Caprice 1.x

Taylor Hebert

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The first thing I noticed was my senses returning to me.

I'd only been semi-aware in that small place, wherever they'd taken me to get fixed. I'd been able to hear, to mostly understand what was said to me, but it was all through a sort of haze. I wasn't sure if it was just my unleashed shard still affecting me or drug-induced wooziness. Either way, that was gone - I was myself again. And I could feel my bugs, those that had slipped through the cracks with me and not a lot more. My surroundings had surprisingly few of them to add.

I also noticed that my range had stayed slashed since the unlocking of my shard. I'd miss my dozen-block scouting range, but I could make do with a couple football fields. I'd probably have to be more careful with my bugs than before, though, since I'd have so much smaller of an area to gather them with.

I had the bugs on me spread out into the world. Their positioning oriented me and I pulled my face out of the mud. I shouldn't have been surprised I hadn't noticed I was contorted face-down into the muck because the last time I'd been fully conscious, I'd hardly noticed my own body at all. I did a quick inventory and found myself a bit bruised up, a few light scratches, but perfectly healthy all things considered. I noted with interest that my arms had been grown back on around bits of the makeshift prosthetics. They must have had Panacea or Bonesaw fix me up in the aftermath as a rush job. I didn't much mind; I'd sort of come to terms with my missing limbs already, and this was just another adjustment to take in.

My bugs felt... Soft plant-life, mostly. Not so unlike what I might have expected from any swamp on Bet, but a Bet swamp would have been absolutely swimming with mosquitoes and maggots to grab at the very least. Not so wherever I was. I figured I must have been shunted to a zone that was hit hard during Gold Morning and was still in recovery. That, or an Earth much earlier on in the evolutionary timeline. I'd have to keep an eye out for megafauna.

A centipede crawled over a bit of stone with angles too regular to be natural. Not prehistoric, then - I sent a few more bugs to investigate and found that it was a very precisely-shaped brick, a little worn in around the edges and pocked with tiny holes, suggesting it'd seen its fair share of weather damage. I couldn't detect anything etched onto it, so I let my bugs return to their sweep.

I wiped off my face with my sleeve - I had those again! Weird. I supposed I'd been demasked as well - and took an actual look around. Nothing very surprising. My bugs had done a good job with the sweep, and I was unsurprised by any of the physical shapes around me, but some of the colors were a bit off from my expectations. I wasn't sure if it was because this was a different Earth with different biology, or because my eyes had been closed too long and were still adjusting. That begged the question as well - I was sure I'd been sent here via Door, but Doormaker was dead, and I'd used up his power anyway. It must have been a pre-existing portal, but if that were the case, the way back would have remained open, and my eyes and bugs both would have detected it. No such luck.

My bugs were done sweeping the outer bounds of my range and nothing new stuck out to me, except a few more of those weathered bricks, all to my subjective left. I didn't have a compass, and the overhead canopy blotted out most of the sunlight so I couldn't use that as a reference point. The trees had no particular rhyme or reason to their growth, and the two-inch-thick standing muck I'd waken up in wasn't connected to any stream I could feel on the surface. Without any other orienting information, I resolved to head towards the brick rubble, just as soon as I could stand up.

My arms were one thing, grown brand-new as they seemed to be, but my legs shouldn't have atrophied much in the day, max, since I'd been neutralized and tossed in a Door. I was having a bit of trouble pulling myself onto my feet, which was new and worrying. I reached to my back - no jetpack. Ah, right, the jetpack. It made sense my legs would be weak after relying on it for so long.

After a minute of laborious effort I pulled myself to my feet and started slogging toward the bricks. It was hard to even keep my shoulders from slouching, which made me realize it wasn't just my legs to blame for my trouble. I hadn't noticed just after waking up, but my flying bugs' wings also felt more strained than usual just scanning the area. Wherever I was, my bugs and I were heavier, which meant gravity itself was stronger, which meant this was definitely not an Earth.

I got over that realization pretty quickly by just focusing on my feet and my swarm. What few bugs I was picking up from the surroundings were close enough to Earth bugs that I hadn't noticed the difference until I was thinking about it - most were rough analogues, just with bodies better adapted for the local gravity level. I decided to let most of my Earth-based swarm members phase out as I picked up the numbers of new ones to fill out my swarm, but that wouldn't happen for a while yet. It really was strange how thin the bug numbers were here. Even after grabbing everything in my range, that was still only about as many bugs as had followed me here from home. I didn't have most of my particularly combat-useful bugs, but I was able to capsaicin-dip some of the local centipedes and mosquitoes that wouldn't be hurt by it, giving me a pathetic but usable strike force.

The further I moved in my chosen direction, the more of those bricks that showed up. Most were scattered shapelessly, but a few seemed shaped like ordinary construction - I noticed the extremely eroded remains of a well, for example. I started finding corpses too, on the front edge of my range, so I went to inspect those in person.

The first corpse I inspected was mostly underwater, preserved from the passage of time by the muddy surrounding insulation. Looked human. Its clothes and skin were mostly rotted away, though.

The second was far more interesting. I found a reflective, highly segmented body shaped much like a squirrel or raccoon, but formed of a highly complex interworking of metals and odd plastics. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but it wasn't the only one of its kind. Replicating tinker-tech gone rogue, maybe? "Robo-critters" sounded like a valid specialty, and I decided to keep that possibility on the table and remain cautious.

After a mile or so of walking and the density of corpses increasing, I found what seemed to be the border of a city proper if it weren't in such disrepair. It didn't seem like most of the humanoid corpses had bite or claw-marks matching the mechanical critters, so I ruled those out for now as culprits of this civilization's demise. More likely as a culprit were the tunnels erupting from the ground every hundred meters or so with no apparent regard for the pre-existing organization of the city, thousands of smaller off-branches pockmarking any dry bits of land or concrete with tiny holes. The tunnels seemed just as overgrown as the city; whatever had made them was long-gone. It had left no corpses.

I found my way to a cottage only half-crumbled to use as temporary shelter. Although I was still under heavy tree cover I could tell it was getting darker, and my bugs were feeling colder and more sluggish as well. Oddly I didn't really notice with my own body. I mentally noted that under "weird things that disassociating from your own humanity would do to you." The list was short but quickly growing.

Shelter. It was easy enough to find scrubby vine growth and such to repurpose as makeshift tenting for my temporary home, but actually gathering it and draping it over the building took far more effort than expected. It'd be a while before I was used to my own body again, let alone everything being so damn heavy. I couldn't have my bugs do much of the work either, since I'd need huge swarms of ants or beetles to do any serious lifting and even in this abandoned town, even down the well shaft, there were very few bugs to choose from. I was beginning to suspect that much of the bug life was made up of those robo-critters instead.

Testing that theory, I pushed out once again, feeling for any more tiny minds peripherally accessible to my network. Eventually, I found something, a few feet underground and 200 feet away, and once I'd identified its signature I easily found the rest. I could tell how many there were - lots, almost as many as there should be bugs in total - but their biology was indiscernible to me, whatever passed for their brains resisting my tug. I could sort of sense them after figuring out they were there, but I had no more information, and dismissed the idea of controlling them. Just another complication to today's ever-complicating puzzle. At least they didn't seem to take much offense at my prodding, preferring to simply ignore me.

I finally finished mostly covering the roof of my little hideout and shooing out the surface-level robocritters using my own organic ones. My raggedy shirt was repurposed for filtering water. My suit wasn't quite penetrable enough for that, so I figured I'd just leave that on while I slept. I collected most of my bugs just around the entrance, ready to instinctually bite any intruders and hopefully wake me up before I could get hurt.


When I woke, it was still dark out, and there was rustling from outside as something tugged my roof apart.
 

Taylor Hebert

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I was still a bit disoriented from waking so quickly and not having eaten the day before, but a few things immediately came to my attention. First, there was something outside of my makeshift shelter trying to get in. My bugs felt a catlike shape, like a panther, but with flat planes of metal or plastic covering most of it. Great, the mecha-beasts were still around and kicking...

I glanced around to remind myself of the room I inhabited. Cramped, ramshackle, stank of swamp and death. Nothing new there. My bugs watched the thing outside scratching at the walls as I idly wondered how long it'd been since someone had actually lived here. It was hard to tell, beyond the minimum of a decade or so to wear down the building to this state if it'd already been pretty poorly-constructed. My bugs told me there were no other large creatures in the area, so I'd only have to deal with the one for now.

My vine-roof shifted and I could vaguely see metal spikes - no, claws - pushing through, trying to get in. Cursing breathlessly, I quickly took inventory of the supplies at my disposal. A bit of filtered water from where I'd set up my shirt - I quietly sipped as much as I could while my bugs went through my bags and costume. A few prepared silk ropes, not enough to tie up the thing outside but I might be able to trip it up or get the jump on it that way. I set some roaches to grabbing them and quietly carrying them out to the... creature? and getting in position around its hindlegs. More rifling - maybe half a spice-jar's worth of capsaicin scattered through a few different pouches, but that probably wouldn't help against a mechanical enemy. There was plenty of mud in and around, so I rolled some roaches around in it, hoping I could somehow gum up the machinery on this thing. My police baton - I pulled that out and extended it in my hand - and my pepper spray, which I left in the pouch. It'd be useless against a machine. Oil and repair tools for my prosthetic, but I wasn't sure how useful those would be in my current state.

A hole bigger than my head tore open a few feet away, and I gulped down my last few drops of water. A metallic approximation of an eye shone through the gap. My heart beat faster than it had in quite a while and adrenaline pumped through my veins. Showtime.

My bugs and I leapt to action, roaches and wasps swarming, police baton swinging into the gap. The panther-mech hardly reacted to the impact, and shredded the vine wall with ease. Had it just been toying with me up to then? I didn't have much time to think on it as it pounced and I just barely managed to throw myself out of the way. A buzzsaw began whirring somewhere inside it - a growl? - and it swiped with its claws, digging into my costume but not quite penetrating. I smacked one paw with my baton, and it appeared to do a bit of damage, but the panther again hardly flinched.

By now, my bugs had gotten the sticky ropes to its legs and were starting work gumming them together, crawling into the spaces between its segments and letting themselves get ground into sticky goop. The cat-thing smushed a few of my bugs underfoot, but that gave me the chance to get a few more hits in with my baton. I was starting to seriously dent this thing's face, although it was hard to tell in the splotchy moonlight. It pounced me again, this time managing to rip at the armor on my neck enough to tear and bruise before I could kick it off, aided by the instability of its gummed-up back legs.

It was taking damage, but it didn't seem slowed by it - A Hand-to-hand brawl with this thing was not sustainable, so I went for a hail-Mary. I set my bugs, all of them, to crawl up into any cracks in this thing's armored shell, and purposely get caught in the mechanisms that powered it. It took a moment for any effect to get going, and I was already running short on bugs so this would spend most of my swarm, but this needed to end as soon as possible. I smacked it once and backed off, trying to distract it with my human body while the bugs did their thing, but it stopped paying me attention entirely, spasming as it tried to crush and eject the bugs invading its mechanical innards. It succeeded in spitting out most of the goop, but the damage was done - there was too much in it, too many sharp chunks of carapace, too many sturdy beetle-pincers and sticky strings and ant goop. It never slowed its spasming, but slowly moving pieces started churning to a halt, or breaking off, or collapsing inwards, and while the thing was still alive, it lost its ability to move when I had a small army of beetles chew through the connection between its computerized brain and body

I sighed in relief, and a bit of conflicted disappointment. It seemed my connection to my shard, and its conflict drive, were still extremely prevalent. It would be hard to avoid conflict from here on out, but then, I was used to working under similar conditions. And hey, fighting again felt good. The few bugs I had left, I sent back out to return to scanning the area, and immediately felt more grounded again, more like Taylor Hebert and less like Weaver, or Skitter, or whatever they'd called me in my last days on the Earths I knew. I wasn't sure if I'd keep my old cape name or find a new one, wherever I was, but it was increasingly apparent that I wouldn't be able to avoid it if I tried, so I resolved to roll with the conflict drive and make something good of it.

Idly, I wondered how my old acquaintances were doing, or whether they were even still alive. They'd probably approve of this course of action, or so I'd like to think.

With that in mind, I set to deconstructing the mecha-panther-thing. I'd destroyed most of the useful cogs and switches, but maybe I could forage something useful yet.
 
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