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Chapter Text

The desert hummed with life. Countless tiny insects burrowed into the sand. Scorpions sheltered from the sun’s inferno under flat rocks. Buried in their hidey-holes, tarantulas lay in wait, sensitive pedipalps waiting for even the slightest quiver of the silken strands that they touched. Flying insects clung to the sparse shade provided by the even sparser plants, dormant in the midday heat.

I saw the desert through the fragmented rainbow of a hundred thousand alien eyes before I even opened my own.

I expected pain. The last thing I remembered was the deafening percussion of two gunshots, and the apocalyptic shockwave of the corresponding bullets entering my skull. I should have been dead. Failing that, I should have been a drooling idiot seconds away from death.

I should not have been in a desert.

Sitting up, I squinted against the sun’s glare, hoping that my own eyes would tell me something that the insect eyes couldn’t. None of the new information was useful to me. The sun was blinding, so bright that it made the blue of the sky look bleached. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. Wait, no, there was a low, dark gathering along one edge of the horizon. It was either clouds or mountains. I couldn’t tell which, and it was well beyond the range of my power.

My power. My breath hitched for a moment as I came to terms with another impossibility. My range was back, as far as I could tell. There weren’t any city blocks here by which to measure, of course, but I could feel insects a hell of a lot further than sixteen feet out. My mind was her own again, the Queen Administrator nothing more than an invisible presence somewhere in my subconscious. I had no doubt that my shard was still there – my power would have been gone if it wasn’t – but it had been once again relegated to something that wasn’t much more than a passenger. I hoped.

Everything I had sacrificed, everything I had thought gone… somehow, I had gotten it back. My humanity. My life. My self.

I wasn’t one for tears, but there, under the desert sun, I wrapped my arms around my knees and cried.

It didn’t last long. Even as I wept, my power was working, scanning the area through the senses of the myriad insects and bugs, mapping out the flat, barren land and telling me everything I needed to know.

I was alone. I was very alone. There was no water. There was no shelter, at least none anything larger than a scorpion could make use of. Food was less of a concern, if I was willing to eat bugs, and I knew that by the time my hunger got bad enough, I would be.

No, water was the more immediate concern, and close on its heels was shelter. I was not a naturally tan person, and I could already feel the start of a sunburn on my face and arms. How long had I been laying there? There was no way to tell.

I took inventory of myself next. A pair of jeans, well-fitted but unfamiliar. A lose, pale grey cotton t-shirt. Undergarments; nothing special, but disturbing since I didn’t remember putting them on myself. Tennis shoes. A hair tie, already holding my hair back from my face.

That was it.

My tears dried quickly in the heat, leaving behind a salty residue and feeling of self-disparagement. I had wasted precious resources by crying those tears. Water was my number one need, and here I was, letting it fall out of my face and vanish into the air. I was alive, and I needed to be focused on staying that way.

I rose to my feet, surprised by how spry I felt. For someone who should have been dead, I certainly felt brand new. It was comparable to how my legs and arm had felt after Panacea had regrown them.



My hands clenched into fists and the desert began to move as thousands of insects reacted to the complex emotions that flowed through me. Taking a deep breath, I willed them away, willed myself calm.

If Panacea was involved, that would explain most of it. And fucking Contessa. Of course; I hadn’t been shooting to kill. If I had, I would have only needed one shot. Contessa never needed a second try.

So, the Bogeyman had incapacitated me and had taken me to Amy, who had fixed the damage that I had done, had fixed the bullet wounds, and had once again fucked around with my mind. The thought made me feel physically ill, and I had to take several deep, calming breaths to keep from vomiting. There was no telling what Amy – what Panacea – had done to me. The only thing worse than the thought of Panacea poking around in my brain was the thought of Bonesaw doing it – or was it? I shivered, not sure which implication was worse, and pushed the thought from my head. Whatever they had done to me was done. I would have to deal with it when – if – it came up. Right now, I needed water, shelter, and to figure out where the hell I was. Once I found civilization, I could reach out to Tattletale, or Dragon – would Dragon ever forgive me? I shoved the crushing wave of guilt to the side, to be examined later – or anyone who wasn’t likely to shoot me on sight.

Then I would lock Tattletale, Bonesaw, and Panacea in a room together until the former could tell me what the latter two had done to my head.

I began moving toward the low, dark line on the horizon, gathering a swarm with barely a thought. The insects were comforting, familiar, and made me feel just a bit less exposed in the barren wasteland I had found myself in. They settled on my clothes, my skin, my hair, a weight as familiar as any of my costumes had been.

Skitter. Weaver. Khepri. I didn’t know who I was anymore.

For now, I would just have to be Taylor.

Chapter Text

After a few hours of walking through the searing heat, I wasn’t feeling very generous to those who were responsible for my being alive. Saving me only to drop me in the middle of a desert was just cruel. If I was going to die anyway, I would rather that the bullets had taken me. Dying of thirst after being shot in the head twice was not the way I had ever thought I would go.

The low line on the horizon – most likely a mountain range, though I had no idea which one – didn’t seem to be getting any closer, not even after I walked for what must have been hours. I was able to use my insects to create a modicum of shade, which helped with the heat but did nothing for my thirst. The air was dry, and it seemed to suck the very moisture out of my throat. I had never been this thirsty before in my life. The only way I managed to bear it was by concentrating on the thousands of tiny bodies in my range. Insects didn’t feel thirst, not in the same way I did, anyway, and it was easy to lose a little bit of the human part of myself in them.

The swarm hung around me in a heavy cloud, shifting constantly, like the living thing that it was. I had eyes and ears on the desert for hundreds of yards all around, keeping watch out of long habit. Still, I almost didn’t notice the aircraft until it was upon me.

I sensed it first through my insects, a dark shadow that slid across the ground like a hawk on the wing. Even before I turned to look upon it with my human eyes, I already had a guess as to what it was. Or, rather, who it was. Either Dragon or Saint. I wasn’t sure if Dragon had survived in any recognizable form, and the twist of guilt managed to banish the parched feeling in my throat for a few short seconds.

If the ship was Dragon, in any of her forms, then I knew I had a chance. Dragon was dangerous, yes, but she would be fighting to capture, not kill, not unless she had changed beyond recognition. Saint… Saint was a wildcard. After what he had done to Dragon, I didn’t think he would hesitate to kill me too, if he got the chance.

I’d just have to make sure I didn’t give him one.

I formed the swarm clones in an instant, four of them. I didn’t know how well they would work against the sensor instruments the aircraft’s AI had on board, but even a minor chance that the decoys would work was better than no chance. As the aircraft approached, I drew on more insects from the desert surroundings. The area I was in now was more barren than where I had woken up, and insects were scarcer here, but not non-existent. There were very few places in the world where insects were non-existent.

I used the extra bugs to fortify my clones, and buried some of the more dangerous ones in the sands around my location. There wasn’t much in the way of anchors for webs, but that was okay; I didn’t have that many spiders anyway. The buried bugs – tarantula hawks, bark scorpions, desert recluse, giant centipedes, and those were just the ones whose names I knew – would have to do in a pinch.

By the time the aircraft was in range of the furthest of my flying insects, I was ready, or as ready as I was going to get. I knew that I was walking a knife’s edge. If I pushed too hard, showed that I was too much of a threat, then I would be killed or sent to the Birdcage outright. I had left a mess of things before… well, before whatever had happened to me. I knew they would be wary, and rightfully so. If our positions were reversed, I wouldn’t have bothered with the slow approached at all.

On the other hand, if I didn’t push hard enough, then I would be taken in regardless. I knew enough not to expect a fair trial from the PRT unless I fought tooth and nail to get it. I was relatively sure I could rely on the Undersiders for help with that – Tattletale would be able to handle the press, and would be able to find the best lawyer still living to act as my defense – but first I’d have to get a message to them. That would be my bargain, I decided. I would go quietly – assuming this was Dragon and not Saint; a capture mission, not a kill one – as long as I got to talk to Tattletale first.

I watched as the aircraft landed, subtly moving some of the bugs from under the machine’s landing gear. The second it touched down, I sent a handful of the smaller insects up onto the aircraft’s body. They slipped inside as soon as the hatch opened.

The interior of the aircraft was unfamiliar. I didn’t know how long I had been out, or how long it would have taken Dragon to come up with new designs, and I wasn’t a tinker despite what the PRT had to say about it, so I couldn’t really place why, but the aircraft felt off. It didn’t feel as alive as Dragon’s creations felt, where every inch hummed with efficiency and purpose. I could find nothing beyond basic sensory clusters and what I thought were two retractable guns nestled in the aircraft’s belly. There was a flat screen inside the craft, but even that was different than I would have expected from a tinker; it was bulkier, with scratches and scuffs that spoke of age beyond what Dragon’s creations could boast. There was other wear on the interior, which my bugs’ sensitive antennae traced out. Tinkers tended to be better about keeping up with repairs to their creations.

Flies settled on the men as they exited the craft. Five of them, wearing armor and tech I didn’t recognize. Not Dragonsteeth, then. Maybe people from the Dragonslayers, maybe a crew from a tinker I didn’t know. Guns. I didn’t know what they did; some seemed designed to shoot regular bullets, others were more complex. Maybe some sort of stun-guns. There weren’t any containment foam cannisters, and I wasn’t sure how to take that. Either they didn’t have any, or… this was a kill mission.

“Target in sight.”

My insects picked up the words, even though I was too far away to hear the man myself. They also picked up the reply that came over the radio, though that was more distorted.

“Iron Man is on his way. Do not engage. I repeat, do not engage. We don’t know what this is yet. Status of target?”

“There’s… there’s bugs, sir. People made of bugs. They’re just standing there, watching us. Four of them.” He slapped at a fly that had landed on his face.

“Can you see any weapons?”

“No, sir.”

“Do not engage unless the target engages first. Keep us updated. Iron Man is thirty seconds out. Over.”

I stretched my power out to its limits, but couldn’t sense anyone else approaching. Iron Man had to be a cape; either a tinker or brute, judging by his name. I’d prefer a brute. They were easier to handle in many ways.
The men made no move to approach, they just stood there, guns aimed at each of my swarm clones, with the fifth man acting as lookout, scanning the area. I continued investigating them as much as I could without alerting them to the fact that my insects weren’t acting as normal insects ought to. The gear the men had on didn’t give anything useful away. It seemed standard issue; radios, weapons, Kevlar body vests, earpieces. Inside the aircraft, my insects had located a logo of some sort, embossed on the backs of the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. S.H.I.E.L.D., with some sort of bird – eagle, most likely – as an artistically rendered symbol. Were they linked with one of the white supremacy groups?

A flying insect – I had no idea what type it was, deserts weren’t exactly common around Brockton Bay – blinked out of existence far above. It was my first sign that the cape was approaching. I directed more of them upwards, a swarm spread thinly in midair; a net that couldn’t be avoided by anything coming earthward from above.

Most of them were killed on impact, but a few managed to cling to the metal carapace that the cape wore – a tinker then, or maybe just a remotely controlled suit, like Dragon’s. It was slowing down, directing jets in the soles of its feet and palms earthward, frying more of my insects in the process. As its velocity dropped, more and more insects managed to find purchase on the suit. I had a couple of tarantula hawks carry some of the better web-weaving spiders up there. The cape either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the bugs that were now crawling around on the red-and-gold suit.

The cape came to a stop a good thirty yards away from me, not quite touching down. Tinker-tech for sure, and a well-funded one by the looks of it. The suit was sleek, covering the entire body. There were small heat vents on the back, which I was gradually working some insects into, but they seemed to lead into a closed off ventilation system. I couldn’t find a way inside the suit. It reminded me – just a little bit – of Mannequin. At least I knew how to handle something like this. I let my spiders get to work.

“Iron Man on site. Proceed with caution.”