Torch – 7.6

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The shopping floor of the financial building gradually illuminated as the adjustable lights and shutters were replicated by the time camera.  It made for an unusual picture, where the shutters and the covers for the lights were closed but the light that passed through was painted as especially intense.

Meanwhile, on the floor of the center, the shadows of people passing through streaked the area, darkening it.  The yellow of construction vests and hats cut through the darkness of clothing, some skin, and equipment being rolled through as the building was used as a shortcut.

The other members of the group were standing at higher vantage points- on the stair-like ledges at the edges of the shopping floor’s main concourse, and on the stone edge around the simple fountain.  Having the higher ground let them see over the heads of the blurs.  Next to me, Kenzie had the best vantage point in the place, sitting on Byron’s shoulders.  The silent unfolding of the scene was punctuated by Byron telling her to stop wiggling so she wouldn’t fall.

I took the easier route and floated, trying to see the areas the camera covered that the others couldn’t.  There were people leaning in nooks and crannies, people sitting with papers beside them.

Most of the covert leaning was done by one construction employee, who carried an empty container and smoked, the ashes being tapped off into the container.  Multiple instances of smoke became a gossamer haze that hid their face.

The papers littered the places where people grabbed lunch and did some reading.  I flew past, noting the papers, and I saw ads for apartments, newspapers, and some kind of legal documentation that scanned as hazy with the way the time camera worked.

“A lot of people pass through this supposedly abandoned area,” Sveta said.  “I’m glad we called to ask for permission before breaking in this time, because this kind of traffic would have made it really dumb to try to sneak in.”

“They would notice the sea of blurry images before they noticed us,” Chris said.  “Especially if any of those images have the same height and general shape as them.  That’s gotta be weird.”

“This is over a few weeks,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not actually that many people.  Wait until I run facial identification and thin it out.”

“I can picture one of these guys showing up.  Hey, Leon the security guy, sorry to surprise you, we’re just replaying footage of every single thing you did in this building since the start of September.  Is that you scratching your butt there?  Then their jaws drop.”

“That wouldn’t happen, Chris,” I said.

“Do you think they’d shoot the scary parahumans first and ask questions later?” Chris asked.

“I think you wouldn’t say sorry,” I said.

“Ha!”

“Why did this place close down?” Sveta asked.  She was peering into a store that still had a banner down the window, featuring some game character.  I wasn’t sure if it was a board game or video game.  “It looks like it closed down before the portal.”

“It wasn’t built to fill a need,” Chris said.  “It was put here to make things feel like the home we lost.  It’s a lot of upkeep and money to prop up something symbolic.”

“It’s close to the station, stores look decent,” I said, looking at the remnants of what used to be.  A solid sign with plexiglass on it showed the stores the place had once had.  “It’s fine for location, a little grocery store and pharmacy for the people in nearby apartment complexes, or anyone working upstairs coming down… I don’t think that’s it.”

“It’s already going to pieces,” Byron said.  He kicked at the stone boundary of the fountain he was standing on.  A stone or two were missing.  “Problems, maybe.”

“That makes more sense to me,” I said.  A safety issue and forced evacuation.  It would be easier to get established somewhere else than to try to fix anything expensive.

As the blurs stretched out like so many misshapen caterpillars, many of them yellow-striped from the hard hats and vests, I saw one blur in one of the stores.

I flew down to investigate.

Dark clothes, dark hair, and a consistent slash of darkness at eye level.  Blurs intersected with her.

“Can you focus your facial recognition program on any area?” I called out.

“Ummmm… I have to finish first!  Which is soon!”

“When you’re finished?” I asked.

“I can choose a place as a starting point, I can start it over there,” Kenzie called out.  Her voice echoed through the large space.  “I’ll scan all of this before we’re done, though.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I think I found the woman with the sunglasses in… I think this was a computer store.”

“Woo!”

I folded my arm over the arm I still had in the sling as I walked around the perimeter of the computer store.  I tried to assess what the woman with the sunglasses was doing.  Something with computers and phones.  There were enough points where papers and a laptop rested on one of the long wooden tables that the table was now a blur of her work material.  No chair- she’d worked from a standing position.

Was there a point where she stayed still for a long period?

“Done!” Kenzie called out.  “Facial recognition one, live!  Siccing it on the sunglasses woman for you, Victoria!”

The cube-frame began dancing across the sunglasses woman’s head, flowing around the room as it tracked her pacing around the computer store.

“Facial recognition two, live!  Chris’ man, Leon the security guy!  Facial recognition three is a go!  And because it’s bratty, let’s change priority, give it a headstart annnnd… our fourth scan is live, looking for curious boxes.”

“Wait,” I could hear Chris say.  “The reason it kept finding itself is because you told it to look for boxes?”

“Under a certain size, with certain internal properties, yeah.  I told the compiler and the face and person searches to ignore you guys, but I forgot to make the box searcher ignore itself.  Fifth scan live.”

I stepped out of the store, glancing around.  As the cubes danced through the streams and waves of people, some were eliminated, cutting up the caterpillars.

“That answers one question and leaves me with so many more.  These things see inside people?”

“They can,” Kenzie said.  There isn’t much point though.  There is a point when I’m looking for tinkertech portal bombs.”

“If we identify any of our targets, do you think we could get a look inside them?”

“You just want to see their underwear, I bet.  So gross.”

There was a pause.  I could imagine Chris sighing.  I wasn’t close enough to hear, and my attention was focused elsewhere.

“What are you looking for, Chris?” Byron asked.

“The way people are put together is interesting,” Chris said.  “I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Can you do that, Kenz?” I asked.  “Give us a view of their insides?”

“Sure.  I guess.  We’ll try it when this part is done.  The resolution might suck for things that aren’t normally visible, and I have to concentrate it on one area.”

“While you’re at it,” Chris said.  “Can you draw a line through everyone?  Keep the… however many images of people you want.  But show the paths they traveled by giving each person a certain color of line that runs through their hearts or whatever?”

“Belt buckle, maybe.  People don’t change belts that often and they’re nice and unique, yeah, I can,” Kenzie said.  She motioned for Byron to put her down, and then went to get her computer out.  She was wholly focused on what she was doing, now.

“You’re surprising me with how into this you are,” Byron said, to Chris.  Byron rubbed at his own shoulders, where Kenzie had been sitting.

“It’s interesting.  This is neat,” Chris said.  Kenzie made a pleased sound, and Chris said.  “Don’t go getting a big head just because I gave you a compliment.”

“It’s neat that you think it’s neat,” Kenzie said.

“Why the focus on the way they’re put together and where they are, Chris?” Sveta asked.  “Are you looking for a shapeshifter or someone in disguise?”

“Nah,” Chris said, as he walked toward us, studying the security guy in passing.  “I’m thinking outside the box, plus she shuts up when she’s working hard on stuff.”

Kenzie snorted.

As the images started reducing down to a small enough number that people could walk between them without being blinded by the projections in their faces, the others stepped down from their vantage points, getting a look at our players in this scene.

“How are you these days, By?” Sveta asked.

“Dealing.  Some days I’m fine, some days it catches up with me and I’m the furthest thing from ‘fine’.  It’s times like that where I think a lot about-”  He lowered his voice.  “-how there’s not a lot of case seventies left.  Even before Gold Morning, most were dead or they had totally gone off the deep end.”

“From one name in a numbered casefile to another, there are answers,” Sveta said.  “It’s the upside of things being as messy and complicated as they are.  There’s a lot of weirdness out there, there are a lot of capes, and there’s tinkertech.  There has to be a key to things out there.”

I was left to wonder about that.  Sveta maintained a kind of optimism I wasn’t sure I held.  When I thought about my own issues, which might have been smaller than the problems of the members of this team, I didn’t generally think of fixes.

I held my tongue.

Byron spoke in a way that made it sound like he had to work to bring himself to say it, “It was easier when I could tell myself that we were researching it and reaching out to people who might be able to help or answer.  Progress is slow lately, with less people to reach out to, communication being slower and more awkward…”

“I’m working on your thing,” Kenzie said.  She didn’t look up from her computer as she talked.  “I know it’s not a fix, but it’ll give you options.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Kenz,” Byron said.  “You’ve been working on that for a while, though.  If it’s too hard-”

“It’s not too hard!  It’s just weird.  If I had more scans of some specific cross-dimensional, intersectional sort of things, it would feel less weird.  I’ve had other things over the past few weeks, like this bratty time box, and then the cameras we used at the Fallen camp, for Rain, and Ashley’s eye camera, and a bunch of other stuff.  But I work on it every day.”

“Alright,” Byron said.  “Thanks, Kenz.  Don’t agonize on it- if it’s too hard, leave it.”

Kenzie had to raise her voice to be heard from the other end of the concourse, “It’s fine.  I could finish it in a day or two if I did nothing else.  Do you want me to do that?  It would mean postponing other stuff, but I’d do it for… if you’d take me out for a treat.  Thank me by taking me to get something nice at a restaurant or pastry shop.”

“It’s a trap,” Chris whispered.

“Shut it, Chris,” Kenzie said, her voice echoing.

I could see Byron’s expression change.  It was interesting just how distinct he was from Tristan.  Tristan had a way of moving his arms and shoulders and showing his emotions in a whole-body kind of way.  Byron contained it to his eyes and eyebrows, with the slightest of changes to his mouth, lips pressing together, eyebrows drawing together, while his eyes looked at nothing in particular.

He was tempted to say yes, I was ninety percent sure.

“No,” Byron said.  “Do what you need to.  This is more important.”

I couldn’t hold my tongue.  “If you’re actually thinking about death or losing it, Byron, that might warrant other people doing something.”

“I’m not,” he said.  “That’s the bad moments, and in those moments, I can see how things might end up that way.”

“So you are thinking about those things.”

“Not directly.  Besides, I’d feel worse knowing you guys could be helping others and you weren’t because you were trying to make me feel better.  I’m used to handling stuff myself, I’ve gotten this far, I can keep going.”

“Introverts unite,” Chris said.

“You know you can always reach out to us,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.  Thanks.”

All around us, the images were condensing into an isolated few.  There were some passing visits from other figures, I saw.  the scans of the woman with the sunglasses had finished, and now that cube was searching out the infrequent visitors.

Kids snuck in, going straight to the stores.

Then Kingdom Come, the bald man, and the strawberry blonde woman with the sleeve tattoo.

I glanced at Byron.  Sveta was investigating the group of the people we’d seen in the penthouse apartment, Chris was looking over Kenzie’s shoulder.

“You were saying something about… you didn’t want to dwell on your problem,” I said.  “You see other things as more important?”

Byron gave me a one-shouldered shrug.

“I have some experience with that,” I said.  “Not me, specifically.  My- my sister.  She was like that.  She did the introverted thing, doing stuff on her own.  Dealing on her own.”

“You don’t like talking about her.”

“I-” I started, then I laughed, and the one-note laugh came out with a hitch, making it sound awkward.  “I really don’t.  Um- yeah.  It’s easy to make that call, and then to make it again, and again, and again.  I imagine you tell yourself that you can deal, like you said.  You’ve dealt so far, right?”

“Right.”

“There will be bad days, Byron.  Then something happens, and when you’re in a position like you are, like my sister was, it doesn’t take much to leave you unable to deal anymore.  And where you could have asked for help before… you can’t after you get to that point.”

Byron nodded slowly.  “Yeah.”

I looked away, and I could see that the others were listening in.  No conversation between them.  Whatever.  It was fine.

“Just, you know, be careful,” I said.  “We’re parahumans, the casualties are more numerous and grislier.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “No, I get it, believe me.  I have some experience with that already.”

I nodded.

My awareness of once having been a ‘casualty’ made me feel uncomfortable.  I’d said my piece, and I tried to look casual as I checked the surroundings and flew off in the direction of the store with the woman withw the sunglasses.

She stood over a laptop on the desk, gripping the edge of the table as her weight rested on the heels of her hands.  Straight black hair in a utilitarian cut with straight-cut bangs and her hair tied back.  She wore sunglasses, a black long-sleeved shirt, jeans, and black boots. Her shirt was pulled over a bulge that had to be a gun.  The image was fuzzy, but I could see the straps beneath her shirt.

That was her casual wear, as she was in this room… when?  Sometime between the passage of construction and the security patrols.

Another her was by the door of the computer store.  She stood there, staring down at her phone, looking like she’d settled in to stand there for a while.  A different outfit.  Nothing suggested she stayed here.  Which made this, what?  It was her office?  A meeting place, with very few meetings?

The refinement process had isolated the papers that had sat untouched on the desk the longest.  Because they were the least necessary, they also had the least information.  Envelopes had been torn open, left beneath stacks of other things that remained blurry or indistinct, with only company names or logos in the corner to set them apart.

I noted the wires that extended off the table to the wall.  There were bags under the table.

“We have our fourth target, I see,” Sveta said.

“Seems like,” I said.  “I thought there was one laptop she moved around… but this is three laptops.  The store was set up to have internet, power, and other things.  There might have been leftover stock.  She came here for the hookup.”

The others caught up with us.

“She hooked into this place’s security,” Kenzie said.  “The cameras moved to watch the entrances.”

“She made this a base of operations,” I said.  “Computers, supplies, internet, power, entrances watched so she could bolt if she needed to.”

“The papers aren’t readable,” Chris said.

I investigated them.

Construction company, agriculture supply, more agriculture, which might have been the same company- I couldn’t be sure.  The name Mortari stood out to me.

Kenzie had her laptop tucked under one arm.  She put it on the table, then typed a bit.

A pulsing pastel-purple line threaded its way through the room.  The woman’s course, or the snake reduced down to a simple line.

Not an easy to follow line, but it gave us a sense of things.

“A lot of time at the door,” Byron said.

“Do you think we can do that deep scan?” Chris asked.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

The scan was localized into an area about four feet by two feet by two feet across.  It was localized around the woman, and it took almost as long as the entire mall had.  We all did our patrols, studying the images, came back, wandered off again.

From a pure curiosity standpoint, it was interesting to see the woman.  People were dark inside, so Kenzie was forced to cast the image in black and white.  From there, it was like seeing slices of an MRI scan or X-ray.

I’d been right about the gun, I noted.

As the image filled in from the back forward, flickering violently at points, Chris got up onto the table, bending over.  I flew to get a better look.

The front of the brain.  The mind’s eye.

“Corona Pollentia,” I said.  “She has powers.”

“We could have guessed that,” Chris said.

“They take different forms.  There aren’t hard and fast rules.  But I’ve heard that if you trigger young, it takes more of a hold, with more… it’s called dimpling.  Like a hand is actually pressing it down into the brain.  That right there looks like dimpling.”

“Creepy, ” Kenzie said.

“You get more cloudiness in some kinds of scans where it expands out into the webbing around the brain, but we’re not getting that.  It’s been way too long since I studied this,” I said.  “The corona starts as a single marker, like a quarter-sized knot in wood, or a ball the size of a golf ball, pushed between the two lobes.  Then when we trigger, it surges into life.  It’s part of the reason we black out.  It expands slightly, veins swell.  But most of the time an unactivated corona is hard to tell apart from an activated one, and a surprising number of people have unactivated ones.  Sometimes you look at them and the larger veins or structures suggest what the power is linked to.”

“What does this tell us?” Chris asked.

“She triggered young.  It’s deeper set.  People who had a corona for a long time don’t get dimpling, I’m pretty sure.  Looking at the veins, where it seems to have reached out… can you rewind?  Slowly go back, show us slices further back?”

“Sure,” Kenzie said.

We went further back.

“Resolution’s too blurry in parts,” I said.  “Couldn’t begin to guess.  But going further back…”

“Going,” Kenzie said.

There.  That didn’t look right.

I searched on my phone, waited for a minute as it loaded, then held up the phone, comparing.

Veins or vein-like solid structures ran through one portion of the brain like the roots of a tree had been seeking nutrients.

“The cerebellum,” Chris said.

“Right,” I said.  “You apparently know more than I do on this.”

“I’ve had to pay attention to it.  If you go to a doctor and they say your pancreas almost tore itself in half, then it’s a great mnemonic for remembering the pancreas and what it’s for.  Cerebellum is senses, seeing, hearing, coordination of movement.”

“That makes me think of Mama Mathers,” Sveta said.

“If thinkers had an emphasis, I think it leans more toward frontal lobe.  This could be a perception power, I guess.”

“I think we’re pretty far into the weeds,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I still considered for a moment longer.  “What if she’s a master, and that’s… whatever control system she needs to manage her minions?  See, hear, coordinate?”

“Could be,” Chris said.  “Okay, I didn’t want to say it, because it was my idea-”

“Good idea,” Byron said.

“-Yeah.  But it took forever, and I’m bored, I gotta piss, and I’m hungry,” Chris said.  He walked over the top of the table, stepping through things that weren’t really there.

“We can wrap up soon,” I said.  “The trails- the image of her standing at the door.  Is it possible to find the time she was waiting and see if anyone was there around that time?”

“Um.  This is awkward,” Kenzie said.

“Awkward how?” I asked.

“So, as you know, I work primarily with space.  I can’t really know if any images are related in proximity in time because I didn’t gather any of that data.”

“You made a camera that can look through time,” Chris was incredulous.  “How did you not implement timestamps?”

“I bulk collected!”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “No stress.”

“It’s a little stressful when he’s giving me a hard time,” Kenzie said.

“Hypothetically speaking, is it possible to narrow down times of day?  Cut out every image that came up between two past midnight and four in the afternoon?”

“No.”

“Or… days?  Limiting things to just the day before the attack?”

“Maybe, but there might not be many good images.”

“We could simplify,” Byron said.  “The lines.  She was waiting here a lot.  There’s a scribbly sort of collection of lines here.”

We stepped away from the image of the woman.  Chris jumped down from the table he was standing on.

“And the only other line that’s really clustered here…”

“Leon the security guard,” Chris said.

“Whose name,” Kenzie observed, before running over a few feet to where an image of Leon was stuffing a bag into the trash.  “Was… Durbin, according to the nametag.”

Taz Durbin fidgeted.

He was outnumbered.  A nineteen year old guy with a very dense growth of facial hair that had been short and the edges cut in exacting straight lines, creating an effect where it looked like it was fake.  The hair around his temples and hairline was overly meticulous in the same way.  He sat alone and he looked tired as hell.  He worked nights, and this was firmly in the later hours of his sleep schedule.  The cops had already questioned him, adding to how frazzled he was.

Sveta, Capricorn, and I were there, facing him down, with Chris and Looksee sitting by a table in the corner, sitting with Natalie.  Capricorn was in goat-mode.  Tristan.

Two of Foresight’s members were also present.  Effervescent was the cape with the unreliable emotion read who had helped scupper my interview for the team.  Anelace was the dashing rogue who had tried to be nice about things.

The group was rounded out with three officers.  Two stood in the corner by the door.  The third was behind Durbin, an older guy who stood near the kids and Natalie.

“You met the woman who was using the shopping center for a base of operations,” Capricorn said.  “You knew she was there.”

“It was an office, I thought,” Durbin said.  “I didn’t think it was doing any harm.  She brought gas for the generator, she didn’t leave any mess.”

“She had access to security,” Capricorn said.

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“You didn’t notice the cameras moved?  There was no part in your patrol where you’d go to the security office, look at the monitors, and realize they weren’t pointed where they should be?”

The guy looked so scared.  “I did my job.”

“Answer the question,” an officer said.

“She paid me to look the other way.  I looked the other way.  I already admitted this.”

“She was one of the terrorists who blew up the Norwalk portal,” Anelace cut in.

It wasn’t the first time he’d heard that, but the fear intensified as it was hammered in.  I’d seen that expression so many times when I’d used my power, something with presence and magnitude taking hold of everything from heart to muscle to the dilation of the eyes.

I wouldn’t have gone straight for that.  From the glance Capricorn shot me, he wouldn’t have either.

Still.  Connections mattered.  Information was currency, and we’d decided it was essential to buy cooperation.  Bringing Foresight in would help more in the long run.  I hoped.

“Taz,” I said.  “You weren’t sympathetic with them, were you?  You weren’t happy about this portal thing?”

“No!  God no!”

“Then help us.  Anything you can tell us about her,” Capricorn said.

“I don’t- I really don’t know.  Jesus, I can’t think.”

“Can I talk to you guys outside?” Effervescent asked the cops.  After a nod, she led them to the door.

Though Durbin turned to look at the reflective glass, aware that there were even more eyes on him, of a number he couldn’t know, the people leaving the interrogation room served to lower the pressure.

I chose to back off, myself.  Anelace and Capricorn could take point.  I stepped off to the side.  If needed, I’d try to play nice.

“Did she give you a name?” Capricorn asked.

Durbin shook his head.

“How did she approach you?” Anelace asked.

“She caught me on my way through the door by the elevators,” Durbin said.  “Other entrances are boarded up.  She asked if there was a place she could set up, and I thought she meant the offices above.  I told her about having to talk to people upstairs, I didn’t know anything, you know.  She clarified, she wanted to be more discreet, do something less expensive than buying office space.  Said it was to get her company up and running.”

“And she raised the subject of the gas?”

“That was after.  The power shuts off after a certain time.  I do my patrol with my flashlight.  After a few times when she lost her work, she said she’d bring in gas for the emergency generator, she knew people.  I thought it was great for both of us.”

“She offered you cash at first, then.”

Durbin nodded.  “Yeah.  Not a lot.  Not worth this.  I bought myself sneakers with the money, after a few weeks.  It’s hard to get good shoes these days.”

“A few weeks?  How long total?” Capricorn asked.

“Since… June, I guess.  It was hot out when I first saw her, and it was late.  I remember thinking about the fact that she was wearing black on such a warm evening.”

“Were you aware she was a parahuman?” Anelace asked.

“No, no idea.  Who is she?”

Anelace didn’t answer, instead glancing at Capricorn and I.

I wasn’t sure I was a fan of how he kept giving up information on how much we knew, but I wasn’t about to stop him or ask him to leave.  Durbin wasn’t a mastermind.  He wasn’t going to break or stop being able to testify.  It was more a question of getting him to realize and parse just how much he knew.

“What did you talk about?” Capricorn asked.

“Weather, stuff I’d seen on television, recent events.  She’d wait for me, hand me my cash, we’d say one or two things.  Sometimes she’d ask when my relief was coming because she was planning on staying late.”

“You seem awfully cool with this arrangement,” Anelace said.  “Nameless woman, random approach, gas from nowhere?”

“I was happy to have my lights on while I did my route, a bit of pocket money,” Durbin said.  “I thought it was a good thing, being able to see things and make sure nobody was hiding in the shadows, spot any vandalism, which there wasn’t much.”

“It kind of defeats the purpose of having security if the security lets people into the building, doesn’t it?” Anelace asked.

Taz Durbin looked miserable.  He nodded.

“She didn’t tell you her name, she didn’t tell you where she was from, or anything about the business?  Was there any kind of marking on the can or barrel she used for the gas?” Capricorn asked.

“Barrel.  No.  No mark that I saw.  I think it was the same barrel every time.”

“What color was the barrel?” Anelace asked.

“Uh.  No idea.  It was dark, and… light green?  Or gray?”

Witness testimony was bad when it came to things like that.

“You never met her friends?” Capricorn asked.  When Durbin shook his head, Capricorn pressed, “You never saw anyone go in with her, or go in to see her?”

“No.”

“Did you ever see her with her sunglasses off?” I asked.

Durbin looked startled at the question.  He shook his head.  “No.  She said she had a vision problem.  Is that useful?”

“Maybe.  Could have been a lie.  Some physical mutations might be hidden with sunglasses.”

“Could be,” Sveta said.

“Holy,” Durbin said.  “Holy.  I didn’t think she was dangerous.”

“Focus, okay?” Capricorn told the shell-shocked guy.  “Were there any moments you had doubts?  Anything peculiar that put you off?”

“She did her thing, I did mine,” Durbin said.  “We talked for a minute a night, or not even.  I didn’t want to interrupt her too much.  She really did that with the portal?”

“She was in contact with two other groups,” Looksee said.  Durbin had to twist around in the chair that was bolted to the ground in order to see her.  “I think she was coordinating three of the attacks.”

“Oh,” Durbin said.  Color leeched from his face.  “Yeah, that’s… God.”

Capricorn tapped the table, and Durbin’s head whipped around like Capricorn had slammed his hand down.

Capricorn’s voice was gentle.  “Focus.  You talked for a minute every night, right?  There could be clues in that.”

“We talked about weather,” Durbin said.

“Any mention of travel?” Capricorn asked.  “Having to drive in the rain?”

Durbin shook his head.  “Was, like, aw, the weather’s getting cooler.  Nothing big.”

“What else, then?  What did you talk about?”

“TV.”

“What shows?” Capricorn pressed, insistent.

“Uh.  Shit, I don’t think she talked about much.  I mostly blathered.  I’d recommend stuff, she’d say she would get to it when she wasn’t so busy with getting her business started.”

“What shows did you talk to her about?” Capricorn asked.

“Is this so important?” Anelace asked.

“What shows?” Capricorn asked, more firmly.

The competitive streak might have been coming out.  He very naturally took the lead in this questioning, when we had invited Foresight to the table.

On a level, I couldn’t blame him.  I had issues with Anelace’s approach to the interrogation.  With Capricorn, there seemed to be a thrust to it.  He had something in mind.

“TVA, it’s Earth Aleph stuff.  I’d complain because they don’t always have all the episodes at the station, and it’s not like we can get more.  Sometimes I’d watch a show and it would skip episodes, and it got really confusing with this one modern supernatural show, because it actually skipped an episode on purpose, because of time magic-”

“Focus.”

“Um.  Yeah.  Some trashy television.  Reality stuff, I tried to pitch it to her but she seemed repulsed.”

“That’s good.  That’s the sort of small detail that might be useful,” Capricorn said.

Taz nodded, seemingly eager to be giving us anything that might help.  “Uh, I’d bring up sports, when there was a match.  Parahuman brawling- she wasn’t a fan.”

“Repulsed again?” I asked.

“Nah.  Just not a fan.  I brought up basketball a lot.  The high school teams have a league this year, with a lot of the athletic students focusing on sports during their half-days.  She said she missed watching.”

“Which means she had some interest.  Who did she root for?” Capricorn asked.

“Oh, huh.  The Heralds.”

“She liked them?”

“She really liked them,” Durbin said.

“That’s not Earth Gimel,” Anelace said.  “That’d be the school in Wailings, Earth N.”

“Lord of Loss’s territory,” I said.

“You don’t think he’s responsible, do you?” Anelace asked.

I shook my head.  “No idea.  But it says something if they’re maybe coming from a place that’s not a part of the megalopolis and they attacked it in the way they did.  It also explains why they set up shop here.”

“They’re not connected to us,” Anelace said.  “For internet, information, cell… they had to come here.”

“It’s thin,” Capricorn said.  “It’s a place to look, though.”

“Durbin,” I said.  When he didn’t snap his attention to me, I said, “Taz.”

“Yeah?”

“When she paid you.  What did she give you?”

“Forty a night.  Twenty if she brought gas.”

“No, I mean what type of currency?”

“New Dollars,” Durbin said.  “In my pocket.  I still have some, it’s hard to exchange.”

I remained where I was and let Anelace be the one to fish in Durbin’s pocket, drawing out the wallet.  He opened it up and fished out a bill.  “Tracking number might help us trace it back.”

“Ooh,” Looksee said.  “Wait, hold it flat.”

She approached the table.  Anelace held the bill flat, and Looksee took a picture of it.

“Fingerprints,” she said.

“I wasn’t happy about it being New Dollars,” Durbin volunteered.  “She was nice about giving me more when the value dropped.”

Anelace nodded, looking at me.  Unconventional currency for the unconventional settlement of Wailings.  The Trading Dollar was the dominant currency across the Megalopolis.  Other currencies were tied to natural resources, to other Earth currencies, but they had their issues.  The New Dollar had its issues, but it was still used in places, on the fringes.

The hypothesis is getting less thin, now.

There was a knock on the window.  We’d asked for a turn at questioning, in exchange for giving them this info.  It seemed our time was up.

We filed out, and the room that had been a dozen people facing down Durbin became just a room with only a miserable, tired Durbin sitting in his metal chair, elbows on the metal table.

The door shut, and the cop locked it.

Others were already out in the hallway.  Effervescent stepped out of the room with the one-way window.

“Effy?” Anelace asked.

“He’s telling the truth.  He has a drug habit he hasn’t mentioned, but it’s minor.  He was scared of her.  No indication powers screwed with his head or mind.”

“If she is a master, it’s not necessarily that?” I asked.  “Could it be subtle?  You had a hard time getting a read on me.”

‘Effy’ looked annoyed at that.  “I don’t think it’s subtle.  I don’t think there are any blocks or scrambles, either.”

“It was a very mundane infiltration, then,” Anelace said.

“It would be interesting to know if he was being watched,” I said.  “If I were them, I wouldn’t let something I saw as critical be reliant on one stranger’s conscience.”

“I can check stuff,” Looksee said.

“Don’t overwork,” I said.

“I won’t.  This is easy and fun.”

I glanced at Natalie, who was silent, and then at the oldest cop in the room.

“This is good to know,” he said.

“I know we’ve been reeling,” I said.  “Stuff’s… all over the place, with the Wardens gone and key people gone, missing, or being moved around.  We could have gone this alone, but we decided it’s key to share information.  The greatest strength the good guys have is that we work together.”

“What do you want?” the cop asked.

“The people who were arrested when we stopped some from getting the portals.  Interrogation logs, information, anything that could point us in the right direction.  Whatever we get, we’ll share with you.  Whatever you have… give us access.”

“I’ll talk to people, see about cutting away the red tape.”

“Same with us?” Anelace asked.

“And the other teams,” Capricorn said.

“There’s really only one other,” Anelace said.  “Advance Guard’s having trouble bouncing back.  They got hurt badly by the injuries and loss of infrastructure.”

“Maybe a mission will help,” Capricorn said.

“Maybe,” Anelace conceded.

“Can you ask around, see if anyone has a good enough relationship with Lord of Loss to open communication?” Capricorn asked.  “Don’t tip him off, but ask if some heroes could visit Wailings?”

“I’ll ask, see if anyone knows.  You should know that a lot of the Hollow Point guys that didn’t get offed fell back to the border territories.”

“We’ll be careful,” Capricorn said.

A younger officer approached, a stack of print-outs in his arms the size of a phone book.  Capricorn took half.  Chris and Sveta each took the remainder.  Our files.

There was a brief exchange of numbers and cards.  We shook hands with the cops, and then we shook hands with Anelace.

He held my hand a touch longer than was necessary, looking me in the eyes, and said, “This was good.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

He freed my hand.  The groups split up, with Durbin left in the care of the police.

“The G-N portal was one of the data points,” Looksee said.  “Calls made to and from that area.”

“There’s no cell signal from the other side,” Capricorn said.

“They come through and make calls as soon as they have signals,” Looksee said.  “Give me a bit of time to get the wheels spinning and I can start on facial recognition, license plates, and start checking on people around there.  It’s even close-ish to my place.”

“After you get permission from the authorities for that kind of surveillance, you mean,” Natalie said.

“Of course,” Looksee said.

The last time I’d faced Lord of Loss, we’d fought Brute to Breaker.  It hadn’t been pretty, but… he’d played by the rules.

The people he seemed to be hosting in his territory were very much not playing by those rules.  There was a chance that he knew, which meant another Earth, however small a set of settlements, that was aligned against Gimel.

A chance he didn’t know.  Which would mean Earth N faced the same kind of subversive attack that we’d weathered in Gimel.

I mentally revised my schedule, trying to keep key duties and events straight in my head.  Visit the orphanage where Chris was staying, and make sure all was well.  Make time for Sveta.  Make time for Crystal, and get her something nice.  Call Rain and Ashley, and catch them up, see if they had input.  Move.  Ugh.  Have dinner with Kenzie’s family.  Have a conversation with the Villain Warlord of Earth N, potentially with the fate of whole Earths on the line.

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61 thoughts on “Torch – 7.6”

  1. There’s a bit of a stretch calling him the villain warlord of Earth N. I don’t exactly think Lord of Loss has settled Brit-N yet, or sailed across whatever bizarre parallel for the Baltic might exist.

    1. But he probably is in charge of whatever human settlements there are there. Come on Vicky your one speaking terms with some villain warlords now, ask them for advice! If nothing else Parian can get you properly attired.

    2. You see this trophy I’m holding that’s shaped like a kitty’s behind? It’s for you and your pun about Brit-N. It’s a Cat Ass Trophy!

    3. How do we know that the G-N portal points to Britain N? Or that LoL settled there? Was it mentioned in story? Or, if its out of story WoG, is there any more info on cross-portal geography?

  2. Scheduled typo thread:

    ““Creepy, ” Kenzie said.”
    Extra space.

    “Effervescent was was the cape with the unreliable emotion read”

    1. >“Facial recognition two, live! Chris’ man, Leon the security guy!

      Chris’s

      This isn’t the kind of situation where you’d omit the possessive “S” at the end of a name. Plus, it’s a transcription of a spoken sentence, and Kenzie would pronounce it “Chris’s”.

    2. > … I saw. the scans of the woman with the sunglasses had finished
      Capitalisation

      > … flew off in the direction of the store with the woman withw the sunglasses.
      withw

    3. Not a typo, but an apparent contradiction:

      “I’ve heard that if you trigger young, it takes more of a hold, with more… it’s called dimpling. Like a hand is actually pressing it down into the brain.”

      […]

      “She triggered young. It’s deeper set. People who had a corona for a long time don’t get dimpling, I’m pretty sure.”

      1. People can have Coronas without triggering; just having a Coronas doesn’t cause dimpling, only long term triggers.

        1. Have mercy on my soul and spoil me? Pact was good, but it’s something that’s hard to read again, personally.

          1. It was skipped by time magic shenanigans in story, so Wildbow was meta and skipped it out of story as well

  3. Chris and Sveta each took the remainder.

    I thinks this might be meant as:
    Chris and Sveta each took half of the remainder.

  4. I think what intrigues me most is the opportunity that Looksee’s tech offers to scan the corona pollentia. I wonder what Team Therapy’s coronas look like.

    1. Why do I expect Kenzie’s to have a smiley face on it?

      And kinda sad to hear most of the case 70’s are gone with an implied very high suicide rate. Not surprising, but sad.

  5. It’s nice to see that even though she can’t help but nitpick and stuff Victoria still aknowledges the good guys greatest strength is working together.

    1. Now that you mention it… yeah. Yeah we should be.

      -Schedule 2nd meeting with therapist
      -Find time for self-care

    1. The portal opened right through their HQ if I remember correctly. Many people were lost and presumed dead, including Jessica. That’s why Team Therapy is running around without their therapist.

      1. Literally lost, btw. Teleported to wherever since the portals overlapped right on top of them, which noone has experience with right now.

    2. Sounds like they didn’t lose everyone-they were able to spare people to testify at Ashley’s hearing-but they lost “key members.” Who hasn’t been stated.

      1. They didn’t lose Amy or anyone who was at the Mathers compound. They did lose Riley, and probably Valkyrie and anyone else who lived at HQ.

        1. I’m reasonably confident Valkyrie was out at the time; with a large-scale attack being reported she’d assuredly have rotated into some kind of battle layout that would have either shielded her from being killed by the portals or let her avoid being caught in them, and if she went through a portal and survived she’d probably be back already.

  6. Really loving the sudden detective story turn we’ve made. What could have been a neat concept for an antire cape-driven CSI series, essentially.

    Very nice to see Chris taking an interest and making useful contributions outside of a fight. Byron being literally Byronic was a nice touch, and Victoria seemingly putting her experiences with Amy to good use.

    All the turning back on the first arc – the cutting of corners on construction, Lord of Loss, the inter-Earth relations… Pleeze tell me Apple girl is coming back too =]

  7. Whenever Victoria gets a chance to show her knowledge about parahumans, I feel like I’m watching House or a Sherlock Film

  8. I can’t help but wonder if the woman in sunglasses is someone we’ve met before. Have there been any capes with eye mutations?

    1. There was a cold Indian cape with cat eyes, but I think that was a he. Scrub’s also a he, and his eyes glow. Mouth too; that’s maybe why he didn’t talk much after Crawler let him live following the attack on the Merchants.

      So, yes we have. But neither of them are very likely.

      1. Yes, sometimes, but there’s no way Victoria wouldn’t have recognized Tattletale if it was her, no matter how good her wig game was.

  9. Kenzie’s power is fucking terrifying. I see people on reddit saying they don’t see it – I certainly see it. Jesus.

    1. Like how she could make a very nice living by filming case fifty threes and letting them know who they used to be and where they came from? or she decides she want to know more about the Undersiders and watches their ‘film’?

      Gets too curious about Victoria’s mysterious sister and watches that whole messall the way through?

      Yeah, Kenzie has a terrifying amount of potential, not something crap like say, Arthropodokinesis. Wait…

      1. Don’t think that the case 53 thing would actually work. Remember, Kenzie does space and not time. She would have to know where the case 53 came from, then go there and film back through who knows how long. If they already knew where they came from and when, they wouldn’t really need her services

  10. Is woman in black with sunglasses Contessa? Right build, right general sense of style.

    And the operation with the portels pulled off under the noses of a world packed densely with hero’s points to someone who had an unnaturaly high success rate.

    Of course, if she is responsible that for would mean that the portal attack was a necessary step on the path to victory. Wouldn’t be anywhere near the worst thing she has done to ensure humanity’s survey.

    1. [Insert joke about the survey of humanity.]

      I keep thinking the same thing–when Victoria said she would have triggered young, I had to scroll back up and remind myself that she has straight hair;
      I don’t think it would make sense. If nothing else, I don’t think she’d be here specifically, only coordinating three portals;
      Mortari is the Wynns’. Coordinating, targeting? I think if Jeanne knew she’d have thought about it. (It’s probably Teacher.)

    2. Somehow I doubt that Contessa is a big fan of Earth N high-school basketball though. Doesn’t seem to be her type of thing but who knows? And Contessa isn’t known for hiding her eyes.

    3. If it was Contessa, Team Therapy would have been ambushed, utterly defeated and convinced to drop the investigation. She wouldn’t make a noob mistake like not taking countermeasures against being spied with time cameras in the future.

      If we’re going down that general contact list, though, does anyone remember what that woman in Teacher’s Worm epilogue looked like? The one who was with him and Satyrical when they sprung Ingenue?

  11. Unless it’s intentionally different from our world, the cerebellum is not the seat of perception in the brain.

    The cerebellum is primarily involved with coordination and smooth movement, practiced movement in particular. Athletes like Serena Williams have very developed cerebella, for example. Alcohol does some funny things with the cerebellum for example, which is why motor control is hampered while you’re drunk and people slur their speech. High cerebellar integration would suggest a mover power, in my opinion, or hypersensitive reflexes (possibly, although that would likely be more in the primary motor cortex, in the frontal lobe, or in the spinal cord itself).

    The occipital lobe (right above the cerebellum) is where vision is processed, and the temporal lobe is where audition happens. The sense of touch is processed in the parietal lobe.

    If you want a good, simple place for the corona pollentia to attach for all-around sensory integration, the thalamus would be a good choice. It’s also involved in alertness and consciousness too — great spot for a non-specific Thinker.

    (Trying to help, not nitpick! 🙂 )
    (Source: PhD in Cognitive Psychology)

    1. I talked to an occupational therapist with a focus in head injuries – and it was described to me as the ‘small brain’ – not the seat of perception but a filter for perception, with a lot of localized injuries and issues in the cerebellum having some relationship with perception issues or disorders (schizophrenia, autism).

      If there’s a hearsay or ‘that’s a very loose interpretation’ rewording or take on it, I’m okay with that, given it’s something Victoria learned a while ago.

      1. On a side note, the cerebellum is the ‘basic brain’ that most animals rely on, while the cerebrum is only hypertrophied in some animals.
        Considering brain plasticity, it’s likely several functions were transferred from one to the other as processing power evolved.

      2. Your consultant isn’t wrong; the cerebellum is definitely implicated in perception (and you’re right, the word literally means “little brain”). While movement coordination is a big part of it, it also has projections to sensory systems too. Its role in perception is just likely to be very, very simple, and primarily about how the self interacts with the environment (again, related to motion). I can think of a paper that found links to the dorsal visual stream, for example — the portion of the visual system which is involved in directing the body to move to a visual target. To contrast, the cerebellum doesn’t have links to visual streams involved in object recognition. This is all probably way more than you wanted to know, though… 😉

        The basic difference between the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex tends to be involved in more basic “bottom up” processes, and processes that are automatic, whereas the cerebral cortex is involved in consciously-controlled “top-down” processes in addition to the bottom-up processes it helps with. Really, it depends on how specific you want to be. The brain is complicated!

        PS — The parietal lobe is indicated in attention, too, if you’re looking for a “filter”.

    2. I hope WB sees this comment and re-writes the text, it is always great to have things as accurate as possible!

  12. Could it be Contessa? This seems like a Contessa play.

    Of course the story is about another one of her plans that the heroes have to foil, only to hand her her real objectives wrapped in a bow

  13. Did….Did Taz Durbin trigger?

    Because it seems to me like Taz Durbin is right at the precipice of a trigger. I mean, that guy was completely wigging out.

    1. We didn’t have a sudden cutaway to a shattered god, so no, he didn’t. It’s also not quite the right kind of stress anyways; the questioning wasn’t hostile enough to make him feel trapped and cut off.

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