- - -

Peter was sure his glides were lasting longer. This was good since the Queensboro bridge was still being heavily monitored. When he'd dropped MJ off, he'd actually been closer to the Queens Midtown tunnel and could have tried that as his route in to New York, but he wasn't sure he wanted to be confined down there if anything happened and he got spotted.

That and he wasn't entirely sure if he even still had any actual money or his bank cards on him, so actual public transportation was out of the question.

He chuckled at the thought. Going to his epic confrontation with the ancient... well... she's technically in her sixties... evil spreading through Manhattan by taking the subway. Would she wait while he had to take a bus transfer to get to her evil lair?

That was almost funny.

When he'd arrived in Manhattan, the saturated Hydra in the air was choking. He knew it had been at least this thick last time, but after briefly sampling the relatively clearer air outside the infected zones in Queens, it felt worse.

He knew he had to find her, but given how widespread Hydra was in this part of the city, that was going to be next to impossible, short of trying to find the highest concentrations of it.

Well, why not? His voice drawled back. We could get lucky, but that's pretty much all we have to work with.

He shrugged and walked down the street, looking as normal as possible, until he could find some quiet, unoccupied alley.

He turned down a space between two taller buildings and glanced around to ensure he wasn't being watched. He bent at the knees and with a flare of heat, shot upwards, landing on the rooftop softly enough that it hadn't even bothered the pigeons.

Then again, these were hardened Manhattan pigeons. Peter suspected it would take a lot more than someone jumping almost fifteen stories straight up to bother them.

He walked up to the edge of the building's roof, looking around the street. He did notice that traffic seemed to be unusually light. Even if it wasn't rush hour. By this time of day there should have been cars everywhere... then again, the entire feel of the city was subdued.

Not too surprising, given that the news releases pretty much painted what happened to Queens as the worst terrorist attack on American soil ever. He didn't have many personal memories of the attack in 2001, but many of the minds within him had shown him fragmentary images and memories of what Manhattan had been like just the day after.

Everyone was in shock right now, but Peter imagined the shock would give way to rage very soon and whoever was controlling the media machine trying to maintain the cover could very well aim all that rage at nearly any target it wished.

All the more reason to finish our work and get everyone away from here before this all explodes, Donna murmured.

Didn't expect you to be the pessimist, Peter thought back curiously. I thought that was Cain's job.

I am paranoid, Cain shot back. Similar, but not the same.

A pessimist is simply someone with the facts, Donna replied primly. And the fact is, we just keep digging ourselves deeper and deeper the longer we stay involved with Hydra. Best to get out as soon as we can.

Peter shut his eyes and inhaled deeply, letting the city's scents paint him a picture of Manhattan.

There was a wash of Hydra scents. Multiple concentrations in several areas. He couldn't be certain of the precise location, simply directions and strength of scent. The charnel-sweet-stink of it was almost a familiar friend now. A map of Manhattan came into being in his mind's eye... or it could have been the phone's screen and he shot off directly towards the stronger Hydra source. Perhaps it would lead him to Jessica, but if nothing else, it would also allow him to triangulate the location of those other scents as the direction shifted.

He stayed high, trying to keep the sun at his back whenever he could, hoping to be lost in the dazzle. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop worked out reasonably well lower down, but once the buildings started getting higher, it ironically got more and more difficult to travel without getting caught. He could have theoretically used the whip arm to snap himself from spot to spot faster than the eye could track, but that would have required slamming a cleaver-sized bone blade into his destination each time and he'd caused enough damage.

If you were that worried about staying inconspicuous, Cletus responded to his thoughts, We should've just boosted a car or something. You could've driven there.

I don't know how to drive. I also don't have a license, Peter thought back.

... I talk about stealin' a car and that's what you're worried about? Cletus jeered. I know how to drive, so you do too.

Peter shook his head, ignoring Cletus as he drew closer to a familiar spot.

Gentek building, Peter thought as he came to a stop at a building overlooking the collapsed remains of the building. There was still a police cordon all around the ruins or a sizable distance, practically taking up the entire parking lot. The clear scent of Hydra was coming from the ruins, which didn't surprise him.

Equally unsurprising was Jessica's sweet scent filtering up from those same ruins.

"Guess she didn't leave after all," Peter murmured.

He took a closer look at the security surrounding the area and frowned. He expected police... perhaps even Marines and Thunderbolts securing the area. What he hadn't expected was that the entire area surrounding what had once been Hank, were Oscorp security.

He sniffed once more and caught a whiff of ozone-tinged rot before he even caught sight of the darting movements and red glow of Oscorp aerial drones. Given that the drones stench seemed to keep infected away from it, he could understand their being used to help keep the area clear, if anything chose to crawl up from that mess.

He consulted the map function on his phone and found that the entrances through the building, which by now had no doubt collapsed, weren't the only ones into the tunnels that had been a major part of Hank's digestive systems. There were entrances to it through the sewers... and while he expected there would be security there as well, it would probably not be quite as comprehensive as what he was facing now.

It would have been nice to know what they were saying down there, he thought mildly as he searched for possible sewer entrances that he could actually fit through.

We know what frequency their radio chatter is on, Cain replied mildly, I can hear it, but it's encrypted. Won't do us any good unless we have one of their radios.

Peter eyed the patrols below speculatively, but Cletus piped up.

If'n you want to break in there without attracting any of their attention, you might want to give mugging those boys for their radios a pass. If they've got patrols through the routes we're going to use anyway, then grabbin' the radio's gonna alert those guys once they notice someone's missing. If they ain't got patrols through those areas, then we don't need the radio. If we go in with no radio and they do have patrols, we can steal one then.

Hearing you advocating not killing something always comes as a shock, Donna admitted.

Cletus sniffed, Don't you be puttin' words in my mouth, woman. I ain't sayin' don't kill 'em. I'm sayin' not now. And not this bunch. Yet.

Peter couldn't help but chuckle to himself. If nothing else, Cletus was consistent.

His hand blurred and his cellphone appeared in it, MJ's number already dialed.

"Hey, Tiger." MJ's cheerful if muted voice came on.

"Hey yourself. I think I might already have found Jessica." He said quickly. "Back in what's left of Gentek Tower."

"I'm glad that was fast," MJ replied. "I'm still on the bus to Staten Island. Since we didn't want me going through Manhattan, it's a bit longer."

"Sorry."

"No worries. Are you going in?"

"Yes."

"Be careful, Peter." She said gently.

"I will."

"I'll see you soon," Her voice filled with promise.

"Yes. Take care." He replied carefully.

Her voice dropped and she murmured, "I'm just dealing with traffic. You're the one facing down diseased psychos."

He had to laugh. "Good point."

They hung up and he jumped down to street level. Surprisingly, it wasn't that difficult to find an isolated and unwatched manhole a half-dozen blocks west of Gentek Tower. Now that he thought about it, they must've had some influence over the placement of the sewers in this part of the city because of Hank... conveniently located, easy to access manholes seemed like it would've been useful to him back in the day, Peter realized.

He easily levered the manhole cover off, and lowered himself down the ladder, closing the cover back over himself as he descended.

The scents here were even clearer. Mingled in with the rank sewer stench was the distinct Hydra scent he'd been following. Even more... without the confusing distraction of New York's background scents and just the singular... if pungent... sewer smell to deal with, Peter caught the thread of Jessica's scent in the air. Creamy waffles... the scent flowing into him like liquid languor. Heady and intoxicating. He simply stood there for a long minute, wallowing in the scent, but in his head he felt the ghostly equivalent of a slap to the back of the head.

Focus. It seemed to be Donna's voice, but there was a bit of MJ's tone in the amused affection it was said in.

The scent seemed to shift slightly, or it was simply Peter's perception of it that had shifted. It still smelled deliciously sensual and seemed to promise things, but the pull at his hind brain seemed to be less. He shook his head once more to clear it and began to stalk through the sewers. He had the maps still on his phone, but he expected the GPS and the connection to whatever servers were providing the maps would start giving out once he went deep enough, so he studied them as he moved, trying to get as much of it memorized as he could.

He ran into the first Oscorp security personnel within minutes. The scent of unused gunpowder and a thin thread of clinging, acrid ozone tainted Hydra stench alerted him to their presence and he slowed enough to cautiously peek around the corner rather than blunder into them.

They'd set up a small guard station at a sewer intersection that had one tunnel that was covered in viral matting. That was the route Peter intended to take and they were in his way.

Now y'all can mug 'em. Cletus said with deep and abiding satisfaction.

Gee, thanks. Peter thought back sarcastically. He still had a corner to hide behind, but there wasn't any obvious way to approach them other than directly from the front.

In theory if he could distract them and make them leave, he could just walk past. He shuddered. There was something about them that was making him edgy. He wasn't sure if it was something with the scents or leftover emotions to memories that he didn't have any distinctive context for, but there was something about Oscorp and Oscorp security that made him... angry. Angrier.

Distinctly and uncharacteristically angry. Almost the same as when Hank had tried to influence him.

Connors murmured, Whoever did that to that Vulture they used in the drone, it isn't guys like these who would make those decisions.

None of which changed the fact that Peter really wanted to just simply take these people apart. His fingers flexed, gripping into fists, which then blurred and became claws. It wasn't like they were Hunter-sized. Two swipes, total. Simple.

Rush straight in gives them all the time in the world to shoot. Cain murmured gruffly. Bad idea.

Cain's voice pulled Peter back and he realized that he was about to simply step around the corner and begin slashing. He shuddered, trying to push those thoughts aside. He was better than that. He had more control. He wasn't an animal.

Cain, we can broadcast on the frequency they're using to talk on, right? Peter thought back.

Yes, but we don't have their encryp- Oh.

Right. Peter smiled grimly and dropped down to a runner's stance. Do it.

Both Oscorp security men flinched and began clutching at their ears as feedback suddenly squealed into their earpieces.

That was the distraction he needed. With a burst of speed, Peter closed the distance. Neither man had recovered yet when he grabbed the rifle out of the first man's hand. The further surprise of his sudden appearance allowed him to smash the butt of the rifle into the faceplate of the security helmet, slamming him hard into the wall of the sewer. The helmet probably kept him from any serious injury, but the face-concealing mirrored plexiglass was spider-webbed with cracks and the man was slumped bonelessly on the ground.

By the time the second guard had finished fumbling with his own rifle, Peter had already jammed the muzzle of his newly acquired rifle into the lightly armored gap in the man's uniform right at the hollow of his throat. "Drop it." Peter growled fiercely.

The man complied hurriedly, but blustered, "You're not supposed to be down he-"

Peter leaned forward intending to jam the rifle harder into the man's throat, but inadvertently allowing his shadowed features to come into the man's view.

"- oh crap." The Oscorp security man whimpered, flinching back from Peter.

He shifted the rifle in his grip, letting his body move to allow the rifle's stock to slam hard into the man's solar plexus, doubling him over and putting his head in an easy, comfortable position for Peter to slam his knee hard into the man's face.

The second man dropped unconscious as well.

Peter stared down at the men. The urge to tear them apart was still surging viciously up his spine, but he kept it firmly in check.

That ain't comin' from me, Cletus said defensively.

He shook his head, dropped to one knee and began going through the security men's pockets and web belts.

Weren't you upset with MJ just a few days ago for grabbing that other guy's wallet after you knocked him out? Donna asked pointedly.

Yes, Peter thought back. But considering I'm not tearing them apart-

- and eating them, Cletus interjected cheerfully.

- I'm going to consider this a moral victory anyway. He tried to harden his resolve, but it was impossible to avoid the little quiver of guilt anyway. Which was just as strange, since he'd felt no guilt or remorse about hitting them or hurting them... but stealing made him feel guilty.

There weren't any wallets or anything with personal information, which was just as well, since he was pretty sure he would have left those behind. On the other hand, they both had radios with earpieces that he shoved into his pockets and assumed were going to get sent elsewhere into his body. Aside from the semi-automatic assault rifles, both men also carried pistols and combat knives.

Really well armed for security guards. Peter thought idly.

When dealing with Hydra? Cain rumbled back. Not well armed enough.

Peter pocketed the pistols as well, but while he probably might have been able to shove the rifles in his pockets, given that he'd already easily had a backpack or two's worth of things in there... somewhere... he couldn't quite figure out if he actually could.

He grabbed the first in both hands and prepared to simply crush what he could and render the guns useless. It was some kind of Kalashnikov styled weapon, but even with Peter's memory and the memories of everyone else he'd consumed, he wasn't familiar enough with the design to say what sort of AK it was specifically.

Tendrils unfolded from his arms, rapidly consuming the plastic parts of the weapon, the stock and part of the casing, before they swarmed and wormed their way over the entire thing and the disassembled metal parts began falling into the sewer water.

That worked too, he thought and allowed his body to take the second rifle apart in the same way.

Something else was bothering him. He knelt down and opened the faceplates for the two Oscorp security men, cracking open air-tight seals as he did.

He sniffed. The thin thread of acrid ozone-stink Hydra came out stronger. These two were infected. Whatever they'd been infected with, had been similar to whatever the disassembled vulture had. Peter wouldn't have been surprised if these men also warded off mindless Hydra infectees by their presence alone.

He couldn't see any obvious deformities and the second man had spoken normally, so perhaps whatever it was that they'd been given, it hadn't really infected them perhaps?

Inoculation Connors murmured speculatively.

Perhaps not enough to trigger a transformation, certainly not enough to prevent the transformation if they really did get infected, but enough to give them an edge when dealing with Hydra infectees.

The Thunderbolts, the supposed experts in dealing with Hydra, didn't have anything like this. Hank's memories had nothing like it. The closest thing to what these men had was a passing reference to some human trials that were never completed before Weapon Plus folded. Crimson Guardian.

Something for later, Donna murmured. Deal with the current problem first.

Every time we think something like that, it bites us in the ass. Peter thought back.

As much as I love watching you woolgather, you've got a Hydra queen to find, then you need to murder her and the slavering horde she's gathered around her, then find your Aunt and all your neighbors and friends, rescue them, then get back to MJ for 'quality time'. We're swamped.Donna thought with a strange mix of sincerity and sarcasm.

Somewhere in the back of his mind came a faint happy purring at the thought of MJ.

He frowned, "That's not you, is it, Donna?"

No. Usually Cletus handles the animal noises. Donna replied primly.

Why is everyone baggin' on me? Cletus demanded irately.

For fun. Cain rumbled.

Har. Har.

Peter took another deep breath, then immediately regretted it when he was forcefully reminded that he was still in the sewers and at the entrance to one of Hank's old sewage influx pipes.

He coughed once, but the scents upon his senses drew their patterns for him. The source of Jessica's scent wasn't even that far. A distance of something less than a block or so.

Like she's waiting for me, his own voice drawled.

He sprinted deeper into the tunnel, the sewer damp and scents giving way to the thicker scents of Hydra. The walls were still coated with the viral matting, but it wasn't like what he'd seen before. It was patchy and thin. Spread out in ropy tendrils that only barely covered the bare concrete surfaces.

Here and there, entire patches were dried out and crumbly. Strongly resembling the remains of a scab. There was plenty of live Hydra scents in the air still, but so was the dead Hydra. The wash of scents wasn't enough to entirely block out a disturbingly large amount of individual signatures.

He'd been jogging through the area for several minutes and there were several twists and downward sloping tunnels that made him certain that he was getting deeper still.

The tunnel opened into a large chamber, similar to the one where he'd confronted her before, but it wasn't the same one. The chamber's floor was a good fifty feet below him and it was probably the size of a school gymnasium. Big enough for a full-court basketball game at least.

The distinct viral matting that should have been on the walls was in even worse shape. What little was left seemed to concentrated in a far wall where there was still a thick layer covering it. All around were what seemed like walkers, but there was something very odd about them.

Peter's brow furrowed as his eyes refocused.

The Walkers in the chamber below had a very distinctive look to them. Peter had gotten used to the twisted variety that tended to show up in masses of Hydra victims. One could expect shreds of clothing, wide range of deformations including body parts that were too large or too small. Generally, Walkers simply looked... wrong.

Those Walkers in the mob below him had a very distinct and unifying look to them. They were all identical for one thing. No clothes, shredded or otherwise. They were thin, pale, hairless and short, probably coming to no more than Peter's chest, which given his own deficiencies in height made them quite short indeed.

Their faces were nearly identical. Their ears were large and pointed, almost elfin in shape. On the other hand their eyes were strange oversized things that seemed to be threatening to pop out of their skulls, but thinly stretched eyelids opened only a tiny slit to allow a flash of white eyes to be seen. Their features were thin and only offset by strangely prominent chins seemed to be cleft in multiple spots, almost like a scalloped ridge right below the lower lip.

They were all properly proportioned, more or less. They had no grotesquely oversized or withered limbs and were all uniformly narrow-chested and pot-belied. A closer examination showed him that they were also sexless.

Not Walkers, then. Some kind of Drone strain of sorts, he guessed. Something new Jessica's come up with, perhaps.

His eyes scanned the mob and aside from its composition, there was another odd thing.

Jessica herself wasn't there.

There, Cain murmured calling his attention to the center of the room. Atop a mound of some sort a Beckoner stood, the thick red mist surrounding it completely obscuring its oversized face and head. It... might have been a woman before its transformation. There was a loose cloak draped around its body obscuring any clear clue as to what it had been.

Peter growled in the back of his throat. He'd been following that scent. That complicated matters. Before the Becks still had their own distinct scent, despite echoing Jessica's... now they really completely smelled like her.

Did that mean anything?

How many of these things do you think she's got down here? his voice drawled. Gonna be a while chasing them all down.

We ain't had a taste for one of those Beckies yet, Cletus noted with a leer, We'd know what it knows and maybe that'd include where sweet lil Jessie's hiding out.

He watched them. The mob of Drones wasn't just standing around. They moved with purpose. The seemingly chaotic press of bodies was doing something specific.

With long, delicate fingers the Drones tore at the viral matting coating the walls. Not just the ones closest to the floor. He could see them clambering up the nearly sheer stone walls, nimble fingers and toes finding holds. The ones higher up worked just as well as those on the ground, working with precise, swift efficiency to remove the viral matting.

Then the pieces would be passed, hand to hand to hand. From one Drone to the next, until the meaty, dripping chunks were placed on the pile that the Beckoner stood on.

Peter frowned. Hank had said it would take Jessica a while to put his nerveless biomass to her use. He hadn't expected them to... well... stripmine it free of the underlying structure.

That didn't make any sense. Why would they... He shifted his mass and pulled himself out of the tunnel mouth. Claws and talons gave him a sure grip on the bare stone as he worked his way halfway around the room to get a better view of what exactly the Beckoner was standing on.

He gaped at the sight of what appeared to be an Ice Cream truck, liberally splattered with viral matting and strange stains. What he could see of the interior from the windows and windshield showed nothing but grotesquely swollen flesh within.

The window where one would normally make orders- where one would normally expect a smiling ice cream man available to make orders- was missing the glass that would normally allow it to close. There was a pair of spindly limbs, ending in large spade-like hands, projecting on either side of an immense, cavernous maw that seemed to fill almost the entire window.

Drones would place offerings of viral matting- meat. That's what it is, raw meat- in those hands and the hands in their turn would greedily shove the red dripping chunks into the mouth. Massive lips would close all around the maw, making huge smacking noises and now that he'd paid attention to it, Peter couldn't help but hear the chewing. The crunching, mashing, lip-smacking noises that sounded from the truck in time to an immense heart beat.

The doors at the rear of the trunk were open and revealed the immense grotesquely obese moon-face of a mobile hive. Same as the one that had been in the middle of the mob back in Forest Hills. It's immense gut-mouth opened with a belching noise and a new Drone, covered in bilious yellow slime would stumble out.

It rose to its feet, and even before the slime dried on its body it had already taken its place with its fellow drones.

Feeding Hank Pym's remains to the Mobile Hive. Hank's entire biomass would become mobile. Free to spread throughout Manhattan... projections played through his head. Memories of other simulations Hank had run in the past, but he'd had to modify the assumptions since none of those simulations had ever accounted for the possibility of all of Hank being used like this.

Three days to kill and/or infect every single man, woman and child on Manhattan was the most pessimistic estimate.

How long would it take them to convert all of him into drones? Or worse things. After all, who knew what else they could produce? A regular hive could recycle a Walker into spare parts for the other strains... Rhino, Hunter... He had no clue about the full capabilities of one of the mobile Hives, but even assuming it had anything close to that capability...

He shuddered. And someone wanted something like this to happen. It was sick.

Well, we were going to take her mob out anyway, Cletus said with the mental equivalent of a shrug, Can't see no reason we can't hit these guys first.

The Beckoner seemed to shudder as well in response to something and the red mist coiling around its body began to thicken.

There were subtle shifts in the scent in the air. Ones that Peter couldn't quite categorize, but it caught him entirely off-guard.

He blinked as he realized that the smoke from the Beckoner had risen almost twenty feet into the air and seemed to be shaping itself to... something. There were suggestions of shapes in the red glowing smoke. Almost like patterns in a magic-eye picture or some sort of optical illusion.

Peter blinked as an image of Jessica's face superimposed itself on the red smoke. A sultry grin on her lips and a playful expression in her eyes.

"Oh, Peter. You came back to visit!" Her voice murmured in his mind... or it projected from the smoke. He couldn't tell which anymore. "You really do want to be friends after all, don't you?"

He licked his lips and managed to drawl out in Cletus's voice, "Like hell."

The Drones began to climb up the walls towards Peter in silent, perfect coordination.

"Well, if you wanted to play first," Jessica said with a teasing wink, "You should have said so."

- - -