Price of Blood
Part Nineteen: Shadowfall
[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Half an Hour After the Passing of Sarah Livsey
"Okay, first off?" Amy shook her head as the ache from my knee subsided under her expert touch. "Landings like that take practice. Ask Vicky. She spent weeks getting it right. Because armour or no armour, you're still smashing your knee down hard enough to crack concrete. There's a reason most people who do it are Brutes. The Tinkers who do it in power armour always have padding."
"Yeah, I didn't think about that until I'd actually disabled the flight mode," I confessed. "I wanted to scare the crap out of Sophia, and maybe intimidate her into surrendering straight away so I could save some of her victims."
"Well, you got the 'scaring the crap out of' part just about right," Chris commented from across the room where he was running through the footage from my helmet cam. Which I hadn't known about. "From the look on her face when you landed, she nearly pissed herself."
"Good," I said savagely. "I want her terrified of me. I want her looking over her shoulder every minute of the day, the same way she had me terrified of her."
"Wow, this is a new side to you." Amy tilted her head. "What happened to 'I just want to be the best hero I can be'?"
"I still want to be that," I assured her. Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry, I'm not going murder-villain on you. It's just that with the history Sophia and I have, there's no way I'm going to be able to give her the benefit of the doubt. Every ounce of experience I have with her tells me she's a raging psychotic bitch, no matter what kind of pretty facade she used to cover it up with as a Ward."
Chris burst out laughing. "Yeah, no, she didn't do a good job of covering it up with us, either. She didn't do 'nice'. Of course, she didn't beat anyone up, but that's probably because Triumph and Aegis would've reported her in a heartbeat."
"So because she had effective oversight inside the most thoroughly monitored building in Brockton Bay, she went overboard everywhere else." I shook my head. "Picking on me at school, and going out with sharp arrows on her unauthorised solo patrols. Pardon me if I don't swoon with amazement at how carefully you kept an eye on her."
"And as I've already admitted to you, that was indeed our bad judgement in both cases." Director Piggot stood in the doorway. "We are endeavouring to correct that mistake, as you're well aware. But I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about how you left your backup behind and charged into a live-fire situation against a foe with unknown capabilities, when you most assuredly were not cleared to engage."
I eyed her warily. "The software said it was only a thirty-eight, and there was minimal risk."
"The one your suit picked up was a thirty-eight." Her tone was cutting. "Suppose it had been a ganger with a Smith and Wesson five hundred in his waistband? Or there was someone with a sniper rifle waiting to pick you off as you focused on his friend with the pistol?"
It seemed to me she was being altogether too picky. "Ma'am, anyone would be at threat from a sniper rifle, or from that other pistol you mentioned if it's that dangerous. I can't hide indoors all day, worried that some guy with a sniper rifle is about to pop me in the head the moment I walk outside." Well, I could, but as a life it would suck badly.
"Of course not." Her tone was impatient. "But blindly charging into a situation where gunfire has already occurred is a high-risk tactic. Believe me, I know. I've been there. Taking the time to figure out what's going on and where all the threats are can save your life. Will save your life."
"And the Undersiders? If I'd arrived any earlier, I could've saved their lives, or at least some of them," I countered. "My suit detected the gun, identified it and gave me a 3-D map of the area with the shooter located, all in less time than it takes to say it now."
"Director Piggot, if I may?" Dragon chose to speak up from one of the wall monitors. "I supplied the software. The moment the suit detected the gunshots, it scanned the local area with IR and low-end microwave bursts. No other metal masses approximating guns or people were detected at or near the site of the shooting. Apart from the victims themselves, of course."
"How good are those scanners?" Piggot wasn't letting the topic go. "It's all too easy to get a false positive or a false negative on things like that."
"I use them in my own suits." Dragon didn't sound smug, though she probably had every right to do so. "In my opinion, on review of the data, the suit would have detected any significant source of danger before she personally encountered it."
"Except for Shadow Stalker herself." Piggot pointed at one of the monitors, where a cleaned-up image of Shadow Stalker in her Spectre costume was just turning to face me. In her hand was the pistol she'd used to kill the Undersiders. "What if she'd pulled the same stunt she did with Aegis, and turned the gun to shadow before throwing it? Panacea, would you be able to bring Scarab back from having a thirty-eight calibre pistol embedded in her cerebral cortex?"
Amy didn't answer the question, probably because she'd recognised it as being rhetorical, just as I had. But rhetorical or otherwise, the Director had made her point well. I knew Amy's limitation on fixing brains was a self-imposed one, but even when she bent her own rules, she tried to do it as lightly as possible. If that pistol had ended up in my head in the same way Sophia had put a capsule of neurotoxin into Aegis' head, I would end up dead or worse. There would be no good outcomes from that.
"Also, we need to talk about your landing technique," Armsmaster stated. He entered the room from his main lab, my armour following behind on a rolling rack. "You damaged several actuators in the knee when you made that reckless entrance. They were easily swapped out, but that doesn't mean you won't damage the next lot if you land like that again."
"Yeah, no, got it," I sighed. "I tried to be dramatic, and it bit me in the knee." I'd actually been about to say 'bit me in the ass' but it wasn't my ass that had suffered the damage.
"There's nothing wrong with a dramatic entrance in the right time and place to spread shock and awe," he said at once. "I've utilised them myself, from time to time. The trick is to make it look effortless. So you've got to make it a sustainable attempt."
"In other words, you've got to learn how to do it and not damage the suit, or go sprawling, in the process." Dragon sounded like she was trying to be helpful, but Armsmaster turned his head toward the monitor for a moment. Was he glaring at her?
Come to thing of it, I hadn't gone sprawling at all. Had he done that himself? I resolved to ask Dragon some probing questions when next we had the chance to chat.
When next we get the chance to chat. Good grief. Look at me, the big-time superhero, rubbing metaphorical elbows with legends like Dragon.
"In the meantime," offered Chris, "if you are going to keep landing like that, I can write you a subroutine that will allow the suit to pull it off without breaking any actuators."
"Or kneecaps," added Amy. "I'm told those are painful." She looked my way with raised eyebrows as if to say, that was all your fault.
"To help with that, I would suggest improving the padding within the suit," Dragon noted. "I have a variant of containment foam which I find works well in that regard."
"I'd be interested in samples to try in my own suit as well," Armsmaster said at once.
"All right, all right," I said, throwing my hands in the air. "I screwed up. I'm sorry. There isn't actually a manual for this sort of thing. Or if there is, nobody's offered me a copy."
"There's several," Chris said immediately.
"All of them flawed," Armsmaster pointed out.
"Most of them were written by people who don't even have powers, so they miss out some important details. The others are biased by individual preconceptions of how powers work, and they miss out the rest." Dragon sounded amused.
"So basically, if you want a manual on how to become an effective superhero, you have to write it," Amy concluded, grinning. "Which is kinda self-defeating, now that I come to think about it. If you could write it, you wouldn't need it."
Director Piggot had been watching the byplay with an air of growing impatience. "Right, fine. Mistakes made and acknowledged. I'm impressed; most capes don't get as far as actually admitting they screwed up. Is the damage repaired?"
"Her knee's as good as it'll ever be," Amy noted. "So's the other one. Fixed some old damage to the cartilage, by the way." She tilted her head at me. "You're welcome. Do you make a habit of bashing your knees into stuff?"
"Courtesy of Sophia Hess, yeah. For a while there, I did." I raised my eyebrows at Director Piggot. And that one's on you.
She didn't say anything in reply, but her lips tightened briefly. Her next words were addressed to Armsmaster. "And the actuators have already been replaced, so the suit is working properly again?"
"Absolutely." The veteran hero smiled briefly. "I can already see how useful this will be in the maintenance of my own suit, once I make the transition to a fully modular design."
"And I've been working on a design for the shoulder drones," Chris put in. "I just need to run it past Armsmaster, and we can put it together."
"Send it to my helmet system, and I'll look it over," Armsmaster replied. "I'm interested to see what you've got."
As the pair started a discussion with Dragon at the other end of the room, Director Piggot moved over to where I stood with Amy. "You dodged a bullet today," she said quietly. "Figuratively speaking, of course. I doubt you could've saved the Undersiders no matter what you did, and Hess could have killed you."
"I keep wondering if there was some way I might have been able to save them anyway," I said helplessly. "I mean, if I'd been better prepared. At least two of them were alive when I got there. Superheroes are supposed to save people."
"Don't blame yourself for their deaths," she said sharply. "I know better than most that shit happens and people die, no matter how hard you push yourself to help them." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again, she looked like she'd aged ten years. "You've heard of Ellisburg."
"Yes." Everyone had heard of Ellisburg, and Nilbog.
"I was on one of the strike teams that went in there." Her tone was flat. "I would've given my life for my squadmates. But they gave their lives for me, instead. Every single one of them. Not a night goes by that I don't wonder if I could've saved even one of them if I'd just tried a little harder. The simple answer is, no. I tried as hard as I could. They all still died."
She prodded me in the chest with a hard forefinger. "You're not a soldier. You're not even trained for this. The only things you have going for you are your powers, the desire to be a hero, and a bunch of people who are willing to use their powers on your behalf. That attitude, and those people, are the only reasons I'm willing to work with you."
Wow, thanks, I thought, barely able to hold back my eye-roll.
But she wasn't done. "You came on a scene where people had already suffered mortal wounds at the hands of an adversary who wanted them dead. You had no resources on hand to assist them. Kid Win has been doing this for years, and he couldn't help them. You have many reasons to second-guess yourself. This isn't one of them."
I blinked, trying not to feel angry but wondering why I shouldn't. The term 'damning with faint praise' occurred to me. "Excuse me, Director Piggot, but have I personally offended you somehow? Because I really am putting an effort into becoming the best hero I can be, and if that's your idea of a pep talk, it's not helping." By the time I got that far, my emotions were starting to choke me up. I wanted to say more, but I couldn't for fear of it coming out as a sob. Amy's arm went around my waist, and I leaned into her.
The Director sighed. "No, Miss Hebert, you haven't offended me. I don't think much of parahumans in general." The lines in her face deepened as she stared at something only she could see. "If I seem to be holding you to a higher standard than most, rest assured that I have my reasons. All things considered, however, you came back alive so that's a bonus."
She turned and left the room; the door closed behind her. Amy's presence comforted me to the point that the lump began to leave my throat. As I looked at Armsmaster and Chris, it seemed to me that they didn't seem overly surprised by her attitude.
"Don't take it personally," Chris said quietly, coming to my side. "She doesn't like anyone. When Clockblocker chose his name, I heard she tore a strip off him ten feet wide and put him on monitor duty for a month."
"It's not the Director's job to like anyone." Armsmaster's tone was only mildly censorious. "She's a very busy woman, and she prefers everything to work just right. I can relate to that need."
"But … when I first met her, she was a lot nicer to me," I protested. "And she had you all working so hard to find out what really happened with the Swarm. Was that just an act?"
"Kind of," Amy said, surprising me. She squeezed me more tightly, then let go and took my hand. "Then, you were very much a victim of circumstances. Stuff had happened to you outside of your control. She wanted to find out the exact situation so she knew who to blame. When she did find that out, she set out to come down on them with both feet."
"And if that had been me, I would've been the one she landed on," I realised.
"Yes." Armsmaster hit a control, and my armour opened up to let me in. "Once we verified that you didn't do it deliberately and that you wanted to be a hero, she still had to deal with the whole recruitment process."
"But I didn't want to be a Ward." I looked from Amy to Chris to Armsmaster. "You always knew that, didn't you?"
"Panacea figured it out before anyone else." Armsmaster gave Amy a measured nod. "She presented her case and the Director ran with it. She remained courteous and pleasant at that point because you had not yet finalised your decision to become an affiliate hero. Too many parahumans slide from aspirations of becoming a hero, to rogue, to petty villainy."
I sighed. It was pretty clear to me how it went from there. "So of course, now that I've been set up with my brand new armour—"
"Which you managed to damage when engaging a supervillain at a murder scene on your shakedown flight, which might even be a new record," chimed in Chris, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"I would add 'against orders', but technically speaking you're not under our command," Armsmaster said bluntly. "Still, you were told not to do anything dangerous, and you went in anyway, so consider yourself unofficially reprimanded."
I poked my tongue out at Chris, then turned to Armsmaster. "Would you have gone in?"
"Of course," he said at once. "But I have the experience and training to deal with that sort of situation. You had a suit of powered armour and Saturday morning cartoons. Or did something else inspire you to pull off that three-point landing?"
"Glory Girl, actually," I confessed. "I saw her do it on the news once. But like I was saying, now that I've been set up with the armour and I'm basically a hero in my own right, she's coming down a lot harder on me because she expects more of me?"
"Who, Vicky?" asked Amy, looking confused.
"No, the Director," I clarified.
Armsmaster nodded. "I wouldn't be surprised. She's a stickler for getting things right. With that suit, you have a lot more responsibility than you had before. If I've got it right, she expects you to acknowledge that responsibility and live up to it."
"Okay." I closed my eyes and took my glasses off to rub my eyelids with my finger and thumb. "I get it. Sort of. But would it have killed her to actually say it, instead of just yelling at me and leaving to you guys to tell me why?"
"I refuse to second-guess the Director's decisions." Armsmaster had mastered the art of the bland. "She does things her way." With a beep, the armour started to close up again. He hit the control to arrest the motion. "Did you want to make sure everything was still working okay?"
"Yeah, sure." Director Piggot's disapproval had put a damper on my enthusiasm for being a superhero, at least for the moment, but it was probably a good idea to put the suit through its paces. "Maybe I'll take it for another test flight. What are the odds of running into Sophia again?" If that happened, I wasn't going to mess around with fancy moves. I was just going to land on her. And I didn't care if I broke both kneecaps doing it.
Armsmaster's flat refusal caught me by surprise, just as I was settling myself into the armour. "What?" I squeaked. "Why not?" The suit finished its automated closing procedure, and I repeated the question through the external speakers.
"Because we have a plan in motion to capture her within the next two hours," he stated. "If you're flying around the city at the time, you may well spook her into bolting."
"What?" Startled, I took a step forward off the stand. The suit was moving as smoothly as ever, if not more so. "Why didn't the Director tell me? Why didn't anyone tell me? What am I going to be doing?"
"Nothing," he said. "You're going to be doing nothing. The plan for capturing her does not involve you."
"What? No!" I stepped right up to him. In my armour, I was almost as tall as he was. "I can help! I can take her down! I deserve this!"
"Calm down," he advised me. "I understand that you have a personal stake in this, but you're barely trained in the use of your suit, and you have no experience at all in coordinating tactics with PRT and Protectorate forces. Shadow Stalker is very good at what she does; if she wasn't, she wouldn't have been allowed to join the Wards in the first place. There's a time to step up, and a time to step back. For you, this is a time to step back."
I clenched my fists in the metal gauntlets, uselessly. "I suppose you'll be taking the lead," I said, trying to keep the sullenness out of my tone.
"Yes. I believe I've come up with a workable strategy." He didn't elaborate any farther.
I tried to think of an argument that would sway him, and failed. In the short time I'd known the man, I had gotten the impression of someone who was very hard to turn aside from his chosen path. Not even for a moment did I consider going over his head to Director Piggot; I had no doubt that she'd already decided who was going to be in on the operation and who wasn't.
The epiphany was stunning. While I was going to be allowed to play superhero in the armour they'd gifted me and would continue to repair and maintain for me, I wasn't considered reliable enough to be brought in on something like this. I was going to be eating at the little kids' table until I proved I deserved a spot at the big kids' table.
"Right," I said, trying to hide my sigh. "It's just that … when you guys built this armour for me, I had the idea that I'd be going after Sophia in it, you know? Like, she was being reserved for me to capture for my big debut, or something."
"There goes that Saturday morning cartoon thinking again." Armsmaster's voice wasn't unkind, but his tone was a little patronising. "You can't call 'dibs' on a villain. It doesn't work that way."
It was even more irritating to realise that he didn't even see where his reference went wrong. I hadn't been thinking about Saturday morning cartoons then or now; I wanted to capture Sophia because it was just, because it was right, and because she was responsible for all the deaths of the so-called Swarmbringer event, as well as the Undersiders. The immense amount of karmic satisfaction that would be inherent in bringing to justice the person who'd spent more than a year helping grind my face into the dirt while masquerading as a superhero didn't factor into things at all. Honest.
"I actually thought people did call dibs," I replied slowly. "That's how you get arch-enemies, right? Some capes are famous for it."
"Uh, they're the exception rather than the rule," Chris said diffidently. "It takes special circumstances for that sort of thing to happen. The media just likes to beat it up a lot."
"Oh." I felt vaguely let down. I'd never really been a real cape geek before … well, back when I had a normal life. But I'd thought I knew stuff. Along with most of the population of Brockton Bay, I'd assumed the Wards were all upstanding, heroic figures and that the Protectorate and PRT knew what they were doing.
Boy, had I been mistaken on both counts.
I stepped back on to the rack and triggered the suit shutdown. "Okay, the suit tests out," I said as it unfolded from my face. I climbed out of the suit and headed back toward where Amy was waiting. "I still think I should have the chance to bring her in myself. I'm kind of the injured party, here."
"Shadow Stalker's current crime spree has a total of two hundred eighty-five confirmed victims, of whom you are the least injured," Armsmaster pointed out. "We will be charging her with six murders, one attempted murder and four counts of serious bodily harm, occasioned by depraved indifference. The two hundred seventy-three deaths, unfortunately, must go unpunished. As Sophia Hess, she and Emma Barnes and Madison Clements will also suffer whatever penalties the justice system decides to inflict upon them for the specific crimes against you."
"Good," Amy said vengefully. "They deserve it."
"Uh … why attempted murder and serious bodily harm?" I was honestly curious. "Aren't they much the same thing?"
"Not precisely." Armsmaster's voice took on a lecturing tone. "We can't prove she knew the darts had neurotoxin in them, so we can't claim attempted murder for the people who survived being shot by them. However, stabbing Glory Girl with a knife was a deliberate act which can't be construed as anything but an attempt to kill her."
I frowned. "Does that mean she won't be held accountable for murdering the people who died from the neurotoxin?"
"Felony murder," Amy said at once, beating Chris to the punch by about half a second. "She was involved in the crime and she murdered the other people who were also involved, so she's literally made herself entirely responsible for all of those deaths." I gave her an impressed look, and she blushed slightly. "Lawyer mom."
"Okay, so what happens once you catch her? She's a minor, so she just goes back into juvey and serves out her sentence, or what?" This was the part that was really weighing on my mind.
"No." Armsmaster shook his head. "The Director has made it clear she'll be pushing for Shadow Stalker to be tried as an adult. Moreover, due to the fact that Stalker has a dangerous amount of insider knowledge of the Brockton Bay PRT, plus any secret identities she may have gleaned while she's been a member of the Wards, she can't just be placed in general population."
I noted that he didn't spend any time worrying about Sophia's well-being. "So what does that leave?"
Chris answered for him. "Six murder counts, attempted murder and serious bodily harm on three Wards, and she's got a strong tendency toward depraved indifference …" He stopped, then went on more slowly. "They'll be aiming for the Birdcage, won't they, sir?"
Armsmaster looked at each of us in turn. "You didn't hear it from me, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't spread it around," he said. "But yes, that's where I think it's going." His head came up. "Ah. I've got to go. Shut the lab down before you leave." There was a halberd lying across a nearby workbench; he took it up, collapsed it to half its length, and racked it on his back. Striding like a man with a mission—which, to be honest, he was—he left the lab. The door hissed shut behind him.
A few seconds later, I looked at Chris and Amy. "Well, that happened."
"Wow, holy crap," Chris said, shaking his head. "I know what she's done, but I still have trouble getting my head around it. They'll actually be Birdcaging her."
"She's a psychotic murderous cow, and she deserves whatever happens to her." Amy looked back at Chris as he stared at her. "What? She is, and she does." She took my hand and squeezed it hard. "She also sent those guys after you, and she tried to kill Vicky."
"Amen," I muttered under my breath.
Chris gave her an appraising look. "Wow, this is definitely a new side of you."
"Hey, where does it say I have to be nice, just because I spend most of my time fixing people up?" Amy turned to me. "You agree with me, don't you?"
I put my arm around her. "She spent a year bullying me, then she made me trigger, then she set up things so my powers killed two hundred and seventy-three people. Then she went on to murder more people, just because she felt like it. Whatever makes her hurt more, I'll agree with." Wistfully, I looked back at my suit. "I just wish I could be there to punch her stupid face in before they actually arrest her."
Amy smirked. "Me too." I didn't ask her if she meant she wanted to be there, or if she wanted me to be there. "But we don't even know where it's going to be, so it's not like you can crash the party."
"I can find out." Chris headed over to the nearest unattended monitor. "Armsmaster gave me basic user privileges in his lab, so I can connect through to my workshop terminal. But my terminal can connect to the main network. And I've got Wards clearances." As he spoke, his gloved fingers rattled over the keys. One screen after another popped up.
I took a moment to luxuriate in the fact that I actually had friends. Real friends, who were willing to take my side no matter what. Real friends, who were willing to get in a little bit of trouble for me. The way Amy was actively planning vengeance on someone who'd hurt me was both breathtaking and heartwarming. Is this what it's like to be able to truly trust and believe in your friends?
"Hah! I am, in fact, a genius." Chris stood aside from the monitor. "Ladies, read it and admire."
Amy and I stepped over to where we could see the screen properly. It showed an image of a wide patio with a waist-high barrier and water beyond. Amy frowned, while my eyes widened.
"Where is that?" she asked. "I have a feeling I should know it."
"Northern ferry terminal," I said at once. "But what's the feed from? That's no security camera."
"Armsmaster's helmet cam," Chris replied modestly.
"Did you seriously just hack Armsmaster's helmet?" asked Amy incredulously.
"God, no," he protested. "He's putting the feed up on the network for the operation. Unlike Taylor, I don't have a death wish."
"Could've fooled me," I muttered, then leaned in as the view panned around the abandoned station. "They must be luring her in there."
"Will that work?" That was Chris. "It's kind of open, there. She's likely to see anyone on the way in."
"I think that's the idea," I mused. "If they'd selected a place with more cover, she'd know it was a trap."
"But can they pull it off?" asked Amy pragmatically. "Like Armsmaster said, she's really good at what she does."
I grunted in annoyance. "He told me not to go there." I paused as a metaphorical light-bulb flashed on over my head. "Actually, no, he didn't."
"Actually, yeah, he did." Chris jabbed his own thumb into his chest. "I was right here."
"Actually, no, he didn't," I repeated. "He told me not to go flying around the city in case I spooked her. And he told me that I wasn't included in the plan to capture her. But he didn't tell me not to go to the ferry terminal on the off-chance that she might spring the trap and get away anyway."
"And you're going to go there," Amy guessed. "How are you going to avoid being seen? Because if she sees you, she bolts and then you've spooked her by flying around the city. Which you were told not to do."
"I've got an idea." I grinned at their expressions. "Chris, how watertight can you make my suit?"
Sometimes, it was useful to be little more than a disembodied presence on a computer monitor. People occasionally forgot that she was even there. Watching the teenagers prepare to subvert Armsmaster's wishes, Dragon mulled over Taylor's words.
It was true that Armsmaster had told the girl that she wasn't involved in the plan to capture Shadow Stalker, but it was also true that he hadn't given her any specific orders not to generate a plan of her own. The only thing he'd ordered her not to do was go flying around the city in case she spooked the villainous ex-Ward.
Likewise, he hadn't given Dragon any directives at all to ensure the teens didn't do what they were planning to do. Of course, there was the spirit of what he'd said to consider, but if she followed the spirit of every order she was given (especially when it conflicted with the letter), she'd never get anything done. It was why the 'intelligence' part of 'artificial intelligence' was so important.
Not that she was simply going to let Scarab run off and hope for the best. She still had firm control over the command codes for the suit. Whatever happened, she would be watching over Taylor's shoulder (and evaluating her performance); if Scarab seemed to be about to do something stupid, suicidal or against Dragon's orders, the rug would be pulled out from under her faster than the girl could blink.
But so long as Taylor was smart about things and didn't jump right into the middle of the action or endanger anyone, Dragon was willing to wait and see how she went. The plan, tenuous as it was, had a good basis. And Dragon was definitely in favour of backup plans. Plus, she'd seen enough teen movies to know how this sort of thing went on the big screen.
So she did the electronic equivalent of sitting back in a comfortable chair with a bag of popcorn, a theoretical smile on her virtual lips.
This should be interesting.
Block by block, building by building, Sophia eased closer to the rendezvous point. She'd used the money to buy some food, so that need was taken care of. More snacks were distributed around her costume, in the many pockets Coil had seen fit to supply her with. Of course, Coil still hadn't contacted her at all, which made her wonder if he'd seen through her deception.
Or he might've heard what I did to the six-foot-Undersiders, she thought with an internal chuckle. Still, she had the Calvert meet to get through, which should give her the information she needed to round out this mission. And once that was done, she could shed the Spectre identity and resume her career as Shadow Stalker, leader of the Wards.
That thought gave her a warm feeling deep inside as she made her way toward the abandoned ferry terminal. Calvert, she decided, had done her a massive favour in picking her for this mission. She'd been the odd one out, the angry loner, because nobody else had offered to give her a chance. But anyone reading the after-action report was going to have to admit that she gave one hundred ten percent to her work.
Her caution at this point wasn't specifically due to any worry that Calvert might try to screw her over. She was a good judge of character; always had been. Calvert, in her expert opinion, was like her. He was absolutely mission-oriented. If it was for the good of the mission, he'd do it. Anything that endangered the mission, he'd discard. She was the core of the mission, so there was no worry there. Everything revolved around her.
Her only real concern was if the PRT managed to be somehow more competent than a slab of lukewarm salmon, and traced her to this location. If they didn't check with Calvert before they came after her, they could blow the whole mission. It didn't help that Calvert and the Director would both tear them a whole new set of assholes—one for every day of the week—because the mission would still be blown. So while she didn't think she had to worry about unwelcome surprises, the main thing about surprises was that nobody saw them coming. So she kept a lookout anyway.
Slowly, carefully, she slunk along the edge of the dock, mainly so that she would only have to keep an eye on the landward side. There were no boats out there, and the PRT owned no submarines, the last she checked. Of course, Tinkers were known to build the weirdest shit, and she'd even heard that some rogue and villain Tinkers made their homes in the Boat Graveyard, which wasn't very far away. Other people said that the noxious chemicals seeping into the water from the ships had created mutated animals that made the average Case 53 look positively homely.
Just as she had that thought, something swirled past in the dark water, just six feet below her. She froze, mental images flashing through her head of giant guppies leaping out of the water at her. Nothing happened. The swirl quieted. Mutant guppy or not, that must've been one big fucker of a fish, she thought with an edge of hysteria to her thoughts.
With a brief chuckle at her own stupidity at being frightened like that, she moved on. The terminal was now quite close by. Its windows were dark, of course. Calvert wasn't exactly going to be advertising the fact that he was meeting with an undercover agent. The gangs—Coil's gang, especially—would be all over that shit like white on rice.
There were only a few darts left for her launchers, but that didn't matter. She'd detoured to an old cache she'd left behind when she was press-ganged into the Wards, and found it still intact, including a spare crossbow and a good stash of arrows. So this was the weapon she pulled out now. Manually, she pulled back the string and slotted an arrow on it. Just in case.
Some people would have called her paranoid. They wouldn't have said it for long, because of the difficulty involved in pronouncing the word with a broken jaw. But perhaps they had a point. Paranoia was a good way to go when everyone really was after her.
She almost phased through the wall, then paused. Just because there were no lights to be seen didn't mean there was no electricity coursing through the wires. Probably should go in through the door.
This would, of course, open her up to anyone looking for a silhouetted target to snipe. So she'd have to be careful about it. Sidling up to the door, she went to shadow, and jumped through the plate glass. Nothing happened. No alarms blared, no lights came on.
Street-lights slanted dim illumination in through the large windows. These served not so much to light the interior of the building as to make the shadows even deeper. Something rustled underfoot as she became solid. Looking closer, she saw dozens and dozens of advertising flyers spread across the floor from wall to wall.
She took a cautious step, then another one. Up ahead in the dim light, she saw a large chair, just sitting in the middle of the floor. As the possessor of a keenly deductive mind, she saw immediately that the chair was out of place. The question was, how long had it been there? I'm betting Calvert set it up. The sneaky bastard's not so different from Coil, now I come to think about it.
One step at a time, she approached the chair. At the last moment, she paused; under the litter of advertising flyers, something had shifted. Whatever it was, it wasn't dirt or rat droppings. Something wasn't right. She pulled her foot back and raised her crossbow. "Who's there?"
The chair began to turn.
Colin tensed in anticipation. The tiny IR cameras he'd emplaced across the room were giving him a perfect view of Shadow Stalker as she … well, stalked, across the floor toward him. He'd had to make sure that nobody was close by the building, to give her the chance to get inside so he could spring his trap. Now that she'd passed through the cordon, they would be moving in now, to surround the place. Their job was to ensure that if she somehow evaded the trap, to capture her anyway. He didn't anticipate needing their assistance.
The trap was simplicity itself. Shadow Stalker herself had told them she couldn't phase through electrified materials, so there was a net ready to be electrified, spread across the floor under the layer of concealing advertising material. All she had to do was step on to it, the net would be electrified then pulled up and around her, and she would be captured once more.
She was three steps away from the net. His thumb rested easily on the button of the remote control for the high-speed winch he'd bolted on to the wall out of sight. The same button would electrify the net, ensuring that she wouldn't be able to slip out of the net once it retracted.
Two steps. His thumb took up some more pressure. She was so close to being captured, he could taste it. This would go a long way toward dealing with the potential embarrassment of having Shadow Stalker's extracurricular activities brought to light.
One step. She actually put her foot on the net. Then …
What? She pulled her foot back. Raised her crossbow. "Who's there?" she challenged.
Colin had thought there might be a slim chance of this happening, so he'd planned accordingly. While Shadow Stalker was undisciplined and criminally inclined, she'd also showed him a certain level of respect as the head of the Protectorate in Brockton Bay. Which was why he'd had his own personal office chair brought in. It was the only one he knew for a fact that could support his armoured weight without collapsing at an inopportune moment. With pressure of his foot against the floor, he turned the chair about.
Coming to his feet, he used his HUD to activate tiny hand-lights placed around him so that he was in a pool of light. His halberd came to his hand, and he unfolded it with a dramatic clack-clack. Face to face with the person she'd accepted as her direct authority for the last six months, he reasoned, she would very likely fold.
Failing that, he had a taser in the head of his halberd, designed for this very purpose.
"Shadow Stalker," he snapped. "You're under arrest for—"
When he saw her, she was crouching. Then she came to her feet fast, and ran toward him. Unable to see properly because of the lights surrounding him, he nonetheless realised she was aiming her crossbow at him. Normally, this wouldn't cause a problem. But if she went to shadow and then fired the shot, it may well materialise inside him, as she'd done with Aegis.
Still, none of this mattered; she was well within the perimeter of the net by now. Just as he prepared to jab his thumb down on the remote, he saw her make a convulsive upward throwing motion. Dozens of flyers fluttered into the air, obscuring his vision. Something settled over him as his thumb made contact with the button.
Too late, he realised what had happened. The button was pressed. The net electrified itself. And then the winch spun into action.
He wasn't standing on the net, which was the only thing that saved the whole situation from being totally humiliating. It was bad enough, as he felt his upper torso being yanked sideways under the impetus of the high-powered winch. He tried to keep track of Shadow Stalker, but by the time he came to rest against the wall with a gently-sparking hole in the net beside him—the halberd and the net had not gotten along—she was nowhere to be seen.
Chris was amazing, I decided. At zero notice, he'd set to work on my suit and made it waterproof. Or at least, water-resistant. Like a cheap digital watch, it would keep water out so long as I didn't go more than ten feet below the surface.
I didn't intend to. My entire need to go underwater was for concealment, not exploration. The suit wasn't optimised for underwater operation—most of my sensory gear simply blanked out when I submerged—but the wings still exerted force, so I could move faster than a man could swim. How much faster, I wasn't sure, but it would have to do.
Navigation would normally have been a problem. I had a certain amount of night-sight vision, allowing me to avoid ramming head-first into the thousand-and-one underwater obstacles in offshore Brockton Bay, but that had a total range of about ten feet. I needed to be able to know where to go.
Which was where the bugs came in.
I still wasn't very good at seeing or hearing things through their senses, but I could tell exactly where every bug in my range was, to a fraction of an inch. So, once I slipped into the water, I told every bug (and crab, apparently) in my range to hunker down right where it was. If they were too close together, I spread them out. From that, I found I had a pretty good 3-D map of the Brockton Bay waterfront, as well as the underwater terrain. And while I couldn't read street signs, the bugs could get an impression of the colour and texture of the surface they were sitting on. My personal knowledge of the city filled in the rest.
With my wings partially spread, and turned so the violet glow didn't shine up through to the surface (I hoped) I cruised through a murky underwater world. It was weird as hell. I could've been exploring the ocean floor a thousand feet down … well, until I passed by a bicycle, wheels embedded in the bottom mud, the plastic streamers from the handlebars fluttering feebly in the current. I had no idea how a bicycle could even end up out here, ten yards from shore.
Forcing my mind away from fruitless speculation, I homed in on the ferry terminal. The shape of the building was clear enough in my mind that when I got close enough, I knew exactly where I was. Easing in alongside the pier, I let myself come within a few feet of the surface as I moved closer to the building. I didn't want to stay underwater any longer than absolutely necessary, as I suspected I'd sprung a leak around my left knee joint. Either that, or the growing chill seeping into my thigh and lower leg was a psychosomatic symptom of my hyper-awareness of being surrounded by cold water on all sides.
Another reason I couldn't stay under for too long was that while Chris had installed an air filter in my suit (thank you, modular systems) it would only work for so long before I'd need to change it out. Which I definitely couldn't do underwater, even if I had a spare.
Up in the world of air and light and warmth, I sent my bugs wandering through the ferry station until I found Armsmaster. I also found the trap he'd set for her when my bugs encountered the net spread across the floor. There had to be more to it than that, for the reason that Sophia's powers would allow her to ignore a net by simply ghosting through it.
Still, Armsmaster was Armsmaster. I couldn't believe that he would overlook such a glaring hole in the plan. There had to be something more going on. How do you catch a ghost with a net?
While I was still wondering about that, someone walked into the station. Or rather, they solidified inside the station, crushing a few of the bugs I had running around on the floor. That's her! Holy shit, that's her! Shadow Stalker's right there! Hastily, I landed bugs on her, so I could keep track of her movements. More bugs secreted themselves in nooks and crannies of Armsmaster's armour. I might've been cut out of the plan, but I didn't want to miss a moment of the takedown.
Rising to the surface under the edge of the dock, I poked my head above water. Nobody was around to see me—my bugs could make sure of that, at least—and it meant I could start breathing outside air again. Which was good, because my air filter was starting to have problems. On the downside, I definitely had a leak around my left knee, because my boot started filling up with water. I didn't like squelchy socks at the best of times, but I wasn't getting a choice in the matter. An intermittent alert started flashing up in my HUD about the status of the actuators in that knee. And the ankle. Apparently they didn't like water, either.
The next time I performed an underwater mission, I decided, I was going to give Kid Win all day to waterproof my suit.
I suddenly realised that while I'd been distracted by the water in my boot, something had gone wrong with the ambush. Sophia was charging across the room toward Armsmaster, who'd turned his chair around and stood up. The next bit happened really fast, and I couldn't really figure it out, but it ended with Armsmaster being flung sideways at a wall.
Has Sophia got powers she never told anyone about? I couldn't see that happening. Does she have someone helping her? That was more likely. Maybe Coil had placed her with other villains before she ambushed the Undersiders?
While I was still speculating, the bugs I had on Sophia faded from my perception in a weird way; I knew they were there but not exactly where or what they were doing. She's gone to her shadow form.
This was turning into a big problem. If she had an ally, the Protectorate and PRT forces in the ambush would be taken unawares. I could track her so long as the bugs stayed with her, but only if she stayed within my range. In order to follow her inland, I was going to have to come up out of the water and reveal the fact that I was there in the first place. All of a sudden, my sophistry in interpreting Armsmaster's wishes began to feel a lot less intelligent than it had before.
While I was debating with myself, Sophia's bugs reappeared in my perceptions, but only for about two seconds. Then they faded away again. Three times more, she faded in and out; the bugs could tell she was moving fast and in an erratic motion. A deep, thunderous vibration resolved itself (I realised a moment later) as heavy breathing.
I waited for her to go solid again, to stop moving. Come on, I silently urged the superheroes and troopers, she's just a teenager. You caught her before. You can do it again.
And then, as Armsmaster's bugs started moving again—a scent which I interpreted as ozone had something to do with it—she faded back into view again, well past the nearest buildings and moving fast. Away from the ferry terminal, and rapidly approaching the range of my power.
Oh, for fuck's sake. She's getting away. I had to make a decision, and fast.
Spreading my wings wide, I activated full lift. What I got was a sluggish upward surge, while error warnings popped up on my HUD. The makeshift water-sealing job had its limitations, it seemed. A couple of the non-critical wing actuators were offline, as were some of the G-negative lifters. It looked like water had seeped in through flaws in the sealant, but not had full access to the delicate electronics until I tried to apply power, flexing the modules against each other.
Oh, shit, oh, shit, oh, shit. All of a sudden, it looked like I had more problems than Sophia getting away. I slammed the suit into full power ahead, using the HUD controls rather than the toe controls, as the left one was offline. Awkwardly, I lurched up out of the water, angling sideways in an attempt to regain equilibrium while my right wing had more upward thrust than my left. I barely paid attention to the aftermath of Sophia's rampage below as I skidded more or less sideways across the sky, trying hard not to swoop down and face-plant into the side of a building.
Fortunately, Chris and I had practised this sort of thing a little. Fervently wishing I'd done a lot more training in simulated emergencies, I frantically accessed the status display for the whole suit. Whole sections were blinking red, while others flashed yellow as they dropped in and out of working order. I counted the working lifters on the left side—seven—and those on the right—ten. Then I eyeballed the two lifter arrays, and took three of the right-hand lifters offline. The suit immediately straightened out, though it was still horrifically sluggish. I was barely travelling faster than a running man. Worse, both of my right arms had just frozen up.
Sophia was still moving, intermittently going into her shadow state. I followed, ignoring the shouting over the radio as someone apparently noticed me. If she'd just stop, I could land and do some quick change-overs of modular components, and get most of the suit back up and running. But I couldn't chance it, with the way she was pushing on.
I didn't blame her for her decision to clear the area. If I'd just triggered a Protectorate ambush and nailed a few of them with crossbow arrows on the way out, I'd want to put as much of the town as possible between me and them too.
We trailed across town. She seemed to be rooftop-running, while I began to hold out hope that nothing more in the suit would fail and send me plummeting to the ground. Eventually, I felt confident enough to answer the persistent calls from Armsmaster. He'd gone from angry to strained to a weird sort of calm that gave me hope that I'd be allowed to use the suit again sometime this century.
"Scarab here," I called back. "Sorry I didn't answer earlier. Suit troubles."
"Scarab, what do you think you're doing?" Yup, he was back to angry.
"Chasing Shadow Stalker," I replied at once. "I can't quite catch her, but I can keep up with her."
He was silent for a moment. I checked to make sure the radio was still working. It seemed to be all in the green. "Don't take any chances with her," he said at last. "Why are you only chasing her? Why haven't you caught up yet?"
"My suit took damage from being underwater," I said honestly. "If I had the chance to change out some modules, I figure I could fix most of the problems, but she keeps moving. I don't want to lose her. Not now. What happened back there?"
"Underwater." He said it like a swear-word. "That suit was never designed to go underwater. Are you certain you can keep up with her?"
"Unless something else fails," I said. "Or she spots me and makes an actual effort to lose me. If she goes outside my radius, I might never find her again."
"Don't let her get the drop on you," he warned me. "I've got Dauntless down with an arrow in the abdomen, and Velocity took one to the knee. It seems she learned more about small-unit tactics during her time with the Wards than I gave her credit for."
By which I suspected she'd danced between the raindrops and left them grasping at air. I chose not to ask how she'd thrown him sideways; if he wanted to tell me, he would.
"I'll try," I said. "But I'm not letting her get away. Not again." I owed it to myself, to Sarah and to the rest of the Undersiders. Sure, they'd been villains, but they'd also been teenagers like me. Another set of choices, another time and place, and that might've been me. They almost certainly hadn't done anything that merited being shot to death on a grimy sidewalk, far from their parents and loved ones. Also, Sophia was vindictive as hell. If she escaped, then found out who I really was, I'd be looking over my shoulder, and so would Dad, until she was captured. "If I keep track of her, can you catch up and help me take her down?"
He grunted in annoyance. "She disabled my bike on the way out. I'm sourcing other transport as we speak. Don't do anything rash."
"I'll try not to." Another icon popped up in my HUD. "Crap, I've got overheat warnings in half my lifter modules now. I'm going to have to put down and rearrange them. I'll let you know when I'm in the air again."
"Roger that." He paused. "Where's Shadow Stalker right now?"
I sent him a ping for my location, then added, "One and a half blocks west of me right now. I think she's stopped for the moment. I'm setting down."
"Good. Let me know if anything changes."
"Will do." I came in for a moderately bumpy landing, using my wings to maintain balance—no flashy three-pointer this time. But instead of shutting the suit down, I switched it over to test/repair mode. This would allow me to activate systems from outside the suit, to allow for quick field repairs. As the suit peeled away from me, I kept the HUD as an oversized pair of goggles. These were wirelessly linked to the helmet, with a built-in battery pack for just this sort of occasion.
The sensory input from the bugs on Sophia had her handling some kind of glowing item, possibly a phone. I couldn't really see what she was doing, or understand what she was saying, but so long as I knew where she was, I was happy. Or at least temporarily satisfied. I wouldn't be happy until she was behind bars.
The suit reformed itself after I stepped out, squelchy sock and all. Ugh. My entire left leg was soaked from mid-thigh down. Fortunately, the water that had been trapped in there with me drained out when I exited the suit. But the damage was still done.
My first priority was to readjust the lifters. Using the HUD to pick out the non-working ones, I took three more from the (thankfully watertight) container of spares. Chris had figured my lifters would be the most vulnerable of my modules, so he'd given me a few. Working as fast as I could, I snapped out the non-working ones that mirrored their working counterparts on the right wing, wiped the connectors clean with a cloth, and snapped the new modules in. A quick self-test told me that they were up and running, and accepting commands just fine. Holy shit, I can actually do this.
Next were the arm actuators. I popped the one out of the non-working right upper arm, then snapped in a spare. But this time my haste proved to be my downfall; when I tested it, sparks popped and a tiny plume of smoke arose. Taking the module out, I juggled the hot plastic from hand to hand as I held it up for the helmet's sensors to register. A moment later, I got the image on my HUD; it was blackened and partially melted, probably because I'd failed to wipe down the connectors properly. Which meant the connectors were probably damaged as well. This would be a workshop job.
Sophia was no longer playing with her phone. From what I could tell, she was … looking around? Turning in place, anyway. Maybe she was figuring out her next move. Did she know Coil was dead? Did she know Coil had been Calvert? What had Armsmaster said to her inside the ferry terminal? How had she hurled him sideways like that? I knew the PRT had visited the terminal before the meeting to set up the ambush, but had she gone there earlier still, to ambush the ambushers?
I set to work on the auxiliary arms. This time, when I removed the non-working actuator, I took my time in wiping down the contacts. But when I checked for a spare, I found none. I'd already used it, and damaged it, in trying to get my real arm up and running. I needed two working arms.
Muttering to myself, I was halfway through taking the actuator from the upper left arm when I registered that Sophia had gone to shadow. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Was she running for it? I was in the worst possible position to chase her. I gritted my teeth and finished removing the actuator, then snapped the panel shut.
She faded back into view somewhat closer than she had been before. I could actually pick her up on my suit's sensors, if it looked in that direction. This was potentially problematic. She probably hadn't seen me in the dark on the rooftop, but there was no sense in taking chances. Working as quickly as I could, I inserted the actuator in the lower right arm and snapped it into place. My heart was in my mouth as I told it to self-test. The arm responded to commands perfectly. Now, at least, I had two working arms. My real arms would hang loosely, but that didn't matter … shit, she faded out again.
It was probably time to get back into the suit. My wings were back in working order, or as close to it as I would get for the moment. With my new mobility, there was no way she could run far or fast enough to get away from me before Armsmaster could get to us. The suit had two working arms again (ignoring the fact that they weren't my original arms) and I'd proven the worth of the modular system beyond all doubt. I wasn't a Tinker or even an engineer, and I'd still performed significant field repairs on my powered armour.
Of course, Armsmaster would probably ground me till the suit was old enough to vote, but if we could bring in Sophia, it would be hella worth it. If I could punch that sneer off her face in the process, definitely hella worth it. Time to saddle up and gain some altitude.
But when I told the suit to open up, the left leg refused to comply. I sent the command again, but it failed a second time. Crap, crap, crap. Hastily, I knelt beside the suit and opened the panel into the left knee assembly; water ran out of it. Yeah, no, I don't think replacing the actuators is gonna help there. But on the upside, I didn't need my legs to fly, so if I could manually open it, I could run the suit all day long. And with those three extra lifters in place, flying was going to be a breeze.
As I fitted the panel back into place, and prised open the one where the manual control was located, I frowned. Sophia had been faded-out for longer than normal. She was still within my radius—the bugs she had on her were registering as 'somewhere around here'—but where exactly I couldn't tell. Had she realised she was being followed? Was she trying to throw me off her trail?
There was a crunch of gravel underfoot, from behind me.
I turned fast and came up from my crouch, and the arrow that would've gone into my chest drove deep into my thigh. With a strangled scream, I fell over again, clutching at my leg with both hands. If I'd been more heroic, I would've stayed on my feet and maybe managed a pithy one-liner. But I was plain old me, and all my pithiness tends to go out the window when a crossbow arrow nails me through the thigh. It's just a quirk I have.
In other news, that shit hurts.
"Fuckin' thought someone was following me." Sophia faded into view on the edge of the rooftop and moved toward me. Expertly, she reloaded the crossbow and covered me with it. I saw that she was wearing her Spectre costume, with some sort of elaborate wrist-launcher as well as her crossbow. That must be where she shoots the darts from. Much more complicated thinking evaded me, as waves of pain from the arrow through my fucking leg distracted me in ways I couldn't even begin to describe. "Who the fuck are you, and why did you get out of your stupid fucking …" That was when she moved close enough to see the armour properly for the first time. "Holy shit, you're Scarab!"
I gritted my teeth, trying to concentrate long enough to use the HUD to activate the suit in some way. Maybe swipe a wing around and knock her off her feet. Or maybe just grab me with the auxiliary arms and fly me away before she could kill me. Because outside the armour, I was absolutely aware that I lacked any and all special defences. She could kill me in a heartbeat.
A tiny part of my mind screamed at me that you have bug control, idiot! Bring in all the bugs and smother her to death! Sting her till she's one big lesion!
But I didn't. I couldn't. The last time I'd tried to use bugs to aggressively defend myself, I had inadvertently murdered nearly three hundred people. If I tried to do this on Sophia and passed out in the process, it could happen all over again. This time, Director Piggot would be justified in Birdcaging me.
Leaning forward, she snatched the HUD goggles from my face, then stared. " … Well, fuck me rigid. Fucking Hebert. I do not fuckin' believe it." She looked from me to the suit and back again. "That's the Scarab suit. There's no fuckin' way you're Scarab. This has got to be some sort of fuckin' scam. What the fuck is going on here?"
I was not going to give her the satisfaction. Hot blood was welling out of the wound in my leg; I was pretty sure she hadn't hit the artery, and the arrow was doing a good job of plugging the wound, but a hole in the leg was still a hole in the leg. "You're, under, arrest," I panted. "Murder, attempted murder, serious injury. Give up now, I won't have to hurt you."
She laughed out loud. "You have got to be shitting me. Hebert, you're about as scary as a fuckin' three-legged kitten. You're not a hero. You're not even a person. You're a fuckin' nobody. And the moment I kill you, everyone will forget you. Nobody will even know you were ever alive."
Blackness wavered at the edge of my vision, but I forced it back. "You've … made … three … mistakes."
"Oh, do fuckin' tell." She leaned over me, mockingly. Her crossbow nudged up under my chin, the sharp arrow pricking the hollow of my throat. "I can't wait to hear this one."
"Grue's alive," I whispered.
As Sarah had predicted, that got her attention. She shook her head violently. "No. No fuckin' way. I fuckin' nailed that asshole right in the fuckin' head. He was dead before you showed up. Fuckin' try again, bitch-features." With her foot, she kicked the arrow that was buried in my thigh.
I arched my back, gritting my teeth so the scream came out muffled. There was blood in my mouth when I finished; I was pretty sure I'd bitten my tongue. "Okay," I rasped. "Truth, this time. Coil's dead. Calvert's dead. They were the same fucking person, you ignorant fucking bitch. He played you from beginning to end."
If my words had been one of her arrows, they would've nailed a perfect bullseye. Her eyes opened wide behind her visor. "No. No. No. That's not right. That's bullshit. It can't be right." She shook her head even more violently than before. "I was on a mission, you skanky whore. Something you know nothing about. I was cleaning up this fuckin' cesspool of a city."
"You got played. And you want to know your third mistake?" I gathered my strength. There would only be one shot at this.
Still shaken from my revelation about Coil, she made the mistake of leaning just a little too close to me. "What's that, you horrid little queef?"
I had the one chance, and I put my all into it. Rearing up, I slugged her as hard as I could. She stumbled backward until she hit the immobile suit. Rubbing her chin, she laughed, then brought the crossbow into line with my face. "Is that all you got? Fuckin' pitiful."
"No." I activated the auxiliary arms, still in test mode, with the bugs in their little control consoles. One grabbed the crossbow out of her hand, while the other went around her neck and pulled tight. "This is what I've got. I don't need the goggles to control the suit. Moron."
"What the—" She scrabbled at the arm, but its strength was greater than hers by an order of magnitude. It tightened again, and she choked. "You can't hold me. I'll shadow out of here. Let me go and I won't kill you."
"I figured out your weakness," I told her, rolling on to my side so I could apply pressure to the arrow wound. I had to stay conscious until help arrived, and passing out from loss of blood was not the way to go. "Armsmaster had an electrified net, didn't he? It's the only explanation for how a net could hold you. But you turned it on him somehow." I nodded toward the auxiliary arm holding her. "That's got electricity all through it. Go to shadow and find out."
She didn't go to shadow. Instead, she aimed her other arm at me. The launcher on her wrist loomed large in my vision. "I will fuckin' shoot you."
A chill went through me. I'd miscalculated, maybe fatally. One dose of that neurotoxin was fatal to an adult maybe fifty percent of the time. I was nowhere near as strong as an adult. Reflexively, I tightened my hold on her again. She gurgled, trying to draw breath. The other arm reached for her wrist, but she held it out of the way. Still pointed at me, though.
I tried to make my voice as commanding and cold as she had. "Drop the launcher and I'll let you breathe. Don't be a fucking idiot about this."
She shot me. I heard the tiny puff of expelled air, then felt the sting in my upper arm. Coldness spread through my arm like wildfire, then into my chest. My last thought before blackness overtook me was, sorry, Dad.
That's Dad's voice, I thought groggily.
"Yeah, no thanks to Shadow Stalker." And that level of snark could only belong to Amy. "She got out of her suit to fix it, then got ambushed, shot in the leg, then the bitch shot her again with one of those neurotoxin darts. Armsmaster arrived on site about two minutes later and started applying CPR. That kept her alive long enough for me to get there. I'm just waking her up now."
On cue, I felt my eyelids flutter. I took a deeper breath than normal, and opened them. The room looked remarkably familiar, being the PRT infirmary. "Ugh," I mumbled.
"Oh, hi." Amy grinned down at me. "Feeling better?"
Just seeing her face cheered me up immensely. "Am now, yeah." Tentatively, I moved my arm and my leg. Nothing hurt. "Oh, good. I'm not a pincushion any more."
She rolled her eyes. "Seriously, you're more work than any other three of my patients. Though I had to keep telling Velocity not to go into high-speed until I'd finished fixing his knee, otherwise they'd be calling him Hopalong."
I snorted, then looked over at Dad. "Oh, hey. You heard."
"I heard." He shook his head. "What possessed you to even consider doing that?"
"What, make a backup plan in case the heroes failed to capture her, or actually carry out the plan and capture her once they did fail?" I tried to make my tone as light as I could.
"Oh, uh, yeah, about that," Amy said awkwardly.
Anger flushed through me, and I sat upright in bed. "Oh, for fuck's sake. Don't tell me she got away!"
Dad shook his head, a grimace on his face. "No. She didn't. When Armsmaster got to her … she was deceased. The suit broke her neck."
I blinked. "Uh. Well, fuck. I didn't tell it to do that. At least, not deliberately."
"I didn't think you had." We all looked around to see the armoured hero himself standing in the doorway. "I'm guessing it was your unconscious mind, moments before shutdown, doing everything it could to protect itself. And you didn't use a swarm this time. I'm impressed."
I shook my head. "I can't use a swarm to hurt anyone. I won't. Not again. Not ever. There's too much risk involved." Reaching out, I took Amy's hand. She squeezed, supportively.
"Will there be any backlash?" asked Dad. "About the death, I mean. Does she need a lawyer?"
Armsmaster snorted and shook his head. "Hardly. The suit was in recording mode, did you know that?"
I blinked. "No, but I had more icons going off than fireworks at the Fourth of July."
He nodded. "I can understand that. The next time you decide to take your suit underwater, see me first? I'll actually waterproof it for you. But yes, it recorded the entire exchange. We've got her confessing to murder, unmasking you, and expressing a plain intent to murder you. Absolute open and shut self-defence case. It won't even make it to court." He crossed the room and held out his hand. "Congratulations."
I shifted Amy's hand to my left, and shook his hand a little doubtfully. "What's that for?"
"You got Shadow Stalker. A dangerous cape, off the streets. You're a bonafide hero. How does it feel?"
Carefully, I swung my legs over the side of the bed. I was wearing pyjamas instead of one of those stupid medical gowns, so I felt safe enough in my modesty to do this. "Ask me again when I've had a chance to think about it."
"Understood. Your suit's in my workshop when you want to come claim it. Kid Win's finished the shoulder drones, so you're going to have to test those some time soon." He nodded to Amy and Dad. "Good to see you."
I watched dazedly as the door closed behind him. "I don't get it."
"Don't get what?" asked Amy. She sat on the bed beside me and put her arm around me, then rested her head on my shoulder.
"He didn't yell at me. He didn't ground me. I get to use my armour. Why am I not in trouble?"
Dad snorted. "I suspect the Director will yell at you extensively behind closed doors, but for the rest of it, you pulled off a win where the Protectorate and PRT failed dismally. You basically saved their bacon on this one. As an affiliate, you made them look good by association. I'll bet you a meal at Fugly Bob's that they're already claiming your intercession was a part of the plan the whole time."
Amy prodded my thigh, where I'd been shot, with her free hand. "Plus, a wounded hero makes for amazing press. You stepped all the way up, and pulled off a win. They don't want to discourage that."
"Oh. Huh." I put my arm around Amy's shoulders. "I didn't think of it like that."
Dad chuckled and ruffled my hair. "My daughter, the hero."
It was a pity Sophia had died instead of facing justice, I mused. But she'd been the proximate cause of all those deaths, and now she was facing whatever higher authority she might have believed in. If she believed in anything.
My job wasn't over, of course. It was only just beginning. I was a hero, and I could make a difference in the world. And with my friends and family at my side, I would have the strength to see it through.
It promised to be a long and difficult journey, but I was going to redeem every life that my powers had taken on that fateful day. I would pay off my price of blood.
In reality, she was doing a dozen things almost at once, as was her wont. But to her, this was a relaxing day.
It had only taken a nudge to make the suit perform the correct action at the correct time. Taylor Hebert was alive, and nobody suspected a thing.
Humming a tune through an external speaker, she went back to her duties.