Before I settled on the story that ballooned hopelessly out of control into Taylor Varga I had a number of ideas for Worm stories, three of which I initially wrote one or more chapters of. I've posted the beginnings of the BOLO cross here, and being quite fond of it, may well at some point get back to it. It would be a considerably darker story that Taylor Varga although not to the level of unrelenting grimness that canon Worm is.
The second story I started is this one. Actually, it was the first chronologically, I started playing with it around the middle of 2015, but didn't stop working intermittently on it until after I began seriously writing Taylor Varga. When I began that story it seemed to have much more scope for amusing shenanigans than either of the other two, and since that was the sort of thing I was going for, I dropped working on the other two. However, I did recycle a few elements from this one into TV when they seemed to fit. No doubt readers could pick out points of similarity if they cared to.
I haven't touched this story in over a year, and while I was rearranging some of the vast number of files that are related to the current work, came across it again and thought it might be worth putting here for the general edification of people. Whether I'll ever come back to it and complete it, I honestly don't know, since it would probably be quite a lot of work to do it properly and I have limited time available! On one hand I'd quite like to as I think it has some promise, on the other hand it could easily end up being another story that exploded into far more words than I was originally expecting.
That seems to happen to me...
Anyway, since I wrote it, I may as well let others read it. You may extract some amusement value from it, you might not. Either way, here it is.
A working knowledge of 'Worm' is required.
Director Piggot looked at the photos in the opened folder and winced despite herself. "You're certain it was her?" she asked quietly.
The man standing on the other side of her desk nodded once. "Unfortunately, yes, I am. The DNA test was conclusive, despite the... small sample still viable." His mouth was set in a hard line under the visor of the helmet he was wearing, part of a suit of extremely advanced power armor. "We confirmed it with an exemplar from her hairbrush which her father gave us. It was definitely Taylor Hebert, I'm afraid."
"Poor kid," the Director of the ENE PRT muttered. Armsmaster nodded once more, more slowly.
"It would have been fairly quick, I believe," he added after a moment. "Small consolation to her father, but..." Trailing off he sighed minutely. "The fire spread very fast, most of that wing of the building was already gone by the time the first responders arrived. They couldn't do much more than try to stop the remainder of the school going up and the fire spreading to other buildings. The school itself is a write-off, it will have to be completely demolished and rebuilt."
"No other injuries?" she asked, closing the folder.
He shook his head. "No, remarkably enough. The night watchman had gone for a smoke outside the front door and the cleaning staff had all left by the point it started. It was the watchman who raised the alarm when he smelled something other than his cigarette burning." Nodding to the folder, he added soberly, "The evidence suggests that Miss Hebert was still alive when that happened."
"Christ." Director Piggot swiveled her chair to look out the window for a moment, before turning back. "Why was she in a school locker at two am on a Saturday in the first place?"
Armsmaster paused, then shrugged with another small sigh. "I don't know. More or less all the evidence that could have led to a culprit was compromised by the extreme heat. Fingerprints and surface DNA are impossible to retrieve as a result, so all we can do is interview possible witnesses. It was only the fact that some bone marrow survived more or less intact that let me run a DNA test at all." He stopped speaking for a few seconds, apparently considering something, then slowly went on, "Director, the one thing I can guarantee is that the Hebert girl didn't lock herself in there. Someone put her there. Whether it was a vicious prank that went too far or a deliberate attempt at murder I have no idea so far. Based on some charred residue there were also some very unpleasant waste products in there with her. I don't like the implications."
"No." Piggot sighed in turn. "Neither do I." She opened the folder again and flipped through the report and the stack of photos for a moment. "What do you make of the word or whatever it was written on the back wall of the locker?" Inspecting another photo for a moment she transferred her gaze to him. "It looks like the word 'she', with part of another letter at the end."
"It was written in blood based on the chemical analysis," Armsmaster replied. "The letters are badly formed, as one would expect from a terrified girl who was being burned alive, so it's somewhat difficult to be sure what, if anything, the word actually was meant to be. The cleanest image I have of it suggests the last letter might be another 'S', giving 'shes'. Possibly Miss Hebert was trying to send a message, most likely the name of the culprit. But that's only my guess at the moment. I will continue to work on the problem and will let you know if I find anything else."
"Good." Closing the folder, the Director pushed it away from her then stared at it for some seconds. "You're certain of parahuman involvement in the fire?"
"Yes, that much I am sure of. The fire spread much too quickly and burned far too hot to be accidental but there is no sign of normal accelerants. Residual traces of certain forms of radiation lead me to believe that it was a tinker-tech incendiary of some sort rather than a pyrokinetic. I suspect it was thrown through a window some distance from the lockers. The burn pattern essentially confirms this theory. BBFD fire investigators have also come to the same conclusion, which is why they called us in the first place."
"Damn it," Piggot growled. "So we either have some parahuman arsonist who just happened to torch a school which coincidentally happened to have a fifteen year old girl trapped in a locker full of biological waste in it, or whoever actually did the trapping then set the fire to cover their tracks. Using a parahuman weapon in the process."
"Yes. Those would seem to be the two most likely scenarios," Armsmaster agreed. "There are other possibilities but they become successively less likely. I suspect your second suggestion is most likely the correct one, I'm afraid. Which makes it murder, of course."
"On top of a major arson case, all of it firmly in our purview," the rather obese woman sighed. "This isn't going to go away quietly."
"Bearing in mind the damage and the loss of life, no, Director, I don't think it will." Moving to a chair the armored Tinker sat down carefully, mindful of the slight creaks produced by the weight of his power suit. "BBPD is still running their own investigation into the surrounding circumstances of why young Miss Hebert was in that locker, they're interviewing the entire student body and the staff, but so far no one is saying anything. Which on its own is somewhat suspicious in my opinion. Unfortunately, we have no proof of the involvement of any specific person yet."
"Have you talked to Shadow Stalker yet?" the Director queried.
Armsmaster nodded slightly. "I have. She was as... uncooperative... as usual, but in the end I managed to get her to admit to knowing the victim. She claims she only knew her to speak to in passing and I have no specific information to disprove that, but my instincts tells me she's hiding something."
"Your lie detector didn't help?" Piggot asked curiously. Armsmaster frowned a little.
"It's not a hundred percent accurate at the best of times, and unfortunately Shadow Stalker is one of the people who it doesn't yet work quite as effectively on as I'd like. She has very good control over her physiological reactions. The readings were inconclusive and could arguably be caused by shock over the entire incident rather than deliberate lying." He shrugged slightly once more. "I can't prove it one way or another as of yet."
"All right," Piggot replied, with a frown of her own. "I'll interview her myself next, I think. I find it hard to believe that she doesn't know something about what must have been a very vicious bullying campaign against this girl. Sophia does have a habit of poking her nose into things."
"You believe she could have been directly involved, Director?" Armsmaster sounded curious. "In a murder?"
"She's come very close, although admittedly almost by accident as far as I know, more than once before," Piggot said tiredly.
"True." Armsmaster thought about the idea for a little while. "I have to admit I don't like to believe she could deliberately burn someone alive, but I also have to admit I can see her locking someone she didn't like into a confined space. Unfortunately. She has a vicious streak that we don't seem to have managed to do much about so far."
They were both silent for a while, thinking about the incident. Eventually Piggot stirred behind her desk. "Find Shadow Stalker and have her see me," she said. "While she's here, talk to the rest of the Wards and find out whether they think she could be involved in bullying a fellow student. I suspect you'll get a number of yes answers to that question."
"What do you intend to do, Director?" the man asked as he stood.
"Get to the bottom of this, if at all possible," she replied, looking up at him from her chair. "If Sophia is involved and we can prove it, nail her ass to the wall."
"If we can't prove anything?"
"Keep a close eye on her even then," Piggot said. "My instincts tell me your instincts are probably right, one way or another."
"What do we tell the father?" Armsmaster asked, half-turning to the door as he spoke, then waiting.
Director Piggot sighed, staring at the folder that detailed the last moments of a fifteen-year-old girl's life in nauseating detail. "As little as possible, I'm afraid. We have too much to lose right now. But I hope we can come up with something to give him a little comfort."
"Unlikely," the tall man muttered. "Even I can see he's right on the edge. The man lost his wife less than three years ago, and now his only daughter in horrific circumstances. I can't see it ending well."
"No," she agreed with a scowl. After a moment she looked at him again. "Dismissed."
"Director." He nodded one last time to her then left the office, closing the door quietly behind himself.
Swiveling her chair around again Director Piggot looked out into the night until she heard a knock some minutes later, turning back and calling in a firm voice, "Enter." She planned on asking some very awkward questions of the frankly sullen girl who came in.
Danny Hebert sat in his office chair, looking out the window at the crumbling ships in the distance, lit from the side by the setting sun, his hands slowly feeling what they were holding. 'Nearly a week,' he thought, closing his eyes for a moment. 'Nearly a week since my life ended.' A faint clicking noise echoed around the room every few seconds.
He looked down at the 9mm pistol he was holding tightly, his right forefinger absently flicking the safety.
Eventually, his hands stilled, then he very slowly raised the gun and looked down the barrel.
Several seconds passed while his mind was almost blank. Then, convulsively, he flung the pistol across the room and ran his hands over his face hard enough to hurt.
"No. Neither one of them would want me to do it." His voice trembled with emotion but rang with surety. "I won't let them down," he added more quietly. The sole survivor of the Hebert family sat in his chair for another ten minutes, before he quietly got up, retrieved the pistol, carefully unloaded it and locked it in his desk, then went downstairs and out the door of the Dockworkers Association building, locking it behind him.
Deciding that tomorrow he would begin sorting through his daughters belongings, he headed for his car which was parked on the other side of the road.
He never even saw the huge, ugly monstrosity of a truck, festooned with armament, that came around the corner fifty feet away at over sixty miles an hour.
He died instantly.
The only witnesses other than the driver of the vehicle were the cockroaches scuttling around a discarded sandwich wrapper a few feet away.
Assault paused, something shiny off to the right catching his eye as he moved over the rooftops of the outskirts of the central business area of Brockton Bay. Shading his eyes with his hand, he peered into the distance, curious for the moment rather than concerned.
"Hmm. What the hell is that?" he muttered to himself. A quick inner debate and a check of the time had him end up moving towards it while tapping his earpiece. "Dispatch, this is Assault, I'm just going off route to check something."
"Do you require backup, Assault?" the voice of the dispatch officer asked briskly.
"I don't think so, but I'll get back to you on that. I'm just curious at the moment, there's something on the roof of the Fosberg Gallery that I want to have a look at."
"Acknowledged. We're marking you as busy until further notice. We have backup standing by if needed."
"Thanks, Dispatch. Assault out." By now he was close enough to see that the shiny reflective surface looked like someone in a somewhat weird looking suit of power armor, not anything he recognized. Whoever it was seemed to be leaning on an air conditioning unit fairly casually, looking out at the slowly rising sun over the Bay.
The figure disappeared from view as he bounded up the side of the next building over, redirecting his kinetic energy to keep him moving steadily upwards, bouncing between the two buildings. Reaching the roof of his target a few seconds later he hopped over the edge and landed behind the figure, which didn't move. Standing there for a moment he inspected it. 'Female, I think,' he mused. 'Tall, maybe six feet, and slender. With... four arms?' Sure enough, the suited woman, if that's what it was, possessed two pairs of arms, one set of which were folded on the air conditioning unit while the other pair hung at her sides.
Moving a little closer, as quietly as he could just in case they turned out to be both hostile and unobservant, he studied the figure some more. There seemed to be a pair of antennae of some sort sticking up from the head area, which were gently moving around a little. The armor of the suit had an oddly iridescent effect about it, a predominantly dark gray color sparkling through a rainbow of shades depending on the angle the light hit it and where it was on the body. The back of the torso looked like it split open down the centerline, and was more very dark green than gray under the iridescence. Overall it didn't resemble normal power armor nearly as much as it did a giant, human sized insect exoskeleton, with the most amazing paint job he'd ever seen.
As he approached, he slowly became aware that there were a number of other oddities about the person which began to make him slightly less sure it was a woman at all. Tensing a little, he began to wonder if he actually should have called for backup before coming over.
"Hello, Assault," the figure suddenly said, the voice female and clear. He twitched quite a lot, the sound taking him by surprise after the silence of the roof broken only by the hum of the air conditioner fans and a faint sound of traffic from the road ten stories below, muted due to the fact it was Sunday. "Isn't it a beautiful day? It's been a very long time since I've seen the sunrise with my own eyes like this. I missed it." She didn't move or turn around, making him wonder for a moment how she knew he was there and who he was.
After a couple of seconds, he walked closer, still staying cautiously out of reach because he wasn't an idiot, but not feeling any threat. The words seemed to mean only what they said. Her voice sounded wistful if anything. Stopping ten feet away to the side, level with her, he looked out at the sunrise for a little while, keeping her in his peripheral vision, and was forced to agree.
The sky was completely clear, after a cold mid-March night, with not a cloud to be seen. The Sun was just clearing the horizon, the lower edge a finger's-breadth above the water, the buttery rays highlighting the east-facing buildings with gold and yellow colors, while in the Bay itself the glittering force-field around the Rig glinted with extra shades from the same source. Looked at objectively it really did look very pretty.
"It is a nice day, yes," he replied after a little while. Turning his head he inspected her from this new vantage point, his eyes widening a little. "You have me at a disadvantage...?" Trailing off enquiringly, he waited for a name. She didn't respond at first. After a moment she chuckled a little but said nothing else.
They stood there for another minute or so. "Why haven't you seen the sun for a long time?" he eventually asked, unable to pass up the question. She turned her head towards him, making him stare again, a little shocked and unnerved, although he wouldn't have admitted it to anyone.
"I've been... away..." she told him, sounding like she regretted this. "Lost. It took me a long time to find my way home again."
"That sounds unpleasant," he cautiously replied after thinking her words over.
"It was, at first," she said with a sigh. "I learned to live with it in the end but it wasn't easy. There were some good things that came out of it, but..." The upper pair of arms moved in a shrug of sorts. "I lost a lot as well." Her voice dropped in a way that conveyed infinite fatigue and sadness. "Still, that's in the past. I can't change what was. All I can do is move on."
Assault shivered for a moment. There was something about the voice that made him suspect the person beside him had gone through things that were beyond his understanding in many ways.
"I only got back today, you see," she added, "and I thought I'd come here first. To visit familiar areas while I worked out what I'd do next."
"A local, then?" he asked quietly. Her head moved in a nod.
"I was born here. A long time ago."
"You have family here still?" He noticed she went completely motionless, inhumanly so, for a second. Then sighed sadly.
"Not any more, no. No family left. It's only me now."
"I'm sorry," he stated, meaning it. It was obvious from her voice that the lack of family had an unpleasant story behind it.
"Not your fault," she replied. "Or mine. But thanks anyway."
They both fell silent again. He kept discreetly studying her while she looked back out over the water at the rising sun.
The thing that he kept coming back to was that he was fairly sure she wasn't fully human. While the overall body shape, except for the extra arms, was more or less humanoid in pattern, the head wasn't. It looked much closer to the head of some sort of wasp if anything, with compound eyes and a pair of obviously insectoid antennae sticking up from between them at the top. There were a pair of mandibles below the eyes which moved slightly when she spoke, in a manner that like with the antennae, made it very clear it was no mask. How such a human sounding voice came from a face like that he had no idea.
Weirdly, after the initial shock, he didn't find her appearance particularly scary. He'd seen extreme close-up photomicrographs of various insects on the internet, some of which were genuinely beautiful in a rather alien way. She was similarly pretty if looked at more as a work of art than a weird looking human. Her eyes, when she moved her head a little to look at the Rig directly, had thousands and thousands of tiny facets which made the sunlight refract into all the colors of the spectrum in various patterns, like looking at a DVD from an angle but even more spectacular.
He'd initially thought 'Case 53' when he'd realized it wasn't a powered suit of bizarre appearance, but her words tended to suggest that she could remember her past perfectly well. Adding to that, there was just something about her which didn't quite fit that theory. To be honest, he was at a loss for the moment.
Finally, he said, "Sorry, I have to ask. Are you a Hero?"
"No," she replied, sounding mildly amused.
"No." The amusement was stronger.
"Ah. A Rogue or Independent, then."
Assault stared at her. "You have to be one of those."
Turning her head to face him, she cocked it to one side. "Why?"
He couldn't think of a good answer for a moment. She waited, apparently willing to be patient for as long as it took. "Well," he began slowly, "that's pretty much the only choices for a cape."
"What a limited view of the world you people have," she replied, sounding like she was smirking even though her alien visage betrayed no emotion he could read.
"You people?" he asked, grinning for a moment. "You mean Capes?"
"No," she chuckled. "Humans."
This stopped him for a few seconds. And worried him more than a little, despite his conclusions from a while back.
"So you're not human, then?" he asked. She shook her head.
"Do I look human?" she asked rhetorically, waving one of her hands at herself, one that wasn't resting on the air conditioner. He noticed it had three slender claw-tipped fingers and apparently two thumbs, one on each side.
"Well..." He didn't want to be rude to someone who seemed pretty agreeable to talk to so far. "I'll admit you look unusual, but I've seen worse."
"Thanks," she laughed. "I was trying for non threatening but I have some limitations at the moment. Arthropods tend to creep humans out for some weird reason, especially ones six feet tall and intelligent." She cocked her head again, amusement radiating from her. "You're doing well although your heartbeat is fast enough to make me suspect you're not as calm as you look."
He stared again.
"I can hear it," she added, which didn't actually help.
"Oh." He couldn't think what to say after that for a little while, during which she went back to looking at the scenery. In the end he said, "But you said you were born here. So if you're not an alien, that leaves..." Trailing off, he eventually shrugged. "Sorry, I've got nothing." This made her laugh again.
Turning her body for the first time, she faced him, apparently studying him closely. He was finding the lack of human expressions somewhat disturbing despite himself although her body language was nonthreatening. Eventually she hopped up to sit on the air conditioner unit, her motions much quicker and more graceful than he expected, so fast in fact that he stepped back a little.
"May as well tell you a story," she said, leaning back a little and bracing her upper body with all four arms. He looked around, then leaned against another similar unit.
"A story?" he inquired. She nodded slightly.
"A story. You see, once upon a time there was a girl, she grew up over that way somewhere," she began, waving one arm vaguely towards the Docks area in general. "She had parents who were good and loving people, despite not being well off, and a friend. Only the one, really, but she was a good one."
"OK," he replied.
"This girl grew up, as they tend to, and she and her friend did everything together. She loved reading, like her mother did, while her friend was more into slightly more girly things, but they had a lot of fun together. Both of them liked reading about Capes, and they used to wonder if they'd be heroes when they got older."
She fell silent for a moment. "One day, her mother didn't come home. She was only about eleven at the time and it took a while for her to fully understand that her mother had died in a car accident and she'd never see her again." She glanced at him, then went back to staring out to sea. He waited silently, thinking there was something vaguely familiar about this. "The family wasn't the same after that, obviously. Her father withdrew into himself a lot, as did she, in different ways. They stopped talking as much to each other, and she herself went from being a fairly outgoing and cheerful if private girl into a bit of an introvert. But her friend did her best to cheer her up and keep her interested in life. It worked, more or less, and she slowly began to get over the death of her mother."
The insect-woman sighed faintly, pausing her story for a few seconds. "Then... A little more than a year later, the girl went off to camp, and when she came back everything had changed. Her friend, her oldest friend, someone as close to her as a sister, suddenly... wasn't." She looked at him again, while he listened. "Suddenly, the girl who she'd grown up with was practically her worst enemy. It was a shock, obviously, to find that as she started High School, a school she'd picked specifically to be with her best friend, that friend was now apparently dead set on turning everyone against her. Successfully, as well."
"That's... not right," Assault said slowly.
She laughed bitterly. "No, it's not. Not even slightly. It's made worse by the way no one listened when the girl tried to get help. She was terrified of telling her father, but she told the teachers, people who should have listened and done their jobs. It didn't work, it just made things worse. She could have fought back, of course, but a lot of the time the abuse was mental rather than physical, something teenaged girls are terrifyingly good at. It takes its toll, constant abuse and psychological warfare like that. People have committed suicide over less, you know. The few times she did fight back, she was the one punished as no one believed her over her tormentors, who were well connected for various reasons. So in the end she gave up and just took it, hoping it would one day stop. It didn't."
"Shit," he muttered, appalled.
"Yep. Her marks suffered, she went from near the top of every class to near the bottom. Her tormentors stole her homework and used it themselves, destroyed what they couldn't use, stole her property over and over again, including mementos of her mother, did everything they could to make her life hell. For nearly two years."
"Fuck me," Assault said, staring at her. He was pretty sure she was both telling the truth and had a personal interest in this.
She was silent for a few seconds. "Then one day, the three main perpetrators of the torture managed to outdo themselves. They made a trap, filling a locker with biological waste, then managed to push the young woman into it and lock her in. It might have been meant as a horrible prank, but personally I think it was attempted murder on the part of at least one of the people involved. Her former friend had a new best friend, a very disturbed individual who was... well, a violent sociopath is a kind way to put it. She was in there for hours, and absolutely no one helped her. Dozens of people saw it happen but the school was so corrupt that they just walked past."
Looking back at the Rig, on which a helicopter was currently landing, she sighed once again. "The experience was enough to make the girl Trigger. That's how bad it was." He understood what she meant and winced.
"She got powers, nothing particularly impressive on the face of it, although potentially fairly effective with a little thought. But..."
"But?" he asked when she went silent again.
"But, the three vicious bitches weren't the only ones who had an ax to grind that day. A member of the ABB was involved in a grudge with some E88 thugs and it spread to the school late that night, more or less randomly. He had managed to get a Tinker-tech firebomb from somewhere and tried using it on the E88 gangers." She looked at him for a moment, then went back to watching the helicopter. "He missed."
Thinking, Assault's eyes suddenly widened. "Oh, Jesus Christ," he breathed, putting it all together suddenly. "You're Taylor Hebert."
After a few seconds, she shook her head. "Taylor Hebert died on the fourth of January, 2011. There was nothing left except for a few fragments of bone. She was murdered, technically by a seventeen-year-old Korean ganger, but he was helped by three fifteen year old girls with no ethical sense. The man who pulled the pin died a few hours later from a bad case of bullet to the brain, so it's not even possible to prosecute him."
He opened his mouth, not himself sure what he was going to say to that. She held up a hand with another shake of her head. "Taylor Hebert is dead, Assault. Let her rest in peace. I share some memories with her from a long time ago, but I'm not really her. Not any more."
Slipping easily off her perch, she stood and looked around. "It was nice to talk. Thanks for listening." The woman began to walk towards the edge of the roof, while he watched, still stunned.
"Hey, wait!" he called just before she reached the edge. The woman stopped and turned towards him, her head tipped inquiringly and her compound eyes reflecting the light. "You can't drop that bombshell on me and just walk off. What happened to you? Where have you been for more than two months?"
Studying him wordlessly for a while, she eventually walked back with an air of mild resignation, somehow conveyed without the aid of normal expressions. She stopped a couple of feet away and seemed to gaze at him as if judging his sincerity. "You really want to know?" she asked after a long moment.
Assault nodded vigorously. "I do. I'm incurably curious, aside from anything else." This made her snicker, then shrug.
"OK, I'll tell you the rest. You won't like it, I suspect, but if you insist..."
Moving away a short distance she sat on the surface of the roof, leaning back against the low parapet surrounding it, her carapace clicking against the concrete in the process. He watched, then did the same next to her.
"Two months..." she said reflectively. "It makes it sound... so quick."
Listening quietly, Assault waited while she apparently gathered her thoughts. After a few seconds, she held up her upper right hand, the superhero beside her watching with interest as a wasp appeared from nowhere and landed on the extended first finger. "When she... I... triggered, the power was a Master one essentially. Insect control. More accurately, arthropod control, with a few additions. Worms, things like that. Sounds pretty banal, right?"
He watched as the wasp crawled around on her finger, then did a little dance, each leg extending in turn and waving in a circle. It was obvious this was her doing.
"I could see it could have some uses for reconnaissance, that sort of thing," he ventured. "Depending on the range and whether the insect senses could be used. Combat uses are less obvious but I guess being stung a lot would slow most people down if nothing else."
"True," she replied. The wasp was joined by another one, both of them taking off and flying interlocked rings. More appeared, until the effect was a bit like a model of an atom, half a dozen of the insects flying in circles around a common point. "The original range was maybe between a thousand and two thousand feet depending on various conditions. Within that range, the control was absolute. Every single arthropod could be controlled simultaneously and independently, which also required a multitasking ability way past anything else I've ever heard of. And yes, their senses could be used. That was the first problem, insect senses are... not at all like human ones. The amount of sensory information was overwhelming for the first couple of minutes. I genuinely thought I'd gone mad." She sighed. "If it had ended there, and Taylor had been rescued, she'd probably have gotten used to it in a week or so and then..." His companion shrugged slightly.
"I don't know. She had ideals, you see, she wanted to be a Hero. Because it was the right thing to do. But I suspect it wouldn't have worked out like that for various reasons. Not least of which was the fact that one of her tormentors worked for you guys."
"Sophia," he muttered. She nodded.
"Yes. Not a good person, that girl. Her powers affected her a lot in subtle ways but I think she was probably right on the edge in the first place. Not quite a psychopath, but amoral at best. With a very warped view of interpersonal relations, as well."
"We've noticed," he told her. "If it wasn't for the fact that she's useful she'd be locked up right now. Personally I think she should have been even so and quite a few other people feel the same, but Director Piggot was over-ruled on that decision."
"I know," she said softly. "But you see the problem. Sophia was directly responsible, along with Emma Barnes and Madison Clements, for Taylor Triggering. Two years of hell culminating in an event so bad that the girl who had kept going through it all basically broke. If she'd found out that one of the people responsible was a Ward, and decided that it was the Protectorate as well as the school who had let it all go on for so long...?" She sighed a little. "It wouldn't have ended well. Despite her ideals, or probably because of them, she would have taken it very hard. Not to mention the other various problems I can see could arise from all that."
"How bad could it have been?" he asked, curious to see what she came up with.
"Every insect inside a two thousand foot radius attacking anyone involved, or she thought was involved?" the woman asked wryly, making him shudder as he contemplated her words. "Do you have any idea how many that would be, even at this time of year?"
He shook his head.
"There are more insects in a square mile of countryside than there are humans alive on the entire planet. The biomass of ants alone is greater than all the people who have ever existed, and ants are only about one percent of the total number of insects world wide. Add to that arachnids, mites, copepods, crabs..." She glanced at him as he paled. "Believe me, an insect controller could easily be your worst nightmare if she was pissed at you. Not even using the poisonous ones, cockroaches would be enough to strip someone to the bone in a few minutes if you used enough of them."
Assault shuddered again, harder, feeling ill. "OK, I get the point."
"Good. Luckily for everyone concerned, that didn't happen. But for Taylor, it was bad." She resumed watching the performing wasps, which now numbered about a dozen, forming ever more elaborate patterns in the air. "The next part was worse. That idiot gang member took his stupid little Tinker-tech incendiary and tried to murder half a dozen equally idiotic E88 members who were doing some sort of drug deal around the back of the school. I don't know why, perhaps it was just a convenient place. Anyway, this brilliant individual pulls the pin, aims, and throws. Really, really badly. Right through a window, nowhere near the E88 guys, who notice him, chase him, and in the end, kill him."
"Unfortunately the firebomb was a pretty effective one, it torched the school more or less immediately." She fell silent for a moment. "You have no idea what it's like. Stuck inside a box smaller than a coffin, surrounded by horrific crap that should have been incinerated days ago, in enormous pain and sensory overload from seeing and hearing and smelling through millions of insects... Then the heat, and the smoke. She realized what was happening as she started to cook."
He stared at her, the matter of fact voice belying the horror of what it was saying. His pale face was from a different reason now. "Even through the pain and disorientation she knew what was going to happen, she knew she was going to die, and she didn't want to! As the locker got hotter and hotter, she tried writing the name of the person who shoved her in that fucking thing in her own blood, but couldn't finish it."
"Shes..." He mumbled, remembering the report. His head came up. "S Hess. That's what it was meant to be. Sophia Hess."
"Yes. Taylor knew she didn't have long and tried to write the shortest thing that would point at Sophia. She wasn't thinking very clearly but she did try."
There was silence for a moment from both of them.
He stirred, asking, "But how did you...?"
"Escape?" He heard a resigned chuckle. "Strictly speaking, I didn't. Not the way you're probably thinking." She turned to look at him. "What do you know about second triggers?"
"They're incredibly rare, for a start," he replied. "And they can produce some weird results."
"Both true." She nodded. "It was a second trigger, but something went wrong. Or right, perhaps. She knew she was going to die and her new powers tried to save her. Because of the way they worked, it wasn't directly possible, but her powers found a way even so. I don't think it was meant to happen like that, though."
"You make it sound that powers are intelligent," he noted with interest. She didn't reply for a moment, merely stared at him, making him wonder...
"So what did happen?" he ended up asking.
"Her powers were basically concentrating on, and revolved around, arthropods and the control of them. She was going to die very soon, so using that control, her abilities came up with an interesting solution to prevent this happening. Or at least, nearly prevent it from happening. There was no way to put out the fire at the time with her power set, it completely surrounded her, so..."
She trailed off, then asked a question. "Do you know how many neurons there are in a human brain?"
He shook his head.
"Around ninety billion. Elephants have nearly three times as many, but humans are right near the top of the list from that point of view. Six billion or so humans on the planet, times ninety billion per human, gives a total neural capacity for the species of about five hundred and forty quintillion neurons."
"OK," he said slowly, wondering where she was going with this.
"All right. That's five point four times ten to the twentieth power for human neurons. Now what do you think the equivalent number is for insect neurons?" She cocked her head as she asked the question. He stared, then paled yet again. Surely she couldn't mean...
"Less neurons, and simpler ones with a lot less synaptic connections, per insect, but a lot of insects. Not to mention all the other arthropods. A conservative estimate would be around ten to the twenty-fifth power or thereabouts. Nearly two hundred thousand times as many neural cells. It more than makes up for the greater simplicity."
He stayed silent, staring wide-eyed in horror at the implications.
"In her panic and pain her abilities reached out and found all those tiny little brains and nervous systems accessible, linking them together into one connected web. All of them, every arthropod on the planet. Then it copied her mind into it. Taylor died, but her memories, thoughts, personality, that lived on. In a way."
Assault sat there for a while during which she went back to watching the wasps dance in the air. After quite a long time in which he tried to collect himself, he finally said weakly, "So, you're in..." He waved a hand at the wasps. She nodded.
"In them, in the nineteen thousand, eight hundred and twenty seven cockroaches within one hundred feet of here, in the housefly sitting on Armsmaster's second monitor from the left in his lab, in the spiders in the attic of the Sydney Opera house, in the crabs at the bottom of the English Channel... All of them. Everywhere. All linked together into one huge neural network."
"Oh, Christ on a stick," he moaned.
"But wait, there's more," she said with a certain amount of sarcastic amusement in her voice. "One side effect of my personal singularity is that my mind runs a lot faster than a normal human one does. Around two thousand times as fast most of the time, in fact. That two and a half months since Taylor died until now?" She slowly turned her head and stared at him.
"From my point of view it's been more than four hundred years. I've had a really long time to think about things."
"Are you available, Colin?" A familiar voice spoke from beside him as the Tinker peered through a microscope of his own devising, gently manipulating tiny tools while watching the result. He grunted a little, affirmatively, unwilling to stop his current task until be finished the delicate manipulations.
"I've found something a bit... weird... and I wanted to run it past you before I told anyone else," Dragon said from the monitor, the camera mounted on top whining very faintly as it repositioned itself under her control to look at what he was doing. "But I can call later if you're busy."
"It's OK," he muttered, gently urging a minute component into the correct orientation before fixing it in place with the other tool.
"All right, then." Her voice sounded amused. "I was doing some data mining for a project on global health issues and I found something unusual."
"Which is?" he asked absently, moving another part.
"Which is the fact that, for the last six weeks, there have been no new cases of malaria diagnosed. Anywhere."
He paused, then looked up from the microscope, his brow furrowed, and met her virtual eyes. "That's... is that normal?"
"Not even slightly." She shook her head a little, a puzzled expression on her face. "Last year there were an estimated two hundred and sixteen million cases of malaria around the world. Up to the end of January, the rate of infection this year was trending in the same direction. Until it just... stopped. No cases at all."
"It's spread by mosquitoes, isn't it?"
"Yes, the Anopheles genus."
He thought for a moment. "Something happened to the mosquitoes? Killed them off?"
"Worldwide, all at the same time?" She shook her head. "No. If nothing else the ecological side-effects of that would be horrific and very noticeable. Mosquitoes are a major food source for a lot of insectivores, which in turn are eaten by other things. Knock out that underpinning and the entire ecology has a drastic change, which we'd see very quickly. Nothing like that has happened. It just looks like either they're not biting people any more, or somehow aren't spreading the parasite."
"Intriguing," he commented. "But possibly a good thing, I suppose? Malaria is a major disease."
"It's killed more people through history than anything else," she replied seriously. "Possibly more than everything else. So on balance, yes, it's a good thing, although the cause might not be."
"You're thinking it's parahuman involvement, then." It wasn't a question.
"I am. I have no idea how yet, but that's the theory I have currently." She paused, then added, "After I found out about the malaria and confirmed it, I did some more checking. It's more than just that."
The tone of her voice made him stare. She almost sounded scared.
"How much more?" he asked slowly.
"Dengue fever cases since the end of January? Zero. Chagas disease? The same. Lyme disease? Same again. Colin, it's every single disease that affects humans and is spread by or involves an insect vector. They've all stopped dead, all at once."
Both of them were silent for some time, just staring at each other. "That's more than a little worrying. A parahuman with global reach?" he eventually said.
"Although apparently also with a desire to help," she replied. "But yes, it's actually rather terrifying. Simply killing all those insect vectors would be almost impossible, but whatever has caused this has gone one better. They've managed to somehow fix the problem without causing more than minimal environmental impact. I have absolutely no idea where you'd even begin on something like that. Certainly not on a world-wide basis."
Colin raised his eyes from where he'd been staring at his hands, thinking, to look at his best friend again. "We're going to have to tell the Director, of course."
"Yes, I think so." She hesitated. "There's one other thing that I've been wondering about, but I don't have any proof yet. Just a... feeling."
"A feeling?" he asked curiously. "About what?"
"The internet." She sighed. "You know I'm tapped into it in lots of places and I have a hell of a lot of programs monitoring all sorts of data?" He nodded, well aware of how closely connected to the global networks she was. It was very impressive.
"Over the last few weeks I've seen traces of unusual activity. Nothing I can pin down, nothing I can locate specifically, but a lot of it. Basically everywhere."
"What sort of activity?" Colin watched as she looked momentarily uncertain, not a common occurrence.
"Mostly data searches, what looks like traces of access to databases of all sorts of information. Medical, financial, chemistry, biology, and physics data repositories, astrophysics, mathematics, you name it. Whoever is behind it seems curious about everything. It's very subtle but it's everywhere if you know what to look for. There are other things as well, for example several entertainment companies would appear to have had their entire catalogs downloaded, movies, music, that sort of thing. As well as every online library I'm aware of. It looks like someone or something has more or less downloaded the internet."
He gaped at the monitor for a few seconds. "Good god," he mumbled, shocked. "That's a lot of data."
"Several hundred exabytes at least just in the public facing servers, yes," she admitted. "At least as much more in the private stuff that shouldn't be able to be accessed, yet as far as I can tell somehow was."
"Who, how, and why, I suppose are the main questions," he finally stated. After a moment, he added slowly, "When did it start?"
"A week before the insects stopped spreading disease," Dragon replied quietly.
"So, it's likely that the same source is responsible."
"That would be my guess, yes." She looked seriously at him. "Colin, I think it's an AI. A very, very large one."
Colin went pale, slumping back in his chair, as the ramifications of her bombshell went through his mind. "Are you sure?" he asked faintly.
"No." She shook her head. "Not positive. But I have a lot of experience with AI design, and a lot of what I'm seeing fits some of the patterns I've experimented with for data mining by sentient machines. Something out there is learning everything it can, about everything. And apparently likes music as well."
Again, they both fell silent, staring at each other. "This could be a problem," he eventually said.
"It could. But don't immediately think the worst." Her avatar smiled slightly. "A real AI isn't automatically a threat, you know, despite what the movies would have you believe."
"That may be so but even if not we need to look into it," he retorted, reaching over to turn off the microscope, then pick up his helmet.
"Indeed we do, if only because I'm incredibly curious," she smiled. "Worried, yes, but also curious."
While he placed a call to Director Piggot, he admitted to himself he felt the same.
By the time Assault managed to calm his whirling thoughts enough to speak sensibly, the insectoid woman had stood and gone back to watching the Sun rise slowly into the sky, apparently enjoying the sight. He looked up at her.
"So what are you going to do now?" he asked rather plaintively. "Take over the world?"
She laughed for a few seconds, sounding very amused. "I did that six weeks ago from some points of view," she giggled. He stared, horrified. Lifting a hand she waved it dismissively. "Don't worry, my rule will be marked by its complete lack of despotism. I'm not interested in telling most people what to do, it's very boring. Not least because no one listens anyway. Then I have to insist, they get pissy about it, which leads to screaming, blood, and missing body parts." She waved a hand again, flicking the idea aside with a sarcastic snort. "Way too much work."
Shaking a little as he wondered frantically how much of that had been a joke, he watched as she looked slowly around. "It took a long time and a hell of a lot of experimentation, but I finally worked out how to make an insect that could act as a bridge between a computer network and my own. I can control them right down to the DNA, you see, not just the behavior. Subjectively it took years to come up with the right design. I'm not a Tinker, at all, but I can fake it with the best of them." She tapped the side of her head, her claws making a faint click.
"That much parallel processing power lets you simulate almost anything you can imagine. Once I managed to get enough control over the insect senses and decode the vision, which was a pain in the ass, I started watching what Tinkers were doing all over the place." She snickered a little, shaking her head. "You know the funny thing is that almost none of them understand what they're doing. Their powers just dumped all these designs into their heads and gave them ideas, but most of them simply build intuitively. That's why no one else can understand what they do. Most of the technology is weird and decades if not centuries away from anything normal."
"But you can understand it?" he wondered out loud, amazed. She shrugged slightly.
"Not all of it, not yet, but quite a lot, yes. If you have enough examples to compare and enough background data you can start to make sense of the principles behind it. I worked out a unified field theory in the end which helped a lot as well. Much of the current understanding of physics is incomplete at best and completely wrong at worst, so I had to redo a lot of it from scratch. Took quite a long time and I'm not finished yet but it's coming along well."
Shaking her head as he stared, she added in an amused tone, "I had to invent a whole new kind of mathematics to describe my models. I should publish it, but I'm afraid that most normal mathematicians would take one look at it and either ignore it or have an aneurysm. Maybe one day."
Turning back to him, she pointed at herself. "This body is a construct I designed for human interaction. It was very complicated to come up with and like I said a while ago, it was only today that I finally worked out all the bugs. If you'll pardon the pun." He couldn't help grinning at her comment. If nothing else the... Person? Woman? Creature?... he was talking to seemed to have a sense of humor that resonated with his own.
"I'm limited to arthropod-based designs right now although I can pull in all sorts of interesting DNA modifications from other things, but if it drifts too far away from what you'd probably think of as an insect it's nonviable. Hopefully I can improve on this with some practice and come up with something that at least looks more human, but this will do for now." She paused, then went on, "The biggest problem I have is thinking slowly enough to communicate with you people. My normal mental speed is so much faster that it can get pretty boring waiting for something to happen. I solved that in the end by setting up this model of body like a speed buffer, which gets resynced with the rest of me every millisecond or so but runs much slower. Very little of my consciousness is in here," she tapped her head again, "I'm running this body like a somewhat more complicated version of one of those." She waved at the wasps flying in intricate patterns. "Plus since I designed it, I can also make it do almost anything I want. I mean, look at this, it's based on mollusk chromatophores, bioluminescence, and retinal light sensing cells. Put it all together and..." She faded out of view. He stared in shock. "Tada! Invisible. Now you see me..." She was visible again. "Now you don't..." Again, she vanished. "Cool, isn't it?"
Staring carefully he could just about make out a faint distortion against the background, the effect a little like the one in the Predator movies, which was an unsettling idea. That said, without specifically looking for it he'd probably never notice. It was very impressive and rather unnerving. She reappeared, fading into view more slowly as the effect was gradually turned off. "Retinal cells pick up the color and intensity of light at millions of points on my body, then on the opposite side the bioluminescent cells and chromatophores reproduce it. The real trick is making it work from all angles. Took a while to think it through but I'm pleased with the result." She sounded justifiably smug.
A sudden thought made him laugh again, although wince at the same time. "Oh, Jesus, Piggot is going to go insane when she finds out about you," he groaned, holding his head in his hands.
"The Director is not a bad woman at heart but she's a bit too inflexible for my liking," she replied, "and her experiences at Ellisberg left her extremely biased against parahumans. She shouldn't really be in the position she's in because of that." The woman sounded sure of her conclusions. He couldn't entirely disagree with any of the points she raised. "I'm not the second coming of Nilbog, or anything like that, although I expect a lot of people will come to that conclusion. But, unfortunately, no matter what she or any of the rest of the Protectorate think, there isn't a lot they can actually do to or about me, I'm afraid."
At his puzzled look, she elaborated. "I'm everywhere. Even if I wanted to, I don't think I could do very much about it at this point, and I don't particularly want to anyway. At first, I might have wanted to try to... end myself, but now?" A gesture of resignation followed. "Not really. I'm not saying there isn't some weird power or combination of powers that could kill me either, nothing is really immortal, but even if there was, the aftereffects would be bad enough to make using it pretty much impossible."
"Why?"Assault asked, then hastily added, "Not that I'm saying I want to kill you."
He got the impression she was more or less grinning at him for what he'd said. "Well, when my abilities did what they did, I kind of... overwrote... a lot of normal insect behavior. I'm compensating for it now as an autonomic action, but if I ceased to exist?" She pointed at the pattern of wasps which suddenly dropped to the roof, all the two dozen members weakly twitching. "That would happen. To every arthropod and worm on the planet."
"Which would be bad," he suggested, based on her tone.
"Oh, yes. Very bad. Kill all the insects, everyone on Earth follows them in a few weeks. Total ecosystem collapse, no food, everyone dies. Even the bodies would stay around for longer because there's no insects to eat them." She gazed at him. "It's nothing I wanted and to be honest if I could change it I probably would, I don't like being responsible for the entire planetary ecosystem to that level, but..." All four arms lifted in a shrug. "It's a dirty job but someone has to do it."
"Not a parahuman, a goddess of nature, then," he said with a wondering chuckle.
"I wouldn't go that far, but I'm certainly not a normal parahuman, no." She seemed to find the idea funny.
Standing, he looked around, then back to her. Checking the time he winced. "Look, I'm going to have to get back, I've managed to miss most of my patrol. But thank you for explaining all that, as terrifying as it is."
"You're welcome," she replied.
"I have to ask. Are you going to go after Sophia?" he added after some thought, tensing a little just to be on the safe side. She shook her head with good humor.
"No. She's not my problem any more. As far as I'm concerned that entire thing was four centuries ago and I don't hold a grudge that long, generally. I may troll her a little now and then just to keep her honest but her crimes towards me are a long way in the past from my point of view." She sighed. "If you'd asked me that sometime in the first twenty or thirty years, I'd have happily said I intended to do unto her what she did unto me, with interest, but I grew up. The first couple of decades were very bad. I eventually realized what had happened to me, and I think I more or less went insane for a while. Watching my father die in extreme slow motion made it worse, especially as there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it." Her voice changed, becoming cold and flat.
"Squealer is going to have to live with having lice for the rest of her life," she said in a tone that made him step back. After a moment the danger seemed to pass. "But I pretty much got better. I'm probably saner than almost anyone now. I turned off most of my emotions a long time ago, they just caused problems. Which is a good thing, overall, I suspect."
"You can control yourself that much?" he asked in wonder.
"Yep. It's easy. Emotions are mostly in the endocrine system and that's a piece of cake to manipulate. I'm running an emotional overlay right now for human interaction otherwise I'd probably sound like a psychopath or a robot, but I'm neither. People pick up on that sort of thing at a subconscious level, so it's important to at least pretend or they start backing away and trying not to make eye contact."
He grinned at her. "Really?"
Something changed. Assault stared at the figure in front of him for several seconds, trying to put his finger on it, but all he could think was that he was getting very uncomfortable all of a sudden, his heart rate rising and his body getting ready for combat. Suddenly it stopped and he slowly relaxed. "That's... more than a little scary" he said honestly.
"Lack of emotional cues, certain trace pheromones, things like that." She looked at him with her head on one side. "Humans are animals after all and animals are just really complicated bags of chemicals. Easy enough to influence if you know how."
They looked at each other for a few seconds more. "Don't worry, I'm not going to cause any problems for you guys unless you cause problems for me," she eventually said, turning and walking back towards the edge of the roof. "There's a number of things I have to sort out, because I can and they need doing, and I've already taken steps to fix a few things that were wrong with life in general. Dragon and Armsmaster seem to have noticed so you'll probably hear about it soon. I'll do what I can to help with Endbringers, not that at the moment that's very much except dogpiling them with a hell of a lot of attack drones, which may or may not do anything useful, and I may intervene if I see a crime that needs dealing with. Other than that, I've got a lot to think about."
She looked over her shoulder at him for a second. "If you need me, just call for me."
"You still haven't given me a name," he reminded her.
"Call me Hive," she said, her carapace back splitting open to reveal four enormous transparent wings which unfolded with a crinkling sound. "It'll do for the moment." The wings began to flap rapidly as she lifted off. "See you around, Ethan."
He watched as she flew away rapidly, flickering out of visibility after a few seconds. Only the droning of her wings was audible, if barely, and even that faded into the background shortly thereafter.
Staring after her, he waited for a few minutes until the trembling stopped, then headed back to the Rig. He had people to fill in.
Shadow Stalker felt someone staring at her, making her peer back over her shoulder with a scowl. She saw Assault, minus his mask, glaring at her. "What?" she growled.
"Sophia, you are without doubt one of the most unpleasant people I've ever met," he snarled back. "And also one of the luckiest. I've just had the most terrifying conversation of my life with someone who could do things to you that you wouldn't believe, and in my opinion would be fully justified in doing so, but you can thank every deity you've ever heard of that she's a better person than you are. Now come with me, the Director wants a word."
Staring in shock, she put down the tablet she'd been reading and stood. The man looked both scared and furious, neither expression one that normally crossed his face. Puzzled and worried she followed as he led her to a meeting room, which she trailed him into. Inside she found Director Piggot, Armsmaster, Miss Militia, and on a monitor overlooking the table they were sitting around, the face of Dragon. Everyone stared at her.
"Sit down, Sophia," Piggot ordered in a tone of voice that brooked no disobedience. She followed the pointing finger and did as ordered. Assault sat next to Miss Militia. "And be quiet."
Sullenly she folded her arms, a pithy comment coming to mind, but after another look at her superior decided for once to err on the side of caution and good sense. The Director looked extremely angry and also nearly as scared as Assault did. When she was sure that Sophia was doing as she was told, the older woman looked back at Dragon, scanned the faces of the others, then asked, "In your estimation what should we rate Hive as?"
Wondering who 'Hive' was, Sophia listened carefully.
"It's very difficult to be sure, Director," Armsmaster replied after apparently thinking over the question carefully. "Primarily a Thinker, definitely. An obscenely high level one. Perhaps not at the rating of the Simurgh but not far off it. If what Assault has relayed to us from his conversation is even remotely correct the raw processing power behind her is... truly awe inspiring."
"I have little doubt that she was truthful," Dragon put in helpfully. "Based on my own research if anything she was underplaying it. A neural network using every arthropod brain on the planet in parallel? The storage capacity alone is just... staggering. She is for all intents and purposes a biological supercomputer of a level I can scarcely comprehend. I don't know how it works, but the evidence would suggest that the neural interconnects must run at least at the speed of light which would give an enormous speed increase over normal biological brains. From what she said her powers connected all the neurons directly somehow, bypassing the normal synaptic connectivity and electrochemical processes." She shook her head in apparent awe. "It's absolutely amazing."
Piggot didn't look too happy about that. Dragon, weirdly, did.
"OK, we understand you find it fascinating. Do you think she was behind the anomalies you detected?"
"The insect-borne diseases, definitely," Dragon confirmed with a nod. "No doubt at all. The unusual activity on the internet, almost certainly. It would be a massive coincidence if there was something else out there at the same time doing it."
"OK, we've got Thinker 9? 10 even?" Piggot asked, looking worried. Assault sniggered, making her look at him.
"More like Thinker 'If you need to ask you're already dead'," he muttered, then looked up as he became aware everyone was staring. "Come on, we're all thinking it. Mental processing a couple of thousand times faster than a human? At least? Added to just the things I saw her do, if she wanted you dead, the only thing you could do would be make a will. Assuming you had time. 10 is probably a minimum."
Sophia stared at him, then looked around at the others. "Who the hell is Hive?" she exploded. "And why am I here?"
Director Piggot stared hard at her. "Hive is a new parahuman Assault ran into today and ended up having a long talk with. You'd probably know her under a different name, though, Sophia. You've met."
Sophia looked back at the woman, puzzled and with a feeling of dread building in the pit of her stomach.
"Does the name Taylor Hebert ring any bells?" Assault asked with a certain amount of malicious amusement in his voice. She snapped her head around to gape at him.
"Hebert? She's dead. Two and a half months ago when Winslow burned down."
"She got better," he said with a nasty grin. "Kind of. And she remembers you all right."
Her complexion went an unpleasant brown-gray color. "You're shitting me," she breathed faintly. He shook his head, not taking his eyes off her.
"No, I'm not. We had a nice long talk about all sorts of things and she told me a story, of three nasty little girls who tortured a schoolmate to the point she Triggered."
"She's lying," Sophia tried. He shook his head again dismissively.
"I doubt it very much indeed," he told her. "She has absolutely no reason to lie and nothing to gain from it. There's nothing you have or are that she wants. Like I said, in my opinion she's a better person than you are. Something you should be very, very grateful about."
Staring at him with wide eyes, she barely heard Piggot saying her name until the woman raised her voice. "Sophia! Pay attention." Her eyes slid sideways reluctantly to meet the Director's furious expression. "We're going to be reopening the Hebert case. New information makes it pretty certain that we'll be able to prove it was you and your little friends who were responsible for her being in that locker in the first place. We may have been unable to prove it before, but if and when I can rectify that..." She smiled unpleasantly. "Your use to the Wards may come to an abrupt end no matter what the Chief Director wants."
There was a pregnant silence from everyone for a short time as Sophia shrank back into her chair, her mind whirling. It seemed impossible, she'd seen the photos of what had been in that locker when the fire was finally put out and there was no way Hebert was still alive. But everyone else seemed to believe it.
Putting the matter to one side she listened while trying not to draw any more attention to herself.
"OK, then, we have a Thinker rating of 'Run Away'. What else?" The director suddenly seemed in a slightly happier mood, making everyone look at her for a couple of seconds. Assault shook his head a little then leaned forward.
"Well, Changer to some high level as well. Restricted to insect or arthropod based forms from what she said, but with additions that could come from anywhere. That's scary. The invisibility was very impressive for something that was biologically based."
"Which adds a Stranger rating as well, of course," Miss Militia put in. "Maybe 4 or above."
"Add Mover, probably at least 3 as well, for the flight. Combined with effective invisibility it could be higher. And we have no idea how fast she can fly." Armsmaster looked thoughtful as he inspected the monitor next to the one showing Dragon's avatar on which she was summarizing the results of the discussion.
"I'd expect a Brute rating of some sort," Assault added. They looked at him, making him shrug. "She designed that body from scratch. If you could do that why would you restrict it to human levels?"
"Good point," Dragon replied, adding a 'Brute 2+" rating to the tally.
"Master 8 at a minimum," he went on. "Lowered because of it being restricted to arthropods but even so, it's global and absolute. Personally I'd put it as high as it goes." Dragon added this as well.
"If she was truthful about her abilities, I think we need to add a Tinker rating as well," Armsmaster commented somewhat reluctantly. "I know she claimed not to be one, but the ability to understand Tinker-tech to any level rates at least a 3 to 4 rating." Dutifully Dragon added the classification.
"Fuck me, this is ridiculous," Assault mumbled, looking at the results so far. "Overpowered much? All this from what's basically a completely broken Thinker/Master combo..."
"We haven't finished yet either," Piggot sighed, also looking at the monitor. "The insect control is also a definite Shaker rating, at least 2 or higher, since as she said she could make every insect in an area attack someone. It sounds pretty bad, even at this time of year."
"Shaker or Blaster?" Miss Militia asked curiously. "It could fit into either or both depending on the insects in question. Not to mention anything she designed specifically for the job."
Piggot looked at her, then back at the monitor, before sighing heavily and leaning back in her chair. "Assault is right. This is ridiculous. We don't have enough information yet to be sure of any of this. What we do have is totally terrifying." She waved a hand at the monitor. "A threat rating like this is so far out of our experience we have no choice, we're going to have to bump it up to the top."
Sophia was staring at the monitor with sweat running down her face. Master 8? Thinker 10+? Changer 7 to 8? What the hell had Hebert triggered as? She noticed Assault looking at her and transferred her worried gaze to him. He grinned back at her.
"Scared yet?" He sounded amused, which she thought was just unfair. "Don't worry too much about her, she said she didn't care any more. Which is probably a good thing from your point of view."
By the time the meeting ended some while later, Sophia was a nervous wreck. Which didn't make the following interview with Director Piggot and Armsmaster any easier in any way at all.
Amy panted for breath, thinking it was ironic that a healer was in such bad physical shape. Resolving to exercise more if she survived the next few hours, she pelted down the narrow alleyway hearing the several sets of footsteps behind her hesitate, then follow where she'd turned off the main road. Once again she wished desperately that her phone battery had any charge left in it, but she'd forgotten to plug it in the night before because she'd been tired and it had run out half-way through the afternoon.
Bitterly regretting her decision to go for a coffee before calling her sister for a pickup from a payphone, she stopped and listened carefully for a second or two, then looked around frantically. They were getting closer. It had been pretty obvious for the last ten minutes that her status as Panacea, the Healer Super-hero, wasn't going to save her from what was at least a nasty mugging, if not something worse. There was nowhere to hide, and nothing that provided any escape. She tried a couple of doors that led into the buildings she was at the back of, but they were locked.
Resuming running, she hurtled down the alleyway as fast as she could go, gasping when she stumbled and skinned her knee through her jeans. Somehow rolling to her feet she kept going, all the while hoping someone would help her.
Reaching a cross alley, she looked both ways, flipped a mental coin, and turned left. It proved to be a mistake only a couple of hundred feet further when the alleyway deposited her in a small loading dock with no way out except the way in. "Oh, shit," she whimpered, looking around frantically for somewhere to hide. Spotting a row of dumpsters that were leaking an unpleasant greenish substance through their rusted bottoms, she headed towards them, only to stop when she saw that the lids were locked.
Groaning in terror she looked around again, seeing nothing else that could help her. In the end, as the footsteps grew louder from the alley, she dived between the third and fourth dumpster, which had a gap just large enough to permit her fairly slight frame to squeeze in. Huddled as far back as she could get she waited for whatever would happen, her heart hammering in her ears.
The footsteps slowed from a run to a walk. Peering around the side of the large metal container she could see in the flickering light given off by a single lamp mounted high on the wall three men, all looking very rough and scruffy, walk slowly into the yard and glance around. Two of them were carrying baseball bats while the remaining one had a machete in his hand. "We know you're here little girl," this one called in a rough voice full of malicious amusement. "Somewhere. If we have to look for you we're going to be annoyed and we might be a little rough as a result. Come on out." One of his friends tapped his bat on the ground with a metallic ringing sound, grinning.
Pulling her head back she stifled the whimper she nearly made, wondering what they wanted. Aside from the obvious. She could here them poking around in the various possible hiding places, starting with the ones nearest the alley entrance. She was at the extreme other end of the loading area but it wasn't all that big so it wouldn't take them long to find her. The sounds of footsteps came closer and closer. She closed her eyes.
A faint, deep, humming sound slowly percolated through her mind. At first she dismissed it as imagination, but it got louder and louder, suddenly stopping somewhere above her and to the right. "Did you hear that?" one of the men looking for her asked his friends.
"Hear what?" another one asked irritably, poking a pile of cardboard boxes with the end of his bat.
There was a pause, then the first one replied, "Never mind, must have imagined it." Amy looked up towards the position the sound come from before it stopped and thought she saw something move against the stars. Blinking, she stared harder, but could no longer see anything.
"Only those dumpsters left," the machete-wielding assailant announced. "Now, since they're all locked, that means you must be..." She could hear approaching footsteps. "Right... In... Here!" There was abruptly a face smirking at her from ten feet away.
"Fuck," she said in a small voice.
The man opened his mouth to say something, then suddenly slapped his neck. Seconds later he looked confused before he simply froze in place. Amy stared, shocked and puzzled. Nothing happened for a while. The man was still conscious, she could see his eyes moving frantically, but he somehow seemed to have completely lost control of his body and voice.
"You can come out if you want," a female voice announced out of nowhere, sounding mildly amused. "They're not going to do anything now."
Cautious and very suspicious, Amy didn't move.
"I'm not a threat to you, Amelia," the voice added, making her jerk in shock.
"Who...?" she asked reflexively, then slapped her hands over her mouth, wrinkling her nose at the stench from whatever it was that she now had all over them from the dumpster next to her.
"... am I?" the mystery voice completed for her, definitely amused now. "You can call me Hive."
Wracking her brain, Amy couldn't recall any cape of that name. A new one, presumably, or else a renamed one. Probably not a villain. She hoped. Deciding that she was no worse off than if the mystery cape hadn't turned up, she slowly worked her way out into the loading area, edging around the frozen form of the erstwhile mugger, before looking around.
She mentally stalled, staring at the figure watching her curiously from a short distance away. After a moment the figure waved at her. "You OK there, Amelia?" she asked.
Amy nodded convulsively. "You're beautiful," she said in a low voice, then went red when she realized what she'd said.
The insect-woman laughed. "Thanks. I think."
Walking slowly closer, Amy inspected the creature who was watching her. Eventually she tentatively held out a hand, while thinking this was quite unlike her normal behavior, but putting it down to stress and sheer wondering curiosity. Hive held out one of her own right hands, the delicate-looking clawed digits wrapping around Amy's own fingers. The healer gasped in amazement.
"Oh, my god, that's amazing," she mumbled, her power tracing out the biological intricacies of the body she was touching.
It obviously wasn't human in the slightest and never had been. It was basically some form of insect at heart, but hugely and expertly modified with clear intent to form what she saw. The exoskeleton seemed to be made primarily of carbon, in the shape of incredible monomolecular structures, all biologically created. They were mixed with some sort of metal in a repeating pattern that defied easy analysis. The end result was impressively strong and tough yet very light.
The DNA was obviously heavily edited, most of the normal redundancies elegantly pruned out and the entire thing simplified and optimized. She recognized codings that seemed to come from various sources, such as mollusks, fish, mammals, even plants. But the end result was totally unlike anything she'd ever encountered.
All the internal organs were protected by a more flexible and thinner version of the exoskeleton. She saw energy storage glands, full of sugars and enzymes, linked to biochemical pathways that would give a massive power boost when activated. Something that looked a little like weirdly modified muscle was wrapped around a lot of the torso, strands of it leading down all four arms to the claws. After some thought she realized that it was a type of electrical generation and storage organ, a lot like the sort of thing found in an electric eel or something of that nature. Presumably the conductive pathways were to allow the released electricity to exit through the claws.
The eyes were a work of art, no less than thirteen opsins covering vastly more than then normal human spectral range. Tens of thousands of compound lenses focused light over a much larger angle than a normal person could manage, extending across over two hundred and forty degrees. The neural processing backing the sensory system up was unbelievably complex compared to a human visual cortex. Hive must have truly incredible visual acuity and sensitivity.
She was lost in admiration of the optical cells covering the exoskeleton when the person she was investigating made an amused sound. Twitching, she quickly released her hand, looking embarrassed. "Sorry. I was admiring the design. Whoever did this work is brilliant."
"Thanks again," Hive commented, sounding like she would be grinning given a more human face. Amy stared in amazement.
"You did it?"
"I did. It took a while to work out all the details but it came together pretty well in the end," she replied. Her antennae moved in a way that seemed to convey amusement.
"Wow." Lost in admiration, she stared into the inhuman yet apparently friendly visage for a few seconds, before looking around at the three muggers, who were still frozen in place. "What did you do to them?" she asked curiously.
Hive indicated the nearest one with a graceful hand gesture. "You tell me."
Puzzled, Amy give her a look for a moment, then walked over and put her finger on the cheek of her machete-waving recent acquaintance. It took her a while to work out what she was seeing, but when she did she grinned.
"Oh my god, that's amazing. I've never seen that toxin before. It's based loosely on curare, isn't it?"
"Yes. Tweaked a lot, of course, but it paralyzes most of the voluntary muscles without causing any deeper issues. It's pretty safe and works really fast. Lasts about twelve hours with that dose, unless a counter-agent is administered."
"How did you get it into them?" Amy asked with interest, looking over at Hive. "Dart?"
"Wasp." At her puzzled look, Hive held up a hand, which immediately had a small insect land on it. Approaching, Amy squinted at the insect, finding the dimly lit environment annoying. Holding another hand above it, Hive made the appendage glow a soft green color like a firefly, which Amy realized was almost certainly from the same chemical reaction. Under the new illumination she could see the wasp was a little smaller than a normal yellowjacket and completely matte black in color. "It started out as a yellowjacket but I shrank it to make it less obvious and to raise the pitch of the wings enough that it wasn't very audible, and changed the color so it doesn't stand out. I may add the stealth capability I have to it at some point, it's a little too small for that to work properly but it could still help the thing hide."
Watching in wonder Amy saw the insect lift off with a faint high-pitched whine she could barely hear, like a small mosquito, then fly to and enter a tiny hole in the carapace on the arm of the hand that was glowing. She abruptly realized that there were dozens of similar holes on all four arms.
"Hive isn't just a name, it's a description," the insect woman commented as she stared.
"Holy shit...," she mumbled in shock.
"OK, then, let's get these guys arrested, then get you home, shall we?" Hive said lightly.
"My phone is dead," Amy said after shaking her head a little to clear her thoughts. "Do you have one?"
"No. I don't really need one," Hive replied with a grin in her voice.
Assault looked at his phone as it beeped at him, picking it up and seeing he had a text message. Prodding the screen he opened it, then stared.
'Hi, Assault. Three paralyzed muggers at the following coordinates, ready for pickup. They were about to attack Panacea so you might like to give them a hard time. The paralysis will wear off about ten tomorrow morning. See you around. Hive.' A set of GPS coordinates followed the message.
He looked up from the screen and around the room. No one else was there. After a moment he slowly turned his head to look at the moth that had been flying circles around the light over one of the desks for the last half hour. As he did it landed on the desk, facing him. Feeling a little stupid, and not sure what answer he either expected or wanted, he asked in a low voice, "Are you watching me right now?"
Nothing happened. He looked around once more and when he looked back the moth was gone.
Relaxing a little he put the phone down again.
It immediately beeped at him.
Reluctantly reaching out he picked it up and read the new message.
'No. Honest. '
He put the phone down again very gently, then called on the land line to arrange a PRT truck to pick him up and take him to the coordinates in the first message, very deliberately trying not to think about the second one.
Amy gasped as her savior banked around another building, heading upwards. She'd known from her powers that Hive had wings, but she hadn't quite realized how large they were. Or how powerful. She could sense the energy glands pumping sugars and massive quantities of ATP to fuel the energy expenditure. It was a remarkable effect considering no flight powers of the normal type were in use. She suspected that the woman holding her probably couldn't lift all that much more weight, but she seemed to have no real problems dealing with Amy.
All four arms were wrapped around her, holding her in an unusual yet surprisingly comfortable way. Reaching an altitude of a few hundred feet Hive headed directly towards the Dallon house, making Amy wonder how she knew where it was. Deciding it was probably because everyone knew where New Wave lived she dismissed the thought and enjoyed the flight, which was weirdly different from what her sister did. That had become almost pedestrian, while this was... fun.
"You OK, Amelia?" Hive asked, her voice raised a little over the droning of her wings. Amy nodded.
"Yes, thanks. And call me Amy. I've never liked Amelia much."
"All right. Amy." Hive's voice sounded pleased.
A few minutes later they arrived at their destination, Hive's wings changing pitch a little as she descended. Landing gently, Amy felt her feet touch the ground and the woman release her. She looked around. They were standing on the sidewalk outside her house. Turning to her rescuer, she studied her for a moment, then indicated the house. "Do you want to come in?" she asked.
Hive shook her head after a moment. "Not right now. I have some other things to do tonight. But I'd like to talk to you sometime, if that's OK."
Curious, Amy nodded. "I think I'd like that."
"I've got your number. I'll call you soon." Hive stepped back a few feet, watching as Amy nodded, then turned to walk up the path to the house. Half-way there she heard the sound of the other cape's wings, turning around to see she was gone. Looking up for a moment she couldn't see any trace of her.
Not entirely sure why she was smiling considering the awful recent experience she'd had, not to mention a pretty stressful day otherwise, Amy went into her house and closed the door quietly behind her.
Walking into the abandoned warehouse they used as a base, Lisa listened with irritation to Alec and Brian bickering behind her. The smaller man was being his usual self and their long-suffering leader was beginning to get annoyed about it. That didn't normally end in anything but a big argument, which was just what her migraine needed. "Shut up both of you, will you?" she gritted, as Rachel came in at the rear of the group with all three dogs at her heels. "Please." She reached up and peeled her mask off, sighing in relief that they were back and apparently in the clear.
Alec laughed slightly while Brian went quiet, sighing a little after a second or two. They all headed up the stairs, Lisa stopping dead in the doorway and looking around suspiciously. Brian and Alec walked around her, the latter poking her a few times in the side. "You're in the way, Tats," he said, poking her again. She slapped his hand away, still looking around.
"Something's wrong," she said slowly, concentrating.
Whining sound. Insect? Not natural one, Construct. No. Weapon. Poison?
Her eyes widened. "Fuck, it's a trap," she yelled.
The two men looked around as well, as did Rachel as she pushed past her teammate with a grunt of irritation.
"Trap? You sure you're OK, Lisa?" Brian asked as she spun on the spot, looking for what was making the sound.
"I'm fine, but we're not going to be if we don't get out of here right now," she yelped. Hearing a slap she looked over her shoulder to see Alec rubbing his neck with an annoyed expression.
Stung. Injected with chemical agent. Fast acting. Run.
She began a dive for the door, only to feel a sudden pinprick on the back of her left hand. Looking at it she was just in time to see a small black insect fly away. "Oh, hell," she muttered, already feeling her legs stiffen up.
Custom paralytic, not lethal. Long acting but counter agent available. Unknown attacker.
She hit the floor and rolled over, then found she couldn't move anything except her eyes. A series of thuds told her that her teammates had met the same fate.
A few seconds passed in silence, until she heard footsteps crossing the floor of the loft.
Not human. Not hostile. Extremely dangerous.
None of these conclusions, except for the second one, made her feel in any way better. Neither did the utterly inhuman face that looked curiously down at her a few seconds later.
"Hello, Tattletale," the thing said in a woman's voice, a note of satisfaction in it. "I want to talk to you about several subjects. Career satisfaction, crime, and Coil. Not necessarily in that order."
If she had been capable of it at that point in time, Lisa's eyes would have widened comically.
"Where have you been and why didn't you call me for a pick up?" Amy jumped a little, spinning around from her position at the sink in the bathroom where she'd been washing her hands to remove the dumpster-gunk, to find her sister peering in the open door watching her with mixed curiosity and worry on her face. Victoria was floating an inch off the floor which explained the total silence of her approach.
"God, Vicky," Amy said with exasperation, going back to her task with a shake of her head. "What have I said about sneaking up on people?"
"That they don't like it?" Vicky's voice was full of amusement now.
"Exactly. So why do you keep doing it?"
"Because it's funny to see them jump, like you just did," her sister laughed, coming closer and looking over her shoulder with her nose wrinkling a little at the smell. "Urgh, what's that stink?" she added distastefully. Amy met the blonde's eyes with her own in the mirror and held up a hand, showing the unpleasantly adherent goo.
"Something horrible that leaked out of a dumpster," she said, shrugging a bit then resuming scrubbing.
"Why were you near a dumpster?" Vicky asked, looking puzzled.
"I was hiding behind it," she replied, now a little internally amused herself. Vicky stared.
"Why were you..." she began.
"Because of the muggers chasing me," the brunette said before the question was finished. Vicky's eyes widened in shock.
"Muggers!? What muggers?" Her face was going that peculiar shade of red that Amy knew from long experience meant she was going to do something stupid without thinking it through. Turning, she grabbed both her sister's shoulders.
"The muggers that Hive dealt with," she explained carefully. "It's over, the PRT picked them up and there's nothing for you to worry about. I'm fine, just a little shaken up, and that's all there is to it." Releasing her sister she looked at the two hand-prints on the other woman's shirt, wincing a little. Victoria didn't seem to notice.
"That's not really an explanation, sis," the blonde sighed. "What muggers? Why muggers? Why were they chasing you? And who the hell is Hive?"
Now smiling a little, feeling weirdly pleased with the way she'd shaken her normally pretty unflappable sister, Amy went back yet again to cleaning her hands, digging around under the sink for something more effective than soap and water. Finding a bottle of nail polish remover she looked quizzically at it, shrugged, then tried it. Usefully, it worked surprisingly well, most of the grime coming off instantly and the remainder being loosened enough that she could now wash it away.
"Let me finish this and I'll tell you the story, OK?" she suggested. "Then you can help me figure out what I'm going to tell Mom and Dad."
Her sister waited impatiently until she'd dried her hands then followed her back to her room. Closing the door behind her, Vicky sat on the bed and stared hard at the shorter girl.
"Spill it. Who's Hive, why were you being chased by muggers, and why didn't you call me?"
Amy sat further up the bed, Vicky turning around to face her. "I forgot to charge my phone last night because I was so tired when I got back and the battery ran down this afternoon. I didn't even notice until I left the hospital." She shook her head a little at her own foolishness. "I know, I should have made sure to charge it and I will next time."
"Get a spare battery as well," her sister commented, listening with interest. Amy paused, then nodded. It was a sensible suggestion.
"Good idea. Anyway, I was tired again, so I decided to go and get a cup of coffee from that shop a block over that does the nice donuts as well, then call you from their payphone. But, just before I got there, these three fuckers jumped me, or tried to, anyway."
Vicky looked surprised at her language. Amy smiled a little. "E88 or ABB?" the blonde asked. "Or Merchants?"
"I don't think they were any of those, just generic low level scum. They didn't seem to recognize my costume, or care if they did. Two of them had metal baseball bats and the other one had a machete. I'm not sure if they just wanted money and my phone or something... more... but I took one look at them and ran like crazy." She shuddered in remembrance.
"They chased me for at least ten or twelve minutes, until I got trapped in some sort of loading area way off the main streets. I hid behind a dumpster, which is where I got that crap on me. It's all over one sleeve of my costume as well." She looked over at the offending item of clothing which was draped over the back of a chair where she'd dropped it. "Guess I'll have to wear the spare one tomorrow. That's going to need dry cleaning."
"Forget the freaking costume, Ames, and go on with the story," Vicky urged her.
"Well, like I said, I panicked and hid. There wasn't anything else to do, those guys were only about twenty seconds behind me and coming in the only way out. I squeezed right back into a small gap and was hoping desperately that they wouldn't see me. It was pretty dark so it seemed possible." The brunette laughed a little nervously. "But, of course, they found me anyway."
"And this Hive person? A cape, I suppose, but I've never heard the name before."
"She's new, I think," Amy replied, frowning a little. "Although, weirdly enough, there was something about her that seemed.. I don't know, like she's been around for a long time. Sort of just... so competent and sure of herself. It was strange."
Her sister waited, while she thought, looking impatient. Eventually the other woman snapped, "Don't just stop there! What happened?"
Amy shrugged a little. "She turned up out of nowhere and stopped them. Really efficiently, no fight or anything."
"What did she do?" Vicky now looked fascinated.
The healer smiled. "She stung them."
There was a pause.
"Stung them. With wasps."
Vicky looked at her sister, both eyebrows rising. "How did that help? Wasp stings hurt, sure, I remember that from before I got my powers, but unless there were a lot of them or the muggers were allergic I can't see how that would help much."
"These were special wasps," Amy giggled. "She made them." Her sister frowned a little, trying to understand. "They inject a toxin which is an amazingly potent paralytic. One sting and..." She snapped her fingers. "Practically instant loss of voluntary muscle control. It's a work of art."
"Is she a biotinker of some sort, then?"
"I'm not sure, I guess she must be. She didn't say and I was... a little preoccupied, so I forgot to ask. But she knows one hell of a lot about DNA and insect manipulation, I can tell you that much for sure. She must also be extremely smart, I think." Amy thought back to what she'd seen with her own abilities. "I mean, her body alone..."
Vicky grinned. "Beautiful, is she?"
"In a way," Amy laughed. "Not a classical beauty, though. The four arms are different, and the wings are even stranger."
The pause this time was considerably longer.
"Wings? Four arms?" Vicky gaped at her sister. "What are you talking about?"
Relenting having managed to extract a lot of amusement out of telling her sister the story piecemeal while watching the reactions, Amy explained the entire encounter in detail, leaving nothing out. She was in a much better mood than she probably should have been, and indeed had been for weeks. The encounter with the insect-woman and the examination that Hive had allowed, if not indeed encouraged, had gone a long way towards alleviating the boring routine she'd fallen into for some time now. She found herself wanting to talk to the other cape again, soon.
When she finished and stopped talking, Vicky simply looked at her for close to thirty seconds without saying anything at all. Eventually she moved, shaking her head slowly while still looking at her sister. "You're seriously telling me that you were rescued from a mugging by a six foot tall bug?"
"Well... Yes, I suppose you could say that," Amy replied reluctantly. "But it was a little more involved really."
"Still, a six foot tall bug?" Her sister was watching her with her head cocked to the side, a very strange expression on her face. The brunette shrugged.
"I guess? What's so weird about that, compared to, I don't know, Lung, maybe?"
"Um... Point to you. But it's still sort of weird and creepy."
"I don't know... Hive seemed nice." Amy shrugged slightly. "I can see where people might find it a little unusual. Anyway, I need something to eat. Come on, let's order some chinese, and see if Mom and Dad want some."
She headed for the stairs, her sister following her. Vicky was still looking befuddled, and muttering about giant bugs.
Amy was just wondering if she'd meet Hive again.
That's as far as I got with this one. As I said up at the top, I'm uncertain if I'll pick it up again in the future or not. I've got a rough idea of where I wanted to take it, but it's only a basic outline, and I'm not sure if it would actually work out. For what it's worth, though, I've posted what I finished