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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. Threadmarks: Part Nineteen: Consolidation
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Chapter Nineteen: Consolidation

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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
  21. Threadmarks: Part Twenty: Surprise Party
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    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
  22. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-One: Being Proactive
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Chapter Twenty-One: Being Proactive


    There was a moment of stunned silence, then everyone started talking at once. Everyone save Missy, who was staring at the floor, and Lisa, who was staring at the ceiling.

    “Quiet!” shouted Danny; wonder of wonders, they listened. As he stood up. the room fell silent.

    "Now, we're all aware of the Nine, and the danger they pose," he went on. He began to pace across the living room, his hands clasped behind his back. “We can approach this in one of two ways. One, we can go defensive. Don't go out in costume if you can help it, and avoid any possible confrontation. Two, we can be proactive.”

    Voices arose again at this statement, mostly from Alan Barnes and Rod Clements. Danny held up his hand. “I wasn't finished,” he stated firmly. Everyone fell quiet again, watching him.

    “By 'proactive', I didn't mean that the girls would go out looking for them,” he explained. “I did mean, however, that we would assume that there would be a clash of some sort, sooner or later, and that the more preparation and planning we did now, the more chance we have of coming out on top then.”

    People looked at one another; after a moment, Taylor spoke up. “Okay, Dad, it looks like you've got the floor.”

    Danny nodded to her. “Okay. We've had you girls reading up on villain capes. Let's see what you've learned. Emma, current membership."

    Emma started at being called upon, but collected herself. "As of two months ago," she recited crisply, "they were down to eight members. Jack Slash, Siberian, Bonesaw, Mannequin, Hatchet Face, Shatterbird, Burnscar and Crawler. That was after they lost Winter."

    "Good," Danny told her. "Taylor, most dangerous member."

    "Trick question," his daughter retorted. "They're all dangerous."

    "Very good," he replied approvingly. "Madison, recorded powersets."

    The petite brunette took a deep breath. "Jack Slash can make a knife edge extend a long way." She paused, frowning. "There has to be more to it than that."

    "I think there is," Lisa put in unexpectedly. "He's run the Nine since the late eighties, right? They've cycled through a lot of members since then, but he's the only original member, or even close to it. To stay in charge of that many stone killers over that long a time, to survive everything the Protectorate could throw at him ..."

    Madison nodded. "To survive the Nine as well," she added. "To keep them in line, to either survive any assassination attempts, or to arrange matters so they didn't even try ..."

    Danny was nodding slowly. "We're looking at either a low-level Master effect, or some sort of Shaker ability, to adjust probability in his favour."

    Lisa showed her teeth momentarily. "Coil had probability manipulation, or at least that's what he told me," she stated. "Didn't save him."

    “That's because we were able to put together a plan that wrong-footed him. Made him use it in one direction, when we hit him from another,” pointed out Emma. “We can't depend on that working with Jack Slash. Totally different circumstances.”

    “Very true,” Alan Barnes noted. “But we're fairly sure he does have some sort of subtle power that keeps him safe from both the Protectorate and his own band of homicidal misfits. But we don't have any real data, so we'll just note that aspect, and leave it for the moment. Next?”

    “The Siberian,” Madison told them. “First seen in two thousand, when she killed Hero. She's weathered rocket grenade attacks, and torn out of containment foam like it was tissue paper. Brute twelve, easily. If she gets her hands on you, you're dead. And she's very fast.”

    “Only observe from a distance,” Rod Clements agreed. “Do not go anywhere that she can get within arms' reach of you. Don't even let her see you, if you can help it. I doubt any of you has got anything that can touch her.”

    “My vacuum trick?” asked Madison quietly. Lisa and Amy looked at her curiously; Lisa's eyebrows hitched up rather quickly.

    “They tried gas on her,” Danny pointed out. “That didn't work, either.”

    Emma rubbed her chin. “She doesn't wear a mask. Or a costume. Or anything, really. Surely the unwritten rules don't apply to her. Missy, has the Protectorate gotten an ID on her yet, anything they can use?”

    Vista roused herself enough to answer the question. “Not that I know of,” she replied. “What you know is what I know.”

    Lisa got up and moved across to lean on the back of Missy's chair; the Wards liaison glanced up at her as the ex-villain draped an arm loosely across her shoulders. Although she looked a little surprised, Missy did not object to Lisa's presence, and indeed seemed to draw a little comfort from it.

    “There's some pretty bizarre theories floating around the PHO boards,” Taylor mused. “One's that she doesn't really look like that, that she's got a sort of force field around her that changes her appearance and gives her the Brute rating. That's how she can make something else immune via her power when she's touching it.”

    Danny nodded. “Sounds as reasonable as anything else. Okay, the main strategy for the Siberian will be to stay the hell away.”

    Amy raised her hand. “Uh, if I can get in contact with someone's biology, I can freeze them solid.”

    Alan shook his head. “Way too risky. She spots you sneaking up on her, she takes your head off. Or cripples you, and uses you as a hostage.” He bent a smile her way. “I like the way you think. But if the theory about the force field is true, you wouldn't even be able to get in contact with her skin.”

    “Or Mannequin's, for that matter,” Taylor pointed out. “He's one we do have some information on. He used to be a heroic cape called Sphere, real name Alan Gramme. He was – is – a Tinker, specialising in self-contained regenerative biosystems. The word is, he was working on the moonbase when he heard that his wife and daughters had been caught in a Simurgh attack, and killed in the subsequent violence. He came back down, attended their funerals, then dropped off the grid. The next time anyone saw him, he was Mannequin.”

    Madison nodded. “He either built himself, or had someone rebuild him, into that robot body. Brain, vital organs, and that's it. All self-sustaining. Arms, legs and head are detachable, with chains to pull them back into place. The arms and legs can mount weapons like blades which can spin or shoot out. For all we know, he can put guns in there too, or other weapons in his head. His brain's almost certainly in his torso.”

    “There's a worrying aspect to this, too,” Alan Barnes noted. “The Nine, and Mannequin especially, has a history of going after capes who are trying to make things better.”

    “Like he was,” Emma supplied.

    “And like we are now,” Taylor replied quietly.

    “Ooh boy,” Lisa murmured. “Did I say before that I thought I might have picked a bad time to join the team? Because I think I did.”

    The comment raised a few chuckles, then Madison cleared her throat. “Next up is Bonesaw. She's … just a kid. Younger than you and me and Emma, Taylor. Maybe even younger than Missy.”

    All eyes turned to the Wards liaison. “I wouldn't be surprised,” she observed. “She's been active for a few years, so she must have triggered when she was really young. She's kind of like me in that regard; the youngest there, but one of the more experienced capes on the team. I wonder if that's why her crimes are so horrific, because she's trying harder?”

    “Scary thought,” Danny acknowledged. “So, capabilities?”

    “They think she's a Tinker,” Madison recounted. “But she does things like mutilate and maim people in creative ways. She's got these weird robot spiders that follow her around and do what she wants, so she probably built them.”

    “Armsmaster thinks she uses biotechnology,” Missy commented. “That she uses bits of people or animals as parts for the spider bots, to make them work right.”

    “There's a rumour that after the Nine killed Mouse Protector, Bonesaw mashed her body together with another cape, but I don't know which one,” Madison went on.

    Taylor shuddered. “Okay, that's officially horrifying.”

    “So, biological weapons. Maybe diseases and poisons as well. Don't get close enough for her to throw or even spit anything on you,” Danny noted.

    “Spit?” Madison repeated, looking revolted.

    Danny nodded. “Spit,” he confirmed. “Okay, maybe Amy won't have to worry about it, but there's every chance that she's built delivery systems into herself. So if we take her down, we do it without touching her or getting too close. Just in case.”

    “And you don't let her take any of you as prisoners,” added Alan. “Because … yeah.”

    After a long moment of silence, during which time no-one looked comfortable, Danny cleared his throat. “That's four, Madison. How about the other four?”

    Madison nodded her head jerkily. “Right, right. Okay. Hatchet Face is a Brute who nullifies powers in an area around him. He's big, strong, carries axes. So we hit him hard, from range.”

    “With our luck,” Taylor commented dryly, “he probably throws them, too. So we stay out of that range as well.”

    “Good point,” Alan acknowledged. “Madison?”

    “Uh, Burnscar,” Madison replied. “She's a pyrokinetic, and she can teleport through flames that she sets.”

    Taylor rolled her eyes. “Damn, another cape who can no-sell my bugs,” she pretended to complain. “Just once I'd like a bad guy I can point at and shout 'Beeeeeees!', and have him quake in fear.”

    “Bonesaw isn't immune to bugs,” Amy protested. “In fact, if you can distract her with bugs, I could probably get close enough to put her lights out.”

    “And I could maybe shut down Burnscar's fire long enough for you to do the same to her,” Madison pointed out. “I mean, I could shut off her air supply altogether, but asphyxiation is really hard to gauge.”

    “They've all got kill orders on them,” Danny pointed out quietly. “If they die at your hands, the PRT will not be pressing any sort of charges.”

    Madison shook her head. “I'm just not comfortable with killing people in cold blood, even monsters like the Nine.”

    Taylor got up and pulled her chair closer to Madison's, then put an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close. Madison leaned into her, accepting the comfort.

    “We don't have to try to kill them,” Taylor assured her gently. “We just don't have to go out of our way to make sure they live.”

    Madison nodded, and put her head on Taylor's shoulder. “Can someone else do this?” she asked.

    Emma got up, and moved Lisa's vacated chair next to Madison. She sat down and took Madison's hand in hers, and squeezed gently. Looking up, she cleared her throat.

    “Next up,” she noted. “Shatterbird. She flies, she controls glass, and she can make it explode by screaming. She's a tough one; if we can take her by surprise, we can take her down. But if she's prepared, it'll go really bad, really fast.”

    “Assume she's prepared,” Danny observed. “In fact, assume they're all prepared, unless you see with your own eyes that they aren't. And even then, assume they're prepared anyway.”

    “Yeah,” Emma noted. “And the last one. Crawler. He spits acid, he's a tank, and he's basically immune to anything we can throw at him. They say he's unkillable.”

    “Nothing's unkillable,” Amy stated quietly, but firmly. “If it's got biology, it can die. Crawler might have very tough biology, and his powers might make it really, really hard for him to stay hurt, but at base, it's just biology. And if I can lay a hand on him, I can shut his body down, make him unconscious, without harming a hair on his head. If he had any.”

    Taylor frowned. “Hypothetically speaking … could you use your power to kill him? If there was no other way?”

    Amy shook her head convulsively. “Uh, no, I don't think I want to do that. I don't want to get into the habit of harming people with my powers. Shutting them down is edging close to the line as it is.”

    “Besides,” Rod Clements pointed out, “if he gets better from that, it's one more thing he's immune to. And we really don't want to go there.”

    Danny clapped his hands. “Right, okay,” he ordered. “That's the facts on the Nine. Let's break for the moment, but tonight and tomorrow, we need to start preparing. You each know everyone else's powers pretty well by now; I want you to start brainstorming, figuring out power combinations and strategies you can use to take them down, if and when it becomes necessary.”

    The group broke up, people standing up to stretch their legs. Lisa exchanged a few quiet words with Vista, then moved over to where Amy was still sitting down.

    “You okay?” she asked, dragging a spare chair over to sit next to her.

    Amy shook her head slightly. “Not really,” she murmured, her hands clenched tight on her knees as she stared at the floor.

    “A bit intense, isn't it?” asked Lisa soothingly. “All of a sudden, you're one of the offensive hitters of the team, and you're being asked if you can kill, when all you've done before is save lives.”

    Amy looked up, a little startled. “How did you … right. You read the shape of my thoughts.”

    Lisa nodded, her usual grin just a little restrained. “Yeah. And let me tell you, the idea of killing someone doesn't float my boat either. I'd get to read every last little twitch and grimace, and I'd know what his last thoughts, his last regrets were. Not something I want to be haunting me when I wake up in the middle of the night, you know?”

    Amy smiled wanly. “You do understand.”

    Lisa shrugged slightly. “It's kind of what I do. Listen, want to go for a stroll in the back yard? Breath of fresh air?”

    Amy nodded, stood up. “Yeah, I think I'd like that.”

    <><>​

    Amy stood a little way away from the steps, facing away from the house, her head back, breathing in lungfuls of the crisp, cool night air. Lisa leaned against the porch railing, watching her. Several bugs swooped through the glare of the porch light; she nodded slightly. Yeah, I know you're keeping an eye on us. On me.

    She wasn't really surprised at the surveillance; what did surprise her slightly was that she wasn't even really annoyed about it. She knew that Taylor was just keeping a general eye on the team, now that a real menace had arisen, and that it was a good policy to keep an eye on one another.

    Amy turned and came back to her, and sat down on the steps. Lisa waited until she was comfortable, then sat next to her.

    “I've been thinking,” Amy told her quietly. “Being in this team's the best thing that ever happened to me.”

    Lisa nodded. “I get a fresh start myself,” she agreed. “Not many people get to jump from villain straight to hero.” Not outside the Protectorate, anyway, she reminded herself with a slight grin.

    Amy took a deep breath. “But I've been doing it all wrong. I've been doing it like I was doing it with New Wave. I did what they asked me, never what I could really do. And all they asked me to do was healing.”

    “But you were starting to get sick of healing people,” Lisa noted, then snorted at her accidental play on words.

    Amy rolled her eyes and chuckled slightly. “Yeah, something like that. They only asked me to heal for them, but my god, how many people need healing every day in the city, just to make a dent. And every case is new, every case is special. Every case needs the hand of Panacea, because I'm a guarantee of perfect healing, every time.”

    Lisa heard the bitterness in her voice, deciphered it without much trouble. “'The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more',” she quoted.

    Amy nodded. “Jonas Salk. He was a huge inspiration to me when I first took on the name and costume. I read all about him; he actually died just before my first birthday. When I had my first case of polio – a kid from somewhere in Africa – I felt like he and I were connecting on a spiritual level, like I was accepting the torch from him.”

    “That was before you found out what a burden having powers really was, wasn't it?” Lisa's tone was sympathetic.

    “Yeah.” Amy's voice was quiet. “I thought it might make me more accepted in the family. So I used my powers to help people, to do the right thing. And I helped people, and helped them, and helped them … and it didn't do a damned thing. Vicky treated me just the same, which was nice, but Carol did too, which wasn't.”

    “And now you've moved to the Samaritans, how does it feel?” Lisa asked.

    “They like me, and they accept me,” Amy mused. As if as an afterthought, she turned her head to look at Lisa. “You accept me … right?”

    Lisa nodded seriously. “Of course I do. And I want to help you. When I said I wanted to be your friend? I meant it. And not because you're a healer. Because you're someone who's been under too much pressure for too long, and I've been there, and I've seen others in that situation, and I've seen them crack under it.” She put her arm across Amy's shoulders, a friendly weight. “So if you ever want to talk about anything, or just vent … I'm here. And you know I'll understand.”

    Tentatively, Amy leaned against Lisa, just a little. A symbolic support. Testing the waters. She knows that I know exactly what she's doing. But she has to do it. To learn to trust.

    Lisa counted down in her head, and when she reached one, Amy spoke.

    “There was something I wanted to do. To help the team, more than I'm doing now. Maybe help against the Nine, and other enemies.”

    “You mentioned that, yes,” Lisa replied. You want to use your abilities in wider ways. Taylor's bugs. You want to create different bugs for Taylor to use.

    “I … Taylor controls bugs,” Amy began. “What if I modified bugs for her to use? Bugs with different abilities?”

    Lisa drew away with well-simulated surprise. “You can do that?” she asked.

    Amy snorted, amused. “I might not be able to see the shape of your thoughts,” she advised Lisa, “but while your skin is touching mine, I can read deception like a book.” She paused, reconsidered. “Which you knew.”

    Lisa nodded. “Yup,” she admitted cheerfully. “Just wanted to see if you'd use that in a situation like this.”

    “Uh … is it a bad thing that I did?” asked Amy, looking a little unsure.

    “No, it is not,” Lisa assured her. “So long as you don't abuse it, the ability to tell if people you think you can trust are really telling the truth is invaluable.” Me, I'd abuse it in a heartbeat. I do, every day. But you don't need to be like me.

    Amy blinked. “... oh. Okay.”

    Lisa grinned her fox-like grin and tousled her hair. “Come on, let's go talk to Taylor about bugs.”

    <><>​

    “So wait,” Danny observed, leaning back on the sofa, “Amy, you're saying that you can modify bugs for Taylor to use? I thought you just healed people and fiddled your own bacteria?”

    “Actually, I didn't even know about the bacteria thing until today,” Taylor confessed. She kicked her shoes off and put her feet up on the sofa, leaning against her father.

    Amy nodded. “Sorry for keeping it from you,” she mumbled. “I … don't really like advertising the full spread of my power. I've seen it on the PHO boards, when they're discussing someone's powers, and the uses they could be put to. I don't even want to think about the suggestions they'd give if they knew the full extent of my power.” And I haven't even told you everything yet.

    Lisa, sitting on the chair next to Amy's, squeezed her hand supportively. “Maybe if you gave Amy a bug, she could sort of feel around, see what she can do with it?” she suggested.

    Taylor shrugged and grinned. “Sure. Let's see what happens.” A large beetle whirred in from another part of the house, and landed on Amy's outstretched hand.

    Madison, Emma, Missy and the other two dads leaned in to watch; Amy was vaguely aware of Danny waving them back, but after that she was concentrating entirely on the biology of the creature in the palm of her hand.

    “Make it do something,” she murmured. Taylor must have heard her, for the beetle opened its wing-cases and fluttered its wings. “Okay, got it.” She could feel the signals going into and out of its tiny brain – hardly even large enough to be called one, to be honest. And she could tell how the bug was sending feedback to Taylor, telling her what it was, where it was, what it could see and hear … hm.

    “I want to try something,” she stated. “Taylor, tell me how this feels.” She adjusted the brain very slightly, so that the feedback was skewed.

    “Weird,” complained Taylor. “I'm getting a headache.” The bug's movements slowed, became confused. Amy could see how the control signal was being corrupted.

    “Ah, got it,” she noted. “That works, then.” She adjusted the brain back the way it had been. “Better?”

    Taylor nodded. “Better. What did you do?”

    Amy grinned slightly. “Not even sure there's words for it. But I basically played with the part of its brain that you interact with.”

    “Wow,” commented Emma. “So you could make it so she couldn't control the bug at all?”

    “Well, I could,” agreed Amy, “but that would be almost exactly opposite to what I want to do here. So, let's see … hm.”

    She fell silent, contemplating the bug. If I do this, instead of that …

    Carefully, she enlarged that section, enhanced it, fed more of the bug's sensorium into it. “How about now?”

    There was not a sound in the room, as all eyes turned to Taylor. Her eyes opened wide. “Wow. Holy crap. That's sharp.”

    “Good sharp or bad sharp?” asked Amy.

    “It's like it's … drowning out some of the other bugs around. I can sense all of them, but I can sense this one more. And its sight … its hearing … I'm getting more of it.”

    “Can you make sense of it?” pressed Amy. “Is this a good thing, or should I dial it back down?”

    “I'm getting a little more sense,” Taylor admitted, “but not a whole lot. Beetle senses are crap, anyway.”

    “Just one second,” Amy noted, and enlarged the part of the beetle's brain that dealt with sensory input, enhancing it. “How's that?”

    Taylor blinked. “Damn. That was a huge jump in clarity. I can hear a lot better, and I can see shapes now, instead of just blurs.”

    “Good.” Amy nodded. “Okay, I'm gonna need another bug. Something that can fly pretty fast. I just had an idea for something.” She paused. “Scratch the 'fly fast' bit. I'll make it fly fast.”

    Taylor nodded, and a large moth fluttered into the room. “This one good enough?”

    Amy grinned. “Sure.” She took the moth, and compared the brains. That was the spot she wanted to work on, and if she was correct …

    It only took a few seconds to make the adjustments she was planning, then she spent a moment rebuilding the wings so that they were much more efficient.

    “Okay,” she told Taylor, “send the moth away.”

    Taylor frowned. “Why?” she asked, but she already had the repurposed bug in the air. Danny turned around and cracked the window behind him, and the moth fluttered out.

    “You'll know in a few moments, if that works,” Amy told her. “Now, let's see. Mannequin's a problem for all of us; he's effectively immune to bugs, I suspect he'll be insulated against electrical shock, and he's too heavy to blow down. And by definition, he's sealed against air pressure changes.” She smiled. “So we take his strength and make it into a weakness.”

    Danny's look became intent. “How, exactly, do you mean?”

    “Glue,” Amy told him cheerfully. “What's the strongest organic glue possible?”

    Madison frowned. “You're going to glue him to the ground?”

    “Hah!” Everyone looked at Lisa, who grinned unrepentantly back at them. “Moving parts. Amy, you're a freaking genius.”

    “Wow,” Emma commented. “That is pretty damn ballsy. Well done, Amy.” Amy grinned, and ducked her head to hide the flush of pleasure.

    Taylor roused herself, and got up from the sofa. “My computer's upstairs, I'll check on that glue thing.”

    “Can you give me another bug to work with, while you're at it? I'm gonna need biomass, here.”

    “Sure.” Taylor headed out into the front hall and Amy heard her trotting up the stairs. Another beetle buzzed over, and landed on her hand. Amy closed her hand, pushing them together. Under her direction, they both temporarily became semi-amoebic creatures, able to merge forms. Once they were one creature, she reformatted it as a bug, and began to work on the synthesis and delivery system. With the extra mass, she improved the visual capability, so that the bug would be able to find narrow crevices in which to deposit its glue.

    She was still tinkering with the overall design when Taylor came walking back downstairs, moving more slowly than before. She had a sheet of paper in her hand.

    “Amy?” she asked. “What did you do to the moth?”

    Amy looked up. “Oh, I fiddled with the part that you control, and adjusted it so that it could also send out a signal like you do, and to be able to pass the feedback from other bugs back to you. It lets you use the bug as a remote signal booster. Or at least, that was the idea. Did it work?”

    Taylor nodded. “Oh yeah. Definitely, yeah.”

    Danny's eyes got very wide, behind his glasses. “Wait, you can give Taylor boosters? She can cover a wider area?”

    “Sure,” Amy noted. “I can basically make any bug into a booster, as well as anything else I do with it. Theoretically, if I make enough of them, she'll be able to cover the whole city.”

    Danny's eyes met those of Alan and Rod. “Which means that we'd be able to keep track of the Nine, wherever they went.”

    “Unless they get wind of what we're doing,” Alan noted. “They're not stupid.”

    "Well, no," agreed Lisa. "But none of them's a true Thinker, that we know of anyway. Amy's never let it be known that she can specifically fiddle biology, so the synergy between her and Taylor should come as a surprise to them."

    "Talking about Thinkers," Rod noted, looking at the blonde ex-villain, "if they've come to Brockton Bay to deal with the Samaritans, they're likely to have a plan to do that. Am I right?"

    Lisa nodded. "That makes sense, yes."

    Rod nodded. "In which case -"

    "- could I figure out ahead of time what it's likely to be, so we can work out a countermeasure?" Lisa pursed her lips consideringly. "I could certainly try."

    Taylor put a hand on her shoulder. "It would be nice if we knew something of what to expect," she noted. "Amy, here's the information you wanted. The strongest glue I could find reference to is produced by a bacterium called Caulobacter crescentus. Here's a printout of all the information I could get, including the layout of the molecule. I don't know if that'll help -"

    "Definitely," Amy replied, letting go Lisa's hand to take the sheet of paper. She scanned it, and nodded. "All I have to do now is figure out how to make this little guy synthesise this molecule in bulk."

    "Will that take long?" asked Danny.

    Amy shrugged. "Give me thirty seconds, and we'll see. And after that, I'll need more bugs." She grinned at Taylor. "I've got ideas."


    End of Chapter Twenty-One

    Chapter Twenty-Two
     
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2015
  23. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Two: Suddenly, the Nine
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Twenty-Two: Suddenly, the Nine


    "Yes, I'm calling on behalf of Amy Dallon. She's not feeling well, and she's staying home for the day."

    Danny Hebert paused, holding the phone to his ear. "Yes, I'm aware who she is. I know that she doesn't get sick. It's not that sort of feeling unwell, Ms Howell. It's the other sort. Yes, that sort of feeling unwell. No, I haven't enquired too closely. Thank you, ma'am. Yes, I'll convey your good wishes. Yes, ma'am, you have a good day too."

    Hanging the phone up, Danny turned to Amy, who was sitting at the kitchen table with Lisa. "Well, I don't know if she bought it entirely, but she didn't protest too hard," he reported. "I hesitate to ask, but do you even get that ... ?"

    "Yeah, she does," Lisa answered, giving Amy a sideways glance. "But her power minimises any discomfort. Which is totally unfair, if you ask me."

    "Just a little bit," Amy protested. "It's not like I can actually affect my own body. Anyway, can we get off the topic?"

    "Fine," agreed Danny, sitting down at the table. "So what, exactly, is it that you're doing with my best salad bowl?"

    His question had a point; Amy was sitting with her fingers over the lip of the bowl Danny was referring to. Bugs of various types were crawling out of the goop with which the bowl was filled, shaking their wings free, and fluttering out through the open window. Amy herself was looking somewhat run-down; her eyes were red-rimmed, and she had several empty coffee cups at her elbow.

    "They're booster bugs," she explained, then yawned. "With ... with various other abilities, because it would be stupid to make them with just one. They're sensitive to the booster effect in others, so they fly away from it until they're a certain distance away, but they'll keep in contact.”

    “A certain distance?” asked Danny.

    “About seventy to eighty percent of the maximum range of the booster effect,” explained Amy. “When Taylor comes into contact with one of them, she'll be in contact with all of them. If one moves, they'll all move to keep the network intact.”

    “Christ,” he muttered. “And how long have you been at this?”

    Amy yawned again. “All night. Lisa's been keeping me company.”

    Lisa rolled her bottle-green eyes. “Lisa,” she replied to Danny's silent query, “has been napping on the sofa and fetching more garbage when Amy ran out. Also, brewing coffee.”

    “And it's been greatly appreciated,” Amy told her. “Really, it has.”

    Lisa mustered a grin. “Hey. Friends, right?” She put her arm around Amy's shoulders and gave her a squeeze, careful not to dislodge Amy's fingers from the goop in the bowl.

    “Wait, wait,” Danny interjected with a frown. “Garbage? And what is that stuff in the bowl?”

    “This is a bio-organic slurry,” Amy informed him. “It's basically alive, which is why I'm able to affect it. I'm using it to form booster bugs. It's composed of organic matter, and it breaks down anything organic dropped into it, turns it into itself. Like garbage.”

    “Yeah,” Lisa confirmed. “Your neighbours for four houses in all directions can thank us later. I'm just glad it was trash night. Otherwise I would have borrowed your shears and gone pruning hedges.”

    “So how many bugs do you have out there now?” asked Danny.

    Amy yawned again. “I have absolutely no idea,” she confessed. “I've just been sending them out. Lost count hours ago.”

    “Fourteen thousand, six hundred and fifty-three, assuming we don't refill the bowl,” Lisa recited crisply.

    Danny's jaw slowly dropped open. “Fourteen thousand?”

    Amy shrugged helplessly. “I didn't know how many we'd need. So I just kept making them. Taylor took a bunch when she went to school. All different types.”

    She had her hand near the bottom of the bowl now. It was starting to thicken a little; without being asked, Lisa poured some water in, from a pitcher on the table. As Danny watched in fascination, the goop transformed into more and more bugs, until there was just a thin smear on the bottom of the bowl.

    The last of the bugs perched on her hand for a moment, then flew out the window. She turned to Lisa. “Should we keep going?”

    Lisa shook her head, and helped her to her feet. “That'll be enough for the moment. You need to get some sleep now.”

    “No, I'm ...” Amy staggered slightly. “Okay, I'll get some sleep. The sofa will be fine.”

    “The sofa will not be fine,” Lisa scolded her. “The sofa is hard and lumpy. Trust me, I know this. You're going to sleep in the spare room upstairs.”

    Still mumbling protests, Amy allowed Lisa to steer her up the stairs and along the corridor; when Lisa came back down, Danny was scrubbing out the salad bowl in the sink. He looked up as she entered the kitchen. “She okay?”

    “Out like a light as soon as her head hit the pillow,” Lisa flashed her trademark grin. “She pushed herself really hard to get all those bugs out there.”

    “Will they be enough?” He looked at her with worry. “The Nine … “

    “Currently have in their number at least two very distinctive individuals,” Lisa reminded him as she took the bowl from him and began to dry it. “Even if Shatterbird refrains from using glass, Crawler and Mannequin cannot be mistaken for anything else. Taylor finds them, we bring the boom down on them, hard.”

    He looked at her curiously. “Why haven't you crashed like Amy?”

    “Oh, she freshened me up a couple of hours ago. It's like mainlining caffeine; I feel like I could go for days.”

    “Hm. Better not try.” He paused. “So, have you told the Undersiders yet?”

    She turned to look at him; he was observing her, expression expectant.

    “What makes you think I'd tell them?” she ventured. “I'm in a hero team now.”

    “Which means that you've already told them,” he concluded.

    Her expression was chagrined. “Damn it, I'm supposed to be the Thinker here.”

    “I'm the father of a teenage girl,” he reminded her, a corner of his mouth quirking a smile. “I don't need Thinker powers to tell when you're shading the truth.”

    She rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine, I already told them. They see anything, they call me.”

    Danny nodded. “Excellent.”

    She blinked. “Really?”

    “Of course. We need every advantage we can get.” He went to the fridge and got out some orange juice. “Any progress on ideas as to how the Nine would draw the Samaritans out?”

    “It'll be something big and splashy,” Lisa told him, holding out a glass so that he could pour. “Something that will draw a lot of attention, and let them destroy us publicly. Show us up. Kill us in horrible ways, while tying our hands so we can't hit them as hard as we might.” She blinked. “Hostage situation. Big one. Helpless hostages. A school.” She went pale, and her hand shook so badly that the orange juice sloshed over her fingers. “Winslow.”

    <><>​

    Winslow High

    Taylor was sitting in first period, which happened to be math, when one of the network of booster bugs she had around the school suddenly linked into another booster bug. This one was linked to others, and those were linked to others and …

    “Oh my god,” she whispered, her eyes widening.

    Mr Quinlan raised his head questioningly. “Yes, Ms Hebert? Did you have a question?”

    Taylor shook her head. “No, sir. I'm good, sir.” She let some of her attention remain on the lesson in progress, which happened to be algebra, while the rest of her mind went out to quest through the link that had just opened up to her.

    It was like standing inside a vast and echoing auditorium, and then having someone turn the lights on. She could feel her booster bugs as tiny sparks in the massed swarms of bugs around the school. More booster bugs, farther out, each of them offering improved sight and hearing, as much as any bug could have good sight or hearing.

    She was aware of the awareness spreading even farther; the bugs released by Amy were working their way outward until they reached equilibrium, which had not yet happened. Her little patch of awareness around Winslow was in the process of being absorbed, subsumed, by the vast invisible tide of a much greater ocean of awareness. Amy, you're awesome.

    The number of bugs she now had access to numbered not in the hundreds of thousands, or even the millions. Tens of millions of tiny bug brains were now part of her network, her swarm, and she set to work using them to sweep the city for the Nine.

    Even then, having access to every bug, every mite, every fly, every wasp and bee and hornet and spider, it was not a swift process. Bug senses, as she had complained to Emma and Madison more than once, were mediocre to crappy. Amy could sharpen these, but only with the bugs she worked on. And for Amy to fix every single bug in Brockton Bay, just so that Taylor could see properly when she wasn't on site, would literally take longer than any human lifetime.

    Her phone vibrated in her pocket. She didn't know who it was from, and her little outburst before had gotten her on to Quinlan's radar, so that she couldn't just pull it out and check.

    “Uh, sir?” she ventured. “May I go to the bathroom?”

    Quinlan looked irritated, and well he might. “Young lady, it's the first period. Surely you can hold it for a little while.”

    Taylor shook her head. “I'm sorry, sir. I really can't.”

    With a put-upon sigh, he waved at the door. “Go, then.”

    “Thank you, sir.” She got up and hurried out the door; once in the corridor, she pulled out her phone. It told her that she'd missed a call from her father. She was just about to ring him back, when it vibrated again.

    “Yeah, Dad?” she asked, while heading for the stairs. She'd given the excuse to go to the bathroom, so it was probably a good idea to at least pretend to go.

    Just at that moment, her bugs registered a large motor-coach pulling into the school parking lot. Inside … there weren't any bugs. None whatsoever. That's really weird.

    Taylor,” his voice sounded in her ear. “Lisa has just told me that the Nine is most likely to attempt a hostage scenario in order to draw you out.”

    She was at the stairs now. “Does she know where?”

    She thinks it'll be a school. Most likely Winslow.”

    Taylor's eyes widened. “Oh shit.”

    Exactly. So keep your eyes open for anyone suspicious -”

    “No, I meant 'oh shit, they're here',” she panted, now taking the steps two at a time. “They just drove into the parking lot. Do Emma and Madison know?”

    Lisa's already been on to Alan and Rod. They'd be calling them right now.”

    “Good. I'm separated from my costume, but I'm going to play this one safe. I'll be hiding in the girls' bathrooms, third floor. But don't worry. My bugs will come to the party anyway.”

    As she spoke, bugs crawled out of her hair and buzzed back down the stairwell.

    Good luck. Stay safe. Kick ass.”

    “Will do, Dad. Love you.”

    Love you too. I'll call you back when we've got the conference call set up.” The line went dead as he hung up.

    I really hate not being there for them, but I can't very well duck back and grab my costume. Time to act like a Master and stand back while my minions do the work.

    She had bugs ready to go, both speciality and regular. Time to do my thing.

    <><>​

    Outside the PRT Building

    A bus had just pulled up at the stop when the pavement began cracking and heaving. The bus stop itself rose six inches, causing people to yell in surprise and vacate the immediate area. With a horrendous crunching sound, a large slab of concrete rose up and fell away, revealing the grotesque form of Crawler, hauling himself up out of a sewer line; a stench arose with him.

    Within the PRT building, the guards were on the ball; they saw the supervillain and hit the panic button. The doors snapped shut and locked solid. The elevator doors opened, and the people inside the lobby were herded into them. The last thing they saw before the doors interleaved shut was the sight of the Slaughterhouse Nine member hurling himself against the outer doors.

    Crawler backed up and tried again; this time, he burst through into the lobby, the Tinker-created toughened glass spraying around him in fragments. The PRT guards were waiting for him; their foam sprayers belched white globules of the yellowish-white substance, striking him, engulfing him, adhering to him. Still, he lunged forward, catching one unlucky guard off balance. The man's scream – and life – ended abruptly.

    But the snapping jaws also burst the man's containment foam tank; Crawler's head was abruptly engulfed by the sticky mass. The remaining three guards backed up from the oncoming bulk of foam, being pushed forward by Crawler's straining legs. As sticky as it was, it was not preventing him from moving.

    <><>​

    Protectorate Base

    “Sir, look at the outside screens!”

    Armsmaster turned and looked. There, hovering in mid-air, was the shape of a woman, clad in layers of glass, with great stained-glass wings on either side of her. He knew who she was. They all did.

    “Christ, that's Shatterbird.”

    The PRT techs stared at him. “Orders, sir?”

    He slapped the button that connected him to the entire base via PA system. “Shatterbird alert. Shatterbird alert. Protect your eyes. Take off your glasses. Get rid of your phones, your electronic items, now.”

    And then, just as he had begun to hope that he'd warned them in good time, she opened her mouth and screamed.

    Everything around him shook; he saw all the computer monitors blow out, random electronics and other silicates simply exploding with varying level of force. The lights went out; he triggered the night vision in his helmet visor.

    He had, of course, spent the time to harden his armour's electronics against just this sort of thing, and to replacing glass with synthetics. Taking on the Nine, defeating them, bringing them down, was something he dreamed of doing.

    The room was a mess. Techs lay here and there, some moving, others ominously still. All were wounded.

    Pulling himself up out of his seat, he took stock. His armour's systems had held up, but nothing else in the room had. He chinned a control; LEDs on the surface of his armour flared to life, offering a weak illumination for the room. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing. People were starting to groan and move. He moved to the side of the closest person who seemed badly injured, and started to examine him. At the same time, he activated his radio.

    “This is Armsmaster … “

    <><>​

    PRT Building

    Piggot's intercom buzzed. She slapped the button. “Report.”

    Ma'am, we have Crawler slowed down in the lobby. He's not fully contained, but he's not going anywhere fast. Civilians and support staff have been evacuated via the underground garage. One casualty so far; Kendrick.”

    Her lips thinned. “Damn it. How long can you hold?”

    As long as it takes, ma'am. How long till the capes get here?”

    “I'm not putting the Wards against Crawler, not without Protectorate backup.” She paused; other lights, blinking red with urgency, were now showing up. “I'll get back to you; someone else wants me.”

    Not waiting for his response, she hit the second button. “Piggot.”

    The voice was scratchy and barely readable, but she recognised it. “Director, this is Armsmaster. The Protectorate base has just been hit by Shatterbird. We've lost most of our electronics, and we have multiple casualties.”

    Her fist hit the desk. “Fuck! Status of Protectorate assets on board? Location of Shatterbird?”

    I do not know, ma'am. Velocity was supposed to be on patrol, but I don't have the range to contact him. Everyone else was on base, as far as I know. And we lost our eyes and ears when she screamed; I have no idea where she might be.”

    “Well, just for your information, we have Crawler in the lobby of my building,” Piggot snapped. “So once you get yourselves sorted out over there, any assistance would be greatly appreciated.”

    She cut the connection and put her face in her hands. And that's just two of them. Where are the rest? Fuck.

    <><>​

    Winslow High School

    The doors up toward the front of the motor-coach hissed open, and Jack Slash alighted. He held out his hand, and Bonesaw took hold of it, happily skipping alongside him. Behind them came the Siberian, imperiously naked, then Burnscar and Mannequin. Last out of the coach was Hatchet Face, his scarred, brutal features impassive as he followed the rest of the team.

    “Look at this, will you?” Jack observed, gesturing at the school before them. “A melting pot of all that is horrific and despicable about humanity. Shoving all those delightful little victims – I mean children, of course – into close proximity with one another, letting them kick and shove and brutalise one another during their most impressible formative years. Is it any wonder that the world is such a depressing place?”

    Bonesaw giggled light-heartedly; no-one else showed much in the way of emotion. “Mr Jack,” she asked, “did you ever go to school?”

    “Not at a place like this, no.” He pushed open the doors, and they entered Winslow High School. “I was … let us say, home-schooled. But I would have liked to have come to a place like this.”

    “Do you think I could come to school sometime?” the blonde girl asked next. “Just to … well, you know, see what it's like?”

    “Really?” he responded, raising an eyebrow. “You would trade our life for the humdrum existence of a student?”

    “Of course not,” she assured him. “Just every now and again. I could experiment on their brains, see if I could make them learn faster.”

    He chuckled, ruffling her hair fondly. “Ah, poppet, I do like the way you think. But I think my way is better.”

    “What way is that?” she asked, as they proceeded along the echoing halls of academia.

    “Why, I teach the class, and every three months I hold a sudden-death examination. The half of the class that got the lower marks is executed. I assure you, at the end of the year, those students I had left would be very fast learners indeed.”

    “I suppose,” she mused, “but … “

    He waited for the remainder of her statement, but it was not forthcoming. “Poppet?”

    Her hand went slack in his, and he looked down with some surprise as she crumpled to the ground. “What the hell?”

    Immediately, his knife was in his hand, and he sliced at the air; once, twice, three times. Tiny objects, caught by his blade, fluttered to the ground. As he did so, Burnscar fell over. And then he felt the tiny sting at the back of his neck. He slapped at the spot, but already he was feeling the lassitude. The Siberian took hold of his arm, picked him up, slung him over her shoulder. She bent to grab Bonesaw; through dimming eyesight, he saw Mannequin topple and crash to the ground.

    Wait, his mind tried to tell him. That isn't right.

    And then everything just faded away.

    <><>​

    Hebert House

    Okay.” Taylor's voice was tense. “I got Bonesaw and Jack Slash and Burnscar with the toxin bugs. Mannequin seems to be down and out of it with the glue bugs. But Hatchet Face is too tough for the bugs to take out, and Siberian is carrying Bonesaw and Jack Slash out of the school.”

    “That's good,” Danny praised her. “That's really good. You've hit them and you've hurt them. See if you can get a bug inside Hatchet Face's mouth; the tissues there might be softer.”

    If I can stay outside his nullification range,” Emma suggested, “I could maybe zap him into next week.”

    Better for you and Aerodyne to work together, Sparx,” Rod Clements suggested. “You hold him while she takes his air away.”

    Yeah, but what do we do about Siberian?” Taylor wanted to know. “I hit her with my best shot, and she ignored it. Didn't even notice.”

    Ah, something else you need to worry about,” Alan Barnes put in. “I'm listening to the police channel, and Shatterbird just hit the Protectorate base, and Crawler's attacking the PRT building. So you aren't going to get any cape backup in a hurry.”

    Didn't Amy say she could put Crawler's lights out, given a chance?” asked Taylor.

    “Uh, Amy's asleep,” Danny confessed. “Pushed herself way too hard to put together your bug network. I could wake her up and get here there, but it'll take time. Time that he can use to cause a lot more damage.”

    “That's okay,” Lisa told him. She pulled out her phone. “I got this.”

    <><>​

    Winslow High

    Hatchet Face stomped through the school corridors. His memories of attending higher education were faded, but they were not fond ones. Bullying those below him, being bullied by those above. Kicking and clawing his way up the pecking order. Being the bigger bastard.

    Now, he was one of the biggest bastards out there. He was a member of the Nine, and people spoke his name in the same breath as that of Jack Slash.

    He rolled his eyes. Slash had gone down, just like the little murder-girl, and the fire-girl. Hatchet Face wasn't sure how they'd gone down, or why. But they had, which proved that they were weak, and he was strong. Though Mannequin had also gone down, which was really puzzling. He didn't know how the man had fit himself into that shiny white armour, but he was pretty sure it was sealed against everything.

    His brutally scarred features creased in what might have been mistaken for a smile. The naked bitch had taken Slash and Bonesaw back, probably to the motor-coach so that they'd recover. That left him alone, in a school full of the same little pricks who had laughed at him and taunted him, and made him want to smash all their faces in.

    And, of course, the cape or whatever it was that had taken out all but him and Siberian. But whatever that cape had, it didn't affect him. So he didn't have to worry.

    Now to make all the little piggies come out to play …

    He hefted the massive cleaver that he carried in his right hand, and reached for a fire alarm tab.

    <><>​

    Over Brockton Bay

    Shatterbird arrowed through the air, toward Winslow High. She had done her job, and now she was required by Jack to join him once more. The Protectorate in this city was neutered, blinded, deafened. With the brute taking up the attention of the PRT, there were few heroes left to face them …

    She barely registered the incoming form in time to put up a barrier. And even then, the impact was tremendous; glass shattered and she tumbled in the air. Catching herself, she looked around for her attacker; saw the lithe form arrowing around for another strike. A white costume, gold highlights, tiara – she's just a girl!

    But a girl who, nonetheless, was daring to attack her; her, Shatterbird of the Slaughterhouse Nine. She formed her armour around her, leaving enough glass over to create a razor-edged sword. This was for the girl to see; what she couldn't see were the glass shards, equally sharp darts, hovering behind her back.

    Attack me, will you?

    As Glory Girl bored in for the attack, Shatterbird waited for her, and smiled cruelly.

    <><>​

    PRT Building

    Crawler heaved and thrashed and bellowed discordantly, and spilled copious amounts of acid from his open mouth. This dissolved the containment foam where it touched, and more was eaten away every second. He dug his clawed feet into the floor and drove himself forward once more, trailing remnants and shreds of the yellow-white foam. The reception counter was destroyed; the PRT guards fell back, shooting more of the foam, but his acidic saliva dissolved it as fast as they shot it.

    And then something latched on to his rear end. His eyes in that direction were mostly obscured by foam, but he caught a glimpse of a monstrous dog/dinosaur fusion. And then another one grabbed hold of him. His forward progress halted, and he actually began to slide backward. He dug in his claws, shredding carpet and ripping up chunks of concrete, but he still kept moving backward. These dogs were dragging him from the PRT building, where Jack had told him to attack.

    And then he realised; they were attacking him. He had every excuse in the world to attack them in return. So he stopped resisting.

    <><>​

    “Tell me again how this is a good idea,” Regent muttered, as Crawler emerged from the frontage of the PRT building, flanked by three very large snarling mutant dog-monsters.

    “We help the PRT, they don't hunt our asses down so hard,” Grue supplied. “Plus, it's a favour to Lisa.”

    After she helped take down our meal ticket,” Regent griped.

    “Coil was an asshole,” Grue reminded him. “We both know that.”

    “I don't so much mind assholes, so long as they leave me the fuck alone,” Regent argued.

    “Like your dad?”

    Regent sneered. “Fuck you, Grue. Okay, let's get this show on the road. Holy fuck, does he have a nervous system or a bowl of spaghetti in there?”

    “You're the guy who fucks with people. Fuck with him.”

    Regent shook his head. “Christ. This guy's nervous system is so redundant, it's not funny. Okay, let's see what happens if I pull a string.”

    Down on the street, responding to Bitch's whistles, the dogs were playing keep-away. Only those behind Crawler were actually attacking him; the one in front was distracting him, but leaping away when Crawler tried to close with it. Chunks were being ripped out of even the monster's armoured hide, but not large bits, and the holes were being replaced by new armour, tougher, harder, even as they watched. But then he lunged at a dog – and face-planted in the street, instead. Or chin-planted, given that he didn't really have a face any more. Coming to his multiple feet, he went to leap at another dog, and charged a street-lamp instead. The street-lamp promptly fell on him.

    “Nicely done,” Grue commented.

    “Yeah, it would be, if I'd intended for that to happen,” Regent muttered. “I'm pressing buttons at random, here.”

    “Well, keep pressing 'em,” Grue urged. “You're doing great.”

    Regent shook his head. “You're buying the painkillers. I'm gonna have such a migraine, after this.”

    “We'll bill the PRT.”

    Now you're talking.”

    Down below, Crawler tried to turn a somersault. It didn't really work.

    <><>​

    Winslow High

    “Hey.”

    His fingers inches from the fire alarm tab, Hatchet Face turned to face the two girls who had just rounded the corner. They were immediately recognisable, as Sparx and Aerodyne, of the Samaritans. The bitches that the Nine had come to this stinking pit of a hellhole to kill or co-opt. He grinned broadly, showing jagged and broken teeth. Kill it is, then.

    The redhead, Sparx, shook her head. “Seriously, do not do that. It is not a good expression for you.” She sounded almost serious, as if she were chiding him for a misdemeanour.

    “Fuck. You.” He spat the words out, and started toward them, breaking into a run almost immediately.

    Or attempting to do so. Something wrapped around his ankles, and he failed to make that first step. Measuring his length on the floor, he felt the cleaver skid free from his hand, and skitter across the floor. The petite one with lots of flowing cloth on her costume, stopped it with her foot.

    Enraged, he snarled and leaped to his feet. That was when the tendril of hair that was still wrapped around his ankle sent a large jolt of electricity through him.

    He staggered, but kept coming. More jolts hit him; he shrugged them off. And then, the smaller one raised her hands, and he felt himself struck by an irresistible force, slammed backward into the wall.

    He pushed himself out of the shallow dent he had made, and started forward again.

    <><>​

    Guys, move, now. Siberian's on her way back in.”

    “Roger that, Ladybug.” Emma grabbed Aerodyne by the arm. “Let's go.” Her hair formed a square of tightly-woven carpeting under their feet.

    “Dammit, I nearly had him!” But despite her protest, Aerodyne did not hesitate. Wind blasted under the 'carpet' – not much larger than a hearthrug – and lifted them, conveying them forward at somewhat better than running speed.

    Which was a good thing, because the Siberian arrived just seconds later, also travelling at somewhat better than running speed. She and Hatchet Face followed the fleeing heroes; every time they took a corner, she smashed through the corner, cutting the lead significantly.

    Guys, get out of there!”

    “We can't do that,” Emma replied grimly. “We leave, they go back to Plan A, being a hostage situation. We have to stay close enough that they think they have a chance of catching us.”

    You can't keep that up forever.” That was Rod Clements.

    Wait a minute.” Taylor. “I might have something.”

    “What?” asked Aerodyne. She was starting to feel the strain; normally, she pulled in air from all around her, and these corridors were stifling her capabilities.

    Just keep ahead of them for just a little longer.”

    “Yipe!” Emma snagged a corner with her hair and pulled them around it, just in time to avoid a charging pounce by the Siberian. “I think she's done playing.”

    “Yeah,” agreed Aerodyne. “Where's Hatchet Face?”

    He got ahead of you, guys. You're heading into an ambush. I'm bothering him as best I can, but it's not a great amount.”

    “It'll have to be enough,” Emma decided. “We can't face the Siberian. Whatever you've got planned, do it.”

    Just … hold … on … “

    <><>​

    Moments ago, something had gotten Taylor's attention. When she had set the bugs of Brockton Bay to sweeping for the Nine, she had not told them to stop. And as the villains had begun their pursuit of her friends, the bugs had turned up something interesting. Unusual, even.

    There was a van, parked at the side of the road, about half a mile away from Winslow High. The driver was doing nothing; just staring fixedly in the direction of Winslow.

    On a hunch, Taylor sent a booster bug in his direction. It took a few moments for it to get there, which was what occasioned the delay. It perched on the dashboard and took a good hard look at the driver, using its Amy-enhanced visual senses.

    The face looked familiar, from the extensive research she had done; Taylor frowned. Could it be?

    The idea that one of the leading lights of parahuman research, long thought dead, was alive and well, and in the vicinity of the Slaughterhouse Nine, was so far beyond being a coincidence that it was ludicrous.

    “Dad,” she stated. “I think I've got eyes on Doctor William Manton, you know, the parahuman researcher? He's sitting in a van, not a mile from Winslow, looking that way.”

    What, do you think he's somehow connected with them?”

    And then another voice broke in; Lisa's. “Take him out! Take him out now! He's a projector! Projecting the Siberian!”

    Taylor didn't hesitate. She already had two toxin-bugs on hand. Manton didn't even notice when they landed on his skin. The bugs injected their venom.

    Batrachotoxin, otherwise obtained from the 'poison arrow frog' of South America, is so deadly that an amount equivalent to two grains of salt will have a fifty percent chance of killing a healthy adult. The toxin bugs Amy had created bore a modified variant of that; one sting would cause grogginess or unconsciousness, depending on the size and health of the recipient. Two stings would cause unconsciousness or death. Three would bring death to all but the largest and toughest of victims. Taylor used two bugs; she wanted to give him a chance to survive, but not a chance to stay awake.

    <><>​

    They had almost avoided the ambush. Almost, but not quite.

    Hatchet Face had gotten too close, too quickly. Emma's summoned hair had disintegrated under them, as had Aerodyne's wave of air. They had been travelling too fast, had no time to re-establish their flying carpet. Aerodyne was winded, unable to focus. The Siberian was stalking toward them, murderous intent in every line of her being. Behind her, Hatchet Face was following along.

    Emma shielded Aerodyne with her body, for what good it would do. She lashed out against the Siberian with her hair; it crumpled, disintegrated against that tiger-striped body. Defiantly, she looked death in the face. The sharp-nailed fingers reached for her -

    - and the Siberian popped like a soap bubble.

    Emma reacted before Hatchet Face could. Her hair lashed out, covered the distance to him, wrapped around his arms and legs. And then she gave him every volt she could muster. Her hair crackled and fluoresced, and she lit him up like the Fourth of July.

    He screamed.

    <><>​

    Over Brockton Bay

    Glory Girl was still flying, but she didn't know how. Blood ran down her face from a scalp wound; more stained her once-white costume from cuts shallow and deep alike. She pulled a glass dart from her arm and tried to hurl it at her opponent. With insulting ease, Shatterbird caught it with her power, brought it to her, and then licked the blood off of it, slowly and lingeringly.

    “You can't beat me,” she taunted the teen hero. “You won't run. What are you going to do?”

    “Hold on,” Glory Girl panted. “Hold on … “

    “Until what happens?” Shatterbird sneered. “Your wounds miraculously heal, and you gain the powers of Eidolon?”

    Glory Girl shook her head, holding her ribs. She was fairly sure that some of them were broken. “No.”

    Shatterbird rolled her eyes. “What, then?”

    The three blasts hit her in the back, at almost exactly the same time. Her eyes opened wide, just as a blackened hole burst open in her chest, the three lasers blasting straight through her body.

    She half-turned as the life left her, to see Lady Photon hovering there, flanked by Laserdream and Shielder. The teenage boy blew imaginary smoke off of his raised index finger.

    “That,” Glory Girl managed, as Shatterbird began her long fall toward the ground. Then she passed out, and began to fall herself.

    <><>​

    PRT Building

    Vicky opened her eyes. She sat up, looking around. Amy, looking remarkably tired, sat nearby, with a familiar-looking blonde girl kneeling beside her, an arm around her shoulders. As she watched, Amy leaned into the blonde girl for support. She felt a stab of jealousy; Amy had always depended on her for support, before.

    Off to the side was … Crawler, of the Nine. He didn't seem to be doing much, however, just standing there, slowly drooling acid which was eating away at the asphalt. PRT techs, flanked by guards with oversized containment foam guns, were crating him up for transport. Slowly, Vicky climbed to her feet, staring in fascination.

    “Hey,” she heard from behind her. “You feeling all right?”

    Turning, she saw Danny Hebert, standing next to Sarah Pelham. Vista, in full costume, stood next to them. Sarah stepped forward and hugged Vicky; she still had smears of blood on her costume that no doubt matched those on Vicky's.

    “Yeah, I am now,” Vicky confirmed. “Thanks for the save. She had me on the ropes, once she figured out the one-two punch.”

    Sarah nodded. “I thought as much. I'm just glad you're alive.”

    Vicky tilted her head toward where Amy was leaning against the blonde. Fairly certain that's Tattletale. At that moment, the girl looked up, directly into her eyes. A fox-like grin made that identification certain. She looked away.

    “Thanks to Amy, I take it?” she asked, somewhat belatedly.

    Danny nodded. “Thanks to Amy. I got on to Vista, and she was giving us the express route into the city so that Amy could deal with Crawler, when Sarah called up. I answered, and Sarah dropped out of the sky, carrying you. You were in a pretty bad way.”

    Vicky nodded. “I remember. The rest of the Nine?”

    He smiled, very slightly. “They attacked Winslow. They're now in custody, or dead.”

    Sarah nodded. “I'm not proud of what I had to do. What we had to do. But if we'd given Shatterbird a fair chance, she would have taken us all down.”

    Vicky nodded. “I get that. Not arguing."

    Vista stepped forward. "It's a big choice, to take a life. But in any case, they would have done the same. They were an S-class threat."

    Vicky swallowed. "Did ... did many people die?"

    Vista nodded. "A dozen or so, on the Protectorate base. One PRT guard was killed here."

    Vicky's shoulders slumped. "Damn."

    Sarah gave Vicky a squeeze. "It could have been a lot worse."

    Vista shaded her eyes as she watched the techs box up Crawler. "It's kind of funny, in a macabre sort of way.”

    “What is?” asked Danny.

    She smiled grimly. “They came to Brockton Bay to take out the Samaritans. It really didn't go well for them.”

    Danny nodded. “Ain't that the truth.”

    Sarah turned to Danny. "Which begs the question."

    "Yeah?"

    "Does this make the Samaritans an S-class team?"


    End of Part Twenty-Two

    Part Twenty-Three
     
    Last edited: Jun 28, 2015
  24. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Three: Winding Down
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Twenty-Three: Winding Down


    Emily

    Director Piggot moved the mouse and clicked the 'Accept' button, allowing the last picture to bloom into existence on her monitor. Four of them, all looking back at her, via the webcam perched atop her monitor like a malevolent one-eyed vulture. She carefully avoided looking at it, preferring instead to observe the faces of her fellow Directors.

    Okay, Emily, you got us into this meeting. What's the problem?”

    That was West; his face stared back at her from his quarter of the screen. A tough man, heavy set, with close cropped greying hair. Regional Director of the DC contingent under Costa-Brown, he had a tough act to follow; the rumour was that the Chief Director never forgot a name, a face or a detail. Figures that he's the one to start pushing.

    “One of my problems,” she enunciated carefully, “is the Samaritans.”

    The Samaritans?” That was Hearthrow, over in Chicago. “I'm not familiar with them.”

    New team in Brockton Bay,” offered Armstrong, in Boston. “From what I hear, they've been making waves.”

    Weren't they called Team Samaritan?” interjected Wilkins, from the New York office. “Pretty sure that's what I heard.”

    “I've been advised by our team liaison that they prefer to be called 'the Samaritans',” Piggot told them. “But I didn't call you up to debate the name. I'm concerned about the waves they are making.”

    Wait, you gave them a team liaison?” Armstrong looked surprised. “They're that effective?”

    “They're that worrying,” Emily corrected him.

    West cleared his throat. “Is this something we should be concerned about?” By which he meant 'should I get the Chief Director in on this?'

    “I don't know,” Emily told him. “That's what I called this meeting to discuss.”

    So fill us in,” invited Hearthrow. “I do remember hearing about them now, but details escape me.”

    Bunch of teenagers, right?” asked Armstrong. “Started with three girls?”

    “Originally, yes,” agreed Piggot. “But now they have a fourth member, as well as two liaisons. Plus another one who's already helped them out a couple of times.”

    Wilkins held up a hand. “Whoa, hang on, back it up a little. A fourth member? Two liaisons? Names and details would be handy.”

    Emily sighed. They should have gotten this material already. “Okay, they stopped a bank robbery and captured one of the members of the gang, but instead of handing her over to the authorities, they instead inducted her into the group -”

    Four voices stopped her, all shouting at once. She badly wanted to close her eyes and rub her forehead, but she restrained herself. This is going about as well as I expected.

    <><>​

    Riley

    Bonesaw's eyes flicked open, then immediately shut again.

    She kept her mind clear for the moment, assessing her surroundings.

    Face down, lying on concrete, hands secured behind back. Ankles fastened together. Not rope, not twine, not handcuffs … plastic zip-ties. Doable.

    Carefully, she rolled her head very slightly to one side, slitted an eye open. Blue sky, but not in direct sunlight. Outside but under cover.

    Question one: am I the only prisoner? Question two: who captured me? Question three: where am I?


    Deliberately, now, she allowed memory to cascade, from her last five minutes of consciousness.

    Pulling into the school parking lot in the RV.

    If she rolled her eye a little and moved her head just a little more, she could see the rough asphalt of the parking lot. And that would be the back end of the RV. Right. I'm there. Outside the school. Top of the steps. Under cover, still air around me. I can work with that.

    Okay, so what happened after that?

    Walking into the school, hand in hand with Mr Jack. Looking around to see what we could see. Leaving the spider-bots to guard the RV.

    Tiny sting in side of neck. Reaching up to rub it. Realising that something was wrong, too late.

    Everything going dark.

    Mr Jack.

    What happened to Mr Jack?


    <><>​

    Emily

    You set them up to go after Coil?” West's tone was disbelieving. “As bait? With a Ward along?”

    Emily's patience was fraying. “Have you seen the footage of the Weymouth incident? Those three girls, with no prior field experience, took down a gang of criminal capes with no casualties among either themselves or the bystanders. And then, when the bank they were in got robbed, they took control of the situation, got the bystanders out of the way, engaged the Undersiders, and beat them. Decisively. That's one of the reasons I had Vista assigned to them as a liaison. They're good at what they do.”

    But now you're wondering if they're too good.” That was Wilkins. “Which, I have to say, is a valid concern. Given their almost prescient capability against the Nine.”

    Wait, wait,” protested Hearthrow. “You're unhappy because they actually succeeded, and took the Nine out of the picture?”

    It wasn't just them,” Armstrong pointed out. “New Wave and the Undersiders participated as well, if my information is correct.”

    “Yes,” Piggot replied. “Exactly. They coordinated this. The Undersiders are the gang that Tattletale used to belong to; she called them in on this.”

    Which was a good thing, right?” asked Hearthrow. “Surely it saved lives.”

    “Yes,” sighed Emily. “But it leaves us in debt to them. The PRT and Protectorate were blind, crippled, hardly able to react. The Samaritans stepped up and dealt with the problem. A bunch of teenagers dealt with the problem before it even had a chance to become a problem.”

    The problem being that the Slaughterhouse Nine were an S-class threat,” West replied slowly. “Now that the Samaritans have been shown eminently capable of taking them down, how much capability are they still hiding, and should they be considered such a threat, in and of themselves?”

    Before we really get into that,” Wilkins decided, “maybe we should look into the methods they used to take down the Nine. How did they even do it? Jack Slash is one slippery customer.”

    Emily nodded. “Jack Slash, Bonesaw, and Burnscar were all taken down with an exotic venom delivered by bug sting,” she reported. “Mannequin, at the same time, had all his moving parts seized up when glue was injected into the sockets of his carapace limbs. The Siberian was also taken down; I don't yet have the exact details on how that happened.” She paused, allowing comment, but no-one seemed to have anything to say. “Hatchet Face was electrocuted by Sparx. He did not survive. Shatterbird was engaged and killed by four members of New Wave; Glory Girl, Lady Photon, Laserdream and Shielder. And Crawler was engaged by the Undersiders and subdued by Panacea. Who is currently the New Wave liaison with the Samaritans.”

    Armstrong looked intrigued. “Tell us more about these bugs. I'm presuming the bug girl – Ladybug – was controlling them. Where did she get them from? Is she able to shape them to her needs?”

    “No, as it happens,” Piggot told them. “This is to be kept strictly between us, by request. It turns out that Panacea is capable of more than just healing. According to Vista's report, she's able to take insects and modify them so totally that they're effectively an entirely new species.”

    And what about larger creatures, such as humans?” Wilkins looked unhappy. “And why did she keep it a secret for so long?”

    “Personal choice, apparently.” Piggot frowned slightly. “I wasn't any happier to hear about it than you are. As for larger creatures, she's able to heal injuries and cure diseases in humans. There's no indication that she's able to do anything more than repair the results of old injuries and correct genetic deformities. It might be actually related to the size and complexity of the human brain; she's unable to affect that in any way.”

    So she says,” growled West; his tone was distinctly dubious. “If she'll lie about one thing, she'll lie about another.”

    “If you'll recall,” Emily snapped, her temper getting the better of her, “Panacea has put herself out there and shown up to the aftermath of every Endbringer battle since she gained her powers. She has already healed countless people of every conceivable injury, save those of the brain, and any disease you can care to name. I believe that she's earned a certain amount of leeway.”

    Fine,” conceded West. “What's this exotic venom? And how did Mannequin get glued up? I doubt he would have allowed people to get next to him.”

    “Believe it or not,” Emily told him, “it's called 'poison arrow frog' venom … “

    <><>​

    Riley

    Bonesaw could see her captors now; two teenage girls, in costume. One had long, flowing red hair that moved by itself, and the other was a brunette with a costume made of layers of a diaphanous material. Sparx and Aerodyne. Poop. We've been captured by the Samaritans.

    It must have been Ladybug who got me. A bug of some sort, loaded with … hm. Not curare, or I'd be paralysed.
    In seconds, her mind went through dozens, hundreds of poisons, cataloguing her lingering symptoms, comparing. Huh. Batrachotoxin. Tricky. Loaded into insects somehow – ah, of course. Panacea. She joined as a liaison. She modified the bugs. Probably modified other bugs to do other things. Wow. I am so jealous. They get to do all the fun things.

    Sternly, she brought that line of thought to an end. The girls were looking the other way momentarily, so she rolled her head to the right, risked a glance, then rolled it back. The one glance was all she needed. Mr Jack. Unconscious or faking it, tied up.

    No, if he was conscious, he'd be talking. Trying to talk his way out of this, to get the upper hand. He's real good at that.
    She'd seen it many times before.

    She bit her lip. I really should have given him the treatment that let him neutralise toxins like I do. I'll do it, as soon as we're out of here. The bite signalled the catalysts buried deep in her lungs to start converting nitrogen and carbon dioxide to nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide; in effect, she was exhaling laughing gas. She, of course, was immune to it. Mr Jack would ignore the effects; he found everything to be a giant joke anyway.

    Not much air movement. The gas will linger. If they breathe it for awhile, it'll put them off their game, lower their guard. Give Mr Jack time to come around. In the meantime, I can work on these zip-ties. If I'm lucky, I can nail one or both of them, wake Mr Jack up myself.

    It was a plan. She flexed the fingers of her left hand; acid started seeping out from under the nails. Bending her wrist farther than it really should be able to go – she'd spent an idle afternoon redesigning it to do just this – she started brushing the acid on to the plastic ties.

    Of course, she didn't want them paying too much attention to her. Her spider-bots were all down, most major systems fried, but she could make them wriggle just a bit. A distraction at the right time is all I need.

    <><>​

    Emma

    Hatchet Face lay a little apart from the live captives; Emma had gotten a tablecloth from the RV to cover his face. She didn't like to look at him, at the twisted expression that his violent death had bequeathed him. That she had done to him.

    The fact that she hadn't had much of a choice, that he had literally been just seconds away from hacking them both to pieces, wasn't much of a comfort. She suspected that she would have nightmares about this day.

    Something caught her eye, distracting her. "Did you see that?"

    Madison glanced back at her. "See what?"

    "Spider-bots just moved. Go check it out."

    Madison didn't move from where she was sitting on the steps, leaning against the rail. "Don't feel like it. You do it."

    The corpses of the spider-bots lay in a tangled heap; when they had opened up the RV, the 'bots had come leaping at them, but Emma had practised for just such an occasion, and apparently the 'bots were quite vulnerable to electricity. Still, they were creepy as all fuck. Still are. She was sure that one of them had just shifted.

    "No, you do it," Emma told her. "Team leader, remember."

    "Don't care," Madison told her lazily.

    Emma eyed the pile of 'bots again. Maybe I imagined it. Eh, who cares.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “Wow, Taylor, you missed everything!”

    Taylor blinked and looked around as she descended the stairs once more. With the exodus of Sophia's cronies – following Sophia's own exit, somewhat beaten and battered – from Winslow, while the rest of the student body hadn't exactly clustered around her, some had tentatively extended offers of friendship. Offers which, due to her improved self-esteem – being a well-known superhero was great for that – she had accepted. Now, she wouldn't say she was one of the popular kids, but she wasn't so unpopular either. Emma was one of the more popular girls, and her known friendship with Taylor hadn't hurt matters either.

    “Oh, hey, Charlotte,” she greeted the dark-haired girl. Charlotte was also one of the few, apart from Emma, who had been willing to speak to her – albeit rarely – before Sophia's expulsion, so Taylor held her in a certain level of regard. “What'd I miss?” She looked around at the excited, jostling crowds where the halls should have been empty. “What's happening?”

    “Oh, nothing much,” Charlotte told her airily. “Except, you know, we got attacked by the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

    Taylor shook her head. “Nope. No way. You're not getting me with that one.”

    “No, seriously, we did.” Charlotte's voice was earnest.

    Taylor shook her head again, putting on an amused look. “I'm calling bullshit. That shit does not happen while I'm in the bathroom.”

    Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Seriously, Taylor. The world does not revolve around you.”

    “Granted,” agreed Taylor, “but I am going to continue to call bullshit on the Slaughterhouse Nine. What's really happening?”

    Greg Veder bounced up to them in his typical bumbling fashion. “Hey, Taylor!” he greeted her. “How awesome was that? I saw the whole thing!”

    Which, Taylor noted, was bullshit. Greg hadn't been anywhere near the action. Which was lucky for him, for reasons of not being killed in one of several gruesome ways.

    “Saw what whole thing?” She leaned in close to Greg. “And if you say 'Slaughterhouse Nine', I am going to smack you.”

    “But it's true!” he protested. “They were here! Tell her, Charlotte!”

    “Oh, for god's sake,” protested Taylor, enjoying herself immensely, “if the Nine really were here, how come the school's still standing? How come we're all still alive? How come we still have windows? I mean, there isn't even any damage.”

    “Fine; you want damage, I'll show you damage,” Charlotte told her. “Come on.” Brooking no resistance, she captured Taylor's hand and towed her down the corridor and around the corner. There, surrounded by gaping students, a chunk of the next corner had been removed, as if something unstoppable had simply smashed on through instead of going all the way around.

    Taylor knew who had done this – Siberian, of course – but she goggled all the same. “Holy shit,” she gasped. “What did that?”

    “Crawler,” Greg stated authoritatively.

    Charlotte shook her head. “The Siberian.”

    “Fuck.” Taylor shook her head. “You weren't kidding. Who stopped them? Where did they go?”

    “It was Team Samaritan who stopped them,” Charlotte supplied. “Sparx and Aerodyne, I think. I saw them carrying Mannequin and Hatchet Face outside. They're waiting for the PRT.”

    Which were inbound, Taylor knew. Helicopters for fast response, trucks and armoured vehicles for heavier firepower. Which, hopefully, would not be required for this particular encounter with the Nine.

    She frowned. “Wait. You said the Siberian made that hole, but you didn't see her being carried out?” Don't show that I know more than I should.

    Charlotte shrugged. “They probably made a trip while I was still hiding.”

    “No, no, see, the Siberian's a teleporter,” Greg told them self-importantly. “I read it on the PHO boards. When she saw the way it was going, she probably just left.”

    Taylor and Charlotte stared at him. Charlotte managed to speak first. “Seriously? Have you joined the Merchants?” In Winslow, this was equivalent to asking What the hell are you smoking? “That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard.”

    “Yeah,” agreed Taylor. “The Siberian doesn't leave. She kills everyone first, who hasn't already run away. No-one's ever managed to beat her. She even killed Hero.” She looked at Charlotte. “So how did the Samaritans manage to beat her?” She paused. “I mean, they're cool, and I so want to get Aerodyne's autograph, but … how the fuck?”

    Team Samaritan,” Charlotte corrected her. “And they beat the Siberian by being fucking awesome. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.”

    “Maybe they signed her up on the team,” offered Greg. When they turned to him, both beginning to speak at the same time, he rushed on. “Hey, there's precedent. Everyone on the PHO boards knows that they've already signed up Tattletale after beating the Undersiders at that bank robbery, and then taking down Coil.”

    Charlotte looked blank. “Who's Tattletale?”

    Taylor shrugged. “Search me. Sounds like someone Greg made up off the top of his head.”

    Greg was beginning to look frustrated. “She's real, dammit. Look on the PHO boards. She's posting as All Seeing Eye. This was just about the time that Vista was made a liaison to the team.”

    “Wow, Greg,” Charlotte commented, “you sure know a lot about the business of Team Samaritan. Are you sure you're not a member?”

    Taylor shook her head. “Can't be. Last I heard, they were all girls. Unless there's something you're not telling us, Greg?”

    Greg's cheeks were flaming now; Charlotte raised an eyebrow. “You know, Ladybug wears that bulky armour. She's pretty tall too. She could easily be Greg. What about it, Greg? Cross-dressing for justice?”

    “I'm right,” insisted Greg. “You'll see. I'm right.” He stalked off; after he was out of earshot, Charlotte and Taylor burst out laughing.

    “That was kind of mean,” Taylor told her friend. “Maybe we shouldn't tease him quite so much.”

    Charlotte sighed. “Yeah. There was what happened to you. Okay, I'll go easy on him. But geez, he makes it easy.”

    “That's what Sophia thought about me,” Taylor pointed out in a quiet voice.

    Charlotte looked a little taken aback. “Oh. Right. Point taken. I'll go apologise for the both of us then.”

    Taylor smiled. “Thanks. I'll catch up with you later.”

    She watched as Charlotte hurried off, and wandered in the opposite direction. At that moment, the asthmatic PA system crackled to life.

    All students … this is Principal Blackwell speaking … please return to your classrooms … I have been assured that the danger is over … please return to your classrooms … “

    Taylor snorted. Yeah, that's gonna happen. When something like this happened, kids were going to rubberneck. She didn't see any of the afternoon classes getting by with anything near full attendance. Especially when some of the kids called their parents about the supervillain attack.

    Finding a quiet corner, she pulled out her phone and dialled Emma's number.

    <><>​

    Emma

    Just as Emma was considering sitting down as well, her phone rang. She hooked it out, noting the number, and answered with a whimsical grin on her face.

    “You've reached the Samaritans. This is Sparx speaking. Who's calling, please?”

    There was a rude noise in Emma's ear. “You know who this is.”

    Emma chuckled. “Yeah, I know. But it was funny.”

    Hah. Funny is some of the rumours that are circulating about what just happened. I've managed to put on a pretty good bewildered-Taylor act, so no-one connects me with anything.”

    Emma's hair checked up on Jack Slash's bindings, as she checked his pulse with her fingertips. It was strong, and even if he was awake again – not that she thought he was – he hadn't managed to compromise the zip-ties. “You put on that act pretty good even with us.”

    Oh, ha ha. Meany.”

    Emma chuckled. “You just can't take a joke.”

    There was a pause. “Can you put the phone on speaker, get Aerodyne over to you?”

    “Sure thing, sister from another mister.” Emma giggled; she thought that was hilarious. “Hey, Aerodyne. The Lady of the Bugs wants to conference.”

    Madison climbed to her feet and stepped over. “Whassup, o mistress of bugs great and small?”

    “Good one, A-dyne,” Emma told her, and they high-fived.

    Aerodyne, I need you to clear the air.”

    “Why, did you fart?” Both girls thought that was hilarious.

    You're making inappropriate jokes. Not taking things seriously enough. I think you might've been drugged.”

    “Wow,” Emma observed. “We've been drugged? Wouldn't that be a gas?” She started laughing almost uncontrollably.

    Aerodyne. Do it now now now.” Taylor's voice was sharp, sharp enough to get Madison's attention. The 'now now now' command was one they'd practised responding to immediately.

    Emma could feel Aerodyne's power as kicked in; the brushing of air all around her, flickering against her widespread tendrils. A sharp breeze sprang up, kicking up dust and bringing in cool air from elsewhere. She took a breath of the clean air, and another, flushing her lungs with it. The feeling of carelessness, of almost giddy happiness, began to ease away, leaving her cool and clear-headed. And realising just what had happened. “Bonesaw.” She's awake, and she just pulled something. Figures that she'd have herself fixed up to recover faster from toxins.

    Her tendrils checked the child's bindings, and to her shock, she found the zip-ties almost corroded away. The tendrils themselves now encircled the small wrists, settling into place. She could feel fingernails scraping against the faux hairs, depositing something on them.

    “Won't work,” she informed the kid. “My hair stood up against Lung's fire. Acid, or whatever you're using … nope. And I'd advise you to stop releasing whatever gas you're using. We've got it neutralised.”

    The thin shoulders slumped slightly. “Poop.”

    Emma's lips twitched in real amusement, this time. “'Poop'? Really?”

    Bonesaw wriggled around; the zip-ties parted, but the tendrils tightened slightly. She turned her head toward Emma; blue-eyed, pretty, hair framed by mussed blonde ringlets, she looked adorable. “I watch my language. It's something I've got to do.” She wriggled around a bit farther.

    “Sparx, watch out!”

    Madison's warning came just in time. Bonesaw's right index finger pointed; now that she could see, she could aim. Emma's hair swept across, making a screen. The fingernail hinged back; something shot from the fingertip, impacted the screen. Reflexively, Emma sent a charge through the tendrils holding Bonesaw's wrists; not enough to kill or even stun, just enough to sting. Bonesaw hunched, grunting, then relaxed again when the current let up. “Gosh darn it to heck. That hurt.

    “Okay, that's it.” Emma sent her tendrils out, wrapping the murderous little munchkin up from head to toe; she was visible from the eyes upward, but that was about it. “From now on, we treat her like anything she could possible attack us with, she will.”

    What's going on?”

    With a jolt of surprise, Emma realised that she was still holding the phone, with Taylor on the other end. “Bonesaw's a lot sneakier than I expected. She's built crap into her own body. Some sort of gas designed to make us let down our guard gradually, acid under the fingernails, and a dart-shooter in the fingertip. At least.”

    Christ. Are you all right?”

    “So far. Aerodyne's refreshing my air as we speak. I've got her wrapped up like a very cute mummy.”

    Want me to dose her again?”

    Emma considered that. “No, hold off. It's probably lost all effectiveness on her, and she might just fake it to put us off guard.”

    Yeah, you're probably right.”

    She took the phone off of speaker, held it to her ear. “How's the other guy?”

    Still out. I've got the space surrounding him filled with bugs. Pretty sure he's unconscious, and if he forms the Siberian anywhere near himself, I'll zap him again.”

    “Good.” Emma tilted her head. “I think I hear the sirens now. PRT's almost here.”

    Excellent. I'm gonna go be a good little student in class now.”

    “You do that. We'll keep a eye on things here.” She put the phone away and glanced at Madison. “Aerodyne, how's Mannequin doing?”

    “I'm getting subsonic vibrations,” Madison reported. “Like he's running servos to try to break the glue.”

    “Nothing's shaking free?”

    Madison shook her head. “Not so far.”

    “Good. Keep an eye on him. And me too, just in case Bonesaw tries something else that gets through to me.” She thought about telling Mannequin just how strong the glue holding his limbs in place really was – in the region of five tons per square inch – but she thought better of it. He who gloats, gives away valuable information.

    Madison nodded. “Will do.”

    “Mffmmwffm.”

    The noise had come from Bonesaw. It didn't sound like she was suffocating, so Emma ignored it.

    “Fffmwfmffm.”

    She's going to keep doing this, I know it.

    “Aerodyne, I'm going to talk to Bonesaw. Watch me. Don't let me breathe her air.”

    “Watching.”

    She reduced the tangle of 'hair' over Bonesaw's mouth to a minimum, while making sure the kid's face was not aimed directly at her. I wouldn't put it past her to have something to spit. “Yes? You had something to say?”

    “You don't have to hand me over to the PRT.”

    Emma blinked. That was as direct as it came. “Actually, yes, we do.”

    “No, you really don't. I can help you.”

    “Like you just tried to help me with a poisoned dart just now? And did you really build dart launchers into your fingertips?”

    A sigh. “Yeah, I did. You don't blame me for trying, right?”

    “Nope. Just like you don't blame me for not believing a word you're saying.”

    “But I can help you. I'm an awesome doctor. In fact, I'm the awesome doctor.”

    Emma sighed. She was feeling a little tired, possibly the after-effects of the gas she'd inadvertently inhaled. “You also spend your time hurting, maiming and killing innocent people. That's more or less exactly what we don't do.”

    “I don't have to do that. It's just what Mr Jack likes.”

    The voice was so earnest, so matter-of-fact, that Emma was almost convinced, despite herself. She shook her head. “Yeah, no. You've been doing what 'Mr Jack' likes for six years. I'm guessing that even if you didn't like it from the start, you've certainly gotten a taste for it now.”

    Bonesaw shook her head. “I'm not like that, really. I want to meet you guys. I want to meet Panacea. That would be so awesome. I -”

    “You can stop talking now.” Emma built up the tendril-gag over her face and stepped away a little, extending the 'hair' as she did so. “Christ,” she muttered.

    Aerodyne stepped closer. “What?”

    “She's so damn convincing. Just a kid. Gotta be younger than Vista. That innocent act … if I didn't know what she's been doing for years, if I hadn't read the file, I'd be tempted to give her a second chance.”

    Aerodyne's hand squeezed her shoulder. “They're not all hulking thugs, you know. Sometimes it's harder to tell who the bad guys are, just from looking.”

    Emma grimaced. “Yeah, I know. But I think she just wants to meet Amy.”

    Aerodyne shuddered. “Bonesaw, getting a hold over Panacea? No, fuck that.”

    The sirens were louder, and there was a helicopter overhead. It began to descend toward the playing field at the side of Winslow. Emma turned to Madison. “You go talk to them; I'll keep an eye on things here.”

    Madison nodded. “Just don't breathe the air.”

    “Yeah, no crap,” Emma agreed. “I believe that I'll be standing upwind.”

    They high-fived one another before Aerodyne went off to speak to the PRT; Sparx continued to watch the captured criminals.

    I can't wait to get them off my hands.

    <><>​

    Emily

    “ … well,” concluded Wilkins. “I can kind of see why you're less than thrilled. Just the Ladybug/Panacea interaction is enough to make me twitchy. With Tattletale in the mix, as well as whoever's training these kids to professional levels, the Samaritans are definitely more than your average starting super-team.”

    In addition,” West put in, “they've forged ties to New Wave, plus the Wards, and they've got connections to at least one criminal gang.” He paused. “Right now, if you set out to take them down, who do you think would stand with them, who'd be on your side, and who'd win?”

    Emily paused to think about that. “If Vista gave us all the information she knows about them, and we managed to pull off a surprise strike, I think we could take them. If they knew we were coming, and if New Wave and the Undersiders stood alongside them … I'm less sure.”

    Wait a minute,” protested Armstrong. “Are we honestly considering pre-emptive strikes against a bunch of teenage girls who've done nothing wrong, just because they're kicking ass smarter and better than we are? Is this us being careful or being jealous?”

    That jarred Emily just a little. “I … no, we're not considering a strike. In any case, even if the Undersiders managed to get too much influence over them, Panacea would withdraw, and New Wave would stand on our side.” I hope.

    Well, you've definitely alerted us to the potential problem,” Wilkins noted. “Send any additional material you've got through as you get it. I'll be interested to read it. If there's nothing more … ?”

    “Wait,” Emily told them, even as they were preparing to shut down the links. “There is the other problem that I wanted to bring up.”

    West made an impatient gesture. “Well, what is it?”

    “When Coil was taken down,” Piggot told him, “they found a Case 53 in the base, under lock and key. Quite monstrous. Wilkins, Armstrong, I believe that it might have visited Boston and New York at one time or another, maybe recently. Looks like a teenage girl with a very bulky inhuman lower body. Eats people.”

    All four Directors were staring at her now. “It's … there?” demanded Wilkins. “In Brockton Bay?”

    Emily nodded. “And I'd like your advice on how to properly deal with it.”

    <><>​

    Victoria

    "So where – ungh – is Crawler being shipped off to? And why can't they just cement these chunks of street back into place?"

    Glory Girl heaved one of the aforementioned 'chunks of street' – large enough that it would otherwise have required the attentions of a forklift – on to the back of a flatbed truck, then stood back and dusted her hands off as Browbeat assisted Manpower with another one. The teen Ward was ludicrously over-muscled, almost as wide as he was tall, but Vicky knew that his personal skin-level TK field was doing most of the work.

    "Crawler's destination is classified," Armsmaster informed her. "It's best that as few people as possible know about it."

    "Probably going to dump him down a really deep hole somewhere," Manpower offered as all three of the heavy lifters set themselves up around a bigger than normal chunk. "Fill it in, and concrete it over."

    "Filling it in would be a mistake," Browbeat put in seriously. "If the sides of the hole are steep enough, he won't be able to get enough traction to climb out. But he's strong enough to dig his way up through rubble."

    "Wherever they take him, they've got about eight hours before he starts to wake up," Amy put in from where she was sitting on the passenger seat of the truck, legs dangling out of the door. She sipped at the hot cup of tea in her hands. "Eighteen before he's fully aware again."

    Lisa, leaning against the truck cab beside her, smiled. "Oh, I'm pretty sure they've got a place in mind. Right, Armsy?"

    Armsmaster cleared his throat. "Tattletale, I'm aware of your significant contributions toward the public good since you joined the Samaritans. I'm also aware that it was your old team, at your instigation, who got Crawler out of the PRT building, and held him long enough that Panacea could subdue him. But there are matters that you are not cleared to know, and the location that Crawler is being taken to is one of them. So kindly cease hinting and probing into the matter."

    Lisa wrinkled her nose at him. “Sorry, wrong cape name. I'm going with 'Athena' for now. Good guy, see?” She gestured at the blue jeans and Alexandria T-shirt she wore, along with the black domino mask.

    “We'll see,” he grunted.

    Behind her mask, Lisa rolled her eyes, then leaned over to murmur something in Amy's ear. The biokinetic snorted in amusement, then hid her smile behind the cup of tea, though her eyes still sparkled with humour. Armsmaster gave them both a suspicious glance, then quite obviously chose to ignore them.

    "One ... two ... three ... Heave," grunted Manpower, drawing Vicky's attention back to the task at hand. She hovered over the hole as she lifted; the other two were standing on solid ground. The chunk of rubble rose off of the ground anyway, and they moved it over toward the truck. The small crowd of onlookers took photos, and she grinned despite the strain. This has got to be the best part of being a superhero. Using powers and looking awesome.

    The truck springs creaked and sagged as the new chunk of concrete joined the others, then Manpower pointed down into the hole. "In case you're still wondering, Vicky, that's why we can't just concrete everything back into place."

    Vicky hovered over the hole and looked down. There was still a reasonable amount of rubble to move, but it was all small stuff, nothing she couldn't handle by herself. Amy slid off of the truck seat and came over, with Lisa – Athena – strolling casually behind.

    It took Vicky a few moments to figure what he was pointing at, but when she saw it, it was obvious. "Electrical cables and ... what are those?" The cables were easy to recognise, sticking out of the broken surface of the concrete, but the other, like a fine bundle of silvery hairs ...

    "Optical fibres," Lisa informed her, an instant before Manpower stated exactly the same thing. "Looks like they're gonna have to move the bus stop until all this gets fixed."

    Manpower – Uncle Neil – placed both hands into the small of his back and leaned backward, eliciting a cracking sound. "Well, now that we've moved the big stuff, we can let the workmen in to handle that sort of thing." He looked around, at the activity that was already surrounding the damaged frontage of the PRT building. "You did good, kids. All of you. This could've been a lot worse."

    "It was worse, on the Protectorate base," Armsmaster reminded him. "We lost people, and we have wounded." He paused, letting the silence stretch out.

    Vicky found her eyes wandering to Amy. Normally, her sister would have been stepping forward by now ...

    "Oh!" Lisa's voice evinced surprise, although her eyes were bright and her mouth was quirking with far too much amusement for it to be genuine, "Are you trying to hint to Amy that it's time for her to go be everyone's Panacea again?"

    Armsmaster was temporarily lost for words. "I, ah ... "

    Lisa slid an arm around Amy's shoulders. Mischief danced in her eyes. "Amy and I have been talking. It's amazing how much we've had to talk about. And how long it took me to convince her that she really doesn't need to be at your beck and call, every moment of every day."

    "But people are hurt," objected Armsmaster.

    Amy cleared her throat. "Is there anyone who'll die if I don't help them? Anyone the doctors just can't help?"

    Reluctantly, the armoured hero shook his head. "No, but some of them are likely to lose their eyesight."

    "Then I'll look at them later," Amy told him. "When I feel more like it. Just ... not right now."

    Lisa's smile became ever so slightly more fox-like, and Vicky saw her squeeze Amy's shoulders.

    "I ... " Armsmaster stopped, then began again. "I'll let the Director know."

    Manpower was looking at Amy, an odd expression on his face. She stared back. "What?"

    "Uh ... nothing."

    Nothing, hell, thought Vicky. She was about to say something, but Manpower intervened. "Can I get a lift home, Vicky?"

    Vicky held Amy's eyes for a long moment, then looked away. "Sure thing." She gestured at her torn and bloodstained costume. "I need to get home and change anyway. See you later, Ames."

    Amy smiled and raised her hand in a little wave. "See you around, sis."

    Rising into the air, Vicky grasped her uncle's arms, and lifted him upward. As they took to the sky, the cityscape dropping away, she looked down at him.

    “I'm not sure if I like the way Amy's acting around Tattletale,” she commented. “She's a bad influence.”

    “I'm not so sure,” he replied thoughtfully. “And it's Athena now, apparently. I think it's good that Amy's asserting herself.”

    “Asserting herself, or saying that she's not going to go and heal someone?” Vicky let the concern she was feeling show in her voice. “Because that sets a bit of a precedent.”

    “She said she wasn't going to go and heal them right now,” Neil Pelham corrected her gently. “And yes, it does set a precedent. Maybe even a good one. It's important that she not be taken for granted. And this is the happiest, most relaxed, I've seen her in a long while.”

    Vicky went to answer, then rethought what she had been going to say. Amy had looked happy. She had smiled, laughed at whatever joke Lisa had made. There was a subtle tension that had been a part of her for so long that it was only notable by its absence. It hadn't gone away, not altogether, but it was somewhat diminished, leaving behind a subtly different person.

    Maybe I've been too close to her all this time, Vicky considered. Now that she's hanging with a different crowd, I might finally get to see the person behind the facade.

    It was something to think about.


    End of Part Twenty-Three

    Part Twenty-Four
     
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2015
  25. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Four: Turnabout
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Twenty-Four: Turnabout


    The insect was about an inch long, sported dull-grey wing cases, and looked quite unlike any bug that Director Piggot had ever seen. It sat, apparently unfazed by her inspection, in the middle of her desk. She got the strong impression that its shimmering eyes were inspecting her just as closely.

    She eyed it suspiciously, suppressing the urge to squash it just yet. Then she eyed three of the four girls standing opposite, equally suspiciously.

    “What is it?”

    “I call it a booster bug,” Ladybug informed her. “It lets me connect with bugs that are farther away than my range would normally allow.”

    Piggot looked down at it, then back up at her. “Why are you showing it to me?”

    “Because we're on the same side,” Sparx observed. “We're allies. This is a sharing of information.”

    The Director tilted her head. “So … you can connect to bugs farther away? How much farther?”

    “With enough of them, I'll be able to network my way right across the city.”

    The simple, matter-of-fact statement shook Piggot to her heels. “And this means that … “

    “I'll be able to control all the bugs in the city at once, yes,” Ladybug stated, as if she were noting that it might rain tomorrow.

    “With enough of them,” Piggot repeated the girl's earlier words, grasping at straws. “Do you have enough of them?”

    “Not yet,” Ladybug admitted. “But I'm breeding them as fast as I can.”

    “Stop.” The order popped out before Piggot knew she was going to give it.

    “What?” Ladybug tilted her head.

    “Stop breeding them.” Piggot's voice was rough. “Immediately.”

    “Why?”

    “Because … “ Piggot felt like tearing her hair out. “Because this makes you too powerful. Can't you see that? If the average man on the street learns that one teenage girl can form all the bugs in Brockton Bay into one enormous swarm, and send them to attack any one target, there will be panic.”

    “Not if I don't do it,” Ladybug protested. “And anyway, we were doing it to locate and beat the Nine. You're welcome, by the way.”

    The Director's lips thinned. “Very well. You've done it. Good job. Now stop breeding these bugs.”

    Sparx cleared her throat. “Director, I'm afraid that you're labouring under a misapprehension. We didn't come here to ask for your permission to breed these bugs. We came here to let you know of their capabilities, so that we can work with you, against threats to Brockton Bay. We're on your side.”

    “I saw what you could do before you got these damn bugs,” snapped Piggot. “You were capable enough then. With them? You are more of a threat to the city than the Nine ever were.”

    “I think that's a little unfair,” Aerodyne cut in. “Just because we've got a really powerful setup doesn't mean that we're just itching to unleash it on innocents at the first opportunity. Vista's seen what we can do with the booster bugs, and she's got no problem with it.”

    “She's right,” Vista agreed. “They've done nothing but good with them.”

    “How about the loss of privacy?” asked Piggot. “If Ladybug can listen in via every bug in the city, it will be like she's got nearly every person under surveillance. That's illegal -”

    “Except when the government's doing it, right?” asked Ladybug. “Relax. Bugs have crap senses. Their brains are so tiny it's ludicrous. I can tell where they are, and that's about it. Everything else is either a dull roar, a high-pitched squeak, or big fuzzy shapes.”

    “Even presuming that's true,” Piggot conceded, “I'd be interested in knowing where you got the batrachotoxin that you used on them. That's a highly dangerous substance, and not legally available anywhere, except for research purposes.”

    “The bugs secreted it,” Ladybug told her. “It's a naturally occurring substance, after all.”

    The Director rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “So, Panacea made the bugs in order to secrete this substance?”

    “That's correct,” Sparx agreed. “It took the Nine down hard and fast, which was exactly what we needed.”

    “And the chances of accidental death? Poison arrow frog venom isn't exactly a forgiving substance, after all.”

    “I figured they could take their chances,” Ladybug explained. “They do have kill orders on them; if they'd died, I wouldn't have been happy, but I wouldn't have worried all that much either.”

    “It's not them I'm worried about,” Piggot snapped. “It's anyone else you inject that toxin into!” She drew a deep breath through her nostrils. “In fact, depending on how it's interpreted, you could be charged with having illegal access to a dangerous substance, with intent to distribute.”

    “Whoa, hold on,” Sparx told her. “Panacea assures us that LD-fifty for the stuff is more than one sting can deliver, even for a child. Two stings will put down an adult, with a slight chance of death. Three stings will probably kill an adult. Plus, Ladybug can choose how much venom goes in with any one sting.”

    “And I'm not going to be stinging kids with them anyway,” pointed out Ladybug. “In fact, I'm not going to be stinging anyone with them, unless they prove to be seriously problematic, to the point that I'm willing to risk killing them.”

    “And are you seriously going to try to tell Ladybug that she can't use bugs to protect people?” asked Aerodyne. “You do know that a swarm of bees can sting someone to death, right? That's unenhanced. Hell, one bee can kill, if the target's allergic.”

    “Which raises another problem,” Piggot pointed out. “If you have your bugs sting someone into submission from across town, how do you know they won't go into shock from an allergic reaction and die before someone gets to them?”

    “Panacea's got an idea for an epi-bug,” Ladybug told her. “Basically, they'll accompany any swarms, and if someone looks like going into shock, they'll sting them with epinephrine. Of course, that's another bug I'm going to have to breed and get out there.”

    “Those bugs will need to be tested in laboratory conditions before you'll be legally allowed to use them to medically assist people,” Piggot warned. “In fact, I would appreciate it if you would run all of your altered bugs past our lab people, so we know exactly what we're dealing with.”

    “Wait, wait,” Sparx protested. “Panacea made these bugs. She designed them. If there was any problems with them, she would know. She wouldn't have built problems into them.”

    “In any case,” Aerodyne noted, “we're not part of the Wards, and we're not under the orders of the PRT. So you can request all the bugs you like. If we feel like actually supplying any, that's up to Ladybug.”

    Sparx didn't turn her attention away from Piggot, but the Director noticed her making a subtle hand gesture; Aerodyne shut up, but she didn't look happy, taking half a pace away and folding her arms.

    “I can order you to not utilise any bugs that I deem too dangerous for public use,” Piggot argued. “And if any of them are found out and about, I will have to presume that you are acting in defiance of my direction. Just because you're superheroes does not give you the clearance to expose the public to deadly poisons at a whim. Even Protectorate capes have to run their equipment past a review board.”

    “That's because Protectorate capes also get paid by the PRT, and I imagine that Protectorate Tinkers get extra money so they can build stuff,” Ladybug retorted. “We're entirely self-funded, and you're coming down on us so hard because what? We're showing you up, using bugs? It feels to me like you're condemning us before we've ever done anything wrong.”

    “That's not the case at all,” Piggot responded. “I'm trying to head this situation off before it gets out of hand. Yes, you've done good work, and we're grateful to you because of it. Up until the Nine, I had no problems. But when you started ramping up to face them, you started going places that I'm not comfortable with anyone going into. A city-wide surveillance system made up of bugs? Bugs carrying a deadly poison around, where they can sting anyone? What if your control slips for a moment? A toddler gets stung, and you're liable. Worse, what if some of them venture out of your control area? They start nesting, they start breeding, and before we know it, we have killer bugs swarming across half of America.”

    Ladybug took a deep breath. “Okay, to start with. We thought of that. They have no breeding instinct, no attack instinct. All of the modified bugs, if I happen to lose track of them, will find a nesting place, and they'll feed on whatever. But they won't breed, they won't lay eggs, and they won't attack a soul – unless I specifically tell them to.”

    “So what if some Tinker comes up with a bug control box, and sends them on a rampage across Brockton Bay?” asked Piggot. “What then?”

    “They could do that with the standard bug population, for scarcely less damage,” Ladybug informed her. “Do you know how many bugs of various types there are in Brockton Bay? I promise you, the numbers would make your head spin. And you know something? The larger the proportion of the bug population that I control, the greater the chance that no-one gets stung by a wasp, a bee, a hornet. Bitten by a black widow, a fire ant, a brown recluse. No one. These are bugs with a real attack response. I can keep them in check. I am keeping them in check.”

    “More to the point,” Sparx noted, “unless your theoretical bug control box can control bugs individually and intelligently, like Ladybug can, the most that the toxin bugs would to is fly at people. As Ladybug just told you, they have no attack instinct. They would not instinctively sting anyone. As opposed to the natural bugs, which would sting the crap out of anything that they saw as an enemy.”

    Piggot took a moment to think about that. “I still think -”

    At that moment, her desk phone rang. She glanced at the number, then held up a finger and picked up the receiver. “This had better be important.”

    What she heard sent chills down her spine. “Understood.” Taking a deep breath, she continued. “One second.”

    Holding her hand over the mouthpiece, she looked at the girls. “This discussion is tabled for the moment, but it is by no means over. I have something to deal with that's taken priority. We will revisit this subject at a later date.” With her free hand, she waved at the door. “You can go now.”

    As soon as the door had closed behind them, she turned her attention to the phone once more. “Okay, brief me in.”

    <><>​

    Amy's fingertips were pressed lightly against the woman's temples; she concentrated, seeing in her mind's eye the eyeballs reforming, just as the lacerated eyelids were once more pristine, untouched. The optic nerves were undamaged, which was a blessing; that could lead to some weird vision glitches if left untreated.

    Lifting her hands away from the PRT employee's face, she stepped back. “Okay, take the bandages off.”

    Nurses stepped in; the gauze wrapping was peeled away, and the two thick cotton pads lifted off gently. The dried blood on them gave witness to the serious injury suffered by the woman; now, her eyelids were whole once more. And beneath them …

    “Ma'am,” Amy told her. “Beatrice. Try to open your eyes.”

    Beatrice's eyelids fluttered hesitantly, then slid open. She blinked a few times, as newly-made pupils accepted light for the first time, which in turn impinged on brand-new retinas. Slowly, she moved her eyes, looking around. Each action occasioned blinking, and tears flowed, smoothing the transition from dark into light.

    But eventually she focused on Amy. “I can see.” The wonder in her eyes was evident.

    “Is it blurry? Fuzzy?” Amy was pretty sure that she had formed the eyeballs correctly, but there was always a chance …

    “Oh god no,” Beatrice exclaimed. “I've needed glasses for a while, but now everything's razor sharp. Thank you so much.”

    Amy smiled. “That's okay. You might need to rest them until they get used to seeing properly; they are brand new, after all.”

    On cue, a nurse handed Beatrice a pair of sunglasses; she put them on, smiling bemusedly.

    “Uh, Panacea?”

    Amy looked around. The doctor in charge of this floor was gesturing. “Your next patient is just down -”

    “Nope.”

    Amy and the doctor both looked around, with some surprise. Lisa, who up until now had been leaning against the wall with her arms folded, watching the proceedings with some interest, had stepped forward to Amy's side.

    “What?” asked the doctor.

    “What's the matter, Athena?” asked Amy at the same time.

    “The matter is, you've done fifteen patients in a row. Time for a rest, relax, kick back. Let's go see if the cafeteria's got any more of those totally addictive pastries.”

    “Those things will make you fat,” warned Amy with a smile.

    “So I'll get you to skinny me down again,” Lisa retorted.

    “Wait, what is this?” asked the doctor. “There are more patients to be treated.”

    “And I can do more, honest I can,” Amy told Lisa. “I'm not tired at all.”

    “Until you are, and then it's too late,” Lisa pointed out. “I'm calling nope. You said you'd trust me on this, so trust me.” She turned to the doctor. “And as for you, buddy, your hospital's not paying Panacea one red cent, so you have exactly zero say over where she goes and what she does. So go empty a bedpan or something. Me and my bestie here are gonna go get snacks in the cafeteria.”

    It was true; Amy had asked Lisa for guidance, and Lisa was giving it to her. She thought she was okay, but then, she'd thought that before, even as she slid into 'not okay' territory. So … “Okay, sure. I trust your judgement. Let's go get something to eat and drink.”

    And now that she mentioned it, she was a little thirsty, a little hungry.

    Maybe Lisa wasn't so far out of line, after all.

    As if divining her line of thinking, Lisa grinned at her. “I might even go all out and have an orange juice.”

    Amy rolled her eyes. “You know the orange juice in this place was never anywhere near an orange.”

    “A girl can dream." She linked her arm through Amy's, drew her out of the ward. "Come on, my treat.”

    “You know we have an unlimited tab at the cafeteria.” Amused, Amy didn't resist.

    “And who set that up for you?”

    “You did.” Amy sighed. “You knew this would happen, didn't you?”

    “And I didn't even need to use my powers." Lisa pressed the elevator button with a flourish. "Time for munchies. The pastries await.”

    The elevator doors opened; they stepped inside.

    <><>​

    “Well, that was odd.” Sparx turned to the others, in the corridor. “I thought she was going to keep coming at us. Vista?”

    The Wards liaison shrugged. “I got nothing. Something's obviously come up, something important. Ladybug?”

    “Can we get out of here?” asked the girl in the bug-themed costume. “Don't want to talk in this building.”

    “You know something, don't you?” asked Aerodyne.

    “Let's just get out of here,” Ladybug insisted.

    Each of them gave her an odd look, but they didn't argue; they were silent all the way down in the elevator, and out through the lobby, past the brand new doors which had been installed.

    Once they were out on the footpath, Sparx turned to Ladybug. “Okay, spill. What's the big deal?”

    Ladybug looked at Aerodyne. “Privacy field?”

    “Got it.” A shell formed around them, subtly distorting the quality of the light. Each of the others knew that she was attenuating the air density in that shell to near-vacuum levels; no sound would pass inward or outward while it was up. “So what's up? What do you know?”

    “I left the bug up there,” confessed Ladybug. “It's hiding under the Director's phone. I can't listen in on what she can hear, but what she's saying is bad enough.”

    Vista raised an eyebrow. “I'm not altogether thrilled that you're listening in on the Director's phone calls, but then again, I don't really agree with her stance on your bugs either. So what's happening?”

    Ladybug took a deep breath. “I think -”

    <><>​

    “I still think you were a bit mean to that doctor,” Amy commented, licking powdered sugar off of her fingertips.

    “Eh, people like that get too much of an idea of their own importance,” Lisa responded. “They need puncturing once in a while. Lessons in humility are good for the soul.”

    “Spoken by someone who hasn't had one in a good long time,” Amy replied with a grin.

    Lisa turned guileless eyes on her. “I don't need any lessons in humility. I know I'm awesome.”

    Amy snorted. “Oh god, listen to you. You wouldn't know humility if it snuck up and bit you on the left butt cheek.”

    “I do so know humility,” Lisa protested. “Humility is what other people rightfully feel around me.” She tried to keep a straight face, but failed.

    Amy started giggling. “You are so bad.”

    “No, no, I'm good. Get it right.” Lisa smirked. “Being a hero rocks. I can tell people off and they have to take it.” She leaned back in her chair, and stretched. “It's awesome being me.”

    That just made Amy giggle all the harder. Lisa lounged in the chair, eyeing her fondly.

    She's coming out of her shell nicely. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to deal with that crush she's starting to form on me, and we're golden -

    Her phone rang; she pulled it out of her pocket. Thumbing the answer button, she held it to her ear. “Hey, Sparx. What's up?”

    What she heard made her sit up, fast. “Oh. Oh shit.”

    Amy caught the change in her body language and sobered immediately. “What? What's the matter?”

    Lisa ignored her for a moment. “You're sure? Okay, you're sure. Yeah, I'm with Amy. I'll tell her.” She ended the call and put the phone away.

    Amy met her gaze, eyes worried. “What happened? Is someone hurt?”

    “We got trouble,” Lisa told her. “They just heard that -”

    <><>​

    As the sun touched the western horizon, it splashed red-gold across the ten aircraft that were steadily heading west from Brockton Bay. Six bore the insignia of the Guild, and looked not unlike dragons in basic form; the other four were more prosaic attack helicopters. Their markings were those of the PRT. The helicopters shadowed the Dragon craft, flying just a little above them, two on one side of the formation and two on the other.

    On board the lead attack chopper, a PRT officer keyed his mic.

    “Dragon Craft One, what is your status?”

    The voice that replied was calm, professional and female. “Dragon Craft One is in the green in all regards. Monitoring data on prisoner shows zero change, repeat zero change. Life signs are steady. Integrity of containment foam is one hundred percent. Zero biological contaminants detected in transport bay.”

    “Thank you, Dragon Craft One. Shepherd One, out.”

    <><>​

    As the PRT man behind them called up Dragon Craft Two, the copilot flipped the switch that cut him out of the link. He double-checked his radio switch before speaking; he didn't want to broadcast to everyone out there.

    “Permission to ask a question, sir?” he asked the pilot, being the only other person in the link.

    Permission granted, lieutenant.”

    “So, what's the deal with this, sir? I get it that we're flying escort for Dragon craft. I get it that they've got the Slaughterhouse Nine on board. I even get it that the Dragon craft are unmanned, being remoted by Dragon, to reduce risk to human aircrew. What I don't get is why we're flying escort, instead of some capes or something.”

    This is between you and me, lieutenant, but I understand that the Director has a thing about parahumans flying escort on PRT missions. Prefers uniforms, not capes.”

    “Huh. Okay, sir, I get that. So, can I ask where we're taking them to?”

    You can. But you have to understand, lieutenant, that this goes no further. You don't talk to anyone about it.”

    “Uh, yes, sir. Definitely, sir.”

    It's simple. They've got the Slaughterhouse Nine. They have a kill order on them; that is, they're better off dead. But just popping capes on capture might make the rest of them nervous. And we can't just ask, say, Legend to zorch 'em till they're dead, because us mere mortals have got to have something to do, right, lieutenant?”

    “Uh, yes, sir.”

    Correct. So we're taking them to a national park that the PRT bought up years ago. They dropped a shaft down into a granite massif, half a mile more or less. There's a tac nuke buried in the base of it, and another one about fifty yards up. As soon as they're all at the bottom, the guys up top hit the switch and boom. All that comes out is ash.”

    “Holy crap, sir.”

    It's a bit much to take in at once, I understand.”

    “No, sir, look. We just had an encrypted message come in. I've never seen that designator before.”

    Let me see that, lieutenant.”

    The copilot obligingly tore off the strip of thermal paper and handed it across, then took hold of the controls. “I have the aircraft.”

    You have the aircraft.”

    The pilot, a captain, read through the message, then checked it a second time. “This can't be right,” he muttered.

    “Uh, what's it say, sir?”

    That we're to detach one of the Shepherd flight to escort Dragon Craft Five to another location.”

    “Does it say where to, sir?”

    No. Just that we will be sent that information once en route.” The pilot's voice was heavy with suspicion. “I have problems trusting this message.”

    “It does seem a little suspicious, sir,” agreed the copilot. “Is there any way we can authenticate?”

    <><>​

    At that moment, the PRT officer tapped the pilot on the shoulder. The pilot cut him back into the link. “What's up, sir?”

    What's up is that I've just had a message from Dragon Craft Five saying that they're ready to be escorted out of the formation, and that you should have been informed of this matter. Why aren't you arranging for an escort?”

    “We just got the notification, sir,” the pilot answered, passing back the slip. “I was just about to attempt authentication.”

    Understood. Use encrypted channel three. Challenge is Romeo Four. Response should be Kilo Seven. Do you copy?”

    “I copy,” the pilot replied. He flicked his comms to the appropriate channel. “PRT Shepherd flight here. Shepherd One Actual calling to authenticate change in orders, over.”

    'Shepherd One Actual, ready to authenticate orders.”

    “Authenticate Romeo Four. Repeat, authenticate Romeo Four. Over.”

    Romeo Four authenticates Kilo Seven. Repeat, Kilo Seven. Over.”

    “Ah, roger. Shepherd One Actual, out.”

    He turned the comms back to the regular channel. “This is Shepherd One Actual. Dragon Craft Five, I have new orders for you. When we pass Waypoint Alpha, you are to proceed on a heading of one-three-seven true. Shepherd Three, you will escort the Dragon craft. You will be contacted with further instructions, once you have left the formation. Do you copy?”

    Only a few seconds passed before Shepherd Three replied. “Shepherd One Actual, I copy, but I do not understand my orders, over.”

    “Shepherd Three, I have personally authenticated these orders. They are genuine, over.”

    ... Roger, Shepherd One Actual. One-seven-three at Waypoint Alpha.”

    “Correct, Shepherd Three. Dragon Craft Five, did you copy that?”

    Yes, Shepherd One Actual. Course one three seven from Waypoint Alpha, over.”

    “That's correct, Dragon Craft Five. Shepherd One Actual, out.”

    The pilot keyed the radio off, and addressed the PRT officer. “Okay, do you have any idea where they're going, sir? Because I don't like sending my men off into the dark.”

    No idea, Captain. I'm following orders, just like you.”

    “Hm. Just out of curiosity … which one of them is in Dragon Five?”

    That's classified, Captain. I suggest you cease worrying about matters that don't concern you, and fly this helicopter.”

    “Sir.”

    Chastened, the pilot put his hands back on the controls. “Copilot, I have the aircraft.”

    You have the aircraft, sir.”

    They flew on, into the gathering dusk.

    <><>​

    At Waypoint Alpha, a location marked not on any map, but showing up clearly on GPS, one of the Dragon craft peeled off toward the southwest, accompanied by Shepherd Three. The remaining eight aircraft turned a little north of west and continued. The pilot of Shepherd One asked no more questions – he'd learned his lesson – but he could not help thinking.

    Pretty sure Dragon Four is carrying Crawler; it's twice as big as the rest of them. Dragon One is probably Jack Slash himself. As for the others … no idea. Wonder where Dragon Five is going, and what's going to happen to whoever's in it when they get there. Damn sure Shepherd Three isn't going to see a damn thing.

    Waypoints Beta and Gamma went past without a hitch; they were just coming up on Waypoint Delta when his radio crackled to life.

    Shepherd flight, Shepherd flight. This is Dragon, reporting an in-flight emergency on all craft. Repeat, in-flight emergency.”

    “Christ!” He keyed his mic. “Inform type of emergency, over. Have your prisoners broken loose? Repeat, have your prisoners broken loose?”

    Negative. Negative. Prisoners are secure. External control is being lost. Secondary systems are being overridden. Tertiary systems are unresponsive or corrupted. Advise extreme measures, repeat extreme measures, over.”

    “Can you activate destruct, Dragon? Repeat, can you activate destruct?”

    Negative. Destruct is negative. Request immediate destruction of craft.”

    The undermount FLIR on the attack helicopter was already slaved to his helmet; he turned his head and stared at the Dragon craft; even to the naked eye, they were wavering and wandering in the sky. As he watched, two came within five yards of each other before veering off again. Something was definitely off, all right.

    “Roger, Dragon. Shepherd Flight, this is Shepherd One Actual. I am authorising extreme measures on all Dragon craft. Repeat, extreme measures are authorised. Weapons hot. I'll be taking Dragon Craft One. Shepherd Flight, respond when ready.”

    Without being told, the copilot took the chopper up and forward; the targeting pipper settled on to Dragon Craft One. Each craft had an explosive charge set up to kill the prisoner being transported; in the case of Crawler, this was probably a tactical nuke in and of itself. Good thing it didn't go off; it would have killed us all.

    Crap, we're going to have to set it off manually. It'll probably still kill us all.


    Shepherd Two. I have solutions on Dragon Craft Two and Three, over.”

    Shepherd Four. I have solutions on Dragon Craft Four and Six, over.”

    “Negative on Dragon Four, Shepherd Four. I'll take Dragon Craft One, then everyone fall back so I can take out Four. Do you copy?” Two affirmative replies came back. “Okay. On my mark. Fire when r-”

    <><>​

    He never finished the command; a brilliant green beam struck out of the night, bisecting the helicopter and killing him before he actually knew what was happening. Nor was his copilot or his passenger any luckier; the beam tore into the fuel tanks, igniting the avgas with the heat of its passage.

    Similar attacks struck the other helicopters of Shepherd Flight; only Shepherd Four, struck half a second after the others, managed to get a shot off. Three missiles, ripple-fired, launched into the Dragon craft formation; one missed Dragon One by yards, while the other two struck targets. Dragon Craft Three detonated in midair, rocking the other craft badly, while Dragon Four was hit but the destruct charge did not go off. The missile crippled it, though, and it nosed downward out of control. Moments later, it struck and disintegrated in the forest below.

    The other three Dragon craft slowly regained control and turned hard north, dropping to a fraction of their previous altitude. They raced away from the funeral pyres of their previous comrades, leaving them far behind in the dark. By the time the PRT craft summoned by Dragon came on the scene, they were long gone. Crawler had disappeared from the wreckage of the crashed craft, and only forensic investigation would ever find traces of whoever had been in the one that had exploded.

    The rest of the Slaughterhouse Nine had vanished without a trace.

    <><>​

    The Dragon craft came to rest in a clearing; their turbines winding down as smaller, power-suited figures landed among them. One strode over to the nearest craft and slapped a gauntleted hand on the hull. The navigation lights of the Dragon craft gave a soft lighting to the scene.

    A larger figure came up behind him. “You have done well, Geoff. But you pull the tail of the PRT. You must be careful with this.”

    “Eh, they'll never know it was me.” He clapped his hands twice. “Okay, let's see what we've got here.” At his unvoiced command, his suit computer accessed the internal memory of each craft. As he did so, he paled, so that his tattoo stood out more and more against his face. “Well, fuck me.”

    “What? What is it?”

    “I knew I should have attacked that encryption a bit harder. You know what they're carrying?”

    “No, comrade. What?”

    “The fucking Slaughterhouse Nine, that's what.”

    Mischa paled, and took a step back. “What do we do? Do we kill them?” He paused. “There is destruct bomb in each craft. If we set them off -”

    “No!” shouted Saint. “No fucking way! We do not come back from this mission with nothing!”

    “But they are the Nine -” began Dobrynja.

    “And we're mercenaries!” Saint retorted. “Are we being paid to take down the Nine? Fuck, no. They're not our problem.”

    Mischa tried again. “They are villains who have killed thousands. Tens of thousands, comrade. It is our duty -”

    “Our only duty is to ourselves and to negating the threat that is Dragon,” Saint snapped. “Anyway, how are you going to do it? Because you're not blowing up the Dragon craft. We just got them.”

    “There are mechanisms to eject cargo,” Dobrynja pointed out. “They are in containment. We shoot them in containment.”

    “Do you have enough shots left to make sure of them all?” Saint shook his head. “I don't. Do you want to piss off Jack Slash by trying to kill him and failing? Do you want to wake up Burnscar? She eats heat energy for breakfast. Do you want to irritate the Siberian? Because she will fucking tear out your liver and eat it. Through your armour. Fuck, even Mannequin could fuck us up so bad. And even if you do shoot Bonesaw, what if she's got some fucking horror killer plague just waiting to burst out? We're not in sealed suits here. No. We're not risking it.”

    “So what are we doing?”

    “We're ejecting them, and then we're getting the fuck out of here with the Dragon craft. As per the original fucking plan.”

    Mischa stared. “You cannot be serious.”

    “Look,” snapped Saint. “We spent way too much in the way of resources to get these craft as it is. You want to leave them? Hand them back to the PRT? To Dragon? No, fuck that. I'm keeping the craft. Once we're away, we can send in an anonymous tip. The PRT will catch up to them, and it'll be their problem, not ours.”

    “Mags will not like it.”

    “We don't tell Mags. Ever.”

    I do not think this is right thing to do.”

    “So, do you just want to walk away from the latest version of the Dragon craft, after killing half a dozen PRT guys to get to them? No, we're taking them.”

    “And just releasing the Nine?”

    “Not releasing. Leaving them for the authorities. For fuck's sake, they're still in containment foam. Where are they gonna go?”

    “I still do not like it.”

    “You don't have to like it. Just do it.”

    Ten minutes later, all three Dragon craft lifted off from the clearing, and flew northwest. They left behind three blocks of containment foam. Even as the sound of turbines died away, one block of foam was beginning to melt away from the inside.

    Bonesaw sat up and looked around.

    <><>​

    “Well, then,” Jack Slash declared. He had gotten rid of the last of the containment foam, and Mannequin had donated one of his blades to the cause. “Any idea who let us go?”

    Mannequin shook his head; at some time during the encasement in containment foam, the glue binding his component parts together had come loose.

    “Me neither,” Bonesaw declared. “Are we gonna go look for the others?”

    Jack shook his head. “We're going to send up a smoke signal instead.”

    “Smoke signal?” Bonesaw looked puzzled. “What are you going to use?”

    “Brockton Bay.” Jack's expression could charitably have been described as a smile. “We've got a score to settle.”


    End of Part Twenty-Four

    Part Twenty-Five
     
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2015
  26. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Five: Preparations for War
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Part Twenty-Five: Preparations for War


    Brockton Bay
    Barnes Household
    One Day After the Escape


    “You're certain of this?” Alan Barnes looked at Taylor. “That's what you heard?” He got up from his armchair and paced back and forth across the living room.

    “Absolutely,” Taylor assured him. “Someone forced down the transports carrying the Slaughterhouse Nine, and by the time they got to the site, there was nothing there except empty blocks of containment foam.”

    “Christ,” muttered Danny Hebert. “And given the trouncing you gave them the last time they showed up, what's the chance that they'll come back for more?”

    “This is Jack Slash we're talking about,” Emma pointed out. “He doesn't back down, and he doesn't give up.”

    “She's right,” Lisa offered. “He'll be back. And he'll be looking for blood.”

    “So who's with him?” asked Rod Clements. “Do they know that, at least?”

    “Well, last the Director heard, they were still tracking Crawler,” Taylor stated. “He hadn't met up with the others, as far as they knew. They're also pretty sure that Jack Slash, Bonesaw and Mannequin are on the move together.”

    “No word of Manton? The Siberian could be an insurmountable problem in and of herself,” Alan asked.

    Taylor shook her head. “No. In fact, the transport carrying him veered off before the attack, and not even the Director knows where he's gotten to.”

    “Okay,” muttered Danny. “That's just weird. But that's not our main problem. That one's Jack Slash and his buddies.” He looked at Taylor. “How fast can you have the city covered?”

    “I don't have quite enough bugs yet.” She glanced at Amy. “What are the chances of getting some more in a hurry?”

    “That depends,” Amy told her. “How fast do you need them, and how many?”

    “Whoa, hold on a second there,” Lisa chided the two of them. “We take this slow and easy. Last time wiped her out, and nearly cost people their lives. Including Vicky. Remember?”

    Abashed, Taylor nodded. “Sorry. You're right. It's just that I don't have enough booster bugs to cover the city from all angles. I need more. And we have no idea when the Nine -”

    “Well, actually, the Three -” interjected Madison.

    “Don't joke about it,” her father advised. “They might well recruit on the way. You could find yourselves facing people you never expected to.”

    “Which is why we train as hard as we do,” Emma pointed out. “So we're ready for the unexpected.”

    “And I have a solution for the not-enough-bugs problem,” Lisa declared. “At least until Amy's able to crank out some more. At her own pace, mind you.”

    “Okay, so what's the solution?” asked Taylor.

    “Spread them around the perimeter of the city, of course,” Lisa told her. “And don't forget along the waterfront. He may just come in by boat.”

    “Yeah, I can do that,” Taylor agreed. “I'll start moving them around now.”

    “Aren't we worrying for nothing?” asked Rod Clements. “I mean, last time, we nailed them with toxin bugs and glue bugs. These are the ones who went down easily.”

    Danny and Alan both smacked him across the back of the head. “Hey, ow! What's the big idea?”

    “Seriously, going into a situation with the idea that it might be easy?” Alan shook his head.

    "Yeah," added Danny. “What were you thinking?”

    “Oh. Right.” Rod rubbed the back of his head, his expression rueful. “Sorry.”

    “And it might not be that easy, even if Taylor gets bugs on them again,” Amy pointed out.

    “How do you mean?” asked Missy. “A couple of bites and they're down, right?”

    “Not necessarily so,” Amy advised her, expression worried. “Bonesaw's a medical Tinker. If she figured out what toxin we used, and I'd be totally unsurprised if she did, she could maybe figure out a workaround. Or even make herself and Jack Slash immune.”

    “And once Mannequin figures out what we did to him, he might work out a frictionless surface that not even your wonder glue can stick to, Taylor,” Danny agreed.

    “Crap,” muttered Rod. “You guys used your best shot, so now they know about it.”

    “Which doesn't mean that all is lost,” Lisa pointed out. "So what if they're immune to the best venom you can produce, or the best glue? Hit 'em with the second best venom, or the second best glue. Still plenty good enough, right? And I know enough about poisons to know that an antidote against one won't do jack against another."

    Taylor scratched her nose. "Maybe not the absolute second best," she decided. "Bonesaw's tricky as hell. She's likely to have covered her bases. So we look farther afield."

    "You've got ideas?" asked Emma.

    Taylor grinned. "When do I not?"

    <><>​

    Two Days Later

    "How do you feel, Mr Jack?"

    Jack squinted up at her, then slowly sat up, looking around the dingy motel room. "Not the greatest, poppet. Are you sure your implants are doing the job?"

    "Of course, silly." She pointed at the almost-invisible incision scars. "I improved your kidneys to deal with ingested poisons, and I upgraded your lymph system to take injected toxins out of the picture. I've upgraded my own wake-up system, and I'll set you up with one just as soon as I've finished fine-tuning what I've done with you."

    "So this will make me immune to whatever they hit us with, the last time?"

    "Well, I'm about ninety-eight percent sure that it was batrachotoxin laced with ketamine," she explained. "Pure batrachotoxin -"

    "Poppet, I'm still a little woozy," he interrupted. "What's batrachotoxin when it's at home?"

    "South American poison arrow frog toxin," she explained blithely. "So powerful that if the bugs that stung us were carrying the pure stuff, you'd probably be dead, and I'd be in a coma or dead."

    He scratched his beard. "Well, damn."

    "Language, Mr Jack!" she scolded. "There's a child present."

    "Sorry," he replied at once. "I was just impressed. These people aren't playing around. Not many heroes are willing to go that hard to get us."

    "Which reminds me," she pointed out. "Even if Ladybug has a limited amount of frog arrow bugs, she's still got a zillion and one ordinary bugs that she can sic on to us. Some of those are almost as poisonous as the bugs she did bite us with."

    "But we'll still be immune to the effects of the poison, right?"

    She nodded, but held up a finger. "Right, but only up to a point. After that point, the filters are overwhelmed and we start feeling the effects of the poison. Especially if she hits us with several different types of poison at once. Also, she can use bugs as cover if they're thick enough."

    "Visual cover only, surely," he objected.

    "Well, true, but if you don't know where in that mess of bugs Ladybug is hiding, Mr Jack, it may as well not be just visual."

    "Do you have a solution for this?"

    She smiled angelically. "Of course. We take away her bugs."

    Slowly, he smiled back at her. "I like the way you think, poppet. How do you plan on doing that?"

    “Last time, we sealed the bus and killed all the bugs inside,” she pointed out. “This time … I think we should kill every bug that comes close to us.”

    “That has the problem that she'll be able to pinpoint us by where the bugs are dying,” he objected.

    “Not if we set off pyrethrum bombs across the city.”

    He blinked; she looked smug. “That … could actually work.”

    “Of course it'll work,” she replied briskly.

    He scratched at his beard. “How are we going to get the bombs into the city? She found us with her bugs pretty quickly the last time.”

    “Well, it was either luck, which makes it not a problem … “ she began.

    “Let's not try to rely upon luck, poppet,” he suggested.

    “Okay. If it wasn't luck, then she's able to see through her bugs' eyes or something. Which is weird, because bug eyes can't see much. But if she is, then … hmm.” Slowly, she smiled.

    “Hmm what?” he asked.

    “Mr Jack,” she asked, “how do you feel about wearing a disguise?”

    “Huh. Good question. Normally I wouldn't stoop to such a thing, but they cheated with their bugs, so I may as well bend the rules also.”

    “Oh, goody!” She clapped her hands. “I get to make disguises! Now, real human skin is best … “

    “Before we go too far with this,” he cautioned her, “what about the rest of that nauseatingly heroic bunch of teenage delinquents? Panacea doesn't have ranged powers, but that still leaves Sparx, Aerodyne and Vista. Any one of whom could wreck our plans.”

    “You don't want to fight them?” she asked innocently.

    “No, poppet.” He bared his teeth. “I want to destroy them.”

    Her smile, in return, was angelic. “I think I can help you there.”

    <><>​

    Mannequin rarely thought of himself as Alan Gramme any more. Gramme had been weak, ineffectual. He had let himself become distracted by the problems of the world, and had sought to alleviate them. He'd been thus distracted when the Simurgh killed his wife and two lovely daughters. What had gone on from that point had not been truly Alan Gramme, not any more.

    From being the hero Sphere, builder of self-contained Tinkertech habitats, he had reinvented himself. Now he turned his expertise inward, casting off his humanity. The organs and body parts which he no longer needed were discarded; that which was essential for life, he encased in a pristine shell, safe from the world. Forever self-recycling, it would keep him alive far more efficiently than the clumsy organic form. And nothing could touch him. Nothing could hurt him. Not ever again.

    His mistake was clear to him now; he had tried to save the world, and it had destroyed him. Far from building it up, he should tear it down, along with anyone who tried to make it better. They must learn from their mistake, just as he had. And he was happy to show them.

    Brockton Bay held heroes and villains alike, more of the latter than the former. Most were unremarkable, filling the same old niches, carrying out the same old tropes. Villains committed crimes, heroes caught them. But some heroes in Brockton Bay went beyond that; a new team was on the rise. Young, idealistic, effective. Role models. They were capturing the nation's imagination; a group of teenage girls, unaffiliated with the Protectorate or PRT, photogenic, good at what they did. Worse, they were making a difference. And Mannequin couldn't have that.

    And so he had gone into Brockton Bay with the rest of the Nine. Following the death of Chuckles, they needed a new member. Jack had plans for corrupting a member of Team Samaritan, tearing the hero team apart once and for all, while writing another chapter in the blood-spattered history of the Nine. It was a good plan, not unlike others that the charismatic leader of the villain team had successfully pulled off before, and so Mannequin went with him into Brockton Bay.

    And they had walked directly into a trap. Team Samaritan had been waiting for them, and they had allowed themselves to be taken down like amateurs. Like heroes. Mannequin had not even seen the attack coming; one moment he was walking normally, and the next, his joints had frozen. He had toppled over, unable to attack or defend, utterly helpless. It had been humiliating.

    The fact that the rest of the team had been similarly ambushed afforded him no consolation. All he knew about the situation was that Jack, Burnscar and Bonesaw had gone down at the same time as he had, while Hatchet Face had been killed, presumably by Team Samaritan. Of the others, he had no clue.

    Encased in containment foam, he expected to be going to his death, but to his puzzlement, he had been released from the sticky prison by Bonesaw. He didn't know why they had been dumped in a clearing in the forest, nor if anyone of the Nine other than Jack Slash or Bonesaw was even alive any more, but Jack had a plan, and that took precedence over any useless speculation. He intended to go back to Brockton Bay, and take revenge for the defeat that they had suffered at the hands of a bunch of teenage girls.

    Mannequin was just fine with that. He intended to locate the bug-controlling girl, and destroy her, once and for all. Perhaps he would kill all of her friends in front of her, one at a time. However, in the meantime, he had to plan ahead. Simply charging back into the city invited a repeat of the previous debacle; he had to assume that the successful ambush had been planned, and not a matter of mere chance.

    Bonesaw and Jack were also planning, of course; he could hear them, in the next room. They were both immunised against the toxin which had incapacitated them last time, which was good. It wasn't as if he had anything to worry about on that score; or rather, if anything got through his armour, then insect bites were the very least of his worries.

    If Bonesaw managed to rid the city of its bugs, then he had little to worry about being glued solid again. However, on the off-chance, a more frictionless surface on his joint sockets couldn't hurt. He decided to also improve the insulation on the body, so that if Sparx attempted to harm him with her electricity, it would simply travel across the surface of his mechanical carapace without grounding into the interior. Aerodyne couldn't do much to him, he decided; he was too heavy for wind to affect very much, and his shell was sealed against even vacuum.

    Nor was Panacea a factor, not against him. Their newest member, Athena, was apparently a Thinker; he didn't have a line on her speciality, but he knew how to deal with Thinkers, and he had several blades ready for the purpose. Should Glory Girl threaten to interfere, Panacea herself would make a superb hostage; not only had they served together in New Wave, but by all accounts, Glory Girl was very protective of her sister. She would be easy to manipulate.

    Vista was apparently working with Team Samaritan; she was quite powerful in her own right, and Mannequin didn't have anything that would specifically affect her. However, Jack Slash did; no matter how far away the girl seemed to be, his knife-blade effect would reach her.

    They would go back to Brockton Bay. Team Samaritan would fall. The stain on the reputation of the Slaughterhouse Nine would be expunged.

    He was looking forward to this.

    <><>​

    Brockton Bay
    PRT Building


    “Come in, Vista. ”

    The Wards' liaison to the Samaritans entered Piggot's office, closing the door carefully behind her. “Thank you, ma'am.” She stood foursquare before the desk, chin up, hands clasped behind her back. Emily studied her for a moment; she almost looked taller, more confident.

    “How are things with the Samaritans?” the Director asked.

    “Good, ma'am,” Vista replied. “Very good. I'm learning things. They take their training very seriously.”

    Piggot's eyes narrowed. “Are you saying that the Wards do not?”

    Her tone was sharp, but Vista did not seem to be fazed. “Sure they do, but … the Samaritans train more … intensely. They use handicaps and paintballs.” Reflexively, she rubbed her rump. “Very accurate paintballs. They also work hard on teamwork and communication.”

    “Hm.” Piggot clasped her hands before her on the desk. “Perhaps you should tell me why you asked to see me. Do you wish to come back to the Wards?”

    “Uh, not yet, not unless you're ordering me back, ma'am,” Vista told her. “I'm working well with the Samaritans. We get along. We understand each other.” She took a deep breath. “I just … well, I was wondering what it was that came in the other day, when you were reading out Ladybug for her toxin bugs.”

    Not by any flicker of her expression did Emily Piggot betray her thoughts. “Why do you want to know?”

    “Because I'm the liaison to the Samaritans,” Vista explained at once. “If it was that urgent, then it may be important. If it's important, then the Samaritans might need to know.” She paused. “Do they?”

    Her words were innocent, the explanation plausible. However, Emily had to consider all aspects of the situation. “If it were that important, don't you think that I would have informed you by now?”

    “Not necessarily, ma'am.” Vista's gaze was direct, her voice firm. “It may have slipped your mind.”

    The fact of the matter was that it was something that the Samaritans probably did need to know; the remnant of the Slaughterhouse Nine being freed was no laughing matter. There was a better than fair chance, Emily knew, that they would be coming straight back to Brockton Bay, to revenge themselves upon the Samaritans for their defeat.

    But there was another matter, one that concerned her even more. Why is Vista asking me about the matter, instead of waiting for me to inform her of what she needs to know?

    It was only a suspicion, but it was a strong one, growing by the moment. If Ladybug left that bug of hers behind, and it is capable of listening in on conversations, then the Samaritans know about the escape of the Nine. If they want to be able to openly act on the knowledge, then they need to be able to plausibly claim to have acquired the information legitimately.

    She eyed Vista, still standing there, looking as though butter would not melt in her mouth. Is her sympathy to their cause stronger than her loyalty to the Wards?

    For a moment, she was tempted to tell Vista that her duties as a liaison were indeed over, that she was coming back as a Ward. But that would leave the Samaritans without someone to keep an eye on them. And I want someone keeping an eye on them, even if I'm not totally convinced of that person's loyalty. Besides, if she was being honest, she supposed that Vista might see withholding such information from the Samaritans as being a breach of trust on the part of the PRT.

    Fine. I'll tell her, then as soon as she's gone, I'll have the office thoroughly fumigated and searched. If I then find that damned bug, I'll come down on the Samaritans with both feet. That way, they've got no complaint coming.

    Vista was still waiting patiently; Piggot cleared her throat. “Actually, yes, there was something that I did intend to tell you about.” She lowered her brow, giving the girl a hard stare. “You do not spread this around; it is for the Samaritans only.”

    “Of course, ma'am.” Vista's response was crisp.

    “Very well. According to our information, the transports carrying three members of the Nine were forced down. They are still at large. The three people involved are Jack Slash, Bonesaw and Mannequin.” Crawler, she knew, was heading in a different direction. They don't need to know that.

    <><>​

    Missy deliberately widened her eyes slightly behind her visor. “Oh. Oh wow. And … do you think that they might come back to Brockton Bay, ma'am?”

    Piggot compressed her lips together. “It's a distinct possibility,” she admitted. “And given that the Samaritans took them down last time … “

    “ … they might be looking for a rematch.” Missy nodded. “That sounds about right.”

    “As I said, be careful who you spread that around to,” Piggot reminded her. “The Samaritans need to know, but we don't want a general panic.”

    “Of course, ma'am.”

    Piggot gestured toward the door. “You can go now. That's what that message was about.”

    Missy nodded again. “Thank you, ma'am.” Turning, she headed for the door. She used her left hand to open it and close it behind her, because in her loosely-curled right hand was nestled Taylor's booster bug. As she left, Piggot was picking up the phone.

    The bug sat quiescent in her hand until she got outside, whereupon she released it to fly where it would; pulling out her phone, she dialled a number.

    Hi, Vista,” a cheerful voice answered her. “Was I right?”

    “All the way down the line, Lisa,” Missy replied, equally cheerfully. “And yeah, she told me. So now we can get into gear.”

    Excellent. I'll tell the others. See you when you get back.”

    “See you then.” She ended the call and put the phone away. I'm glad the Director told me. I'd hate to have to quit the Wards over something like this.

    <><>​

    Two Days Later

    It was another small town, closer to Brockton Bay, but Jack could almost swear it was the same damn dingy motel room, right down to the faded wallpaper and the slightly out-of-tune TV set. In the bathroom, his poppet was humming a bright little tune over something. Getting up from the uncomfortable chair – something else that he could swear was the same – he rapped on the door. “How are you doing in there?”

    “Just fine, Mr Jack,” she called back cheerfully. “Don't come in, though.”

    “Oh? Why not?”

    “Because I'm mixing up a batch of prions, and if you inhale them, you'll lose your powers.”

    He blinked. “That's a new one.”

    “Yeah, I thought of it last night. The best way to deal with the Samaritans is to shut them down hard. That way, you can play with them all you like. But can I have a couple for my own?”

    “Of course, poppet,” he agreed at once. “There's enough to go around. I hope you're being careful with your prions.”

    “Oh, very careful,” she agreed. “If I lose my powers, I won't be able to make the antidote.”

    “Perhaps you should have done that first,” he advised, a little annoyed.

    “Oh, no,” she replied. “I need some of the prions to make the antidote. So I needed to make the prions first.”

    He let it go; he had never been able to follow her explanations, especially when she got so technical. But she so enjoyed her work that she was a joy to watch. “Well, have fun.”

    “Oh, I will, thank you!”

    Going back to the uncomfortable chair, he tried to watch some more slightly fuzzy TV shows. I hope we're finished here soon, because I'm about ready to kill someone. Like the whole damn town. And that would draw far too much attention.

    That thought spawned another. The Nine's never been drawn down this far since I took over. Damn you, Team Samaritan. I'm going to enjoy dismantling you.

    <><>​

    Brockton Bay
    Hebert Household


    “Well, I've got coverage of the city at last,” Taylor announced. She got up from her chair and went over to where Amy perched on the arm of the armchair where Lisa was sitting. “Thanks to you and your awesome bugs.” Leaning down, she hugged the girl.

    Amy hugged her back. “That's okay. It's definitely worth it.”

    “It surely is.” Taylor turned to the blonde. “And thanks, Lisa, for keeping me in line.”

    Lisa grinned back at her. “Any time.”

    “What I'm worried about,” Alan Barnes remarked from the sofa, “is the fact that the longer the Nine takes in getting here, the more preparations they're likely to be making. We can only anticipate so much.”

    Lisa leaned back in the armchair. “It's okay,” she announced grandly. “I've got everything under control. They're in disguise, so your bugs won't pick 'em up, but that's okay. I know when and where they're likely to attack, and even how. Kind of, anyway. Also, Burnscar will be with 'em.”

    Danny stared. “How in god's name do you know that? I mean, I know you're good, but I didn't know you were that good.”

    “Well, see, there's good, there's really good, and then there's freaking awesome,” Lisa informed him in lordly tones. “I, of course, am the latter. In spades.”

    “Oh god,” Amy remarked in amused tones, “I think the level of smugness in the room just went off the charts. Tell him, or I will.”

    Lisa stuck her tongue out at the biokinetic. “You're no fun.”

    Amy grinned back at her. “And … ?”

    “Okay, fine.” Lisa rolled her eyes. “Have it your own way. Spoilsport.“

    <><>​

    One Day Later
    A Small Town Outside Brockton Bay
    At the Bus Station


    “Hey, isn't that Mimi?”

    Jack turned to look. Bonesaw was pointing, discreetly, but he wasn't sure who she was indicating at first. And then he saw; the young woman with the scarf over her hair, and the makeup that almost masked her telltale cigarette burns. She was studying the bus schedule intently.

    “Why, poppet, I do believe that you are correct.” Smiling, he stood up. “Wait here just a moment. I'll go and say hello.”

    “Okay.” She moved their suitcases just a little closer, then smiled sunnily up at him. “I can't wait to get to Brockton Bay. Can you?”

    “Not at all,” he agreed. Moving toward where the girl was still studying the schedule, he paused behind her and cleared his throat.

    Turning her head, she jumped slightly. “Oh, sorry. Was I in your way?”

    Once more, he had to marvel at the efficacy of the disguises that Bonesaw had whipped up; as she had stated, human skin was the best disguise, and so she had used just that. His disguise was a living thing that clung to his face, altering his hair colour, apparent bone structure and even the colour of his eyes. According to his poppet, it drew nutrients from his skin while he wore it; as far as he could tell, wearing it for a day was the equivalent to the best facial cleansing he had ever enjoyed.

    So of course, Mimi couldn't recognise him.

    “It's me,” he told her quietly. “Jack. Do you know where any of the others are?”

    “J-Jack?” she stammered. Her eyes searched his face, came up a blank. “I – I'm not sure what you mean. I don't know anyone called Jack.”

    “Of course you do, Mimi,” he replied, keeping his voice low. “It's me.”

    The use of her name jolted her, and her eyes centred on his. “I don't -”

    “Good disguise, isn't it?” he asked. “Much better than that tacky foundation cream you're using to hide your burn scars, yes?” He lingered on the two words, almost running them together.

    She bit her lip. “Jack? Really?”

    “The one and only,” he confirmed. “Now, one more time, and if you keep playing dumb, I'm going to get angry. Do you know where any of the others are?”

    Very slightly, she shook her head. “No, I don't know where they are. I don't even know if they're alive. All I know is that we were at the school, then I was in containment foam, then there was an explosion and fire, and I managed to teleport away to another fire. I've been hitch-hiking for days to get here. I didn't even know where I was, at first. What happened?”

    “It's a long story,” he told her. “Where were you planning to go?”

    “South,” she replied. “Maybe New York, maybe farther. Why, where are you going?”

    We are going to Brockton Bay, Mimi,” he informed her. “The Nine have been wronged, and we're going to correct that, once and for all.”

    She didn't even try to argue; his will had been dominating hers for so long that she simply nodded. “Okay. But how are we going to deal with whoever took us down? Because we didn't even see them coming.”

    His expression may have been a smile; at the very least, he showed a lot of teeth. “Why don't you leave that to me.”

    <><>​

    Brockton Bay Bus Terminal

    It was probably just his imagination, but Jack seemed to be seeing a lot of bugs around. He and Bonesaw trooped off of the bus along with the rest of the passengers. As they waited for the luggage to be unpacked, he felt bugs landing on his face and taking off again; a glance sideways at Bonesaw's transformed features – she now had short straight black hair and Asian features, like himself – showed him that she was not being spared.

    “You think we're under surveillance right now?” he murmured.

    “Probably,” she whispered back. “Don't talk about it in case they can understand.” The bugs, she meant.

    It should have scared him, or made him angry. Instead, it gave him a thrill in the pit of his stomach; here was a worthy opponent. Ladybug was the one he wanted in the Nine, perhaps after Bonesaw remade her face into insectile mandibles, so that her mask no longer needed to mimic them. His poppet wanted Panacea on the team, of course; she had spoken of the healer so familiarly that he would have been excused for thinking that they were old friends.

    But to have the bug controller in the Nine … the atrocities that they could wreak. Whether or not Shatterbird was on the loose, it would be a fine thing for the Nine to announce their presence in a city by way of every bug rising up and attacking every human. Turning entire neighbourhoods into a charnel house.

    He felt positively giddy at the thought.

    Their suitcases returned to them, they moved to the nearest rental vehicle counter. There followed a period of negotiation; he wanted a flatbed pickup, not a car, and not every agency had such vehicles on their books. But finally, he found one that did, and paid for it with the credit card that had belonged to the man whose face he was wearing.

    “Thank you very much, Mr Fujiwara,” the lady behind the counter told him. “If you will just go to wait by the western entrance, the vehicle will be delivered there in a few minutes. And welcome to Brockton Bay.”

    “Thank you,” he replied politely. “I am sure that I will enjoy my stay.”

    <><>​

    Barnes Household

    “So it's tomorrow, at Winslow,” Taylor stated. “And it's going to happen whether we're there or not.”

    “Exactly,” Lisa agreed. She had lost her habitual air of smugness; her face was serious for once. “Just remember, you've got to stick to the plan. Otherwise it's likely to all go wrong.”

    “Yeah, but what if they don't stick to the plan?” asked Emma. “We can plan all we like, but if they're working off of a different playbook, then we're in trouble.”

    “Then we do what we do best,” Madison offered. “We adapt and overcome. Seriously, guys. We can do this.”

    “I'll be coming with,” Amy stated, her face drawn.

    “What?” Taylor turned to her. “No, you're too valuable.”

    “And you're not?” Amy stared her down. “No, there's a chance you'll need me. So I'm going.”

    “Let's hope like hell we don't,” Taylor told her. But she crossed the room and gave the biokinetic a squeeze across the shoulders. “Just take care, okay?”

    “Don't worry. I'll be right there with her,” Lisa assured her. “Nothing's gonna happen to her while I'm around.”

    “Yeah, but who's gonna protect you?” asked Emma jokingly.

    Lisa grinned. “You guys, of course.”

    Taylor cleared her throat. “Okay, we're clear on how to deal with Mannequin if the glue bugs don't work this time?”

    “Fuck, I hope they do,” muttered Madison. “Because I do not like Plan B.”

    “It's better than not having a plan at all,” Taylor pointed out.

    Madison rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but only just.”

    “So yeah, ready to kick ass tomorrow?” Emma looked around at the others.

    “Yeah.” Taylor's voice was firm.

    “Yeah.” Despite her earlier enthusiasm, Madison's was less so.

    “You bet.” Lisa's cocky grin was back.

    “Yeah.” Despite the less-than-sure tone in her voice, Amy was in agreement.

    “Good.” Emma held up her open hand. “All for one. And one for all.”

    One by one, they slapped her hand, then slapped each others'. This occasioned some laughter as some slaps went astray.

    As they bedded down on the mattresses provided, Emma could not help a treacherous thought.

    I just hope it's enough.

    <><>​

    The Next Day

    “Okay … back it up a little more … a bit more … yeah, that's it. Stop there. That's fine.”

    The pickup truck stopped at the right point and the guy set the handbrake before getting out. Jumping down from the warehouse loading dock to meet the newcomer, the shift boss approached him with clipboard in hand.

    “Mr Fujiwara, right?” he asked, checking the clipboard a second time.

    “That's me.” The guy nodded to confirm; the shift boss didn't hear any kind of Asian accent, but that didn't mean anything these days.

    “Okay, got one crate for you. It arrived last night. See you're bright and early for the pick up. Been waiting on this one, have you?” He chuckled at his feeble joke.

    “You might say that.” Fujiwara had a really intense stare; the shift boss shifted his feet without knowing why he felt uneasy. He batted away several bugs that had flown past just a moment ago.

    “Lot of bugs around all of a sudden,” he observed, if only for something to say.

    “Must be that time of year,” Fujiwara commented.

    “Not really, that's the funny thing,” the shift boss noted. “Damn things just blew out of nowhere over the last few days.”

    The beeping of the forklift interrupted the conversation, and they both turned to see it approaching the edge of the loading dock. The kid on the forklift was new, and he'd only worked the dock a few times. He had the bad habit of turning left far more than turning right, and tended to swing wide when he did.

    The shift boss could see that he was approaching from a bad angle, and stepped forward to wave him off; the kid saw him, waved back, then went to reverse and turn at the same time. But he hadn't lowered the forks when he picked the crate up, and when he swung wide, the wheels on the right-hand side rode up on to a pallet that some idiot had left there. With the higher than normal centre of gravity, and the kid's panicked spinning of the wheels, the forklift started to go over. To the shift boss, it was as though he was prescient; he could see the accident coming long before it actually went beyond the point of no return.

    “No, you fucking moron!” he yelled. But it was useless; disaster was inevitable.

    Over it went, the crate sliding off the forks, hitting the edge of the loading dock, bouncing, then landing on the concrete below with a solid, shattering crunch. This, however, was overshadowed by the tremendous crash as the toppling forklift landed on the loading dock.

    “Shit fuck!” The shift boss started forward, eyes on the fallen forklift. He better be okay. Because I'm gonna fucking kill him. It took a moment or so to realise that Fujiwara was moving forward with him. “Stay back, sir!” he told the man urgently. “Keep clear, please.” With luck, whatever was in the crate would be okay; if it wasn't, the company would be paying to replace it. In any case, that wasn't his problem. His problem was the idiot kid who'd just rolled a forklift.

    And then, as he got closer, the crate began to shift. He pulled to a halt as wood moved and cracked apart, and something white began to unfold from within. “What the fuck …. ?”

    By the time he recognised Mannequin, he had just enough time to realise that his problem wasn't the idiot kid after all.


    End of Part Twenty-Five

    Part Twenty-Six
     
    Last edited: Jun 10, 2017
  27. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Six: Nine, Again
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger



    Part Twenty-Six: Nine, Again



    Emily Piggot's desk phone rang. She typed another few words, during which time it rang a second time, then she picked it up. “Director Piggot.”

    Director, I have an incoming call from Vista. She asked that it be routed through to you.”

    Piggot's head came up. “Yes, of course. Patch her through.”

    She heard a series of muted clicks, followed by the voice of her youngest Ward. “Hello?”

    “Vista,” she said. “Why do I get the feeling that this is not a social call?”

    Because it's not,” Vista replied promptly. “I have some information for you. In return, the Samaritans require two things.”

    Emily's eyebrows drew down at that. Initiative was something they certainly tried to foster in the Wards, but Vista seemed to be gaining somewhat more than her fair share of it. “I'll need to know what those two things are before I agree to anything,” she replied guardedly.

    Vista seemed not at all put out by her lack of immediate agreement. “Certainly. First, that you do not send troops or capes to assist us. Second, that you send buses to help evacuate Winslow High.”

    The Director blinked. “From what you're saying, something significant is happening at Winslow High. What is it?”

    It's where the Nine are going, Director. And it's where we're going to trap them and capture them, once and for all.”

    Emily froze. “You know this for a fact?”

    I believe the information that we've been given.” It wasn't quite the same, but it was close enough.

    The Director took a deep breath. “Where did you get the information, and how long have you known?”

    Uh, we developed the information from an outside source, Director,” Vista informed her. “We've uh, known for a little while.”

    “What outside source, and why did you not inform me earlier?” The plastic of the handset creaked under the pressure of Piggot's grip.

    Director Piggot, when I accepted the position of liaison with the Samaritans, you assured me that I would not be spying on them. It was explained to me that now was the best time to inform you, and I accepted that. Has my job description changed?”

    “It is not spying to keep me apprised of critical information, such as where the Nine are going to be attacking!” snapped the Director. “What reason did they have for keeping me in the dark?” If she doesn't have a good reason, I am going to be very unhappy.

    I was told that if you were informed ahead of time, then the PRT and Protectorate might attempt to intervene, and that could have disastrous consequences,” Vista told her. “There are only four of them, and we have developed plans for taking them all down. If anyone else shows up to the party, they're likely to be forewarned, and things will get very messy.”

    When Piggot next spoke, her tone was tinged with the disbelief that she was feeling. “You're saying that our presence would cause your plans to fail?”

    That's what I was told, Director.”

    Told by whom? But there was something else that Emily's mind had seized upon. “And what do you mean, four? Only three were supposed to have survived. Where are you getting your information from?”

    There was a momentary pause. “Director, I don't have time for this kind of interrogation. Burnscar is the other survivor. We're getting our information from an outside source, one that I don't want to reveal over the phone. That person assured us that we had a far better chance doing this on our own than with your … assistance.” Emily presumed from the slight hesitation before the last word that she had changed her word choice at the last moment. Probably from 'interference' or something similar.

    “So you need buses to evacuate the school, and for the PRT and Protectorate to hold back while you go up against an S-class threat again. When they're ready for you this time.” She managed to keep most of the sarcasm from her voice, but not all.

    Vista, however, seemed not to notice it. “Yes, please, Director. That would be perfect.”

    Emily leaned back in her chair, considering matters. The Samaritans were a very competent team; they had proven that, time and again. They had taken on the Nine, the first time, and thoroughly owned them. But a once-beaten enemy is a forewarned enemy, and Jack Slash was a very tricky customer.

    I would give a great deal to learn the name of whoever gave them the information. But she knew that pressing at this point would do more harm than good. When she spoke again, her voice was a growl. “Requests granted. When this is over, you and I are going to have a very long talk, young lady.”

    I look forward to it, Director. Thank you. Goodbye.” The call ended.

    Emily put the phone down, glowering. Then she turned to the computer, and brought up a list of obscure procedures. Picking up the phone again, she hit a single key; the phone dialled a number.

    Ready room. Lieutenant Cowley speaking.” The voice sounded bored.

    “Lieutenant, this is the Director. Enact S-Class Emergency Evacuation procedures for Winslow High School. Effective immediately. Do you understand me?”

    Cowley was jolted out of his boredom. “Uh, yes, ma'am, immediately, ma'am.”

    “Good. Get to it.” Piggot put the phone down.

    <><>​

    “You've got a problem.”

    Carrie Blackwell stared at the costumed teenager who had stepped into her office without so much as an invitation. Her voice was bright and chirpy.

    “Wait – what – you're Ladybug,” she managed. “What are you doing here?”

    “Informing you that you've got a problem,” Ladybug replied, her voice sounding irritatingly patient. “And I'm about to ask you to evacuate the school.”

    This never happened with Shadow Stalker. Carrie closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. It didn't really help. “Why?”

    “Um.” Ladybug paused. “I'm actually not allowed to tell you. Director Piggot said that it would cause a panic.”

    Carrie blinked. “A panic? What would cause a … oh.” A feeling of dread crystallised in the pit of her stomach. “Villains are attacking the school again, aren't they?”

    “Maybe.” She couldn't see Ladybug's eyes behind the visor, but if she could, she knew they would have been shifting evasively. “But even if they were, I'm not allowed to say who.”

    What villain gang would cause a panic if it was mentioned that they were about to attack the school? Well, any of them would cause concern. But which one would the PRT Director forbid Ladybug from telling me about … oh, no.

    “No.” Carrie was already shaking her head. “No. No. Please don't tell me that they're attacking the school again. Not the … the …” Her throat closed up, and she had to force the word out. “The Nine.”

    “I can't tell you that.” Ladybug's voice was strangely insistent. “Like I said, Director Piggot told us not to. And she's already unhappy enough with us as it is.”

    Which meant that she was telling Carrie, but in a way that she could claim that she hadn't. “I thought they were dead or in custody.”

    “There's a theoretical chance that the surviving members may have escaped custody due to outside factors.” Ladybug's voice was flat. Carrie read the tone perfectly. They got away.

    She swallowed. “Uh … who's 'us'?”

    “Me and the Samaritans,” Ladybug told her. “This is really important. Everyone here is going to be in a lot of danger really soon, so if you could evacuate the school, that would be absolutely awesome.” She paused. “Oh, and all the staff and students need to leave their cars here. So that it looks like we haven't evacuated.”

    “But why would you want it to look like everyone's still here?” Carrie was confused now.

    “Because that way, the people who are coming here still decide to come here.” Ladybug's tone was matter of fact.

    “Wait.” Carrie put both of her hands on the desk. “You want them to come here.”

    A nod. “Yes.”

    The revelation was as blinding as it was unbelievable. “You're setting a trap for them? A trap for the Nine?”

    “Not saying that's who it is, but yeah. If we can pull it off.” There was that chirpiness again.

    “But why my school? Why are you bringing them here?”

    “It's not our idea,” Ladybug explained. “Hypothetically speaking, if it was them, then there's a really good chance that they're coming back here to balance the scales for us beating them the first time. Not that I'm saying it's actually them, of course.” She gave Carrie a wide, ingenuous smile. “But about evacuating the school?”

    “Just give me a moment.” Carrie massaged her temples. "You do realise I can't just take your word for it, right?" Without waiting for Ladybug to answer what had been mostly a rhetorical question, she picked up her desk phone and hit speed-dial.

    <><>​

    Barely had Piggot put her phone down than it rang again. She glanced at it in annoyance. The caller ID read Winslow Blackwell. Her habitual frown deepened. She could guess what it was about, but she didn't want to speak to Carrie Blackwell. But then she grimaced and reached for the handset. I'd better talk to her. I can always hang up.

    “Piggot here,” she stated flatly. “What do you want, Blackwell?” She hadn't forgotten how badly the woman had handled the Shadow Stalker situation, allowing Hess to bully at least one other girl with almost total impunity. For more than a fucking year. My god.

    Director Piggot,” the woman answered, picking her words with care, “if a member of Team Samaritan were to walk into my office and strongly suggest that I evacuate the school, how seriously should I take her?”

    Emily nodded. I thought it was something like that. “Which member is it, and what has she said?”

    Ladybug. She's asked me to evacuate the school. Although she's taken care not to say it specifically, I've gathered that the Slaughterhouse Nine has escaped and may be returning to Brockton Bay. To Winslow. What I want to know is, do I take her seriously?”

    The Director grimaced. She was on the horns of a dilemma; if she answered in the affirmative, then the school would be evacuated in time for the buses to get them out of there. But on the downside, Blackwell would be in possession of the fact that the Nine were on the way. If the knowledge gets out and causes a panic …

    She sighed. There was nothing else she could do.

    <><>​

    Principal Blackwell.” Piggot's voice was clipped. “I strongly suggest that you follow her suggestions in the matter. However, do not under any circumstances even suggest that the Nine may be involved. Call it a fire drill, or a fumigation, or whatever. Send them home for the day, then get out yourself. Do you understand me?”

    Carrie Blackwell felt a chill spreading down her back. She hasn't denied it. In fact, she's all but confirmed it. “I understand perfectly,” she replied. “Good day, Director.”

    Carefully, she placed the phone down and looked at Ladybug. “How long do we have?” she asked flatly.

    “Couple of hours, tops,” the tall girl replied. “After that … if I were you, I wouldn't be here.” She dropped a slip of paper on the desk. “Contact number, in case you need to reach us.”

    Already shaken by Piggot's tone, Carrie didn't question her. Instead, she opened a desk drawer and pulled out a list of emergency-evacuation scripts. Scanning over them, she found the one that seemed to suit her needs. Taking a deep breath, she pressed the button on her phone that patched her into the PA system. Lifting the receiver, she spoke carefully into it.

    <><>​

    Attention, all students and staff. Attention, all students and staff. A gas leak has been detected on the premises. Please evacuate the building in a safe and orderly manner. There is no immediate danger, but it is important that you leave the building via the nearest exit. Gather at your evacuation point. Attention all students and staff …”

    “All right, everyone. You heard the message.” Mr Gladly clapped his hands twice. “Leave your books and bags. I want everyone lined up at the door now. We'll be making our way to the sports field. Come on, hup-hup-hup!”

    Greg Veder stood up with the rest of them, but something didn't sit right with him about this. Gas stinks. The last time we had a gas leak, everyone knew about it before Blackwell told us about it. So what's really going on here?

    As soon as he was out the door, while Mr Gladly was still occupied in counting the students out of the classroom, he ducked off in the opposite direction.

    “Hey, dude.” It was Sparky. “They said get out of the school.”

    “They also said there's no immediate danger,” Greg pointed out. “I gotta take a wicked leak. Cover for me?”

    Sparky considered this, then shrugged. “Sure, whatever, dude.” He headed back to the World Affairs students. Greg patted his pocket to make sure his phone was still there, then moved off. Now to find a hiding place.

    <><>​

    Missy looked up as the ancient PA system crackled out its message. “Gas leak, huh?”

    Sparx grinned. “One way to get 'em all out of here.”

    “So you guys actually go to school here, huh?” asked Athena, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. She looked around at the graffiti-stained walls of the otherwise empty classroom and wrinkled her nose. “Is it just me, or is this place a shithole?”

    Already, the other classroom doors were opening and students streaming out, flooding down the hallway toward the exit doors. Nobody took any notice of the part-opened door.

    “I've heard stories about Winslow,” Panacea offered. “None of them good.”

    “You probably heard the nice ones,” Aerodyne replied. “Trust me when I say that this is indeed a shithole of the very lowest quality.”

    “I have no doubt. Oh, by the way, nice going.” A friendly arm encircled Missy's shoulders in a half-hug. She looked up into Athena's grin. “You did good.”

    “I can't believe I spoke to her like that.” Missy tried not to let her voice quiver too much. “You think she'll bring the troops in anyway?”

    “Nah.” Athena shook her head. “You've told her that would screw our plans up. She's a bit arrogant and dislikes capes on principle, but she's not a moron. So, yeah.” She peered out through the slightly-open door. “Welp, looks like most everyone has gone. So, let's get set up.”

    <><>​

    Jack pushed open the motel room door and looked around. Nothing had changed since he had left to strew pyrethrum bombs around the city. Engineered by Riley, they should be pumping out clouds of almost-invisible fumes, harmless to humans but inimical to bugs of all kinds.

    His poppet was still working at the small desk. Like him, she had been restored to her original appearance. Wearing a disguise was all well and good, but he wanted people to know who was doing this to them.

    Burnscar was lying on one of the beds, staring at the wall. She hadn't moved, either.

    “Ready to go to work, poppet?”

    “Almost, Mr Jack.” Riley finished adjusting the interior of the last spiderbot and snapped the tiny hatch shut. It came to life, dancing in place as all ten legs flexed and tested themselves. “I just need to load up his prion reservoir, and then we can go.”

    “You know, I'm very impressed with these prions of yours, especially if they act as advertised,” Jack observed as she busied herself with that task. “Though it is reversible, right?”

    “Well, you don't have to worry about that, Mr Jack,” she replied over her shoulder. “You're immunised, just like me and Burnscar. It'll never affect you.”

    “I was thinking of how we can collect new recruits,” he told her absently, his mind turning over the possibilities. “Turn their powers off, take them someplace quiet, and have a nice quiet chat with them before we give them the antidote.”

    “I can't guarantee that it'll turn off all power use,” she cautioned him. “Just the conscious uses. If the power is working outside of their deliberate control, it'll probably keep right on doing that.”

    He nodded. “I can see how that could be a problem with some capes. But I'm sure we can work out ways around that, poppet.” He ruffled her blonde ringlets; she giggled.

    “Okay, done.” She stood up; the spider-bot scuttled around in a circle then leaped up to cling to her back, four of its legs moving to lie along her arms. The others had roused as she got up, moving around a little then stopping to wait for her.

    “Now, do you remember the plan?” he asked mock-seriously.

    “Why does there have to be a plan?” she retorted, her tone playful. “I send my spiders in, they use prions on everyone, we walk in afterward without any problem.”

    “Because there always has to be a plan,” he said. “And as good as your spiders are, we can't rely totally on them. Besides, what's the point in doing this if we can't have any fun?”

    She huffed a sigh. “Okay, fine. We drive around the school. My spiders get off and converge on the entrances. Some go to the roof. They work their way through the school.”

    “Which is likely to have been evacuated, if I know my heroes,” he noted. “Go on.”

    “Mannequin goes in with them, to deal with anything that they can't,” she recited in a sing-song tone. “We go in afterward. The spiders will lead us to the heroes. If they haven't already been depowered, we depower or kill them.” She shot him a glare. “And I want at least one of them to play with. Maybe two!”

    He rolled his eyes tolerantly. “Certainly, poppet. Just so long as I get at least one as a recruit. We can share, right?”

    “I want to see if I can put insect mandibles on Ladybug,” Bonesaw decided. “Make her into a real bug. All scary, not cute and fluffy like a ladybug.”

    Jack smiled. “She is kind of skinny, inside her armour,” he noted. “Maybe make her into a praying mantis?”

    The young Tinker's eyes lit up. “Ooh,” she murmured. “Give her bladed forelimbs ….”

    He chuckled and ruffled her hair again. “Let's save that for when we've got them in our hands. After all, we don't know yet which ones we're going to be able to capture and which ones we're going to have to kill.” He walked over to where Burnscar was still lying on the bed. “Come on, Mimi. Time to go to work.”

    She rolled over and sat up. Her eyes held a deep-seated pain. “Do we have to?”

    Yes, Burnscar, we really have to,” he told her firmly. “You know what'll happen if the authorities catch you again. If they catch any of us. There'll be no mercy. No last-minute escapes.”

    Something lit in her eyes, then. A fire, drowning out the pain. Holding up her hand, she watched as flames danced from fingertip to fingertip. “No mercy,” she murmured.

    “That's the spirit,” he encouraged her. “No mercy.” Slapping her on the shoulder, he moved toward the door. Bonesaw followed; after a moment, Burnscar stood up from the bed and walked after them.

    Jack went to the next motel room along and rapped on the door. “Finished in there yet, Alan?” he called out. “We're leaving. Don't want to be left behind.”

    After a long moment, the door opened. Mannequin stood there, slightly hunched over so that his nine-foot height could fit out through the doorway. As silently as ever, he stepped out of the motel room, then carefully closed the door behind him. His 'head' bore no eyes, or even a real face, but his posture managed to impart a quizzical air as he turned toward Jack.

    “Plan's the same as before,” Jack told him. “You've got the pyrethrin dispensers?”

    The silent head nodded; vents slid open in the arms and legs, then closed again. Jack smiled. “Well, then. It looks like we're ready to go.” He gestured at the pickup. “Everyone in.”

    “Dibs window seat!” Bonesaw called out. Burnscar looked at her, then at Jack.

    He shrugged helplessly. “I'm sorry, but Bonesaw called it. You snooze, you lose.”

    Pressing her lips together, Burnscar nodded. “Okay.” She climbed into the pickup.

    At the same time, Mannequin climbed into the back, surrounded by spider-bots, and pulled a tarp up to cover himself and his travelling companions. There was a time to spread terror among the citizens of Brockton Bay, and a time to fly under the radar. The time for terror would be later.

    <><>​

    Greg lurked in the storage closet, clutching his phone so tightly that he was worried that he might break it. This was the way to get real cred with his classmates. Whatever was going to happen in the school today, Greg Veder was going to get the full scoop. I'm gonna be the most popular kid in school.

    It never occurred to him to wonder why the school had been evacuated without a real explanation …

    <><>​

    Carrie Blackwell exited the school, leading the student exodus. She looked toward the parking lot … and beyond, where the first in a line of buses was just pulling up to the bus stop. Ladybug didn't tell me they'd called for buses. What's going on here?

    Moving at a determined pace, she strode across the parking lot to the first bus. Its door opened as she approached, to reveal a regular driver at the wheel, with a man in plain clothes standing next to him.

    “What's going on here?” she demanded. “What's all this?”

    “One-time free bus service, ma'am,” the standing man replied blandly. Before she could ask any more questions, he opened his jacket just far enough for her to see the PRT badge pinned to the inside. “Care to get your kids on board before whatever's coming arrives?”

    <><>​

    “Gladly!”

    Mr Gladly turned to face Principal Blackwell. “Ma'am?”

    “Do you have a proper count of your students?”

    Gladly looked around. Friends had found friends, and people were mixing instead of waiting in neat groups to be counted. This caused the students of Winslow to be spread all over the sporting field. “Uh … one second.” He checked his clipboard. There were only a few names left to be ticked off. “Madison Clements.” Oh, wait. She took a sick day. He put a line through her name. “Uh … Keith Schreiber.” A frown crossed his face. “Ah, right, Sparky.” He raised his voice. “Sparky!”

    The less than impressive visage of the would-be musician appeared. “Here, Mr G.”

    Gladly crossed him off. “Taylor Hebert.” Another pause, as his brain caught up. Oh, right. Also sick. I'm going to have to talk to that girl. A line went through her name. “Greg Veder.”

    “Oh, uh, he left. Said he had to go do something,” Sparky volunteered.

    “So he's out of the school?” Gladly waited impatiently until the question permeated through Schreiber's consciousness.

    “Uh, yeah. Guess so.”

    Gladly frowned. He didn't know Sparky very well, but the kid spent most of his time in a daze or actually asleep. “Do you guess so or know so?”

    He watched as Schreiber tried to think; it was a painful process. “Uh … I guess so?”

    “Well?” That was Blackwell, at his elbow.

    <><>​

    Gladly turned to face her, clipboard held defensively. “All out except for, uh, Greg Veder. I'm not sure about him, ma'am.”

    Carrie took the clipboard and eyed the results. “You marked him out of the classroom, so he was present then,” she observed.

    Gladly nodded. “Uh, yes.”

    She sighed. “I've been checking with the other teachers. We've got ninety percent attendance here. This is better than the last time we held a fire drill. However.” She fixed the dull-looking student with a hard gaze. “Tell me exactly what you know about Greg Veder.”

    The kid wilted after about three seconds. “Said he had to take a wicked leak,” he mumbled.

    “Ah.” Carrie rolled her eyes. “Which means he's probably finished and out here already. But just in case.” She pulled out her phone, then retrieved the slip of paper from her pocket. Carefully, she tapped in the number.

    “You've reached the Samaritans. This is Sparx. How can I help you?” The voice was young, female and brisk.

    “This is Principal Blackwell,” Carrie said carefully. “We think there might be one or more of our students in the bathrooms.”

    “One second.” She heard a muffled conversation, but could not make out the words. Moments later, Sparx spoke to her again. “All bathrooms have been checked. Classrooms and hallways have already been swept, but we'll do it again. No students have yet been found. If we do find any, we'll escort them out immediately.”

    Carrie Blackwell felt a sense of relief wash through her. “Thank you.”

    “Was there anything else?”

    “Uh, no, no, there wasn't.”

    “Well, we're a little busy, so I'm going to hang up now. Have a good day.”

    The call ended; she took deep breaths, feeling just a little light-headed. With the Slaughterhouse Nine on the way, there was no way in hell that she wanted to go back into that school and search for missing students. Some will have wandered off already, or gone home, or whatever. So long as they're not in the damn school.

    Gladly was still looking at her, like a dog expecting a treat. She smiled thinly. “He's not in the school.” With a firm hand and a clear conscience, she drew a line through Greg Veder's name and handed the clipboard back.

    He took it, examining it, then finally nodded. “Yes, Principal Blackwell.”

    She nodded curtly. “All right then.” Raising a loudspeaker to her mouth, she continued in a much louder voice. “Everyone, I would like your attention. Buses have been provided. You will now proceed to the bus stop and board the buses. Move. Move. Move.”

    “Everyone's going?” asked Gladly. “Even you?”

    “Even me,” she confirmed. She watched as he pulled his car keys from his pocket. “Ah, no. Leave your car. You're taking the bus. So am I. Tell the rest of the faculty as well. We leave our cars behind.”

    <><>​

    Gladly had to raise his voice over the noise of the joyous stampede that was the exodus of Winslow's student body. “Leave our cars? Why?”

    “Because I told you so, Mr Gladly.” Blackwell's tone was chilly.

    “But why?”

    She gritted her teeth. “There's a supervillain coming to the school. The heroes are going to trap him there. But he needs to think that nobody knows he's coming. So we pretend not to have evacuated. Now do you understand?”

    Gladly understood, and he didn't like it. “I don't think my insurance covers parahuman damage.”

    She gave him an exasperated look. “You've lived in Brockton Bay for how long?”

    “Look, it just never came up, all right?”

    He winced at the sharp look she gave him. “More like, you never thought it would happen, so you chose to spend the money elsewhere. Am I correct?”

    He hated to admit it, but she was entirely correct. “Maybe. So we leave our cars behind. What guarantee do we have that nothing will happen to them?”

    This time, she shook her head. “Mr Gladly, this is Brockton Bay. It's a cape battle. We've got no guarantee that the school will be there when they're done.”

    <><>​

    The last of the students boarded the bus; Carrie Blackwell stepped up inside last of all. Each of them had been loaded to beyond its legal capacity, with people standing in the aisles, but nobody complained. While no-one had been told about the real reason for evacuation, the air of desperation had communicated itself among them, and they had filed on board obediently.

    Until now. Some of the older teens, looking out the windows, seemed to notice for the first time that all the cars were still in the parking lot. “Wait!” called out one. “Our cars! Why can't we just drive?”

    Carrie frowned; up until now, with the staff chivvying them along, the students had not stopped to think about their personal vehicles. “Because you can't,” she called out. Tapping the driver on the shoulder, she nodded. “Let's go.”

    The door slid shut and the bus lurched forward. Blackwell didn't relax until the school was out of sight.

    <><>​

    Fifteen Minutes Later

    Taylor activated her two-way radio. “Ladybug here. I have a vehicle approaching the school. It appears to be a pickup with something under a tarp in the bed. I've also checked the school and surroundings over. I'm starting to get pyrethrin in the school grounds, but concentrations aren't too high as yet. There are no innocents in the line of fire that I can find. Uh, over.”

    Sparx copies.”

    Aerodyne, roger.”

    Athena, got it.”

    Panacea, understood.”

    Vista, roger.”

    Delta Hotel, understood.”

    Romeo Charlie, message received.”

    Alpha Bravo copies.”

    She took a deep breath, then continued. “Leaf bugs are in position. Sparx, call it.”

    Almost immediately, Emma's voice came back over the radio. “Stage one, go.”

    <><>​

    The pickup made a slow circuit of the school, crunching over ill-maintained garden beds with barely a pause. Riley activated the last pyrethrum bomb and leaned out the window to toss it into the bed of the vehicle, where it began to gush out clouds of almost-invisible vapour. At the same time, the spider-bots launched themselves from the vehicle and scuttled toward the school. Casting the tarp off, Mannequin leaped from the vehicle – causing it to bounce on its springs – and followed them.

    A random bug, flying through the noxious fumes, bounced off of the windshield and slid down to the pickup's hood. Jack grinned cheerfully. “Nicely done, poppet. Taking the bug girl's bugs out of the picture was the right idea.”

    Bonesaw smiled proudly. “I thought it would be. She took us down with them so easily the last time, they probably haven't evolved any new tactics to deal with us. After all, the only other ranged delivery mechanism they've got is Sparx, and she can only deliver electricity.”

    “Which is still dangerous,” he reminded her.

    “Not against Mannequin. And if you or Burnscar sees her first, you can beat her for range.”

    The pickup was almost all the way back around to the parking lot. “There's still cars here,” Bonesaw pointed out brightly. “I thought you said they knew we were coming.”

    Jack had been trying to figure that out himself. “Maybe they didn't know exactly where we were going. Or perhaps they've decided not to warn the school.”

    “Heroes wouldn't do that,” objected Burnscar. “They'd make sure everyone got away.” She lapsed into silence again.

    Jack smiled. “Which means that either our so-called heroes aren't so heroic, or they got the staff and students to leave their cars behind to lure us in. Either way, this just got interesting.”

    <><>​

    The biotinkered spider-bots scuttled up to the roof of the school, climbing the brick wall with ease. More were going to be forcing their way into the fire exits, or just via the front doors, but these ones were going in through the roof access. There was to be no escape for the heroes.

    The first one approached the door, readying a drill-bit designed to bypass the lock mechanism. But as it did so, its sensors detected that the door was wedged open with half a brick. Had it a sense of humour, and the mouth to do so, it would have smiled wryly. Lacking both, it just went for the opening.

    It approached the door and hooked one leg behind it, then braced and pulled the door open wider. As it did so, the first of its brethren scuttled up and over it, making use of the resulting gap.

    There was a thunderous boom, and that spider-bot flew to pieces. The one holding the door tried to leap back, but a second boom sounded and its awareness ended abruptly.

    The door closed again, but was halted by the half-brick. While the spider-bots were programmed with basic self-preservation, they were not permitted to retreat; waving pincers and syringes and spraying prion powder before them, they advanced on the door again. This time, they didn't open it, but instead began to wriggle through the entire length of the gap, all at once.

    <><>​

    Being the union rep for the Dockworkers, Danny had long known, meant rubbing shoulders with less than savoury characters. And not all of these worked in the Mayor's office. Some of the time, such people caused more problems than they were worth. But at other times, having friends in low places really paid off. This was one of those times.

    He racked the slide of his Mossberg pump-action shotgun and blew away the spider-bot at the top of the door. Alan Barnes, by previous agreement, hit the one on the bottom, while Rod Clements shot at the middle of the gap. With the exception of Rod, none of the Dads were very proficient with a shotgun, but at this range it didn't really matter.

    Even with the ear protection, the shotguns were enormously loud in the confined space, but it didn't last long. The last of them made it all the way on to the steps before Alan Barnes blew it apart; Rod Clements racked his slide one last time and aimed at the door, but nothing else seemed to be coming through.

    With Rod and Alan covering the door, Danny pushed the protector off of one ear and took his radio off his hip. “Delta Hotel here. We seem to be in the clear. Status of rooftop, over?”

    A few moments later, Taylor's voice came back. Her voice was high and tinny, probably due to the ringing in his ears. “Ladybug here. There is zero movement, repeat zero movement on the rooftop. Lots of bits and pieces though. Uh, over.”

    Danny chuckled. “I copy that, Ladybug. Sparx, this is Delta Hotel. No casualties. Moving to Stage Two now. Over.”

    Emma's voice came over the radio. “Sparx copies moving to Stage Two, over.”

    <><>​

    Jack's head jerked up. “Was that gunfire?”

    “I think it was,” Bonesaw agreed. “It sure sounded like it. None of Team Samaritan carry guns, do they?”

    “Not that I've seen,” Jack mused. “But if the rumours are correct, they've got at least one ex-villain on the team now, and she might be using a pistol. But that sounded like shotguns, and more than one.”

    “And I've lost contact with my spider-bots on the roof,” complained Bonesaw. “You said they wouldn't cover the roof! You said!”

    Jack sighed. “I said I was reasonably certain that they wouldn't. And I'm still pretty sure that they aren't. Which means they've got minions. With shotguns.”

    Burnscar, flames flickering up and down her arms, looked around at him. “We still gonna go in there?” she asked, gesturing at the front doors that were only about ten yards away now. “Sounds like they're prepared for us.”

    “Mimi, really?” he asked. “A few mooks with shotguns does not an adequate defence make. Sure, they made paste of the poppet's little pets, but Mannequin will have heard that, and he'll be going to check it out. And you know what minions with shotguns are called when Mannequin's around.” He bared his teeth. “Sushi.”

    “What if the rest of Team Samaritan are waiting for him?” Bonesaw wanted to know.

    Jack rolled his eyes. Do I have to think of everything? “If they were with the mooks, then your spiders would've sprayed their prion powder, and they're powerless. But even if they're not, Sparx can't hurt him with her electricity, Ladybug's bugs can't get close to him, and Aerodyne's powers won't do much either. Panacea can't affect him at all, and if it's Tattletale on the team, then what's she gonna do? Think at him really hard?”

    Burnscar frowned. “What about Vista?”

    <><>​

    Bugs tried to swarm around Mannequin as he took the stairs three at a time. The vents in his arms and legs were open now, pyrethrum boiling out in clouds all around him, driving them away. He knew the layout of the school, of course, and this way lay the roof access. Flush with their victory over the spider-bots, whoever had been doing the shooting would be easy prey. One more flight of stairs …

    The steps abruptly distorted, twisting in odd ways, turning into a slide. He lost traction, skidding down backward until he shot one arm out and grabbed the rail, arresting his downward motion. Even as he worked to get his feet under him, shooting his other arm upward to assist in pulling himself to the top of the steps, he looked around for the culprit.

    She wasn't hard to find; stepping up to the side of the stairwell, she looked downward at him. It was Vista, of course. Letting go with one hand, he began to retract that arm, ready to launch a blade at her.

    The first problem came when he realised that the arm wasn't retracting because the chain links were five times as large as they should be. It wasn't an insurmountable problem; he had built launch-blades into his legs for just this contingency. But even as he began to lift his right leg, it shrank dramatically, becoming a misshapen ball attached to his hip. A moment later, he fell to the stairs as his left leg assumed the same proportions.

    Vista looked almost bored as she shrank his arms as well; losing his grip on the rail, he fell backward and skidded down the stair-slide until he hit the landing. She walked down the steps as the distortion on them faded. His arms and legs were useless, the weapons in them impotent against her. She looked down at him for a moment. “Stay.”

    As she trotted down the next flight of stairs, she was pulling a two-way radio off of her hip. “Vista here. Mannequin taken care of. Moving to Stage Two.”

    Mannequin began to get the idea that this was not going to be the walkover that Jack Slash had anticipated.

    <><>​

    Wha? What was that?

    Greg jerked awake from the light doze he had slipped into. It had been so boring, hiding in the storage closet, waiting for something interesting to happen. He had worked it all out; all he had to do was open the closet door just a smidge and let his phone record whatever happened outside. Except that he had failed to take into account the fact that whatever was happening might not happen directly outside the closet. Or even anywhere near it.

    Struggling to his feet, trying not to knock over mops and buckets and whatever else was sharing the closet with him, he cracked the door a little. Nothing was happening out there. Damn it.

    For a moment, he considered waiting in the closet for a while longer, but his curiosity overcame his natural caution. I have to find out what's going on. This is gonna get me more hits than the Protectorate.

    He thought he heard someone running. This is it. Opening the door, he stepped out to film the action. Unfortunately, he turned left instead of right.

    <><>​

    The spider-bots swarmed along the corridor. Most scuttled along the floor, while some chose to skitter along the walls, leaving gouges in the plasterboard with their sharp legs. A few used the ceiling, ripping out chunks as they went, but they neither knew nor cared about that. Insects buzzed around them; these were detected, but they couldn't do much about it.

    Up ahead was a corner; while the spider-bots were still some distance from it, a voice became audible. “Three … two … one.”

    On 'one', a head popped around the corner. The head was adorned with a red and black helmet, as well as a clear visor. It was only in view for a few seconds, but the spider-bots got a good look at it; this matched the image of the Team Samaritan hero known as Ladybug.

    Even as Ladybug let out a frightened-sounding 'eep', the spider-bots were surging forward. Her head vanished, and running footsteps could be heard. Swarming up to the corner, the bugs rounded it and gave chase.

    <><>​

    Taylor didn't bother glancing behind her. The bugs she had on the ceiling told her exactly how far behind her the spider-bots were. The soles of her shoes were high-grip, and she was good at running. Rendezvous with Emma and Madison, meet up, and wipe 'em out.

    She grinned as she sprinted down the hallway; with Mannequin out of the picture, the other three were going to be much easier to deal with. And with the leaf-bugs on each of the other members of the Nine, she could track them even through clouds of pyrethrin. I love it when a plan comes together.

    <><>​

    Emma pelted down the hallway, then took a hard right, her shoes squeaking on the flooring. Behind her, the spider-bots chittered menacingly as they swarmed in pursuit. She heard rapidly approaching footsteps from a hallway to the left; as she passed it, Aerodyne dashed out and joined her. A similar swarm was following her; the spider-bots joined forces but kept up the chase.

    “Where's Ladybug?” panted Emma.

    “Thought she was with you,” gasped Aerodyne.

    Emma put it from her head. They couldn't slow down now. Whatever was going on with Taylor, they hadn't heard a radio transmission and her bugs hadn't given an alarm. They had to trust that she could take care of herself, at least until the spider-bots were taken care of.

    They dashed in through the doorway of the empty classroom that they'd been in before. Immediately, Athena slammed the door shut, leaving only the small window in the door itself – which had had the glass removed from it – as the most accessible entry point. She stepped back then, joining Panacea at the far corner of the room.

    It only took the spider-bots a few seconds to arrive at the door; the first ones were clambering through the inviting hole just a few seconds after that. Clouds of prion dust were sprayed toward the young parahumans … only for a stiff breeze to whip up and blow the noxious material back at the spider-bots.

    “Where's Ladybug?” asked Panacea, even as Emma extended her hair toward the spider-bots. It wrapped around them, enmeshing them even as it flowed onward. They actually made it easy for her, easy to wrap her tendrils around each and every one. If they'd hung back, even a little, she might have missed a few. As it was, that wasn't going to happen.

    Concentrating, she let her power flash out through her tendrils. A sharp smell of ozone sprang up as dozens of pops and crackles sounded from the corridor beyond. The spider-bots convulsed, then fell limp as she cut the current.

    “Oh, shit.” Emma didn't turn to look when Athena spoke. She was too busy trying to see if any of the spider-bots were still moving.

    “What's the matter?” asked Aerodyne. “You're as white as a ghost.”

    “It's Ladybug,” Athena said. “She's -”

    Their radios crackled to life. “Hello? Team Samaritan? This is Jack Slash. I have Ladybug, as well as another hostage. Come out now, or I kill them both. Slowly. You have two minutes.”

    “- been captured,” Athena concluded.

    Emma met Aerodyne's eyes. “Oh, shit,” she agreed.

    “What do we do?” asked Panacea.

    Emma's lips tightened. “We've got no choice. We do what they say.”



    End of Part Twenty-Six

    Part Twenty-Seven
     
    Last edited: Jun 17, 2017
  28. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Seven: Three, Two, One ...
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Twenty-Seven: Three, Two, One …



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



    A Few Moments Before

    Taylor grinned as she sprinted down the hallway. Her bugs, placed at strategic intervals, told her exactly when and where she had to turn in order to meet up with the others. She could smell the pyrethrin in the air, but it wasn't affecting her in any significant way. Bonesaw's spiderbots were still gaining on her, but not fast enough to do them any good. The long hours on the running track out at the training camp had left her fit enough to maintain the necessary lead for the moment.

    Lisa – Athena – had predicted that Jack would want to nullify the battlefield advantage that her bugs brought to the team. This was not a huge surprise; during the training exercises, her father and the other Dads had done their best to do that exact same thing, for similar (if more innocuous) reasons. He had no doubt turned to Bonesaw, the Nine's resident bio-Tinker, for a solution. Pyrethrin was easy to make in bulk and was hard to immunise bugs against, so they hadn't been entirely surprised when the Nine (now the Four) had employed it.

    However, while it was hard to make a 'natural' insect that could survive pyrethrin exposure, Amy was not limited to the natural order of things. For her, evolutionary constraints were merely a polite suggestion, to be shunted aside when they became inconvenient. And so she had combined the best of both worlds; for someone of her capabilities, adding chlorophyll to the wing casings of a bug was simplicity itself. Providing the bug with air sacs and creating a gas-exchange system had only been a little more difficult.

    Further adjustments were required to make it work properly, of course; Taylor had been utterly fascinated by the process, even if she had trouble following Amy's explanation of how the new organism was intended to function. Lisa, as befitted her smartass nature, professed to understand it all without difficulty. The final touch of genius, as suggested by Emma, was to give the bug an active camouflage ability. Given the same effective body shape as a cockroach, the leaf-bug could flatten itself to virtually any surface and use surface chromatophores to adjust its apparent colour and texture to match.

    The end result of all this, of course, was to produce a bug that could choose not to breathe the outside air, and thus was not affected by whatever chemical the Nine brought along to throw at them. When exposed to pyrethrin, the bugs pretended to be affected by it. However, once the villains turned their attention away from the supposedly dead insects, they came back to life again, building into a swarm that was out of sight and out of mind. And one or two, being very sneaky indeed, had emplaced themselves on the villains in hard-to-spot locations, so that Taylor could keep track of them at all times. Likewise, a bug on every spider-bot meant that she knew where they were, as well.

    The tactics they were using had not been decided upon in a moment, or even a day. Entire brainstorming sessions had come and gone before they had all the details hammered out, but between Lisa's intuitions and Dinah phoning in her input, they had planned for nearly every eventuality. And once they'd figured out what the Nine were likely to do, a counter had not been so hard to devise.

    And it was working. Taylor's father and the other Dads had disposed of the initial wave of spider-bots coming in via the roof, and Vista had Mannequin on lockdown. Serves him right for not having anything alive in his limbs. Bonesaw's spider-bots were nasty, especially in large numbers, but the plan allowed for them as well. Once away from their diminutive mistress, they could be decoyed into a trap and disposed of with relative ease.

    A quote from an old TV show went through her mind as she took a corner at speed. I love it when a plan comes together.

    That, of course, was when it all came apart.

    Her bugs had swept the corridor ahead at least four times, so she knew that there was nobody there. But abruptly, too fast for her to react and correct her course, a service closet door opened directly ahead of her, and someone stepped out. Even then, if he had been looking in the right direction, the collision may have been avoided by the simple expedient of stepping back into the closet. But he was looking away from her, and so by the time he registered her warning shout, it was far too late. Even as she collided heavily with them, sending them both sprawling to the ground, she belatedly recognised him. Greg Veder. Why am I not surprised.

    The wind had been knocked out of her by the sudden impact; acutely aware of the danger bearing down on her in the form of the pursuing spider-bots, she struggled to regain her feet. The first of them rounded the corner just as she did so. Still got a few yards on them. I can make it. And then she stood on Greg's arm.

    He shouted with pain and pulled away, rolling her ankle just as she rested her full weight on that foot. A sharp pain shot up her leg and she stumbled once more. The rest of the little arachnoid robots were around the corner now, and the closest one was less than a yard away. I've got to warn the guys!

    She reached for the radio to alert her teammates, but realised too late that it had come loose during her tumble and lay just a few yards down the corridor. Bugs gathered around it, cooperating to push it toward her, even as she lunged for it. Something landed on her legs; after a moment of pressure, there was a sharp pain in her left calf. This was quickly followed by a numbing sensation that spread up her leg and body almost faster than she could think. She scrabbled for the radio, but by the time she got her hand on it, the numbness had reached her shoulders.

    It spread to her arm and head equally quickly, making every motion a supreme effort. She closed her hand around the radio and tried to drag it to her mouth, but already her eyes were drifting shut and her thoughts had started to fragment. By the time the radio came close enough to speak into, she barely recalled why she wanted it. Even as she tried to focus on what she needed to do, the urgency just … slipped away. Her hand slid off the radio and she laid her head down on the nice smooth comfortable floor. She was so tired. If she could just have a little nap …

    <><>​

    Now

    “... as well as another hostage.” The voice filtered through the cotton wool that surrounded Taylor's consciousness. It was smooth and self-satisfied; even before she recognised it, her dislike was automatic. When the name did click into place, it was all she could do to avoid an instinctive flinch of distaste. Jack Slash.

    Apparently unaware that she was now awake, he kept talking. “Come out now, or I kill them both. Slowly. You have two minutes.”

    She kept her eyes closed in an effort to learn everything she could about her situation before anyone realised she was awake. That she was in a bad position she had no doubt; even if Jack Slash had not been right there and talking about killing hostages, she was starting to feel extreme discomfort from her shoulders. More to the point, she was certain her teammates would not deliberately leave her like that.

    From the feel of it, someone was behind her with their arms hooked through hers to hold her more or less upright. Her head lolled to the side, prevented from dropping forwards by a persistent tug on her scalp. Whoever it is has me by the hair, which means ... A moment later, she realised that some of her hair was hanging over her face. That confirmed it; they'd taken her helmet and the attached goggles off, thereby unmasking her.

    For a brief moment, she wondered why her calf muscle felt sore, until she recalled the spider-bot and how it had injected her with the knockout dosage. Okay, time to see what the bugs can tell me. Sending her senses out, she tried to connect with the swarm … and ran into a snag when nothing answered her call. Which was blatantly ridiculous, given that she had booster bugs set up where the pyrethrin couldn't begin to touch them, within easy reach of the school. Even if they've managed to kill off all the bugs in the school, I should be able to reach others elsewhere. But she couldn't. Which meant that one of the team's more painful scenarios had come about. Loss of powers. Crap.

    It wasn't an entirely unexpected development; given that they were facing Bonesaw, Lisa had already flagged it as a distinct possibility. Dinah hadn't predicted it, which only meant it wasn't permanent. However, the Dads had always emphasised physical preparation on the outside chance of one or more of them having their powers neutralised, or even if they found themselves facing a foe against whom their powers simply didn't work. Usually this meant 'run away', for which eventuality they had trained assiduously. But there was always the chance of encountering a situation where running away wasn't an option.

    Despite the pain in her arms, Taylor did her best to stay limp. Assess the situation. At the first opportunity, fight my way free. The others haven't been captured, so they'll be setting up to rescue me. Her first duty, she knew, was to make the others' job easier. So who's holding me? Not Jack, he wasn't behind me. Not Bonesaw, not Mannequin. Ah, Burnscar. The height was about right. But how did she get hold of my hair like that? In that position, it'd be basically impossible. It'd need someone else to …

    “How are you holding up, Burnscar?” It was Jack's voice, altogether too close.

    Ah, of course. He helped her. Taylor fought to keep her body relaxed, to not flinch at all.

    “Okay,” the woman holding her said tonelessly. “She's heavy.”

    When he spoke again, Jack was far too close for her comfort. “Has she woken up yet?”

    “She twitched a little while ago.” Taylor thought she felt a shrug. “But I think she's still asleep.”

    “Hmm.” This time, his voice came from mere inches away, so that she felt his breath on her face. Forewarned, she didn't flinch when someone took hold of her eyelid and lifted it. Instead, she kept her eye rolled up into her head as far as it would go. The urge to look at Jack was almost irresistible, but she held her impulses in check. I could kick him in the groin and break free of Burnscar, but then I've still got to get past Bonesaw with no powers.

    “Damn.” He let her eyelid drop. She heard his footsteps as he moved away; carefully, she let the eye close, then cracked the other one open just a fraction. “Hold on for a bit longer, Burnscar. When Mannequin gets back, I'll have him relieve you. Poppet, how strong was that stuff you used on her?”

    She couldn't see too well without her glasses, but as far as she could tell, he was talking to Bonesaw. When the little girl replied, her voice had a defensive tone to it. “It's not my fault, Mr Jack! She's really skinny, and her body prob'ly can't metabolise it all at once. Plus, I gave her the prions. Maybe she's susceptible to stuff like that without her powers to help her out.”

    Prions. They're what took my powers away. Taylor vaguely recalled reading about prions. Badly folded proteins, or something like that. Bonesaw made some that screw with powers. It didn't surprise her, not at all. Some of the diminutive sociopath's previous exploits had been almost as inventive. Though I'll bet on Amy against her any day.

    “Attention, Samaritans.” Jack was talking into her radio again. “You've got one minute before I start carving up Ladybug and … ”

    “He says his name's Greg, Mr Jack,” offered Bonesaw brightly.

    “... and Greg,” Jack Slash concluded. “Forty-five seconds, now. Better hurry.”

    <><>​

    “ … now. Better hurry.”

    Emma chose not to answer; instead, she turned down her radio. Behind her, the others did the same. Plan A was simple; sneak close enough to rescue Taylor. If that didn't work, there was still Plan B, C and D to work with. Radios had more than one frequency, after all.

    With Madison manipulating air currents to cut down the noise of her footsteps, Emma crept closer. All she needed was one good look at the scene. Movement at the corner of her eye drew her attention. A spider-bot had scuttled into view across the corridor, its beady little eyes fixed on them.

    Oh shit, gotta get rid of it. Her hair lashed out in an attempt to grab the offending little construct, but it leaped back out of the way.

    “There they are, Mr Jack!”

    Emma's head whipped around at the sound of Bonesaw's voice. Well, there goes Plan A. Within seconds, three more spider-bots had come into view, all of them watching Emma and Madison. If we do anything hostile, Jack'll probably kill Taylor. Because he's that much of an asshole.

    “Yeah,” she sighed. “Here we are.” She stepped forward, with Madison following.

    It was a wide area in the corridor between classrooms. Jack Slash stood foursquare, cheerfully triumphant, with his fists planted on his hips. In each hand was a wicked-looking knife. Not far from him, Burnscar supported a limp – and unmasked – Taylor from behind, holding her arms immobilised. In front of Jack was someone whom Emma recognised, and wished that she didn't. Fucking Greg Veder. What's he doing here?

    Greg was kneeling, with his arms bound behind him. A gag was fastened around his face; on each shoulder sat a spider-bot, looking like particularly baroque military decorations. Bonesaw stood beside Greg, her innocently cute expression all the more horrifying when Emma considered the current surroundings.

    “And just in time,” Jack declared. He frowned, tilting his head. “But that's not all of you, is it? Where are the people who had the shotguns in the stairwell? You ruined my poppet's fun.”

    “And you killed all my spider-bots,” Bonesaw put in, looking more than a little unhappy. “I spent ages making those, and you killed them. How could you?”

    Maybe Plan B, then. “Well, it's kind of expected, isn't it?” asked Emma, trying for a sincere tone. “You make them and send them against us, and we destroy them. It's good practice for both of us.” She surveyed the scene, looking for a loophole that she could exploit against the remnants of the Nine. Reluctantly, she abandoned Plan B. Taylor was still in extreme danger if she or Madison attacked now; if she had simply been tied up, a rescue or attack may have been feasible. As it was, Jack Slash specialised in the big fuck-you; if they tried anything overt right now, Taylor would be the first to die. And even if he chose not to, Burnscar could immolate her at a moment's notice. Okay, let's go with Plan C.

    “This is the last time I'm going to remind you who you should be paying attention to,” Jack warned her. One of his knives drifted around almost casually; across the corridor, plaster dust kicked out of a groove in the wall that ended right next to Taylor's face. A trickle of blood ran down her cheek, while a hank of her hair drifted to the ground. “Shotguns. Who?”

    Shit. Sorry, Taylor.

    Taylor jolted in Burnscar's hold, and whimpered in pain. “Uh, what's going on?” She took a deep breath and looked around. “Oh, God. I've lost my powers. Oh, God.” The pleading in her tone was obvious to all.

    To Emma, it was as fake as a three-dollar bill. We've practised scenarios where we don't use our powers at all. The Taylor I know wouldn't panic over this. She's putting it on. Excellent.

    She drew a breath and looked Jack in the eye. “PRT personnel. Director Piggot loaned them to us.” She hoped that he believed her, or at least that he believed that she thought that he believed her. All her reading on Jack Slash, as brain-bleach inducing as it was, had indicated something very specific about him; he was all about the mind games. The man liked to fuck with peoples' heads. Which could lead to him pretending to accept a lie.

    Silver blurred in the air as he spun both knives in his hands. “You know,” he mused lazily, “I'm not so certain that I believe you. PRT would use containment foam. Or, more likely, they'd come in with a big attack instead of letting a bunch of little girls do their job for them.”

    “Fine,” she said tightly. “It's a union rep, a divorce lawyer and an accountant. Taking time out of their busy day to come and shoot skeet. Does that suit you better?” She knew she was treading a razor's edge here, but it was Taylor's life on the line.

    Unexpectedly, he laughed out loud. “Now, that sounds like the beginning of a joke. 'A union rep, a divorce lawyer and an accountant walk into a school'.” He raised his eyebrows, tilting his head with a grin. “Now, if you don't call them up on the radio and tell them that Ladybug's going to meet with a very bad end if they don't come down and give themselves up … well, Ladybug's going to meet with a very bad end.”

    “I can do that,” Emma agreed carefully. “We're using code-names over the radio, in case anyone's listening in. Just so you know.” She took hold of the radio in her pocket and pressed the send button. As she lifted it out of her pocket, she turned it so that this wasn't obvious.

    “That's fine,” Jack said easily. “I'll be listening. And if I hear anything that I don't like, then Ladybug loses an eye, or worse. Just so you know.” The knives did that silver-blur thing again.

    “Understood.” Emma raised the radio to her mouth. “Sparx calling all personnel. Delta Hotel, Alpha Bravo, Papa Charlie, do you copy?” Plan C is a go.

    Danny Hebert's voice came back over the radio almost immediately. “Delta Hotel here. The others are with me. Status?”

    “Ladybug confirmed hostage but not injured,” Emma reported tiredly. “One other hostage also confirmed, a student at the school. Both hostages are under threat. You are to lay down your weapons and give yourselves up immediately. That is an order. Do you understand?” Please understand.

    “Papa Charlie here,” replied Rod Clements. “Surrender? Really?”

    “Confirmed, Papa Charlie,” Emma said firmly. “I meant what I said.” She didn't let any of her elation show on her face. Yes. They got it.

    “That's good enough,” Jack told her. “Now, drop the radio. You too, Aerodyne. Don't want you saying anything untoward.” He gestured with the knife toward Taylor; Emma dropped the radio, hoping that it wouldn't break, but not overly worried. We can get more. Beside her, Madison did the same. Emma noted that the petite brunette was doing a great job of keeping her worry under control and letting her do all the talking, which was exactly what she needed to do.

    “Can I dose them now, Mr Jack?” asked Bonesaw excitedly. “And don't forget, you said I could take my pick.” Emma stole a glance at her; the blonde's eyes were glittering with excitement.

    “Certainly, poppet,” Jack said magnanimously. “You two, hold still. If I see a hair tendril or feel a gust of air out of place, your friend over there will be steak tartare before you can blink.” He sounded almost offensively smug.

    Emma didn't blame him, but then, he didn't have all the facts in hand. On the other hand, 'dosing' them sounded ominous. Taylor's lost her powers. Whatever it is, it'll probably do the same to us. Hopefully, Amy should be able to fix it. She had to believe it.

    At some unseen signal, two of the spider-bots scuttled up to Emma and Madison. Emma did her best not to react in disgust as one of them scaled her body, its metal claws latching on to her costume. She wanted badly to seize it with her hair and immolate the thing, but the twofold threat to Taylor was too great. It reached her face and a small hatch opened; a moment later, it spewed a grey powder directly at her mouth and nose. Instinctively, she held her breath.

    “Mr Jack, they're not breathing it,” complained Bonesaw. “Make them breathe it.” She sounded like a petulant child whose friends weren't playing fair with her. Emma wanted to make her light up like the Fourth of July.

    “Last warning,” Jack said, his knife moving in Taylor's direction again.

    I really am getting sick of the way he keeps using her for leverage. Emma grimaced, then opened her mouth and inhaled. The grey powder tasted liked … well, like dust. She coughed, once. A moment later, she realised that her tendrils had all retracted to her normal hair length. Fuck. I really hope that Amy can fix this shit.

    The spider-bots scuttled down and away; unpowered and helpless, Emma stood before Jack Slash. “What now?” she asked.

    “Now …” he began.

    Before he could get farther than that, he was interrupted by a high-pitched voice. “Hey!”

    All three villains looked around; at the far end of the corridor stood a diminutive figure in teal and green. She waved, then held up something in her hand. “Guess what?”

    Jack began to turn away from Emma, his knife coming up. Emma took one long stride forward, her hand darting into her pocket; it came out with an extendible baton. Snapping it out, she brought it down on Jack's wrist. Bone popped, the knife dropped from that hand, and Jack Slash let out a cry at the unexpected pain.

    Fire sparked from the lighter in Vista's hand; space warped, and the lighter flame leaped up and bathed a fire detector. A second later, it began spraying water, as did all the other sprinkler heads down the hallway. Emma was soaked to the bone in an instant, but she didn't care. Jack Slash turned toward her, his careless facade gone. It had been replaced in an instant by Slash's true face, that of the unrepentant mass murderer.

    Out of the corner of her eye, Emma saw Taylor slam Burnscar against the wall. The tall brunette then brought her head back hard against the pyrokinetic's face. Blood running from her nose, Burnscar tried to generate flame in one hand, but it was defeated by the downpour before it even began. Taylor was taller than the woman holding her, and didn't know the meaning of 'quit'; she slammed Burnscar against the wall again. This time, the grip on her arms loosened, and she pulled free.

    “Bitch!” Jack Slash brought his knife up, but all he cut was Emma's coat. She felt the pressure of his projected blade on her stomach, but the costume that Taylor had woven for her was proof against the knife edge. And then she brought the baton back up, intending to take him under the jaw, but he was too quick. He stepped back, waving the knife in a figure-eight; only her arm, interposed at the last moment, saved her from a slash across the face.

    With an ugly grin, he half-turned toward where Taylor was still struggling with Burnscar. His injured arm was raised to defend himself, and Emma knew that he could attack Taylor before she could disable him …

    “Down!” bellowed her father's voice. She obeyed instantly, dropping to the floor. Shotguns thundered from behind her; Jack Slash staggered, dropping the knife. It bounced on the hard floor, unheard against the ringing in her ears. Danny stepped past her, his face set in pale lines. He fired as fast as he could rack the slide, the muzzle of his weapon barely four feet from Jack's chest. Jack went over backward, striking the floor hard.

    Covering her ears with her hands, Emma turned her head to see what was going on. Across the corridor, Taylor was also crouched on the floor. Above her, a large bloodstain was even now being washed off the wall. Burnscar lay bonelessly on the floor, more blood spreading out from her prone body. Emma's father racked the slide and fired another shot, making absolutely certain that the villain would never get back up again.

    Unwilling to see Burnscar's head sprayed across the wall, Emma switched her eyes forward, to where Jack Slash lay on the ground. One hand held his chest, while the other scrabbled feebly for his dropped knife. Danny Hebert put his booted foot on the villain's throat, then pressed the barrel of his shotgun to the man's left eye. Jack's other eye opened wide, and he opened his mouth to say something. Danny pulled the trigger. The blast didn't make Jack Slash's head disintegrate as Burnscar's had, reinforcing Emma's suspicion that Bonesaw had worked on him, but blood and brain matter spurted up from the ruined socket, to be washed away a moment later.

    Dazed from the repeated gunshots in an enclosed space, Emma watched Danny safe his shotgun and sling it over his shoulder. Gradually, she sat up and looked around. Taylor was just getting to her feet, shaking her head in a way that Emma recognised. She was more or less deaf, too. Moving over to Emma, she offered a hand up; Emma accepted. Wiggling her little finger in her ear didn't accomplish much except getting the inside of her ear wet; the ringing in her ears continued unabated. For a mercy, the fire sprinklers shut down around that time, leaving puddles everywhere.

    Bonesaw was down, but she hadn't been shot. Madison stood over her, with a hand outstretched toward the young mass murderer. If she squinted, Emma could see the vague outline of one of Madison's air fields. From the colour of Bonesaw's face, she thought she had an idea of what was going on. The little girl's lips were cherry red, a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning. Emma had no idea how long Madison had been asphyxiating the murderous little munchkin, but she had to give the girl props; to pull something like that off under Jack Slash's nose was impressive.

    The four spider-bots around her were equally immobile, while the two that had been on Greg Veder were now in pieces on the floor beyond. Greg himself had his eyes closed; Emma couldn't be sure, but he seemed to be moving his lips in prayer behind his gag. Nor could she be certain that the damp patch spreading over Greg's crotch was all due to the water sprinklers. Mr Clements is a really good shot. Emma knew that he used slugs while the other two were using double-ought buckshot.

    Danny lifted his radio and spoke into it. Emma turned to Taylor and made the hand-sign for You okay? Taylor signed back in the affirmative, and added a thumbs-up. Shortly thereafter, Athena and Panacea emerged from the same corridor, along with Vista. Athena looked at the girls, then pointed at Taylor and said something. Emma got her attention and signed, We're deaf. Athena grinned and replied Sorry, didn't get that. Emma gave her a hand signal that was not in their official repertoire; Athena laughed. Panacea went over to Taylor and held out a hand. Taylor tugged off a glove and gripped it. Moments later, they were done; Panacea signed to Emma, How about you? Emma already had a glove off; she held out her hand for Panacea to grab.

    The first thing that came back was her hearing. The fire-alarm bell assaulted her ears, almost making her wish for deafness again. “How are your powers?” asked Panacea.

    “Uh, I breathed in that powder and they went away,” Emma told her with a frown. “Is that permanent?”

    It was Panacea's turn to frown. “I was worried about that. Bonesaw must have created prions to screw with your powers. I can see the effects in your brain. Ladybug's, too.”

    “What about Aerodyne?” asked Emma worriedly. She turned to Madison. “You breathed them in, too.”

    Madison chuckled but didn't turn away from Bonesaw. “Yeah, but I breathed them straight back out. I control what goes into my lungs, not her.”

    “That's my girl,” Rod Clements said warmly. He looked at Panacea. “So, the brain, huh?”

    “Yeah, the brain.” Panacea looked at the floor.

    Emma knew what they were getting at. The brain was one thing Amy didn't tamper with. She turned to Panacea. “Whatever you choose, I'm good with it,” she said. Almost to her surprise, she realised that it was the truth. It would be a hell of a jar to no longer be an active member of the Samaritans, but there was more than one way to help people. And if she had to go through it with anyone, she was kind of glad it was Taylor. They'd been best friends forever, after all.

    "Me, too," Taylor added immediately. She bent down and picked up her helmet, then retrieved her cut-off hair. "No sense in leaving clues, after all." Carefully, she fitted the helmet back on her head, tucking her hair up under it. The strap had been cut, so she let that dangle free. It was good to have the goggles back in place over her eyes.

    Rod Clements nodded in approval. “Now, what do we do with her?” He pointed at Bonesaw.

    “I know what I'd like to do to her,” said Danny darkly. He took the shotgun from his shoulder and flicked the safety off.

    “We discussed this,” Athena said firmly. “Too much chance that she's left a final fuck-you somewhere in her body.”

    Emma nodded. “I think the best idea is to clean her up, then see what we want to do then.” She wanted to see the last member of the Nine dead as well, but she also knew that doing this wouldn't get her powers back. Catching Panacea's eye, she tilted her head. “You okay with this?”

    Panacea glanced at Athena, who grinned and gave a slight shrug. She turned back to Emma. “Sure. Let's do this.”

    Stepping up to Bonesaw, Panacea reached in through the field and placed her hand on the girl's forehead. “Christ,” she said. “She's full of fucking pathogens. And implants. How the hell did she even install half this stuff?”

    “Fucking Tinkers?” hazarded Emma, making her father give her a sharp glance. She shrugged and grinned sheepishly. “Well, it's true.”

    He sighed. “I wish you weren't right.”

    “Wait a minute,” said Rod Clements, gesturing at the still-bound Greg, whose eyes were now following them around. “Isn't anyone going to untie him?”

    “No.” Taylor's voice was firm. “That idiot hid in a closet when we evacuated the school. He nearly got me killed. He nearly got you guys killed. Let him stay tied up a bit longer.”

    “Well, at least maybe we should ungag him,” Emma's father suggested.

    Emma shook her head, recalling how Greg could blather on. “No, we really shouldn't. Let the PRT untie him.”

    “Screw the PRT,” Danny decided. “Pretty sure that endangering others during a cape attack is a chargeable offence. We're getting the cops in on this.” The look he shot at Greg made the boy flinch back. He stepped closer to the wide-eyed boy, hefting the shotgun. “And if you've got any thoughts about telling anyone, ever, about Ladybug's true identity, just remember what happened to the last guy who threatened her well-being.” He racked the slide for emphasis. “Got me?”

    Greg's eyes rolled back into his head, and he slumped down in a faint. Emma's father nodded with approval. “Well done, Danny. I'm gonna have to remember how you said that, for when Emma starts dating.”

    “Dad!” protested Emma, but her heart wasn't in it. “You wouldn't threaten a boy with a shotgun, would you?”

    “Figure he'd only have to do it once per boy,” Rod Clements put in, then became all business. “Who wants to call the PRT and let them know it's all over?”

    “I'll take care of that,” Vista offered. “I'm the liaison, after all. Who wants to come with me and get Mannequin?” She pointed down the corridor.

    “I'll do that,” offered Emma. “My hair … oh. Crap.”

    Taylor grimaced. “Yeah. Crap. It's weird, not having bugs to call on.”

    “I've got an idea for dealing with that,” Amy said without looking up from Bonesaw's prone body. “I'll see if it works when you get back.”

    <><>​

    Mannequin was still at the bottom of the steps where Vista had left him, his carapace rocking very slightly as he tried to move his vastly reduced arms and legs. As Emma looked down at him, she tried hard not to smile, and failed. She put her foot on the carapace and pushed gently; he slid across the smooth floor with almost no effort. “Frictionless coating,” she noted. “Looks like Athena was right again. I doubt the glue bugs would've done anything at all.”

    “Yeah,” Taylor agreed. She gave him a shove as well; the carapace slid across the floor, stopping only when it struck the wall. “Huh. That's really frictionless.”

    Vista nodded. “Yeah, he slid all the way down the stairs when I did this to him.”

    Emma shared a glance with Taylor. “Are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

    Taylor's eyes lit up behind her goggles. “If you're thinking toboggan, hell yes.”

    Vista looked from one to the other. “You can't be serious. Either of you.”

    “Come on, Vista.” Emma's grin was contagious. “When was the last time you used a supervillain to go tobogganing on?”

    “And it'll get him back there more quickly,” Taylor pointed out. “So it's for a good cause.”

    Vista rolled her eyes behind her visor. “I can't believe I'm younger than you guys.”

    “So, is that a yes or a no?” Taylor sounded hopeful.

    For a long moment, Vista stared at her sternly. Then the facade cracked and she grinned broadly. “Sure. But I get to steer.”

    A few moments later, Vista had elongated the carapace a little, and adjusted the outside shape so that it would be stable. She knelt up at the end that they had decided was the front, which was in fact where his 'head' was, hanging on to his arms in the absence of better handgrips. Behind her crouched Taylor, holding tightly to her waist.

    “Ready?” asked Emma from her place behind the makeshift toboggan.

    “Ready,” chorused Vista and Taylor.

    “Okay, here we go!” Emma took hold of the handles – extensions of what had been Mannequin's feet – that protruded from the 'rear' of the Mannequin carapace and started pushing it, harder and harder. It slid with barely any resistance at all; in seconds, she was running as fast as she could. When she figured she couldn't get it going any faster, she leaped forward, landing on her knees behind Taylor. Vista took over then, raising the floor in a gentle wave to keep them going as fast as she could.

    “Wooohooo!” Taylor started whooping first, but Vista and Emma quickly joined in. Shrieking like banshees, clinging on for dear life as Vista negotiated the corridor turns, the three girls whipped through the school on perhaps the most unconventional mode of transport known to mankind.

    <><>​

    Danny looked around, then stared as the three girls rocketed into view on … something that was white and shaped like a thick toboggan, shouting at the tops of their lungs. As they came near, it slowed a little and the girls tumbled off and lay on their backs, laughing hysterically. The thing they had been riding on continued on until it hit a wall and stopped. He stared at them, then at their conveyance.

    His voice was plaintive. “Do I want to know, or am I going to regret asking?”

    Emma sat up, still giggling madly. “Mannequin tobogganing. It's a once in a lifetime experience. How could we pass it up?”

    “Oh, you didn't.” Athena wandered over to look at what was going on. “Oh, man. You did. You really did. Holy shit, you turned Mannequin into a bobsled. Okay, that's … fuck. That's insane. I love it.” She leaned against the wall and started giggling as well. “I love this team. This sort of shit never happened in the Undersiders.”

    “How long's he going to be helpless like that?” asked Alan practically. “We don't want him suddenly popping back into normal size again.”

    “No, true,” agreed Vista, climbing to her feet. Tears of mirth were trickling down from her visor. “I can hold him indefinitely. Once the PRT gets here, we can just cut off his arms and legs. He's helpless then.” She looked around. “Oh, you covered their faces. That's a lot better. Thanks.”

    Danny shrugged. “I didn't much want to keep looking at them, either.” Jack Slash's shirt, cut and torn in two, had served to cover the faces of the dead villains. “How long till the PRT gets here?”

    Vista shrugged. “Five minutes. The Director agreed to stay back, but not all that far.” Her gaze went to where Panacea was still kneeling by Bonesaw. The blonde's lips were back to their normal colouring. “What's happened with her?”

    “Yeah, that's the current problem.” Athena put her arm over Vista's shoulders. “Panacea got rid of all the diseases, and sterilised everything that came out of her, but she says that Bonesaw's got mental issues all over the place, including a massive case of Stockholm Syndrome.”

    “Oh. Ew.” Vista stared at the child villain. “So she wasn't always like this?”

    Danny shook his head sombrely. “From what we can tell, Jack Slash kidnapped her and twisted her mind to act like he did. That Master effect we speculated on, remember?”

    Vista frowned. “And Panacea doesn't do brains.” Danny could see her mulling it over. While looking up all the resources they could use to train the girls, he and Alan had heard many horror stories of heroes being Mastered and forced to fight against their comrades. If Jack Slash could create such a Master effect over time, then Bonesaw was as much a victim as any of the people she'd killed and maimed. Worse, if the effect lasted after his death, there was no simple way of removing the mental problems that were forcing her into sociopathic behaviour.

    “The trouble,” Amy put in unexpectedly, “is that she's the ultimate surgeon. She could save as many lives as she's taken. If we just kill her, that goes away. Justice is done, but at a cost to the future. On the other hand, we could kill her here and now, with no danger to the public, and nobody would care.” She looked at Danny. “The big question is, should we?”

    Danny found his eyes drifting to the corpse of Jack Slash. The man had been a stone killer and an unrepentant monster. He had not been forced into villainy; from what Danny could tell, he had leaped feet first into it, and revelled in his excesses. Danny didn't regret killing him for one second; if he had to do it again, he would not hesitate.

    But Jack Slash was not Bonesaw. One was a grown man; the other, a little girl. Younger than Taylor, even. One had chosen his path, while the other had been forced into it.

    And yet, she was a monster. A murderer, hundreds of times over.

    He could see no right path.

    “That,” he admitted, “is a … really good question.”



    End of Part Twenty-Seven

    Part Twenty-Eight
     
    Last edited: Aug 16, 2018
  29. Threadmarks: Part Twenty-Eight: A New Challenge
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    One More Trigger

    Part Twenty-Eight: A New Challenge

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



    Monday, April 25, 2011

    Danny

    “Bonesaw aside,” Danny stated, “there remains the other problem. Ladybug and Sparx. Specifically, their lack of powers.” He looked at the two girls who'd been sisters in all but name for more than ten years, then at Panacea. “You said you had an idea for fixing it.”

    “I did and I do,” Amy said. “I'm just going to need a sample of the stuff she used to take away your powers.” She looked around at the wreckage of the spider-bots. “... which isn't here,” she said, sounding slightly irritated. “I'm not going to tell you how to do your jobs, but cracking these skittering little assholes open with shotguns then dousing them with water is not the best way to preserve any prions they might be carrying. Just saying.”

    “Upstairs,” Danny said, his mind reaching back to the turkey shoot they'd had in the roof access stairwell. “We blew apart a dozen or more of the suckers. Some of them got inside the door to the roof access. No sprinklers, very little air movement.”

    Panacea smiled. “Perfect. You've got this under control?”

    Danny nodded. “We're going to make a strategic withdrawal so the PRT doesn't have too many headaches to worry about. See you at home?”

    Taylor stepped over to him as Amy headed off down the corridor. “See you at home, Dad,” she said softly, then gave him a hug. “Don't worry. Amy knows what she's doing.”

    "You'll excuse me if I worry anyway," Danny replied firmly. "It's my right and privilege as a father." He gathered in Alan and Rob by eye. "Let's go, guys."

    "I'll walk you guys out," Vista decided. "It'll save a whole heap of trouble if the PRT doesn't end up detaining you on suspicion." She frowned. "And I wouldn't be totally surprised if I found out that we have information leaks. Which, given the number of people this team has handled pretty roughly, might just put targets on your backs. Which nobody wants."

    "I'm about ninety-five percent sure I could name some leakers if you gave me access to your secure employee files, including their financial records," Lisa offered cheerfully. From the smirk on her face, she didn't expect the offer to be taken seriously. However, Danny didn't think she was totally joking.

    Vista snorted. "Yeah, I do that, and about three seconds later the Director kicks me to the curb. No thanks; I like being in the Wards." Humour glinted in her eye. "Not that they'll be totally pleased with me, once I get back to them with my new training ideas." She turned to the three adults. “If you'll come with me, gentlemen?”

    <><>​

    Taylor

    Taylor watched them leave, then turned to Lisa. “So, you think Amy's got a chance at fixing our powers?” Reflexively, she once more reached for her bugs, but they just weren't there. The lack was … disconcerting, not unlike being deprived of one of her senses. Which, in a very real way, it was. Her bugs hadn't been the best at giving her visual or audible information, but they were second to none at scouting out remote areas and telling her exactly what was in them.

    Emma, on the other hand, kept glancing up toward her hairline and grimacing very slightly. Nobody but Taylor and probably Lisa would even have been able to tell, but Lisa was stupidly perceptive for stuff like that, and Taylor had known Emma since forever.

    With a side-glance at Emma, Lisa gave Taylor a very slight nod. Yeah, she's feeling weird too. “She definitely thinks so. I mean, I'm not the Tinker Bonesaw is, and I've only got a moderate handle on Amy's powers, but I think she can do it.”

    Moderate, hah. Taylor would've bet a large amount of money that Lisa had a better understanding of Amy's powers than anyone except Amy herself, and even Amy wasn't a guarantee. Heading over to Emma, Taylor put her arm around her best friend's shoulders and pulled her in close for a one-armed hug. “Hey, you hear that?” she asked. “If Lisa and Amy both think there's a good chance of this working, it's pretty well a given, yeah?”

    “Yeah, I heard.” Emma gave her a wan smile, then snaked her arm around Taylor and squeezed her in return. “It just feels weird, you know? I've had these powers for ages now, and it feels like I've just lost a limb.”

    Taylor nodded sympathetically. “I know what you mean. For me it's a whole sense, like I just went deaf or blind or something.” She leaned her head against Emma's. “That was the scariest thing for me. Not wondering if you were gonna save me, but the possibility of never being part of the team again.”

    A pair of arms encircled them both from behind. “Well, I have faith in Amy,” Lisa said firmly. “If anyone can fix this, she can. And if it can be fixed without messing with your brains, she can do that, too.”

    It was weird that Taylor trusted Lisa implicitly in this. The girl had been a member of a villain team not so long ago, after all. Of course, they had helped capture her asshole boss and bring her around to the side of light. Or rather, she'd defected to the side of light and they'd aided and abetted her efforts. This hadn't earned them any brownie points from Director Piggot, but Vista seemed to get along with the girl, so there was that.

    Interestingly enough, the team member Lisa got along best with was Amy. Taylor and Emma had reached an unspoken accord to watch the pair in case Lisa upset the healer in any way, but the ex-villain seemed to be genuinely supportive of Amy's emotional needs. Amy was definitely more confident these days, anyway. Though perhaps some of that was due to the training sessions the Dad Brigade still put the team through on a regular occasion.

    “Oh, God, never mention those again,” Lisa groaned. “I'm still sore from the last time Mr Clements peppered my butt with those paintballs.”

    Taylor looked at her sharply. “I never said a word,” she pointed out. “How did you know what I was thinking?” Then she shook her head as Lisa began to grin. “Okay, never mind. My bad. Do you mind not doing that? It's very disconcerting.”

    “But it's funny as hell when I do it to the bad guys,” Lisa reminded her. “And I don't recall you complaining when I figured out what Jack Slash was up to, and that Burnscar was going to be with him.”

    “Figured out, hah,” Emma retorted. “I know what you did there. You're good, but not even you can read the future. You called Dinah Alcott, and she told you what to expect.” She smirked as Lisa stuck her tongue out at her.

    “So that's how you did it,” Madison said in tones of enlightenment. “I was wondering.” Giving Lisa a mock glare, she wrinkled her nose at the blonde. “And here I thought you'd pulled off some bullshit stunt of power-trickery.”

    “It was a bullshit stunt of power-trickery,” Lisa protested. “My power told me that she'd be able to help us, and it even filled me in on the questions I needed to ask. She's got a limited number of answers per day she can give, you know.”

    “Huh,” mused Taylor. “It was pretty cool, I guess.” She looked around as Vista stepped back into the room. “Everything good?”

    “They're away safely,” Vista confirmed. “PRT will be here in just a minute.” The sound of running shoes scuffing on stairs echoed down the corridor. “And that would be Amy.”

    “Oh, good,” Emma said with evident relief. “I really don't want the PRT to see me like this.”

    “You just like to freak them out with your tentacle hair monster impression,” Lisa deadpanned, startling a snort of amusement from Emma.

    “Mayybe?” the redhead replied, but she was obviously a little more relaxed about the whole thing. Taylor chalked another win up to the ex-villain's perceptiveness.

    “Yeah, well, that's why I went with the theme I did for my costume,” Taylor said. “I'd be way too scary if I wore something that made me look all dark and brooding.”

    “Yes, yes, you would,” agreed Vista, a grin lurking on her face. “You're scary enough as you are. Trust me, you don't need the help.”

    Taylor was still searching for a proper response to that when Amy rejoined them. “Oh, hey,” Emma greeted the biokinetic. “How'd it go?”

    “Not great,” Amy said, her expression downcast. “I found enough prions to fix one of you, but not both.” She grimaced. “Sorry.”

    Without hesitation, Taylor pointed at Emma. “Her,” she said. With a certain sense of bemusement, she realised that Emma was pointing back in her direction, and had said exactly the same thing. It hurt to do it—knowing she could get her powers back, but only at the expense of Emma's powers—but she opened her mouth to insist that Emma be the one to receive the treatment.

    Only for Amy's face to contort and break into a broad grin. “I'm kidding,” she said. “Wow, geez. Do you two need to get a room or something?”

    The sense of shock that washed through Taylor's chest and stomach had an almost physical impact to it. Her face tingled with the relief that followed hard on its heels. “What the … Amy, you … you …” She stared at Lisa accusingly. “You knew! Why didn't you tell us she was pulling our legs?”

    Lisa smirked. “Because it was funny,” she said, obviously holding back laughter. “The looks on your faces when she pulled the reveal … that was classic.”

    “Asshole.” Taylor rolled her eyes, then turned to Amy. “Maybe you're the one who needs glasses. Emma and me are like sisters, and that's it.”

    Amy's reply was cut short by the sounds of boots coming along the corridor. Shedding the humour as if it had never happened, she cleared her throat and stepped toward Taylor and Emma. Licking her finger, she held it out. “The cure's in my saliva,” she said quietly.

    Before she could think too hard about what she was doing, Taylor swiped her finger across Amy's and put it in her mouth. A moment later, Emma did the same. “You're sure this'll work …” began Emma, then stopped. “Whoa …” she breathed, as her hair began to grow out again.

    Whoa indeed. Taylor felt an unfolding in her brain as the presence of the bugs began to impinge on her sensorium once more. First one, then ten, then a thousand, then all of the millions and millions of bugs of all kinds in Brockton Bay. Every single one of them was within her purview, under her control. Those created or enhanced by Amy had a certain spark to them, but the rest were just as clear to her.

    She wiped the growing smile off of her face as Vista returned. Her bugs had already warned her that the younger girl wasn't alone, and from the messages her bugs were sending back, it wasn't hard to tell who was there. A moment later, Armsmaster stepped around the corner, followed by several PRT troopers. The troopers were all armed with both containment foam sprayers and rifles. Taylor's bugs confirmed her suspicion that there were a lot more troopers, and people who seemed to be in costume rather than ordinary clothes or uniforms around the perimeter of the school.

    “Hi, Armsmaster,” Emma greeted the local head of the Protectorate. “Jack Slash and Burnscar didn't give us a real choice, so they died. Bonesaw, we managed to take alive. They're all yours.”

    “Sparx,” the armoured hero noted, giving her a polite nod. “Ladybug. Aerodyne. Panacea. Athena. You're all well?”

    Taylor shrugged. “I had a knife at my throat for a bit, but …” She trailed off as Armsmaster stopped paying attention to her. Going over to the bodies, he used the tip of his halberd to move the remains of Jack Slash's shirt aside from their ruined faces. When he looked back at her, his lips were compressed tightly together. "What?" she asked.

    “What did this?” asked Armsmaster, his voice somewhat harder. He leaned closer, examining the wrecked eyesocket and the shotgun wounds Danny had left in the serial killer's chest and stomach. The Dad Brigade had of course policed up their spent shells while she and the others had been collecting Mannequin. It was just another way to keep the PRT guessing. “This is not indicative of any of your powers. In fact, I would strongly suspect that he's been shot multiple times at close range. Twelve-gauge shotgun, double-ought buck.”

    Emma leaned against the wall, crossing one leg over the other and folding her arms loosely. At this extremely obvious silent message—I'm not telling you shit—Taylor hid a smile. “Well, you're the expert in firearms. I've never owned one in my life.” Which was absolutely true. Her father owned the shotgun, not Emma.

    Armsmaster's tightened a little more as he turned to Taylor. “Ladybug, who shot Jack Slash and Burnscar?”

    Taylor shrugged. “Does it matter? They're dead.” She indicated the still-bound Greg Veder. “Instead of talking about the patently obvious, how about you deal with this moron? He's the one who decided to sneak back into the school, and damn near upset the whole operation.”

    “Yes, Vista told us about him. In some detail.” From the tone of Armsmaster's voice, Vista had been particularly insistent that they do something about Greg. The armoured cape turned to look down at the unconscious teen. “What did you do to him?”

    “Nothing.” Taylor thought about shrugging again, but decided against it. “I think he fainted when he realised how badly he screwed up.” She took a step forward. “Because of him, I was captured and held hostage by Jack Slash. If we hadn't had a contingency plan for just this possibility, things may have turned out very badly for everyone involved.” She stared directly into the opaque visor. “I'm told there are laws on the books for people who interfere in operations like this. I expect the PRT to prosecute him to the full extent of the law, if only because a Ward was involved and thereby placed in danger.”

    As she spoke, he'd been opening his mouth, but shut it again at the mention of Vista. After a moment, he nodded. “I'll brief the Director accordingly.”

    “Brief me about what?” Director Piggot limped into sight, followed by several PRT troopers. “Hello, Sparx, Ladybug, Aerodyne.” A general nod in the direction of Lisa and Amy was the remainder of her greeting.

    “Director Piggot, you agreed to stay back out of the school.” Armsmaster's voice was neutral, though Taylor thought she picked up a reproving tone.

    “Until it was cleared,” she retorted. “It's been cleared. Between the Samaritans, you, Velocity and our own troops, this school is as secure as anything can get.” She looked dispassionately down at Greg. “This is the idiot who ran into a combat zone and put people in danger?”

    Emma straightened up from the wall and stepped forward. “That's him. We were just telling Armsmaster that he could've gotten Ladybug, or even everyone on the team, killed. Can we count on the PRT to see him prosecuted, or are we going to have to do it ourselves?”

    Piggot shook her head, a scowl twisting her face. “This sort of thing gets troopers killed. The PRT holds a low opinion of it. Mine is even lower. Do you know his name?”

    “Veder, ma'am,” Taylor supplied. “Greg Veder. He's a student here at Winslow.”

    “Very well.” Piggot turned to one of the troopers. “Benchwell, take the young man into custody. Have someone consult with Legal to determine the charges that will be brought against him. In the meantime, untie him and give him any medical attention that he needs.” She shot a sharp glance toward Amy. “I assume he's been checked over. Why is he unconscious?”

    “He's fully healthy, apart from apparently lacking anything resembling common sense,” Amy replied snarkily. “He just fainted a few minutes ago when he realised how angry we were with him.”

    “He's waking up now,” Lisa interjected. “It was only a minor shock to the system, after all.” She gave the Director a cheeky grin. “If you want to have the fun of giving him the good news, feel free.”

    As Benchwell knelt down behind Greg and began to free his hands, the teen opened his eyes and looked around. “Oh, God,” he groaned. “Where am I? What's going on?”

    For a moment, Taylor thought the Director was going to stay back out of the way, but the heavy-set woman stepped forward. “Mr Veder,” she said bluntly. “You're in the custody of the PRT until we can contact your next of kin and inform them of the charges that we will be laying against you.”

    “Charges?” Greg's voice was faint. “What charges?”

    “Criminal charges accruing from your deliberate interference in a sanctioned cape operation against an S-class threat.” Piggot's voice was flat. “Interference that led to the endangerment of a Protectorate-affiliated team, as well as a Ward liaison to that team. Both are serious crimes.”

    With another groan, Greg's eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the floor once more. Amy crossed the distance between them and knelt beside him. “He's fine,” she reported after laying a couple of fingers on his neck. “He's just feeling a little fragile right now, is all.”

    “Good.” Piggot turned away from Greg, apparently dismissing him from her mind. Next, she bore down on Bonesaw, who was being covered by two troopers with rifles, despite being both unconscious and bound. “Why is she still alive?”

    Well, that's definitely to the point. “I, uh, I was able to take her down nonlethally,” Madison said. “We don't actually like killing.”

    “Which I suppose is a relief when it comes to a team as effective as yours.” For all the emotion in Piggot's voice, she may as well have been talking about the weather. “PRT regulations forbid the execution of a helpless prisoner, save under carefully monitored conditions. We've got to keep their rights in mind, after all.” Her mouth twisted in distaste.

    Taylor got the message loud and clear; it would've made things a lot smoother if they'd just done the deed before the PRT showed up. “Actually …” she ventured. “We talked about that. Is there any chance she can be rehabilitated?”

    Armsmaster, Director Piggot and all the PRT troopers turned their heads to stare at her incredulously. Of course, the Director's face was the only one she could see the expression on, but it was incredulous enough to make up for the ones she couldn't see. Piggot spoke for them all. “You can not be serious.”

    “Actually, she is,” Amy said, stepping forward. “I've seen the mess that's been made of Bonesaw's brain. She's got a case of Stockholm Syndrome that should really make the record books. From what we could tell, Jack Slash was a low-level Master who could literally force people to subscribe to his point of view, and to take it on as their own. Whether this Master effect will wear off after his death … that part I don't know.” She gave the Director an appealing look. “But if it does, if it's possible to bring her back from wherever she is now, she'd make an amazing surgeon who could probably save as many—”

    “If you're about to say 'lives', let me stop you right there.” Piggot leaned forward slightly. “I'll make myself perfectly clear. There is no way on God's green Earth I'm ever going authorise that girl to perform so much as an ear piercing on a living human being. No matter how much therapy she undergoes.”

    “But if she was Mastered—” began Taylor.

    “Child psychopath or Master victim, it doesn't really matter.” The Director chopped the air with her hand. “The fact remains that she's insanely dangerous, even within solitary confinement. We literally can't ever trust her again, no matter how many people declare her sane. If she's like a Simurgh victim, and the way you're describing seems to denote several similarities, the safest thing in the world is to presume that she's a ticking time bomb and never, ever give her a chance to go off where she can hurt someone.” She raised her chin. “On the other hand, you have my profound gratitude for destroying the Nine once and for all. We'll be contacting you very soon through Vista regarding the bounties. I understand you've got a bank account set up for such monies to be paid into?”

    “We do,” confirmed Emma. As they spoke, photos had been taken of the bodies. Body-bags were unrolled and the corpses were zipped into them. The bags seemed to be more robust than the norm, but she supposed that bodies with dangerous properties were the PRT's stock in trade. Bonesaw was also bundled into such a bag which had been half-filled with containment foam, then a sprayer nozzle was inserted and the bag was filled all the way before it was sealed. “So what are you going to do with them?” She indicated Bonesaw and Mannequin's disabled carapace.

    Piggot's expression was sour. “Normally I wouldn't discuss this beforehand, but we owe you a debt of gratitude for capturing them twice, when nobody else has even succeeded in doing so once. To be honest, I don't recall the last time we had people with kill orders get captured, escape custody, then be recaptured without dying in the process. I'm going to have to consult on this one, but I think the consensus will be execution for the both of them, as soon as we can schedule it. Perhaps the Birdcage for Bonesaw, but I doubt it.”

    “Right.” Emma nodded. “Well, you seem to have this all under control. Has Vista warned you about the prion danger?”

    “She has,” Armsmaster confirmed. “We have troops sanitising all of the spider-bot remains as we speak.”

    “Uh, just so you know?” Lisa raised a finger. “The temptation to analyse the stuff and try to use it to make more would be pretty strong. After all, being able to negate the powers of any capes you decide don't deserve them? Yeah, that sounds like a dream come true, but it's probably not a good idea, because we know you've got access to it.” She grinned her fox-like grin. “We will be keeping an eye on you.”

    Piggot's lips thinned. “Noted.”

    Taylor got the impression she was irritated at more than just being spoken to so chidingly. Shit, she really intended to try to reproduce that stuff. Good call, Lisa. “So what happens now?”

    “There's still the matter of your rewards and the Veder matter to deal with,” the Director stated. “Come in to the PRT building at any time, and I'll make sure there's someone available to take your statements and deal with the banking information.” She checked her watch. “I've got many demands on my time, so I can't stay long.” Something resembling a smile crossed her face; Taylor got the impression they didn't happen often. “For now, good work. You've done the city a great service today.” Turning, she limped toward the exit.

    Armsmaster lingered. “I'd still like to know who shot Burnscar and Jack Slash. You understand, they wouldn't be in trouble. Are you hiring minions now?”

    Madison snorted, which didn't surprise Taylor. The look on her dad's face—on any of their faces—on being described as a 'minion' would be … impressive. “As if,” she said dismissively. “No minions involved here.”

    For just a moment, Armsmaster looked as though he was going to pursue the matter, but then he shook his head. “Have it your way,” he said, sounding less than thrilled. “You'll see your own way out?”

    “Count on it,” Emma assured him.

    They watched him stride away down the corridor, halberd now racked on his back. While there were still PRT troopers moving around, the six of them were temporarily left alone. Emma tilted her head toward the exit. “Come on, let's go.”

    <><>​

    Madison

    Outside the building, the PRT had set up a cordon. Obviously forewarned, the troopers waved them through. Nobody was close enough to overhear as they walked away from the school, but Madison put up a privacy shield anyway. The words that were burning to be said escaped her as soon as she had it up and running. “Wow, holy shit. Ungrateful much?”

    “Actually, not really,” mused Vista, giving Madison a quick side-hug. “Piggot's always been a cast-iron hardass, and Armsmaster's extremely … focused.” She shrugged. “I thought it went really well, actually.”

    “You realise they're almost certainly going to execute Bonesaw,” Amy pointed out. “Mannequin too, but he was a villain before he met Jack Slash. I'm pretty sure Bonesaw wasn't. I mean, aren't second chances supposed to be a thing?”

    Emma cleared her throat, looking uncomfortable. “When we first captured Bonesaw, I had a chat with her and she floated that exact same idea to me. I'm not quite sure what to think about it. On the one hand, she is by definition an absolutely top-notch surgeon. The trouble is, she's also got a long record of using those surgical skills to maim and kill people just for laughs.”

    “Or rather, for Jack Slash's laughs,” Amy interjected. “He was the influence behind the Nine for over twenty years. Now that he's dead and gone, she should be able to get out from under his shadow.” She looked at each of them in turn. “I can't affect brains, but I can tell from someone's thought patterns how they're likely to act. If Bonesaw was made safe and went through therapy, I'd be able to tell if she was still interested in Frankensteining people.”

    “Oh, I believe you,” Lisa said, hanging her arm around Amy's shoulders. “That would totally work, except for one tiny problem. They'd be willing to accept all the healing off of you but no matter what you told them, they'd refuse to accept your word on Bonesaw. And you know, to be fair, she has maimed or killed enough people to fill a small town. It's asking a lot for people to ignore all of that, you know?”

    Emma nodded. “And I have to admit, I can understand that point of view. Letting Bonesaw operate on you deliberately …” She shuddered. “Nope. Just nope.”

    “I know,” muttered Amy. “It just sucks, is all. Before I met you guys, I was …” She trailed off. “Never mind.”

    “You were what?” asked Lisa. “You know the rules we set. If you start saying something, you're expected to finish it. That way, nothing stays bottled up.”

    “Yeah, yeah.” Amy sighed. “Before I met you guys, I was scared I was going to go down the villain path sooner or later. Because I'm pretty sure my dad was a villain, and I'm trying to be a proper hero, but I was getting to the point where I was tempted to screw up healing people just so they didn't expect so much from me in the future.” She glanced at the other members of the team, as if expecting them to reject her for the admission. “I don't feel like that now, of course. But I did then.”

    “Hey, it's okay,” Emma encouraged her. “You're a valued member of the team, and we're never going to tell you what you can and can't do.”

    “And I appreciate it,” Amy said with a wan smile. “Lisa's been helping me so much, too. Anyway, I feel like I was given a second chance. I was going down a dark path, and you guys pulled me back before anything bad actually happened. The way I see it, Bonesaw got dragged down that path by Jack Slash. Doesn't she deserve a second chance too?”

    “There's something else,” Madison said, surprising herself. “Something you're not telling us. There's any number of people out there every day who'd benefit from a second chance. Most of them aren't looking at execution or the Birdcage. Why are you focusing on her in particular?”

    Lisa grinned at her. “Nicely spotted. I wasn't going to say anything, but it's up to Amy if she wants to.”

    From the look on Amy's face, she didn't want to. Which wasn't altogether surprising. As far as Madison could tell, the biokinetic was an intensely private person. Lisa had begun the work of getting her to open up and share, but there was a long way to go as yet before she was as chatty as, say, Taylor. Though that prank she played on them earlier is definitely a good sign.

    The silence hung on for a long moment, then Amy nodded. “Okay, fine,” she grumbled, though Madison got the impression she was glad to have the excuse to vent. “You all suck. I want to give Bonesaw a second chance so I can maybe take a total holiday from healing for a bit. Walk away from it altogether without feeling guilty. There's not much I can do that she can't, after all.”

    Emma blinked. “Well, I wasn't actually expecting that,” she admitted. “To become a productive member of society, sure. But not to actually take over what you do, not something I anticipated.”

    “Yeah, well, I was half-expecting her to ask us to offer Bonesaw a place on the team,” Taylor revealed. She chuckled and shrugged sheepishly as everyone stared at her. “Hey, so I got it wrong. Before you take me out the back and shoot me for even thinking it, we've already let one villain into the team so far.”

    Ex-villlain,” Lisa corrected Taylor, mock-primly. “Those days are far behind me.”

    Amy elbowed her gently in the ribs. “All of a week and a half behind you, you mean,” she said with a grin. “You make it sound like you just collected your twelve-months-without-crime pin or something.”

    Madison chuckled at the idea. “Do you think people would go for a Villain's Anonymous?” she said to Amy. “Where they sit around and talk about the crimes they've managed to avoid committing?”

    Emma burst out laughing. “Mein namen ist Kaiser,” she proclaimed in a horrific mangling of a German accent, holding one finger under her nose, and the other hand up in a straight-armed salute. “I am ein supervillain, undt I am also ein Nazi asshole.”

    “I'm sorry, Kaiser,” Taylor said with a giggle of her own. “Nazi Assholes Anonymous is down the hall.”

    “Look for … the door … with the … swastika on it,” gasped Vista, before she leaned against Madison, helpless with laughter.

    Madison grinned broadly, though she managed to avoid laughing. “You guys are idiots,” she said fondly.

    “Nope,” Lisa snarked. “We're Samaritans. Says so, right on the tin.”

    Meeting Amy's eyes over Vista's shoulder, Madison shared a wry glance with her. In unison, they rolled their eyes. For some reason, this made Lisa burst out laughing as well.

    <><>​

    Half an Hour Later

    Barnes Household

    Taylor

    “Well, that was a thing.” Taylor, now bereft of her costume, lounged back in a comfortable armchair. Emma perched on the arm of the same chair, while Amy and Lisa shared one of the two sofas and Madison sat on the arm of Missy's chair. She didn't want to move, ever again. The weariness she felt was entirely psychological, she knew; since they'd gotten back, Amy had checked them over again. But despite what she knew intellectually, she was still mentally exhausted. Losing one's powers and then regaining them tended to take it out of a person, she guessed. Which led her thoughts to the other person who had lost powers. “How you doing there, Ems?”

    “Absolutely shattered,” Emma replied. “All I want to do is take a nice long hot shower then fall into bed for about two days.”

    “Yeah, you and me both,” Taylor agreed, holding up her hand. Emma's warm fingers closed around it and they shared a companionable squeeze. It was good to be home, for a given definition of 'home', with all her friends. Alive and well, when it could've easily gone the other way.

    “And that's gonna happen just as soon as we finish the debrief,” Danny said. He'd changed out of the wet clothing as they all had, but he still had a slightly ragged look around the eyes. Killing someone in cold blood, Taylor decided, couldn't be easy. Beside him, Alan Barnes shared the same look, while Rod Clements had a subdued air.

    “Correct.” Alan Barnes pulled up a kitchen chair and sat down on it. “So, where did we go wrong?” It was an old formula, but it helped get their minds into the right attitude.

    This one, Taylor decided, was on her. “I fucked up,” she said tiredly. “They called Emma, and she asked me if there were any students left in the school. I checked classrooms, corridors and bathrooms, but I didn't check things like roof spaces and storage closets.” Letting her head drop back against the chair, she closed her eyes. “Even though I know the locks around Winslow are for crap.”

    “How much extra time would it have taken to search all that extra area?” asked Rod Clements practically.

    Taylor considered the question, visualising the interior spaces of Winslow. “Maybe another five minutes,” she conceded. “Ten at the outside.”

    “Why so long?” asked Danny. “Surely they aren't that big, compared to the rest of the school.”

    “They aren't,” Taylor agreed. “But unlike a corridor, where a single bug can look down the entire length and see that there's no movement, every storage closet needs to have one or two bugs wriggle in past the door and then scout it out. And there are a lot of storage closets.”

    “Makes sense,” said Alan Barnes. “Is there anything else you should've done differently?”

    “Not swung so close to the wall when I took the corner,” Taylor said immediately. “Of course, Greg probably would've been captured anyway, so this goes back to the fact that I should've located him from the beginning. And if I'd had my radio in my hand, I might've been able to keep hold of it when I fell over. Also, I stood on Greg's arm and twisted my ankle, so that didn't help either.”

    “All of this is starting to sound like shit happening,” Rod Clements remarked. “Apart from not locating Greg when they reported him missing, I'm not hearing anything that sounds like a failure of judgement. And just looking in the places where he shouldn't have been might've cut too much into our time anyway.” He looked at the other five girls. “Anyone else got anything?”

    Tentatively, Emma raised her hand. “I didn't disable Jack Slash on the first hit?” she ventured.

    Danny fielded that one. “I would've been pleased and surprised if you had, but we were on the way. At worst, you were a distraction, and that you pulled off in spades.”

    “All right, then,” Alan Barnes noted. “How about what we did right?”

    Madison put her arm around Missy and squeezed her tight. “Missy here pulled off the fire-sprinkler thing perfectly. Nobody saw me start to asphyxiate Bonesaw, and the sprinklers gave me cover to pull most of the oxygen from around Burnscar, so the water was able to keep her fire down.”

    Missy blushed and ducked her head at the round of approving glances she got. “I was just doing my bit,” she said. “Emma and Taylor were amazing. Taylor was kicking Burnscar's ass, and Emma was touching up Jack Slash pretty well too.”

    “And, of course, Madison locked Bonesaw and Burnscar down like a boss,” Taylor added with a grin. “I was wondering why she wasn't able to make more fire, even with the water.”

    “And let's not forget the Dad Brigade,” Lisa put in cheerfully. “Providing artillery support at just the right moment. Twice, even. Also, Amy provided awesome after-action care, sorting out Taylor's and Emma's powers.” She ruffled Amy's hair fondly. “That's something none of the rest of us could've done.”

    Amy ducked her head and blushed. “Just doing my job,” she mumbled, but she sounded pleased all the same.

    “And doing it damn well,” Emma noted. “Then there was the way Missy solo'd Mannequin without getting out of breath. That was pretty impressive, too.” She tilted her head. “How's that going with you not there to keep his arms and legs shrunk, anyway?”

    Missy shrugged. “They had bolt-cutters out in the transports. So I pulled the arms and legs out, and they snipped the chain links. Right now, he's bolted into the most high-tech baby's cradle you ever saw, inside a Faraday cage, just in case.”

    “Cool.” Madison turned to Lisa. “Just saying, you did pretty damn good with the early stages, too. Your power kept us coordinated, and you managed to get the information who, where and when. So don't feel too left out.”

    “Oh, I don't feel left out,” Lisa said brightly. “In case you hadn't noticed, me and Amy aren't exactly combat types. We're force multipliers. We take the force you can apply, and we help you make it more devastating.” She leaned back in the sofa with a broad grin. “It's so damn satisfying to watch you guys work together so effectively, and to know I'm a part of it. No second-guessing, no backbiting, and no Coil waiting to pop me in the back of the head if I don't perform as expected.” She ran her hands through her hair, leaving it even messier than it had been before. “And oh god, not having to worry about what stunts Regent and Bitch were going to pull on any given day.”

    “Which reminds me,” Madison said to Missy. “Any word on how Coil's doing?”

    Missy shrugged. “Even if I knew, I probably wouldn't be allowed to talk to you about it. Unless he escapes, of course. Then they'd tell me. I hope.”

    “Yeah, let's not go there,” Amy said with a shudder. “I mean, I know he'd had time to prepare the last time we encountered him, but if what Lisa says about his power is true, he could still be nasty one-on-one.” She paused. “And on a totally different subject, can we address the elephant in the room?”

    Danny blinked, obviously unsure of what she was referring to. “I suppose. What is it?”

    Emma shook her head, but Amy was already talking. “Bonesaw. Remember how I saw the state of her brain when I was working on her?” She leaned forward, talking faster, as the expressions on everyone's faces changed. “No, hear me out. She's hurting. She's been forced into the mold she's in by Jack Slash. I've got experience at being affected over time by other peoples' powers, and I can tell you that breaking free of it, even a little bit, is the greatest relief in the world.”

    Rod Clements frowned. “Okay, but even assuming you're reading the situation totally correctly …”

    “She is,” Lisa said. “My power agrees with hers, absolutely.”

    “Okay, granted.” Rod paused to collect his thoughts, then went on. “Assuming that … well, we've got to deal with the Director to release her into our custody, and I'm pretty sure we shot our bolt with that, bringing Lisa into the team.”

    “Maybe not,” Alan Barnes said thoughtfully. “Lisa has definitely proven herself to be a valuable member of the team. And she was directly instrumental in figuring out what was going on with the Nine, both times. If I can pitch that just right to Piggot, maybe I can make a case that we're good at rehabilitating criminal capes.”

    “Dad, what?” Emma stared at him. “Do you even hear what you're saying? That's Bonesaw! She's a murderer! Amy raised the idea with Director Piggot after you left, and got shot down hard!”

    Taylor raised her hand. “Don't think I'm fully on board with this idea, because I'm still on the fence about it, but I'm pretty sure the Director doesn't really understand how good Amy and Lisa are at what they do. If they think Bonesaw can be brought around to the side of good … I think maybe it can actually work.”

    “There's another problem on top of all that,” Danny noted. “Even if she were mostly converted to the side of good and light—and before anyone jumps down my throat from either side, let me continue,” he added hastily, as both Emma and Amy opened their mouths at the same time. He waited until they subsided, then went on. “I'm aware that people can be rehabilitated. It's a long, tough process. Even if they're fully willing—which is the only way it'll ever work, really—there's always the chance of backsliding, and there's almost always some remnant of the old behaviour left behind. However, the point I was about to make is that I'd be astonished if any member of the public would be okay with the Samaritans taking on Bonesaw as a member.”

    Amy nodded slowly. “That's a good point. But what if she didn't look like Bonesaw? She could be a brunette, or a redhead. Her facial features wouldn't even be a challenge.”

    “And what if we didn't even let her use her powers to begin with?” suggested Lisa. “Amy, I'm pretty sure you can recreate the original prions she used, yeah? Dose her with them, and we work at bringing her around without the danger of her building a city-killer in the basement. Once me, Amy and Dinah are in agreement that she's not gonna go apocalypse on us, then we give her her powers back.”

    “Huh,” mused Rod Clements. “That … could actually work.” He looked at Amy. “And you can do this? I mean, it doesn't need you to affect her brain?”

    “Not directly,” she assured him. “Prions can enter the bloodstream anywhere. What they do once they get to the brain is up to them.”

    “ … um, did I just hear right?” Missy raised her eyebrows slightly. “Amy, are you saying you have a way to shut peoples' powers down permanently now?”

    Amy sighed. “It's complicated, but the short answer is 'effectively, yes'. But I can already shut people down at a touch. The prions don't actually alter things very much.”

    “When she's right, she's right,” added Lisa cheerfully. Her grin morphed into a more serious expression as she went on. “Okay, do we have any other objections to the idea of making Bonesaw into a good guy?”

    “Before anyone says anything,” Alan Barnes noted, “we're not going to go forward with this if everyone isn't in agreement. This sort of thing is far too volatile to not have everyone on the same page. Anyone not getting that?” He looked around the room. “Okay, good. Now, as I understand it, we're not talking about actively recruiting Bonesaw—which is something I never thought I'd be thinking about in any serious sense—but rather just turning her into someone who's got a reasonable chance of atoning for her many sins, and seeing what goes from there.” His eyes fell on Amy and Lisa. “Is that about right?”

    Amy nodded. Lisa grinned. “Yup.”

    “Well then.” Alan took a deep breath. “Objections?”

    “Yeah.” Emma was already on her feet. Her hair was spread out in a halo around her, sparks crackling from one tendril-tip to another. “I'm not even sure how we can be considering this. Bonesaw is a murderer. She's done horrific things. Giving her a chance to escape her punishment is … well, wrong.”

    Amy opened her mouth to speak, but Lisa waved her to silence and stood up. “I'd like to address those points, your honour.” Her cheeky grin belied her words.

    Alan gave an indulgent wave. “Proceed.”

    With a snicker, Lisa kept talking. “Okay, first things first. It's been pretty well established in courts of law that an individual isn't responsible for any actions taken under the influence of a Master.”

    “Well, yeah,” conceded Emma. “But … do we know Jack Slash was a Master?”

    “Yeah,” Lisa responded immediately. “Best proof? He didn't get murdered in his sleep by the couple dozen stone killers he gathered around him over the last twenty-something years. I think it was some kind of subtle influence thing that made capes act the way he wanted. And maybe he got ideas about how they were going to act around him, as well. So a terrified six-year-old, with exactly one chance of surviving in a team of utter psychopaths? She would've been putty in his hands. First few times, she would've been following orders. After that? She'd learn to enjoy it. What little kid doesn't enjoy breaking things? Even if those things turn out to be people?”

    Emma grimaced. “Well, yeah, but …” She shook her head. “Okay, I'll accept he was a Master. I still don't think she should be totally excused for what she's done, but yeah, that's a thing. What's your other point?”

    Graciously, Lisa inclined her head. “My other point is that murderers are people, too. Anyone who's been in a warzone may well have killed someone. Three of you guys have killed. Two of the Undersiders are wanted for murder. I think the charges are bogus, but Regent actually killed someone on the orders of a Master. The fact he doesn't do that these days … well, that should mean something. Especially since that particular Master is a lot stronger than Jack was.”

    “Really?” asked Danny. “Who?”

    Lisa waved the question off. “Not important. Maybe later. Anyway, the act of killing doesn't physically change you. Mentally and emotionally, it can take a toll, yes.” She gave Danny, Alan and Emma a sympathetic look. “I've never been there myself but I've seen what it does to people who have.” She leaned forward. “Now, answer me this. When she finally shakes off the last of Jack Slash's influence and realises just how much of a monster he made her into … would you prefer that she be alone to deal with it, or have help? Or more to the point, how much help do you think the PRT will be giving her?”

    Rod Clements grimaced. “Son of a bitch.”

    Emma was silent. Taylor, craning her neck around, could see that her best friend's expression was conflicted. “You okay there?” she asked.

    “No.” Emma punctuated the word by shaking her head, her spread hair-tendrils swaying back and forth with the motion. “I mean, I know beyond any doubt that letting Bonesaw near us again is likely to be disastrous. And that's even if the Director lets us have her. Which, if she has any sense, she won't. But you're making too much sense. It's twisting my head around. I can't decide what I want.”

    “Yeah, well, they do say 'never let the Thinker talk',” Madison agreed sympathetically. “I mean, personally I think she's making a good case. But it's your call. If you say no, it's no.”

    Emma's head turned sharply. “Call!” She pointed at Lisa. “Call Dinah. Ask her two questions. One: is the Director even likely to give us custody? And two: what's the fallout going to be like if she does?”

    “Ooh, nice one.” Lisa grinned and pulled out her phone. “I should've thought of this earlier.”

    “I doubt it,” Amy said dryly. “I've noticed that you never take a chance on anything that's not something you can predict. For a risk-taker, you're very conservative.”

    Lisa stuck her tongue out at the biokinetic, then dialled the number. “Hey, yeah, it's me,” she said briskly, tapping the phone to put it on speaker.

    Hello, Athena,” a young girl replied blandly. “Yes, it's nice to hear from you, too. Why, I've been lovely, thank you for asking. How have you been?”

    Lisa sighed, pointedly ignoring Taylor's chuckle. “I'm fine, but we've got a problem we need to resolve. Two questions, to be specific. What are the chances of the Director giving us custody of Bonesaw if we take her powers away for the duration, and what are the chances of something drastically going wrong if we do take her and try to rehabilitate her?”

    In the case of taking Bonesaw minus her powers, you have a sixty-two point nine four three percent chance of convincing the Director to hand her over,” Dinah said promptly. “There's a four point seven one six one percent chance of her returning to her criminal habits once her powers are returned to her. And to answer the question you didn't ask, there's a fifty-one point six five four percent chance of two or more of your team dying in the next two months if you don't do this."

    Lisa blinked, as though not even she had expected those numbers. “Well. Wow. Uh, thanks, Dinah.”

    Not a problem. I was actually hoping you were joking about Bonesaw. I really don't think I want to know. Good night.” Without further ado, the call cut off.

    Danny clapped his hands together softly. “Well, then. I think that's all the information in, and all the arguments made, including some unexpected information from Dinah. I think we should sleep on it, then get back together tomorrow morning and make our final decision."

    "Good idea," agreed Alan Barnes. "I'll be staying up for a while, to go over the books and see if there's any other levers I can use to get Director Piggot to let her go into our custody, if the vote goes that way."

    “Don't you mean our custody, Mr Barnes?” asked Taylor. “I mean, we're the Samaritans. Your faces aren't known to the PRT.”

    Just for a moment, Danny's eyes met Alan's, then he turned back to Taylor. “I'm pretty sure that she'd be happier releasing Bonesaw into the custody of a bunch of adults rather than teens. No matter how good those teens are at taking down villains.”

    “He's right,” Alan agreed. “We'll be masked, of course.” He rubbed his hands together, something he only usually did before commencing a difficult case. “We're going to have to bring our A-game to this one.”

    “We haven't had our final show of hands,” Danny reminded him. “Tomorrow morning, back here?”

    “First thing,” agreed Alan. “Okay, that's settled. Any other business before we crash for the night?”

    “Yeah,” Emma piped up. "What about that Case 53 girl, Noelle? What's happened with her? Did they ever get you to heal her, Amy?”

    Before Amy could speak, Lisa shook her head. “I found notes,” she said. “They boiled down to 'do not let Panacea anywhere near her'.”

    “Huh,” Amy said. “So that's why nobody contacted me about it.”

    “Well, I don't know anything official,” Missy said carefully. “But … well, there's a grapevine, and my power does let me listen in on conversations sometimes if I'm careful, so I hear things. This doesn't go outside this room, okay?”

    Danny looked from side to side. “I'm pretty sure nobody's going to say anything.” Not entirely by accident, as far as Taylor could tell, his gaze ended up on Lisa. “Are they?”

    She had the grace to blush. “Nope, not a word,” she said, then wrinkled her nose. “Spoilsport.”

    “Doubtless,” Danny agreed blandly. “Missy?”

    Missy leaned forward on the sofa and lowered her voice slightly. “Well, you know how they were going to execute the Nine before the escape? What they had planned for Crawler was pretty thorough. Since they haven't managed to recapture him yet, and Noelle has actually requested execution, they're using that for her.”

    “Requested.” Alan Barnes' voice was flat. “You're serious.”

    “Deadly.” Missy nodded. “She's apparently responsible for dozens of deaths, but it's all her powers going crazy on her. Apparently, she's attempted suicide more than once. With the PRT's assistance, she can make it stick.”

    “How are the rest of the Travellers taking it?” asked Taylor. “I can't see them being thrilled about it.”

    Missy shrugged. “I have no idea. Nobody was talking about it.”

    “Hey,” Amy said to Lisa. “You okay?”

    “ … kinda,” Lisa replied, her voice quiet. “I don't like talk about suicide. It was … ” She trailed off, her arms wrapped around herself.

    “Hey, you know our rules,” Amy chided her gently. “We don't stop talking about stuff halfway.”

    Lisa tried to give her a stern glare. “You suck, you know that?”

    “As Mr Hebert says, doubtless.” Amy grinned. “Stop trying to change the subject.”

    Fine.” Lisa sighed. “It was my brother. His name was Rex …”

    <><>​

    A Remote Granite Massif

    Noelle Meinhardt

    It was cold down here, but at least they'd given her a proper jacket to wear. No expense spared for the condemned woman. They'd also gotten her other request right; a Big Mac, heavy on the pickles, and a chocolate shake. She hadn't had a good shake in months. Her lower body had ingested several cow carcasses and seemed sated for the moment.

    The granite walls rose on all sides of her. Far above, where the shaft ended and the sky began, she thought the deep blue was beginning to darken. In each of the four corners of the chamber into which she'd been lowered, a metal cylinder crouched. She'd half-expected a baleful red LED countdown, but nothing of the sort was showing. For all she knew, they were fancy garbage disposals.

    Attached to the rough-hewn wall itself was a large plasma-screen TV screen. At the moment, it was playing soft pastoral music, with a sequence of landscapes providing a gorgeous background. This was actually quite pleasant to listen to.

    Abruptly, the screen flickered, the picture changing to a severe-looking woman with Hispanic looks. “Good evening,” she said. “I'm not aware if you know me, but I am Chief Director Rebecca Costa-Brown of the Parahuman Response Teams. Your name is Noelle Meinhardt, correct?”

    “Yes, that's correct,” Noelle said. “I've seen you on TV. Is it time?”

    Almost,” the Chief Director said gently. “Your friends have requested the chance to say goodbye, and I see no reason not to grant it. Is this acceptable to you?”

    For a long moment, she almost decided to say no. It had been hard enough to make the decision to do this in the first place. But if I do it this way, it's not fair on them. With a sigh, she nodded. “Okay.”

    Director Costa-Brown didn't make any signal that Noelle saw, but the TV signal changed again, the image of the Hispanic woman retreating to the upper left corner. The rest of it became a picture of the other Travellers, wearing PRT prison gear. Well, almost all of them. She frowned. “Where's Krouse?”

    Mars grimaced. “He said something about 'not a fucking hope in hell' and went off to sulk in his quarters or something. Told us we were all ghouls for doing this.” She looked better than when they'd first been captured, though she didn't look happy, for obvious reasons.

    Hey.” That was Jess, waving from her wheelchair. It looked like the PRT had given her back the one from Coil's lair. “They treating you all right? I mean, apart from … you know.”

    “Oh yeah.” Mustering a smile, Noelle tugged at the lapels of the jacket she wore, to show it off. “Check it out. I'm properly warm for the first time in forever. And yeah, this is what I want. Nothing else has worked, so … yeah.”

    Nice jacket.” Luke gave her a thumbs up. “Anything you want me to tell jerkface when he finally pulls his head out of his ass?”

    Noelle thought about that. “I guess …” She paused, then went on. “I was going to say to tell him that he was an ass for not wanting to talk to me, but I really can't blame him for this. So tell him that I'm happy with my decision. This is my right, and it's really the only option I've got left.” She scanned the faces of her friends, and picked out the only one who hadn't spoken yet. “Oliver? You okay?”

    Hunching his shoulders, Oliver looked at the floor. “No,” he said, then turned his face toward the camera. “You're my friend. Everyone's standing around pretending to be happy, but I don't want you to die.” Tears were standing in his eyes.

    Noelle bit her lip. “I'm sorry it had to be this way,” she said softly. “But I couldn't let anyone else be hurt. I couldn't let you guys be hurt any more because of me. I'm not just a burden on you. I'm a burden that eats people. Well, I'm done. It's over. I want you to remember me, but not as a monster. Remembe