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Price of Blood [Worm fanfic]

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

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  1. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    I feel very little pity for her, but that's not the same as the utter lack of pity I think I felt before Coil gave her neurotoxin darts that she thought were tranquilizers.
     
  2. Zackarix

    Zackarix ...

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    I wish more fanfics would remember this.
    I half feel sorry for her. On one hand, Coil threw her into an extremely deep pit she has no way of getting out of. But on the other hand, the reason the pit is so deep in the first place is because she grabbed a shovel and started digging.
     
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  3. Hye

    Hye Reader of The Long Words

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    Could someone remind me, how did the PRT figure out Coil was Calvert again? I mean, I remember the epic beatdown Piggot gave him, but only after it was mentioned here. But how it lead to that, I have no idea. Altough, I do remember how it physically lead to it, I think. Something about half-hidden passages in the walls, and Miss Militia being smart. And Piggot doing a kickass Batman impersonation.
     
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  4. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    It got put together over several chapters.



    It was just one loose thread that Dragon got hold of.
     
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  5. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    All it takes is one little mistake, and a skilled investigator (with the right authorizations), after all.
     
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  6. Slith10

    Slith10 Not too sore, are you?

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    Yup and with Coil's power, all you have to do is take more than a few days to spring the trap and you've got him. Give a definite date and time of 'collecting' him where ever he is and you've got him.
    It's possible even if you don't know what his power is.
     
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  7. kentter

    kentter I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Wait she beat him to death? I thought it was just to unconsciousness.
     
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  8. Hye

    Hye Reader of The Long Words

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    Aah, yes. The small error in the programming, allowing them to see in. I wasn't sure if that was in this one or "It gets worse". Or somewhere else.
     
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  9. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    She didn't stop after he was unconscious.

    He killed several of her officers, then came into her office, ready and willing to kill her.
    That was "It Gets Worse".

    In this one, he had a back door into the PRT servers, allowing him to delete phone logs. Dragon deduced the presence of said back door when looking for the log of a phone call they knew had to be there, but wasn't. Given permission to go looking, she found it and repurposed it to alert Piggot and Armsmaster when it was used, leading them back to Calvert's landline.
     
  10. Hye

    Hye Reader of The Long Words

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    Damn, I've read too much in too close proximity. It all gets muddled together :eek:
     
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  11. Slith10

    Slith10 Not too sore, are you?

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    I know that feeling.
    Eventually gets to the point you have to re-read the whole thing again to work out exactly what's going on.
     
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  12. Hye

    Hye Reader of The Long Words

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    I am probably gonna do that with this story, to be honest. This and Wyrm.
     
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  13. macdjord

    macdjord Well worn.

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    *nods* It's one of those little nightmares about modern society. I recall reading about a case where a 'prankster' called up a guy, claiming to be Detective So-and-so, and told him one of his female employees had been implicated in a crime and directed him to perform a citizen's arrest and search her while they waited for the cops to arrive. He did... and got arrested and had to plead guilty to false imprisonment and sexual assault charges for following what he had every reason to believe were legal orders from a valid authority. I mean, 'Ignorance of the law is no excuse' is one thing, but if the guy had questioned whether what he was being asked to do was legal, who would he call to check on that with? Why, the police of course.


    Which makes it understandable, but still technically murder.


    You say that as if rereading the fic was a chore~
     
    Last edited: Aug 9, 2018
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  14. Threadmarks: Part Sixteen: Chasing Shadows, Part II
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Price of Blood

    Part Sixteen: Chasing Shadows, Part II


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


    Brian

    Brian stared at Lisa. “No, that plan isn't dangerous. It's suicidal. Not only is Shadow Stalker carrying around a launcher that fires darts loaded with enough toxin to kill you twice over, but had you forgotten her habit of trying to murder me with arrows?” He patted his side, as if to remind her exactly where the homicidal ex-Ward had shot him, not so long ago.

    “Actually, that'll help a lot to prove that we're not working with her,” Lisa pointed out, her eyes sparkling with mischief. “Pretty sure they'll have some of her old arrows in storage. It'll be child's play to match one of those with your scar.”

    “It'll be even easier for them to drop us in a cell to await trial,” Brian retorted. “Alec really needs to get his arm checked out and put in a cast, and you know how Rachel feels about the PRT. Even hint that the boss has been caught and we might be turning ourselves in, and she'll be gone faster than you can say 'Old Yeller got shot'.” He felt in some way responsible for the debacle at the Hillside Mall, even though he'd had no choice but to accept Shadow Stalker's place on the team.

    “No, true,” Lisa admitted. “Whatever we do, we have to play it very close to the chest. Besides, if they turn themselves in with us, they've still got those stupid murder charges hanging over their heads from way back. That's just the PRT being dicks, if you ask me. Maybe once we catch Stalker, you and I can handle the handover. Leave the other two right out of it.”

    She sounded far too confident for Brian’s liking. While her power was fucking impressive when used with the right data, she'd been known to face-plant spectacularly if she got caught in what computer nerds called the 'garbage in garbage out trap'. Before he committed, he needed to know that she wasn't operating on wishful thinking and crap data. Of course, he didn't want her thinking that he actually doubted her. That way lay endless cycles of her trying to prove she really was the smartest person in the room, and him just trying to get some sleep. “Yeah, but how are we going to catch her? And you do know we’re going to have to move out of the loft, because she almost certainly knows where that is by now, right?”

    Lisa frowned. The glint in her eye told Brian she'd discerned the reservations he held about the whole deal. Whether she had a solution in mind was another matter altogether. “She can find it pretty quickly, yeah. Though she won’t be attacking us right now. Mainly because she doesn’t know Coil’s been taken down, and unless someone tells her, she won’t know he was also working as her contact in the PRT.”

    “And like you said, she’s under orders from Coil not to attack us.” To Brian, this sounded less like a solution than a stopgap. Trusting in Shadow Stalker's sense of duty to Coil didn't seem like the smartest idea in the world. “I doubt that’s going to hold much longer. Especially if she’s only getting radio silence from either number.”

    “Yeah,” Lisa mused. “And the moment she decides she’s not bound by any rules or regulations, she’s likely to come after us with murder in mind.” Which more or less mirrored Brian's thoughts on the matter, except that he was less certain about the ex-Ward's restraint.

    He snorted. “Not least because you kept laughing at her all the time.” Admittedly, it had been reasonably amusing at the time but if anyone could hold a grudge, it was Shadow Stalker.

    Lisa put on her best innocent expression. Brian wasn’t convinced about that, either. “Hey, don’t blame me. We all contributed. I remember how you and Alec gave her a hard time, too.”

    “Yeah, well.” Brian prodded the old scar again, feeling the distant ache. He wasn't going to pretend that beating up on Shadow Stalker as Spectre hadn't been thoroughly satisfying at the time. Of course, the time to pay the piper was rapidly approaching. “Once that happens, she’ll be trying to spread the love as indiscriminately as she can. Won’t matter if people said something or not. We’re all targets.”

    A calculating look crossed Lisa’s face. Brian didn't even have to hear her next words to have a bad feeling about this. “Actually, that’s an interesting point. I wonder if we can make use of that?”

    His wince of pain owed nothing to the scar, this time.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    While not exactly a cape geek, Taylor had been somewhat of an admirer of Armsmaster in her younger years. Looking back now, she wondered if nine-year-old Taylor Hebert would have believed it if she was told that sitting in on a lab design session with the iconic hero could be simultaneously boring and confusing. The disbelief would’ve doubled down if her younger self had been informed that Armsmaster was working with another Tinker to build powered armour for her.

    But it was all too true. There was no pressing reason for Taylor to actually be in the room, apart from fielding random questions about the exterior themes of her powersuit. They’d settled on exactly how she wanted it to look like a giant scarab beetle—which parts would resemble a beetle and which would still be humanoid—and the colour scheme (blue and black) quite early on, and were now working on the wings.

    Or rather, arguing about the wings.

    Personally, Taylor couldn’t figure out what the actual problem was about. She was getting powered armour to allow her to be a superhero without revealing herself as the Swarmbringer, and this armour was going to allow her to fly. Even after sitting there for ten minutes with her head going back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match, she still had no idea what most of the technical terms actually meant.

    “Guys,” she pleaded at last. If I don’t say something, they may just argue with each other for the rest of the day. Both Tinkers turned and stared at her, as if they’d forgotten she was even in the room. “What’s the problem? Maybe I can help.”

    Armsmaster took a deep breath. “My young colleague and I are having a disagreement about exactly how the anti-gravity panels should be incorporated into the wings of the power armour.” He turned his head momentarily toward Kid Win, and his lips tightened. “I’m of the opinion that the panels and their attendant control mechanisms need to be incorporated into the wings in a distributed array, so that any incidental damage won’t knock out too much of your flight capability in one shot, and so that power supply to the panels can be streamlined as much as possible. This will allow for a potential increase in flight speed and agility. Integration and efficiency; that’s what we’re looking for, here.”

    Taylor watched Kid Win roll his eyes behind his tinted visor. The teenager tended to wave his hands around when he spoke, apparently trying to demonstrate what he was saying. “But integration isn’t efficiency, not when you’re talking about maintenance and ease of replacement. These G-negative lifters are pretty finicky, and if you spread the components out through the wing, it makes it harder to get at the part you want to get at. I mean, yeah, there’s some loss in power because you’ve got to route it through a few extra conduits, but only a little bit. And it’s made up for when you spend half an hour instead of half the day fixing a minor glitch. Especially when everything’s standardised instead of custom components, so you can swap out one for another if necessary.”

    A pained sigh drew Taylor’s attention back to Armsmaster. The older man seemed to be frowning, but it was hard to tell behind his opaque visor. “You’re forgetting one important fact. While we’re marketing Scarab as an independent Tinker with Protectorate support, she isn’t actually a Tinker. We can do field repairs on our suits. She can’t.” His helmet turned in her direction. “No offence meant, Ms Hebert.”

    “None taken.” But something Kid Win had said nagged at Taylor’s brain. “Swapping out … wait a minute. Maybe if I had spare lifters with me, if one was damaged, I could do field repairs.” She wilted a little as they both turned to stare at her. Or at least, Kid Win was staring. She couldn’t see Armsmaster’s eyes, but she assumed the Protectorate hero was doing the same.

    “Uh, no you can’t,” Kid Win said almost gently. “Like Armsmaster said, you’re not a Tinker. There’s no way you can take apart one of these wings and replace a damaged lifter, even if you had spare parts on hand. No matter how easy it looks, non-Tinkers just can’t get a grasp on how the technology works.” He spread his hands and essayed an awkward smile. “Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

    “No, no,” Taylor said hastily, before the idea got away from her. “Could you make self-contained modules containing the lifters and everything needed to make them work, that can be snapped into sockets in the wings, and snapped out again if I needed to replace them? So literally all I have to do is plug and play?”

    Each Tinker raised his finger and opened his mouth, presumably to refute her. Both paused. Slowly, both mouths closed and both fingers lowered, then they turned to each other.

    “That’s … I can see how to do that,” Kid Win said, the last few words tumbling out of his mouth. “Really, really easily. Like, mega-easily. If we make all the lifter modules the same shape and size and power requirement—”

    “No, that’s a bad idea.” Armsmaster overrode him. “The wings can be made to work more effectively with specifically shaped anti-grav panels, of different sizes. Forcing everything to adhere to one shape or size will hamper her flight capabilities.”

    “But if I made each individual lifter smaller, but designed them so they could snap together to make larger panels, and you improved the efficiency of the surrounding sockets so they worked well together, that would allow Taylor to swap them in and out as needed,” argued Kid Win. Waving his hands in the air, he sketched out shapes only he could see. “In fact, if we rebuild the wings themselves to be modular in construction—hell, the entire suit—we could set it up so she can swap out components from less urgently needed suit systems to keep essential ones running.” He looked down at his own suit, then held up his gloved hand. Slowly, he flexed his fingers. “Ooooh.” His voice was filled with sudden enlightenment.

    Armsmaster tilted his head slightly. “You seem to be taking this idea of modular construction to remarkable lengths,” he noted. “Do you think it means something?”

    Taylor wasn’t quite sure what he was referring to, but Kid Win certainly picked up on it. “Maybe. And by that I mean, holy crap, yes. I think … I think … I think I need to do some Tinkering. Like, right now.” He jumped to his feet. “Taylor, you’re amazing.” With a certain air of purpose, he advanced on a nearby workbench.

    A little confused, Taylor turned to Armsmaster. “Uh, what just happened? Do I need to be worried?” She knew that something had happened, and that she was apparently going to be getting a modular suit, but beyond that, she had no idea why Kid Win was so happy.

    “No there’s no cause for concern.” The older hero rose to his feet. “Your question apparently just helped Kid Win reach a breakthrough about his powers. Congratulations for that, by the way.”

    “I, uh, thanks?” Taylor stood up as well. “Do you need me anymore?” Arcane mutterings and the crackle of soldering had begun to arise from Kid Win’s workbench. She was pretty sure she couldn’t really help with that sort of thing.

    “Not at the moment, but don’t go far.” Armsmaster gave her a rare smile. “Kid Win and I should have the first iteration of your suit ready in a day or two.” He patted her on the shoulder, then nodded toward the door. “It seems that Panacea has just arrived, looking for you.”

    “Oh, thanks. See you later.” Taylor turned toward the door. When she was sure Armsmaster wasn’t watching, she surreptitiously rubbed her shoulder. If the man wasn’t careful, his shoulder-pats were likely to leave bruises.

    The lab door hissed open as she reached it, revealing Amy on the other side. “Oh, hey,” the healer greeted her. “How’s things going in here?”

    There was a crackle and a “Yeowtch!” from Kid Win, and Taylor winced slightly.

    “Oh, it’s definitely going,” she said. “C’mon, let’s walk and I’ll fill you in. Is the commissary open? I’m hungry.”

    Amy smirked, linking her arm through Taylor’s. “You’re always hungry. But that’s okay. I’m hungry too. Let’s go eat.”

    Taylor grinned. Amy was always good company. “Sounds like a plan.”

    <><>​

    Shadow Stalker

    A Few Minutes After Midnight

    Okay, time to find out what the hell is going on.

    Sophia had spent an uncomfortable evening on the rooftop. Finally, once she was sure the time was correct, she checked the burner phone. There had been no missed calls from Coil, which merely served to feed her growing paranoia. Has he figured out I’m a plant? Have the Undersiders made up something about me? But that didn’t really make sense. If she was running the show, she’d want to bring a potential traitor back in so they could be squeezed dry of information.

    Shutting it down, she turned on the other phone to check for text messages. Almost immediately, one popped up. She quashed the irrational feeling of relief—someone knows I’m still out here—and opened the message.

    New developments, it read. Need you to attend confidential briefing. C.

    Frowning, she went through the message again, trying to divine the hidden meaning behind the terse phrasing. What the hell did ‘new developments’ mean, anyway? This was a break from the way Calvert had been doing things up till now. If she went anywhere near the PRT building, there was a chance that someone might recognise her. They wouldn’t capture her, but if Coil or one of his assets got wind of it, the whole mission would be burned and she’d be back on probation.

    On the other hand, Calvert obviously needed to talk to her about something. She decided to accept that he’d probably done this sort of thing before and knew what he was doing. The phone was down to thirty-four percent of battery; as she watched, this dropped to thirty-three percent. Galvanised into action, she tapped out a quick answer.

    Cant come to P building. Dont want to make C suspicious. Where meet?

    Running her eyes over the message, she nodded slowly. That should do it, she figured. With a prolonged press of the power button, she shut the phone down altogether. Tucking the both of them away again, she straightened up and looked around. Okay, now where am I going to sleep tonight?

    It was a serious question. She was tough as they came, but everyone was vulnerable when they slept. Plus, there was no fucking way in hell that she was going to sleep on a rooftop or bare floor somewhere; not if she had better options.

    Home was out. Even if the PRT didn’t have her parents and brother ready to rat her out if she showed her face, they were almost certainly watching the place and would have to ‘arrest’ her if she went there. She would have to work to avoid even the most inconsequential slip, especially if Calvert was right and Coil had people inside the PRT building.

    While Coil’s security setup was admirable in its own way, the fact remained that she had no idea where his base really was. She knew that it was probably underground, but this didn’t actually help her in any meaningful fashion. Most specifically, it meant that she wasn’t going to be able to knock on the door and ask if she could use her room for the night. Paranoid bastard. Just because she’d been infiltrating his organisation to try to bring him down from within was of no consequence to her annoyance with him.

    Okay, so I’m gonna have to go somewhere else.

    She was reasonably sure she could find the Undersiders’ base pretty easily—if she got nothing else out of this whole shitshow, that alone was worth the price of admission—but they’d been mistrusting of her before the Hillside fuckup. There was no way in hell they’d let her in the front door now, much less loan her a bed for the night. And while she could attack from surprise and kill or subdue the lot of them—definitely ‘kill’ in Grue’s case—she still hadn’t been given the okay by Calvert to break cover. The last thing she wanted was to be put back on probation just because she couldn’t wait another fucking day.

    So she was going with option D. It was an idea she'd come up with some time ago, but never actually implemented before now. Leaping off the rooftop and going to shadow, she started moving in a generally southerly direction. As she went, she kept her eyes open for garish neon signs. What she wanted was a motel in a specific price range: not so affluent as to have all their rooms filled, but not so seedy as to be offering rooms by the hour.

    It took her three tries, and most of an hour, to locate what she was looking for. Both of the ones she passed up were on the low end of the economic scale. In all honesty, she would've been astonished if things had been the other way around.

    Up until now, she'd been staying relatively low and sticking to the shadows. She didn't know who else had been briefed on the mission and who thought she'd just gone villain. After her dramatic 'escape' from the PRT building, they'd probably made her supposed crimes public. On the upside, this would solidify her credentials with Coil, while on the downside it meant any patrolling heroes may just try to apprehend her.

    Not that they'd succeed, of course. She stifled a snort at the very idea. But it had the potential to be irritating as all fuck, especially if she was out and about—like right now—without any backup, or a bolt-hole she could duck into. That had been how the PRT caught her the first time around, after all. She only wanted a good night's sleep, or at least a good morning's sleep. Once Coil and Calvert got back in touch with her and she got a chance to tell her side of the story, she'd learn whether it was time to go on the offensive yet or stay on the down-low.

    Ghosting on to the roof of the motel, she swung over the edge of the eaves and landed lightly on the upstairs walkway that serviced the motel rooms. A smile creased one corner of her mouth as she noted that each parking lot space had a number painted on it. It was as good as a directory to check for empty rooms.

    The first room, as she leaned her head in through the door, had someone snoring noisily on the bed. Swearing to herself, Sophia pulled back out of the door and moved down the walkway. She was getting more and more irritated every second, especially since the next two she checked were also occupied. These held couples, fortunately asleep.

    It wasn't particularly hard to read between the lines. These people were cheating on their other halves, so they'd come to the motel for essentially the same purpose as those frequenting the by-the-hour venues. No cars in the parking lot meant that they didn't want an inconvenient security-camera shot of their license plates showing up in evidence at any time in the future.

    For a few moments, she considered just going into one of the rooms and tranqing the people sleeping there, then rolling them out of bed and zip-tying them so she could use the bed. It was a tempting plan, but she eventually decided against it. She didn't want to unnecessarily use up her stock of zip-ties or the few tranq darts she had left, and people had been known to work their way out of being tied up before. The idea of keeping them quiet by threatening to expose their infidelities crossed her mind, but she dismissed that as well. It was amazing how stupidly stubborn some people could get if they decided someone was trying to put pressure on them. No, it was probably best to keep looking.

    As if to validate her decision, the very next room she tried was empty. A discreet flash of the tiny hand-light she kept in her utility belt showed that the bed was still made up and the floor was empty of luggage. That was good enough for her.

    With a sigh, she shrugged off the backpack and started divesting herself of the costume. While it had obviously been designed to be comfortable to wear for long periods, she’d been in it for nearly eleven hours now, and there were certain bodily needs that needed to be attended to. The first person to design a proper superhero costume that could be easily adjusted to go to the bathroom in would probably win some kind of award. Or be accused of being a cape themselves, on account of having achieved the blatantly impossible.

    With a grin tugging at the corner of her mouth at that mental image, Sophia laid out the last of her costume on the floor beside the bed and padded into the bathroom in her underwear. As she’d hoped, there was a fresh towel on the rack. It seemed that whatever passed for room service here simply set up the room for the next occupant as soon as the last one vacated, rather than waiting for a guest to actually sign in. Excellent.

    Closing the door, she turned on the light, squinting against the sudden glare. Her priorities were toilet, shower and bed, in that order. While the clothes in her backpack weren’t daisy-fresh, they’d have to do for the time being. In the morning, she’d check for messages from Calvert. With any luck, he’d have a green light for her. She bared her teeth, imagining the looks on the faces of the Undersiders as she confronted them.

    I’m coming for you.

    <><>​

    Undersiders Base

    5:00 the Next Morning

    Lisa

    “Okay, we’re doing what again now?” Alec lay back on the sofa with his arm in a sling and a sour look on his face. There were several good reasons for him to be irritated; the early hour, his injured arm and his inability to use the controller because of his injured arm, just to name three. Lisa knew she was about to add a fourth to the list, and possibly a fifth.

    Rachel glowered from the other end of the same sofa but didn’t add anything to Alec’s question. Brutus sat at her feet, the solidly-built Rottweiler panting happily as she slowly and methodically brushed him down. She’d been out half the night looking for him, and had only gotten back a couple of hours beforehand. Lisa didn’t even bother trying to list the number of reasons she might have to be pissed off at the world.

    Brian grimaced, but soldiered through the explanation like a trouper. Lisa had to give him props; once he was on board, he went all in. “Lisa believes Shadow Stalker is likely to come after us, here, in the next six to twelve hours. She’ll be shooting to kill. We’ve got two options. One, we bug out. Two, we set a trap.”

    “Can’t we do both?” asked Alec. Lisa was pretty sure he wasn’t being facetious. “Set up remote cameras, Claymores, tripwires, pressure pads, the whole works. I’ll make popcorn, and we all watch while Shadow Stalker sneaks on in here, trips the wrong switch and gets her asshole blown through the top of her head. Not that anyone’ll be able to tell the difference.”

    “And if the pieces are small enough, nobody’ll even know she’s dead,” Rachel put in unexpectedly. She went back to brushing the dog, while Lisa digested the fact that at least two of her teammates were somewhat more bloodthirsty than she’d previously realised.

    “Uh, there’s a couple of flaws with that plan,” Brian said hastily. “We don’t have explosives and we don’t have an explosive expert. I’d really like to keep this base if possible, and I certainly wasn’t planning on killing her.” He looked over at Lisa and raised his eyebrows, as if to say help me out here.

    Lisa entered a couple of commands on her laptop then turned her attention to the discussion. “No, Brian’s right,” she said as Alec opened his mouth, probably to argue the point. “Explosions draw attention, and it would have to be a really big and really hot explosion to obliterate her like that. The type they call the FBI and PRT in for. We really don’t want that kind of attention. Brian and I were more talking about capturing her and handing her over to the PRT as a sign of good faith.”

    “And what stops them from trying to capture us at the same time?” It shouldn’t have been a surprise that Alec hit the same talking point Brian had used earlier. “Thoughts and prayers?” Which, in the past, had turned out to be slightly less useful than a tinfoil parasol against Behemoth.

    “Brian and I were going to do that ourselves,” Lisa said. “They’ve got less reason to come out in force against us. If we call ahead and say we want to hand her over, there’s a better than even chance they’ll let us do it, just so they can get their hands on her. There’s got to be any amount of sensitive information she’s got inside her head that she could spill to whoever, if she decided to start talking.” At least, she hoped the PRT would think the same way. With Coil out of the picture, she no longer had the dubious safety net of his patronage to fall back on. Of course, some safety nets were portable, she reminded herself as she checked the laptop again.

    “What about our mysterious boss?” That was Alec. “He was the one who put Shadow Stalker on the team in the first place. He isn’t likely to be happy that we’re handing her over to the cops.” His tone indicated a basic understanding of the facts rather than any kind of worry about the consequences. But then, Alec had never really been a consequences sort of guy.

    Brian looked at Lisa. “I think we should tell them. It’s not like it’ll change anything.” She could tell where he was going with this. He was a straightforward sort of guy who liked things to be laid out plainly—as much as this could be done by a supervillain, anyway.

    In any case, she agreed that this would have to be done sooner or later. Better it be done in a controlled situation so she could soften the impact as much as possible. “Okay, let’s do this.” She turned to Alec and Rachel. “There’s stuff about the boss I’ve never told you because he told me not to. I only filled Brian in a little while ago.”

    “Okay, so why are you telling us now?” asked Alec immediately. This was one of the reasons Lisa was often aggravated with him. He wasn’t stupid—far from it—but he liked to pick and choose the times when he actually got around to using his brain.

    Lisa took a deep breath. “I’ll get to that in a second. First off, the guy we were all working for was Coil.” She glanced again at the laptop and flicked to a new screen. A prompt popped up, and she entered a string of characters, then clicked Proceed.

    “Coil?” Alec echoed Rachel’s frown. “Isn’t he basically the invisible man of Brockton Bay crime? No real powers, so he has mercs do all his dirty work?” He tried to flip his sceptre left-handed and swore as he dropped it on the floor.

    “That’s by design,” Lisa assured him. “His power … let’s just say, it was powerful but not flashy.” She thought she knew what it’d been—it was a moot point by now, of course—and whether it was actually the ability to create and destroy entire universes at a whim or just weirdly specific precognition, he’d been a bastard to plan against.

    “You keep saying was,” interjected Rachel bluntly, proving she wasn’t stupid either. “Why?”

    “Because something happened to him around the time we were kicking Shadow Stalker loose at the Hillside Mall yesterday,” Lisa said. “He’s dead.” Brian shifted, and made a go-on motion, and she grimaced. Someone was going to have to say it. “And he wasn’t just Coil. He was also a PRT officer of some sort.”

    “What the hell?” Alec and Rachel were both on their feet, but it was the boy who spoke. Brutus barked at the sudden disturbance. “Shadow Stalker was a PRT mole? Coil’s organisation was a PRT front?”

    That was actually a spin on the whole idea that Lisa hadn’t considered. For a brief moment, she entertained the concept, but rejected it on several aspects. “Well, she thought she was a mole. But she’d actually committed crimes that they were on the verge of arresting her for. She didn’t know they were on to her, but he wanted a useful idiot, so he spun her a line and pulled her out of the PRT building just ahead of the PRT and Protectorate.” She didn’t know all this was true, but her power was prodding her strongly in that direction.

    As Brian had before, Alec stared at her with understanding dawning in his eyes. “So that’s why—”

    Brian rolled his eyes. “Yeah, we’ve been over this before. That’s why Lisa was laughing nonstop the whole time Shadow Stalker was with us.”

    Alec’s gaze turned accusing. “You knew all this time and you didn’t tell us? Why do you hate us so much?” He held the back of his good hand dramatically up to his forehead. “Oh, the missed opportunities! Oh, the humanity!”

    Distracted by Alec’s over-acting, Lisa almost missed the hmph! sound from Rachel’s direction. Looking toward the stocky girl, she caught the hint of a smile before Rachel put the scowl back on her face. “What?” Rachel demanded, glaring at her.

    “Nothing.” Lisa smirked, then turned back to Alec. “And the reason I didn’t tell you was so you didn’t let it slip by laughing too much, or dropping hints. People expect weird behaviour from me, but you barely ever laugh.”

    “Still not fair,” he grumbled. “You got all the fun.”

    “We’re getting off track,” Brian reminded them. “We were working for Coil who is now dead, but he recruited Shadow Stalker first. Sooner or later, she’s going to realise her mission’s a bust and she’ll come gunning for us. With lethal darts.”

    “How many’s she got left, anyway?” asked Alec. “She was firing them off like she had an endless supply, there.”

    Lisa let her power mull the question over. “Maybe half a dozen,” she decided. “She’d shot both her launchers pretty well empty by the end of that fight. Coil wanted her dependent on him, so he gave her the bare minimum to go on with.” It definitely sounded like what the man would do.

    “And how exactly did you plan to trap her?” Brian’s voice was matter of fact now. That was one of the things Lisa liked about him; once he decided he was on board with something, he went all in.

    Lisa steepled her fingers in front of her, and gave them her most evil grin. To be fair, it wasn’t much different from her least evil grin, but she was making an effort. Really. “Well, you remember how I told you guys a while ago how she’s vulnerable to electricity when she’s phasing through things …?”

    <><>​

    The Same Morning

    8:05 AM

    PRT Building

    Taylor

    Amy stirred as the car bumped down on to the ramp leading under the PRT building, then yawned and stretched. I smirked and nudged her. “Oh, we’ve finally woken up now, have we?”

    She stuck out her tongue at me, then spoiled the effect by yawning again. “Oh, hush. The main part of my job is to stay near you as much as possible, until the powers that be are absolutely certain there won’t be any more incidents. They never said I had to be awake for it.”

    I nodded, fully aware of what she meant by ‘incident’. “And how long’s that going to take, exactly?” Not that I had any problem with Amy being my near-constant companion; it was nice having a friend I could confide in again. But it had to be irritating that she couldn’t go anywhere without me.

    She shrugged and stifled another yawn. “Heat death of the universe? The Simurgh takes up knitting as a hobby? Director Piggot goes on a date with Legend? I’m pretty sure they’re working on the basis that they’ll know it when they see it.” Which, if her analysis was correct, meant ‘forever’. She shuffled her butt to a more upright position. “I just wish Armsmaster had waited till a more civilised hour to ask you to come in.”

    As Dad pulled the car into the Visitor carpark and killed the engine, I snorted. “You were the one who decided to stay up and catch that movie marathon. You’ve only got yourself to blame for getting to bed so late.”

    “You stayed up too!” she objected, but I could see how much she was enjoying the argument. I was, too. Amy was fun to be around, once I got through the protective barrier of snark, and we regularly argued about everything and nothing, just for fun. Dad had been concerned the first few times, but now he just rolled his eyes and ignored us. “How come you aren’t tired, too?”

    I opened the door and got out. “Because I slept through half the movies. Seen ‘em before.”

    Her eyes widened in mock betrayal as she climbed out as well. “You never told me that! Or that you slept through the movies! I thought you were leaning up against me just to be cute!”

    “Excuse me, have you met me?” I spread my hands. “I don’t do anything to be cute. I don’t know how to do cute!” That was more Madison’s line, and I wanted as little to do with anything that reminded me of any of the Trio as possible. “I was just leaning against you because you were comfortable. Like you leaned against me for most of the car ride over.”

    “Oh.” That seemed to take her aback. “Um.” A slight flush darkened her cheeks but before I could ask why, a PRT guard approached us.

    “Good morning,” he addressed us. “Mr and Ms Hebert, and Panacea? I’m here to escort you up.”

    Dad switched his mildly amused expression out for a more serious one. “That’s us. Lead the way.”

    “Yes, sir.” The guard moved off, and Amy and I fell in behind with Dad following us. We got into the elevator, and he punched in the floor number. Amy and I liked to try to see if we could feel the movement of the elevator, but neither of us ever had. The numbers on the display scrolled upward faster than I could follow them, and then came to an abrupt halt.

    We stepped out of the elevator, Amy holding back another yawn as we did so. “So, uh, can I ask why we’ve been called in so early?” I ventured.

    Unsurprisingly, the guard shrugged, which was kind of impressive given how much armour he had to be wearing. “Above my pay grade, ma’am. I was just sent to collect you.”

    “Okay. Well, thanks anyway.” I shared a vaguely mystified look with Amy—she didn’t seem to have any more of a clue than I did—and decided to wait and see what the big fuss was all about.

    I didn’t have long to wait. We followed a by-now familiar path to Armsmaster’s lab. As we stopped in front of the door itself, the massive door unlatched and slid open. “Enter!” called the Tinker from within.

    The invitation obviously didn’t include the guard, because he simply headed off down the corridor. I stepped inside with Amy, and Dad followed close behind. The door slid shut with a solid thud. I looked around, to see Armsmaster standing alongside a large rack, which bore …

    “Oh, wow!” I exclaimed, my eyes opening wide. Slowly, almost reverently, I moved up to the rack and put out my hand. The suit of armour on it looked amazing. Whatever coating they’d put on it felt slick under my fingertips. It was painted shiny black and a deep vibrant blue, and it really did look like a cross between a human being and a scarab beetle. The wings weren’t visible right then, but there were large bulges behind the shoulderblades. And there were also

    “Wait a minute,” Amy objected, pointing at the detail I’d just noticed. “I know you’re going with a bug theme, but Taylor only has two arms, not four.” She’d be able to fix that oversight if she wanted, I knew. But it would probably take a lot of persuasion, and the armour already held a second set of arms. These emerged halfway between shoulders and hips, and the hands hung down to the knees.

    “We’re aware of that.” I could almost have sworn Armsmaster smiled at her tone. “She can opt to slave them to either one of her arms, to leave them inert, or use her heads-up display to manually direct them to take hold of something or strike at a target.”

    “Holy crap,” I managed. “Holy crap. How …”

    “How did we get it built so fast?” This time, Armsmaster did smile. “It was your suggestion to Kid Win. He realised that we could streamline the process with modular components, not just for the wings but for the whole suit. We spent the first few hours working out the requirements for each module, then he designed them and I modified the designs for greater efficiency and ease of manufacture.” He gestured toward the large screen that overhung the workbench.

    Dragon’s face faded into view on the screen. “Once we had the finished designs, Armsmaster and Kid Win created one of each, then passed them on to me. I analysed them, then started the manufacturing process. Once I had enough of each one, I assembled the suit and ferried it down to Brockton Bay.”

    “Of course, this is a first iteration,” Armsmaster cautioned me. “The outer armour plating is about all that’s going to survive from version to version. But with the modular construction, we can literally snap out an old unit and replace it with a better one within minutes, rather than rebuilding the whole thing from scratch.”

    I shook my head in wonder. “This is amazing. I thought I’d have to be waiting days or even weeks. I have no idea how I’m ever going to repay you for this. Where’s Kid Win? I want to hug him.”

    “I sent him off to get some sleep,” Armsmaster informed me. “He was showing signs of wanting to disassemble my halberd and incorporate it into his armour. You’ll be able to thank him later, once he wakes up.”

    “No repayment necessary,” Dragon added. “Just be the best hero you can be.”

    “Thanks,” I said, tears filling my eyes from the intensity of my emotions. I wrapped my arms around Armsmaster’s bulky armoured torso and gave him a hug anyway. “You guys are the best.”

    <><>​

    Sophia

    A loud voice yelling harshly in her ears brought Sophia out of a deep dreamless sleep, aided and abetted by the hand that grabbed her shoulder and shook it roughly. She woke up with a start, not entirely sure where she was or who was yelling at her, but knowing that nobody pulled that shit on her. Throwing the covers off, she pulled free of the grasping hand and rolled off the bed into a crouch on the floor, looking around wildly to piece together what was going on.

    Motel roombedshit, Calvert! She backed away from the large unshaven man who loomed over her even when she stood up fully. “Who the fuck are you?” demanded the man. “What the fuck are you doing in my motel?”

    “Just leaving,” Sophia said. “I don’t want trouble. I’ll just grab my gear and go.” She looked toward where her gear had been laid out on the floor beside the bed, and stopped when she realised one very important fact. It wasn’t there any more.

    The man snorted with amusement, and his eyes flicked toward the doorway to the room, where the maid stood with her cart. “Yeah, as if, girl. Your gear stays here and so do you, until the cops get here. Breaking and entering, trespass, probably theft too.”

    “I’m no thief!” Sophia’s outrage was real. She’d never broken into a house and stolen anything, and she wasn’t about to start. “I’m a hero!”

    “Pfft, yeah.” His tone was disbelieving. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

    Sophia glared at him. It looked like she was going to have to resort to violence for this one.

    It was a good thing violence was something she had no problem with.


    End of Part Sixteen

    Part Seventeen
     
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2019
  15. easlyamused

    easlyamused Getting sticky.

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    I'm hoping that the Undersiders literally gift wrap Sophia when they deliver her to the PRT. With flashing Christmas lights and a bow.
     
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  16. Darkarma

    Darkarma Not too sore, are you?

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    Pfft. As long as they put her in a box first and forget the holes.

    Also, just because Lisa said it, the next time Simurgh attacks, its a requirement for her to be knitting the entire time just so she screw Lisa.
     
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  17. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

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    You mean Amy right?
     
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  18. Malcanthet

    Malcanthet Shy Adorable Arachne

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    Nope the Simurgh wants to have telepathy sex with Tattletale.
     
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  19. Kitty S. Lillian

    Kitty S. Lillian Transhuman

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    Yay more Ack-fic! typo alert:
    until the powers that be
     
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  20. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Dang. Will fix.
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Part Seventeen: Field Test
    Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Price of Blood

    Part Seventeen: Field Test

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


    Taylor

    I stood atop the PRT building, encased in my new armour. My feet planted squarely in the centre of the large H that marked out the helipad, I turned my head slowly from side to side. Glowing lines of data scrawled themselves across my vision, pushing themselves into the foreground as I focused on them. Gradually, I found, I was getting the hang of picking out what I wanted and then letting it go again.

    “How’s it going in there?” It was Armsmaster’s voice. Along with Dad and Amy, he stood a few yards away, giving me my space. Unlike the last suit, this wasn’t strictly necessary. Dragon had taken the hardware Armsmaster and Kid Win supplied, and added what Armsmaster called ‘kinetic feedback’ software, making it almost supernaturally intuitive to move around in. While I still stumbled every now and again, I was improving by the minute.

    “Getting there,” I replied. “There’s a lot to get used to. Not complaining, but how come the last suit wasn’t this easy to learn how to use?” Picking out the silhouette of my suit lurking off to the side of the HUD, I focused on the lower right arm then linked it to my actual left arm. Raising the real one, with the fake imitating the movement, I waved at Dad and Amy. He looked startled; she burst out laughing.

    Dragon’s voice sounded in my ears. The little blinking icon in the top right corner of my vision told me that it was also going out over my speakers. Her tone was amused and (I thought) a little proud. “Because that suit was a last-minute kludge. This one is properly integrated and has thoroughly redundant auto-stabilisation, allowing my software to fully express itself. Attempting to use this software in that suit would be akin to bolting the navigation system from the space shuttle into a World War One biplane. It would look pretty, but it wouldn’t do a damn thing to help you fly better.”

    “And would never get off the ground in the first place, got it.” I nodded, and the helmet moved back and forth ponderously with my head. When I’d first put the suit on—it turned out that the extreme modular approach let it open up then fold around me—every movement had felt like I was wading in molasses. Now, I was still aware of the suit, but the resistance to movement was much less. “You’ve done an amazing job. It feels like it’s moving more smoothly all the time.”

    “That’s the general idea,” Dragon informed us. “It’s a heuristic algorithm, designed to learn the way you move and react so that when microseconds count, you won’t be slowed down by the suit.” She sounded pleased with herself, and I didn’t blame her. I would’ve been smug too, if I’d come up with that.

    I’d already proven I could walk, though my initial steps out of the elevator had been somewhat leaden. Now I moved in a circle, lifting and placing my feet precisely. I didn’t quite feel as though I could pull off a tapdance routine—if I knew how to tapdance, that is—but this was a far cry from the lumbering mess I’d been in the first suit. “Armsmaster, there’s nothing on the outside of the suit that’s breakable, right?”

    “There shouldn’t be, no,” he replied, his tone slightly concerned. “Why do you ask?”

    “Gonna give the algorithm something to chew on.” I started off at a walk, moving past where the others were watching, then broke into a trot. My legs and arms were initially stiff, but they soon loosened up as the suit figured out what I was trying to do. Curving my path as I neared the edge of the roof, I kept up the pace, letting the suit get used to it.

    By the end of the first circuit, I was panting, but the suit was moving more fluidly than ever. From the outside, it must’ve looked weird as hell, a seven-foot set of power armour going for a light jog on the rooftop.

    Okay, let’s change things up a gear. I pushed myself into a run, immediately feeling the resistance from the suit increase dramatically. Still, I persevered. If I didn’t show the suit who was boss, I’d never get anywhere. Also, I needed to get fitter; trying to keep up this speed while also fighting the suit was rapidly tiring me out. It crossed my mind that this would be a great way to improve my endurance, once I got some.

    I’d originally intended to make another complete circuit of the roof (a victory lap, so to speak) but my legs became limp noodles about a quarter of the way around, and I staggered to a halt. Bending over, I put my metal gauntlets on my knees and tried to catch my breath.

    “Are you all right, Taylor?” asked Dragon. The speaker icon wasn’t blinking, which meant she was talking to me privately.

    Huff … yeah … huff … just … huff … winded,” I managed. “This’s … huff … a lot … huff … of work.” Already I could hear the tiny whine of the suit’s climate control fans kicking in. The padding around my head must’ve been wicking away the sweat, because it wasn’t running into my eyes. That was a good design choice; how do you wipe your face inside power armour? Answer: you don’t. Though I knew Armsmaster had tiny windshield wipers for the inside of his visor, for the simple reason that I had them too.

    It annoyed me that I could hardly run any distance in the armour, whereas when the boys had been chasing me, I’d made it nearly four blocks. I knew this because the radius of my Swarm had been four blocks and only the outer edge had reached Winslow, thus avoiding a few thousand more potential casualties. Of course, running under the impetus of adrenaline-fuelled terror was one thing. Running because I just wanted to run was quite another. “I’m going to have to start exercising, aren’t I?” I panted, having gotten my breathing a little more under control.

    “It’s always a good idea, Taylor.” Dragon sounded amused. “Perhaps you could have Armsmaster mentor you in an exercise program. He’s a perfectionist when it comes to personal fitness, after all.”

    A vision popped into my head of me running for my life down an exercise track, pursued by Armsmaster waving his halberd menacingly. That would certainly bring out the adrenaline (even though I knew he was just a big teddy-bear under that gruff exterior). But the sad fact remained that Armsmaster was almost certainly a faster runner in his armour than I was out of mine. Also, if I was to become an effective hero, it was basically my duty to get fit. Ugh. “I’ll think about it,” I muttered reluctantly.

    Straightening up (the suit actually helped, here) I walked back to the little group. “Okay,” I said. “I think I’m done running for the day. What other suit systems should I be checking?” I’d been considering the idea of performing shoulder-rolls and handstands in the suit, but I shelved those for another day.

    Armsmaster rubbed his chin carefully with finger and thumb, smoothing down his beard. “Well, we do need to test the flight system. What do you think, Dragon?”

    “There’s no time like the present,” she agreed. “Taylor, would you prefer I take the front seat or the back seat for this?”

    I knew what she meant; did I want her to take control of the system and show me how it worked, or let me figure it out for myself but be ready to take over if necessary? After the blow to my pride from running out of steam so quickly, there was only one real answer. “I’ll take front seat,” I said quickly. I might be unfit, but by God I was going to learn how to fly my own powersuit.

    “Good,” she said warmly, and I heard the smile in her voice. “It’s a steeper learning curve this way, but you’ll get there more quickly. Activating pre-flight checklist.”

    A moment later, the list showed up in front of me. And here I’d thought only pilots in actual aircraft did that sort of thing. “Am I going to have to do this every time?”

    “Yes and no,” she explained. Well, that cleared things up. “It won’t be long before you get the hang of knowing which items in the checklist have already been cleared. And of course, skipping it altogether in a rush situation is usually okay. It’s the equivalent of checking your car over before turning the key.”

    As I’d never owned or even driven a car before—not many options for a fifteen year old to do either one, to be honest—I couldn’t really relate. But I got the gist anyway. “Okay, got it.” Concentrating on the first item on the list, I brought it to the foreground and mentally checked it off, then the next, then the next. Check power level, check suit integrity, check wing lifters … one thing after another. Power level was still good, suit integrity was nominal … hmm. Calling up the suit silhouette on my HUD, I activated the ‘wings’ option. A moment later, I felt the vibration as they emerged from the pods on my back and unfolded into position. A quick command put the wings through a self-test cycle, and they reported back as being in perfect working order. Oh, good.

    Once the last item was checked off, the list disappeared. I turned the helmet to the left and right, looking my wings over. They weren’t as big as a butterfly’s wings would’ve been at this size (that is, the size of a large awning), but they were pretty big anyway. “Okay, how do I do this?”

    “There are two ways to activate flight option. The first is to manually select it on your HUD.” As she spoke, Dragon made a particular icon flash in front of my eyes. “The second is to jump off the building. The suit will determine that flight is needed, and activate the mode autonomously. I suggest manual selection for now.”

    I concurred heartily with that selection. Concentrating on the icon—it looked like a standing man—I made it change into a winged form. A new series of options popped up on my HUD, and I stared at them. I wasn’t sure how they managed to make the wireframe globe with the red line running through it look so 3-dimensional, but it was pretty cool. Next to it was a virtual model of the suit with an arrow pointing out of it, and the last one was basically a slider switch.

    “Would you like me to—”

    “No, don’t tell me. Let me figure this out.” I pondered the globe and the suit image. While the slider switch was kind of obvious—the more I slid it across, the faster I went—I wasn’t sure what the two different controls meant. Focusing on the suit, I found I could adjust the position of the arrow relative to the suit, but the base of the arrow was always to be found in the middle of ‘my’ torso.

    Hmm. Fixing my attention on the globe, I found without much surprise that yes, I could swivel the red line to point in any direction, and that there was a section of the line that protruded from the globe at one end only. Time to try something basic.

    “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see if this works.” I angled the arrow so it pointed straight upward, through the suit’s head. Then I did the same with the red line, setting it to a vertical alignment through the globe. Finally, I nudged the slider switch across until I saw the rooftop beginning to drop away below me. Immediately, I pushed it back to zero, and looked around.

    I was twenty feet above the rooftop—the movement had been faster than I’d anticipated—and holding steady. Dad, Amy and Armsmaster were looking up at me. My father was staring in stunned surprise, while Amy was grinning broadly. And if I wasn’t much mistaken, even Armsmaster had a faint smile of pride on his face.

    “Okay, I can fly.” My grin challenged Amy’s. “Let’s see now …” I wanted to see if I could turn. Selecting the arrow, I pointed it straight forward then did the same with the red line. Then I tried swivelling the line around to the side.

    Nothing happened.

    Making sure the external speakers were off, I huffed a sigh. “What am I doing wrong?”

    “You’re trying to turn on the spot?” A secondary icon, one I hadn’t paid attention to, blinked a couple of times. “This links those two controls.”

    “Ahh.” I activated the icon, then tried my swivel trick again. Smoothly, I rotated in mid-air. “Okay, that works. But …”

    “But?” Anyone else would’ve been defensive. Dragon merely sounded interested in what I had to say.

    “But this is too … clunky,” I said, searching for a better word and not finding one. “I’ll be too busy working the HUD controls to watch where I’m going, especially when it comes to steering. And if I have to manually adjust my facing every time go around a corner …” There wasn’t much more to say. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I just don’t know if I can superhero in this.” Just for a moment, a nasty suspicion crossed my mind that Armsmaster had set matters up this way so I’d have to join the Wards to get a working suit. Then I dismissed it. Armsmaster just wasn’t like that. Neither was Dragon.

    “Oh, those aren’t the standard controls,” Dragon assured me. “Those are the backup controls. As you’ve noted, they’re clunky but usable in an emergency. They also allow you to perform manoeuvres that your standard controls aren’t designed for, such as flying upside down or backward.”

    “ … Oh. So, uh, when do I get to use the real controls?” I wasn’t exactly irritated with her for not revealing this immediately. It wasn’t like I was an expert pilot. Even my paper planes tended to crash horribly.

    “In just a moment. Watch carefully.” My HUD blanked, and was overridden to show an image of the suit I was wearing. A red line started level with my heels, traced up through my spine, and went out through my head. The arms of the suit went forward, and the wings flared to a new configuration. “The suit will follow the line of your body. Your hands will lead. If you curve your body, the suit will turn in that direction. If you bring your hands in close to your body, you will hover. If you’re upright and you bring your hands downward, you will land. Is that understood?”

    As she explained, the suit followed her instructions; flying, turning, hovering and finally landing. It actually looked kind of cool. I hoped I’d look nearly as cool as she made it seem.

    “Uh, yeah, I’m pretty sure I got it.” It sounded kind of intuitive. Did natural flyers have trouble making their powers work?

    “Good. I’ve activated the icon for you to use this mode of flight. There are pressure switches under your big toes, or you can use the slider switch. Either one works.”

    I spotted the icon and activated it. Immediately, the suit felt … different. Before, it had been simply responding to my commands. Now, it felt alive, quivering, ready for action. I was pretty sure this was because my body was going to be supplying the commands, but I liked the feeling anyway.

    Slowly, I brought my arms up and forward, then pushed down gingerly with my big toes. Something went click and I found myself moving forward and upward at an angle. In the HUD, the slider switch eased across of its own accord. I was pleased for that, as it would give me a gauge on how much power I was using.

    I was still flying across the roof of the building, but the edge was coming up quickly. That didn’t matter; the wings were supporting me, not the roof. Still, I sucked in a gasp as I passed over the parapet and saw how much empty air was below me now. It was a long way down.

    Just for a moment, I felt a surge of vertigo, raising my heart rate and making me hyperventilate. I wasn’t a flyer. Hell, I wasn’t even a Tinker! What was I doing, blindly flying around in a device I had no business wearing, throwing myself out over empty air? Instinctively, I pushed downward with my hands, trying to ward off the yawning drop beneath me.

    The suit of course responded, swinging me downward in what turned into a tumble. I felt a scream rising in my throat, along with the beginnings of panic, and clenched my eyes shut. Then I heard Dragon in my ears, cool and calm.

    “If you bring your hands in close to your body, you will hover.”

    I brought my hands in close to my body, wrapping them around me. The tumble ceased. All movement came to a halt. I opened my eyes.

    I was hovering, just as she had said. I breathed again.

    “Taylor?” It was Armsmaster, this time. “Are you all right?” The concern was strong in his voice. I could only imagine what Amy and Dad were thinking. Looking up at the edge of the PRT building where all three were leaning over and watching me—I’d dropped a good forty feet before regaining control—I raised one hand in a tentative wave. The suit responded, easing itself upward slightly.

    “I’m fine,” I said. “I moved the wrong way, and the suit thought it was a command. I know better, now.” And I knew damn well I was going to have to learn the suit’s tolerances; what would it consider to be a command, and what could I get away with doing without spiralling out of control?

    “Good.” The relief was palpable in his tone. “Did you want to stop now?”

    “No.” I took a deep breath. I’d nearly fallen, but the suit had caught me. It was my stupid fault, not the suit’s. My heart was still thumping away in my chest, but I was safe. The suit would keep me safe. “I’m gonna see what this thing can do.”

    Bringing both hands up over my head, I jammed both big toes on the switches. In the corner of my eye, the slider switch whipped all the way over to the far end, but I wasn’t paying attention. With a surge of acceleration, I shot up past the three onlookers, then toggled the external speakers and let out a whoop as I pulled a loop over the top of the building. Halfway through the loop, I figured out how to do a roll, then plunged over the other side of the building, this time under full control.

    Easing off on the power, I angled sideways and pulled into level flight along the side of the PRT building, then grunted as I came around the corner. The G-forces weren’t quite so bad as they would’ve been if I’d been standing up, but they were still pretty strenuous. The grin was back on my face as I turned upward and angled around so that I was shooting upward with my back to the building. Just to make sure I didn’t hit it, I cheated slightly with the HUD to ensure that the red line in the globe was perfectly vertical.

    As I came up over the edge again, I angled backward, then pulled off power altogether and drew my arms in to my sides, letting my legs come over the top in a backward somersault. With my hands down, I came in for a landing. The suit took over for the last couple of yards so I didn’t crack the asphalt of the helipad, and I landed as gently as a feather, then activated the ‘ground mode’ icon.

    The suit’s wings were already retracting as the others came over. Dad and Amy looked like they wanted to run, but they made themselves stick to Armsmaster’s measured pace. I went to meet them.

    “Wow, holy crap,” Amy said. “I’ve seen Vicky do stuff like that, but she’s been flying for years!

    “It was easy, really,” I said. “Once I got the hang of it, that is. The suit did ninety-five percent of the work.”

    “And a hundred percent of the flying.” Dad gave me a wry grin that hid worry. “Are you all right? What happened out there? Did the suit malfunction?”

    “No, no, it was nothing like that.” I shook my head for extra emphasis. “It was me. I, uh, saw all that empty air down there and kinda freaked for a second. But Dragon got me through it. And I realised that the suit will never let me fall.”

    “Well, of course not.” Armsmaster almost managed to sound offended. This close, he was talking to me directly instead of using his radio. “It’s designed to keep you as safe as possible. There are many safeguards you would have to deliberately override before you could hurt yourself in that suit.”

    “Good to hear.” I nodded toward the roof entrance. “But I think I might take a break. Is it okay if we get a bite to eat?”

    “Certainly,” said Armsmaster, and led the way. I followed, finding that the suit felt entirely natural to walk in now.

    Toggling off my outside speakers, I spoke softly. “Dragon?”

    “Yes?”

    “Thanks for reminding me, before. Instead of, you know, taking over and making me feel totally helpless.”

    There was a smile in her voice as she replied. “You’re entirely welcome, Taylor. And you did very well, for a first-time flyer.”

    As I went in through the roof entrance, there was a smile on my face that just wouldn’t go away.

    <><>​

    Sophia

    “Right.” She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. The salt stung the cuts in her knuckles, but she didn’t care. The asshole was finally down, slumped face-down in the middle of the motel room floor. It had taken a bit of doing—without her gear, even with her powers, she was still a teenager and he was a large and bulky adult—but she’d kicked his ass in no uncertain terms.

    The question was, where was her gear now? And what was she supposed to do about this moron? He’d seen her face. So had the maid. She couldn’t call on the PRT to put the frighteners on them, because as far as most of the PRT was concerned, she was a rogue agent. Instead of listening to her, they’d probably try to put her in a cell. The operative word was ‘try’, but even that would probably be enough to fuck up her mission once and for all. Son of a bitch.

    The maid was nowhere to be seen, but the room-service cart stood just outside the door. She recalled how the asshole had glanced at it, just before she jumped him. The look on his face had been classic.

    She hustled over to the cart and started searching it. Within seconds, her hunch had borne fruit; her clothes, boots and other gear had been shoved into the trash compartment of the cart. They hadn’t even bothered trying to hide it, no doubt assuming that without her equipment she was helpless. Helpless, my ass.

    The manager and the maid had to die. That was the only way out of this. Of course, she couldn’t be seen to have killed them, though Calvert would probably understand. The impression she got of the man was that he comprehended the need for people to die on occasion. However, the rest of the PRT, including the pig-bitch herself, would clutch their pearls and swoon over the idea of a Ward who knew when someone needed to die.

    But if she were to go on to a successful career as a superhero after this, there was no way she could allow anyone to go about blabbing that they’d seen her face when she was on a secret mission. In fact, Calvert would probably have pre-approved this sort of thing if he’d thought about it ahead of time. Secret missions needed to stay secret after all.

    Moving with swift, economical movements, she began to don her costume. With any luck, the maid would be stupid enough to come back, and Sophia could deal with her and her boss at the same time. If she didn’t, Sophia would be forced to go and find her. If that happened, she’d make sure it hurt.

    The bodysuit was on and she was buckling the belt around her waist when she heard the first sirens. Motherfucking cocksuckers! She kept costuming up, listening intently to see if they were going past. The absolute fucking nerve of that fucking cow of a maid to call the goddamn cops on her! Rage boiled up inside her, and she nearly shot a tranq dart into the asshole’s neck. Only the fact that she was low on them stopped her from wasting one.

    When I’m done with this shit, I’m gonna come back here and fuck their shit up once and for all, she silently promised. They’d asked for it, after all. They’d fucked with her, and they’d fucked her shit up. Which added up to them wanting to die in her book, especially since they’d seen her face and then called the cops on her.

    Pulling the helmet on over her head, she strapped it into place and reached for her boots. At that moment, the asshole on the floor groaned and stirred. Of course she hadn’t secured him, because she hadn’t had her zip-ties at that point. Fuck it. As he raised his head, she nailed him with a tranq dart just behind the ear. He slumped to the floor again, and she leaned down and plucked the dart out. Five left.

    The sirens were getting really close now. She couldn’t even pretend to herself that they were going anywhere but this motel. And it sounded like more than one car, which meant they knew how dangerous she was, so they were planning to surround the motel. The one good thing was that she didn’t hear any PRT sirens. But they could be running silent behind the cop cars. It was a tactic she’d seen them pull from time to time, when they didn’t want to alert a cape that they were in the vicinity.

    She grimaced; backing down to normals felt like running away, no matter how many there were. Though it wasn’t the numbers, it was the visibility. And the more she hung around here, the more chance some PRT asshole would connect the dots between Shadow Stalker and Spectre. Leaving really was in her best interest. I need to check my phones and see if Calvert or Coil’s tried to contact me. Calvert, at least, was due to respond with a meeting place. She had no idea what was going on with Coil. Has he made me for a plant? Does he think I’ve been captured? With no feedback, she had no idea where his mind was.

    But there was no time to check her messages now. She heard footsteps thundering along the walkway. Grabbing the backpack, she shrugged it on and dived out through the wall. Below her, on some sort of driveway, a cop looked up and shouted. There was the sound of a shot—weirdly echoey in her shadow state—and she felt the familiar twitch as a bullet flicked through her insubstantial mass. Fuck, he shot at me.

    Just for a moment, she wanted to go solid and kick the crap out of the cop, but cooler instincts prevailed. She couldn’t afford to get caught up in this sort of thing. If she did, the PRT might arrive before she knew it. And while they couldn’t catch her even if she gave them a head start, the Protectorate would probably show next, and they knew how to catch her. Armsmaster, at the very least, knew her weaknesses. If anyone could bring her in, it would be the Halbeard.

    As soon as she was out of sight of the trigger-happy cop, she turned solid, dropped to the ground and bolted. Her cloak flaring out behind her, she ducked down some twisting alleyways, then used her shadow form to leap higher and higher until she was running over the rooftops. This was how things had been before the PRT got their claws into her; free to do what she wanted, how she wanted. No obligations, no rules.

    Her grumbling stomach finally forced her to slow down. She couldn’t remember offhand when she’d last eaten, but it had been the better part of a day ago. The hunger she felt had been present more or less since she’d woken up, but other events had overridden her hunger pangs until now. I need to get something to eat. Do I have cash? A quick check of her pouches—and the pockets of the clothes in the backpack—revealed nothing but the jewellery that she’d taken as part of the heist. Not exactly legal tender.

    She holed up on the roof of a bowling alley, in the shade of an air-conditioning unit. Coil’s phone, when started up, showed eighty-nine percent charge and no messages. Not even a missed call. However, it did inform her that the time was ten AM, which went a long way to explaining why she'd been found by the maid. Fuck, I can't believe I slept in that long. Calvert’s phone, on the other hand, was on twenty-eight percent charge and had a message waiting for her. Meet at 1900 tonight, northern ferry terminal. C.

    She had to admit, that was definitely out of the way. Any farther and they’d be meeting outside of Brockton Bay proper. If she was being honest with herself, she’d expected him to specify the Central Library or maybe the Forsberg Gallery to hold their meet. Seven was a weird time too. The sun would be down, but there was still the chance of a passer-by. Of course, once they were up inside the terminal, nobody would be able to see them.

    Shit, I wonder if they’re getting ready to move on Coil and the Undersiders. Try as she might, she couldn’t think of another reason for a face to face briefing. Which was a problem for her; while she’d need help to deal with that snaky asshole and his mercs, she didn’t want Grue and the Underbitches to go into custody. Mainly because that would mean she couldn’t kill them, and they’d all made her list over the last day or three. No matter how sneaky she was, stabbing oneself to death was not high on the list of normal methods of committing suicide in custody. Someone would ask questions.

    Which means I’ve gotta get to them before the meeting. Once they’re dead, we can focus on Coil. It’s a win-win; I’ll be helping to streamline the operation. Though only Calvert was likely to see things her way. Everyone else would have to be kept in the dark. Sophia was good at keeping things in the dark.

    Making her decision, she nodded once. The Undersiders would have to die before she got to that meeting. But for right now, she needed to eat. Bowling alleys had food concession stands, didn’t they? The problem was that she had no money. Which meant she’d have to steal the food … or the money needed to buy the food.

    She smiled slowly, behind her visor. Money, I can handle. And the best bit is, this is an official PRT operation, so I won’t even get in trouble for it.

    <><>​

    Miss Militia

    “They’re just in there!” The cleaning maid, obviously distressed, pointed at one of the doors on the upper floor of the motel. “Hurry!”

    Hannah nodded to her on the way past, a heavy taser forming in her hand. She didn’t know it was Shadow Stalker in the motel room, but the descriptions she’d gotten so far pointed that way. Black teenager, extremely violent, wearing a greyish costume, pockets full of jewellery … it all added up. And even if it wasn’t her, a taser was still a good fallback weapon for many capes.

    She took the stairs two at a time, noting that the cops were following along in good order. She wasn’t sure how much good their body armour would be against someone who could phase their shots, but she personally intended to shoot first. Her boots pounded along the walkway to the door in question. A shot sounded from the far side of the building, but she didn’t pause.

    She also didn’t bother with testing to see if the door was unlocked; her weapon shimmered and became a shotgun loaded with door-breachers. The first shot shattered the lock, and the second blew a chunk out of the door where the chain would’ve been. As the racketing explosions echoed across the courtyards, she hit the door with her shoulder and rolled into the room. Coming up on one knee, she reformed her weapon into a taser once more, covering the room with an arc that ended up on the closed bathroom door. Officers piled into the room behind her, going left and right.

    Laser dots danced around the room as they noisily cleared it. The bathroom door was kicked open and a tear-gas grenade thrown in; nobody wanted to go into a confined space after a cape. Gas mask on and taser at the ready, Hannah ventured in first. As she’d half-suspected from the sound of the shot, the bathroom was empty. Except for the manager, slumped on the floor beside the bed, there was nobody there at all. One of the officers checked for a pulse, then breathing, and shook his head.

    “No.” Hannah wasn’t going to let Shadow Stalker claim yet another victim. Pulling off her gas mask and yanking her scarf off of her face, she heaved the guy on to his back and started administering CPR. “Get the paramedics up here!” she ordered. “He’s a big guy. We might be able to pull him through this.”

    “Right, right.” One of the cops made the call, then directed another officer to take over the assisted breathing. Hannah gratefully pulled her scarf back up over her face. Hopefully, not too many of the cops had seen her unmasked.

    As a third officer took over the chest compressions for her, she was able to stand up and take a breath. “Any word?” she asked of the sergeant who’d followed her in through the door. “There was that shot …”

    “Yeah.” He nodded, his expression grim. “That was her, all right. Went out through the wall. She’s in the wind.”

    She grimaced and looked down at the motel manager. “God damn it. How many more before we catch her?”

    The sergeant just shook his head.

    <><>​

    Taylor

    “So, I had an idea about the armour.” I looked brightly over at Armsmaster, who was stolidly eating. He looked at me, as did Dad and Amy, with varying degrees of curiosity.

    “I’m listening,” he said. The pause told me he’d probably activated a voice recorder as well. If there was one thing I was learning about Armsmaster—something I actually quite liked about him, to be honest—it was that he never did things by halves. When he set out to do something, he did it.

    “Two things, actually,” I clarified. We were in the PRT commissary, but the other personnel were giving us our privacy. Which meant that nobody was listening in on our conversation. Or rather, anyone who was listening in probably had the clearance to do so. “One, a compartment in the armour to hold bugs, that I can release them from when I need to.”

    He nodded at once. “I can definitely modify the armour for that. How much volume do you think you’d need?” The tone of his voice stated that he’d give me as much volume as I wanted, or make a darn good try at it.

    “Bugs can pack in fairly tightly,” I assured him. “We can work that out. The other idea was that instead of running the secondary arms from the HUD, we could have really tiny controls in the joints and have bugs working them for me.” The idea had come to me halfway through the meal, and I’d been momentarily dumbstruck by how neatly it would work. If we could make it work, of course.

    “Which would tie back to keeping bugs in the armour,” he noted at once, raising my estimation of him yet again. “We’d have to define a certain range of bug size to do the work, but I can’t see why not.” His expression came across as intrigued, which was a good trick when I could only see his mouth behind his helmet. “Do you think you can run them all at once and not be distracted?”

    I nodded earnestly. “I’m pretty sure of it. I’ve got millions of bugs in range right now, and I can sense where they all are in relation to me and what each and every one of them is doing. It’s like where it comes to bugs, I don’t have an upper limit to the amount of multitasking I can do. Or at least, I haven’t hit it yet.”

    Dad shook his head. “Millions …” he muttered. “Have I mentioned recently that cape powers are bullshit?” But the expression on his face as he looked at me was exasperated pride.

    “Not in the last five minutes,” Amy noted with a grin on her face. “Hey, Taylor, you connect with the brains of the bugs you’re controlling, right?”

    I shrugged. “I … guess?” Given that I was tapping into their senses, it seemed to be about right. “Why? I doubt they’re making me any smarter.”

    “No, but they could give you a Thinker rating,” she retorted, her grin widening. “I’m wondering if each bug you tap into hands over a little tiny bit of its brainspace to handle the overall multitasking. One bug: no big deal. A million bugs? That adds up to a lot of brainpower.”

    “ … Huh.” I thought about that. “I suppose that could work, right, Armsmaster? I mean, it makes as much sense as anything else, and a lot more sense than me trying to handle all that work with one human brain.”

    Armsmaster gave Amy an appraising nod. “To be honest, I don’t have the expertise in parahuman studies to judge something like that. But if it did work like that, it would certainly explain why your power use is so efficient. If your power links all the bug brains together like the elements of a supercomputer, it means that every time you add bugs to your swarm, your available processing power increases.”

    “Wow,” I murmured. I couldn’t feel anything like that happening at all. As far as I was concerned, I just did it. “That’s … kind of handy. Because there’s a lot of bugs around, and I’d hate to be overwhelmed all of a sudden.”

    Amy put her hand on my shoulder. “Well, that’s not going to happen, especially on my watch,” she assured me. “And just between you and me, even when you’re processing all those signals, your brain doesn’t seem to be overworking itself at all. I mean,” she added for the benefit of Dad and Armsmaster, “I can’t affect brains, but I can definitely observe them.”

    “And I can speak for Taylor and me both when I say that I’m glad you’re helping us out,” Dad said. “I honestly don’t know what we would’ve done without you.”

    Armsmaster didn’t say a word. Amy and I shared a glance. She didn’t need to say a thing; we both had an idea how bad it could’ve gone at its worst. Reaching across the table, she squeezed Dad’s hand. “Hey, you took me in and made me welcome. It’s the least I can do.”

    “Which reminds me, I’ve still got some training to do in the suit,” I noted, standing up from the table. “I mean, I can’t exactly be a PRT-affiliated hero without having a way to go out and be a superhero, after all.”

    “That’s true,” said Dad. “I can’t even imagine you going out without serious protection, even without all the stuff that’s happened. Bug control is useful, but it doesn’t make you bulletproof.”

    I tried not to look uncomfortable. “Uh, yeah.” He still didn’t know about the partially-completed costume in the cellar. Nobody did, except me. I meant to tell Amy about it sometime, but I wasn’t exactly sure when that would be.

    Amy snickered as we made our way from the commissary. I looked at her suspiciously, wondering if she’d found the costume anyway. “What?” I asked.

    “Nothing.” But she smirked anyway. “Just be glad that you’re not joining the Wards proper. Joining as an affiliate means you don’t have to go through Image to get your costume approved. I’ve heard that can be a nightmare, sometimes.”

    “Yeah, well, I can imagine.” I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the level of NOPE that would come out of their Image division if I presented as a bug controller, so soon after the Swarm. (It was a measure of Amy’s stabilising influence that I was able to even think about the Swarm without suffering cold sweats). “They’d probably try to make me so cute and fluffy that I wouldn’t be able to do anything meaningful.”

    Amy gave me a raised eyebrow. “You think you’re joking.” There wasn’t even the hint of a smile on her face, now.

    “It’s not that bad, is it?” I stared at her. She looked at me deadpan, not answering. I turned to Armsmaster. “Is it?”

    He shrugged very slightly. “It’s been years since I had to face them, but I’ve heard stories.”

    Oh, boy. All of a sudden, I was very glad I didn’t have to go through Image.

    <><>​

    Grue

    “Okay,” said Lisa, altogether too cheerfully for the situation at hand. “If we’re gonna be doing this, we need to do it properly. Shadow Stalker’s not the type to make a mistake, or at least make the same mistake twice. We’ll be lucky if she even makes it once. So we need to force her errors on her, so she doesn’t realise where she’s going wrong until it’s way too late.”

    “Nice battle plan,” drawled Alec. “Got any actual details, or was that it?” Brian knew he had to be in pain from his broken arm, but the sling was the only indication of injury that he was showing. The snark didn’t count; that was pure Alec.

    Lisa didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, Alec, I have details. Plan A is to tie you to the sofa as bait for Shadow Stalker.”

    With just as little hesitation, he flipped her the bird. “If we’d kept those damn dart launchers from her like Rachel and me wanted, the PRT wouldn’t be looking at us for felony murder. Not to mention attempted murder of Wards.”

    “Okay, hold it up right there,” Brian stated firmly. “If we’d done that, Coil would’ve come down on us like a ton of bricks. He wanted Shadow Stalker to kill people with those darts.”

    “So we shouldn’t have done it.” Rachel looked as though she couldn’t believe she was agreeing with Alec. “Fuck Coil and fuck Shadow Stalker.” She looked at Lisa almost accusingly. “You talk like you know everything all the time. How come you didn’t know that shit was so dangerous?”

    “Because there were no hints or warning signs,” Lisa said tiredly. Brian got the impression she was about to throw something. “My power doesn’t pull facts out of nowhere. I can only work with what I’ve got.”

    “Okay, enough.” Brian was getting tired of the bickering. “Lisa, you said you had a plan to trap Shadow Stalker. I don’t know about everyone else here, but I’m interested in hearing it.”

    “I thought you’d never ask.” Lisa smirked. “The first thing we need to do is …”


    End of Part Seventeen

    Part Eighteen
     
    Last edited: May 12, 2019
  22. Paladin3030

    Paladin3030 Getting out there.

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    Well looks like the Undersiders are getting deeper & deeper in this mess, so deep that there's a mile's worth of crap to dig through just to get out on top.
     
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  23. Chojomeka

    Chojomeka Attack on Anus

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    Hmm this makes me wonder if Miss Militia will now take a good long look at the Protectorate as a whole as well as herself.
     
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  24. SwiftRosenthal

    SwiftRosenthal Well worn.

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    You seem to have her confused with another patriotic superhero. She's not fem!Captain America. She's fem!U.S. Agent.
     
  25. easlyamused

    easlyamused Getting sticky.

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    So I know this idea is unlikely to happen in this story, but I wonder if Taylor gets enough processing power with her bugs, could she begin to understand tinkertech? As I understand it, Dragon had some minor understanding of tinkertech before she triggered because of her nature as an AI. Taylor could easily match an AI in cyber warfare with the right computer setup, so I think it might be possible for her to crack the tinkertech black-box as well.

    Especially if Amy makes her brain bugs.
     
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  26. Prince Charon

    Prince Charon Just zis guy, you know?

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    I think she could if she tried, but I don't think it occurred to her in canon.
     
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  27. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    The processing power is all folded back into multitasking with the bugs. It doesn't let her understand anything new, just keep up with the massive influx of information.
     
  28. doomlord9

    doomlord9 Experienced.

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    It depends on how you decide to interpret how it works. Does it allocate 100% of the extra processing power to multitasking decoding, or is there any excess? If there is even 0.01% extra left over then she could begin to see improvements in learning once she gathers a swarm of 10 million or more bugs, or a few hundred/thousand specialized brain bugs Amy designs to have lots of extra brain power for exactly that purpose.

    She could have simply never noticed before because the only times she gathers a swarm large enough to have an effect, they're intended for combat and often die shortly afterwards.
     
  29. edale

    edale Versed in the lewd.

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    Nowhere does it say Dragon understood Tinkertech before triggering, only that she had some drones that Saint stole. Then Dragon Triggered with the Thinker power to reverse-engineer Tinkertech and her drones got a LOT better.

    Can't beat shard blackbox shenanigans without other shard shenanigans.
     
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  30. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Exactly.

    Tinkertech explicitly can't be understood with sheer intelligence. You need a power that lets you crack the code. "I have a billion bugs all loaning me a fraction of their brainspace" is not an applicable power.
     
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