Monarch 16.12: A Canterlot Flashbang

Source material: Worm, Monarch 16.12

Blogged: August 28-29, 2019


What is life?

Is it nothing more than the endless search for a fancy butt tattoo? And what is a tattoo but a constant reminder that we’re all only one Endbringer attack away from oblivion?

And what of the poor worm? Segments forever blank, destined to an existential crawl through the muds of life to… an unknowable destiny?

But first she needs to fuck up the snake.

Last time, Skitter amazingly made it out of a specially designed deathtrap. Now she’s got to find the other Undersiders before Coil does something about the other threat to his plans, Tattletale, and get some backup to take him down for good.

As much as I’d like to focus on Tattletale, I think Skitter’s priority will be locating Grue, because he’s probably closer and Tattletale, if Coil took her where he said he would, is likely to be in a fortified location she’ll need backup just to get into.

…it just occurred to me that she’s quite literally driving blindly.

In any case, let’s jump in and see how this goes!


Posted on 

Happy new year!

…ooh, that was a Tuesday. If I’m not mistaken about how Wildbow’s update schedule worked, that means 16.13 (or an Interlude if there is one up next, though I doubt that) will have been posted on my 15th birthday.


Finding my teammates wasn’t hard; Calvert was telling me where they were.

That’s mighty nice of him.

He didn’t tell me directly.  No, this was more a casualty of being too careful, of putting too many secondary measures in place.

Too many “keep out” signs telling you exactly where to go?

He’d stationed soldiers to serve as lookouts at a wide perimeter around the Undersiders.  I noticed one group, turned the truck to drive around them, and then noticed the second and third.  They were three blocks away from the Undersiders, effectively surrounding my team, staggering their movements so only half were changing position at a given time.

Do you still have some of that extended range available to you now that you’re out of the trap? It stuck around for a while after the actual cause back in Hive…

My point being, can you feel the Undersiders in there without getting within those three blocks?

I wondered how much battlefield experience Calvert actually had, or if it had been too long ago to matter.  Had he forgotten what it was like to actually be in pursuit of a target in the midst of a sprawling urban environment?

I’d imagine he remembers what it’s like to be surrounded, at least.

He probably could have tripped me up a fair bit more by dropping the perimeter and leaving me to try to track down my teammates.

Yeah, this was a mistake. Then again, maybe he has a timeline up where he did just that and it backfired because it forced Skitter to get more creative?

No less than three radios for one squad buzzed with the noise of voices.  The three soldiers picked up their radios and replied.  Ok, so he was checking in with each squad.  So maybe it was roughly as inconvenient as trying to find my teammates in the middle of nowhere.

Because you can’t just take them out without him knowing you’re there?

Hmm. If there was some truth to where he was bringing Tattletale, it’s very possible that the Travelers will be here too, including Noelle. That could be a major problem.

Calvert had dropped me in Genesis’  territory.  It was about as far away as I could be from where I wanted to be, about ten minutes drive down Lord street and then a ways towards the water, if someone was driving quickly.

Makes sense. Why make it easy for her if she should happen to escape somehow?

I wasn’t driving quickly; I spent far too long in the wrong gear, for one thing, I was clumsy with the car’s controls and I was forced to drive even slower because the roads were treacherous.

Oh jeez, it’s a stick shift on top of her general lack of driving experience.

Damage to the road was hidden in the areas that were still flooded, where my bugs couldn’t necessarily see them.   Other roads were slick where there was just enough water to raise the oils up from the crevices of the road’s surface to the point that tires would slip on them.

At least it’s not a Norwegian winter on top of all that.

On the plus side, driving while blind wasn’t as hard as I’d thought it would be.  I was relying on my swarm, of course, but even then I figured the lack of sight would be more of an impairment.

Yeah, that’s fair enough.

But the thing is, the swarm is in some ways better than her eyesight was at providing a lot of the information she needed while driving. Though signage could be an issue.

After noting where the squads were deployed and coming to the conclusion that Calvert was using his soldiers to track the movements of my team, I had to stop to contemplate the situation and finally got around to the coughing that had been looming for a few minutes.

Coughing: “Hey, did you forget about me?”

If I charged in, Calvert’s men would collapse in on me.  Three or four soldiers per squad, and there had to be eight or more squads, unless Calvert wasn’t keeping troops moving in advance of the group.  That made for twenty-five to fifty soldiers.

Well, you’ve fought enemies that were more dangerous than fifty armed men from the start.

That would be pretty much all of Calvert’s troops that hadn’t been at the house.  I didn’t fail to note how they were equipped, either.  I could sense the general shape of what would be sniper rifles and one piece of artillery that looked to be a mortar.

Hm. Stuff that’s best suited for ranged combat.

Makes sense, considering that’s what Skitter prefers too, but could suggest a potential weakness at the short range.

Made sense that he would have had the perimeter in place to ensure Dinah didn’t slip his grasp.  If she was gone, then he might have maintained their positions to keep me from reuniting with my team after I escaped from his deathtrap.

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Thing was, I had another problem here.  Calvert had teleported me.  I wasn’t sure how he’d locked on to me, had ditched my phone as the most obvious measure, but I was worried that they could tag me with the thing and toss me into some backup trap reserved for one of my teammates.

…fuck, that’s a very good point. Or even right back to the original trap, though that might not work if Taylor was right about the thing being based on Trickster’s power.

All in all, I didn’t want to give the soldiers a chance to see me, radio in general coordinates and then toss me out to some remote area on the other end of the city.  Knowing that his power was least effective when he didn’t have a full grasp on what was happening moment to moment was another reason to keep out of sight.

You gotta surprise him somehow. His power only gives him advantage, in the D&D 5e sense, on his own choices.

did want to go on the offensive.  I just wasn’t sure how.  If I attacked the individual squads, a check-in on Calvert’s part would reveal that someone was picking them off and they would all go on the offensive. They might even shoot to eliminate my teammates.  Grue, Imp, Bitch and the dogs might have the suits or natural durability to keep them alive in the face of a hail of gunfire, but Dinah didn’t, and there was the possibility that the shots from the sniper rifles could penetrate the suits.

Dinah doesn’t, but why would Coil go to all this trouble to get rid of you only to allow his soldiers to kill Dinah?

Or Calvert would order his squads to fire their mortars and wipe my teammates off the map.  If I assumed he had more than one mortar positioned around them, added his power into the equation to give him two sets of barrages with different target zones, I doubted they would emerge unscathed.

And so they might shuffle off their mortar coil.

…y’know, that’s a sense of “coil” I haven’t considered in relation to Coil before.

Judging by the Wikipedia page for “mortal coil”, there are actually quite a lot of meanings of “coil” I haven’t considered.

[Wikipedia]

Derived from 16th-century English, “coil” refers to tumults or troubles. Used idiomatically, the phrase means “the bustle and turmoil of this mortal life”. “Coil” has an unusual etymological history. It was coined repeatedly; at various times people have used it as a verb to mean “to cull”, “to thrash”, “to lie in rings or spirals”, “to turn”, “to mound hay” and “to stir”. As a noun it has meant “a selection”, “a spiral”, “the breech of a gun”, “a mound of hay”, “a pen for hens”, and “noisy disturbance, fuss, ado”. It is in this last sense, which became popular in the 16th century, that Shakespeare used the word.

I wish I’d taken a look at this page back in Interlude 2, before I knew much of anything about Coil. I’d probably joke about his power being summoning hens or something.

That left me to wonder why he hadn’t done something similar at the house.  No grenades, no mortar, no bomb laying in wait.

I mean, it seems to me that he might have wanted to keep Grue from interfering, or wanted to avoid Dinah potentially ending up in the crossfire.

Failing that, what was the trick behind the teleportation?  Why hadn’t he just teleported me back after I slipped away?

Hm. Maybe it has a short range, not for the teleportation itself, but for the targeting?

Did he want to keep me alive?  Or had he actually expected me to escape?

Does he want an opponent in Brockton Bay?

Had he looked at all my past confrontations and gauged that I could probably make it, and it was no skin off his nose if I didn’t?

Hell, it was possible he’d used his power to help ensure I’d make it this far, to further some greater scheme.

That’s the really scary thing about villains like Coil. Their plans can go in spirals and even when you think you’ve broken free, they might still be coiled tightly around you.

Whether I wanted to deal with the soldiers, get the Undersiders out of the way of those mortars or avoid falling into some greater trap laid by Calvert, I needed more information.

The eternal key to success in the Wormverse!

The Undersiders were walking, judging solely by the speed the soldiers were adjusting their positions.  I wasn’t sure where Atlas was, but I’d driven past the site where we’d picked up Dinah and he hadn’t been there.  I could guess that Dinah wasn’t keen on riding the dogs, so that made sense.

Is there a particular reason you expect Dinah to be with them?

I slipped bugs into position on the soldiers to track their movements, then moved in closer, pulling the car into park and climbing out.  Better to move on foot.  I’d picked up masses of bugs on my slow-ish drive through the city, and I guided them as close to the soldiers as I could get them without giving myself away.

The original driver of the car is still in there, unconscious, isn’t he? I don’t recall Skitter tossing him out of the car. Imagine his confusion when he wakes.

The tint of my lenses didn’t help with the haze over my vision.  Still, opening my eyes, I could see it was evening, and the city wasn’t offering much in the way of ambient light, given the inconsistent availability of power.  I coupled the use of my bugs with my eyesight to try to spot the glare of flashlights or headlights, but peeks suggested that the soldiers were operating in darkness.

That sounds like an advantage to Skitter.

Night vision goggles, perhaps.

Ah, right.

I waited until the squad nearest to me shifted to follow, noted how the squads to the north and the southeast of them were holding position, guns at the ready.  Calvert would have told them I’d escaped and that they should keep an eye out.  Their wariness made sense.

Reasonable, yeah.

Still, I was able to advance closer, following the group that was moving to follow, getting closer while keeping buildings and other obstructions between us.  Not the easiest thing in the world when I had to use the presence of the bugs to estimate where their line of sight extended, but I managed to get within half a block of them, crouching behind a van.

Skitter’s getting to exercise her stealth skills a lot in these chapters.

Swarms waited just around the corners.

I wasn’t attacking, though.  No, my interest was on getting close enough that I could reach my teammates with my power.

Let’s hope Coil didn’t set up this perimeter specifically to get you to conclude he was keeping you from the Undersiders.

Calvert had apparently stationed his men with my power’s range in mind, but he didn’t necessarily know that my power’s range extended in certain circumstances.

That’s exactly the kind of thing that could be used to get him, but it also kind of sounds like her power is not extended right now, since she’s trying to get closer?

Getting just a little closer, I could sense them, walking down the middle of the road.  I drew my bugs around me, not in the shape of a person, but to mimic the curves and bumps of the truck I was kneeling beside, so my silhouette wouldn’t stand out so dramatically.

Yay! Hello.

Any Skitter body doubles or anything like that around?

Is Imp there?

…it just occurred to me that I think she went (nearly?) unmentioned in 16.10, after the scene with her dangling her legs over the edge of the building. Good call, using her power in that confrontation, if she did.

I could sense Bitch, still on Bentley’s back as he trailed behind the rest of the group.  Bastard was lying across her lap, apparently asleep.

Did someone hurt the doggo.

I sensed Grue and Imp, walking just ahead of Bitch and Bentley.

And I sensed Dinah, walking hand in hand with a girl who shared my build, who had hair of the same length and a costume similar to my own.

Alright, there is a body double. One that will surely take Dinah back to Coil once the rest of the Undersiders have been shaken off.

Shame Tattletale’s not here, she’d know what was up in half a second.

That’s probably why she’s not here, come to think of it.

I didn’t want to give anything away by swarming her with bugs to sense where our costumes differed, but it was pretty damn close.  She even had bugs on her costume.

Nice work, Coil. Who’s your Taylor?

Some were drawn there by pheromones, and some were pinned in place.  Her utility compartment differed from mine.  She had a knife, longer and narrower than mine, and two guns holstered within.  Some grenade canisters were tucked into the spaces by the shoulders where the short cape could cover them.

Hmm. Grenades keep coming up in various ways.

If Calvert’s preparation of the building prior to teleporting me in hadn’t made me think his betrayal was premeditated, this certainly cinched it.  Copying my costume, finding someone who fit my shape to the point that the others wouldn’t notice?  Someone apparently capable of using a gun?

To be fair, the last thing can be taught. Perhaps not quickly, but it can be.

Easier than finding someone who could use a gun and teaching her to fit Skitter’s shape, regardless of how much Michael Bay tells us to shut the fuck up about it.

I wonder if this is someone we know?

Dinah was still with them.  They hadn’t dropped her off, even though Calvert could have arranged something like fake parents to accept Dinah.  Or maybe someone had raised that possibility and fake Skitter was taking Dinah back to ‘her’ territory to look after for a bit.

That in itself might tip them off, with Taylor’s determination to get Dinah home as soon as possible, rather than keeping her prisoner personally.

The other Undersiders would leave, maybe, and Dinah would go straight back to Calvert’s possession.

After which it would simply be a matter of hiding the fact that he still had her, and of explaining why Skitter disappeared (because he certainly couldn’t keep up the body double ploy forever).

Maybe he’d have the body double “run off” with Dinah, to at the same time give a reason why they didn’t see anything about Dinah coming back to her family in the news.

I wished I had a better sense of Calvert’s overarching plan.  What would happen to the other Undersiders?  What would he do with fake Skitter?

Well, he seems to be going to great lengths to hide his ploys from the rest of them, so he probably wants them to stay on his side.

Lisa’s probably fucked, though.

He couldn’t hope to maintain the ruse for any meaningful length of time.

There had to be a reason he hadn’t just bombed them here and erased the last of his enemies in one fell swoop.  How much of the plan that he’d shared had been real?

I suspect quite a lot of it, just minus a couple participants.

This situation wasn’t so different from the one I’d just escaped.  There was the immediate threat, the mortars, and there was the one beyond that, with the soldiers ready to gun down my allies.  Bitch could have rescued Dinah, Imp and Grue from the mortars, given a chance to run, and Grue and Imp could deal with the guns, but the biggest issue, the biggest difference in where they were now compared to where I’d been, was that they weren’t aware of the threat.

I suppose that means the next step might be to make them aware of it?

Needs to be quite subtle, though, so as to not tip off fake Skitter.

If I could communicate with them, perhaps I could have coordinated them, managed something.  But it was evening and the black and brown bodies of my bugs wouldn’t be able to spell out anything obvious against a dark background.

Damn.

My phone had been locked out and the presence of the false Skitter meant I couldn’t deliver a message unless it was very subtle.

It’s nice to be ahead of Skitter’s narration for once. Probably won’t last very long though.

Any mistake on my part threatened to provoke an ugly situation.  Calvert could order the mortar strike and teleport Dinah and false Skitter out.

Depending a bit on how the teleporter works.

No, I didn’t think there were many options when it came to communicating with Grue.  Imp?  Maybe that was a better option, given her ability to disappear, meet up with me and then rejoin the others.

Ooh, good thinking.

Except I didn’t have an explicit strategy in mind, and I wasn’t willing to gamble that Calvert hadn’t accounted for Imp with some kind of surveillance with an electronic filter, like the screen of Dragon’s battlesuit.

If Skitter had known a little more about Dragon, she might’ve realized that’s not necessarily how that weakness of Imp’s power works, but that might still be a bet she wouldn’t be willing to make.

Rachel?  No.  I was pretty sure she couldn’t read and write well enough to follow any directions, so I couldn’t even explain anything complex without saying it aloud, and doing that would be hard, speaking through my bugs without alerting the doppleganger in their ranks.

Brootus and Joodus look down from doggo heaven.

I could abandon them, try to find Tattletale or my dad, but Tattletale was going to be behind even more layers of security, if she was inside Coil’s underground base, and going to see my dad felt like a detour that wouldn’t do anything to address this situation.

Unfortunately, yeah.

That left me one potential ally.

Hm?

I sent a ladybug to Dinah, settled it on her right hand, the one that the mock Skitter wasn’t holding.

Oh hell yes. Let Dinah be awesome.

She glanced at it, her head turning a fraction, then moved her hand to hide it from false Skitter.  I felt her clench her fist, the skin between the ladybug’s legs stretching so the legs were pulled slightly apart.

Looks like she might have gotten the hint?

Dinah knew that Skitter wasn’t me.  There was no other reason to hide the ladybug.

I take it she hasn’t found an opportunity to tip the others off, or been too afraid to try.

We’d never spoken.  We’d never had a conversation, or even communicated through more than eye contact.  Dinah had been driving my actions for weeks, now, or maybe it would be fairer to say my goal of saving her had been driving my actions.

Time to learn who you’re saving.

Now we were finally getting a chance to interact, and everything hinged on it.

The bug crawled to the center of her palm, and she closed her fingers gently around it.  Did Dinah have access to her power?  Could she signal me?  Dropping the bug?  Killing it?

It might still be burnt out from the Crawler incident…?

I sensed the movement of the bug as she raised it to her chest, used her thumbnail to scratch at her collarbone.

Does that… mean something?

Maybe I’d pinned too many hopes on the drug-addicted preteen.

Or maybe she’s smarter than she seems but hasn’t had the chance to coordinate a code with you and has to improvise.

Maybe I’d read the little signals wrong, and she didn’t realize that the Skitter next to her wasn’t me.

Or maybe that niggling doubt that had been in the back of my mind since I’d decided I had to help Dinah had been real.

Niggling. Interesting word, and apparently of possible Scandinavian origin to boot.

I don’t think I’ll use it in my own writings, just because it’s uncomfortably similar-looking to a different but completely unrelated word, but I do kind of like it.

It was all too possible she didn’t want to be rescued.  She was dependent on the drugs, she craved them, and staying with Calvert meant she got them.

That would be a hell of a way for it to turn out after all this time, but at least we have confirmation that she wants to be rescued.

In a way, I felt like that possibility was why I’d been pushing myself to save her as hard as I had, because I suspected that Dinah was trapped in more than one way.  She’d been kidnapped, kept captive physically, but she was also being kept captive in other ways.

Hm, yeah, that’s fair. The sooner you get her out, the easier it should be to get over the addiction.

I think.

Really no drugspert over here.

had to save her because she might not want to save herself.

Except if she didn’t want to save herself, then this situation would be that much more difficult to manage.

Yeah, that’d be a problem.

She dropped her hand to her side, let it swing a distance away, then brought it up to her chest again, scratched.

No, I definitely think that’s a signal of some kind.

My doppleganger noticed, said something along the lines of ‘Don’t scratch’.  I caught only some sounds, was left to put the rest of it together through cadence and context.

Hmm. Was Dinah testing the doppelganger?

And, I thought, maybe it was easier to understand because she sounded familiar.

Hmmmm.

Prime suspects:

  • Someone from school. Emma? Is she close enough in shape?
    • I’m assuming Madison is too short to stand in for Taylor.
  • Lisa, in a fit of forced betrayal.
  • One of the Travelers. Maybe Genesis creating the form of Skitter?

She sounded much the same to the ambient bugs as I did.

Suggesting a good match for her voice. I think I might be onto something with Genesis.

It bordered on creepy.

The second thing I noticed was that what Dinah was doing was probably a signal.  Both times, she’d touched the bug to her chest, bringing it close to her heart.

Heart…beat?

Why do you miss when my baby kisses me?

Heartbeat, why does a love kiss stay in my memory?

Bringing the bug to her?

What good might bringing bugs to her do?

I didn’t like the idea of that.  If I was interpreting it the way I was supposed to, it seemed suicidal.  Did she want me to come to where she was?  If she was, was her power guiding that request, or was she still powerless and simply wanting to be rescued?

Hrm.

Breaking past enemy lines without getting seen, only to… what?  Make myself a mortar target alongside my teammates?  Where was the advantage?  What was the asset to putting myself in the thick of it?

Maybe Dinah has some idea?

Calvert had to anticipate that I’d try to rescue my teammates.  His soldiers wouldn’t be on guard against an outside threat like this if he didn’t.  What did he expect I would do?

Stay on the edges and try to fight remotely. Thus he equipped his soldiers with ranged weapons.

There is an advantage in getting closer: it’s unexpected.

I wouldn’t charge headlong into his soldiers.  I would see them.  I’d find some way around them, maybe turn some aspect of the situation to my advantage.

There were too many possibilities when it came to ways I might leverage things.  He couldn’t narrow down what I’d do because that was how I operated.  I was versatile.

That’s true, at least.

Then what was the common element?  I was tired, I was hurting, fighting the urge to cough, lest I inform the soldiers I was here.  I couldn’t think of any solid way to tackle this situation, but in scenarios where I could, what might the common elements be?

I like how she’s almost thinking, “I don’t see any solutions here, but if I could, what would they be?”

I’d be using my power, for one thing.  Calvert couldn’t do anything about that unless he’d had Leet devise some kind of counter-weapon.  It was all too possible, but I didn’t have the time to consider all the possibilities there.

But as silly as that way of putting it is, I do realize that’s not quite the purpose of this line of thinking, and it’s actually a really good approach.

I didn’t have the time.

Are you suggesting that that’s a part of Coil’s measures against you?

The other common element, the drawback to my power, to my mode of operation, was that I wasn’t dynamic.  I wasn’t a blitz hitter, in and out in a flash.  I could be aggressive, impulsive, improvising on the fly, but it took me time to get my soldiers in a row, to prepare my tools and drag things to where I needed to be.  Fighting Mannequin had been like that, those two long minutes of sustaining a beating while I got all the supplies and spiders to the site of our skirmish.

And she does take her time to think often enough.

Even escaping the house, it hadn’t been quick.  I’d had to hunker down and amass enough decoys before dropping from the window.

Compare to, say, Siberian, or even just Glory Girl, who would have been out of there in seconds.

Calvert had studied us.  He’d be aware of this.

Dinah and faux Skitter were walking.  Whatever excuse they’d given for not being able to ride Atlas, they’d opted to travel on foot instead of riding on Bentley or catching a ride in the truck Calvert’s man had driven.

Not riding Bentley makes sense. The changeling might not be used to riding the dogs, and Dinah definitely isn’t. But not riding in the truck?

(Also I can’t believe it took me this long to refer to her as a changeling.)

Maybe that wasn’t because Dinah was scared of the dogs.  Maybe faux Skitter had suggested it, encouraged this for some greater plan.

Maybe something about the changeling’s form wouldn’t work right at car speeds?

Or the plan requires them to move more slowly?

They wanted to let me catch up.  They were betting I’d get here, then take time to deal with the squads so my teammates weren’t in danger.

That would be one miscalculation.

By doing that… what?  How would he capitalize on it?

Coil’s plans are confusing as hell.

Identify the direction I was attacking from, then bring all the soldiers he’d had at the deathtrap house here to corner me?  Bring the Travelers?  Über?  Leet?

Maybe, I suppose.

Dinah struck the side of her leg with the bug she held, hard.  Grue said something I didn’t catch.

“Hurry up”?

The message was clear.  Now.  If Calvert was expecting me to delay, to take my time and be methodical about this, and Dinah was urging me to be aggressive, throw myself headlong into this situation, that had to point to something.  I’d decide what the hell I was supposed to do while I was en route.  I broke into a run.

Time to improvise!

I couldn’t move directly to their location.  I had to backtrack, find a route that didn’t put me in view of any of the watching squads.  The activity was making me cough, and I was forced to suppress it or limit it to muffled choking as I got closer to the soldiers.

Want a lozenge?

Sweeping the whole of my range with my bugs, I found a route.  I had to backtrack a touch, move a bit closer to the water, but I found the construction site, and I found the ladder leading into a hole in the ground.  From there, it was a short climb to accessing the storm drains.

Ooh, storm drains, that should make Skitter feel right at home.


Alright, it’s getting late, I’m over halfway through, my focus is waning and this seems like a good break point, so that’s it for tonight.


[Session 2]

Right, let’s do this thing!

The acoustics of the storm drains made for a lot of noise, even if it wasn’t raining aboveground.

Echo-cho-cho-cho!

The water varied from knee-high to waist-high, depending on how much debris had filtered down, and it was moving with enough speed that it interfered with my ability to run.  My chest screamed at me in pain every time I was forced to stoop down to touch ground with my good hand for added support, and I didn’t dare cough for fear that the same acoustics that made the area echo with the flowing water would carry something to the ears of soldiers above.

It’s kind of like a giant megaphone, yeah.

The realization hit me when my swarm reached far enough to sense the second mortar and accompanying squad of soldiers.

This does not sound like the good kind of realization.

There was an advantage to putting myself in the middle of the mortar’s target area.  I just had to get there.

Okay, maybe it was.

Hmm. There is the fact that Coil wouldn’t shoot the mortar at Dinah, but Taylor’s already pointed out a way Coil could deal with that using the teleporter tech.

I picked up my pace, hurrying in the direction of my teammates and Dinah, slipping on the slimy footing and loose grit, trying not to cough and failing.  It didn’t matter too much.  I was past the perimeter and closing in on my teammates, using my bugs to figure out which turns I needed to make and which paths were most open to travel.

Labyrinth isn’t around, but this sure is one.

In a matter of minutes, I was close enough that I had to find a way up.  My bugs identified a ladder, and I pushed my way up, using one shoulder and my legs to lift the drain cover from its housing.

Here we go, back to the surface.

I emerged just far enough away that I thought the sound of the cover wouldn’t be audible.  Bentley perked his ears up as I used my good hand to set the drain down, but didn’t do anything further.

Status: Within doggo hearing range. Nice.

My concern and my worry were driving my range outward.  I was sending any bug I didn’t need for sensing my surroundings to the periphery of my range, gathering them near the mortars.

Hmmm. Blinding the mortar soldiers?

Spiders threaded cords of silk together, and other bugs gathered en-masse.  Being here, at the bullseye, with my range extended like it was?  It meant I could strike at each of the four mortars simultaneously.

Ohhh. Yeah, that’s an advantage, alright. Gives the soldering irons less time to react.

I hit each squad of soldiers in the same moment, a tide of bugs washing over them.  I tried to wind cords around the noses of the mortars, snag them on anyone who was moving, but they were too stable.

I suppose Coil thought of that. Plus they’re heavy.

One soldier grabbed a bomb and moved to load it into the tube of the mortar.  In an instant, I had the full mass of that one swarm on him, slipping beneath the stylized, high quality armor and masks Coil outfitted his mercenaries with.

Fuck him up for us, Skitter!

They bit, stung and attempted to wind cords around him, tying his hands, for lack of a better word.  He put the mortar down and backed off, and I eased up on him, settling for a more general form of attack.

Hey, someone who can take a hint.

Snipers couldn’t fire, mortars were out of commission, and the soldiers weren’t in a position to attack.

Excellent work. Now the next target would be the changeling, yes?

Unless Coil has snuck some less obvious means of attack in here somewhere.

And faux Skitter raised her head a fraction, her back straightening.

She was probably told about the attack through some kind of radio system or communication with a main body.

If I could see, and if I were in a position to see her, I might have missed it, but I was aware with my bugs on her. She knew.  A headset beneath her mask?  A communications device in her ear, feeding her info?

Maybe. Maybe not.

I ran towards my team.  Bugs stirred around the others, as I attempted to rouse them and get their attention.

The jig is up re: the changeling, so no need to be subtle anymore.

Fake Skitter wheeled around, reaching behind her back to draw her gun.  Her arm caught Dinah around the shoulders, hugging the girl to her side.

Gonna try to use her as a hostage versus someone who knows how much your boss values the hostage? Not a great idea. It’s an easy bluff to call.

I missed the first part of what she said.  The meaning was clear.  “…got no more use for you.”

Ahhh fuck.

The bluff may have gone several ways.

So the question now is, is the changeling good at bluffing even with a weak baseline, or was Dinah here only as bait?

Maybe Dinah’s just about to be teleported out, so Coil can have it both ways.

And she sounded like me as she said it.  I could sense the shock on the part of my teammates.

Yeah, guys, we’ve got some bad news for you. We have a changeling problem? Anybody got some magical jewelry or love blasts?

The only canon romantic couple among them happens to be between the Knight in Shining Armor and the girl who was replaced, just like in the episode of MLP:FiM I’m referencing. Nice.

Now get in there, kiss Grue, and soon the changeling will be blasting off again!

And I could sense the trap fall into place, as though a switch had been flicked.

The bugs I’d placed on my teammates to sense where they were went on the attack.  It wasn’t my command.

Aw hell no, she has the power too?

Well, I suppose this is an important thing every fictional cape needs to go up against at some point.

Hmmm. So how did Coil do this?

The simplest explanation is that he actually found someone with the power of shifting into people and borrowing their powers in the process, but I’m not sure Wildbow would pull that kind of character out of nowhere for this. He’d at least foreshadow it.

So perhaps this changeling is using some tinkertech modeled on Taylor’s power?

(If that’s the case, there go any lingering worries I might have had that Minus’ specialty was overpowered.)

I tried to push the bugs to stop, but my power was drowned out.  It wasn’t that the commands they were receiving were more powerful than mine, more that they kept coming, a singular, crude set of commands extending across my entire range, maybe even further, every half second, overriding any ongoing instructions to my bugs.  Attack, move this way, attack, move this way.

She’s…

She’s being DDOSed.

Grue said something, and I couldn’t catch it.

Betraying us!?” Bitch screamed the words.

Cod damn it.

How much trouble is this going to cause even after this fight? How hard is it going to be to get through Rachel’s head that it wasn’t actually Taylor?

Next to Bentley, she was suffering the worst of it as the bugs attacked.

Because she’s by far the greatest threat.

Ooh… If there is a changeling power at play, what would happen if Grue were to tap into it?

“Sorry…” my doppleganger said.  I missed the tail end of what she said after that, but it ended with, “…the plan.”

Sorry, Bitch.  It was always the plan.

It… kind of was, for a while…

Not like this, though.

And of course that history is going to make it even harder to get back into the Undersiders’ good graces after this whole debacle implodes and confusion reigns.

“No!”  I shouted, and the act of shouting made me cough until my knees buckled.  I could feel the bugs gathering on me, attacking mindlessly, collecting on my scalp.  Still coughing, I reversed the short cape that sat around my shoulders and pulled it over my head to serve as a hood.

Target acquired.

It didn’t do anything to kill the bugs that were still alive and present, but it kept more from accumulating.

I was too far away for any of them to hear.  A block away.  Miles away, for all the good it did.

So I wonder why Dinah did get Taylor to approach.

Did she know about this plan to any extent, but get forced to cooperate?

The other Skitter fired her gun at Bitch, one shot after another.  Grue blanketed the area in darkness, and the false Skitter dropped her weapon.

I think my prevailing theory as far as the DDOS goes is that it’s a tinkertech device based on Skitter’s power set do do just that. It probably just sends out the attack order on repeat, it doesn’t interface with the changeling’s brain or anything.

If that’s true, then the changeling does not have access to the spatial awareness and more complex tactics Skitter can employ, and is much more hampered by Grue’s darkness than Skitter would be.

Skitter would have no problem shooting through the darkness.

I could sense Bitch slumping on Bentley’s back, Bastard spilling from her lap to hit the ground and roll on impact.

Nooo

Did he clone me?

The changeling appears to be a quite excellent copy.

I do still consider Genesis a suspect.

No.  I could sense the movements of the bugs throughout my range, even if I couldn’t control them.  They were moving in a massive, slow spiral, drifting counterclockwise and attacking anyone they came in contact with, and the center of the effect, where they were settling and gathering in piles?  A box in the center of one building.

Yup, there we go. We’ve found the DDOS machine.

Had to get there, shut it down.

I struggled to my feet, half-running, half-staggering as bugs gathered in a heavy carpet on me.  I was lightheaded, exhausted, still coughing, and the first of the bugs were arriving from where they’d been attacking the soldiers.

I like the way the lightheadedness and exhaustion comes through in the sentence structure of “Had to get there, shut it down.”

I sensed Dinah in the midst of the swarm.  The pheromones that false Skitter wore were serving to override the pulses from the box, keeping bees and wasps from doing too much damage to the pair.

Huh. Nicely done.

I wasn’t sure how they planned to deal with the more dangerous spiders, but the bugs that were moving across land were slowed by the constant vertical ascents and descents as they ran into buildings and other features of the landscape.

There’s a reason a straight line between two locations is called an “airline” in Norwegian.

No relation to the airplane-flying kind. Airlines in the English sense don’t travel in airlines in the Norwegian sense.

Languages are fun.

False Skitter hurled a canister into the midst of my teammates.

Another smoke canister, to reduce visibility for Grue like for everyone else?

A flashbang.  I could see the flare of light, the concussive sound that scattered the bugs that had congregated on them.

Strange that Grue didn’t cover it, but I suppose he didn’t have enough time to react.

Heading for the swarm box, I wasn’t close enough for it to really affect me.

The mortar crews were packing up their equipment and climbing into the trucks to beat a retreat from the scene.  This is Calvert’s doing.  He was convincing the others that ‘I’ was turning on them the second I had Dinah.

Yep, and he’s going about it in a very effective way.

He’d probably rigged it so I would disappear afterward.  Skitter out of the picture, in a way that was totally believable given my prior actions.  The Undersiders would be mad, they’d be hurt, but they’d still be his.

And that’s how it all puzzles together.

There’s just one missing piece, and it’s Skitter not being quite out of the picture.

Except I was here.  I could convince them it was a trick.  Either shut off the swarm box or take a left turn, show up where they were, and things would make sense in an instant, two Skitters, one a fake…

Aaand it’d potentially look like you were the fake? Though the changeling did already betray the Undersiders, so perhaps not so much.

No, I had to shut off the box.  I could feel blood, where some bugs had found flesh on Rachel and the dogs.  If too many bee or wasp stings struck home, someone could be seriously hurt, needing epinephrine.

I assume that’s the stuff in an EpiPen.

And yeah, this does seem like a reasonable choice. Minimizing the damage trumps setting emotions right quickly.

I could sense Dinah moving one hand, drawing it across her chest in deliberate gestures.

Hmm? What are you trying to tell real Skitter?

From shoulder to shoulder, down the side of her body from her armpit, turning to cross the base of her ribs…

So a right-angled triangle?

Letters.  S.  O.  R.  R.

…I’m not sure how she came to that conclusion but fair enough.

Sounds like Dinah did realize how this was going to go down.

There was no time for the Y.  Both Dinah and the other Skitter disappeared, replaced by a collection of rubble and a single flashbang.

Bye bye.

The others were still reeling from the first when the second flashbang detonated.

And the flashbangs hide the teleportation so they don’t go “hey, wait a minute, Skitter can’t teleport”. A classic smokebomb exit, just with flashbangs instead.

2068976.gif

Well played, Coil. You set this up well.

The biggest question now, I suppose, besides how exactly the changeling mimics her so well, is why they waited until Taylor showed up in the arena. Did Coil want to make sure he knew where she was before it went down?

More boarded up windows and doors.  I fired my gun at the handle of the door and then kicked.  I did more damage to myself than the door, collapsing in another coughing fit.

😦

The others recovered before I did.  I could sense Grue standing, shouting something.  I couldn’t understand him with the effect his power had on his voice.  Not the first time I’d run into that issue.

I’m not sure you’d want to understand the words coming out of his mouth right now.

Rachel was up too, using Bentley to stand, one hand pressed to her side.  I sensed the hot knot of metal where it had impacted the reinforced jacket I’d given her.  Good.

The bulletproof costumes have certainly been pulling their weight these last few chapters.

“Find her!” she shouted.  “Find Skitter!  Hurt!  Kill!”

Fuck. Skitter has just joined an exclusive club previously populated by some squirrels, some raccoons and a horse. And maybe Leviathan.

Kill is order to attack and not stop until that thing isn’t moving anymore.

Bentley broke into a run, zig-zagging across the street they were standing on toward where false Skitter had been.

Skitter versus one or more of the hellhounds has been relatively inevitable for a long time, but this is a hell of a way for it to come about.

Did they make her smell like me?  They had to have, to keep the dogs from barking distress.  But how?  Had Calvert had his men raid my stuff?  Had he used my dirty laundry?

I mean I wouldn’t put it past him at this point.

I felt violated, not just because of the potential trespass, but the extent to which they’d stolen my identity and abused it.

Changelings are so much fun!

I may be especially biased in favor of changelings these days, though, because the more recent and more popular of my ongoing MLP fics is about a rogue clone being mistaken for a changeling (as in the race of shapeshifting bug-ponies) and traveling with a squad of them back to the changeling hive.

Bentley raised his head and then turned right in a loping run that would put him behind me in a matter of seconds.  Then he’d have my trail, he’d zone in on me… I could picture what happened next.  I wasn’t in a state to put up a fight.

Even without being exhausted, blinded and DDOSed, it’d not be pleasant.

I climbed to my feet, reloading my gun, then fired three more times at the door handle.  A gnat that was following the spiral summons of the swarm box made contact with a deadbolt on the far side of the door, and I shot at that too.  This time, when I kicked, it opened.

Yay!

I collapsed to the ground, my cough so fierce and ragged that I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d been expelling flecks of blood into the inside of my mask.

Sounds like internal injuries of some kind at that point.

Bentley spotted me and began charging.  I crawled inside, brought my legs up to my chest to get them out of the way of the door, and kicked it shut.

That’s not going to stop a hellhound for long.

The mutant bulldog was too large for the door.  When he impacted it, it split across the midsection, the upper half coming free of the hinges, and the surrounding brickwork bulged inward, cracked mortar showering down around me.

See what I mean? Few more hits and it’ll break.

The wooden framework around the door kept him from getting much further, wooden pillars of support that were a foot thick on each side.  It made sense that Calvert had picked a fortified structure to stick the  swarm box inside.

Oh. Fair enough.

Small blessing that it afforded me some small advantage as well.

Are there no soldiers in here? I would’ve expected there to be a few, Coil anticipating that she’d go after the swarm box, but Taylor hasn’t mentioned anything about that.

Bentley butted his head against the doorway again, getting no further than before, then backed away a few steps and howled.

Damn, way to alert the others.

I suppose that means 16.13 is Skitter versus the Undersiders (minus Tattletale and Regent+Shatterbird), after she disables the swarm box. That should be very, very interesting.

Bitch and Grue were already en route, following the sound of gunshots.  I could hear Bitch howl a response to Bentley’s cry, an utterance of raw anger and promised violence.

Yeah, she’s pissed.

And with good reason, too, after all the back and forth between her and Skitter.

Bastard was at Bitch’s side.  He was bigger, growing spikes of bone and an armor of calcified muscle.  He would fit through the door.

Finally his smaller size is an asset, and it happens to be when that’s inconvenient to Skitter. Nice.

I crawled for the swarm box.  The bugs were thick, and though they couldn’t penetrate my costume, they were making their way into the folds at my neck, around my hood.

How does it feel to be on this end of it for a change?

It was due to numbers rather than any design, but it was stifling.  I could barely breathe, and having to climb through a mass of bugs as big as a large tank, feeling them biting, stinging, feeling the venom the wasps and bees were injecting into me…

At least you’re the one who keeps Epipens with you… wait, fuck. Didn’t Coil remove the equipment she had, back at the flytrap?

I raised myself up enough to get a grip on the tarp that covered the box, and then let myself collapse to the ground, coughing, maintaining my grip so I pulled the tarp off as I fell.  I was seeing bright spots in my vision, which shouldn’t have been the case, because I couldn’t see anything.

Yeeah that’s probably bad.

I suppose it’s possible that the Undersiders could come in here and find her unconscious, without Dinah around and with the bugs still attacking, making Grue realize that something strange was going on.

Getting onto my knees so I could find the wires of the swarm box was a gradual process, made heavier by the mass of bugs on and around me.  Every bug for what had to be at least a mile in every direction, gathering here.

Oh right, all of them were spiraling in on the box, that’d definitely be an issue.

I tore at one handful of wires.  Nothing.  It was just a matter of time.  I had a minute or two, judging by the speed Bitch and Grue were moving.

The wires may be meant to stall her.

I reached to grab another and felt a hand on my wrist.  Imp hauled my hand back, pulling me off-balance, then kicked me square in the chest.

Heya! There you are.

She doesn’t appear to have realized something was wrong about this.

I doubted there was a place she could have hit me where it would have hurt more.

Ooof.

I lay on the floor, alternately writhing and spasming as pain lanced through me.

But why? It seems to hurt more than you can remember reasons for…

“Did the doggie get you?” Imp growled the question.  “Good.  Turn off your fucking power.”

She was trying to.

I had only a helpless noise to offer in response.

“I warned you.  Warned you what you were in for if you let my brother down.  So do I use the knife, make it quick?” she drew a knife.

I doubt it.

She’s more into the nightmare aesthetic, isn’t she?

Then she drew her taser with her other hand, “Or do I stick you with this until you stop using your power?  Then we can find some place where you don’t have your bugs, and take the slow option.”

Maybe Taylor can use that taser to disable the box, if she plays her cards right.

Grue and Bitch entered through the door, and I heard Grue mutter something.  Bitch gripped Bastard by the collar.

Restraint?

Did they realize something’s wrong, or are they just trying to make sure Bastard doesn’t bastardize Imp by accident?

“Imp.  You found her,” he said.  He sounded strangely unaffected by recent events.

Is it just his power messing up the nuance in his voice, or has he pieced things together?

There was no emotion to his voice.

Fuck, that’s worse.

“We were just discussing options.”

Heh.

“I heard.  Taser won’t do anything.  Worse than anything, she’ll use her power while she’s asleep,” Grue said.

Oh damn it, that’s right, in the unconscious Skitter scenario I laid out, they’d just assume the power was continuing to do what she told it to, because that’s how it works.

I opened my mouth to speak, coughed instead.

“What about if she’s dead?” Bitch asked.  She didn’t sound disaffected.  She sounded pissed.  “I can do it, if you two can’t stomach it.”

It kinda seems like Brian’s more interested in just stopping the swarm than anything else right now, but he’s definitely hurt. It’s the cold, emotionless kind of hurt.

The lack of a response from Grue was unnerving.  He kneeled beside me, putting one knee on my bad wrist.  I cried out in pain, coughed more.  He just stared.  Not that he could see much, with the way the bugs filled the room.

Yeah, poor boy is numbed to anything that would previously get him to jump to Taylor’s defense.

When he finally spoke, it was one word.  “Why?”

And I’m sure that question has been running through his head this entire time.

Why? Why? After everything, why?

I struggled to gain my breath, to center my thoughts.  I felt dizzy.

What could I say?  Was there anything that would convince them?  If I said it wasn’t me, would they believe me?  If I turned their attention to the swarm box, would they think it was a bomb?

Might set them thinking, at least.

He waited patiently for me to recover enough to respond.

Nice of him.

“Use…” I wheezed in a breath, “Dark.”

…to stop the bugs from seeing them?

Oooh, borrow Taylor’s power so he can sense what’s going on for himself?

I closed my eyes as the darkness flowed over me.  I felt my power weaken, realized I’d unconsciously been pushing the bugs to hold back.  I felt their attack intensify.

Grue stood.  He opened his hand, fingers splayed, and his darkness dissipated.  He turned to Bitch, gestured to Bastard.

I think it worked.

“Yeah?” she asked.

“Yeah.”  He pointed.

“You sure?”

…maybe?

The intensifying attacks are potentially bad.

“I’m sure.”

Bitch whistled, Bastard lunged, and the swarm box caved in beneath the wolf cub’s front paws.

Ahh, excellent.

The swarm went quiet.

Grue offered me a hand, I took it, and he hauled me to my feet.  I was unable to balance, dizzy, and leaned heavily into him.

“You’re not buying this, are you?” Imp asked.

It seems like he is.

“It wasn’t her.”

“She’s playing you.”

It wasn’t her.”

Imp folded her arms.  Bitch didn’t move.

Grue’s been won over, but this is probably going to mess with the trust in the group over time still.

Grue murmured, “Explain what’s happened.  Then we need to take care of you.”

I shook my head.

“No?”

I coughed briefly.  “Tattletale.  Regent too.  They’re in trouble.  We left them with Calvert.  With Coil.”

Tattletale especially, being such an enormous threat to everything about Coil’s plan and having shown disloyalty to him.


End of Monarch 16.12

Changelings are fun! 😀

This was another good chapter with excellent tension going on and a complicated puzzle of Coil’s ploys against Skitter. Really living up to his chessmaster claims here.

But now Skitter managed to turn the tide a little by successfully convincing Grue of her innocence, and it’s off to save Tattletale and, if necessary, Regent… possibly from the Travelers?

(We still don’t have the juicy deets on their history, or the 325, so I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them either way.)

Now that Taylor has the Undersiders on her side in the alpha timeline, Coil might have to start improvising. Then again, maybe this kind of outcome is part of why the perimeter with the mortars was there — before the Undersiders can fully reunite, they’ll need to get past that too, unless they withdrew when the changeling and Dinah were teleported out.

Should be fun. See you there!

One thought on “Monarch 16.12: A Canterlot Flashbang

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