Snare 13.7: No Simple Answers

Source material: Worm, Snare 13.7

Originally blogged: July 11-14, 2018


It’s Wormerin’ time!

So! Last time, the first major ambush on the Nine was a success, but in the process of executing Plan B, the Undertravelers left Grue behind on a rooftop after his impatience made him choose to fall from a fairly high altitude. It’s likely that impatience is why he wound up (according to Cherish, who might have something to gain from lying) being captured.

Of course, the Undertravelers can’t have Grue getting Bonesawed or Siberian’d or… pretty-much-any-member-of-the-Nine’d. So now the next goal is to rescue him as soon as possible, and also figure out how to use Shatterbird and Cherish to their advantage when Cherish has told the other Nine about Regent. Of course, even if they fail to do that, just having them out of the fight is a benefit.

Y’know, in a sense, the victory last chapter can be partially tied back to the same event that earned Tattletale her glasgow smile. If she hadn’t tried to mess with Jack by alerting him to Cherish’s betrayal, she wouldn’t have been in the position where she’d want to make a deal with the locals. Yet. And that’s a major reason the Undertravelers are still alive, so hey, at least her backfiring attempt wasn’t entirely in vain.

Enough about last chapter, though – what are we in for this time?

Time is of the essence for the Undertravelers, so to convey the speed of events, I suspect we (the readers, not the characters) might skip the planning this time and go straight to the attempt to rescue Grue. Maybe. It’s also possible we’ll be hanging out at Coil’s base a bit first, hopefully learning about what happened to Imp.

Whether it’s this chapter or not, the mission to save Grue is probably going to go well. I doubt Wildbow would kill him off-screen between chapters if at all, although doing it that way might be worth it for the angst of Taylor being faced with a Bonesawed husk of his former self when they come to rescue him. Damn, that’d be dark.

So yeah, without further ado, I wanna read!


“Where is he?” I growled.

Looks like we’re starting right where we left off. And Skitter is… well, not pissed so much as determined, I think.

“As if I’m going to tell you.  To think Jack called you the clever worm.”

Hey, I’ll have you know the plan that got you here was mostly, if not entirely, her idea.

“Don’t call me that.”  I felt a flare of irritation that bordered on anger.  Was that me, or was it her power at work?

See, the reason I said she wasn’t pissed was that it didn’t seem like the right emotion for Skitter to be having right now, though I could see her being annoyed at Cherish after she refused to answer. So yes, there’s a good chance Cherish is messing with her head.

But why introduce anger of all emotions? Crippling dejection seems like a much better choice. Though of course, Cherish needs to keep it subtle due to Coil’s orders to kill her if anyone acts out of character.

Tattletale put a hand on my shoulder.  I shut my mouth.  She asked Cherish, “What do you want in exchange for your help?  You want us to let you go?”

Honestly, I suspect either more, or the opposite. Cherish has reason to want to get away from the Nine. Her best options are to leave the city (which Coil could help with) or get protection.

Cherish laughed a little, and it reminded me of Alec’s own dry chuckle.  “No.  Definitely not.  In exchange for the information about what the Imp is up to, you’re going to give me medical treatment, you’re going to keep me here, and you’re going to keep me safe.”

Thought so.

(I was leaning way more towards that than help leaving the city, for the record. The leaving option was an afterthought.)

Also, I notice that she hasn’t included the information about Grue in this line. She’s reserving her other bargaining chip for something else.


“And for the info on Grue?”  Tattletale asked.

“I’m thinking a billion-”  Cherish winced as she moved mid-sentence and pulled at the wound.

Pfft, a billion dollars? I suppose it makes sense that she could use some cash in her future efforts to live on and avoid the wrath of the Nine, but that’s kind of a lot. Really using that bargaining chip for all it’s worth, huh?

It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s technically doable with Coil’s assets, but a billion is a pretty big number even for some of the richest people in the world, and I doubt Grue is worth that much to Coil.

“A billion dollars so you can scamper off to the other side of the world and live the good life while you hide from those bastards,” Tattletale finished.

Seriously, though, moderation is key when you’re hiding. Don’t want to get too much of a reputation wherever you’d wind up.

“Right.  Or are you going to tell me that’s too much?  Is your teammate’s life worth a smaller amount?  Where do you draw the line, Ms. Frowny-face?”

Ouch, that nickname’s gonna sting.

I would believe that the Undersiders (except maybe Bitch) might be okay with burning a billion on Grue’s safety, but it’s not their decision to make. I highly doubt any of them have raised a billion on their own, and Coil is way more pragmatic about people’s lives and values.


Tattletale glanced at me.  I looked, in turn, to Coil.  He gave me a barely perceptible shake of his head.  He wouldn’t fork over the amount.

Yeah, figured as much.

“You’re not really in a position to be making demands,” Trickster said.  “You’re bleeding to death, and we do have the ability to hurry the process along.”

True, though she has some pretty good bargaining chips to keep herself alive.

Cherish shrugged.  “Bonesaw gave me the works.  Mesh sheaths for every major artery and organ, wire reinforcement for my skeleton.  It’s not going to kill me anytime soon.”

“It’s just a bullet hole, sheesh.”

I made a mental note of that.  Chances were good that Jack, Bonesaw and the other more vulnerable members of the Nine had some similar protection.

That they do!

How differently would things have played out if Ballistic had used his power and blown them up?

Well for one thing you wouldn’t know that Grue had been captured, assuming that still ended up happening.


could,” Trickster threatened.  “Or we could wait and see which happens first: Either you agree to share the information we want or you slowly bleed out.”

Hm. How exactly would he go about it? Could he target Bonesaw’s protections specifically and replace those? That would be a bit OP, especially since at least four of the Nine have those protections.

“A game of chicken?  I’m down.”  Cherish prodded her injury with a fingertip.  It was clear it hurt, but she still stuck a finger into the hole and investigated some.  “The auto-injection pump is dosing me with painkillers and antibiotics now.  First time feeling this stuff work.”

Pain is weird.

I get the purpose of it as a warning signal and a compulsion to deal with the thing that is causing the pain, but at the same time, the pain itself can often be more crippling in a dangerous situation than the injury that causes it. That’s a problem from an evolutionary standpoint, isn’t it? Milder immediate pain responses would make more sense in a lot of contexts.

Anyway, my point is that these painkillers aren’t just a convenience, they also make sense as a thing to keep the protected Nine-members going in battle.

“Letting that… lunatic perform surgery like that?” Sundancer asked, shivering a little.  “How?  Why?”

There has got to be a lot of trust involved. Though in Cherish’s case, at least she could probably sense it if Bonesaw had plans to mess with her beyond what was agreed on.

“Not much choice in the matter, but I was awake for the entire thing, and I read her emotions as she did it.  No hint of any traps or dirty tricks.”

Awake? Damn.


Tattletale glanced at the bullet hole in Cherish’s chest.  “I’m suspicious it’s so routine for her that there wouldn’t even be a blip on the radar if she did try something.”

Hmm, she might be right.

And hey, this seems like something Tattle’s power could grab onto and use to tell her whether Bonesaw did try something.

Cherish leaned forward, “Are we going to do this?  Test your perceptive abilities against mine?  Some intellectual jousting?”

I wonder if Cherish knows what exactly Tattletale’s power does. For a long time, we’ve been seeing Tattletale make use of the fact that her power was ambiguous in order to mess with people, and I’ve seen no sign that she’s stopped being at least somewhat secretive about it, but there’s a chance Cherish’s power gives her some insight into what’s going on there.

Tattletale shook her head.  “She’s stalling.  She knows time’s on her side, because we need to rescue Grue sooner than later.  Longer we wait, the worse our position.”

Yeah.


“I admit I’m at something of a loss.” Coil sounded pensive, as he looked at our captive.  “Where do we put her?”

At Dr. Q’s place, maybe? You go through the door, talk to his receptionist, then talk to him, and put Cherish on a hospital bed he’s got there.

“Jack did research on you assholes,” Cherish cut in, still trying to distract us, “I know your schtick, Tattletale.

Oh hey, confirmation.

Pick at people’s weaknesses, tell them stuff they don’t want to know.  I can do the same thing.  I’m better at it than you are.”

Well, close to it.

It seems like she actually does want to get into intellectual jousting with Tattletale. As a stalling tactic, I suppose.

But yeah, there really is a parallel here. I’m currently feeling good about having connected Cherish to Tattletale in my “Slaughterhouse Nine as Undertravelers” post [here]. 🙂

Though I’m not sure this is why I did that. I don’t remember.


“It’s a bit of a crazy idea,” I said, ignoring her.  “But what if we didn’t stash her in this base?  Or any of the others?  We put her anywhere in the city, there’s the risk that some unwitting John, Dick or Harry will come by, and she’ll get them to help her somehow.

What are you suggesting, then? The ruins of the old Protectorate HQ or something?

(I suppose that might not work, if they’re building the a new Protectorate HQ there.)

Can’t station guards on her, so… why not the water?”

I… actually think I might’ve been onto something.

The other options this could imply would be stranding her on a vessel out on the sea (too much risk of her drifting ashore) or putting her on the rooftops in the middle of Lake Heroic.

“A boat?” Ballistic asked.

“I could tell you a story,” Cherish said, “Little girl grows up with money.  Daddy pulls in six figures, maybe seven.  Massive house, I expect.  Maybe horses, a mercedes, indoor and outdoor pools…”

She’s just trying to distract them, I guess, but I do think this might be Shatterbird’s backstory.

“I was thinking about a buoy,” I replied, speaking over her.  “Could even rig things so she’s out of sight.  Cuff her to it, we can be pretty damn sure she won’t be getting free.”

Hah, nice. It’s got the best of both worlds between what remains of the Protectorate HQ oil rig (steady, won’t drift ashore) and a boat (small, not much room to do things, not likely to have random pieces of tinkertech lying around, not going to have PRT workers coming to rebuild or clean).

Also it’s kind of hilarious.


“But what about boats coming by?” Sundancer asked.

“Almost no boats on the water,” I replied.  “Coastline is a mess, thanks to Leviathan.  Ships can’t dock here.”

As if the Docks area wasn’t already an economic disaster zone.

And hey, Danny, how’s the ferry project coming along?

“Good,” Coil said.  “Then as soon as she is given some basic medical care, I’ll have my men take her out there.  I’ll need to work out measures to ensure she doesn’t escape.”

Sounds good.

I suppose it might also be worth leaving her some food and potable water if you want her to stay alive.

“So the little girl who wanted for nothing still found a reason to run away from home.  Spent life homeless on the streets.

Wait, no, this isn’t Shatterbird’s backstory. It’s Lisa’s!

Stealing and dealing for petty cash so she could eat.  What would make someone leave home like that, Tattletale?”

Good question. Perhaps (largely verbal) abuse? I’ve long suspected that Lisa was being demeaned in her youth, especially her intelligence. She was probably called “stupid” a lot.


Coil turned to the soldier next to him, “Can you go find Pitter and bring him here?  I want her sedated sooner than later.”

“Can somebody shut her the fuck up?”

I wonder if Coil worries that Cherish might reveal some things he doesn’t want revealed, like Tattletale does to her enemies, or succeed at manipulating someone.

The soldier nodded and headed off to find the medic.  He winked at Tattletale as he jogged by.  I’d met him.  Not one of Tattletale’s soldiers, but I’d crossed paths with him.  Fish?

That does sound vaguely familiar.

*blog search*

Ah, yes, he appeared in 11.8. He’s the captain of a squad, and there seems to be some amount of suggestiveness going on between him and Lisa, which I didn’t want to think too hard about last time because I suspected he’d be quite a bit older than her.

Seemed like he and Tattletale were getting along.

Yeah. Last time, she was putting her hand on his arm while laughing and then winking at Taylor, and now he’s winking at Lisa… hey, I’m not against Lisa having friends among the soldiers (it’s good that people get along), I’m just a little averse to the idea of it going further unless it’s established that Fish is super young for his position.


“That’s a mistake,” Cherish smiled.  “Without my cooperation, you won’t find them.  You won’t be able to contact Imp or know where to look for her brother.”

Perhaps.

“Tattletale?” Coil spoke.

Ah, yes, time for Tattletale to work her magic.

“You already informed us on most of that,” Tattletale told Cherish.  She leaned against the wall.  “Your method of communication with Imp.  You’re planning on meeting her.  Afternoon?  Evening?”

Well that sounds like it’d require not getting tied to a bouy.

“As if I’m-”

“Late afternoon. Thanks.”

Ahahaha!

I love when Tattle does this.

“What?”  Cherish frowned.

“What time in the afternoon?  Four… five… six.  Six o’clock.  There we go.  Where?  Upper end of town or downtown?”

Poor Cherish has no idea how Lisa is doing this and she’s so confused.

“I’m not saying anything!”

You don’t have to.

“You’re telling me everything.”  Tattletale must be reading Cherish’s tells.  Her body language, eye movements, her tone and word choice. 

Ah, yeah, that makes sense. And then the power fills in the rest.

“Let’s see, you’re meeting Imp downtown around six.  You would have made it a place where you could talk with her for a minute while you were out of sight of the others.  Bathroom?”

Sounds reasonable.

Cherish didn’t move a muscle.  Maybe she realized what Tattletale was doing.

She did seem to sort of catch on last chapter, without realizing how deep it went. Not that it helped her much.

“Bathroom, then.  Same building as the rest of the Nine?  Now we just need to dig up where they are, and you’ve got no cards left.  Unless you want to share that information in good faith.”

Lisa is awesome. It’s been some time since we had as good a showing of her power as this, and I honestly didn’t realize just how much I’ve missed it.


There was no response from our prisoner.

“Hmmm,” Tattletale said.  “She’s cornered, and she’s probably contemplating something like suicide by cop.  Or whatever the term is when the other group aren’t cops.

Um. Suicide by foe?

She’d rather die than have us turn her over to her teammates, so she’ll try a gambit like using her powers, knowing we’ll probably gun her down.”

Bonesaw really puts a scary spin on things.

“Got any ideas?” Trickster asked her.

“She liked the dead man’s switch for her suicide collar.  Why don’t we set up something similar?  Put a soldier on guard somewhere nearby.  We schedule it so he receives a note  from us every fifteen minutes.  If he doesn’t get it, he passes a message to the Nine telling them exactly where to find Cherish?”

Mmm. I don’t think that’d work. She could mess with his head and force him to not send the message.

I could see Cherish tense.

“How do we get a message to them without them killing the messenger?”

Good point.

“We can work it out.”  Tattletale shrugged.  She looked at Trickster, “You think Oliver could handle it?”

What, setting it up or being the guard?

Trickster nodded. “I’ll get him on thinking up some way to arrange this.”

Setting it up, alright.


“Tattletale.” Coil spoke, “Can you gather the rest of the details from her before we secure her offshore?”

“So long as she doesn’t get stupid and try to do something more than talk.”

Sounds good!

Cherish decided to speak up.  “Who’s next?  Who should I dish the dirt on?  Feeling homesick, Trickster?  Scared little boy pretending to be a leader.

Ooh, now this is an interesting one. Homesickness suggests that he can’t go home. Why? Would something at home lead to ill consequences, possibly involving Cauldron?

It’s your fault, you know.  She blames you.  Everyone does.

Who, Noelle?

I don’t know enough about her situation to say if it really is his fault, but it does seem like he feels responsible for it.

They’re even starting to hate you.”

Ouch.

And the sad thing is, I don’t know that she’s lying. There are definitely interpersonal issues in the Travelers, and Trickster’s behavior does seem to be at or close to the core of it.


“Can we talk without her in earshot?” I asked.

Coil nodded and gestured for us to leave.  His soldiers moved to Cherish’s side and gripped her arms.

Aw, I guess it’s the end of backstory hinting hour for today.

“No point!”  Cherish grinned, “I’ll know what you’re talking about.  Can’t keep secrets from me!”

She’s sounding more and more crazed as this chapter goes on.

“But you won’t be sidetracking us,” I replied.

“You failed, you know,” Cherish said, changing tacks.

Time to manipulate Skitter, huh?

I guess the failures she’s going to bring up involve both her territory and Dinah, and maybe some of the lives she tried to save along the way.

“When someone has an obsession like you do, it’s like a giant neon sign to an empath like me.  All it takes is for me to peek into Coil’s head, peek into the hearts of everyone else in this base, and I know you’ll never get what you want.  You won’t save her.  You can’t.  Window of opportunity is long gone.”

Yeeah, I think she’s right. At least as long as Taylor sticks to the method she’s been trying so far.

I jabbed her where the bullet hole was.  The strength went out of her legs and she fell to her hands and knees.  I stepped back, drew in a slow breath and then kicked her in the face.  She fell to the ground.

I was hoping for a simple “fuck you”, but this works too.

I like how calm and measured it feels, despite everything.

“Skitter.” Coil’s word was without inflection.  There was no admonishment or warning to it.  I took it as a reminder of where I was, which might have been his intent.

Yeah, probably.


“We can talk about that later,” I told him, “My priority right now is Grue.”

Coil nodded.

Good, let’s focus on the here and now.

I glanced down at Cherish.  “Hope Bonesaw reinforced your teeth while she was fixing you up.”

Trust me, Cherish, Skitter just went easy on you. She could’ve brought a whole swarm of bugs down on you if she wanted to, but she wasn’t going to give you the satisfaction of such a big reaction.

“She did,” Cherish muttered, one hand to her mouth.

Heh.

I kicked her in the head once more for good measure, and then turned away, my hands raised to assure the others I was done.

Skitter has come a long way from the good girl who helplessly hid in bathrooms.

For better or worse.


“That’s enough,” Coil said.  He signaled his men.  “Take the prisoner to the coastline and find a spot to depart.”

Cherish was dragged off to a point further down the catwalk.  Her shouts reached us well after she was out of sight, “Your boss is screwing you!  All of you!  You have no idea how badly!  You’re cogs in his machine, and he’s only steps away from pulling it all together.  Get rid of the Nine, stage the final play with everyone in their proper spots, but then he doesn’t need you anymore!”

Man, her tactic when not allowed to directly manipulate people’s emotions really is super similar to Lisa’s.

And yeah. Coil is absolutely the kind of guy who would do it like this.

In Taylor’s case in particular, she’s supposed to prove herself as more valuable than Dinah in order to have him release her when his plans are finished, but when his plans are finished, if he doesn’t need Skitter anymore, how is she supposed to do that, even if she did a fantastic job while she was needed?

“Sowing dissension in the ranks,” Coil said.  He sounded remarkably calm given what Cherish had been saying.  “Nothing more.”

Yeah, right.

I mean, sure, it’s that too.

“Right.  She could be lying,” Trickster ventured.

You don’t sound so sure.

“She is.  Mostly,” Tattletale said.

…but you do.

Hm. I suppose she would know a thing or two about Coil’s plans, but it is possible for her to be wrong. She might be just wrong enough to still be working for Coil.

But she might also be right, in that Coil might not be as close to victory as Cherish is suggesting, or that he doesn’t need them anymore afterwards.


I doubted anyone believed what the three were saying.  At the same time, nobody here was in a position to walk away in response to this unconfirmed information.

I suppose not.

“Tattletale, see to the interrogation,”  Coil ordered.

“Okay.”

“That leaves the remainder of us to decide on a way of rescuing the others.”

Planning time!


[Session 2]


I fidgeted.  The idea of Brian in the hands of the Nine was… daunting.

Yeeah. He’s probably not having a good time, even if they decided they benefit more from keeping him alive or even unharmed for some reason.

Was Siberian eating him alive, literally?  Was he at the mercies of Mannequin?  Jack could be torturing him for details on us.  Or he could be in Bonesaw’s clutches.

Or all of the above. Restrained using Mannequin’s chains, his toesies being eaten while Bonesaw operates on his head and Jack tortures him in the middle?

Chances were good that they were pissed.  Jack excepted, maybe.  He’d seemed to like our ambush.  In any event, any anger or sadistic tendencies were likely to be taken out on Brian.

Makes sense that he would like it. It came as a surprising and unusual move, adding some spice to the feast that Brockton Bay is to him.

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[El Goonish Shive panel]

Pandora: Don’t. Be. Boring.

(#I don’t think this is the first time I’ve compared Jack to Pandora?)


Fuck.  I kept imagining uglier and uglier possibilities.

You need to keep that imagination in check. :/

“They’re going to be waiting and ready.  We’ll need help, I think,” I said.

But how? Most of the help you could find are in an alliance that’s only not against you by a technicality. Although… the Protectorate might be persuaded to help, I suppose, and the Crew are being paid by Coil anyway.

…please bring in the Crew.

“Help?” Trickster turned my way.  “You’re forgetting that the rest of the factions in the city have made a pact against us.”

“Not everybody there agreed,” I said.  “There was one group at the meeting that didn’t agree to the pact.”

It’s the Crew, right? They just agreed to follow the money, which appeared to be on the pact’s side.

Please be the Crew.

“Am I remembering wrong?”  Trickster asked.  “Coil, Merchants, Chosen, Faultline’s group…”

“That’s right,” I said.

If you hadn’t noticed, I am very on board with bringing Faultline’s Crew in on this.

Y’know, if I was being too subtle about it.

“What are you thinking, then?”  Sundancer asked.

“Coil,” I said, “You got some surveillance gear for Tattletale, right?  Can I see it?”

…hm?

Dammit.


Trickster accompanied me.  We didn’t get the benefit of Bitch’s dogs.  She’d wanted to check on her territory and take care of her dogs.  I’d grudgingly agreed that she should take care of that, and Trickster and I had set off alone.

Hm, seems like we might learn some things about Trickster on the way. This seems set up for some interesting one-on-one interactions between Skitter and Trickster.

I gave him a sidelong glance as we ascended the stairs of the empty apartment building.  What had Cherish said?  Scared little boy?

I didn’t really comment on that part of it, because that’s honestly the least interesting part of what she said to me. Leaders being more scared and insecure than they appear is a Thing that I’m not really surprised to see pop up.

Though it is an interesting tidbit that informs some of Trickster’s behavior. He does a pretty decent job at hiding his fear when in the company of other teams, but he may be overcompensating, possibly lashing out, acting crabby and angry instead of letting his true feelings show.

My choice of the word “crabby” was not a coincidence, in case any Homestucks were wondering. This trait reminds me a lot of a certain other K-named leader of a dysfunctional team.

She blames you.  They all do.  I could remember Sundancer’s remarks on the drama in the group and how lonely it was to be around them.  I recalled Genesis seeming less than thrilled when her team arrived last night.  Was Trickster at the center of it?  He was more ruthless than his comrades, which was interesting because his power was the least lethal.

Said other leader is also one of the least capable fighters on his team.

Also yeah, I’ve been pretty much assuming Trickster was fairly central to the Traveler troubles ever since 6.8. But Noelle’s situation (which is what I believe the “blame” bits refer to, although that could also have to do with their shared backstory) certainly doesn’t help.

It might have been a point of contention.  But what would he have done that the others would blame him for?

Oops, I just answered what I think that’s all about before it came up.

Although I guess I didn’t give specifics. There are so many unknowns about Noelle’s situation, and there are so many things people might feel someone did wrong in handling it, or causing it. And that’s if it’s even that situation and not their backstory, which is shrouded in even more mystery.

If we pull in my somewhat weak “Travelers are in trouble with Cauldron” theory, maybe Cherish was saying that the Travelers saw Trickster as responsible for that trouble, or for getting them involved with Cauldron in the first place.


Whatever the case, I think we might be in for some answers here.


Could I comment on that?  Should I?

Probably not. Trickster has already suggested you should mind your own business once, way back in 6.8. He probably would not take kindly to it.

Though you have gotten to know him better since then (mostly offscreen, but still).

I remained silent.  We exited the stairwell at the fifth floor and entered a dark hallway.  I clicked on a flashlight, and we made our way down the hall.  Trash was piled everywhere, and I was all too aware of the maggots that were crawling on the floor, barely visible in the dim light.

Sometimes this power is not that great.

“Which way?” he asked.

I pointed.  A side benefit of my power was that it made it pretty damn easy to maintain my sense of direction.

Makes sense. She has total awareness of thousands of reference points without having to see them.

We tried the doors for the two apartments that led in the right direction.  Both were locked.

Trickster touched the doorknob, then looked across the floor at the trash in the hallway.  The doorknob disappeared, and a chunk of wood fell to the ground.

Heh, nice.

He repeated the process with the internal mechanisms, and the lock was effectively transported away.  He opened the door and walked inside, going straight for the windows.

Screw “alohomora”, this is a way cooler way to open a lock.


“Done this before?” he asked.

I shook my head.

Done what?

I guess this wasn’t the destination so much as a convenient way to go there?

I was gathering my bugs, the stronger fliers, and drawing out lines of silk.  Trickster handed me the individual components.  A small spy camera, no larger than a tube of lipstick, and a similar microphone.

The camera also shoots lasers that can be amplified, divided and directed using make-up mirrors.

The microphone turns into a chainsaw.

And they can both be used as actual lipstick.

My bugs bound them together with silk and then stretched out more to distribute the lifting among the dragonflies, bumblebees and wasps.

So right now it seems the plan is to spy on someone by having the bugs carry the spying equipment. Fair enough, but why?

One outside-the-box possibility would be to establish safe communication. Taylor could write things using bugs and have the recipients respond using the microphone, while they wouldn’t be able to attack.

But if the recipients actually are the Crew, I don’t see why that would be needed. The Protectorate, on the other hand, it could be worth doing with.

“Okay, let’s see,” I muttered.

“Testing, testing, one, two, three…“  My swarm managed some semblance of the words I wanted, a mix of buzzing, chirps and clicks to form the right pitch.

Oh hell yes, that’s so much cooler than the writing idea. But it looks like I was barking up the right tree!

So if they keep the microphone out of sight, it’ll come across as talking to the swarm. That’s awesome.

Some sounds were hard or impossible to make.  The ‘puh’, ‘buh’ and ‘muh’ sounds didn’t form, and I struggled to form something that sounded like a ‘t’ in the middle of a word.

Ah, yeah, the swarm doesn’t exactly have lips.

It was intelligible, but only barely.

I say embrace the alienness of it.


It would have to do.

I ensured the rigging around the camera was more or less steady and then sent the swarm out the window.  I relied on my power to keep track of it while I opened the laptop Coil had provided and turned on the video feed.  When it had arrived outside the PHQ headquarters, I drew it together into a densely packed human form.

I love it. This way she’s safe if they attack, but she can communicate with them, and as long as she can keep the equipment out of the way of the attacks (and continue to have a large enough swarm), she can maintain contact. And hey, this’ll reinforce rumors that she has the power to turn into a swarm, if the PRT has heard of that.

Also: Ah yes, the Protectorate/Parahuman HeadQuarters headquarters.

It took six and a half minutes for the Protectorate to react to the figure.  That bothered me, on a level.

You’d think they’d be a little more alert, especially with the Nine in town and after one of their own.

Were they disorganized?  Or was it difficulty in communicating and marshaling their forces when they didn’t have phones or other means of passing on alerts?  They gathered in the lobby.

I suppose that’s fair, but if Coil can get new phones that work, why not the Protectorate? Although they do pose a risk if Shatterbird realizes they have them.

I adjusted the camera the insects were carrying and made out Weld, Kid Win, Clockblocker, Miss Militia, Battery and Legend.

This is a very good assortment of characters to find! I very much like all of them.

There were three more capes I didn’t recognize.  Members of Legend’s team?

Hmm. I would’ve suggested that Chariot was one of them (as the only current Ward that Taylor hasn’t seen), but I think he’s too young for Taylor to think he’d be a member of “Legend’s team”, which sounds like it refers to the Protectorate rather than the Wards. But hey, maybe he’s not visibly that young.

More likely, new characters!

(They may not be allowed to help out here by Jack’s rules.)


Seeing them gave me pause.

Are you thinking about the rules, worrying that they might break them?

As Miss Militia stepped outside, I pulled on the headphones, and Trickster did the same.

“Skitter?” Miss Militia asked.

Yep, that is totally her standing there in the lobby. All mammalian and everything.

Something like that,” I replied using my swarm.  “I wanted to talk.

“Given what happened the last time you were here, I’m not sure we’re on speaking terms.”

Oh yeah, they did kinda break in and steal important data, as well as take over the body of one of their members and scare her out of town by making it almost kill her. That’s a thing that happened.

We have two of the Slaughterhouse Nine in custody.  We are prepared to turn one over into your custody.

Now that ought to cause some raised eyebrows.

“What?  I didn’t hear that.”

Damn.  It sounded natural in my head, as I got them to make the noise, but I wasn’t quite there yet.

Well, when Taylor gets the point through, anyway.

Maybe it would have been better to just pass a phone to her.  I’d gone this route for the dramatic touch, and because I hadn’t wanted them to trace us.

But the dramatic touch is awesome.


I rephrased, “Shatterbird and Cherish have been captured.  We will deliver Cherish to you if you wish.  We are done interrogating her.

“Please take her? She’s driving us insane with her babble. Seriously, if you don’t, we’re literally just gonna put her out on the sea tied to a bouy.”

“Interrogation.  You mean torture, don’t you?” Legend asked from where he stood in the doorway.

I take it he’s heard Shadow Stalker’s perspective.

No.

“Why?”  Miss Militia asked.  “Why the offer?”

She’s a sharp one.

You can put her in secure custody, and we need your help.

“For?”

The Nine have captured Grue.  We mounted one successful attack this morning, we got two of theirs for one of ours.  They will be ready for a rescue attempt.  They know our powers.  Help us attack.  Help us catch them off guard a second time and stop them for good.

Taylor’s getting better at her pitches, with that last sentence. That’s gotta be at least somewhat tempting, if the Protectorate (more importantly, Legend) is willing to believe they can do this.


“You’re not only asking us to fight the Nine, but you want us to fight alongside notorious villains.”

I mean, yes. It works against Endbringers, does it not? And the Nine were literally introduced in the story on nearly equal footing with the Endbringers when it comes to this kind of thing.

So I was notorious now?  Huh.  Couldn’t let that distract me.  “I’m offering you Cherish.

Heh, I like that Taylor gets to have this little moment of “is that really a word that describes me these days?”

I could make out Miss Militia shaking her head.  “I’ll be blunt, Skitter.  I’m not Armsmaster.  I don’t have a stake in personal glory or renown.  I’m not going to pussyfoot around, either.

To be fair, Armsy didn’t really pussyfoot around either, much.

Put a bullet in her skull and be done with it.  There’s a kill order on them, nobody’s going to charge you for murder.”

That’s honestly fair.

But hey, if there’s a kill order, why not help try to kill them?

It is literally your job.


Then work with us because it’s the best way to stop the Nine.

“I refused Hookwolf when he made the same offer, and I’m going to refuse you.  The capes on my teams are good people.  I won’t throw away their lives with a reckless attack.

Okay, that is a fair enough argument. But also, you don’t know the girl you’re talking to all that well. If Taylor plans it, it may not be cautious (Grue), but it won’t be reckless (Hookwolf).

It will be tactical.

We’re going to develop our own strategies, plan, and find a safe way to target them.”

And civilians die in the meantime.”  I retorted.  Grue dies in the meantime, if he wasn’t dead already.

Acting fast would definitely be preferable.

I wonder what Legend is thinking in the background of Skitter’s and Miss Militia’s latest few paragraphs.

“We’ve tried the same strategies we use against Endbringers.  Multiple teams, allying with locals.  Sometimes we get one of them.  Sometimes we get three or four.  But we lose people, lots of people, in the process.

Because the Nine are good at dealing with those exact tactics.

The remaining members of their group always find some way of escaping. The fact that we tried and failed in going all-out gives them notoriety.  They bounce back after an attack like that, and they bounce back hard, with creeps, lunatics and killers flocking to them for the chance at that same sort of glory.”

Miss Militia is making good points, though I do think Skitter still has some things she should point out. Like exactly how the ambush they did on the Nine worked, by not letting the Nine use their skills in dealing with crowds.


The difference between us and Hookwolf is that we’ve succeeded.  We have two of them in our custody.  You can’t bide your time, organize, and wait for an opportune moment.  They have years of experience fighting people who do that. 

So… attack at an inopportune moment to catch them off guard?

Anything you try, they’ve probably dealt with.  We win by catching them off guard with powers they don’t know about, powers they can’t expect and interactions between powers.  Calculated recklessness.

That’s a good way to put it!

“We can handle that on our own, with more calculation and less recklessness.”

You’re missing the point. The recklessness is important.

He’s studied you.  For any member of your team with more than three months of experience, he already knows everything they can do, their tricks and individual talents.  You have powers we need.  We have knowledge on their location, firepower of our own and two captives.  We’ll only pull this off if we work together.

“You don’t have powers they don’t know about.”

Also, Imp’s gotta be super good for the “powers they can’t expect”.

“Putting our lives in your hands,” Miss Militia replied.

Only as far as we’d be relying on you,” I answered her.

Yeah, this would be a mutual thing.

“Who are you, Skitter?”  Legend asked.  He floated closer to my swarm-decoy.  “I can’t get a read on your personality or motivations, and that’s without touching on what came up at the close of the Endbringer event.”

Speaking of changing the subject, his thoughts come to the surface!

Skitter really isn’t an easy one to figure out when you don’t know her or her story, is she.

i'm complicated

[El Goonish Shive panel]

Diane: I’m complicated!


Also apparently Legend has been floating this whole time without it being mentioned, heh.


My teammate is in the hands of the Nine, they could be murdering more people right this second, and you’re talking about me, of all people?

To be fair, figuring out your personality and motivations is relevant to whether they should take your word on any of this.

“If we’re going to offer you help, we should know who we’re interacting with,” he said.

Exactly.

I glanced at Trickster, then back at the image on the screen.  “What do you want to know?“

“We’ve talked with the people in your territory.  Between what they say and what came out at the hospital, I can’t help but wonder at your motives.”

It all comes back to protecting people from bullies, even if she puts certain people (Dinah) above others.

There’s someone specific I want to help.  If I can improve the lives of others at the same time, then all the better.

“So where do you stand, then?  Where do you see yourself in terms of the sliding scale of good and evil, heroes and villains?”

Damn, Legend’s getting into the deep stuff.

I’d say Taylor’s a good villain. It’s not one sliding scale.

I almost laughed, and some of my humor must have translated in a mental direction to my bugs, because they started making a noise that wasn’t speech.  I stopped them.

I’m not sure I like the idea of hearing a swarm of bugs trying to emulate human laughter.

It wouldn’t have sounded much like laughter anyways.  “All of the above?  None of the above?  Does it matter?  Some of us wear the villain label with pride, because they want to rebel against the norms, because it’s a harder, more rewarding road to travel, or because being a ‘hero’ often means so very little. 

Chaotic…

But few people really want to see themselves as being bad or evil, whatever label they wear.

Some people do embrace that – Jack being one of them, I would think – but yeah, many of the best villains (best in the fictional character sense) are among those who think what they’re doing is right.

I’ve done things I regret, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’ve walked the roads in between.  The sliding scale is a fantasy.  There’s no simple answers.

It’s honestly about time Taylor got the chance to actually put this into words to say to someone else.

Also, why is Trickster here, narratively speaking? Is his presence as Taylor says this relevant?


“There can be.  You could do what’s right.”

That’s… pretty much what she’s been trying to do for most of the story. The only difference is she decided to do it via the villainous path because she wanted friends.

I was getting an inkling of what Bitch referred to as ‘words’.  Prattle that meant so very little in the face of what was happening in the present.  Was this the kind of irritation, impatience and anger she felt with so many social interactions?

“You talk too much.”

I clenched my fist.  “Speak for yourself.  You want to hide here while my group and Hookwolf deal with the brunt of the Nine’s attention.  Just like you did with the ABB.

And when the threat is defeated, Piggot swoops in and twists it into the PRT’s credit.

“That happened under Armsmaster’s leadership.  You can’t blame us for being intelligent about how we go about this.”

Pfft! “You can’t blame us for the actions of a douche we put in charge!”

I was disappointed my swarm couldn’t convey my anger.  “I can blame you for being cowards.  I’m going.  If you want to talk about morality, start by talking to Armsmaster.

Touché.


“Can’t.  He’s gone.”

Ah yes, he’s fleeing the Nine, right. If he’s made it out of town, does that mean Cherish was keeping shut about that too?

I paused.  Did the Nine get him?  “Dead?“

“Escaped from his hospital room.  With our attention on the Nine, we don’t have the resources to track him down.”

Does he know about the rules?

Does he know about the Nine’s threat to hit the city with a plague if he leaves?

Thank you, Taylor.

“I hope so.”

That’s less than reassuring.

At least the Undertravelers have captured their main way of finding out if he did. And hey, they might be able to use her to find him, too.

Or Tattletale could do her thing, that might work.


Fuck.  Not only was that one more uncertainty stacked onto everything, but Armsmaster was the closest thing I had to a nemesis.

He might not be as open to conversation as Amy was. Hell, as far as Taylor knows, he might be out for revenge, though I’m not sure he’d do that. (I believe Taylor has a distorted image of Colin’s personality.)

Having him running around the city was not a good thing.

At least it provides a reason for him to have stuck around as a part of the story while he was in his house arrest. This way, we’ve been keeping up with him, and his return into the main stomping ground of the cast is less jarring.

For a brief moment, I contemplated having Trickster teleport me to ground level, so it was me talking to the local heroes, and not just my swarm.

Would he even be able to replace her with the swarm? I would imagine the bugs would count separately. I suppose he could replace her with something else, though.

I could tell them that I was putting my well-being in their hands, risking them arresting me, as a gesture of good faith.

Could work, but likely to backfire.

Except I couldn’t help but see myself from their perspective.  Warlord of the Boardwalk.  I’d rotted off Lung’s manhood and carved out his eyes.  I’d played an undefined role in Armsmaster’s downward slide.  I’d robbed a bank, terrorized hostages with poisonous spiders, attacked their headquarters and used insects dipped in capsaicin to cripple their junior heroes with incapacitating pain.  All the while, I’d acted with a seemingly ambiguous morality.

…yeah I can see how she’d be notorious.

Was I a good guy doing all the wrong things?  Or did they see me as dangerous and unhinged?

Maybe a bit of both?


Oh, and I’m sure Clockblocker still has nightmares about insects.


There was no way I could put myself in their hands without knowing what they thought about me, and frankly, wasn’t sure how to think about myself.

Who are you, Skitter?

How the hell were they supposed to make a call?

So.  You in?”  I tried, instead.

I could see him look back at Miss Militia, who shook her head.  “Miss Militia runs the local team, so it’s ultimately her call, but… we’ve talked about it, and I agree with her.  No.

That’s a shame. 😦

Although I suppose there is one more option – right, Coil?

The risks outweigh the potential benefits.”

My heart sank.  “Then one final tip.  You should know that Bonesaw’s done some surgery on all of her people.  Implanted protection for the more vulnerable parts of their bodies.  They’re tougher than they look.

Good to be aware of that.

“Thank you,” Legend said.  “You might not believe me, but I wish you the best of luck.”

I believe him. He may not be willing to take the risks involved in helping out, but he can relate to the desire to get rid of the Nine and rescue a teammate.

I snarled as I shut the laptop and turned away from the scene, calling my swarm back to me.

Looks like Taylor didn’t believe him, though. Or thought it hypocritical.

Also this has to look pretty cool on the other end, with the swarm dissolving from its humanoid form and flying out.


“That didn’t work,” Trickster said.

“No.  And we just wasted a lot of time.”

It was worth a shot.

“We’ll have Shatterbird working with us, thanks to Regent, and we’ve got Imp as our man on the inside, maybe.

Oh yeah, Regent’s control of Shatterbird ought to help a lot even without a hostage exchange. There’s a lot of firepower there.

We’re going to outnumber the remaining five or six of them, right?  It’s not hopeless.”

Yeah. Difficult but not impossible!

“They’ll be ready for us.  They’re entrenched, they have a hostage, and we’re totally unable to fight two of them.  How long is it going to take to extricate Grue from whatever cage they have him in?”

Fuck, she’s right though.

“It’s not hopeless,” he repeated.  “Whatever they’re doing to keep Grue prisoner, if I can see him, I can free him.”

…which means they’ll have taken measures to keep him out of line of sight, if they’ve figured out Trickster’s power.

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Would it reassure you to know that your conversation with the local heroes gave me an idea of my own?”

Ooh, whatcha got?


My head snapped in Trickster’s direction.

“Come on.  We should hurry,” he said.

Dammit!


Trickster’s notably upbeat here at the end. He’s clearly doing his best to cheer up Skitter, and I appreciate that.


End of Snare 13.7

This went places I didn’t expect. Instead of jumping straight to trying to rescue Grue, we got so much good stuff. Cherish trying to out-Tattle Tattle, her read on KarkatTrickster and Taylor’s musings on that, the idea of Cherish being tied to a fucking bouy in the middle of the bay, Trickster and Tattle awkwardly being like “Coil totally isn’t just using us all, we all believe that, right guys”, Taylor being awesomely dramatic with her swarmophone, Legend and Taylor waxing philosophical about good and evil and identity…

Yeah, it’s safe to say I like this one.

Next time: Trickster has an idea and I have no clue what it might be. All I know is it’s something he could be inspired to come up with by Taylor’s conversation with the heroes. I’m pretty sleepy right now, though, so maybe some theories will occur to me by the time I start the next chapter. I’ll keep you posted if they do.

Finally, before I go off to snooze in my food and eat my bed, I want to officially predict that we’re getting less vague details about the Travelers’ backstory soon. Hell, maybe even next chapter, but I’m thinking next Arc at the latest. We might have a Traveler POV Interlude at the end of this Arc, even. It’d be cool if it were Noelle’s.

So yeah! That’s it from me tonight. See you next time!

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