At the apex of each breath, a sharp pain lanced through her chest. It was like being bisected over and over, punished for even trying.
Had to breathe. If she didn’t breathe, she would die. She knew she would. It wouldn’t be shattered ribs that killed her, or punctured lungs, or internal bleeding from being slammed into a shelter. It would be lack of oxygen. Twenty-one point something percent.
Lying there on her back in a pool of filthy, freezing water, she imagined herself a small-time armed robber, holding up a gas station. This is a stickup, she’d bark, maybe with her swarm buzzing around her for effect. Gimme all your oxygen, put it in the lungs, NOW!
She laughed at the image. The laugh turned into a ragged cough, then a sputter. Her body seized in mute protest, and she could feel her organs wring themselves out and squeeze through the slats of her ribs, leaving behind only a wet pulsating ache.
Even after all that, she barely made a splash.
The pain was good, though. Pain reminded her she wasn't a corpse yet, insofar as nothing else in her life ever did. She just wished she could feel anything below the waist.
Where were the other Undersiders? They may not have liked her much, but if she considered that a mark against them, she’d have no one left.
One of Bitch’s dogs was nearby. Her bugs converged on him, and she determined from rigorous examination of auditory and tactile data that he was dead. Bitch herself was nowhere to be found.
Taylor choked down a sigh. Bugs were virtually useless here, no more than a dull, scattered flicker at the edges of her consciousness. Flies could land on people and tell her where they were in relation to her and—what? Give them an infection? Most people around her right now were heavily wounded or dying. Her armband hadn’t been working since she last saw Leviathan with her own eyes minutes ago.
Her S-Class survival kit floated mere feet away. Inside were the medical supplies she’d managed to pack in the scant few minutes of warning she and her father had received. If she could just reach it, she’d be able to get out the box of band-aids. She’d be able to patch up her ribs before they crumbled to dust. Maybe even fix her spine?
A mass of bugs gathered on one side of the kit. They couldn’t find purchase on the slippery plastic, but they could push it towards her. Slow work, when there were so many other bodies and structural debris jostling it in the wrong directions.
She blinked the salt out of her eyes the best she could and focused on the darkened grey sky above her, looking for a black splotch. Her heroine wasn't here—she’d followed Leviathan to another part of the city.
It was sad, Taylor thought, that she would perish before she’d ever gotten to personally meet the one woman who had inspired her to—to do things, like inspire air, and sit in bathroom stalls eating pitas, and make working calculators in Visual Basic, and prefer tea to coffee, and read a maximum of two named books. It was so sad.
She prayed anyway.
Alexandria, play Despacito.
There were no windows in the conference room, but they’d all agreed that the screensaver on the wall should display the generic New York City skyline at perpetual dusk. Doormaker had to switch between New Yorks on alternate earths to ensure the view remained constant as long as the room was in use, but then that was what they kept him around for. They generally only used it for twenty minutes or so at a time anyway, excluding movie nights and orgies.
Today they were gathered for a meeting. However, Alexandria believed in starting a few minutes late—not to assert dominance, establish a more laid-back atmosphere, or allow stragglers time to arrive, but because she wanted to talk to Contessa, and saying that she believed in starting late lent her regular tardiness a veneer of legitimacy that no one questioned.
She called all the meetings, so she got to do that.
Alexandria pinched her fingers together, like a duckbill or Italian stereotype, and jabbed them upwards into her right hand which was curled into an ‘O’. She pantomimed meeting resistance, before explosively forcing her hand and the rest of her arm through the imaginary surface tension.
Once through, her left hand slowly clenched into a fist.
Contessa watched this demonstration, her expression filled with doubt.
“Then you put the other one through,” Alexandria finished, leaning back into her vinyl chair.
“Rebecca, you have more orifices than common sense,” Contessa said.
She scoffed. “I’m pretty sure I have more than nine common sense. Can we try it, though? If I do it to you at the same time, we’ll be an ouroboros.”
“Come on.” She threaded her arm through Contessa’s. “You said you were cold.”
“There are other options that don’t involve turning you into a glove.” Contessa gestured with her free arm, and the temperature in the conference room rose accordingly. “Besides, you’d pulverise my hand.”
“Oh,” Alexandria said, crestfallen. “Really?”
“Yes. I preferred the Human Centipede plan anyway.”
Alexandria visibly brightened.
With her girlfriend placated for the time being, Contessa glanced across the table. Legend was working his way through a crossword puzzle. His brow was furrowed in concentration, which she seized the opportunity to break.
"Remember the time we all got together for 'Cauldron Games Night'," she said, with air-quotes, "and Legend sh—"
"I didn’t," Legend interrupted, not looking up from the newspaper. "We're not doing this. That didn't happen and you're disgusting for even imagining it."
Contessa lowered her fingers, raising her eyebrows at an equally irritated Number Man. "You must admit, it is shaped like a plunger.”
“I don’t know what kind of plungers you’ve been using,” Number Man said icily. He pushed his spectacles up his nose and continued swiping at his tablet screen. “So, is there a real reason we’re having this meeting, or is this simply another one of those ‘I know you know I know’ Alexandria meetings that can be summarised in half a page and disseminated via e-mail?”
Alexandria glared at him, and looked to Contessa for support. Contessa offered her the supportive smile her power advised her to present.
“I’m just saying. We know.”
She scowled. “Does anyone else have any comments before we begin?”
Legend raised his hand. “I have something to say.”
“Sometimes,” Legend said, setting his pencil down and putting an arm behind his head, “it all feels like too much. Just... this insurmountable burden on my shoulders. Fighting a war of attrition against not only monsters, but human nature. In case there’s any confusion, I’m referring to you people. You people are just terrible. I don’t know exactly what you’ve been up to, but it’s probably ethically questionable, and I wish you’d keep me in the loop so I would feel vindicated in my outrage.” He sighed, two fingers skimming the rim of his empty cup. “But then I think to myself, at least I’m not David. And it gets easier.”
Contessa, Alexandria, and the Number Man nodded their agreement.
“Where is he, anyway?” Alexandria asked. “This was mandatory.”
Contessa concentrated. “According to my model of him, volume-snorting cocaine off the bare stomachs of two beautiful women in a doomed attempt to alleviate his crippling depression.”
Alexandria shook her head in unsurprised disappointment, then shrugged. “Well, we have a quorum, so—”
Suddenly, everyone’s mobile devices issued an alert sound effect.
She sighed. No one else did.
“Leviathan is attacking Brockton Bay.” Legend held up his screen as it flashed a big red exclamation point. “I guess we should go.”
He walked out of the room, but Alexandria lingered. Her splayed fingertips brushed the portal, as she brooded against the backdrop of the permanently silhouetted skyline.
“Brockton Bay? I thought we condemned that city already,” Number Man said absently, frowning at his own phone.
“I said that because you kept e-mailing me those cursed comics while you were there doing Coil’s taxes,” Contessa said, standing up. “When I discovered their true provenance, I had Japan condemned instead.”
Number Man’s eyes widened a fraction. He reached for his tablet, no doubt hoping to do damage control. “The entire country of Japan?”
“Yes. You would know if you checked the fridge on a regular basis.”
“I checked it this morning. I didn’t see any memo. Just unflattering candid photos of Scion and reminders not to eat the Jell-O.”
“As it appears I am not just the only person in this room with a perfect memory, but also the only person with a memory not made of literal Swiss cheese,” Alexandria said, as Contessa came up behind her to fix her cape. “—I shall deign to repeat myself. The contents of the dishes are not ‘Jell-O’. They’re potent strains of mutagenic bacteria. Secret family recipe, passed down for generations, so on and so forth. If you keep consuming them, there won’t be enough to feed to the C53s.”
“Ah,” Number Man said. “That explains the rather troubling bout of diphtheria the other day.”
“Are you not vaccinated?” she asked with momentary concern. She turned her head to receive a kiss from Contessa, who was predictably using minor costume adjustment as a pretext to grope Alexandria’s chest.
“King staunchly believed that vaccines caused autism. It was one of the reasons he had to be put down.” Number Man watched Contessa honk away like she was gridlocked on the I-90, before continuing, “Perhaps if you wrote something like ‘original colonies, do not steal’ on a sticky note, we—”
“I knew it!”
Legend burst in from the hallway, brandishing the foam cup he’d pressed up against the wall. He’d been listening in on them and filtering the conversation through a portable lie detector painstakingly built to resemble a teabag. “You are experimenting on human subjects!”
“Oh, dear,” Number Man said.
“Rats,” Alexandria said.
Legend placed his face in his hands. Through the gaps in his fingers, he noticed the skyline, and zoomed over to stand in front of it. “I have to go back to my husband, knowing that I’m complicit in these atrocities,” he said. His voice was hard and gruff with despair. “How am I supposed to explain to my child—”
“What are you going to do about it?” Contessa cut in, her fingers still firmly emplaced.
Legend started, accidentally crushing the teabag. Under their collective cold stare, he shifted his weight. “Ask me later,” he mumbled. “I need to go boil some water.”
Taylor exhaled, and the breath rasped through her chest like a Joker card against the spokes of a rusted bicycle wheel.
The Triumvirate had been chasing Leviathan around the city for at least half an hour, trying to get him to stay still so they could collect the pure potable water cascading from his afterimage and sell it to the needy at an exorbitant price. The water had to be caught in pails before it could hit the ground and become contaminated.
They weren’t coming for her. No one was.
At least she had the survival kit now. She dismissed the bugs and clutched the cold plastic to her chest with one arm, struggling to undo the clasp with her blunt fingernails.
Before she could, a pale hand plucked it from her grasp.
“Limited edition Alexandria plasters,” a bored voice said. “Where did you get these?”
She looked up and saw that the hand was attached to a suited woman in a fedora. Her lower body wasn’t visible beyond the boundaries of the white rectangle, like she was leaning out from another room. The woman flicked a hand over the medical supplies in the open box.
“The bandaids?” Taylor gasped out, her arm flailing weakly. “CapeCon, ‘05. Could I have it back, ple—”
The survival kit disappeared from Taylor’s view.
She made a feeble grab for it, but the woman caught her arm. She picked Taylor up, not roughly but forcefully, and dragged her to her feet.
Taylor couldn’t stand on her own, so she let the woman support her. She leaned against her solid form. Dark locks tickled the sides of her ears. “Mother,” she whispered, and buried her face in the woman’s shoulder.
“You’re adopted,” the woman said. “Close your eyes.”
Taylor obeyed, knowing in her heart that there was truly nothing left.
A dizzying whoosh of motion, and she opened her eyes to find herself on a bed in some kind of hospital. The woman was gone.
Almost immediately, a nurse and a man in a PRT uniform strode up to her side.
“What’s your name?” the nurse asked briskly.
“I’m… I’m Skitter,” Taylor answered. The name they’d chosen for her.
“Are you a villain?”
“Wh-what?” She swallowed hard, tasting iron at the back of her throat. “Huh?”
“Villain,” she repeated. “Yes or no?”
A pause followed, one thick with shouting and electronic beeps from nearby machines and impatient noises.
Taylor fought to clear her mind. Hero or villain? She couldn’t think of herself as a person who accomplished anything at all, good or evil. She was just a lump of meat-stuffed dough submerged in boiling water, only rising to the top when she was done. “Pieróg,” she answered finally.
The PRT officer tapped at his Blackberry with a small frown. Then he shrugged, apparently deciding the colour scheme was enough, and wrenched her arms to her sides.
Manacles snapped shut around her wrists.
“Look, the fact of the matter is Chuck Palahniuk wrote the greatest story of all time,” Legend said, tapping the matte surface of the conference table. “And I’m not referring to Fight Club. Ask your power which one. If you’d brought the candles like I requested, none of that would have happened.”
Contessa paused to ask, and shook her head. “It would have been worse. You would be telling me now that I should have brought carrots and petroleum jelly.”
Legend thought for a moment. Then another. Then several more moments. He squirmed a little in his seat. “You should have,” he said. “At least I could pare a carrot down to size.”
The Number Man folded his arms and leaned back, looking absurdly pleased with himself.