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Price of Blood [Worm fanfic]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Ack, Nov 30, 2016.

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  1. SlickRCBD

    SlickRCBD Getting out there.

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    That seems like an extremely stupid way to do things.
    Having a self-destruct for the computer for unauthorized remote access would make perfect sense. Blowing the whole base should only be done if the base defenses are physically breached.
    Also IDS systems are prone to false positives, hence why you would want to limit the automated self-destruct to the computer alone.
     
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  2. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Pretty sure he had the system set up so that if anyone got in and started fiddling with his computer (which assumes he's dead or a prisoner) the place goes boom.
     
  3. The Mad Ghoul

    The Mad Ghoul Only Mostly Dead

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    I don't know why Coil would do that, if he dies then the timeline terminates, and if he's a prisoner than he gets more information. Also, Coil can terminate the time line at his whim, so there's no need for him to die in a fiery explosion. It might make more sense as really paranoid master/stranger protocols*. Coil is really paranoid and he [was/is] a PRT agent, so M/S protocols are probably something he implemented.

    *I was going to say anti-espionage, but then I remembered that this is Worm and we have a name for that.
     
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  4. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Not unless, say, they meet in an online single cape parent support group without knowing it~

    You pissed off a fortunakinetic? Wait, wrong fic~
     
  5. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Nah, if that happened, there'd be anvils.
     
  6. SlickRCBD

    SlickRCBD Getting out there.

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    Which is acceptable for messing with it at the console, not for remote access.
    I'll cite the Windows "interactive" group but Unix/Linux has a similar way to distinguish local from remote users.
    Although with the terminal/server model being the default assumption it is a bit more complex (although this is changing with many modern Linux distros).
     
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  7. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The virus that was messing with it had been invited into the system and was operating locally.
     
  8. Threadmarks: Part Fourteen: Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The Price of Blood

    Part Fourteen: Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward

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



    Front Steps of the PRT Building
    Taylor


    It was hot and sweaty inside the armour that Armsmaster and Kid Win had thrown together for me. I earnestly hoped whatever actual armour they ended up constructing for real was equipped with some kind of climate control, or I'd cook to death even in the middle of winter. What I was wearing was more of a stopgap; there was no way anyone in his (or her) right mind would go out fighting crime in it. For one thing, the batteries powering the limbs didn't have enough power to do more than walk at a steady rate. And for another, the servos ran hot when they were being used, which contributed somewhat to the elevated temperatures within the suit. I was really glad that nobody could see my face, and the sweat trickling down it.

    Reporters were shouting questions at me, which would normally have made me either freeze up in panic or blurt out something totally unwise at exactly the wrong moment. Fortunately, I had a heads-up display in front of my eyes, and Dragon was feeding me lines almost in real time. I had to hand it to her; her typing speed must be phenomenal. However she was doing it, it was nice to know I had someone else in my corner.

    “No, I'm not related to Armsmaster,” I said in reply to the latest question, following the words that scrolled across my vision. “And seriously? Even if I was, I wouldn't tell you guys. He was nice enough to let me build this in his lab, though.” Which was a mix of lies and the truth, of course. It had been constructed in his workshop, just not by me. In fact, he and Kid Win had constructed it around me using bits and pieces that the pair had modified for use, sometimes on the fly.

    Dragon had lent a hand from time to time via the workshop waldos, and also offered helpful advice. Armsmaster had given me a crash course (so to speak) in handling power armour once it was completed. That hadn't gone so well; I suspected I'd have a bruise or two tomorrow. In the meantime, Dragon had been given remote access to the armour and was even now making sure I didn't fall on my face on live TV. I appreciated it, a lot, but I hoped that at some point I'd be able to stand on my own two feet as a hero. Or at all, really.

    Between answers, I was able to scan the crowd and try to gauge the responses of people to what I was saying; or rather, what Dragon was telling me to say. It seemed to be more or less positive. While some appeared a little reserved about the whole thing, nobody was pointing at me and screaming “SWARMBRINGER! Burn the witch!” And of course, Amy was there in the crowd, as anonymous as she could get in a hoodie and sunglasses. Each time I turned my helmet toward her, she gave me an encouraging smile and a discreet thumbs-up. It was amazing how much this helped.

    Eventually, the press conference ran down (there were only so many Tinker-related questions they could ask but boy, did they give those questions a workout) and I turned to go back into the PRT building. Dragon didn't have total control of the armour, but she was acting as my copilot; if I did something totally stupid, she'd be able to salvage the situation. It was probably in the PRT's best interests to make their latest totally-not-a-member look like she could actually walk in the power armour that she obviously built herself.

    <><>​

    Hillside Mall
    Sophia


    One of the reasons they'd picked this particular store was that the public bathrooms were relatively nearby. Not that they needed the bathroom to change in, but it made things a lot easier. Privacy was valuable at times like this.

    With that in mind, Tattletale followed the signs and Sophia followed Tattletale. The blonde indicated a security camera with a flick of her eyes, then traipsed past it, artfully turning her head at just the right moment to apparently browse a shop window full of handbags. Sophia knew she couldn't pull that move off in a thousand years, so she just yanked the hood down a few inches to hide more of her face. A human viewing the screen might find it suspicious, but facial recognition wouldn't get enough of her features to ID her—she hoped.

    When she got to the bathrooms, Tattletale was waiting at the doorway. “Now, no peeking,” the blonde Thinker murmured. “I'm not her, after all.” Her trademark punchable grin seemed to linger behind her in the air as she pushed through the bathroom door.

    Again, Sophia resisted the urge to simply drop Tattletale in her tracks from behind. Coil would probably be suspicious, unless she had a really good reason for it. Grue and the others would definitely be suspicious, especially given that she didn't get along with the Undersiders as it was.

    Following the blonde into the bathroom, Sophia pulled up her right sleeve to expose the launcher. On the underside was a tab she could pull out, which when pulled out to full extension went along the underside of her wrist; this put the trigger button for the launcher literally in the palm of her hand. With the middle and index fingers of her right hand on said trigger button, she went along the row of cubicles, pushing on the stall doors. The third one resisted, the simple latch showing the word OCCUPIED. Without hesitating, she went to shadow form and stepped through the door into the cubicle.

    “Hey, what—” began the woman sitting on the commode. She got no farther than that, as Sophia pressed hard on the button and shot her in the chest with a tranq dart from a range of about two feet. The woman started to her feet, clutching at where the dart had struck her and opening her mouth to scream, while her handbag bounced off the side wall of the cubicle and fell to the floor with a thud. But before she could draw breath all the way, her knees went wobbly and her eyes rolled back in her head. As she began to pitch forward, Sophia guided her back to land clumsily on the toilet seat again. Plucking the dart from her victim's chest, she took a moment to admire the effectiveness of the knockout drug Coil had given her. If anything, it seemed to work even faster than the stuff the PRT made her use.

    When she exited the stall, Tattletale was almost completely costumed up. The previously-braided hair was now messy, and she was clad only in the skintight purple outfit that she'd been wearing under her clothes. Using some sort of pad held between her gloved fingers, she was applying some sort of black makeup around her eyes. Sophia wasn't quite sure what this was about, but she got the idea when the blonde pressed the domino mask to her face. It changed the outline of her features considerably, hiding the dusting of freckles over her nose. Through the eyeholes, Sophia could see her eyes but not the surrounding skin, giving the girl a mysterious air. Sophia still wanted to punch her.

    “Well, come on,” Tattletale urged. She looked down at the handbag Sophia had retrieved from the floor of the cubicle. “We haven't got time for petty shit like that.”

    “Well, I dunno what my share's gonna be like,” Sophia said defensively. She dropped the handbag, opened the purse she'd taken from it, and extracted what looked like a couple of hundred dollars in random notes. “Call this a bonus.” Shrugging off the backpack she was wearing, she tucked the money into a side pocket.

    “Just so you know, we're not shaking down everyone in the store like that,” Tattletale warned, putting her own backpack back on. “We go in, we grab the jewellery and whatever's in the till and maybe the safe if I've got time, then we call in Grue and Bitch for the extraction. You even think of wasting time like this on the job, and we'll cut your shady ass loose faster than Velocity filling out a speeding ticket.”

    “Yeah, yeah,” Sophia jibed, already pulling the hoodie over her head. Under that and her jeans, she was already wearing the majority of her costume, including the launchers. All she needed to put on was the visor and the cloak, which she pulled from the backpack. “Hold your horses. I'm nearly done here.” As she spoke, she kicked off the loosely-fastened sneakers and skinned out of the jeans, then stuffed those and the hoodie into the pack. On went the visor and the cloak, and she was ready. Turning toward Tattletale with a triumphant taunt on her lips, she realised the bathroom was empty; the door was already closing behind the blonde girl.

    Muttering something about smartass bitches, Sophia shoved her way out through the bathroom door. She didn't like how the backpack pulled on her hooded cloak, but there wasn't much choice in the matter; either she discarded the clothing she'd been wearing or she wore the backpack. Putting the matter from her mind, she headed for the jewellery store.

    There was, however, that security camera to get past. On the way to the bathrooms, they'd likely escaped notice by being two entirely forgettable teenage girls. Now, they were in costume.

    Stopping just outside the camera's arc of vision, she raised her arm to point at the camera. When she was sure of her aim, she pressed hard on the trigger button. There was a sharp chFFF and a shower of glass as the dart shattered the lens of the camera.

    With a glance around, she ascertained that nobody had seen the incident. While she would've liked nothing better than to bust the whole operation and hand the Undersiders (minus Grue, of course) over to the authorities, Calvert had told her to cooperate and not raise suspicions. He'd been lavish in his praise of her activities so far—inasmuch as anyone in the PRT had ever praised her—so she was willing to go the extra mile for him. In his latest text to her, he'd even hinted that a successful mission could see her being placed in charge of the Wards, to show them how it was really done. This was something she could definitely get behind. So for now, she was going to do her best to make sure the robbery went through as planned.

    Tattletale raised her eyebrows. “Showy,” she murmured, then pushed on. Sophia itched to demonstrate just how 'showy' she could be, but held herself in check. Not yet, she told herself. Not yet.

    By the time they got to the jewellery store, people were just starting to notice the pair of them, but the looks were more curious than fearful; it seemed Tattletale didn't have much of a rep yet. Nor did Regent, it seemed, given the giggling reactions of a bunch of girls he blew a kiss to from under his mask.

    “All right then,” muttered Tattletale under her breath. “Showtime.” Taking a deep breath, she marched into the store, pulling a small pistol from the holster on her belt. “Everyone!” she called out. “This is a robbery! Everyone on the floor, right now!” She didn't do anything so dramatic as firing a shot into the ceiling, but people seemed to take note of her costume and armament all the same, and come to the correct conclusion.

    Behind her, Sophia went left and Regent went right. Tattletale had already told them where the store security guard would be stationed, and as he went for his gun, Regent made his muscles spasm so he dropped it. Before he could dive for it, Sophia nailed him with a dart to the shoulder. He went for it anyway, so she shot him again. The second dart did the trick; he crumpled to the ground with the weapon not quite in hand.

    “Just to clear everything up, we're the Undersiders,” Tattletale announced brightly. “We're here for the jewellery. Nobody needs to get hurt.” She waved the gun around the room, then tapped in the code to the security gate and let herself in behind the main counter. “Which means no hitting the silent alarm,” she said chidingly to the counter attendant. “On the floor, right now.” Turning, she gestured to the other two. “Well, come on. Time to rob the place.”

    Her words broke the spell. Up until that point, Sophia had been almost willing to believe this was a play-act, that she wouldn't really be indulging in a daring daylight robbery. The theft of the money in the bathroom didn't really count; nor did the several dozen times she'd shoplifted since getting her powers. Nobody was going to connect her name with either of those, but this? She'd be on camera for this one, and the cat would be well and truly out of the bag.

    Which raised the question of just how they were going to get at the jewellery. Sophia knew how to break glass with her elbow, but doing it repeatedly was a good way to get a sore elbow or worse. Her dart launchers weren't going to do jack to these cases, and while the survival knife she'd been supplied with could probably be used to pry open the cases or bash the glass in, either method would be tedious as fuck.

    “Hey, Spectre. Catch.” She looked over toward Regent as he reached into the backpack he had slung over his shoulder. From it he pulled out a short but heavy wrench, which he tossed toward Sophia. She caught it awkwardly, then turned toward the nearest display case. Even then she hesitated to actually go to work, until the sound of shattering glass indicated that Regent was busy with the (apparently weighted) butt-end of his sceptre. Raising the metal tool, she went to bring it down hard on the glass, then stopped herself, mentally facepalming.

    It was an almost unforgivable lapse, but she decided it was the Undersiders' fault and not hers. Over the last day, she'd had it pounded into her that the Undersiders didn't get into fights; she was supposed to think 'run away', not 'stand and fight'. This had led her to overlook a move she often used to retrieve dropped weapons during combat. Going to shadow, she reached into the case and grabbed at the necklaces and bracelets, turning them to shadow as well by contact. Once her hand was out of the case, she went solid again to briefly admire the gleam of the precious stones and metal against the dull grey of her glove. Opening one of the cargo pockets of her pants she dropped her spoils into it. No great feeling of guilt assaulted her. In fact, she felt a buzz of excitement, which only increased as she turned toward the next case. Her powers made short work of this one as well. It wasn't as spectacular as Regent's positively enthusiastic assault on the glass cases on his side of the room, but she was just as fast.

    <><>​

    PRT Building
    Thomas Calvert
    Timeline 1


    “Excuse me,” Calvert muttered as he turned back out of the conference room. “Just going to the bathroom. Back in a second.”

    There was nothing setting off any alarm bells that he could see, but he had to find out what had happened to his base in the dropped timeline. More to the point, he had to find out if it had happened here. If so, he had to find out why had it happened; if not, why not? It didn't matter that his base computer hadn't sent through any of the 'this system is compromised' messages he'd set it up to handle; the silence was even more worrying than an actual alert. At least then he'd know that something was going on, if not what.

    Once he figured that out, he'd drop the timeline, having been in the conference room all the time. Stepping out to go to the bathroom might make him show up on Piggot's radar which was the last thing he wanted, especially following the Shadow Stalker incident. Ducking into the nearest bathroom, he locked himself in a cubicle and pulled out his phone.

    <><>​

    Timeline 2

    “Typical,” muttered Pritchard; as it happened, she and Calvert had taken seats next to each other at the conference room table. Another row of seats went around the room, up against the wall; Calvert wondered who was supposed to be sitting there. “We get strict orders to be right here, right now. And then it's 'hurry up and wait'.”

    Calvert rolled his eyes. “Yeah,” he murmured back just as quietly. Neither of them really had to worry about keeping their voices down; it had been two minutes by his watch and nobody had shown up to address them.

    “Actually, that's something I've been meaning to ask you,” Pritchard went on. At her words, a knot of tension spontaneously developed in his gut. “Weren't you on the outs a few years ago? How'd you swing command of a strike team?”

    He forced a chuckle. Fortunately, much of the situation regarding Ellisburg was under top-secret cover, including exactly why he'd been 'on the outs', as Pritchard so eloquently put it. So he could be excused for being vague about matters. “Well, back then, there weren't that many people who had field experience against hostile capes,” he explained. “When they needed someone to consult with on matters like that, I was there. And one day, someone realised I could do more than just tell them how to deal with villains.”

    There'd been a lot more to it than that, of course. Favour-trading and outright bribes had done part of the work, especially once his career as Coil had started to gain traction. One extremely careful assassination of the man who'd been slated for that command had also helped. And it was true that he did have a unique insight into the supervillain mind. Most times, all he had to do was ask himself “what would I do in this situation?”.

    <><>​

    Outside the PRT Building
    Taylor


    We were halfway up the steps when I heard Armsmaster's voice over the helmet radio. “Armsmaster here. Say again, Console?” For a moment I was confused, until I realised that I could hear his transmissions but not those of the console inside the PRT building. Silence fell again, while Console presumably repeated whatever they'd said the first time. It didn't take long; I was almost at the doors when he spoke again. His tone had gone from brisk to laser-focused. “I copy and will be attending. Armsmaster to all units, we have a code purple at the Hillside Mall. I say again, a code purple. Armsmaster attending. Out.”

    I lost sight of him then, because Dragon was navigating my suit through the doors into the lobby. He didn't follow me in, and I saw the guards in the room starting to look a lot more tense than they had before. Full body armour hides some things, but the way people stand can tell you a lot. I was pretty sure it wasn't on my account—they'd seen me walk out, after all—which meant it had something to do with Armsmaster's 'code purple', whatever that meant.

    Carefully, I chinned the switch that turned off the outside speaker, then cleared my throat. “Uh, Dragon? What's a code purple, and why is Armsmaster so worried about it?”

    Ah. You heard that, then.” Dragon's voice was calm and collected. “One second. Getting permission to fill you in.” She fell silent as the suit tromped its way into the elevator. I'd been dubious about the lift's ability to move both me and Armsmaster around, but apparently it was made of sterner stuff than most. On my own, there was no problem at all; I was conveyed upward smoothly and swiftly. Just as the doors opened, Dragon spoke up again. “I can tell you, Taylor, but you're going to have to sign another NDA as soon as you're out of the armour. Sorry.”

    “Sure.” By now, I was pretty well resigned to having a good deal of my cape knowledge hemmed about by NDAs. I'd even signed one promising that I wouldn't out any of the Protectorate or Wards capes if I accidentally learned their secret identities. Not that anyone thought I would (either learn their identities or betray them if I did; take your pick) but apparently it was regulations, so the NDA was presented and I duly signed it.

    It would've been cool to have signed the current one while still in the armour, but my hand-eye coordination was still at 'toddler' level when it came to making those hand servos do what I wanted. So I mentally shrugged and let the armour walk me toward Armsmaster's workshop. Apparently he had a much more impressive lab in the Protectorate base, but this one had been conveniently closer, and the task of faking up power armour for me hadn't needed the services of the larger workshop. I didn't care either way. What I did care about was that the armour didn't have certain facilities more associated with space suits, and I was keenly feeling the lack thereof. Still, I was curious about what Dragon had to say.

    A 'code purple' is a situation where a cape previously affiliated with the forces of law and order, and who may have damaging knowledge about capes they've served with, shows up as a villain,” Dragon explained. She didn't have to say any more, as I connected the dots with an almost audible click.

    “Shadow Stalker,” I said, with far more heat than I'd intended. “It's her, isn't it? Sophia fucking Hess.” I wanted to punch the wall but refrained, as it wasn't my wall.

    Yes,” admitted Dragon. “She's been involved in an altercation in conjunction with a local supervillain team. You understand I can't tell you any more than that.”

    “Yeah, got it,” I muttered. It wasn't as if I could go out and fight her anyway. While I had my bug control powers more or less nailed, I didn't possess armour worthy of the name. I couldn't run, fight or even see properly in the mockup they'd built around me. And of course, I had no idea how long the batteries were going to last. “Anyone hurt?” I felt guilty over not asking that straight away.

    Reports are still coming in,” Dragon evaded. That meant 'yes' to me. Which didn't make me feel any better; if they'd caught her earlier, this aspect of my life would be neatly packaged away. As it was, every mention of Sophia was like rubbing salt into a newly-fresh wound.

    We reached Armsmaster's workshop, the code-locked doors hissing open before me. Dragon walked the suit to the middle of the room, then took control of the waldos and began disassembling it with far more alacrity than they'd used in putting it together. “So, have you had any ideas about what you'd like in the armour?” she asked, apparently trying to take my mind off the Sophia-shaped elephant in the room.

    “Um,” I began as the helmet came off, bathing my face in cool air. I paused for a moment to luxuriate in the sensation as the sweat on my face began to evaporate all at once. The left arm came loose with a series of whzzt noises as each bolt was spun free of its housing. “Can you really make it so the armour can fly?”

    Relatively easily,” she assured me. “Kid Win has a rather effective anti-gravity design that he uses in his skateboard. I should be able to retro-engineer it without too much trouble. What do you think about wings?”

    “Wings would look cool,” I decided. “Though there's one problem with the whole armour thing. If Sophia's still on the loose when I go out there, I want to be able to take her down. But if she can just ghost through my armour, how can I stop her from hurting other people?” And myself too, I meant, but I was more concerned with stopping Sophia than saving my own skin.

    For a start, Shadow Stalker has a lot of experience under her belt,” Dragon cautioned me. “Confronting her while you're still unsure about your own capabilities is a good way to get hurt. In any case, Armsmaster's on it. I'm sure he'll bring her in sooner rather than later. He's taken her defection very personally.”

    I could imagine why. Sophia had been one of the Wards; a junior member of the Protectorate. Armsmaster was the leader of the Protectorate in Brockton Bay. For a Ward to turn villain (which in my opinion merely outed her for who she really was) was a huge PR hit for the PRT, Protectorate and the Wards. The only real way they could regain any sort of credit in this debacle was to take her down hard and fast, demonstrating that they could deal with their own failures.

    “So how much does she know about the other Wards and about Armsmaster?” I asked as she removed the outer casing from my right arm. “And do they know enough about her to take her down without anyone getting hurt?” It was too much, I figured, to hope that Sophia had some easily-exploited weakness, like bright lights or loud sounds.

    She's got no documented vulnerabilities which would make her easier to capture than a normal person, if that's what you're asking,” Dragon said with a hint of amusement in her voice. “Although as an official affiliate of the Protectorate, and an interested party, you can apply for access to the Barnes and Clements interviews. Or at least, the parts regarding Shadow Stalker.”

    I wasn't exactly sure how useful the interviews would be to me, but there was an old saying about gift horses. “Uh, sure. How do I go about doing that?” Around me, the waldos moved tirelessly. Dragon still had to disassemble parts of the torso armour before she could take it off me, but at least I wasn't enclosed in a walking oven any more.

    I've just submitted the request for you.” Dragon's voice held a smile. “You're welcome.” I felt the last of the torso armour lift away, introducing a heavenly gust of cool air to my sweat-sodden top. Absently, I wondered if real Tinkers had their armour assembled around them like this. The Saturday morning cartoons I'd watched were vague about how power armour worked, and most especially how it went from off the Tinker to on the Tinker without coming apart in the process.

    “Wow, thanks,” I said. “I really appreciate it. I mean, you guys will probably have her in custody by the time I even get out there to be a hero, but it'll just be nice to see them actually admit to the crap they put me through, you know?”

    There's probably not going to be much of that, I'm afraid,” said Dragon regretfully. “While the interviews will have touched on their treatment of you, I wouldn't be too hopeful about any show of remorse, or even an admission of everything they did. It'll be in their own best interests to play it down as hard as they can. And whether or not they knew what Sophia was planning with the boys, it'll be a cold day in hell before they'll admit to being aware of anything to do with that.”

    “Right.” I sighed. I appreciated Dragon's candour, and what she was saying made sense. It was just all so … disappointing. In my daydreams—fewer of late, but given an unexpected lease of life since my rescue by Armsmaster—I'd envisaged being able to stand over them and listen to them actually apologise for their misdeeds. How magnanimous I was in victory depended upon my mood at the time, of course. Having the upper hand had been an unreachable dream for so long, and just when it seemed to be within my grasp, it'd turned out to be just another unattainable fantasy.

    On the other hand, I reminded myself firmly, Emma and Madison were in police custody, Sophia was on the verge of being arrested for an actual, noticeable crime … and I was going to be a superhero. Just as soon as I got myself a proper set of power armour (courtesy of Armsmaster, Kid Win, and Dragon, naturally). Personal satisfaction took a distant second to the absolute certainty that things would never go back to the way they had been.

    Perhaps sensing my mood, Dragon maintained a tactful silence while she removed the last of the armour from me. As I stepped off the foot-plates, she cleared her throat. “Did you still want access to the interview transcripts?”

    “Uh, sure,” I said, a little surprised. “Thanks.” Even if they didn't come with a tearful confession, I was still going to enjoy the hell out of them. Which reminded me. “Wasn't there an NDA I had to sign, or something?”

    I've just finished printing it out. It's on the desk to your left,” Dragon informed me. “There should be a working pen somewhere around there, too.”

    There was, in a coffee cup emblazoned WORLD'S GREATEST TINKER. In fact, I suspected all five pens in the cup would work perfectly. Armsmaster didn't strike me as the sort of man who would keep a non-working pen. I took the NDA from the printer, read it through (if only to make sure I knew what I was agreeing to) and signed it.

    Thank you,” Dragon said with a smile. “Feel free to leave it on the desk. Armsmaster can file it once he returns. And by the way, Panacea and your father are waiting in the corridor for you.”

    “Oh, thanks.” I headed for the door, then paused to look back at the monitor currently portraying her face. “And thanks for all your help. I mean it. If it'd been just me trying to drive that suit, I would've fallen on my face a dozen times.”

    She chuckled warmly. “One of these days, I'll show you the highlights reel from when I was getting my first suit up and running. It has a lot of extremely educational moments.”

    I wasn't quite sure if she was telling the truth or just trying to make me smile. Either way, I felt a grin spreading across my face. “Sounds like fun. I'll bring the popcorn.” Turning, I slapped the button that controlled the doors. They slid apart and I stepped through with the grin still on my face. As they shut behind me, I found myself being caught up in a ferocious bear-hug.

    "Whuff," I grunted as Dad briefly lifted me off the floor. "Wow, Dad, I love you too, but I'm gonna need to breathe sometime. And a shower, really soon." Despite my complaint, I hugged him back as he sheepishly put me down again.

    "Sorry," he said as he let me go. "I just wanted to let you know that I'm really proud of you. And scared for you, but mainly proud. The way you handled yourself in front of those reporters ... if I hadn't known for a fact it was you in that armour, I never would've guessed. Not in a million years."

    “Is that because you don't think I could ever be that confident, or because the armour makes me look fat?” I asked, unable to resist pulling his leg just a little.

    “What? No!” He held up his hands in front of him, as if to ward off the very idea. “God, no. It's just … I mean …” He blinked as he registered the grin on my face. “Wait, you … you're joking?” It was kind of amusing to watch as his expression went from anxiously reassuring to blankly incredulous in the space of half a second. “That was a joke?”

    Dad and I weren't the only people in the corridor outside Armsmaster's workshop. Amy was there too, as well as the guard who'd obviously been detailed to escort us around the building. The guard showed no sign of amusement, which was pretty easy to do with a full-face opaque visor, but Amy let out a muffled snort from behind the hand she'd clapped over her mouth. Dad turned his betrayed gaze from me to her and she snorted again, obviously trying hard not to laugh. Around her hand, her face started to turn red.

    “It's okay.” I gave him a reassuring pat on the arm. “I know what you meant, and I appreciate it.” Oddly enough, as uncomfortable as the armour was, wearing it had given me a boost to my confidence. It was tangible proof that my life was changing for the better. Dragon may have given me the lines to say, but I was the one who'd spoken them and, except for the parts intended to mislead the public, meant them.

    “Well, I've seen a few speeches by superheroes,” Amy said, having gotten her mirth under control. “And yours was pretty good. Though I was wondering about how Armsmaster and Vicky tore out of here in a huge hurry. Any idea why they did that?”

    “Well, I can't tell you much, because some of it's NDA material,” I said carefully, “but apparently Armsmaster got a report that someone he wants to arrest really badly showed up in a robbery across town.” I shrugged. “Hopefully by now he's made the collar.” I winced as something else made itself known again. “And if you'll excuse me, I've really gotta go pee.”

    <><>​

    Hillside Mall
    Sophia


    Sophia was three cases in and catching up with Regent's total—he was on four and counting—when Tattletale yelled out a warning. “Incoming!” Raising the wrench—she was still holding it in her free hand—Sophia turned toward the doorway just as two mall cops came around into view. Both held pistols, which were up and tracking.

    Crap, we really should've lowered the security screen. But it was too late for that. Adrenaline pumped through her system, and she threw the wrench instinctively, just as one of the security guards yelled out an order for them to freeze.

    Her aim was off, the wrench striking the guy on the shoulder instead of in the face. He staggered back a step, but his buddy swung around to aim at her. She knew the guy was about to pull the trigger, so she went to shadow form, diving and rolling to get closer to him. The case behind her shattered as the shot went off; she even felt the bullet flicker through her insubstantial form. Motherfucker.

    Even as she reformed and came up on to one knee, she fired the last two darts from her right-hand launcher, each dart nailing one of the guards in the centre of the chest. Then she went to shadow again, moving to close with them. As she became solid once more, she saw the guard who'd shot at her toss his gun away, and she recognised Regent's handiwork. Nice. But the other guard was still armed, so she pushed his gun to the side and kicked him solidly in the nuts.

    He grunted and folded over. Giving her no time to finish him off, his partner swung a substantial-looking fist at her head. She could do this dance all day; phasing through his arm, she kicked him behind the knee and smacked him in the back of the neck with her elbow. He went down, crumpling all the way to the floor. His partner was also down. For a moment, she waited for them to get up again before she recalled the fact that she'd tranqed them both. Panting a little, she glared at the fucking morons who were standing back and watching. Some were even filming events with their phones.

    “Fuck off!” she yelled, and extended her right arm with the empty launcher. They moved back a few paces, but kept right on filming. She shook her head and went back into the store. With her left hand, she pushed the trigger tab back into the launcher; with her right, she pulled the same tab out of the left hand launcher. I swear, these people are more like sheep every fucking day.

    Up at the counter, Tattletale gave her a nod, which probably meant the coast was clear for now. Leaving the wrench where it lay, she went back to looting cases. Regent had his side of the store done, and was working on her side now. She was a little irritated at this, but decided it didn't matter; after all, it would all get shared out the same in the end. Besides, she'd just saved all their asses from a couple of trigger-happy rent-a-cops. That was probably worth a bonus.

    There were only two cases to go when Tattletale let out a piercing whistle. “Time to go!” yelled the blonde. “We got the big boys incoming!” She let herself out by the security gate—the counter had long since been smashed and looted—and headed for the door at a run. Glancing at the last two cases, Sophia hesitated. There was some nice stuff in both of them, and she hated leaving a job undone.

    “Come on, Spectre!” called Tattletale from the doorway. “You get left behind, we're not coming back for you!” She sounded like she meant it. Regent was already following her out the door.

    “Fuck it,” Sophia muttered, and bolted for the door, ghosting through a couple of cases that were in the way. The pockets of her pants, heavy with stolen jewellery, swung and bumped at her thighs as she became solid again. She also heard the screaming from outside. Fuck, what is it now?

    Diving out the doorway, she saw what it was. Galloping clumsily through the mall, immense claws ripping chunks out of the carefully-polished floor, three of Bitch's monster dogs were bearing down on them like a steam train. The dog girl herself was on the lead one while Grue rode astride a second, darkness billowing out behind him like a negative shot of an ever-replenishing fog bank. People were screaming and diving out of the way, for once showing at least some level of self-preservation.

    “Spectre, Regent, take Brutus!” yelled Tattletale. “I'll go with Grue!” She ran toward the dog that Sophia's nemesis was riding. Leaning over, he hauled her on board as if they'd done that move a hundred times. For all Sophia knew, they had. In fact, if it wasn't Grue doing it, she might even have allowed herself to be impressed by that little bit of teamwork.

    In the meantime, of course, she didn't have time to be impressed or deliberately unimpressed. The third dog (she assumed this one was Brutus) was lolloping down toward them, apparently guided by some signal from Bitch. Bolting forward, Sophia turned to shadow and leaped toward Brutus. Timing it to a nicety, she spun around in midair then reformed on the dog's back. Regent had been close behind her, but there was no way he was going to make the same leap. She supposed that he'd done this sort of thing before, but with someone on board to make the dog slow down or help him up.

    Do I help him up or push him away? It was a thorny question; one she only had a split second to consider. Slowing the dog down was out of the question, as it would take too long and she had no idea how to do it anyway. Regent was shorter than she was, and was just skinny rather than sharing her level of muscular fitness; she had no doubt that she could drag him on to the dog. On the other hand, if she left him behind—or even shoved him away at the right moment—Calvert would get a head start on dismantling the Undersiders. But on the other other hand, Tattletale was almost certainly intuitive enough to realise what she'd done and why.

    All of this passed through her mind in an instant, and she made her decision. One hand grabbed on to a bone spike; as she leaned low, the other swung out toward Regent in a grasping motion. His hand slapped into hers, and fingers clamped on to wrists. If she hadn't been holding on, the jolt might've pulled her loose from her seat on the dog. As it was, she was able to lift him clear of the ground relatively easily. Making use of his inertia, she swung him up behind her, on to the back of the dog. “Hang on!” she yelled back to him. “And not to me!” If he tried copping a gratuitous feel, she decided, she'd kick him off the dog again and to hell with the consequences.

    Which reminded her. Tattletale was now ahead of her, riding behind Grue on the one-eyed dog. If there was ever a chance to put that bitch out of Sophia's misery, this was it. Except that as she swung her eyes forward, she realised the flaw in her plan. Tattletale was riding behind Grue, who was still generating his damnable darkness. A totally non-dimensional featureless cloud of pure blackness, it fucked with her eyes almost as badly as it fucked with her powers.

    Sophia absolutely loathed being outmanoeuvred. Even while she'd thought she was careful in laying her plans, Tattletale had apparently been reading them in advance. The blonde cow had, as a result, set matters up so Sophia couldn't betray them without screwing herself over. For a moment she was tempted to fire a dart into the darkness by guesswork anyway, but then she recalled Regent behind her. As oblivious as the jerk was most of the time, he was sure to notice if she started taking pot-shots at his team-mates. And she most certainly hadn't forgotten about his sceptre. One jab of that in her ribs, and she'd be left twitching on the ground.

    Grue yelled a single word then, putting all thoughts of gratuitous revenge on hold. “Wards!”

    <><>​

    Thomas Calvert
    Timeline 1


    That's odd. Nothing's wrong with the base at all.

    Leaning back against the wall, Calvert entered another query into his phone, double-checking the data that had already scrolled through it. Infrared and motion sensors for his office were showing that nobody was in the room, while the keylogger in his keyboard registered zero entries since he was last in the base.

    So what happened in the other timeline?

    Calvert didn't know, and he hated not knowing. His power was all about knowing why he shouldn't do something. Currently, all he understood was that searching the PRT databases for actionable intel on Scarab was somehow linked to the self-destruct system in his base deciding to activate. While correlation was not causation, those two events seemed linked in some unfathomable manner. One which was currently bugging the hell out of him.

    Frowning, he went back to tapping on his phone.

    <><>​

    Timeline 2

    “Huh.” Pritchard seemed about to say something more, but she was distracted when the door opened and more people filed into the conference room and started taking the seats against the wall, while one headed up to the podium at the front of the room. “Good, we're starting. About damn time,” she grumbled.

    For all her grousing, he could almost feel her starting to relax in anticipation of the actual briefing. But the guy at the podium wasn't Piggot, but her deputy. Renick, Calvert thought the guy was called. No ambition; from all reports, the guy was happy to be the second in charge. Coil had never been happy taking orders from anyone. The natural order, he figured, was the other way around. Is he going to be giving the briefing?

    “Director Piggot asked me to pass on her apologies,” Renick said, almost as if he was aware of Calvert's inner thoughts. “She had to take a call; a situation is developing across town. In the meantime, each of you should find a copy of the material we'll be covering on the table in front of you.”

    A situation across town? Automatically, Calvert picked up the stack of paper and looked at the front of it, but his attention was elsewhere. That had to be Shadow Stalker, hitting the jewellery store with the Undersiders. He wondered if she'd discovered the truth about the tranquilliser darts she'd been supplied with. With any luck at all, she'd be oblivious to it until she was well and truly locked into his service, and the Undersiders with her.

    And then the door opened and closed once more. He heard Piggot's familiar, halting step. It was a sound he'd actually recorded and listened to over and over, until he could pick it out anywhere. After all, with any luck, he'd get the chance to hunt her down in a darkened building sometime, tracking her by sound and wit. Well, he'd actually done that a time or three for stress relief, but he wanted to do it in a timeline he didn't have to drop.

    “Attention, everyone.” Piggot didn't bother clearing her throat or starting with any vague courtesies. The woman shot from the hip; it was one of the few things he admired about her. “You're all busy people, so I won't waste your time.” She pulled the pistol from the holster at her hip. “One of you is a traitor. You will all place your hands on the table in plain view.”

    Fuuuck! Calvert caught the look of triumph on her face as her gaze locked on to his. He went to jump to his feet, but all too late; the soft thud-thud on the carpet behind him was inevitably followed by the gurgling hiss of containment foam. Specifically, containment foam expanding from the grenades that had been dropped … by the people who'd come in later, and sat down right behind him.

    The whole 'hands on the table' ploy had been a distraction, as had Piggot herself. She'd spoken loudly, abrasively, getting everyone's attention. Allowing the PRT guards to pull out grenades, pop the pins, and gently roll them under his chair.

    “The fuck?” yelped Pritchard as she, too, was enveloped in the rapidly-expanding yellow foam. Calvert ignored her. He clawed his pistol from its holster. The foam climbed past his waist an instant too late and he levelled the weapon at Piggot herself.

    “Fuck you, bi—” he tried to yell defiantly. Even if he was going to be dropping the timeline, he wanted to take her with him. But she fired first. From the hip, even.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1

    The fuck?

    Calvert sat bolt upright on the toilet lid, his eyes wide with shock. Holy fuck, it's a trap! They know about me! I've got to get out of here! At that very moment, he heard the tink-tink of metal on ceramic, and looked down to see two containment foam grenades rolling under the cubicle door. Already in motion, he wrenched open the door and flung himself out of the cubicle, just before the grenades would've trapped him in foam.

    However, he was not yet out of trouble, given that the PRT soldiers who'd used the grenades in the first place were just outside the cubicle. It was hard to tell who was more surprised; they obviously hadn't been expecting him to hit the ground running like that, and he hadn't even known they were there. One was armed with a containment foam dispenser, while the other had a rifle.

    “Sir,” the one with the rifle began, “we have orders to—”

    Calvert didn't let him finish. It was probably only something like 'take you alive', but he didn't care. His choices were to swing out around to the right past the guy with the con-foam, or to go down the middle. Going left would leave the con-foam guy wide open to foam both his buddy and Calvert, and he knew damn well that PRT troops were trained to do just that if they had to; con-foam was non-lethal and afforded a certain measure of protection to downed allies, after all.

    There were only two good options, so he went with both.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.1

    Going down the middle turned out to be a no-show. These two guys had obviously worked together, and the con-foam guy blocked him while the rifle guy butt-stroked him in the face.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2

    Going right worked better; he tackled the con-foam guy around the neck and brought him to the ground while the rifle guy was still trying to get in close and give his buddy some assistance. Twisting around, Calvert got a hand on the con-foam sprayer and blasted yellow foam across the bathroom, slathering the rifle guy in the stuff.

    The con-foam guy let go the sprayer then, and went for the pistol he was wearing. But Calvert was older, more experienced, and had his power as a fallback. Struggling for the pistol didn't work, as the guy was stronger than him. But he could hold him off from lining it up just long enough to pull his own pistol and tuck it up under the man's chin. The shot was muffled; the guy spasmed once then went limp. Blood had sprayed back on to Calvert's hand, but he didn't care in the slightest.

    Disentangling himself from the dead man, Calvert came to his feet. If this was a movie, he thought fleetingly, he'd don the guy's uniform and walk out of there. But reality didn't work like that. Back when he was a field officer, he'd needed his uniforms and armour made to order; this guy was six inches shorter and about a hundred pounds heavier than him. He collected the dead man's pistol but didn't bother with trying to claim the rifle or the con-foam sprayer, as one was stuck in containment foam and the other would be far too unwieldy to run with.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1

    Yanking open the bathroom door, Calvert took off at a dead run in the direction away from the conference room. He got a dozen yards before the whoop-whoop-whoop of the PRT building intruder alarm went off.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.2

    Opening the bathroom door more cautiously, Calvert moved off at a steady jog in the direction away from the conference room. He only got five yards before the whoop-whoop-whoop of the PRT building intruder alarm went off. Using the other timeline to spring traps was one of the first tricks he'd learned.

    <><>​

    PRT Building
    Wards Area
    Taylor


    I washed my hands, then splashed water on my face to rinse off the residue of the sweat that I'd been feeling all the way through the speech. I really needed a shower, but that would have to wait until I could get home. Or maybe until I could requisition a towel and some clothes. Just as I was leaving the bathroom for the main Wards area, I heard a low whoop-whoop-whoop sound, quite unlike any fire alarm I'd ever heard before. At the same time, the door out into the corridor locked with a very solid ch-CHAK.

    “What was that?” I asked. Almost instinctively, I began tallying the impressions of the bugs that were naturally scattered throughout the building. While the PRT had done their best to fumigate the place after the Swarmbringer scare, they hadn't been nearly as thorough as they might have imagined.

    Nothing seemed to be wrong. At least, there was no smoke or fire on any floor I could find, and none of my bugs were hearing the sharp reports of gunfire. Nor were any parts of the building being broken or otherwise damaged—once again, that I could find.

    “Intruder alarm,” Vista said briskly, not turning from where she sat at the console. “We've got someone in the building who shouldn't be here, so all the floors are locking down. Only people with special overrides can get anywhere now.”

    “Well, that's good, isn't it?” Dad tried to sound hopeful, though he probably didn't think I noticed him moving to stand between me and the door. “They should catch whoever it is pretty quickly.”

    “Sure,” the youngest Ward agreed, though there seemed to be an edge to her tone that suggested otherwise. “Of course, the intruder may have a special override of their own. Anything can be acquired by anyone if you throw enough money at the problem.”

    Dad didn't answer straight away, though I saw him give her a look of respect. Amy spoke up instead. “Uh, do you think this has happened?”

    “I don't know.” Vista sounded frustrated. “Every exercise we've done, they've caught the guy in less time than this. Let's just say it's a possibility. Give me a second here.” She took a deep breath. “Be advised, this is a Code Purple situation. Investigate, do not engage.”

    For a moment, I was confused, then I recalled what Dragon had told me. Vista was probably talking to someone else who was going to deal with Shadow Stalker. Silently I wished them all the luck, then I glanced at the ceiling.

    I hope they catch the intruder soon.

    <><>​

    Hillside Mall
    Clockblocker


    Be advised, this is a Code Purple situation.” Vista's voice was calm and professional over the earpiece radio. “Investigate, do not engage.” Dennis wondered if she practised sounding so cool and collected.

    “Roger,” Carlos replied. “Investigate, do not engage. Aegis, out.”

    He came in for a landing just outside the mall entrance, slowing down so that Dennis could find his balance, then they sprinted the last few yards. Dennis knew quite well that Aegis could've flown right up to the doors, but electric eye sensors tended to act weird around flying people. In addition, he was being a good team leader and not splitting the group.

    The doors hissed open and they stepped inside, just in time to see a bunch of monsters barrelling down the shop-lined corridor toward them. Dennis had heard of the Undersiders, but he'd never encountered them before. The girl wearing the plastic dime store dog mask had to be Hellhound, given that she was riding astride something that looked like a cross between a rhino, a dinosaur and an angry alligator. Two more were running on either side of it, creating an effect not unlike staring up at an oncoming avalanche and wondering if one had time to kiss one's ass goodbye. Hellhound's power, Dennis decided, must absolutely hate dogs if it did that to them.

    He forced his mind back to the topic at hand, just as he heard someone shout “Wards!” It might've been someone on one of the dogs, but he couldn't be sure.

    “What do we do?” he asked Aegis, because there surely wasn't time to call in to the console for advice or orders.

    “Get outside!” his team leader snapped, then grabbed one of the glass doors. “When I've got these closed, freeze them!” He began to pull, his augmented strength overcoming the resistance of the door motors, as Dennis darted over to the other one. It was a smart idea; blocking the monster dogs without engaging them. Aegis' time as Triumph's understudy hadn't been wasted.

    They had the doors half-closed, with Carlos doing most of the work, when someone stood up on the back of one of the monster dog things. In the excitement, Dennis had allowed himself to temporarily forget an important fact: specifically, that Shadow Stalker was robbing the place as one of the Undersiders.

    This omission was rapidly brought home to him when the figure—wearing an urban camo outfit unlike Stalker's edgy black costume, but with a similar hooded cloak—turned to Stalker's trademark shadowy fog. Wispy lines seemed to connect her with Aegis, who grunted as two stubby darts struck him in the face; once in the left eye and again in the cheek. A third pinged off his chest armour, then he let out an agonised cry and doubled over.

    Eye shots had never bothered Aegis before; in fact, he had a collection of eyepatches that he enjoyed using to ham any eye injury up with until it healed. Thus, Dennis was so shocked by his team leader actually taking a hit that he nearly didn't register Stalker going solid again. She took two running steps forward, planted her foot in the middle of the creature's face and dived off of it toward him, adding its speed to hers.

    When they were both Wards, she'd sparred with him occasionally and had beaten him soundly each time. That was without the use of powers, of course; with powers, such a spar would turn into a mockery of a fight. This time, however, she was coming right toward him, and he had no obligation not to use his powers to freeze her to the spot. Crouching slightly, he flexed his fingertips. No matter what happened, if she came within reach of him, he was gonna shut her down hard. Then he'd freeze his own costume, to make sure—

    Instants before he would've made contact, she went to shadow and washed straight through him. He had just enough time to think Oh, that's just not fair! before he felt the sting behind his knee, where the thicker body armour didn't cover. A wave of lassitude swept through his body, beginning with that leg. As his knee buckled, he fell sideways … right into the path of the dog. Acting on pure instinct, he grabbed the thing's leg as it bore down on him. His power had never seemed to take so long to kick in before. An unbearable weight slammed down on his chest, and he felt his body armour buckle and snap. His ribs, too, if he was any judge. Then … stillness. Looming above him, poised on one paw, the dog was frozen in mid-stride. Vaguely, he heard a high-pitched yell of surprise and a thud, but he wasn't sure who it had come from.

    He was aware that his power was the only reason he was alive right then, and as soon as it wore off that situation would change. As the last shreds of his consciousness drifted away, he registered one final thought.

    Shoulda frozen my costume …

    <><>​

    Sophia

    Pausing a few yards on, Sophia looked back. Aegis was writhing on the ground, Clockblocker was literally under the paw of the monster dog she'd been riding with Regent, which was now frozen in place. Regent was lying sprawled in front of said dog; the sudden stop had probably dismounted him with a vengeance. She smirked at the idea. Good.

    “What the fuck was that?” yelled Bitch, pointing at her frozen dog.

    “Calm down, he'll go back to normal in a minute or so,” Grue told her, then jumped off his dog. Picking up Regent—the wimp looked unconscious, and one of his arms dangled oddly—he slung the smaller boy over the dog. His head turned toward Sophia. “You're a menace,” he said coldly, his voice echoing in his darkness. “When we get back to base, I'm calling the boss. You're off the team if I've got anything to say about it.”

    “Well, you can take your phone call to the boss and shove it—” began Sophia, but was interrupted.

    “Hey!” yelled Tattletale. “We've got to go! Capes incoming!” She pointed at the sky, where a gold-and-white figure was arrowing downward. Worse (in Sophia's estimation), the very distinctive sound of Armsmaster's motorbike was audible in the distance, and growing in volume.

    “Fuck!” Grue scrambled on to his dog again. “Rachel, we've got to go!”

    “But Brutus!” protested the stocky redhead. “I can't leave him!”

    “They won't hurt him!” Tattletale shouted. “We can't fight! We have to run!”

    With one last stricken look at the still-frozen dog, Bitch let out a shrill whistle, and the dogs jolted into motion. Sophia ran toward them, but Grue stretched out his arm and she was overwhelmed with a wave of pitch blackness, causing her to stumble and fight for breath. It cleared seconds later, but by then they were gone.

    “Fuck!” Coughing from the after-effects of Grue's darkness, she turned to run. She got two steps before a freight train slammed into her; in the next instant, she felt her feet leave the ground. Slim arms that may as well have been steel girders imprisoned her own arms to her sides.

    “Not so fucking fast, Shadow Stalker.” Glory Girl's voice was low and deadly, and her fear aura hammered at Sophia's will. She'd rarely felt terror like this before, and it made her want to curl up in a ball and hide from the world. “You're gonna pay for what you've done.”

    What Sophia did next, she did from sheer instinct. Which wasn't to say she wouldn't have done it anyway, given time to consider her optimal move. Nor was it guaranteed that she'd be regretting the move after she did it. Sophia rarely regretted anything she did. But it was a fact that had she waited until she could muster coherent thought, Sophia wouldn't have had the chance to act at all.

    The last of Grue's pseudo-darkness flushed from her body and she went to shadow. Pulling the shadow-knife from its sheath, she stabbed hard, then returned to her solid form with the knife still buried in Glory Girl's ribs. Glory Girl screamed and flailed, sending Sophia flying away with the feeling that she'd had maybe a rib or two popped.

    Returning to shadow, Sophia watched Glory Girl crash-land near the entrance to the mall. As she glided away on the wind, Armsmaster pulled up beside the fallen heroes. He was there to deal with it, so they weren't Sophia's problem any more. The first chance she got, she was going to call up Calvert and fill him in, then get his permission to end the Undersiders, once and for all. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have had to do that.

    <><>​

    Thomas Calvert
    Timeline 1.2.1


    He knew he had to get out of the building. That was the end goal. Thomas Calvert would vanish into the ether, and Coil would become his primary identity until he could get set up with a different face and name. But all that would come later. Right now, he had right now to deal with.

    Elevator or stairs? He picked both.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.1

    The public elevators were not the only way to get up and down in the PRT building. Calvert eased up to the corner, then ducked his head around, pistols at the ready. A guard stood in front of the elevator, some ten yards down the corridor. One guard; this was his best chance.

    Coming around the corner like a rampaging army, he ran toward the man at his best speed. Surprise worked in his favour; he covered three yards before the guard even became aware of him, and another five before the rifle started to come up in his direction. Calvert tackled the man, wincing at the solid impact of bone and muscle against body armour. Knocked off balance, the soldier went down hard. He couldn't have been too winded, though, as he almost immediately tried to get the rifle barrel across Calvert's throat.

    PRT soldiers wore athletic cups as part of their regular outfit, so Calvert didn't even try to knee him in the groin. But he was agile and stronger than he looked, and he wasn't weighed down with cumbersome armour. In a fight against two opponents, this would be a suicidal move, but against one it could work.

    Fending off the man's attempts to get the upper hand, Calvert worked his way around behind the soldier and locked his arm around the man's throat. He ignored the struggles and clawing at his arm; the soldier's armour worked against him in this situation. When the soldier tried to angle his rifle to shoot Calvert, he took one hand away from the chokehold long enough to deflect the barrel. Moments later, the soldier was limp on the ground. He didn't have the time to kill him with a chokehold, but the soldier had a belt knife which Calvert used to cut his throat.

    Climbing to his feet, he slung the rifle over his shoulder and retrieved the pistols. Swiping his pilfered all-access pass—while he hadn't had exactly this situation in mind when he acquired it all those months ago, it was certainly useful as an ace in the hole—he hit the button and waited for the elevator to arrive.

    It did, in relatively short order. Once he verified it was empty (from behind an aimed rifle) he stepped inside. Do I go up or down? he asked himself, on the verge of dropping the other timeline.

    That was when the hidden nozzles activated and filled the elevator with containment foam.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2

    There were more stairwells in the building than elevator shafts. Calvert had at one point gotten his hands on a set of plans that outlined them all, even the ones that never made it on to the official blueprints. The main stairwells were guarded, of course. There were probably soldiers in the stairwells as well, which would turn any sort of attempt to go up or down into a running firefight. The problem was, he had limited ammunition, and he couldn't count on killing his adversaries fast enough to replenish it as needed.

    The trick, of course, was to win the fight without ever firing a shot. Calvert had never actually managed to pull that trick off, but it was theoretically possible. Step one would be to get off this floor, and into a location where the searching forces would never find him. Even maximising the use of his power, he couldn't hope to stay ahead of them forever.

    Rifle up and ready, he burst into the male bathroom that his mental map told him he needed to be in. Fortunately both for him and any theoretical foes, the facility was empty. Moving with quick strides, he went to a part of the wall between the washbasins and the first urinal. There was an innocuous door in the wall marked CLEANERS ONLY. Opening it revealed a grimy closet. However, when he swiped his all-access card across an innocuous nail hole in the rear of the closet, the back wall hinged away and he stepped through.

    He wasn't worried about anyone tracking or tracing the all-access card. Since acquiring it, he'd gone into the PRT servers and set up a program to delete any instance of that particular card being used from the server records. However, he'd always been extremely cagey about using it, just in case alarm bells went off anyway.

    Closing both the inner and outer closet doors, he sagged back against the wall and took several deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heartbeat. He wasn't out of the woods quite yet, but he was now several steps ahead of his pursuers. There were two ways out of this, so once again he tried both.

    <><>​

    PRT Building
    Wards Base
    Amy


    Console, Armsmaster. I'm at Hillside Mall.” Armsmaster's voice was ragged, as though he was exerting himself. “Clockblocker, Aegis and Glory Girl are down, all needing immediate and urgent medical care. All possible assistance required, ASAP. Armsmaster, out.”

    Amy jumped to her feet, terror for her sister overriding every other thought in her head. “Vicky!” she exclaimed. “Shit! I've got to get there!”

    Vista immediately activated her microphone. “PRT Console, this is Wards Console. I have Panacea in the Wards base. Requesting permission to release her to assist Armsmaster, over.”

    The reply took a few more seconds than Amy had expected, and was not what she wanted to hear. “Negative, Wards Console. PRT building is still on lockdown. Nobody gets in or out, over.” The voice was warm, motherly … and full of regret.

    “What? No!” Amy started toward Vista, her voice pleading. “Tell her to let us out! I've got to help Vicky and the others!”

    Vista shook her head. “Won't help. Lockdown. It's regulations.” Taking a deep breath, she stood up and removed her headset. “But in a situation like this, fuck regulations. Those are my team-mates out there, too.”

    <><>​

    Thomas Calvert
    Timeline 1.2.1.2.1


    The stairwell was narrow and the ceiling low; Calvert had to keep ducking his head so as not to bump it on the overhead brickwork. He didn't enjoy stairs at the best of times but as an activity, going down stairs that were both steep and narrow was now on his personal shit-list. Still, if he could get down to the garage level and steal a vehicle he'd be home free.

    The third floor went by, then the second, then the first. His knees and ankles were aching by now, from the strain of moving quietly enough that he'd hear boots coming upstairs or following him down. He'd heard nothing at all, which indicated they were trusting on the system alerting them if the concealed stairwells were used. More fool them. If and when he came back under a different identity and took control of the Brockton Bay PRT—not a very likely scenario now, but one he held near and dear to his heart—he'd institute a much more secure system than the one currently in place. But for now, he was going to take full advantage of what was there.

    Finally, he arrived at the garage level. Pistol in hand, he swiped the all-access card to open the concealed exit—another maintenance closet—and stepped out. Right into the path of a spray of containment foam.

    Knocked off his feet by the force of the stream, he struggled to bring the firearm to bear, but it seemed his assailant had planned for that. Before they even stepped into sight, his arm was utterly entangled. Military boots sounded on concrete, and Miss Militia came into view. “Thought you might come this way,” she said with some satisfaction. Touching her radio earpiece, she added, “Miss Militia here. Target engaged and subdued.”

    Fuck.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2.2

    He was all out of options, bar one. A rooftop rescue was a possibility, but his men needed time to get out to the private airfield, get the chopper ready, and bring it into the city. In the meantime, he needed a place to hide where nobody would find him, and a way to get on to the roof past security once his ride did arrive. Fortunately, he had a plan in mind for both eventualities. As a bonus, it would allow him to take some much-needed revenge. Getting Piggot out of the way for his eventual return was just icing on the cake.

    Climbing the narrow staircase in the musty, dusty near-darkness was even worse than going down. He couldn't stand straight upright for fear of bashing his skull open on the rough brickwork overhead, and keeping his head up to scan for low-hanging obstacles was putting a massive crick in his neck. Once I'm away, I'm going to engage the services of the best massage therapist I can find. That he'd actually get away, he never doubted for a moment. The majority of the people working in the building were unpowered, which gave him a distinct advantage over them. They had numbers on their side, but he'd evaded them three times now.

    The irritating part was that he was actually fit; as a strike team leader, he had to be. If this had been an ordinary set of stairs, he would've breezed it with little difficulty. But the narrowness and claustrophobia, not to mention the low ceiling, conspired to make life difficult for him. He tried to imagine Piggot, with all her extra weight, huffing and panting her bulk up or down these stairs, and simply couldn't. She'd barely make one flight before she collapsed in a heap of sweat and blubber. Back in the day, he knew, it would've been different. How the mighty have fallen.

    Finally, he reached the top floor. He eased his way out of the secret entrance, wary of a trap similar to the one Miss Militia had set for him. But there was only one Miss Militia, and she was still fruitlessly guarding the exit in the garage level. Nobody else, it seemed, had chosen to guard the concealed stairwells. He was tempted to castigate them in absentia for their idiocy, but decided to wait until he was free and clear, and away from this place.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2.2.1

    Heaving the door open, he burst out into the corridor, pistol swinging both ways. Nothing opposed him, so he set out on a dead sprint down the corridor, pistol in one hand and all-access card in the other. With every soft thudding step on the thick carpet, he expected to hear a shout of alarm, but there was nothing.

    For a stroke of luck, nobody was in the corridor. Of course, there was more to it than luck. All exits from this floor were being monitored, of that he had no doubt. The concealed stairwells were just being watched electronically. It seemed his hidden program was doing its work perfectly; he just hadn't accounted for the possibility of someone making a wild-ass guess and getting it right. Well, that's what second chances are for.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2.2.2

    Pistol up and ready, he inched the bathroom door open and ducked his head out, checking both ways before pulling back. Nobody attacked either version of himself, so he exited the bathroom. Moving as silently as he could, he eased down the corridor, listening intently. No voices caught his ear, no crackle of static over an improperly tuned radio. It didn't sound as though there was anyone on the floor at all.

    Time, he decided, for a Hail Mary pass for his Hail Mary pass. Heading for the nearest stairwell, he kicked off his shoes and cracked the door open a fraction. If he could get down far enough that jumping out of a window was survivable, he intended to give that the old college try. It was only supposition that they even had soldiers in the stairwells, after all; solid supposition, but supposition all the same. They couldn't know he was coming from above them, so he might even be able to surprise them.

    One step at a time, he went down the stairs. Nostrils quivered as he tried to pick up the smell of human sweat and cologne. Mouth half-open, he listened as intently as he could. In the echoes that permeated the concrete stairwell, he thought he could just barely hear voices. They were too far away to tell for sure, though.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2.2.1

    And there it was. Emily Piggot's office; or rather, the back entrance thereof. A remarkably nondescript door, it allowed the Director to enter and leave without gaining the attention of those who might have demands on her time. It was also code-locked.

    Well, that was what the all-access card was for. He swiped the code panel and the red LED switched to green. In the next moment, he had the door open and was inside. Careful to not even let it click shut, he eased the door closed once more. In the dimness of the short corridor that led to Piggot's office proper, he allowed himself the luxury of momentary relaxation. Slowly, his racing heartbeat returned to something approximating normality.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2.2.2

    It was sheer bad luck that the stairwell door opened just as he was passing it. He turned fast, jabbing with the butt of his rifle up under the helmet visor. Done right, it would send the recipient directly into dreamland. His aim was true; the soldier went over backward … and dropped his rifle. Its butt hit carpet … and the barrel hit concrete. The clatter was thunderous in his ears.

    “What was that?” The query came from below. “Who's up there?”

    Calvert bolted down the stairs, taking them two at a time. If he could shut the guy up before he could report on the noise …

    Unfortunately, the soldier had evidently figured out exactly what the noise was. As Calvert leaped down to the next landing, the soldier opened fire. Of the thirty-round magazine, seventeen bullets hit him, half a dozen in centre mass.

    <><>​

    Timeline 1.2.1.2.2.1

    There was no light coming from under the door ahead of him; this meant Piggot's office lights were out. Which in turn meant she wasn't there. No doubt she was still in the conference room, trying to coordinate the search for him. Sorry, Emily. I'm three steps ahead of you. I'm in your safe space.

    All he had to do was conceal himself in her office so that when she eventually returned, he could take her hostage. She was notorious for not seeing people she didn't want to see, so it shouldn't be too hard to keep her incommunicado for an hour or three. And once he had word the chopper was on the way, he'd walk her up to the roof. Done smoothly enough, nobody would dare foam them—a bullet at close range was faster—and they wouldn't have time to set up a sniper position.

    Emily would, of course, have to come on the chopper with him. The temptation to shoot it down would be too great, otherwise. Once she was secure and under proper medical care, he could set about extracting from her all the secrets of the PRT he was not yet privy to. This, he decided, was going to take days. Vengeance, he knew from experience, was always sweeter when taken slowly and with great care. And maybe he'd have his hunt, after all.

    Opening the door at the end of the corridor, he strode through into the empty office. Now, where's a good place to—

    The taser prongs struck him in the middle of the back. An instant later, the current literally knocked him off his feet. Lying there, twitching as electricity coursed through his body, he was vaguely aware of the bulky form of Emily Piggot as she got up from the chair she'd been sitting in, right beside the door he'd just entered by. Sitting there in the dark, patiently waiting for him.

    “They don't know you, Calvert,” she said coldly and dispassionately as she toed the pistol away from his hand. He tried to reach for the one holstered at his waist, but she pressed the trigger on the taser again, causing him to convulse uncontrollably. While he was trying to recover, she relieved him of his other weapons. “Not like I do. You're a twisty snake. Always trying to strike from an unexpected direction.”

    Her foot moved again; too late, he realised it was a kick. As out of shape as she was, she could still put some solid weight behind it. The toe of her shoe sank into his solar plexus and he doubled up, gagging. She kicked him again, this time in the face; he felt his nose break.

    “And you've always been one to hold a grudge,” she went on. She gave him another dose from the taser, leaving his muscles feeling like liquefied jelly. “I can understand that.” Putting the taser carefully on the chair, she pulled something from her pocket and fitted it on to her hand. A dull glint clued him in. Brass knuckles. “I'm much the same way.”

    Stepping over his prone body, she straddled him. In another time and place, with a different person, this may have actually been fun. Here and now, it was anything but. Settling down on to his chest, she pinned his arms to the floor with her knees and looked down at him. Even without the effect of multiple electrical shocks on his body, he would've hardly been able to move; with it, he was helpless. “You came into my city. You infiltrated my PRT building. You subverted my Ward. And you were going to try to kill me.”

    The first blow fractured his cheekbone before he could explain that he'd only intended to take her hostage. Then torture information out of her. Then kill her. Oh, right.

    The second smashed his eyesocket. The third broke his jaw. For a woman, he decided distantly, she could punch.

    By the fourth blow, which scattered his teeth across the floor, he felt the phone in his back pocket start to vibrate.

    The fifth blow sent him unconscious.



    End of Part Fourteen

    Part Fifteen
     
    Last edited: Aug 2, 2018
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  9. Xahn

    Xahn Not too sore, are you?

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    Man Coil getting curb-stomped by Piggot might just be my favorite scene in a Worm fic yet.
     
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  10. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Let's just say ... stress relief.
     
  11. preier

    preier Know what you're doing yet?

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    the focus on coil was annoying but the payoff was more than worth it. thanks emily

    so... Sophia is going to learn she killed 3 to 5 persons? i did NOT expect to feel pity for her at that point. well done Ack, well done.
     
  12. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    She's gonna learn that.

    Then she's gonna learn that she's also legally liable for the 273 people killed in the Swarmbringer attack.

    That's when she's gonna start wondering how to appear less predatorial. Like, not at all.
     
  13. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Hmmm...
    NO! Not that type of stress relief!

    Now excuse me as I apply a liberal amount of brain-bleach to forget that image.
    :p:D
     
    Last edited: May 10, 2018
  14. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

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    Shit! I don't think I've ever seen a fic where both Clockblocker and Glory Girl were potentially killed ever. :eek: Well played Ack you've set another new standard that others are going to likely follow :p
     
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  15. easlyamused

    easlyamused Getting sticky.

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    Don't forget that Vista is breaking protocol to get Amy to the mall. That will definitely save Glory Girl and possibly save Clockblocker. The lady in the bathroom and the security guards are most definitely dead.
     
  16. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    The poison is not 100% certain to be immediately lethal, so there's definitely a small chance that one or more of them will survive long enough to be saved.
     
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  17. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

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    Mainly depends if full brain death has occurred. Amy can pretty much jump start the rest of the body, but the brain is very tricky (even ignoring all of Amy's hangups about the brain).
     
  18. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    Let's not forget another domino in this chain, that Sophia knows the Undersiders had her gear box in hands prior to the mission. I expect she'll blame them, at first.
     
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  19. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    Sophia's 'op' is now well and truly blown. I expect her to now call Calvert asking to come in from the cold. I'm very interested in what he's going to say to her to convince her not to - because she obviously can't come back from her non-existent undercover assignment, and if he refuses to do it her next step will be to call Piggot or Armsmaster, who notionally are in on the supposed mission, and either of them would be very, very interested in learning that she thinks she's on an official assignment under the orders of one Thomas Calvert.
     
  20. preier

    preier Know what you're doing yet?

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    Thomas is not going to say anything intelligible for some time, i feel.
     
  21. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    *blink, blink*
    *facepalm*
    How did I forget that? I read the chapter a week ago.
     
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  22. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

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    It's even better macdjord because now Piggot and Armsmaster likely have Calvert's cellphone, and guess who Sophia might try calling soon. :D
     
  23. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

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    Calvert's cell vibrated at the end of the update.
    And the last Sophia scene was her getting her phone out to get Calverts permission to end the Undersiders.
     
  24. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    On second thought, there may be yet another domino in Coil's chain: what if the venoms in the "tranquiliser" darts… are from insects and arachnids?
     
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  25. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

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    Taylor was literally somewhere else when this was happening.


    Also, unless it was something truly lethal, I doubt any insect poison is going to do the damage it did to Aegis.
     
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  26. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    Taylor has access to plenty of nasty toxins (widow and recluse at the least, before you get into things like speedballing them), and she absolutely could control insects to make them dispense venom far more easily and repeatably than mundane techs. She didn't, here, sure, but that's not what matters for a smear-job…actual framing will fail, given the ArmsLieDetector is on side.
     
    Last edited: May 26, 2018
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  27. Threadmarks: Part Fifteen: Doubling Down
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The Price of Blood

    Part Fifteen: Doubling Down

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



    Christ, what a mess.

    Armsmaster skidded the bike to a halt as Glory Girl crashed into the ground nearby. Her keening cry of pain tugged at him, but at least she was alive. “Glory Girl!” he bellowed. “Lie still! Do not move! I will get to you!” Hopefully, she wouldn't bleed out before he did.

    Triage was ruthless, but sometimes it was the only way to save someone if you couldn't save everyone. In this case, he intended to do the impossible anyway. His halberd came off of his back and hummed to power as he ran toward where Clockblocker lay under the paw of the frozen dog. Bracing himself, he prepared to swing the halberd. “Dragon, countdown for Clockblocker. Also, monitor Glory Girl's life signs.” He shot a side-glance at where Aegis lay writhing on the ground. Hopefully his body would get around whatever had been done to him, but in case it didn't … “And Aegis', too. And connect me through to base.”

    Five seconds to minimum time,” she told him. “Three. Two. She's alive but not looking good. He's suffering some sort of seizure. Giving you the override channel now.”

    Well, he'd known that. As he slashed with the halberd, the plasma-edged blade sliced through asphalt and concrete like a hot knife through styrofoam. His only chance in this case—Clockblocker's only chance—was if he destroyed what the boy was lying on and dragged him out before the Ward's power timer ended. “Console, Armsmaster. I'm at Hillside Mall. Clockblocker, Aegis and Glory Girl are down, all needing immediate and urgent medical care. All possible assistance required, ASAP. Armsmaster, out.” He swung and sliced, swung and sliced. All the while, he kept one eye on the dog, and another on the heart rate monitors Dragon had set up to project into his HUD. Not his heart, and not Clockblocker's. Glory Girl's and Aegis'.

    Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight.” Dragon attempted to keep her voice dispassionate, but Armsmaster heard the desperation underneath. “Colin, Glory Girl's going into shock, and Aegis isn't getting any better.”

    As her words registered with him, Armsmaster jammed the halberd into the concrete with the haft under the dog's chest, in the hope that it would take the weight in case the massive animal unfroze in the next few seconds. Then he dropped to his knees and took hold of Clockblocker's shoulders. The boy's body armour had saved his life to this point, but it was notably indented; there were almost certainly life-threatening injuries beneath.

    Taking one deep breath, he pulled, determined to make the motion as smooth as possible. There was a grating sound, and for a horrible instant he thought it was Clockblocker's ribs. But, no, the pieces of smoking gravel that had once been concrete had begun to grind over one another. Clockblocker's armour caught on something, and the Protectorate leader gritted his teeth and heaved a little harder. If I exacerbate his injuries too far … But it was either that or chance leaving him under the dog until it unfroze, and if he did that the boy was dead.

    A moment later, with another tug, Clockblocker moved again. To Colin's relief, the Ward slid freely out from under the massive, gnarled weapon that had once been a dog's paw. Aware that they weren't out of danger yet, Armsmaster continued to drag him across the asphalt as smoothly as he could manage. As soon as they were out from under the creature, he pulled the boy sideways to get out of its projected path. He then dropped to his knees beside the Ward and reached out his hand. Built into the side of Clockblocker's helmet was a life-signs monitor touch panel; the Tinker's gauntlet had the corresponding reader for just such a case as this. Colin's lips thinned as he looked over the data. Some damage had obviously been done, but at least the boy had a heartbeat and was breathing on his own. There was likely some internal bleeding, but he was alive and out of extremely immediate danger.

    Just as Armsmaster formed that thought, there was a loud snap and a thunder of motion. He whipped his head around just in time for him to see the gigantic dog-monster as it galloped off down the road. To his chagrin, part of the halberd's haft was still embedded in its chest (though it didn't seem to hinder the monster dog in the slightest). The rest of his halberd stuck forlornly out of the concrete where he'd left it.

    There wasn't time to assess the damage to his prized halberd, or even to dwell on it. "Dragon, link to Clockblocker's vitals," he said as he rose to his feet. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't have left the the boy's side for an instant until the paramedics arrived on site, but these were the farthest thing from normal circumstances.

    Done.” Dragon's voice was terse. Another set of vital signs readouts appeared in his HUD. The tiny clock-face emblem that showed up next to them was obviously intended to denote Clockblocker's identity, just as the miniature starburst and the helmet indicated Glory Girl and Aegis respectively, but he felt it was unduly ominous, as if the boy's life was ticking down.

    Five long strides got him to Glory Girl's side, where she lay partly on her stomach. The hilt of the knife protruded from her lower back, not far from the spine. Keening painfully, she writhed in a pool of her own blood as she tried to get a grip on the knife. When she did, she shrieked in pain, let the knife go, and smashed her fist into the ground. High-speed gravel whirred past Armsmaster's helmet.

    “Glory Girl!” he said urgently as he dropped to one knee beside her. The first-aid dispenser on his belt cranked out a section of absorbent bandage, perfect for packing around the knife blade so pressure could be put on the wound. He knew that the knife needed to be left in place for the moment, as it may have severed important blood vessels, with the blade as the only plug. “Please lie still! Don't touch the knife! Every time you do, you exacerbate the—”

    That was as far as he got, for when he placed his gauntleted hand on her shoulder, she backfisted him hard. Even with the awkward angle and the effects of the injury, she still hit him in the chestplate with enough force enough to dent it. He flew backward several yards, but instincts garnered from long hours of training came to his aid. Twisting as he landed, he rolled to his feet in a practised motion and moved in again. Red warning lights popped up in his HUD. He set them aside to be checked out later. “Glory Girl!” he shouted. “You have to stay still! I can't treat you like this!”

    A wave of terror washed over him, and he gasped, barely managing to keep control of his own fear response. This had to be Glory Girl's power. There was no real danger here, except from her iron-hard fists. Which, admittedly, were a real problem Although she was flailing aimlessly, her blows were still strong enough to crack concrete. Were she any normal injured person, he would've been able to restrain her long enough to tranquillise her. The trouble was, her power made this tricky in the extreme.

    Footsteps came up behind him and he turned fast. But even as he opened his mouth to warn whoever it was to keep back, he saw it was Panacea and Vista. Farther back, he saw Taylor Hebert at the front of the crowd that had formed near the entrance of the shopping mall.

    “Vicky!” Panacea exclaimed. “My God, what have they done to you?” She started forward, but Armsmaster hurriedly moved to block her way.

    “Be careful,” he warned the two girls. “She's lashing out. She could kill you by accident.” He gritted his teeth as another wave of undirected fear washed over them. “And there's that, too.”

    “Got it,” Vista said. “Panacea, I can make it so you can touch her from here. How quickly can you make her unconscious?”

    “Very quickly, if I have to.” Panacea's voice was grim. “Do it.”

    Colin's eyes ached as the very fabric of space twisted at the behest of a teenage girl. Panacea reached out, into the centre of the distortion. Her arm did not stretch, nor did Glory Girl get any closer to her, but somehow she placed her hand on her sister's arm. It was only a glancing touch, but it was enough. Glory Girl's movements slowed abruptly, as if she were overcome with tiredness. In the next few seconds, she slumped to the ground and lay still. Panacea hurried over and knelt beside her.

    God, I hope that was because of what Panacea did, and not because she just died. A glance at his HUD told him that Glory Girl's heart-rate was still strong, if a little slower than before. Oh, good. “Vista, check on Clockblocker. I'm pretty sure he's got internal injuries. I've got Aegis.” Now that the crisis with Glory Girl was over, he was genuinely worried about the Hispanic Ward. Over the last few years, he'd seen the boy more or less ignore a bullet wound in the head, a four-foot length of rebar through the chest and the traumatic removal of his left leg and part of his pelvis. The most he'd done about the latter, once it was stitched back into place, was to complain about walking funny until it all knitted again. Whatever had been done to him this time wasn't visible, which made Armsmaster wonder what the hell had been done, and why wasn't he adapting to get around it?

    Not unlike Glory Girl, young Carlos's movements were also involuntary and violent. Fortunately, he wasn't nearly as strong as the ex-New Wave Alexandria package, so Armsmaster found it easy to hold him down. It was impossible to get a read on him through the helmet. Not surprisingly, considering nobody had thought it necessary to equip him with any sort of vital-signs monitoring. Reaching back to one of his less-used pouches, Armsmaster dug out a domino mask, then unclipped Aegis' helmet and laid it to one side. With a practised move, he applied the mask before taking the time to examine the boy.

    The first thing he noticed was a foreign object protruding from Aegis' left eye. Reaching out, he took hold of the thing and pulled carefully. The faint sucking sound made him vaguely nauseous, but when the object came free, it revealed itself to be some kind of small dart. Armsmaster frowned in puzzlement. It was unlikely in the extreme that this dart on its own was responsible for Aegis' state. Besides, even if it was Tinkertech, Aegis' life signs hadn't begun to recover now that it was out. This worried him.

    Colin, Clockblocker's vitals are starting to fade.” Dragon's voice was urgent.

    At the same time, Vista spoke up, her voice high and frightened. “Armsmaster, I can't find his pulse!”

    Armsmaster's eyes flicked to the appropriate spot in the HUD. He subvocalised a curse as he saw the line flattening out. Aegis was still in a bad way and getting worse, but at least he had a heartbeat. While Vista's fears about Clockblocker weren't totally realised—there were still life signs, just very weak ones—the boy didn't have long. “Panacea!” he shouted as he jumped to his feet and strode over toward the white-armoured Ward. “We need you now!”

    “Nearly … done,” grunted the ex-New Wave healer. “Knife's out, just need to make sure she doesn't bleed out.”

    “No time!” Armsmaster had once done a time-and-motion study on Panacea's healing techniques, and her average wound treatment procedure tended to run on for at least a minute, especially if there were vital organs involved or she was trying not to leave a scar. With both factors in play, it would be more like ninety seconds. This was time Clockblocker simply didn't have. He slapped the extemporaneous bandage into Vista's palm. “Take this, apply pressure to Glory Girl's wound. Panacea, get here now! That's an order!”

    Leaning over Clockblocker, he flicked the hidden catch that released the body armour the boy wore over his chest and upper abdomen. This armour was severely dented and crushed inward, which didn't bode well for the damage to Clockblocker himself. He lifted it off. Despite himself, his breath hissed between his teeth as he saw the sunken sternum and the obvious signs of broken ribs. But it seemed the diaphragm was undamaged, given the way Clockblocker's chest struggled to rise and fall. What, then …?

    His train of thought was broken as Panacea dropped down on Clockblocker's other side. He ignored her bloodstained hands and her sullen glare alike; all that mattered was to save the boy's life. “Okay, I'm here,” she snapped. “Gonna need some bare skin to work with.”

    It seemed to him that she was unhappy about not being allowed to heal her sister all the way, but that wasn't really a factor at the moment. Clockblocker's gloves were detachable from the rest of the costume—both for practicality and due to a very real concern that any new gloves might end up too thick for his powers to work through—so Armsmaster grabbed the boy's arm and yanked the glove off in one move. There was a dull pop as he did so, and he thought he might have dislocated the teen's wrist or perhaps one of his fingers. Whatever it was, it would be more fixable than death. “Here,” he said as he held out the now-bare hand toward Panacea. She took it and gasped, her eyes taking on a thousand-yard stare.

    “Fuck,” she said out loud. “He's been poisoned. And you know, trod on by a fucking elephant or something. Okay, fixing this shit.”

    “Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked. He'd spent literally years training himself to be able to handle any situation any normal human might find themselves in. This might be a powers-only situation, or it might not. He'd never know if he didn't ask.

    “No … yeah,” she said, visibly changing her mind. “Any injectable stimulants you've got, give 'em to him.” She bit her lip as sweat sheened her forehead. All trace of her previous unhappiness had vanished. “I'm spending ninety percent of my time keeping his damn heart and lungs going.”

    “What sort of poison?” he asked as he took an injector from his belt. He'd designed it to work on himself; at base, if his Tinkertech was removed, he was only human. With this in mind, he intended to take every single advantage he could garner anyway. A burst of energy at the right time could be a life-saver, no matter the cost later on.

    “Neurotoxin,” she muttered as he pressed the injector to Clockblocker's carotid, under the rim of his helmet. It hissed, then beeped to indicate that its payload had gone through. “Fifty percent chance of killing a healthy adult male. Seventy-five percent chance of putting them in a coma. Oh, nice. That's perfect.” Her eyes widened. “Holy shit, you use that on yourself? How does your heart not explode?”

    “I've tested it under laboratory conditions,” he replied stiffly, then changed the subject. “What would multiple doses of this toxin do to Aegis?”

    “Fuck, that's what's happened to him?” She glanced toward the still-shuddering red-clad Ward, but her frown of concentration never wavered.

    “It's my best guess,” admitted Armsmaster. “I pulled a dart out of his eye. There may be more.”

    “Clockblocker had a puncture wound behind his left knee,” Panacea noted. “The majority of the neurotoxin was situated there. Dart delivery makes sense. Who uses darts?”

    “None of the Undersiders,” Armsmaster said. “But …”

    “Vista said Shadow Stalker was working with them,” Panacea filled in his unspoken thought. “She's used crossbows with tranquillisers. Poison darts aren't that much of a stretch.”

    Colin, Aegis' heart is giving out.”

    That didn't make any sense. Armsmaster had seen Aegis' liver take over from his heart once. But Dragon didn't make mistakes like that. In addition, his own HUD had just now updated to show him the same data. “Aegis is in trouble. Panacea, are you good here?”

    “I'm on top of it,” she said. “Go.”

    With just a glance at where Vista still had pressure on Glory Girl's wound, Armsmaster rose and dashed over to where Aegis lay. The muscular boy had armour to back up his Brute capabilities, but Armsmaster knew where the releases were. Unlatching the breastplate, he cast it aside. Unlike Clockblocker, Aegis hadn't suffered any chest injuries, so he could safely apply CPR, or at least chest compressions … damn it. “Dragon, what's his respiration like?”

    Also down,” she reported.

    With his helmet the way it was, it was difficult for him to apply expired air resuscitation. Panacea was still busy with Clockblocker, and Vista couldn't leave Glory Girl. Then he remembered he still had a card up his sleeve. Turning to the crowd—one member in particular—he waved an arm. “Does anyone have first-aid training? I need help with CPR. Anyone?”

    For he knew Taylor had taken first-aid classes as a part of her heroic preparations even before the Swarmbringer incident. To his relief, she took the cue and stepped forward. “I know CPR,” she said hesitantly. He wasn't sure if it was an act, but it hit just the right note.

    “Good,” he said. “Come on over. I'm going to need you to breathe for him while I apply compressions.”

    “Oh, um, okay,” she said and trotted over. As he finished a round of compressing Aegis' chest, she knelt beside the boy and took his chin in her hand. Pinching his nostrils closed with her other hand, she began to breathe into his lungs, taking care to time her breaths between Armsmaster's chest compressions.

    “You got … here at … just the … right time,” he said quietly, between compressions. “When did … they release … you from … the building?”

    “They didn't,” she said, just as quietly. “We just came.”

    With some difficulty, he restrained his reaction of surprise. Deal with it later. We have lives to save, here. A glance at his HUD showed that Aegis' heart rate had picked up. Hopefully, his oxygen intake had also improved.

    And then Panacea came into his field of view as she knelt beside Taylor. “Excuse me, miss, but I need access to him,” she said just loudly enough to be heard by the crowd. “Thank you.” As she placed her hand on Aegis' uncovered face, she gasped. “Holy crap, he's got a dart inside his brain!”

    “Shadow Stalker,” Armsmaster snapped. “It has to be. Nobody else can do that phasing trick.” It was something that had been posited and she'd tried a few times with practise dummies, but had apparently given up trying to get right. Except that it seemed she'd been learning how to do it away from official scrutiny, and she'd mastered it. “Clockblocker?”

    “Waking up in a few moments. The knife was bonded to Vicky's ribs, which was why she couldn't pull it out,” Panacea supplied. “Jesus, he's got neurotoxin in his brain. I'm neutralising it but I can't fix the damage.” She sounded stricken as she said it.

    Two counts of attempted murder against her name now. Three, counting Clockblocker. But there were higher priorities than counting up Shadow Stalker's charges. “Is he going to be all right?”

    She grimaced. “Maybe? His motor functions don't seem to be affected. The failing vitals was all about having neurotoxin right there. But it may have gotten his corona pollentia. There seems to be damage there, anyway.”

    Which would be why Aegis' powers hadn't kicked in; or rather, hadn't kicked in enough. By a sheer lucky fluke, Shadow Stalker had hit him in the one place he couldn't work around. Though Armsmaster suspected his powers were still working just a little, or he'd be dead already. “Son of a bitch. How about the rest of his brain?”

    “Memory, cognition, personality, it all looks basically intact to me,” Panacea said briskly. “Fixing Clockblocker gave me a recipe for a counteragent which is working just fine. There won't be any more damage, but I can't fix what's already happened.”

    “That sounds … really sucky,” Taylor said, keeping her voice down. She gave Panacea a sympathetic look.

    “Yeah.” Panacea hung her head. “It really, really is.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, that's the last of the neurotoxin done … now. We're done here.”

    “Not yet, we're not,” Vista put in from where she still knelt next to Glory Girl. “Pretty sure your sister's gonna need some care and attention before you're finished here.”

    “Shit!” Panacea got up and hurried back to Glory Girl's side. Kneeling next to her sister, she went to work once more.

    Taylor got up and dusted her hands off on her jeans. “I, uh, guess I'll go now?” she asked.

    Armsmaster nodded. “Yes,” he said briefly. “Thank you for your assistance, miss.”

    She ducked her head and moved back into the crowd, while Vista came over to Colin. “Well, that was a thing,” the younger Ward said. “I don't suppose you could put in a good word for us for leaving without permission?”

    Armsmaster looked around. Clockblocker was groaning his way to consciousness, and his helmet HUD reported that the other two Wards were still alive and in far better health than they'd been before. That would almost certainly have gone the other way, had Vista not brought Panacea and Taylor to this spot. “Orders are meant to be followed, especially lockdowns,” he said sternly. “However, under these circumstance, I'm sure I can prevail on the Director to not be too hard on you.”

    <><>​

    PRT Building

    Taylor

    Taylor stood with Amy and Missy alongside the conference table. The Director sat at the head of the table, behind Taylor and to her right. Armsmaster's stolid presence was almost comforting at her back.

    In front of them, spilling light into the darkened room, a wall-screen played security footage. It was mercifully without sound, but Taylor could fill in what had come over the speakers from memory. At first, the PRT officers in the security office had been exasperated, but when Vista simply made the doors open by halving the width of each door, they had done their best to lay down the law. Their best had not been good enough.

    The image changed to show herself, Vista and Panacea running toward the lift. Before they even got to it, the digital sign above the lift turned to a series of red bars, signifying that it was not in service. That hadn't bothered Vista, who had worked her magic with the lift doors, then with the hatch in the lift roof. Which, incidentally, had been securely locked against anyone trying just this sort of trick. Taylor was pretty sure the hatch wouldn't be usable as anything other than a doorstop after this; Vista had gotten pretty rough with it.

    The scene shifted to the top of the lift, which impressed Taylor no end. She wondered who else other than Director Piggot would think to put cameras in an elevator shaft. Visual distortions fuzzed the picture for a moment, then a metal square fell past the view of the camera. One by one, the three girls disappeared upward. The picture distorted again, then returned to normal. Then the screen blanked out, and the lights came up in the room. Along with Missy and Amy, Taylor turned to face the Director.

    “After leaving the Wards quarters against direct orders, you entered the lift, gained access to the elevator shaft, then exited via the rooftop hatch,” Piggot said. “Is that correct?”

    Missy swallowed audibly. “Yes, ma'am,” she said almost inaudibly.

    “In doing so, you exposed a flaw in our security,” the heavy-set woman went on remorselessly. “That will be dealt with. In the meantime … you crossed town to the Hillside Mall, correct?”

    “Correct,” Armsmaster stated. “Where I was attempting to deal with three injured Wards. All of whom would very likely have died, had Panacea not showed up on site.”

    “As your report has stated, in rather glowing terms.” Piggot managed not to sound impressed. “Vista, I understand that Scarab was out of costume at the time. We've gone to great lengths to protect her secret identity. Why did you even take her with you?”

    Vista's shoulders were back, her hands clasped behind her. She looked stiff and unhappy as she replied. “Ma'am, she wanted to go. I dropped her off behind the crowd before Panacea and I reached Armsmaster and the Wards. Her knowledge of CPR was useful in keeping Aegis alive.”

    Piggot made an impatient chopping motion with her hand. “I understand that. Other members of the crowd could have done the same. Miss Hebert, why did you volunteer to go along, despite being out of costume?”

    Taylor took a deep breath. “Ma'am, I don't have a costume. But I still wanted to help. We didn't know if whoever hurt Clockblocker and Aegis and Glory Girl were still around, and the perfect time and place to attack would be while Vista and Panacea were involved in helping Armsmaster with them. So I used my bugs to keep a lookout all around. If anyone had attacked, I would've been able to give warning, and to distract the attackers.”

    Silence fell, then the Director drummed her fingers on the table. “That's … sound reasoning,” she admitted. She shifted her attention to Amy. “And the aftermath? Once you had the Wards healed? I understand there were more casualties.”

    The biokinetic nodded, her expression unhappy. “Two security guards dead. There was another guard, and a woman whom Taylor's bugs located in one of the bathrooms. They were both in comas, but I was able to bring them back.” Taylor had quietly informed Panacea of this via her bugs, allowing her to 'find' the woman a few moments later.

    “They were lucky,” Armsmaster noted. “Panacea reported that the LD-fifty of the neurotoxin was one dose, and that's for a healthy adult. One of the dead guards took a double dose. In three of the four cases, we found the same darts on site. The woman didn't have a dart, but she did have a puncture wound of the same type in her chest.”

    An expression not unlike pain crossed the Director's face. “And Aegis? What happened there?”

    Amy fielded this question as well. “Shadow Stalker shot a dart into his eye, then phased three more into his body. One ended up in his brain. The neurotoxin from all four would've killed anyone else several times over. With him, it came close. Normally, he would've gotten around it, but the one in his brain dispensed its toxin right next to his corona pollentia. His body couldn't adapt around it, any more than I could fly by throwing a rope in the air and climbing up it. He's still unconscious, while his body gets over what happened to it. I neutralised the neurotoxin, but …” She grimaced. “There's brain damage. He should still be him, but I can't guarantee he'll have access to his powers when he wakes up.”

    “God damn it.” Piggot's fist slammed into the table. “Two civilian murders, two attempted murders and the attempted murder of three Wards. One of whom may well be out of the Wards after this. All from one code purple.” She leaned back in her chair and took several deep breaths, apparently in an attempt to calm herself. Taylor remained still, unwilling to draw the heavy-set woman's ire.

    Several seconds passed, then the Director sat forward again. “All right,” she said. “Vista, Panacea; you did break regulations, but in doing so you saved lives. There will be no official punishment. However, you will each be required to find the section of PRT regulations regarding building lockdowns and present to me a five hundred word essay detailing why those regulations are necessary. You have one week. Scarab, you're not a Ward and thus I can't give you direct orders, but I would very much like you to consider doing likewise. Dismissed.”

    With a silent sigh of relief—as angry as the Director was, it could've been a lot worse—Taylor headed for the door with the others.

    “Wait.” It was the Director's voice. Taylor stopped, her heart thumping in her chest. She's changed her mind, and she's going to throw the book at us.

    They turned to look at Piggot. Missy answered for them. “Yes, ma'am?”

    Taylor couldn't quite read the expression on the older woman's face. “Panacea, I understand that Glory Girl is your sister. I also understand that Clockblocker is your teammate and friend, Vista. And it goes without saying that Shadow Stalker is someone against whom you would be excused for holding a substantial grudge, Scarab, but I will say this. Do not, and I mean do not, consider any reckless actions such as going out either alone or with each other to hunt her down. She's armed, she's dangerous, and she's shown absolute willingness to use lethal force against anyone she considers an enemy. We will find her, we will arrest her, and the full force of the law will crash down on the back of her neck in good time. But in the meantime, I don't want to lose more Wards, or affiliated heroes, to any ill-considered actions. Is that perfectly understood?”

    Almost without conscious volition, Taylor found herself nodding her head in agreement. “Yes, ma'am,” she managed, hearing her words echoed by the other two.

    “Good.” Piggot waved at the door. “Go. Go home and rest. You've done well, today.”

    In a mild state of shock from the Director's final words, Taylor exited the room.

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    Colin watched the door close behind the three girls. “Permission to leave, ma'am?” he requested. “I need to repair—”

    “Your halberd, I know.” Piggot made a throwaway gesture. “In a moment. Right now, we need more information. Any word on the Undersiders?”

    “None.” The Tinker shook his head, fully aware that she wasn't going to like his lack of news. “I've had people put out feelers, but they've gone dark. From what I've gleaned from the security cameras outside the Mall, they didn't part with Shadow Stalker on the best of terms, however.”

    “That's both good and bad.” The Director's voice was thoughtful. “Good, in that she won't have them as backup when and if we do catch up with her. Bad, in that she'll be harder to track down. How definitive was this evidence of bad feeling between them?”

    “She indirectly caused Regent to get hurt,” Armsmaster noted. “She and Grue seemed to argue, then Grue covered her in his darkness and the Undersiders rode off on their dogs. That was when Glory Girl attacked her and was stabbed.”

    The Director nodded slowly. “They're still accountable for the deaths, of course.” It was a clearly understood aspect of felony murder. “But if we can bring them in and offer a plea deal, we can find out where she got the neurotoxin and the dart launchers from. From the evidence so far, she's been planning this break for some time. And to be honest, I'm far more interested in nailing a treacherous Ward to the wall than in prosecuting a bunch of small-time hit-and-run thieves.”

    Colin understood perfectly. It was all about setting a precedent—and in this case, making an example. He couldn't be sure how many other disaffected Wards there were around the country, but once word passed around about Shadow Stalker's fate, they'd be less likely to go villain at the drop of a hat. Which reminded him. “So you'll be pushing for the Birdcage then, ma'am?”

    “That or a kill order,” the Director said, surprising him slightly.

    “A kill order's a little strong, don't you think?” he asked, careful to keep his voice neutral. “She's only what, fifteen? And we can't actively prosecute her for the Swarm.”

    “Because that would contradict Scarab's story, yes,” she said. “But I disagree with you. Since her escape from the PRT building, Shadow Stalker's actions have expressed a high degree of what the legal types would call 'depraved indifference', if not flat-out malicious intent. Two murders of civilians and five more who would've been dead without Panacea's intercession, all within fifteen minutes of one another? That's all three strikes for the Birdcage, right there. Plus, attempting to murder three Wards is something I will not tolerate.”

    And given that the woman had beaten Thomas Calvert to death in her own office (thus necessitating this particular change in venue until the carpet was cleaned of his blood and brains) there were very few people in the PRT building willing to go against Director Piggot's wishes in such a matter. Armsmaster definitely wasn't one of them.

    <><>​

    Brian

    Pulling the card from the phone, Lisa flicked the lighter and held the piece of delicate electronics in the flame. After a few seconds, she dropped it on the concrete and ground her heel down on it, twisting back and forth to maximise the damage. Finally, she nudged it over to a storm drain, not even bothering to watch as it disappeared into the darkness below. Pulling another from her pocket, she snapped it into place then replaced the back on the phone.

    “That's a little extreme, isn't it?” Leaning up against the alley wall with his arms crossed, Brian hadn't budged during the whole procedure. “Why so thorough?”

    “The boss is either captured or dead,” Lisa said, her tone absolutely certain of her conclusions. “I tried calling five times, cutting the call after ten seconds each time. On the last call, someone picked up but didn't speak. At the same time, they tried to trace the call.”

    “PRT,” Brian agreed with her unspoken conclusion. “Okay, I agree that's not good, but—”

    “It's worse than not good,” Lisa interrupted. “I've been looking online. People died in the Hillside Mall. The Wards we ran into? Spectre nearly killed them, too. Those darts weren't tranquillisers—they were neurotoxin.”

    A cold chill ran down Brian's back. And we gave her the damn launchers back. “You didn't tell us this before, why?”

    Lisa scrubbed her palms over her face. “Newsflash, Brian. My power's not omniscient. I don't know everything, much as I'd like to. She didn't know they weren't tranquillisers, and I was paying attention to too much other stuff during the robbery, like making sure that she didn't shoot us in the back.”

    “Fuck.” Brian pinched his fingers on the bridge of his nose. “So what happens now that the boss is no longer paying us? What do we do? Keep going the way we are?” How am I going to help Aisha now? he didn't quite ask, though he was pretty sure she'd heard him anyway.

    She shook her head. “You're not seeing the bigger picture. This is bigger than your sister, or even what we're going to do for cash flow.”

    He couldn't see what she was getting at, and then he thought he did. “Wait. You're saying he might give us up?”

    To his confusion, she shook her head. “That's a small part of it. Come on; let's get coffee. Lurking in alleyways like this is only going to draw attention.”

    <><>​

    Sophia

    It had taken her several hours, but she was reasonably sure she hadn't been followed. Finally, perched on a rooftop not far from the northern ferry terminal, she took one last look around and dug out the phone Calvert had left for her in the post office box. Pressing the button to power it up, she suffered through the boot-up process, using her hands to physically mask the chime that it played to announce to the world that a phone had just been turned on.

    Examining the screen once it was up and running, she frowned when she saw the remaining power. Thirty-nine percent; if she didn't get hold of a charger soon, it was going to die on her. Making a hasty decision, she dashed off a quick text. Hi, it's me. U probably seen what happened. Was all their fault. Time to make my move? Will check phone @ 0000.

    Shutting down the phone again, she tucked it away in the rear pouch again, then pulled out the cheap burner Coil had given her. This one was sitting in the low nineties for charge, so she felt safe in actually talking on it. It started up with less fuss and fanfare than the more expensive phone, which she considered to be bullshit. There was only one number on it, which she hit the speed-dial for. Then she put it to her ear and waited. And waited. And waited.

    Finally, after far too long, there was a click as the call was picked up. “Hey, it's me,” she said breathlessly. “Just thought you might want to know, your precious Undersiders just kicked me to the curb for no reason at all …”

    Gradually, she became aware that she was talking to dead air. Pausing, she listened carefully. There was just enough ambient noise to convince her that there was an open line. What the fuck is going on here?

    <><>​

    Armsmaster

    Colin sat, his attention fixated on the two phones on the workbench. Off to the side, under a magnifier, was the one they'd actually taken off of Coil's body. It was one of the newer fancy ones, able to take two SIM cards. He'd discovered this fact while dissecting it for its secrets, and had immediately gone out to acquire two handsets to put the cards in.

    On his return, he'd been chagrined to discover that the phone had missed several calls while he'd been out, but he set up the two new phones on the workbench anyway while he got back to work on the original. The one on the left had rung just a little while ago, with the same number as the first four times; he'd answered the call and put it on speaker, but the person on the other end had hung up in just a few seconds without saying a word.

    Undeterred, he'd got back to working on Coil's phone until the phone on the right had pinged with a text message. The tone of it puzzled him, even after he worked out the meaning and who had probably sent it. If, and this was a big 'if', the text had originated from Shadow Stalker, it sounded as though she were trying to excuse the aftermath to Coil. What the 'move' was, he had no idea. With the permission to trace the call already pre-approved—the Director could expedite things fast when things like this happened—he'd pinged the tower the text had come in by, but the phone itself didn't register on the network. So either Stalker had moved, or she'd turned the phone off.

    And then the left-hand phone rang again. Turning on the recorder once more, he carefully answered the call and put it on speaker. When he heard the voice, he almost fist-pumped the air in victory. To confirm what he already knew, he glanced at the voice stress analyser he'd adapted for the task. A moment later, it pinged with a ninety-eight point nine percent chance that this was Shadow Stalker's voice. Once again, he activated the phone trace. Almost immediately, it came up with the same tower. So either Stalker has two phones, or she's got a switchable one, like Coil's. Interesting that she's calling two numbers with two phones.

    Activating a phone link within his helmet, he typed out a text by eye: Shadow Stalker has just called the phone. Permission to try to get her to give herself up? He sent it off to the Director's phone, hoping that Stalker would stay on the line long enough.

    Piggot texted back within thirty seconds. Open a dialogue but don't push. On my way down. However, just as he glanced back toward the phone, the call ended.

    She hung up, he texted back. Got the tower though.

    Wait, was her only reply.

    A few minutes later, she entered his workshop. “What do you have?” she asked. Or rather, demanded.

    He didn't take offence. The Director, he knew, was taking this one personally. “I have a text message and a phone message. Sent from two different phones, to each of the two SIM cards in Calvert's phone.” As he spoke, he called up the text message on one of the workshop screens.

    Piggot scrutinised it with a frown. “You're sure 'me' is Shadow Stalker?”

    “I had a hunch,” Armsmaster said. “And then she called from the same cell tower. So he's got two people up near the Docks area, or she's got two phones and she's used one for each message.”

    “I see.” She rubbed her chin. “Can you ping that phone?”

    He shook his head. “No. It's off the network right now.”

    “Hm.” She looked over the text message again. “Typical self-serving child,” she observed. “It looks like she's talking about the Hillside debacle, and trying to lay blame elsewhere. Any idea regarding the 'move' she's talking about?”

    “Nothing solid,” he confessed. “If you want, I can send back a text for her to get at midnight.”

    “Put a hold on that for the moment.” She indicated the screen. “Let's hear the voice recording.”

    “Yes, ma'am.” He typed on a keyboard for a moment to set up the playback. As a bonus, he threw in the voice analysis results.

    She listened without comment. When it finished, she raised her finger and gestured in a circle for him to replay it. This time, she leaned close to the speaker with her eyes closed. She stayed this way as the voice played out, until there was nothing but the hiss of the speakers.

    “Well,” she said out loud, once it was done. “There's two things to take away from this. One, that call is absolute proof that Shadow Stalker has been in Coil's pay all this time, and that the Undersiders were also under his control. But it looks like they were in two different branches of his operations until now. Especially given that they had a disagreement over the methods used in the robbery, strong enough for her to be booted from the team.”

    Armsmaster nodded in agreement. “I'm also interested in the phrasing she used there. 'Your precious Undersiders'. I'm thinking she didn't know she was going to be placed with them until after she broke away from the Wards.”

    “Which means that it wasn't a planned break,” Piggot concurred. “Or rather, given how slick it was, it was planned as an exit strategy but not as an actual part of their ongoing operations. Having a Ward feeding Coil information from within, or even committing sabotage, has to be more useful than one more body on the streets.”

    “Yes.” Colin stared up at the screen without really seeing it. “I'm still concerned about what she may have done for him already that we thought was just bad luck. Even the arrests she's made could've been done with his purposes in mind.”

    “We are definitely going to have to check that over with a fine-toothed comb. But that's what data analysts are paid for.” The Director winced, possibly thinking of all the overtime that was going to accrue. “As for the other mystery. Why two different phones calling two different numbers?”

    “Operational security?” Armsmaster posited. “If one SIM is for his Coil persona and the other for his Calvert persona, it keeps his messages and call logs separate. She sends innocuous calls and texts to his Calvert number, and villain ones to his Coil persona. And she uses two phones so that if someone looks up the call logs, we don't have the same number calling both of his numbers.”

    Piggot rubbed her chin. “That makes a certain amount of sense. We'll go with that for the moment. In any case, we have two separate numbers for her, and we know she'll be turning one of her phones back on at midnight. The question is, how do we approach it from here?”

    “Call her and tell her to give herself up before she accrues even worse charges,” Colin said bluntly. “She obviously doesn't know that her boss is dead. If we hit her with that as well, we may just shock her into surrendering.”

    “Or she may choose to go for broke and offer her services to the highest bidder, with all the knowledge she may have acquired about our procedures,” the Director countered. “Teenagers aren't known for their logical consistency. Push her into a corner, and she just may decide she's got nothing to lose.” Which, Colin had to admit, was actually true.

    Armsmaster tilted his head. “Do you have a different strategy in mind?”

    Her smile had a few more teeth in it than the norm. “Why, yes. I do.”

    <><>​

    Hebert Household

    Amy

    Amy shook her head. “I should've just kept my mouth shut.”

    “You couldn't have known.” Taylor put her hand on her friend's shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. “We all blurt things out by accident all the time.”

    “Yeah, but …” Amy grimaced. “I mean, restoring his powers wouldn't be the same as messing with the rest of his brain, right? But I had to just say out loud that his corona pollentia was screwed up. So I couldn't take that back.” She stared at her hands, flat on the table.

    “Hey.” Taylor shuffled her chair closer and put her arm around Amy's shoulders. “His powers were acting up even before you got to him. I'm pretty sure Armsmaster had his suspicions. And you definitely saved his life.”

    Amy sighed unhappily. “Yeah, I did, but … that stuff Shadow Stalker was using was nasty. It nearly killed Clockblocker. It did kill a couple guys in the mall. And thanks for finding that woman for me. About one more minute and she would've been out of reach.”

    “To be honest, I thought she was already dead,” Taylor confessed. “I was just showing you where she was.”

    That got her a smile from Amy. “Well, she wasn't. And she's with her family tonight because you helped me save her life.” The biokinetic put her arms around Taylor and hugged her. “So that was a win, right there.”

    “It was.” Amy felt Taylor lean into the hug. It was nice. “So how about we make a deal?”

    “A deal?” Amy tilted her head curiously. “What sort of deal?”

    Taylor took a deep breath. “Any time we think we might've screwed up with our powers, we check with each other. Do you trust me to tell you if you've screwed up?”

    Amy considered that. “Yeah, I do. Do you trust me?”

    There wasn't even a hesitation as Taylor nodded. “Definitely.” The bug controller offered her hand. “Shake?”

    With a grin, Amy took the hand. “Done.” Solemnly, they shook hands.

    <><>​

    Brian

    “Okay, then, here's the skinny.” Lisa stretched out in her chair, her feet on another chair. Her coffee was half-empty beside her. Street-lights were beginning to come on, up and down the street. “We were working for Coil.”

    Brian blinked. “Coil? Holy shit. Really?” That was actually kind of a big revelation. He'd heard of the guy, but they'd never met. There'd just been voices on the phone.

    “Really.” Lisa's voice was flat. “But here's the kicker. Shadow Stalker didn't know she was working for him.”

    “That doesn't make sense.” Brian gestured, trying to frame his thoughts. “She came to us from him.”

    Lisa's ever-present grin grew into a smirk. “She was behind the Swarmbringer event. Not sure how, exactly, but she definitely instigated it. The PRT was about to come down on her when Coil—who was also working for the PRT, mind you—approached her in his non-villain identity and offered her a chance to work a sting operation. On us.”

    Slumping back in his chair, Brian took a large gulp of his coffee. “Please tell me you're shitting me,” he almost begged. “This is a joke, right?” The look on her face informed him otherwise. “It's not a joke. Fuck. We had the Swarmbringer in our fucking base?”

    “She's not the Swarmbringer, exactly.” Lisa took another sip of her weird-ass latte. “She just made it happen. Anyway, she busted out of the PRT building just ahead of the forces of law and order, but she thought it was all a show put on for Coil's benefit.”

    Brian's head fell back as many things began to make sense all of a sudden. “So that's why you couldn't stop laughing. She was screwed no matter what she did.”

    “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Lisa grinned at him over her cup. “I'm pretty sure Coil wanted to have Shadow Stalker's crimes hanging over our heads if he ever wanted to pressure us into something nastier than normal. But he left a string hanging somewhere and sometime today, they pulled on that string and got him.”

    “So where's that leave us?” asked Brian practically. “If he's dead, he can't turn us in, but if he's alive …”

    “If he's alive, he knows chapter and verse about us. And if he's dead, they might still find information he's got stored.” Lisa's tone was suddenly businesslike. “And there's the people Spectre killed in the Hillside Mall. We're linked with that, no matter what.”

    “So … what?” Brian tried to figure out where she was going with this. “Do we leave town? Is that even a viable option?” He couldn't see the Undersiders sticking together as a team if they did. And he couldn't just leave Aisha behind.

    She looked at him sympathetically. “Not for everyone, no,” she agreed. “I've got a better idea. More dangerous, but if it works we might be able to avoid a felony murder charge.”

    He couldn't figure out what she meant, until suddenly it dawned on him. “Wait, you're not saying …”

    Her grin returned in full force. “Yeah. I'm saying we hand Shadow Stalker over to the PRT.” Picking up her cup, she drained it. “But first, I have some bank accounts to empty.”



    End of Part Fifteen

    Part Sixteen
     
    Last edited: Jan 20, 2019
  28. abyssmal_kismet

    abyssmal_kismet Experienced.

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    You know, I actually feel extremely sorry for Sophia here, for the sheer extent to which Coil fucked her over. In a fic where she, if I remember correctly, attempted to have Taylor raped. What in the world.

    And before anyone says it, yes, I know half the shit that's happened to her so far would never have happened without her being her.
     
  29. Darkarma

    Darkarma Not too sore, are you?

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    I love this story, this and Trump are my two favorites of your Ack and at the top of my list of Worm Fanfics in general.

    Great chapter.
     
    Ack likes this.
  30. Slith10

    Slith10 Not too sore, are you?

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    She manages to make a giant turd ball to dump on others, I don't have much sympathy if it explodes all over her instead.
    Next chapter looks like it's going to be rather interesting.
     
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