Part Twenty-Five: Taking Care of Business
[A/N: this chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
With Alexandria gone through one of those enigmatic 'doorways', Amy took a deep breath. She knew she should really be settling down and doing her homework, but the words so recently spoken about the very fate of the world were still echoing in her memory, dragging her attention away from the dry facts and figures on the page.
She didn't know whether to be terrified or exhilarated about what she'd learned since Michael had taken up residence in her head. It was one thing to know that the world's most powerful hero was actually a villain; quite another to find out that someone was actually making plans on how to take him down. And like it or not, she was right in the middle of everything. Given her odd passenger, she had no choice but to be involved.
So how are you going to do it, anyway? she asked silently. Take Zion down, I mean.
He paused thoughtfully. Not the way I did it the last time, that's for sure.
What do you mean? What was wrong with the way you did it the last time? She wasn't even going to ask how he was supposed to have done this 'the last time'.
Well, for one thing, I died.
That was definitely one way to put an end to that line of inquiry. Oh.
Yeah. Oh. After a moment, he relented. Yes, we won, but this time around? We're doing it differently. I am not sacrificing you for this. There was steel in his voice. When this is over, you're going to have a chance to live a long and happy life, preferably without some grumpy old bastard in the back of your head twenty-four-seven.
So, uh … do you have a plan for winning that involves both of us surviving? Amy was quite attached to being alive. It was something she'd been doing since she was born, after all.
Well, I know how we won last time, or at least I suspect I know. Also, I know how I personally fucked up and ended up having to play hare to his hound. So if I can avoid those specific mistakes this time, that'll be great. Also, if I can avoid every other potential mistake at the same time, that'll be fuckin' amazing.
So … you don't actually have a plan yet?
Not a cut and dried one, no. Several ideas, and a very good notion of all the options and resources I can call on, for sure. Plus, if we can pull off a special edition of Coil, that'd be nice too. But I'm not holding your breath on that one.
Special edition? He's dead, isn't he? Amy knew damn well he was dead. She'd seen his body, afterward.
That's the fun of living in a world where super-powers can make the laws of physics, reality and God knows what else go and cry in the corner. Let me tell you about a little stunt Bonesaw pulled in a whole other reality that got nicknamed the 'Slaughterhouse Nine Thousand'…
"You're back!" As Taylor got to the top of the stairs, she was glomped by Lisa and spun around. "It's been days! I was wondering if your dad had grounded you or something. But you never called, you never texted."
"Sorry." Taylor hugged Lisa in return. "We've been busy. Reconnecting, sorting out my transfer to Arcadia, stuff like that. After the Sophia thing, Blackwell caved altogether." She looked around to see Brian sitting in an armchair reading a book, and Alec playing some console game or other. "Hi, guys."
Brian looked up from the book. "Hey, Taylor. You're looking well."
"Thanks." She pushed down the incipient blush and looked at Alec. "Is he even aware I'm here?"
"'Sup, dork." Alec gave her a half-hearted wave without taking his eyes from the screen.
"Never mind him." Lisa guided Taylor to sit down on the sofa, then dropped onto the cushions herself between Tayor and Alec. "So, spill."
Taylor looked at her curiously, though she suspected she knew what was going on. "Spill what?"
Lisa huffed irritably. "The secret conference Panacea and Alexandria had up on the roof when we last saw you, duh. You and Amy came back down looking like death warmed over. Or at least, Panacea did. And I can tell you've had a shock to the system, too. So, what did they talk about?"
Taylor considered her potential answers, and went with the most innocuous. "Shadow Stalker," she said. "Legend himself said he was going to look into what she's been up to. Michael told Alexandria straight-up to back him on any recommendations about sending her to juvey."
Brian, who had been sitting in the armchair reading, raised his head at that. "Really? Not just a slap on the wrist and straight back into the Wards?"
Taylor shook her head. "Michael was adamant about that. From how angry Legend seemed about it, I'm pretty sure she's screwed nine ways from Sunday."
"Excellent." The grin that spread across Brian's face lit up the room. "Couldn't have happened to a more deserving person." He tilted his head. "So, how many of her teeth did Glory Girl knock out again? I've forgotten."
Amused, Taylor shook her head and snorted. "Yeah, right. 'Forgotten'. Twelve. Also, she's got a broken jaw, busted cheekbone and a concussion."
"Mmmm." Brian half-closed his eyes in appreciation. "My sole regret is that I wasn't there to watch."
Taylor smirked. "Well, I can tell you that from my point of view it was pretty damn satisfying."
"Yes, yes, we owe Panacea and Glory Girl a fruit basket," Lisa said impatiently. "You did not go up on the roof to discuss the fate of Shadow Stalker. What did you really go up there to talk about?"
That was a question requiring serious consideration. Lisa and the others had accepted her into the Undersiders—well, after the initial problem with Rachel—and they were the closest friends she had. Apart from Amy, they were the only friends she had. They already knew her deepest secret—that she had powers—and Lisa probably knew more about her than she knew about herself, by now.
Who could she trust, if she couldn't trust them? What should I tell them? Nothing? Everything?
Adding to her problems with holding back, if she said anything at all Lisa was likely to figure out what she wasn't saying. "Uh … Michael also said they had to go after Saint and bring him in." She searched her brain for other innocent bits of information.
"Interesting, but doesn't really impact us." Lisa shook her head. "Did he say why one particular villain had to go down?"
Taylor hesitated. "He mentioned something about Dragon, but didn't give all the details. It was like him and Alexandria knew more than they were saying."
"Well, duh," supplied Alec, without even looking up from his game. "Everyone knows Saint and the Dragonslayers have a hard-on for stealing Dragon's suits. It's right there in the name. From what I've seen of this Michael guy, he's a real white knight. Figures he'd try and help Dragon out." There was a faint sneer in his voice, which Taylor decided to ignore.
"I guess," she agreed. "Also, they'll be leaving us alone for the time being. Oh, and Legend straight-up offered me a place in the Wards."
"But you said no." Lisa's tone indicated that it wasn't a random shot in the dark.
Taylor nodded. "I'd probably have to leave the Bay, and Dad, and I don't want to do that." She didn't want to think about how tempted she'd been to accept anyway.
"Still, that doesn't exactly merit a mysterious rooftop meeting," Brian pointed out. "Unless Alexandria didn't want to be seen being told what to do by Panacea, I mean."
Taylor took a deep breath. "Well, they did talk about other stuff, like the Canary trial, but you've already seen how that turned out."
Lisa raised her eyes to the ceiling. "I fucking knew there was something going on with that!" she proclaimed. "I knew it. Holy fuck." She gave Taylor a penetrating stare. "Is there anything else you can tell us? Anything at all? Because we both know there's more."
"One thing more, and that's it," Taylor stated. "Nothing else." She was acutely aware that Michael had said she was cleared for this sort of thing, and she was humbled by the trust held in her by a stranger she'd never even really met.
By now she had the full attention of both Lisa and Brian, and even Alec seemed to be paying her some heed in between blowing away his electronic enemies. Lisa nodded impatiently. "Okay, what is it?"
Taylor took another deep breath. "You know how you told me that this was all a big game of cops and robbers that one time, and about stuff like the unwritten rules?" She paused until Lisa nodded. "Well, up at the higher levels, like Triumvirate high, it's more like the Wild West. If they want something done, it happens and fuck the actual law. That judge was going to sentence Canary to the Birdcage, even though she hadn't broken the law badly enough to go there, because some people in high positions decided she needed to be put away permanently. It's as simple as that."
Silence reigned in the room after she finished speaking, broken only by the electronic noises from the speakers. Lisa and Brian stared at each other, then back at Taylor.
"Well … fuck." Brian spoke first. "So … if we'd ever really pissed off the powers that be, we could honestly be Birdcaged, no three strikes, no nothing?"
"Actually, talking about the Birdcage," Alec noted. "I saw online this morning that there was an accident in there, and Teacher got killed. Was that actually an accident, or was it what you're talking about?"
Taylor didn't say a word. She tried to keep her expression still, but from the look in Lisa's eyes she failed badly.
"Fuuuuuck," whispered the blonde. "They can get into the Birdcage and kill someone, and make it look like an accident?"
Taylor shrugged awkwardly; the cat was already out of the bag, after all. "Michael seemed to think so. But he might've been bullshitting. I honestly don't know. Can we … can we not talk about this? To anyone? Ever?"
"Well, yeah," Brian said, nodding firmly. "This is the sort of thing that would get people thrown into the Birdcage just for knowing it. I don't know about you guys, but I don't want to know any more about any of this. Okay?"
"Yeah, no shit," Alec retorted. "I'm happy not giving the PRT any reason to kick our door in at oh-dark-thirty and send us on a one-way trip into that fucking hellhole."
"That's two of us." Brian eyed Lisa grimly. "I haven't heard you say yes yet."
"But there's other stuff, I just know it." There was almost a whine in Lisa's voice. "I hate it when people know stuff I don't. You know that."
"Well, I'm not telling you anything else." Taylor tried not to feel heartless. "Michael's trusting me not to spill the beans, and I think I might've said too much already."
"I'll be your bestest best friend," Lisa promised.
"You already are." Taylor watched in bemusement as Lisa gave her best impression of puppy-dog eyes. She wasn't all that good at it. "No. Nothing more."
"You're no fun," Lisa said grumpily. "Real best friends would share everything."
Taylor leaned back on the sofa. "Real best friends would keep their friends out of the Birdcage."
The Next Day
Rebecca hovered alone over the highway, a few miles south of the town that she knew the Nine were currently ravaging. She'd thought about bringing in backup, but she didn't need anyone getting in her way. Legend had his Wards bullying investigation to deal with, and she wanted Eidolon on top of his game before he came back out into the field. Besides, the only capes in the Nine that were actually impervious to damage were Siberian and Crawler, and she had strategies in mind for both of them.
So, it was down to her.
I'm Alexandria. I got this.
She mimed cracking her knuckles—that hadn't worked since she got her powers, but she did it anyway—and cleared her throat.
"Doorway to William Manton."
Manton was a genius, even by her standards. Before his breakdown and defection, he'd been the leading authority on powers and how they worked, no doubt assisted by his access to Cauldron and the power vials. But genius occasionally bordered on madness; too often, one fed from the other. She had known about the connection between her one-time colleague (they'd never really been friends) and the tiger-striped horror that had taken Hero's life and her own eye all in the span of the same minute, but she'd allowed the others to dissuade her from going after him, and them.
It had always been that little bit more expedient to leave them alone, let them keep causing trigger events, creating more capes. Well, no more. The Nine were going down, and Manton was first in line.
At one time, he'd been a valued member of Cauldron. Now, he was one of humanity's worst foes. She didn't really want to kill him, but …
… well, actually, she did. Her eyesocket still twinged when it rained, and Hero had been her friend. And even if she hadn't wanted a measure of revenge, she'd done many things she didn't want to do over the last twenty-some years. One more would not be a great ordeal for her.
"Screw you," she muttered, stepping through in front of the off-white van, parked inoffensively on what would've been a quiet small-town street before the Nine passed through. Now, it was the only undamaged vehicle that she could see. In the driver's seat was William Manton; older, much skinnier, rather more unkempt, but still the man she'd once known and worked alongside.
Their eyes met. His widened. Hers narrowed. In the reflection of light from the unwashed windshield, she saw movement; a tiger-striped form, directly behind her.
Moving as fast as she ever had, she lashed forward and crushed the front of the van inward before bursting through into the interior. The windshield, unable to shatter out of the way fast enough, exploded into diamond smoke. She felt a tug on her cape, just as her right hand tore the steering column out of the way and her left found William Manton's yielding flesh.
Clawed fingertips sliced the skin of her back but it was too late; her bladed hand slashed into Manton's chest cavity, then angled upward to split his skull in half, splattering the brain within to the four winds. She came to rest embedded six feet farther back into the van, her right side entirely covered in body parts and dripping with gore, amid chunks of seat cushion and bits of dashboard.
William Manton was dead. Few people in the history of the world were more comprehensively dead than he was right then. Nothing significant above the neck had been left intact, and a good deal of what was below the neck would require the services of both an expert mortician and a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast to piece together.
Of the Siberian, there was no sign; that was both a huge relief and no real surprise. She turned her head to look over her shoulder, and found that part of her cape and the costume beneath had been torn away. But she wasn't worried about that so much as any injuries she may have taken. When she got her right hand around and feeling the area, she found four shallow grazes on her left shoulder-blade, tender to the touch. They were oozing blood, which she'd kind of expected. That had been far too close. If she'd been a split second too slow, she would've died with the Siberian's fist through her heart.
Still, she was alive and the Siberian was dead. Hero was avenged at last. Ignoring the bits and pieces from her old enemy peeling off her, she vaulted skyward. The Nine were now on notice and the clock was ticking.
She drew a deep breath; once, twice. Now to murder Jack Slash. "Doorway to Jack Slash."
The doorway appeared but before she could even step through, it was filled with multicoloured glass; glass that an instant later grew needle-pointed spikes. Glass was something she could handle. It wasn't like Shatterbird could make it harder than steel, after all. She punched through it, achieving full flight in an instant, spikes splintering off on her skin.
It didn't worry her in the least that she'd have to replace her costume after this. There were five identical ones (and two helmets) waiting in the closet back home. Razor shards shredded her gloves and cape, but she was through. Unfortunately, the cloud of shattered glass had followed her, making it impossible to see where Jack Slash had gotten to.
In the next instant, it closed with her. Shatterbird had clearly seen who she was dealing with, and wasn't trying to cut her to ribbons anymore. What she was doing was worse; specifically, trying to coat every square inch of her skin. Sliding the glass over her as if it were alive, heading for her face. Her eyes, her mouth, her nostrils. Trying to suffocate her, or maybe lobotomise her with a spike of glass up under her eyelid.
Rebecca didn't know for a fact if her brain was proof against that, and she didn't want to find out.
She realised that she was in a bad position an instant before the glass tentacles started trying to worm their way up her nostrils. Instead of following her normal instinct of standing firm and brute-forcing her way through the opposition, she recalled Michael's advice: don't get overconfident.
It was almost too late when she activated her flight power; she was closed in on all sides, the glass forming an airtight capsule. Her body felt heavy, weak. But she pushed, and blasted free of the multiple shells of glass that had been forming around her body. Supersonic flight came to her within seconds, and she rocketed away from the impromptu ambush.
Three states away, she finally felt safe enough to stop, shedding shards of glass. Grimacing, she worked the pieces from her nostrils with the realisation that if she'd delayed another second, the other members of the Nine would've dogpiled her.
No; just Hatchet Face. With my powers nullified, I would've been dead.
The Nine would've claimed another victim because she hadn't listened.
I could've died, just now.
Going for Jack Slash directly was clearly a mistake. She had to isolate him, remove his powerbase, take away everything that he could use as a force multiplier.
Okay, let's do this differently. The Siberian is out of the picture, but she's not the only dangerous one, even to me.
She started back over the distance she'd covered in her headlong flight. The Nine would be packing up and leaving now, of course, but that was not a problem. She could always find them again. Then she paused as a small lake glimmered in the sunlight. Actually, while I'm at it …
Smiling, she flew down toward the expanse of water. It looked deep enough for her purposes, so she hovered just off the surface and murmured, "Doorway to Burnscar."
The doorway formed, as she'd hoped, just underwater. Beyond, she saw the unsuspecting form of the Nine's pyrokinetic. Lunging through, she grabbed the startled teen and pulled her back through the doorway, submerging her in the lake. Burnscar flailed as the doorway vanished, trying to form flame underwater, but all that showed up was copious amounts of steam. Rebecca put her in a sleeper hold while keeping her own head above water. Flight was such an asset at times like this. Within twenty seconds, Burnscar was slumped in her arms.
"Doorway to Holding Cell Three, PRT One," she ordered. The doorway formed, leading to the cell she'd had fitted out for Burnscar in her home city of Los Angeles. Among other things, the cell had a large number of containment foam sprayers. She lifted Burnscar out of the water and tossed her through into the cell; as she'd half-suspected, the teen had been playing possum. Even as Burnscar landed and rolled to her feet, she was trying to bring up fire to escape. The last thing Rebecca saw before the doorway closed was yellowish foam hitting the girl from all directions at once.
No doubt Bonesaw modified her so she could hold her breath longer or something. If I'd just dropped her on the bank, she would've teleported away as soon as she got the chance.
Well, that was two down. The rest of the Nine would be distinctly paranoid by now, none more so than Jack Slash himself. Good. Let them be paranoid.
She Doorwayed back to her home, took the time to shower off the pond scum, and changed out her costume for a new one. While she was at it, she put a dressing over the shallow wounds in her back. No sense in getting blood on her costume, after all.
"Doorway, Mojave Desert."
The remaining water in her hair began to evaporate as soon as she stepped through into the baking heat. She ignored it, looking around for a reasonably sized boulder. One that was half the size of a car looked about right. Hefting it, she Doorwayed to a spot ten thousand feet above Jack Slash's current location.
While she thought about her next move, she also considered what had happened with Shatterbird. The villain's reactions had been fast; too fast. Rebecca hadn't even had the chance to step through before Shatterbird had gone on the attack. Rebecca's own reactions were faster than normal human by a factor of two or more, but even she required time to assess and assimilate new stimuli.
Either they're really, really well trained, which I can't see happening with personalities like that, or something else is happening. It's like I punched a beehive and all the warriors reacted without thought, swarming me within seconds.
It was a problem. She couldn't depend on them being too slow to react …
… as Burnscar had been.
She didn't teleport away before I doorwayed in. I took her by surprise. What changed between one instance and the next?
Carefully, in her own head, she reconstructed both attacks, step by step. As an afterthought, she threw in the one on Manton as well.
Manton only reacted after I showed up. Shatterbird was on me before I stepped through. Burnscar didn't have time to react. What made the second attack different?
It took her a few seconds to figure it out.
I was targeting Jack Slash.
His power isn't just knives.
He detects ill intent from capes, and can control members of the Nine to defend himself from attack.
She wanted to facepalm, but holding the rock required both hands. No fucking wonder he's survived for so long!
When I speak to Michael next, I'm going to have words with him for not filling me in on that little detail.
Then again, he did warn me to be careful. I suppose I can't complain too much.
With a sigh, she took a fresh grip on the boulder and let herself drop.
Ten thousand feet might seem like a long way, and vertically it is. Horizontally, it's a little under two miles. When one is accelerating vertically downward, it is a very short distance indeed.
The only moving object below was a large motorhome, slowly pulling out of the town. Rebecca took careful aim at the front of the vehicle, directly over where the driver's seat would be. The rock would crush whoever was driving—Slash himself, Mannequin, Shatterbird, Hatchet Face—like a melon. They'd never see it coming. One more member of the Nine would be down.
And then, with a regretful sigh, she pulled up out of the dive. Certainly, she could bomb the RV like a bolt from the blue, but there existed the very thin chance that it wasn't actually the Nine in the vehicle; or worse, that they'd forced someone to drive for them. While the PRT and Protectorate decried the term 'acceptable casualties', she'd been forced to accept such a thing more than once in her career. When it wasn't absolutely necessary, she avoided it at all costs.
But that didn't mean she couldn't check.
Still holding the rock, she swooped down ahead of the ungainly motorhome and turned to look in through the windshield.
Two things happened in that moment; one, she recognised Jack Slash behind the wheel. The second thing was that Slash slammed on the brakes and leaped out of the driver's seat. Before she was able to fly closer, he disappeared into the dimness of the motorhome's interior. A second later, the windshield turned opaque. A glass shell began to grow over everything.
That man is very irritating.
She began to reconsider the agreement she'd made to try to capture Shatterbird and Bonesaw alive. With nobody at the wheel, the RV was going nowhere. She could pummel it flat without ever coming within Hatchet Face's range, then deal with Crawler after everyone else was dead. It was definitely a win/win situation for her.
"Attention, Alexandria. Can you hear me? Wave if you can."
Rebecca called up the memory of a recording of Jack Slash's voice she'd listened to once and compared it to what she was hearing over the speakers that someone had installed in the motorhome. It was a near-perfect match.
Setting the rock down on the roadway, she waved once, then folded her arms. Whatever he was trying, he wouldn't get away this time. She could afford to listen to him, then kill him afterward.
"Oh, good. I didn't know if this was working. So, here's the deal. My little poppet—that's Bonesaw, if you were wondering—has created a great many interesting diseases in her time. If you kill either her or me, those get released. They are airborne, incredibly virulent and impressively deadly. She assures me that you're probably immune, but the survivors back in that town behind us? They aren't. Neither is anyone downwind of us. Also, unless you take that rock and fly away right now, she's going to release one in thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven …"
Rebecca had never met the man, but she already disliked him intensely. His attitude showed through his voice; arrogant, a man who rarely lost (and cheated anyway when it looked like he was about to) and never had to deal with someone telling him 'no'.
Normally, when dealing with people like that, she thoroughly enjoyed using her superior intellect to dismantle their worldview before she used her fists to dismantle them. But this wasn't one of those times. This was a time for discretion. Which she was quite capable of, even if she tended to leave that to her Chief Director persona in order to keep the two separate in the public mind.
Ducking her head, she waved an assent, then picked up the rock once more. In seconds, she was thousands of feet in the air, as she'd been ordered. But that wasn't where she wanted or needed to be.
They'll be watching me every foot of the way.
Well, let them.
Accelerating her flight, she headed over the horizon until she knew she was out of sight from the RV. Then she began to look over the rock she held. Over her career, she'd had the chance to study up on virtually every scientific field until she had at least a passing knowledge of the subject; such was the benefit of a genius-level intellect coupled with an eidetic memory. Right now, she was interested in geology. Specifically, the makeup of the rock she was still holding.
Crumbling a little of it in her fingers let her determine its overall hardness; not too bad, she figured. It seemed to be a fairly tough sandstone mix with a definite structure, as opposed to being relatively amorphous in nature. While it wasn't utterly ideal for her purposes, it should definitely be good enough.
Setting down on the ground, she turned the boulder over until she found the correct angle, then she struck it precisely with the edge of her hand. With a loud crack, the boulder separated into two pieces. She let the smaller one fall and struck the larger one at an angle to the first cut, ending up with a wedge-shaped chunk of sandstone.
Picking this up, she settled her grip on it until the leading edge of the chunk projected ahead of her like the prow of an icebreaker. "Doorway to behind the Slaughterhouse Nine motorhome."
The doorway opened, and she was in flight an instant later. The RV was rolling along the highway at a sedate speed—nothing to see here, officer—and she was above and behind it. If it had anything resembling a blind spot, she was there.
She was also travelling at several hundred miles per hour when her improvised chisel peeled open the top of the motorhome from back to front. Glass shattered in every direction, and metal parted with a shriek that should by rights have deafened everyone within. Just for a moment, she felt her powers falter, but then her inertia carried her past Hatchet Face's power bubble—there was a reason she'd brought a large, heavy rock along—and she was in control again.
Swooping up and around, she broke off a chunk of stone the size of her head—the rock had been badly fractured by the impact with the bus anyway—and hurled it very hard indeed. Jack Slash was out of sight—the man's ability to avoid trouble was certainly more than human—but Hatchet Face was not, and a supersonic chunk of sandstone took most of his skull with it out through the side of the bus.
Glass began forming a shield over the hole, but Rebecca had already marked Shatterbird's position. The silicakinetic had already come close to killing her once before, and she wasn't in a mood to take any more shit from members of the Nine. Besides, there was still Bonesaw's disease threat to deal with.
Another chunk of rock flew straight and true, shattering through the glass as though it wasn't there. A moment later, the remaining glass fell apart into shards, revealing Shatterbird looking mutely down at the hole that had been punched straight through her torso. Rebecca wasn't sure what modifications Bonesaw could've made on the woman, but she was reasonably certain that having her heart and one lung go missing would prove eventually fatal.
That left Mannequin, Crawler, Bonesaw and Slash himself. As she'd seen for herself, Jack Slash could anticipate her moves so long as they were aimed at him personally. Moreover, he could guide and direct the powers of his subordinates to protect him from said attacks. That would probably extend to using them as meat-shields; from what she knew of the man, he thought of himself first, last and always.
So she didn't even start looking for him. Not yet, anyway.
Dropping the rest of the stone wedge, she swooped in and grabbed Bonesaw by the arm, hefting her up and out of the bus. "Hey!" yelled the kid. "That's rude! I'm not supposed to go with strangers!"
Rebecca ignored her comment. ""Doorway to Holding Cell One, PRT One." Holding Cell Two had been set aside for Shatterbird. It would sit empty now.
Suddenly, the weight on the arm lessened dramatically, and Rebecca looked around. Somehow, Bonesaw had disconnected her entire arm from her body, like a lizard shedding its tail, and was now falling toward the ground. That Bonesaw would survive the fall, Rebecca had no doubt, but then she'd have to hunt the preteen mass murderer down in an area where the kid could grab literally anything and use her Tinker ability to turn it into a biohazard.
"Oh, no, you fucking don't," she growled, tossing the discarded arm accurately (because her aim was always accurate) over her shoulder into the open doorway and diving down to catch the little shit.
It was close, very close indeed. If Rebecca had chosen to hover ten feet lower, Bonesaw would have had the chance to roll down a cutbank into a shaded gully. But she caught the kid by the back of the neck when Bonesaw was still five feet off the ground. Suppressing the impulse to accidentally-on-purpose snap the little smartass's neck, she hurled Bonesaw up and into the doorway. Once again, she was sure Bonesaw would survive the landing; beyond that, she didn't care. The doorway closed again, cutting off the kid's wail of protest.
And then there were three.
By the time she turned her attention back to the motorhome, it was roaring off down the highway. "You're not getting away that easily," she murmured.
It had been a long time since any parahumans—together or individually—had given her this much trouble (Endbringers excluded, for obvious reasons). For the most part, they were either Brutes that needed to be worn down (which she had no problem doing) or one-hit wonders. Her experiences with Bakuda and then Shatterbird had come the closest to killing her in a very long time, and she didn't appreciate the reminder of her own mortality.
But that was fine. Hatchet Face and Shatterbird were dead, two of the three members she'd been looking for were alive, and everyone else in the Nine was considered extremely acceptable collateral damage.
Particularly Jack Slash.
Especially Jack Slash.
She powered after the motorhome, flying low and fast. As she came up level with it, she had to wonder why they thought they could possibly outrun her in something that ran on wheels with a diesel engine. They have to be smarter than that, surely.
When she flew over the gaping hole in the roof and saw just two bodies—those of Hatchet Face and Shatterbird respectively—and nobody behind the wheel, she revised her opinion of their actions. Decoy, damn it. And I fell for it, hook, line and—
The RV exploded.
It wasn't a big explosion, as explosions go, but she was engulfed in flame, thrown around a little, and pelted with shrapnel both large and small. Anyone less insanely durable than her would certainly have suffered injuries, possibly even been killed. And if she hadn't seen inside the motorhome before the explosion, she would've had to consider the strong possibility that they'd been immolated. Except, of course, for Crawler. Nothing so mediocre would even serve to scratch that horror's pitch-black carapace.
Putting out the part of her cape that was on fire, and making a mental note to order some more in, she turned and began to fly back toward where the RV had started from, then paused.
Crawler wasn't in the explosion. Nobody would believe that he'd been killed in it.
Jack Slash is undoubtedly durable, but even Bonesaw's work would be challenged by a detonation that powerful.
But what about Mannequin?
Rebecca remembered Alan Gramme. She remembered Sphere. She'd known him in his prime, before the Simurgh had taken his family and his sanity. A softly-spoken man, he'd nonetheless been insistent in his belief that given the right engineering, habitats could be created to allow people to survive any hostile environment.
Any at all.
Including, perhaps, the flashpoint of an explosion?
"Doorway to Mannequin," she murmured.
When the doorway opened, flames leaped outward at her from the chassis of the still-burning motorhome. Directly before her was a sheet of metal; ignoring the flames, she wrenched it away. Beyond it, folded up into a hidden compartment in the RV chassis that no adult human could fit into without a severe rearrangement of his body shape, was a gleaming white carapace. She didn't need the eyeless face that turned toward her to connect the dots.
"I'm sorry, Alan," she said softly. "You didn't deserve what happened to you. But your victims didn't deserve it either."
Raising her arm, she brought it down like an axe, tearing through metal and flesh alike. Mannequin barely had time to react before his internal organs were pulped and his reinforced braincase was shattered.
She did her best to make it quick. Once she was done, she left him to his funeral pyre.
Just two members of the Nine remained; by many standards, the most dangerous. She had no doubt they were travelling together; it would be entirely unlike Jack Slash to walk away from his last surviving meatshield. An unkillable one, at that. With Jack coordinating their actions, she suspected that laying her hands on the leader of the Slaughterhouse Nine was going to be tricky at the very best.
Of course, she could always cheat.
"Doorway to Crawler," she said.
When the doorway opened, she was looking right at the immense 'face' of the misshapen cape as he moved toward her. Far from lumbering clumsily, Crawler moved with grace and fluidity, avoiding running into tree trunks or doing anything else that might give him away from the air. But he wasn't the one Rebecca was looking for.
Just as she caught a glimpse of Jack Slash, he ducked down out of sight behind Crawler's car-sized head. At the same time, Crawler reared up and charged forward. "FIGHT ME!" he bellowed from multiple mouths at the same time. "HURT ME!"
She had to remind herself that this wasn't Crawler being stupid (though this was apparently how he reacted to capes he met with new powers). It was Jack Slash's power that held his reins and whispered in his ear, driving him forward. He was literally being used to run interference while the leader of the Nine made his escape.
For a moment, she was tempted to take Crawler up on his challenge. She'd never met a Brute that she couldn't pummel into submission (Siberian didn't count, being a projection) but Crawler reportedly got tougher and stronger with every injury. There were very few people on the planet who could deliver more kinetic energy per punch than her, so the question was: could she hit him with more force than he could regenerate back from?
It wasn't an idle question, either; entire threads on PHO had been moderated to a fare-thee-well after proponents of both sides of the argument had gone back and forth on it for literally days at a time.
Well, this is as good a time as any to find out one way or the other.
Clenching her fists in readiness, she flew through the doorway which closed soundlessly behind her. She was going to … wait a minute!
Just before Crawler reached her, she flew upward, out of range of even his acidic saliva. I'm being a fool, she berated herself. I thought that I was immune to Jack Slash's influence. He can't control me like he can the Nine, but each time I've had the chance to go for him, I've been distracted onto another member. And now he'd have me trade ineffectual blows with his monster while he fades into the background. Hijacks a car and takes hostages, and starts this all over again.
Not this time, Jack.
Still, she couldn't let Crawler wander unattended. He deserved to die just as much as the rest of the Nine. Flying down on top of him, she wedged her fingers under a particularly thick plate of armour and lifted off. He struggled, of course, and bellowed imprecations, but she didn't answer and she didn't let go.
It only took them about fifteen seconds to reach the edge of space. Rebecca still had most of a lungful of air, and she didn't care about Crawler's air supply. At least she couldn't hear him anymore.
Flipping him up, she caught two of his sturdier legs and began to spin on the spot, whirling him around and around, faster and faster, with her as the pivot point. When she judged that his legs were close to separating from the rest of his body, she took final aim and released him. The last she saw of Crawler before the sky swallowed his pitch-black body was a brief glimpse of him, still spinning like a monstrous Frisbee, on his way toward the sun. Whether he'd survive to reach it, she didn't care. Just so long as he didn't come back.
Ten seconds later, she was back in breathable atmosphere, taking in lungfuls of sweet oxygen as she swooped toward the last spot she'd seen Jack Slash. As soon as she had her breath back, she decided to stop wasting time. "Doorway to Jack Slash."
He didn't even have the grace to look surprised as the portal opened in front of him. Of course, he was backing away, and of course he had a knife in his hand, but neither one of those things mattered in the slightest to her.
"Perhaps we can talk about this?" he asked cheerfully, as though he had no idea what she had planned for him. "I mean, after all, you and I are not so different. You kill the people you think deserve to die, and I kill the ones I think deserve to die."
She glowered at him. "That may be so. Unfortunately for you, you are one of the people I've decided needs to die." Her steps forward were steady and menacing.
He backed up without quite giving the impression of retreating. The undergrowth through which he was moving didn't impede his steps, but there were low-hanging bunches of leaves from time to time.
"We don't have to be so hasty, you know." He smiled disarmingly. "Why don't we sit down in your office and discuss potential arrangements? I'm sure there are people the Chief Director of the PRT would much rather see disappear altogether. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I'm quite good at dealing with irritating capes."
That caused a flush of adrenaline through her body. The insinuation was plain; he knew who she was. Had he deduced it? Had his power given him the information? Or had the Number Man filled him in on Cauldron's doings?
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the PRT's hiring policies," she said curtly. "And you certainly wouldn't fit anywhere in them." She increased her forward pace slightly, but he'd already sped up his retreat that little bit extra, so she got no closer.
This is stupid. Why am I letting him banter with me? I should just fly at him. End him now.
"Well, that's a pity." He waved his knife negligently, cutting loose a shower of leaves that fluttered down around her face and blocked her view of him.
She waved them aside and lunged forward …
… to find herself standing on the edge of a precipice.
There was nothing to the left, and nothing to the right. Hovering over the abyss and looking downward revealed no bodies on the rocks far below, or even clinging to the cliff. To double-check, she flew down to have a look. There was no sign of him.
A shallow stream tumbled along through the rocks at the base of the cliff, but she estimated its maximum depth at about three feet. Anyone diving from the top of the cliff would splatter themselves on the rocky bed of the stream, Bonesaw enhancements or no Bonesaw enhancements.
"So where is he?" she asked out loud, perplexed. He was tricky and slippery, there was no disputing that. But … there was a limit.
"Fine," she muttered. "Doorway to Jack Slash."
To her total and utter astonishment, the doorway that opened did so into Times Square, New York. How did he get there from here? Nothing in his profile indicated a Mover ability of any sort. When she stepped through, he was just far enough away that she couldn't get to him instantly without injuring people. Moreover, he still had his knife out. It was low down and partly concealed, but it was there. The glint in his eye told her that if she made a move, dozens of people would be injured or dead before she could get to him.
I hate hostage situations.
Nonetheless, she had to play along and wait for an opening to exploit. "How did you do that?" she asked out loud.
"To be honest, I didn't know I could until I tried," he said, stepping around people as she advanced toward him. There were no hanging leaves here, so he couldn't pull that trick twice. "But I heard you say it, and so it was worth a try. Call it my Hail Mary pass." He smiled brilliantly and gestured with the hand not holding the knife. "Voila."
Doorway. He heard me say 'doorway', and … hijacked the process? Can he even do that?
Under her breath, she murmured, "Rescind Jack Slash Doorway privileges." That should settle that.
"Now, was that polite?" Somehow, he'd known what she just did. Was he a mind reader of some sort, or just a lip reader? "Rescind Alexandria Doorway privileges. Doorway, Los Angeles."
And a doorway opened. He stepped through while her mind was still reeling; the doorway closed behind him. This should not be happening! "Doorway to Jack Slash."
Nothing happened. No doorway opened. She lofted into the air, took a deep breath. "Reinstate Alexandria Doorway privileges. Doorway to Jack Slash!"
A doorway opened in front of her. Oh, good. That was easy enough. Jack Slash winked at her through it, then the doorway closed again. What the fuck?
No, seriously, what the unmitigated living fuck?
"Doorway to Cauldron." Nothing happened. "Reinstate Alexandria Doorway privileges. Doorway to Cauldron." A doorway opened into the sterile white space. It hung there in the air while she considered it. She'd never tried closing a doorway while someone was in transit, but she suspected that even she would suffer ill effects from being cut in half. Making an executive decision, she grabbed her cape and pulled it off, then tossed the bundled-up cloth through. It flumphed to the floor of the corridor, unharmed.
Taking a deep breath, she crossed the threshold at just under the speed of sound. Doctor Mother had sworn dire retribution if she ever caused a sonic boom inside the base again, never mind that she was perfectly capable of turning the corners at Mach three. Moving at seven hundred miles per hour meant that she was exposed to harm for less than two one-thousandths of a second, and still didn't breach the prohibition.
Unharmed, she stood inside Cauldron base. Okay, what do I do now? Get Contessa in on this? No, he'll see her coming, just as he did with me. Get a normal in on this? He'll cut them to ribbons. Besides, who would I get? The only non-powered member of Cauldron was Doctor Mother, and she was not exactly combat trained.
Then she knew exactly what she had to do, and her lips curved into a cruel smile. I bet he doesn't know what I've had to deal with recently. "Doorway …"
Jacob wandered through downtown Miami, keeping to the crowds. He kept the knife low and hidden next to his arm and if anyone looked twice at him, he gave them a disarming smile and a nod. It was amazing what people would accept if you weren't actively trying to butcher them at the time.
Discovering the 'doorway' trick was perhaps the greatest coup of his life. Even better, he didn't have to say the words out loud like Alexandria had been doing; merely to think them, to want them, made it happen. Doorway to Seattle, and he stepped through the inviting portal. Clear across the continental United States in a single bound. "One small step for a supervillain, one giant leap for supervillainy," he murmured.
A portal tried to open near to him; somehow, he knew that the person on the other side was an enemy. He shut it down with a thought, and ducked in among the crowds. They might get me, but they're going to have to kill their precious innocents to do it. The thought amused him greatly.
"Stop right there." It was Alexandria, hovering over the crowd, pointing at him. "Jack Slash, you're under arrest for multiple counts of—"
He tuned her out. The people around him were starting to realise there was a monster in their midst, and moving aside. This would require two portals; one to redirect Alexandria to the Arctic, and one to escape by while she pulled herself out of the snowdrifts.
Someone touched him at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and everything went out of focus. He couldn't focus, his thoughts reduced to so much formless mush. As the portal commands dissolved from his mind's tongue, his joints gave way and he slumped to the grimy concrete. Rolling limply onto his back, he looked up to see …
And then everything came to an end.
Rebecca picked up Jack Slash by the collar of his dress shirt. "Well done," she said.
Panacea visibly shook herself, then glared at Rebecca. "Just for the record, I hate doing that. Don't ask me to do it again."
"You brought down Jack Slash," Rebecca said reasonably. "Isn't that a worthy cause?"
"And it's the only reason I agreed to the plan," the teenager spat. "You try getting used as a hand puppet at short notice and see how you like it."
"You were the one who insisted that he had to go down." Personally, Rebecca thought the girl was making a mountain out of a molehill.
"He was the one who insisted on that." Panacea gritted her teeth. "Can I go now?"
"Certainly." Rebecca gestured magnanimously. "Be my guest. You have doorway privileges now."
"Good. Doorway, Arcadia High." The portal opened flawlessly before Panacea. She stepped through. It closed again.
Teenagers. Rebecca shook her head. She would never understand them.
Taking a fresh grip on Jack Slash, she flew straight up. At about ten thousand feet, she shifted her grip to the back of his neck and squeezed.
Jack Slash, leader of the Slaughterhouse Nine, was dead.
End of Part Twenty-Five