The pungent scent of charred flesh and smoke filled the air.
The crack of gunshots mixed with the panicked screams of dozens of people.
It was a mess. It was a travesty.
It was unacceptable.
I glared at them all from a million eyes hidden in the trees. I'd dispersed myself into a swarm of butterflies, though I couldn't spread them out far. They all had to stay relatively close to each other, lest I lose cohesion and dissolve. In addition, since I was a swarm of butterflies, I had to do some tricks to get the information I needed.
Butterflies didn't perceive the world the way humans did. Individually, they were practically blind compared to the average human. Everything was much less sharp, and their long-range eyesight was garbage. That said, they could see in the ultraviolet range and interpret colors humans couldn't dream of. It was beautiful to see through a butterfly's eyes with a butterfly's brain. Beautiful, but not terribly useful when it came to seeing the action happening on the complete opposite side of the superblock.
But that's only if I used them all as individuals. Each butterfly wasn't it's own separate being under my control, each insect was me. Just like your brain links a human's two eyes together and creates a composite image, I used the processing power of hundreds of billions of neurons to combine the raw data I got from each instance's senses. I blended and processed it all, burning through adenosine triphosphate by the millions as I performed quadrillions of calculations each second.
All to paint a picture from over 100 yards away.
The two men who dared be here ran through the crowded section of the shops bordering the park. Unfortunately, they weren't dumb enough to run into the wide open sections of it or try to cut through the trees, and were instead using the panicked shop goers filling the Saturday afternoon markets as human shields against the PRT. The man in a trench coat would throw fireballs behind him, forcing the chasing PRT soldiers to hunker down in cover and protect civilians.
One soldier held up a bulkier rifle with a thicker tube and revolving chamber. He yelled out something and the weapon thumped. Time moved at a crawl to me as I saw a cylinder fly up and arc through the air, before falling towards the two capes.
The man with the bulkier jacket raised up his hands, and the grenade crashed into a field of transparent white and black hexagons in front of them. It detonated, erupting into a cloud of the PRT's containment foam. It slid off the field, which either expanded as the foam grew, or became more visible as it came into contact with something solid. The two men kept running, leaving the foam behind as another barrier for the soldiers to deal with.
I was angry at all of them. The capes for disrupting the peace in the first place. For being such violent, cruel, and self-centered savages. The PRT for allowing them to come here.
While I was like this, nothing escaped my gaze. Everything was a data point analyzed and processed millions of times in a mere sliver of a second. For every patch of empty data I had more than enough context and processing power to fill in the blanks. With all the perspectives my swarm brought me, it gave me an almost omniscient understanding of everything happening inside my area of focus.
Still, it paled in comparison to what Mom could accomplish when she put her mind to it. She might not have the raw processing power, but she could access a vastly larger pool of data and perspectives. It was good enough for my purposes, though.
I watched as most of the PRT were forced to waste their foam grenades on the fires that Trench Coat had been starting. It was snuffing them out easily enough, and they could use it indiscriminately because it wouldn't harm anyone encased in it. But for every fire they put out, Trench Coat started three more.
Thousands of wings vibrated in anger.
I shifted, changing from the very visible butterflies into a typical housefly as I took to the air. No sooner had I rose, than did I descend to the ground. My black bodies weaved through the grass as I moved closer. Like this, there wasn't much chance of them seeing me until it was too late.
The kids that had been playing in the grove were another story.
The black girl I'd seen earlier, by the soccer field, had been hiding in a tree, peeking out from around the edge to see the cape fight with eager eyes. When she slipped on a weak limp that had snapped and fell down, Trench Coat noticed. He reacted on instinct upon seeing a human figure suddenly appear, and threw a fireball in her direction. Fortunately, he was a terrible shot, and it exploded on the tree next her instead. Unfortunately, the embers fell around her and caught on her shirt igniting it and the surrounding grass.
She screamed as the fires licked at her dark skin. I think I spotted Trench Coat wince at the sight. That didn't stop him from running away and leaving the girl to burn. I was about to do the same, to leave the girl behind in the name of revenge. The fires of rage had been stoked once again in my soul, and I felt a burning need to quench them.
Then I caught her scent. A whiff of rose kissed honey swept across my swarm with a gust of wind, and memories of Mom came to the fore. The way she'd always be out helping people, even at the expense of her own health. How she saved me when she should have saved herself.
"Those in need are those the most deserving of our love" I remembered. "Love your neighbor…"
I thought about what Mom would want, about what God would want. I felt the eyes of her statue boring into the back of my swarm's head. Were they looking down from heaven now? Judging me?
What would mom do?
I turned into a cloud of dragonflies, speeding through the grove at the speed of a street car. In mere seconds, I was upon her. The flames engulfed her and the trees around her, the girl's screams sounding far too much like my sister's. I collected over her flailing form, a dense cloud of insects. Then I dissolved into a mass of goo.
I could feel myself die by the millions, but the fire was snuffed out, starved of oxygen. The girl froze, no doubt trying to come to terms with the fact that she went from being burned alive to being covered in cold liquid me, not that she knew the last part. Covering her, I got a glimpse of her biology. She would live, not too much smoke inhalation, some second degree burns over her back and arm but I'd gotten to her quickly.
She was also in shock, the kind that wasn't from dangerously low blood pressure. I could see her mind firing on all cylinders, trying to figure out what the hell was happening and what to do next. At least, I assumed that was what was going through her head, she could have been thinking about the beauty of fire. Normally, this wouldn't be too dangerous on it's own, but given the surrounding flames and toxic fumes, she didn't have time to sit around and wait.
Already, I could detect the toxins sitting in her lungs. Before I could really think about it, I acted, collecting the drops of me still clinging to her face and forcing myself down her nose, flowing down her throat and collecting in her lungs. I filled them with a clean oxygen nitrogen mixture at the same time I collected all the heavier elements that'd damage her in the long run. She started gagging, not used to having liquid fill her lungs, but I flowed out of her before she could cough more than twice.
She was still coming to terms with her situation when I felt the vibrations of what I assumed was someone calling out her name, given the way certain parts of her mind clicked in her brain each time the vibrations hit her. I couldn't tell what anyone was saying, since I didn't have any ears at the moment, but I figured someone was looking for her and she couldn't stay here.
I tried to poke her with the goo, but she didn't respond to that. I, briefly, considered turning back into myself and telling her to run, but I did have an identity to preserve, even if I was doing a shit job at everything else. I could have turned into a different human, but I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that here. I still didn't know what "Show" I wanted to portray, and Dad said that imitating the Thing probably wasn't the best idea. So I took a page from mom's book.
"Are you okay?" I said through millions of coordinated vibrations.
I'd pulled all my goo back and shaped it into the form of more insects. The ones on the girl were small, mostly just fleas, but the ones in the grass were large enough to make sound. Sound I organized and pooled together to replicate human speech.
Mom's classic Swarm Voice.
The girl shook, her mind misfiring from the mass of new inputs.
"Are you okay?" I repeated. I had a beetle instance of me land on her arm and nip the unblemished skin on it.
She yelped, the fresh source of pain jolting her back into the real world.
"Yeah, yeah!" She said with wide eyes.
"Good" I said with ten thousand voices, "Then Run."
She blinked. "I..wha?"
"RUN!" I repeated with urgency, directing tendrils of myself, my swarm, to fly down the path of grove and grass that wasn't on fire.
She took the hint and sprinted away, screaming someone's name.
Determining what, exactly, she was saying difficult. Mostly because there were a lot of names that could have filled in the right blanks. I figured it was something between Brian and Brittany.
I moved the swarm of me around, getting a few thousand eyes on the two capes running away with the PRT on their tails. I also saw all the people affected by the damage they'd done. Some trapped by fire, some frozen as fire encroached. Then I looked up at my mother's statue. I knew what I wanted, I wanted to take these men down and grind them into the dirt for what they'd done.
But what would Mom want? What would God want?
That was an easy question to answer, even if I didn't like it.
I guess I'm following in your footsteps after all.
I turned back into a swarm of dragonflies, and sped towards the sound of screaming.
I spared a few hundred of the swarm of me to look back at the two capes. They were reaching the other end of the superblock when another group of PRT troopers came out of the building in front of them. Trench coat skidded to a stop and prepped a fireball in his hand. Two of the troopers held up grenade launchers, aiming at the pair, while two more held shields at the ready. A fifth man behind them all stood out to me. He wore the same black flack jacket over dark blue clothes, but instead of a riot helmet he just wore a dark blue cap with PRT in white on the bill, revealing his eastern asian features to my sharp eyes. He was gesturing around and tell the others what to do, so I assumed he was the leader.
I heard the leader yelling about something that sounded like "airburst", and patting both the grenadiers on the shoulder as the two with riot shields stepped back.
The man in the beanie ran in front of his friend and held up his black and white field of hexagonal panes, ready to block anything coming their way.
Are they really going to try this again? I thought cynically. It was easy enough to partition off a part of my mind to worry about being jaded and cranky while most of me focused on actually helping people not die.
More than a few kids, and a couple adults, were trying to record the cape fight inside a burning forests and shops. Something I dealt with by stinging their hands holding the recording as a bee, and then having a swarm of insects whisper in their ear to run. That was usually enough to convince them to be somewhere else.
I heard the Thump Thump of the two grenadiers firing rounds, saw them fly through the air, and saw shield flicker back to life ready to block the shots.
Then I saw a blinding white light and a loud pop.
I saw that my eyes and ears had been overloaded, and quickly refreshed the senses of all instances of me I'd been using to watch the carnage. The whole process took a fraction of a second for my accelerated perception, which gave me just enough time to see the two capes dazed, covering their eyes and cursing. The one in the beanie still had his hands up, but I couldn't tell if the shield was active or not. It also let me see the grenade the flew right above them
It detonated in a cloud of smoke that quickly descended on them, enveloping them in a shroud of off-white gas. Seconds later, the two capes came stumbling out of the smoke into the field, coughing and gagging, tears escaping their screwed shut eyes.
The grenadiers fired two more rounds without missing a beat. Before they impacted. Trench Coat threw up a blind wall of fire, shielding them from view. I heard a whump whump of the two grenades going off behind the fire. When the flames died down, the man in the beanie had a rough sphere of hardened foam clumped around the right half of his body, encasing both legs and an arm. Trench coat, however, was making a break for it.
He ran towards a nearby cafe missing his hat and bandana, throwing the PRT off for a moment.. Gone was the arrogance, gone was his friend, all he had left was a wild look in his eye and fire in his hands. I saw him look at a mother and child huddled together with hungry eyes, and knew I had to move.
I fell away from the most recent person I'd helped recover to safety and flew to him, but I wasn't fast enough. I turned into a swarm of dragonflies and hawkmoths, zipping across the field inches above the ground, weaving through the grass.
I saw him reach out for them. The mother opened her mouth to scream. Time moved at a crawl, twenties times slower than normal.
I need to go faster I thought as parts of me saw the glowing embers of fire in his hand through the grass.
I shifted mass around, becoming dart-like insect with eight wings, all moving in biomechanical rhythm to push me through the air like a bullet. It still wasn't fast enough.
I still was yards away when I saw it. The fire flickering in the mother's horrified eyes. The young boy, too young to understand what was happening. The way the man's lips curled up, splitting apart to reveal yellow teeth.
It was all hidden when a large white table cloth was thrown over him.
"What?" He said, muffled by the cloth. He stumbled back in surprise, and the cloth started to burn up from his fire.
Then it was put out when a pitcher of water was dumped on his head. The soaked cloth refused to burn in his hands. His muffled outrage was cut off when someone wrapped a black jacket around the middle of his torso and kicked the back of his legs in. He fell to the ground, banging his head on nearby table and collapsing to the ground, groaning in pain. Standing above him was the scared woman I'd seen at the cafe earlier.
She was tying up the arms of the jacket she'd wrapped around his torso, the jacket she'd been wearing earlier, revealing the gray shirt with the Brockton Bay PRT emblem of a black boar with a golden arrow in its snout on it, with the tag, "Brockton Bay Boars" under it.
"PRT," She said in a loud and articulate voice, her scarred lips giving the appearance of a sneer, "You're under arrest for disturbing the peace, assault with parahuman abilities, attempted murder, and murder."
The man struggled under her grip, screaming profanities at her. "I'll fucking kill you! You pig! You're fucking dead!"
The woman glanced at the fires tickling the bottom of the cloth, where it was drier. She finished tying her jacket in a knot and stood up. She grabbed a nearby pitcher of creamer, and dumped it on the rest of the burning cloth. The man cursed loudly, prompting the woman to kick him in the side lightly.
She looked at the mother and child still standing in the cafe, frozen in confusion and fear. The mother looked between the scared woman and the man she'd tied up. The woman rolled her eyes and pulled out a PRT badge from her pocket and showed it to the mother, causing her to instantly sag in relief.
The man thrashed on the ground more, the smell of burning cloth rising from his bundle. The scared woman moved to a nearby trash can, pulled something out, and poked the man in the back with it.
"You feel that?" She asked.
He nodded vigorously.
"That's my gun."
It was an empty beer bottle.
"You struggle too much, and I put a hole in your gut. Take it from me, that's a bad way to go." She whispered in his ear.
"B-b-but" The man sputtered with a muffled voice. "You-"
"I can do whatever I want." She shrugged, "Who's gonna care about some random new cape on the streets who decided to tear up Matriarch Memorial? You already burned half the place down. I shoot you like this, I'll just say you were about to kill someone and I had to put you down. They won't even bother taking the time to look into it."
The man stopped, his whole body drooping. After a moment, I could hear him softly sobbing.
The scared woman stood up and grunted. She looked around and saw two sets of troopers running towards them, another two squads dealing with the man encased in foam. In the set running towards them was the man in the cap I'd seen earlier who looked to be the leader.
"Foam grenade!" She shouted with an outstretched hand at him.
The leader slowed and gave her a puzzled look, but held his rifle at a low ready. A trooper beside him, however, didn't miss a beat. They tore off a cylinder from their belt and tossed it over to the woman.
She caught it, pulled the pin, and set the fizzing device on top of the bundled up man. In a few moments he was covered in hardened foam. She looked up at the approaching trooper and said, "You're late."
The four lines of angry red skin moving vertically from chin to the crown of her head, like scars from four blades in parallel.
"I'm...sorry?" The trooper said.
Another trooper, one carrying a shield in one hand a submachine gun in another spoke up, "Sorry ma'am."
Their leader shot him a look.
"Is he the new guy?" The scarred woman asked the shield bearing one.
He nodded, "We were going on a touring patrol of the city, just to show him the ropes, when these two started making trouble." He gestured his shield at the man foamed on the ground.
The leader jerked his head at the man beside him, then the scared woman in front of him.
"Wait...you're the commander?" He said, incredulously.
She gave him a humorless look halfway between a smile and a sneer. "A pleasure."
"Oh!" Suddenly, all sense of authority flew from the man's posture, "I, uh, sorry ma'am. I just, I didn't know, and, uh, still figuring this place out. Is, uh, do I call you Atlanta or Commander Pi-?"
She cut him off with a sharp chop of her hand, "Lieutenant MacNeal, right? Where you from, son?"
"Um, uh, Wilmington, ma'am"
"Wilmington," She nodded, "I have an...acquaintance from there. He says it's a nice little city, relatively quiet, right?"
She slapped a hand on his shoulder with a grim smile, "I guess you're gonna enjoy some new experiences on the front lines with the rest of us, Lieutenant."
MacNeal swallowed nervously.
As she walked off, she said, "The rest of the week we're gonna start doing joint training exercises with the Protectorate. It's clear we need a refresher course on how to minimize collateral damage with capes, seeing as how you all made me get up on my day off."
Groans and curses echoed from all around, followed by a low, "Yes ma'am" from all the troopers.
Curiosity taking the better of me, I placed a bee on her hand. In a flash, her entire biology enfolded in my mind.
She wasn't a parahuman. I was actually mildly surprised by that, considering all the rumors about the PRT Commanders. Sure, the official PRT party line was that none of them were parahumans, but I wouldn't have put it past them to have that as mere propaganda in the face of rising fears about parahuman dominance.
That said, she had a lot of cybernetics, something that would make my stomach churn if I had one at the moment. The idea of putting machines inside me just felt...wrong. I'll give her a pass though, most of them were devoted to keeping her from not falling over dead. I had to admit that Ladon did good work if they could manage to keep a patchwork mess like this woman alive and healthy.
She looked like she'd been thrown into a meat grinder, spat out, patched together, then went back in screaming for seconds. Which...made sense, given who she was.
Still, I thought, looking at the areas of null space dotting her neck and spine, I wonder what this-
I was pulled from thinking about it when there was a shout, followed by a sharp crack.
The man with the shields, the one wearing the beanie, exploded out of the hardened foam. He scrambled to his feet and ran towards the shrove, lumps of foam still clinging to his clothes. He pumped his legs and arms as he ran as fast as possible. Most of the troopers were still slow on the uptake, but the scared woman ripped a grenade launcher from one dumbstruck soldiers hands and fired a grenade at the man.
The cape threw up a barrier behind him and the grenade harmlessly exploded into foam a foot away from his hand, expanding into a small boulder of off-white. She fired two more shots that flew past and detonated in the air in front of him. He kept a barrier up in front of him, so they just slid off the field of hexagonal plates again. He was a few yards from the trees, almost about to start losing them inside the maze of wood, when a bee stung him in the face.
He tripped, rolling to the ground and cursing in pain. He touched his cheek, rubbing the now swelling spot. He looked around with wild eyes for the bee that dared hurt him. Instead, he heard something.
All the gunfire stopped. The screaming, the fires, the sirens, it all fell away to nothing. Not because it didn't exist, but because it was being drowned out.
Buzzing. A thunderous rumbling that shook every man woman and child in the block to their core. And orchestra of retribution echoed from every tree in the grove. A black tide descended from the branches, hundreds, thousands of bees all vibrating with furious energy.
The pacification field was very good, and very strong. But it didn't beat out the extraordinary amount of attack pheromones I'd tagged the man with, nor the sub-audible counter-wave of sound I was emitting to eliminate the dull hum of the Pacification field.
The bees swarmed the man, attacking every inch they could find. He curled into a ball, and they all started stinging his exposed hands, his ears, every scrap of bare skin. His screams were drowned out by the droning of the swarm. His figure was obscured from view, hidden by the swirling black mass of shifting figures, all taking their pound of flesh.
The scared woman approached, slowly, with her grenade launcher in a low ready. As she moved closer to the man, I stopped emitting the counter field and replaced the attack pheromones with calming ones. The swarm of bees peeled off, dispersing back into the forest, leaving a sobbing wreck of a man alone with the Captain.
She looked at him, then turned to the bee on her hand. She gave me a suspicious look, and I flew off before she could do anything rash. She continued eyeing me until I was a speck in the distance, and turned back to the cape in the fetal position.
"Get this man a medic. I want to make sure he's not gonna die on me." She said to the rest of the troopers following behind her.
She huffed, handing her rifle back to the trooper she'd taken it from, and placing her hands on her hips.
"Just one day," She muttered, "Just one fucking day off is all I ask."
I closed the door behind me carefully, making sure it didn't so much as click. I strained my ears, listening for any hint of dad being awake.
I heard his heartbeat in his room, slow and calm. He was asleep.
I let out a breath of relief and walked into the living room. I didn't really need his cutting wit commenting about my activities today. If I was lucky, I could time the rest of my travels today with him being awake so I never got to see him. Heck, I could go to sleep myself. I didn't need sleep, but it was a nice enough thing to experience from time to time.
It might even help to process my feelings about today. I'd actually saved people. I'd also gotten revenge. It felt...good to get revenge.
Whoever said revenge feels hollow is a damned liar, I thought as I flopped on the couch, Because that felt great.
Watching the man writhe in agony, hearing both of them crumble into crying forms had been music to my ears. The man who'd been burning people alive got off light, in my opinion, but getting to tear down his companion myself made up for it. Part of me realized that it likely wasn't a healthy opinion, but denying that I felt it wouldn't help anyone.
I'd also saved people. That felt...nice. I felt better about that side of things. It was like eating ice cream as opposed to an apple. Both were good, and while the ice cream tasted much better than the apple, I actually felt like a better person for having eaten the apple.
Or, well, the old human me would, anyways. These days I liked apples more, mostly because I could assimilate the still-living cells.
And then I saw the piece of paper taped to the TV.
I picked it up and groaned.
Not even one day
"Dammit Dad," I muttered.
I glanced at the pantry.
"I need whiskey for this."