Hive 18-VIII

From A Certain Point Of View.

This set of tunnels didn't have the walkways on the sides like the last ones, so I had no option but to continue sloshing through the sewage as I ran. The lack of light meant turning corners involved smashing into walls and trying to use the slight differences in lighting to make sure I was bouncing off the right way. The trail of impact craters that method left wasn't exactly subtle, but I figured that they could see as well as I could, so-

Diffused light rolled over me from behind, as one of them turned on a torch. Well, that just pooping figures. On the plus side, I could somewhat see where I was going now. On the minus side, so could they, and at least one of them was faster than me. And it wasn't really like I knew where I was going, anyway. I was just trying to get away and hoping I didn't run into any dead ends.

“Why would there be dead-ends in a sewer system?”

Why are there secret tunnels and giant caverns?

“...hm.”

The splashing behind me grew louder, and quicker. Then, quicker still, until it didn't even sound like feet anymore. It wasn't hard to puzzle that one out. I spun around just as the speedster rounded the corner, raising a gun to point at me.

Just for the first instant, seeing the weapon made me panic. I yelped and jerked backwards, and the bullet he fired whizzed right across the bridge of my nose with an earsplitting noise. Almost as quickly as it had come, the fear was replaced by embarrassment; I'd just been hit by far more bullets than that and come out unscathed. Then my eyes instinctively darted over to the bullet’s impact site, and the foot-long, deep gash it had left there, and I revised the assessment. I'd been hit by regular bullets, which, I was pretty sure, couldn't do that. Panicking was probably the only thing that saved me. If that had hit me-

Not the time.

The gun was still pointed at me, and I ghosted just as he fired again. The flash, now that I was looking in his direction, was bright enough to almost blind me, and once the roaring crack had passed I could hear a faint ringing in my ears. My first reaction was to try and look around behind me at the impact point again, but something told me looking away would have been a bad idea. I was immediately proven right, when Schaus darted forward, faster than I could follow, and suddenly there was a knife in my face.

No, wait, that's not right. Let me rephrase. There was a knife inside my face.

I stared down the dull, matte length of the blade, frozen. I couldn't feel it, I couldn't feel much of anything while ghosting aside from a mild chill, but there was still an eight-inch piece of sharp steel. Inside. My. Face.

Schaus’s eyes were thin and heavy, staring at me as I tried not to hyperventilate. “I don't know what will happen if this is still here when you go solid, but I suspect it won't be pretty.” He must have seen something in my face, because he shook his head quickly. “Don't run, you know I'm faster. Same goes for trying to hit me.” Then, he fell silent, staring at me.

“W-well, then,” I managed to choke out despite feeling like a vice had been clamped around my throat, “what are you waiting for?”

He tilted his head slightly. “Why are you here?” he asked, instead of answering the question. “You can't be more than… what, eighteen?” A small, detached part of my mind tried to jump in and correct him with 'sixteen’ (I get it a lot because of height), but I clamped down on it. Doing that distracted me a little, though, and so the next words I said sort of slipped out on their own. “This may seem a little unimportant, considering the knife, but would you laugh at me if I said pursuing justice?”

The corner of his mouth twitched, but then was immediately replaced by something unreadable. It should be kind of obvious by now, but I'm not great with facial expressions a lot of the time, and the stress wasn't helping. “No laugh,” he said. “The school, then.”

I didn't see the point in denying it. “Yeah.”

“And…” he trailed off, frowning a little. “Ah. Some sort of encounter with the Tower left a sour taste in your mouth, and so you turned to vigilante justice.”

I'd have objected to the term if I hadn't been too busy gaping at him. He saw my expression and grinned. “Psych degree. I was good, but the money wasn't there.”

“And so you turned to paid killing?”

“Turns out I was good at that too.” Wry, now, with the same hint of something as before. Regret? Then he laughed, and it was gone. “Funny, where life can take you.”

It was a strange feeling, having a pleasant conversation with someone who was trying to end my life. “Are you going to kill me?” I asked him.

“I don't want to,” he replied immediately. “But, yes.”

“Oh, well, that makes me feel better.”

He shrugged a shoulder. “That's the job. We get a contract, we fulfill the contract, and this particular one specified high security. And you're a security risk.”

“And you don't have any problems with that?” I was feeling pretty disconnected from the events, which was the only thing keeping me calm. It was more like I was watching a video of it happening than actually experiencing it.

“I take sleeping medication,” he admitted. “But we all do what we have to do.”

“So do it, then.” If I moved quickly enough, if I could get the knife out of me for just a moment, I could go solid and… well, it was a start.

He smiled. “And give you an opportunity? No, I'm going to wait for the others to show up. Just being safe, you know?”

Well, if I was going to die, at least it'd be polite.

The light behind him brightened slightly, and he looked back slightly. “That'll be her now. Khan’s great, but she's not that qui-” He paused, looking quizzical.

“What?” I asked, despite myself.

“...hmm,” he said slowly. “That's inconvenient.” Then, he slowly toppled to the side and hit the ground with a splash.

Standing behind him, arm roughly bound and bandaged, murder in her eyes, was Green Cloak.

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Hive 18-VII

If You Strike Me Down.

Five fingers. Four and a thumb, I guess. Black glove, green lines going down from each finger, meeting up in the center then running down the length of the forearm before splitting out into a ring that marked the end of the glove. Below that, a dull, dark green material, surprisingly thick and chunky. It only went for about an inch before hitting the end, where it had torn in a very violent manner, leaving strands going every which way. The fingertips of the gloves actually had small blades attached to them, I noticed. Interesting. They couldn't be very effective on their own, or if you knew they were there, so they were probably for surprise hits. That would be very consistent with Green Cloak’s character; I could very easily see her putting someone's eyes out with them.

Or, you know. Past tense.

Porter was saying something. The others were pointing various things at me. Yelling things. Green Cloak wasn't, obviously. She'd fallen on her backside, using her cloak to wrap the bloody stump at her elbow and put pressure on it. Her eyes were wide, panicked and strained and pupils dilated, and her chest heaved with desperate breaths. The look in her eyes was… something. I don't know. Whatever.

Something pinged off my forehead, rocking my head back a little. It fell past my eye, and hit the ground with a metallic ping. A crumpled-up piece of metal, I could see immediately, and my mind filled in the blanks.

That is a bullet. Someone is shooting at me. Someone shot me, and it did nothing. The impact had carried a tiny amount of pain with it, like when you stick your head out the window going 80 miles an hour and get hit by a raindrop. Other than that, though, I barely felt a thing. A few more impacts, a few more pings, and I looked up to see one of Porter’s men shooting at me. A small pistol, with some sort of extra bit on the end. It must have been a silencer, because there were only soft cracks as opposed to deafening ones.

As if on cue, Combat Gear finished unslinging a rifle from his back, and fired it at me. The noise was deafening, and I clamped my hands over ears as I was pelted with what felt like a shower of high-velocity gravel. None of the individual hits hurt too badly, but there were a lot of them. Just before my power felt like it was about to reach a tipping point, though, the impacts disappeared. The noise continued, though, and I looked up to see the flat plane of a mirror in front of me. Looking back at the ledge above revealed Kai, leaning over the edge, one hand outstretched and face contorted in a pained grimace. “F***ing move!” she yelled at me. “I can't keep this- Ah!”

The mirror shattered, and the woman with the nimbuses of power around her arms stood on the other side. On the plus side, the bullets had stopped to avoid hitting her. Conversely, she was only a few feet away, and I didn't like the way the light was bending and distorting around them.

Oh, right. I should run, I guess.

“Oh, for- are you trying to get us killed?! No, don't answer that; I'm taking this one.”

Yes, I needed to run, you stupid idiot, Hannah. I dashed to the side, towards where I instinctively knew my real body was, the ground cracking and shattering under my feet as I moved. I could see the woman moving towards me in my peripheral vision (Porter had backed away; I'm guessing he had decided he couldn't handle me, and the woman was for dealing with heavy hitters), but she was still in the firing line. I had a few seconds, so I switched back to normal weight and roughly shoved my real self off the edge of the concrete into the sewage. In the same way I knew where I was, I could feel my lungs expanding and contracting normally, so I'd not landed face down and asphyxiated. Hopefully, it had happened quickly enough that none of them would figure out what I'd done. Green Cloak’s group, I wasn't worried about, they were a bunch of thickskulled morons, but Porter was sharp; his team too. I'd need to keep them distracted and lead them away.

A rush of air, and I jerked my head to the side just in time to avoid getting pulverized by… Nimbus, I guess, it was the word I kept using anyway. Where it hit the concrete, that section vanished into nothing, leaving no remnant behind. Thankfully, it was only around her hands, because if it had surrounded her legs too, my entire head would have been erased when she kneed me in the head.

Everything went kind of spinny for a moment, and when my vision returned, she was standing over me, one arm raised to deliver a finishing blow. Son of a… I ghosted and rolled to the side, through her leg, just as the blow came down, then went solid and jumped to my feet. Immediately, a churning beam of orange-red swept up across the ground towards me from Metalface, and as I hastily dodged that by throwing myself to the side again, I felt the same bar of soap effect I'd felt back in the tunnels when fighting the blurry woman. Sure enough, she was feeling and clutching her head again.

Suddenly, the wiry man, Schaus, was standing in front of me, blurring as he moved. I could barely keep track of him as he ran around me, and it was like the bullets all over again as his fists pummeled me from every direction. After a few moments of me trying to curl my body around my vitals, he flickered into place a few feet away, shaking his hands and grimacing. Instinctively, I lunged towards him, swinging an arm and-

A bloody arm, dripping a crimson stain onto the concrete

I stumbled, nearly falling on my face as I tried to cancel my own momentum. Then Nimbus was there again, and I was back to desperately scrambling away from those matter-erasing fists. What a completely bull power. So completely bull. One swing caught the edge of my scarf as it trailed behind my movements, and it disappeared, leaving it about half a foot shorter. Not the scarf, you butt! Strangely, she stopped pursuing me, and I managed to get a few steps away, wary of whatever had caused her to stop attacking. I jerked my head around, expecting a surprise attack, but nothing appeared. Instead, Nimbus slammed her hands together, and-

Oh you have to be f-

A hurtling mass of concrete, everything she'd erased, slammed into my core, sending me flying backwards and into the wall, where I left a sizeable crater before dropping down into the sewage half-pipe below. I groaned as I landed, bent double. If I hadn't been dense, it would've torn me in half.

It was very clear that there was no way I made any headway there, so instead of trying to climb back up, I turned to my left, away from my real body. And for the second time in two days, I found myself running through calf-deep sewage.

This time, though, I wasn't running into danger. I was running for my life

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Hive 18-VI

Not Worth The Effort.

I panicked. My invisibility had disappeared with the impact, which I hadn't known would happen, and based on previous experience, that meant that the copy up with Kai would have poofed. Barely even thinking about it, I created another one as I threw myself to the side, a frozen statue caught in a half-crouch, with a look of shock on its face. Not the most flattering image, but it wasn't like that was the top of my list of priorities. The dive was unwieldy, and I nearly fell on my face before catching my weight on one hand. Heart thumping wildly, I opened my mouth to gasp in a breath, but caught myself just in time, instead drawing it in slowly. It was a struggle, but I felt like I'd managed to stay quiet; not that I could tell, over the rushing blood filling my ears.

The man, Porter, stared at the other me, an expression of mild bemusement on his face. He waved his hand in front of my eyes, and when that got no reaction, gently poked me in the cheek. It reacted exactly like a real one, and he pulled his hand away. “Well, this is new.” He turned back towards the villains. “Any of you know anything about this?”

Green Cloak opened her mouth, but one of Metalface’s meaty paws clamped over her face, shutting her up. The blurry woman spoke instead. “I recognize the girl; she was with the hero that came after us yesterday. Not sure what this statue thing is, though.Last time she was just intangible.”

Porter hmm-ed quietly, stepping away. “Well, it feels like flesh.” He frowned, pensive. “You said she was part of the Tower?”

“I said she was working with them,” she clarified. “One of the junior heroes, Stump. Based on the outfit and the fact that she’s here alone, I don’t think she’s actually with them.”

“The Tower, working with unlicenseds?” scoffed one of Porter’s group, a young black woman with what looked like an armored laptop bag slung over her shoulder. “Shit really is different here.”

“We’re not from around here either, so I couldn’t say.” For whatever reason, I was really struck with how level-headed she was. How on earth had she ended up working with slash in charge of a group of thugs like the others?

“Well,” Porter said, “if she’s in contact with the Tower in any way, I don’t think we can let her leave.” He sighed, and his hand… shivered, and became a knife.

Oh fudge. Stabbing the clone wouldn’t hurt me, that’d already been established, but it would reveal me, and if they were smart (which I’m pretty sure Porter was), let them figure out the gist of my power. And then they’d kill me. I was 100% confident in that. Nine of them, and one of me, and I wouldn’t even be able to rely on being able to shrug off hits by going dense, because they’d almost certainly just target the real me.

Think, Hannah, think!

“Kai? Can she help?”

How? She’s stuck up there, and it’s not like she has any more experience at fighting than I do. You saw her against Carnage.

“Okay. Okay. So fighting is out. Running?”

Teleporter, remember? Plus whatever these other people can bring. And if he thinks we’re going to spill the beans, he’s not going to just let us run.

What if they don’t know we’re gone until it’s too late?”

Not going to work; they’re on the look-out for invisibility now. I’m surprised they haven’t done another scan already.

“So we’re effed in the a.”

Language. But I wasn’t wrong. It should have been a big moment, a break-down or something, but I was pumped full of adrenaline, and all my emotions that weren’t ‘run and/or fight’ were kind of flat. It’s also the only excuse I have for what I did next.

“Oh, you can’t possibly be serious.”

I switched into the clone, and the change of perspective threw me off for long enough that I almost didn’t see Porter’s knife headed for my throat. A sharp crack sounded from the concrete below my feet as I went dense, and the knife bounced off. Porter didn’t seem surprised, though; he just fell back into a ready stance, knife-hand held close to his side. All of the others immediately aimed at me, too: Metalface’s helmet glowing, Combat Gear and a few of Porter’s people with guns. One of the mercs’ arms were suddenly surrounded with a swirling nimbus of color that completely obscured their flesh, and they readied themselves in a posture that communicated that they were very confident in their ability to do damage with it even from the distance that separated us.

None of them, though, attacked me.

“This is freaking stupid, you know that.”

Better suggestions? No? Then shut it.

I stood up straight from the half-crouch, and affected a casual, relaxed posture. “Well,” I said, “I guess that one was probably doomed from the start.”

“I don’t know,” Porter replied, matching my own casualness with his own, completely at odds with his posture, “as far as pretending to be a statue goes, that was pretty good.”

Okay, okay, you’re not scared of him, you’re not scared of them, calm, calm, what does someone who’s not afraid say, what do they do? I smiled, hopefully not looking too fake, and shrugged a shoulder. “I guess I’m just talented.”

“Uh huh. So,” he said with the same forced cheer, “would you mind awfully telling us why you’re here? We were having a bit of an important meeting.”

He’s afraid, I realized suddenly. No, not afraid, but… cautious. He hit me and did nothing, so now he’s playing it safe. “You’ve got nothing to fear on that account, don’t worry. I’m only here for them.” With that, I deliberately turned my head towards Green Cloak. Who flinched. There and gone again in a second, but I saw it. It filled me with a sense of vindictive satisfaction, and I wasn’t sure I liked it. Problem for another time, though. “If you’ll just let me drag them away to the authorities, I’ll more than happily leave you and yours to your business.” I had no idea how that would work in practice, there were still four of them and one of me, but I was talking out my behind anyway, so what did it matter?

“Well, as nice as that sounds, I’m afraid there’s a bit of a problem. See, those four are my business right now, and as much as I can empathize with your dislike of them-”

“Go f*** yourself, sellout piece of sh*t,” Green Cloak yelled at him.

“-we’re under contract, and we always respect a contract.” His face softened a little. “Look, kid, I get it. But I think you’re way in over your head, in some real serious stuff. You seem like you’ve got your head screwed on, so I’ll make you an offer. You forget about any of this, and I don’t have to do something I’m going to regret for a long time.”

Play it cool, play it cool, you’re not worried, and someone who’s not worried says-

“No!”

I stopped, mouth slightly open. I’d been about to turn it down, too engrossed in desperately trying to maintain the facade. But… I needed to get out. It was exactly the escape I’d been looking for, a way to leave safely. And all it meant would be letting them… her… get off scot-free. But I’d be alive. But-

“Noooooooooope, absolutely not.” There was that reverse whooshing noise, and then Green Cloak was standing beside me. “Man, White Tie really knows how to find pussies to hire, doesn’t he?” Her hand swept up towards my throat, something glimmering in the light.

I moved, instinctive and without reason. There was another crack, but this one was meatier, fleshier, and Green Cloak stumbled back, staring at my upraised arm.

At the stains on it.

At the ground below it.

At her severed forearm, lying limply on the ground.

Oh god.

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Hive 18-V

A Name I Haven’t Heard.

“Who are they?” I hissed at Kai, my gaze snapping back and forth between the two groups.

She did the best imitation of a shrug she could in the space. “I said 'that’s new’, didn't I? I've never seen them before in my life.”

“So they're not from around here.” I knew the answer to the question, before I asked it, but I wanted confirmation.

She shook her head. “Looking like that? No way.”

“What's that supposed to mean? There was military stuff all over that market back there.”

She made an ambiguous gesture. “It's one of those things. There's… a theme, I guess? Maybe a culture. People don't look like that around here unless they're actually military, and it's not like there are military bases nearby. They're probably mercenaries.”

Well, that was an interesting tidbit, but not really relevant right now. What was was them being mercenaries: if Kai was right, then it didn't take much to make the connection. The man in the white tie, the one who whisked away Green Cloak last time with an offer of employment. He must not have trusted them to achieve… whatever it is that he wanted on their own.

They were talking, it seemed, the blurry woman and a broad-shouldered man with sandy blonde hair taking the lead, but they were too far away for me to make out the words properly. “I need to get down there,” I whispered urgently to Kai. “Is there some way that they won't see?”

She flicked a finger and a small mirrored disc appeared for a moment before vanishing again. “I normally just make stairs,” she explained apologetically.

I took another look at the drop. It was too far for me to take safely; I'd break a leg for sure. I could avoid the problem by just floating down in a clone, but that was really, really obvious. Conversely, leaving a clone behind and being invisible solved the 'being spotted’ problem, but then I had no way down. Unless…

“How visible are those mirrors of yours from the side?” I asked Kai.

“Not very,” she answered hesitantly. “Why?”

I closed my eyes, concentrated, and made a smoke-clone. I didn't switch over to its perspective this time, though, instead leaving it where it was with its eyes closed as I shuffled a little further forward. “I need stairs,” I answered.

She jerked back, eyes darting around. Oh, right. She'd just heard me speak, despite the fact that, to her, I was still lying there unmoving. “I'm invisible,” I said with a little chuckle. “Sorry about that.”

Her eyes darted at the other me, then to a spot surprisingly close to where I actually was. “How many powers do you have?”

“I'm not sure,” I admitted. “Depends on how you quantify it: there's multiple, but they're all linked together. Stairs, please?” She pursed her lips, but held out a hand, and concentrated. I leaned out over the edge and saw the roof above me reflected in multiple descending platforms. “Thank you.”

There was a small lip above the top of the crawlspace, and I flipped over and gripped it, pulling the rest of my body out and lowering myself down onto the first step. It remained solid, thankfully, but there was a strange texture to it. She hadn't made them thick, and their appearance made it a little hard to discern where the edges were, so my descent was slower than I'd have liked, but I made it down with all my limbs intact, so I'd take it.

The sounds of conversation resolved themselves into actual words as I approached the two groups. “...not our job,” the man was saying. “We're here to retrieve the datapad, not get petty revenge on your behalf.”

“That's not what I'm saying,” the blurry woman ground out, obviously frustrated. “But it doesn't make sense to treat it the way you're talking about.”

“You're lecturing us about tactics?” scoffed one of the other mercs, a short, wiry guy. “You idiots have been blundering around-”

“Schaus.” The blonde man cut him off with a wave of the hand, and the other man quieted instantly. So he was either respected or feared by his people. “Who they are or what they've done doesn't matter. We've been contracted to work with them, so we will.” Definitely mercenaries then. Was Kai just very sharp, or was there a reason she'd 'guessed’ that.

“Thank you,” said the blurry woman grudgingly. “But that doesn't change the fact that your plan makes no sense. We know exactly where this datapad is. We have the numbers advantage. If it's such a big deal to White Tie, then why don't we just take it? We have the numbers advantage.”

“Actually,” he replied evenly. “We don't. In fact, even combined, these 'Outliers’ still outnumber us. Add to that that they have experience working together, which we do not, and the fact that they apparently managed to defeat you once already, and a full assault becomes ill-advised.”

“They're just a bunch of kids,” Green Cloak complained, and I found myself taking a few steps towards her with my fists clenching before I even realised it was happening. “We can take them.”

“See!” protested Schaus. “This is what I'm talking about, Porter!”

“Schaus,” apparently-Porter snapped again, sounded tired. He turned back to the other group. “It doesn't make sense for us to try and assault them head on and claim the datapad, especially considering we only have a set of probable locations, not an actual locations. But if we set bait, they'll come to us, and that means we control the encounter.”

“Or,” the blurry woman countered, “you could get the attention of any of the other groups in this city and bring them down on our head.”

“I'd argue you already did that, with your…” he paused, a little disdainfully, “actions at the school on Wednesday.”

The blurry woman sighed. “That wasn't my idea.”

He didn't seem to believe her. “Either way, we have a dossier with limited psych information on them. I'm confident we can figure out a plan that will work. All the four of you will have to do is follow instructions.”

Green Cloak bared her teeth and stepped forward. “And what if we say we don't take instructions from you?”

Porter sighed. “We're both under the same employment. There's no need to fight.”

“Really. Because I see one, and it's-”

“Boss,” said one of the other mercs urgently, cutting her off. He was looking at some sort of device in his hand. “There’s something here.”

Oh no. I started backpedaling away immediately, as everyone’s gaze snapped onto the man who'd spoken. “Are you sure?” Porter asked.

“Definitely.”

He nodded, looking grim, and turned to Schaus. “Do a sweep, now.” The wiry man disappeared in a blur of motion, shooting back and forth across the room in a grid pattern, rapidly approaching me. Panicking, I found myself backed against a wall, and a second later there was a heavy impact as the man slammed into me, knocking me off my feet and out of my invisibility.

I looked up from the ground to see Porter staring down at me, expression unreadable. “And who,” he asked, “the h*ll are you?”

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Hive 18-IV

The Fool, Or The Fool That Follows.

“Oh,” I said, disappointed. “Is that all? I was hoping for something big.”

Kai spun on me. “Are you kidding me? Giant underground secret network of tunnels in the sewers, and your only reaction is 'is that all?’?!”

I shrugged half-heartedly. “I mean, yeah, it's a big deal, but it's not like I didn't already know about it.”

“How?” For the first time, she actually seemed to have lost her composure a little.

“Well, the last time I dealt with… those people,” she definitely noticed the pause, despite my best effort, “I managed to follow them, and they'd set up a little base in one of these tunnels.”

“Oh.” She deflated. “That makes sense.”

“Yeah, I should've actually expected that they'd still be using them. It does make sense.”

These tunnels looked a lot like the ones I’d seen already; square concrete pathways with no lighting. This one did seem to branch and twist a lot more, though, and there were even a few turns not at 90 degrees. Kai led the way, starting confidently, but quickly growing less so the more we progressed, eventually getting to the point where she was almost stopping completely at every corner.

“Does it?” she asked. “If they were already here, then the entire location is, like, compromised, isn't it?”

I frowned. “Maybe. But it wasn't here here, just,” I waved, “you know, general here.”

“Well, I can tell you from my side of things that if a building’s been discovered, you don't move down the block. It's weird for them to not do that.” She paused. “Unless they're stupid.”

“That's not outside the realms of possibility,” I muttered under my breath, remembering Green Cloak’s behaviour last time.

We rounded another corner, the last vestiges of light fading as we did, and a thought struck me. “Wait. There's no way at all that through that market was the only way to get here. The tunnels would be completely useless if they only had one entrance slash exit. So why did you bring me in through there? Especially if it's such a big secret.”

Very slightly, Kai stiffened. In the darkness, it would've been easy to miss, if I hadn't already been watching her. She acted like she hadn't heard the question. “It's just up here. This bit is probably going to be a little uncomfortable, though.”

“Uncomfortable? Why?” She stopped, turned around, and pointed to something on the wall to her left. I leant in, trying to get a better look. “Oh.”
About a foot and a half tall, six or so wide, a small crawlspace was built into the wall. I crouched down, peering into its depths, but all I could see was black. “You're kidding me,” I said flatly.

She shook her head. “Sadly, no. They're just on the other side of this.”

That made some sense, I guess. Green Cloak was a teleporter, after all; they wouldn't have to deal with the inconvenience. I, though, would. “Why does this even exist?”

Kai shrugged. “Why does any of this?”

“Hmm. Fair point. Better question, then: why do you know about it? About any of this, actually?”

“I use the tunnels to get around, sometimes. Plus… well, it's pretty cool, isn't it?”

I surprised myself and laughed, a little awkwardly, but sincere. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is.” I stood back up, and gestured to the hole. “You first.”

She dipped her glasses and gave me a flat stare. “Really?”

“Yes, really. Don't think I didn't notice that dodge; I'm not going to climb into… well, it's basically just a hole, with no other end in sight. For all I know, this is a trap.”

She groaned, and muttered something under her breath, too quiet for me to hear. All I managed to catch was the word 'lucky’. “Sorry, what?”

“Nothing.” I squinted; with the low light and her darker skin, it was hard to tell for sure, but it almost looked like she was… blushing? No, I must've been imagining it. “Fine. Don't mind that I'm helping you out of the goodness of my heart, let's play the paranoia game.”

She did seem genuinely hurt, a little, but she'd also already demonstrated she was a pretty good liar. Still… I sighed. “Sorry,” I said, dropping to one knee and staring into the hole again. “Together?”

She bit her lip, but nodded, lowering herself down. “Fair enough.”

And so together, shuffling forward in a pseudo-army crawl, we moved through the strange crawlspace. It wasn't actually as uncomfortable as I'd been expecting. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't fun, but I could fit through without the claustrophobia-inducing sensation of the roof pressing down on my back. I did hit my elbows a few times, which made Kai laugh. She'd removed her glasses for the first time, and given the narrowness of the passage, she was teetering on the very edge of being uncomfortably close. If it narrowed further up, we'd be pressed up against each other, and… uh, moving on.

After about a minute of shuffling forward, with no light up ahead, I let out an exasperated groan. “I know that this is supposed to be easier than travelling the streets, but surely it's not worth this.”

“This isn't one I use to get around,” she replied, slightly out of breath. “I was exploring when I found it.”

“And you just decided to crawl through a tunnel with no clear end in sight, to explore?” Light, up ahead, faint but growing brighter.

She grinned. “Let’s just say I didn't find it from that side.”

And then we were at the end of the tunnel, and I found myself on a ledge, looking down into a cavern.

Really, there was no other word for it. It was clearly artificial, don't get me wrong, a square box of concrete, but it was still cavernous. Light filtered in, weak and reedy, from some grates up above, casting odd shadows on the floor below. A good ten metres below where we currently lay, a decent ten meters or so, a stream of sewage ran through the space, splitting into a t midway and then disappearing back into pipes identical to the one it had come from. The smell was surprisingly mild, considering it wasn't a small amount of… liquid. Grated bridges covered the pipes in certain places, creating paths, and on one side of the long part of the t, stood Green Cloak and her band of thugs.

“You really still think she's in charge?” I asked myself. But it was a small part of me, and it was quickly ignored and forgotten. Because standing on the other side of the t were five figures in combat fatigues.

“Oh,” whispered Kai. “That's new.”

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Hive 18-III

Not The Droids You're Looking For.

Cool as a cucumber, Kai stared up at the man, face impassive. “Vanderwaal. Didn't expect to see you here.” I did my best to appear unobtrusive, but the two of them were so intently focused on each other I could have been a full marching band and neither would have noticed.

“I could say the same to you,” said the man, Vanderwaal. He was holding his hands behind his back, and from where I was standing I could see that he was squeezing one very hard with the other. “You've got some nerve coming back.

“Yeah, I've got nerve to spare,” she said flippantly. “I'm just passing through, anyway. No need to worry your little head over it.”

He scowled. “You don't get to just brush it off, Tanner.” So either she used the same pseudonym everywhere, or that was her actual name. I'd be surprised if she used her real name in a place like this, but then again, she'd said she wasn't in any system, hadn't she? So it wasn't like that name would get anyone any more information.

“Focus, please?”

Ah, right. “...what you owe me,” Vanderwaal was saying. “And you're not moving another step until we settle this.” He'd leant into the loom now, towering over Kai. He was actually taller than me, too, and that didn't happen often. Thankfully, the menace wasn't focused my way.

Kai didn't seem even the slightest bit perturbed by his threats. She deliberately took a single step forward, and the motion surprised Vanderwaal, enough to make him move to maintain the distance between them. “Oops,” she said flatly.

Given that we were standing in the entrance (or, I suspected, an entrance), we'd started to attract some attention. Nothing major, but people's gazes were lingering. I wanted to step in, do or say something, but I was worried I'd just make it worse.

“Well, hey, that's a first, isn't it?”

Get off my back, I'm trying, okay?

I think Kai had noticed too, because she stepped back, posture shifting slightly. “Look, Vanderwaal. You want to keep pursuing this stupid vendetta of yours? Fine. But if you do, I'll do what you should've done from the beginning and take it to Ingrid. And you know, I don't think she's gonna be too happy about it. Because you already tried that sh*t and got shut down, so now you're making a pathetic attempt into getting what you want by intimidating me. Well, guess what? I'm not intimidated. But I think you will be, when the woman in charge hears about this. So walk away, and I don't make your business hell.” There wasn't any particular venom to the words, no real rancor, just a simple statement of facts. It was impressively (and slightly uncomfortably) chilling.

Vanderwaal gritted his teeth, but the fight had left him, and he turned and stalked off. “You'll regret this, Tanner,” he spat over his shoulder, then walked through the door and out of sight.

Kai let out a long slow breath, posture sagging, and ran a hand across her brow. “God, I hate that guy.”

“I have… so many questions.”

She sighed. “Of course you do. Come on, let's get moving. We already wasted too much time on that piece of sh*t.”

I frowned, uncomfortable. “Could you please not do that?”

“What?”

“You know,” I waved a hand indistinctly, “four language.”

She raised an eyebrow. “You think sh*t,” I winced a little, “is foul language? God, you must be sheltered.”

“Could you please,” I insisted, “just not?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Fine, whatever.”

The crowd grew thicker as we moved into the stalls, surprisingly so. Maybe I was just naive, but I was having a hard time thinking of this many people at a black market. But… here they were. Buying… black market things. One stall we passed had racks of exotic-looking weapons sitting behind, all glowing in a vaguely dangerous manner. Another was curtained off, and just said 'Curses’ on a cloth banner. That was weird. I wondered if it was a fraud, or if the person who ran it could… I don't know, cause bad luck or something.

Kai didn't seem to be headed for any particular stall, though. She darted through the crowd in the same effortless manner as before, headed as straight ahead as was possible with the haphazard layout of the place. She obviously had a goal in mind, even though she refused to tell me what it was.

“So,” I asked instead, “what was all that?”

She pursed her lips. “I, uh, used to sell some stuff here. You know, that I-”

“Stole. Yes, I remember.”

She laughed a laugh that didn't seem quite sincere. “Aha. Well, Vanderwaal bought some of said… stuff. I say bought, but it was really an exchange. He gave me some stuff that was valuable, I gave him some stuff that was valuable.”

“Only now he's decided,” I finished for her, guessing where this was going, “that he got a raw end of the deal, and so now he's trying to claim that you cheated him.”

She did the laugh again. “Yup. That is definitely what he's claiming.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“We-ell,” she hummed, “he's not… technically wrong?”

“Oh my god, are you kidding me?”

“Look,” she said defensively, “he was both an asshole and a creep. I was perfectly justified in maaaybe overestimating the value of certain things with him.”

“So that comment about taking things to Ingrid, whom I'm assuming runs this place, that was a bluff.”

“Ingrid's more of an overseer, but yeah. If she actually found out, officially found out, I'd never be allowed back in here again, and Vanderwaal could settle the score without damaging his reputation here.”

“I'm guessing that wouldn't be pretty?”

“You guess correctly.” A figure, dressed head to toe in black combat fatigues and practically dripping with weaponry, bumped into her from the side, almost knocking her over. “Hey! Watch where you're going, jerk!”

“Go shove it where the sun don't shine,” replied the figure irritatedly before vanishing back into the crowd. Their accent was the strangest thing I'd ever heard; I couldn't even begin to guess what it was.

“Rude,” Kai sniffed, fixing her jacket. “Anyway, yeah. Vanderwaal shouldn't be a problem, hopefully.”

“Well, I'm certainly glad I didn't step in. Seems like you would've deserved anything that happened.”

She grinned at that. “I thought you were a hero. You'd let some poor innocent like me get beaten up?”

“Poor innocent, my butt.” The crowd suddenly thinned, and I looked up to realize we were standing at the base of the rubble pile beneath the hole in the wall. “Oh no.”

“Oh yeah.” She hopped up on a piece of rubble and began climbing the rubble towards the bottom of the hole. “Trust me, if you thought this was a big deal, what's on the other side will blow. Your. Mind.”

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Hive 18-II

A More Wretched Hive Of Scum And Villainy.

Scarf wrapped around my face and goggles over my eyes, I ventured inside after Kai. It was a good thing I did, too, because the dust kicked up just from our entrance looked enough to asphyxiate a person. Kai covered her mouth with one hand, waving the other in front of her to try and disperse the cloud.

“I'm starting to see the appeal of those ridiculous get-ups,” she said, muffled through her hand. She sniffed, and then sneezed, causing a plume of dust to expand away from her. “It doesn't even make sense for it to be this dusty; people come through here all the time.”

I waved a hand in front of my face, trying to blow away some of the dust that had already begun settling on my goggles. It didn't work too well. “Darn it,” I said mournfully, glancing down at my impromptu filter mask. “I really liked this scarf.”

Kai waved a hand. “It's just dust, it'll wash out.” She coughed again. “I kind of wish I had brought one. God, this place. I swear they do it intentionally.”

“They?” I asked. The interior of the building was as abandoned as the outside had been. We passed a small reception desk, empty of any papers or detritus, and walked through an open doorway into a cramped corridor. The floor beneath my feet was linoleum, stained and faded, and the walls were tiled, and in a similar state. Whatever Kai had brought me to, this clearly was only the path there, not the location itself.

The light dimmed quickly as we moved away from the door, but Kai’s sunglasses stayed firmly affixed to her face. My own goggles were making it pretty dim, but I didn't want dust in my eyes, so I left them down. “What's with the glasses?” I asked.

She glanced back at me, one thick eyebrow raised over the rim. “They're… sunglasses. There's not anything special about them, they're just sunglasses.”

“No,” I clarified, “I mean why you don't take them off.”

“Oh, that. Light hurts my eyes, so I wear them outside, and I'm so used to it by now that it's less hassle to just leave them on indoors.”

“Oohh.” I winced sympathetically. “That must suck.”

She shrugged a shoulder. “It's a pain, but I'm used to it. Could be worse.”

“Still…”

“Still,” she agreed.

At the end of the corridor, and the door coloured an ugly, faded green, she stopped, and turned to face me. “Alright. Ordinarily, there's no way I'd even tell someone like you about this place, let alone bring them here, but…” she drummed her fingers against her thigh, “you saved my bacon, and I owed you one. But if you're not smart about this…” she stopped, frowned, reconsidered. “Well, you'll be dead, so I guess there's no real point in saying anything else.”

“Oh for goodness sake!” I burst out. “Will you stop being so cryptic?!”

She reached up and tipped her glasses down, revealing her eyes over the top. It was meant to be sardonic, I think, but it just ended up being… uh, distracting. “Don't say I didn't warn you, then.” She pushed open the door and stepped through. “Welcome to Market Square.”

Like opening it had broken a seal, sound flooded through the doorway, washing over me. People, yelling, swearing, growling, calling, every noise imaginable. I actually had to take a step back, it was so sudden and unexpected. Kai grinned at my reaction. “Just wait.”

She strode through the door, and I followed. The room had obviously once been the core of the homeless shelter; I could easily imagine the place lined with row after row of cheap beds. Now, though, it was like it had been taken over by a comics convention. Small stands lined the room in a rough, unorganised fashion, creating raggedy rows and columns in some places, miniature plazas in others. These stalls weren't hawking artwork or posters or action figures or cards or whatever, though; their wares were distinctly more varied. The one closest to the entrance, no sign, was staffed by an older woman with graying hair and pince-nez spectacles, was selling what looked suspiciously like grenades. A few down was a man with stone skin, browsing through… okay, yep, that was pornography. I immediately averted my gaze, but I highly doubted it was… vanilla? Is that the term?

“You know it is; stop playing innocent.”

Another sweep around the room confirmed my suspicions. “Holy heck, it's a literal black market.”

Kai nodded. “Now do you get what I was talking about?”

“Uh huh,” I breathed out, distracted. “I'm not sure whether to be amazed or horrified.”

“Try both,” she suggested wryly. “I find it works best.”

I spent a few more seconds staring around, then shook my head, trying to clear it. “Okay, okay, this is very interesting and all, but we came here for a reason?” I hoped.

“Yeah. As interesting as it is, it's not where I found them.” I noticed we'd both unconsciously avoided mentioning who we were talking about. There wasn't really anyone near enough to us to hear, but still. “We're going through there.” She pointed to the back of the room.

In the sensory overload that was entering, I hadn't even noticed it, but now that it had been pointed out, I was amazed I'd missed it. There was a hole in the back wall, maybe four meters high, with rubble piled around it. It looked like it had been taken out with a wrecking ball. Or, more likely given the surroundings, someone had punched through it.

“Where does that go?” I asked.

“You'll see,” she replied, chuckling.

I sighed.“Please don't.”

“I think you need to lighten up a little. It's funny.”

“I'm perfectly light, thank you very much. And-” something rammed into me from behind, knocking me over and cutting off my sentence. I let out a little yelp, but managed to catch myself before falling flat on my face.

“Well, I guess I deserved that for standing in the doorway,” I said, a little pained, as I stood up and brushed myself off. “Still, I-” I turned back around, and froze. Looming over us was a man. He was tall, unnaturally so, and lanky, even more so, and his head looked closer to that of a shark than a human. In one hand, he held a rifle, loosely by its strap. In the other, a phone, the screen glowing softly. He wasn't paying any attention to either, though, nor was he looking at me. He was too busy staring straight at Kai, a predatory look on his face. She'd gone completely still; I wasn't even sure she was breathing.

“Well well well well welllllll,” he said in a high-pitched, nasally voice, “if it isn't Tanner, come back to roost.” His smile deepened. “It's so good to see you again.”

I didn't think he meant it.

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Hive 18-I


And we're back! Thanks for putting up with my little mental health break: barring any truly exceptional circumstances, updates should be back to normal for the foreseeable future.

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HANNAH
Who’s The More Foolish?

A light dusting of snow had begun to fall from the sky, settling on the road and on my head and shoulders. It had been clear skies when I'd left the house, though, and I didn't have anything to cover my head with, and so when I arrived, my hair was well and properly damp. It did not help my mood one bit.

Kai was leaning against the side of a building, catching some suspicious-looking stares from the people walking by. I’m not quite sure why; she didn’t stand out too much. She still wore the same pair of mirrored sunglasses as before, despite the gloomy weather, and the same jacket too, but she'd changed out the jeans for a set of heavy cargo pants with too many pockets and even more holes and tears. A tartan beret sat on top of her jet-black hair, keeping the snow off her face and glasses, and I had to admit, even though I knew she'd probably either scavenged or stolen most or all of the outfit, it actually worked pretty well together.

Her eyes were invisible behind the lenses, but I didn't need to see them to read her mood. “Took you long enough,” she said as soon as I was close enough to hear.

“I was on the other side- excuse me, sorry,” I dodged around a middle-aged woman in a shabby suit as she powerwalked straight across my path. “Rude. I was on the other side of town. This was the fastest I could be possibly be.” I wasn't exaggerating. The docks where I'd been were south, right on the water, and address we were now standing at was on the north side, right near the edge of town. I could see, only a mile or two away, the forests rising up after the city ended completely. I was surprised it had only taken me an hour.

“Hmph.” She pushed off the wall and dusted herself off. “Well, if they're gone now, don't blame me.” With one hand, she made a flicking motion at me. “Come on, this way.”

I started as she began walking off, then hurried to catch up. “Wait, but you said-”

“I lied,” she said over her shoulder. “It's near here, I just figured that if I told you the real address you'd go charging in. That would be bad.”

I opened my mouth to object, then slowly closed it. “Hmm,” I said instead. “Where’s the real address, then?”

“You'll see in a second,” she replied. “It's easier to show you.”

“I very much doubt that,” I muttered.

“Oh, I'm sorry,” she said with an implied eye roll, “I didn't realize it was International Be A Horrible B**** Day.”

I managed to catch the biting reply before it leapt off my tongue, and bit my lip instead. “I'm sorry. Bad day.”

“Yeah, well, don't expect it to get better. Just two more blocks now.”

The street we were walking down was as narrow as it's possible to be while still being four lanes. A surprising amount of vehicle traffic rumbled and hummed past us in both directions. There was a surprising amount of the former compared to what I was used to: there were almost as many gas-guzzlers as electrics. Although I guessed that that could probably be explained by the area. Closely-packed, the buildings around us seemed to lean in over the street, looming over the pedestrians and vehicles below. Twenty years isn't really long enough to get a really good state of disrepair going, but they were certainly giving it a good college try. It wasn't too obvious at a glance, but if you looked, you could see small cracks, scuffs and chips and just general damage. Combined with the thin layer of grime that seemed to coat a lot of surfaces, and it gave the impression of somewhere that wasn't cared for, cared about.

“Try to act a little less like a tourist, please,” Kai said dryly from ahead of me, as she ducked underneath the swinging arm of a man gesticulating wildly into a phone. He barely seemed to even notice her passing, but when I reached him, I had to awkwardly sidle around him, getting a withering glare for my trouble.

Now that I was paying attention to her, I realized something. Before, when she'd been doing nothing at all, just standing there, she'd been catching angry and suspicious gazes. Now, though, while she was actively moving through somewhat-thick crowds of people, and no-one was giving her a second glance. It probably helped that she had a six foot two white girl bumbling through the crowd to draw attention away from her, but I didn't think that was all it was. It was in her posture and the way she moved, effortlessly sliding around and through the throng. There was an almost… captivating quality to it, like-

“While I appreciate the attention,” she said, cutting my train of thought short, “gawking at me isn't the best reaction either.”

I blushed bright red, and firmly fixed my eyes on a point one foot above her head. She glanced back over her shoulder and smirked. “Well, it's a start.”

We crossed a road, then turned right, walking until we reached the end of the block. The building there was shorter than the others, squatter, with double doors up a set of short steps. A faded sign above the door bore the word 'homeless’, the others too faded to be decipherable. I got the gist, though.

“A homeless shelter?” I asked Kai as she stopped at the foot of the steps. “Really?”

She sighed. “Yes, really,” she confirmed tiredly.

“Oh no,” I backpedaled, “I wasn't doubting you, I was just thinking that it's a bit incongruous for… them.”

“Well, maybe hold off on judging that until you've seen the inside.”

I rolled my eyes. “Do you have to be so cryptic?”

“No,” she replied, straight-faced, “but I enjoy it. Now, we've got to pass through somewhere first, and you are not going to say a word to anyone there, understood?”

I frowned, but nodded. “Why?”

She started up the steps, pushing open the double doors with a creaking groan, then turned back to me. “Pretty much everyone in there hates me.” She smiled, the first time I'd seen her do it. “Now come on. You might want to cover your face, though.”

I started, glancing down at my bag, and then raising a hand to my uncovered face. I didn't even think… I sighed, pulling my scarf out as I followed her up the stairs.

I'm not very good at this, am I?

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If you support crowd control,  vote for Outliers on Topwebfiction, or rate or leave a review on Webfictionguide. Every bit of support helps keep the story going, and, more importantly, stroke my ego.