"That's my answer, King. I was never your Queen."
I stood above his body. There was no need to confirm his death with my eyes. My insects had engulfed him in a writhing clump of biomass that had grown larger and larger as the fight progressed. My thousands of antennae and feelers had felt it when his breathing slowed and stopped, when his heartbeat shuddered to a halt, when his body fell unnaturally still. A riot of sensory data far more precise than my human senses.
But for once it felt right to look with my own eyes. My enemies never saw me in person, didn't even know that there was a person behind the swarms. They thought I was a force of nature, a mind living in the swarm that spoke through the buzz of insect wings. They fought a futile battle against my insects, and were killed by my insects in return, while I hid in safety a quarter-kilometer away. But this man, my 'leader', had been the only one to hurt me, Taylor, the human. Stealing me from my parents, forcing me into his Slaughterhouse, taking me as his Queen. For that, I had come to witness his end in the flesh.
Ah. It seemed that King was the type of brute whose body's special resilience expired in death. Good. My insects expanded his wounds into wide gashes, working their way under his skin. My swarm would devour every scrap of flesh, reduce the bones to shavings, scatter them to the winds until nothing remained. To die in battle was too good for him. It was more fitting for him to simply disappear. Besides, it wouldn't do for any of the less sympathetic members of our group to catch on to what we had done, and I wasn't taking any chances.
I studied Harbinger. He was sprawled on the pavement, breathing heavily, still clutching his bloody knives. Staring at the body. Despite his skill at close quarters combat he had been hard-pressed to restrain the brute while my swarms did their work. I had blocked King's senses by covering his eyes, ear canals, and skin, then worked around his unnatural toughness by dumping poisons in his eye sockets and nostrils to bypass the blood-brain barrier, suffocated him by coating his lungs with slick secretions and silk webbing, all while Harbinger's best knives managed to open nicks in his flesh precisely over arteries, killing him again and again and again until he finally died.
Harbinger raised his eyes to meet mine. "Fifty two," he said.
"The collateral damage?"
As always, his count was precise. Fifty two was the price to be rid of our 'leader'. The number of people King had touched in the last twenty four hours, the number of people who had just been been poisoned and suffocated and stabbed in their sleep as King's power used them as voodoo dolls to spirit away his wounds before it permitted even a scratch to appear on his skin. Many capes could match King in brute strength, but Harbinger was one of the very few who could deny King the barest moment of skin contact that would let him sentence his opponents to certain death.
I wanted to feel something. I repeated the number to myself. Fifty two. Fifty two people. I wanted to believe that I hadn't done it simply to save myself, that I had also done it to save the hundreds, thousands of people that King and his Slaughterhouse would have killed in the future. I tried to make myself believe it. So I was putting it to the test.
If I was really an altruist, if I deserved to feel pride for the lives I saved, I should also feel regret for the lives I ended. I should see their lives as more than just a distant, meaningless number. Fifty two people. My swarm had seen every single one of them when they had been alive. We had been lying low lately, pretending to be normals. I had watched as King gregariously clapped his arms around his new drinking buddies at a bar, as he shuffled past fifteen people as he made his way through a crowded subway car, as he innocently brushed against the tired looking couple dressed in business casual as they got off the bus. I tried to bring them to life in my mind, to imagine how they had gone about their days, how they had loved their families, to see some value in their hopes and dreams that I had killed...but I saw nothing. Faint impressions of their faces in my mind's eye, pale shadows, no feeling at all.
It was useless. The three years King had kept me as his Queen were a whirlwind of slaughter that blurred together in my memories. A never-ending progression of attacks and retreats, hours spent planning assaults on strongholds, minutes spent frantically pulling together spur-of-the-moment improvisations, always plotting breeding programs for my swarms and weaving more costumes for our ever-changing roster. New strategies, new tactics, never able to afford a single loss, always needing a victory or at least a retreat we could walk away from. Drawing out 'heroes' with flashy confrontations and then using my swarm to follow them back to their homes and families, directing the rest of our Nine in surgical strikes to negate their powers and kill them - or for 'heroes' who had hurt us, not-so-surgical strikes to make them suffer before their deaths. Taking hostages, rich businessmen and dirt-poor drug addicts alike, by planting parasites and worms in their guts, threatening to have them burrow out and let them bleed to death in front of their families, making them commit crimes and bring the spoils back to pad our wallets. I wanted to believe that I had once been able to feel the difference between one life and two, ten lives and twenty, fifty two lives and fifty two hundred. But if I ever had, I had deadened it completely as a matter of survival.
Never mind. It didn't matter. Even if I couldn't feel anything for them, even if lives we saved and ended were nothing more than numbers, the simple fact was that King and his Nine were a mobile disaster area that ruined everything in its path, my own life included. He needed to die, no matter the cost.
That was the epiphany I reached as we had planned the coup. When your goal is truly important, big enough to change the world, then your need for success is absolute - and everything else is secondary. The epiphany gave me a refreshing clarity of purpose. Just ignore all the minor optimizations, ignore the temptation to get too clever and maneuver yourself into a trap, ignore the collateral damage. In exchange you get pure freedom and creativity, the ability to use anything and everything you can imagine to reach your goal.
It was the only way to beat someone like King. We needed dozens of factors to be perfectly aligned and each one had to be paid for with a cost in blood. King couldn't be allowed to be suspicious, so we had to follow his orders up to the last moment, no matter how bloodthirsty. He had to be isolated, away from anyone he could touch to instantly heal his wounds. A rare occurrence for such a gregarious man. He had to be away from the rest of the Nine, who would defend him or who respected him enough to alert the ones who would. He couldn't have had even an instant of skin contact with any of the Nine in the last 24 hours - for me or Harbinger it would be a death sentence, and the other members would be alerted that King was under attack the moment his power redirected wounds onto their bodies. He had to be kept away from any means of escape. Not an easy task when his speed and strength let him chase down normal humans with ease, jump off rooftops, and even plow through the walls of some buildings; and he was a master tactician who was fully aware of his limitations and was wary of entering any place he couldn't freely leave. He had to be positioned perfectly for our first strike - cords of spider silk wrapping around him before he could react, a swarm of the proper insects to block his senses with ample reinforcements nearby to replace those he killed, Harbinger in range to disarm him and block his escape, and me hidden out of his conceivable attack range, accounting for anything he could throw as a projectile.
Once all these absolute necessities had been accounted for, the number of opportunities were vanishingly small. We had waited three months before Harbinger finally gave the signal. My old self, before I had my epiphany, would have felt regret. She would have wished she could have optimized even more. If we had waited an hour longer, the fifteen people from the subway could have been spared. If we had waited two hours longer, the couple from the bus could have been spared. Perhaps if we had waited for another day, for another place and time, we could have reduced the cost to thirty lives, or twenty, or ten. Though if we waited we might have lost the opportunity and never gotten another chance at all...
My new self didn't feel any regret. We won. We chose a goal, chose the costs that mattered and the costs that didn't, and we won.
Now my swarm had finished its task. The skin and flesh from the body. the blood on the ground and Harbinger's knives, had all been fed to a legion of roaches and beetles that were dispersing into our surroundings. The last threads of clothing had been buried deep underground, the bone shavings scattered into the sewage system.
Harbinger had watched my work intently, waiting until the last fragments were gone. Now he stood and stretched. "That went well." he said. He was almost smiling.
"Yes. Yes it did." My own smile was radiant. For Harbinger to show even that small hint of pleasure...our shared victory had been something special.
"They'll come after us now." he said. "Without King to protect us with hostages. What next?"
And with that I was adrift. I had spent every free moment of the last three months focused on single goal, a single anchor to tether my thoughts. I had spent precious little time thinking about what would come after. A few stray, half-remembered fantasies of how I wanted to change the world. I had plans for the immediate future, of course. The next steps to deal with the Slaughterhouse. Screamer and Psychosoma could be convinced to join me. Nyx, probably. Crimson and Breed loved King too much to forgive his death, they'd have to be killed. Gray Boy was already disposed of, the necessary first step of our rebellion. I'd managed to find a rare cape who was even more psychotic and overpowered than he was and lured him into her path. Harbinger...
There was the problem. Harbinger had been my best ally, and he would be the greatest asset for what I wanted to do. But without the right incentive he would use his new freedom to leave the group and set off on his own.
It was because of his power. Our enemies thought his power was skill at close-quarters combat, perhaps boosted with a minor dose of combat clairvoyance or precognition. They were wrong. His power was perception, to see the world as numbers. It made him overly precise, methodical. Faced with anything concrete he was almost impossible to beat. He would perceive, calculate, optimize, see the possible paths his enemies could take and see his own paths to seal them off. But anything abstract, fanciful, incomplete - for him, they didn't even exist. You couldn't convince him to follow you with a half-formed dream.
I would try anyway. I spoke, haltingly, trying to put my dream into words.
"For now, we keep the group together. Keep moving, keep recruiting, stay strong, stay ahead of the authorities and the vigilantes who'll come after us for the bounty. Stay under the radar for a while. No more fucking slaughters, no recruiting by force, it's like sending out an invitation for them to hunt us.
"In the long-term, I...can't say exactly. I have a goal, one worth working toward. To change the world for the better. I can't say exactly how we'll do it. Not yet. I'm sure the idea is there, it's close, I'm just on the edge of seeing it.
"It's...it's a sense of what's wrong with this world. With capes. This endless game, it's all we do and it's all so pointless. Capes against capes, killing, defending, taking revenge, earning money and reputation from normals or stealing it from each other. It's like we haven't learned a single lesson from the wars the normals fought with armies for thousands of years before us.
"The game attracts capes because they're good at it. They have an instinct for it. You and I, we're the best, so we're the most tempted. It's what the bastard loved most of all, pushed us into it every fucking minute of the day and dragged as many people as he could into the mud with us. But I won't accept it. I won't accept that this game is what powers are for."
"'What powers are for'?" said Harbinger. "You think there's a purpose for parahumans? A designer with a purpose you want to follow?"
"No. No, I don't know if there's a designer and if there is I don't care about his purpose. If the designer is like the bastard and loves to watch us squabble in the mud, then fuck him. I won't accept that it's the best we can do."
"What do you want to do, then? What's the goal?"
"I told you, I can't say exactly. I can see its...outline, its shape. To make the world a better place. Not in the cliche way the 'heroes' do, saving lives and all that. I mean changing how we live in a fundamental way. We've got these fantastic powers but the grandest plan any governments can think of is to throw capes at their neighbors to shift a few pointless borders around. It's the same with business, they've kept the same products, the same markets, the same economy. Hell, why is there still an economy at all? Look at the capes in India and Pakistan. They had the right set of powers to make an unlimited amount of rare earth metals, but they lost it because they were too busy slitting each others throats. It's insane.
"We're the only ones who can see it because we're outside the system. We've got kill orders on our heads so we don't have to care what government owns what patch of land. It's not just us. There are so many like us who have the power to change the world and the system threw out like trash. We can use them. We can get them back on their feet, get them to work together, give them the right direction.
"Look at you. The bastard made you fight hand-to-hand all the time since you're better at it than anyone and he likes watching people get their faces beat in. But that's the most useless way to use your power. Are you really going to change the world by punching people in the face one at a time? You could do so much more if you didn't fight at all. Whatever Greenspan does at the Fed you could do ten times better. With your power you could own the fucking stock market, you could be a billionaire who moves millions of lives with a sell order and builds the infrastructure for a new world."
"I see your points. I wouldn't mind sitting back from the front lines." said Harbinger. "I'm not seeing any big picture. The goal you want to achieve."
"I know. I know. Fuck. Look. We don't know what we'll want in ten years, twenty years. Nobody knows. It's too big for us to see right now.
"But we both know one thing. We're the best. We've done amazing things together, and that was when we were working for a bastard playing a shitty game. Now we can choose whatever game we like. I want us to collect the power, build the infrastructure, so we can aim at goals on the worldwide scale. And I'll tell you how we'll do it.
"You'll handle the tactics. I used to think that was my strength. Multitasking with my swarm, directing my allies, finding the right combination of powers to kill our enemies. I'm good at that, yes. But you're better. It's your kind of problem. Given these tools and those constraints, optimize it, find the solution. That's what I want you to do."
"I'll do the strategy. I've always had something extra that you didn't. Creativity, bringing something new into the world that didn't exist before. Weaving armor out of spider silk, breeding skin parasites to tag capes so we can track them down when they escape, putting bugs in their brains to do psychosurgery. More than tactics to kill our enemies. Strategies to make them irrelevant, to turn capes who would have hated us into new recruits.
"That's what I want us to do. You'll think within the box to find the best path, I'll expand it to hold new worlds we never dreamed of. Stick with me and I promise we'll create an amazing new world."
Harbinger tilted his head, regarded me carefully. After almost a full minute of silence, he spoke. "Tempting. I'd like to see what we can do if we really cut loose."
"I won't commit to anything I can't see. If I don't like where we're going, I'll leave. But for now...I'm in."
I smiled. "Good."
"And I might have some ideas of my own."
Now my smile was radiant. "Very good."
We walked back to the rendezvous point side by side.