Monarch 16.2: Flicker Dance

Source material: Worm, Monarch 16.2

Blogged: March 24, 2019


Howdy!

So, what’s next? Well, I stand by what I wrote about 14 hours ago:

Next chapter, I suppose Skitter, Grue, Regent and Imp will be heading towards Bitch’s territory to see if they can find her or if she’s been captured, while the Travelers do the same for their missing members. If any of the three missing teammates have been captured, this all becomes a lot harder, as a custody break could potentially warrant an Arc in itself and they have a lot more things to do here.

It’d make sense for her to have been captured, honestly. And hey, I’d like to see that custody break!

Let’s see if we can’t find Bitch.


“We’re not going to be able to take on Dragon without a plan,” Grue said, “A damn good one.”

Yeah, Skitter, you’re gonna have to pull out some of your best brain work here.

“You taking point on this?” Trickster asked.  He stepped forward to unlock the gate and held it open for us.

As in whether the Undersiders take the lead here? In other words putting Skitter in charge of both groups?

I suppose they did need to stick together due to the lack of communications.

I knew Grue well enough that I noticed the delay before he responded. “I don’t have a plan, but I’ll take lead if we need it.”

The leadership transfer isn’t fully official yet, but I have little doubt Skitter’s going to end up taking the lead before the Arc is over.

Was he hesitating?  We hadn’t really asked a lot of Grue since he’d been taken by the Nine.  Lisa had expressed concerns that he might be shaky if we put him under the pressures a leader had to handle, and the others had apparently agreed.  They’d talked about nominating me.

‘Course, this’d be a bad time for Taylor to pipe up with “or I can take it”. That’s stuff you discuss within the group first.

I wasn’t sure I was up for the role, but I was even less sure about having Grue calling the shots when he might shut down or get distracted at a crucial moment.

I do wonder how Grue’s going to take this when he finds out about the others’ concerns. On one hand, he’s compromised and he knows it, but on another hand, being the strong guy who can protect his team is a point of pride for him, and he might not appreciate being… patronized, in a sense?

I didn’t know what form his trauma might take in this kind of situation.  Our side consisted of Trickster and Sundancer from the Travelers, with Regent, Shatterbird, maybe Victor, Grue, Imp and me. Grue’s own self-preservation or his feelings for Imp and me could cause him to play it too safe when we needed to make a decisive strike.

Yeah, that could be an issue. To be fair, that’s been a thing with Grue since the beginning, just not to such an extreme.

“Actually-” I started to interject, but the words disappeared the second everyone turned my way.

Dammit. Taylor, you’re so concerned with your image as ruler of your territory, but you don’t recognize the way this kind of interjection messes with your team’s image?

I suppose she doesn’t expect to find a better time to bring it up with Grue before they get into a high-stakes situation, but still.

Grue’s attention, in particular, was making it hard to be confident.  I didn’t want to hurt him, and trying to figure out how to phrase things without hurting his feelings, raising a sensitive subject and actually saying what I wanted to say…

These are difficult things to talk about.

And they did have that bit last chapter about being honest about what they each were thinking.

We’d stepped outside.  The half-finished building that loomed over the entrance to Coil’s underground base sheltered us, allowing intermittent sunlight through where plywood hadn’t yet been erected to fill the gaps.  Patches of bright and dark.  I turned and looked at Grue, trying to read him, to see if there was some clue about what he’d say.

Regent spoke up, “Spit it out.  Actually what?”

Skitter: “Actually… uh… did you know that cashews, cashews come from a fruit? It’s called a cashew apple.”
Sundancer: “Technically, the cashew apple grows from the cashew nut, even though it’s in-between the branch and the nut.”
Skitter: “Really?”
Sundancer: “Also, botanically speaking the cashew apple isn’t a fruit, it’s a hypocarpium. The true fruit is the drupe around the nut.”
Skitter: “Huh. I didn’t know that.”
Regent: “That’s all well and good, but what does any of it have to do with Grue taking the lead?”
Skitter: “Cashews are interesting.”

“Can I?”  I asked.  “Can I take point here?”

Ahh, that’s a decent way of doing it. Just asking, requesting permission.

When in doubt, keep it simple.

Yeah, fair enough.

“You have a plan?” Trickster asked.

I don’t think she does. Yet.

“Maybe.  No, plan is the wrong word.  Call it a strategy.”  I was studying our group, assessing the tools we had at our disposal.  “But it’s becoming a plan as I think about it, and I think Imp plays the key role here.”

Interesting, considering Dragon’s immune.

Does it have to do with how Dragon’s reinforcements will have a harder time dealing with her?

“Fuck yeah!”

Hehe. Makes sense, with her desire to find her niche on the team.

Imp?” Trickster asked.  “Dragon can see her, can’t she?  She’s the most useless person here.  I mean, I know I’m not in any shape to fight, but at least my power does something.”

It could also have something to do with other qualities she has?

“Fuck you,” Imp snarled.

“No,” I said.  “We can definitely use her.”

“Let’s hear the plan,” Grue said.  I was relieved that there was no anger or irritation in his voice, nothing to indicate he was upset over my co-opting the leadership role.

That’s good. 🙂

“The first priority will be making sure Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic are okay.  I’m thinking the easiest way to do that will be to pay the heroes a visit at the PRT headquarters.”

Ohhh. Yeah, that makes sense. Infiltrate them and find out if they’ve made arrests.

I wonder if they have security measures that can detect Imp. At least they have ones that may force her to wait until someone else passes through, like iris scanners.

“Dangerous,” Grue said.

“And it’s something Dragon will anticipate, I think,” I said.  “It’s a safe bet to say she’s smart, even if the actual machines aren’t getting her full attention or if they’re dumber because their artificial intelligences don’t function at the same level as an actual human brain.

So if it’s something she’ll anticipate, why are you still suggesting it?

She’s still organizing the suits, and she’s going to be able to anticipate that we might go for the most vulnerable elements of their operation, the local heroes.”

“You’re thinking we go after them?”

Taylor is simultaneously making a case for why they should and why they shouldn’t.

“We have to.  The individual suits are going to be tough to take down, if not outright impossible.  We can take down the local heroes and get leverage, information, or at least stop them from interfering when we go up against one or more of Dragon’s suits.”

Hm, yeah, fair.

“Makes sense,” Trickster said.  “Unless we’re putting ourselves in that worst-case scenario where we’re dealing with multiple suits plus the local heroes.”

“It’s possible.  Even here, I’m willing to bet my left hand that there’s going to be a Dragon suit parked on the roof of that building, or somewhere near by.”

There are “only” seven suits in Brockton Bay, unless Dragon’s anti-Nine suit and Defiant are still around, but the Undertravelers can’t rule out that there are more of them. The only solid clue they have to that is that Grue and Imp’s territory wasn’t attacked.

But it’s still possible for those seven suits to move around, leaving one or more of the territories un-babysat.

“And you’re thinking we use Imp?”  Grue asked.

I nodded.  “We can leave her there as a saboteur, maybe, or just have her in place to get information or methodically take threats out of action.  But it won’t be that simple.  They’ll have security cameras throughout the building.  Which means we need to take them out if she’s going to walk around without a problem.

Hmmm.

Regent, can Shatterbird kill all the cameras and lights in the building without killing anyone?  Nothing explosive.”

That might work.

“A gentle break?  I’d have to be close.  Closer if I don’t know where it is.”

“And by ‘I’ you mean Shatterbird?” Grue asked.

Yeah, but Regent still needs to stay relatively close to Shatterbird.

“Yeah.  I can’t get that far from her though.”

“I can probably find the location to target with my bugs.  But getting Shatterbird in close means we need a distraction.  So this is a two-pronged plan.”

I suppose if nothing else they have decent numbers, even with three heavyhitters missing.

Communications may be an issue, though.

“The problem with that,” Grue said, “Is this is also a plan with a lot of steps, each dependent on the success of the step before it, as well as the success of the second ‘prong’.  If we fuck up or run into a snag somewhere along the line, it falls apart.”

Which is why you probably shouldn’t have gone into so much detail on-screen.

There’s no way this plan will survive contact with the enemy at this point.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And we’re going to be outnumbered and outgunned, even if we don’t count the squads of PRT uniforms that are going to be stationed in there.But I think we can use that to our advantage.”

???

How?

“Disguises?” Sundancer asked.

…intriguing idea.

“No.  Not disguises.  Let’s hurry.  We’re working with a hard time limit, we have to travel on foot, and we’re going to be forced to stay out of the open as we travel.”

Alright, at least they’re leaving this one part unspoken, by the looks of it.

Grue filled the area with darkness as we approached, and then cleared enough away for us to talk.  With luck, it would help keep them from detecting us with any of the countless tools tinkers like Dragon, Chariot or Kid Win had at their disposal.  Radar, thermal imaging, stuff I’d never even heard of.

Yeah, radar, sonar and thermal should all be stopped by the darkness.

Tinkers probably have some more techniques, though.

They had modified the PRT building since our last visit.  The windows had been destroyed when Shatterbird had attacked the city, and were now filled with screens and plywood.

Less material for Regent to work with.

PRT uniforms stood on the rooftop, observing the surrounding area.  Trucks ringed the area, each with police officers, detectives in bulletproof vests and more PRT uniforms standing nearby.

Keeping a watch out for flying villains like, y’know, Shatterbird and Genesis…

One of Dragon’s suits was perched on the rooftop of the tallest building in the area.  The legs were long enough that the knees rose above the body, ending in four sharp points, and wing panels seemed to join each of the legs, like the flaps of skin between the legs of a flying squirrel.

Sounds pretty cool! And a little goofy, with the raised knees.

The actual body was low to the ground, with a long tail that had entwined from a point at the back of the rooftop to the front, caressing the corner closest to me.  The head swiveled slowly from side to side, scanning for threats.

It seems like a fusion of a flying squirrel, a frog and a long lizard. A fun dragon design.

It wasn’t the drone ship.  Good.  That would have been disastrous.  But I didn’t know what this suit did.  The feature that caught my eye was the wheel.  As big around as the suit was long, the spoked wheel ran through the shoulders of the suit, jutting straight up.

…strange. Does it rotate and shoot stuff?

It rotated slowly, arcs of electricity occasionally flashing between the center and the edges, killing any bugs that settled on the spokes and leaving a heavy scent of ozone in their wake.

Ah, so this is also protected like that. Interesting. I wonder if they all are or if it’s got to do with Dragon predicting this attack.

I described the general shape for them.

“Anyone recognize what Skitter’s describing?” Grue asked.

I suppose it’d make a lot of sense for Dragon to use one of the mechs she sent to the captured Undertravelers’ places (if they were indeed captured).

“That’s not the one that came after me,” Sundancer said.

“It’s in my territory,” Trickster said.  “Maybe she picked it to come after me?”

Hm, that’d make sense.

“How do you counter a teleporter?”  I asked.

By… blinding them. At least when they need line of sight like Trickster does.

So maybe this mech makes some kind of fog? Kind of counterproductive against the Undersiders but not ideal for the Travelers.

“With that thing, apparently,” Regent commented.  “So we’re dividing our group?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m tracking you guys with my bugs.  Take your time getting into position.  Better to take a bit longer than to alert them too early.  Grue’s with me.  Trickster, Imp and Sundancer stay here, keep out of sight at all costs.  Regent and Shatterbird, you stay here in the darkness for cover until we make a move, then head out and circle around.  When we’re all in place, I’ll let you know.”

Oh yeah, the bugs help with the communication issue at short ranges.

What are Trickster and Sundancer’s roles in the plan, I wonder?

Grue and I headed out, navigating through back alleys and side streets, detouring far enough away that the curve of the road kept us out of sight of the officers stationed by the intersection, with my swarm to check for any bystanders and Grue’s darkness to keep us off the armored mech’s radar.

A solid matchup.

 I used my bugs to start tracking the people inside the headquarters.

Heat and humidity were my allies here.  The main floors had open areas with desks and areas with blocks of cubicles, packed with officers working elbow to elbow.

Heat and humidity means a lot of bugs to draw from, right?

They’d worked long days, judging by the heavy taste of the sweat on their skin, and they’d let food pile up. With the general warmth of summer, bugs were secretly thriving.  Some vegetable mush had leaked from the trash can to the bottom of a bin, maybe spaghetti or some pizza sauce, and maggots were happily devouring a meal there.  Small flies had amassed where the trash hadn’t been promptly cleared away, and piles of paper offered a home to the enterprising spiders that wanted to devour this growing population of pests.

And the more hot and humid it is, the less the officers will think of the bugs that do show themselves until they begin acting distinctly Skitterish.

I’d worried I wouldn’t be able to get my bugs on everyone present without alerting them.  It wasn’t a problem in the end.  A small number of maggots could be delivered by a fly, dropped into the midst of an officer’s shoelaces, the pocket of their pants or the holster of their gun.

Heh, nice work. Paratrooper maggots!

From there, it was easy enough to keep track of where they were moving and what they were doing.  Counting the bodies, checking the various people inside, I could tell that Bitch, Genesis and Ballistic weren’t present.

Hmm. Here, anyway. But they’d probably be kept in special custody cells.

Nobody matched their build or style of dress, in costume or out.

Sometimes it stretches credibility a little that Skitter is able to get such accurate reads on people’s builds and clothes without outright covering them in bugs, but I’m used to that by now. I just don’t think I’ve actually brought it up before, so it was probably about time I said something about it.

On the third floor the three local members of the Protectorate were in the company of the Wards, a pair of PRT uniforms and the woman I took to be the Director.

…are they really down to just three local members? Miss Militia, Triumph, Assault, Armsmaster, Dauntless, Velocity, Battery… Huh, yeah, they are.

Honestly, it’s kind of surprising we haven’t seen any new capes surface in the wake of the Nine. Maybe they’re just taking their time like Taylor did, though.

Triumph seemed to be okay, I could sense the general shape of Miss Militia, as well as Assault.  I didn’t spot Prism, Cache or Ursa Aurora.  That was good.

Yeah, they’ve gone home. That’s the the one advantage you have here.

All of the Wards were present, too:  Weld, Clockblocker, Flechette, Kid Win, Vista, and Chariot.

At least they’ve got some numbers.

So is this a meeting? I mean, we’ve got everyone, no one’s on patrol, and the Jirector is here.

We had two big guns.  If we were willing to be monsters, to go all out, it would be a fairly simple matter to hit them with Shatterbird to slow them down, use Sundancer’s sun at maximum power, tear the building apart and incinerate the residents before everyone could clear out.

Harsh.

It wouldn’t even be hard.

It’s easy to be a monster…

But what was the point if we went that far?  I was in this to save Dinah.  It didn’t do any good if I ruined the lives of a hundred Dinahs in the process – the daughters and sisters of the employees here, fathers, mothers and other people who did nothing to get caught up in this war.

Not to mention that the people inside themselves don’t deserve it.

“This spot good?” Grue asked, stopping.

I looked around.  We didn’t have a view of the building, but we did have a view of Trickster.  Which is what we needed.

If they can see Trickster, he can see them, and thus teleport them. But where?

“It’s good.  One minute while I fill them in.”

“Feel confident?”

“Wish I had time to practice this before trying it in the field,” I replied.

Oooh, new technique?

“Yeah,” he answered.

I used my bugs to spell out the various information they needed.  The presence and location of the armored suit, the general number and location of the enemy forces and the floors they were currently on.  It took me a few minutes to spell everything out and verify that they understood.

Lots of intel to get through.

The plan called for a distraction.  Sundancer would take the lead on that.  I signaled the go-ahead, and she created her orb, shoving it down through the road’s surface.

Making it look like a straight solar attack… Wait, down? Are they trying to make it seem like they intend to burrow, like Sunny had tried to do to get away from Dragon?

However many thousands of degrees it was, it melted through pavement and bored into whatever pipes and drainage spaces were beneath the roads.

When it rose through an intersection some distance away, it was significantly larger.

Hm. So it’s not supposed to look like they’re tunneling right into the base.

Sundancer began bringing it steadily towards the headquarters, moving in towards the opposite face of the building that Grue and I were closest to.

At the very least, not through the ground.

The Protectorate headed to the windows to see what was happening.  I highlighted the window frame with my bugs, clustering them so a general rectangle surrounded the area.  Did Trickster have the ability to see them through the window?  It was hard to calculate the angles-

Poof, teleported inside along with Grue and Imp?

I found myself in the midst of the local heroes.  Bugs exploded out from within my costume, covering them.

Who did he switch you with?

Capsaicin-laced bugs found every uncovered eye, mouth and nose before they realized what had just happened.  My bugs could sense Triumph bending his knees to lunge for me-

Triumph: “Not again…”

So did Taylor just get teleported again, to confuse them? Maybe Trickster put the hero he switched Taylor with back in place so Triumph lunged on them instead?

And I’d shifted a few feet to the right.  Even as my orientation and senses were thrown by the sudden movement, my bugs let me figure out where I’d moved a fraction of a second before the enemy did.  I was already reaching for my baton, whipping it out to its full length.

Nice.

The bugs’ contribution to Taylor’s spatial awareness really helps when she’s working with Trickster like this.

Trickster switched me again before I could strike Miss Militia with my combat stick.  Vista was in front of me, and without really thinking about it, I struck her in the most vulnerable area I could reach, across the bridge of her nose, swatting her in the ear with a stroke in the opposite direction.

Oof.

Another swap, not a half-second later.  We were counting on my swarm-sense giving me the edge in this chaos, the close proximity and unclear positioning of their allies would keep them from hitting me with the worst of their powers.

It seems to be working so far.

I caught Miss Militia in the midsection with my baton, swung overhead to try to catch her hand, but missed when Trickster teleported me again.

This is reminding me of some shenanigans I had with Minecraft a while back.

I made a data pack intended to make every hostile and neutral mob more dangerous in interesting ways. (That’s what the llamas spitting fire was about – normally they spit at you once when you hurt them, which is relatively harmless, but I made their spit spawn a custom nether mob I’d created, called a “skitterflame”.)

In the pack, endermites – which I made spawn from Endermen, since they’re normally really rare and don’t spawn naturally – have this behavior where they teleport you to a random spot a short distance away from them for every five seconds you spend within five blocks of one (if there are multiple, the time is cut down). It makes them a rather confusing enemy to fight, and surprisingly deadly if a few of them gang up on you.

Assault kicked me before I could recover and strike my next target.  The hit didn’t feel that hard, but it sent me sliding across the floor, into a trio of chairs with plastic seats.

Makes sense – he doesn’t need the full impact to send a bunch of kinetic energy into you.

“The window!” Miss Militia choked out the orders through the pain of the capsaicin and the massed bugs.  “Block Trickster!”

That would really help you, yeah, but how do you intend to do it? Trickster could teleport whoever or whatever you put in the way.

I climbed to my feet.  I’d waited too long to signal for an exit.  The plan had been to bring Grue in as I wrapped up my initial attack, let him use his darkness to disable, steal whatever power would serve best and dispatch the enemy.

Ahh, makes sense. Better get that done quickly, then.

They’d caught on to what we were doing, and they were making their counter-move.  If Trickster couldn’t see me, he couldn’t swap me with anyone, meaning I was on my own.

My opponents were suffering, though.  Clockblocker was gone, teleported out as I’d teleported in.

Ooh, good choice. That’s one member you don’t want in close combat, and Grue’s darkness should help him evade Clocky while waiting to be tagged in… except Grue can’t cover himself because Trickster needs to see him. Hmm.

Miss Militia, Vista, Flechette, Triumph, Chariot and Kid Win were down, more or less out of commission with their eyes swollen shut and the bugs crawling into their ears and airways.

Damn, nice work!

At Miss Militia’s instruction, they had backed up to the window, blocking Trickster’s view.

Besides bringing Grue in, the plan had been for Trickster to swap the heroes out as he spotted them, using bystanders or any officers in the area.

Sooo why hasn’t he done that yet?

Right this moment, he should have eyes on the uniforms on the roof, could switch their locations with that of the heroes, but he wasn’t.  Maybe he felt it was more dangerous for me to be up against a cop with a gun or a PRT uniform with containment foam than against heroes we’d already disabled.

Hm, fair enough.

Or maybe he was fucking me over on purpose.  No, it didn’t make sense.  He had his teammates to rescue.  I was still suffering latent paranoia from Coil’s ‘test’.

Yeah, let’s keep that in check for now. There’s been enough paranoia these last few Arcs.

Still, the other heroes were more or less incapacitated.  That left me to deal with Weld, Assault, the two PRT officers and the Director.  She was an obese woman, two-hundred and fifty pounds at a minimum, with an unflattering, old-fashioned haircut that might have looked good on a model with the right clothes to go with it.

Are we talking, like, fifties’ fashion?

Neither Weld nor Assault were advancing, choosing to block my access to the exits.  The area was some kind of office, filled with desks, chairs, cubicles and computers.  More like an office building than I’d expected from a law enforcement facility.

What did you expect, exactly?

Though this isn’t exactly the sort of room in this building I’d expect them to have a meeting in.

“This-” the Director started, stopping to cough and gag as one of the capsaicin bugs found the inside of her mouth.  It had already smeared its payload along the inside of Vista’s nostril, so the payload wouldn’t be that intense.  “This was a mistake.”

Was it? I think the Undertravelers have a better thought out plan than you realize, Piggot.

“If it wasn’t a little reckless, Dragon would have probably anticipated it.”

Hm. In that sense, this is somewhat reminiscent of their tactics against the Nine.

“You’ve trapped yourself in here.  Two other Dragon models are already on the way.”

And we don’t even know what the one that’s already here does yet.

Fuck.

“Good,” I told her.  I was pretty sure I managed to hide the fact that I was lying through my teeth.

Pfft.

She straightened, pressing one hand to her right eye.  “Is this Tattletale’s plan?”

“Mine.”

Might as well take due credit.

“I see, and-”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Behind my back, Assault moved to kick one of the desks.  It went flying into the air in the same instant I threw myself to the ground.

Nice distraction, Piggot, but Skitter’s got too much spatial awareness.

I could feel the rush of wind as it passed over me, hurtling into a cubicle.  I scrambled for cover.

“Prescience.  Interesting,” the Director called out, as I ducked low and used the cubicles to hide.

That’s… not quite it, but sure, think that if you want.

“We assigned you a thinker-one classification, but perhaps we fell short.”

Wait, does she think this is Tattletale pretending to be Skitter?

No. No, Tattle’s been designated Thinker 7. She’s just saying they’ve caught on to Skitter having some additional uses of her power that warrant a secondary classification.

Which is true. A lot of what she does with her power isn’t fully described by Master.

“I really don’t care.”  I used my bugs to speak, so they couldn’t use my voice to pinpoint my location.  She was trying to distract me so the others could act, or buying the Dragon suits time to arrive.  I was calling in more bugs to the area and slowly gathering them around myself, now that I didn’t need to worry about people spotting them.

Sure, let’s get some more ammo in here.

And yeah, let’s ignore the distraction.

“You can see through their eyes, hear what they hear?  Can you see the suit that was outside?”

She can, but she doesn’t. But there are other ways to detect things with bugs.

The armored mech was moving, its limbs outstretched to catch the air with the flying-squirrel wing flaps.  Panels around its body were venting out hot air and giving it lift, and the giant wheel was tilted back at a forty-five degree angle.  The suit was clearly designed to fly forward, relying on the wing flaps to make intricate and acrobatic twists and turns in the air.

So then its weakness might be getting attacked from the side in mid-air?

Except Dragon would’ve thought of that.

Sundancer’s miniature sun was blocking the suit’s progress, forcing it to make lengthy detours and twist in the air, stalling and dropping several feet before it could catch the air beneath it again.

Again with the dropping, except this is for different reasons…

More than once, it lost more ground than it gained while retreating from the burning orb.

Nice work, Sunny.

“Yeah.  It’s handled,” I called out, from behind the desk.  My swarm felt the Director make a hand motion, apparently to signal Weld.

“She’s over there!”

If she thinks Skitter can see through the bugs, doing this quietly is probably not a huge priority.

As he began advancing towards me, I stayed low and retreated into a cubicle.

The Director spoke, “More will come.  Not just the seven suits that are currently in Brockton Bay.

Good job, Jirector, you just gave them an important bit of info.

So long as you hold this city, Dragon will bring in more suits on a weekly basis.  Dragon will shore up weaknesses, augment strengths.  If you’re lucky here, you might win.  I’ll credit you that.

She’s lying through her teeth.

But you won’t get two or three days of rest before you have to fight again.  How many times can you abandon your territory before your followers abandon you?”

That’s… actually been a bit of a recurring issue over the last few Arcs.

(I suppose she might not be lying.)

The swarm’s buzz helped mask the location of my voice.  “How many times can you afford to let the crooks clean up your messes before the public realizes your Protectorate is little more than good PR, fancy talk and wasted tax dollars?”

Oof, burn.

“We’re doing more than you think,” she responded.

“And less than the people need.  I’m filling a void you people left behind.  If you were doing a satisfactory job, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing.”

…she has a point.

Come on, come on.

“Don’t act stupider than you are, Skitter.  The city can’t step in to help the people in your territories because we can’t trust you.  Your Bitch is already mauling anyone that sets foot in her territory.

“She offers food, shelter and care to anyone who agrees to work under her, but the Dockworkers Association cannot suggest that anyone accept her offers, as her ulterior motives are unknown.”

Any electrician, carpenter or doctor that we send into your territory might come back to us dying from anaphylactic shock.”

I would’ve said that didn’t match Skitter’s MO, but then again, Triumph.

I shut my mouth.  I didn’t have a response to that.  At least, I didn’t have a response which wasn’t a mere, I promise I’ll be good.

Hehe.

It wasn’t worth worrying about, because I didn’t get the chance to reply anyways.  There was a crashing sound and the lights cracked.

Go Shatterbird!

Fragments and splinters of glass showered down on top of us as everything suddenly went dark.  To take maximum advantage of this shift in circumstance, I complemented the effect by moving the bugs I’d gathered just outside the windows, blocking the meagre light that was filtering through the screens and plunging the entire room into a dimly lit twilight.

Niice.

And Taylor is far more accustomed to working in darkness than any of her enemies here.

I drew my knife and bolted.  Glass crunched underfoot and caused my feet to slip under me as I ran.

*stock slipping scramble sound effect*

Assault charged my way, one arm still covering his mouth.  More bugs covered the lenses of his mask, but they slid off him as if he were oiled.  His power at work.

Is that him manipulation their kinetic energy, or does the ability allow him to reduce the friction on his own body?

With the bugs around me, I pulled a quick, crude decoy together, running in one direction as my bugs moved in another, slightly closer to him.

Nice.

In the dim, his mask partially covered, he went after the decoy.  When his hand passed through, he reached just a little further to grab a desk and heave it my way.

Nice recovery, dude.

Once again, I only barely managed to dodge by throwing myself to one side.  My landing was hard, undignified, and ended with the armor of my mask and shoulder hitting the corner where two walls met.

Oof.

“What are you hoping to accomplish?” the Director called out.

Well, there’s figuring out whether or not you’ve got some of their members, for one thing.

I stood, trying to look as if I was considering my answer.  Weld was approaching, and Assault stood ready to attack.  Not like he had anything to lose – I was cornered, quite literally.

Pfft.

8f5.gif

I turned the knife around in my hand so the blade pointed down and slashed to my right, cutting the bug-covered screen with a loose ‘x’.

Huh?

That would make sense as a way for someone else to signal her, but what is Taylor doing this for?

Assault lunged for me, crossing half the room with a single leap.  He was too late – I let myself fall through the third story window.

Oh, a window screen. I was picturing a computer screen.

Trickster, your turn.

The outdoors were startlingly bright after the gloom of the building’s interior.  I felt my hair whip around me for one second, then landed, sprawling, in a dim setting.

Now the question is who or what he switched Taylor with.

I hadn’t fallen the full distance.  I was inside again, surrounded by the other heroes.  I had only a second before they realized what I’d done.

Ooh, nice. So one of them is falling now, then? Or maybe she was swapped with some of the office equipment?

I turned and slashed the screen behind me, throwing myself from the window a second time.

Trickster being on the team leads to some really fun tactics, like “jump out third-story windows several times over the course of a few seconds”. His power is so good!

Again, Trickster swapped me with one of the heroes.  I landed with my feet skidding on the floor beneath me and caught the windowsill for balance.  I waved: my signal.

Alright, time to go!

“Get away from the window!”  Assault bellowed.

Ah, so she was switched with the heroes blocking the window earlier, opening that up.

Then I was teleported yet again.  I found myself back in the alleyway I’d been in with Grue.

So, uh, how are things going with Clockblocker and Grue? Which one did you just get swapped with? Grue, as intended, or did Grue get tagged by Clocky?

Clockblocker was facing away from me, Grue was gone.

Alright, Grue’s turn inside. Nice. So how’s Clocky doing?

A quick check showed he wasn’t moving.  Grue had caught him off guard, and his initiative had beat out Clockblocker’s concern about potentially disabling an ally.

Did Grue get him to freeze himself somehow?

Clockblocker was frozen by his own borrowed power.  Perfect.

Ohhh, of course.

Now, with the way the power is diminished, I wouldn’t expect him to stay that way for long. The power normally lasts 30 to 600 seconds, but when borrowed by Grue, I’d expect it to maybe last 3 to 60, if they’re lucky.

I reached behind my back and unspooled the length of thread.  My bugs took hold of it at various points along its length and began traveling across Clockblocker’s body, winding the silk cord around him and tying it in knots.

Good call.

With luck he wouldn’t be a threat even after he got loose.

I reached out with my power to assess the general situation. Grue’s darkness surrounded the area, keeping the officers and PRT uniforms at the blockades from opening fire.

Keep some bugs watching Clocky anyway.

The mechanical suit that had been perched on the rooftop nearby was on the ground now, fighting Sundancer, Shatterbird and Grue, the latter two of which were out in the open.

Wait, Grue’s not inside? Alright, guess there was some more switching around.

The plan was to avoid leaving cover, I thought.

Told ya it wouldn’t survive contact. 😛

The wheel on the back of Dragon’s machine was already spinning at full speed.  I could make out a red eye in the center, identical to the ones that had been on the drone.  The suit thrust itself forward with the vents around its body, lunging for Grue, and Trickster swapped Grue’s location with a PRT uniform, putting Grue on the rooftop.

Hmm. I wonder if the wheel can detach and fly around on its own like the drones from before.

It avoided hitting the man by dragging its two left claws in the pavement, lifting its tail so it wouldn’t swing around and strike him.

Nice save.

The wheel blazed with a wreath of electricity, the entire suit thrumming with enough charge to kill every bug touching it.  Without warning, the wheel flared and Grue was yanked over the edge of the rooftop by an invisible force.

Uh. Tractor beam wheel?

Trickster caught Grue, swapping him for the same officer before he was halfway to the ground.

Sounds like this officer is having a fun day at work.

This is Dragon’s counter to a teleporter?  I would have called it a magnet, but Grue wasn’t carrying or wearing anything substantial with metal on it.

Yeah, that seems… odd.

Or was this the suit Dragon had deployed against Genesis, Ballistic or Bitch?

It might make sense to use this against Ballistic? Maybe? To mess with his projectiles in mid-air?

Maybe I was missing something.

Hmmmm.

I used my swarm to keep the windows blocked and the people inside under assault, just enough that they couldn’t recover and complicate an already dangerous situation.

Not to be confused with keeping them under Assault.

I tried to position the bugs I could spare so they hovered around the sensors and the ‘eye’ of the wheel.  Shatterbird was pelting it with a stream of glass shards that looped back in her general direction to rejoin the stream and strike over and over again.

I find it unlikely that the “eye” is the mech’s main way of seeing, but it’s probably important to the pseudo-magnet.

It didn’t work.  The thing targeted Grue again and hauled him a hundred feet towards it.  Still crackling with electricity from its nose to the tip of its tail, it advanced on him, tail stretching forward to reach for him.

Damn.

The machine suddenly shifted position and powered its thrusters to lunge away.

Looks like we might have a captured prince here?

Sundancer’s orb erupted from the ground just behind the spot the suit had been standing.

Oh. Yeah, that’s a good reason to retreat.

I could see Grue raising his hands to shield his face from the waves of heated air as he scrambled to his feet and ran.

The first of the reinforcements arrived.

Hoo boy, more Dragon.

I recognized it as the suit that had been deployed against Leviathan.  The same one that had gone after Tattletale, unless she had more than one.  This one had the foam sprayer.

Well, not the same suit, but same design.

The foam sprayer could be an issue. At least Trickster may be able to free people from the foam?

It set down on the edge of the battlefield opposite the wheel-dragon.

We took too long.  Or the suits had arrived too soon.  There wasn’t really a difference.  The wheel-dragon must have pulled Grue from cover and forced Shatterbird to step up to help, and my own invasion of the main building had taken just a little too long, giving Assault a chance to get his bearings and hit me.

Yeeah, this seems to have fallen apart in at least three ways.

My swarm informed me in advance of the second of the suits that were arriving on scene.  The wheel-dragon thrust itself forward, skimming the road’s surface to put itself next to the PRT headquarters.

So what’s this third suit like?

The drone-deployment suit set down on top of a nearby building so they were spaced out evenly.

Ahh. Makes sense that Dragon would call in that particular one, to deal with Skitter.

They had Grue and Shatterbird surrounded.  I stood off to one side, between the drone-deployer and the foam-sprayer, still too close for comfort but they didn’t seem to have noticed me.

The longer you can keep it that way, the better.

I glanced towards the building where Trickster and Sundancer were holed up.  Sundancer wasn’t moving her sun, and Trickster was apparently unable to see a valid target to swap Grue for.

Is Taylor about to step out to make herself a valid target? Because that’d be kinda counterproductive, I think.

The officers and PRT uniforms had been disabled while I was indoors, and both Kid Win and Miss Militia lay at the base of the building.

Ow.

I used my bugs to write him out an order: ‘swap me for sun, swap me for kid’.

Ooh, okay, that works. What about Grue, then?

A long second passed.  Was Trickster illiterate?

Pfft. He should probably have told you that earlier if he was. 😛

Why was it so hard for him to notice the key info I was trying to write down-

Now let’s see if he does as she says.

I found myself surrounded by darkness.  Only a slit of light filtered into the room through the plywood.

What? Where is she now?

Trickster stood beside me, and the words I’d written out with bugs were on the plywood.  He’d swapped me for Sundancer.

Ohh. Right, Sunny was in there with him. It’s Shatterbird that’s over with Grue. Got that mixed up for a second.

“You sure?”  He asked.  He’d gathered what I was hoping to do.

I don’t think I have.

“Yeah,” I said.  I pressed my knife into his hand.

This leads to Trickster vs Kid, I suppose.

He moved me in an instant, putting me at the base of the headquarters, facing a wall.  As I turned around, the three suits shifted position to look my way.

“Hello.”

Trickster stepped out of the building, the tip of my knife pressed to the point where Kid Win’s chin joined his neck.

Oh! Hostage situation.

We could have used Sundancer’s sun to threaten the people inside the building and get the suits to back off, but I didn’t trust her to be mean enough.  I didn’t have much respect for Trickster as a human being, but that was an advantage when we needed someone to be more vicious.

Heh, yeah, I suppose. He’s definitely better for this kind of thing. Besides, the PRT probably knows Sunny doesn’t have it in her.

The suits stood down.  I could see the wheel spin to a stop, the drones returning to dock.

Excellent.

Right.  Dragon wouldn’t risk a human life.  She’d discarded her suit rather than let an established criminal die.  She wouldn’t let a young hero die for the sake of getting us into custody.

There’s also an element of couldn’t there, which might be gone now, but I still think she wouldn’t.

“Let’s go!” Trickster called.

I hurried to cross the area between the three Dragon-suits, Grue joining me halfway.  Trickster backed up with a barely conscious Kid Win in his grip.

Uh.

Are we bringing him along?

Is Regent getting another body to mess with?

I’m all for more Kid Win in my life, but maybe not with Regent controlling his body.

We’d nearly reached safety when one suit shuddered to life.  Trickster spun around, still holding Kid Win, turning his attention to the wheel-dragon.  The wheel was moving again. “No funny business!”

Yeah, Dragon, play nice.

It wasn’t the wheel-dragon that attacked.  Before I could open my mouth to warn Trickster, the suit with the containment foam sprayed him, swamping him from behind.

Well, fuck. Can he see someone to swap himself with who isn’t on the team?

The weight and force of the spray knocked his knife-hand away from Kid Win, and the swelling, gummy mess kept it away.  The sprayer proceeded to slowly bury the two of them, trapping hostage and hostage-taker together.

It’s a solid tactic for dealing with this.

It’d be kinda interesting to have someone get captured in this mess, only for it to turn out none of the missing members had actually been captured.

“Swap for Miss Militia!”  Grue shouted, turning around as the drones began deploying once again.  The wheel was getting up to speed, crackling with electricity.

Can he see her? If so, that sounds good.

“Can’t- Can’t turn my head to get a look at her!”  The foam was spraying him from behind.

Damn.

Can you swap out for part of a nearby wall or something?

If he turned his head, he’d be blinded.

And we weren’t in a position to grab her and haul her into Trickster’s field of view.  It would take too long.  Drones were sweeping down onto the street level, moving into position so they hovered above Grue and I.  I waited for the electrical charge to hit.

Attention citizens! You’re in trouble.

It didn’t.

Hmm? What’s up, Dragon? It’s probably not that she wants to avoid zapping Kid Win, considering the containment foam is probably an insulator (for the sake of containing zappy villains).

The drone tapped my head as it descended.  I stepped back and let it descend slowly to the ground.

Time to talk?

The foam sprayer had stopped.  Trickster was buried up to his waist, Kid Win face down in the foam in front of him.  The wheel was spinning down for the second time in the span of twenty seconds.

Is Dragon going to try negotiating now that Trickster’s stuck?

Trickster swapped himself for Kid Win, putting himself knee-deep in the foam.

Uh. An effort to make it easier for himself to swap with Miss Militia?

I suppose he could also swap with one of his teammates, then swap that teammate with MM when he’s free to move his head?

He craned his head around and managed to get Miss Militia in his sight, then swapped for her.

Nice.

We ran, following after the others, who’d already left the battlefield.

Dragon: “Dammit.”

“Why did they stop?” Grue asked.

I shook my head.  “Tattletale?”

Are you suggesting Tattletale and Victor managed to hack into the system somehow?

I kept waiting for the suits to perk up and give chase, or for further reinforcements to appear.  There was no pursuit.  Fifteen minutes passed before we had to stop, settling in an abandoned building to hide and catch our breath.

Alright, we’re out of initiative.

Nice work, everyone, even if that didn’t go quite as intended.

I sorted out my weapons, taking my knife back from Trickster, and sat down to rest.  I ran my fingers through my hair to get it in a semblance of order.

My fingers snagged on something.  For a second, I thought maybe I’d gotten some containment foam in it.

Fuck, is it a tracker?

No.  My hair was tied around a piece of paper.  I had to use my bugs to untie it.

Ahh, Dragon left a message when the drone tapped Skitter’s head. Nice.

I recognized the lettering.  A series of symbols that all strung together so it was hard to tell where one began and one ended.  I’d designed it, when I was making up the code to keep my superhero notes private.

And Dragon just sent you a note in it?

That’s gotta be mildly disturbing.

I’d left myself a message?  When?

“I gave myself a reminder, telling me to take our group to the south end of the main beach,” I said.

Hmmm.

I don’t trust it.

I could absolutely see Dragon sending small units to covertly check out Taylor’s former home while Danny’s out, finding the code and deciphering it.

“The fuck?” Regent asked.

“I dunno,” I said.  “But we didn’t get the hostage we’d planned on taking, so I think we should go, if nobody else has a better idea.”

So how big of a trap is this?

It took some time to get there, sticking to back alleys and roads, and it took more time to verify that there were no threats in the area.

At least she doesn’t trust the note so blindly that she doesn’t check.

As confusing as the message was, everything made sense when Imp made her presence known, dropping the veil of her power’s effect.

I mean, I guess, but why would she know the code any more than Dragon did? Did you teach her about it and then forget it?

Right.  I’d had her tie the note into my hair so it wouldn’t confuse or distract me while I was in the field, something I’d only notice after the fact.

…ah.

She was practically bouncing with excitement.

So what’s this for? Did you need to not remember this part of the plan so that Dragon couldn’t read it out of your behavior?

“Saved your asses,” she said.

How?

“And she’s never going to let us forget,” Regent commented.

Sounds about right.

“You got out okay?” Grue asked.

“I marched the fatty out of the building as soon as I’d made sure the robots weren’t going to attack again.  Grabbed the keys from a cop and drove off.  No way you can say I’m useless again, Tricksy.”

Ohhh, did she disable the mechs from the console? Nice.

Trickster looked at her ‘guest’.  “I won’t.”

So they’ve… captured Piggot??

Director Piggot, the fat woman, was handcuffed and kneeling beside Imp, head hanging.

This is an interesting move. Is she going to get Regented?

“Well,” I said, “Could have gone better, but we got what we needed.  You had her order them to shut down, right?”

“Yup.”

“Dragon must have given the Director the ability to command the suits.  Wouldn’t have guessed,” Grue said.

I’m not sure Piggot would’ve accepted the suits without that, huge advantage or otherwise.

I nodded in agreement.  “It’s a matter of time before they arrange some workaround, take away the Director’s access or Dragon reprograms the suits, but this is good.  We’ve got some leverage now.”

Does the Director have the means to command the suits with her?

The Director raised her head to direct a glare at us with swollen, bloodshot eyes.

Funny as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad about it.

I suppose from Taylor’s perspective, Piggot’s been a bit of a jerk about all this…


End of Monarch 16.2

Another really solid, action-packed chapter!

Trickster was clearly the MVP this time. His power is so much fun, though I think it’d be easier to keep track of in a visual medium. But that’s part of the fun – his power is really good for controlled chaos, and the disorientation can be good for the reader’s immersion, when balanced well against the need for the reader to understand what is happening.

Skitter and Trickster work rather well together, even if Trickster frustrates her sometimes. I wonder how much the delay in his reaction to Skitter’s messages had to do with him being used to being in charge?

So now Jirector Jemily Piggot is in Undertravelers custody, which ought to be interesting. It sounds like this was part of the plan even before they found out she has some control over the Dragon suits, which raises the question of what they intend to use her for. Do they just intend to have Regent infiltrate the PRT as her, or is there something else? Hmm.

“Leverage” suggests they might be using her as a hostage, eventually? Maybe?

Next chapter, I suppose they need to try a different route to figure out where Bitch, Ballistic and Genesis are? At least they could probably interrogate Piggot for some info on whether or not they have been captured. But yeah, probably going to need to visit one or more of the territories.

Unless they’re going to focus on sending Piggot back in?

In any case, should be interesting. See you soon!

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