Sabah’s head, and smiled into the darkness. “Good.”

    ***

    Greg stumbled out of the community hall. “Taylor!” he called. “Taylor!”

    Taylor looked around. “Greg? What the hell? Have you even had your hand seen to yet?”

    He cradled his injured hand with his good one. “Not yet,” he confessed. “I wanted to see you first, make sure you were all right.”

    “Well, I’m all right,” said Taylor tartly. “Go get your hand seen to.”

    He looked at her, bewildered. “Aren’t you happy that I’m safe?”

    “After the boneheaded stunt you pulled with your phone, and nearly got us both killed?” asked Taylor. “You tell me.”

    “I ... I just wanted to be a hero,” he said lamely. “I wanted to prove to you ...”

    “What the hell?” snapped Taylor. “All that screwing around in there? Trying to climb on top of me, fooling with your phone? All that was to impress me?”

    “Well, yeah,” he said. “Taylor, I think I’m in l –“

    “Don’t you dare finish that sentence!” she snarled. “To make things absolutely clear, Greg, I don’t like you, I don’t want to be near you, and you getting hurt was your own damn fault.” She pointed at the PRT medics. “So go, get your hand treated, and don’t even think about talking to me unless it’s specifically about schoolwork.”

    He stared at her. “I think you really are a lesbian,” he mumbled, then turned and stumbled off.

    Emma watched him go. “Is it me, or does he really not get the hint?” she asked.

    Taylor sighed. “Trust me,” she said. “It’s not you.”

    ***

    Later


    Danny was working on the paperwork when he got the phone call.

    “Hebert,” he said distractedly, balancing the receiver between ear and shoulder.

    “Danny, it’s Alan. Have you been watching the news?”

    Danny stopped. “No. Why?” A cold chill went down his back. “Are the girls –“

    “They’re fine,” Alan assured him. “They’re at my house. They’ve had a bit of a scare, but they’re all okay.” He paused. “Taylor says hi, and that she really wants a hug right now.” He paused. "Drive carefully, please. Taylor wants to see you in one piece."

    Thirty seconds later, Danny was pulling away from the curb in his truck.

    ***

    By the time he got there, all three girls had bathed and changed into pyjamas; Emma had donated spare sets of flannels for the other two. Taylor was too skinny for hers, and Madison too short, which occasioned much laughter as they snuggled up on the sofa with bowls of ice cream.

    Taylor rose and put her bowl down as he entered the room. “Dad!” she said, and hugged him tightly.

    He looked anxiously at her. “You’re all right?” he asked.

    She nodded. “Really, I’m all right,” she assured him. “You should have seen Emma, though,” she added. “She was badass.”

    Emma shuddered delicately. “Please don’t use that word,” she said. “Sophia used it all the time. I’m kinda sick of it.”

    Taylor grinned; Madison smiled wanly.

    “Anyway,” said Taylor, “I just wanted to see you and let you know I’m okay.”

    Danny smiled gratefully and hugged her again, then looked at the pyjamas. “I presume you’re having a bit of a sleepover?”

    Taylor nodded. “Madison checked with her dad, and he says it’s okay. And right now, I really need to be with my friends. We all do.”

    Danny nodded. “I can understand that,” he said. He smiled. “Call me in the morning when you need a lift, okay?”

    She smiled and hugged him again. “Thanks, Dad. You’re the best.”

    ***

    Three mattresses were laid out on the floor of Emma’s bedroom, and made up with sheets and blankets. One of these was the mattress from Emma’s own bed, which she dragged off herself to bring it down to the same level as the others.

    They lay in bed after the lights were turned down, talking quietly, going over the events of the evening.

    “So Madison,” said Taylor at last, going up on one elbow and looking at the petite girl in the semi-darkness. “Air control powers, huh?”

    “Yeah,” said Madison pensively. She paused. "It ... I ... the guards in the truck ... they ..."

    Abruptly, she rolled off the mattress and bolted for the bathroom.

    ***

    She got most of the way there, but the overlong legs of her pyjama pants tripped her up. She fell, crawled, and then vomited all over the bathroom floor. Up it all came; ice cream, the party food she'd had, everything she had eaten over the previous day.

    Taylor and Emma followed after her; Taylor helped her to the toilet and held her hair out of the way while she threw up again and again, until nothing else seemed to be coming up, and she was sobbing convulsively.

    Emma had gotten a container of hot water with detergent in it, and began cleaning up the mess on the floor; she caught Taylor's eye, and silently indicated the shower with a tilt of her head. Taylor nodded; Madison had gotten a fair bit on herself and her borrowed pyjamas, and Taylor herself had caught a splash or two as well.

    So she turned the shower on, and helped Madison out of her filthy pyjamas and into the shower, where she sat in one corner with her arms around her knees, still crying.

    Taylor sighed, and took off her own pyjamas - they had caught a splash or two, themselves - and stepped into the shower with her. She helped Madison to her feet, and washed the strings of vomit from her hair, and soaped it from her skin, and held her while she cried.

    Madison threw up twice more in the shower, but only bile was coming up now. Taylor soothed her with soft words until she had calmed down, and then helped her from the shower, where Emma was waiting with huge fluffy towels and even fluffier bathrobes.

    ***

    Back on the mattresses, freshly bathed, in new pyjamas - Emma confessed that she had too many sets, each in a different pastel colour - Madison was subdued, but able to talk about it.

    "They wanted to ..." she began, then gestured at herself. "They didn't, but I thought they were going to, and I was terrified." She sniffled; Emma handed her a box of tissues, and she blew her nose. She looked at Taylor and Emma. "I can't believe I felt jealous of you for having powers. What you must have gone through to get them ... I feel so stupid now."

    Taylor sat up and moved over to Madison's mattress. "I'm sorry too, Mads. I thought that whatever you'd gone through, you'd handled it." She hugged the petite girl. "I should have been thinking more."

    Emma hugged her from the other side. "Me too. After all, it took both of us to help Taylor through her aftermath, and I cried on Talyor's shoulder for months after mine. It was stupid of me to think that yours would be any easier."

    Madison began to cry again, but this time it wasn't from suppressed trauma, but from release of emotion. They held her while she let it out, her tears absorbed by the thick flannel pyjamas.

    "Okay," said Emma. "We're gonna be right here all night if you need us, okay, Mads?" She grinned and pushed a lock of Madison's hair back from her face. "And guess who just graduated from sidekick status.”

    Madison responded with a watery smile. "Thanks, guys."

    She lay down on her mattress, which just so happened to be between the other two, and looked at Taylor and Emma as they moved to their own beds.

    “Thanks for everything, guys,” she said softly. “I love you both.”

    “We love you too, Mads,” said Emma. “Sweet dreams.”

    “Night,” responded Madison.

    “Night,” agreed Taylor.

    Emma reached out a tendril and turned off the lights.


    End of Part Six
     
  8. Threadmarks: Part Seven: Awakenings and Revelations
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger


    Part Seven: Awakenings and Revelations


    The transport came to a hover, preparatory to landing. Over the comm crackled a voice.

    "Transport overhead, this is Flechette. Hold position and prepare to take on passenger."

    The pilot replied automatically. "Roger, Flechette. Holding position.". His scans showed one person on the street below; female, teenage. The costume checked out as Flechette's. She raised her arbalest, loosed a missile. It clacked on to the side-rail of the transport above the hatch, caught. Grappling hook. He opened the hatch.

    In the next few seconds, the girl was drawn up from the ground to the transport by a rapidly-shrinking chain; she grasped the rail, unhitched the hook, and swung herself aboard. "I'm here," she said briskly. "Let's go."

    The pilot nodded, hit the button to close the hatch, and kicked the transport into a climbing turn.

    ***

    Emma blinked herself awake. She was lying on a mattress on the floor, and snuggled up to her was ... Madison. She focused, and looked into Taylor's eyes, not two feet distant. Taylor grinned and shrugged, which is not easy to do when lying on one's side.

    "She got lonely," she explained, nodding toward her arm, holding Madison close to her.

    Emma nodded. "After what nearly happened to her, last night ... I'm not surprised," she replied in a low tone. She put her hand on Taylor's arm. "Thanks for being there. Thanks for being here."

    Taylor grinned and ducked her head. "What else could I do? You're my best friend. Dad calls you the sister I never had. And Mads stood up for us, helped us out. I'm not gonna leave her in the lurch."

    "Oh, for god's sake," mumbled a sleepy voice between them, "just make out already or shut up."

    Taylor looked at Emma and raised an eyebrow; Emma grinned and nodded. They moved as one; Taylor pulled the pillow from under Madison's head and pressed it firmly over her face, while Emma began to tickle Madison mercilessly.

    Madison's shriek was muffled by the pillow, but she came out fighting. She soon had the pillow off her face, and was attacking Taylor, while being in turn tickled by Emma. Then she and Taylor double-teamed Emma. After that, it devolved into a general shambles, tickling interspersed with whacking one another with pillows. Shrieks and giggles abounded.

    ***

    This was brought to a halt by a knock on the door. From the other side, Alan Barnes called out, "I hope no-one's pillow-fighting in there. Those pillows are very expensive."

    Emma dropped her pillow; the others did likewise.

    "No, Dad," she called out. "We're not pillow-fighting.". She burst into giggles, looking at the other two, all three kneeling on the mattresses with their pyjamas in various stages of disarray, hair wild and unbrushed, cheeks flushed, eyes bright.

    "Good," he called. "Are you decent?"

    "Um ... wait just a minute?"

    Pyjamas were hastily returned to a state of normality.

    "Okay," she called. "We're good, now."

    "That I would have to see to believe," he retorted, and opened the door. "Morning, girls," he greeted them.

    "Morning, Dad," Emma replied with a giggle. The other two answered with variations on 'Morning, Mr Barnes'.

    Alan Barnes seated himself on a chair by Emma's dressing-table and looked at them fondly. Fifteen years old, cute as hell, and already showing the promise of what they would look like as adults. They'll break some hearts before they're done, he told himself. Full of mischief, but basically good kids at heart.

    Which was good, because the powers exhibited by each of them was enough to put them far out of the range of any merely human combatant. It was his self-appointed responsibility, and that of Danny Hebert – and it would be of Madison’s father, once he found out about his daughter’s powers – to help guide them to use their powers in a moral and upright manner.

    It was a responsibility both terrifying and exhilarating.

    "So how are you feeling this morning, Madison?" he asked gently.

    She took a deep breath. "Better," she said. "A lot better. Every time I had a nightmare, Emma or Taylor was there to hold me. And I only threw up once."

    "You threw up?" he asked sharply, looking at the carpet and the mattresses. "Are you sure you're all right?"

    She nodded earnestly. "It was nerves, I guess. I got to the bathroom in time, and only made a little bit of a mess."

    "Which Emma cleaned up, while I got Mads cleaned up," Taylor chimed in. She grinned at him. "We had it under control, Mr Barnes."

    "So I see," he agreed approvingly. Sharp kid, Taylor. Doesn’t have the looks of the other two, unfortunately, but more than makes up for it in brains. “Well, I’ve been speaking to your parents. Taylor, your dad will be here in an hour. Madison, yours also. We’ve got some talking to do. Also, you’ve got to decide how you’re going to let him know about your powers.”

    Madison frowned. “I … how do I do something like that? Do I have to?”

    Taylor, Emma and Alan all nodded. “Yeah,” said Taylor. “It’s really the best idea. Unless you go all out to hide it from him, he will find out sooner or later, and if he has to find out on his own, then he’ll be kind of hurt when he does. Trust issues, Mads. You want to avoid them.” She leaned across and hugged the shorter girl.

    Madison nodded and sat down on the mattress, leaning into the hug. “I guess,” she said. “I just didn’t want this getting more complicated.”

    Emma grinned and joined in the hug. “Trust me, it gets less complicated once he knows. Consider if we have to go and do something in costume in a hurry. If no-one in the house knows, you gotta either sneak out or lie. If he knows, he can cover for you.”

    Madison’s head drooped. “What if he’s not good with me being a cape?” she asked in a small voice.

    “If that happens,” said Alan Barnes, “Danny Hebert and I will have a conversation with him about not being a dick. But I don’t think that’ll happen. I don’t know him all that well, but he can’t be that much of an idiot; he’s got you for a daughter, after all.”

    “It’s all good,” said Taylor, holding her close. “We’re your friends, and we’re here for you.”

    “Both of us,” added Emma. “And we don’t let our friends down.” She followed suit.

    Madison sniffled, then the tears started to flow.

    “Are you okay?” asked Taylor.

    Madison nodded. “Just so happy,” she explained. “Feel stupid, crying.”

    Emma ruffled her hair. “You go cry all you like. I’ll tell you when it’s stupid, and it’s not stupid yet.”

    So they held her as she cried, getting the emotional release that she needed. Alan caught Emma’s eye, and indicated the door. She nodded; he rose and left.

    ***

    “Seriously?” Madison’s father looked at her. “You’ve got powers?”

    She nodded. “Seriously, Dad. I ... I got them last night. It was ... kind of scary.”

    Emma stepped up behind her and hugged her gently. She knew exactly how ‘kind of scary’ it had been.

    He blinked. “So ... what sort of powers do you have?”

    She grinned and held out her hand toward him, palm out. “Try to touch my hand.”

    He frowned suspiciously, but reached forward with his finger to touch her hand. But something intervened; his hand slid away to the left, along the surface of a smooth ovoid. His frown deepened. He tried again, pushing harder. This time it slid away to the right. He set his feet and pushed both hands at the barrier simultaneously; this did no good, and the barrier seemed to be frictionless. He could not get his hand within three inches of hers.

    “Okay,” he said. “I give up. How are you doing that?”

    “Air,” she said. “I can move it and control it.” She held her arms out, and wind started whipping around herself and Emma. The two of them lifted a foot or so off the ground, the wind whistling and tearing at anything not nailed down, until she let them down again to the ground, the wind dying away almost instantly.

    He stared at this display. “I’m impressed, I’m impressed,” he said. “Is there anything else you can do?”

    “Ah, yeah,” she said. “But it’s kind of an attack. So, not going to demonstrate, here.”

    He nodded. “Okay, that’s fair.” He looked around at the others. “So, what are you going to do with your powers, and why am I the last to find out about them?”

    Emma stepped forward. “She’s going to join me and Taylor in our superhero team.”

    He stared at her. “You and Taylor have powers too?”

    She nodded. “I’ve had mine for years, and Taylor got hers in January.”

    He sat down. “I need to think about this for a bit.”

    A tap on his shoulder made him look around; Alan Barnes was offering a glass of bourbon. He nodded thankfully and sipped at it. It seemed to steady him.

    “So wait,” he said. “Your girls had powers for months or years.”

    Danny nodded. “Yeah.”

    “And you both knew about it.”

    “Sure,” said Alan. “I was there when Emma triggered, but Taylor decided it would be better to tell Danny. And as she knew about Taylor, and Taylor knew about her, we both decided it would be better for Danny to know about their powers.” He indicated Danny. “We’re sort of making plans to be a support system for them when they go out using their powers.”

    “Which is where I come in,” agreed Madison’s father. “And now that Madison has powers, I’m in the loop.”

    “You’re in the loop if you want to be,” amended Danny. “If you don’t want anything to do with it, then you can sit out.”

    “Hell no,” said Madison’s father. “My daughter’s going to be a superhero? I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.” He looked at Madison. “You’re set on this, right?”

    Madison nodded. “I was gonna be going out with Mr Hebert and Mr Barnes before I got powers. I wanted in on this, even then. And now ...” She held out her hand; an almost-visible ripple of air expanded out in all directions, lifting dust right across the room.

    “Okay,” said her father. “If you’re going to do this, do you have at least a cape name and a costume?”

    “Not a costume, as yet,” admitted Madison. “But the others are still working on theirs too. But I got a name.”

    They all looked at her.

    She grinned proudly. “Aerodyne.”

    ***

    Three Months Later



    “Attention shoppers.”

    It was a lazy Wednesday afternoon at the Weymouth shopping mall. Teenagers loitered in the food court, bored housewives shopped for groceries, and more than one store clerk eyed the clock, wishing that the hands would tick around just that little bit faster.

    “We would like to direct your attention to the display going on in the centre stage.”

    One of the guards watching the TV consoles in the security station frowned. Something had flickered across one of the screens. And now they were going dark, one after another.

    “Hey, big man.”

    The voice was so unexpected that he did not feel alarm as he turned, frowning. The taser darts struck him in the shoulder, and the current sent him tumbling to the floor.

    The teenage girl grinned as she used his own cuffs to secure him. Then she kicked him a couple of times in the ribs. Her shoes were soft-toed, and he had enough weight on him that she couldn’t do him any real damage, but it felt good.

    “That’s right, mall pig,” she muttered. “Now it’s my turn.”

    “Or to put it another way, if you don’t go to the centre stage area, we will hunt you down. And you don’t want us to hunt you down. That’s a guarantee.”

    Shoppers looked around as the shutters on the outside exits to the mall began to rattle down. The initial response was huh? I didn’t think it was that late.

    And nor was it; the time was barely half past three, still a full hour and a half before closing time. But yet, the shutters were indeed closing.

    In the security station, the teenage girl attached a modded-up tablet to the computers with a cable, and started entering commands, her fingers virtually blurring over the touch screen. One by one, the disk cabinets that contained the amassed thousands of hours of security viewing started whirring, erasing the last hour of footage from all the cameras. And nor would they record anything else, until someone got into the system and untangled the spaghetti that she had just made of their programming.

    She grinned widely. They would have to reformat and start fresh, because not only would she leave the programming in ruins, but there would be viruses and other booby-traps waiting for anyone trying the fix the system.

    “When I screw with something,” she muttered, “it stays screwed with.”

    “In case you’re wondering, shoppers, yes, the Weymouth Mall has been taken over by villains. And also in case you’re wondering, the seventy-three people who just dialled 9-1-1 are going to be horribly disappointed when their calls do not go through. Seriously, people, we planned for this.”

    The statuesque woman was leaning back on the manager’s chair with her feet on his desk, getting dirt on his paperwork. Well she didn’t care about that. It wasn’t her paperwork.

    Beside the paperwork was a glossy black dome, with the number ‘73’ showing in red LEDs. It dropped to ‘72’ and then ‘71’, and then the numbers cascaded down as people hung up their useless phones.

    Synth, she thought, you’re a fucking marvel. It’s well worth your attitude for the toys you bring to the team.

    She grinned as she lifted the mic and cleared her throat. “When you get there, I would suggest that you have your valuables and wallets ready to be collected by my loyal minions. Please do not hold anything out from us; the cleaners here work very hard, and it would be a pity to make them clean your blood from this nice clean floor.” She paused. “Also, shop clerks? Bring the contents of your cash drawers. All of it. We will know if you try to screw us over.”

    She glanced over at the manager – fat, fortyish and utterly terrified – as he lay slumped against the wall of his own office, duct tape securing his hands behind him and a piece over his mouth ensuring that he could do no more than whimper.

    “So, fat boy,” she said, putting the mic down. “How’s your day going? Because mine’s going pretty fucking well so far.”

    He didn’t even bother trying to answer her; the loudest noises he could make were ineffectual mumbles and snorts, and she had nearly fallen off the chair twice with laughter, until he had given up trying to protest.

    Her grin widened. Fat boy had a moustache. He’d lose that whenever someone ripped the tape off. She wished she could be here to see that. But of course, she’d be long gone.

    She picked up the mic again.

    “Oh, and by the way? The police are not coming. Nor are the PRT, the Protectorate, the Wards, or the Boy fucking Scouts for all I care. Not a one of them. No-one’s coming to save you, boys and girls and chicklets. You’re locked in here with us. And we’re gonna take you for every thin dime we can.”

    It really was a great plan. Mayhem was proud of it. None of your usual big-ticket high-profile targets. A shopping mall, that was the thing. Hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed through places like that every week. Hell, if each of the two hundred stores in the mall had two hundred dollars on site, that was forty thou right there, not counting the money they’d pull in using Synth’s little bag of tricks.

    She tapped the radio earpiece she wore. “Synth, status on the sheeple?”

    ***

    Synth grinned, her fingers rippling over the tablet. The security monitors showed up just fine now, run by her system’s software. “Just fine, momma bear,” she answered. Mayhem didn’t like the nickname, but who gave a flying dog-turd about that? “Most everyone is coming along nicely, but I think I saw three girls duck into the girls’ bathroom next to the bakery. I figure they think to hide out there until we’re gone.”

    ***

    “Is that so ...” mused Mayhem. “Jag, go to the girls’ bathroom on the mezzanine level, next to the bakery. Any girls in there, bring ‘em to me. I’ll be in centre stage. They try to avoid paying their due, they end up as an example “

    She smiled to herself. I’ll let Creeper deal with them. It won’t be fatal, but it’ll be a salutary lesson to the rest of them. She shivered, not from fear and not from cold, but from a certain prurient anticipation; she could never do it herself, but she found that she enjoyed watching Creeper do it to others. I suppose it comes from watching all of that ultra-hardcore Earth Aleph hentai anime.

    She licked her lips. I wonder if Synth has ever watched anime like that?

    I wonder if she’d like to watch it with me?


    She swung her legs off the desk and stood up, stretching. “Time to go to work, honeybunch,” she said to the manager. “I’m sure someone will be along in good time to untie you.”

    Humming a jaunty tune, she left the room, closing the door carefully behind her.

    ***

    Jag grinned as he headed for the appropriate bathroom. He liked hurting people. Men, women, old folk, kids, it didn’t matter. His power didn’t work so good on living flesh as it did on inanimate shit, but what the fuck, it worked.

    He didn’t bother pushing the door open; he just put his hand on it, exerted his power … and it flew apart, large pieces clattering in the short corridor beyond.

    He stepped past the ruins of the door, approaching the doorway that led into the ladies’ bathrooms themselves.

    And then a girl stepped out and looked at him. “Excuse me,” she said. “Hello? Ladies? Gents is down the hall.”

    She was a looker; very nice figure, good rack on her for all that she was maybe seventeen. Red hair that flowed around her face. A long coat or something, over something skintight. And ...

    Oh shit. That’s a mask.

    He clawed for the radio. “We got –“

    Emma’s hair lashed out, stretching to cover the twenty feet that separated them, coiling around his legs and arms. The radio was plucked from his hand and brought back to her.

    “Hi,” she said. “Call me Sparx.”

    And the hair fluouresced, and a taser-jolt hammered his consciousness into oblivion.

    In Sparx’s hand, the radio emitted a tinny voice. “Jag, this is Mayhem. Repeat your last.”

    Emma was tempted to reply with some witty quip, but then she thought, Why warn them?

    But the radio was useful. She hooked it on to her belt, then looked back into the bathroom. “Seriously? You guys aren’t costumed up yet?”

    “Done, now,” said Taylor, fitting her helmet into place. Madison was smoothing the weave of the flowing gossamer silk fabric about her.

    “Swarm?” Emma asked Taylor.

    “Collecting,” Taylor replied. “I got some in the corridors, but not enough for a good read.”

    “Let’s do this,” said Madison.

    ***

    “Momma bear, I got three capes, repeat three unknown capes, exiting that bathroom. Jag ain’t comin’. Looks like he’s down.”

    Mayhem came to a dead stop. “Fuck. Descriptions?”

    “Okay, okay. Cape one has a red and black skintight, no particular theme, under a long coat. Her hair’s all over the place. Maybe ten feet long, maybe tentacles. Redhead. Matches a news description of the one who took down Lung, three months ago.”

    “Okay, cape one is priority target. Others?”

    “Cape two is wearing a red and black outfit ... maybe themed as a ladybird? Red with big black spots, anyway. Skinny, but the costume’s got a little bit of bulk. Maybe armour, maybe just padding. Can’t get a read on powerset. Might be a tinker, might be something else. Ladybirds are kind of generic.”

    Mayhem nodded. “Okay, and cape three?”

    “Also NFI, momma bear. All sorts of flowing stuff, like she’s wearing about fifty yards of white cotton candy. No idea how that shit does not get in her way. No read on powerset. Could be any-fucking-thing.”

    Mayhem sighed. “Roger, Synth. Repeat, to all concerned, cape one is priority target. Oh, and cape one, if you can hear me, priority target means we give you to Creeper first.”

    ***

    Madison stared at Emma. “They know we have a radio?”

    “Not hard to figure it out,” said Emma. “If they’ve got someone in the control booth who can watch the monitors, then they can look at us. And they know their guy went in and we came out. So.”

    She looked at Taylor. “Got enough bugs to cover the cameras?”

    Taylor nodded. “Can do.”

    “Know what I’m wondering?” said Madison.

    “What’s that?” asked Emma.

    “Who or what Creeper is,” said Madison.

    “Oh, yeah,” said Emma. “That is a bit of a worry.”

    ***

    Synth swore. There was a moth on the camera she was using to observe the three mystery capes. She looked at the other screens. In fact, there were bugs crawling on the camera covers of nearly every pickup in the complex. Her ability to see anything of any fucking use whatsoever was being rapidly degraded.

    She picked up the radio. “Momma bear, I got a read on the ladybird cape. I think she’s an insect controller. We got bugs on all the camera pickups around the building. Right now, I can’t see shit.”

    “Roger that,” replied Mayhem. “All points, cape two is also priority. We need our eyes, people.”

    ***

    Taylor’s eyes opened wide. “Shit,” she said. “I think I just tipped my hand.”

    Emma frowned. “I think it was a ‘damned if you use it, damned if you don’t’ state of affairs. How’s the rest of your swarm going?”

    Taylor nodded. “Building up nicely. They sealed the place to people, but not to bugs.” She turned to Madison. “I’ve got them following up in the roof space. I might need you to make a hole in the ceiling if something goes bad.”

    Madison nodded, lips pressed tightly together. “I can do that.”

    Emma stopped, and put a hand to her arm. “Aerodyne, are you good?”

    Madison looked at her. “No. I’m fucking terrified. But I wouldn’t be anywhere but with you guys, even now.”

    Emma pulled her into a hug. “Thanks for being here, Mads. We couldn’t do it without you.”

    Madison relaxed into the hug. “Thanks, Ems. That means a lot to me.”

    “Uh, guys,” said Taylor, “not to break up this moment or anything, but there’s something coming.”

    “Define,” said Emma, stepping away from Madison and letting her tendrils flow out a little farther.

    “Small, fast, buzzing. Bigger than an insect, flying.”

    “What,” said Madison, “like a remote controlled –“

    ***

    Synth grinned as her remote drones swept around the corner. She was controlling them from the one keyboard, drawing the feed to three of the useless screens, using a complex algorithm that she had devised; she told the group where to go, and they applied their tactics to what they met.

    She put targeting pippers on capes one and two as they looked up at the drones.

    “Hahahhaa!” she crowed, finger mashing the button she had designated as “fire”. “Eat hot leaden death, intruders!”

    ***

    “ – helicopters!” shouted Taylor. She saw them, four of them, sweep around the corner in tight formation. They rotated and translated, and she distinctly saw small gunbarrels point toward her and Emma.

    And then Madison gestured, and a wind roared up out of nowhere, smashed the choppers against the ceiling, then against the floor. Sparks popped; smoke trickled out.

    “Nice one,” said Taylor.

    Madison grinned nervously. “Thanks.”

    They moved on.

    ***

    “What. The. Fuck?” snarled Synth. “Momma bear, they just fucking trashed my choppers.”

    “All of them?” asked Mayhem.

    “Fucking Huey, Dewey, Louie and Donald,” confirmed Synth. “Came at them, the one in the white did something with her arms, and then the choppers went up and then they went down. Fucking game over.”

    “Tech buster? Machine control? Magnetism?” surmised Mayhem.

    “Fucked if I know,” snarled Synth. “But when you give that bitch to Creeper, I wanna fuckin’ watch.”

    Fuming, she went back to her keyboard.

    ***

    “I’m really not liking the sound of this Creeper,” commented Emma.

    “Me neither,” said Taylor.

    Madison said nothing. She shivered.

    They moved on.


    End of Part Seven
     
  9. Threadmarks: Part Eight: Payoff
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Eight: Payoff


    Two Months Ago


    Emma lurched sideways as the shot hit her in the side of the head. Red splattered over Madison and Taylor.

    She reached up and rubbed her temple ruefully. “That really stung!” she complained.

    “Can’t talk, Emma, you’re dead,” called her father from outside the maze. “Maybe you should work better together.”

    Emma felt her way over to the wall, her blacked-out goggles giving her no visual input at all, and sat down. She leaned against the wall, her hair pulling back to its normal length. “Go on, guys,” she said resignedly, pulling her water bottle off her belt. “I’m dead. Avenge me.”

    Taylor nodded; she couldn’t speak, as she was wearing a medical mask stuffed with rags. She could breathe, but no speech was possible.

    Madison chose that moment to look around, and stared in shock. “Emma!” she said, her voice sounding slightly flat, and louder than normal. “What happened?”

    Emma took a drink from her water bottle, and made one hand into a gun pointed at her temple. To the other two, the red paintball had made an amazing mess of the side of her head.

    Madison nodded, the turned to Taylor. “What do we do now?” she asked. Taylor raised her eyebrows over the medical mask, then drew an arrow in the air with her bugs. The two girls hurried off in that direction.

    Emma stretched her legs out in front of her and sighed. Superhero training is such a pain, she decided. But I guess it beats being shot in the head with real bullets.

    Her father had leased the stretch of land on which the prefabricated maze had been constructed; Mr Clements had proven to be a very accurate sniper with a modded-up paintball gun. And Danny had come up with the ‘three wise monkeys’ scenario, to make them work harder at teamwork.

    While wearing her blacked-out goggles, Emma could not see to use her tendrils effectively, although she could still use them to feel out her surroundings. Taylor could use her bugs to locate the goal, and other dangers, but could not speak to tell the others about it. And Madison could both see and speak, and use her air control powers, but heavy earmuffs stuffed with cotton wool, over industrial earplugs, rendered her as deaf as they could make her.

    This forced all three girls to pay very close attention to what they could detect of their surroundings, as well as to each other. Madison was learning to watch the other two, Emma was learning to use her tendrils as an early-warning system, and Taylor was learning to use her bugs in more and more versatile ways.

    While they grumbled and moaned about it – and threatened mock retribution on Madison’s father if he kept shooting them in the butt, as he was wont to do – they did realise that their fathers were deadly serious about forcing them to become a solid, effective team. And the only way they could do this, and pose a real challenge to their abilities, was to hamper them in some way. Thus, the three wise monkeys.

    The exercise ended soon enough. “You can come out now, Emma!” her father called. She pulled the goggles off her face, blinking at the influx of light, looked at the amazingly realistic splatter of red on them, and made her way back to the entrance to the maze.

    “So, did we win?’ she asked. The downcast looks on the faces of the other two were answer enough.

    “Nearly,” said Danny. “Madison came within ten feet of getting the prize out the door.”

    Madison rubbed her butt ruefully; the bright red splatter on the seat of her pants indicated why she had not made it the rest of the way. “You pick on me too much, Dad,” she said, though her tone wasn’t serious.

    Mr Clements was cleaning and putting away his long-barrelled paintball gun. “If I don’t, someone with a real gun will,” he pointed out, paralleling Emma’s own thoughts of just a bit earlier.

    Emma hugged her. “Hey, you got shot in the butt. I got shot in the head, remember?’ she said with a giggle.

    Taylor rolled her eyes, the red mark around her mouth still showing where the medical mask had been in place, and gestured at her front. There was a red splatter right in the middle of her chest. “Direct hit,” she said ruefully.

    “You’re getting better,” said Alan Barnes encouragingly. “Working together better. Thinking faster, reacting smarter.”

    “Yeah,” said Emma. “But we’re still losing.”

    “Give it time, Emma,” said Danny, and gave her a one-armed hug across the shoulders. “You’ll get there. The PRT and the Wards have got their training centres. We’ve just got this.” He indicated the prefab maze, the catwalks above from which Mr Clements could snipe down at them.

    She nodded. “I know, Mr Hebert,” she said. “I understand, and I appreciate it. But it’s going to take forever to get this stuff out of my hair.”

    “Next time,” said Madison’s father dryly, “duck.”

    She stuck her tongue out at him.

    ***

    One Month Ago


    “Cover!” snapped Emma.

    Emma could not see, but she knew that bugs would be swarming up over the three, in a living cloud that blocked all visual sight between the catwalk and the girls below. A paintball would punch through, but Madison’s father had no direct line of sight to hit them.

    She heard paintballs splattering to the left and right of them, and grinned. The ‘bug-cover’ idea had been Madison’s, and Taylor had tried it out. And it worked.

    They moved on, coming to an intersection. Emma had her hair tendrils extended in all directions, lightly brushing all obstacles, including her two teammates. Even though she couldn’t see Taylor, she looked at her questioningly. Taylor hooked her thumb left, which Emma picked up and Madison saw clearly.

    And just then, several bundles fell into the maze around them. As they fell through her network of hairs, she figured that they were made of cloth. And then the smoke hit her nostrils, and she felt the tiny impacts against her hair tendrils as Taylor’s bugs faltered and began to fall to the ground.

    Oh crap, thought Emma. They figured a counter for Taylor’s bugs. She reached for the bundles with her tendrils, intending to toss them over the nearest wall.

    And then she felt a deluge of cold water, soaking her from head to toe.

    ... and my hair, she amended, as all of her extended tendrils retracted back to her head.

    “Guys!” she said unnecessarily. “My hair’s down!”

    Either Madison was watching, or Taylor pointed it out to her fast, because no sooner had she said this that she felt the air around her head swirling in a tight vortex, blasting the moisture out of it.

    And then the wind picked up dramatically, probably to blow away the thick, choking smoke.

    Emma felt her hair revive and reached out to grab the bundles; this time, the tendrils snared them and tossed them over the nearest wall. Madison’s wind was dispelling the smoke, but paintballs suddenly started hitting around them.

    But they were surprisingly inaccurate; Emma grinned. It was another trick that Madison liked to use; Taylor had thought of it. If she induced a strong vortex in a thin layer of air, any projectiles wound be spun off course.

    Though paintballs rained all around them, and Madison’s father did his best to disrupt their powers and capabilities from above, they kept moving through the maze. Fifteen minutes later, all three emerged with the ‘prize’ – a house brick with a ribbon wrapped around it – held between them.

    Danny Hebert moved forward and hugged his daughter. “I’m proud of you, kiddo,” he said. “I’m proud of you all. You really pulled through.”

    Taylor removed the medical mask and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks, Dad,” she said with a grin.

    Emma pulled her goggles off, blinking at the light. “So wait ... we won?” she asked. “Without losing anyone?”

    Her father nodded, and gave her a hug as well. “You did,” he agreed. “And very handily too. You’re really learning to work together as a team.”

    Madison pulled off her earphones, and took the plugs out. “We won?” she asked, unconsciously echoing Emma.

    Emma nodded. “We did,” she confirmed.

    Madison squealed and hugged her father, who had just descended from the catwalk. He hugged her back. “You did real good,” he told her. “I wasn’t holding back. You did all that by yourselves.”

    She smiled and held him close. “Thanks, Dad,” she said. “That really makes me feel good.”

    Emma grinned and shared a high-five with Taylor. “We rock,” she said.

    “We really do,” agreed Taylor.

    “So what’s next, Dad?” asked Emma.

    “Well, we keep training you, of course,” said Alan, “though we’ll cut it down to once or twice a month. And you’ve about got your costumes up and running. So you’ll practise carrying them in public and changing in a hurry. Also, using your powers without people noticing.”

    Emma ruffled Taylor’s hair; the latter giggled and swung a mock punch at her. “Taylor’s got that down, for sure,” she grinned.

    Danny nodded. “Though a little more practise never hurts. Taylor, I want you working on those bug-clones and on speaking and hearing through the bugs. Emma, you can use your tendrils quietly and sneakily if you need to; practise that. And Madison ...”

    “Yes?” said Madison brightly, springing almost visibly to attention.

    Danny shook his head and grinned slightly. “Try to work on not using your hands so much when you’re directing your air movements. If an enemy sees you doing that, then they might target you.”

    “I’ve been trying,” said Madison, “and it works so much easier when I can move my hands.”

    Danny nodded. “I get it. But keep at it. Someday it might save your life.”

    She nodded seriously and hugged him. “Thanks, Mr Hebert.”

    He hugged her back. “Anytime, Madison.”

    She smiled. Superhero training was so much fun, the six of them, even when her dad was pelting her ass with paintball pellets.

    “So, Taylor’s mostly gotten your costumes in order, right?” he asked.

    “That’s right, Dad,” said Taylor strolling up and slipping her arm through Madison’s. “Got a little bit to finish on the Aerodyne costume, and almost done with mine. Emma’s was dead easy.”

    “Dead easy, my perfect butt,” Emma retorted, taking Madison’s other arm. “You try standing absolutely still while two hundred highly poisonous spiders run all over you, when you’re just wearing underwear.”

    Taylor grinned across at her. “You would ask for a skintight outfit. Having them weave it on your body was the best way I could think of to make it absolutely form-fitting.”

    “Any more form-fitting,” said Alan Barnes dryly, “and I’d be making you wear another costume over the top of it, just for modesty’s sake.”

    “What?” protested Emma. “I wear a coat over the top.”

    “Which makes you look like a flasher,” grinned Taylor. Emma stuck her tongue out at her, while Madison giggled.

    “Well,” said Madison’s father, “that’s that. We’re done here for the day. Tonight’s a school night, so you girls should get to bed early.”

    “Hey, we won today,” protested Emma. “Shouldn’t we celebrate a bit?”

    Danny glanced at Alan, and they both looked over at Mr Clements. After a moment, all three shrugged.

    “Don’t see why not,” said Alan.

    “They’ve been keeping up with their grades,” pointed out Danny.

    “You mean, Taylor’s been keeping up with hers, and helping Emma and Madison keep up with theirs,” retorted Madison’s father.

    “Or that, too, yes,” agreed Danny with a grin, giving his daughter a squeeze on the shoulder.

    Taylor turned pink with pride. “It’s not all that hard –“ she began.

    “To you, maybe,” interrupted Emma. “I look at those problems, and I just fall in a deep hole, and then you’re the one lowering the ladder.”

    Taylor stepped around Madison to hug her. “You’re my best friend,” she said. “How could I not help you?”

    Emma hugged her back. “Don’t know,” she said softly. “Don’t want to know.”

    “Hey, hey,” said Madison. “If Emma’s your best friend, what does that make me?”

    Taylor grinned and opened her arms to include her in the hug. “My other best friend, silly,” she said. She rested her head on Emma’s shoulder. “I love both you guys.”

    “Yeah,” said Emma, also including Madison in the hug.

    “Me too,” said Madison.

    ***

    Danny grinned as the three girls embraced. “They did real good today, didn’t they?” he asked quietly.

    Alan nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Not much more that we can do.”

    Madison’s father also nodded. “Just keep supporting them,” he said quietly. “Any way we can.”

    ***

    The girls opted to go bowling,, which all three enjoyed immensely. Madison won at first, until the others told her firmly to stop cheating. She giggled; she’d wondered how long it would take them to notice.

    They played individually, in father/daughter teams, and in fathers versus daughters. A good night was had by all, and they went to bed tired but happy.

    ***

    When the costumes were finished, it was decided that the girls would carry them around in their bags, and practise changing in and out of them in public restrooms, timing themselves and trying to get the time down to something under ten minutes.

    Emma, of course, had the easiest time of it. Her costume could be worn under anything that covered her arms and legs. Madison’s costume had lots of flaring silk, but it folded really small, and only took a little time to get into. Taylor had the most problem; she had opted for a helmet and a more bulky costume, padded out to give her a more mature appearance, incorporating more silk than the others’ for more protection.

    But they carried their costumes to school, and to other public places.

    Such as the Weymouth Mall.

    As they had been doing on one quiet afternoon, when things started happening.

    ***

    Now


    “So what do we have?” asked Emma quietly.

    “Big bunch of people in the centre stage area,” reported Taylor, just as quietly. They slowed from a jog to a walk – all three fathers had insisted on an exercise program for their daughters that included a morning run – and she formed a map of the mall from a swarm of insects that hung in midair. A bunch of yellowjackets made up the group of hostages. “Someone with them, someone big,” she added, causing a large beetle to join in with that group.

    “Anyone else?” asked Madison.

    “Yeah, two more,” said Taylor. Other brightly coloured bugs appeared elsewhere on the ad hoc schematic. “Here and here. This one’s a teenager, maybe as skinny as me. She was in the security area. And there’s a woman, muscular, coming down from the manager’s office. She’s got a pistol.” She paused. “The manager’s tied up in his office, but he’s breathing.”

    Emma had a good look at the map, then nodded. The manager wasn’t a priority, not right now. “Got it,” she said.

    “I’ve got ‘em both tagged, plus the big guy,” said Taylor. “We’re getting close.”

    Emma nodded tensely. “Ma- Aerodyne?” she asked.

    Madison nodded. She exerted her will, and the same shield that had protected her from fire, once upon a time, formed around all three of them. It wasn’t at anywhere near full strength, but she could bolster it very quickly indeed. If the bad guys started shooting as soon as they showed their faces, she didn’t want to have to spend time thinking about putting it up.

    ***

    Mayhem crouched on the balcony, waiting. In fact, she crouched on the balcony in several places, making use of one of her little tricks.

    Activating her powers allowed her to grow to twelve feet tall, increasing her volume and thus mass by a factor of eight. And each time she doubled in mass and volume, her strength and durability doubled again.

    Once she was enlarged, she could separate into two or more versions of herself, strictly conserving the new level of volume and mass. Fortunately, clothes grew and shrank with her form, and multiplied with her bodies. Unfortunately, weapons did neither thing; nor did anything else of significance that she carried.

    Currently, she was separated into four bodies, each body was seven and a half feet tall, and about four times as strong as her normal, unpowered, form. Which, as she worked out religiously, was plenty strong.

    Synth, with her keyboard, which had a small screen slotted into it, had moved to near where the hostages were gathered. She and Creeper were the first two that the intruding capes would see. The last thing that they’d see would be Mayhem, falling on them from the balcony above.

    She allowed herself a little grin. They might be tricky, but they had to be untried, novices. She’d never heard of a cape with a ladybird – ladybug, whatever – theme. Insect control, hah. What could you do with that?

    She never even noticed the fly on her shoulder.

    ***

    Taylor and Madison had evolved some basic hand signals during their ‘three wise monkeys’ exercises, and these paid off; Taylor was able to tell both Emma and Madison about the impending ambush without either Synth or Creeper knowing about it.

    So when the four oversized women leaped from the balcony, Aerodyne took the two on the left, and Sparx took the two on the right. A howling wind picked two of the Mayhems up and tossed them across the centre court area, while the other two were caught by tendrils of hair that lashed out, grabbing them by their arms and legs.

    But Mayhem was strong. She pulled her one arm free from her bonds and wrenched the gun from her holster.

    Sparx didn’t hesitate; she sent a surge of electricity through the tendrils, pouring through Mayhem’s body.

    And Mayhem didn’t drop the gun.

    On the other side of the food court, one of the duplicates convulsed and collapsed, but the one that Sparx held was not in the slightest bit inconvenienced. She struggled to bring the gun into line, while her twin took advantage of Sparx’s distraction and began to wrench her way free.

    ***

    Ladybug snapped, “Bugs!” and Aerodyne responded immediately by smacking one of the hanging ceiling panels from its mount with a gust of air.

    And the swarm arrived in force.

    The Mayhem with the gun was engulfed, insects crawling into her face, wasps repeatedly stinging the underside of her wrist, where the tendons ran. Her hand flexed without her conscious intent, and the gun clattered to the floor.

    ***

    Ladybug also took note of Creeper. He seemed to be an obese man, dressed in a huge coat and a hat pulled low over his head. She formed a swarm-clone between him and the hostages.

    “Back off,” it buzzed.

    ***

    Synth was rapidly typing on her keyboard; Ladybug landed bugs on the small screen, and burrowed more down under the keys so that they jammed and could not be forced down.

    “Oh, fucking come on!” yelled the skinny Tinker. She mashed the Enter key – along with half a dozen bugs – and alarms started sounding. Lights also started flickering alarmingly.

    “I’ve shorted all the electrics!” she yelled. “This fucking place will burn!”

    ***

    The one Mayhem that had been thrown across the centre court and was still up, jumped forward and yanked a woman from the group of hostages. “Fuck that!” she shouted. “Fucking give it up or I tear her limb from limb!”

    Aerodyne hesitated. Ladybug hesitated. Sparx sent a massive jolt of electricity through the two Mayhems she still held.

    And the other Mayhem dropped, releasing her hostage.

    She transfers damage, Emma thought. Hoped it worked that way.

    ***

    Ladybug sent her bugs roaming, looking for electrical shorts. Found them. The bugs found the incipient fires, smothered them, snuffing the sparks with their own bodies. Spiders began to weave webs to cover the shorts until someone could pull the breakers.

    ***

    Creeper shed his coat and hat. He was gross, misshapen, malformed. His body sprouted tentacles, uncomfortably phallic in appearance. These waved, moved, dribbled unclean substances.

    “I touch you,” he giggled, “you can’t struggle." He made perhaps the most obscene gesture she had ever seen. "I do you, you’re mine. A Creeper, just like me.” His voice was ugly, echoing his body. “Bugs can’t hurt me. I eat bugs. And rats. And cats. And dogs. And little girls who think they’re superheroes.”

    He started toward the three girls and their two captive Mayhems, ignoring the swarm clone.

    It leaped at him, collapsed around him, stinging, seeking mouth and nose.

    He had too many orifices, horrifying, pulsating, too large to block. He kept coming.

    Sparx was busy with the two remaining Mayhems; she had to build up a good charge before she could zap them again.

    Ladybug put a swarm around Synth, started binding her with spider silk. The Tinker swore like a champion, but was nevertheless bound solid.

    Creeper bore down on Madison, his wide lipless mouth open and wet.

    “You wanna have you some Creeper, girl?” he asked, horribly suggestively.

    His entire being emanated creepy sex. This was the very distillation of the terrors she had undergone, ever since she had triggered. And he was coming for her.

    He was almost within arm’s reach. She saw more and more bugs pile on him, stinging, trying to wrap webs around him, failing. Failing.

    It was up to her to stop him.

    She hit him with a tornado-blast, but that only forced him back a step or two.

    Grinning wetly, he came at her again.

    She screamed.

    And did the worst thing she could think of.

    Pulled all the air from around his body ... away from him.

    All of it.

    He stopped, choked, soundlessly. He was in a vacuum, could not breathe, could not speak. His flesh swelled dramatically, developed spontaneous spots of blood as capillaries burst. He tried to step out of the area, but she had surrounded it with her patented shield, in reverse. He could not push through.

    He was in a cage of air, but he could not leave it. He was suffocating, dying, inches away from life-giving oxygen.

    His eyes bulged from his head, bloodshot. He screamed soundlessly, his huge, misshapen tongue protruding from his gaping, lipless mouth.

    And then she let it all go.

    From a range of three feet, the air all around Creeper smashed into him at the speed of sound, with a pressure of fifteen pounds per square inch. Given his gross size, it was the equivalent of dropping a five-ton weight on him. Knocked cold, he slumped to the ground.

    At the same time, Sparx mustered enough power to give Mayhem and her duplicate one more jolt. This finally sufficed to knock them out.

    ***

    The three girls looked around at each other, then at the supine villains. The only one conscious was Synth, and she looked mad enough to chew through the webbing around her.

    Taylor turned to Madison. “You okay?” she asked, taking the shaking girl in her arms and holding her close.

    Madison nodded, as her trembling slowly died away.

    Emma joined in the hug; they held Madison between them, comforting her, letting her know she was protected.

    “Well,” she said, “you sure as hell did a number on him.”

    Madison nodded shakily. “It was the only thing I could think of,” she said.

    Taylor kissed her on the forehead. “It worked. You won.” She gave Madison one last hug, then nodded to Emma. “Now, let’s go get that guy you zapped, and call the cops.”

    ***

    Calling the police didn’t work until Taylor went to the manager’s office to free him, found the Tinker device on his desk, and turned it off. Then she freed the man, cutting his bonds with a box-cutter she found on his desk. He pulled the gag off himself, letting out a groan of agony as it took his moustache with it.

    Despite that, he was profuse with his thanks, and gave the police and PRT a glowing report when they arrived. All three girls had to stand by and accept the praise heaped upon them by the thankful hostages, while they made their statements.

    When the Protectorate transport arrived to take away the captive supervillains, Armsmaster stayed behind to speak with them.

    Behind her mask, Taylor gulped. This was Armsmaster! She had underwear with his emblem on it, somewhere.

    He studied them for a moment. “You did well,” he said briefly. “No hostages harmed, all villains captured. Property damage kept to a minimum.”

    Ladybug had, of course, alerted the manager to the ongoing short-circuits. Breakers had been pulled, and the danger averted.

    “From the reports of the fight, you acted intelligently and responsibly,” he went on. “I am authorised to offer you a place in the Wards program. It will allow you the chance to work with other teenage heroes like yourselves.”

    Taylor sucked in a sharp breath. To be a Ward! She didn’t glance at the others; she didn’t need to. Her hand found Madison’s, squeezed it. Madison’s hand found Emma’s.

    They had discussed this, many times. And always, they had come to the same conclusion. But the very thought of the offer excited them.

    However, each of them knew what the answer must be.

    “We appreciate your offer,” said Emma firmly. “But we’re going to have to decline. Respectfully, of course.”

    Armsmaster’s tone did not alter. “That’s your choice. I presume you will be forming a team, then?”

    It was Taylor’s turn to nod. “We are,” she replied.

    There was a moment of silence, which Armsmaster eventually broke. “Might I know the name of the team?” he asked patiently.

    Madison smiled. “The Samaritans,” she said proudly.

    ***

    There would be more, of course. Giving statements to the police could take forever. But even with all of that, even later when talking over the action with their respective fathers, thrashing out what they’d done, what they hadn’t done, what they could have done better, there was no moment finer than when Armsmaster paused. He nodded.

    “A good name,” he said. And then he turned and walked away.

    And that was how it all started.


    End of Part Eight
     
  10. Threadmarks: Part Nine: A Spot of Robbery
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Nine: A Spot of Robbery

    The morning show Brockton Bay AM was in full swing. They were just coming back from an ad break, during which time three shadowy figures had been escorted from the wings while the studio lights were down, and seated on stage. Off to the side, an upright figure resembling a crash test dummy was also wheeled on stage.

    The lights came up again, revealing three costumed teenage girls sitting in the seats. The morning host, teeth glittering in the studio lights, strode on stage, microphone at the ready.

    "And welcome back to the show. I'm Barry Norton, and we have some new and exciting guests with us today. Some may recognise them as the teenage heroes who interrupted the robbery in the Weymouth Mall on Wednesday last. Calling themselves Team Samaritan, these three girls took on a bunch of four villains, all hardened criminals from out of town, and handily defeated them."

    The implication, not quite voiced, was that any Brockton Bay teen hero team could take on twice their number in out-of-town adult villains, and still be home on time and get their homework done. Hometown pride, indeed.

    Emma wanted to frown. We're 'the Samaritans', not 'Team Samaritan', she told herself. But she'd spent enough time in front of cameras to know not to make any move or expression that you didn't want recorded for posterity.

    Beside her, Madison was sitting quietly, hands in her lap; Taylor, on the other side of Madison, was looking around with interest, and surreptitiously trying to spot her father in the audience.

    Norton, in his role as the host of the show, was going on. "We managed to get a camera crew on scene while it was all being wrapped up, and our reporter spoke to Armsmaster, the leader of the Protectorate forces here in Brockton Bay."

    The huge screen at the back of the studio, which up until that point had been showing a view of sunrise over Brockton Bay, as seen from Captain's Hill, dissolved into a picture of the armoured hero himself.

    <><>​

    "Armsmaster," said the reporter urgently. "The capes who took down the villains, are they in the Wards program? What are their names?"

    "They are not," replied Armsmaster briefly. "However, the offer has been made, and they may yet take it up. They call themselves Sparx, Ladybug and Aerodyne."

    "What's your assessment of their heroic debut here?" asked the reporter. "How would you say they went?"

    "They did the job, stopped the villains. No innocents got hurt. Nobody died. I count that as a win. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have important matters to attend to."

    <><>​

    The picture froze, and Barry took up the microphone once more. "And that was Armsmaster, ladies and gentlemen. We all know the man is notoriously careful with his praise, so what he said there is practically a glowing recommendation. Also, we have these testimonies from the people who were actually on site."

    The big screen cleared once more, and the reporter spoke to several people one after the other, the scene flickering from one brief interview to the next. Their voices rang out through the speakers.

    <><>​

    " ... so totally awesome ... "

    " ... I thought I was gonna die, then they showed up ..."

    " ... totally kicked their asses ... "

    " ... I'm not into girls, but they could take me home any day ..."

    " ... we owe them our lives ..."

    " ... that Creeper guy was the worst, and that girl just took him down like a boss ..."

    " ... seriously, they owned them ..."

    " ... do you guys need a sidekick? Because I'd totally do that ..."

    " ... that chick with the hair? She was the bomb ..."

    " ... those bugs were really creepy, but creepy in a good way, if you know what I mean ... "

    <><>​

    The last interview faded off the screen as Barry took up the microphone again. "Creepy in a good way, indeed." He walked over to where the three girls were sitting, and shook their hands, one at a time. "It's good to have you on the show, girls."

    "Thank you," said Emma, shaking his hand firmly. "It's good to be here."

    Madison shook his hand next; she didn't say anything, but she smiled and nodded.

    "Wow," said Taylor when he shook her hand. "This is so cool. How do I know which camera to look at?"

    He smiled and pointed. "You see that little red light? When it's on, the camera is recording. When it's off, it's not."

    "Oh, okay," said Taylor with a wide smile. "Thanks."

    Barry seated himself and then looked over his guests.

    "I guess we'll start with you, Sparx," he began. "How did you settle on your name? And does it end in K-S or with an X?"

    Emma smiled. "Well, originally, Barry, I was going to go with 'Spark', but then I decided on 'Sparx'." As she spoke, her hair extended outward, forming a loose cloud around her head. "And it ends in X, because as we all know, cape names don't have to worry about the English language."

    This generated a laugh from the audience, and Barry indulged himself in a chuckle. "So, your hair, how does it work? What can you do with it?"

    Emma stood up, her hair extending farther. "I'm not going to give you my full capabilities, Barry, because villains watch TV too," she paused for the laugh from the audience, "but here's a little demonstration."

    <><>​

    " – here's a little demonstration."

    A dark-clad figure, the blackness of his costume only relieved by the image of a white snake winding about his body, sat watching the screen. He carefully observed every move, every gesture made by the the girl in the skintight costume and the long coat.

    How very perceptive of you, Sparx, he thought. We do, indeed.

    <><>​

    Her hair shot out in all directions, extending to twenty-five feet before she brought it to a halt. Then she brought the tendrils down, weaving together to form great ropes, which wrapped around Barry and lifted him easily from his seat.

    "Whoa," he said apprehensively. "Don't drop me, now." The audience laughed again.

    "You're in no danger of that," she assured him. "I can lift far more than your weight." Gently, she lowered him to his seat, and the tendrils whipped out of the way. He looked around and patted the seat, as if to reassure himself that he was indeed sitting down again. More laughter from the audience.

    "So, I hear you can also generate electricity from your hair?" he said. "That must be fairly hair-raising for your enemies." A groan from the audience.

    "I can indeed, Barry," she confirmed. "Once again, I'm not going to tell you my exact capability there, but if I may demonstrate?" She gestured at the dummy standing to the side of the stage.

    "Be my guest," he said, with a wave of his hand.

    Sparx whipped her hair forward, lashing out at the dummy, wrapping it up thoroughly. The movement was so sudden, so dramatic, that the audience clapped and cheered. And then lights began to fluouresce through her hair, racing back and forward, before converging on the dummy. There was a loud pop and crackle, and the smell of ozone permeated the air. The dummy's eyes flashed on and off rapidly, and it spoke in a tinny voice. "Error ... electrical overload ... error ... electrical overload ..."

    As the audience laughed and clapped, Sparx withdrew her hair and sat down again, primly crossing her legs.

    Barry clapped along with them. "Well, that was certainly dramatic," he said. "Now, Aerodyne, I understand that you can control air?" He waved his hand in front of his face. "Is that very useful? I mean, air's pretty thin stuff."

    Aerodyne stood up, flexing her fingers. "It is, yes," she said. "But you know the good thing about controlling air? You can find it nearly anywhere." She stepped away from the chair and raised her arms until they were straight out from her sides. Wind sprang up from nowhere, whipping around her, and causing her costume to flare outward in all directions.

    And then she began to rise off the ground, legs straight, toes pointed downward, arms still outstretched. The wind whistled and caught at peoples' clothes, and stray papers blew about while she hung in the air, ten feet above the floor. After several seconds, she settled to the ground, took a step toward the dummy, and brought up her hand in a striking motion, palm out. A ripple of air blasted across the distance between her and the dummy, and it rocked wildly on its base.

    "Whoa, whoa," it bleated in its tinny voice. "I give up, I give up!"

    The audience clapped and cheered again; she bowed to them, then sat down.

    Barry clapped along with the audience. "That was very impressive," he said. "And now, last but not least, we have Ladybug." He nodded to the girl dressed in the red-with-black-spots costume. "I understand you control insects."

    Ladybug nodded. "Yeah. Well, to be more precise, I control bugs."

    "So you're a lady who controls bugs. Ladybug. Got it." Barry nodded, then paused. "So what's the difference?"

    Ladybug smiled. "Spiders are bugs too. Anything without a backbone, and a very simple brain, I can probably control."

    "Ah," said Barry. "So basically, politicians."

    The audience burst out laughing and clapped at his joke.

    Ladybug chuckled as well, then shook her head. "Sorry, Barry. It's got to have some sort of brain before I can control it."

    More clapping, more laughter.

    Barry applauded her riposte, then tilted his head. "No, but seriously, Ladybug, the ability to control bugs doesn't seem too powerful to me. What can one bug do?"

    "If I was going to stick with one bug, not much," said Ladybug. "But I don't." She turned to the audience. "If anyone here is scared of bugs of any sort, be aware that every bug in this building is under my personal control. No-one here is in any danger at all. You have my direct assurance on that."

    She gestured, needlessly but dramatically. From the darkness all around flowed the swarm which she had been stashing there since she entered the building. The majority of flyers carried crawlers, while other crawlers scuttled across the floor and up the legs of the dummy. In seconds, it was covered from head to toe.

    Immediately, it began to thrash and flail its arms uselessly. Its tinny speakers cried out, "Ahh, bugs, get them off me, get them off me!"

    Ladybug gestured again, and the swarm melted off the dummy, leaving it pristine.

    There was a long pause, then clapping and cheering rose once more.

    <><>​

    Vista's comm buzzed with a message. She read it off. "Aww," she complained. "The Director wants to see me. I wanted to watch the rest of this."

    "You'd better go," advised Aegis. "She doesn't like to be kept waiting."

    <><>​

    "Thank you, Ladybug, for that demonstration," said Barry Norton cheerfully. "I know I certainly would not want to be in that poor dummy's place."

    He waited for the applause to die down, then addressed them as a group. "So ... you call yourselves Team Samaritan, correct?"

    "Actually," said Ladybug, "I thought we were going with 'the Samaritans'." She turned to Sparx. "Weren't we?"

    Sparx shrugged. "Apparently we're now Team Samaritan." It's not a bad name.

    Barry nodded and chuckled, now made aware of his error. "Well, whatever you end up using, I guess you're modelling yourselves on the idea of the Good Samaritan, to help out people in need?"

    "That's ... about right," agreed Sparx. "We don't really have a power theme, and so we wanted a team name that said 'we do good things'."

    "I've heard of worse ideas," agreed Barry. "So who's your team leader, anyway?"

    Aerodyne looked at Ladybug, and then they both looked at Sparx.

    "That would have to be Sparx," said Ladybug.

    Sparx shook her head. "You two both come up with awesome plans and ideas," she protested.

    "But you're the one who knows how to deal with people," retorted Aerodyne.

    "She's right," Ladybug agreed. "If it wasn't for you, this team wouldn't be happening."

    Sparx shrugged. "Well, I guess I'm the leader, for whatever that's worth in this team," she said to Barry. "I like to think we're all in it together. I mean, we all depend on each other so much."

    Barry nodded. "I have to say, it's refreshing to see people not trying to grab the top spot in a team."

    Sparx looked at the others. "We've trained together enough to know that no one person can do the job of the whole team."

    "And if you start giving orders without knowing what's going on, and get it wrong," chimed in Ladybug, "everyone suffers."

    "So yeah," Aerodyne concluded, "what we work at is communication, so we're all on the same page. That's how to get the job done."

    <><>​

    Sitting several rows back, Danny Hebert traded discreet fist-bumps with Alan Barnes and Rod Clements. What the girls had just said was the distillation of what Danny and the other two had worked so hard at getting them to understand over the last three months.

    They get it, he told himself. They really get it.

    <><>​

    "You wanted to see me, Director?" asked Vista.

    Emily Piggot nodded. "Come in and close the door," she said.

    Vista entered, as directed. She stood in front of the desk, arms behind her back.

    The Director looked her over. "Are you happy here, Ms Biron?" she asked.

    "Um ... yes?" replied Vista, startled that the question had even been asked.

    "That didn't sound very happy to me," observed Director Piggot. "The way I understand things, you're unhappy because people treat you as a kid, even though you've got more time as a Ward than most. Isn't that true?"

    Vista blinked. "Uh –" How did she know about that? "It's not really important, Director. I'm doing good work here. My personal feelings don't really matter."

    The Director shook her head. "There's more to it than that. As it happens, we have more boys than girls on the team, and you're at an age when you would like someone to talk to about such matters. And the only other girl on the team is Flechette, and she spends most of her off-duty time away from the base."

    Vista's eyes were wide behind her visor. Director Piggot was very much more aware of what went on in the Wards than she'd previously given the woman credit for. I'm going to have to warn Dennis to quit it with the Miss Piggy jokes.

    "Director ...?" she asked. She wants me to do something. This is more than a normal interview. Much more.

    Piggot leaned forward. "You've been watching Brockton Bay AM, with the spot on this new Team Samaritan, correct?" she asked.

    Vista nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

    "What is your opinion of them?"

    Vista blinked. "Well, Armsmaster likes them –"

    Director Piggot cleared her throat. "If I wanted Mr Wallis's opinion of them, I would ask the man myself." She fixed Vista with a firm gaze. "I would like your opinion."

    "Um ... they look pretty cool, actually," said Vista. "I'd like to know where they got their costumes from. That's not homemade stuff. Or if it is, it's really good."

    "Indeed," murmured Director Piggot. "Well, if you want, you can find out for me."

    This was moving too fast for Vista. "I don't –"

    "Ms Biron," said Director Piggot patiently. "I would like you to take a leave of absence from the Wards, and offer your services to Team Samaritan as an official liaison from the Wards. They're all teenage girls, so you will have that in common, and your Wards training should be an asset to them."

    "I ... " said Vista. "Quit the Wards?"

    "I believe I said 'leave of absence," corrected the Director. "More precisely, detached duty. You will continue to be paid your Wards salary, and you will be joining Team Samaritan on a temporary basis only. They are a new team, and there are sure to be teething problems. You will have us to turn to, to ensure that these do not get in the way of the Samaritans being as effective as they can be." She paused. "Also," she added delicately, "if you happen to see any wrongdoing, it would be your duty to report it."

    "So I'm a spy now," said Vista flatly.

    "I believe I said 'liaison'," Director Piggot replied blandly. "You won't be acting against them, unless you find that they are committing crimes. I won't be asking you to find out their secret identities, or even carry a wire. I just want you to join the team and help them to become as effective a team of heroes as they can be."

    Vista looked at her steadily. "Why this team?" she asked. "What's so important about them that you have to put a liaison in their ranks?"

    "Because the young lady known as Sparx bears a striking resemblance to the person who defeated Lung three months ago, and is almost certainly the same one who brought down Shadow Stalker. From the way she's been handling herself of late, she's been getting professional-level training from somewhere. I'd be very interested in finding out where. Also, as you noted, the costumes. They are not home-made, nor are they store-bought."

    Vista paused. The Director had a very good point. "Why me?" she asked. "Why not Flechette? She's closer to their age."

    Piggot nodded, conceding the point, but then answered it anyway. "She's already got an outside relationship going on. I don't want her becoming distracted."

    "Oh," said Vista. "Well ... how long do I have to decide whether I'll do it or not?"

    Director Piggot considered simply making it an order, but then she thought again. "Forty-eight hours," she said.

    Vista grimaced. "I hate leaving the team in the lurch."

    "In the long run," pointed out Piggot, "this will be for the good of the team. And you'll be in a position of greater responsibility, helping coordinate any joint actions."

    Vista brightened. "I guess," she said. "But I still don't like leaving the others behind."

    But she knew she'd do it anyway.

    <><>​

    "Wow," said Taylor. "What's this?"

    The message had come in on the anonymous email account set up for Team Samaritan, and Danny had called Taylor to have a look.

    <><>​

    Management of Weymouth Mall wishes to offer Team Samaritan a one-time reward of fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) for services rendered on Wednesday last.


    Contact management for further details.

    <><>​

    "I contacted them via their public email address," said Danny, "and it's legitimate. They want to reward you for what you did."

    "Wow," said Taylor again. "What do we do?"

    "You accept it, of course," said Danny promptly. "Charging money is one thing. Accepting it is another."

    And so, that afternoon, Team Samaritan jointly accepted a cheque worth fifty thousand dollars from the CEO of the group that owned and managed the Weymouth Mall.

    As he said in a private aside; "I know it sounds like a lot to you kids, but the amount of property damage that could have taken place, not to mention the people who could have been hurt, might have put the cost into the millions, if you hadn't intervened so effectively. Superhero teams cost money, and if you're the age I think you are, you'll be looking at college soon. So take it."

    So they had taken it, and immediately run into a stumbling block.

    <><>​

    "How are we going to bank it?" asked Emma. 'The Weymouth people don't want to make a big noise about it, and if we walk into the bank in costume to open a team account and bank it, it will hit the news big time."

    "And if we walk in out of costume and bank it, there go our secret identities," Taylor pointed out.

    "Maybe one of our dads could bank it for us," suggested Madison. "Emma, your dad's a lawyer. He could say he's representing us."

    "Until someone looks at him, and then at the fact that he's got a red-haired daughter. And then, secret identity – fzzzp!" Emma's voice was unhappy. "How can we bank this?"

    "Ah," said Taylor. "Emma, your dad knows other people who are in cape law, right?"

    Emma nodded. "Yeah, a few," she said. "But what – oh!"

    "Oh, what?" asked Madison.

    "I think Taylor's got it," replied Emma. "Dad talks to one of his lawyer friends. They're bound by client confidentiality. He banks it, Dad pays him for his time. Maybe a couple of hundred, maybe a thousand. And from then on ... we're good."

    "Damn," said Madison. "I think it'll work."

    Taylor grinned, then oofed as Emma and Madison double-hugged her. "You, my dear Ms Hebert, are a genius," said Emma fondly.

    Taylor hugged them back. "All for one, right?"

    "And one for all," they replied.

    <><>​

    "Calle Associates. Quinn Calle speaking."

    "Good morning, Mr Calle. My name is Alan Barnes."

    "Ah, Mr Barnes. I have heard your name before. You attended a symposium on cape law last year, and asked some very cogent questions."

    "Ah. Thank you, Mr Calle. I'm actually calling on a matter to do with capes in general, not specifically cape law."

    Calle raised an eyebrow. "I'm listening, Mr Barnes."

    "I need to purchase your time for one hour, sometime in the next few days."

    "And what would I be doing in that time, Mr Barnes?"

    "Before I answer that question, I need to know if you accept my offer of employment. This involves lawyer-client privilege, you see."

    "You are aware of my rates, Mr Barnes?"

    "I am, Mr Calle."

    "Then you have just hired me. I happen to be free for the next hour. What is it that you need me to do?"

    So Alan Barnes explained about the cheque for fifty thousand, and how it needed to be banked, and how he needed a neutral third party to do it for him.

    It was something new; it was something different. So Quinn Calle agreed to do it. He could stroll down to the Brockton Bay Central Bank in his lunch hour, get it done, and be back in time for his next appointment.

    The cheque arrived by special messenger half an hour later, along with detailed instructions on how the account was to be set up.

    When his lunch hour was due to start, he put the envelope into his briefcase and left the office. It would only be a short walk to the bank.

    <><>​

    Emma nudged Taylor in the ribs. "There he is," she hissed. "He just walked in."

    Taylor tried to look over the heads of the crowd, and gave up; she focused on the bugs she had stashed throughout the bank – I will never go anywhere ever again without a swarm – and their senses.

    The gestalt she picked up gave her a good picture of Quinn Calle, joining the end of the line.

    "Is that him who just joined the line?" asked Madison in an undertone.

    Taylor nodded. "Isn't this so awesome?" she whispered. "Team Samaritan's getting its very own bank account. And I've had some ideas. Our costumes are pretty durable; maybe the PRT will pay us for making spider-silk gear for them too."

    Madison and Emma turned to her with widened eyes. "Sell stuff to the PRT?" gasped Madison. "Cool."

    Quinn Calle was entirely unaware of the three teenage girls huddled and whispering toward the back of the bank; even if he had taken notice of them, he would not have paid more than a second's worth of attention. Depositing a cheque for fifty thousand in the bank for a group of teenage superheroes may sound like menial work, but he was being paid his standard rates for it, and so he would carry out the work he was being paid to do.

    Calle reached the head of the line, and commenced negotiations with the teller regarding the cheque and the details of the account. Soon, a senior bank executive emerged and escorted him into a side-room, where the details were hammered out.

    Taylor listened carefully with the bugs she had in the room, and it sounded like the account was being opened exactly in the manner that was specified. She was not surprised; Quinn Calle had a reputation for meticulous exactitude.

    It did not take long before Calle and the executive rose and shook hands; Calle exited the room and began to make his way to the doors.

    <><>​

    And then three gigantic monsters, shaped vaguely like dogs, but the size of horses, burst out of a door to the back of the bank. Barking and growling, sounding like malfunctioning rock crushers, they barrelled through the lobby. People screamed and fell away from them. Taylor could swear they were growing as she watched them.

    She was already reaching into her bag for the helmet to her costume – there was no way she could get the whole thing on in time – when darkness rolled through the room, and all the lights went out.

    Emma was used to being in darkness; she pulled her mask up over her face and let her hair tendrils spread out close to the ground, giving her a good picture of what was around her.

    Taylor's swarm started spilling out of the cracks and crevices in which she had stashed them, forming a living cloak around her, and incidentally hiding her clothes. She took the time to cover the security cameras with bugs; if anything noteworthy happened, she would uncover them, but she did not want any more clues to her identity uncovered than absolutely possible. Other bugs spread out through the room, giving her a good map of the area.

    Madison reached into her bag and pulled out the softer-than-soft spider-silk mask that Taylor's spiders had crafted for her. She pulled it over her face in a practised movement.

    While the darkness had an almost palpable feel to it, she could still make air move through it, and feel the obstacles that the air hit as tiny impacts.

    <><>​

    Following the dogs came a loud revving engine noise; Taylor's bugs worked out a rough humanoid shape, metallic, with wheels down near the feet. Some sort of wheeled power armour. But not airtight ... or bug-tight.

    The darkness had a boundary; outside it, people entered the lobby from the rear door. One was a young man in motorcycle leathers and helmet, leaking darkness. Another, a girl in a skintight black and purple costume. A third; male, with black curly hair, with a ren-faire style costume, carrying a golden sceptre. And the fourth was a stocky girl with auburn hair and a dog-face mask. The initial person to enter the lobby was over near the doors, revving his engine.

    The descriptions were vaguely familiar. Mr Barnes had made them all study the parahuman criminal databases, so they'd know what they faced, if they came across a known villain.

    The Undersiders were robbing the bank.

    The bank that had just accepted their cheque.

    Hell, no.

    That was not going to fly.


    End of Part Nine
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2015
  11. Threadmarks: Part Ten: Friendly Enemies
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger


    Part Ten: Friendly Enemies


    We need earpiece radios, thought Taylor. It would make this so much easier.

    But they didn’t have them, and that was that.

    Fortunately, they had other methods of communication. Forcing limitations on them, via the ‘three wise monkeys’ and other training techniques, had made the girls adept at thinking outside the box, working out new ways to get around their problems.

    Ladybug reached out, located a strand of Sparx’s hair. She tugged on it twice, then twice more. Group conference.

    Tendrils snaked out to Aerodyne and Ladybug, split into the individual hairs, moved to form a tightly-spaced grid pattern in front of each of them. Ladybug sensed hers with her bugs; Aerodyne, with her fingertips and her air sense.

    Bugs landed on each grid pattern, approximating locations of hostages, their own locations, and the villains walking through the lobby.

    Almost simultaneously, Sparx and Aerodyne formed the hand-gesture for interrogative; who? Or sometimes, what?

    Bugs tapped out Morse code – simple, easy to learn. The girls had been drilled in it. U-S-I-D. They got it. The Undersiders.

    Using hand gestures refined by months of practice, hampered only a little by the encompassing darkness, they worked out the plan.

    Step 1: Get the hostages clear.

    Step 2: Disable and subdue. Divide and conquer.


    There weren’t so many words involved, but by the time the Undersiders had assembled at the front of the bank, the plan was complete. They each knew what they had to do.

    So long as there were no nasty surprises. Someone had always brought in a nasty surprise. It kept them from becoming complacent.

    They were ready. The bugs were ready.

    ***

    Grue reached the front of the lobby and turned to face the cloud of blackness that covered the people who had been in the bank when they entered. The people they had gathered during their entry phase were with this crowd; cowed, huddling with the rest.

    "Ladies and gentlemen!" he called out, loudly enough to be heard over the muffling effect of his darkness. "This is just a bank robbery! We are not here to hurt you! If you do nothing stupid, you won't get hurt! We're just here to take the money and go!"

    His voice was booming, echoing. Mysterious and frightening, Lisa had told him. Intimidating. Just the sort of thing to frighten people into cooperating.

    Chariot stood near the main doors, revving his engine. Reminding people he was there. Bitch stood near him, her dogs by her. She was making them larger, more able to carry weight. She didn't like Chariot, had not approved of Lisa's bringing him into the team. But he was able to provide his own transport, and at a pinch for one other member of the team. Plus, they sorely needed a Tinker.

    Regent stood near Grue, flipping his sceptre up and catching it again. Showing off for an audience who could not see him.

    Lisa was heading for the vault. He knew her capabilities; she could get that door open. And then, load the proceeds on to her dogs, and they'd be home free.

    She paused, frowning, just as he was distracted by a buzzing inside his helmet. And another. Bugs were getting into his helmet, crawling into his eyes and nose and mouth and ears. He blinked frantically, shook his head. They refused to be dislodged.

    "Something's wrong," said Tattletale, and looked at Grue as he shook his head again. Under her mask, her face paled. "Oh Christ," she said. "We've got a cape in the bank. Maybe more than one."

    "Shit!". He wrenched his helmet off, covering his face with darkness, and furiously rubbed his eyes and nose free of bugs. And then he saw them.

    ***

    As soon as she received the double-tap on her wrist from Ladybug's bug - Grue's distracted - Aerodyne stepped out from behind concealment, along with the other two. Stepping over and around the prone and sitting hostages, her air-sense painting her a basic picture of where they were, she put her hand out before her and concentrated.

    This was the first conscious use of her powers that she had managed, and she had practised assiduously with it. A semi-circular barrier sprang up between the hostages and the Undersiders; if the villains had guns, or unrecorded ranged attacks, or if Bitch's dogs chose to attack, this wall would afford them some level of protection.

    However, she would be hard put to do anything else with her powers right now; this was going to take all of her concentration.

    At the same time, Sparx sent tendrils out to every person on their side of the barrier; bewildered people felt themselves being urged to their feet, guided back toward the open doorway leading into the rear offices. An unseen grasp gently lifted, steadied, directed them. It seemed to know what it was doing; they went with it.

    And then the darkness on their side of the barrier began to fade; it seemed that Grue needed a direct connection to promulgate his miasma, and Aerodyne's wall had cut off that direct connection. Given back their sight, people moved faster, more surely.

    ***

    A freckled brunette with frizzy hair was among them. She had initially been worried for her well-being, but she recognised the gesture for what it was. Getting the civilians out of the way before the fight starts. I have to admire that.

    ***

    Grue rubbed his eyes and mouth free of bugs, looked toward the hostages, at where they were moving toward the rear exit. And then he saw the three capes. Standing at the forefront of the crowd, wearing civilian clothes but masked up, one holding her hand out, palm forward, fingers spread. As if warding something off.

    The second one he recognised at once, from dramatic photos taken at the Weymouth Mall. Long coat, body-hugging costume, red hair spreading in all directions like the tentacles of a nightmarish octopus. That has to be Sparx. And the third one, arms crossed, crawling with bugs, except her helmet, shaped and coloured to resemble a ladybug.

    He and Tattletale spoke at the same time; "It's Team Samaritan!"

    ***

    At that moment, the spiders fell on Tattletale. She went to flail, then stopped herself from moving with an effort. Her power told her exactly what sort of spiders they were - black widows - and her chances of survival if they all bit her at once - not good.

    Just as she froze, Chariot's engine cut out.

    ***

    Behind her visor, Ladybug grinned. She'd been about to cover Grue's faceplate with bugs, but then her questing insects had located the vents around the edges of his visor. And bugs inside a helmet are far more problematic than those same bugs outside a helmet.

    Her reading on the Undersiders had given her the understanding that Tattletale was a Thinker; perhaps a clairvoyant, perhaps a prescient. Maybe a mind-reader, though no-one wanted to say 'telepath', given the association with the Simurgh. She decided to try the black widows, give her a verbal warning if she didn't figure it out. But she figured it out, and froze. Good.

    And Chariot ... Chariot was easy. A swarm of bugs into the air intake of his revving engine - why would anyone use an air-breathing engine anyway? - choked it out, stalling it.

    ***

    Grue let the darkness drop; it didn't seem to be hampering the members of Team Samaritan anyway. He was surprised and dismayed when the darkness ran out altogether at a delineated boundary between himself and the three heroes.

    No wonder they were acting like they could see - they can.

    "Undersiders," snapped Sparx, "I'd advise you to surrender."

    Regent made a negligent gesture, and Aerodyne fell to her knees. Her hand dropped, and a moment later, so did the shield.

    Chariot swore as he tried to restart his engine.

    Bitch lifted her hand to her mouth, preparing to give her dogs a whistled command, but fell to her knees, coughing and choking, as a bug flew down her throat.

    ***

    Still hacking and coughing, Bitch made a hand motion, and her dogs bounded forward, growling and slavering. Aerodyne, still on her knees, lifted her hands again and met them with screaming blasts of air. They were smashed backward, the miniature tornadoes driving them off their feet. Aerodyne’s lips were compressed, her expression determined.

    Regent went to use his power on Aerodyne again, but a tendril of red hair wrapped around his wrist. In the next instant, he found out what it was like to be jabbed with his own sceptre; the charge coursed through him and he dropped to the ground, twitching feebly.

    Grue and Bitch found themselves surrounded by swirling swarms of bugs, making vision difficult and speech impossible. Aerodyne hit the dogs with blast after blast of air, penning them up in the corner, as she climbed to her feet.

    “You okay?’ asked Ladybug, giving her a hand.

    “I’m fine,” Aerodyne replied, sending another tornado blast downrange. “Caught me by surprise, is all.”

    “One more time!” shouted Sparx over the thunderous sounds of the barking dogs, and the howl of Aerodyne’s tornado blasts. “Surrender, now, before anyone gets hurt!”

    “I’ll do you a deal!” shouted Tattletale back. “They walk, I give myself up!”

    Sparx moved toward Tattletale and snaked tendrils around her; Ladybug moved the spiders off her body as the tendrils took hold. Leaning close to Tattletale, Sparx said, “I don’t think you’re in a very good bargaining position, but I’ll give you props for trying.”

    At that moment, Chariot’s engine burst into life again, spewing black smoke and charred insect bodies.

    Tattletale looked Sparx in the eye. “I want to give myself up,” she said quietly. “As it is, I know one thing that will screw your powers, and severely hamper the other two.” She glanced meaningfully at the ceiling sprinklers. “That’ll give us a really good chance for a fighting withdrawal. Or, I give myself up, you let the rest of them walk – no-one got hurt, nothing was stolen – and you keep me as your prisoner. You don’t hand me over to the authorities. Deal?”

    Sparx frowned. “Why do you want to give yourself up?” she asked. “What’s the catch?”

    Tattletale sighed. “Too long to explain now. Deal, yes or no?”

    Sparx had to make the decision now. Tattletale apparently knew of her weakness to water, and a heavy spray of water would certainly screw with the bugs, and would cause problems with Aerodyne’s air powers, but possibly not as much as Tattletale thought.

    What the hell, she thought. See what she’s got in mind.

    “Okay, done,” she said out loud. “Everyone, stand down. Undersiders, you’re free to go. Tattletale, you stay here with us.”

    Aerodyne and Ladybug immediately backed off to stand near Sparx. Ladybug pulled all the bugs off of Bitch and Grue.

    “Wait just a second!” shouted Grue. “Tattletale -!”

    “It’s the only way,” Tattletale told him. “Go. Go now. There’ll be more capes along in a moment.”

    Bitch looked as though she was going to order her dogs to attack, but Tattletale put up a hand. “No,” she said clearly. “Just go. I’ll be fine.”

    Bitch hesitated.

    “Go!” shouted Tattletale, as forcefully as she could.

    The Undersiders left, Grue pausing in the doorway and looking back one more time before vanishing from sight. Chariot’s engine noise dopplered into the distance, then cut out as the bank doors slid shut.

    “Okay,” said Sparx, “suppose you start making sense. Why should we not hand you over to the cops, or to the Protectorate?”

    “Well,” said Tattletale, “for one thing, it would be hard for me to join the team if you did that.”

    All three of the Samaritans turned to stare at her.

    “One more time,” said Ladybug.

    Tattletale sighed. “Okay, medium long version. I was coerced into joining the Undersiders. Not by them – they’re my friends and I like them. By a man called Coil. He’s had me under threat of death if I ever tried to leave. But this is my ticket out. I get captured by heroes, it’s obviously not my doing. Also ...”

    “Also ...?” prompted Aerodyne.

    “Also, the Wards have arrived,” said Tattletale. “You might want to ask them in.”

    ***

    The first cape into the bank was wearing Clockblocker’s costume, but he identified himself as Aegis. He was followed by Gallant, and the rest of the Brockton Bay Wards. Also among their number was a tall, beautiful blonde in a white costume.

    “Amy!” she called. “Amy!”

    The hostages were venturing forth from the rear offices of the bank now, and the freckled brunette flung herself into the blonde’s arms.

    “Amy, thank god you’re all right,” said the blonde, who Sparx belatedly recognised as the New Wave hero Glory Girl.

    Has she joined the Wards? wondered Sparx.

    “I’m fine,” said the girl called Amy.

    “Wait a minute,” muttered Ladybug. “Isn’t that Glory Girl’s sister Panacea?”

    Aerodyne stared and then nodded. “Ah, of course, duh.”

    Aegis approached the three girls of Team Samaritan. “Well done,” he said. “I see you captured Tattletale. Any casualties?”

    “Their pride, I guess,” said Ladybug. “Nothing stolen, in any case.”

    Aegis nodded. “Very well done, then.” He looked them over. “Ah, I’m guessing you were in the bank at the time.”

    Sparx grinned. “No, you think?” She nodded to her own costume. “Skin-tight, for the win.”

    “So I see,” said Aegis. “Well, you have my congratulations. We’ll take Tattletale off your hands now.” He stepped forward, reaching for the bound villain.

    There was a frozen moment. Tattletale looked at Sparx, and Sparx looked back at her.

    “Ah, no, you won’t,” said Sparx. “Sorry.” The mass of hair tendrils holding Tattletale moved her out of Aegis’ reach.

    Aegis stopped, and looked at her. “I ... beg your pardon?” he asked.

    “She gave herself up to us,” explained Sparx firmly. “Not you. Not the police. Us. Team Samaritan.” She looked at Tattletale. “Isn’t that how you put it?”

    Tattletale nodded. “That’s exactly how I put it.” She looked Aegis in the eye. “I’ve given myself up specifically to Team Samaritan’s custody. I’m sure they can prevent me from committing any more crimes.”

    Aegis looked confused. “But you can’t do that!”

    “Do what?” asked Gallant, strolling up with Glory Girl on his arm, and Amy/Panacea on her other arm. Also approaching was Vista.

    “They took Tattletale prisoner, and now they say they’re keeping her. And she’s agreeing to this!” Aegis expostulated.

    “No, actually, it was her idea to give herself up to us, and we’re agreeing to it,” Sparx corrected.

    Gallant frowned. “I’m sure that’s against the law somehow,” he said thoughtfully.

    “Name the law,” challenged Sparx. Ladybug grinned to herself. Alan Barnes had been studying cape law ever since his daughter had become a cape herself. Emma had a fair grounding in it herself.

    “Unlawful custody?” guessed Aegis.

    “Only works if she’s unwilling. And she chose to enter our custody,” Sparx pointed out. “Try again.”

    “Harbouring a fugitive?” hazarded Gallant.

    Sparx shook her head. “You know we’ve got her. We’re not going to be letting her go. And technically, she didn’t commit a crime today.”

    “That can’t be right,” Aegis declared. “She came here with the Undersiders to commit a bank robbery.”

    “Which was never actually committed,” pointed out Tattletale cheerfully. “The only thing you can get me on today is associating with known criminals.”

    “Wait, wait,” said Vista, pushing forward. “I have a solution to all this.”

    Aegis and Gallant looked at her somewhat askance. Sparx raised an eyebrow. “Vista, right? What’s your solution?”

    “Well, Director Piggot has authorised me to offer my services as your liaison with the Wards,” said Vista cheerfully. “If you accept me in that capacity, I can officially keep an eye on Tattletale for the Wards, until all this is worked out.”

    There was silence for a long moment, then Sparx said thoughtfully, “Liaison? How does this work? And why do we even have a liaison?”

    Vista grinned. “I join your team, work alongside you, and we learn from each other. And when the Samaritans and the Wards work together, I’ll be the go-between.” She paused. “And as for the why, well, you guys took down Lung, even before you were a team. Since then, you’ve gone from strength to strength. My guess? Director Piggot wants to know what you’re doing right, and how to apply it to Wards training.”

    “New Wave never got a liaison,” observed Glory Girl.

    ***

    Amy watched, and her thoughts raced. She tried to think back to the last time she'd ever felt so ... together ... with New Wave, as Team Samaritan seemed to be with each other. No backbiting, no subtle jockeying for dominance. She couldn't think of one.

    Nor could she think of a time when she wasn't attempting to gain approval from someone who she knew, deep down, was never going to give it.

    Carol Dallon will never be my mother. Will never accept me as her daughter.

    I want to belong. Somewhere.


    ***

    “That’s because New Wave already has adults in it,” Vista pointed out with a grin. “Team Samaritan is all teenagers. Having me as a liaison gives you a line to legal representation or even transport, if you need it.”

    Aerodyne and Ladybug looked at each other, then at Sparx. “Well, when you put it that way ...” said Sparx.

    She smiled sweetly at Aegis. “Well, that sounds reasonable to me. How about to you?”

    Aegis shook his head. “There’s a con going on here somewhere. And you do realise we could just take her from you.”

    “What,” said Tattletale, “you’d attack the team that took down Lung, saved the Weymouth Mall, and impressed the Director so much that she assigned an official PRT liaison to them?”

    Gallant looked at Aegis. “I think this is above our pay grade,” he said.

    “Well,” said Sparx, “we still need to discuss some matters with Tattletale. So while you two kick this upstairs, we can go and chat with her about ... stuff.”

    “Stuff?” asked Aegis.

    “Stuff,” repeated Ladybug firmly.

    Aegis sighed, shook his head, then finally nodded. “Just ... don’t go anywhere,” he said finally. “Don’t go letting her go, either.”

    “Hell, no,” said Aerodyne, unexpectedly. “She’s our first supervillain. We want to collect the set.”

    ***

    Sparx and Ladybug were still giggling when they got Tattletale to a set of chairs on the far side of the bank. Vista stood off a little way, watching, but out of earshot.

    “I can’t believe you said that,” Ladybug chuckled. “’Collect the set’, indeed.”

    “Sorry,” grinned Aerodyne, “it just slipped out.”

    Sparx cleared her throat and forced a smile off her face. “Okay,” she said to Tattletale. “Our first problem is security. You’re a supervillain. How are we supposed to protect our secret identities if you join the team?”

    Tattletale grinned a very vulpine grin. “It’s a non-issue. Your name is Emma Barnes. Ladybug here would be ... Taylor Hebert. And I don’t know Aerodyne’s name, but give me ten minutes online, and I think I could put a name to that face.”

    She looked around the circle of staring faces. “What?” she said. “I put together information. It’s what I do.” They continued staring. “It’s my power,” she explained. “If I get even the slightest hint toward something, I can generally unravel the whole thing.”

    “Ah,” said Emma. “Right. That actually kind of makes sense.”

    “Well, as Tattletale says, security is a non-issue,” said Taylor with a shrug. “So. Why do you even want to join our team? What’s in it for you?”

    Tattletale looked at them seriously. “Well, for starters, just to prove how serious I am, my name’s Lisa Wilbourn.” She turned away from the other people in the bank, reached up, and removed her mask for just a moment, giving them a good look at her face.

    “Oh,” said Emma. “Oh. Wow. Did you just ... unmask to us?”

    Lisa nodded. “I did. I want you to be able to trust me.”

    “You were saying about why you want to join our team,” Taylor said quietly. “You still haven’t made that bit clear.”

    “Well, you know that guy I told you about?” asked Lisa. “The supervillain Coil?”

    They nodded.

    “Well, he told me to find out as much information about you three as I could,” she explained. “I’m getting the very strong vibe that he’s worried about you.”

    There was silence for a moment.

    “Is ... that why you’re joining the team?” asked Madison faintly. “To get information on us? Because really, telling us about it sort of defeats the purpose.”

    “Or is it just to get protection from him?” asked Taylor. “Because if you want that, you’d probably be better off letting the Wards arrest you.”

    Lisa shook her head. “No,” she said. “While he’s alive and free, he’s a danger to my life.” She looked at each of them in turn. “I want to take him down. And you can help me do it.”


    End of Part Ten
     
  12. Threadmarks: Part Eleven: Panacea Interlude
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Eleven: Panacea Interlude


    "You know something, Vicky?" said Amy Dallon, as she leaned back against the wall, painting her sister's toenails.

    "What's that, Ames?" asked her sister lazily, stretching out on the bed and lifting one foot to admire Amy's handiwork.

    "I think Vista has the right idea," declared Amy.

    Vicky lifted herself up on her elbows and eyed Amy. "What do you mean, the right idea?"

    "I mean," said Amy, warming to her topic, "that she's going from youngest member of a large team to having a certain position of authority and respect in a smaller team.". She paused, seeming to think about what she had just said.

    Vicky frowned. "You're not saying ..."

    Amy nodded. "I want to join Team Samaritan as a liaison from New Wave."

    "What? No!" protested Vicky. "You can't join another team! You're a part of New Wave! We need you. I need you."

    Oh Vicky, thought Amy sadly, if only you needed me as much as I need you.

    Out loud, she said firmly, "Barely. Just barely. You're the only one in this family who treats me like family at all. I mean, Aunt Sarah and her family are nice to me but ..."

    Stung, Vicky retorted hotly. "Mom and Dad are nice to you! They treat you like family!"

    "Do they?" asked Amy. "Really? Dad's never really there, even when he is there, and Mom ...". She trailed off. "Maybe I'd better shut up now."

    "No," said Vicky. "I want to hear this. What about Mom?"

    "Okay," said Amy, "I want you to think back. We've been sisters for ten tears now, right?"

    "Ever since Mom and Dad adopted you, yeah," agreed Victoria.

    "And we've gotten in trouble for doing the wrong thing sometimes, yes?"

    "Well, yeah," confirmed Vicky.

    "Okay," said Amy. "In all that time, have you ever been punished as badly as I have, for doing exactly the same thing? Or have I ever been praised and rewarded as much as you have, for doing the right thing?"

    "Oh, sure," said Vicky promptly. "I mean, just for instance, there was the time ..." She trailed off. "No wait, there was that time ...". She paused again. "You got that school award that time?" she hazarded.

    "Yes," said Amy crisply. "You got an award as well. You came third in your year, I came first in mine. I got a 'well-done' from Dad; you got a new wrist-watch from Mom. Both the awards went on the fridge. Yours stayed there for a month. I found mine in the trash three days later."

    Vicky stared at her. "Mom said you took yours down," she said. "I saw it on the wall in your room."

    Amy nodded. "Yes," she said. "I put it there after I rescued it from the trash."

    Vicky shook her head. "I can't believe this."

    "Believe it or not, Vicky," said Amy. "I don't care any more. I just want to belong somewhere that I get a fair deal.". Where I don't have to try every day to meet impossible standards, just to get a single word of praise.

    Vicky sat up suddenly, pulling her feet from Amy's grasp. "I got a great idea," she said, and hugged her sister. "We'll go do it together."

    "Wait, what?" asked Amy, startled. "But you can't leave New Wave. You're the one who belongs here."

    "If you can do it," declared Vicky, "then I can do it.". She looked Amy in the eye. "Unless you're just doing it to get away from me ...?"

    "No, no, no," protested Amy. "It'll be great to have you along. It's just ... " she paused.

    "Just ...?" prompted Vicky.

    "Mom's gonna blame me for you going. Just watch."

    Vicky shook her head confidently. "Never happen."

    "Maybe I should wait till later?" ventured Amy.

    Vicky shook her head. "There's that big case she's working. She's got court all day tomorrow. It's now or never."

    ***

    Carol and Mark Dallon were watching TV in the lounge; or rather, the TV was on while Mark read the paper and Carol caught up with some paperwork. Amy entered the lounge with Vicky following behind.

    "Mom, Dad," said Amy nervously. "You know that bank robbery today that Team Samaritan stopped?"

    They both looked up; Mark gave her a look of vague geniality. "I do indeed, Amy girl," he said. "For a new team, they seem to know their business."

    "Yeah well, um ..." said Amy. "Vista from the Wards has joined them as a liaison. I was thinking ... I could join them as a liaison from New Wave."

    There was silence for a moment, then Mark said carefully, "That would entail a lot of responsibility, Amy girl."

    "I can handle it, Dad," Amy assured him. "Vista's only twelve or thirteen, and she's a liaison. And you've taught me to handle responsibility, with every person that I've healed, right?"

    "I think it's a very good idea," said Carol warmly. "It will let you get out in the world and see how other teams operate. Don't you think so, Mark?"

    Mark nodded at his wife's words. "Of course, dear."

    Carol smiled. "It's settled then. We can get in touch with them and make the arrangements tomorrow.”

    “Uh – Mom?” said Vicky. “I’m going too.”

    Carol stared at her. “Don’t be ridiculous. Amy is the only one who needs to go.”. She bent her head back to the paperwork; the opposing counsel was a tricky bastard, and she was having to pull out all the stops on this one ...

    Vicky shook her head. “No, Mom. She needs me to look after her. I’m her sister.”

    “And I’m your mother, and I’m forbidding you to leave this team!” snapped Carol. Couldn't Victoria see she didn't need this right now?

    “Mom, I’m sixteen, the same as Amy,” said Victoria. “If she can go, I can go. And I want to go with Amy.”

    Carol turned to Amy. “This is your idea, isn’t it?” she snapped. “You did this, just to break up this family.”

    “Mom!” said Vicky, shocked. Amy was right. “It’s my idea to go with her!”

    “You might think it’s your idea,” said Carol tightly. "That's what she wants you to think."

    "She told me I should't do it!" protested Vicky. "She told me my place was in New Wave!"

    Carol waved a hand dismissively. "Reverse psychology. It's an old trick. All the best villains use it."

    "Amy's not a villain!" shouted Vicky. Amy felt the pressure in her head, the familiar feeling of awe. Vicky's aura was active.

    "She may as well be!" Carol shot back, just as loudly.

    “What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Vicky.

    "It means that she's just like her father! Just as persuasive, and just as manipulative!"

    "So who's her father, then?" retorted Vicky. Her tone was derisive, dismissing.

    “Marquis!" snapped Carol, a triumphant look in her eye. "Now do you see why she's so dangerous?"

    Amy stopped, shocked. “My father is … Marquis?” she said. “Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”

    Mark sat up in his chair. “Because we didn’t know if you were ready to know the truth,” he said apologetically.

    “You mean Mom wanted to keep it from me so I wouldn’t burst out and go all supervillainy on you,” said Amy bitterly.

    Mark half-shrugged in agreement. “I wouldn’t have put it quite like that …” he said, but his tone was regretful.

    “Mark!” gasped Carol.

    Vicky started from the room; at a gesture from her, Amy followed.

    “And where do you think you’re going?” Carol called to them. “This discussion is not over!”

    “Yes it is, and we’re going to start packing,” called back Vicky. “I’m getting Amy out of here tonight.”

    “But where will you stay?” Carol asked.

    ***

    Sarah Pelham opened the door after the fourth or fifth knock.

    “Amy? Victoria?” she said. “What are you two doing here at this time of night?”

    “Moving out,” said Vicky with a grin. “Can we steal a bed for the night?”

    Sarah looked perceptively at the girls; Vicky looked positively cheerful, while Amy looked careworn and drawn. “Come on in,” she said. “I’m sure we can work something out.”

    As they followed her into the house, Amy whispered to Vicky, “I still think you shouldn’t have left.”

    “And leave you out here on your own?” Vicky replied. “Not a chance.”

    Amy couldn’t find any more words. She just hugged her sister. Vicky hugged her back.

    At least for the moment, they were together. And that was a great comfort to Amy.


    End of Part Eleven
     
  13. Threadmarks: Part Twelve: She Followed Us Home, Can We Keep Her?
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Twelve: She Followed Us Home, Can We Keep Her?


    “I want to take him down. And you can help me do it.”

    Madison and Taylor looked at each other, somewhat startled. Then they looked at Emma.

    “I think ...” said Emma, after a moment, “that this is like what Gallant said to Aegis. This is above our pay grade.” She looked toward Vista. “I think it’s time we called in our liaison.”

    “Um ... wait a second,” said Lisa. “I’m fairly certain he’s got the PRT infiltrated –“

    But it was too late; Emma had beckoned Vista over.

    “What’s up?” said Vista. “How can I help?”

    Emma held up a hand and looked at Lisa. “You’re sure?”

    Lisa nodded. “Reasonably.”

    “The Wards? The Protectorate?” pressed Emma.

    Lisa shook her head. “... can’t see how,” she admitted.

    “Okay,” said Emma. She turned to Vista. “This is between us, you and the Protectorate, and that’s it,” she said. “Can we keep it that way?”

    Vista frowned. “Any reports I make have to go to Director Piggot,” she said. “She’ll want to know if anything goes pear-shaped. And this qualifies.”

    Emma looked again to Lisa. “Director Piggot?”

    Lisa took a breath, shook her head. “Can’t see it,” she said.

    “Okay,” said Emma. “So this is the deal. Got your liaison hat on?”

    Vista nodded. “Ready to liaise ... is that the right word?”

    “Something like that,” agreed Taylor.

    “Tattletale here gave up voluntarily, so she could help us take down the guy who forced her to join the Undersiders, more or less at gunpoint,” said Emma quietly.

    “No ‘more or less’ about it,” Lisa stated. “I literally had guns pointed at me.”

    Vista’s eyes widened behind her visor. “Christ,” she muttered, then seemed to gather herself. “Go on.”

    “Now, this next bit needs to stay between you, the Protectorate and Director Piggot. No-one else in the PRT,” said Emma. “Got it?”

    “Got it,” said Vista.

    “Okay. His name is Coil. He’s a supervillain. And Tattletale says that he’s a danger to her life while he’s alive and free. And," she repeated, "she wants to help us take him down.” She paused. Full disclosure if we want her on side. “ ... and she wants to join Team Samaritan to do it.”

    “And why does this need to stay under wraps?” asked Vista. “Except that joining-the-team thing. That’s just weird.”

    “Because,” said Madison, “she also says that he’s got men in the PRT.”

    Vista’s mouth joined her eyes in opening wide. “You have to be kidding me,” she said, staring at Lisa.

    “Well, she did give herself up to us,” pointed out Taylor. “And while she did say that Coil put her on to us to find out all she could, she’s already shown she knows more about us than we’re comfortable with.”

    “There’s one other thing,” said Lisa unexpectedly. “This bank job was a feint. A front. It’s to cover something else up. Draw attention.”

    Four pairs of eyes swung to stare at her. She shrugged. “Hey, I call them as I see them,” she protested. “This job was never gonna get a big score. I doubt we would have pulled a hundred K out of here. Nothing like the casino job.”

    "So you were ... ordered ... to rob a bank?" said Vista. "This bank, specifically?"

    Lisa shook her head. "Just some big, flashy crime in this area of town. But 'big, flashy crime' basically says 'bank robbery' to me. So I made my estimates, figured to hit at the right time and place so the Wards wouldn't be able to get here in enough force to cause us a problem."

    She looked at the assembled Wards, as well as Glory Girl standing next to Panacea, and grimaced. "I may have been a little out in my calculations."

    "Glory Girl called us in," Vista said unexpectedly. "She saw it going down, went to the roof, made the call."

    "To Gallant, I'm guessing," commented Lisa. Vista glanced quickly at her, and she grinned suddenly. "Oh-ho. I see."

    "See what?" protested Vista, going pink.

    Tattletale just grinned.

    "Look," said Emma. "We're getting off track here. You didn't expect the Wards to show up in force, and you didn't expect us here at all. That's fairly obvious."

    "Yeah, no, you came totally out of left field," agreed Lisa. "You've trained for unexpected situations, that's clear. You were in the bank on other business, we showed, you masked up, formed a battle plan in pitch darkness without shouting - I'd like to see how you did that, by the way -"

    "We could have had earpiece radios," said Taylor.

    Lisa grinned and shook her head. "Bullshit. Radios don't work in Grue's field.". She paused, and went on. "- formed your plan, got the hostages out of the way, and took us down, hard.". She looked at the three Samaritans with respect. "Whoever trained you did their job well."

    Emma kept her expression bland, hoped the others would do the same. Lisa suddenly chuckled. "Relax, I'm not prying for information; just putting my cards on the table."

    "If this is a card game," asked Madison, "why does it feel like you've already peeked at our hands?"

    "Hey," grinned Lisa. "It's what I do."

    ***

    The buzz sounded in his earpiece, and he hit the chin-switch in his helmet. "You've got Armsmaster.". Almost on autopilot, he leaned his massive motorbike around a corner, then powered into the straightaway.

    "This is Aegis,". The leader of the Wards sounded ... rattled. Not under combat stress, but something was giving him a problem.

    Armsmaster frowned. "What is it? Reinforcements will be with you shortly."

    "Oh, we don't need reinforcements." Aegis assured him. "The bank situation's been resolved. We've got a problem with the aftermath.'

    "You were given specific orders not to go in!" snapped Armsmaster.

    "We didn't," protested Aegis. "There were other capes on site inside the bank. Team Samaritan. They dealt with it. No civilian casualties. One perp captured; Tattletale, of the Undersiders."

    He felt the tension ease inside his chest. Team Samaritan was a group of relative newcomers, but they knew what they were doing; the Weymouth Mall was proof of that. It could have been a lot worse.

    And they captured one of the Undersiders. That's more than we've managed to do, so far.


    "So, I'm waiting for the problem," he prompted.

    "They don't want to turn her over to us."

    He applied brakes, slowed the bike to a stop. This was a conversation that would require his full attention. " ... say that again?" he said carefully.

    "Sir, Team Samaritan broke up the bank robbery and captured Tattletale, but they don't want to hand her over."

    He sighed. I don't need this. The Mayor's niece has been kidnapped, and they need me on site there. "Explain to them," he said with as much patience as he could muster, "that as Wards, you are duly appointed officers of the law and -"

    "Sir, we tried," Aegis interrupted, "but the redhead, Sparx, seems to know a bit about cape law, and she's contesting our claim. Plus, Vista says she's been appointed as a liaison to the team by the Director, and she's siding with them."

    "I presume you have considered the option of simply taking her by force," he said next.

    "Considered and rejected, sir," Aegis responded. "They took down the Undersiders without breaking a sweat, and I really don't want to find out who can win in a straight brawl between us. In addition, they just rescued a couple dozen hostages, plus Panacea of New Wave, so Glory Girl might just take their side. No matter how it turns out, sir, it would be astonishingly bad PR for us."

    "Noted," replied Armsmaster. The boy had apparently been paying attention in Glenn's lectures. At least this meant that he wasn't exacerbating the situation. Coming to a decision, he began to turn the bike around. "I'll be at your location in five minutes. Do not allow them to leave, or to release Tattletale."

    "Roger that, sir," replied Aegis, sounding grateful to have some level of guidance in what was admittedly a rather unusual situation. "They don't leave, and nor does she."

    His reading on the subject suggested that now was the time to inject a little morale booster. "You did the right thing by calling me in. Armsmaster, out."

    As he powered his bike up to speed again, he called up the meagre files on Team Samaritan, or the Samaritans, whichever they were calling themselves. He had written most of them, and no-one had added much of substance.

    I'll call in Hannah to respond to the kidnapping, he decided. She's better with people than I am, anyway,

    ***

    Aegis walked over to the huddle that had formed with Team Samaritan, Tattletale and Vista. He cleared his throat to make sure they all knew he was there, then moved closer.

    “Armsmaster is on the way,” he stated. “He’ll get this sorted out. In the meantime, we have orders to not allow Team Samaritan to either leave with Tattletale or release her. Is that understood?”

    Sparx nodded. “We’ll wait for him,” she said. “There’s stuff we need to talk to him about.”

    “Good,” said Aegis, a little relieved. It was as he had said to Armsmaster; Team Samaritan seemed to be quite efficient, even if only Sparx was wearing her full costume, and he did not want to take the Wards into a fight against them unprepared. Bad things had happened to others trying the same thing.

    “Do we have time to, uh, costume up?” asked Ladybug. “I feel a little … underdressed … for the occasion.”

    “He’ll be here in a few minutes,” said Aegis. “After that, I imagine he’ll be wanting to talk.”

    Ladybug nodded, and stepped away from the others until she had a few yards clear in all directions. The swarm came in from all directions, streaming in to swirl around her, a solid wall of chitin and wings, blocking off all vision.

    Moments later, it dissipated, and she was in full costume, just in the process of tucking her shirt into her backpack.

    “Aerodyne?” she said.

    Aerodyne looked to Sparx. “Changing room?” she requested.

    Sparx’s hair grew and formed an upright oblong box; it opened on one side for Aerodyne to walk in. Aegis imagined a smoky saxophone solo playing as underwear and stockings came flying out or were draped over the wall of the cubicle. But all that happened was that the ‘door’ opened once more, and Aerodyne, fully costumed, rejoined the group.

    Aegis shook his head. “Do you guys practise that?” he asked.

    Sparx nodded earnestly. “We practise everything,” she told him. “Anything that we think might work in a fight. Anything we can think of. Counters against anything we think might be able to stop us.”

    “How about someone walking up and hitting you?” retorted Aegis.

    Ladybug stepped forward. “Walk up and hit me,” she invited.

    He stepped forward and threw a jab into her gut. He only pulled it a little, but still expected it to hurt.

    She didn’t even blink. And now that he looked more closely, she was bulkier, curvier, than out of costume.

    “Armor,” he realised.

    “Mainly padding,” she corrected him. “But yes, armour.”

    “And the other two?” he asked.

    “Sparx has two layers; her costume is one, but there’s a thicker layer in her coat,” Ladybug told him. “And every layer of Aerodyne’s costume is good against low-caliber firearms.”

    “There’s a lot of layers there,” he noted.

    “There are indeed,” she confirmed.

    “So you’re not as unprotected as you appear,” he realised.

    “Not hardly,” she snorted. “We’d never have come out without some level of protection.”

    He grinned. “Should you be even telling me this stuff?”

    She opened her eyes wide, innocent, behind her helmet visor. There were goggles back there too, he realised. Clear. Eye protection or something else? He didn’t have enough data.

    “Why?” she asked. “Are you planning to fight us?”

    “I don’t want to fight you,” he said truthfully.

    “And we don’t want to fight you,” she replied promptly. “Which would never work in one of those old comics with the fictional superheroes. Two teams meet, the first thing they do is start a fight.”

    “They actually had comics about superheroes?” asked Aegis with interest.

    She nodded. “My dad used to collect them.”

    “That’s actually kind of cool,” he said.

    “Fun to read, too,” she grinned. “You wouldn’t believe the weird powers they thought were good enough for going out crimefighting with.”

    “Really?” he asked, amused. “Like what?”

    “Like, ah, being blind but being able to sense all around you anyway,” she said. “Sort of like Cricket, but not as good.”

    “So, blind but not blind, then,” he said, confused.

    “Ah, no,” she said. “It’s described as a sort of radar. So he can’t tell colours, or read the newspaper, except that he can, by feeling the newsprint with his fingertips.”

    “Wow, that’s sensitive,” agreed Aegis. “Must be painful for him to do anything else.”

    “Funny,” she grinned. “That never came up. And then there were the ways they got their powers. You can tell they had never heard of trigger events. Bitten by radioactive spiders, finding a magic ring from space – I’m being serious here, that’s exactly what the guy did – being bombarded by electrified chemicals, being from another world ....”

    “What, like Earth Aleph?” he said.

    She shook her head. “No, like Mars.”

    He chuckled. “Most of the rest of them sound like valid trigger events – except the magic ring from space one – but being from Mars? Really?”

    She shrugged. “That’s what the comic said. Oh, and by the way, Armsmaster’s nearly here.”

    He gave her an impressed look. “Your bugs, I presume?”

    She nodded and grinned. “So very handy.”

    Nodding in return, he walked back toward the Wards, as Armsmaster’s cycle rumbled up to the curb and stopped.

    A few moments later, the armoured hero himself entered the bank.

    ***

    Armsmaster strode steadily across the bank lobby until he was standing foursquare before the Samaritans, Vista and Tattletale.

    “Sparx, Ladybug, Aerodyne,” he said. “You have proven yourselves to be responsible heroes, so I am going to presume you have good and logical reasons for refusing to hand Tattletale over to the authorities. I would like to hear them. Now.”

    Emma cleared her throat. “Tattletale voluntarily gave herself up in exchange for the other Undersiders leaving, empty-handed,” she began. “She could have made the fight a lot harder, but she chose not to do so.” She nodded to Tattletale.

    Smoothly, Tattletale took up the explanation. “I never wanted to be in the Undersiders; I was literally forced to join, by Coil, at gunpoint. I want to leave them, make a clean break. But before I can do that, something has to be done about Coil. He’s really good at what he does, and if he finds that I voluntarily quit the villain game, I will die at an unexpected moment.”

    Armsmaster frowned. “Then why don’t you –“

    “Seek PRT protection?” finished Tattletale. “Because Coil’s got tentacles everywhere. He’s got men inside PRT; that I am certain of. All it takes is for one security camera to go down at just the right moment, someone slips in the side door, my cell door opens for just a second, and I’m wearing a bullet.”

    “You truly believe what you are saying,” said Armsmaster slowly. “But surely, the proper precautions ...”

    “Listen,” said Tattletale. “I sat at a table and watched him flip a coin ten times in a row, and ten times it came up heads. Each time, I examined the coin to make sure it wasn’t a double-header. Ten times. In a row. And he knew it was going to do that. He’s got some sort of probability manipulation power, is my best guess. If he really wants something to succeed ... I guess it’ll succeed.”

    Armsmaster’s lips compressed. “So what are your plans, once you help us take him down once and for all?” he asked bluntly. “Because we’re not in the habit of doing one-off favours for villains.”

    “Well,” said Tattletale, “I was sort of thinking of joining the Samaritans.” She grinned at him. “Change my evil ways, and all that.”

    Armsmaster looked at her for a long, long moment.

    “Let us, for a moment, assume that you are being sincere with this,” he stated. “It still does not excuse the fact that you were committing a crime, here, today, when the Samaritans interrupted you.”

    “Coil ordered the robbery,” Tattletale explained. “I think he wanted some sort of distraction.” She looked at him perceptively. “From something else that happened, elsewhere, that you were on your way to, before you came here.”

    He went very still. “I can’t confirm or deny that,” he said flatly.

    She grinned, fox-like. “Of course you can’t,” she said. “It’s bad. You’re going to get a lot of pressure on you before this is over. But you’ve got two choices. One, I can play twenty questions until I get it out of you. Or two, you can spill, and I can help fix this before the shit gets more than ankle-deep.”

    “Or three,” he snapped, “I can knock you unconscious and question you once in custody.” His halberd began to crackle ominously.

    “Ah, no,” said Sparx. “Our prisoner. I’m not going to allow you to attack her unprovoked.” Her hair flowed and moved slightly.

    “With witnesses,” added Tattletale.

    Armsmaster ground his teeth together. “You’re a criminal,” he snapped.

    “And so’s Coil,” retorted Lisa. “And what he’s done is worse than what I’ve done here – worse than anything I’ve ever done as Tattletale. Right now, you have a unique opportunity here – I’m willing to help you bring him down, hard, given that I don’t go down with him.” She spread her hands. “Cops do it all the time, with ordinary criminals. What’s so hard about doing it with me?”

    “Because I cannot get rid of a nagging feeling that you’ve set this whole situation up for your own benefit,” he said grudgingly. The halberd stopped crackling.

    “Well, of course I have,” she declared. “Did you not get the part about being forced to join at gunpoint? I never wanted to be a big-league supervillain. He forced me into this position. So Coil goes down hard, I get out from under, I’m not a villain any more, I join the Samaritans, bad girl is redeemed, big PR triumph all round. Win-win-win-win-win.”

    Armsmaster stared at her for a long moment, then turned to Vista. “You’re prepared to watch her, take her down if she steps out of line?” he said bluntly.

    Vista nodded. “Sure,” she said, and paused. “This means I get to stay on as liaison?” she ventured.

    He nodded curtly. “You stepped up, took the initiative. I can’t fault that.”

    “Thank you,” she said. “I won’t let you down.”

    “Don’t thank me yet,” he responded. “This may still all end badly.” He turned back to the Samaritans and Tattletale. “You stay right here. I’m calling the Director in on this.”

    “Just make damn sure that it’s only the Director you speak to, and no-one else,” Tattletale said tensely. “Because the longer we go without Coil learning about me, the better.”

    He ignored her comment, turned away from the group.

    ***

    “Piggot.”

    “Director, this is Armsmaster.”

    “Armsmaster. I thought you were taking lead on the Alcott case. What happened?”

    “Another matter took my attention. One that turned out to be quite important.”

    She paused. “I’m listening,” she said cautiously.

    “Short version. I have hard information as to who was behind another matter we're dealing with. A minion, wanting immunity for assistance.”

    The Director sat upright in her chair. “You do? Who?”

    “Not over an unsecured line, Director,” he told her. “There are factors that have come to light that you need to know about. Disturbing factors.”

    “Understood,” she said crisply. “A face to face meeting, then.”

    “I concur,” he replied. “The Protectorate base is probably the easiest to secure.”

    “I’ll meet you there,” she said.

    “Armsmaster, out.”

    She put down the phone and looked at it for a long moment.

    What does Armsmaster count as ‘disturbing’?

    She guessed that she would be finding out.


    End of Part Twelve
     
  14. Threadmarks: Part Thirteen: Into the Lion's Den
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger


    Part Thirteen: Into the Lion’s Den


    “Come on, Ames,” said Glory Girl. “Let’s get you home.”

    “Wait a minute,” protested Amy. “I just want to go and thank them.”

    She waited till Armsmaster stepped away from the group, and approached them.

    “Hi,” she said. “Amy Dallon. Panacea. From New Wave.”

    Ladybug nodded, and shook the proffered hand. “We got the idea, yeah,” she said. “Glory Girl pretty well broadcast it to everyone around.”

    Amy grinned a little self-consciously. “She is fairly protective of me, yes,” she agreed.

    “That’s a good way to be,” said Aerodyne. “So what’s up?”

    “I ... well, I just wanted to thank you,” said Amy awkwardly. “For saving me. For saving everyone.”

    “Oh, you weren’t in any danger,” said Lisa. “We were just going to rob the place and go.”

    Amy glared at her for a moment. “I was still feeling threatened,” she said pointedly. Then she turned to Sparx. “Why haven’t you handed her over to the Wards yet, anyway?”

    “Because she’s voluntarily surrendered to us, and she’s helping us with other matters,” Sparx explained.

    “And I want to join the team,” added Lisa mischievously.

    “And she wants to join the team,” sighed Ladybug.

    “And you’re going to let her?” Amy’s voice was incredulous.

    “I think she’s earned a second chance,” Sparx pointed out. “A chance to do the right thing. It’s not like we’re just letting her go.”

    Amy nodded. “I guess,” she admitted. “Anyway, thanks. For sending us all into the back of the bank before the fight started.”

    Ladybug nodded. “We try to train for various scenarios. Rule number one for hostage situations is get the hostages to safety. A stray shot during a normal firefight is bad enough. A stray shot during a cape fight can wipe out a dozen people without even slowing down.”

    Aerodyne grinned. Taylor had just quoted Alan Barnes, more or less word for word.

    Vista looked at Ladybug with some respect. “Wow,” she said. “That’s a very professional attitude, and I’m speaking as someone who’s been trained by the PRT. There’s a lot of independent groups that just go in guns blazing, so to speak.”

    Ladybug nodded. “It’s all too easy to screw up if you haven’t thought things through ahead of time. Even if you don’t train for the exact scenario, enough training can give you options or ideas on how to deal with a new one.”

    Vista was nodding even before she finished. “Yeah,” she said. “Exactly.” She shook her head, grinning. “Damn, but it’s good to talk to someone who’s on the same page about this sort of thing.”

    Sparx grinned back. “Actually,” she said, “would it be possible to arrange some sort of training exercise between us and the Wards at some point? A mock combat, or even just a problem-solving exercise?”

    Vista blinked. “That ... I’d have to kick that one upstairs,” she said, “but it sounds really useful. The way you guys synergise is really cool; most capes I know tend to go lone wolf once the fight starts. My power works best when I’m helping someone else out.”

    “Yeah, well, we’ve learned the hard way that if any one of us tries to win on our own, we’re usually gonna fall on our butts,” said Aerodyne ruefully. “So we concentrate on teamwork. Even if one of us has the threat covered, the other two are scanning for other dangers. We assume something’s going to go wrong, and plan accordingly.”

    “Because it always does,” chorused Sparx and Ladybug; it seemed almost like a practised line. All three chuckled at the same time.

    Lisa looked at them, and blinked. “Christ,” she said. “You are serious about this training thing. Am I going to have to go through it too?”

    Sparx looked her in the eye. “Do you want to be in the team?”

    “Oh,” said Lisa, then paused. “And the self-defence training as well?”

    Ladybug nodded. “Of course. We all take regular courses. Not enough to make us into professional martial artists, of course, but enough to know how to throw a punch, deliver a kick, roll with a fall, take a hit, and run like hell when we have to.” She looked at Vista. “How much of that sort of training have you had?”

    “Not much,” admitted Vista. “I’m too small for it to make much of a difference against an adult in a fight.”

    Sparx shook her head. “I think we’re going to have to work on that,” she said. “What if you were up against a kid your age, who was mind controlling your teammates, and your powers weren’t working? What would you do? Give up, or try to punch him out before his minions got to you?”

    “I see your point,” conceded Vista. Wow, she thought. I guess I’m going to be learning more than I thought.

    ***

    Amy watched the three members of Team Samaritan; despite the fact that Sparx was nominally team leader, she didn’t seem arrogant with it, and all three seemed at ease with one another. Nor were they condescending toward Tattletale or Vista. All in all, they seemed like really nice people.

    I’ve got a lot to think about, she decided, as she walked back to where Glory Girl was chatting to Gallant.

    “Okay,” she said with a smile. “We can go now.”

    Vicky smiled at her and nodded to her boyfriend. “I’ll see you later then,” she said. She and Amy left the bank side by side.

    They’re even willing to give Tattletale a chance, Amy thought. How about that.

    ***

    Armsmaster returned to the group. “Director Piggot is willing to meet with you,” he said. “I’m calling in a transport to get you to the Protectorate base.”

    Lisa looked at him suspiciously. “So this isn’t a trap to arrest me all sneaky-like once I’m on board that base?” she asked.

    He shook his head. “As much as I’d like to arrest you, Director Piggot first wants to know what you know.”

    “And then ...?” she pressed.

    “And then,” he gritted, “if it checks out, we will accept that you are sincere with going straight, so long as you stay with Team Samaritan, with Vista to keep an eye on you.”

    “Cool,” she said. “I can’t wait.”

    His lips set in a straight line. She responded with a cheerful grin.

    ***

    The helicopter set down on the landing stage of the Protectorate base; the force field re-established itself over the top of the base once more, lending the light a slight rainbow effect.

    “Wow,” said Sparx. “I’ve been through the PRT building and met the Wards before, but this is awesome.” Ladybug and Aerodyne kept quiet; while they had been the ones to tour the PRT building with Sparx, this had been before Taylor had gotten a proper handle on her powers, or Madison had gotten hers.

    Tattletale kept quiet also, but her gaze flicked here and there, apparently at random.

    “When we’re done here, I can give you the tour if you want,” offered Vista. “It’s pretty neat.”

    “That would be cool,” agreed Ladybug.

    “Let’s get this over and done with first, shall we?” said Armsmaster bluntly.

    ***

    Two PRT guards were waiting outside the conference room. They saluted Armsmaster, and allowed him to enter with Team Samaritan and the others in tow.

    Director Piggot was already sitting at the table, waiting for them. Flanking her were Miss Militia and Velocity.

    Armsmaster paused to lock the doors, then the Director pressed a switch on a small grey box on the table. An irritating teeth-on-edge buzz began to sound throughout the room.

    “This room has a Faraday cage,” the Director said, “and that noise is specifically designed to thwart any attempt at sound pickup from outside the room. We are, in other words, secure. Speak your piece.”

    Armsmaster nodded. “Team Samaritans interrupted a bank robbery by the Undersiders earlier today. Tattletale negotiated allowing the others to get away empty-handed in return for her surrender. She claims that she wishes to leave her life of crime –“ even with the irritating whine, the lack of belief in his voice is clearly audible, “ – and join Team Samaritan. She also wants to assist us in taking down Coil.”

    Director Piggot frowned. “Coil?” she said. “He’s not a big enough fish to worry about. Small time only.”

    “Big enough to have the Travellers and the Undersiders doing what he wants,” Tattletale retorted. “Also has Faultline’s Crew on speed-dial. Oh, and he’s got people inside Empire Eighty-Eight – and the PRT.”

    Piggot remained relaxed and calm right up until Tattletale dropped her little bombshell. Then she sat forward, her eyes fixed on the villain.

    “You had better be joking,” she said ominously.

    Tattletale shook her head. “Not a joke,” she said earnestly. “Coil’s got a snake on his costume, but I think of his name more in relation to an octopus’s tentacles. Because he’s got one everywhere. Including,” she leaned forward, knuckles on the desk, “inside your precious PRT.”

    The Director slitted her eyes. “I’ve been given a heads-up on someone that might – repeat, might – be a mole,” she said slowly. “Investigations are ongoing.”

    Tattletale dropped into a chair. “There you are, then,” she said cheerfully. “But you’ll have more than one.”

    Armsmaster tensed slightly; the butt of his halberd clinked against the side of his armoured boot. Piggot looked at him. He nodded slightly.

    “Presuming this to be so, we won’t stop after we verify the first one,” she said.

    “Good,” said Tattletale. “You won’t regret it. Now, about the other thing ...”

    “If he considers himself a big enough player to infiltrate my PRT with his agents, then he’s a big enough player to take seriously, and perhaps take down, in the proper time and place,” the Director noted.

    “Which means you’re not interested in doing it right now,” Tattletale responded in a matter-of-fact tone.

    “Once we get the names of the plants, we can isolate them and feed them the information we want Coil to know,” Piggot told her. “After, of course, careful consideration and consultation with the upper echelon of the PRT.”

    “In other words,” reiterated Tattletale, “not right now.”

    Director Piggot met her gaze. “No,” she said blandly, “not right now.”

    “Just incidentally,” said Tattletale, “I’m under threat of death by the man. And he has powers. So I take this threat quite seriously.”

    “I would be interested in learning of the details of his powers,” hinted Piggot.

    Tattletale sighed. “So that’s how this is to go. I sit here and tell you everything and the best case is that you thank me, pat me on the head, and let me go off to join the Samaritans. To be assassinated in a day or a week or a month, because you’re letting Coil do his thing while you feed him bad info.”

    She leaned forward in the chair. “And the worst case is that you arrest me, despite Armsmaster’s assurances to the contrary, and I’m locked up awaiting trial, and then I’m found dead in my cell, because Coil has men inside the fucking PRT!” She screamed the last bit at the top of her lungs, making everyone jump.

    Armsmaster took a step closer to her chair; at the same time, Sparx, Aerodyne and Ladybug did exactly the same thing.

    “I would advise you to calm down,” Piggot told her. “And I need that information about Coil.”

    “Why the fuck should I?” asked Tattletale bitterly. “I thought that maybe going to the good guys to take down a bad guy might just work. But all you’re interested in doing is getting all the information from me and then not doing a fucking thing.”

    “You haven’t told me anything we didn’t already know, or couldn’t find out shortly,” pointed out the Director.

    “And now you want me to tell you something you don’t know, for free,” Tattletale retorted. “No deal. You gotta give something to get something.”

    Piggot looked at Armsmaster. “Do you happen to have this information?”

    Armsmaster nodded. “She said he has probability manipulation.”

    She looked interested. “Large scale? Small?”

    “Enough to cause ten coin flips out of ten to end up heads,” he replied.

    “Thank you,” said the Director. She glanced at Tattletale, with a twitch of one eyebrow. “Was there anything else?”

    Tattletale looked her in the eye. “Yeah,” she said. “The location of his secret fucking base.”

    For a moment, there was silence in the room, save for the irritating buzz.

    “Armsmaster?” said Piggot at last.

    “Yes, she knows, and no, she hasn’t mentioned it in my presence,” replied Armsmaster.

    “You know something?” said Tattletale to Armsmaster. “I let you know that, just to see if you’d really give me up when you knew it was my life on the line. And now I have the answer. Fuck you very much for that, by the way.”

    She turned to Piggot. “I know where it is, I know how to get in, I know most of the codes ... and I’m not saying a single fucking thing until I’ve got more than an ‘oh, we’ll do something someday’ assurance out of you.”

    Piggot glanced left and right. “We need to have a conference. Would you mind going to the other end of the room?”

    Tattletale rolled her eyes and stalked to the other end of the room; Sparx, Ladybug and Aerodyne followed, with Vista trailing behind.

    As the heroes gathered in a huddle with Piggot, with the irritating buzz drowning out even the slightest chance of hearing their lowered voices, Ladybug leaned in to Tattletale and said quietly, “You really know where his base is?”

    She nodded. “Damn right I do.”

    “You think they’ll decide to take him down?” Aerodyne wanted to know.

    Tattletale laughed harshly. “Fuck no. Right now, they’re embarrassed that we know they’ve got moles. They’re in full cover-your-ass mode. They’re sure as hell not going to stick their necks out for little old me.”

    Ladybug and Aerodyne looked at Sparx, but she simply rubbed her chin and looked thoughtful.

    “Well, I think it sucks,” said Vista unexpectedly. “They’re not even giving you a chance.”

    Tattletale grinned and gave her a quick hug. “Thanks, kiddo,” she said quietly. “I appreciate that.”

    Director Piggot cleared her throat loudly, and the five girls looked back toward where the heroes were gathered around the table.

    “We have reached a decision,” announced the Director as they returned.

    “No deal,” replied Tattletale.

    Piggot looked daggers at her. “You haven’t heard it yet.”

    “Don’t have to. I tell you all about Coil’s base and the man himself – about whom I know precious little, unfortunately – and you let me walk, so long as I stay with the Samaritans, and I have no farther contact with the Undersiders. That about right?”

    From the way Velocity and Miss Militia traded glances, she had pretty well hit the nail on the head. Director Piggot’s expression turned even more sour.

    “You are not in a position to negotiate,” she snapped.

    “Sure I am,” replied Tattletale cheerfully, seating herself on a corner of the table. “Here’s my counter-offer. I give you chapter and verse on Coil, his base and his men, everything I’ve been able to find out or figure out, and you do the following for me.”

    She ticked off points on her fingers. “One, you clear my record. Two, if any of the other Undersiders decides to go straight, they get the same deal. Except for Chariot. He’s an asshole, and he’s one of Coil’s, anyway. Three, you leave the Samaritans the fuck alone for helping me out like this. And four, if we happen to go after Coil ourselves, if you can’t help, stay the fuck out of our way.”

    Armsmaster glared at her – or at least, it looked like he was glaring; the visor on his mask hid his eyes from view.

    “You do not get to make deals for murderers,” he snapped.

    That last word hung in the air for a long moment, while Sparx, Ladybug, Aerodyne and Vista all looked at Tattletale.

    “Don’t care,” she said blithely. “Given a fair trial, each of them would have a good chance at pleading emotional distress, or straight-out duress. Now, do you play ball, or do I walk out of here now?”

    Another long moment, then Director Piggot ground out her answer. “Fine,” she said. “You have your deal. Now, the details on Coil, if you please.”

    “The deal, in writing, if you please,” retorted Tattletale. “Signed, with a copy to my friends here as well as myself. It’s amazing what can get forgotten when remembering deals is inconvenient.”

    “You don’t think we’ll keep our word?” snapped Armsmaster.

    “In a word?” asked Tattletale. “No. Right now, more than one of you is trying to work out loopholes in what I just said before. How to get around it. And if you’ll do that, you’ll ignore if it it’s not held over your head.” She nodded to Armsmaster. “Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me I’m lying when I say that my power is telling me this.”

    Armsmaster’s lips formed a straight line, and he said nothing.

    Aerodyne, Sparx and Ladybug glanced at each other, but kept quiet. This was not to say that they weren’t conversing.

    Gestures, some evolved during training, others borrowed from the Ameslan sign language system, allowed them to pass simple concepts to one another without appearing to do so. It was quicker than using Morse code, but required line of sight.

    Sparx: Armsmaster didn’t ask.
    Aerodyne: Noticed that, yes.
    Ladybug: He wants to break deal?
    Sparx: Looks like it.
    Aerodyne & Ladybug: Asshole.

    It was only when Tattletale turned a snort of laughter into a cough that they realised that she could probably read their gestures as well as they could. Vista, on the other hand, was oblivious to the silent chatter.

    “So yeah,” said Tattletale. “Gonna need the agreement typed up or written out, three copies. One for you, one for me, one for the Samaritans. Also, get me a standalone laptop in here, and I’ll give you all the details I’ve got. Good enough?”

    ***

    An hour later, it was done. The agreements were printed out and conveyed into the room, along with coffee (at Tattletale’s request). She had gone over them to ensure that there were no accidental slips of phrasing, and had declared them workable. Then, once the copies had been signed and handed out, she had gone back to working on the laptop.

    At the end of the hour, she stood up from the table. “It’s all there,” she said. “Every last detail I know or think I know.”

    Armsmaster was already scrolling through the information. He paused a couple of times, and nodded. “This fits with what we already know,” he said. “Looks like the information’s on the level.”

    Tattletale rolled her eyes. “I told you,” she said. “I’m playing this straight.” She paused. “Just remember – don’t let that information on to the PRT database. Moles and all that.”

    Piggot nodded. “Is my personal system secure enough for you?”

    Tattletale raised an eyebrow. “I’d give it a seventy-five percent chance. Right now. Dropping every day. Coil would love to read your mail.”

    The Director pursed her lips. “I’ll take that under advisement,” she said. “All right. You’re free to go.”

    Tattletale grinned her vulpine grin. “Excellent. Warm up the chopper, James.”

    “Oh, no,” said Director Piggot. “I said we’d let you go. I never said we’d give you a lift back to the mainland.”

    “Thus stranding the Samaritans here as well?” pointed out Tattletale.

    “They have a member who can fly,” Armsmaster pointed out. “I would be surprised if they haven’t practised flying as a group.”

    “We have,” confirmed Aerodyne. “But carrying four others will be a real strain. I won’t be able to hold it for long.”

    “So wait,” said Sparx. “You agreed to the deal, and then you’re going to break it on a technicality?”

    “Vista, we’ll give a lift to,” said the Director smoothly. “She’s a serving member of the Wards.”

    “No,” said Vista. “I’m their liaison. I go with them.”

    Tattletale grinned. “I think we’ve got it covered.”

    “This, I’ve got to see,” said Velocity.

    ***

    Aerodyne stood in the centre of the group. Sparx stood behind her and a little to her left, hair extended and wrapped around each of the other four. Vista and Ladybug stood to her right, Tattletale to her left. They faced off the edge of the platform, a mere three feet away. The transparent rainbow swirl of the force field stood between them and the open air.

    “Ready,” said Sparx. Armsmaster, standing by, didn’t do or say anything, but the force field winked out.

    Aerodyne exerted her power. Air began to swirl around them, faster and faster, forming a vortex, drastically lowering the air pressure above them. They began to lift into the air, rising faster and faster, moving toward the distant shore.

    However, they were only moving at a walking pace at best, which was liable to tire out Aerodyne before they came anywhere near the shore.

    “Any time now, Vista,” said Tattletale.

    “You knew I was going to do this, didn’t you?” asked Vista. She didn’t sound annoyed; more amused than anything.

    “It is kind of my power, yes,” confirmed Tattletale.

    Vista exerted her power in turn; the effective distance to the shore reduced rapidly, until the combined group was over the beach and then the Boardwalk, with barely ten yards’ of forward motion. The squeezed space behind them sprang back into shape, and Aerodyne let them down on to the Boardwalk.

    “Well, that was fun,” said Tattletale. She grinned at her new teammates. “So, why don’t we get something to eat, and then Sparx can tell us her big plans.”

    “Big plans, huh?” said Ladybug.

    “You made plans without including us?” asked Aerodyne, pretending to sound hurt.

    “What big plans are these?” asked Vista, sounding a little annoyed at being the last one to know.

    “Taking down Coil, duh,” said Aerodyne, putting an affectionate arm around her shoulders.

    “Wait, we’re doing that?” asked Vista. “But the Director said ...”

    “Director Piggot,” said Sparx firmly, “has other priorities. But note that she didn’t tell us not to go after Coil on our own.”

    “Oh,” said Vista. “Wow.”

    “And talking about priorities,” said Ladybug, “what should we have for lunch? Chinese, Greek or Italian?”

    Vista took her time deciding. This, after all, was an important decision.


    End of Part Thirteen
     
  15. Threadmarks: Part Fourteen: All Together Now
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    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Fourteen: All Together Now


    Piggot and Armsmaster watched Team Samaritan set off along the Boardwalk. Stepping away from the bank of monitors, the Director turned to the head of Protectorate East-North-East.

    “Do you think I was a little heavy-handed there, a little too unsubtle?” she asked him.

    He smiled slightly. “You have a reputation for being heavy-handed,” he reminded her. “It got the result we were looking for, I think.”

    Perhaps I’m asking the wrong person about subtlety, she pondered.

    “Tattletale will know, of course,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

    “Of course Tattletale will know what we’re doing,” he replied. “I have a theory that the girl’s a clairvoyant of some sort. But she’s also very good at keeping secrets, if she considers them worth keeping, and if the Coil threat is as imminent as she says it is, she’ll keep it secret that we’re also making a move.”

    “Manipulating a team of teenage girls into being a stalking horse, to draw the attention while we set up our own operation,” said Piggot. “I have to say that I’m not totally comfortable with this.” Capes or no capes, she added silently.

    “You’re not comfortable with putting Vista in the line of fire,” Armsmaster corrected her. “Her service in the Wards has been exemplary. It’s unsurprising that you don’t want to risk her.”

    She nodded, but continued. “They’re children, all of them. The Wards, I mean. We take them in and try to protect them as best we can, while we also try to instil morals and teach them to be superheroes. But still, just children.”

    “Children with super-powers,” Armsmaster reminded her.

    “But still,” she reiterated, “just children. Sometimes, despite all our care, they get into the line of fire. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they get hurt too badly to continue.” She paused. “And sometimes, we get one like Shadow Stalker.”

    “Shadow Stalker was an aberration,” pointed out Armsmaster. “She had already been getting around as a vigilante for two or three years before she joined the Wards for her own reasons. She had learned to hide what she was, to convince even herself that she was being heroic.”

    “Hm,” said Piggot, frowning. “Go through Tattletale’s data on Coil. Make a copy, but don’t put it on any device that’s not standalone. We don’t want even the fact that we have it getting out. On the quiet, see what you can verify, what you can build on.”

    Her lips thinned. “Tattletale said she didn’t think there was anyone dirty on the Protectorate side, but we can’t assume she’s infallible. So, background checks. On every one of our heroes that’s been around since after Coil started operations. The usual; money troubles that suddenly cleared up, that sort of thing.”

    “Or lone wolves that suddenly joined the team?” pointed out Armsmaster.

    “Good point,” agreed Piggot. “I don’t think Shadow Stalker could have been a Coil mole, but anything’s possible. And certainly, if we get anyone else that fits that profile, we look really hard at them.”

    Armsmaster nodded. It was a tall order, but he was good at multitasking. And he could ask Dragon for assistance. “I’ll get right on it.”

    The Director nodded, but her eyes kept straying back to the screen. “I can’t help feeling that we’re throwing them to the wolves.”

    “Team Samaritan is solid,” Armsmaster assured her. “I’ve seen their work. They’ll protect Vista.”

    “I hope so,” she said, and pressed a button; the screen went dark. “I most sincerely hope so.”

    ***

    “”Right,” said Sparx, once they were off the Boardwalk proper and in between two of the larger buildings. “We need to get off the streets, into privacy, where we can talk.” She glanced at the other two members of Team Samaritan as she pulled her phone out.

    “But I wanted Chinese,” protested Aerodyne, but she was already digging out her phone.

    “We can get takeout,” Ladybug reminded her.

    “Oh, yeah,” agreed Aerodyne. She opened her phone, and typed a short text, then closed it again.

    Ladybug, conversely, didn’t move. A muted beeping sounded from within a containment pouch.

    Vista blinked. “Two questions. One, did you just send a text using bugs? And two, what’s this in aid of?”

    Ladybug grinned. “Yes, and you’ll find out.”

    “Wait, wait,” said Tattletale. “You’ve planned for this?”

    Sparx nodded. “And practised it, a few times. Now. Down this way. We’ve got half a block to go.”.

    ***

    The five of them walked down the street in phalanx; there was a park on one side, and brownstones on the other. Sparx and Ladybug flanked Tattletale, the one’s hair and the other’s swarm of bugs keeping up a visual distortion that made it hard to see who was really in the middle of the group. Vista and Aerodyne walked just in front of them.

    Just up ahead, a car pulled in to the curb. The driver got out, opened the trunk, and heaved two garbage bags into the mouth of an alleyway. Vista peered at him; he was tall and skinny and somewhat baldng, but otherwise nondescript. Slamming the trunk closed, he got in the car and drove away.

    “Did everyone else just see that?” Vista asked as the car disappeared around the corner. “That guy just dumped his litter and left again.”

    “’That guy’,” said Ladybug cheerfully, “was my dad.”

    “I thought as much,” murmured Tattletale. “Clothes?”

    “Exactly,” said Sparx. “I asked for a set for me, and one for Aerodyne. Figured they’d be about the right sizes to be going on with.”

    “How do you know no-one’s in the alley?” asked Vista.

    “Trust me,” said Ladybug. “I know.”

    “Oh, right,” replied Vista. “What’s your range like, anyway?”

    “Two and a half blocks, three on a good day,” said Ladybug. She grinned at the younger girl. “Bad news: there are seven thousand, three hundred and fifty-four cockroaches in that alleyway. Good news: not one of them is going to bother you.”

    “Better news,” chuckled Aerodyne. “We have a walking bug zapper just in case Ladybug wants to be a smartass.”

    “Ew, ew, ew,” protested Sparx, giggling. “I’m not touching a bug with my hair.”

    Vista looked from one to the other as they entered the alleyway. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?” she said suspiciously.

    Sparx extended her hair and picked up the two trash bags; one found its way into Tattletale’s hands, while the other went to Vista. She turned and grinned at the Ward.

    “Yup,” she confirmed. “It’s not really my hair, after all.” As she spoke, other tendrils were moving the worst of the trash aside, so that they walked a clean path through the alley.

    “Seriously though,” said Ladybug, “if you have problems with bugs, don’t look at the walls.”

    Vista, of course, looked at the walls. They were covered in cockroaches.

    “Christ!” she said involuntarily. “That’s a lot of roaches.”

    “Only about seven thousand,” said Sparx. “It could be worse.” She stopped as the others passed by a dumpster, then took hold of it with thick tendrils of hair. With a scraping sound, she turned it and moved it down the alley a ways. It ended up sideways on, blocking the alley, and the line of sight of anyone potentially walking past. Not coincidentally, it also cleared a swathe of the alley of all trash.

    “Okay,” she said. “Time?”

    “One minute thirty, more or less,” Ladybug supplied.

    “Good enough,” said Sparx. Opening her backpack, she pulled out a pair of jeans and stepped into them. Ladybug looked at Tattletale and Vista, and said, “Don’t freak.”

    Vista was about to ask why when the swarm descended. In seconds, it was like she had seen Ladybug do in the bank, but from the inside; she was surrounded by a buzzing, humming curtain of flashing wings and chitin that quite effectively cut off all vision from outside.

    She said one minute thirty seconds. Right.

    Hastily, she began removing her costume, leaving the bodystocking underneath in place. The visor and the body armour, as well as the skirt, went into the duffel that she found in the trash bag. To replace them, she had a sweater and a long denim skirt. Someone had thoughtfully included a belt as well. She was just stepping into a pair of sandals when the bug-curtain dissipated.

    Looking around, she saw Tattletale, now unmasked and wearing ordinary clothes, wiping at her eyes. Black streaks showed where she must have used makeup to cover her eyelids. She grinned at Vista and said, “Hey. I’m Lisa.”

    “Hey,” responded Vista. “I’m Missy.” Really not sure if I should be telling her my name, but then, she told me hers.

    The other three girls looked ... ordinary. Sparx was obviously the pretty redhead; by process of elimination, the tall girl with the dark curly hair and glasses was Ladybug, and the petite brunette was Aerodyne, but she would never have picked them from a crowd.

    “Okay,” said Sparx. “All ready? Let’s go.” She nodded to Vista. “Hi, Missy. I’m Emma, and that’s Taylor, and that’s Madison.” She led the way down the alley and around a corner, moving at a fast walk.

    Missy trotted to keep up; she looked at Taylor’s face, and then Madison’s again, frowning. “I’ve met you two before, haven’t I?” she said.

    Taylor nodded. “We toured the PRT building, just after Shadow Stalker got taken away. I had my powers then, but didn’t know what to do with them.”

    “Ah,” replied Missy. “I remember now.” She looked over at Madison. “And did you have your powers then?”

    Madison shook her head. “No,” she said. “I got mine later, when Lung attacked that school dance.”

    “Oh, right,” Missy replied, the pieces falling into place. “That was you guys, wasn’t it?”

    Ladybug – Taylor – nodded. “We were still working out what we wanted to do. It was only after that, that we started training in earnest.”

    Missy was going to ask more questions, but then they emerged from the alley, just as two cars pulled up at the curb. Emma turned and gestured to Lisa and Missy, and said, “Front car, back seat. I’ve got the front seat.”

    Without hesitation, Taylor and Madison were heading for the rear car; Madison got in the front seat, and Taylor in the back. Missy looked at Lisa, shrugged, and climbed into the back seat of the car in front. Lisa climbed in after her.

    Both cars pulled away from the curb at the same time; Missy was impressed.

    “You practise this sort of thing a lot?” she asked.

    “We make them practise for everything,” said the man behind the wheel; red-haired, heavy set. He turned a genial face to them, offered them a nod and a smile before returning his attention to the road. “Afternoon,” he said. “Alan Barnes.”

    “The attorney,” said Lisa; it was the first thing she’d said for a while. “I find myself impressed.”

    “An attorney,” repeated Missy. “Wow.” She looked from Emma to Alan, at their similar features, the matching hair. “So you’d be ...”

    “Yup,” said Emma. “This is my dad.”

    “And that would be Madison’s dad driving the third car,” observed Lisa.

    “It would indeed,” agreed Alan. He looked to Emma. “So, fill me in,” he said. “I have the basic details, but why exactly do we have a Ward and a supervillain in the back seat?”

    Emma grinned. “Well, Dad, it’s like this ...” she began.

    ***

    The story took a good while; part way through, Lisa asked Missy if she could braid her hair for her. Missy agreed, but continued listening with half an ear. Emma’s reporting of the incident in the bank was concise, factual and very interesting. Lisa also seemed very interested in how Team Samaritan had taken the Undersiders down so easily.

    Missy had no doubt that Madison and Taylor were at that moment filling in Madison’s father on those same details.

    Once Missy had finished braiding Lisa’s hair, the supervillain returned the favour. By the time she was finished, Missy’s hair looked quite nice.

    ***

    The two cars pulled into the parking lot atop Captain’s Hill. There weren’t many people around, and it was easy to spot the tall gangling man who had slung the bags into the alleyway.

    Taylor moved forward and gave him a hug, which he returned with interest. “Hey, Dad,” she said. “I want you to meet Missy and Lisa. Missy is apparently our new liaison from the Wards, and Lisa ... well, Lisa wants to join the team.”

    “I see,” her father said, large eyes twinkling behind his glasses. He nodded politely to the girls. “Call me Danny.” Looking intently at Missy, he frowned and lowered his voice. “I would have to say ... Vista; am I correct?”

    Missy nodded. “And Lisa here,” she said, “is otherwise known as Tattletale. She’s kind of one of the supervillains who tried to hold up the Brockton Bay Central Bank today.”

    Danny blinked, and raised an eyebrow at Taylor. “And she’s joining the team because ...?”

    “Yeah, that’s a bit of a story,” she told him. “Come on; let’s grab a picnic table, and we’ll fill you in.”

    ***

    Danny had picked up Chinese food, and set out the buckets of noodles and rice on the table. Sitting four to a side made it a little cramped, so they occupied two separate but adjacent tables.

    The first part of the conversation involved filling Danny in on what had gone on in the bank and afterward; while this was going on, everyone who wasn’t speaking was eating. No-one came close enough to pose a serious risk of eavesdropping, but they kept their voices low just in case.

    “So let me see if I have this straight,” said Danny eventually. “Lisa here is a member of the Undersiders, but gave herself up to you, for the specific purpose of defecting to the side of goodness and light, and also for taking care of the threat that’s hanging over her head.”

    Lisa nodded. “That’s about right,” she agreed.

    “And Missy here is a member of the Wards, who, through an entirely separate chain of events, has been volunteered as a liaison to work alongside you, effectively as a member of the Samaritans.”

    “Essentially correct, yes,” agreed Missy. “Director Piggot, Armsmaster and Aegis are all quite impressed by your level of capability, and how you work together so well. I’m starting to see what they mean.”

    Danny nodded, with a faint smile. “It’s a team effort,” he said, “and it’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s paid off.” He paused, looking directly at Lisa. “And the reason that you, Lisa, have even defected is that your shadowy boss, this supervillain called Coil, has you under sentence of death if you ever quit his service. But you think that the Samaritans can take him down, and end the threat.”

    Lisa nodded again.

    “And finally,” said Danny, “the Protectorate isn’t going to try to arrest you, and has accepted your tentative membership in the Samaritans, but isn’t going to do much else to assist.”

    “That’s what they said,” agreed Lisa.

    “Well, I think it sucks,” Missy said suddenly. “Lisa’s in a really difficult position, and she’s only trying to get out of it, and they’re just worried about how bad they might look if it goes wrong.”

    “Life is quite often about compromises, sadly,” said Alan Barnes. Missy belatedly remembered that he was an attorney. If anyone would know about that sort of thing, she mused, it would be him.

    “Screw that,” said Emma bluntly. “If the Protectorate isn’t going to deal with Coil, then I say we do it.”

    Despite the fact that roughly half the people there knew of her intentions in that direction, she was still the focus of all eyes.

    “And how,” asked her father carefully, “do you propose we do that?”

    Emma grinned. “Teamwork,” she said.

    And then she explained.


    End of Part Fourteen
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2017
  16. Threadmarks: Part Fifteen: The Best Laid Plans
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Fifteen: The Best Laid Plans


    "From what you've told us," Emma said, "Coil has a large base, well situated, with dozens of well-armed, well-trained mercenaries. He's also got a power which makes him hard to beat, that probability manipulation you told us about."

    “That’s all true,” confirmed Lisa. “Which makes me really wonder about this plan you say you have.”

    Emma grinned at her. “Basic strategy. When going after a weaker opponent, you hit them from every direction at once. Going after a stronger opponent, you hit them from an unexpected direction. Our one big advantage right now is that he doesn’t yet know that we’re gunning for him.”

    “Not a huge advantage,” pointed out Danny. “And it’s a card you can only play the once.”

    “Big enough, if we leverage it the right way,” Taylor put in; behind her glasses, her eyes had picked up a certain gleam. “I think I see where you’re going with this.”

    “Not sure I do,” said Missy.

    Madison’s head came up. “Are we talking bait and switch?”

    Emma nodded. “Misdirection is the key. Get him leaning one way, hit him from another direction.” She turned to Lisa. “Coil’s power. Can he stack it?”

    Lisa blinked. “Use it in multiple directions at once? I don’t think so. I’d call him to ask for assistance with a job, and he’d either say go for it or don’t.”

    “So how long before he decides for a fact that you’ve defected?” Taylor asked.

    A pause. “Twenty-four hours would be too long,” decided Lisa. “Eighteen, we could just about manage.”

    “Okay,” said Emma. “So here’s the plan. You call him tomorrow morning …”

    ***

    Coil’s phone vibrated. He nodded to Mr Pitter. “Keep a watch on her,” he said. “I want to know the instant she’s able to answer questions.”

    Pitter nodded. “It’ll be in the next six to twelve hours,” he said. “After that, she should be lucid enough.” He glanced down at the girl lying on the bed. Over the last eighteen hours, he had been feeding her carefully calculated doses of a cocktail of highly addictive drugs, designed to make her lucid yet pliable. Medical monitors kept track of her vitals; everything was in the green.

    He supposed vaguely that he should feel sorry for her, but he didn’t, not really. Coil wanted her here, and what Coil wanted, Coil got. And she really was in good hands; he was dedicated to making sure that she remained healthy under his care.

    Coil was already on his way out of the room. He checked the caller ID, then answered the phone.

    “Hello?” he said neutrally. It was Tattletale’s phone, but the chances were that it wasn’t her making the call. Not after the Undersiders had reported her capture at the hands of Team Samaritan the day before.

    “Boss?” he heard. It was Tattletale’s voice, and she was whispering.

    “Ms Wilbourn?” he replied.

    “I got the information you were after,” she whispered. “Now I need extraction, soonish. I haven’t got much time on this call. They think I’m taking a tinkle.”

    “You have information? Give it to me,” he said.

    “Fuck that,” she retorted. “I spill, you cut me loose. No. I give you what I’ve got when I’m face to face.”

    “You gave yourself up to them,” he responded pragmatically.

    “So the rest of the team could walk,” she retorted. “It’s far easier to extract one person than five.”

    “You’ve been in their hands for over twelve hours,” he pointed out. “And they’re letting you go off on your own. Should I even consider you to be reliable any more?”

    “Okay, fuck it,” said Lisa. “I’ll deal with it myself. Don’t send a team. Just have a car waiting. Corner of Frigate and Somerset. I’ve got them thinking I’m harmless; I figure I can pull a vanishing act. Once. After that, I’m shit out of luck.”

    Coil considered. There was the chance that Lisa had turned. That she was trying to pull some sort of con, whereby the Samaritans captured whoever went to pick her up. She doesn’t really think I’ll be there, does she?

    On the other hand, there was a non-trivial chance that she had actually acquired the information he wanted. Information that would give him leverage on Team Samaritan, either to control them or destroy them. Or one, then the other.

    He considered his options.

    One, he could ignore her request. But if she’s on the level, this could lead to her disclosing whatever information she’s gleaned about me to the authorities.

    Two, he could have her picked up. And just as soon as I do, she goes under the thumbscrews, just to make sure that she isn’t pulling a game on me.

    Currently, he was running one world where the Alcott abduction had gone off without a hitch, and one where it had not been attempted. In both, the Undersiders had been foiled in their bank robbery, but had had to leave Tattletale behind.

    He had Dinah; that part had gone off perfectly. And now he had the chance of getting crucial information on Team Samaritan.

    Really, it was a no-brainer.

    He collapsed the universe where Dinah had not been abducted, and opened a new one.

    ***

    Universe A

    “Very well,” he said. “I’ll send the car.” He’d send expendable personnel of course. Whatever happened to them, happened.

    “Thanks. I’ll take it from here.” She hung up before he could say any more.

    ***

    Universe B

    “Sorry. You were careless enough to be caught. You’re on your own.”

    “You son of a bitch!” she snapped. “You’re going to fucking regret –“

    Emma opened the toilet stall that Lisa was sitting in. “Hey, what the fuck?” she said, loudly enough for Coil to hear at his end. “Who are you calling?”

    ***

    “Wouldn’t you like to fucking know,” Coil heard Lisa say, and then there was a splash and a gurgling sound before the signal cut out.

    Dropped the phone in the toilet, he realised. But she’s been caught. No use to me any more. He sighed. Time to start lining up my assets within the PRT to make sure she doesn’t tell too much about me or my organisation.

    ***

    Universe A

    Lisa stood up from her seat on the commode and pocketed the phone. Stepping from the stall, she high-fived Emma.

    “Think it worked?” asked Emma.

    Lisa grinned. “He’ll be sending the car. Focusing on helping me get away from the nasty superheroes. So with luck, he won’t be focusing on preventing his base from being attacked.”

    “Excellent,” said Emma, and pulled out her own phone as they left the restroom.

    ***

    Universe B

    Lisa stood up from her seat on the commode and high-fived Emma. “Nice timing,” she said with a grin.

    “Think it worked?” asked Emma.

    Lisa shrugged. “Well, he won’t be sending that car, but chances are, he’ll be looking to have me plinked to stop me from talking. So with luck, he won’t be focusing on preventing his base from being attacked.”

    She fished in the bowl of water she had been holding on her lap. Lifting out the now-dead phone, she opened it up and pulled out the SIM card. Dumping the useless phone in the trash, she pocketed the card. “I liked that phone too,” she observed.

    “Eh,” said Emma with a shrug. “Casualties of war.” She pulled out her own phone as they left the restroom.

    ***

    Both Universes

    Taylor and Madison, two unassuming teenagers in hoodies and carrying backpacks, strolled along the sidewalk, half a block from Coil’s secret base.

    It had been well built, designed to take even a relatively close-range overhead nuclear airburst. But high-end air filtration requires constant maintenance, and in low-danger periods, such filtration was reduced to a minimum. In addition, with equipment and personnel being moved in, bugs had naturally come in with them.

    Taylor noted a certain lack of venomous bugs, and had been working to rectify that problem ever since she had come within range of the base.

    “So, how’s it going?” asked Madison, a few steps to her right.

    “Reasonable,” Taylor told her. “I’ve got the place mapped out, and located the armoury. Got bugs working to screw up the locking mechanism. They’ve only got sidearms.”

    “Excellent,” said Madison. She was good with relatively large and slow-moving projectiles such as paintgun pellets, as well as lightweight pistol rounds. Rifle rounds challenged her air shield considerably more.

    Taylor’s phone rang at the same time as Madison’s. They looked at each other; Madison accepted the call while Taylor declined hers. They moved closer together so as to share the call.

    ***

    Emma activated the conference call as she and Lisa climbed into the car waiting outside the fast-food restaurant. Danny Hebert leaned over from the front seat expectantly. Emma gave him a thumbs-up.

    “Getting a read?” Emma asked.

    “It’s like Lisa said,” reported Taylor. “This base is big. Makes you wonder how much he embezzled to get it built. I’ve got the layout mapped, except for one place that there’s a big door. Basically airtight. Not sure what’s behind it. The rest of it, it’s done. Got Coil located, and the armoury door jammed, like we planned. I think I’ve also found that kidnapped girl. But we’ve got a problem.”

    “Problem?” asked Danny.

    ***

    “Yeah,” said Taylor. “There’s a bunch of capes on site. Tentative identification as the Travellers. Costumes hung up show reds and blacks, trademark masks. They’re all asleep in their quarters, but once we start the show, they’re likely to make an appearance.”

    “Christ,”said Alan Barnes. “That is a problem.”

    “Maybe not,”
    Emma put in. “Taylor, can you jam that door too?”

    “Not so as they couldn’t bust it down with their powers,” Taylor objected. “Sundancer and Ballistic could both deal with it really easily.”

    “Yeah, but here’s the thing,”Emma said. “Sundancer and Ballistic are big hitters. They don’t have low settings. They’ll probably be reluctant to use their powers in an underground base, which could be brought down on top of their heads.”

    “So you’re saying …”
    said Danny slowly.

    “I’m saying that the door will hold long enough,” Emma stated.

    ***

    “This plan is starting to sound more than a little reckless to me,” said Alan Barnes. “We’re depending on the girl who can make a small, mobile sun, and the guy who can send objects flying at a touch, to not cut loose with their powers at the wrong moment.”

    Lisa cleared her throat. “There’s a strong possibility that someone’s gonna get hurt doing this,” she said. “Maybe killed. Too many variables.”

    Missy’s phone rang.

    “Whose phone is that?” asked Danny. “I don’t recognise the ringtone.”

    “Sorry,” said Missy. “It’s mine. I have to take this.”

    She climbed out of the car and walked a few steps, raising the phone to her ear.

    ***

    Vicky looked up sleepily as Amy rolled off the camp bed and stumbled to her feet.

    “’s’matter, Ames?” she mumbled. Blearily, she tried to look at her watch. “Time is it, anyway?”

    “Six,” said Amy. “I need to call the Samaritans, see if they’ll let me be a liaison.”

    “Us,” corrected Vicky drowsily. “Us be liaisons. ‘Cause we’re sisters. Do everything together.” She blinked a few times. “Isn’t it a bit early for this?”

    Amy shook her head. “I can’t wait any longer. I’ve been lying awake for two hours already. Where did I put my phone?”

    “’s in my bag,” Vicky replied with a yawn. “With mine. Grabbed ‘em both.”

    “What would I do without you, Vicks?” said Amy, and knelt to search Vicky’s bag. She quickly found her phone, opened it, and dialled the PRT contact line.

    “Parahuman Response Teams, my name is Angela, how may I help you?”

    “Hi,” said Amy. “My name is Amy Dallon. I want to get in touch with the Samaritans.”

    “Amy Dallon as in Panacea, of New Wave?”asked Angela. “And you want to get in touch with Team Samaritan, is that it?”

    “That is correct,” said Amy.

    “You are aware that Team Samaritan does not hold any particular connection with the PRT, the Protectorate or the Wards, aren’t you?”asked Angela.

    “I’m aware of that,” said Amy patiently. “I’m also aware that Vista of the Wards was appointed official liaison to the team as of yesterday. You have her number, don’t you?”

    “I … wait one moment, please,” said Angela. She was back on a moment later. “Please state your name, cape identity, PRT clearance level, and PRT clearance number.”

    Amy took a deep breath. “Amy Dallon. Panacea. Clearance level green. Clearance number one five three four alpha.”

    "Thank you. Please hold."

    Vicky leaned up on one elbow. “I can never remember my clearance number.”

    “Shh,” hissed Amy, covering the phone with her hand.

    Angela came back on the line. "Connecting you through to Vista now."

    There was a ringtone that repeated for several moments, so long that Amy almost hung up. Crap, she thought. She's still asleep,

    But then the phone was answered.

    "Hello?"

    Before Amy could speak, Angela's voice answered Vista's. "Vista, this is Angela from the PRT switchboard. I have a call from Panacea of New Wave. Do you wish to accept the call?"

    "Uh, sure,"
    said Vista. "Put her on."

    "The line is open, Panacea,"
    Angela stated. "You may proceed."

    "Uh, thanks," said Amy. "Vista, how are you?"

    "Fine, but a little busy," Vista replied. "What's up?"

    "Um, I was calling to see if you could ask the Samaritans if we - that is, me and Vicky - could be liaisons to the team from New Wave.". Amy paused. "I mean, if that's okay."

    There was a long pause. Then Vista spoke. "Let me see if I have this straight. You and Glory Girl want to join the team. Like, right now."

    "Uh, yeah," agreed Amy. "We can wait till after breakfast if you want."

    "No, no, it's good, really," said Vista. "Can you just hold on a minute?"

    "Sure," replied Amy.

    "What's going on?" asked Vicky, standing and stretching. Under any other circumstances, Amy would have appreciated the sight more, but she was concentrating on the phone.

    "Oh, uh, she's gone to talk to someone, I think," she said distractedly.

    ***

    Missy opened the car door and leaned in.

    "Guys," she said. "You are not gonna believe this."

    ***

    Amy closed the phone and turned to her sister. "Vicky," she said. "Costume up. Fast. We've got somewhere to be."

    "What?" asked Vicky. "Why? What's going on?"

    "You are not gonna believe this ..."


    [Author's Note: Yes, this is a cliffhanger. Yes, I am evil. Live with it. Mwahaha.]


    End of Part Fifteen
     
  17. Threadmarks: Part Sixteen: Assault!
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Chapter Sixteen: Assault!


    Glory Girl, carrying Panacea, landed beside the car less than five minutes later.

    Vista climbed out of the car, along with Sparx and Tattletale, as the white-clad girl set her sister on her feet.

    “Thanks for getting here so quickly,” Sparx greeted them. “Just so you know, you’re welcome to join us in this, but we’re going to have to have a full meeting to talk about this whole ‘liaison’ thing, later.”

    Alan Barnes got out of the driver’s seat of the car. “That’s not a ‘no’,” just so you know,” he amended. “Sparx is merely pointing out that we need to discuss it.”

    “Yeah,” agreed Sparx. “It might look a bit embarrassing if we end up having more liaisons than actual members.”

    “So I’ll join,” said Panacea promptly.

    Glory Girl stared at her. “Ames?” she asked. “Are you sure about this?”

    Panacea looked back at her. “No,” she admitted. “But can we talk about this later, please? Because I think this is likely to be a very long discussion, with lots of shouting. And family references. Which don’t need to be brought up here.”

    Glory Girl sighed. “Okay. Just don’t go joining any other teams without telling me, okay?”

    Panacea hesitated, then nodded. “Fine,” she conceded. “I won’t join them till we’re done here and we have time to talk it over.”

    “Okay,” cut in Sparx. “This is fascinating and all, and I really don’t want to interrupt, but we have an attack on a supervillain’s base that we need to manage, and time is ticking.”

    “So you’re really attacking Coil’s base?” asked Glory Girl.

    “And what use will I be in this?” chimed in Panacea.

    “Lots, if someone gets hurt,” Aerodyne told her.

    “Hey, Amy’s not a frontline cape,” Glory Girl protested. “She shouldn’t be coming in with us.”

    Sparx drew a deep breath. “One,” she said in a tone of quiet command, “I’m in charge. I say who goes and who stays. Two. We have trained for this. Specifically, we’ve trained in the protection of a non-powered fourth. Three.” She looked directly at Glory Girl. “If you can’t follow my orders, you stay out of it.”

    “What?” exclaimed Glory Girl. “Hell no! Amy comes along and I stay out of it? Not in this lifetime!”

    “If she’s willing to follow orders and you’re not, I know which liaison goes on the mission and which one sits it out,” Sparx stated implacably.

    Glory Girl tried to stare her down. She had some practice against her mother; Carol Dallon was a high-end lawyer, and had reduced strong men to wilted wrecks. But Sparx had a certain amount of practice against her father, who was also a lawyer; she did not back down.

    “For the last time,” the redhead said firmly, “are you willing to follow my orders in the field?”

    Glory Girl did not drop her eyes. “Okay, fine,” she conceded. “You’re team leader. You call the shots.”

    “Good,” Sparx raised her voice. “Okay, everyone. Listen up.”

    She looked around at the group. “We three, myself, Ladybug and Aerodyne, have trained for this sort of thing. We work well together. We can get meaning across in a word or two, or even a gesture. Tattletale is also good at this; she can pick up meaning really quickly. But we have a potential problem now,” she observed, looking at Vista, Panacea and Glory Girl.

    “A potential problem,” repeated Panacea, uncertainly.

    “Panacea, you’re less of a problem, because you aren’t a frontline combatant,” Sparx told the biokinetic frankly. “But Vista, you and Glory Girl are from two separate teams, and you’re combat capes.” She frowned. “You’re going to have to work in with us. I’ll be calling the shots, so you do what I say. We don’t have room for solo operators. Okay?”

    “Sure,” responded Vista promptly. “I work best with others anyway.”

    Sparx nodded. “Glory Girl?”

    The white-clad teen nodded jerkily. “Said I’d follow orders, didn’t I?”

    “So you did,” agreed Sparx. “And my order for you is this: you will stay within the group, inside the perimeter, until I say otherwise. You do not leave the group, for any length of time, for any reason. You do not go flying off to engage any hostiles unless and until I say so. Got it?”

    Glory Girl stared at her. “But that’s –!“ she began.

    Two strands of Sparx’s hair trailed across in front of Glory Girl’s face, and a fat blue spark popped between them; the smell of ozone filled the air. Glory Girl shut up.

    “One more time,” Sparx’s voice was low, calm. “Do you understand your orders?”

    “No!” retorted Glory Girl. “I mean, yes, but ... I don’t understand why.”

    “So you don’t die in the first thirty seconds,” Alan Barnes told her flatly. “You’re going to be walking into a shooting gallery. They’ve done that, in training. Have you?”

    “We’ve done plenty of dangerous stuff –“ Glory Girl protested.

    “How much indoor fighting have you done, where you can’t manoeuvre to your best advantage?” put in Sparx. “Because we’re simulated that in training, too.”

    Glory Girl set her jaw. “Whatever happened to ‘hit them till they fall down’?” she asked stubbornly. “Because you don’t need a plan to do that at all.”

    “Glory Girl,” Sparx said tiredly, “there are more of them than there are of us. Many more. They will see us coming, and have time to set an ambush. We need to be able to weather the ambush. It’s as simple as that. Now will you agree to follow the orders I just gave you?”

    “Can I say something?” asked Panacea.

    “Sure,” assented Sparx. “Knock yourself out.”

    Panacea turned to Glory Girl. “Seriously, Vicky, stop arguing,” she said urgently. “She knows what she’s talking about. I was in the bank; I saw how they work. If she says she has a plan, she has a plan. Can you just accept that she knows what she’s doing?”

    Glory Girl looked stubborn. “Mom never gave orders like that,” she pointed out.

    “Different team, different rules,” Sparx retorted. “Last chance. Agree to follow my orders without question or hesitation, or you sit this one out.”

    Glory Girl eyed her; the redhead seemed utterly serious.

    “Fine,” she sighed. “I’ll do what you tell me.”

    Sparx nodded curtly. “Stay close, keep your eyes open. Do not leave the immediate group. That’s your orders for now. Lisa, how far from the entrance are we?”

    Lisa, who had been following the back-and-forth with considerable interest, pointed. “That parking garage over there. Lowest floor.”

    Sparx nodded. “Ladybug, Aerodyne. Suit up and join us.”

    “Roger that,” came Taylor’s voice. “Let’s do this.”

    Alan got back into the car. “I’ll see you ladies back at the rendezvous point. Call if you need extraction.”

    Sparx leaned in the drivers’ side window. “See you later, Dad,” she said softly, and kissed him on the cheek.

    He patted her on the shoulder. “Go beat up some bad guys,” he replied, just as softly. Putting the car in gear, he drove away.

    Glory Girl watched the car leave. “Wait, what?” she asked blankly. “He’s leaving us to do this?”

    Sparx nodded. “We’re the capes here. Dad’s just ... Dad. Where we’re going, he can’t help. He knows that.” She pointed toward the parking garage. “Come on; let’s go.”

    ***

    Even as Vista began to shrink the space between the group and the parking garage, Glory Girl gathered her sister in her arms. "Come on, Ames," she said, "Let's show these slowpokes how it's done."

    "Wait -" began Sparx, but they were already gone in a rush of wind and a flutter of skirts.

    When the others got to the parking garage, just a few moments later, Glory Girl was leaning nonchalantly against a concrete pillar, while Amy stood a few paces away.

    “I thought you said you’d follow orders,” Sparx said to Glory Girl in a controlled tone of voice.

    “I did,” protested Glory Girl. “I haven’t broken them yet.”

    Sparx pointed into the depths of the parking garage. “There could have been an ambush waiting in here. A dozen men with machine guns. You and your sister would have been gunned down without warning. Because you couldn’t get it into your head that when I give an order, I mean it.”

    “But there wasn’t an ambush,” Glory Girl pointed out. "And besides, we hadn't started yet."

    "The orders came into effect the moment you acknowledged them," Sparx informed her. "And next time? There might be. Are you going to risk Panacea’s life on a chance that it might not be an ambush, every single time?”

    "Would they set up an ambush out here?" pressed Glory Girl.

    Sparx gave her a direct look. "I don't know. Would they?"

    Glory Girl paused to think about that, and Sparx went on. "We don't know what they will do, so we can't assume anything. We've got to work on the assumption that they will do whatever will screw us up the worse, if we let our guard down for just one second."

    “Sounds like an awful paranoid way to do things,” commented Glory Girl.

    “We’re a bunch of teenage girls about to attack a supervillain’s base,” pointed out Sparx. “Paranoia is a survival trait, here.”

    A rush of wind heralded the arrival of Ladybug and Aerodyne.

    “Scouted?” asked Sparx, indicating the interior of the parking garage.

    “Scouted,” confirmed Ladybug. “Clear.”

    Sparx nodded. “Formation orders,” she stated. “Tattletale, with Aerodyne and me. Vista, Panacea, one back. Ladybug and Glory Girl, rear position. If we have to go two by two, it’ll be me and Tattletale, Aerodyne and Vista, Glory Girl and Panacea, then Ladybug. Everyone got it?”

    “Sure,” said Vista.

    “Got it,” Tattletale replied.

    “I’m good,” Panacea noted.

    Glory Girl was silent.

    “Glory Girl?” asked Sparx.

    Glory Girl shook her head. “Why am I up at the back?” she asked angrily. “I’m the brick here. I’m the one who can take a hit. You’re wasting my abilities.” She threw her hands in the air. “I’ve been doing this for longer than you have! What makes you think you can give me orders?”

    “Apparently I can’t,” retorted Sparx. “You’re off the team as of now.”

    Leaving Glory Girl staring, she turned to the rest of the group. “Anyone got a problem with this?” she asked.

    “Hey, wait a min-“ began Glory Girl, stepping forward. She was abruptly brought up short, as a network of Sparx’ hair formed a barrier between them. Vivid crackles of electricity snapped back and forth, inches in front of the teen hero’s face.

    “I said, you’re off the team,” Sparx repeated, turning to face her.

    Glory Girl’s eyes narrowed; Sparx took a step back, then caught herself. Aerodyne took a step back as well, looking around in concern; Ladybug steadied her.

    “Vicky!” snapped Panacea. “Turn off your damn aura! What the hell are you thinking?”

    The subtle mental pressure eased off; the feeling of apprehension faded away.

    “What is your problem?” Ladybug’s voice was hard and sharp. “Are you trying to sabotage this mission?”

    “No, of course not!” Glory Girl’s voice was indignant.

    “Then stay out of our way,” Sparx told her flatly. “If you can’t be trusted to follow orders, if you're going to use your powers in such a reckless fashion, then you’re a liability.”

    “Fine,” retorted Glory Girl. “I’ll just take my sister and be going, thanks.”

    “Only if she wants to go,” Sparx pointed out.

    Glory Girl turned toward her sister. “Amy?”

    Panacea looked torn, but shook her head regretfully. “Sorry, Vicky. I want to do this. I want to be team liaison. I thought you wanted this too.”

    Glory Girl shook her head. “I only came along to make sure you were going to be okay,” she explained. “I can’t do this. I can’t take orders from someone who’s only been doing this for a month, and who insists on throwing her weight around to prove she’s boss.”

    “I’ve had my powers for more than a year,” Sparx said quietly. She didn't comment on the latter part of Glory Girl’s statement.

    Glory Girl stared at her. “But you’ve only been in two cape fights! What have you been doing the rest of the time?”

    “Three, actually,” Sparx corrected her. “And as for what I’ve been doing?” She paused for effect. “Training.”

    She met Glory Girl’s gaze. “So yes, I have been doing this for a lot more than a month.”

    “When was the first cape fight?” pressed Glory Girl. “I never heard about that.”

    “Lung,” snapped Ladybug. “She took down Lung. Now, we’re wasting time here, while you’re trying to be all smart and undercut her in front of us. Either step up or step back. For fuck’s sake.”

    Glory Girl jolted at that, and she looked at each of the other girls there. She couldn’t read any level of support in any of their faces; with a horrible sinking sensation, she suddenly realised that she was the outsider here, the unpopular interloper. Victoria Dallon was used to being the popular girl, able to jockey herself into a position of influence within any group; here, she was making no headway whatsoever. Even Amy wasn’t backing her up, and that said something about the situation.

    “Fine,” she mumbled. “I’ll take your orders.”

    “And?” pressed Sparx.

    “And I’ll stand up the back and not do anything till you tell me to,” Glory Girl added reluctantly.

    It hurt to back down; she wasn’t used to doing it. But if it let her be there to protect Amy, then yeah, she’d back down.

    But Sparx better not push it.

    ***

    “Cameras?” murmured Ladybug as they descended to the lowest level of the parking garage.

    Tattletale pointed. “There, there, there and there.”

    Ladybug nodded. “Got it.” Bugs swarmed to the appropriate locations.

    They approached the darkest corner; an apparently undistinguished patch of wall. Only the faintest of vertical and horizontal cracks in the wall outlined the door; to the casual observer, it just wasn’t there.

    Tattletale opened what looked like a perfectly normal fuse box, to reveal a keypad within. “Cameras inside,” she told Ladybug. “Concealed in the ceiling panels, every five yards. First one pointing back at this entrance.”

    Ladybug nodded again. “Thanks.”

    Tattletale tapped out a code on the keypad. With a grinding noise, the door pulled back into the wall, then slid aside. Bugs flowed into the opening.

    “Two by two,” murmured Sparx, assessing the width of the corridor beyond.

    They trooped inside; as Ladybug entered, the door ground back across, and then eased into position as part of the wall once more. Lights came on, dimly illuminating the gloom.

    “Twenty yards, then stairs down,” Ladybug answered the unspoken question.

    “They’ll start getting antsy in about one minute,” Tattletale answered the other one.

    “Right,” Sparx ordered. “Combat readiness. Aerodyne?”

    “Close up a bit,” Aerodyne said, looking back at Glory Girl. “I need us bunched up tight.”

    Glory Girl looked as though she wanted to argue, but Panacea nudged her, and she stepped up close; Ladybug moved up behind her.

    Aerodyne concentrated, and the air around them began to move in odd patterns; a field formed just a few inches over their heads, extending around them in a stretched lozenge shape. It was visible more as a distortion of the light than as a thing in and of itself.

    “What the hell?” exclaimed Glory Girl, even as Vista reached out to place her palm on the surface of the field. “No-one said you guys had Tinker tech.”

    Sparx shook her head. “That’s Aerodyne,” she explained. “She can make air do some pretty amazing things. Now, let’s move. I want to be as close as possible before they figure it out.”

    ***

    They made it quite a way, moving at a fast trot, before anything untoward happened. When it did, it was dramatic.

    “We’re in a –“ began Tattletale, before she was cut off.

    With a rattling crash, a metal grate slid out of the ceiling before them. Another one dropped behind them. They were effectively trapped in a cage.

    “– trap,” she concluded.

    “Thanks,” Sparx commented dryly. “I would not have guessed.”

    The air outside Aerodyne’s bubble began to look oddly hazy.

    “Gas,” said Tattletale and Ladybug immediately; dead bugs began to litter the floor outside of the bubble.

    “On it,” responded Aerodyne. “Vista?”

    “I can rip out that grate ahead of us,” offered Glory Girl. She began to move forward.

    “Stand down, Glory Girl,” Sparx ordered. “Vista’s got this.”

    “But -!”

    “I can purify the air inside the field, not outside,” Aerodyne explained patiently. “Go outside it, and you probably fall asleep, or die choking.”

    "Plus, that grate's electrified," commented Tattletale off-handedly.

    "You can't know that," protested Glory Girl, but she didn't seem so eager to go forward now.

    Sparx extended two tendrils through the surface of the bubble, and let them just barely caress the metal bars. Fat blue sparks popped, and the redhead nodded. "Sure as hell."

    "How much power's running through it?" asked Panacea.

    "About two and a half TFM units, I'd say," replied Sparx.

    "What's TFM?" asked Glory Girl incautiously.

    "Too Frickin' Much," replied Ladybug and Aerodyne at the same time.

    "You're kidding me," Glory Girl objected.

    "Nope," Sparx told her. "One TFM is enough electricity to kill a fully grown man, with a bit of overkill on top to make sure."

    Vista looked at the metal grate ahead, and concentrated. The bars seemed to draw aside, until the gap was wide enough for them to step through. Sparx used her hair to bridge the gap, so that the current flow would not arc to anyone as they stepped through.

    The way ahead was clear. They moved on.

    ***

    The gas had just about dissipated, according to Tattletale, by the time they reached the next obstacle; a large metal door.

    "The base is on the other side," Tattletale told them.

    "I know," Ladybug replied. "And we have a problem."

    "Problems have solutions," Sparx responded. "What is it?"

    "There's a guy with a very big rifle lined up on the other side of this door," Ladybug explained. "Maybe fifty calibre. I really don't know if Aerodyne's shield can take it."

    "I thought you took care of the armoury," Aerodyne protested.

    "I did," Ladybug confirmed. "This guy must keep it in his room or something." She paused. "And talking about the armoury, we want to hurry; they're working on opening it up."

    "Crap," Aerodyne muttered. "I can't stop a bullet that big."

    "Ladybug?" asked Sparx.

    "I can harass him before he shoots," offered Ladybug. "I can even jam it after the first shot. But I can't stop him from taking that first shot."

    ***

    "What do you have on the intruders?" demanded Coil.

    For an answer, the tech called up multiple screens. Each one showed blurred images of bugs crawling over the lenses, spoiling the view of the people beyond.

    "No clear images, sir," he reported. "But there's only one bug controller in Brockton Bay."

    By their fruits shall ye know them. Coil nodded. "Ladybug, of Team Samaritan."

    Team Samaritan, who captured Tattletale just yesterday. It began to make a certain amount of sense.

    “Team Samaritan? Are you sure, sir?”

    Coil looked sharply at the tech. “Why do you ask?”

    “Because there’s only three people in Team Samaritan. And there’s no clear images, but I make it six or seven people at least.”

    Coil frowned. If Tattletale has turned against me, then that makes four. Where are the other three coming from? Do they have some Wards along? It didn't make sense.

    Well, at least I know which way she’s jumped.

    “Call me the instant you know more,” he snapped, and hurried from the room.

    On the way, he dropped the reality where a car was going to pick up Lisa, then split the current reality once more.

    In his office, he picked up the microphone that tied into the base-wide PA system.

    ***

    Universe A

    “All personnel. The base is being invaded. Prepare for a fighting retreat. Escape routes have been planned. Follow your squad leaders.”

    Strapping on his pistol, he headed quickly for the room where Mr Pitter was monitoring Dinah’s vital signs.

    The male nurse looked up as he entered. “I heard the announcement,” he said worriedly. “Are we all leaving? She really shouldn’t be moved.”

    “She’s going to have to be,” Coil told him bluntly. “If I have to take her and leave you, I will.”

    “Oh,” responded Mr Pitter. “Oh.” He began to pack supplies away into a bag. “Do you want me to bring the drugs?” A moment later,her answered his own question. “Of course I should bring the drugs.”

    Coil nodded impatiently. “Is it at all possible to wake her, to get answers from her right now?”

    “Oh, I could wake her,” Pitter assured him. “But she’ll be about as lucid as a hamster on acid.”

    “So, no, then,” commented Coil. He eyed the IV line going into Dinah’s wrist. “What’s that for?”

    “Sedation, vitamin A, saline and the drugs," replied Pitter promptly. "It's got to be monitored carefully to avoid unnecessary mental or physical trauma. I've been scaling back the drugs so she'll be addicted but won't be going cold turkey immediately she wakes up ..."

    He trailed off. "Right. We have to move her now. If someone can carry her, I'll keep the IV lines from tangling ..."

    ***

    Universe B

    "The base is being invaded. All personnel report to the armoury, then assemble by squads."

    Strapping on his pistol, he headed for the room where Mr Pitter was monitoring Dinah’s vital signs.

    The male nurse looked up as he entered. “I heard the announcement,” he said worriedly. “Is there going to be fighting? She really shouldn’t be moved.”

    “I wouldn't worry about it,” Coil reassured him. “We have it well in hand.”

    "That's good. I've been scaling back the drugs so she'll be addicted but won't be going cold turkey immediately she wakes up ..."

    But Pitter was talking to thin air; Coil had already left, to begin organising the defences.

    ***

    Universe A

    His phone buzzed on his hip. He ignored it.

    The guard he had stationed in the room with Pitter was carrying Dinah in his arms; she was as floppy as a rag doll. Pitter was fussing over the placement of IV lines. Coil wanted to shoot the man in the head and just go, but he restrained himself. Keeping Dinah healthy was the main aim here, of course. Pitter was expendable. They were all expendable.

    ***

    Universe B

    His phone buzzed on his hip. He answered it.

    “Talk to me.”

    “Sir, we have two problems. One, they’re past the gas trap already. No casualties. But we have visuals on them now. They’ve got Tattletale, Vista, Glory Girl and Panacea with them.”

    Under his mask, Coil grimaced. Young, idealistic and powerful. A bad combination to face. “The other problem?”

    “Sir, I’ve got reports from the armoury. The door isn’t opening. They’ve got panels off, and there’s bugs inside, eating the wiring.”

    He spat out an expletive. Fucking Ladybug. “Tell them I’m on my way. Have Rogers set up with his sniper rifle. Also, gather all the insect spray we have in the base.” Apart from the sniper rifle – which Rogers kept in his room, and cared more about than he did most of his fellow soldiers – the heavy weapons were kept in a central armoury.

    The armoury was protected by a simple keypad lock; all of his soldiers knew the combination. It was more of a measure to prevent intruders from gaining access to the weapons within, than to stop soldiers getting access to weapons. But disabling the lock from afar prevented his soldiers from gaining the access ... he gritted his teeth as he ran.

    ***

    It was worse than he had thought.

    The bugs – highly venomous spiders, it appeared – had swarmed the first man to get a panel off, and now he was leaning against a wall, sweating profusely, with several bites beginning to swell on his hands. Another soldier was using a first aid kit to apply a topical dressing. Coil spared him hardly a glance. The open panel was swarming with the verminous little creatures, spinning webs, apparently gnawing on important connections, and in general keeping his well-trained soldiers from accessing the very weapons that would allow them to do their jobs.

    As soon as he entered the room, approximately half of the spiders left their work at the panels and swarmed down to the floor and up to the ceiling.

    The soldiers observing – cautiously – the bugs stepped back. “What the hell -?”

    It took Coil a moment to realise what was going on. The spiders were heading for him.

    His costume was only light cloth; it would not stop a spider from biting him. And these spiders were intelligently controlled. Hastily, he backed from the room, slamming the door. Inside, he heard yells as, apparently, the spiders decided to attack the closest targets instead – his soldiers.

    He kept moving, back to his office. Keying the mic once more, he spoke.

    “All supplies of bug spray to the armoury. Repeat, all supplies of bug spray to the armoury.”

    ***

    Universe A

    His phone was still buzzing. He pulled it off his hip.

    “Sir –“

    He cut the man off. “Have all supplies of bug spray taken to the armoury at once. Deal with the infestation. Have Rogers set up with his sniper rifle to cover the entrance they will be coming in by.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    He put the phone away, then turned at a commotion. Trickster stood there, backed up by a nervous-looking Sundancer.

    “What’s going on?” asked the leader of the Travellers. “Is the base evacuating?”

    “We’re under attack by seven capes,” Coil told him tersely. “I’m pulling our forces back as a precaution. I’d appreciate your assistance in forming a rearguard.”

    “Noelle’s here,” the young man told him stubbornly. “I’m not leaving. You need to take her too.”

    “And how, pray tell, do we do that safely?” demanded Coil. “Moving her is tricky enough when she’s happy and there’s nothing strange going on. She would cause more problems than the incoming capes.”

    “So you want the four of us to take care of seven capes?”

    Coil shrugged. “You’re good; you’re powerful. I pay you enough, don’t I?”

    Trickster stared at him for a moment. “Fine,” he growled. Turning on his heel, he left the room. “C’mon, Mars.”

    The instant he was gone, Coil put Trickster from his mind. He had an escape to carry out.

    As soon as he was away from the base, the self-destruct would go live. Any one of several triggers would set it off, detonating explosives buried in the walls, collapsing hundreds of tons of rock and concrete on those within. Including, hopefully, that traitorous bitch Tattletale.

    The fact that he had recruited her by force, and kept her in line with threats of death, did not even cross his mind.

    ***

    Universe B

    The base’s not-very-impressive stocks of insect spray were ferried to the armoury, and war declared on the tiny creatures that stood in their way. In the meantime, several bitten soldiers reported to the sickbay, where the medic applied antivenin for their bites, and topical cream to the swellings, which seemed to be concentrated on the index fingers of their right hands. Trigger fingers.

    Coil observed this briefly, adding another silent curse to the efficacy with which Ladybug was utilising her minuscule allies.

    He was organising the remaining able-bodied soldiers in an ad hoc defensive line behind crates, when Trickster tapped him on the shoulder. He whirled, reaching for his pistol, then relaxed when he saw who it was. Behind the young man stood a nervous-looking Sundancer.

    “What do you want?” he snapped.

    “I’ve been looking for you,” Trickster snapped right back. “What the fuck’s going on? Everyone’s running in circles.”

    “We’re being attacked by seven capes,” Coil told him tersely. “Any assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated.”

    “Christ fuck,” Trickster muttered. “Noelle.”

    “Keeping her calmed down would be a really good idea,” Coil observed. “We don’t want her getting agitated and breaking out. That would turn this from a bad situation into a disastrous one.”

    “Right, right,” Trickster replied. “C’mon, Mars.” He turned and, followed by Sundancer, left at a fast trot.

    ***

    Universe A

    Coil had three men with him, apart from the soldier carrying Dinah, and of course the ever-present Mr Pitter. Who was, he had to admit, bearing up well under the strain. The male nurse’s entire attention was taken up with ensuring that Dinah was being carried in a safe position, and that the IV fluids were flowing smoothly into her veins.

    The flat bark of Rogers’ fifty-calibre anti-materiel rifle echoed even through the heavy doors he had closed behind them. These doors would not now open from the other side to any but cape powers – and as soon as he was clear of the base, such an act would trigger the self-destruct – and so his rearguard was in truth fighting a last stand.

    He wondered which of the intruders Rogers had hit with the rifle, and if they had survived. He didn’t hear a second shot, which meant that either the survivors were playing it safe, or Rogers had been somehow taken out of the fight. He didn’t like the second option, but nor could he discount it.

    There may have been other gunfire, but as his men were only armed with pistols until they could get that damned armoury door open – he made a mental note to have his next armoury equipped with a simple mechanical lock – those reports would not be reaching him.

    ***

    Both Universes

    The soldier called Rogers lay with the barrel of his Barret .50 calibre rifle inserted through a gap between two crates. He lay dead still, swathed in urban camo gear, even though no part of him was exposed.

    His target, the doorway opposite, only lay a few tens of yards from the muzzle of his rifle. To him, this was point blank range. He could do it left-handed with a potato gun. But he was a methodical man, and a killer, and so he aimed up as carefully as though he were placing a round through the skull of a terrorist at seven hundred yards.

    He saw slim fingertips appear between the leaves of the door, and then the doors began sliding apart, forced to move against whatever was holding them together. He grinned to himself, savage and feral. This was the very definition of a bottle-neck, a choke-point. He could hold them here all day.

    The doors opened far enough that he could see a body, a costume. White costume, blonde hair, tiara. She looked to be about sixteen, with a body an eighteen year old might envy. It didn’t matter to him; she was a target. As soon as he had a good sight picture, he squeezed the trigger. The rifle kicked back against his shoulder, and she fell back.

    Centre mass. That’s a kill shot.

    He went to work the bolt, but something impeded it. Looking down at his rifle, he saw to his consternation that webs had been wound around and around the weapon, gumming up the bolt and external action. He yanked harder. It moved, reluctantly, but it moved. The casing ejected, or tried to. No tinkle of brass on concrete. The ejection port was webbed over; the casing was stuck half-inside the port. He reached with gloved hands, tried to pry the casing out. So long as it was in there, the gun was jammed, useless.

    And that was when the bugs secreted throughout his clothing began to bite, and bite hard.

    Rogers considered himself a hard man, able to take discomfort in his stride. But he’d never come under this sort of attack before, with something that felt like red-hot needles piercing his very flesh, in places that absolutely demanded his attention.

    Leaving the rifle, he doubled up, clawing at his clothing, screaming in higher and higher pitch as the bites went on, and on, and on.

    ***

    Glory Girl dug her fingers into the gap between the two doors, and heaved. The doors slid aside, protesting and shrieking as metal bent and tore.

    The flat bark of a heavy-calibre rifle sounded deafening in the relatively confined space of the base. Glory Girl was punched backward by the impact, just about where her cleavage began.

    Sparx caught her as she fell back through the shimmering field. “You okay?” she asked.

    Glory Girl nodded. “Sure. That was no love-tap, but all it did was shove me.” She cocked an ear to a rising series of screams. “That the guy who shot me?”

    Ladybug nodded. “He’s kind of occupied right now. There’s bugs biting him where no man ever wants to get bitten by bugs.”

    Glory Girl grinned and high-fived her. “I’m liking you guys more and more all the time.”

    “Mutual admiration society afterward,” snapped Sparx. “By the numbers, people.”

    ***

    Universe B

    Coil was in his office when the Barret went off. He had good camera views of the open space, but less so of the corridor; Ladybug's damned bugs were doing far too good a job of obscuring camera lenses.

    But he saw the first shot of the battle, and saw the slim cape driven backward. From the flash of white, and the fact that she had just prised open the heavy metal doors, he presumed that this was Glory Girl. She was rumoured to be an Alexandria type, able to take a big hit. Could she take that big a hit? He suspected that they would all find out, very shortly.

    Rogers wasn't firing again, despite the fact that he must have a view of the corridor. Coil rotated a camera to catch a view of the sniper, and found him writhing frantically, trying to get at something inside his clothes. The gun lay abandoned, unattended.

    Coil swore. He clicked on to another camera feed, one showing the armoury. White clouds of vapour showed where his men were attacking the bugs preventing them from entering the armoury. But all was not well there, either. Even well wrapped up, the men with the bug spray were being specifically attacked by the spiders and insects; they were spending as much time defending as they were attacking.

    He swore again, just as a fusillade erupted out in the main area; the invaders must have come into full view of the defending soldiers. Pistols might be all they had, but with approximately six guns to each invading cape, none of which - apart from Glory Girl - was known to be bulletproof, he expected casualties to occur.

    He did not hear the rustling in the air vents as he turned the cameras once more.


    [Author’s Note: this chapter has been too long in coming, and it’s already expanded beyond my usual length for a chapter from this story, so have a cliffhanger.

    Evil cliffhangers are evil. Mwahaha.]



    End of Part Sixteen
     
    Last edited: Apr 22, 2020
  18. Threadmarks: Part Seventeen: And So It Goes
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Chapter Seventeen: And So It Goes


    They came out on to the catwalk in close formation; Aerodyne had her shield ramped up as hard as she could manage. Pistol fire broke out from every angle; sparks flew from the catwalk as ricochets or actual misses struck the metal grating. Those shots which did strike the shield caused small dimples to appear momentarily on the surface of the bubble, but these were erased instants later.

    Ladybug used this as an opportunity to bring more bugs into action; shouts and screams arose, joining those of Rogers, as bugs bit, clung, and injected venom.

    The closest soldiers were now within twenty feet.

    Need a hole, Sparx snapped.

    Aerodyne didnt answer, but a small aperture opened up, directly above Sparxs head. Her hair flowed up through the gap, then turned at ninety degrees. The tendrils extended farther and farther, until they reached the closest of Coils mercenaries.

    Those soldiers that had exposed skin, she wrapped her tendrils around and exerted her power just a little; the men jerked and convulsed as electricity flowed through them. The ones that were more completely covered up, she grabbed and dragged over the safety rail, to drop twenty-five feet to the concrete below. Either way, they were out of the fight for the time being.

    "Vista! Doors!" snapped Sparx.

    The Wards liaison, recalling her part in this, exerted her power. Every doorway around the periphery of the open space abruptly shrank, leaving the men in the main area cut off from their reinforcements.

    ***​

    Luke was still pulling his costume on when Trickster and Sundancer hurried back into the Travellers' quarters. "What's going on?" he demanded.

    "Bunch of capes attacking the base," Trickster supplied. "Jess, you set up to rock and roll?"

    "Will be in a moment," grunted the fourth member of the Travellers. She was in the process of transferring herself to her wheelchair. No-one moved to assist her; she was fiercely independent in that matter.

    "So what's our game plan?" asked Sundancer. "I'm not sure about using my power underground. I don't want to bring the roof down on us."

    "Let Coil's mercs take the edge off them, then we hit 'em hard and fast," Trickster decided.

    "So who is it?" asked Oliver. "And what can I do?"

    "He never got around to telling me," Trickster confessed.

    "Or you never remembered to ask," Ballistic pointed out.

    They all jumped at the sharp report of the Barret, echoing through the room.

    "Well, that's useful," Jess told him sarcastically, getting her legs settled. "Going against unknown capes. Joy."

    "Well, they won't know we're here either," Trickster defended himself. "So we'll have the element of surprise."

    "Francis!" shouted Oliver, over the gunfire that started up outside. "What do I do?"

    "See if you can get downstairs!" Trickster shouted back. "Try to keep Noelle calm!"

    "Out in that?" demanded Oliver, hooking a thumb at the continuing sounds of gunfire.

    "Do what you can," urged Sundancer, putting a hand on his arm. "If she breaks free ..."

    "And besides," added Trickster encouragingly, "it's our side that's got the guns, not them. No-one's going to be shooting at you."

    "How do you know that?" demanded Oliver. "They could be anyone. They could be the PRT. The PRT carry guns."

    "But you're a civilian and a non-combatant," Trickster reminded him. "The PRT won't be shooting at you."

    Oliver rolled his eyes. "Okay, fine," he grumbled. "I'm going."

    He headed out into the branch corridor that linked their section of the base to the main area. Seconds later, he was back.

    Trickster looked around from where he was fitting his top hat to the correct angle. "What's the matter?" he asked. "Forget something?"

    Oliver shook his head. "The doorway."

    "What doorway?"

    "The one out to the main area."

    "Well, what about it?" asked Luke, putting his square mask on.

    "It's not there any more."

    ***​

    Universe A

    The last door closed behind him, and then there were only the stairs ahead, which led to a parking garage under a building that he owned in another name, of course.

    All he had to do was get up those stairs with Dinah and her paraphernalia, climb into the waiting van, and disappear. Losing this base would be a blow to his plans, of course, but he had other bases, and he could rebuild everything.

    I would have succeeded, if it wasnt for - Forcibly, he prevented himself from completing that thought. No villain who said that ever ended up winning the day.

    He considered dropping the other timeline, but held off. All was not lost, not quite, and he had learned from bitter experience to never drop a timeline until he was absolutely certain that it could not be salvaged.

    A gesture from him sent the guards up the stairs first to secure the parking garage; it was only a formality, but he was big on formalities. Accompanied by Pitter and the other guard, he began climbing the stairs himself.

    ***​

    Universe B

    No, damn it! No, no, no! Coil slammed his fist on the desk, staring at the monitor, urging it to show some other image. But there it was.

    Every doorway on both levels was closed. Contracted to a fraction of its width. His men had broken into the armoury at last, but it would do them little good, as the concrete walls would hold them as well as any purpose-built prison, tricked-out assault rifles or no. The lasers were great for cutting many things, but concrete was not one of them.

    He panned back to the intruding group. Now, he had a proper count, and could identify them all. He groaned. Why did it have to be them?

    Sparx, Aerodyne, Ladybug, he knew of. The up-and-coming independent team which had won both its public battles. Just teens, but teens with a lot of training under their belts. He paused to ponder their origins. Who was backing them? Were they really that good, or were they just lucky?

    It didnt matter. They now had Vista with them, from the Protectorate. They also had Tattletale, apparently free and unrestrained. The treacherous bitch has betrayed me.

    Once again, he did not even spare a thought about how he had recruited her to his cause in the first place.

    Worst of all was the last pair of girls in the expanded Samaritans lineup. Panacea and Glory Girl. While Panacea was a well-known healer, one whose presence here he found mildly puzzling, Glory Girl was an equally well-known brick. Her durability was reputed to be on the same scale as Alexandrias, and her strength was apparently quite effective as well.

    He swore again as he watched sparks fly from the metal walkway all around the girls. They were closely packed together, and he could not understand why the massed pistol fire from his men his remaining men, he amended bitterly, as another was tossed screaming over the rail was not affecting them.

    Then he saw the vague outline around them, and understood. Force field. Theyve got a fucking force field. They must have a Tinker working for them too. Fucking Tinkers.

    As he watched, more of his men were disabled, as the Samaritans moved around the periphery of his base. They showed discipline and purpose, never stepping outside the protective bubble of the force field, even as their ranged attackers did their work from within it.

    ***​

    Both Universes

    What do you mean, its not there any more?

    Trickster didnt wait on an answer for his question; he darted past Oliver, and down the corridor.

    Only to come up short before a solid wall of concrete.

    Oliver had been wrong, but only technically so. The doorway was still there. It was present as a slot, barely half an inch across, in the bare wall. Through it, the sound of gunfire still echoed.

    He was still staring at it as the others arrived.

    What the fuck? asked Ballistic. Where did the doorway go?

    There, Trickster pointed. He wedged his finger in the slot. Its right fucking there.

    Ballistic frowned. How the fuck -?

    Someone made the concrete grow over the door, is my best guess, Trickster snarled. The question is, how do we get past this? Noelles out there.

    If she gets loose, Marissa ventured, it might be safer for us in here.

    Trickster rounded on her. No! She needs me there. With her. We need to figure out a way past this.

    Oliver had his eye to the slot. It looks maybe three feet deep. We need to be able to break through three feet of concrete.

    Reinforced concrete, added Trickster. Sorry, Mars. Didnt mean to snap.

    Its all right, Marissa acknowledged. She frowned. Luke, do you think you could smash through this?

    Ballistic shook his head. The shrapnel would be a killer. Jess?

    Something that looked like a four-armed ape knuckled its way in from the other room. They made way for it; it punched the wall. Dust fell. Nothing else much happened.

    We could wait for her to form something more capable of breaking through, suggested Marissa.

    The ape-thing shook its head. No matter what I make, it stated in a gravelly tone, it would still take too long. Mars, its up to you.

    Marissa bit her lip. I hate it when you say that. She looked around. Everyones going to need to get in the shower, even Jess. Its going to get very hot in here.

    ***​

    Universe A

    Coil stepped out of the concealed doorway into the parking garage, with Pitter and the guard at his heels.

    The first thing he saw were his other three soldiers, down on the ground, being secured with zip-ties.

    The second thing he saw were the PRT soldiers surrounding the area, all pointing guns at him and the other two. Laser sights cut through the dusty air. Quite a few of them terminated at his chest.

    Very slowly, he raised his hands.

    ***​

    Universe B

    Fuck!

    Coil growled out the expletive, and reached for his keyboard. He had a third way out, but first he was going to free his pet monster. Even if the Samaritans found a way past her and the Travellers, the base would then explode around them.

    A wave of bugs poured from the air vent; they covered the monitor, and then the keyboard, in a glittering tide of chitin.

    Uh uh, a voice spoke, and he realised that it was the bugs themselves, buzzing and humming and chirping in unison. Ladybug.

    Dont go doing that, now, the bugs went on. I dont know what allergies you have, but Ill risk it if I have to.

    He recoiled. Bugs he could handle. Bugs that could mimic human speech; that was creepy on a level that he just did not like.

    But he had to get to the keyboard, or the mouse. Access to his secret escape passage was controlled by his computer. If he couldn't get to either one, he was trapped here.

    With a snarled curse, he spun to the wall, where a fire extinguisher was mounted. The white powder would be hell on his lungs, but hopefully it would clear the intruding bugs from his desk for long enough.

    Yanking the pin out, he pointed the nozzle of the extinguisher at the bug-covered keyboard and squeezed the activation lever.

    ***​

    Both Universes

    Sparx shocked another soldier into insensibility, then looked around. The amount of incoming fire had dropped away to nothing. Screaming could be heard as Ladybug’s insectile minions did their work, but no-one was shooting at them.

    “Glory Girl,” she ordered. “Secure them, find any hold-outs. Make sure no-one’s playing possum. Once you’re done, Panacea can start making sure no-one’s gonna die.”

    “All right,” exulted the white-clad hero, accelerating through the air-shield. She landed beside the first soldier, and set about her task with a certain amount of enthusiasm.

    “Temperatures are going up,” warned Ladybug.

    “Where?” asked Sparx.

    Ladybug pointed. Across the far side of the open area, one of the doorways Vista had closed off was being opened once more. A patch of concrete was turning black, and smoke was starting to pour from the slot where a door had once been.

    “It’s Sundancer.” That was Tattletale.

    “Those are their quarters,” Ladybug agreed. “I just lost my last bugs in that area. I think they’re all in the shower or something.”

    And then the fireball burned its way through the last of the reinforced concrete and drifted out into the open area. Temperatures, as Ladybug had mentioned, immediately began to rise dramatically.

    Behind it followed Sundancer, and then Trickster and Ballistic. Both of the male members of the Travellers were soaking wet, whereas she was bone dry.

    “Can you do something about that thing, Vista?” asked Aerodyne. “Make it smaller, maybe?”

    Vista nodded, and concentrated on the sun-ball. It immediately began to shrink dramatically, ending up half the size of a basketball.

    “Excellent,” muttered Aerodyne, and dropped the force field. Almost instantly, another field formed into place around the sun-ball.

    “Trickster needs line of sight,” Tattletale said warningly.

    Ladybug didn’t need to be told twice; almost instantly, a cloud of bugs began to harass the Travellers, forcing them to shield their faces. And then Aerodyne held up her hand, fingers spread. A moment later, she closed it, and the sun-ball went out.

    “Nice,” Panacea congratulated her. “How did you do that?”

    “Starved it of air,” Aerodyne told her tersely. “Now shush; I need to concentrate. Ballistic’s a big hitter.”

    A moment later, Ladybug was gone, and Ballistic was in her place; Trickster had finally managed to get the line of sight he was after.

    ***
    Universe A

    “Well, you’ve got me,” Coil conceded smoothly. He watched as uniformed medics relieved Mr Pitter and the guard of the unconscious Dinah. “I suppose you’ll be taking me in for questioning?”

    “We already know most of the details we need to know about you,” snapped Armsmaster, stepping forward. “We need you to come back into your base with us.”

    “Back ... into the base?” repeated Coil.

    This was not what he had planned for. He had set up the self-destruct. It would go off in a matter of minutes. It would also go off if anyone tampered with his computer in that time. Also, if anyone tried to open one of the several heavy doors between the main complex and this escape route.

    “Yes,” replied Armsmaster. “And we’d best hurry, don’t you think?”

    He levelled his halberd; far from the high-tech wonder that most people saw it as, right now, to Coil, it just looked like a long, sharp weapon of war. One that was pointed at him.

    Without any options left to him, he started back down the steps.

    ***​

    Universe B

    Teeth bared under his mask, Coil sprayed the desk liberally with the white powder. Bugs were swept away with the force of the blast, and the small office quickly began to resemble the aftermath of a snowstorm, or an explosion of talcum powder.

    He inhaled, and coughed, then coughed again. This stuff got everywhere, even through the cloth that made up his whole-body costume. The bugs, he hoped, would also be suffering.

    But he’d cleared the keyboard, which was what he wanted. Giving the desk one last spray, he bent over the desk, and used his hand to swipe away the accumulation of white powder from the keyboard. When that didn’t get the results he wanted, he picked the keyboard up and held it upside down, shaking the powder off of it.

    It was still liberally coated in the stuff afterward, which wasn’t surprising; the very air in his office was thick with the powder, just hanging there. He coughed again.

    This time, when he wiped the keys off, he could just barely make out the letters through the haze of dust. His costume was so coated with the powder that the snake on it was virtually invisible.

    The screen was also coated in powder, of course. But that didn’t matter. He didn’t need it for this.

    He typed in a password that would not show up anywhere on the screen; it was intended to open an inconspicuous door at the back of the office. Turning his head, he did not see any such door opening. He moved over to where it should be. The wall stayed obdurately closed.

    Going back to the keyboard, he thought quickly. It was possible that he’d mistyped the password; the powder on the keys made such things tricky. He typed it again, taking his time to identify each key correctly.

    Again, there was no corresponding secret passage.

    He swiped irritably at the powder coating the screen, to see what was happening on the computer. There wasn’t any operating mode in which that password couldn’t happen, of course, but maybe he could work out what was going wrong by checking the screen.

    It was dark and blank, as best as he could tell.

    He swiped again. Yes, it was blank.

    He checked the power light.

    It was on.

    He checked the power light on the computer tower.

    It was on as well.

    Dropping to his knees, coughing at the clouds of white powder kicked up by this action, he pulled the tower out from its compartment, pulled the side off.

    Bugs were in there. Bugs in their hundreds, their thousands, their tens of thousands for all he could tell. All industriously chomping away at the connections, the chips, the motherboard ... everything.

    Fuck.

    ***​

    Both Universes

    Trickster and Ballistic had pulled this little stunt before. Ballistic could send opponents flying away, but he needed to touch them. Trickster could put him in among them, but of course this put an enemy in among them. With the opposition all being teenage girls, they needed a fairly bulky one to swap with Ballistic; Ladybug was tall, and her costume added a bit of bulk to her.

    The fact that his ability to launch them at the speed of sound would invariably end in fatalities did not factor into this; they were literally fighting for their home, here. Fighting to defend Noelle.

    Opponents they pulled this on were invariably caught by surprise, giving Trickster and Sundancer the chance to disable the enemy in their camp, and Ballistic the chance to wreak havoc in the enemy’s group.

    They had never tried this before on the Samaritans.

    ***​

    While the fertile imagination of the Dad Brigade had never gone so far as to imagine a team member being swapped for an enemy, they had practised the concept of a team member suddenly changing sides; Masters were a fact, after all.

    So when Ballistic appeared in their midst, Sparx reacted almost without thinking. Her hair whipped out to push the others away from the intruder. He took a step forward, reaching for her hair. She let him grab it; the shock sent him flying over the rail, to land on the hard concrete below.

    Across the other side of the open area, Ladybug reacted just as quickly. Reaching up, she jammed Trickster’s hat down over his eyes, dislodging his mask as she did so. Ignoring Sundancer, she dived over the rail, shouting “Glory Girl!” as she did so.

    She fell exactly fifteen feet before there was a soft impact, and she was being borne away on a pair of strong arms.

    Moments later, she was being set down with the Samaritans once more.

    “See?” Victoria told Sparx smugly. “I can do teamwork.” And she was gone again.

    Sparx gave her retreating form a measured nod of approval, then turned to scan the area.

    “Where’s Coil and the girl?” she asked.

    ***​

    Trickster pulled his hat up once more; a flying white form landed in front of him. The fist that clocked him on the jaw looked delicate, but hit like a Mack truck. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.

    Glory Girl turned to look at Sundancer.

    “So,” she asked. “We gonna go?”

    Slowly and reluctantly, Sundancer shook her head.

    ***​

    Universe A

    “Tried to do a runner,” reported Ladybug. “He’s being escorted back by Armsmaster and some Protectorate soldiers. Dinah’s being treated by their medics.”

    “Wait, what?” asked Sparx. “The Protectorate? When?” She stared at Tattletale and Vista. “Did you know about this?”

    “I knew,” Tattletale confirmed. “Vista didn’t.”

    “No, I didn’t, but I wish I had now,” Vista agreed. “Which exit is it? Let me know, so I can open it.”

    ***​

    Universe B

    “He’s trapped in his office,” reported Ladybug. “I’ve killed his computer, and now he’s attacking a section of wall with a piece of his chair. He’s also got a gun.”

    “Let’s go relieve him of that responsibility,” Sparx decided.

    “Oh, and Armsmaster is leading some PRT troops in via another entrance,” added Ladybug.

    Sparx’s head whipped around. “What?” She glared at Tattletale and Vista. “Did either of you know about this?”

    “I knew,” Tattletale confirmed. “Vista didn’t.”

    “No, I didn’t, but I wish I had now,” Vista agreed. “Which way are they coming in? Let me know, so I can open it.”

    ***​

    Both Universes

    “That one, there,” Tattletale told her, pointing. “Uh, we might have a problem.”

    All the Samaritans went on to high alert.

    “What?” asked Sparx.

    “There’s another member of the Travellers.”

    "We know. The changer. Genesis."

    “No, that’s not the one I mean. That one’ll be coming out that door any second now, though.”

    ***
    “Look out behind.”

    Glory Girl spun around at the buzzed warning.

    A sinuous draconic form slithered out from the scorched doorway; she backed away, taking to the air.

    “Your friends are down,” she yelled. “Give it up!”

    The dragon belched flames at her; she yelped and evaded.

    And then suddenly, it shrank. In moments, it was the size of a small dog; Glory Girl flew in and smashed it with one brutal blow.

    ***​

    Across the way, Vista grinned and dusted off her hands.

    “What one do you mean?” asked Sparx carefully.

    Tattletale pointed at the large vault door on the bottom level. A young man, who had slipped down there in the confusion, was talking into an intercom.

    “She’s in there.”

    ***​

    Universe A

    When they came to the first locked door, Armsmaster looked meaningfully at Coil. They had relieved him of his gun, but they had only cuffed his hands in front of him. So he had free access to the keypad.

    He knew quite well that since he had activated the self-destruct, any wrong attempt at entry would cause a devastating series of explosions to rip through the entire base. So he had to do this right.

    Reaching up to the keypad, he carefully typed in seven, one, zero, three.

    Just as carefully, he pressed Enter ...

    ***​

    Universe B

    Coil had one corner of the secret door open, and was levering it farther with the arm of the chair, when the concrete blocking the doorway opened up again. He turned fast, snatching up the gun from the floor and snapping off a shot. It struck Glory Girl dead centre, doing her no appreciable harm. He never got a chance for a second shot, because she broke his arm in three places. Her second punch broke his jaw and knocked him out.

    ***
    Universe A

    Coil gritted his teeth and collapsed the other timeline. He immediately opened another one, but it didn’t seem as though it was going to do him much good.

    They came to another door. He opened that, too.

    ***
    There was a girl in a wheelchair, still in the remains of the Travellers’ quarters; she introduced herself as Jess. She allowed herself to be conveyed, along with Sundancer and the unconscious (and secured) Trickster and Ballistic, to the vault door.

    The young man, who had distractedly identified himself as Oliver, was speaking soothingly into the intercom as they approached.

    “She’s not happy,” he told them. “She heard some of the shooting, and now she wants to know what’s going on.”

    “Who’s not happy?” asked Sparx. “What’s going on here?”

    “She’s a Case 53,” Tattletale told Sparx. “She’s monstrous. Really big. Dangerous. She’s killed people. Gone out of control. They came here because Coil promised them a cure.”

    Sundancer was staring at her. “She’s my friend!” insisted the Traveller girl. “Her name is Noelle Meinhardt, and she was my best friend before all this started.” Her eyes filled with tears. “I just want to go home, get away from all this.”

    “Coil lied to you,” Tattletale stated quietly but firmly. “He was never going to give her a cure, even if he could get one for her. A team of loyal capes, willing to do dirty work and not ask many questions? It’s a dream come true.” She nodded at the vault door. “Noelle was his leverage over you.”

    Jess shook her head. “No!” she insisted. “He told us that he was close to a cure!”

    “And how long had he been telling you that?” asked Tattletale softly. “Had anyone actually come in, taken samples, even looked at her? Tried something that didn’t work?”

    Their silence was a more compelling answer than any they could have given.

    “Okay.” Sundancer’s voice was soft, broken. “What do we do now?”

    “You can surrender to lawful custody.”

    The voice came from the catwalk overhead. Armsmaster stood there, with a contingent of PRT troops. More were entering from the way that the Samaritans had come in by.

    “Unless, of course,” he went on, “you’ve decided to surrender to the Samaritans. But that gets old, very fast.”

    Keeping a firm grip on Coil, Armsmaster descended the stairs to the lower level.

    “Well done,” he congratulated the teen heroes. “And you as well,” he added to Tattletale. “You seem to have picked the right side.”

    Tattletale stared at Coil.

    “Oh, shit,” she muttered, then raised her voice, speaking frantically. “Shut him up! Don’t let him speak!”

    ***​

    Universe A

    “Noelle!” Coil shouted. “I’m a prisoner! I’ll never find a cure now! And it’s all –“

    Sparx reacted faster than Armsmaster; her hair uncoiled, reaching out, wrapping around his head, his face, muffling his voice, gagging him.

    Armsmaster pressed his halberd up against Coil’s back. “One more word,” he growled, “and you’ll wish she’d tased you.”

    But it was too late.

    Noelle had heard.

    ***​

    Universe C

    Sparx whipped her hair out, coiling around his face, his mouth, muffling him. But he said nothing, did not struggle.

    Armsmaster pressed his halberd up against Coil’s back. “One word,” he growled, “and you’ll wish she’d tased you.”

    Coil shrugged lightly, as if to say, Not saying a word.

    And he smiled, under the gag, under the cloth of his mask.

    ***​

    Universe A

    Coil smiled, under the gag, under the cloth of his mask.

    Because he had heard what everyone else had heard.

    THOOOM.


    End of Part Seventeen
     
  19. Threadmarks: Part Eighteen: Bad End
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Eighteen: Bad End


    [Author's Note: since writing the last chapter, I have re-read Worm and taken note that the Travellers were (in canon) not established in Coil's base at the time of the bank robbery. I had the options of either rewriting that chapter to exclude them, or deciding that due to plot butterflies, Coil's base had been completed earlier, and so they had already moved in by this time. I went with the butterflies. It seemed easier.]


    Universe A

    The noise came again.

    THOOOM.

    The ground under their feet shivered; cracks spread in the concrete wall. Dust drifted down from above. Sparx tightened the grip of her tendrils around Coil's mouth.

    Everyone started shouting at once.

    “Back!” shouted Armsmaster. “Defensive perimeter!”

    “No!” Tattletale protested. “It's what Coil wants! He's going to try to escape in the confusion!”

    But her voice was drowned out in the general noise and mayhem.

    Ladybug spotted Sundancer and Oliver trying to drag the unconscious bodies of Trickster and Ballistic out of harm's way; she tapped Sparx on the shoulder, and directed her attention that way.

    Unwinding her tendrils from Coil's face – the damage was done already – the redhead moved in that direction and scooped them both up, bracing herself with more tendrils against the floor.

    <><>​

    Universe C

    Tattletale moved across and carefully shut off the intercom that accessed Noelle's vault. “Get him away from here,” she stated firmly. “He was going to say something, and things would have gone badly.”

    Armsmaster nodded. He took Coil by the shoulder. “Come on,” he snapped. “Try anything and I will tase you into a drooling puddle.”

    Sparx glanced at Tattletale; the blonde nodded. The redhead allowed her tendrils to relax from their grip around Coil's face.

    “I'll come quietly,” Coil assured the armoured hero smoothly. “It's not as if I can escape now, is it?”

    Tattletale glowered at him as he was escorted away.

    “What's the matter?” asked Ladybug quietly.

    “He's too confident,” Tattletale told her, equally quietly. “He's up to something. I don't know what it is, but he's very happy about how things are going.”

    Sparx, overhearing, nodded. “We'll keep an eye on him. Ladybug, tag him, so that if anything goes down, you know where to find him.”

    “Roger and done,” Ladybug assured her.

    Tattletale took a deep breath. “Right. Now, as for Noelle.”

    <><>​

    Universe A

    THOOOM.


    Another impact spread cracks across the wall before them.

    “Run!” yelled Coil. “It's too big, too powerful! You can't fight it!”

    PRT soldiers, hearing his words, and obviously not wanting to face whatever was trying to break out of the vault, began to edge back nervously.

    “For fuck's sake, he's playing you!” shouted Tattletale. She reached for a PRT soldier's sidearm; he noticed, grabbed her wrist, and a scuffle began.

    Ladybug stepped in, separating them. “Tattletale, enough,” she snapped. “What's gotten into you?”

    THOOOM.

    This time, chunks of concrete began to fall. The nervous retreat became a full-scale rout.

    “Coil's going to try to escape!” shouted Tattletale, even as she and Ladybug fell back. Aerodyne was putting up an air-shield to prevent the worst of the falling debris from hitting anyone, while Sparx was transporting Trickster and Ballistic out of the way.

    “Wake them up!” she called to Panacea. “We can move faster if they can walk!”

    “Not Trickster!” Genesis told her unexpectedly. “Leave him unconscious.”

    “Why?” asked Sparx.

    “Because he loves Noelle,” she replied frankly, “and I don't know which side he'd take right now.”

    <><>​

    Universe C

    “Okay, so she's a Case 53,” Amy noted. “I'm going to need to see what data Coil collected on her before I can consider making any changes in her body – or if it's even safe for me to get close to her.”

    “I, uh, had my bugs eat his computer,” Ladybug put in. “He really, really wanted to access something, and I decided that it wasn't in our best interests.”

    Tattletale blinked rapidly. “A self-destruct for the base. Right. Yeah, he would totally do that.” She grabbed a surprised-looking Ladybug and hugged her, ignoring the squeak of surprise. “You just saved all our lives doing that. Good job.”

    “We should be able to pull the hard drives, right?” asked Aerodyne. She glanced at Ladybug as Tattletale released her. “You're the computer geek. Would that work?”

    “They might be encrypted,” Ladybug pointed out.

    Tattletale grinned. “Not exactly a problem.”

    <><>​

    Universe A

    “I can stop this,” Coil urged the young private assigned to guarding him. “I just need to get to my office.”

    “I don't know,” Private Donaldson temporised. “The sergeant -”

    “- is busy organising things. Look, you've got the gun and I don't. We need to get up to my office and I can fix all of this.”

    “If you try to escape -”

    Coil held out his hands. “Cuff me if you have to.”

    Donaldson pulled handcuffs off his belt. One cuff went around Coil's right wrist; the other around Donaldson's left. “Lead the way,” the private ordered him grimly. “But if I find out it's a trick -”

    “It's not a trick,” Coil promised him. “And what am I going to try, with you there?”

    <><>​

    THOOOM. More bits of the roof fell, but Glory Girl was up there, doing her best to hold up the biggest pieces. Large cracks were starting to show in the wall hiding the vault from view.

    “It's okay, I'll keep an eye on him,” Ladybug advised Tattletale, looking around. “Where is he, anyway?”

    She scanned the milling PRT troops; Armsmaster was organising them, making sure no-one got in each other's way. But she didn't see the tall, cadaverous figure that was Coil.

    “Fuck!” shouted Tattletale. “He fucking got away!”

    “We don't know that!” Ladybug tried to reassure her.

    “Yes, I actually do know that!” Tattletale reminded her. “Fuck!”

    “Didn't you have him tagged?” shouted Sparx over the general melee.

    “Yeah - fuck, no!” Ladybug shouted back. "He just bug-sprayed himself!" She pointed. "He went that way!"

    THOOOM.

    Everyone was up on the second level by this time; near the wall, there was less chance of falling debris, so Glory Girl had rejoined them, carrying Genesis in her wheelchair. The vault door burst open, and there she was. The girl who had once been Noelle Meinhardt, at least from the waist up. From the waist down, a horrific monster, all tentacles and eyes and mouths and strange heads. Great elephant-like legs, with wicked claws, supported the oversized lower body.

    “Don't let her touch you!” shouted Sundancer. “She'll absorb you and spit out twisted clones!”

    But Glory Girl was already streaking in, fist raised to strike.

    <><>​

    Universe C

    Coil suffered himself to be escorted out of his base, out the way that the invaders had first come in. There were PRT all around here as well now. Not out this way, then, he decided.

    Casually, he glanced over toward a nondescript alleyway across the street from the construction area; there were no PRT troops near it. Excellent.

    Armsmaster prodded him with the butt of his halberd. “Move it,” he snapped. “Director Piggot wants to see you.”

    “I'm sure she does,” Coil replied cheerfully, and climbed into the back of the truck as indicated. Several PRT troopers climbed in as well, followed by Armsmaster. Every eye was on him. There would be no chance to escape.

    He settled back to enjoy the ride.

    <><>​

    Universe A

    Vista had left only two ways out of the base; the way the Samaritans had come in by, and the escape tunnel that Coil had tried to use as an exit. The latter would still be covered by the PRT, and now he knew that the former was also blocked off.

    Thankfully, he had planned for a third way; the escape duct that he had been trying for in the discarded reality, when Glory Girl broke his jaw.

    They don't know about it, here.

    He had gone with Donaldson to one of the ground level storerooms. Inside, there was a stairwell to the upper storey; it wasn't so much a secret passage as a way of getting around without being seen. Once on the upper level, they gained entrance to his office.

    “Okay, what now?” asked Donaldson.

    “Now I fix this mess,” Coil assured him. He sat down at his computer and moved the mouse with his right hand to wake it up. It was on, of course; his computer system was always on. It had not been destroyed by the bugs because he hadn't been at his computer when the invaders broke in.

    Moving the mouse woke the screen up, and he could see all the cameras. Then he clicked on a particular part of the background. Donaldson was distracted by the click as the office door locked, and he glanced around.

    This gave Coil just enough time to reach under his desk with his left hand. Clipped to the underside was a pistol, identical to the one that had been taken away from him. He shot Donaldson twice, then grabbed the key and unlocked the cuff from his wrist.

    Next, he pulled a can of insect spray from a desk drawer and thoroughly doused his surroundings in it. Checking the cameras revealed that spiders seemed to have webbed over some of the lenses. It was an annoyance, but not too much of one.

    And then he tapped in the key sequence that opened the secret panel at the rear of his office. A muted click told him that he had been successful; remembering what had gone before, he typed in a code which closed off all air vents. Finally, one more quick key entry armed the base self-destruct. And then he scrambled for the panel that was even now swinging gently open.

    <><>​

    Victoria Dallon struck Noelle Meinhardt on the point of the jaw. She was flying at full speed, and did not pull her punch. There was a sickening crack, and Noelle's head was driven back, her torso limply flopping sideways.

    “Hah!” snapped Vicky, coming to a halt in midair, hands on hips. “So much for -”

    And then Noelle's head came up, the neck resetting with a grisly crackling sound, and she turned to look at Glory Girl.

    Bitch,” she growled.

    Tattletale shouted a warning – too late.

    The tentacle that whipped up and grabbed Glory Girl from behind took her entirely by surprise. For a moment, she struggled, screaming, prising at the tentacle - no, it was a tongue - that was dragging her into a horrific maw.

    “Vicky!” shrieked Panacea. “Oh god, Vicky!”

    “Shoot her!” shouted Sundancer. “Kill her!”

    The horrified PRT men lined up along the rail obeyed, pouring fire into the mass of the creature. Mouths and heads roared discordantly. Bullet holes registered in the upper torso, closed a moment later. There was no other appreciable effect.

    A moment later, Glory Girl was gone, subsumed.

    “Not Noelle, you idiots!” raged Sundancer. “I meant Glory Girl! Fuck! Now we're all dead!”

    Tattletale got her meaning an instant later. “Fuck,” she breathed. “Twisted clones.”

    “Defensive posture!” shouted Sparx. “Armsmaster! We have to get out of here! Now!”

    “I can't help against Noelle,” Tattletale told Ladybug tensely, “but I can take down Coil. I'm going to need a gun.”

    Ladybug nodded; she turned to the closest PRT man. “Pistol. Now.”

    He hesitated, and she repeated the word. “Now.”

    Drawing the pistol, he handed it to her. She slapped it into Tattletale's palm. Tattletale nodded to her once. “Good luck.”

    “Same to you.” Taylor watched as she slipped through the crowd and disappeared. Then she turned her attention elsewhere; Sparx had given orders, and the integrity of her team depended on following them.

    Vista had widened the underground base so that Noelle appeared to be glowering at them from the length of a football pitch away. Armsmaster was organising the PRT soldiers into an orderly retreat; Sparx and the Samaritans were going to be covering said retreat.

    And then one of the mouths on the side of the ungodly horror that was Noelle Meinhardt's lower body opened up, and spewed a mass of sticky, slimy substance on the concrete floor. Bodies moved, twitched, got up.

    As they rose into the air, Panacea gasped in horror.

    Vicky.”

    <><>​

    Lisa came to the locked door, and knew that Coil was inside there, somewhere. Levelling the pistol, she fired point-blank at the lock. Three shots later, the door swung inward, the lock a twisted ruin.

    Ramming the door open with her shoulder, Lisa swung the gun to cover the room. The sole inhabitant of the room was the corpse of a PRT private who had been shot to death; the room stank of cordite, blood and liberally-applied bug spray. At the back of the room, a hatch hung not-quite-closed. She dashed over to it, pulling it open.

    Coil, you bastard. I'm coming for you.

    <><>​

    The PRT troopers were pouring into the escape tunnel, which Vista had also widened to accommodate more people. In the massive internal space of the underground base, six figures floated in midair. Each was easily recognisable as Victoria Dallon; for a given value of 'recognisable'. One was bald, lacking the flowing golden hair. Another was huge, bulked out, a caricature of a body builder. Another had a swollen, distorted head. The other three were also deformed in some small way, but not as thoroughly as their sisters. All were naked, but for the birthing slime.

    “Hey, sis,” purred one of the less deformed ones. “Wanna play?” She smiled, showing razor-sharp teeth.

    Panacea looked as though she wanted to throw up. “What has she done to you?” she whimpered, taking an involuntary step forward.

    The only response was a widening of the smile – and then the faux Glory Girls rocketed into a charge at the remaining people on the balcony.

    Those PRT soldiers left opened fire; two of the attackers faltered in midair and fell, spraying blood from multiple wounds. Two more ploughed into the PRT troopers, ripping limbs and heads off indiscriminately. One, aiming at the Samaritans, collided hard with the shield that Aerodyne raised. The shield popped like a soap bubble, but the Glory Girl clone was thrown into the concrete wall beyond. Bones crunched, and she fell to the ground, leaving a splash of blood on the wall. The two clones attacking the troopers encountered Sparx and Armsmaster, and went no farther. And the last …

    … the last retreated, with the screaming, struggling form of Amy Dallon in her arms.

    <><>​

    Amy writhed, trying to get free of the implacable grip of the girl who held her. It was Vicky – the mannerisms were the same, the expressions on her face. But it wasn't Vicky; it couldn't be. Not when there had been five others, all different, all with Vicky's face.

    She struggled to come to terms with what was happening. On one level, this was one of her most deeply held fantasies, to have Vicky, naked, holding her in her arms. And there was a glint in this Vicky's eyes that indicated that she might not be held to the same morals and standards as anyone else.

    But on another level, she was terrified. She wanted to fight back, to do something to stop what was happening. Intellectually, she knew that she could use her powers to hurt someone. To hurt … Vicky. But … she couldn't. She loved Vicky. She would never do anything to hurt Vicky. And even though she knew that this wasn't really Vicky (or was it? It was so like her) she could not bring herself to use her power offensively. I'm a healer, not a killer.

    And then it was too late, because the swarm had arrived.

    <><>​

    Ladybug had been trying, without notable success, to use her bugs to sting or bite Noelle into some sort of compliance. In fact, as her bugs touched the skin of the monstrosity, half the time they got stuck, and disappeared from her control. Now, as she saw Amy as the prisoner of her sister's clone, she immediately understood what was going to happen next.

    Twisted clones … I'm sorry, Amy.

    Every bug she had, everything with venom or stingers, or anything that could possibly put an end to Amy Dallon, she threw at the biokinetic. Amy was literally covered in bugs. She opened her mouth to scream as stingers plunged into her flesh, as venom flowed into her bloodstream. Other bugs swarmed into her mouth –

    - and then the Victoria-clone flew downward, dragging Amy with her, into one of Noelle's many gaping maws.

    Taylor felt her connection to all the bugs – disappear.

    They were gone.

    Amy was gone.

    She looked around to see why the troopers had not fired, and saw that they were all down. The other two Glory Girl clones were also down, one sliced into two messy halves, and the other one smoking gently as Sparx's tendrils unwound from it. She met the eyes of her teammates. This is very, very bad.

    Armsmaster was already talking; probably trying to raise PRT headquarters. He shook his head. “We have to get outside. I have to call in a strike on this place.”

    “Go!” shouted Sparx. “We'll cover you!”

    <><>​

    Coil climbed out of the manhole, carefully fitting the cover back into place. He moved slowly and cautiously, mindful of the PRT troopers surrounding the secret entry, just across the street. Just a little farther and I'm free and clear, he told himself. And then I'll set about leaving the city. I do not wish to share it with that enraged beast.

    He was almost at the other end of the alleyway when he heard the manhole cover grind open once more.

    "Oh, for fuck's sake," he muttered. "Do these people never give up?"

    Resisting the urge to collapse the other timeline and start fresh - he was not yet free and clear, after all - he hurried out of the alley and across the street.

    <><>​

    Lisa eased open the manhole cover, aware that she was eminently vulnerable. But she didn't think Coil was waiting in ambush. Lifting it farther, she climbed out, letting the cover down carefully. Glancing around, she quickly divined which way Coil had gone; holding her gun low at her side, she set off after him.

    No matter what else happens, I'm gonna kill that sonofabitch.

    In her left hand, she held a phone, busily typing a text.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster bolted into the escape tunnel; immediately thereafter, Vista closed the exit. The glance that she shared with the others was frightened but resolute; she had occasionally wondered if she would be killed in the line of duty. After all, she had come close once or twice before. In the end, she had decided that if this was the way she was going to go, she would face it unflinchingly.

    I just wish Dean -

    The thought was broken off, because the clones were attacking again. And this time, the Glory Girl clones were backed up with Panacea clones. Noelle had spat out even more versions of Vicky than before, and reinforced them with twisted versions of Amy.

    Flying up close, several Glory Girls began pummelling the air shield with hammer-blows that dimpled the shield deeply, but did not quite rupture it. Aerodyne hung on, but she was jolted with every impact; under her mask, her face was as white as her draperies.

    "Make a sun!" yelled Sparx, at Sundancer.

    "I can't!" sobbed the blonde. "It would be inside the shield!" Which, Sparx realised, would kill them all.

    In her chair, Genesis closed her eyes. Off to the side, a shape began forming.

    Two Glory Girls peeled off and ripped it to pieces.

    "Hole!" shouted Sparx. Aerodyne obediently created a hole in the top of the shield. Tendrils extruded and shocked two of the Glory Girls, but then a third arced up and over - Aerodyne gasped and shut the hole, but Sparx' tendrils were still extended through it - and landed a hammer-blow, right on the weak point.

    The shield popped like a bubble, for the second time.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster sprinted down the corridor. Running full armour was not easy, but he had practised. He didn't know exactly where he was going, but he had a fairly good idea. All he had to do was reach open air so that he could get a clear signal, send his message, then return to assist the Samaritans.

    In the back of his mind, he knew that they would never last that long, but he could hope.

    Abruptly, a barred gate slammed down in front of him. As he skidded to a halt, another dropped behind him. Gas began to pour out of vents above him.

    Activating his halberd, he swung at the barred gate, high and then low. The metal, electrified though it was, parted like so many carrot sticks. Bars clattered to the ground.

    He had instinctively held his breath when the gas began, but now he started to feel an ominous tingling over those parts of him not covered by his armour. Skin agent. He began to run on, still holding his breath, but the tingling sensation spread. A weakness, a lassitude, began to spread through his limbs. He grimly staggered on.

    <><>​

    Ladybug was desperately trying to bring in a second swarm, but the air vents were all closed, and the tunnel behind her was likewise blocked. She brought up her arms in a futile gesture, pepper-spraying one of the Glory Girls right in the face. Her forearm was seized - she felt it snap like a twig - and she was wrenched right over the rail and flung through the air. She landed on something warm and pulsating, and had half a second to think, I'm okay? before the tongue wrapped around her and dragged her into the gaping maw. Her very last thought was Dad, I'm sorry -

    Sundancer flung herself aside from the onrush of the clones. Landing prone, the wind was driven out of her body. But still, she had enough presence of mind to hold her hands before her and start forming a sun. Maybe I can -

    Two feet landed in front of her, before she was properly started, and she was hauled abruptly to her feet. She saw what had hold of her, and gagged; one of the Panaceas, who sported spikes from her body at odd intervals for some reason, had taken one of the Glory Girls and distorted her into a living suit of armour, literally pulling her apart and reforming her clone-sister around her own body.

    Pulling Sundancer close, the Amy/Vicky hybrid extruded a long finger that punched through Marissa's breastbone and into her chest. She expected to die then, but she didn't; instead, she felt the fiery spread of the deranged clone's tendrils as they traced every nerve ending, culminating with her brain. And to her horror, she felt her attitudes begin to shift, to change. She loved the Panacea/Vicky hybrid. She loved Noelle. Everyone else ... would burn.

    Jess, still attempting to form another body, never had the chance to wake up; a Glory Girl clone threw her over the rail, chair and all.

    A Panacea clone leered at Aerodyne; she felt a scream welling in her throat. But two fingers brushed across her cheek, and it was all over. Before the scream could even reach her lips, she was already paralysed. Even her brain could not engage, activate her power.

    Vista leaped over the rail; she reduced the distance to mere feet, then once she was down, began sprinting across the room. Her power served to keep the pursuing clones off of her, and she began to dare hope that she could perhaps escape into a corridor, seal it behind her -

    - until her power abruptly began to fail her. She tried again and again, desperately, then realised the truth when she started coughing blood. One of the Panaceas had created a cloud of living spores, and she had run right into the middle of it.

    She was on her knees, blood spraying from her lips with every convulsion of her diaphragm, when she was plucked up by a tentacle-tongue and drawn into the nearest gaping maw.

    Sparx held out the longest. She saw the others struck down, and knew that all was lost.

    They had discussed this, long into the night, just the three of them. If it's all gone bad, and staying alive is worse than dying ... Each of them had sworn a solemn oath to do what had to be done. Taylor, before she was taken, had tried to perform that little mercy upon Amy; ultimately, she had failed, but she had tried. And it was down to Emma to do what needed to be done, to ensure that Noelle had as little ammunition as possible with which to strike at the city.

    She already had a dozen clones enmeshed in her tendrils; some were dead, mostly the Panacea clones, but also a few Glory Girls as well. But now she extended more tendrils, to those of her friends, teammates and fellow capes as she could reach.

    This would open her up to the clones, allow them to reach her, she knew. But she had to do this. A moment of concentration, a searing pulse of electricity, and each of them died; Sundancer, Aerodyne, Trickster, Ballistic.

    A Glory Girl clone grabbed her, and drew back its fist -

    <><>​

    The self-destruct mechanism, activated mere minutes ago, counted its last seconds. There was no bright flashing LCD timer, no bundle of colour-coded wires that intrepid heroes could cut just in time to save the day. There was just a timer, activated but not controlled by the computer, there was an independent battery backup, and there was about a ton of Semtex, distributed in weak points throughout the complex.

    The timer ticked over. It sent the signal. Every electronic detonator received it, and functioned perfectly.

    The interior of Coil's base dissolved in a maelstrom of flame, superheated air, and flying debris. Already weakened, and then spread far wider than it was supposed to, the main gallery collapsed ahead of schedule, but not before Sparx and everyone still not subsumed into Noelle's gross body had been killed.

    Armsmaster, reduced to a shambling totter, was almost at the exit. He saw the signal strength rise dramatically ... and then the tunnel blew itself to pieces. Ironically, he survived the initial explosion, but a piece of rebar speared through his chest; he would drown in his own blood before the shocked PRT soldiers could ever dig him out.

    Lisa, almost at the end of the alleyway, looked around at the rumbling boom; her eyes widened as the manhole cover blew straight up, followed by a cloud of smoke and flame. She knew exactly what had happened, and that all of her newfound friends were dead, or worse. "Fuck," she muttered, a little more loudly than she had intended.

    Coil also heard the explosion, and the expletive that followed it.

    That voice sounds familiar.

    Peering from around the cover of a dumpster, he saw the lone figure, gun in hand, venture into the street. She turned her head, as if scanning, then looked straight at him. Raising the pistol she held, she fired twice.

    He had to admit, for an untrained amateur, she wasn't a bad shot. One bullet gouged brickwork two feet above his head, while the other pinged off of the dumpster, even closer to home.

    But he had been a trained PRT man before Ellisburg, and had recertified when he had been brought back into the fold and made a strike team leader. He aimed, even as she lunged for cover, and fired. It only took one shot.

    Standing up from cover, he walked out of the alley and across the street. Tattletale lay there, her pistol six inches from her outstretched hand. She stared up at him, labouring for breath, as she pressed her hand to her stomach. A dark stain spread in all directions, turning the already-dark indigo costume black in the weak street-lighting. A trickle of dark red ran from the corner of her mouth.

    "You stupid little bitch," he told her, kicking the gun farther away from her hand. "You had to go be the big fucking hero."

    She coughed, weakly. More red ran from her mouth. "Brought ... you ... down ... din't ... I ...". Her lips tried to curl in the familiar, irritating vulpine grin.

    "Hardly," he told her curtly. "I'll start again. But first, I might just dispose of your Undersiders, just in case they decide that I had something to do with your demise."

    That got a reaction, a flinch, but he decided that he'd had enough of this conversation. "Any last words?" he asked, levelling the pistol.

    She coughed again. "Fuck ..."

    He fired before she could get the second word out. Predictable.

    <><>​

    In the ruins of the collapsed base, Noelle shifted slightly. She had survived the majority of the explosions, being already covered with rubble from the collapsed roof. Within her body, she held Glory Girl, Panacea, Ladybug, Genesis and Vista. Enough to destroy the city. Enough to kill everyone and level it to the ground.

    I think I'll wait a week, and start sending out clones. Undamaged ones, back to their families. When they murder their loved ones, and start on everyone else, that should spread enough chaos. I'll come out then, claim more bodies, send out more clones. Kill the city, kill the country.

    Kill the world.


    <><>​

    Coil holstered his pistol and turned away from the body of Tattletale. She had been useful once; it might have been worthwhile to put her in Dinah's place, but such was not to be. Stepping into the road, he decided that it was probably about time to collapse the other timeline -

    He never saw the car coming; his ears, still ringing from the multiple gunshots, had not picked up the growl of the motor as it idled down the street. But when the lights came on to full high beam, and the engine note rose to a roar, he saw it and heard it all too clearly.

    And far too late.

    The car's bumper caught him and flung him in the air; he felt bones break, and he landed on the street in a tangled pile. As the car door opened and closed, he tried to reach his pistol. He had his hand on it as the tall figure - almost as tall and skinny as him - walked toward him. He pulled it out; the tall man brought his arm down and something metal struck his wrist; he heard the bone snap, and the clatter as the gun hit the asphalt. He may also have cried out; he was not sure.

    "You killed my little girl, you son of a bitch."

    Now he had the man placed. Danny Hebert, head of the Dockworkers' Association, and agitator for the ferry to be reinstated. Not that it will do me much good now.

    "Danny -" he managed, before the tyre iron came whistling down again. Bone broke, and Coil tried not to cry out again. His left arm was now useless.

    "And you killed my best friend's little girl."

    There was something utterly terrifying in Hebert's cold, remorseless delivery.

    "Danny, we can -"

    This time, it was his jaw that shattered under the impact of the heavy iron. He cried out, wordlessly. Teeth ripped loose by the impact, were trapped inside the mask of his costume.

    "Shut. The fuck. Up."

    Coil could not speak; Danny chose not to. He began to systematically, brutally, beat Coil to death. The only sounds that he made were the hissing of his breath through his teeth. He broke both of Coil's legs, shattered his kneecaps, and then his arms and collarbones. The fact that some of these bones were already broken mattered not at all to him.

    And then, finally, he raised the tyre iron over his head, and Coil saw for the first time the tears standing in the man's eyes. He did not imagine for a second that the tears were for him.

    Up until this point, he had held off on collapsing this timeline; freedom was freedom, after all, and broken bones could be mended. But when the tyre iron slashed down at his head, Coil admitted defeat, and collapsed the timeline.

    <><>​

    Universe C

    As the truck pulled in toward the PRT building, Coil scowled under his mask.

    He wasn't enjoying the ride so much any more.

    <><>​

    As Sparx led the others out of Coil's base, she turned to Tattletale. "So, how do you like being a part of the Samaritans?" she asked with a smile.

    Tattletale grinned. "Oh, I could get to like it.” She glanced at Ladybug. “Your dads are kinda cool. It must be nice having positive male role models.”

    Ladybug snorted. “I think you could do with a positive anything role model.”

    They all burst out laughing. Lisa grinned her fox-like grin, and did not argue with her.


    End of Part Eighteen

    Part Nineteen
     
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2015
  20. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka True Evil

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    Carpet liking engaged and finished.....Coil's death almost made up for ending the universe in that timeline.
     
    Ack likes this.
  21. Adyen

    Adyen Experienced.

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    I kinda liked the earlier chapters... but once we got to the dance chapter I just kinda lost interest.

    I'm not quite sure what did it... But it might just be the whole "power of friendship" vibe I keep getting. *shrug*
     
  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Chapter 18 updated to answer questions such as "How did Coil escape?" and "Why didn't Amy use her powers on Clone!Vicky?"
     
  23. Threadmarks: Part Nineteen: Consolidation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger
    Chapter Nineteen: Consolidation

    Welcome to the Parahumans Online Message Boards
    You are currently logged in, DannyH
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    ■​

    ♦Topic: PRT troop movements in BB?
    In: Boards ► PRT Stuff


    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Posted on April 16, 2011:
    So wait, did something go down in Brockton Bay yesterday or what? I'm told there were movements of PRT troops, but no-one's saying anything.

    (Showing Page 1 of 4)

    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    I didn't hear about that, but did you hear about the robbery of the BB Central Bank, the day before? Word is, it was the Undersiders, and they didn't get away free and clear.

    Ladybug (Verified Cape) (Team Samaritan)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Yes, the Undersiders tried to rob the Brockton Bay Central Bank the day before yesterday. Sparx, Aerodyne and I stopped them.

    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    So what's that got to do with PRT troop movements in BB yesterday?
    (Nice going btw)

    AllSeeingEye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Well, the Samaritans captured one of the Undersiders, and that person's since changed sides and joined the heroes.

    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Holy shit. I'd heard that, but I didn't think it was true. Does this mean the other thing's true, that Vista's quit the Wards and joined Team Samaritan?

    Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Nope. Still a Ward. I have, however, been assigned as a liaison with Team Samaritan for the time being.

    AllSeeingEye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    And babysitter? Or is that watchdog?

    Sparx (Verified Cape) (Team Samaritan) (Team Leader)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Stop teasing the liaison, ASE. You joined in good faith.

    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Holy shit. Holy fucking shit. Are you telling me that <CENSORED> has joined Team Samaritan?

    Tin_Mother (Moderator)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Please do not spread unsupported speculation regarding the identities of any members of Team Samaritan, or any other cape team.

    End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4

    (Showing Page 2 of 4)


    AllSeeingEye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    I'll never tell.

    Vista (Verified Cape) (Wards ENE) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    That'll be the day.

    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    So is it just me, or is everyone else wigged out about the fact that a bunch of teenage girls has managed to outshow the PRT and the Protectorate over the last few months?

    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    I think we're getting a little away from the original topic.
    PRT troop movements in BB, yesterday? I've spoken to people who definitely saw trucks driving in and out of PRT HQ, loaded with troops.

    XxVoid_CowboyxX (Temp-banned)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    I'm actually wondering just how old they are. They could almost be young enough to be in my class.

    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Come to think of it, there were a few capes out and about yesterday, too.
    Live fire exercise, or something else?

    AssKicker (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Hey Void, didn't you hear Tin_Mother? No speculating on the identities of cape team members.

    AllSeeingEye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Yeah, you'd almost think something big had gone down. Maybe a major supervillain got captured or something.

    XxVoid_CowboyxX (Temp-banned)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    No, but I'm not talking about that. I'm just saying that they could easily be in my class. Hell, I could know these girls.

    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Void, you idiot.

    End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4

    (Showing Page 3 of 4)


    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Don't even go there.

    Tin_Mother (Moderator)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    When I say 'no speculation', Void Cowboy, I mean it. Have a temp ban while you think about that.

    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    What are you trying to say, AllSeeingEye?

    AllSeeingEye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Me? I know nothing. Just making idle conversation, here.

    Sparx (Verified Cape) (Team Samaritan) (Team Leader)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Ahem. ASE. Give it a rest.

    AllSeeingEye (Unverified Cape)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    You're no fun.

    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    You realize, you're not putting any speculation to rest, doing this.

    Sparx (Verified Cape) (Team Samaritan) (Team Leader)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Yeah, well, do a headcount of active supervillains in the city, and make up your own mind.

    Armsmaster (Verified Cape) (Protectorate ENE) (Veteran Member) (Team Leader)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Yesterday, PRT forces, in conjunction with elements of the Protectorate, the Wards, Team Samaritan and New Wave successfully carried out a joint operation to deal with a threat to the city. That is all.

    EmDee (Cape Groupie)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    ... is it just me, or did he just explain what happened without actually saying anything?

    End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4

    (Showing Page 4 of 4)


    Sparx (Verified Cape) (Team Samaritan) (Team Leader)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    What Armsmaster said.

    Seahawk (Original Poster) (The Guy In The Know) (Veteran Member)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    So you guys took down a major supervillain? Who?

    Aerodyne (Verified Cape) (Team Samaritan)
    Replied on April 16, 2011:
    Like Sparx said, do a headcount.

    End of Page. 1, 2, 3, 4

    <><>​

    Danny pushed away from the computer with a sigh, and stood up. He hadn't really been interested in computers before all this started, and he still wasn't a huge fan. But Taylor had gotten him on to the PHO boards, and he had seen how it could be used to follow cape activity, and so he regularly lurked on the boards, reading about what was going on.

    However, there was still real life to deal with.

    “Taylor?” he called out. “Can you come down here please?”

    Moments later, he heard her door open and close, and she came thumping down the stairs. She gave him a bright smile as she headed for the kitchen. “What's up, Dad?” she asked over her shoulder as she went into the fridge for some of the chilled juice.

    “I've been reading the online chatter about the Coil takedown yesterday,” he told her. “I presume you have too.”

    “Yeah,” she agreed, with a wide grin. “Wasn't it great?”

    “That's what we need to talk about,” Danny told her. “After action reports and so on. That was the biggest thing you girls have pulled off so far, and we need to make sure we're all on the same page about what happened, what you tell the media, and what you post online.”

    She blinked a couple of times, behind her glasses. “I … yeah, I guess. That's true.”

    He smiled. “That said, kiddo, I am so proud of you for what you did. You did really good, all three of you.” He stepped forward and hugged her, careful not to spill her drink.

    “Four, actually if you count Lisa,” Taylor corrected him, returning the hug. “Seven if you count Amy and Vicky and Vista.”

    He rolled his eyes. “All of you. You did a great job.”

    “What, me too, Mr H?” Lisa came strolling downstairs, wearing a pair of Taylor's baggier jeans and one of her sweaters.

    “You too,” he agreed, then turned to Taylor. “Though remind me again why she's staying here?”

    “Because Madison doesn't have the room, and Amy and Vicky spent last night over at Emma's,” Taylor replied promptly.

    “Ah. Right.” He turned to Lisa. “I don't mind you being here,” he began.

    “Much,” she murmured, with a vulpine grin.

    “ … right. Much,” he agreed, with a mildly aggravated sigh. “Just so you know, doing that? Does not actually make you any more welcome.”

    “So noted,” she responded, her grin widening.

    “Anyway. As I was saying. I don't mind you being here – much – but we're going to have to work out better living arrangements in future. Also … “

    “Also, you're wondering how serious I was about joining the Samaritans, and whether I'm just going to take a powder now that the Coil job is done. But you were just trying to figure out how to say it in a way that wouldn't offend me,” she concluded brightly.

    Danny met Taylor's eyes; she shrugged slightly. He looked back at Lisa. “Well, are you?” he asked bluntly.

    She frowned, thinking about that. “I'd considered it,” she admitted in the end. “Just go back to the Undersiders, business as normal. But … all things considered, I decided not to. For one, it would be a bit of a dick move. For another, you guys did me a real solid. Not just taking Coil down, but agreeing to let me on to the team in the first place. You could've turned me over to the PRT any time.”

    “That was Sparx making that decision, not me,” Taylor pointed out.

    “But you accepted it,” Lisa pointed out. “Went along with it. Helped me out when I needed it most.” She turned to Danny. “You let me into your home. Gave me a place to sleep. Trusted me that far.”

    Danny nodded. “I was a little dubious, yes,” he admitted. “But … well, trust has to start somewhere.”

    Lisa grinned. “Plus, Taylor could probably track me down really easily if I tried to screw you guys over, right?”

    “Plus, there is that,” Danny agreed, deadpan.

    “So where do we go from here?” asked Taylor.

    “We need to have a meeting,” Danny decided.

    Taylor frowned. “What about?”

    “The team.”

    <><>​

    Alan Barnes opened the front door. “Come on in,” he told them. “Zoe's taken Anne shopping, so we've got until the shops close.”

    Danny let Taylor and Lisa walk in first, then he entered; Alan shut the door behind him. “Vista's already here,” Lisa commented offhand as they walked through into the living room.

    Danny met Alan's gaze and rolled his eyes slightly. She's been doing it all day, his expression stated quite plainly. Alan grinned.

    Not only was Vista there, but Madison had already made it. She and Emma were sitting back on the lounge, chatting with the Ward.

    “So does Zoe know?” asked Danny carefully. “And Anne?” He had wondered, but not quite known how to bring it up.

    “Zoe does, Anne doesn't,” Alan informed him. “Or at least, we don't think Anne does. Zoe figured it out fairly early, and she let me know that she'd keep quiet.”

    “Both my parents know,” Madison supplied, with a nod to her father. “But Mom doesn't want to know. So she pretends not to see what's going on.”

    Danny looked around the room. “Right,” he ventured, “are we all here?”

    “Not quite,” Alan noted. “But Panacea rang a few moments ago to say that she was on the way. Glory Girl's giving her a lift.”

    “And that'll be her now,” Lisa put in. “Landed in the back yard ten seconds ago.”

    “I didn't hear anything,” Emma objected.

    “She's right,” Taylor advised her. “I just spotted them myself.”

    Alan was already moving toward the back door when the knock sounded; he opened the door to admit the two members of New Wave.

    Now we're all here,” Lisa declared smugly. “Let the meeting commence! I nominate myself for chairman.”

    Silence followed her proclamation, then a wasp landed on the tip of her nose. She tried to look at it without crossing her eyes, then at Taylor, who gazed expressionlessly back at her.

    “Okay, fine,” she grumped, flopping into a chair. “Someone else can run the show. You guys are no fun.” The wasp left her nose and flew off. She gave Taylor a dirty look. “Do you really carry around wasps just in case?”

    Taylor nodded seriously. “Yes. And other bugs.". She made no movement, but in another moment, her hair was alive with bugs of all types. Those that could, took flight; the rest scuttled over her arms and clothes. The swarm surrounded her, spreading outward in all directions.

    Amy flinched slightly; Vicky visibly recoiled. Even Vista leaned back slightly in her chair. Madison and Emma did not so much as blink; nor did Danny or the other adults react.

    "Okay, kiddo," Danny commented with a grin. "You can put them away now. I think everyone's gotten the message."

    The flying bugs reversed direction, spiralling down into her hair. Similarly, the crawling ones scuttled up her sleeves, over her shoulders, and out of sight.

    "Christ," muttered Glory Girl. "That is not a sight I am going to get used to in a hurry."

    "That's fine," Lisa told her cheekily. "You don't have to. You're not the liaison; Amy is."

    Glory Girl glared at her. "Why, exactly, have you allowed a supervillain to join your team, again?" she asked, addressing the room in general.

    "Why, exactly, have you allowed someone who's not even on the team to attend a team meeting, again?" Lisa retorted, mimicking her tone of voice almost exactly.

    "Enough!" snapped Emma; her hair curled outward to form a barrier between the blonde supervillain and the equally blonde teen hero. Sparks crackled between the tendrils. "Tattletale, we took you on with the understanding that you were going to at least try to behave. So behave, and stop needling the superhero."

    Her angry gaze turned toward Vicky. "Glory Girl, you are here as a guest, in this house and at this meeting. Tattletale does actually have more right to be here than you. Keep that in mind, or I will ask you to leave."

    “And if she does,” Amy declared, “I'm staying.”

    As both hero and villain subsided, Alan Barnes ran a hand over his face. “Seriously,” he muttered. “When we started the team, we did not see this coming.”

    “Trust me,” Vista murmured to him, “you haven't seen the worst of it. Some days, I think Clockblocker is trying to give the Director a stroke.”

    Alan put his hand over his eyes again, and slowly shook his head.

    <><>​

    “For the first order of business,” Danny noted, “we decide on whether or not to keep Tattletale on as a member of the Samaritans.”

    Glory Girl frowned. “Uh, excuse me?” she asked, raising her hand.

    Danny looked her way. “Yes?”

    “I thought it was Team Samaritan.”

    Emma rolled her eyes. “That's what the news guys called it. We decided to not make a fuss about it. It was out there, so we left it as is.”

    “Huh,” Vista commented. “I was actually wondering about that, myself.”

    Anyway,” Danny went on. “Tattletale, do you actually want to be a part of the Samaritans?”

    Lisa looked around the room, then nodded. “Sure,” she replied. “You're cool. And you helped kick Coil's ass.”

    “Gonna have to change the name, though,” Aerodyne pointed out.

    “Agreed,” Alan replied. “Tattletale's too well known as a villain.” He turned to face Lisa. “Are you all right with that?”

    Lisa considered it. “I guess,” she conceded after a few moments, “but I get to pick my new name.”

    Danny nodded. “That's fair. All right. I'm abstaining from voting, so we won't have ties. Votes in favour?”

    Emma's hand rose first, then Taylor's. Aerodyne's went up next, along with her father's. Alan Barnes put his hand up last. “You did a good job,” he stated quietly, “and my daughter trusts you. Just don't let us down.”

    Danny blinked. “Huh. Unanimous. I didn't see that coming.”

    Lisa gazed at him, wide-eyed. “Wow. I didn't see it coming, either.”

    Danny raised an eyebrow. “Right. You knew it was gonna happen all along.”

    Lisa grinned. “Mayyybe.”

    <><>​

    “Okay,” Alan stated. “Next order of business. Liaisons. We went from having none, to having two, all in one day. We need to discuss what sort of policy we're going to have regarding liaisons. Given that on the Coil mission, there were more liaisons and new members than core members.”

    He paused. “Emma, why are you smiling?”

    “Oh, nothing,” Emma replied cheerfully. “Lisa, you know as a full member, you get to go through the same training that we did.”

    Lisa's grin lessened slightly. “I'm getting a bad feeling about this.”

    Taylor was grinning now, too. “Let's just say, Mr Clements is really good with a paintball gun.”

    Lisa developed a slightly hunted expression. “I can't get out of this, can I?”

    Vista folded her arms. “Nope,” she stated with satisfaction.

    “Liaisons should have to go through the same training,” Lisa appealed. “Right?”

    “She's got a point,” Aerodyne admitted. “Mr Hebert?”

    “You know, I don't see why not,” Danny decided. “After all, you can't really work in with the team if you aren't up to the same level of preparation.” He turned to Vista. “Are you ready to undertake the same sort of training that Emma, Taylor and Madison do?”

    ”Am I?” she responded. “I spent the last three years of my life getting to where I am now. And your team's as good as it is in four months? Sign me up!”

    The sheer enthusiasm in her tone raised a chuckle around the room; Madison sat up and raised her hand. Vista high-fived her, to general applause.

    Emma turned to Amy. “Okay, so you've stated several times that you want to stay as our liaison to New Wave.”

    Amy nodded. “Uh, yeah. If you'll have me.”

    Taylor climbed out of her armchair, sat on the arm of Amy's chair, and hugged her. “Of course we'll have you,” she assured the healer. “You and Vicky kicked ass out there yesterday.”

    Amy ducked her head, looking a little self-conscious. “Uh, that was mainly Vicky, not me.”

    “You were still there,” Taylor insisted. “You stepped up. You did your bit.”

    Danny nodded. “If you want to continue as liaison, Amy, we'll be pleased to have you.”

    Amy smiled shyly. “I … thanks. I appreciate it. I really do.”

    Alan Barnes looked around the room. “Anyone not good with that?” His eyes fell on Lisa, not entirely by accident.

    Lisa frowned, managing to look affronted. “What? Seriously? You think I'd pull crap like that, just to screw her around? Hell no. She needs this team. I'm all for the idea.”

    Danny blinked. “Well, okay then. It looks like we're agreed. Tattletale's a member, and Vista and Panacea are confirmed as liaisons. What's our policy for taking on more?”

    Emma raised her hand. “I propose that we don't. Not until we see how the ones we already have work out. If we get more offers – and to be honest, I can't see that happening any time soon – we call a meeting before deciding.”

    “Sounds fair,” Danny conceded. “Girls?”

    Taylor and Madison glanced at each other, then nodded. “Sure,” agreed Madison. “Sounds reasonable.”

    Danny glanced at Alan Barnes, then at Madison's father; they both nodded in agreement.

    “Okay then,” Danny decided. “That's sorted.” He looked around the room. “Anyone got any other business?”

    There was a long pause, during which no-one spoke.

    “Right then,” he declared. “Meeting done. Thanks, guys.” He stood up from his chair and stretched. “Tomorrow, we kick over training again.”

    Alan nodded. “I'll go out tonight and make sure everything's set up.”

    Vista got up from her chair and went over to Emma. “So, this training. What is it that you do, exactly?”

    “Well, we've got a maze,” Emma told her, “and we've got to practise getting through it with handicaps, while Mr Clements shoots at us with paintballs. It's a teamwork thing. And we do hand to hand training, and Dad makes sure we're up to date with first aid techniques. And then there's ...”

    They walked away, side by side, Emma talking and Vista listening intently.

    <><>​

    Amy leaned back in the comfortable armchair and smiled. It was … different, here. There was a family atmosphere, but she was a part of it. She'd been accepted. There was no undercurrent of dislike, of suspicion.

    Someone sat on the arm of her chair, where Taylor had vacated just moments before. She looked up, startled.

    “Hey,” Tattletale greeted her. “Congrats on getting the liaison position.”

    “Uh, thanks?” ventured Amy. She wasn't quite sure how to react to Tattletale; the girl had been a supervillain, up until forty-eight hours previously. “Uh, congratulations on getting membership, uh, Tattletale.”

    The ex-villain waved a negligent hand, giving Amy a very fox-like grin. “I'll be dumping that name, for something more heroic, I guess. In the meantime, we're gonna be on the same team, so you can call me Lisa.” She leaned a little closer; Amy found it hard to meet the intent gaze of those bottle-green eyes.

    “I … uh … okay, Lisa,” Amy managed.

    “You know,” murmured Lisa, “I bet if you asked, they'd make you a member too, just like me.”

    Amy swallowed. She wanted to ask. It was on the tip of her tongue. But she didn't dare. Didn't think she deserved it. Not yet.

    “I'll, uh, think about it,” she replied carefully.

    Lisa nodded sympathetically, as if she knew every thought that was running through Amy's head. “That's cool. Keeping your options open, that's not a bad career move. Wish I'd had that chance.”

    Amy frowned. “What do you mean? You were a supervillain. You were in the Undersiders.”

    Lisa shook her head. “Not exactly by choice,” she revealed. “It was a case of either agree to join, or be shot in the head. I chose the option of not being shot in the head.”

    “Wow, holy crap,” murmured Amy. And I thought my home life was bad.

    Lisa didn't answer; when Amy looked up, the girl with the dirty-blonde hair was observing her intently. She flushed involuntarily. “What?”

    “We've got a lot in common, you know,” Lisa told her thoughtfully.

    “I – what do you mean?” Amy blurted. She hated the defensive tone in her voice. “I'm a hero. You're a villain. I don't rob banks. You do.”

    Lisa grinned again, the corners of her mouth curling upward. “I mean, our situations. We're both in teams we really had no choice but to join. We don't really relate to most of the people in our teams. We both saw the Samaritans as a way out.”

    Amy shook her head. “No,” she insisted. “I wanted to be a part of New Wave.”

    “Really?” asked Lisa softly. “Or was it that you were expected to do it, when you got your powers?” She paused. “You never really wanted powers, did you? And now that you have them, you feel that you're expected to use them to help people all the time. Even though you know, deep down, that you can't help everyone. But you can't stop.”

    Amy stared at Lisa, shaking her head slightly. “How are you doing that?” she whispered. “Are you reading my mind?”

    Lisa chuckled and shook her head, dispelling the moment. “No, of course not. I don't read minds. I can't see your thoughts.” A mischievous grin. “But I can see the shape of them. Your micro-expressions, your eyes, your stance, how you say things, they all give me clues. My power lets me take even the tiniest clues and build them into information.”

    She put her hand on Amy's shoulder, her expression serious once more. “I see things about everyone that I meet. I have to keep filters up, otherwise it gets too much. Too squicky. A guy looks at me, I can see in his face, his posture, exactly what he thinks of me. I don't need that, every second of every day. So I hold it back. But I can figure out most everything about someone, if I spend enough time with them.”

    Amy shook her head. “But don't people … object, to you just shuffling through their lives?”

    Lisa grinned again. “Oh, most of the time I don't let them know. Unless it's really big, or really funny. Or both. I'm the smartest person in the room; sometimes, I just gotta let people know that.” She raised an eyebrow toward Amy. “But private, personal stuff? I don't use.” She shrugged; her eyes cut toward where Vicky was talking to Emma. “So, yeah, any little secrets you may have, they're safe with me.”

    Amy's eyes went wide, and she felt her head swim. She knows. Oh god, she knows..

    She felt the hand on her shoulder squeeze slightly. “Of course I know,” murmured Lisa. “To me, it's a huge neon sign. But I'm not gonna tell her. I promise.”

    “Right,” Amy replied. “A promise. From a supervillain.”

    Lisa nodded. “Yeah, I guess I had that coming. But tell you what. I'll make you a deal. My lips are sealed on that, so long as you do something for me.”

    “I – I'm not going to commit a crime for you -”

    “No, no,” Lisa told her. “This is something between me and you.”

    Amy glanced up at her; the ex-villain's lips were curled in that smile again. She felt a sense of foreboding. “Are you – are you making a pass at me? Because I -”

    Lisa tried not to laugh; a strangled snort escaped her lips. “Heh. No. I don't bat for that team. And anyway, the squick thing is ten times as bad when you're trying to get intimate with someone. My filters need a certain amount of concentration to keep up, and when they come down, there's a lot of information that I really don't need to know.” She grinned at Amy. “No, your virtue is safe from me. I need something else.”

    Amy was confused. “Then what -”

    Lisa sighed. “And that's the downside of being a supervillain for a couple of years. If you want something off of someone, they decide that it's either something illegal, or sex. Wow. Just wow.”

    Amy hung her head. “I'm sorry, I -”

    Lisa squeezed her shoulder. “It's okay. I'm just teasing. All I want from you is to give me a chance. To treat me like a friend, and not like the supervillain who talked her way on to the team. Is it possible for you to do that?”

    Amy raised her head, and looked at Lisa. “And that's it? Just … give you a chance?”

    Lisa nodded. “And, you know, take my advice from time to time. If you feel like it.”

    “What sort of advice -” began Amy.

    “Nothing illegal, or even immoral,” Lisa hastened to assure her. “Just … general life advice. From a friend. You don't even have to act on it if you don't want to. Okay?”

    Amy considered this. Lisa wasn't threatening her with exposure. She wasn't even trying to blackmail anything out of her. She was just offering … friendship. Advice. That Amy didn't even have to take.

    She tried to look for the catch. “And if I don't take your advice?”

    Lisa shrugged. “You don't take it. No biggie. All I ask is that you give me a fair hearing.”

    Amy blinked. “Uh, okay. And that's it. That's all you want.”

    Lisa gave her a sunny smile, absent the fox-like overtones. “That's all I want.”

    Amy felt herself on the verge of accepting it. But there was something bugging her. “And if I choose not to be your friend, to listen to your advice, you'll tell Vicky.” And destroy my relationship with the only person who sees me as I am.

    Lisa shook her head. “Nope. I wouldn't do that to you.”

    “Just ... advice, then?”

    Lisa's eyes met Amy's; her bottle-green gaze was intent, serious. No hint of a grin on her face, now. “Just advice. If you've got questions about anything, I can probably give you answers.”

    “I - “ Amy looked around, at the gathering. Vicky was now chatting with Taylor, but glancing her way. Amy gave her a quick smile, before returning her attention to Lisa. “Can I think about it?”

    Lisa patted her shoulder. “Sure. Take as long as you want. You know where to find me.” She slid off of the chair arm and strolled away. Someone had brought out drinks on a tray, and she took one now. Turning back to look at Amy, she raised it slightly in a silent toast, then took a drink.

    Amy leaned back in the chair again, trying to marshal her scattered thoughts. If she'd thought her life was strange this morning, now she had an overture from a certified supervillain, who offered to her what she could not help but see as a bribe of information. In return for what? My friendship, for what that's worth?

    Will she out me, anyway, to Vicky?

    It didn't seem to fit. Lisa wasn't asking her for anything, not even hinting. Just requesting that Amy give her a fair hearing.

    What does she want from me?

    She was still trying to figure that one out when someone sat down in the armchair next to hers.

    “Hey, kiddo,” Danny Hebert greeted her. He held out a cup to her. “Soda?”

    “Thanks.” She accepted it gratefully, sipped at it. The cold, sugary beverage tasted heavenly.

    “So, how you feel about being in the team so far?” he asked conversationally. “Any matters you'd like to raise?”

    Slowly, she shook her head. “That training you've got the others doing, I'll have to do it too, right?”

    He nodded. “That's the idea. We work hard to make sure everyone's on the same page, so that when something goes down unexpectedly, the team's got a plan.”

    “Oh, yeah,” she agreed. “When Emma and the others were in the bank, it just … worked. They knew what to do. I want to be a part of that.”

    “Even if it means being shot with paintballs?” Danny teased her gently. “They sting like all crap, you know.”

    “Even if,” she agreed. “And you know, if and when I get back to New Wave, I'll have stuff to show them.”

    “That's very true,” Danny agreed gravely, then paused. “Now, not to pry, but you seemed to be having a very intense conversation with our resident ex-villain before I came along. You didn't seem to be the happiest at times there. Anything we should know about?”

    Amy considered that. If I tell him what she said, then I have to tell him what she meant. And it might get back to Vicky.

    She took a deep breath. “No. Nothing to be concerned about. She's just interested in being friends, is all.” Which is basically true, anyway. Although I have no idea why.

    Maybe she just wants to be in good with the team healer.

    But she knows I'd heal her anyway. So it can't be that.


    Danny nodded and spoke, breaking into her thoughts. “Well, that's good. For all that she's a criminal, I'm finding her quite pleasant to get along with. Even if she does like showing off that she knows more than anyone else.”

    “Wow, really?” she asked, her eyes wide with simulated surprise. “I haven't noticed that at all.

    They both burst out laughing. Danny reached across and ruffled her hair affectionately. “You'll do, kiddo. You'll do.”

    Amy leaned back in the chair once more. I really do think I'll like it here.

    <><>​

    “You.”

    Lisa turned around at the tap on her shoulder. “Me,” she agreed. “Hi, Vicky. Enjoying the get-together?”

    Vicky ignored the attempt at small-talk, as Lisa had known she would. “What were you talking to my sister about?”

    “Why yes, Glory Girl, I'm enjoying myself too, thank you very much,” Lisa replied, deadpan. “Everyone's so friendly and giving me the chance to show that I'm not actually that bad after all.”

    Vicky frowned, and Lisa felt the barest hint of her aura, before the white-clad hero shut it down again. “I want to know what you were talking about.”

    Lisa shook her head. “Sorry. You're gonna have to ask sister dear about that.” She leaned in close, put her hand alongside her mouth in a conspiratorial fashion, and added in a stage whisper, ”Boyfriends.”

    Vicky's expression turned mildly confused. “What? You're serious?”

    Lisa grinned. “Nope. I'm Tattletale. And yes, I was pulling your leg. If you want to know what we talked about, just go and ask her.”

    Vicky glowered. Lisa stood her ground. “Not a supervillain any more, Gee-Gee. I'm fairly certain you aren't allowed to use glare-of-death on me. Union rules, you know.”

    With a barely suppressed growl, Vicky stomped over to where Amy sat. From where Lisa leaned against the wall, it looked as though she was asking Amy questions, and Amy was deflecting them, much as she had done with Danny.

    Taylor leaned against the wall beside Lisa, raising an eyebrow as she did. “So, do you actively enjoy baiting the Alexandria Junior in the room?”

    Lisa took a sip of her drink, then grinned at Taylor. “Maybe just a little. It's very liberating, no longer being a supervillain, you know. I can tell heroes what I think of them, and they don't have an excuse to beat my head in or, you know, dislocate my arm or something.”

    Taylor sighed. “Or maybe you just like living dangerously.”

    Lisa inclined her head slightly. “Or maybe that.”

    Taylor nodded. “Can I ask you a question?”

    Lisa gestured with her cup; carefully, so as not to spill the contents. “Go ahead.” She knew what the question would be, of course.

    “What did you talk to Amy about?” She smiled, so as to disarm the probing tone.

    Lisa smiled back. “I could say the same thing that I did to Glory Girl, but you were a lot more polite about asking, so I'll return the favour.” She drank from her cup. “Amy's hurting. I can see it. I can see why. I want to help her.”

    Taylor blinked. “But … why?”

    Lisa tilted her head. “What, a villain can't do something nice for someone without there being an ulterior motive?”

    Taylor snorted. “Rarely.”

    Lisa grinned, acknowledging the point. “Well, yes, but this time the ulterior motive is my own peace of mind. I … knew someone, once, who was hurting, and I didn't do anything. This time … maybe I can.” She gave Taylor a direct stare. “Please don't tell Amy I said that, okay?”

    Taylor looked steadily at her, then glanced over at Amy. “I've been there. I know what it's like. If you can help her, do it.” If you hurt her, you're on your own.

    “Understood,” agreed Lisa, with a nod. And she did; she understood everything Taylor had just said, as well as what she had not said.

    Taylor nodded. “Good.”

    <><>​

    “Tell me what she said to you.”

    Amy shook her head. “No. It was a private conversation.”

    Vicky stared at her in frustration. “A private conversation, with a supervillain you barely know? What can you have between you that's private?”

    Amy stared at her defiantly. “Private stuff.”

    Vicky threw up her hands. “This is ridiculous. I'm gonna call Mom, and she'll pull you straight out of this team. I knew it was a bad idea from the start.”

    Amy shook her head. “No, you won't.”

    “Ames.” Vicky tried for a voice of reason. “I'm your sister. I just want what's right for you. Can't you see? Tattletale's a villain. Whatever she's said to you, it's twisted your head around. You need to get out of here before you're totally taken in by what she's saying.”

    Amy set her jaw. “No. This is my thing. I'm doing it.”

    “If I call Mom -”

    Amy rounded on her sister. “I'll quit New Wave before I let you or Mom push me around like this!” she flared. “Now drop it! Please.

    Vicky stared at her, aghast. “You wouldn't.

    Amy's voice was implacable, although there was pain in her eyes. “I would. If you forced me to it, I would.”

    Vicky dropped her eyes, and knelt beside her sister's chair. “I'm sorry, Ames,” she told Amy softly. “I just want the best for you.”

    Amy put her arm around Vicky's shoulders. “I know,” she replied, equally softly. “I know.”

    You and everyone else.

    But if everyone wants different things for me, how do I know which choice I should take?


    It was not, she suspected, a question with a ready answer.


    End of Chapter Nineteen

    Chapter Twenty
     
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2015
  24. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    Poor Amy.

    At least she has people helping her, now.
     
    Navrin likes this.
  25. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Yes.

    Also note: I forgot that Carol had told Amy about Marquis already. So I had to take Tattletale's comment about him out.
     
  26. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka True Evil

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    Ah now that was wonderfully heartwarming......I wonder what the other shoe that's likely incoming going to look like.
     
  27. Threadmarks: Part Twenty: Surprise Party
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Chapter Twenty: Surprise Party


    Vista pulled off her gag. “Woo hoo!” she shouted, hugging a surprised-looking Madison. “That was awesome!”

    The reason for her excitement was not hard to discern; each of the team, members and liaisons alike, carried a brightly-wrapped brick, a 'prize'. Despite the concerted efforts of the Dad Brigade, the team had made it out of the maze in short order on their very first try, mainly due to clever use of their powers.

    “Who's the champions?” Lisa chanted, executing an impromptu dance, holding her brick above her head. “We are, that's who. Gimme an S -”

    Taylor cleared her throat. “Don't get too excited,” she warned the three newcomers to the team. “I'm guessing there's gonna be more. I mean, yeah, we're used to doing the Three Wise Monkeys. Lisa, you did okay, even with her ears plugged. Vista, you couldn't talk, but that didn't hamper you all that much either. And Amy's power doesn't depend on sight.”

    She gestured in the direction of her father, who was just now coming their way. “But now that they've gotten a line on your powers and how we work together, this is likely to get a lot harder.”

    “That's correct, ladies,” Danny observed as he approached. “Not to take anything away from your victory here, because it was a victory. But in order for you to learn, we've got to make it hard for you. You've got to be forced to think, to adapt, to come up with new ideas to get around problems. Too many parahumans out there simply coast on their abilities, until they meet someone who's better at improvising than they are.”

    Vista grinned. “Bring it. You'll probably kick my ass a dozen times, but if it helps me be a better part of the team, I'll do it.”

    “Whoa, seriously?” asked Amy. “You're that ready to jump into this level of training? I felt as though I couldn't even keep up. Stumbling around blind was no fun at all.”

    Emma smiled. “You'll get used to it. A couple weeks from now, you'll be wondering how you ever got on before.”

    Lisa shook her head. “Yeah, but I'm getting the impression that 'a couple weeks from now' is going to be a very long way away. Your dads look like they mean business.”

    Taylor grinned. “Oh, trust me, they do. They really, really do.”

    Danny nodded. “That's correct. Paintballs might sting, but they deliver a lesson. Don't get shot. And it's a lot easier to get over than being shot for real.” He nodded at the girls. “Take ten, then hit the running track. And Vista?”

    The Ward's head came up. “Yes, sir?”

    He smiled. “'Danny' or 'Mr Hebert' will do. When you're on the running track, you run. Don't cheat, don't squeeze space. Or you'll be doing it backwards. Got me?”

    She grinned broadly. “Message received loud and clear, Mr Hebert. No cheating on the running track.”

    “Excellent.” He clapped his hands twice. “Ten minutes start now. Refreshments are that way, changing rooms are that way, running track is that way. Go.”

    The six girls trotted off toward the refreshment tent, expressions ranging from excited to dubious; Danny watched them go, then headed back to where the other two adults waited.

    “So how did they take it?” asked Clements, dragging a cleaning cloth through the barrel of his paintball gun.

    “About as well as could be expected,” Danny reported. “Amy's not thrilled, but she's bearing up under the strain. Lisa's really worried; I think she has an idea of how hard we're going to go at them.”

    And Vista?” asked Alan Barnes, peering at a map of the maze and making notations.

    Danny rolled his eyes. “She more or less dared us to do our worst,” he told them. “She fully expects to get hammered. But she really wants to learn from this.”

    Alan nodded. “Good. She's a good kid. Earnest.”

    “Outgoing,” added Rod Clements, sighting down the barrel of his gun. “Friendly. Madison likes her. I think Director Piggot did us a real favour when she picked Vista to do this. We could've done a lot worse.”

    “Well then,” declared Danny, “let's return the favour, and train Vista to work well in adverse conditions.” He paused. “Now, Lisa's so damn intuitive that even putting a blindfold on her won't hurt her all that much. So how do we hold her back without totally hobbling her?”

    “I've had thoughts about that,” Alan told him. “Gag her, so she can't tell everyone what's going on. Earplugs, so she has to look around all the time. And goggles, so while she can see, it destroys her peripheral vision, and ensures she has to concentrate on one thing at a time.”

    Danny nodded. “Yeah, that should work. If it hurts her too much, we take the goggles away. Or the gag. And the others?”

    “Blindfold for Vista,” Clements suggested. “If she can't see, she has to rely on others to tell her where to fold space, and how much.”

    “Thus forcing them to communicate and cooperate,” agreed Danny. “Amy?”

    The problem of Amy Dallon was a very real one. Her only real benefit to the team, at the moment, was as someone who could heal their injuries. Being blindfolded, made to stumble around the maze with the others, had not done her any favours. There were no powers that she could bring to bear to overcome such disadvantages.

    Alan Barnes was the first to speak. “Nothing. Let her be the only one who can see, hear and speak. Make her valuable, over and above the 'healing'. But she can't carry a 'prize'.”

    Rod Clements broke in. “Make it so she is a prize. If she doesn't make it out, the team loses.”

    Danny grinned. “I like it. So one or more of the team has to stay with her, to protect her, but she won't hold them back.”

    “Then we're agreed, gentlemen?” asked Alan Barnes rhetorically. He held out his fist. The other two touched their fists to it. “Let's go make our daughters' lives a living hell.”

    <><>​

    “Oh … god,” gasped Lisa, staggering along the running track. “This … revenge for … doing that … victory dance … right?” Sweat ran down her face, and she was unsteady on her feet.

    “Not really,” Madison told her, trotting alongside with little to show for the exertion. “They just like us to be fit.”

    Vista nodded. “I get a bit of exercise,” she panted, “but Mr Hebert was right. I cheat too much.” While not in the same state Lisa was, she had definitely worked up a sweat.

    Amy didn't speak at all; she wasn't sweating or panting quite as badly as Lisa, but she plodded along, putting one foot in front of the other.

    Footsteps came from behind them, moving fast, and then Taylor came past Madison, slapping her on the shoulder. “Tag!”

    At the cue, Madison took off running, just as Emma passed her at a dead sprint. Taylor slowed to a jog alongside the other three. “How you guys going?”

    Lisa gave her a dirty look, while Vista nodded. “Getting along. I think I need more of this.”

    Taylor chuckled. “You're really a glutton for punishment, aren't you?”

    Vista grinned at her. “If it makes me a better superhero – hell yes.”

    Taylor nodded. “Excellent. Well, I just saw Dad give me the high sign. One more lap, and we can pull up for a little bit.”

    They plodded on around the track, encouraged on by Taylor, and then by Emma, after she tagged Taylor. Then Madison came past, in hot pursuit of the longer-legged Taylor.

    “So do you … do this all the time?” panted Vista, as they came around the last turn and slowed to a stagger. Taylor and Madison were already waiting at the side of the track for them.

    “Most weekends, yes,” Emma confirmed. “We also go running in the mornings. Taylor's the best runner out of us, but we all do our best to keep fit.”

    “Oh god,” groaned Lisa hollowly. “If the villains don't kill us, the training will.” She made it as far as the refreshment tent, then collapsed into a folding chair, arms hanging over the side. “Can someone get me something cold to drink? I don't think I can move right now.”

    Amy obliged her, pouring her a cup of juice before flopping into her own chair. “Wow. That's the farthest I've run in … forever.”

    Vista sipped at her own juice; it was tart and chilled, and altogether delicious. “I have to admit, this is more strenuous than we get in the Wards.”

    Alan Barnes strolled into the tent. “Don't get too comfortable, ladies. Ten minutes, then back into the maze.”

    Three pairs of eyes turned toward him.

    “Oh god,” muttered Amy. “Please tell me you're kidding.”

    Lisa shook her head. “He's not kidding. God help us all.”

    Vista grinned. “Excellent.”

    Lisa shook her head, staring now at Vista. “You're crazy.”

    Taylor, reclining in her own chair with her feet up on a second one, raised an eyebrow. “Since when do villains ever let heroes get a breather between fights?”

    Lisa's look of horror merely intensified.

    <><>​

    When they exited the tent, ten minutes later, Danny Hebert frowned and turned to Alan Barnes. “Is it just me, or are they not looking all that tired?”

    “You know,” Emma's father replied, “I do believe that you are correct. They're all looking refreshed. Apart from Amy.”

    Danny drew a deep breath. “I think I know what's happened. Excuse me a second.”

    He strolled over to the approaching teens, all of whom seemed to be in good spirits. “Girls.”

    “Dad,” grinned Taylor. “Amy had a great idea.”

    “So I see,” he replied, observing Lisa and Vista. “She gave you a boost, didn't she?”

    Amy raised her hand. “It was kind of my idea,” she confessed. “And I was kind of cheating on the track. Still am, in fact.”

    “Huh,” muttered Lisa. “I thought there was something going on there.”

    Danny folded his arms. “Cheating, huh? What are you doing? I thought you couldn't affect your own body.”

    Amy shook her head. “I can't. But I can make bacteria in my throat produce oxygen at a far greater rate than normal.”

    Lisa grinned. “I'd complain about so totally unfair, but I'm feeling too good right now.” She punched Amy lightly in the shoulder. “And all because of you.”

    Danny nodded judiciously. “Well, it's a valid tactic. You'll have to give it up, once you've improved your wind, of course. Having your powers nullified is a thing, after all.” He gestured toward the table near the entrance to the maze. “Your accoutrements, ladies.”

    Lisa shook her head. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this?”

    Vista grinned at her. “I dunno. You're the one who chose to join the team.” Madison raised a hand; Vista high-fived her.

    Lisa rolled her eyes. “A decision I might be starting to regret.”

    <><>​

    “Ow.” Lisa rubbed her bruises. “Ow. Ow. Ow.”

    The light was beginning to go; the sun was low in the west. The six teenagers stumbled away from the maze, toward the refreshment tent.

    “That went well,” declared Taylor. “I think we were really starting to get it together at the end, there.”

    “What do you mean?” asked Vista. “We got our asses handed to us.”

    Emma shook her head. “We weren't there to beat the maze. We were there to learn how to work together.”

    “Which we did,” Madison added. “Right at the end there, we really had it together.” She held up her hand; Vista gave her another high-five.

    Amy turned to Lisa. “How are you feeling?”

    Lisa rolled her eyes. “Sore. Mr Clements is really mean.” She rubbed her butt to illustrate. Several large and colourful splotches of paint decorated it. She was by no means the only one.

    Emma nodded. “Well, you would keep going off plan. Separate yourself from the group, we can't protect you.”

    “In the real world,” Lisa pointed out sourly, “there's not someone waiting around the corner with a paintball gun, ready to pop you if you put a foot wrong.”

    “In the real word,” Taylor echoed her cheerfully, “if you get it wrong, you don't often get a second chance.”

    Lisa stuck her tongue out at her.

    <><>​

    An Alley in the Docks

    The man had been staked to the ground with spikes through ankles and wrists. Then someone had carefully burned him to death. The look on his face suggested that he had been alive and aware, right up to the end.

    Miss Militia looked him over dispassionately, only wrinkling her nose when the odour of burned flesh drifted her way. Then she looked at the next body, hanging on the wall of the alleyway.

    “Nailed up with glass shards,” the forensic tech announced needlessly. “Poor guy was skinned, probably still alive, with something really sharp.”

    “A glass blade?” she suggested.

    He glanced up at her. “Not outside the realms of possibility,” he admitted. “Skin spread out to meet the arms. Also nailed into place with slivers of glass.”

    Miss Militia rubbed her chin. “A theme, then,” she murmured. Frowning, she squinted at the second corpse. “Is it just me, or does that look almost like … wings?”

    The tech also frowned. “I guess?”

    “Hm.” She moved to look at the third body, that of a woman. She had been … broken. Every bone in her body had been shattered, and she had been then balled up and wrapped in metal straps, forming a roughly spherical shape. Hannah could not tell whether she had died as a result of the process, or had been dead before it began. For the woman's sake, she hoped for the latter.

    She walked in a semi-circle around the three bodies, careful not to disturb the techs, examining them from every angle. There was something disturbingly familiar about these deaths. Something that she was missing.

    “You think the same guy did all these?” asked the tech, as he unrolled a body bag next to the first corpse.

    Miss Militia shook her head. “No. Is there any trace of accelerant on that one?”

    The tech sniffed, then immediately looked as though he wished that he hadn't. “Uh, no. But I just decided never to eat roast pork again.”

    “Sorry,” Hannah told him, not really meaning it. She had bigger things to worry about. “So it's a power thing, not any sort of flamethrower that did this?”

    The tech shrugged. “Maybe a tinker-tech device. But no, probably a power.”

    Miss Militia nodded. “Thanks. You guys can take it from here?”

    The tech nodded. “We can deal.”

    “Fine. Let me know what you come up with in the lab.” Not waiting for an answer, she turned and strode out of the alley, pulling her phone from her belt.

    <><>​

    PRT Building, Brockton Bay

    Emily Piggot picked up the phone on the second ring. “Piggot.”

    Director, it's Miss Militia. I just found something disturbing in the Docks.”

    “There are any number of disturbing things in the Docks, Miss Militia,” Piggot replied dryly. “I suggest you narrow the field a little.”

    A triple murder. Tell me if this doesn't sound at least a little familiar.” The hero paused for emphasis. “One person burned to death. Another person, skin spread out to resemble wings, nailed to a wall with glass shards. And a third person trapped in a metal ball. Or sphere.”

    Emily Piggot had been Director of the Brockton Bay PRT for ten years. Over that time, she had read many, many files. But some things just stuck in the mind.

    “Burned,” she replied slowly. “Glass wings. Sphere.”

    The dread that sent a chill down her spine was anything but nameless.

    “It sounds to me as though you're describing the work of Burnscar, Shatterbird and Mannequin.”

    On the other end of the line, Miss Militia sighed. “I do so wish that I did not agree with you, Director.”

    Piggot's lips thinned. “Any other bodies on site?”

    No. Just the three.”

    “Well then, I'll put out feelers. See if there's been any other murders reported. Warn your people that the Nine are probably in town, but to keep it on the down-low. We don't want to cause a panic.”

    And when Shatterbird sings?”

    Piggot knew exactly what would happen if and when Shatterbird decided to use her destructive cry. Every single piece of silicon-based material within her range would become shrapnel. Hundreds of people would die, perhaps thousands.

    “If we warn the population, they may just decide to strike anyway.”

    If we don't warn them, they'll die when the Nine do decide to strike.”

    Piggot drew a deep breath. “You have your orders.”

    Yes, ma'am.”

    Miss Militia hung up. Piggot slowly lowered the phone on to its cradle, then put her face in her hands.

    There was no right answer. No matter what she did, people would die.

    “Fuck,” she muttered to the empty air of her office. “Just one dilemma with an easy answer. Just one. Is that too hard?”

    But there was no reply, and nor did she expect one.

    <><>​

    Hebert Household

    “Okay,” Danny began, “so tell me what you did right.”

    The six chairs that normally resided around the kitchen table had been carried into the living room; the four members and two liaisons of the Samaritans were seated on them, while Danny and the other two Dads had taken their places on the couch.

    “We kept together for the most part,” Taylor began. “Vista, Aerodyne, Emma and I managed air cover pretty effectively. Amy was good with keeping people 'healed'.”

    “Lisa had a good idea for faking you guys out,” Amy spoke up unexpectedly. “If she'd been able to communicate it to everyone else, it might even have worked.”

    “But instead,” Alan Barnes noted, “she didn't, and it got her shot.”

    “Yeah,” muttered Lisa. “You guys are too good at what you do.”

    Rod Clements shook his head. “We do as well as we can, because you're going to run into guys who aren't just trying to tag you with paintballs. We can't afford to slack off, to give you an easy win. You can't afford it.”

    “He's right,” Vista agreed. “The better they are at making us think on our feet, the better we'll be in the field.”

    “But I couldn't talk to you guys,” protested Lisa. “How was I supposed to get the idea across?” She paused, then slapped her forehead. “Of course. Hand signals.”

    “We've got a basic set worked out,” Emma acknowledged. “We can spend a couple of hours getting you familiarised with them.”

    Vista grinned. “I've already been talking to Madison about them,” she noted. “They're pretty cool.”

    Lisa made a face at the Ward. “Kiss-ass,” she muttered, but there was no heat to it.

    Amy put her arm around Lisa's shoulders, and squeezed; Lisa looked a little startled, but didn't protest.

    Just about then, Vista's phone went off. “Huh,” she murmured, retrieving it. “Sorry, I set it to only accept priority calls.”

    Alan Barnes waved a hand. “Take it,” he advised. “We can take five, here.”

    Getting up, Vista strolled out into the entrance hall as she answered the call.

    “So, Lisa, Amy,” Danny commented. “Both of you had a pretty rough time today. I know that the first day of training is tough on everyone, but I want you to know that we weren't being nasty on purpose.”

    “Well, except maybe a few times,” Rod Clements interjected with a grin.

    Be that as it may,” Danny overrode him, “if either of you has any reservations about staying in the Samaritans, now's the time to bring them up. Because tomorrow's gonna be even tougher.”

    Amy shook her head. “For the first time I'm part of a team that wants me for me. That accepts me, and doesn't judge me for who my parents might or might not be. It's tough, sure. I'll do my best to hack it. I'm staying.”

    Lisa drew a long breath. “Well, I might bitch and moan, but most of it's hot air.” She paused, expectantly. “Anyone? Anyone? Come on, that's a perfect opening.”

    “Consider that it was taken, someone made a comment, and we moved on,” Danny commented dryly. “You had more to say?”

    Lisa nodded. “Yeah. I had a shitty day today. But I had it with friends. People who've let me move on from what I did before, and who are actually supporting me in what I'm doing now. Not to mention, the whole Coil thing.” She shrugged. “So yeah, I'll bitch and moan and complain. But I'm in it for the long haul.” She put her arm around Amy's shoulders in turn. “With my friends.”

    “Well spoken,” Alan Barnes noted. “So what -”

    He broke off when Vista came back into the room from the entrance hall. Carefully, she found her chair and sat down in it. Under her visor, her face was white as chalk.

    “Holy shit,” Madison exclaimed. “I don't have to be Lisa to know there's something wrong. What happened, did someone die?”

    Vista took a long shuddering breath. “I – I don't know if I'm supposed to tell you guys, but they didn't tell me not to, so here goes.”

    She paused.

    “They think the Slaughterhouse Nine are in Brockton Bay.”



    End of Chapter Twenty

    Chapter Twenty-One
     
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2015
  28. alethiophile

    alethiophile Shadowed Philosopher Administrator

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    Wow.

    They're early, aren't they? I wonder what prompted them to come, minus Leviathan wrecking the place.
     
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  29. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Well, they don't necessarily follow Endbringers around. After all, they were in BB back in the '80's, as I recall.

    However, what's changed? A bright new optimistic team of young heroes, making a name for themselves, helping people ...
     
  30. 1986ctcel

    1986ctcel Connoisseur.

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    And they also happen to have Bonesaw's soon to be big sister (and if things go well Big sisters PLURAL):p
     
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