War Games


Part Eleven: Playing with Fire


[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Taylor


I took a deep breath, then gave Geneva a nod and a smile to show her the conversation had gone well. My short talk with Dad had done more than help calm me down and centre my thoughts; it had also given me welcome information. He'd been with the Mayor, which meant that not only was he okay but the Dockworkers were probably going to get a share of the repairs to the city. While I wasn't okay with the damage that had been done to Brockton Bay, this was still good news.

"Okay, I'm ready to call Lisa now," I said. I didn't bother using her cape name; if anyone had suggested to me that anyone of Sean, Geneva or Dragon didn't know more about Lisa's background and life than I did, I would've laughed in their faces. And it wasn't as though Reynaud was about to go around spreading that information far and wide.

"Putting you through now, Taylor lass," Sean replied immediately.

The phone on the other end rang three times before it was answered. "Hello, Taylor." Lisa's voice was a little on the quiet side; coupled with the delay, this told me that she'd probably ducked into her bedroom to take the call. "I'm going to take a wild guess and say that you're not contacting me to rejoin the Undersiders."

"You can assume that, yes." I still had trouble believing none of the others cared about Dinah's well-being; or rather, that they cared more about their bottom line than about a kidnapped and forcibly drug-addicted twelve-year-old.

I hadn't said it harshly—at least, I thought I hadn't—but Lisa still drew in air through her teeth. "Okay, you can sheathe those claws now, sister. We've walked away from Coil, at least until the new threat's gone. You do know about the new threat, right?"

"I know about it, yes." Even though I knew it would do no good, I tried to be as uninformative as possible with those five words.

"Fuck, you knew about it before I did." Yup, Lisa was on form today. And of course, she didn't stop there. "You got told about it ahead of everyone else, because you're on that ship, aren't you?"

"That's ridiculous," I replied, knowing full-well she wouldn't believe a word, but I had to try anyway. "How could I be on the ship? I've just heard about the other thing, that's all."

"Come on, Taylor," she tried to wheedle me. Guess what; I was beyond being wheedled. "What's it like on there? Can that fish guy really breathe water? Is it like Star Trek or Star Wars? Do you know any details about the new threat, at least?"

I took a deep breath, as Sean popped a hologram up in the middle of the room. Ask her about the call she got. Oh, yeah. Good point. "Lisa, shut up and listen," I said. "You got contacted by a member of the crew. We need to know your answer."

She didn't answer for a few seconds. This wasn't because she was offended at my tone; if she was that much of a precious snowflake, she'd never have made it as a supervillain. It was because she was thinking hard about specifically what to tell me. Which meant that one of the others had made it complicated. My guess was either Alec or Rachel didn't want to go along with what the rest had decided.

Eventually, she came back on the line. "Is this call secure?"

"A bit late to be asking that question, isn't it?" Unlike her question, mine was rhetorical. The words had disappeared from the hologram display, to be replaced by a small dragon with a pair of spectacles perched on its nose, typing busily on a keyboard. It paused in its activity to give me a clawed thumb's up, then kept typing.

"Which means yes." She let out a sigh. It sounded to be partly from relief and partly from released tension. "I'd ask who's providing security, but you aren't about to give me that information. And that's totally fair. Okay, then. We're willing to help out."

"Good. We'll be sending you a packet of data on the crew of the incoming ship, but I can also give you the highlights. The ship's name is the Gambler's Ruin. It's not as well-armed or armoured as the Bond James Bond, though it's got the advantage of not having just come out of a fight against Leviathan. The captain's name is Kramer. He apparently fancies himself a dashing rogue, but he's got all of Coil's bad habits with none of his good traits. His crew is nasty as well, with more than a few Brute-rated people in there. Now for the bad news."

"Wait, that wasn't the bad news?"

"No, that was just the business-as-normal situation. Are you sitting down?"

There was a pause, and I heard the creak of bedsprings. "I am now."

"They just loaded the Simurgh into their hold. And she let them."

Her voice was somewhere between a whimper and a whisper as she replied. "Fuuuuuuuuck."

I knew exactly how she felt. "So yeah, we've got a bunch of people in possession of future tech who were already inclined to shoot people and take their shit, and they're all Simurgh bombs. Any insights you can offer would be greatly appreciated."

"I'm going to need more data before I can start giving you answers, but I'll keep that in mind. In the meantime, what do you need us to do?"

"Oh … ahh …" I hadn't thought ahead beyond ascertaining the loyalties of my old team, but I knew where my priorities lay. Fortunately, they ran right alongside what Geneva and the others wanted. "Coil is likely to be a problem. He's going to absolutely want access to whatever advantages an alliance with Kramer and his crew will give him, so if they offer a partnership, he'll take it. And you know what'll happen then."

From the speed with which Lisa answered, she barely had to tap into her power at all. "Both sides will double-cross the other at the first hint that it'll be worthwhile to do so."

"However, Kramer won't know about Coil's advantages." I took a deep breath. "We need to minimize those. We're not on Kramer's side in this, but it'll be easier to smack him down if he scores off Coil than the other way around."

"Fuck." From the nasal tone of her voice, Lisa had just facepalmed when she realised what I wanted. "You're saying we have to take Dinah away from Coil."

"Tell me it's not the best way to screw him over." I worked to keep any hint of triumph out of my voice, but it wasn't easy.

"It absolutely is, and we both know it." She'd heard it anyway. "You must be loving this."

There were a dozen things I could've said, all centred around the concept of 'I told you so' but those felt too much like gloating, and I didn't want to antagonize her. "Not really," I said instead. "However we do this, it isn't going to be easy. And it'll mean burning every bridge you have with Coil."

"Ahh, that part was probably going to happen anyway," Lisa said, recapturing a hint of her usual snark. "Alec and Rachel are talking about leaving town when this is all over. With them gone, the Undersiders won't be a viable team, especially seeing that we won't have our safety net anymore."

She didn't mention the part we both knew; without Dinah, Coil would be even more desperate to have an edge, which meant Lisa would probably be the next one to go on the drugs. Strapped to a chair, with information fed to her via headphones and a TV set, he'd be able to get all the answers out of her without risking any kind of betrayal.

I made a personal vow that I would see Coil go down hard before I ever let him do that to my friend.

"So, are you okay with doing that?" I asked. "Specifically sabotaging Coil like this?"

Another few seconds passed. "Are we going to have any sort of backup, or is it just going to be me and the guys?"

"Well, I'll definitely be in," I assured her. There was no way I was sitting this one out, especially after they'd tried to grab me from the motel room. I didn't know what Coil had had planned for me, and I didn't want to know. "I contacted the others in the first place about Dinah, and they were on board with it then. I doubt that's changed since last night. We just won't be able to be as loud as we would've been before Kramer showed up, is all."

"Would it help if you knew exactly what Coil's power was? Such as the limits of it, and how to get around it?"

"Absolutely," I said at once. Since agreeing to work for the man, I'd seen him pull off tricks that looked impossible on the face of it. 'Probability manipulation' was irritatingly vague.

"He's a precog with a very special variation on the concept. If he's in a situation with two options, he can try out both scenarios and pick the one that works for him. That coin trick? He just kept talking, delaying, until he flipped heads. Over and over. Kind of what Alec calls save-scumming."

"Oh," I said. "Oh." A lot of data points clicked into focus, and I could see exactly what she was talking about. "Wow. I never would've guessed."

"You and a lot of other people." She sounded smug now. "He basically had every villain in Brockton Bay looking in the wrong direction. If you don't know what someone's power is, you're going to have a hell of a time getting around it."

"Yeah." I tried to imagine how to fight someone with 'probability manipulation'. Most likely hit them when they weren't expecting it. However, given how meticulous Coil was, no matter how carefully someone prepared their attack, it would always strike in the wrong place. Because he wouldn't have been there. "Though this still won't be easy."

I wondered if I should be passing on this information to the others, but when I glanced at the little holographic dragon, it was still typing rapidly. Though there was a tiny smirk on one side of its mouth, exposing a cute little fang. I got the impression that Lisa's revelation wasn't exactly breaking news. Did they already know? I think they already knew. Which meant they hadn't told me, so when she told me, she wouldn't figure out that I already knew.

The pieces connected together with a distinct click. This whole thing had been a loyalty test for Lisa, to see if she'd tell me what Geneva and the others already knew, or if she'd withhold the information or even try to lie to us about it. I briefly thought about being offended on Lisa's behalf, then dismissed the idea. She probably knew already; and besides, she was a supervillain and a Thinker. A loyalty test as benign as that one was about the least problematic thing she was going to have to deal with on a daily basis.

"Oh, it absolutely can be done." Lisa sounded positively chirpy. "If we could physically put a tracker on him, it wouldn't matter which way he jumped. But snatching Dinah out of his base? It would be a lot easier if he wasn't there. We'd have enough troubles as it was."

"The Travellers, for one," I agreed. "Also, all his men."

"Trickster presents a very specific problem for us," she added. "Not only can he move people around the battlefield at will, but if we take him down and Noelle finds out, we're in for a great deal of trouble."

"Noelle?" I asked. I didn't know that name, especially connected to the Travellers.

She cleared her throat. "Trickster's girlfriend and out-of-control case fifty-three, currently stashed in a vault in the lower levels of Coil's base. If my research is correct, she's responsible for more than a hundred missing-persons cases over the last few months. She eats people. Worse, I get the distinct impression she creates evil clones of them."

This was bad but I wasn't quite sure how bad, just yet. "So, how powerful are we talking? B-class? A-class?"

"A-class, verging on S-class," she said at once. "Seriously, she's got the potential to become a new Endbringer, all by herself."

Well, that wasn't ominous in the slightest. "You said she was in a vault. Won't it contain her?"

"Only if she wants to be contained. The monster side of her apparently has a will of its own. If she gets angry, all bets are off."

This just kept getting better and better. "Okay, uh, I'm thinking we need to get Dinah out of that place as soon as possible. Put together some plans, then we can see where we go from there."

"I'll get back to you in an hour."

"Thanks. I knew I could count on you."

"Which of us is supposed to be the intuitive one, here?"

I chuckled at the dig. "I'll see you later."


Tattletale


The call ended, leaving Lisa holding the phone to her ear. Slowly she stood up from the bed, rehearsing in her head what she'd have to say to the others. This was not going to be an easy sell.

Brian looked up from his book as she came back into the lounge area. "So, how'd it go?"

Lisa glanced at the other two. Alec was playing one of his shooter games and Rachel was brushing Angelica, but she knew they were both listening. "Pretty good, actually. Taylor's with them, and they've got no beef with us. In fact, they'd like to work with us on something." She didn't have to explain who 'they' were.

Brian closed the book and put it down. "Details on the 'something' that they'd like to work with us on, please."

"Yeah," Rachel said brusquely. "What can we do for 'em that they can't do with that spaceship of theirs?"

"Well, for one thing, they're still repairing it," Lisa said. "For another, the bad guys who just showed up are specifically looking for them, so doing as little as possible with their spaceship is probably a good idea. And last of all, what they need us to do is to go-into-Coil's-base-and-rescue-Dinah-Alcott."

Rachel didn't look around this time, but Alec sat up and turned to face her. Brian raised his hand and cleared his throat politely.

"Would you mind saying that again, more slowly?" he asked. "Because I'm almost certain it sounded like they want us to go into Coil's base and rescue that kid from him."

Lisa nodded. "That's exactly what they want us to do."

"Whyyyyy?" whined Alec. "That place is a death-trap! It's one thing to not do what Coil says, but they want us to actually fuck him over? What possible good could come out of that?"

Lisa sighed. "Because the bad guys are likely to try to swing a deal with him and people like him, and we don't want Dinah in his corner when they do."

"There's more." Brian frowned. "Something you haven't told us yet. Something big. What is it?"

God damn it. Wishing she had a better poker face, Lisa closed her eyes for a second. "The bad guys are all Simurgh bombs. They've got the Simurgh on board their fucking ship."

"What the fuck?" Alec dropped the controller on the couch and gave Lisa an accusing look. "You couldn't have maybe led with that?"

"Told you." Rachel kept brushing the dogs. "Thinkers lie. All the fucking time."

Lisa ran her hands through her hair. "I didn't lie. I just, you know, prioritised our information. Now, Taylor told us that if I can come up with a viable plan to extract Dinah, they'll give us what backup they can. I believe her. So, who's in?"

As the rest of the Undersiders looked back at her, she began to wonder if she was going to be a team of one on this mission.


On Board the Gambler's Ruin

The Hooper Called Johnson


There were some who would accuse the natives of Spatterjay of lacking introspection, given that they chose to stay on-planet, living with the ever-increasing chance of becoming a Hooper, when there were other options in life. Very few were stupid enough to say this while in arm's reach of a Hooper, as that would betray an even more egregious lack of introspection. In Johnson's case, his choice to become a space pirate under Kramer's aegis indicated a failure of personal judgement, not necessarily linked to his status as a Hooper.

Or to put it another way, he wasn't overly bright.

To his credit, he knew this and accepted his role within the crew, which amounted to 'breaking things' and 'hitting people', with the occasional side role of 'bullet sponge'. He preferred not to do the latter too often, because he'd seen what happened to fellow Hoopers if they were hurt too badly without the chance to rest and recover with plenty to eat and drink. When their bodies tried to reconstitute themselves without proper resources, things got ugly.

But what was happening right now was wrong in a whole other way. Ever since they'd gone into orbit around this planet that looked so much like Earth, the whole crew had started acting like they'd been snorting something illegal, even the Golems. It was normal to be alert and eager for the plunder, but they were even more so than usual. They were all on edge, with an itch for combat that had led to seven fights over the last six hours. Nothing fatal had happened but the way things were going, it was only a matter of time.

The weird thing was, Johnson could almost understand why they were fighting. There was a tickle in the back of his mind, almost like a discordant tune, that kept trying to urge him to snap at his comrades, to respond to their barbs. He could feel the want. But the compulsion was easy to resist and he knew how stupid it was to start fights when they were lining up a new score, so he only stepped in when his shipmates looked like escalating past words and fists.

In the back of his mind, he wondered if it had anything to do with their unorthodox manner of arrival at this weird version of Earth (not that 'unorthodox' was a regular part of his vocabulary), or something else. What that 'something else' could be, he had no idea.


Kramer


When Johnson walked past the entrance to the bridge, Kramer frowned. There was something wrong with the man. He'd become standoffish in the last day or so, refusing to join in with the crew's activities to the point that Kramer was beginning to doubt his dedication to the crew.

If the Hooper didn't make an effort to straighten up and fly right before they made landfall, Kramer was going to have to cut him loose, however much he hated to do that. Of course, Kramer being Kramer, 'cutting loose' was best done with a pulse-pistol shot to the back of the head. The important question there was whether Johnson's Hooper virus infection was advanced enough to allow him to survive it. He'd heard vague stories about Hoopers having their heads blown entirely off, and the bodies surviving to grow a leech-like mouth between the shoulders.

Under those circumstances, it was probably too much to expect Johnson not to hold a grudge against whoever tried to kill him. So, a simple surprise shot from behind was probably not the best idea. Shooting him in the back of the head followed immediately by tossing him out the airlock on a re-entry vector would have a much better likelihood of success; between the lack of oxygen, the air friction on the way down and the eventual impact, even a Hooper would be hard put to survive.

However, that was a problem for future Kramer. Right-now Kramer had discovered his next mark; or rather, where his next mark could be found.

This world had a lot of people who could do really weird shit. Not that they were any weirder than some people he'd seen; hell, some members of his crew were pretty damn weird. But the fact remained, while any Polity planet back home could muster a police response capable of bringing the crew of the Gambler's Ruin to heel if he started acting up, there didn't seem to be any corresponding law-enforcement body here to do the same. The only ones even trying to do the job, these 'Parahuman Response Teams', were about a year late and a few thousand New Carth shillings short of the capability to get it done properly.

Going through their social media—he was amused to find that, as primitive as the local Grid was, shitposting and memes still ruled the day—he had located spotty mention of weird-ass monsters that occasionally hit cities, leaving them in ruins. As luck would have it, one such attack had taken place just the previous day, local time. Again, footage of the incident was fragmentary—he blamed their Grid, which was probably based on actual magnetic-disc media storage—but he soon had a name and a location.

While he knew about Earth, Kramer had never actually been there, but it was simplicity itself to call up a virtual globe and match it to what he was seeing before him. His ancestors had come from the United States, way back, so he was pleased to see his destination lay there. He'd never heard of Brockton Bay, which wasn't exactly a newsflash. However, they'd just been hit by the equivalent of a major weather event, so that was where he was going. If the incidence of local corruption and mismanagement was anything like he expected it to be, there would be a lot of desperate people there.

Kramer had no use for desperate people, because they generally had nothing to trade except themselves, and there wasn't really enough room on the Gambler's Ruin for a good cargo of slaves—or rather, indentured servants. But where there were desperate people, there would be others who preyed on them. People who thought they were as smart as him, and as savvy at getting a good deal from him.

Kramer had a word for people like that.

He called them 'suckers'.


Coil


Thomas Calvert was a careful man. It was the only way to survive in a world where an incautious move could result in a monstrously powerful cape tearing his head off his shoulders and eating it whole, and that wasn't even a worst-case situation. He never took a risk he didn't have to, leveraging both his power and his reputation for infallibility to minimise the chance of attack from outside forces.

However, it seemed that Geneva Hastings and the remainder of the crew of the Bond James Bond—a thoroughly ridiculous name, in his opinion—had decided to go after him anyway. Exactly why that was, he had no idea. Even Dinah's power, as versatile as it was, could usually only give him directions on when, who and from what direction.

The only way he could think of to get a line on their actual motivations would involve capturing one of them and performing an old-fashioned interrogation. Unfortunately, the Undersiders were refusing to have anything to do with the alien ship, Skitter had apparently been taken under Cauldron's protection and the Travellers' best attempt at a hostile extraction had fallen flat. Which meant he had to find his allies where he could.

And so, when he got the message suggesting precisely that, he blessed not his good fortune but instead his superior judgement, for accepting it rather than shutting it out. Kramer, as the captain of the ship in orbit called himself, had much to offer.

If Calvert had anything to do with it, Kramer would be parting with somewhat more than he bargained for.

Taking a deep breath, he collapsed the secondary timeline (where he was relaxing at home) and split another one off the current line. In that one, he sent back a message: I DON'T TAKE WELL TO DOUBLE-CROSSES. HOW STUPID DO YOU THINK I AM, ANYWAY?

In the other one, he rose from his desk and buckled on the gunbelt that hung over the back of the other chair in the room. Normally he didn't carry a gun himself, preferring not to let anything mar the impact of his costume, but in these trying times, habits had to change for the good of all. He stepped from his office and gestured to two of his men; both parahumans, and both as loyal as large infusions of money could make them.

"We're going out," he said briefly. "I just have to make one stop first."

"Sir," said Biter. Barker said nothing, but that was perhaps for the best. When a cape's very voice was his weapon, people tended to get skittish every time he opened his mouth.

Calvert left them to follow behind as he made his way to Mr. Pitter's rooms. "How is she?"

"She's healthy. Lucid. I was about to administer…"

He held his hand up. The male nurse stopped talking. "Hold it off until I've asked some questions."

"As you say." Mr. Pitter stepped back, ostentatiously getting out of his way.

Entering the room with the cot and the girl, Calvert looked over the scene. Her lips were dry, but not overly so. She didn't look terrible, just … strung out. Which was, he had to admit, his doing. Keeping her reaching for the next dose of 'candy' made her more likely to answer questions quickly.

That she was a twelve-year-old girl, and he was objectively a terrible person for keeping her in this state had crossed his mind, once, and never been alluded to again. Brockton Bay was also a terrible place, and his aim was to bring order to it. Omelettes, eggs. Once he had achieved all his aims, he would release her, free to go. He honestly believed that, despite having never once defined a specific list of his aims.

"Candy?" she asked hopefully and licked her lips.

"In a minute." He kept his voice brisk. "Are Kramer or his crew likely to double-cross me in any significant way on our first meeting?"

She blinked at him. For a second, it didn't look as though she was going to answer, which was ridiculous. She always answered direct questions like that. "Three point one nine six four percent chance of Kramer or his crew double-crossing you on your first meeting," she said, then coughed. "Candy now?"

"Not yet." He drew air in through his nostrils, considering how to word this. "Will Kramer try to cheat me during negotiations?"

Again, that damnable pause, but she spoke anyway. "Kramer has a sixty-four point seven one three percent chance of attempting to cheat those he negotiates with."

Calvert nodded slowly. Thought so. He considered asking about his chances of beating Kramer in negotiations, but decided against it. If she made a prediction favouring him, he might be overconfident.

"One last question. Will Kramer be interested in the location of the other ship?"

There must have been something wrong with the dosages, because she was slow with her answer yet again. "Ninety-seven point four three nine percent chance that he will be."

Turning, Calvert left the room. He led the way to the vehicle bay, where one more person joined them; Hocking, a mercenary of middling talents and intellect, but possessed of one important aspect. Body-wise at least, he was as close a match to Calvert's physique as could be found in the mercenary ranks.

Barker got into the front seat of an anonymous van, while Calvert and Hocking climbed into the back, and Biter took a motorcycle. Calvert had a spare costume ready; he wasn't about to share one with the mercenary, after all. Kramer had specified a map location for the meet; it was a little distance away from the city, which meant Hocking had time to change.

Nothing happened as the van trundled through the streets of Brockton Bay, following a route he knew to be open. So as to avoid the appearance of travelling in convoy, Biter trailed a little way behind. There was no burst of fire from above, or even an eerie tractor-beam effect. But despite this, and despite his assurances from Dinah, he held the split until the van and the bike reached what he'd picked as a good checkpoint.

After all four of them made an exceedingly careful check of the surroundings with both ordinary binoculars and low-light scopes—it was getting fairly dark now—he collapsed the other timeline and reopened it. In one of the new timelines, he climbed out of the van, and ordered Biter (along with Hocking) to drive the van to the rendezvous point … which, not by coincidence, he could clearly see from the location of the checkpoint. Hocking, of course, wore a radio earpiece for instructions from Calvert.

In the other timeline, he left Hocking to wait with the motorcycle while he went down there with Biter and Barker. If the meet turned out to be genuine, he wanted to be able to present the appearance of having trusted Kramer all along. This would make it easier to pull the wool over his eyes later.

Settling down at the checkpoint, he took the rifle Barker handed him and checked the low-light scope. The range was a little far, but he'd made more distant shots; if things went sideways, he was going to drop Kramer at the very least, before he and Barker got out of there on the bike. It was a big rangy model, easily able to take two grown men. Though if he needed to shoot Barker in the back of the head and take the bike because it was too slow with both of them on board, he could do that too.

In both timelines, he settled down to wait.

Calvert was good at waiting.


Mr. Pitter


He administered the dose a little more carefully than usual, wondering if it was affecting her more than before. The tiny hesitation wasn't a cause for concern, per se, but anything out of the ordinary needed to be closely examined. Dinah giggled to herself as the drug took effect, which was another problematic data point; it wasn't supposed to have a euphoric effect.

Her vital signs were all optimal after the fact, though. Respiration, heart rate, temperature, even pupillary response. Everything was right in line with a child of that age and weight, under the effect of a very carefully measured dose of addictive drugs.

He didn't think anything was wrong, but when Coil got back, Pitter suspected he might be asking about Dinah's anomalous reactions. So, there was no harm in double and triple checking the status of his patient. And besides, he wanted to know as well.

He was in the process of noting down her temperature yet again—right smack in the normal range—when the door opened and the costumed girl entered. He'd seen her around from time to time, mainly in conference with Coil. Her name, he knew, was Tattletale, and she was a supervillain. Up until now, that had been the extent of his involvement with her.

"Uh … I'm not sure you're supposed to be in here," Pitter ventured. "If you're looking for Coil, he's—"

"—out, I know." With supreme confidence, she strolled up to the cot and looked down at the semi-conscious child. "You know why he went out?" The question was thrown back over her shoulder.

"Uh, no." Truth be told, Pitter did his best not to think too hard about anything that went on around the base. The less he knew about anything, he reasoned, the safer he was in the long term. Dinah Alcott, and her safety and well-being, were all he needed to worry about.

"Hm. Typical." Despite her back being turned, he could almost hear her eye-roll. "Well, you know about the space-ship from the future that showed up and tore Leviathan a brand-new asshole?"

That particular set of news had been hard to miss. "… yes?"

Now she was looking over his charts, almost as though she had a perfect right to do so. "Well, another one's shown up, and he's gone to meet with its captain. Guy by the name of Kramer." He didn't think he'd reacted, but she turned her head and nodded anyway. "Yeah, figured you'd heard that bit."

"Put those down!" He stepped forward and took the charts away from her. "What's that got to do with anything, anyway? Why are you even in here?"

"She's got to be moved. Like, right now." As if he was unsure who the girl might be referring to, she hooked a thumb at Dinah. "Boss's orders. So, what's she need, and what can she do without?"

"Moved?" Now he was more confused than ever. "Why?"

"Because assholes from outer space can't be trusted, that's why." This time, he saw her roll her eyes. "We've got a safe place for her all picked out. Now come on! Shit's either going sideways right now, or it's gonna be that way in a very short time."

"Alright, alright." He started gathering together the supplies he was going to need. Then he spotted the wisp of blackness seeping under the door she'd closed behind her, and stopped. "What's that? What's going on?"

She didn't even need to glance downward. Between one second and the next, she held a small automatic pistol, trained unerringly on him. "What's going on," she said with a whole lot less chirpiness and a great deal more grim intent, "is that you help me take Dinah Alcott out of here, and I let you go … or I kill you here and take her out on my own. There is no third option."

He quailed back at the sight of the pistol. "You'll—you'll kill me anyway!"

"No, I fucking won't." She then sighed with exasperation. "Look, I personally don't give a shit about you. Or I wouldn't, except you're standing in the way of me getting her out of here. Now, give me a hand, and I promise to give you a head start."

"B-before you hunt me down and kill me?" The muzzle aperture looked huge.

She shook her head. "No, you idiot. So you can be out of town before Coil finds out you let me get away with her."

The door was flung open and more of the blackness wafted in. Another supervillain, a tall man all in black motorcycle leathers with a skull-themed helmet, stood there. "Tats!" he yelled. "Come on! The Travellers are starting to wonder what's going on!"

"Shit!" She gestured Pitter aside with the pistol. "Grue, grab the girl. This asshole can't figure out what he wants to do."

Grue shook his head. "One job. One fucking job." Shoving his way past the male nurse, he scooped up Dinah Alcott with strength that Pitter could never have mustered. "Okay, let's go."

Tattletale grabbed the supplies Pitter had gathered, then he watched them vanish out the door. His knees gave way and he dropped onto the chair.

He rarely if ever used strong language, but right then one word was circulating through his head.

Fuck.


Grue


The Scottish accent, which Brian still had trouble equating to an artificial intelligence, sounded in his ear as he strode along the catwalk. "All good, lad? Do you have her?"

"Yeah," he muttered inside his helmet. "Now we've just got to get out in one piece."

"Aye, lad. Between my telefactor robot, Skitter's bugs and your very able teammates, Coil's mercenaries have been neutralised. But the ones you call the Travellers are definitely aware that something is up. I suggest that you make all haste out of there."

"Yeah, no shit."

His power was filling the entire volume of the central room of the base with darkness. While he could easily see through it, nobody else could. Lisa, right behind him, was blind, but she had her hand on his back for guidance. On the far side of the huge room was the exit they were aiming for. Alec and Rachel were waiting for them, the former jittering with his need to get away and the latter concentrating on shrinking her dogs far enough to fit down the corridor.

And then a tiny spark of brightness ignited in the middle of the main room. It grew steadily and Brian felt his darkness burning away around it, being relentlessly pushed back. In its light, several figures emerged from the corridor that apparently led to the Travellers' quarters. Brian tried to throw up extra darkness, but Sundancer's sun—the heat radiating off it was uncomfortable, even at this distance—simply burned it away.

"Trickster!" warned Tattletale, but it was too late.

In another instant, the world lurched and Brian was standing in the midst of the Travellers. Goddamn teleport swap. The top-hatted figure went to say something as people to Brian's left and right grabbed him by the arms, but the first word didn't even get out before Brian kicked him in the groin. Letting out a high-pitched scream and grabbing at the afflicted area, Trickster staggered backward and collapsed.

Up on the catwalk where he'd been, Lisa was grappling with Genesis' latest incarnation, a centauroid slug-like creature which seemed intent on throwing her over the rail. Down where he was now, the removal of Trickster from the immediate problem didn't exactly improve matters. Sundancer was busy maintaining her sun, but Ballistic had him by one arm and some guy he'd never seen on the lineup had him by the other. Around then, a woman's voice emerged from a speaker attached to a large vault door nearby.

"Krouse? Krouse, is that you? What's happening?"

"Dunno who the girl is, but she stays right here," gritted Ballistic.

"She's a prisoner," panted Brian. "Coil's keeping her drugged. That's wrong, and you know it."

"Pfft, yeah. You were okay with it before. How come the sudden attack of conscience now?" Ballistic yanked on Brian's arm again.

"Krouse!"

Brian struggled to maintain his hold on the semi-conscious girl—if he dropped her, the hard concrete would not do her any favours—and searched for an answer that would justify his actions.

Abruptly, Ballistic's grip loosened and Brian took the opportunity to twist free. He turned toward the young man who was holding his other arm and threw a knee into his gut, then shifted balance and snapped a back kick into the side of Ballistic's leg. Ballistic let out a brief scream and dropped to the floor, cradling his knee. At the same time, there was a muffled pop-pop-pop from the catwalk, and Lisa stepped away from the collapsing creature, her pistol trailing smoke.

With a muted humming, the telefactor robot swooped in and scooped up both himself and Dinah in powerful arms. It bore laser scoring on its outer surface, but it still seemed to be working just fine. "Hold tight, lad," Sean said through its exterior speakers. "I'll have you out of there in a jiffy."

"Appreciate it," Brian grunted, concentrating on holding onto the girl. Lisa was sprinting for the exit now, and Rachel had her dogs down to a good size.

Alec gave him a mocking salute as the telefactor brought him in for a landing. "I can't let you go anywhere alone," he jibed. "Boys just can't seem to keep their hands off you, can they?"

A thunderous crash from below grabbed everyone's attention. The vault door Brian had noted was shuddering; cracks were appearing and widening around it, the damage worsening every second. "What the hell is that?" he gasped.

"I do not know, lad. It appears to be a parahuman of some sort, and they're breaking free."

"Noelle." Lisa's voice was bleak. "That's Noelle, and she's pissed. Grue, what did you do?"

Ah, shit. Brian grimaced inside his helmet. "I might've kicked Trickster in the balls … while the intercom was open."

"Wellll, fuck." Alec eyed the exit. "Can this place hold her?"

In Brian's arms, Dinah stirred. "Two point one zero nine three percent chance that she will be contained," she mumbled.

"Okay, so what happens if we just go?" demanded Rachel. "The heroes can take care of one stupid cape."

"Seventy-nine point four six one percent chance of significant damage to Brockton Bay unless she is stopped now," Dinah said, still not opening her eyes.

"Right." Lisa sighed. "Plan C?"

"It does seem like the time, lass," Sean agreed. "In position in thirty seconds."

"Wait a minute, are you actually here?" asked Brian.

"I'll explain later, lad. Twenty seconds."

The vault door smashed to one side as an elephantine creature burst forth; from the waist up, she was human. But from there on downward … not in the slightest. Clawed feet, grasping pincers, wolf-like heads, all could be seen, with no rhyme or reason available.

Lisa drew in a horrified breath. "Crap!" she exclaimed. "That's a whole lot bigger than I remember reading about!"

"Wait, didn't you say Coil's gone out to meet this Kramer asshole?" Rachel demanded. "Isn't it risky to be flying your space-ship around while that's happening?"

"Not now, lass. Ten seconds to target. Prepping particle beam cannon."

"The thing that put holes in Leviathan? You're firing that?" Rachel looked up at the roof.

"Aye, lass. In five."

Brian had other things to worry about; because right then, the monster that Lisa said was called Noelle had just spotted them. "Don't worry about it! Move!"

"Four …"

The exit was right there. Rachel whistled and her dogs bolted through, moving quickly despite their remaining bulk. Alec ducked in behind them.

"Three …"

Lisa and Rachel went next, and Brian got as far as the doorway.

"Two …"

The monstrosity was halfway across the floor to them, starkly illuminated by Sundancer's sun. Brian ducked through the door, making sure not to hit Dinah's head. The telefactor hummed in behind them.

"One …"

Lisa smacked the button to close the door.

"Firing particle beam cannon."

Brian had just enough time to realise that the ship was about to unleash a weapon designed to destroy other warships across a range of tens or hundreds of miles, one that had utterly evaporated large chunks of Leviathan's tsunamis, at a range measuring in tens of yards. Then, the room beyond seemed to explode. Actinic blue light streamed through the closing gap, making the paint on the opposite wall bubble and sear. The entire base shook; dust drifted down from the ceiling.

After a long moment, which seemed to last forever, the light cut off. A distant rumbling seemed to last a little longer, but then ceased as well.

"Target eliminated." Sean sounded … sombre.

Lisa peeked through the gap in the door, which had stalled with two inches still to go. "Okay, remind me never to piss off the people in that space-ship."

"Haha, yeah, no shit," jibed Alec. "Can we go yet?"

Brian nodded. "Let's go."

"We'll meet you outside, lad. Your little girl there has a date with our autodoc."

Lisa's eyes opened behind her mask. "Wait, does that mean we get to ride in the space-ship?"

"It does indeed, lass."

"And my dogs?" Rachel sounded on the verge of mutiny. "If my dogs can't come along, I'm not going."

"Yes, your dogs can come too."

"Good."


Two Hours Later
Coil


"Sir, something you should see."

Calvert stirred from his reverie of trying to figure out why Kramer had failed to attend the promised meeting. "What is it?"

"Something's happened to the base."

Few other phrases could have gotten his attention so quickly. He scrambled past Hocking, who was changing out of the costume, and peered past the front seats, through the windshield.

Barker was right. Something had indeed happened to the base. Specifically, there was a hole in the ground above it, through which smoke and dust were wafting. Not a crater. A hole. "Have there been any communications from the base?"

"No, sir." Barker held up the radio. "It's been on, the whole time."

"Shit." He split time. In one instance, he told Barker to hold position outside the base and sent Hocking and Biter in to investigate. In the other, he went in himself, with the others on guard and ready to shoot.

In the event, the precautions were unnecessary. No ambush awaited, but the base was without power, which required each door to be manually cranked open, one at a time.

His mercenaries were mostly healthy, though the story they told filled him with rage. His base had been attacked by the Undersiders, who had infiltrated, pretending friendliness, until they were in position to strike. That wasn't all; they'd been accompanied by swarms of biting and stinging bugs, and a hovering robot equipped with a ranged electrical attack. Unable to muster a coherent defence, the mercenaries had been caught on the back foot and bottled up in their own quarters.

The news only got worse. In the main area, he found a hole that indeed had been punched all the way down through the roof, and a matching gulf blasted out of the floor that went down at least another hundred feet. The room was an utter mess, chunks of scorched concrete everywhere and water gathering in the central hollow. Noelle's vault had been smashed open from within, but the monstrous parahuman was nowhere to be seen.

Of the other Travellers, he found just three still alive. Sundancer had survived the attack of whatever had happened—she called it a 'light brighter than light'—relatively unscathed, while Oliver had run back into their quarters to see to Genesis and thus escaped the fate of the others. From the legs protruding out from under the fallen vault door, Coil gathered that Ballistic had been standing in the way and not paying attention when it went over; as for Trickster, there was a Hiroshima-style lighter shadow on the wall, next to a huddled pile of charred remains.

When he asked Sundancer about Noelle, all the girl could say was, "She was standing right there." 'There' was the exact centre of the pit in the middle of his base.

He split time, shot her, collapsed the timeline, split it again, shot her again, collapsed it a second time, then repeated the process one more time for what little comfort it gave him.

"What now, sir?" asked Biter.

Coil shook his head. "We're abandoning the base. It's totally compromised, now. Get the men together."

"What about us?" ventured Sundancer.

"What about you?" snarled Calvert. "You've lost the majority of your strength in one fight. Someone blasted a hole in my base just to snipe your Case Fifty-Three friend. Turn yourselves over to the PRT, for all I care."

Storming away, he clattered up the steps to the upper catwalk, and headed along to his office. There was no power still, but he could retrieve the hard drive from his computer before he left.

Stopping in his tracks, he stared at his gutted computer.

There was only one possible culprit.

"That little bitch."


On Board the Bond James Bond
Taylor


I watched as Dinah sat up in the autodoc, looking much brighter than she had before. "Hey," I said. "Feeling better?"

"Definitely," she agreed. "That machine looks scary, but it's really amazing."

"It is." I helped her off the bed. "Let's go tell the others the good news."

As we came out into the main area, Lisa produced a computer hard drive from her pouch with a flourish. "And I got this too."

Dragon's hologram raised an expressive eyebrow. "You know, I already went through his system and took everything of value."

Lisa rolled her eyes. "Yeah, but this way's funnier. The look on his face would've been amazing."

"Uh, just out of curiosity," Reynaud remarked, "if you sent Coil out to a fake meeting with Kramer, where's the real Kramer been this whole time?"


On Board the Gambler's Ruin
Kramer


"Sir, that energy trace we picked up a little while ago?"

Kramer paused in what he was doing, and looked around. "Yeah?"

The catadapt smiled. "Analysis says it's a mil-spec particle beam, and it's right in the middle of this place we're going. Brockton Bay."

"Good." Kramer finished rolling the bound body of Johnson into the airlock. It had taken three pulse pistol shots to bring the Hooper down, and he was starting to come around even now. But it was too late; when Kramer hit the button, the airlock hatch closed and the lock cycled. Johnson vanished into the void; one second there, the next gone.

As he stalked back toward the bridge, Kramer's grin was feral as he imagined doing the same to Geneva.

I can't fuckin' wait.


End of Part Eleven