Torch – 7.5

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I don’t know how I’m going to help these guys, Jessica.

I found myself actually hesitating before approaching Sveta, Tristan and Chris.  The group had lost two of its members and its mentor in a matter of nine days.

Kenzie was missing, I noted.  She was always early, barring extraordinary event.  Worrying, when she was first or tied for first place among those I was most concerned about- she had just lost her friend, or whatever it was that Ashley was to her.  Hard to pin down.  That was the first half of it.  The second half was the underlying threat within this group that Jessica had been so concerned about.

What do I even do?

The big question mark shaped space where Kenzie was supposed to be was enough for me to get over my hesitation.

They were standing at the top of a set of concrete stairs.  The stairs were supposed to lead up to a shopping center, the sort of building that had a mall on the ground floor and in the basement and offices for the second floor and above.  It had been looted on a prior occasion, and now the doors and display windows were boarded up, shutters closed where the shutters were intact.

Sveta had started painting her body again, now that the court proceedings were done.  Forest green, again, with teal blues for the select details and animals.  It was only partial, and she used the negative, unpainted space in a neat way, with a mandala or kaleidoscope pattern to what was painted and what wasn’t.  Her top was another of the simple tops with knots at each shoulder and below each armpit; there was a navy blue base to the cloth and more teal for the lettering around an anchor design.  Her pants looked like sweats.  Her feet were ‘bare’, being only the prosthetic feet, and I could see where the tops of the feet were painted, the toes left alone.

Tristan had a white jacket on over a crimson top, jeans so faded they were almost white, and white sneakers.  He hadn’t found the time to apply more paint to his hair, it seemed, and he hadn’t shaved.  I could see the faint shadow, even from a distance.

And Chris was… very much Chris.  His hood was up and his hoodie zipped up all the way.  He had dark circles under red eyes, his braces were on and looped around his head, and he had a different set of headphones on, with a forward-sweeping bar that clipped to the front of his hood.  It looked a bit like he’d done it himself, and I was left to wonder just why he’d wanted to keep his head that securely covered.

The pressure differential between portals was responsible for strong wind on a good day, these days.  Clouds and weather came rolling through with little warning beyond what the scientists on the far side could figure out.  Today wasn’t such a good day- there were two portals in reasonably close proximity here and the two played off each other to make the wind issue twice as bad as it might otherwise be.

The tallest buildings were swaying.  It was bad enough of a gale that there wasn’t much traffic on the road or sidewalks.  I was forced to fly close to the ground.

“Heya,” Sveta said, as I flew over to join the group, staying near to the ground.  She reached out for my good arm and gave it a squeeze.  I shifted position and gave her a better one-armed hug.

“Where’s Kenzie?” I asked.

“She’s running late,” Tristan said.  “And this is her neighborhood.”

And it’s her project we’re here to see,” Chris said.

“Did you guys call her?” I asked.

“Moment I arrived and she wasn’t here,” Tristan said.  “No response.”

“It’s ominous,” Chris said.  “I would say something about the sky falling, but there’s already a Chicken Little out there.  I’d say something about the world coming to an end, but that joke got tired a year ago.”

“Not really a joke, that last one,” Tristan said.

“Meh.  There’s a warlord out there with the fire-to-ice shtick and a demon mask, and I’d bet money he did it so he could make the reference every chance he got.  I can’t use ‘hell freezing over’ because it’s tainted with that guy’s suck.”

“He sounds Fallen,” Sveta said.

“No,” I said.  “Just a douche.”

“We ran out of good names and now all the good themes and ideas are being taken or spoiled,” Chris complained.  “I have no fancy way of saying ‘that kid is never late’.”

“Kid?” Tristan asked.  “You’re only two years older than her.”

“She’s way more of a kid than I am,” Chris said.

“I don’t know, Chris,” I said.  “I think she has the edge when it comes to certain kinds of maturity.  Work ethic, maintaining the relationship pillars…”

“What the hokey garbage fuck is a relationship pillar?” Chris asked.

“…and she’s more polite,” I said, teasing.  “The pillars are honesty, trust, respect, caring, sharing…”

Chris withered like he was in physical pain, a vampire exposed to the cross, hissing through his teeth and braces.

“She’s pretty on the ball with that stuff,” I said.  I craned my head and flew up until my feet were just above the others’ heads, so I could try to spot Kenzie.  Chris continued hissing.

He was very good at his inhuman sounds.

He stopped hissing to say, “I regret asking.  I miss Ashley and Rain already.  Without them to balance out the group, we’re going to end up getting back together as team Caramel Friendship with tramp stamps like the Love Bugs have.”

“I hate that term,” Tristan said.  “‘Tramp stamp’.”

“It’s a label for a reason,” Chris said.

“I had a crush on a guy in high school who had a lower back tattoo, and he wasn’t a ‘tramp’,” Tristan said.  “It gets me when I think of that term getting thrown around and an awesome guy getting shit because of it.”

“He should have paid more attention, then,” Chris said.  “His fault.”

“Let’s not fight,” I said.  “Kenzie.  At what point do we spread out and hunt for her?” I asked.

“Soon,” Tristan said.  “I thought we’d give her ten minutes, and that was four minutes ago.”

There was a pause.  The wind whipped past us.

I was hoping they’d put up a nice structure around each portal, to control the pressures and block the wind.  I wasn’t sure of the logistics of it, but it would be really nice to fly again without it being the effort it was now.

“I’ve never seen Love Bugs,” Sveta commented.

Chris snorted, “Count yourself lucky.  The younger kids at the institution are always watching that kind of crap.  It’s so high pitched it sets my nerves on edge when my senses aren’t heightened.”

“Are the Love Bugs the ones with sayings and puns around their symbols, like scrollwork on a coat of arms?” Tristan asked.  “I wonder if there’s a good goat pun I could do for my Caramel Friendship team lower back tattoo.”

“That’s a different show,” Chris said.  “I can’t tell you how much I hate that I know that.”

Tristan’s watch beeped.  He sighed.

“Time to swap?” I asked.

He nodded.  “Better go look for Kenz.  Make sure she didn’t get mugged or blown away in this wind.”

Chris snorted.

“Hey Byron,” Tristan said.  “I’ll give you three hours later if you give me an hour now.”

He changed, blurring.  Byron appeared, and immediately had the wind blow his hair into his face.  He fixed it.  He wasn’t wearing a jacket, only a thin sweatshirt that was more for the hood and graphic than for the warmth, black skater pants, and sneakers.  Between the dip in temperature and the wind, he should have reacted more to the chill.  I supposed his temperature resistance helped.

“Nah,” Byron said.  “Feels weird, Trist, you coming out this way when you had almost no time left.  I know it’s not far, but…”

He shrugged.  “Going to play it safe and stick to the routine.”

“It’s good to have you with us, Byron,” I said.  “We don’t talk enough.”

“I’m here when Tristan is.”

“You have us at a disadvantage, then,” I said.  “You know us and we don’t know you.”

“Guess so.”

“Are you leaving or will you stay?” Sveta asked.

Byron made a face.

“Stay,” she said, punching him lightly in the arm.

“Okay.  Sure.  I’ll help look, and compromise for Tristan.”

“Which way is her house?” I asked.

Nobody knew, so we had to get phones out.  All three of us looked.

“Got it,” Chris said.

“Damn it,” I said.  He’d won the race.

At a glance, Byron didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but he was a hard guy to read.

Chris turned on the spot, then pointed.

“You guys go straight, Sveta go more left, I’ll go right?” I asked.

That got multiple nods of affirmation.

As I got ready to take off, checking for traffic, since I didn’t want to fly high, I heard Byron in the background.  “Tristan, was your crush Jhett Marion?  Wasn’t it a roleplaying game tattoo?  He had back hair when he was fourteen.”

Chris cackled.

I shook my head.  Poor Tristan.

The areas where the portals had opened up were in worse shape than the others.  People had reacted, and the violent reaction was only a small part of things.  Some had realized their close call and moved away from the portals that could potentially expand again.  Abandoned property, harsher weather, and the fact that a lot of the constructions had been rushed meant that there was a kind of decrepitude setting in.  Debris, trash, broken windows, and the occasional door left open.

I imagined there were people out there who would have happily claimed the empty houses, even with the proximity to the portal, but it was the same kind of dynamic as in Hollow Point.  In a lot of places, the people that had abandoned properties hadn’t gone through official channels or put up listings to let others know the properties were available.

One street, a bus parked to block off the road, with another two vehicles parked further down that same road.  It was there, it seemed, to break the wind that would have blown straight into the main road through Norwalk Station.

I did one loop, seeing only crowds and countermeasures.  There were signs warning that the main road was blocked by the portal, with instructions for detours and flow.  The signs had been hastily put together.

A flash in the distance got my attention.

That would be her.

Four people were blinded and sitting on their asses, backs to the wall.  Kenzie was there, uncostumed, her face blurred.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

The blur faded away and Kenzie smiled.  “I’m good!  Except I’ve been waiting way too long.”

“We’ll talk about that in a second.  Who are these guys?”

“I’m blind!” one shouted.  “New person, help!”

“They wanted what I was carrying, and I said no.  They insisted, I shot ’em.  I set it to a two.”

“There are settings?”

“They’ll be blind for two hours.  Where were you all?  I was lonely, geez.”

“We were waiting at the stairs of the financial building, where the mall closed up.”

Kenzie smiled.  “What?  No.  I sent a new location.”

“Check again.”

She did, fishing out her phone.  “Don’t try running just because I’m not looking or aiming at you.”

She fiddled with her phone.  She wore a blue polo top with heart-shaped buttons down the collar and a pink stripe across the chest.  She had a pink skirt, blue leggings, and an hourglass hairpin.  Her eyehook extended out from her belt, and she had her flash gun dangling from her pinky.

The box she’d brought for the day was sitting beside her.  It was just large enough that I imagined it had to be inconvenient.  Larger than a backpack, just broad and tall enough that holding it by the handles on either side had to be a pain.  Kenzie wasn’t fully grown, either.

The box had been painted to match her outfit, it seemed.  Two triangles with one point touching formed an hourglass shape, and that shape repeated across the box, from a predominantly pink hue at one corner to a deeper blue at the opposite corner.

“I like the color matching,” I said.

“My outfit?” she asked, typing at her phone.  She smiled.  “They were my back to school clothes.  I like them.”

I tried my phone, sending a message to the others, to let them know where we were.  I saw the tiny red warning icon on each text message I sent.  “My messages aren’t going through.”

That’s what’s going on,” Kenzie said.

One of the thugs who’d tried to rob Kenzie lurched to his feet, then ran, blind, down the street.

“Cell towers might be struggling,” I said, while I kept an eye on the guy.

Kenzie didn’t look up from her phone, but her eyehook turned to track the runner.

The guy didn’t run in a straight line, and as he veered, he ran straight into a pile of trash, tripping heads over heels.

The others who remained looked alarmed at the noise that caused.

“What the hell are you guys doing, mugging a kid?”

“We weren’t mugging her.  We were questioning her.”

“And demanding my box,” Kenzie said.

“There’s so much going wrong, you mentioned the cell towers.  That’s been breaking as fast as we fix it.  The power’s fucked and we’re getting blackouts, and some food that was supposed to be delivered wasn’t.  Now some kid turns up with suspicious stuff?”

I looked at Kenzie.  She shrugged, saying, “The power outages aren’t that bad.  I dunno about the other stuff.  Looks like the cell towers are off.  I connected online, though.  I’m stealing someone’s internet.”

“Their story doesn’t jar with what they said to you?” I asked.

“No, but if they were telling the truth then they were major jerkasses about it.”

“We heard the portal was broken by a group of people.  We’re keeping an eye out.  Neighborhood watch thing.”

“You ignored a bunch of other people and came after me instead,” Kenzie said.  “Is it because I’m a kid?”

“You were carrying a weird colorful thing!”

“Weird thing aside,” I said.  “I mean, come on, guys.  She’s gotta be the least threatening person you’ll run into in the next while.  She’s, what, five feet tall and ninety pounds?”

“Close!  Eighty-one and a quarter pounds,” Kenzie whispered.  “Four feet ten and a half inches.  But thank you for thinking I’m bigger and taller.  I’m flattered.”

“You can’t know,” the guy said.  “Maybe they got away with it because they were kids.  Parahumans are dangerous, they could be anywhere.”

Another of the guys said, “Young ones are more dangerous if anything.  They don’t have the impulse control.”

“Even if that was eerily accurate and true, you guys were nasty about it,” Kenzie said.  “That wasn’t okay.”

“Fuck,” one said, under his breath.

The guy who’d tripped over the trash hadn’t quite found his feet.  He tripped over the trash he’d knocked off of the pile, falling again.

I walked over to him, grabbed him by the scruff, and dragged him back to the others.  Kenzie had approached too, but it wasn’t to help the guy.  She used her eyehook to pick up the trash.

“We were the ones who helped stop the portal thing from being worse, you dingbats,” I said.  “Do you want to make this a thing, Looksee?  We could arrest them.”

“Nah.  I think they learned not to mug potential capes.  And to be nicer, right?  Don’t call people names or go straight to being rough.”

“Not mugging,” the guy I’d just brought back to his friends said.  “We were investigating and looking out for trouble.”

“I’m trying to be nice,” she said.  “You keep arguing points or swearing instead of saying sorry.  Maybe we should call the police after all.”

For all the good that’ll do.

The men gave their apologies in near-unison.

Kenzie nodded, satisfied.

Her face and hair briefly went blurry again as someone drove past.

“Do you guys have a number I can try calling?” I asked.  “Or an email we can send?  We’ll call someone to pick you up.  You’ll get your eyes back in two hours.”

They gave me an email.  Kenzie sent the message to the families of the blinded men.

“I asked before,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Are you okay?  With Ashley’s pre-court proceeding not going well, same for Rain, the group being in a weird place, how are you holding up?”

“I’m holding,” Kenzie said, smiling.  “Ashley told me to be tough, so I’m being tough.  I’m focusing more on my stuff, but it’s a good distraction.”

“You’re sleeping okay?  Eating okay?”

“Not sleeping, but nothing too bad.  I’m staying up until midnight, sometimes one or two in the morning.  Working on stuff like my box here.  I was working on Tristan and Byron’s thing too, I have some stuff that has a one percent chance of working, max, and it would be video only if it worked, but it would maybe let us see Byron while Tristan is out and vice versa.”

“Eating?”

“Eating!  That reminds me.  Do you want to come over sometime soon?”

“I’ll answer your question if you answer mine.”

“I eat.  Three regulars.  My parents were always very big on sitting down and eating as a family.  Unless it’s an emergency, I don’t miss dinner.”

I’d told myself I wanted to check on them.  This worked.  I could remember how horrified the others had been at the prospect of my going over to her place for dinner, but this seemed important.

“Then yes, I’ll come over.”

“Tonight or tomorrow?  Do you have a preference for what to eat?”

“Sure, and no preference for day or food.  Just let me know, and double check that the message got through.  I don’t want to miss this because of a missed message.”

“Will do,” she replied, with all the seriousness she would have shown if she were receiving a field order.

“I’ve got to say, it’s concerning, if people are reading this failure of infrastructure as sabotage.”

“For sure.”

Our guys showed up around the same time the vigilante’s backup did.  We left them to their backup with a brief explanation, then walked in the direction of Sveta, Chris, and Byron.  Because the box was heavy-ish and I only had the one hand, I took one handle and Kenzie took the other.

We explained in brief.

“Your dad didn’t give you a ride?” Byron asked.

“He’s busy with stuff.  His work isn’t doing so great right now,” she said.  “My mom wants to move but can’t find a good place to go.  I’m not too bothered.”

“You brought a thing?” Chris asked.

Kenzie gave her box a pat.  “We don’t have far to go.  At first I thought we’d use the abandoned shopping center, but I think we’ll get better results at this place.  It’s managed by a real estate company that’s rivals with my dad’s.  We kind of have to break in.”

“Sweet,” Chris said.

“Not sweet,” Byron said.  “Concerning.”

“Concerning on multiple fronts,” I agreed.

“Can you go with me on this?” she asked.  “It’s a good location, not too much noise, I think, and I’m super-duper eighty, seventy, mayyybe sixty percent sure this is going to be totally worth it.”

“What are you up to?” I asked.

“Nothing!  Nothing.  Field test.  It’s hard to get optimal conditions, targets, and stuff.  I still need to fine tune.”

“She’s up to something,” Byron said.

“No!  Yes!  But not in a bad way!”

“Kenzie,” Sveta said.  “What are you doing?”

“Please?  I’ve worked so hard on this project, and the idea of this moment with the flashy reveal and everything has been keeping my mood up since one of my favorite people got sent to a cape gulag.”

“It’s a block of buildings in an isolated area, with heavy supervision, limited time outdoors, and explosive trans-dimensional ankle monitors,” I said.  “It’s not that uncomfortable.”

“Has to have slave labor to be a gulag,” Chris said.

Kenzie tried her best puppy dog eyes.

“If we caved to this, what kind of precedent would we be setting?” Sveta asked.

“It’s not even good puppy dog eyes, compared to what you could really do,” I said.  “At least step up your game.  Give us a quivering lip.  Change your posture, here, like this…”

I adjusted her stance, having her draw her shoulders together, hands clasped in front of her.  I changed the angle of her chin.  Kenzie made her lip quiver, then said, “This could be the last thing we do as a team.”

I shook my head.  “Too much.”

“B.S., by the way, because we’re more likely to fizzle out than just stop today.  Unless this is a huge fuckup,” Chris said.  “Try harder.”

“It’s illegal,” Byron said.

Her composure broke.  “Come on!  It’s too much and it’s not enough and it’s illegal?  Cut me some slack!  You know I’d do something quasi-illegal for any and all of you, any time.”

“That’s not a good thing!” Sveta said.

“It’s also fully illegal, not quasi-illegal,” Byron pointed out.  “Breaking and entering, criminal trespass.”

“But it is a good thing, right?” Kenzie asked.  “Actually, it’s very much a good thing because you’re good guys.  You wouldn’t ask me unless you thought it was for the greater good.   And I’m asking you because I think this is for the greater good.  I’m asking for the benefit of a doubt.”

“I have so many doubts when it comes to you,” Chris said.

“Ha ha,” Kenzie said, smirking.  “Keep teasing.  I bet I can shoot you at least three times and give you a wedgie with my eyehook before you can transform.”

“You’re only proving my point.”

“Kenzie,” I said.  “You can’t hold back on this for the dramatic potential when it’s illegal.  Dish.”

She fidgeted.

“I think I found something.  I want to see with my cameras, and I want you guys to be a part of it.  If you aren’t, then I might not be able to explain it after.”

I looked at the others.

“It might be big,” Kenzie said.

“You’re, how did you put it?  Mostly sixty percent sure it’s maybe totally worth it?” I asked.

“Something like that.  Fifty…seven percent sure.”

“Alright,” I said.  “I’ll try this.  If the others don’t want to, I’m willing to risk it, since I have people I can ask for help.”

“I’ll come,” Sveta said.

“I was good to go at the start,” Chris said.  “I was less convinced the more you talked, Kenz.”

“Ha ha.”

“I’ll hang back,” Byron said.

He was the only one to duck out.  He followed us, up until we reached the destination, and then went for a walk around the block.

The building was a nice place, with brass capped white pillars at the outside.  It looked like a hotel, stately, but there was no sign of any occupancy and the wear and tear of age that I’d noted earlier seemed to have caught the outside, leaving it dusty and plastered with a few pieces of trash that had blown up against the building face and then stuck there with residual grime, dust, and rain.

“This place has a keypad lock,” Kenzie said.  “I was thinking of the shopping center, that would work too, but getting inside would be hard.  Instead…”

She slapped a box the size of a smartphone onto the side of the front door keypad, tapped it once, and then pushed the door open.

“It’s concerning just how naturally you did that,” I said.

“Pshh.”

I helped her lift the box.

“What’s concerning is that she probably spent four hours building that, instead of looking up one of the thousands of tutorials online on how to break a keypad lock,” Chris said.

“One and a half hours, thank you very much.  Except it was closer to three because I was splitting my attention between watching television, homework, and building that.”

“So pretty close to four hours, then?  Or are you doing that thing where you took three hours to get it technically finished, and another half an hour to build a nice case that matched the outfit you were going to wear today?”

Kenzie sighed.

“Or was it forty five minutes?  Was it an actual hour?  Was I actually right on the nose with my guess about it taking four hours total?”

“It was twenty minutes to build the case, you booger.  I made resin and glassworking machines since I like my work to look nice and I make a lot of lenses.  It cut down on the time, even if it wastes material if I’m not paying attention.”

“I was close,” he gloated.

“You were sorta close, you booger.”

Sveta let her hand drop to the floor.  She brought it back up, a cigarette butt clasped between two fingers.

“People have been here,” I said.

“They might still be here,” Sveta said.

“Hmmm,” Kenzie said.  She consulted her phone.  “This way.”

‘This way’ was to the penthouse, which took up the entirety of the fourth floor.  The stately, crimson-carpet, white-pillar look was in full force for the open concept room.

The window was open and the fierce wind blew the sheer curtains into the room.  Even the heavier crimson velvet curtains were moving.

Cigarettes littered the floor by the window.  The wind had blown them and the ash across the floor, and moisture or humidity had given the cigarettes and their ash enough dampness to run and stain the tiled floor beneath them.

Kenzie indicated for the box to go down.  We eased it to the floor.

“I hope this works,” she said.

She traced her finger along the pattern at the top of the box, zig-zagging across the surface.

Colored particles, each spherical and about an inch across, began to fill the room.  It was seemingly random at first, but slowly, patterns began to emerge.

“So.  My focus is on space, not time, and this is wonky,” she said.  “So, initial capture is going to be all impressions since the date I specified.”

Each figure was a smear that filled the room to the point things got dark.  Skin-tone spheres began to cluster into groupings that looked like faces, but where one person walked across the room, every space that their face had occupied began to get the dots.

The room filled to the point that it began to get dark.  The faint ambient glow of each dot became more apparent.

“This is messy,” Chris said.

“Yep.”

Finer dots began to appear, piercing the larger ones and replacing them in clusters.  It took minutes, and I was reminded of using the internet in recent months, when the servers were first going online.  Each image load had taken twelve passes, each pass taking a minute or two.

It wasn’t only resolution that mattered, though.  Each person had been in the room for extended periods of time, and each one was a smear of every action and movement they’d taken while in the space.

I folded my arms, walking around and through images, looking for ones where a face stuck out without smearing one way or the other.

“Color isn’t accurate, by the way,” Kenzie said.

“Good to know,” I said.

One face, a woman, strawberry blonde, with one tattooed arm.  I could see the impression she’d left where she had slept on the edge of the bed, but had climbed off the bed on the opposite side.

I could see other activity, with a lot of flesh tones.

Going by profile, there were two men, and there was another woman who wasn’t present much.

“And… resolution is as good as it’s going to get,” Kenzie said.  “But some are sharper than others, where one person or thing was still for a very long time.  Sleeping faces and stuff.”

I peered down at the sleeping face of the woman.

“Who are these guys?” I asked.

“Give me… five, ten minutes.  Maybe fifteen or twenty.  I want to sweep and see what we can pick up.”

Thin lines that formed cubes began to dance around the room, seemingly at random.  Where each cube touched a face, they began to roll along the track formed by each blurry caterpillar of merged images, pausing now and again.

There was one, however, that wasn’t looking for faces.  It moved along the chest of dressers, pausing on the bible that lay on one shelf.  It went over to the television, then the VCR.  The longer it wandered, the more frantic and jerky it seemed to get.

It settled on the box Kenzie and I had hauled into the room.

“Oh my god, you stupid box,” Kenzie said.  “No, I do not need you to find yourself.”

She kicked the box.

The cube-frame continued to dance around the room.

“You know you’re absolutely terrifying, right?” Chris asked.

“You can turn into a spider-face.  You can turn into a blob of brain tissue and tentacles.  You have a rage form,” Kenzie said.

“And yet you’re way scarier than I am.”

“Who are these people?” Sveta asked.

I continued to walk around the room, studying the men.  The other woman was too blurry to make out, her visits too fleeting.  From the way one man danced around the door, he might have repeatedly gone out with her.

Dark hair, dark clothes, pale face, dark eyes or sunglasses, for her.

One man had a red hat, it looked like.  The other was bald.

While I stared, the door opened.  Byron came in.

“Change your mind?” Chris asked.

“I saw the dots outside.  I came to see what you were doing,” Byron said.

“I’ll clean that up before anyone else notices,” Kenzie said.  “Probably picking up birds.”

She fiddled for a bit.

“No, stupid box!” Kenzie said.  The cube-frame had settled on the box again.  She kicked the box twice.

“Watch.  You’re going to destroy that thing through your percussive maintenance,” Chris said.

“Am not.  I know how it works.  Aha!  Thank you, box.”

The cube-frame had settled on the table by the window.  A silver and black smear covered most of the table.  Now the cube danced through the smear.

“Aaaand isolating,” she said.  “I’m going to pull out the best images, going by what seems to be the most accurate.  Medians and modes.”

The  woman’s image at the edge of the bed remained, while the rest of her disappeared.

There was another image of her on the bed.  She was in the middle of coitus with the bald man.

Sveta made a sound as she saw it, and moved to block Kenzie’s eyes.  When the eyehook looked over Sveta’s head, she pulled it down.

“I need to see to take it down.  There.  We don’t need that, thank you,” Kenzie said.  She tapped the top of the box.  The image disappeared.

“You’re going to be so much scarier when you’re older,” Chris said.

“Well,” Kenzie said.  “Probably.  I’m hoping to get a handle on things before then.”

“Breaking and entering and getting footage of people in bed isn’t progress,” Byron said.

“This is important,” Kenzie said.  Her expression was serious.

We had our images.  Kenzie had saved three to four images of each person, as they stood in the room.

The strawberry blonde with tattoos down her arm wore a cat mask and a bodysuit, as she leaned against the wall.  The bald man wore war paint.

The man with the dyed red hair was someone I’d met before, if only briefly.  He was the smoker, and he’d slept sitting up in the armchair.

“Kingdom Come,” I said.  “I ran into him at the community center.”

“Yep,” Sveta said.  “Might explain why Norwalk went south.”

I nodded.

There was no ID or good resolution on the woman at the door.  Too much movement, not enough of a stay.

The images weren’t a snapshot.  The woman and Kingdom Come had been captured sleeping.  The bald man had tossed and turned too much to be captured at any one point while he slept, so the best resolution was when he’d sat eating.   Even though the images froze in time, they were out of sync, each one at a different moment.

“You knew who they were already,” I said.

“I had some idea.  This place and the mall were the big locations where they made calls to and from, in the big network of call locations for this group,” Kenzie said.

On the table by the window, the blur had solidified into a concrete image.  It was clearest of them all, to the point it looked real.  Human faces moved and adjusted, but the rectangle was static in shape, inflexible.

It was the tinker device that had blown up the portal.  This would presumably be the one that had successfully been used on the Norwalk portal.

“You wanted to rope us into this by showing us this scene,” I said.  “It’s a lead.  A big lead.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

“You’re not pulling our legs?” Chris asked.

“This was really tedious to do,” she said.  “If I was going to pull your legs or try to get you all on board as a team, I’d have done something easier and more fun.  More convincing, probably.”

“Don’t be dishonest to get us to stay together,” I said.

“Okay.  I wasn’t dishonest this time.  This is real.”

We walked around the room, looking at the culprits.

“Um.  Did it work?”

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“Yep,” Chris said.

“Fuck yeah, this worked,” I said.  “I want to get these assholes.”

I glanced at Byron and I saw him nod.

Kenzie didn’t smile or cheer.  Her expression was intense and unmoving, with something like a blue fire in her eyes as the box glowed before her.  “Perfect.”

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89 thoughts on “Torch – 7.5”

      1. Actually though. The communication skills of regular people are depressingly crap, and triggering only makes things worse. Add in a few life-or-death struggles and some truly shit compounding shit storms and it’s a miracle that these people can act in anything close to a normal manner.

        I mean, I know that if I had Kenzie’s power I wouldn’t bother wearing clothes. Just tap a button, appear dressed, and walk around. She’s remarkably sane, all things considered.

        1. To be fair, I’m pretty sure kenzie does do something like that to hide the bags under her eyes when she doesn’t sleep.

        2. I can see using one of Kenzie’s buttons to change what it looks like you’re wearing (instant custom T-shirts? hell yes!), but to forego clothes entirely… you’d need really comfortable furniture, for one thing.

      1. Nope. That would imply the link between mark and shaped is more important than the link between question and mark, resulting in nonsense. The hyphen-free approach Wildbow took is perfectly valid as-is. If he wants to enhance the linkages to avoid ambiguity, he could instead use “question-mark shaped” or “question-mark-shaped.”

    1. “Each figure was a smear that filled the room to the point things got dark. (…)
      The room filled to the point that it began to get dark.”
      Weirdly insistent.

      “looking for ones where a face and stuck out without smearing”

      “The woman’s image”
      Extra space.

    2. >Our guys showed up around the same time the vigilante’s backup did.

      Should be vigilantes’ since there are 4 of them.

  1. Kenzie continues to be an adorable ball of outright WHAT THE FUDGE creepyness and that is amazing.

    What should probably be pointed out is that if Kenzie already scoped the mall and the building with her new toy, someone may have seen her come and go.

    (It also means that Sveta’s touching move to shield her eyes was useless since Kenzie had already seen whatever she may have wanted to see)

    But a moment – if Kingdom Come is in with the Fallen, shouldn’t more of the people that were involved with the community center be put under scrutiny now?

    (Also, does that maybe possibly mean we’ll get the Apple girl on the team after all?)

    1. I think that Kenzie hadn’t used the device in the apartment yet. She tracked the culprits to that place by their phone usage and then brought the device to with the team to look. Or at least that’s what she says. She definitely had to have a suspect list and track them to that spot before the device was used, regardless.

      1. Let’s face it, if Kenzie hasn’t seen more sex acts than a porn directer yet, it’s probably going to change by the time she’s 18. Some powers come with very unexpected baggage.

        1. Shit u rite. Girl’s probably a super over-prepared virgin by accident.

          Ugh. Kenzie dating. THERE’S a terrifying thought.

          Can someone write that fanfic?

        2. Kenzie has rooted through people’s computers in the past (if not in the last couple days), she’s *definitely* come across porn before, at the very least.

        1. Yeah, really. So that someone might see you sleeping. And getting dressed. And even *gasp* having sex! Now that’s horrible indeed.

          (I’m not making a point that any spying is nothing to worry about – for example, putting you on constant surveillance is wholly another thing for other reasons, but there’s nothing like that in this chapter)

    2. “looking for ones where a face and stuck out without smearing”

      I think that the “and” there is out of place. It made the sentence confusing.

      Terribly sorry if this isn’t the proper way/place for pointing this out. I love all of your work and have been reading it for some time, but this is the first time I’ve left a comment.

      Thank you so much for the hundreds of hours of free (other than donations) entertainment you’ve given my wife and I over the past few years.

      Hope you’re having a great day.

  2. Ceiling Kenz to the rescue. She should’ve steepled her fingers as she said ‘perfect’ like a proper mastermind.

  3. So Tristan (deliberately?) showed up to the team meeting at the end of his allotted two hours, expecting to put Byron in a position where he’d be more likely to trade away an extra hour. That kind of boundary pushing/testing isn’t healthy for relationships in general, since it puts stress on the other person if they think they have to constantly be on guard against those kind of “subtle” manipulation tactics.

    Is this a sign that Tristan is falling back into old habits and making the body-sharing into an ongoing conflict, rather than a mutual agreement based on respecting his brother’s wishes?

    1. Kenzie set the time and place of the meeting. Also, he offered to trade one additional out and pay it back with three hours, which seems like a reasonable trade. Of course, it could still be a subtle manipulation attempt to get Byron more used to horsetrading time. However the timing of it would have been set by Kenzie’s schedule.

      1. Regardless, wouldn’t the most considerate course of action have been for Tristan to look at the timing of the meeting, realize he was going to get there at the end of his two hour allotment, and work to resolve the situation beforehand? Instead of putting Byron on the spot all spur of the moment like?

        It’s minor, and I’m not saying it was the result of any malice, but it still struck me as warning sign behavior.

        1. Yeah, I agree with Sniggs on this one. This was a perfectly predictable conflict that ought to have been resolved well beforehand just between the two of them, not on the spot in front of friends, where Byron’s decision would be responsible for Tristan not being present.

      2. Yes, kenzie set the schedule, but Tristan was the one who put a “let’s go search for her in ten minutes” time constraint, knew full well what time it was and how much time was passing, and waited all they way until his alarm went off to ask for an extension. I’m also with sniffs that it seems like warning behavior

      3. Seems more likely to me that Tristan is manipulating Byron into being part of the team instead of being a critic of it. Which I think is just as bad.

    2. This could be ‘time-manipulation’ on Tristan’s part or it could be the concerned brother who thinks his introverted twin is not getting enough human contact. Would still be manipulative, but with different intentions… I’m willing to give Tristan the benefit of the doubt here, I don’t believe he’d do the one-eighty after coming this far in his therapy. In front of his whole team, no less. Tristan is crafty enough to make it less obvious when he has bad intentions.
      Or Tristan really got blindsided by Kenzie’s plans. ^^

      1. Yeah, I tend to favor the interpretation that Tristain correctly predicted Byron’s reaction to his offer, and that his true aim was to rope Byron into being present for this meeting — for whatever purpose.

        1. To get out some? To get involved more? Or maybe he just wants to keep doing things, but in order to do so he’s got to get Byron going along with him. I mean this was relatively low guilt if Byron wanted to go home… Well it was before Kenzie was late.

        2. Sometimes people have multiple motives for things.
          Perhaps Tristan simply thought, “Well, if he agrees then it won’t be an issue, and if not, then he’ll be spending some time with the team, so there’s no downside.”

  4. Damn Chris brought his A-Game this chapter. The snark and humour was top notch. He really seems to be the main source of humour for Team Therapy in a similar way that Regent and Imp were for the Undersiders.

    Also Wildbow… just how!? I was expecting a small break after the monumental effort that was the eclipse arc, maybe a wait for the next chapter until this Saturday or next Tuesday but damn. Your ability to write with such quality in so little time is inhuman…

    Parahuman actually now that I think about it.

    1. If Wildbow’s writing ability is a thinker power, that does explain why his writing has a tendency for violence.

    1. Absofuckinlutely. Like holyshit, she’s gonna be scary when she gets older. Scarier than she already is, I mean.

      1. Her future name should be Orwell. Or Big Sister. Or Big Zizster.

        Also, shower thought on Kenzie: Why would she ever bother wearing clothes? She can get a perfectly coordinated outfit at the press of a button and clearly doesn’t have any respect for personal boundaries (or at least it’s very limited). I mean, by all means where nice boots and warm clothes, but I’d imagine that at some point her wardrobe will function a bit like the bracelets from Psycho Pass.

          1. The fact that TT went to considerable inconvenience to recruit Rain’s motley triggermates, and has basically ignored an impressionable eager-to-please young cape who would be the peanut butter to TT’s chocolate… makes you wonder. Either TT is slipping, or she wants to avoid the ethical challenge that Looksee poses for as long as she can.

          2. Kenzie finds clues and Tt interprets them.

            Tt’s head would burst from an information overload by the end of the first day. ~_^

          3. Or Tattletale wants to keep her own secrets, and Kenzie doesn’t like secrets on principle.

            It’s hard to be a mastermind when one of your own minions is actively working to figure out your plan so she can ‘help’ better.

          4. Tt isn’t slipping at all. She’s knows that taking advantage of a extremely talented, eager-to-please, impressionable 13 year old girl with a shitton of potential, psychological baggage and BPD is crossing a moral line–some people would see it as so fucked up that its arguably not *that* far from Coil. As tempting as it would be, Tattle also has a conscience. AND the whole 0-boundaries thing +BPD+ability to become a super-stalker spells disaster. Tattletale is too practical to consider recruiting Kenzie, knowing the risks. And as someone else just mentioned, she has her own secrets to keep. If she can’t find a tinker who specializes in emotion-manipulating tech, I can see Tattle resorting to Kenzie (once she sees how well Kenzie can adapt someone else’s tech to her own) for that specific purpose. But as an official member of the Undersiders? Its not something Tattle would actively pursue. Might be a different story if Kenzie ever wanted to join em. She would give it cautious consideration.

        1. A problem with wearing only hologram clothing is that people get suspicious when they bump into you or pat you on the back and feel skin instead of fabric. Then there are practical concerns — besides temperature, there are sunburn, bugs, disease, rough surfaces you might want to sit or lean on, the lack of pockets, exposure to dust and grime, and the lack of any sort of protective layer if you fall down or bang into something.

          If it were me, I’d wear physical clothes with an emphasis on comfort and utility, then use the projections to spice up their aesthetics.

        2. She said before that her devices didn’t have enough batteries to pull this kind of stunt; also, I think the fandom is vastly overestimating how dishonest she is. We’ve seen her do shifty things, but we haven’t see her lie to the team so far (the closest I can think is her doctoring footage for Ashley’s trial, and she was super uncomfortable about it).

        3. We’ve seen her projections glitch out from interference before. Probably unwise to use them for more than cosmetic changes.

          1. Sure, projected clothes can be interfered with. So can normal clothes. Claws, acid, fire, explosions, Damsel, some kinds of teleportation, some kinds of changing (e.g. Chris), vigorous movement, a strong breeze at the wrong angle, etc. It’s also possible for certain kinds of powers or technology to see through projections, but again, that can also apply with clothes. Even in real life there are instances of clothes that are transparent in UV or IR allowing unscrupulous folks with the right kind of camera to get an eyeful.

            This is all just more reason to take the hybrid approach, assuming you have the battery life to spare for it. Gives you redundancy in case one of your clothing technologies is defeated.

  5. Honestly, I skipped over much of the Eclipse arc, and I’m glad it’s over. After slogging through the first few chapters, I just found that extended flashback content like that simply overstayed its welcome. It’s alright in a one-shot interlude, but with that much mass behind it…

    There’s more than enough going on in the present. No need to tap into the past for interest.

    1. Several of the Eclipse chapters tied back to the modern day and the court proceedings. Might be worth going back and finding those so that you aren’t missing any context .

    2. On the other hand, Eclipse was my favourite part of Ward so far by a significant margin. So… different strokes, I guess

      1. I reread arc one recently and was remind that Fume Hood used to be Poison Apple, who screwed over Damsel, and both of hem work(ed) with Victoria.

        Would anyone be surprised if Fume ends up with Victoria’s team, and at the same time as Ashley?

      2. How much of Eclipse is about Ashley? I skipped it after the first chapter since I don’t find her interesting at all

        1. All of Eclipse is from Ashley’s POV save for a scene from Edict’s (and that’s a “Well, technically…” situation).

  6. What is up with the repeated references to “the underlying threat?” Vicky seems like she has something highly specific in mind, like she’s pretty sure the threat wasn’t from the (1) Fallen guy and (2) the bipolar S9 world-ender.

    Is Wildbow creating suspense about something specific that Vicky already knows, or is she just dwelling on her own uncertainty regarding said threat?

    1. It seems pretty obvious that there’s no way the Fallen would be able to pull off something as big as this on their own, and most of them were already accounted for to the point that they likely couldn’t have had teams in every single one of the places with portals to blow up. Also, they were being supplied with large quantities of military grade guns and equipment. The only logical conclusion following that is that they were one piece in a larger game, being given aid by some unknown backer in exchange for doing the groundwork at the portal station that the protagonists disrupted.

      1. Money’s on either evil church world or Teacher!Cauldron. Leaning more toward evil church world given the general antireligious sentiment in Parahumans.

        1. While I think I disagree with that last assessment, I kind of figured that the Fourth Sect on Earth Cheit which sought war was the fourth sect of Fallen. They honor the Fourth Endbringer, like those otherwise unexplained secret Fallen who explicitly said, ‘Someone has to represent the fourth.’

    2. You already forgot? The thing Jessica suspected was wrong with someone or some people within the therapy group–someone was hiding something. Victoria eventually came to the same conclusion on her own but wasn’t sure who. If I recall correctly, Jessica couldn’t tell her exactly what she thought bc 1. she wasn’t sure she was right and she didn’t want to put ideas into Victoria’s head; 2. She didn’t want to break confidentiality. I think there may have been another reason why Jessica couldn’t say exactly who she suspected.

    3. Maybe, after her conversation with Tattletale , she thinks portals lead to a ‘locked off Earth’ and is thinking (erroneously probably) about her protagonist predecessor.

      “Oh no, if she comes back, Ill be relegated to a support character again!” Something like that. 😉

  7. Victoria really needs to get that arm fixed. She’s basically working at half-maximum fighting capacity right now.

    1. Well let’s see who her options are…

      Scapegoat- Went over to the Fallen. Did fix Rain. Still more probable than the others.

      Riley- Missing. Also Vicky has issues with the whole S9 wrecking her house and contributing to-

      Amy- Hahaha, yeah Vicky would rather die slowly and painfully from the arm being infected and rotting away than go with that one.

  8. Scary Kenzie is scary. And watching you have sex. In the past. While tracking you down. To nail to the wall. So the Team will stay together. Because they can’t fall apart before even getting a team name. Because that would be lame. So she’s going to track you down in the past. Because she is scary.

    I love Kenzie.

    1. Kenzie: She really is the Kenziest Kenzie to ever rope a Kenzie. I know, The Queen told me it’s to me to know all the grrls named Kenzie.

  9. What are the odds that Kenzie manufactured some or all of this stuff? There’re at least two precedents of her doctoring up “evidence” without worrying about/being aware of the consequences in order to achieve her short-term goals.

    Maybe the box pinged off itself twice because she had brought it to that location twice in the recent past, and she was able to hide this by signaling to Victoria where to set it down.

      1. Caveat. I do not actually believe Kenzie doctored the images that her device produce. I think it’s legit. That being said…

        Her not being at Norwalk means nothing. You can be certain that she tore into Victoria’s history immediately after the group therapy meeting where they met broke up. She’ll have looked at all sorts of stuff about her including recent news stories she appeared in. I’m certain she could have gotten enough images/footage to fake Kingdom Come if she had to. She also has probably extensively read records from Victoria’s time at the Asylum and has seen photo of her in her deformed state.

        tl;dr: Kenzie could have easily faked the images, but I don’t think she did.

        1. I love how Kenzie personifies the current crisis of electronic documentation, in which the capabilities both to acquire and to fake evidence have surpassed anything that our common sense or institutions are prepared to reason about.

          1. Is it an actual crisis?

            Evidence being lost and/or destroyed is far more prevalent than security footage being edited.

          2. I suppose it depends on one’s politics. Is it better to let ten guilty people go free, or to convict an innocent?

            (hint: the former is better.)

          3. To Exejpgwmv’s question, I would say that it’s more of an impending crisis than a live one at the moment. I probably shouldn’t have said “evidence,” as that evokes a courtroom setting; I agree that lost and unprocessed rape kits, for example, are a more pressing concern for the US justice system than fake video. However, I will be (pleasantly) surprised if there isn’t at least one scandal based on a faked video to gain significant traction during the 2020 US presidential election.

            As it relates to Kenzie, I just find it to be an engaging parallel that she, like real-world technology, is constantly pushing new boundaries of what we expect to be able to know while simultaneously undermining trust in that information.

          4. Yes it is a certainty that “Deep Fakes” (don’t google unless you’re sure) and similar innovations will play a role in media manipulations from now on. Humans might finally learn that they should trust as little as they can, but I doubt it.

            I agree that Kenzie is a wonderful exploration of this stuff. A child with these abilities doesn’t have to worry about morality in the way that a later-triggering cape would.

        2. Okay, but how?

          I don’t remember Victoria mentioning any security cameras at the community center and citizens didn’t exactly have time to record things with their phones.

          Same goes for the asylum: All of the video and photographic evidence is gone. Amy and Yamada were probably the only people who could’ve given Kenzie an in-depth description.

          1. Neither of those things are insurmountable obstacles, given what Kenzie has just demonstrated. With that said, it’s a lot of work for a very low chance at a gain.

    1. But isn’t Kenzie a bit young to be animating a sex scene between two people she doesn’t even know? Or making the sex scene in general? I mean while it’s pretty pat, I can’t help but think the whole thing is faked. I suspect she’s more likely to embelish the truth than outright lie, because she’d think that it’s one thing to outright lie, but if it’s just mostly true with a little bit changed, then they can’t get mad at her right?

      So I’m giving it a 0% chance that everything is faked, but a 50% chance something’s embellished, like some of it didn’t take place there, and 75% chance she added something to make it look better.

      Funny the Undersiders are people that can do a decent job of checking to see if Kenzie is honest. I’d kinda like to see them bring Bitch and her dogs into this mall and see if they can get a scent.

      1. Her age has nothing to do with it. You can’t compare Kenzie to most kids her age, she’s too unique. Not that I think it was 100% fabricated–I agree with you that if anything, it was embellished. But the age factor isn’t something that would stop her, just as it didn’t stop her from pulling a stunt that could’ve killed Mama Mathers and did take her out of the fight. The reason that the sex scene was likely real is that there’s no reason to put a fake sex scene in there. I mean, really. What purpose would it serve?

  10. “One face, a woman, strawberry blonde, with one tattooed arm. I could see the impression she’d left where she had slept on the edge of the bed, but had climbed off the bed on the opposite side.

    I could see other activity, with a lot of flesh tones.

    Going by profile, there were two men, and there was another woman who wasn’t present much.

    “And… resolution is as good as it’s going to get,” Kenzie said. ”

    Y’know, that’s probably for the best…

    “There was another image of her on the bed. She was in the middle of coitus with the bald man.”

    Oh, nvm.

  11. I would be willing to bet the box was not malfunctioning, there’s something they aren’t seeing because of where they positioned the box’ maybe the box itself, in the room at the time of recording. And I’m also willing to bet that kenzie is the woman at the door whose face they can never see, who else would know how to avoid detection? She even warned that color was not accurate so of the person at the door has different skin tone or hair color the device could be intentionally misrepresenting. Note that right after revealing that fact the author has descriptions that focus on color. Strawberry blonde, etc.

    I bet she has been setting these people up as a backup plan to help her team stay together for a while. Using the box to record. I don’t think this setting the past thing is real. We know she’s not opposed to planting evidence, and how pathologically important to her staying a team is. She also did promise to go villain with Ashley when things went south. And she’s not concerned about breaking and entering because she’s supposed to be there. She’s probably the one renting that apartment. Crazy conspiracy theories maybe but that’s what I’m guessing.

    1. Yup the more I think about it the more sense it makes. The box is a SPATIAL recording box, and has nothing to do with time, and Kenzie set it up in the room and has been recording with it:

      Kenzie will do anything even fake evidence to keep her team together. The plot with the trial and the video was all a chekov’s gun sitution, wildbow introduced that aspect of her character in a point where it didn’t matter so that we would recognize it as part of her character when it comes out she’s been doing shady manipulations for altruistic reasons later.

      I don’t know whether she’s ever been dishonest about how her tech functions but she said space and not time is her specialty. Another Chekov’s Gun. We’re meant to remember this later when it is revealed that this box has been sitting in the room for the entire span of time she is displaying. Recording. There’s no time tech at all.

      She’s been known to use her tech to hide her face before and she explicitly mentioned that color is not quite correct. Yet many of the characters are distinctly recognizable by color. The only one who is not is the person at the door which leads me to believe they are the only one whose color has been manipulated… because it’s Kenzie. She would have to visit frequently to check up on her tech. Also the fact that the one person doesn’t show up long enough to be recorded is CLEARLY PLANNED and nobody but Kenzie wold know the max time to spend in the area if she wanted to aoid detection.

      Furthermore, we also know that she is very good at creating simple AI type programs. It’s possible these things are elaborate chat bots.

      When the camera scans itself, it isn’t malfunctioning. It’s supposed to scan things that WERE there PREVIOUSLY, which it itself would have been. And if my theory is right and it’s not scanning, simply redrawing, then she would HAVE TO put the box in the same spot she had it during recording and it would probably draw itself, which she would also have to put a stop to (by kicking it, to make it skip drawing the couple in bed – which is entirely why that plot exists, to show us how skipping works and that she was doing the same thing when the box tried to draw itself).

      What she did exactly is somewhat mysterious. Was she working with these people? Did she make fakes? Is this part of her plan to get Ashley free, framing beast of burden?

  12. Wildbow, I had a question, if that’s alright?

    Let’s say there’s a broken trigger going on. Oliver is standing in the middle of it for the full duration, letting the rampant shard repeatedly ping him as much as it needs/wants to.

    How would this affect the broken trigger’s outcome?

  13. “I’m blind!” one shouted. “New person, help!” Saving that for future RP use.

    Also I was listening to the musical stylings of Coltrane’s Africa Sessions as I read through the cube sequence. It lit up my imagination to say the least.

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