Confrontation II: The Reckoning


Part Nine: All Out


[A/N 1: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]

[A/N 2: Actual last chapter, woo!]

[A/N 3: Don't forget to check out the epilogues.]


Taylor


"Medhall building's up ahead," Dennis announced. "Let's stop in, do a civilian visit. Chat with security, make sure everything's quiet around here, take five before we move on."

"I'm down with that," I agreed. "Stalker?"

"… sure," Sophia agreed absently. "We can do that." But she was looking around, tilting her head as if trying to hear something.

"What's up?" I asked quietly.

"Dunno." There was a frown in her voice. "Something's not right. Can't tell what. Call it a feeling."

I wasn't about to distrust her feelings. My swarm was already out and about; I told it to look alive and start earning its keep. The rooftops, such as they were in the business district, were clear. No ninjas lurked just out of eyesight to ambush us. Since Oni Lee, I hadn't even considered that a joke.

"Rooftops clear," I murmured. "Anything airborne?"

Sophia stretched her arms above her head and turned in a slow circle. "Nothing," she reported back.

Then I noticed something weird. A low-grade vibration, too gentle to feel even through the soft soles of the boots I'd donned for this patrol. But the groundbound bugs and local earthworms (though all too few) were detecting something. Unfortunately, I couldn't pinpoint it yet.

"Got a vibration," I said quietly. "Not sure of the source. I think it's coming closer."

By now, we were outside Medhall proper. We climbed the steps to the doors, and I paused to put my gloved hand against one of the faux-marble pillars that flanked the entrance. If I really concentrated, I thought I could feel it with my fingertips. Or maybe I was just fooling myself.

"So tell Clockblocker," murmured Sophia.

"You know, you can tell him too," I retorted.

She sighed, aggravated. "I'm the trouble Ward. You're the responsible one. He'll listen to you more."

I could tell she wasn't going to budge on this. "Okay. Come on. We'll both tell him."

Dennis had already gone inside, so we stepped forward and followed him. I caught up to him just as he got to the security desk, Sophia trailing a few steps behind me. "Clockblocker," I said. "I need to talk to you about something."

Despite my carefully neutral tone, he looked at me immediately. "Back in a sec, guys," he said, then stepped away to join me. "What's up?"

I glanced at Sophia and back to him. "Shadow Stalker has a bad feeling about something," I said quietly. "And my bugs are picking up a weird vibration that's getting closer and closer. But there's nobody on the rooftops and nothing in the air."

"Underground, maybe?" he asked at once.

"It's a possibility," I agreed. "I'm having trouble pinpointing it, though."

He glanced from me to Sophia and back again. "And you're both absolutely certain about this."

Sophia nodded. "Totally."

"One hundred percent," I added.

"All right, then." He put his hand to the side of his helmet. "Clockblocker to console, over."

"Console here, Clockblocker. Over." Kid Win had replaced Browbeat on the console.

"We're at the Medhall building. Shadow Stalker and Buzz have reported an unusual sensory effect, a vibration, that may be parahuman in origin. I'm about to ask security to lock the building down and get ready to evacuate for their own safety. Can you copy the PRT and Protectorate in on this, please? Over."

Sophia and I shared a glance. Before Clockblocker had become Wards leader, he probably would have made some jokes about vibration that might've landed him in hot water. Now, he was taking it totally seriously.

"Ah, roger that, Clockblocker. Alerting PRT and Protectorate now. You say you're at Medhall, right? Over."

"That's correct, console. We're …"

I tuned him out as something weird showed up on my bug senses. Bug sight was crap at the best of times, but to have an entire vehicle only pop into view when it got within a certain distance? That was pushing matters a bit far. I brought several more bugs into this area, and landed them on the thing as it trundled out of a sidestreet. What was it?

The first thing they registered was vibration. Lots and lots of vibration.

Then, as more bugs landed and roved over the thing, I started to get an idea of its size and shape. It was very … tank like. Even down to the caterpillar tracks. And oh wait, were those guns? They certainly felt like guns.

I realised several things at once.

It was a cloaked tank with guns on it.

It was clearly up to no good (well, duh!)

Squealer was back.

None of this was good news.

It rumbled to a halt opposite the Medhall building. The bugs I had on the gun-barrels detected a swing in my general direction, including the scary big one on top.

I had a really, really bad feeling about this.


Kaiser


"Understood. Good work." Max put the phone down and turned to James. "They just picked up Bradley. Would you believe he got tossed a good fifteen miles?"

"I'm very impressed," the cape otherwise known as Krieg replied. "One, that he was thrown so far. Two, that he survived the experience."

"Well, he says he landed in water, and skidded onto land," Max allowed. "And he only woke up half an hour before he called in for the pickup." It would be good to have Hookwolf back on the strength again, especially when they went in to spring their comrades out of PRT holding.

"So after we get the others back, what's our priority?" asked Krieg. "Take the territory, or crush the other gangs and then take the territory?"

That was actually a good question. Even with Othala's attention, Victor's shoulder would take a while to heal properly. Still, Cricket and Menja were both heavy hitters in their own way.

The Merchants, if he was understanding things, had gone the same way as Uber & Leet and the ABB; those that were not dead were in PRT custody. So the Empire only really had to worry about the Undersiders, the Travellers and Coil's goons. There were of course the heroes to contend with but they'd suffered losses by injury as well, and they would be outnumbered once he had all his people back in the ranks.

"I think …" he mused out loud, then took the time to drain his glass, savouring the taste of the bourbon. "We'll feint toward the territory, but once the gangs start mobilising on us, we turn on them and crush them utterly. No kid gloves, not like with the heroes. If they stand against us, they die."

He reached for the bottle, but just as his fingers brushed the cool glass a massive shockwave tore through the office. It wasn't so much a sound as an immaterial impact on all of his organs at once. He found himself lying on the carpet beside his upturned chair, the neck of the bottle lying nearby. Where the rest of it was, he had no clue.

Trying to marshal his whirling thoughts, he levered himself painfully to a sitting position. "James?" he called out, but his voice echoed oddly in his head. He put his hand to his ear and felt a warm wetness trickling down. Looking around at the breath of air against the back of his neck, he realised that every window in the office was gone.

Shatterbird? he wondered dully. Are the Nine in town? I hadn't heard.

Reaching up and grasping the edge of the desk, he pushed himself to his feet. Just as he did so, another explosion tore through the building; not as strong as the first one, it merely sent him to one knee. What's going on? I can't … do I have a concussion?

A hand fell on his shoulder and he turned as fast as his spinning head allowed. James had suffered a cut over one eye, and was bleeding from both nostrils, but his eyes were awake and alert. "Max, we have to go!" he shouted. At least, Max thought he was shouting, but his voice was barely audible. "We're under attack! The building's on fire!"

The world suddenly clicked into focus. Whether it was those two words, or if his brain had chosen that moment to switch on, he didn't know. "Got it," he said crisply. His watch was still on his wrist, though the crystal was shattered. Swiftly, he began covering himself with armour as he moved with James to the secondary exit; the one not shown on the official building plans.

The elevator didn't seem to be working; at least, a blinking red light said that it had taken itself out of commission. But there was a stairwell.

Which had smoke coiling up out of it.

James hesitated, but Max pushed forward. "If we can get past where the smoke's getting in, we're home free."

"Max, there is no place where smoke can get in. Or there shouldn't be."

"Shit." Krieg was right. Which meant that he would have to go down the public stairs. Which meant …

"You have to lose the armour."

"Or risk outing myself and everyone at Medhall. Gotcha." With a grimace, Max shed the armour, letting it clatter to the floor, and hurried to the door leading out of his office.

Outside was organised chaos. Max had inherited Medhall from his father, and he'd made sure to keep up with industry standard safety regulations. That included fire and cape-attack drills every few months. Not that anyone had ever thought capes would attack, but they went through the motions and ticked off on the sheets that it had been done.

There were four official sets of fire stairs in the building. Max's unofficial stairwell and elevator shaft was quite close to one, and he noticed that there was a large OUT OF ORDER sign on that stairwell. "What's that about?" he asked the woman in the safety vest standing near it.

"Mr Anders!" she exclaimed. "Are you alright?"

He still wasn't hearing all that well, but he picked up her meaning. "I'm fine," he said impatiently. "Why is that stairwell closed?"

"It's been breached," she said firmly. "There's fire and smoke coming up."

"Breached?" Max looked dumbly from her to the sign to Krieg. "What could've breached it?"

"We don't know," she said. "They just told us it was a cape attack."

To underline her statement, yet another concussion shook the building. This time, the juddering, groaning noise took a long time to go away. Max looked at James, and they both came to the same conclusion. Let's get out of here.

People were filing down the stairwell in a steady progression. Nobody was panicking just yet, but each subsequent shuddering BOOM raised the overall level of trepidation. Max kept pace with James, feeling his head clearing a little more with each step. Nobody was listening to them; everyone was concentrating on the next flight of stairs, and probably cursing the fact that they worked so high up in the building.

"Who do you think it is?" asked Max, trying not to lose his breath. There were very few high-impact Blasters native to Brockton Bay. In fact, he could only think of one. He'd been married to her for two years.

"You think it's her?" asked James, clearly following his train of thought.

"I wouldn't have thought so." Max had trouble believing it even now. While Kayden might be headstrong, she would never oppose him directly. But now the building was groaning and creaking nonstop even between the bone-shaking explosions. He knew of nobody else who could throw out that sort of power.

People were still moving down, which meant there was a clear way out. He hoped.

And once I'm out of here, as soon as I find out who's doing this, they're dead.


Shadow Stalker


The first warning Sophia got was when Taylor screamed "Oh, shit!" at the top of her lungs. Grabbing Sophia and Dennis each around the waist, she power-drove them past the desk toward the rear of the building, using strength that Sophia hadn't suspected she possessed. "Everyone get to cover, right now! There's an invisible tank—"

BOOOOOOM

The lobby dissolved in fire and flying glass. Sophia went to shadow just before bits of debris whipped through her immaterial form, giving her a most uncomfortable sensation; but still better than having it go through her for real.

Slowly, she reformed and looked around, then coughed at the smoke. There was broken glass everywhere, and chunks of fake stone from the walls. "What the fuck was that?" she managed, then coughed again.

"Not totally sure," Dennis replied, crawling out from under Taylor, who was frozen in mid-lunge. A couple of wickedly sharp pieces of broken glass were resting on the bug controller's back; Sophia suspected that if Dennis hadn't done his time-freeze thing on her, they'd be embedded in her spine by now. "When the place blew, I just reacted."

"She said something about an invisible tank." Sophia shook her head, trying to dispel the last of the uncomfortable ringing sensation. It didn't help that there was a real ringing in her ears, with the fire alarms all going off. And then, of course, the sprinklers decided to get in on the action.

Another explosion rocked the building, almost throwing them off their feet. Either it wasn't as bad as the first one, or their senses were still numbed. Still, it was bad enough. She heard a shout from Dennis, then was pushed off balance by a shove. Sprawling awkwardly on the floor, she rolled to her feet. The sharp comment died on her lips as she saw him on the floor, under more debris.

"Fuck, Clock, are you okay?"

He didn't answer.

Scrambling over to him, she knelt beside the prone Ward and pushed the bits of ceiling off him. Nothing seemed to be sticking out of him, and he wasn't bleeding anywhere, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Carefully, she reached up under the rim of his helmet, to where each Ward had a clear spot to feel the throat pulse. His was strong and steady; she exhaled a sigh of relief.

The rest of her first-aid training didn't cover this sort of situation. While he was only about her size, his body armour and the lack of traction (water on marble floors was a double whammy) meant she couldn't drag him anywhere without risking further injury. Taylor, still frozen with his power, was the least in danger right now.

Backup. Gotta call in backup.

Reaching up under her mask, she activated her radio. "Shadow Stalker to Console, come in, dammit! The Medhall building's under attack by a fuckin' invisible tank and Clock's down. We need backup, right the fuck now!"

She paused, waiting for a response.

All she heard was a vaguely melodic warbling.

"Shadow Stalker to Console. Come in. You hearing me?"

Nothing.

Another explosion shook the building and she looked up apprehensively, but everything that seemed likely to fall down had already done so. "Shadow Stalker to Console, fuckin' come in, goddamn it!"

More warbling.

Jamming. It has to be. "Motherfucker!"

Doors opened and people started to spill out into the lobby. Sophia jumped up, waving her arms frantically. "Not out this way!" she shouted. "Back way! Go the back way!"

"What? Why?" This was a suit-and-tie guy, who was already panting from walking down stairs. "This is the short way out!"

She took three strides to get to him, grabbed him by the stupid fucking tie, and pulled his face down to her level. "Because there's an invisible fuckin' tank shooting at the fuckin' building, you stupid fuckwit!" she screamed. "Now get out the fuckin' back way!"

When she released him, he stumbled back a few steps. But that was when three others pushed past him and Sophia both. "Fuck you!" one yelled. "I'm getting out of here!"

They got as far as the rubble-strewn opening that had once been the entrance to the main lobby, and a crackle of laser fire sounded. All three went down, smoking from multiple cauterised through-and-through holes. They hadn't even had time to scream. Their wounds steamed gently as the water spray hit them.

The first man Sophia had stopped stared, aghast. "Uh … I'll go the back way," he mumbled.

"Gooood plan." She gave the rest of the people the stink-eye, as best she could in her mask, and stepped back. "Okay, need to get backup somehow," she muttered, trying to cudgel ideas out of her brain. "Tank's jamming the radio. How about phone?"

Congratulating herself for being a genius, she dived into her pouches. Only to find that the one holding her work phone—with all the appropriate numbers for the Wards and PRT—was open, the phone missing. All this running and diving and shit must've jolted the pouch open. Fuck.

She briefly considered going for Dennis' phone, but she knew his would also be passcode-locked, just like hers. But there was another phone in there, her personal one.

Slowly, she pulled it out. She never bothered to code-lock it, so it opened to a touch of her thumb. There were only a few numbers in it now, since she'd brushed Emma, Madison and the rest of that toxic bunch of bitches out of her life for good. Mom, Terry, Taylor …

… and Brian.

Fuck.

She liked Brian, quite a lot. More than she'd liked any boy before, ever. He was tough and cool and didn't take any shit from anyone. The sort of guy she could see herself with.

And the last time she'd seen him, she'd been trying her best to strangle him to death.

If anything would put a damper on a relationship, that was at the top of the list.

The bizarre thing was, knowing he was Grue didn't make her like him any less. She wanted to know where they stood, but she didn't want to have to ask.

Taylor had hinted that she was trying to get in touch with him, but she hadn't mentioned anything since.

Fuuuuuuck.

Well, the worst he can do is tell me to fuck off.

She tapped the icon for his number.


Grue


The statuette of the raven had its wings spread wide, on the verge of taking off. It was dark and powerful, with black glass wing-feathers, and Brian had zeroed straight in on it. Lisa nodded thoughtfully. "It definitely sends a message," she said. "I like it."

"I hope she does too." Brian watched as the shop assistant carefully wrapped it for transport. "I hate this bullshit."

Lisa gave him a perceptive look; she knew exactly what he meant, he could tell. The hero-villain bullshit, locking people into mindsets until he and Sophia had only seen each other as an enemy to be beaten when they were in costume. Fortunately, Sophia had Taylor to reach out for her—

His phone rang. Eyes widening, he met Lisa's gaze. "Get the package, will you?" he asked and stepped out of the shop, ignoring her snarky what am I, your personal servant?

When he saw Sophia's name on the screen, his heart nearly stopped. He'd been waiting and hoping for a call, but now that it had come … "Fuck it," he muttered, and swiped to answer. The phone went immediately to his ear. "Hello?" he croaked, his throat suddenly dry.

"Brian." Her voice was crisp, no-nonsense. "I know I've got no right to ask anything from you. Especially with what I've done. Especially to you. But Taylor and me and Clockblocker are pinned down, and it's looking bad. We need backup. If not for me, at least for Taylor. Please?"

It was the 'please' that got him. Sophia never begged, never showed weakness. And yet here she was, pleading with him. "Where are you?" Grabbing the keys out of his pocket, he hustled to the car.

"Medhall building. Taylor's frozen and Clockblocker's unconscious. There's a great big fuck-off invisible tank across the road blowing up the building and firing lasers at everything that moves."

Brian wrenched the car door open, the key in the ignition and the engine starting before he even had his seatbelt on. He'd thought he'd heard distant explosions, but he'd been consciously ignoring them. "I'm on the way. Hold tight." Gunning the engine, he peeled out of there, ignoring Lisa's indignant yell from far behind him.


Fenja


Jessica started increasing in size as soon as they were out of the secret exit, half a block away from the Medhall building. "What's the plan?" she asked, already missing her sister's presence. But Nessa's knee was still broken, thanks to that bitch Glory Girl. In fact, the only combat-worthy capes the Empire had on hand right now (apart from Kaiser and Krieg, who were actually in the building itself) were herself, Alabaster and Cricket. The latter bore a bandage around her right calf, memento of a shot from Miss Militia, but she swore she could still fight. Not so Victor, whose right arm was in a sling and likely to remain so until they could spring Othala.

"I'll draw fire," Alabaster stated, checking his pistols. "Cricket, you go in sneaky, try to confuse them. Fenja, once they're engaged in trying to kill me, come in over the top and crush the motherfuckers."

It was a plan. Victor probably could've come up with a better one, but there were only the three of them. Any course of action necessarily had to be relatively simple. "Okay, then." Slinging her shield on her back, Jessica leaned down and scooped up her teammates. "Let's go get these assholes."

Covering the half-block of distance was a snap, with legs that could cover fifty and sixty feet at a stride. Doing so while keeping out of view of whatever was bombarding the Medhall building was somewhat more difficult. As for the building itself … it was a mess.

First off, there was a hole blown right through it, about halfway up. Flames and smoke poured from the ragged twenty-foot-wide aperture, while other sections had been blown away, or even melted in some unnatural fashion. Jessica was impressed that the thing was still standing. If this attack kept up, it wouldn't be, and Kaiser was still inside.

Crouching, she placed Cricket on a convenient rooftop and Alabaster on the ground. It was awkward to get her shield back into place on her arm, but she did it anyway. "Let me know when it's time to move," she said as quietly as she could.

Cricket nodded. "You'll know."


Taylor


"There's an invisible tank and it's—!" I stopped, throwing out my hands to prevent myself from sprawling on the ground as the world flickered around me.

Rolling over and sitting up, I took in my surroundings. Water sprayed down from overhead sprinklers. Dennis lay nearby, apparently unconscious. Sophia was just putting her phone away, peering out into the ruins of what I had to squint to recognise as the Medhall lobby. Instinctively, I took control of all the bugs in the vicinity and started figuring out what had happened.

I couldn't have been frozen for more than ten minutes; that was the outside limit of Dennis' power. But in that time, Squealer's tank had done a real number on the Medhall building. From what my bugs were telling me, a lot of the building was badly damaged, and there was vibration within the load-bearing beams that I didn't like in the slightest.

Farther afield, I still had bugs on the tank. Immediately, I began to converge swarms on it. All I needed was one entrance, one opening, and I could end this attack with ease. She'd never see it coming.

It was only when I heard a distant popping and crackling, and felt my swarms starting to die off at a startling rate, that I realised she actually would see it coming. And in fact, she had included point defence. On a tank. Against bugs.

I dispersed the swarms and the lasers cut out again. Not only did I need to conserve bugs, but I didn't want a laser shot to come through the swarm and hit someone else. Okay, I need a plan B.

That was when my bugs noticed the other three. Stealth was difficult when one was a sixty foot tall armoured woman; in my defence, I had been focusing on the tank. Fenja's two companions, I quickly gathered, were Alabaster and Cricket. As villains, and as the aggressors in the recent cape conflict, it wouldn't have surprised me if they were trying to find a way to capitalise on the situation, such as busting into the Medhall building and robbing it. But instead, it seemed they wanted to actually locate and kill the tank.

The trouble with this plan was that it would invariably expose them to the tank's horribly accurate fire. My bugs had already located and identified the laser-burned bodies at the entrance to the foyer; I had no reason to believe that the tank would treat them any differently. In fact, I suspected they would get an extra helping, being capes.

From my reading of Empire capabilities, Fenja might be able to shrug off the lasers, Alabaster would probably survive by coming back over and over … but Cricket? Not a hope in hell. Worse, they didn't know where it was. Even if they knew that, they'd have to get all the way up to it without being seen and shot.

"Oh, hey," Sophia said. "You're up. Good." She came over and helped me to my feet.

Briefly, I hugged her. It was good to see that she'd survived the cataclysm that had scoured the lobby. Even the security guards behind the now-demolished desk hadn't made it. "Situation?"

Outside, I pulled together my depleted swarms and formed a barrier in front of Cricket. 'Not safe,' I had the insects buzz. 'Invisible tank. Lasers.'

She swiped her hand through the swarm, then did something with high-pitched sound that disoriented them and completed the dispersal of the grouping. "Buzz is in the area!" I heard her call out. "Probably Shadow Bitch, too!"

"Once we deal with this shit, we'll take them out too," Alabaster replied. "I'm done playing nice."

Oh, for fuck's sake. I was trying to save their lives. As a last-minute effort, I laid down several large arrows on the ground, pointing at where the tank was.

In the meantime, Sophia had been filling me in on what had happened while I was in time-out. "… said he was on the way," she concluded. "Wasn't able to call the PRT, radios are jammed, but the building isn't that far away and surely to fuck they'll have heard the explosions or seen the smoke cloud."

"You can literally see the Medhall building from Director Piggot's office," I reminded her. "I'm almost certain she knows by now."


PRT Building, Brockton Bay
Director Piggot's Office


"Yes, I actually do know where the explosions are coming from," Emily snarled, standing with her phone in one hand and the other up against the high-end polycarbonate that made up her office window. "The Medhall building. How do I know? I can see it. There is a hole right through it. It's on fire. And I'm almost certain that part of it has melted. Prep a full assault force; orders are to take down any hostile capes onsite, any means necessary. Go."

With a subvocalised growl, she stabbed the end of call icon, then pulled up another number. This one rang exactly once. "Console, Corporal Wyzinski speaking."

"Wyzinski, this is Director Piggot." Emily spoke clearly and crisply, the better to get her message across. "I need to know the exact location of our Wards contingent. You need to pull them back in immediately."

The corporal's words sent a chill down her back. "We're trying to re-establish comms with them, ma'am. They were speaking with Kid Win about potentially evacuating the Medhall building when we lost contact."

"So as far as you know," Emily said carefully, "they're at the Medhall building right now."

"That's our best guess, yes, ma'am."

"Alright. Keep trying. If you re-establish comms, get an immediate sitrep, and order them from me to keep their heads the hell down."

Wyzinski sounded mildly confused, but he didn't argue. "Ma'am, yes, ma'am."

Trying hard not to swear—it would waste time and achieve nothing—Emily cut the call and dialled yet another number.

It was answered before the first ring had finished. "You've got Armsmaster." He was breathing a little hard; she suspected he was hustling somewhere. Probably to where the assault force was being assembled.

"The best intel I have says that our Wards are in the middle of the mess at Medhall," she told him crisply. "Your top priority is to extract them. If you have to get by whatever villains are on site to do so, you are authorised to use lethal force by my order. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Director," he acknowledged. "Extraction of Wards is my top priority. Lethal force authorised for this situation. Message received and understood."

She took a deep breath. "Good hunting. Piggot, out."

Shutting down the call, she stood at the window, staring out at the rising plume of smoke. She was sick and tired of villains running rough-shod over her city. It was time they learned about consequences.

She'd burn every political marker she'd accumulated during her tenure if she had to, but whoever had attacked Medhall (with her Wards in the building!) was going to the Birdcage.


Taylor


"Goddamn it, she's ignoring me," I growled. "And they're acting like this is all our fault or something." I spared a glance for Dennis. "How's he going?"

"Pulse is strong, but he's still out to it." Sophia reported. "And are you surprised? Villains will fuckin' villain, all day long." She stood up and gestured at a bunch of people who were crowding into our area. "Front way's a no-go zone. Back way out, go!"

"The exit's blocked," reported a guy in a suit. "I think debris fell down or something. We can't get it open." His tone clearly asked, What are you going to do about it?

I left the argument to her, as I was concentrating on what was going on outside. A few bugs went and checked on the rear emergency exit and found that yes, a large chunk of outside wall had fallen down and entirely blocked the doorway. Out front, it looked like Alabaster was making a move.


Squealer


"Fuck me, it's Alabaster!" Sherrel turned the camera, trying to scan the area. "Where did he come from?"

"Damned if I know," Bakuda said, then smirked as a trio of the automated point-defence lasers hit the Empire cape in the chest, dropping him like a rock. "Nice one."

Just under five seconds later, he was up again, coming in at a dead run. They watched him pull two pistols, just before one laser took his left leg off at the knee and another one neatly excised his right arm at the shoulder. "Ooh," Sherrel giggled with a fake grimace. "That's gotta sting."

Again, he was whole in just seconds, and kept coming. Only to go down, lie there for a few seconds, then get up again as whole and hearty as before. He was now halfway to the tank, and showing no signs of quitting.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Bakuda sighed. Reaching up, she loaded one of the small launchers with a grenade-sized bomb. She waited until he was up again, then sent the projectile on its way. With a soundless flash, it did its job. "Walk that one off, asshole."


Fenja


"Fuck," said Jessica, trying not to freak out at the sight. She'd just been about to move, but now she pulled back into cover. "Alabaster's dead."

"Bullshit." Crouching back from the roofline, Melody shook her head. "Alabaster doesn't stay dead."

Jessica wanted to put her hand to her mouth, but her full-face helmet was in the way. "I think he is, this time. He just turned to liquid. Like, puree'd. I'm looking at a puddle. He's dead. They just killed him."

That was a profoundly unsettling realisation to have. There were certain constants when it came to being in the Empire. Hookwolf was the toughest bastard in the gang, with Stormtiger and Cricket leading a close second and third. Alabaster was the one that nobody could kill. Nobody fucked with the Empire.

And now Hookwolf had been tossed out of the city, the Empire was being well and truly fucked with, and it looked like the unkillable Alabaster was eminently killable after all. The process of change had been very fast; one moment he'd been running and the next his limbs and body had broken down, become a large puddle of uncertain fluids. Whatever else the man was, he was dead.

And so, she coldly decided, were the assholes who had just murdered him. They might still be walking and breathing, but that was only a detail.

"Okay, just going to check—"

Jessica had seen the accuracy and firing speed of the lasers as they chopped Alabaster down, over and over again. She opened her mouth to object, but it was too late. There was a weird sensation behind her eyes as Cricket ramped up her subsonics in order to disorient anyone nearby, then leaned over the roof edge.

Three lasers hit Cricket at once, and she toppled over slowly, steam rising from where the top of her head had been just a second ago. Jessica watched with horror as she vanished from sight, the horrific wound leaving no room for the chance of survival. There was a distinct thud, a moment later.

"Melody, no," she whispered. "No. No, no, no."

Tears leaked from her eyes as she squeezed the lids shut, trying to blot out the image. Alabaster had been a teammate, but he'd also been an arrogant asshole. Despite the fact that they came from entirely different backgrounds, Melody Jurist had been a friend.

Okay, now it's just me. Do I keep pushing, or do I back off?

Common sense said to back off; whoever was doing this had killed two of her teammates in less than a minute. But her loyalty to the Empire Eighty-Eight said something entirely different. Cricket and Alabaster needed avenging.

When it came down to it, there was only one real course of action to take. Pushing her power so she grew even larger, she stood up.

You just fucked with the Empire Eighty-Eight. Time to pay the piper.


Grue


Brian was halfway to the Medhall building when he realised he had no costume in the car. The last thing he wanted to do was show his face and endanger his friends and family to anyone who might decide to take matters into their own hands, unwritten rules be damned.

But Sophia needs backup now. I can't go back home to grab it. By the time I get there and back, she'll probably be dead. He paused. Wait. Unless Alec left that stupid balaclava in the car again ...

Slowing the car somewhat, he leaned across and popped the glove compartment. Rummaging blindly with his eyes on the road, he shoved aside what felt like Lisa's spare pistol and batteries for Alec's sceptre. Finally, his hand fell on a bundle of cloth and he pulled it out. Sparing a quick glance as he shook it out, he nodded. Not perfect, but it'll do. I just hope he washed it recently.

He dropped the balaclava on the passenger seat and concentrated on driving. Hang on, Sophia. I'm on the way.


Taylor


"No!" I shouted uselessly as Fenja lunged around the corner and charged toward the tank; or rather, toward where my bug-arrows pointed. "Don't!"

Helplessly, I watched as the tank opened fire. Laser shots sparked off her armour and shield, reflecting back as multicoloured glints but never so much as warming the metal. I expected to see it burn through at any second, but she got closer and closer with every gargantuan stride, surrounded by an ever-intensifying halo of blinding radiance.

Shit, I thought. She's actually going to make it. It felt weird to be cheering on the supervillain who had nearly killed Glory Girl, but there we were.

And then the big launcher swivelled toward her. It coughed once, and she screamed as her right leg (complete with armour) turned entirely to glass.

Right then I had a second epiphany, even more unwelcome than the first. "Fuck," I said. "Bakuda's back." What had happened to Alabaster had made me wonder, but this put the icing on the cake.

Sophia didn't question my words. "Well, fuck."

If Fenja had been standing still, the situation may have been almost salvageable. But she wasn't. Her now-glass leg came down with shattering force, in every sense of the word. If the scream when her leg turned to glass was loud, her shriek when it disintegrated into a million glittering shards was deafening. She went down to her one remaining knee, supported by her free hand and shield arm, head hanging down.

Still, she wasn't done yet. Leaning her weight on her arms, she drew her leg up under her, clearly planning to try to get upright. But that was when the large launcher twitched slightly, adjusting its aim. I knew what was going to happen next. Fenja was going to die, and I couldn't do a damn thing about it. While I had some bugs on the tank, there were nowhere near enough to jam either the launchers or the laser emplacements. I didn't want to see what happened next, even via my bugs, but I made myself watch anyway.


Grue


Even without Sophia's warning, Brian would've pulled up before getting too close to the Medhall building. There were crashed cars and dead people sprawled on the sidewalk and roadway, all showing signs of coming under attack from sustained laser fire. So he pulled the balaclava on over his head, wrinkling his nose as he concluded that no, Alec hadn't laundered it any time recently, then got out of the car and moved up. Holding his hands in front of himself, he generated his darkness in a cloud that he walked through, hiding him from view inside the impenetrable fog.

He got to the corner just in time to see something happen to Fenja. She'd been crouching on one leg—where the other one was, he wasn't sure, though there were large shards of glass everywhere which gave him a distinct clue—and supporting herself on her hands, when an explosion went off around her head and chest.

Well, kind of an explosion. There was no earth-shattering kaboom (to quote Marvin the Martian), no cloud of smoke or fire. But when the light stopped distorting itself into a Klein bottle and returned to normal, Fenja had been … inverted. As far as Brian could see, everything in her upper body that was supposed to be on the inside was now on the outside, and vice versa. One thing was for certain; she was dead. Nothing could survive that.

At least, he hoped not.

Also, he knew something else he hadn't before.

Bakuda was back.

"Fuck."

He promised himself that he'd throw up later. Right now, he was here to back Sophia up.

Here goes nothing.


Taylor


"What happened?" asked Sophia. "Did Fenja get them?"

I shook my head, glad beyond description that bug senses were crap. I knew that something had happened to the Empire cape, and it had probably been fatal, but not precisely what. That was the bad news.

The really bad news was that the tank was still there, and it seemed to be prepping to fire into the Medhall building again. The sprinklers had stopped, but from the creaking and groaning and occasional falls of bits and pieces of ceiling, it wouldn't take much to bring the whole thing down. In fact, I was personally convinced that it was going to come down all by itself, even if left totally alone from this point onward. It was just a matter of time.

Given that I was in the building, this did not fill me with an overwhelming sense of security.

"Ow. Anyone get the number of that truck?"

"Clockblocker! Shit, how you doing?" Sophia went from crouching next to me to doing a baseball slide, spraying up water, that ended her up next to our now-conscious teammate.

I glanced over my shoulder, then went back to surveying the entrance. If a lot of smoke happened all at once, we'd be able to guide the trapped employees out, but right now Squealer and Bakuda (and wasn't that a partnership made in hell) held all the aces. In fact, in light of my previous supposition regarding the building's fragility, all they had to do was sit there and bottle us up. The building would kill us all by itself.

"Ow. I've been better. Did the roof fall in on me? Feels like it did."

"Something like that. So, this is the situation." Sophia began to list off all the bad news we had. This was appropriate, because there was no good news.

Or maybe there was.

My bugs noticed the cloud of pure blackness that had just come around the corner, and was now spreading toward where the tank was. I raised my bug-arrows into the air and moved them back and forth to make sure he got the message. Grue (because who else could it be?) was clearly on the ball, because the cloud rolled over the tank in short order, finally nullifying those goddamn lasers.

"Shadow Stalker!" I yelled. "We've got cover from the lasers! Get everyone moving! We're getting out of here!"

She didn't need telling twice. Neither did anyone else. While she and the still-groggy Clockblocker started the employees toward the open front of the building, I ventured out first. My swarm came together in a screen that would hopefully act as a decoy in case Grue's cloud didn't cover as much as I thought it would.

Fortunately, it wasn't needed. Grue stood in the middle of the street, shrouded in darkness, more of it pouring off him and piling up in a formless mass over where the tank still sat. He glanced over his shoulder once, and I gave him a thumb's up. He nodded in acknowledgement, then he went back to keeping the lasers locked down.

I didn't care that he was Sophia's boyfriend right then. When I got the chance, I was gonna give him the biggest kiss.

Behind me, I could hear people crowding out and herding down the street as fast as they could hustle. I stretched out a line of bugs guiding them around the nearest corner so they'd be out of line-of-sight of the lasers if the tank happened to start up and rumble out of the cloud. It hadn't yet, but I had no idea what Squealer and Bakuda were thinking right then.


Squealer


"Motherfucker!" shouted Bakuda. "I can't see a fuckin' thing in this! There's nothing on any of the sensors! Drive us out of it!"

"Fuck that!" retorted Sherrel. "Driving blind's the fastest way to wreck your vehicle on something you can't see. What if they've put mines or something around us and they're just waiting for us to run over them?"

"Well, do something!" insisted Bakuda.

Sherrel took a deep breath and tried to collect her thoughts. It had been awhile since she'd had a good hit of anything, but Bakuda had been insistent that she not be high while she was building or driving any vehicle that Bakuda was going to be in at the time. "Okay, okay," she said, trying to kick her brain into gear. "Darkness that thick, that not even radar gets through? That's not normal. It's not Tinkertech, either."

"Well, no shit!" shouted Bakuda. "That's fuckin' Grue! The Undersiders are here! How tough's your armour? What happens when a couple of those big fuck-off monster dogs start tearing this thing apart around us?"

"No, no, you're right." Sherrel hustled forward to the control panel alongside the controls. "I built something in for those cocksuckers. Here it is." She flipped up a cover and pressed both of the buttons that had been hidden under it, one after the other. "Pop-up holograms showing a rotating series of puzzles to force Tattletale into a Thinker headache. High-pitched whistles to distract Bitch's dogs. Regent can't do shit, and I couldn't figure a countermeasure against darkness."

"Well, I can." Bakuda led the way back to the launchers. She took up four of the smaller bombs and loaded them into a launcher, then fired them in a wide arc to cover as much ground as possible. "Black hole bombs. They'll suck him in, then take his darkness away as well. Goodbye motherfucker."

"Fuck yes!" Sherrel offered her a high-five, which she returned. "Why the hell didn't we ever team up like this before?"

Bakuda snorted. "Because you were a drug-fucked Merchant bitch, and I was working for Lung?"

Sherrel tilted her head. "Yeah, fair point. How long 'til those bombs kill him?"

Smirking confidently, Bakuda studied her nails. "Oh, any minute now."


Shadow Stalker


The last of the civvies had stumbled out of the building and were heading for the corner. Clock was herding them along, making sure they got out of sight okay. He hadn't even questioned the fact that an Undersider was making sure nobody else got fried by lasers, which Sophia appreciated. There would probably be awkward questions later, but right now all she wanted was for people to get the fuck out from under what was very shortly going to be a pile of rubble.

"Shit!" That was Taylor; Sophia whipped her head around to see four round black objects fly out of the cloud in a fan pattern. None of them came particularly close to Brian, but when they hit the ground, they each erupted in a swirling vortex that began to suck his darkness into it. Worse, the closest one to him actually seemed to have pulled him off his feet. Lying on the ground, he was trying to scramble away from it, with minimal success.

"Motherfucker!" Sophia didn't care that anyone heard her swear. She'd just got Brian back. There was no way she was losing him again.

Pulling her right-hand crossbow and wishing that she'd invested in a grapnel arrow for it—Kid Win had once offered to make her one, and she'd turned him down—she went to shadow and leaped across the intervening distance, faster than any merely material person could've made it. The closest vortex tried to draw her into it, but in doing so it pulled her directly toward Brian, as she'd planned.

Just as she came level with him, she pushed the immaterial crossbow downward and went back to solid form, but with the crossbow half-buried in the asphalt. With that for a handhold, she grabbed his wrist in her other hand and hung on for dear life. Though surprised by the save, he didn't waste time querying it. His large strong hand closed around her forearm, an experience that was both familiar and strange to her. While they'd certainly had physical contact before, holding hands hadn't been a thing for them before now. She decided then and there that it would be, going forward.

All of a sudden, the shrieking vortices cut out and the sensation of being dragged sideways down the street ceased. Sophia let go of both her crossbow and his hand and sat up; he did the same. "Thanks," he said quietly.

"Not a problem." The reply was almost automatic. He got to his feet and helped her up; their fingers didn't seem to want to let go of each other. Stretching out his hand sideways, he resumed covering the tank with his black fog.

They spoke at the same time. "I'm sorry."

Wait, what? She stared at him. "Okay, what are you sorry about?"

He shrugged. "Any time a girl's pissed at me, I assume I did something, so I apologise first and then find out what it was later."

Sophia considered that. It was good philosophy, from her point of view. "Oh. Well, then, apology accepted."

"So is yours," he allowed. "Now, what are we going to do about this?"

"I owe those bitches a beatdown." She cricked her neck. "Make me a hole?"

He grinned. "I thought you'd never ask."

A moment later, she saw a gap open up in the coverage of the tank, low down. Taking a run-up, she went to shadow and slid in through the aperture Brian had left for her. A second later, she could suddenly see the damn tank, as her immaterial form went through the caterpillar tracks that held it off the ground. And then she was under the tank.

The engine started. There was a lot of vibration involved. Sophia didn't care. She launched herself up and into the tank proper.


Squealer


"Are we still blacked out?" Bakuda leaned past her to tap at one of the monitor screens, like it was a faulty gauge. "He couldn't have survived that. Could he?"

Sherrel was getting more and more nervous. "I don't know what's happening out there, but I don't like it. I think we should just get the fuck out of Dodge."

"I thought you didn't want to drive blind?" jeered Bakuda.

"I don't," Sherrel agreed. "But I still think we should."

"Well, let's do it then." Bakuda went back into where the launchers were. "We'll carpet the area on the way out. Give them something to worry about other than chasing us."

Sherrel grinned. "I like the way you think." Sitting down in the driver's seat, she worked her shoulders and cracked her knuckles, then pressed the button that kicked the engine over.

A moment later, she heard a startled yell from behind her.


Shadow Stalker


"What the ever-loving fuck?"

Surprise was a not unusual reaction, Sophia had found, when she came up through the floor almost directly under someone's feet. However, she was now in an enclosed space with two women who almost certainly wanted to kill her; had in fact done their best to do that not so very long ago. Bakuda had even tried to do it twice.

Of course, this also meant that they were locked into an enclosed space with her. Taylor had once discussed the concept of 'target rich environment' with her, and she'd agreed with it. The trick was to go on the attack and not give them a chance to retaliate.

Which was why she brought her fist up almost from floor level, and drove it into Bakuda's solar plexus. At least, she figured it was Bakuda. The gasmask was missing, as was most of the circuitry that had been woven into the Tinker's hair. But the woman's attitude and stance was all Bakuda. Also, she was inside the tank, so she was fair game.

Bakuda huffed out a pained gasp and bent double, allowing Sophia to come to her feet and bring her knee solidly up into the villain's nose. Grabbing Bakuda by the hair, she did it a second and third time. That seemed to do the job; Bakuda slumped to the floor with a groan.

Instinct warned her just in time, and she turned and ducked as a heavy wrench whistled past her head and clanged off a bulkhead. Squealer's face was contorted with rage as she readied for a backswing. In these confined quarters, it would be hard to avoid.

There were mechanisms with handles on either side; Sophia grabbed one in each hand, lifted her feet, and delivered a powerful double kick to Squealer's not inconsiderable chest region. Slammed backward with a totally on-brand squeal, Squealer did her best to maintain her balance. Sophia wasn't about to let that happen; she pulled a backflip, landed on her feet, then shoulder-charged the villain into the tank controls behind her.

With a rumble, the tank started forward, swerving erratically from side to side. Sophia didn't care as she grabbed Squealer's shoulders (there wasn't enough of her top to grab) and delivered a crisp head-butt with her mask taking the brunt of the impact. As the villain stumbled back against the controls yet again, causing the tank to swerve once more, Sophia unleashed a one-two punch into her stomach region, then elbowed her viciously in the jaw.

Squealer subsided, groaning feebly. Sophia glanced at the outside monitor that showed where the tank was going, then looked over her shoulder at where Bakuda was just beginning to pull herself to her feet once more. "Hey, bitch-features," she said, and jammed the throttle wide open. "See you in Hell."

Then she turned to shadow and jumped out through the side of the tank.


Grue


Taylor joined Brian as Sophia disappeared under the tank.

"Think she'll be okay?" he asked, worried. "If they're both in there, it'll be two against one."

"She works best in a target-rich environment," she assured him. "Besides, Squealer does tanks and Bakuda does bombs. What are they going to do, blow themselves up just to get her?"

"Yeah, but—"

"It's moving," she said, and pointed. "That way."

"Okay," he said cautiously. "Do we do anything about that?"

"Just try to keep it covered in case the lasers start firing again."

"Got it." He blinked as the cloaking field suddenly vanished. "Okay, not sure what just happened, but now I can see it."

It swerved and jinked from side to side, clearly not under deliberate control. When it finally straightened out, the engine gave a roar … as it headed for the stricken Medhall building. At the last moment, just before it started up the steps toward the main lobby, a dark figure passed out through the side of the Tinkertech vehicle.

Rumbling forward at full throttle, the tank entered the lobby and vanished into the interior of the building. Taylor and Brian glanced at each other, then at Sophia, who was sprinting toward them.

"Run?" suggested Brian.

"Run," Taylor affirmed.

"RUN!" yelled Sophia.

They ran.


Taylor


Sophia was the fastest out of the three of us, but I'd been practicing as well. Adrenaline loaned me a little speed, and Brian wasn't far behind me either. We sprinted down the street away from the stricken Medhall building, trying to get as far away as possible before the tank broke something structural.

It didn't take long.

We slowed down at the intersection and turned to look back. Gradually, as though tired, the building was beginning to slump downward at one corner. The slump increased dramatically and all of a sudden, part of the building was falling in on itself with a long, low rumble. We watched, fascinated, as level after level collapsed until everything hit street level and a cloud of dust billowed down the street toward us.

Stepping around the corner, I pulled Sophia and Brian with me; we put our backs to the wall and watched the dust billow past us. Slowly, it subsided and we peered back around.

"So, is that it?" asked Brian.

As if to answer his question, there was a sudden KRAKBOOM from the direction of the destroyed building. A flash of light hid everything for a moment; when it faded away, we saw a glass-lined crater where a good chunk of the rubble had been. Of the tank, there was no sign.

Sophia sighed. "I think that's it. Thanks for turning up."

"How could I not?" He gathered her in his arms and held her tight. She was embracing him pretty hard as well.

Clockblocker wandered over and stood next to me. "Do I want to know?"

Slowly, I shook my head. "Probably not."

"Okay. However, not to be That Guy, but maybe non-Protectorate affiliates might need to leave the scene. I just got word. PRT is on the way."

"Shit, yeah," I said. I knew this for a fact, having picked them up three blocks away.

"Oh. Right. Good idea." Brian disengaged from Sophia. "See you later, you big softy."

"I'll show you 'big softy'," she snapped back, but I could tell she was smiling under the mask.

He turned away from us and got into a nondescript car before pulling off the balaclava. Starting the car, he drove away sedately, just as the first PRT vehicles showed up, Armsmaster in the lead.

"Oh, hey," I said as the armoured hero climbed off his bike. "You missed all the fun."

In another moment, Brian's car turned the corner and was gone.


End of Part Nine