Disclaimer: If you think that all characters and settings in this story are my original work, you're just a bit Bugsy.
Note: This story takes some inspiration from Wind by jikotel. Not much, but I'm hitting a few of the plot points as homage.
Bob the Tester – called that because he always referred to the parahumans in the power testing lab as testees, despite many complaints, not all from women – frowned as he looked over his report. It was common for capes to hold back, to keep something in reserve. They didn't realize that the PRT was their allies and that they would only benefit by letting the PRT help them.
The girl today, though… Bob didn't think she was holding anything back. He'd heard Miss Militia tell her to try her best because the PRT offered higher pay and bigger startup bonuses for stronger, more useful powers. No, it was more like the girl was using her power wrong, trying to swing a sword like a tennis racket.
Still, the results were what they were. She could come in for retesting once she'd had her power for more than a day – a nurse had seen her making a few ants walk in a circle and had called the PRT right away. Knowing the people involved, Bob was pretty sure she and her parents had been given a hard sell and a lot of half-truths and vague promises.
Bob shrugged. It was what it was. He sent the report off to the bosses.
"Master-1? Are you kidding me? What a loser."
"Knock it off, Stalker," Aegis said. "Everyone can contribute to the team. It's up to us to figure out the best use of her power."
Sophia's really smart and totally winning reply was cut short by Miss Goody-Two-Shoes coming in with the new loser.
Three minutes later, after everyone had unmasked, she knew that everything happened for a reason.
"Bugs? You can make a couple of bugs walk around? I always knew you were a loser, Hebert, but that's pathetic even for you."
Telling Hebert that she'd be better off killing herself was worth the week of console duty.
Fuck my life was the only thing Taylor could think as she rode the bus home. She had to be around that bitch Sophia twenty hours per week on top of being at school. Twenty hours. Every week.
Technically she could leave the Wards at any time. Technically. Practically, she was pretty well stuck. The million non-disclosure agreements she'd signed could land her in jail if she slipped in any way, and she'd bet that the PRT would push the matter if she left the Wards. Still, they could be navigated if she were careful enough.
No, the problem was money. She and Dad were in a real bind. They'd already gotten bills for the ambulance ride, the night in the hospital, and more doctors than had ever talked to her. Dad's insurance company wouldn't pay because it was a terrorist incident and the school wouldn't pay because it was just a prank and she was a "known trouble-maker". And Taylor knew of a couple kids at school who'd lost their homes because of hospital bills.
They needed to pay this off, or at least make a good-faith effort. And for that, Taylor needed a job. Taylor didn't have any real skills, so minimum wage was the best she could do. The PRT would pay her minimum wage for as many hours as the law would allow, which was better than she could expect from most other jobs. And she'd probably have an annoying coworker no matter where she worked. All in all, being a Ward just for the pay was about as good as she could hope for.
It would have been nice if they'd actually paid her a signing bonus, as Miss Militia had half-promised when they first talked, but Taylor had learned enough from her dad about sales pitches and contracts that she hadn't counted on that.
She could do this. But still, working with Sophia. Fuck my life.
"Dennis, have you seen PHO since Bugsy was announced?"
"A little. What's up?"
"Look at these jerks! Making fun of her for… not having the most impressive power."
"'Help, help! I have a Master-1 controlling me and making me type a message making fun of her! Call the PRT to rescue me!' That's a little mean but it's pretty funny, Missy."
"No, it isn't! At least she's trying. And she didn't quit after she found out that she'd have to be working with Bitchface."
Dennis hesitated, then decided to keep quiet about what he knew. When he'd gone over to the payroll office to take care of a paperwork screw-up, he'd overheard a couple of PRT office workers talking about Bugsy. Her entire paycheck, all twenty hours per week at minimum wage, was being sent to the hospital for the ambulance ride and night's stay after her accident. He thought that it was pretty scummy that she had to work for free. Sure, it wasn't the PRT's responsibility to pay her bills, but they usually paid more than minimum wage and they usually gave a bonus to get a cape to sign up. Dennis's had been big enough to pay a month of his dad's cancer bills. Bugsy's power was… underwhelming, but still, no bonus and minimum wage was scummy.
"I'm off to train with her now," he ended up saying. "She's finished the million hours" – actually about forty, with more in coming weeks – "of safety training and policy briefings and paperwork and stuff, so she's ready to start on practicing with the rest of us to see if her power has good synergy with ours. Maybe we'll come up with something that'll make her scarier in a fight."
"Good luck. I'll see what I can do with her, first chance. I have a few ideas."
Dennis waved at Missy, pulled on the rest of his costume, and headed upstairs.
Console duty wasn't bad, Taylor thought. It was quiet except for regular check-ins from patrolling Wards, letting her think. It gave her time to catch up on homework, time she always needed because of working as many hours as the law allowed.
It kept her away from the smirks and jokes she always got when she went out on patrol.
Even the PRT handlers and PR people agreed that it was better to keep her away from the public. Through some trick of acoustics, their voices coming through the air ducts or something, she could overhear an argument between the people who wanted all of the Wards to be out on patrol as much as possible and the people who thought that she was hurting their image every time she went out. It hurt a little to hear "Face it, she's useless. She can't fight, she can't help others fight, she's no good for anything." but she couldn't say they were wrong. Putting her on the console so that one of the useful Wards could patrol was the best thing they could do with her.
As the discussion continued, Taylor realized something. The air coming out of the ventilation system was noisy. She hadn't noticed it before because it was always blowing and she tuned it out, but now that she noticed it, it was pretty loud. There was no way she could hear a conversation on another floor over that. But she could hear it.
She rolled her chair over to the duct to climb up and check and confirmed that no, she couldn't hear any voices through the vent. So what could it be? She took off the console headset and could still hear them. She checked all of the speakers and the unused headsets. That wasn't it.
"Where could it be coming from?" Taylor asked herself, then froze. She heard that twice, once as normal hearing herself talk and once… differently.
Her eyes were pulled to a housefly on the ceiling near the light fixture. She'd known it was there, in the normal way you notice a fly buzzing around out of reach, but now she knew it was there.
Sending the fly out of the console room, something she could do with a twitch of a thought even though she'd never been able to control anything but ants before this evening, Taylor tried again. "Testing, testing, one two three." No "echo". Bringing the fly back in, along with two other flies that she knew were near the garbage can in the Wards' common area plus a random mosquito, Taylor repeated the experiment. "Testing, testing…"
Her brain – her power – put the sounds from all of the insects' ears into a clear voice.
All of a sudden Taylor could feel the location of every insect, spider, worm, and other invertebrate within hundreds of feet. A thousand feet. Maybe more. Every single one, moving or dormant. Hundreds of thousands of them, every one clear in her mind.
She heard dozens of conversations, inside the PRT building and in the shops nearby. She heard footsteps and clattering of dishes and engines running in the parking garage.
And she understood it all, every conversation, the location of every sound, all at once. Taylor just sat back and took it all in.
"Console! Console! Where are you?"
Taylor jumped up and fumbled with the headset and knobs. "Console here. Uh, something came up and I was distracted. What do you need?"
It was just a routine check-in, but Aegis was annoyed that she hadn't answered immediately. She wasn't worried. Once she told them about her discovery she was sure everyone would excuse a bit of distraction.
She couldn't have been more wrong.
When Taylor returned to the Wards area from the console room to change out of her costume before going home, Clockblocker, Vista, Browbeat, and Kid Win were sitting on the couches, all frowning at her. Seeing them, she realized that her bugs had heard people greeting them a few minutes ago but that had been lost in everything else she was listening to.
Aegis and Gallant returned from patrol within moments, not giving her time to figure anything else out.
"Why are you even here?" Clock led off.
"You never want to do anything with us," Vista put in before Taylor could say anything. "We all got together for pizza last Saturday. All of us except you."
"The Wards are a team, Taylor," Aegis bit off, obviously barely preventing himself from saying more. "A team. We do things together. We get to know each other."
Vista again interrupted before Taylor could do more than open her mouth. "We trust each other because we know each other."
"How can we trust you?"
"We can't even trust you to be awake at the console if we run into a problem."
"Even Shadow Stalker is better than you. She's nasty when she's on the console but at least she answers when we call her."
"No! I—" Taylor started before Clockblocker cut her off.
"We think you should quit, Taylor. You're not doing any good here."
Browbeat's and Gallant's heads snapped toward him at that but they didn't say anything to support her. No one did.
"OK. If that's the way you all feel. I can get another job." Taylor turned toward her room to get her clothes, moving slowly at first and then picking up speed.
Thanks to the few insects in the common area, she was able to hear the argument that broke out as soon as her door closed.
"What was that! That's not what we agreed on!"
"Guys, I think you were reading Taylor wrong. Totally wrong."
"Then why didn't you say anything, Dean? You were right here. You didn't speak up. You're part of the group decision."
"Who cares how we were reading her? She was a bigger pain in the ass than Sophia and I didn't think that was possible. At least Sophia will insult us to our faces, not pretend to be nice but obviously think she's better than us."
Out of simple defense of her self esteem, Taylor figured out how to tune out some of the information that the bugs were feeding her.
As she walked home, very late because of the paperwork involved in resigning from the Wards and walking because she didn't have money for a cab and the PRT wouldn't let a non-Ward use their phones to call her dad for a ride, Taylor used her newly-discovered abilities to check on all of the bugs she could and to practice listening in on as many simultaneous conversations as she could. It was mid-February in the North, so almost no insects were moving outside of buildings, but there were plenty in apartment buildings and restaurants – eww, never ever eat at the restaurant she was passing, she noted to herself.
She was so focused on the insects around her that Taylor didn't notice the people near her – they didn't have any lice or fleas – until they spoke.
Victor looked at his wife when she nudged him. Officially they were walking a casual patrol, pushing the boundaries of Empire territory. Really, though, they were just enjoying a nighttime walk alone together, and never mind the soldier and three recruits accompanying them.
"Look at that girl ahead of us. Tall. Long, dark hair. What do you think?"
He made use of the techniques learned by a police detective and a bounty hunter who hadn't needed the skill as much as he did. "Jew, it looks like. Maybe a mixed-breed but she's walking wrong." Victor gestured for the grunts to fan out and sped up his own steps.
"Nice night for a walk, isn't it?"
The girl jumped a little. Victor suspected that she was using drugs. Seen closer, she definitely wasn't a spic or a nigger, so that might not be it. Less likely, anyway. She might be a white girl too wrapped up in her own problems to pay attention to what was going on around her, or she might be a Jew too busy thinking about money.
The girl definitely had Jew hair.
"Uh, yeah, uh, I'm just going home."
"It's not safe for a young woman to be walking by herself. Why don't we walk you home, get you there safely?"
"Uh, no, thanks. I'm fine."
"Really, I must insist."
"No! Leave me alone!" the girl turned and ran down a side street.
Victor grinned. The hunt was on!
"We found the last one, Miss M," one of the troopers told her. "He ran down the street about a block and then it looks like he ran into a wall and knocked himself out."
It wouldn't fit her image to snort, so Miss Militia smiled with her eyes. "It's thoughtful of them to immobilize themselves for us. Bring a medic if one is available and get pictures before bringing him to the wagon, in case his lawyer thinks of suing us."
Someone had called the PRT's emergency line to report that several Empire capes and normals had been taken down and for someone to please come pick them up. A young woman, naturally soprano voice which she was attempting to disguise, large vocabulary and complex sentences. Interested in money, as she had asked if there was a reward for helping to capture Victor and Othala.
An hour later, with the half dozen Empire members checked by medics, the capes placed in holding cells, and the normals turned over to the police, Miss Militia met with Assault, the PRT squad leader who'd made the arrests, and the Deputy Director, who was at headquarters despite the hour.
"The medics found that all of the prisoners had a large number of inflamed stings, probably wasps. Both Victor and Othala coughed up parts of insects after they regained consciousness."
"Could they have run into a wasp nest and then someone found them and called?"
"It's February. It's not impossible for a hive to be active but let's look for another explanation that's more likely."
"If it was wasps, what else could it be other than bad luck? Brockton Bay doesn't have any bug summoners or bug controllers that I know of."
"Except Bugsy, of course."
"Well, yeah, but… Master-1. She can't create a swarm of wasps and make them attack."
"The woman who called us could have been Taylor Hebert, Bugsy. I'm not saying that she was, but there was nothing in her voice which rules it out."
"Bugsy's initial power evaluation included a note that she was probably more capable than her tests showed. This, though, this suggests that she was sandbagging since that nurse first spotted her playing with ants in the hospital, before any of us ever talked to her."
"She seems to like me pretty well," Assault offered. "I'll chat with her tomorrow afternoon when she comes in, ask if she was responsible or knows anything about it."
"Didn't you hear?" Rennick asked. "Bugsy quit this evening. No real reason given, just that it wasn't working out. Her father needs to come in to sign the paperwork but I signed off on our side. She wasn't doing anything for us and we need to pinch the budget everywhere that we can."
Assault and Miss Militia exchanged looks, each obviously very displeased to be surprised with this news.
The next day, when the Wards came in after school and were sat down for a little talk, both adult Heroes quickly saw through their incomplete and self-serving explanation.
"What gave you the idea that you have the authority, let alone the moral right, to kick out another Ward? No, stop," Assault ordered Aegis, who tried to justify himself again. "You've done enough talking. It's time for you to listen. And to think, for once."
"Every one of you has little 'quirks' that make you difficult to deal with at times. Yes, even you, Gallant." She normally presented a friendly, easy-to-deal-with front, but Miss Militia could be as tough as any parental figure when she needed to be.
"And you, Vista. Don't look at me like that. Not everyone lives and breathes Hero work because it's the only part of their life under their control. And not everyone appreciates your self-righteousness when you try to motivate them to work more."
"This is a black mark against all of you. You realize that, don't you? Not like that 'permanent record' which your school teachers threaten you with. This one really does follow you forever if you join the Protectorate." Hannah knew about that one. It was one of the reasons Mouse Protector had set out on her own when she left the Wards. She'd never have been given any trust or authority in the Protectorate.
"Everyone except Shadow Stalker; there's irony for you."
Miss Militia did not address Assault's wry observation. "It's worse than a bit of poor judgment which caused a minor problem. You kicked Bugsy off the team because you thought she was useless. Last night we learned that we might have a bug controller able to capture Victor and Othala without hurting them and without causing any collateral damage. None at all. If this turns out to have been Bugsy acting independently…"
"If you kicked out a powerful Master, your names are mud," Assault finished.
Taylor jogged to school the next morning rather than take the bus, despite getting home late and then staying up later to explain to her dad why she wouldn't be busy after school any more, and despite the soreness from running away from the gang and struggling to break free of their grip before she was able to sting everyone enough to disable them, and then to send wasps and flies and a few beetles down the capes' throats once the wasps were out of poison.
She was lucky that the restaurant's exhaust vent kept the nest warm enough that she'd been able to rouse the swarm and make them attack. She didn't like to think of what would have happened otherwise; it started at "really bad" and went downhill from there.
But she'd gotten out of it in one piece and she'd learned a lot. She'd learned a few ways to attack with bugs, even in the cold. She'd learned that she was vulnerable to attacks if the bad guys found her, so she needed to keep her distance from any fight. And she'd learned that she had to be able to run away if things went wrong. Last night she'd sprinted about a hundred feet before she had to slow to a stagger.
Hence the jogging.
School wasn't much worse than it was before. The bullies kept up their crap but for the past month it hadn't bothered her as much. Today it bothered her even less because she wouldn't have to deal with Sophia at work after the end of the school day and because Taylor had something more important going on in her life.
Once Winslow was done wasting her time for the day, Taylor ran back home, alternating sprinting and trotting for as long as she could. That was what the gym teacher said was the fastest way to develop the ability to run away. Once she'd gotten home, recovered from wanting to die or throw up, and gotten cleaned up, she found a phone message from the PRT and another from Assault, each using the special wording for non-secure lines that someone else might be listening to. She'd had to go through hours of training on communications protocols, as well as arrest procedures and public relations and a bunch of other useless stuff. At least she'd gotten paid to sit through it, so it could have been worse.
The messages left her a bit worried. Last night she'd had to check five phones before she found one that wasn't locked. She'd wiped off the one she'd used to call the PRT's emergency number, but had she remembered to wipe the others? Had the PRT technicians figured out that she was the one who called? Had Armsmaster pulled out some Tinkertech bullshit and matched her heartbeat from the call to the one they recorded when they gave her a physical?
She didn't think she'd broken any laws last night but wasn't sure. What she was sure of was that she didn't want anyone to know what she could do with her power, not until she'd decided what she wanted to do with it.
She wasn't going back into the Wards, with all of its teen drama and popularity contests and barely-disguised contempt for anyone who didn't have a power useful in a fight. She wasn't rejoining the Wards without a fight, and when it came to a fight she had a new idea every minute.
It turned out the messages were nothing much, once she'd gotten over her initial panic and listened to them again. Just "Do you know anything about?" calls. She decided not to reply. She didn't want to lie and probably get caught and she didn't want to tell them the truth.
Last night showed that she could be a Hero. All by herself, she could be a Hero.
But she had to be smart about it. If the bad guys got their hands on her, she was just a scrawny, fifteen-year-old girl. Squishy, as they called it.
Now, how to work around that…
Coil looked at a few reports. There was the slim packet from Bugsy's brief time in the Wards; the PRT's evaluation of Victor and Othala's capture, complete now that they'd had a chance to interview the Villains; and Tattletale's evaluation that Bugsy and the cape designated as Swarm were the same person.
The bug controller's power might be useful for a few of his schemes but her real value was in giving the Protectorate another black eye and causing further demoralization.
He picked up a phone to give Tattletale new orders.
Taylor didn't know how they'd found her. Found her real body, that is. She'd been doing her usual, just sitting in a coffee shop while listening to everything within half a mile, smelling everything, and looking at the blurs that she was learning to make sense of. She was just sitting here, sipping tea and doing homework. There was no way that anyone could tell she was anything but an ordinary high school girl doing ordinary high school girl things.
Yet here they were.
All four Undersiders, in costume, younger than the records suggested. Two went up to the counter to order coffees to go from the frightened clerk while the smaller two plopped down near Taylor and acted as if they were just killing a minute of idle time while they waited.
"Don't worry, we're not here to attack you," the blonde girl, whose cape name Taylor couldn't remember, started off. "We wondered if you'd be interested in joining our little group. We could use someone able to take down enemies without having to set monster dogs on them."
"Not interested. I'm a Hero," Taylor whispered back, trying not to move her lips because someone was pointing a camera at them, trying to be stealthy about it. She had a few cockroaches that she could have run across his arm and make him flinch away but that would be a rotten trick to play on the owner of a mostly clean coffee shop.
"Are you sure?" the boy, Regent, asked. "Pay's pretty good. Couple thousand a month just to be on the team plus a share of whatever loot we get or a share of the payment for selling info or whatever."
Taylor had to admit that she was tempted. The hospital bill wasn't fully paid off and she wanted to hire a tutor so she could drop out of school, but independent Heroing didn't pay for crap. She picked up a few dollars here and there from muggers and a bit more than that from drug sellers and buyers, but refused to sell or trade the drugs she captured. Seized cell phones and such didn't bring much when she tried to pawn them and she hadn't managed to sell even one pistol, and anyway she'd worry about who would end up with it and what he'd do with it if she did manage to sell one.
But as she wrestled with temptation, Regent looked her up and down, opened his mouth, and let stupid fall out. "Plus you'd be able to stay at our base whenever you wanted. Maybe share my room if you don't want to bother setting one up for yourself?"
His blonde teammate elbowed him sharply but the damage had been done. Nope, sharing a room with him wasn't tempting, not even a little bit. In fact, ewww.
"Thanks but no thanks. I'll stick with the Heroing for now."
"OK, well, we tried," the girl said. "Don't worry about us coming after you in your civilian identity. Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone, that way. We wouldn't have come to see you today but you're never seen out in costume and you don't have a PHO account that I could find. This was the only way we could talk to you."
Hellhound and the other boy – who looked to be built; if he'd asked her to share a room she might have joined their team – came back then and the four left. Moments later, following some muttering that Taylor couldn't quite make out because she didn't have enough bugs near them, there was the unmistakable sound of someone being dope-smacked and a loud baritone voice saying, "Nice job, dumbass."
Meanwhile, Taylor sent the cockroaches in the coffee shop out into the cold to die, along with the entire nest of roaches from the sub shop next door. It was a tricky exercise because she had them move only when and where no one could see them. It took most of her attention to figure out that a blur was a human and which way it was facing. It was a little bit fun, a lot frustrating, and very useful as practice. She gotten better by the time the roaches were all dead.
This would have been a lot easier if she'd been able to do it at night or if the people in the kitchen knew that she was doing it and wouldn't freak out. Which made her want to smack herself. She could put together a costume and approach businesses with offers to rid their buildings of unwanted insects, cheaper and more effective than an exterminator. There had to be good money in that.
Chris slouched silently into the conference room. He resented being pulled away from his tinkering – he knew he was close to a breakthrough but could never reach it because he kept getting interrupted for stupid things.
Stupid things like this briefing. It was important to keep on top of new parahumans in the area but it would be more efficient to do threat briefings by email. Making everyone come in for an in-person briefing was probably just some kind of power play by the PRT desk warmers.
"Good afternoon, everyone. We'll keep the threat briefing short so that you can get back to your work.
"The major parahuman gangs have been reduced in the past few weeks. Empire Eighty-Eight lost Victor and Othala, who have been transported out of the area for trial. We caught Rune but she was released on her own recognizance. We've asked for assistance in investigating the judge for corruption or possible blackmail.
"The Archer's Bridge Merchants lost Skidmark, who's also in prison, being dried out before trial. Squealer and Mush attempted to break him out of our custody. They were unsuccessful, though they injured four PRT troopers in the attempt. The Merchants picked up another Tinker, name unknown, who may be very low-end or just getting started, based on the appearance of his gear.
"The Azn Bad Boys briefly lost Oni Lee but he escaped."
"You're leaving something out," Assault put in, ignoring Battery's elbow to his ribs. "You said that we caught Rune, meaning that Velocity was able to drop a foam grenade on a teenage girl out by herself one evening. The others, you just said the gangs lost someone. Care to tell us more?"
Rennick frowned briefly at the wise ass – a wise ass who made a lot of good points, Chris thought, but still a wise ass – before nodding. "I was just about to get to that. As Assault suggests, the PRT did not catch Victor, Othala, Skidmark, or Oni Lee. That was the work of an unaffiliated parahuman, tentatively called Swarm because he or she captures criminals with a swarm of insects. The insects have captured almost a hundred non-powered criminals as well, ordinary muggers and burglars and such."
Chris frowned but Aegis asked the question before he could. "Do we know anything about this Swarm? A few weeks ago the analysts thought Swarm was Bugsy but then they decided that it was someone else."
One of the analysts answered, "Yes, we thought that, but new information suggests that they're the same person."
Chris's mind started to fuzz out. He'd been creeped out when Bugsy was able to control only a handful of ants at a time. He normally wasn't scared of bugs, but something about a line of ants moving in synchrony struck him as creepy and just plain wrong.
And now that same quiet, awkward girl was able to control thousands, millions, of bugs at the same time? Creepy didn't begin to cover it!
When Chris was able to focus again, the Deputy Director was talking.
"… but if you manage to spot her anywhere, you need to assume she can hear everything within at least one hundred yards. Be careful with what you say when you're near her. Communicate by text mess…"
The Deputy Director's voice trailed off as he stared at the wall. Everyone else on that side of the table stared, too. With a cold chill all the way down his spine, Chris slowly turned to see what had happened behind him.
MORE THAN THAT was written as bugs ran up the walls to trace out letters.
Chris's felt goosebumps over his entire body and he forgot to breathe for a while.
A few seconds later the bugs ran again to form BUT DON'T WORRY and then I'M A HERO.
That didn't make it any better. It took Chris a minute to get his breathing under control.
"Let's recap," Assault suggested into the silence with obviously false cheerfulness. "We had Bugsy on the Wards team, a sweet kid who signed up and worked with us even though she'd been tortured into triggering by a Ward and then had to work with that same Ward. You simpletons drove her away because you didn't think she was good enough for you, the very night she figured out how to use her power. Oh, yes, she told me all about it when I asked, the next time I saw her. And she half-confirmed that she was the one who captured Victor and Othala the same night. And Skidmark the next week by stealing his drugs and then tying him up when he was having the shakes. And Oni Lee the week after that, gumming up his weapons and getting bugs in his eyes so he couldn't teleport. All without anyone else getting hurt and almost no property damage. We could have had a Hero on our team who could watch a quarter of the city at once and who could take down all except the heaviest hitters. Except that you kicked her out. Now the best we can hope for is that she stays an independent Hero and doesn't slap us around if we get in her way. Does that sound about right? Anyone? Aegis? Clockblocker? Anyone?"
Chris started to feel shame over his part in kicking Bugsy, Taylor, off the team, but then he realized something. Assault never said that much, not all at once and not without any jokes. And his apparent anger, shown by crossed arms, was not in character. And the Deputy Director had let Assault take over the briefing and say all that. Put it all together and he was pretty sure it was all just an act and he could ignore it and think about something else while pretending to pay attention.
What could he build that would take down a swarm of bugs, in case Swarm turned against them? He could use most of one of his spark pistols to spray over a wider area, needing just to swap in a different bell on the front. Would the electrical charges disable or kill them or just dissipate uselessly?
And what about a sonic disruptor to keep the bugs from listening to everything? He had research to do but the basic concept was clear. He just needed to get back to his workshop…
"Hi, uh, Taylor. How's it going?"
Taylor sighed. She'd heard them talking and getting closer on their "PR Patrol" route for the past ten minutes but didn't want to let them chase her from where she was trying to forget her troubles by enjoying a brief window of sun on an early Spring afternoon. Running away from bullies hadn't done her any good. Running away from persistent stalkers wouldn't do her any good, either.
"Gallant. Thanks for standing up for me that night when everyone decided to vote me off the island." Yes, that was an insult within the compliment. Suck it, Dean.
Gallant slouched and backed off a bit, no doubt reading her feelings about what she knew they were here to talk about. Vista, lacking Gallant's emotional sense and also lacking common sense because she was filled with the self confidence which came from knowing she was always on the right side of any moral question, filled the conversational void. "We were wondering if you'd thought about coming back to the Wards. We've heard how you're a lot better with your power and now you can do a lot of good if you want to be a Hero."
And there it was. Nice of them to get right to the point and not waste her time. "I thought about it. And decided against it. A month ago you judged me and decided I wasn't good enough. I've done the same about you."
Besides that, she didn't want to have anything to do with the organization which enforced laws against capes making a living with their powers. She hadn't earned a cent from her would-be extermination business because of the law against competing with ordinary humans. One restaurant owner had even thought she was part of a sting operation, because that was a thing the PRT did. Of course it was. They couldn't keep an eye on murderous psychopaths in the Wards but they had the manpower to try to trick people into hiring capes to do useful work.
Here and now, Vista swelled up, obviously about to angrily respond. Taylor realized, too late, that she should have taken a softer line. She wasn't going to rejoin the Wards but she didn't want them to be enemies.
What this situation called for was a distraction.
"Not to break up your re-recruitment pitch or anything, but there's a mugging about to happen two blocks that way, in the alley to the right. Two muggers, a young couple as the victims. Someone might want to do something about that or at least call the police."
"But… you… Couldn't you stop them? Drown them in flies or something?"
"Keep your voice down. Someone's come close enough to overhear. To answer your question, there's nothing I can do, legally. If I were to assault the muggers with a parahuman power, I would be subject to arrest myself, followed no doubt by conscription into the Wards, which I already know is full of assholes. And you might want to get a move on. The mugging is taking place now."
The in-costume Wards stared at the out-of-costume former Ward and then dashed off.
Bitch waited with her dogs a block away. Bug was going to mess up the guards so Bitch could run in and mess up everyone and rescue the dogs. She needed to wait until Bug turned off all the lights and flashed some fireflies.
Now! "Angelica, go! Brutus, Judas, follow!"
Bitch ducked as Angelica smashed through the door. She looked around so she could follow fireflies to the dog pens. Bug was a block away with the van but she knew where everything was and she would know if Hookwolf was there and she could tell Bitch. Bug could attack people, too, not as good as being bitten by giant dogs but it worked.
It was easy to get to the pens with all of the dogs that were supposed to fight tonight. Bitch had Brutus run over some people who were in the way. They deserved it. They wanted to bet on dogs fighting. It was easy to tear the pens open after she had her dogs swipe a paw across the front. It wasn't easy to get all of the dogs up the stairs and to the door and into the van that Bug had driven up but she could make them listen and she had her trained dogs to help.
While Bug drove away with the dogs, Bitch followed more fireflies back into the warehouse, toward the front door. Bug wanted the money box for her pay for her help. Bitch thought about just leaving but tonight had been easier than she thought it would be and she wanted Bug to help again the next time these fucks thought they could set up a dog fight.
Taylor headed for the exit of the office building, not the door that she'd gone in, pulling on her hood and mask when no one was looking and the only camera was covered by moths. Swarm walked out into the Springtime evening.
"Panacea. Thank you for meeting with me. Glory Girl, nice to meet you." It wasn't, really, because the blonde was looking at her with a stern and probably disapproving expression, but she needed to be polite because she wanted something from the healer.
"You said on PHO that you want to detox some drug addicts. There are other ways for them to dry out and I don't do requests."
"It's prostitutes that the gangs were using. I rescued a few from the Merchants and the ABB brothel, but they all went back a few days later because they needed the drugs. I was hoping that if they weren't addicted, they'd stay free and the gangs would have less money."
"That sounds like a good idea but like I said, there are other programs for that and I'm already busy."
"OK. Thanks for your time. See you around, and drop me a line if you need me for anything."
"Just one minute," Glory Girl finally said. "You're a Villain. You don't think I'm going to let you just walk away, do you?"
"I'm a Hero! An independent! I've caught more parahumans in the past two months than the entire Protectorate! How can you call me a Villain?"
"You work with the gangs all the time!"
"One member of one gang, two times, and that was to hit a worse gang."
"Doesn't matter! You work with Villains, you're a Villain!"
Glory Girl jumped up and dashed at Swarm, flying faster than any human could run.
Good thing the gnats had given Swarm enough warning that she could drop out of the way, just barely in time. Good thing that Swarm had had the foresight to invisibly plant gnats on each of them, before any of them had spoken a word.
Good thing that the big cardboard box which Swarm was standing in front of wasn't just an empty box. Glory Girl splatted into a discarded refrigerator and dropped to the ground for a moment. Long enough for Swarm to flood her with the wasps she'd hidden all around.
Glory Girl wasn't as invulnerable as everyone said. She was yelling and smacking herself a moment later.
"Keep back!" Swarm ordered Panacea, who'd stepped toward them, behind Swarm's back. "I don't have anything against you but I'll defend myself."
"Get away from my sister, you bitch," Panacea snarled.
After a bit more posturing and threats on both sides, Swarm left and allowed Panacea to check on Glory Girl. "I know you're friends with the Wards and they know who I am and where I live. If you come after me out of costume, I won't hold back. If you leave me alone, I'll leave you alone." The line that Tattletale had used on her seemed to be the way things worked, for parahumans who didn't work for the government.
Despite that, Taylor was more than a bit worried. She'd looked into New Wave's history in more depth before she contacted Panacea on PHO. They'd attacked a number of capes at home or when they were out with their families. And a number of them, especially Brandish and Glory Girl, had a reputation for self righteousness, justifying whatever they did. This did not bode well for her or her father's, or their house's, safety.
It was going to be a lot of work, and she was already busy and tired, but Taylor, Swarm, would have to prepare traps in case she was attacked at home. Blackmail files to be released on a dead man's switch. Deadly insects in New Wave's family homes, kept under control so long as she passed by every few days. She could even report Glory Girl's attack to the PRT and press charges, not that she expected that to do any good. Fuck my life.
Swarm was hunting.
Three nights ago Lung had killed Bitch. Since she had learned about it via PHO a few hours ago, Swarm had been hunting for the monster. Bitch hadn't been Best Friends Forever with Swarm, but the Villain was straightforward about what she wanted, ever since she recognized Taylor on the street and started talking. Bitch had wanted help in breaking up Hookwolf's dog fighting matches and it had developed into a useful partnership. Bitch got the dogs and Swarm got the cash boxes. Everyone came out ahead and Bitch hadn't backstabbed her.
She wasn't a friend but she was the closest thing to a positive human interaction with someone near her own age that Taylor had had in almost two years, and now she and her teammates had been ripped apart.
Details were sketchy but reports said that their deaths had been ugly because Lung was in a bad mood.
She didn't know what she was going to do about him. Whatever she did, though, she had to find him first. Thus the hunting.
It didn't look like hunting. It looked like a teenage girl with a scarf hiding her face, riding in the back of a cab, going two blocks before pulling over and then going another two blocks five minutes later. The cab did this for two hours, covering a square mile or so, and then the girl got out and the bored, puzzled cabby drove off.
That evening, Taylor looked over her marked-up map of the city. She'd found a number of drug storerooms in ABB territory. Other rooms with a strong smell of bullets and the cleaning stuff that people used on guns. Another building with machinery and a chemical smell which was bullets and something else, with a woman working on something and talking nonstop to herself.
And a run-down office building which had a stream of people coming in and jabbering in the patois used by the ABB. Taylor didn't understand it but "Lung-sama" was clear even to her.
She'd sneak into a vacant space tonight and lie in wait all day tomorrow. She could track Lung home and then ambush him in his sleep, follow him to some better spot, or call the PRT with his location. She could do whatever she wanted, once she had him.
Piggot "a-hem"ed and got everyone to shut up and pay attention. Carlos turned from his conversation with Miss Militia to face the head of the table.
"To start with what I'm sure you all want to ask, yes, Lung was captured last night. We got a call that he'd been disabled and that we should send an ambulance. He's currently in a brute cell but with constant medical attention."
"He didn't regenerate whatever was done to him? I thought he was usually fine in a few minutes no matter what was done. How badly was he hurt?"
"The damage was severe, including the loss of his eyes, his fingertips, his tongue, and, ah, his private parts—"
As one, everyone in the conference room winced.
"Yes, clearly someone had a grudge. The problem is that his regeneration seems to have been turned off." Piggot had to pause because of the gasps of horror from the capes. "Pipe down. We have a lot to get through. As I said, his regeneration seems to have been turned off. Imaging shows extensive damage to the Corona Pollentia, with lesser damage in a path from the eye sockets to the Corona." Piggot waited a moment for everyone to absorb that. "The damage did not follow straight paths, so it was not a laser burn or anything similar. They curved around, following the major blood vessels before attacking the Corona."
"Yes, well put. We probably will never know what caused the damage unless Lung dies and we autopsy his brain but we speculate that some tiny boring device was set on him while he slept. We don't know how it was controlled so precisely, but for the moment we can hand-wave it away as Tinkertech."
"Or insects." Kid Win's voice was quiet, his face bone-white. "Some kinds of larvae could chew through a brain no problem."
Everyone in the room stared at each other. Carlos was pretty sure that the PRT's analysts had missed that. Typical. The analysts were useful, sometimes, but they got wrong as much as they got right and they missed a lot that was obvious even to a fourteen-year-old like Chris.
"The call to our emergency line was from a young-sounding woman," Piggot acknowledged. "Our analysts did not identify her voice as a match for Taylor Hebert's but I don't know if they checked for that."
After a lot of babble which left everyone's eyes glazed, orders were given for Assault to contact Taylor Hebert, because she got along well enough with him. Everyone else should talk to her if they got the chance, in costume or out, but they needed to approach with extreme caution.
It was just as well that Sophia had been sent to the Protectorate's boot camp for troublesome Wards, Carlos thought. There was no way she'd be able to talk to Taylor cautiously, or even politely. She'd be more likely to ambush her with a crossbow attack. And then the next thing they knew, a million bugs would descend on PRT headquarters and eat everyone.
The meeting ended eventually, and only because Piggot had to get on a call with the other directors. Carlos met up with Dauntless and they set out for an early-evening patrol.
… And, wouldn't you know it, not ten minutes later they ran across Taylor at a bus stop.
By luck – good or bad, Carlos didn't know yet – they could talk because Taylor was alone there.
"Miss Hebert, will you come to the PRT headquarters with us to answer a few questions?" Dauntless opened the conversation, pushier than Carlos would have.
"Not unless I'm under arrest. And even if I'm arrested I'm not saying a word until I've talked to a lawyer," Taylor replied, more self-possessed than Carlos thought she should be if taken by surprise by Dauntless's request. And then Carlos wondered if the exterminators' and Kid Win's efforts to rid the PRT HQ of bugs were as successful as they'd claimed. If Taylor had listened in to the meeting she'd have known that they wanted to talk to her. And if she knew that, she might even have positioned herself right here so that the Heroes would run into her right after the meeting. And if she'd done all that, she no doubt had her next three steps planned out and Dauntless was stepping right into her trap. And if that was true…
Carlos reeled himself in. That way lay paranoia and refusing to do anything ever because you'd just be playing into the other's plans. Taylor Hebert wasn't the Simurgh.
(But there was still that little voice asking how much she knew and what she had planned…)
Dauntless hadn't let it rest. "I'm sure you've heard that the Villain Lung was attacked last night, mutilated, and turned over to the PRT. We'd like to find out what you know about it."
Taylor just looked at him. "Lawyer."
Dauntless's jaw set. "Miss Hebert. Lung was attacked at home – one of his homes. We're not accusing you of anything, but this was a serious crime and we need to talk to everyone who might know anything."
"Look, we know that you can hear everything within, what, a hundred yards? All we want to do is have a short talk to match up what we know. You've had the training, you know how it works: sometimes you know things but don't realize it until we go through it a few times. Sure, it's boring, but it works."
They said that Dauntless had been a good cop before triggering, and it seemed like he was trying to play Good Cop now, but Carlos could only think he was making a big mistake, pushing Taylor like that. Especially when she'd said she wanted a lawyer.
And was it just his imagination or was there a humming, like a million bugs coming toward them?
Maybe Dauntless heard it, too, because he backed off. Carlos breathed a sigh of relief. Getting his face eaten off probably wouldn't kill him but that didn't mean he wanted it to happen.
"We won't detain you any further, Miss Hebert, but keep this in mind: Lung was attacked at home, not when he was out with his mask and his gang. The attack was not self defense, so it's attempted murder and mayhem, and that's only if the police get to her first. Whoever did it has given up the protection of her civilian identity and might be attacked by Villains at any time at home or on the street."
Taylor gave Dauntless a completely unimpressed look as her bus pulled up. "You mean like right now? I've been approached or attacked in my civilian identity by three gangs now, plus the PRT, Wards, and Protectorate. These unwritten don't seem to be worth the paper they're written on." She got on the bus and the Heroes let her go.
Carlos didn't bother to ask Dauntless what the hell he thought he was doing. It was obvious even to a seventeen-year-old that the adult, supposedly experienced, former police officer had screwed up big time, but Dauntless wasn't good about being questioned, at least not by any of the Wards. Carlos kept quiet and thought about how he'd put this in his report.
It could have gone worse. They could have been eaten.
Taylor made a show of looking around. "Nobody here by that name, Armsmaster. Oh, and squeeeeee. I get to meet a real, live Hero. I'm so excited."
Armsmaster looked unimpressed, as expected, though Battery seemed to be fighting back a smile.
"We do not have time for games or the niceties of the Unspoken Rules. Are you aware of the Tinker that Lung recruited shortly before you crippled him?"
"Someone, who was never identified as me, captured Lung, I knew that. Tell me about this Tinker and why you're asking about him."
"'Her'. She is a suspected bomb Tinker. Very dangerous. She claims she was responsible for the explosion in Washington park a few hours ago – maybe you heard it? – and that she's planted bombs around the city. She is demanding that we release Lung or she will set them off. We need the cooperation of every source of information we can, to find the Tinker and her bombs."
"I'd love to help," Taylor said, knowing full well that Armsmaster had been working on a lie detector for his helmet and that it would be flashing now, "but I'm too weak, unreliable, and useless. A lot of people where I used to work said that."
Battery glanced around to make sure no one was nearby. "Please, Bugsy, or Taylor or Swarm or whatever you want us to call you. We know that you feel wronged by the Wards, and even by the rest of us, but think of the ordinary people, your father and your neighbors. Isn't helping to keep them safe something you want to do?"
That was a good point, and would have persuaded Taylor if she hadn't already been planning on helping. She'd just been messing with them, being a jerk for no reason other than being a jerk and she needed to stop that right now. But then Armsmaster spoke up again.
"It's what you're obligated to do. Keeping order and protecting the people is the very definition of a Hero."
This was becoming a pattern since Taylor had struck out on her own. What was it with people snatching defeat from the jaws of victory?
"I'm not a Hero, remember? I used to be but I was kicked out by my coworkers. And then just a couple days ago I was threatened by one of your coworkers because someone thought I'd fought Villains. But even if I were a Hero, what do you think I can do for you?"
"We know you can listen in from at least a block away," Battery said, cautious around Taylor's annoyance. "PRT Security viewed the surveillance cameras from when you sent us that message the other week and you were not within a hundred yards of the PRT HQ."
Taylor cursed herself. She'd known even while she was doing it that it was a stupid idea but she was still smarting from knowing that they thought she was weak and useless. She just couldn't stop herself from tweaking their noses.
"So if you could walk around ABB territory and try to find the Tinker or her bombs, or really anything, we'd appreciate it very much."
Armsmaster offered, "We can request that the PRT provide an unmarked car and driver for you. That would be safer for you than walking around by yourself. If you agree, they can be here within minutes."
Taylor sighed. "OK, you've convinced me. That's what I was doing when you found me. If you bring up a map I can show you a building with what seems to be a lab and another building with boxes of things that smell like the lab. And two buildings with a lot of drugs, while we're at it."
What Taylor didn't bother to tell the officially sanctioned Heroes was that she'd already looted the Tinker's backup workshop and her armory. Beetles using spiderweb cords could move objects up to several pounds if you could get enough of them together, and Swarm had all of the bugs. The buildings had booby traps, a lot of them, but they were not built with insects in mind.
Even as she pointed out spots on Armsmaster's projected map, four blocks in the other direction she was in the process of looting what she thought was the main workshop, since the Tinker had spent most of the past three days in there, leaving only a few hours ago. She didn't tell Armsmaster and Battery about that one. She planned to set off the traps right after she got the loot.
Swarm had taken the completed bombs, the small tools, and the materials. She hadn't done it in order to help the PRT or the Protectorate or even the ordinary people in the city. Oh, no. She'd done it to help herself.
One of the benefits of knowing almost everything that happened in a square mile area was being able to observe the effect of a bomb when the Tinker used it and then to find other bombs that looked and smelled the same, or which had come from the same batch if she'd been lucky enough to be within range of the assembly and storage the entire time.
And, with a supply of bombs of varying effects and ranges, she could take steps to protect herself from anyone who wanted to attack her.
A bit of eavesdropping at the Dallon house the week before had revealed that planning had taken place for a full-on attack of her house "once she revealed herself as a Villain". Besides that, the Empire had a grudge against her and Victor and Othala had been released from custody, had returned to Brockton Bay, and knew what she looked like. She'd heard the grunts talking about it as they walked around their territory, shaking down store owners or doing whatever other Nazi things they did. And Sophia Hess might come to pay off her grudge, once she came back from reform camp, because it had been Taylor's sworn testimony which had gotten her shipped off.
"If that's all and you can take it from here, I need to go home. My dad will be wondering where I've been."
Armsmaster held up a hand. "You said that you can detect things that smell like bombs. If you can use your insects to find the bombs which have been planted around the city, we would appreciate it." Armsmaster paused. "PRT dispatch has confirmed that they can have a vehicle, driver, and guard here within six minutes. I can contact your father and tell him of the importance of what you are doing. I can authorize the driver to stop and get food on the way. I am aware that teens are always hungry."
Taylor sighed and nodded. He was trying his best to be understanding of the needs of mere mortals. "Have them meet me at that Chinese restaurant over there. I'll order and use their bathroom while I wait." That would give her time to get the latest haul stashed in a pile of trash a little way down the alley from the lab. Out of range of the "sand" bomb she was about to set off to cover her tracks.
She still had the keys for the van which Bitch had stolen. She could come and pick up the final pile of loot later, once the self-proclaimed Good Guys had let her go.
Coil frowned as another alert flashed on one of his screens. More sensors in the lowest levels had gone offline. His on-call technician was on the way but being picked up and escorted through Coil's security would take a while.
In the meantime he returned his attention to the problem of recruiting Swarm, Taylor Hebert. He hadn't cared when she turned down the offer a few months ago. Getting her to join a gang would have been a nice black eye for the Piggot and the local Protectorate, but she didn't seem to be useful or important in and of herself.
Since then, the girl had come into her power and managed to shake up the Brockton Bay scene. He needed a heavy hitter now that he'd lost Bitch and her dogs, especially in the chaos left by Bakuda's temper tantrum once she found that not only had her lab been destroyed when her booby traps were more effective than she'd intended, but half of the bombs she'd planted around the city had been found and disarmed before she could set them off.
Coil's moles in the PRT had found that Swarm was involved in that; Calvert hadn't been officially informed because the information was classified above his level. The reports suggested that Swarm would be useful as an information source, another thing that he needed now that he'd lost his Tattletale and his Pet had left the city before he'd been able to recruit her. Perhaps Swarm was not as powerful as either of those but she was available and they were not. She also would not have the personality which had made Tattletale such a chore to work with.
In the other timeline, Thomas looked up from the tablet on which he was keeping up with financial news. What was that smell? It wasn't strong; he hadn't noticed until he'd leaned back and taken a deep breath. It seemed familiar but he couldn't place it.
Thomas shrugged and got back to work. If it didn't go away he'd look into it. Normally he wouldn't waste his time chasing down an errant smell but with the sensor failure at his base he might need this as a safety timeline.
Back in the base, Coil continued his planning.
Swarm's recruitment had run into problems. Attempts to contact Taylor Hebert, whether to make an offer or to kidnap, had all failed, no matter how Coil had forked and dropped timelines so that his men would have the best possible instructions. This might be down to her power, knowing almost everything that happened near her. It might be something else.
Direct action having failed, Coil turned to his old standby, indirect pressure. Results had been… less than satisfactory. Once Coil gave the order for the mercenaries to approach the man, Danny Hebert died. No matter what Coil did with the timelines, Hebert died. The safety timelines had had to be dropped because of a series of problems that had come up. Each seemed to be unrelated to the current operation, but each had been serious enough to cause him to drop that timeline. In the end, Hebert had struggled with the mercenaries who grabbed him, resulting in him being shot in the gut and bleeding out.
It was annoying but not a real problem. Hebert would have been useful as leverage over his daughter but he wasn't important otherwise. Coil had ordered his men to clean up any evidence which might lead back to them and then return to base.
In the two days since then, Taylor Hebert had spent a day alone at home. She'd then left the house to go walking around the city, had disappeared from the sight of the two groups following her, and had been missing since. Coil hoped that nothing had happened to his Moppet. He'd claimed her and would not be happy to lose her.
Thomas, in the safety timeline, got up from his desk, sniffing around. The smell was stronger now, enough to be annoying. He still couldn't place what it was, which was more annoying because he thought that he should. He checked the kitchen garbage and the waste disposal but they weren't the source. Frowning, he got back to work.
In the base, Coil frowned as the last of the sensors in the lower level went offline. It could be a failing controller board but everything was supposed to have redundant backups. However, he hadn't personally inspected that part of the installation, so one of the contractors may have cut corners. He'd deal with them appropriately if that was the case.
More warnings were coming in through Coil's computers, enough now that he couldn't flip between screens fast enough to keep up with them all. Panels were being opened without the closet doors having been opened. Cameras were going offline.
Now the fire suppression system on the uppermost level had been set off, spraying the rooms and hallways with water. All of the smoke and heat sensors were online and all showing in the normal range. It must be a computer failure.
Coil was about to drop this timeline and its endless problems when the safety timeline suddenly dropped on its own. That frightened him. His own safety was more important than anything else and for him to virtually die grabbed at his heart.
Thomas had noticed the smell getting stronger but there was no other clue to what had killed him. That was at least as frightening as the simple fact of dying.
Splitting the timeline immediately, Coil headed for the exit in his new safety timeline while remaining at his desk and trying to isolate the problem in the other.
"Safe" Coil had made it through two security doors and then barely fifty feet down the corridor when the base shook in both timelines.
EVACUATE THE BASE. EMERGENCY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.
The automated alert was hardly necessary. If anything, it hurt Coil's chances of getting out safely because the mercenaries were starting to head for the exits and they might get in his way and slow him down.
Coil dropped the timeline in which he was trying to find the problem, then forked immediately. He headed toward two different exits.
The base shook again and then a third time, with an audible BOOM accompanying the last. Coil-Left had barely time to see the flame front coming toward him before that timeline dropped.
Coil-Right split the timeline again and ran pell-mell for the exit in one while in the other proceeding cautiously and darting between rooms or nooks which could provide a moment's shelter.
Coil-Careful felt Coil-Hasty's pain for only a moment before that timeline dropped. He split the timeline but before he could separate his selves they both came under attack by dozens of bees and wasps. The bug bitch! Each of him swatted and flailed, but the bugs easily stung through his thin costume and kept him from running away.
Then there was one final explosion and both timelines ended.
The Endbringer siren wailed as Swarm drove up to the spot where the capes were gathering. She knew which house the riding lawnmower had come from and she'd make an honest effort to return it afterward. If there was still a city afterward.
Right now, it let her pull a heavy cart much faster than she'd been able to push it on foot and that was all that mattered. She'd do her best to return the shopping cart to the grocery store, too, but right now she needed it.
An unknown Ward with a tablet barred her way. "Name and power?"
"They call me Swarm, native of Brockton Bay. Insect control."
She stared at Swarm for a moment before asking, "Did you used to be called Bug? Buggy? Master-1, right? I read about that. It's brave of you to come here to help, but maybe you'd better go to a shelter."
Swarm sighed. No, Taylor sighed. Swarm never felt defeat or despair.
Once she'd gotten past the well-meaning but annoying Ward, Swarm went in search of Armsmaster or Miss Militia, the two parahumans she knew of who could make the best use of the dozens of Bakuda bombs she'd brought.
Five minutes later, she'd found Armsmaster but couldn't even get past his entourage to show him what she had. Yes, she understood that he was very busy because he was in overall command of the parahumans today, but she potentially had a game changer in her stolen grocery cart.
The pep talk by Legend before the Heroes and Villains broke up into groups was anything but heartening. "If things go well, a quarter of you will die today." Who wrote his speeches? Swarm would have written it off to her bad mood going into it, but she saw others looking like they were reconsidering their choices.
On her way over to the cluster of Thinkers who'd be trying to run the show, she spotted someone.
"Miss Militia!" The gunslinger might be a better choice than Armsmaster to hand the bombs to. She wasn't a Tinker herself but most of the bombs were designed for Bakuda's grenade launcher and Miss Militia could make the right kind in a moment. "I have a lot of Bakuda's bombs and know what most of them do. Where's the best place to set up so you can use them?"
Miss Militia blinked a few times. "You took Tinkertech? Bomb Tinkertech? Don't you know how dangerous that is?" Her disapproval was clear in spite of the scarf hiding most of her face.
"I watched most of them being built so I know what they do and how they work. And I made sure no one was near when I had my bugs move them. It wasn't that dangerous. But that's not important! They're here, now, and some of them might stop Leviathan if you can hit him with them."
"No, out of the question. I can't use any Tinkertech until it's been vetted by Armsmaster or another Tinker. Now, please excuse me. I need to get to where I need to be. You should turn those in and get to where you need to be."
Swarm told herself, several times, that she wasn't being shut down because she was an independent Hero or because the Protectorate didn't consider her a Hero at all. Layers of paperwork and approvals and oversight were how the Protectorate worked with the PRT. That had been obvious almost from day one.
As she muttered to herself, Swarm pulled her cart generally toward the building being used for operations control. She got there in plenty of time for them to slot her into Search and Rescue.
"What can you do? Where's the best place for you?"
"I can control all of the bugs in a building and check for survivors. Listen for voices, see if anything is moving."
"That will be helpful. How long will it take to check each building?"
"Seconds. Maybe only a few seconds, if I hear someone yelling for help. A minute or two if someone is alive but quiet."
"Very helpful. A minute per building means maybe ten or twenty minutes to do both sides of a block?"
"No, you don't understand. I can do them all. All at once. In a few seconds I can check every building in range."
"… Oh. What is your range?"
"Half a mile or so. Almost a mile if I can sit still and focus."
The S&R team lead planned to start her out here in the center and then move her toward wrecked areas as needed. They might be able to detail a flier to move her around and keep her safe, or at least a bodyguard with a motorcycle, but she might be on her own. It would depend on how many capes were killed.
Rather than sit and jitter like some of the Thinkers around her, Swarm spent the time looking into every building, vehicle, street, and Endbringer shelter she could reach.
This was something like how she'd beaten Coil and Lung before him. She watched everything, all at once. She watched for changes and she watched for patterns. Once she had seen enough, all of a sudden the patterns leapt out at her and she knew that Coil was Calvert. Then it was a relatively simple matter to prepare attacks on his home and on his base, watch both, and set off the attack on whichever one he went to.
"Hey, how do I talk to ambulances? I've found a few old people and a few sick people who couldn't get out of bed and one guy who fell down the stairs and broke a leg. And there are some people who are trying to get to shelters but they have small kids and won't get there in time. Is there a police van or something that can take them?"
She also found quite a few looters who were breaking into stores or apartments. She dealt with them without bothering the police.
Too soon, the rain peaked and the first tidal wave hit. Swarm was too busy looking for survivors and steering in rescuers to pay attention to the overall fight or Leviathan's movements, except…
She noticed when a group of bugs disappeared at once, a little under an hour after fighting started. Other bugs nearby survived and saw the blur which meant Leviathan. They were near the entrance to one of the shelters. Leviathan was trying to break in. This shelter was along the path Swarm had taken two hours ago, getting from home to the muster point.
She fumbled with her wristband. "Override! This is Swarm. I have a trap near where Leviathan is now but I need everyone to get away! Get them at least thirty feet away. Now!"
She waited as long as she could, but Leviathan started to move toward the shelter's entrance as soon as the outer doors had been smashed open. She had her team of beetles tug the cord. The zip gun set off the bomb.
A bubble of dimensional distortion twenty feet across snapped into place, swapping things from Earth Bet with things from another world. Swarm still couldn't see well from the bugs' eyes, but she could tell that slices of the road were replaced by slices of cropland, including a number of insects and worms which hadn't been there a moment ago. The corner of a building simply disappeared, and Leviathan…
Leviathan's front half was stripped of flesh, leaving its bare skeleton tangled up with part of some large animal.
She had just time to figure out what she was seeing when all of her bugs in the area were wiped out in an instant.
"Klang deceased, sector E-5," her wristband announced. "Leviathan is retreating to the ocean. Battle Buddy down, sector E-5. Whinny deceased, sector F-5."
The operations room broke out in tired cheers. Swarm couldn't stay to listen. She'd set up half a dozen other Bakuda bomb traps before she got here and she needed to recover them before some idiot got past the wasps she had guarding them and stole them or set them off.
Her shopping cart was still there, maybe because of the swarm of agitated bees and wasps which had been guarding it, tucked away safely under the box and out of the rain. The lawnmower had disappeared. For all she knew, some Tinker had grabbed it for parts or a flying Brute had picked it up to throw at the Endbringer. It was a nuisance but she could walk home. She grabbed her cart, let the bugs settle inside her hoodie to warm up, and set off to recover the nearest of her traps.
She made it about twenty feet before a line of Protectorate Heroes blocked her way.
"We can't let you leave with those bombs, Swarm," Miss Militia said. "They're too dangerous for you to keep."
"Endbringer Truce," Swarm said flatly, not slowing as she walked around the would-be blockade.
They rearranged themselves to continue to block her path.
"The bombs are loot from a defeated Villain," Dauntless said. "We look the other way when independent Heroes keep small amounts of recovered cash but you must turn everything else over to the PRT or police."
Swarm used small clusters of flying bugs to get the attention of a few Brockton Bay Villains who were near enough to come listen, as she addressed the self-righteous Hero. "I'm surprised you're talking to me when I'm in costume, Dauntless. The last time we spoke, you were threatening me in my civilian persona."
"I did not!"
"What's the problem here?" a new voice asked before Swarm could provide chapter and verse on how Dauntless had, in fact, threatened her.
Legend descended slowly toward the group. Swarm reminded herself, again, that she needed to have a screen of bugs checking above her. There were enough fliers around, most of them hostile to her, that she was foolish not to keep an eye out for that.
"Legend," Armsmaster acknowledged. "We have an independent cape, an insect Master who claims not to be a Villain, with a load of Tinkertech bombs which she took from the lab of the villainous Tinker who created them. We are taking the bombs into our custody before she goes on her way."
The Triumverate member, probably the politically most powerful cape in North America, looked over at Swarm. "The key of the matter is that they are Tinker bombs, correct? Young lady, any Tinkertech can be very dangerous. Tinkertech bombs are so dangerous that even the best Tinkers would hesitate to touch bombs made by someone else. I really think you'd be best off turning the bombs you found over to Armsmaster. There may be a reward for handing them over and I'm sure that a place can be found for you on the local Wards team."
Regrettably, Swarm's mask hid the look of disdain earned by that last suggestion. "I brought the bombs here under Endbringer truce. I offered them to Protectorate Heroes to use against Leviathan but was turned down. I used one of the bombs myself on Leviathan. Now I'm trying to leave, still under Endbringer truce."
"You're Swarm? I missed your override call at the end of the fight but was told afterward. What happened to Leviathan is exactly what I was just saying. That bomb caused a great deal of wreckage, including bringing in life forms from another world. If not for the emergency situation, you'd be in a great deal of trouble for causing that. If we find that you've set off another, probably nothing could save you. We all will be better off if you turned in the rest of them."
Swarm saw that she was not going to win this one. There was no argument based on law or morality that would persuade people whose minds were made up. Physical force was laughably not an option. Any one of the Heroes lined up against her could squash her like a bug any time they wanted to, and there were eight facing her right now and more coming over as they saw the stand-off.
Even a murder-suicide, taking some of the Heroes with her by setting off one or more of the bombs, wouldn't work. Armsmaster had fiddled with his halberd and, whatever he had done, now seemed more relaxed, or rather not as tightly wound. Legend was staring at her cart, no doubt ready to vaporize any insect which came into sight. Dragon's flying tank-suit had landed out of Swarm's human field of view but her bugs could see the hundred powerful weapons sticking out of it. None was pointed right at her and Dragon's reputation was that of a peacemaker wherever possible, but Swarm had no doubt that she and her cart would be vaporized a hundredth of a second after Dragon thought that she was setting off a Tinkertech bomb.
Some Rogues and Villains were also close enough to watch, and maybe they'd support her against Protectorate Heroes and whatever Dragon was. She couldn't count on that. It would be suicide, with Legend and Dragon there plus all of the others. Plus, Kaiser over there might not be inclined to help the independent Hero who had captured two of his capes.
All she could do was damage the Protectorate's reputation by letting everyone see that they were violating the Truce. The Protectorate and PRT lived by their reputation. No one would show up to Endbringer battles, no cape would tolerate the NEPEA restrictions, and no ordinary people would tolerate the taxes if they didn't think that the government forces were at least trying to uphold the law, keep everyone safe, and deal fairly with everyone.
She could do it. Should she? She supported what the PRT and Protectorate were doing. That is, she supported what they said they were trying to do, even if they weren't any good at it and had a lot of bad apples. She was a Hero herself, after all, and mostly on the same side.
"It's OK, everyone," Swarm said, loudly enough for the onlookers to hear. "They've convinced me to give them my bombs. No need for a fight."
Everyone relaxed and most wandered off, to their homes in the Bay or to catch a ride back to wherever they came from.
"We need you to give us all the information you have on these bombs before you leave, Swarm," Armsmaster said with all of his usual charm. "You told Miss Militia that you know what most of them do."
"Drop dead," she replied, low enough to not carry. "I saved thousands of people in the shelter. I drove Leviathan off. You stole my property. You can eat those fucking bombs for all I care. Now get out of my way, unless you want everyone to watch you breaking the Endbringer truce again and not have me tell them it's alright this time."
Taylor made her way home along roughly the same path as she'd taken that morning. She recovered three of the bombs she'd set up as Leviathan traps. The other three must have been washed away. If someone had taken them, there would have been a report of a building and ten people being liquefied or something.
Three bombs was a far step down from the almost fifty she'd started the day with. On the positive side, she'd lived through the day. Her city had lived through the day with not much damage. She didn't think she'd made mortal enemies of anyone in the Protectorate. She had almost a hundred of the tiny bombs Bakuda had been implanting in her minions' heads.
On the negative side, she had no one to greet her when she finally got home. She was almost out of food and had only a few dollars to buy more.
Still, she had a warm, dry place to sleep, she wasn't going hungry yet, and the power wouldn't be shut off for non-payment during the recovery from an Endbringer attack. She'd take her wins where she could find them.
A week later, Taylor had left her house only once, to get a box of food from one of the distribution points. It was supposed to last a family of four for a week, so she should be able to stretch it to a month. She didn't really need to be anyplace else and her house still had water and electricity, minus a few brief outages, thanks to Leviathan leaving before the city was wrecked.
… Which was thanks to Taylor. Or Swarm, except that she was trying not to distinguish between her cape self and her normal self. She had begun to think it would make her crazy. Like most capes.
So. Taylor had driven Leviathan away before he did much damage.
A reasonable person would expect for her to have gotten something for her service, some kind of reward. Money would be good. Or at least official recognition or even a sincere Thank You.
That reasonable person would have been in for a surprise. She'd been out for a few hours and she spent some time on PHO, so there were chances for people to talk to her. But there'd been not one word of acknowledgment, let alone any tangible benefit for a teenage girl now living on her own.
… Which they must have noticed by now, as they'd been watching her nonstop since a few hours after she left the battlefield.
Taylor, Swarm, knew this because she'd been watching the neighborhood every waking minute for the past week. For months she'd practiced watching all around her, but usually only when she was "working".
It was different now. She couldn't afford to relax or to separate her cape and normal personae, not after repeatedly being attacked.
She couldn't afford to think of herself as a non-combat cape, either. She couldn't count on keeping away from the fighting, hiding in the dark and sending her bugs to do the work.
The sample of bug-woven silk cloth was as tough as the internet said it would be. A few layers should make a good stab vest, if she could figure out how to make something she could wear. She just wished she had gotten started on a protective costume a month ago; it was going to take a while.
That was the other reason Taylor was staying at home: to keep the spiders working.
She was monitoring everything within half a mile, expanding the distance as she sat and focused. She was weaving some protective clothing. She was reading a book. She was practicing a new trick, having a cloud of bugs "talk" by chirping and buzzing. All that didn't occupy her whole mind. She had plenty of brainpower to worry at the problem of why everything had gone wrong.
Was she doing something wrong? Did something about her make the Heroes think she was untrustworthy, or even a full-on Villain? She didn't think so.
She wasn't working with the PRT, and it was clear they didn't like that. Maybe they were working to turn the Protectorate and the independents against her. She could look into that, maybe. It would be a challenge to get close enough to listen while she was being watched 24/7.
Maybe it was something else. The ordinary people didn't have much to do with her when she was Swarm, unless she rescued them from a mugging or something. They probably knew about Swarm only from PHO and other gossip. The PRT put some effort into "managing the narrative", as she knew from her time as a Ward, but mostly PHO was idiots babbling about things they didn't know anything about. That was why she didn't pay much attention to it. Maybe that was a mistake.
As Taylor's worries turned from the whole world distrusting her to wondering where she'd get money to pay the bills, she noticed several odd things at once. There was a large, strange shape moving around the bays of a closed car shop a half-dozen blocks away. There was a light-colored, human-sized object moving around very quickly and obliterating every bug which it brushed against, a bit farther off. And there was a father-daughter pair walking up to her front door.
"Can I help you? You've probably got the wrong house but I can offer you a glass of water at least." It wasn't really hot, not in late Spring in the Northeast, but the sun had finally broken through and was evaporating the remaining water and making everything humid and uncomfortable. On the plus side, the mosquitoes were not breeding and swarming in her part of town.
On examination with her human eyes, they probably weren't father and daughter. They looked nothing alike, with the man being dark-haired, sharp-faced, and predatory-looking while the girl could almost be a smiling, preteen Shirley Temple.
"I believe we have the correct house, Miss Hebert. Or Swarm, I should say. Might we come in? We have a proposition for you."
It suddenly clicked. Jack Slash and Bonesaw were at her front door. Taylor really wished she'd finished a knife-proof suit.
"Sure. Come in. Do you prefer 'Jack' or 'Mr Slash'?"
"Oh, anything will do. Call me whatever makes you least uncomfortable."
As she fetched the promised water and some crackers, Taylor thought over the resources she had available.
It was more than would be obvious. In the house she had Bakuda's "brain bombs", almost a hundred of them, each smaller than a pencil eraser, small enough to be moved by a pair of large beetles and then suspended by a single thread of drag line. The only problem was that she didn't know what they did. Bakuda had numbered each one but had just thrown them together into a bin. Taylor was confident that she could trigger them near Jack and Bonesaw and probably kill them. The only question was whether it would kill Taylor, too. But Taylor was dead anyway, with the Slaughterhouse Nine coming specifically to talk to her, so the least she could do was take them with her.
The shop where the thing that must be Crawler was, by sheer dumb luck, was where she'd stored her few remaining full-size bombs. One of them should make a black hole, and that could be triggered by pulling out a plastic tab. She had the bugs to do that and should be able to set it off when Crawler came near it as he paced around.
She also had another dimensional warp bomb and a glass bomb. The warp would need to be triggered by a firing pin and she didn't know if bugs could load the grenade shell into its zip gun. The glass bomb needed to be armed with a stiff push button and then detonated by a radio signal. She couldn't set it off from here. That was too bad. It almost certainly would have killed Crawler with the least collateral damage. Wishing didn't do her any good, though.
The black hole should do the job. It would also destroy the other bombs, but she was willing to pay that price.
"You said you had a proposal for me? Is it 'stay out of our way and you may live', 'join us or die', or something else?"
The PRT troopers in the van parked across the street had started to give off the smell of someone who'd just died.
"The second one. Your activities have caught our attention. Don't worry, it was in only the best of ways. Fighting the good fight, standing up for the little people, defending yourself from attacks from all quarters, withstanding the laughing contempt of everyone who heard of you but didn't know what you really can do. Never getting the credit for the good you do because the Heroes wanted the credit. Let me know if I've missed the mark on any of those."
Taylor's heart was pounding and her breath was coming fast. Part of it was fear from having Jack Slash – and Bonesaw, she couldn't forget about her – sitting on the couch across from her. She wasn't an idiot, no matter how dumb she sometimes acted. The other part was that Jack was forcing her to face facts that she knew but had avoided thinking about too much.
Once again she figured out a new trick just when she needed it most. She got the bugs in the nearby houses to run around as fast as they could. This absorbed Taylor's, Swarm's, strong emotions and left her cool and analytical as she sat in her father's recliner chair.
"You're not wrong on any of those points but they don't add up to me joining the Nine. I'm a Hero. That's all I've ever wanted, since I was little. You're the exact opposite of what I wanted to be."
The bugs had moved four brain bombs over the two Villains, each with a beetle to trigger it and a housefly to steer it as it fell. Over in the car shop, Crawler had paused to drink from a barrel of what smelled like old car oil. His back half was only a few feet from the black hole bomb. Farther away, the white shape which was probably the Siberian had disappeared several times and then reappeared near the same white van before running off on whatever mayhem.
"Oh, but are we, Miss Hebert? Imagine a patient with a tumor, a malignant tumor which is growing to take more and more of the body's resources while doing nothing but seep poison. To make the patient healthy again we must cut the tumor out. Some healthy flesh may also be cut away but it's a necessary sacrifice."
He didn't have to spell it out. He was coming close to a valid point. Still, Taylor thought that the Nine were closer to a lunatic flailing around with an axe, who once in a while excised a tumor by accident.
It wouldn't be expedient to say so at the moment.
"Let's say I joined you. How would I be able to indulge my desire to make the world a better place, or at least to cut out some tumors, as you say?"
"In any way you wish, my dear Taylor. The Nine, at least under my leadership, don't have any ideology or particular goals. We drift as our whims take us. You are free to persuade us so that our whims take us to what you see as problem areas. We travel as a group for our own safety, of course, but beyond that there are almost no constraints on what you may do."
The Siberian wasn't known to be a teleporter. She was invulnerable to every known attack and was very fast, but she always walked or jumped from place to place. How did her disappearances connect to that? And how did the white van tie in? The van had one occupant, a man from the smell, and not a healthy one. He moved a little but just sat there in the driver's seat whenever the Siberian popped in near him. Was he playing dead to avoid her attention or was it something else?
Bonesaw spoke up, the first she'd said anything other than very polite and proper thanks for the water and snacks. "Please join us. I would really, really like a big sister. I like Mimi but she's a bit too old to be my big sister. There's Cherish but she… Well, good girls don't say mean things behind others' backs, but she doesn't want to be a big sister and I don't think she's anyone I would choose to be mine. We have someone else in mind, too, and if she joins it could be the three of us. Think of how much fun we could have!"
Now that she was watching more closely, Taylor saw that the man stopped moving a second or two before the Siberian appeared each time. Then she'd run off and the man would barely move. The times when she disappeared while Taylor was watching, the man moved around at the same time, scratching himself or stretching.
Meanwhile, Crawler wasn't moving and his breathing had slowed. Perfect. He was still in range of the black hole bomb, so all she had to do there was keep an eye on things.
"I've never had a sister, Bonesaw. I don't know how to be one. I did have one friend and we called each other sisters, but she betrayed me. That's not the best history if you're looking for a big sister."
"Ah, yes, the insufficiently infamous Emma Barnes," Jack put in. "Her role in your life was kept quiet enough that we stumbled across it only by chance. Once we got the scent it was easy enough to put the pieces together. It is, alas, a tale as old as time."
A pickup truck pulled up to the car shop and a person stepped out of the driver's seat. At the same time, a shape climbed up from the back. To the bugs' eyes it was somewhat human shaped but didn't look right. It didn't smell like a human. If this was two more members of the Slaughterhouse Nine, it must be Marionette and some other guy that she didn't know about. Some other woman, rather, based on proportions and smell. Probably either this Mimi or Cherish that Bonesaw had mentioned.
"It hurt when Emma turned on me but I'm living my life without her. And without needing to do anything about her."
"It that true, though? In your heart of hearts, don't you wish you could get justice for what she did to you? Don't you wish that she would face justice?"
Taylor felt the tuggings of agreement and nodded slowly. She'd suffered terribly because of Emma's malice, and her former friend had gotten away with it all. Taylor had always tried to be the better person and not dwell on it. But the chance to make Emma pay for her crimes was very, very tempting.
"Why, the possibilities are endless. We could bring her along with us when we left this delightful burgh, to be tormented over years by you and your new friends as she suffered with no one to support her."
That did sound good. Emma, meet Karma.
No, wait! What was that? Taylor did not believe in retribution. With Emma out of her life, she didn't need to do anything to her.
Why had she been agreeing? Was Jack Slash Mastering her somehow?
"I could make her look just like you!" Bonesaw suggested.
Taylor pushed all of her emotions into her bugs.
"When you got tired of playing with her," the excited blonde continued, "we'd drop her off somewhere to make them think the fearsome Swarm of the Slaughterhouse Nine was there to kill them all, but she'd be helpless because she has no powers."
That was just ridiculous, Taylor thought, now that she was thinking clearly again. Scare innocent people for no good reason?
Jack must have seen that they were losing her. "It's not all peaches and cream, of course. Yes, we have opportunities to wreak vengeance on the deserving but we spend most of our time hiding and quietly going from place to place. It is an understandable but regrettable fact that the keepers of the status quo save their fiercest attacks for those who would disrupt it."
Crawler, Marionette, and the third person were talking in the car shop. The bugs over Jack's and Bonesaw's heads were doing fine, not running out of energy as they sat there. Taylor had infiltrated a hundred bees and wasps and a few dozen venomous spiders into the white van, sneaking them in while the Siberian was out doing whatever. A PRT armored car had driven near to the van but the trooper in the passenger seat swatted her bugs when she had them try to get their attention.
"Let's say I do join you, get some vengeance on Emma, and we go on our way. What would you expect of me? What should I expect of you?"
Stall. Keep them talking while she thought of ways to kill them without getting herself killed.
Jack rattled on for a bit. Taylor paid attention enough to respond but basically ignored him. She couldn't trust anything he said. She didn't know why he was spending so much time on a recruitment pitch but it was clear that he was playing some kind of game here.
Was he tying up her time and attention while some plan was underway? Swarm double-checked the car shop – Crawler was in the same spot, Marionette was poking around, and the woman was sitting on a chair and complaining, from the sound of it – and the white van and everything else within range. No attacks incoming or other problems that she could find.
Jack had made some good points. She could see that even without the mastering. She had no one and nothing holding her here anymore. She'd been screwed over by every level of government from the public school to the Triumverate. She didn't owe anyone on this planet a single thing. Not a thing except payback.
"I might want to change my name to Karma, if that's not taken."
"I'm sure that if that name is in use, it can be freed up. Think of it as a baptismal mission."
But no, she was a Hero.
Taylor stood. "I need to pace while I think through how I'm going to do this. Do either of you need anything while I'm up?"
In the kitchen to fill a pitcher of boiled and cooled water, Taylor attacked everyone at once. She set the bees and wasps on the man in the white van. He twitched with the first stings and the Siberian appeared next to him but by the time she touched him and somehow made his skin invulnerable, his mouth and nose had been filled by a dozen wasps which continued to sting as they forced their way down his throat.
She set off the black hole bomb in the car shop. Perfect timing for that one. Marionette had been poking around on the shelves and had almost reached her three bombs. She lost contact with every bug in the building and sent more in.
She cut loose the four brain bombs and steered two each toward Jack Slash and Bonesaw. The first to go off caused a wave of pain to drop Taylor to the floor, even ten feet away. Jack had already started to jump away. The next turned Bonesaw into pulverized meat and bone from the waist up. The third let loose an explosion powerful enough to blow a hole in the wall, but it knocked Jack down for a moment and that was what mattered. Taylor fought through the pain to steer the last bomb onto his elbow. The room went up in a wall of fire.
Jack Slash was still moving. Taylor could barely get onto her knees but she was able to call on more beetles to rush more bombs onto him before he got away. Nothing was left of him by the time she was done.
The man in the van had stopped thrashing. Some of the wasps in his throat were still alive but they couldn't force their way out because it was swollen closed. She had them use the last of their energy to sting him again.
The new bugs in the shop couldn't find any trace of Marionette or Crawler. The woman was alive but on the floor and not moving. Taylor kept a watch on her but lost her bugs again when the building collapsed.
She had to get out of her house. The house phone was dead so she couldn't call for help. Her cell phones were upstairs but she couldn't get up there and the phones were too heavy for her bugs. She crawled out the back door from the kitchen and half-fell down the stairs. Her PRT watchers still smelled dead but maybe she could get into the van and use their phones or radio. Or just honk the horn until someone came.
The PRT van was locked and she couldn't open it with the bugs inside it. It didn't matter. By the time she gave up on that, the effects of the pain bomb had faded so that she could walk to a neighbor's house and have them call the police and the fire department and the PRT. Just in time, she realized that she should keep her distance from any decent people. She'd been sitting a few feet from Bonesaw for most of an hour and who knew what engineered diseases she might be carrying.
Jackson kept his expression neutral despite his irritation. It came easily to him after fifteen years in the PRT bureaucracy.
Without that experience he was sure he'd have been shouting at the others in the room. He had a daughter, too, barely younger than the girl they were trying to railroad.
"I don't understand how you think you can get a conviction for using the Tinkertech bombs," the man from the Legal department said. He was new here and didn't understand how things worked in this branch. "They were used against a declared S-class threat with active kill orders. I'd be thrown out of court and may even be sanctioned if I filed these charges."
Piggot scowled. Scowled more darkly; she'd been scowling since Swarm had called them two days ago. "I don't give a rat's ass if you're sanctioned. We don't need to win in court, we just need a handle to force that girl into the Wards. She's a loose cannon and needs to be brought under our control. Find a way to get it done and make it look legal enough that she can't wriggle out."
That wasn't a thing to tell a new, still idealistic lawyer. Piggot thought she could bull and bully her way through anything and anyone. One of these days that was going to bite her, hard. Jackson hoped that he would be there when it happened.
But thinking like that was what had gotten him in trouble a few years ago. He brought his attention back to the discussion.
"What about the bounties? What justification can we use for not paying them out?"
Jeez, Piggot just wasn't letting it rest. She'd brought this up within minutes of getting the message that most of the Slaughterhouse Nine had been killed.
Rennick shuffled some papers but it was just a stall as he didn't look at them. "There's the lack of bodies, identifiable bodies. In Hebert's house, robots got images of two lower legs, probably from different people as they were different sizes. The smaller leg had what appeared to be a number of modifications which suggest a bio-Tinker but there is nothing to show that it was Jack Slash and Bonesaw who died there. Because of the destruction caused by a number of Tinkertech bombs and the fire, there is no solid evidence even that anyone died rather than simply lose a leg each.
"The auto shop where Crawler and Mannequin died – that is, where Swarm claims they died – was almost entirely collapsed into what Swarm told us was a short-lived black hole and there is no trace of either of them. The woman in the shop was fatally irradiated, presumably from the black hole, but died of the ceiling collapsing on her. She had both a Corona and a Gemma. She is unidentified but we have a probable DNA match with two of Heartbreaker's known children and conclude that she was his daughter.
"The man in the van, who died of suffocation caused by bee and wasp stings and spider bites, has been identified as William Manton." He paused to let the exclamations die down. "Yes, that Manton. He also had a Corona Pollentia and a Gemma. We have no proof that he was the Master behind the Siberian, other than that the Siberian has not been seen since Swarm killed him."
"Good, good," Piggot said. "Legal, use that. No proof that the Nine were killed, only the Hebert girl's statement. She confessed to murdering people and we have two bodies."
"I don't know about that. At best it's a stretch –"
"Dammit, make it happen or I'll find someone who will!"
There it was, Jackson thought. A meeting very much like this one three years ago had led to him complaining to a coworker he thought he could trust, and that led to him doing a favor, and that led to blackmail, and that led to him being under Coil's thumb until a month ago.
If nothing else, Jackson owed Swarm for freeing him from a lifetime of blackmail. The story hadn't been released to the public but the analysts all knew what had happened to Coil and why his other identity had disappeared. They'd carefully spread the word, getting around the blackout designed to keep the bosses and the security division from looking bad.
Jackson's years of government work, and especially the past five years with Piggot as Director, told him that objecting to the violations of regulations and procedures would be pointless. Piggot knew what she wanted and didn't care about the law or simple human decency if it got in her way.
What was called for was a bit of creative misinterpretation and undermining. He'd start by having a word with the lawyer right after the meeting. Then he'd look over the forms denying Swarm the bounty money and figure out how to fill them out so that the Chief Director's office would look at the reason for the rejection more carefully. If Piggy wanted to close off all of Swarm's options so she'd have no choices, then he owed the girl a few options. Fifty million dollars' worth of options should do the job nicely.
After two days in solitary, Taylor was released from the PRT's bio-containment cell. She hadn't been arrested but they had told her that their only bio-rated isolation facilities were also set up to hold prisoners, just in case. That hadn't made it any easier to put up with being locked in and kept isolated with no books or anything.
Eventually it was deemed safe enough for Panacea to come in and verify that she was uninfected. The healer kept up a stream of insults for the five minutes they were together. Taylor didn't know what her problem was. It didn't matter. She didn't have to deal with her.
The boredom didn't get to her, other than annoy her because the PRT was obviously trying to soften her up for something. She figured out what that was by listening to a few meetings in the PRT building.
She'd also had time to think, in between randomly-timed automated blood draws, interrogations over the built-in video system which they didn't turn on except when they wanted to talk to her, and sleeping twelve hours a day to make up for all of the lost sleep over the past few months.
Mostly she thought about how she'd lost everything: the PRT had blocked the fire department from saving her house and had even used accelerants to make sure the entire thing was destroyed down to the foundation. They didn't want to take any chance of Bonesaw pathogens being let loose.
Taylor saw the sense of that. Regardless, she resented that they had torched everything she owned. Even her clothes had been burned, just in case. She was now wearing a disposable paper coverall and paper booties.
The PRT medic who'd handed them to her had said that, as a courtesy, they weren't charging her for them. She couldn't tell if that was supposed to be a joke.
While sitting around, waiting to break out in a 110 degree fever or grow a third arm or whatever horror Bonesaw might have set up, Taylor had spent the time productively, watching and smelling and listening to everything within a mile. She'd found something. A woman was holed up in an apartment, well outside of Swarm's known range and right at the edge of Swarm's actual range, pacing a lot and ignoring the dead body in the bathtub. She wore a dress made of something that wasn't cloth. She was sometimes surrounded by stuff floating around her. The bugs couldn't see what it was but it didn't smell like metal or wood or food so it was a good guess that it was glass.
"Come on, Swarm. The Director wants a word with you."
"Why? I don't need to talk to her. Let me collect the bounty money and I'll get out of here."
"My orders are to take you to the Director. Let's go."
On the way up, she heard one PRT staffer repeating "I'm sorry, Swarm. Piggot decided to block your bounty payments and there wasn't any way for me to stop her. She's holding murder charges over your head, too. She wants to force you into the Wards." The man said it over and over, alone at his desk while the other people in the office were at lunch. He clearly knew that she could listen from a distance but couldn't tell if she actually was listening.
Swarm had a handful of flies go past his face in a "checkmark" formation. He stopped his chant, said "Good luck", and went to lunch.
Piggot fixed Taylor with a firm stare as soon as she entered her office. "Sit, Miss Hebert. We have several things to discuss concerning your future."
Forwarned, Taylor fixed Piggot with a stare of her own. "Will any of these discussions have legal standing, as I'm a minor with no legal adult representing me?"
"Yes. You are a minor, an orphan, and a parahuman. The PRT has automatic guardianship over you and statutory authority to make decisions concerning your future. While we ordinarily take the minor's preferences into account, we are not required to do so. As such, I advise you to be very careful in what you say to me."
"Let's bring in the Youth Guard. I'd like to hear what they have to say about this. A lawyer, too. An outside lawyer, not one under your control."
"Good luck with that," Piggot said with an unpleasant smile. "You're broke, remember?"
Shatterbird's bounty was a few million dollars, from what Taylor recalled. Not much compared to the more than fifty million for the five, likely six, Slaughterhouse members she'd already killed.
Three million dollars was quite a lot compared to nothing.
Swarm could kill the criminal and then inform the police. She'd better inform several TV stations and a lawyer at the same time, because the police would call the PRT and the PRT would find a way to cheat her of this bounty, too.
There was another option. Taylor, Swarm, did not need to kill Shatterbird and then hope to get the reward.
Jack Slash had made some good points. Even without his Master effect he'd caused Taylor to rethink her view of the world and her place in it.
She could contact Shatterbird from here in the PRT building. The criminal was out of range now that Swarm was distracted and annoyed, but Taylor would no doubt have a few minutes of peace, on the toilet if nothing else, and would be able to push her range out, write messages with bugs, and listen to Shatterbird's responses.
Or she could talk to police and reporters and lawyers the same way. All at the same time if she wanted.
If she went the Shatterbird route, she'd see if the woman was interested in cleaning up the problems with the world. The Slaughterhouse Nine could be rebranded and rebuilt with a new mission.
Maybe it wouldn't work. Shatterbird was a mass murderer and probably insane and was definitely walking around with a kill order and a bounty. However, she also knew how to get around and stay alive with the entire country looking for her.
Then again, if Taylor escaped from the PRT at the first chance and set out on her mission of tearing down the corrupt institutions, she wouldn't be starting out with a kill order. She'd have to get money to support herself but she could work from the shadows.
If she was going after the PRT in particular, she could earn money by freeing not-too-evil prisoners from PRT custody. She was sure any number of gangs across the nation would be glad to hire a bit of help.
As Piggot rattled on, laying down the law to the silent teen, Swarm weighed her options. Kill Shatterbird and contact a lawyer to get her freed and get her the bounty. Join Shatterbird and reform the Nine. Escape and set out on her own. Decisions, decisions…