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Solving the Dilemma

 

It was the most notorious prison of all, replacing the derelict and abandoned Birdcage. Defined in accordance with the heightened concerns about rights that had condemned its predecessor, and the security concerns that one person alone should not hold the keys, it was inescapable. The prisoners were there by their own will, and stayed there from their own desire. It worked, they said, the world was getting better, they said, and it was. With appeal possible, heroes had no moral quandries. Even the most pacifistic were willing to take in those villains they knew would be placed somewhere they could author their own fate, and any unjustly condemned had the chance of release. Tinkers could build without threat. Global trade recovered. Science advanced.

The worst of the worst came here, sealed into their cells, the serial murderers, the genocides, the rapists, those who existed only to break the world. Held in the small pocket dimensions, a world to themselves, food generated within, air sufficient for life and comfort, no communication with the outside or each other save once a day when the question was asked.

The prisoners' dilemma: choose to Leave and if any others chose to stay, then the those who chose to leave were free. Choose to Stay, and they would be trapped, regardless of others' choices, but with no communication, no knowledge of other's choices, collusion was not possible. With one prisoner picked at random for the monthly sentence review, implementing their suspended death penalty, to free others was to condemn themselves. Selfishness and pride served as the chains.

It was on such a night that the questioner, chosen by lot from international forces all screened before the choosing for outside influences, sequested for an unknown time before the draw, walked the cell fronts, the question asked, and answered from bloodsoaked mandibles, and hissing maws and far too normal mouths. The answer was so rote, he hardly listened until the last, where he checked himself.

                "What?" The prisoner smiled through the dimensional shunt of the jail.

                "Stay," said Jack Slash.

 

Chapter Text

In a back alley in New York, he finished absorbing his latest victim and opened new eyes. Tetrachromia, he noted with pleasure as the new ability sank in, quite the advantage for a sniper to see outside the spectrum. It made it much easier to hide his own abilities. He stepped away from the mess left by his meal, peeling some of the gunk off his feet as the new centre of balance took him a second to adjust to. The memories took no real time to settle, so he trawled the man's recent history, looking for details about what the marine had been doing.

Ah, shit. Ground Zero for a terrorist attack at New York. That explained all the troops but, as the stolen memories fell into place, it was irritating to learn they were already looking for a shapeshifter. That would not be a real problem. There was nothing on this earth that could manage his level of impersonation, down to the base level of the DNA. A minute with the right person and he could just walk out or, he grinned inhumanly, even have the people searching for him escort him out unknowing. That never got old.

Settling into his new persona, slinging the marine's pack onto his back with the ease of long practice, he considered the bioterrorists. Tracking down one of the people behind it and eating them for the data was tempting. Military conspiracies didn't last long when he got serious. He finished toying with the idea and discarded it as tempting but impractical. The form would make acquiring his next target more difficult, what with all the guns and bullets and marines. They were still at large, so a useful distraction but no real threat. No human-made bioweapon could affect him, and natural viruses did not stand a chance, so it wasn't his problem. His problem was getting off the island.

Happy he had the feel of the new musculature, picking up the marine's discarded rifle, he began the long walk back to the base. Lt John Anders had been deserting, but with his squad wiped out there was no one to report him. The lone survivor would return, report the horrific event, and get an officer alone for long enough for a truly indepth meeting. Buried under the borrowed personality, he let himself drift. He'd done the man a favour really. After all, no one lived forever unless he ate them.

Two blocks later, he was cursing human walking speed. This was going to take forever, or at least days he didn't have patience for. He listened hard, turning until he heard a tank's engine and grinned as his pace picked up. If they didn't give him a lift they would have a working radio, or better a careless crewman they'd take their eyes off. Almost stalking, he rounded the corner. He came into view at just the wrong time.

Inhuman reflexes kicked in, shattering the mask of humanity he wore as he threw himself out of the way. The tank landed where he had been, rolling, as its turret rotated still firing at something which landed on it, tore the armour open like a tin can. Screams rose. He slid behind a dumpster, concealed himself back in the trash, and watched as the thing with all the tentacles dragged a screaming soldier back inside and the man's body broke down into something obscene. The monster crawled out, onto the top of the tank, reforming as it did: jeans, a grey hoodie, a leather jacket, a human look. Then it jumped, weight slamming the tank into the ground as it took off.

In the alley, Vulture narrowed his eyes, watching the figure run up the side of the skyscraper and away. His plans to leave went abruptly on hold. There was something here he needed to get to the bottom of, and unraveling conspiracies was his thing. It was, after all, what he had been made for.

Chapter Text

Her precious cat was at the apartment door, pawing desperately, as she threw the last things into her evacuation bag ready to snatch him up and run. The trains off-world, Earth Gimmel, Aleph, anywhere that was safe, she had fifteen minute to get them both to -  

She'd left it too late to get out. The golden beam lashed out across the city, searing through buildings instantly. As the skyscraper collapsed, Maddie Hess grabbed her cat, curling round it in the hope that she could shield it, that somehow something could survive this. She fell, helpless, as the ceiling came down, concrete crushing her against the falling floor. There was pain, and red, and then nothing.

#

In the rubble below, something cried, quietly mewing as it pawed the still face. It rubbed its head against hers, butting under the chin with its forehead as blood smeared fur. There was no response, no welcoming hand. Not even when light filled the dark tomb, and the rubble was lifted away, revealing the mangled body to the sky above. It butted her face one more time as water fell on the tattered cheek. Then it raised its head to the sky, face filled with blood red rage, and leapt.

#

The golden Avatar of something far larger raised its hands too late as claws raked its face. Its eyes were gone, instantly regenerated from reserve mass as it found itself facing a foe it had not predicted. The creature kept striking, biting, tearing away mass far beyond its size.

"I find person who hurt you." 

The Warrior Entity's golden beams connected, blasting it away from the Avatar's face, but the creature recovered as quick as the Entity. A red uniform formed on the repaired body as eyes full of malice locked on the Avatar's. The tiny mouth opened, impossible quantities of boiling blood dowsing the Avatar as the claws struck again.

"I kill."

Incredibly the Entity sensed a threat as the strike cut through between realities, into the dimension where the Entity's core mass resided. The Warrior felt energy leach from it with the blow, absorbed by the unknown attacker. Immediately the Entity shielded its Avatar, recalculating this as a legitimate danger, and readied for battle. The creature crouched, tail lashing, and sprang.

 "I good kitty."

Chapter Text

Tentacles flailing, the alien smashed through the Bunker Hill Monument, its involuntary flight arrested in a shower of masonry. Dazed, it barely dodged the shower of acid that followed. Rubble dissolving around it, it threw itself upwards at its grey-haired, floating, opponent. The jump missed, but a tentacle locked on the red uniform, hauling the red-clad fighter towards the gaping maws. Claws slashed, cutting into the tentacle, and the creature hissed in outrage.

Lightning-fast, it flipped round, trying to drive the Earth native into the ground. The Charleston Naval Yard scrambled to evacuate, its preparations no match for the carnage as effortlessly Old Ironsides was swung from the water in a blaze of red and used as a club, batting the pair away from the dirt and up. The two entangled fighters tumbled through the air, out of control as more acid sizzled and boiled, dripping through the tentacles. Below them, the house of Paul Revere did not survive.

With a heave of red light, the tentacles were forced open from within. A glint of ginger hair was briefly visible beyond them before a giant cat's paw made of red light swatted the ginger alien out of the air. It tumbled, catching hold of a church spire that snapped off but slowed it enough for a single tentacle to lash back and send the victorious fighter smashing through the side of a skyscraper. Swearing emerged from the hole, a tone that left no doubt what its speaker intended, and then fell ominously silent.

The ginger-haired fighter pulled its tentacles back, sniffing the air as its eyes peered into the hole ready to ambush at the first sign of its rival. That this interloper would dare try to take what was its. It would teach it better.

The ground shook. Frantically the alien extended tentacles, hauling itself out of the hole and away as the crater inverted. Red light showed through the cracks like magma as its opponent erupted hissing and arrowed upwards to attack. The ginger teleported, its opponent soaring upwards through the space where it had been. Reappearing on the top of the bridge tower in a blatant display of threat, its most hated rival smashed into it with a flurry of tentacles and lights that knocked them both back off the bridge.        

Twin splashes echoed.

The water erupted in red light as the red-clad fighter levitated itself onto the roadway, shivering and spitting. Tentacles wrapped the bridge support as the ginger catapulted itself from the river, slinging itself onto the asphalt. They glared at each other. The blue-haired one lifted a forelimb, licking it. The ginger's hind paw crept forward, scratched tentatively behind an ear. Simultaneously they turned their back on each other, flopped down and vigorous grooming commenced as they ostentatiously tried to out-ignore the other fighter.

#

On the deck of the helicarrier, Nick Fury put his hands on the rail, surveying the smoke rising from the rubble of Boston. Behind him, Carol Danvers stood stiffly to attention.
    "And that, Danvers," he said, "is why you should have had one motherfucking litterbox per cat, plus one."

Chapter Text

Concept Model - Part 2



    "Hi, Boss." Oh shit, this would be awkward. Grabbing for the gun was stupid, but it was what McMullen would do. Vulture stumbled, the chair flying aside, as he reeled back from Mercer and fell ungracefully on his backside.

       Eating McMullen had seemed like such a bright idea. Better than those hunters and marines his voracious grandchild kept using as snacks, and dammit when he got the chance the boy was going on a diet, and a chance to get to the root of it all. It had seemed even better when the kid somehow got himself captured, and getting his incapacitated grandson shipped to him for a heart-to-heart about not getting caught, instead of the kid ending up on some vivisectionist's table, felt like a master-stroke. Except he'd miscalculated. 

    Facing off against an enraged Blacklight from two inches away made that pretty clear.

    "That is a foolish thing to do," Mercer gravelled. 'McMullen' backed up fast, still pointing the useless gun pathetically at the advancing virus and praying his grandchild didn't decide to try to eat him. That wouldn't go the way Blacklight expected, and there were questions Vulture really wasn't ready to answer.

    "You know who I am, and you know what I do," Mercer growled, inches in front of his face. He stayed down, against the wall, sheltering his head until thankfully the virus stepped back. Vulture took an entirely unnecessary breath. If Blacklight didn't take this well then all that would be left of the kid would be a new set of memories in his head, and then Blackwatch would be shooting at him instead. Not useful.

    "You were always so smart, ready to give up all our secrets," he stalled, trying to decide what to do. This had backfired spectacularly. The kid had planned this out, gone to the lengths of taking a fall to get to McMullen. Vulture had just eaten his way up the chain of command, using Blackwatch's belief that viral detectors and bloodtox actually worked. He was beginning to regret beating Mercer to it.

    "So you infected me?" His grandchild had begun to pace as he spoke. It was hard not to feel vaguely fond of the kid as it stalked back and forth, all predatory and menacing. He'd even learned to play dead at three weeks old. Vulture suppressed a certain family feeling. It wasn't helping.

    "No, no. Are you insane?" How the hell to tell him the truth? The kid wouldn't take it well. In close quarters, provoking a lethal reaction from the utterly lethal Blacklight wasn't a good idea. Putting the kid through the wall would start a painful fight he could only win if he ate Mercer, and he wasn't ready for that.

    "But you always were a lateral thinker. Plans within plans." The faint praise in his voice was genuine. Mercer paused, his face impassive, but something flickered in his eyes. The original Mercer's memories might be in there somewhere, and if they were his grandchild might reach the truth without him needing to say anything. Vulture envied him. Even his own creator had forgotten who Vulture had been originally, just a nameless involuntary subject, mind and personality erased by drugs and machines because Clayben claimed it was the only ethical way to make a monster, as if there was any ethical way, and fed political prisoners to keep him alive for experiments. After living through exactly what Raymond McMullen had planned for Mercer, Vulture felt no guilt at all about killing the man.

    The flicker of memory passed as Mercer turned, pacing furiously. If he had only just realised what his creator had done, the kid would be hurting and confused. If he hated the original Mercer as much as Vulture hated Clayben, his mind would be a mess. Vulture could only stress the distinction, that Blacklight wasn't Mercer, and hope the kid moved passed it.

    "Alex Mercer died. He died threatening to release the most deadly virus in history on the people of New York," he said, quickly. The reaction was near-blank, the words triggering nothing. He sighed. No memories yet then, but maybe later. "You died in Penn Station but the virus found its way into your bloodstream. And here you are, filling in the blanks." He actually found himself feeling proud of the boy. In such a short time, Mercer had developed basic ethics, a certain low cunning, and evolved a truly brutal drive for revenge on his creators. Vulture grimaced, finally figuring a way out. This would be painful, but Mercer didn't leave bodies, so that was one loose end pre-tied. Meanwhile he kept talking.

    "We were trying to figure it out. You just wanted to bring it all down. But this isn't what you came for is it? You want to know what happened at Hope Idaho. You want the truth." No, Mercer didn't, even if he thought he did. But then McMullen hadn't known it either, too busy being Randall's mushroom to even know where Pariah was kept.

    Vulture spread McMullen's arms out, to get Mercer's guard down. The gun was heavy in his hands, useless against the virus. "I know the secret." Mercer stopped pacing, confronted him. His last chance, and only one way out. Sorry, kid.

    "Listen, there's nothing you can do to hurt me..." Mercer began, just as Vulture put the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger. Mercer reached out abortively, too slow. Vulture fixed McMullen's eyes open, remembered to slump over, and stopped the body's heart. The look on his grandchild's face made him feel almost guilty, but the kid would get over it. Better than having to eat him.

    As Mercer cursed and ran, Vulture lay still and waited. There was the sound of running boots, someone who heard the shot coming to check on him. Shame to lose McMullen's authority, but the kid would get suspicious if the scientist was up and around after watching him shoot himself. So, Marine or morgue attendant, which to wear next?

     "Director!" And he had his answer.

Chapter Text

Part III


The Blackwatch officer slid casually over the front of one of the crashed planes, jumping easily over the shattered fuselage and landing lightly on his feet as he prowled across the carrier's wrecked and deserted flight deck. The evacuation sirens were still blaring, the remaining crew piling into the boats on the sides, but he wasn't paying much attention to the noise as they hit the water. His target was just ahead, and after the last four weeks he was damned if he was coming out of this empty-handed. Without effort he shoved a jeep aside to reveal the body of the monster, torn and twisted. Good.

    "Come on, get up." He kicked the tattered corpse with a foot unsympathetically. The light from the nuke was fading, but the blast and sound still echoed, making him raise his voice to be heard over it. "You expect me to believe that a blade to the head would stop you?" The ruin stirred, limply, feebly, helplessly. He chuckled in amused exasperation and prodded it with a finger. "You came back from a puddle!" It wavered a little. Vulture moved instantly, blurring back, as the claws tore into the deck where he had stood. He landed, smirked.

    "Careful. I'd appreciate you not ruining this rag I have on." The creature growled, standing toweringly tall, and he shook his head, chiding it. "You're the only change of clothes around and, believe me, you don't want me moving in." It hesitated, perhaps more intelligent than it looked without a head, but still mainly hungry. He grabbed one of the bodies by the ankle and slung it one-handed across the twenty feet to the creature. "You're cancer, not a virus. Eat the corpses." Warily, almost animalistic, it impaled the body, plunging the claws of its remaining arm into it. The flesh flowed into something red and warped, as its head swelled back into existance. It took a step towards him, intention obvious, and he sighed.

    He really didn't want to eat the creature. His involuntary daughter had been eaten by his unexpected grandson before Vulture got the chance, said grandson had then blown himself up with a nuke and if he survived might be washed up anywhere along the coast, and this creature was the last chance he had to get anything out of all his work. More practically, that much biomass would take hours to settle into a human form, and once he'd extracted a body that worked the left-overs wouldn't putrify quickly enough to cover his tracks.

    "I was here to eat your mother," he said, his real, inhuman, voice grating uncomfortably in his borrowed throat. The creature baulked, backed off. Keeping his voice human, he threw it another body before it could decide to run. "Here. Fix yourself up." Claws impaled the flung corpse on reflex. It was getting braver, absorbed this faster, and then moved, never taking its sunken, tiny, eyes off him. Loping sideways, it swiped the nearby corpses and absorbed them as its body rebuilt. He tried not to feel jealous: that effortless casual shift-and-absorb was beyond him. Fully healed it crouched, growling something that might have been a word, the clawed arm sweeping the deck in front of it in blatant threat. Lightning-fast, it lashed out, knocked his weapon aside. If he'd been human, his hand would have been pulped. The M-16 shattered. He dropped it, uncaring and unharmed. There were spares all over the place.

    "Yeah, very good. Now would you take the form with the working vocal cords?" Vulture tapped his neck with two fingers. He hoped it took the hint, or this was going to be a very one-sided conversation. It wasn't that smart, actually lumbering forward ready to charge. This wasn't how he had wanted things to go, but then at two weeks old he'd been eating anyone that Clayben locked in with him. Ethics came later: it was impossible not to develop empathy, and an utter distrust of authority, with all those human memories.

    "Now, before you try to eat me-" The monster crouched, but Vulture kept smiling, spread his arms to pretend he was harmless, and for balance if he needed to dodge. "-you could try. Your virus would invade these cells easily, slip into the DNA and start to break it down. And then it would start doing other things, and you'd find impulses in your head, thoughts you thought you thought and know that you didn't. Normally that's when they try to scream, but by then I already have control, and our bodies are melding. If you're lucky you're looking away and don't have to see your body dissolve, but you'll feel each moment as you melt and sooner or later you won't be thinking your thoughts at all. I will.

    "It takes about fifteen minutes to half an hour, but I replicate everything down to individual gut bacteria and resident viruses." He saw realisation click in its head. The monster's step back was a give-away. "As you have your own replenishment methods to restore your cells, I could wear you for quite some years, if I wanted to have to dodge viral detectors and have weaknesses to fire and electricity. I don't." He added the last two words quickly. The last thing he wanted it to do was run, and it seemed on the edge. "Now, vocal chords?"

    Almost suspiciously it shapeshifted, form flowing red in an easy change, and reforming into a grey-haired Captain. It began to pace, circling him at a safe distance, easily loping over the wrecks and craters in its path. Vulture grinned, not bothering to turn and face it. "Better." There was a silence for a while as he let it move, tracking it by sound until it was finally willing to prove it could speak.

    "What are you?" It sounded human, the inflection cautious as hell. Bright one, this.

    "Me? Family. Your..." He thought about it and scowled. "Your great-grandfather." That made him feel old. He hadn't even had a grandchild until last month. It was still circling, still watching for his guard to go down.

    "You look human."

    "I'm good at that." Vulture smirked. "You're not." The creature bridled, and he laughed outright. No poker face at all, but then the kid was all of two weeks old. He shook his head, still smiling. "Kid, you think they don't notice that the clothes come attached? Focus on what's under it, shift into that, and grab something off the dead guys." Humans also noticed when clothes weren't bullet-proof and skin was, but there would be time for the advanced lessons later.  

    "Who are you?"

    "Vulture. What do I call you?" The answer came a second later, the delay notable.

    "Cross."

    "Not your borrowed name. Your own name." The creature paused mid-step. Vulture had already guessed it would not have one, creators never liked their bioweapons to be people. As the delay stretched he knew it was thinking. Good. If it was going to use the form of a presumed dead/AWOL spec ops soldier that would present its own problems, and sticking with the name would get confusing when it shifted. They'd both be finding new faces along the way.

    "Parasite." It was painfully generic, but at least it wasn't Hunter. Otherwise he would have had to eat his way through Blackwatch until he found out who assigned these daft codenames and fill out whatever paperwork was needed to get them changed. His first choices of 'light snacks' and 'damn nuisance' might not be accepted. "And what'd you want with me?" He turned, jumped casually next to the suspicious creature.

    "Oh, remove a few classified files, burn down some buildings, destroy any records you ever existed." The Captain's stolen face moved minutely, in what he hoped was the beginning of a smile. "See if you can vanish as well as I did." It seemed to like that idea.

    "And then what?" it said, the borrowed tones neutral.

    "If we're not going our own ways? I was thinking roadtrip." He slung an arm round its shoulders, ready to shrug off a claw to the gut. It didn't happen. "Family time, up the coast, see the sights, take in the landmarks, overnight at a few Columbian cartel compounds?" Finally the creature relaxed. It was the first time he had heard it laugh.

    "Sounds good," it conceded.    

    "Great!" Vulture said, as he began to walk the pair of them towards the edge of the deck. "So before we hit the road, how'd you feel about stopping at the Red Crown buffet?"

Chapter Text

Duke cursed, still groggy as his thoughts came back together. How had Cobra anticipated them? Their battle plan had been flexible, they should have had the drop on Cobra and somehow the terrorists had turned it around on them. Everything they tried, the terrorists seemed to have a perfect counter for. The Joes had been forced back, away from the town, by a force half their size. The Cobra force was only blue-shirts, not even Vipers, but they had fought like elites and their unknown leader was a tactical genius. He thought he had seen Jaye go down on the landing pad as the helicopter blew, and hoped the others had got her out. They had to get out with the intel on this new unit, but in the chaos their squad had been split and he'd been taken down by the gas grenade before he knew.

    He couldn't see anything, a thick material over his head that was stifling him. His head was pounding from the drugs, and there was a new pain among the others in his upper arm as a needle was withdrawn. His arms were cross-tied, above elbow and at the wrists, with the fastenings secured to the chair. There wasn't an inch of give, and the shackles were padded metal, not the easily-escapable ropes Cobra used. Dislocating his thumb to pull a hand free wouldn't work. His feet were clear of the floor, no leverage, and his first attempt to rock the chair showed it was bolted to the floor. Dr Mindbender or Interrogator, he placed a silent bet with himself, and they'd learned.

    "He is awake, sir". He guessed it was a medi-viper behind him, muffled though whatever was over his head. Jerking his head back in an attempt to headbutt failed, hitting nothing and making the headache worse.

    "Good. Guards, take two steps back, and aim your guns at his head." There was a pause as he heard movement and then the voice came again, with something of an edge. "No, move out of each other's crossfire. Thank you." There was a shuffle as the order was followed. "Now, medi-viper, take the bag off his head, and retire to the corner." The voice was surprisingly patient. As the hood lifted, Duke blinked as the light stabbed into sore eyes. In front of him was a blank wall with a desk and chair, far less ostentatious than Cobra usually went for. Craning his head round, he could just see the blue uniform of one of the guards on the edge of his vision. "My apologies for the inconvenience, Sergeant Hauser. I am still retraining the help." Duke froze. Cobra should not have his real name. He could not hear footsteps, but the voice was moving round to the left, well behind the guards. "Name, rank, and number?"

    "Duke, First Sergeant, RA 213-75-7793," he recited automatically, on familiar ground. Without the hood, he could hear clearly and that wasn't a voice he knew.  

    "Thank you for your co-operation, Sergeant Hauser." The voice sounded pleased, and Duke scowled. "Anything else?"

    "You'll get nothing more even if you use the brainwave scanner."

    "I have and I am." The voice was smooth and cold as the man walked into view. Even through his blurred vision he could see that the figure was tall, unnaturally elongated by the blurr in his vision, clad entire in black with some detailing he could not make out. Someone new.

    "You'll get nothing to tell your Commander."

    "Cobra Commander is taking a leave of absence." The unnaturally thin man sat down behind the desk and steepled his fingers. Duke's eyes locked on the white snake symbol on the man's forehead, coiling down the side of the bodysuit.

    "I am Coil, and I will be replacing him for the foreseeable future. Now, tell me about your team."

Chapter Text

Good Dog

 

Mercer turned at the sound, but the creature was still there. Panting, tongue lolling. It sat on its haunches watching him. Large white dogs weren’t unusual in New York, but none of the memories he held said anything about them sitting on the side of a skyscraper at ninety degrees to the ground. It didn’t look as though it was infected, but it wouldn’t stop following him. Stupid animal.

            Jumping, he air-dashed to the far building, flipped across the roof and down onto a roof garden, crouching on the edge. He could hear the hunters moving below, his mouth twisting in a merciless smile as he crouched to jump. Claws clicked behind him, and he wheeled, then stopped dead.

            It was there. Ninety degrees, on the glass, sitting, watching him. He snarled, but it didn’t move, inspecting a fly that seemed to be buzzing round its head. With a snap the fly was gone, which gave him ideas, but the problem with eating dogs was all the fur. Too bad there were no helicopters, it would make a great projectile. He just needed to get rid of it and go and eat the hunters.      

            He scanned borrowed memories. Dog owners seemed to agree tennis balls were the best thing ever, but there weren't any near the top of a skyscraper. Sticks came second, and he guessed improvising would do. Something long and aerodynamic, and nearby would do. He picked up a section of broken helicopter rotor, pulled it out of the concrete it was embedded in, and swung it experimentally.

            "Fetch, boy." The dog's expression changed, and somehow it managed to look disapproving. He ignored it, flinging the rotor overhand. It whistled passed the dog's head, missing by inches, as the animal whipped its surprised gaze round to follow. The 'stick' flashed passed skyscrapers, beyond the city limits, and out over glittering blue water before it disappeared. A few seconds later he heard a faint splash.

            The dog's head turned slowly back. It's expression had gone from merely disapproving, to the same glare he'd got from Dana when he'd suggested that some people just needed eating. He glared back, arm shifting to claws. He wasn't losing a staring contest with a dumb animal. Dana would never...hmm. Dana. He rifled through memories of dogs, big, small, stray and pets, and peered more closely at the creature. It wasn't a dog. Experimentally he pulled out another section of broken rotor blade, hearing the clamour of the pack of hunters below.

            "Fetch...girl?" he tried, swinging the 'stick' more lightly. It slipped from his grasp, sailing downwards towards the street and embedding itself deep into the asphalt right in the middle of the hunters.

            The dog's head whipped round, eyes wide, mouth open. With a flurry of excited barking it took off down the side of the skyscraper. Mercer shrugged. It's funeral, but maybe while the hunters were distracted by the dog ploughing through them, scattering them like nine-pins in its single minded quest… Now that was not what he had expected, but rather than waste the opportunity, he kicked off the side of the building letting himself drop. As he hit the ground, devastator erupting, the hunters were already being pelted by a hail of rocks and debris. His feeding tendrils ensnared the nearest, but his attention was on the shower of asphalt fountaining from the ground. In the middle a white tail could be seen waving vigorously.

            By the time he finished the last hunter, there was a mud-covered dog sitting proudly on the road, triumphantly holding a six foot piece of helicopter rotor in its mouth as its tail beat on the asphalt. In the six foot wide hole behind it, a small lake was forming as the ruptured water pipe leaked. Expectantly it dropped the rotor blade, looking up at him with wide hopeful eyes as the sound of tank engines grew closer. Mercer grinned as he picked up the rotor and aimed.

            "Good dog."

Chapter Text

"...and that is how, when the Teeth arrive, we can defeat the Butcher and revitalise Brockton Bay at the same time." Piggot smiled in approval as the most valuable asset the PRT had in Brockton Bay finished speaking.

"Brilliant as always, Crash. We'll implement the plan immediately!” There was a round of heart-felt applause and the young man sat, smiling modestly.

“Just doing my job, ma’am.”

“And doing it well. Battery, relay the details to PRT Central H.Q. If you can tear yourself away from Armsmaster long enough." There were giggles at the table and the blue-clad heroine smirked, with one last lascivious run of her hand over the man’s blue armour, and sauntered out of the room swinging her hips. The tinker's gaze followed as he smiled fondly.

Battery had really blossomed after her divorce from Assault, Piggot reflected, turning into a beautiful, confident, second-tier hanger-on, to Armsmaster. She turned her attention back to the meeting, moving to the next item on the agenda. “Now, about the Endbringers…”

“I have a plan for them.” Crash said humbly, and Piggot waved him to take the floor. She'd never trusted capes, but after two weeks of friction, Crash had got her to admit that was just the after-effects of Nilbog. Now she saw them for the valuable untrustworthy individuals that they were. “If we-” The door opened with a crash and Vista ran into the room, pigtails bobbing cutely as the girl skidded to a stop.

"Director, the merchants are attacking the Docks!" Crash leapt to his feet at the words, grabbing his gun from the holster.

"Armsmaster with me," he ordered as the second-in-command of the PRT stood immediately, his halbard extending for combat.

"Stay safe, Mr. Crash. " Vista lisped, as Crash flew from the room, leaving her gazing adoringly after him as the Supra-Alexandria Brute was followed by his halberd-wielding mentor. She slumped and Piggot sympathised with the cape. Vista knew that the front line was no place for a child soldier, and she was only a girl. What could she do to fight?

“We’ll have this handled by lunch.” Crash’s shout echoed back, and Emily Piggot sat down, smiling approval. The situation couldn't be in better hands than the Brockton Bay Protectorate, and she knew they'd resolve it efficiently as they always did. She trusted them completely.

The master stranger button was an inch from her fingers. Her hand would not move to press it.

Chapter Text

St. Kilda, the island at the edge of the world. An archipelago of islands and ocean rocks towering fourteen hundred feet out of the sea, inhabited for two thousand years until the last St. Kildans were evacuated in 1930 in the teeth of the autumn storms and a sickness that killed four. The silent stacks were left to its birds, and its sheep, and their seasonal watchers. And that is how the residents wish it.

The fishing ships were due in, and all bodies were to the work. Moira stood on the rock, overseeing the waves and raised her hands as the dark sea lay flat. The brush of muffled oars drifted over the calm waters, for it was safest in the clogged channels to scull. Too fast, and mariners swiftly learned that here the seafloor had teeth for unwary boats. Low in the water, full- laden, the boats were chased by seabirds and the island would eat well tonight.

                She whistled softly, feeling the air thrill, and on the marriage rock a young man leaned forward, allowed himself to overbalance, plummeting towards the sea before wings snaped open at the last second. He swung out, through the crowds of gulls and fulmers that chased the boats, snatching the unwary and wringing their neck on the wing, slinging them into his bag. Skimming the waves, he dropped a full bag on the sands, and wheeled on a wingtip for a second pass.

                She felt his passage, allowed the air to bouy him up, as the first of the boats hauled to the beach. The waiting crowd surged forward to unpack. Welcoming the crews could wait until all was stowed and stored. Hirta was a harsh island, no place for those who prized sentiment above survival.

                The last of the shallow boats safely on sand, she lowered her hands, let the fog roll in until all that could be seen beyond shore was the ever-present clag that wreathed St. Kilda and the varied wings that danced in it. Shawl gathered tight, she turned to make her way to the beaches, to claim the portion of the fishing that she would salt to take her household through the winter and the excess she could trade for wool to spin.

                The fisherman threw the largest of the catch to the waves. None protested as it was pulled down, knowing it was but fair to share their portion with their safety. The waters churned once more, trespassers uninvited by nature itself though it was a month yet until the storms would cut them off naturally for another nine months, as something beneath the waves drew the water down and spat it out in spouts.

                Without their neighbours' gifts, the island would not be safe. Without the ungifted's work, their neighbours would not eat. That balance brought no masks, no conflicts among the folk here, for all had to contribute all they had to the only battle that mattered: the ongoing fight against nature itself as it battered them in the small refuge from the world they had carved out here in the remotest isolation. And the fight against the world that wanted them to fight its battles instead.

St. Kilda, the island at the edge of the world. An archipelago of islands and ocean rocks towering fourteen hundred feet out of the sea, the silent stacks recorded as left to its birds, and its sheep and their seasonal watchers who come no longer for the weather forbids. A harsh land, and a hard one. But for those that now called it home, it was a safe one.

Chapter Text

Crashing out: Chapter 2

Vista trembled. After all their preparation, all the PRT's defences, it had come to this. The Merchants were attacking, but it was Oni Lee who simply warped through the PRT's window and snatched her. The last thing she had heard was Piggot swearing to turn out everyone to save her, but if all the bad guys were working together this was it: the final showdown. Crash had warned them it was coming.

            Skidmark and the Merchants blocked off one end of the beach, Squealers huge sleek tank revving in the front ranks. Inshore, in front of the remaining warehouses, the unmasked Empire had turned out for their last stand. The ABB held the ground further inshore, off set on a diagonal to cut off Protectorate retreat, the Oni standing at the front of his troops. If anyone tried to fire, he could teleport and his clone cut her throat before the bullet hit.

            The small, pitifully outnumbered, Protectorate forces cowered behind temporary barricades that Armsmaster had thrown down from his bike. It was a good thing Crash had told him to build them, Vista thought. There'd be no one coming to save her. If only there was something she could do to move the knife away from her neck, but she was so weak, her pitiful useless ability to warp space no help at all. If someone could snipe him silently - but only Crash could make such a difficult shot at Oni Lee's exposed head. She whimpered, tears beginning to swell in her eyes.

            "You monsters! She's just a child." Purity glared at Oni Lee from the front lines of the Protectorate. She burned so bright it was hard to look at but the Empire defector, well-known for her kind-heart and love of all children, couldn't fire without hitting Vista.

            "Let her go or die!" The command rang clearly in Piggot's voice, and Vista's heart lifted to see the Director, fully armed, pointing a sniper rifle at Oni Lee's head. She looked awesome, back where she should be commanding the action; from the thick of it rather than leaving it to some cowardly responsible pen-pusher in the back rank just getting reports and a full overview of the scene, instead of down and dirty in the fight.

            "Release our leverage?" Kaiser sneered. He stepped to the front of the Empire group, as Skidmark did the same for the Merchants.

            "Not until you agree to fight us." The dreadlocked drug addict said, coldly. Crash gritted his teeth.

           "No! She's a Ward, you cowards. Why would you kidnap her?"

            "Because I told them to," To her horror, Velocity moved forward from the ABB's ranks. His costume was covered by a cloak in the gang's colours, declaring his new allegience. Crash looked shocked. "I handed them Vista. I've been telling them all your plans from the start. Every time your plans failed it was I, your rival." Vista shook. Velocity had been foiling Crash's plans. All his plans that she knew of had worked, but some had not gone perfectly. Crash's plans were for the good of everyone. What kind of monster would interfere?

            It made horrible sense that Velocity, the only Asian cape in the Protectorate would betray them. Velocity, the new leader of the ABB, the traitor in the ranks. It all made sense now. He must have co-ordinated this with the Merchants, set up this final showdown for the soul of Brockton Bay. With a thrill, she realised this was it, the forces of evil about to be driven from Brockton Bay completely. Crash strode forward, alone against the four capes, showing the real courage of the invulnerable, indestructible, brute.

            "Who are you?" Crash demanded.

            "That's Velocity. " Vista shouted, before Velocity could quiet her.

            "Traitor!" Crash's shock had been replaced by resolute defiance. "I challenge you now. Combat, man to man!"

            "Agreed!" Velocity stepped forward, casting aside his red and green ABB cloak. Crash drew his guns, striding forward.

           "Be careful, Crash, he's dangerous. " Armsmaster warned. The Supra-Alexandria Brute nodded, locking eyes with the Mover, and stepped into a fighting pose, guns held at right angles in his hands. Everyone in Brockton Bay watched with bated breath. Crash fired, and Velocity dodged. The mover feinted, skidded to a stop by the front row. Crash holstered his guns as he threw himself forward, unable to fire lest he hit one of the capes.

            And Armsmaster's halberd ran him through. The tinker reacted too slowly as a teen in PRT armour grabbed his arm, slamming it forward and punching through the power armour like glass. Armsmaster backhanded the teen, trying to free his weapon, knocking the huge boy down with a snap of bones. Before he could pull the blade back, Velocity appeared in realtime, grabbing the staff and pushing it down, grinding the nanothorns through the brute's heart. Crash screamed as his armour dissolved, evaporating.

            Impaled on the weapon, a ten-year-old boy clutched at the ruin of his torso, severing fingers on the blade.

           "But I wanted to be a hero," he said incredulously, and his body slipped from the blade, limp. Velocity looked at Panacea. She didn't move. Reluctantly, Velocity bent to check the body, pressing two ungloved fingers to the boy's neck.

            "He's gone." No thunder rolled, no rain fell. It remained a cold New England morning. "He's really gone." He sounded unsure of what he would have done if Crash wasn't.

            Abruptly Battery pushed herself away from Armsmaster, fell to her knees, and vomited. The Protectorate leader didn't move to comfort her, putting a hand to his helmet.

            "Dragon. Dragon?" he asked, ignored. On reflex, the knife warped a foot from Vista's neck and she ducked and rolled, onto land that twisted impossibly to bring her safely behind Protectorate lines. Piggot and Panacea were staring at each other, Amy horribly pale. Their glares were nothing to the sick looks on the faces of the Wards. Shadow Stalker was staring at the unmasked Grue in undisguised horror.

            "I'm so sorry..." Amy muttered.

            "It's done." Piggot said dismissively, her mouth set in a tight line.

            "That motherfucker raped my mind!" Skidmark shouted, "let's fuck 'em up!" Vista shot to her feet, expanding the beach between the forces to give the PRT a corridor of fire. Strategically, the PRT were outnumbered, trapped, and few of their capes were up for a fight. The villains didn't seem to be in much better shape.

            Velocity stood up, shaking slightly. "Don't be stupid. Crash rigged this so the Protectorate wins." He looked at Kaiser and Oni Lee, still wavering on his feet. "Endbringer truce? Until we can work out how much he made us do."

            "Agreed." Kaiser said, looking towards Purity. She had dimmed and turned away, her head in her hands. The Oni nodded silently, once. Piggot stood up, taking a hell of a risk in such an exposed position. One blade, one teleporting assassin, and she was dead.

            "The PRT agrees." All heads turned towards Skidmark.

            "No fuckin' brainer. Need to find out what that turd's done to my..." words trailed off into muttering as slowly the battlelines begain to withdraw, still wary, not turning their backs on each other until they were finally far enough out of sight to turn and run. The PRT slowly lowered weapons.

            Velocity was left alone in the middle of the beach.

            "Protectorate?" Piggot asked sharply, and he nodded, dropping to his knees in exhaustion as the teen who had stabbed Crash put a hand out to support him. "And who the hell are you?"

            "Browbeat, ma'am," the teen said.