Torch – Interlude 7.y

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Gary Nieves was trying to save a world, and he was failing.

Twenty-six million people. The world had ended two years ago, and, as of last week, there were still twenty-six million people trying to survive on Earth Bet. The attacks had hit the portals, and some of the most accessible avenues between Earth B and Earth G had been wiped out.

He was pretty sure that they hadn’t been able to process more than a few million in the last week. Over twenty million people were out there, ready to file through with the things they could carry or pack.  Many had been forced to relocate to other portals, after months of waiting for their turns at the portals in Earth B or equivalent areas in Earth B’s New York. Many found themselves at the back of the line at whatever stations they were forced to move to.  Some would get on trains.  Here, they had to get on trucks, because the portal was too narrow for anything else.  The narrowness slowed things down more.

The only light was from spotlights, and for a moment, every spotlight was on a giant robot with a glass face, a giant eel swimming in the fluid within. Metal and strange technology gleamed in the instant before the spotlights changed focus, some turning to the convoy that followed the giant robot. The parahuman who managed the robot stood atop the thing, waving at someone on the ground as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Gary saw more of the trucks come through, most were logging vehicles with benches fixed to the back, every bench crammed with people, shoulder to shoulder, knees often touching the people on the bench in front of them, bags crammed beneath them. There was no exterior to the truck, nothing to break the intense wind that whipped through the area and stirred up the dirt and dust. Many of the people on benches faced off to the side, looking at the world they were being brought into.

Some looked directly at Gary, who was beneath a canopy tent, open on four sides because the wind that blew across the city was liable to blow any tent with walls down.  He was surrounded by foldable tables, computers, communication gear and plastic crates.

Jeanne Wynn from Mortari had told him that people were getting sick over there. He’d seen people come through looking pale, underweight, and listless, but up until recent days, he’d chalked it up to the weather on the other side, the rationing, and the wounds that many had sustained to their very soul, to lose the universe they called home.

He wanted better for them. He did. Earth G was better than what they were coming from, but it wasn’t nearly good enough.

He’d made his bid to run the city, and he’d been ousted, because he wasn’t willing to cheat.  Now he felt the acute lack of leadership in this situation.  This was so far from being good enough.

“Ed!” Gary bellowed, double checking the monitor in front of him. This was triage at this point – there weren’t any locations that were actually ready to take people in, so he had to send them to the closest thing to ready, but there were other factors. The plaza at block nineteen was most capable and had the most capacity, but security had been called there five times in the last hour. Tess, the woman in charge, had called for some parahumans to help keep the peace, and Gary knew that she hated the people who ran around in costume. He had Ed’s attention, and now he had to make a call. “Take the convoy to block three!”

Ed was atop a concrete tower by one of the gates. The man moved the illuminated batons he held, indicating the direction to lot C. His partner would be on the radio, talking to others, ready to indicate the rest of the direction.

Gary hoped that the plaza would be peaceful enough to accept new people, because there were already messages coming through, saying that there would be another convoy in two minutes.

Sixty people could be packed into the back of one logging truck. Ten trucks had come through with the giant robot and its eel.

Not even a dent. This convoy marked six hundred out of an estimated twenty million.

Trucks passed. He recognized one of them as a military supply truck that had jackknifed and rolled while carrying civilians, just two weeks ago. A mechanical failure. People had died, and the image of that same truck carrying both civilians and bodies covered by white plastic sheets had burned into his mind’s eye. Now it was back on the road, because they were short on vehicles that could carry large numbers and traverse some of the rougher, broken terrain on the far side of the portal.

He saw mothers and fathers who couldn’t even bring themselves to look hopeful as they made it through the portal. He saw others, more heartbreaking, who came through with light in their eyes- until they saw the distorted portals looming along the horizon.  There was no doubt they’d heard about them, but to see it?  He was thankful that it was late evening, and that the portals weren’t that visible.  He didn’t have to see the expressions change.

The giant robot with the eel inside stepped aside, the hand raising to give the person on top a platform to stand on. It lowered, putting the parahuman on a level with his teammates. The Shepherds.

Gary wasn’t the only one who was watching their every move. Reasons differed- children looked because costumes were brightly colored, personalities standing out in bold relief. Men looked because they worried, like Gary did, or, he assumed, because their eyes were drawn to young ladies in dresses that showed bare legs and left no illusions about chest size. Women- he had no idea why women stared. Probably the same things.

“Are they getting in the way?” Heather asked.

Gary shook his head. “Not so far.”

Heather was Gary’s relief, meant to be available if he took a break, with a five-hour shift due to start when he wrapped up his evening to get his five hours of sleep. That would have been an hour ago, but there had been so much to do he hadn’t been able to conscience stopping. She could have stood down, taking the extra opportunity to rest, but she was working in the background, supporting and double checking his work for mistakes, because mistakes happened when people were as tired as they were.

Given the fatigue and everything else, it would have been so easy for them to be at each other’s throats.  Even if they’d both followed the routine outlined, stress, proximity, and fatigue could easily have seen them at each other’s throats.  It didn’t happen.  They worked well together, he felt.  He had zero complaints, and she hadn’t suggested she was upset in the slightest.

As trucks slowed to round a corner, heading off to lot three, people were hopping up onto the sides of the trucks, bags in hand. Water and some basic food, to greet the newest refugees and look after those in need.

The heroes were still caught up with their discussion. The Shepherds were one of two hero groups present, the other being a loose assortment of the parahumans that had been guarding stations. The other stations were closed so all available personnel and parahumans could focus on getting people out of Earth B.

The Shepherds broke from their huddle. Each of them moved with a direction that suggested they knew exactly where they were going. Nobody came his way, though he was supposed to be in charge of this station and the connecting nodes. Nobody went to Ari, Mortari’s representative on scene- technically the person who was supposed to have final say from the higher-ups. Had they gone to Ari, Gary would have felt snubbed, but he would at least have felt like the parahumans recognized that people were working here, trying to get stuff done.

Had they come to him, or even if they’d gone to Ari, they’d have been told to stay clear of lot nineteen until things settled down. Gary could have told them where they would be useful.

He could taste acid in his mouth, and swallowing was hard.  It was nothing to do with powers, and nothing to do with medical problems, not this time.  It was his body’s unique way of telling him that he was stressed out.

“Ed!” he called up to the tower. “See if you can’t get any of the Shepherds on the radio! We need to know where they’re going!”

“Right!” Ed called back.

“One hand doesn’t know what the other’s doing,” Heather said.

She was half his age, liked by just about everyone, and, despite the fact that everyone here was supposed to be on the same side as they tackled this crisis, it didn’t work out that way in practice. She was one of the few he could count as being unreservedly in his corner. For much that reason, the talk and grumbling about hands and the struggle to get people to cooperate was a common refrain between them.

“Shepherds are doing their own thing, the… whoever they’re supposed to be, that used to be Wardens and are keeping an eye on things-”

“The thinkers,” Heather said.

“Sure, if you want to call them that. No leadership, no communication. They come, they do their shifts, they leave, and they act as if they’re insulted if we try to ask for details or if they can appoint a liaison. Those thinkers don’t think,” he said.

“And then John Druck, and Mortari, and the organizers on the far side, in Earth Bet-” Heather went on.

Gary checked the timers. His main window was an overhead map of everything with lots marked out and an 8-bit bus ticking along the map millimeter by millimeter. It was supposed to be black, but it was now ticking back and forth, an alarming red.

She leaned close. “Late.”

“Help me out, Heather? See if you can’t find Ari and figure out if he knows where we’re getting tripped up tonight? People keep showing up later and later, and they’re getting processed slower.”

“I think we’re all tired, Gary.”

“Feels like more,” he said. “Find Ari?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Don’t fall asleep.”

“I’ve got coffee.”

A thinker near the main portal relieved the detestable girl with the rats.

The ‘heroes’ did their own thing. Other factions were serving their own leaders. Druck’s labor, Mortari reporting to Wynn. That left a share of maybe twenty or thirty percent who were citizen volunteers, serving under him. He’d organized the volunteers and set the systems in place to train them. The backbone was a team of people that he’d once hoped would be able to go back to Earth B and start cleaning things up enough that they could start resettling it.

He’d hoped they’d be able to go home.

It was the numbers that slipped through his fingers, and drove home how out of reach it all was. Six hundred bodies out of twenty million. Twenty to thirty percent of the three thousand people here were his, or were supposed to be.  But so many of them believed in the Shepherds, felt the Shepherds’ views aligned with their own.  Gary knew they didn’t.

The lights flickered, spotlights going off, then coming on one at a time, unevenly, as the power came back on.  He could hear the distant machinery buck into action as generators came online.

He looked around his tent, spotting his bulky flood flashlight in the moment before the power went out for good.

The generators only ever really bought them a second.

Blind, he went to the flashlight, hitting the button to turn it on.  There were battery powered lanterns in one of the totes.  People nearby came to him like moths to a candle.  He was one of the only proper sources of light.  The others were Patrol, officers, and others with flashlights as part of their standard operating gear.  Those lights were more for personal use.

Gary’s supply was the kind of thing meant to light up work areas.  He passed them out until he saw a face he recognized, and then delegated.

“Where’s Ari!?” he called out.

He got mixed, inconsistent answers.

“The Shepherds?”

“Full patrol,” came a nearby report.

He had no idea what that meant.  He’d tried asking about terminology before, too.

Up on the tower, Ed had battery power for a floodlight.

“Conserve batteries!” Gary called up.  “Only half on at a time, until we know what’s going on!”

His computer had a battery of its own, and the machine it was hooked up to gave it a satellite feed.  In a vast sea of darkness, with much of the city unlit at this late hour, people were retreating to Gary’s tent.

It was a primitive instinct, like cavemen retreating to the shelter of the campfire.  The instinct made it hard to check his computer.

It couldn’t be easy.  The stalled convoy was moving again.  If it had stayed put, then at least they could get organized and ready before it appeared.

“We don’t get a break just because it’s dark!  Another convoy is coming through, and it looks like eight hundred!” he called out. “There are construction helmets with lights mounted on them in the tent with the barricades!  There should be flares!  We need enough light that we can point them in the right direction and keep them from driving into anything!  Go!”

People ran to do as he’d ordered.  Others were moving the opposite direction, clustering closer.

Why wasn’t Mortari leading?  Why couldn’t the heroes be here to offer up one of their magical solutions?

As if thinking about them had summoned them, he saw how the girl with the rats was part of the crowd, and her eerily terrible mask with its bent nose was made all the worse by the dim lighting that came from low, below-the-neck angles.

“I’ll help,” she said.  “Even though I’m on break.”

Then she turned to go.

When he’d been in fourth grade, an abysmal teacher had left him so stressed out that he’d gotten an ulcer.  It was the kind of person he was.  He could remember the ambient pain across his stomach, the distended way he’d felt, as if the stress had gathered inside him and was stretching his skin, and he could remember the acid taste in his mouth.  That teacher and that experience had shaped him, driving home a distaste for authority figures who couldn’t lead.

He hadn’t had an ulcer since two years ago, but something psychosomatic made him feel echoes of those old sensations and tastes when he was acutely stressed.

He’d been feeling the acid in his throat and mouth and a dull pain in his stomach for a while now.  It felt more pronounced now, to the point it probably exceeded what he would feel if it was real.

“People with headlamps on each side of the road!” he shouted.  “Make sure they know where the road stops!  The rest of you, if you don’t have business in this tent, there’s lights going up under the concrete towers!  Go there, or go get water and hydrate our refugees!”

“He’s saying he wants you out of our tent!” Heather shouted.  She was back, or she’d turned around when everything had gone dark.

The shouting didn’t help with the acid taste in his mouth.

Most people left the tent.  The ones that stayed were recognizable faces- people he didn’t mind seeing.  Not his, not one hundred percent, like Heather was, but they were friendly enough.

“Ari’s occupied.  He’s tied up in policy stuff.”

Gary shook his head.  “Well, I don’t envy him, but I think if he was going to be this busy, Mortari could have sent more people here.”

“Wholesale agreement here, Gary,” Heather said.

The headlights of the convoy were visible.

“Make sure they come in slow!” Heather called out instructions.  “We don’t have enough light!”

He looked at his monitor.  He hated it, especially since there was no sign that nineteen had resolved its disputes, but this was a big load of people, and he couldn’t conscience overburdening others with an influx of refugees when nineteen was mostly empty.

“Block nineteen,” he said.

“Nineteen!” Heather shouted, her voice high.  Others passed it on, and on the concrete tower, illuminated batons touched tips to form a chevron shape.  ‘Careful’.

The trucks were overburdened.  People were almost falling off or walking alongside because there wasn’t enough space on the benches.  The wind was fierce, as it so often was around the portals, and the trucks were having a hard time driving in a straight line as a consequence.

What was this?  A thousand people?  It was supposed to be eight hundred at most.  Even if every single waypoint was ready, stocked, and fresh, there wouldn’t be a good place for him to stick a thousand people.

He left his canopy, waving down the lead driver.  A hero sat on the roof of the vehicle- a man with a costume that had some technological aspects hooked up.  Purple fluid glowed like it was under a blacklight, running through tubes to bracelets and something he wore along his spine.  When the guy smiled, the saliva in his mouth was more glow-in-the-dark purple.

Gary tried to ignore him.  There were things to do, answers to get.  “What’s going on?  A thousand people?”

“Eleven hundred.”

Fuck me,” Gary said, his voice pitched low so that any kids at the back of the truck wouldn’t hear.  “Come on, man.”

“They’re sardines over there.  Logistics are a nightmare.  Sir, seriously, just bring them over here and set them loose into the woods.  It’s gotta be better than what we’re dealing with on the other side.”

“We’ve got to give them ID, make sure we aren’t letting dangerous people in.  We give them a bit of money to start off, because they almost always have immediate needs.  If we do like you’re saying, they’ll be second class citizens.”

“These guys are all people we vetted ourselves.”

“We don’t know your standards,” he said.  “Can you split up the convoy?”

“You’d be parting some people from their belongings.”

Gary turned to Heather, who was standing back, a walkie talkie to her ear.  She mouthed the word ‘Ari’ to him.

It took a minute.  People were restless, and all the more restless because there were so many refugees coming through on foot, who weren’t staying in one place.

The thinkers were walking around and through the crowd, checking people.  That was supposed to be some solace, he imagined.  They’d see any weapons or traps.

“Ari says we can split up the people.”

“Have people get their belongings if they can.  Trucks should get into position, moving slowly enough that we don’t run over anyone.  One to block nineteen, one to block six.”

The trucks began to move at a crawl, a mile an hour if that.  People hopped off or moved to the other truck, or made sure they had their bags.  If this took too long, Gary knew, the next load of people would arrive.  Backups and jams led to dissent, which led to violence and people who had only frustration as their first exposure to Earth G.  It set bad precedents.

Things were still creeping forward when a sharp sound cracked through the air.  His first instinct was to think it was something like the truck jackknifing.  A mechanical failure, a backfire-

He heard the screams.  The parahuman that had been perched atop a truck hit the ground, luminescent purple blood splattering to the ground around him.

There were more shots.

“Get down!” he shouted, but so many people were shouting or shrieking at the very tops of their lungs that he couldn’t be heard.  It was a noise and a sudden onset of chaos that made it hard to see straight.  He did what he could, motioning, indicating direction.  The blood had sprayed in one direction, the parahuman knocked from his perch by a shot from the west.  He had people take cover by the base of the truck, backs to wheels.  People hugged the bed of the truck, using the benches and luggage as cover.

The next battery of shots came from the east.  That was- it had to be automatic weapon’s fire.

A planned maneuver, to give them no place to take cover.  Flanking gunfire from two separate directions, with serious firearms.  Even the blackout-

Had it been planned?  The idea filled him with a terror that somehow had more certainty than the bullets coming from the opposite direction.

“The tents!” he shouted, and nobody could hear him.  “The tents!”

He started toward the tents, crossing open ground, and a shot hit the dirt a foot from where he stood.  He beckoned, urging.  Here, at least, there were plastic totes filled with equipment and supplies, enough that a bullet wouldn’t necessarily pass through.

He saw the woman with the rat mask.  She ran low to the ground, straight toward the source of gunfire.

People followed him.  People got shot for following him, because they were exposed, and each person he saw fall was a wound in the fabric of his very soul, because he was responsible.

Not wholly for the deaths.  People would have died regardless.

Not wholly as leadership here.  Others were supposed to be here to take charge.  He was trying.

But between and through some alchemy of the two, he was responsible.

“Hurry, hurry!” he shouted.  People weren’t screaming as much.  They went to the tent, ducking inside.  He found his back to one crate heavy enough his weight resting against it didn’t budge it.  It would be cover- if it was placed in a better spot.  His face distorted with effort as he dragged it across dirt.  Someone else put a hand on it, helping.  “Stack crates if you can!”

People did.  He did what he could to help, when he was close enough to reach, but he and most others prioritized keeping their heads down.  When crates were lifted up, it was by groups of four people who were careful to use cover.  One of the heavier crates was being emptied, so the bin could be placed up high and then filled.

Assailants who lurked in the deep shadow around the portal station emptied their guns into the camp, placing their shots in the vicinity of people who had yet to take cover.  Gary watched people die.  All ages, all creeds.  He felt a stabbing pain in his stomach like he had been one of the people shot, ten times worse than anything he remembered of the ulcer he’d had as a child.

Someone was calling his name.  He looked back.

Ed was at the door at the base of the concrete tower.  He had guns -rifles.  They fired one shot, then needed a multi-step process to reload.  They were meant for hunting and maybe for self defense, for the vast majority of instances that a single bullet would serve for.

Not for- for an outright battle.

He had been in one fistfight in his life, with his brother when he had been twelve and his eleven year old brother had called him gay.  He knew his guns, and used them for fun, but he had never been one of the people who had dreamed up scenarios where he might have a justifiable excuse to use one or be a hero.

Ed pressed the gun and a box of ammunition into his hands.

In this situation, he felt the furthest thing from being a ‘hero’.

Every second, someone was dead or set firmly in that direction.

Ed was handing out more guns, favoring people he knew.  The stockpile- weapons meant for refugees, kept more for their barter potential and in case of what had once been thought of as a worst case scenario, that the refugees might riot here in this camp.

There were only ten of them with shitty rifles.

He didn’t want to do this, but he couldn’t ask it of anyone else- he knew he could land his shots, if he could see his target.  It would be hard to see.

“If one of us shoots, we all shoot.  Hold your fire unless you think you can make it count,” Ed said, only audible because his mouth was almost against Gary’s ear.  He spoke to the group, two people at a time, in much the same fashion.

Gary stared at the scene.

Flashlights had fallen.  Yellow construction helmets with lights attached to the front lay in dirt.  There were places the beams sliced across sprays of blood that had formed fluid balls or layers atop the dirt, rather than soaking into it.

He was so rattled he couldn’t count the arms and legs he saw strewn across the area around the trucks.  It wasn’t that they were dismembered, but that the light and darkness chopped things up, so only one thing was visible at a time.

Too many moved- still hurting.  But it was impossible to get to them if the guns weren’t dealt with.

Beyond those isolated beams of light, there was so much darkness.  There were no flashes in the darkness as the automatic weapons fired.

“Go,” Ed said.

They broke away, using a hill for cover as they circled toward the group with the guns.

It felt like a suicide mission- they would each fire once.  At best, they could drop half of the people on this one side of the station.  Then what?

The opposition would open fire.  Even with cover, they’d have no chance.  There would be no returning fire.

But to do nothing?

Every second or third step he took, he tripped, because the ground wasn’t even, or there were obstacles.  He thought the noise of it might disturb the shooters, but the sound of the guns drowned everything out.

Only darkness, absence of light.  Only cacophony, overabundance of sound.

Only the cold feel of a weapon in his hands, hot feel of arm against body, armpit sweaty.  Foot in boot, his awareness so sharp and out of place that he was aware of toes rubbing together, swimming in sweat like it had dripped off his body and filled his boots.

They hunkered down around one stone that stuck out of the hill.

No heroes in costume, no Mortari, no light, no help.

“Ready,” Ed said.

They got into position, guns pointed in the direction of the sound.

“Fire,” Ed said.

There was a hesitation after the word, as if the tried and true, universal ‘ready, aim, fire’ that had been imprinted in the collective consciousness had been broken, and that in itself created the doubt.

At least, that was what it felt like to Gary Nieves.  The fact he might be shooting at someone was lost in the moment, because he couldn’t see them, and he couldn’t hear them.  They were disembodied and if he straddled any fence at all, for all that he’d lived a mostly nonviolent life, the outrage he felt put him firmly in the universe where he pulled the trigger.

The guns were so loud- louder even than the semiautomatic ones that fired eight or more bullets in a single violent ‘splaaat’ sound.  His jaw clenched so hard that his temples hurt.

Then, fumbling, he worked to reload.

The next wave of semiautomatic fire was directed at them, hitting the rock they were using for cover.

Gary slid down to the ground, crawling around the rock.  Peeking around the corner at the very base of the rock, he took aim as best he could in the near-pitch darkness, and he fired.

The shot provided a hint of illumination.  There was a figure striding toward them- a man in a knit mask with no holes for eyes or mouth.  By his posture, he didn’t seem to care that people behind him were shooting past him to try to hit Gary’s group.

Others saw, and they opened fire.

The man darted around, jumping a half-foot to the right, a foot to the left, a step back, two steps forward.  Teleportation or something like it.  No bullets landed because he was relocated in the instant before anything -friend or foe- could hit him.

He hopped up onto the rock, boots scuffing, drawing a knife from his belt.

No, Gary thought.

“Run!” he barked out the word.

Half the group, Gary included, ran.

The other half tried to fight, with ‘try’ being the fundamental idea at play.  Gary’s third rifle shot was aimed at the man in costume.

The first attack on the man’s part missed, because he relocated mid-swing, avoiding a bullet.  He swung back the other direction, however, then back again, almost careless in how he swung back and forth.  Ed’s friend Shane died.  Ed kicked out- hit only air as the man relocated to a spot just to the left.  A knife plunged into Ed’s chest.

Gary fumbled to reload, dropping his ammo.  They’d left their cover, and they were still under fire.  Soon was hit in the midsection and sat down hard, falling back because they were on a slope.  Even in the dark, the whites of his eyes were visible.

Gary found more ammunition, slotting it into the side of the rifle.

The man with the knife had three bodies near him, now, and the dark silhouette on a dark background was fixating his attention on a fourth person, who was trying to run for it.  That person -another of Gary’s volunteers- wasn’t nearly so camouflaged in the dark.  His blue shirt stood out in the gloom.

The knife-wielding parahuman didn’t get his hands on that person- but only because the people with the semiautomatics landed a killing blow before he could get there.

Gary ran.

A loud noise and an intense gust following the movement of aircraft bowled him over.  He skidded on the slope below him.

A giant robot, and not the one with the eel inside.

Anyone would have recognized this kind of design.  Sleek, green with gold trim, with enough lights on it that it seemed to glow.  The craft landed a short distance from where the shooters had been.

The flashes as the machine attacked were brilliant, though Gary wasn’t in a position to see what had caused it.

The parahuman who nobody could touch was approaching Gary’s group.  A sharp whistle from behind gave it pause.

A man in green scale armor with gold trim, a faint beard on his chin, a spear in hand.  He swung the spear, and the head detached, swinging like a flail with what had to be a thirty foot cord or wire.

The parahuman disappeared, reappearing at a point close to the base of the hill.  Just out of reach of the flail.

The man in green armor swung the flail again, but this time the head came loose.  It disappeared into the darkness.

An explosion ripped through an area at the foot of the hill.  The spear’s head had detonated- and the parahuman stood at the periphery of the explosion.  His arm went up to his nose and mouth.

“You can’t touch him!” Gary shouted.  “He killed three people!”

“More than three,” the man in green and gold armor said.  He held his spear-shaft like one might hold a rifle.  It bucked like it had fired something, but it was silent, and there was no light nor smoke.

Another explosion, but this was more of a firecracker, detonating before it made impact with the parahuman’s head.

“There,” the man in green said.  “Who can give medical attention?”

Gary couldn’t.  One of the people Ed had conscripted could.  He went to the man in green armor’s side.

The parahuman at the base of the hill was coughing violently, now at his knees.  Gas.

The situation was resolving.  The gunfire had ceased with the arrival of the big craft.  Other capes were down in the town below, including the giant robot with the eel in it.  They weren’t- he refused to let them be important.  Gary could only see the carnage, the massive loss of life.  People who had come here hoping for better.  They hadn’t even had a chance.

How unjust a thing was that?  How galling?  They’d had no part in Gold Morning.  They’d had no part in the waits or the delays, the plodding efforts to move people through when people were getting more sick or more desperate every day.  By whim and the movements of greater players, they had lost their lives.

He dropped the gun.  It wasn’t needed, and it wasn’t him.  He wasn’t the kind of person who could give medical care.

He made his way down the hill and toward the station, where the road emerged from the portal and concrete walls with a few towers for vantage points helped to secure the area.  The people within guided people coming through to other locations.  The lights of Dragon’s craft illuminated much of the area.

People were in a daze, as they tentatively emerged from the shelter of the tents and the surrounding crates.  They stared around them at the bodies.  The trucks had taken enough gunfire that tires had popped and small things like door handles and side-view mirrors had broken away.

“If you’re able bodied, try to find the wounded among the dead,” he called out.  “We need clean water, get it boiling so it’s sterile, for the wounded.  Jim, use the coffee machine with no coffee grinds- it handles large quantities.”

Jim got moving.

“Kath- blankets, we have rescue blankets in one of the totes.  Recruit help, see if you can find them.  They might be under other crates.  Lay the ones we aren’t using for people on the ground.  Dominic, you-”

He stopped as he saw Heather.

He walked around her body, the words failing him.

So many eyes were watching him, looking to him for leadership.  They saw him crack a little in the moment.  He’d let them.  He clenched his fist, like he was grasping something in front of him, then let it fall.  He thought he might cry, but he stopped himself from going that far.

So many.

“What do I do?” Dominic asked.  The poor fucking kid, he was only sixteen, and he was trying to hold it together and help.

It helped Gary to pull himself together.  “Radio.  Let other places know what happened.  Uh- we’re going to need people for-”

So many.  Attacked and shot for no clear purpose.  It caught him off guard.

The ground rumbled as the giant robot landed nearby.  Mechanical arms reached out to the nearby power poles, and the power came back on.  It wasn’t a good thing, when it brought the losses into sharp relief.

Dragon and Defiant emerged from the craft.

“I’m Dragon, that’s Defiant, and that’s my ship.  We can take wounded in her,” Dragon said.

People tentatively drew nearer to the two heroes and their giant robot.

“It was an act of war,” Defiant said.  “More brazen than the other recent attacks.  They’ve been testing the waters, going after areas they see as vulnerable.”

There was a pause.

“I’m so sorry for your losses,” Defiant said.

“You’re in charge here, Gary?” Dragon asked.

She knew his name?

“You were a candidate for mayor,” she explained.

“I’m-” he started.  His voice was small.

That was the thing.  He wanted to show emotion but he couldn’t show that emotion, because he would break down.

“Ari was in charge,” he said.  “From Mortari.”

“Ari Burke, I assume?” she asked.  He nodded.

She knew the names so easily.  His.  Ari’s.

“Ari’s dead,” she said, her head turned.  “Does that put you in charge?”

“I-” he started.  He shook his head slightly.  “I guess.”

“Let us know if you need anything.  Until we get other instructions, we’re going to tend to the wounded and shuttle them to hospitals.  We’ll take routes that let us keep an eye out for trouble.  When the refugees start coming through again, we’ll take some with us, if they’re willing to settle a location a little further afield.  Jeanne Wynn already signed off on it.”

There it was.  The magical solutions.  Getting to be a hero.  Jeanne Wynn was a parahuman, he was ninety-five percent sure, and she got her own magical solutions.

There was no acid taste in Gary’s mouth as he digested that.  It had been a long, long time since he’d felt this bitter about something and his body hadn’t conjured up that strange sensation.

It felt too far away, when the here and the now were in such brutal, bloody relief.

“This is horrible,” Dragon said.  “Seriously, anything we can do to help, let us know.  We’re putting ourselves on the line by showing our faces, but I don’t think we can conscience holding back any longer.  We can help with this.”

“Help?” Gary asked.  “Why- I mean, if you want to help, let me ask you.  Why did this happen?”

“Greed and wrath,” Defiant said.  “People want this world and the resources it has, everything it’s connected to, and the possibilities it offers.  They’re willing to hurt others to get what they want.”

Gary shook his head.  “It’s you.”

Defiant looked confused, but Dragon said, “I don’t think that’s especially fair, Gary.  Heroes as a whole are doing their best.  Defiant and I haven’t been showing our faces, but we come with potential solutions to key problems.  Give us a chance.”

“Parahumans took the world from us,” Gary said.  “They took the sky.  Our greatest hero turned out to be the greatest monster, and we don’t get any answers about why.  Haven’t we been giving you chances from the beginning?  How much worse do things have to get?”

He’d barely remembered that he had people watching.  Like always, people in costume drew intense focus, and so his debate was drawing more attention than an argument already would.

It surprised him that the people were nodding along as he talked.

“We’re doing the best we can, just like any of you,” Defiant said.

“I think we’re owed better than this,” Gary said.  He gestured.  Emotion seeped into his voice, unwanted.  “This- this isn’t good.  I was a candidate for mayor.  I heard things, saw the photos and video.  There are things out there that, sure they aren’t as strong as Endbringers, but we’re fighting them with a fraction of the number.  There are worse things out there.  Tinker devices gone haywire.  Sleeper.  Monsters who look like men and women.  And now war?”

There were murmurs of agreement.

“Perfect is the enemy of good, Gary,” Dragon said.

“The ‘good’ guys ran!  Where were the Shepherds!?”

Again, he had to remind himself of where he was, but he did so too late, here.  The people here weren’t necessarily his.  Twenty to thirty percent of the people at this station were people he’d recruited or people who worked alongside him.  Ostensibly, they were largely in support of recolonizing Earth B.  But the Shepherds had linked their group to the ‘go back to better’ cause, and that ran contrary to something fundamental in Gary’s view of the situation.  They hadn’t earned that publicity, only rode the wave of popularity as the movement found traction.

To speak against them was to potentially lose his own people.

His own people drowned out Dragon’s initial response, joining their voices and growing outrage  to Gary’s.  Some weren’t as loud as the others, but all the same, it surprised him.

“They were stopping a third group,” Dragon said.  “They left discreetly when they got word that there were trespassers.  We didn’t think it would be that bad.  The flanking party was unexpected.”

“You got it wrong,” he said.  “We put our trust in you when you come to places like this, but I’ve been here for a week and the Shepherds have barely said a word to me.  They barely communicated with Ari.  They left tonight and I had to send someone after them to try and open channels of communication.  I didn’t get a chance, and now dozens are dead.”

“That could be how they operate, let’s not get carried away,” Defiant said.

“No,” Gary said.  His voice was firmer.  “No.”

“I talked to them,” Dragon said.  “They didn’t want to tip anyone off that something was wrong.  They thought they would deal with this discreetly.”

“People died!  A- a horrendous amount of people died!” Gary Nieves shouted.  At ‘horrendous’, his voice cracked like a teenager’s.  He’d been a politician, a businessman before that.  Had anyone laughed, he wouldn’t have blamed them.  He might have stomped off.  But there was only silence.  When he turned to look, people gave him encouraging nods.  He went on, “In Gold Morning.  Broken triggers.  The monsters you try to keep secret from us.  Here.”

“They got it wrong.  We’re only human, Gary.  We’re trying our best.”

“No.  You make yourselves out to be more than human.  You have more, you put on costumes and you dress yourselves up, but you know… the Shepherds not talking to any of us and going it alone isn’t an isolated incident.”

“Defiant and I had our reasons.  If you’d sit down and talk to us, I could tell you about our ongoing projects, and how we can start making great strides.”

“I don’t want your answers,” Gary Nieves said.  “Your solutions- if they worked, if they properly worked for us, then we’d be leap years ahead of the other worlds.  Instead?  When the power went out and people flocked to the light of the monitors and flashlights, I was left imagining that we were primitives gathered around the light of a fire.  That’s where we are.”

“You exaggerate,” Defiant said.  Dragon laid a hand on the man’s arm.

“I want to open a dialogue,” Dragon said.  “But there are wounded.”

Gary looked at the wounded who were being tended by the paramedics.  People that had been on site already, ready for refugees to arrive, and people from nearby areas, who were starting to filter in.

Many were paying a wary eye to Gary and his stand-off with Dragon.

“It’s not where we are overall, but it’s where we were that moment.  You want to open a dialogue, but- you weren’t here.  The Shepherds weren’t here.  In my limited interactions with parahumans, I keep on noticing- over and over again, even the good ones, we’ll hear you say that you forget our names, or we all sort of ‘blend into each other’.  Again and again.  There’s a disconnect, where we don’t even rate.”

“I remembered your name, Gary,” Dragon said.

Gary shrugged.  He looked around at the fallen, at the wounded- the critically wounded were already being taken care of.

“The power may go out when I disconnect to take people to the hospital,” Dragon spoke, her voice carrying.

“Flashlights,” Gary called out, giving the orders.  “Lanterns, same as before.  Don’t conserve battery.”

Back to work, to the impossible numbers, and the hills with peaks that seemed to climb out of reach as he ascended.

But different, now.  People avoided the Shepherds.  They cleaved closer to him.  People had felt lost, confused, scared, and his explanation had been an easy one to accept.  It made sense, for one thing, and it spoke to justifiable fears that every single person harbored even before the first and best of the parahumans had wiped out landmasses and extinguished a good portion of the population.

They were angry, and the snippets of conversation where people voiced their anger were audible here and there.  He could have stopped them and he didn’t.  In the wake of this tragedy, of so many hurt and killed, they needed someone to blame and this was an instance of blame that had been a long time coming.

Dragon’s ship disconnected from the local grid, and Gary Nieves and his people were left in darkness.

From the safety of darkness, someone threw something in the direction of the Shepherds.  The girl in the moon costume raised a hand, and stopped the thrown object in the air.

He could have said something to the thrower, but he didn’t.

Silence became murmurings and before the murmurings became a roar, the Shepherds left for another patrol of the area.  They didn’t return to the main camp.

Gary tried not to begrudge people for the lines, especially when it was an effect of population saturation in small areas, but he hadn’t eaten earlier, and the services hadn’t had food.  Not with people going lean for the coming winter.

He stood among people in clothes with cement on the pants leg or paint on the edge of the sleeve.  Mud-caked boots flowed seamlessly into mud-caked pants, in places.  He, in turn, wore a black suit, black tie, and a somber expression.

“Mr. Nieves?”

The person asking was narrow, Asian, with a very pointed chin and short hair.  He wore a red tie with a gray shirt.

“Can I help you?”

“Question is more along the lines of whether I can help you,” the man said.  “I heard some of what you said to Dragon, three days ago.”

It was hard to think about.  Images of blood and bodies weighed heavy on his mind.  He closed his eyes before fixing his focus on the food behind the glass displays.

“Were you there?” he asked, to maintain the conversation.

“No.  Word of what you said reached me secondhand.  Could I buy you lunch?  I’d like to talk about things.”

“Ah,” Gary said.  “I’ve just come from a funeral.  My second today.  She was a friend.  I’d like some peace and quiet to grieve.”

“Of course.  Could I give you my card, so you can call me at your convenience?”

Gary nodded.

The man was quick to present a card.  Erwin Daeyoung.  The English writing of the name was mirrored by what he presumed was the Korean translation.  Mediation and Public Relations.  The remainder of the card was in fine gold script- Korean letters to go with a Korean name.

He reached the end of the line, paid, and then waited for his food.  He tried to think of what he could do for Heather, and for the others.  His thoughts went in circles as he considered gestures, worried about whether the gestures would flop – donation drives were difficult when everyone anticipated a difficult winter.  He thought of statues and symbols and nothing fit.  Heather had always been a doer, not someone who put emphasis on things.  Ed had been practical, and would have said something about any statue.  The refugees who’d never gotten their second chance, because they so often didn’t matter- how did he even pay respect to that?

He was pissed, and he couldn’t even express it.  He’d tried to write two articles before abandoning them, and there were no people to speak to that understood things quite like Heather had.

In one corner of the cheap little diner, a television showed Jeanne Wynn addressing the city.

Gary’s finger tapped against his leg.  The card was within his pocket.

Looking back, he saw the man in line, and signaled him.

“My lunch is already paid for,” he said, “But if you want to talk, you can sit with me.  My thoughts aren’t where they should be.”

“I don’t blame you.  These are confusing times.  I’ll join you as soon as I have my meal.”

He sat, setting his sandwich and fries down on the table, the card turned over in his hand while he waited.

Erwin sat across from him.

“You’re a mediator?  And PR.”

“Are you a politician, Gary Nieves?” Erwin asked.

“No, not anymore,” Gary said.

“Then no, I’m not a mediator or a PR person.  Not anymore.  Despite that, I could be said to resemble one, because I have the skills.  Maybe the same is true for you.”

“Maybe.  It’s still cryptic.”

“You’re right.  There are too many secrets,” Erwin said.  “That’s why I started paying attention to you.  You’re honest.  You’ve had the position and opportunities to see things clearly.  I think you and I, we’re similar in where we stand and how we feel.”

“How is that?”

“Angry,” Erwin said.  “Lost.  But you tapped into something as you talked to Dragon and people were willing to listen.  I can tell you what you need to know.  I can provide some direction, even make some radical suggestions.  We could use that anger and loss, the righteous indignation, along with the very clear view of where we currently stand.  Bronze age barbarism and stone age huddling around fires for warmth.”

“Given my background, I have something of a talent for spotting bullshit,” Gary said.

“I’m genuine.”

“You’re burying the idea of ‘radical suggestions’ in between promises and hope.”

Erwin nodded slowly.  He drew his phone from his pocket, and searched for a minute, nibbling on his sandwich as he went.  He turned it around and pushed it forward.  As his hand left the phone, he pointed.

Gary looked.

Jeanne Wynn was still on the television.

On the phone-

A woman in costume.

“Stop me if this sounds familiar.  A supervillain by the name of Citrine worked under a mastermind by the name of Accord, who was on multiple lists but skirted prosecution because he was very clever and very careful.”

Gary nodded.  He’d suspected, but…

His lips pressed together.

“Accord wrote booklets.  Booklets spelled out things like city planning, economy, efficient feeding of the many, logistics, environment.”

“This sounds familiar,” Gary said, saying the words slowly, as if he were trying them on and then deciding to keep them.  “I’ve seen these booklets.”

“As have I,” Erwin said.

“From what I’ve read, thinker plans go sour.  Things that parahumans create fall to pieces, as a rule.  They create problems, first and foremost.”

“Is that your plan then?  Do you wait until disaster strikes Jeanne Wynn, then swoop in to make your next bid at leadership?”

“I don’t know.  I may retire.  There are enough things to do.  I keep it in mind as a possibility.”

“What if I told you it wasn’t possible?” Erwin asked.

“Keeping it in mind?”

“For disaster to strike.  What if I told you that Accord’s plans will work?  Through texts he wrote and Jeanne Wynn’s slavish adherence to the terms of those texts, he will turn things around with a minimum of casualties.  People will be fed as well as you could hope.  We’ll be able to defend ourselves, get set up in terms of shelter, and things will be good.”

“Isn’t that positive?”

“She’ll hold her seat.  It would be madness to remove her from it if she was doing so well, which she will.  So she’ll continue forward.  There should be no disasters at all, beyond unavoidable external events, and she’ll handle them with aplomb.”

“Like the event earlier this week?”

“The handling of it was technically correct.  Resources were moved, people hired and fired, and mercenaries tapped as an external resource.  People higher up in government are applauding her.  People on the ground feel safer.”

“Then the threat is… she does too well?”

“Government by parahumans.  Once established, it’s hard to shake.  There will be no opportunity.  No mis-steps, no character weakness.  The biggest skeleton in the closet is her past.”

Erwin picked up his phone.  He fiddled for a moment, then set it down.

Gary looked.  It was Sierra Kiley, one of the other past contenders for the mayorship.  She too had stepped down.  In the picture, she stood talking with the leader of the Undersiders and Citrine- Jeanne Wynn.

Gary nodded.  “The game was rigged.”

“It so often is.  But being down doesn’t mean you’re out.  I looked for you and approached you because I think I have a plan.  You would mobilize on the ground and swiftly rise to power.”

“You want me to use the dissent against parahumans?”

“That’s a sliver of it,” Erwin said.  “I think you can get enough people behind you that they can’t ignore you.  That would be your first step, and you’re already on your way.”

“What’s the last step?  What’s your end goal?”

“That is a very complicated question, and it depends on a lot in coming weeks,” Erwin said.  “But… we go back to what I said about the radical.

Gary frowned.

“Think, Gary.  What do these other Earths want?  Why do they threaten war and pick at our weaknesses with increasing viciousness?  They want the territory.  A world of resources, and a network of portals.”

“And?”

“We give it to them.  We promise leadership without parahumans in charge, stacking the deck.  We turn to an established government we’re on friendly terms with and we invite them in.  We become a vassal state.”

“Who are you thinking of?” Gary asked.

“Nobody.  That would be a decision for you to make without my input.  If I told you one or the other, you would think I’m working on their behalf.  There are options.  It’s an idea that takes some getting used to, but if you’re thinking you’d like to go home… perhaps a middle-ground solution would be to open communications and borders with a world that has hints of our old amenities and culture.”

It was an idea that took some getting used to.

It was ominous, uncomfortable.

He looked at the television.

The idea of Mortari failing to see the Megalopolis through the winter was terrifying.  The people that would die, the desperation.

The idea of Mortari and Jeanne Wynn succeeding like Erwin had described… doubly terrifying.

The notion of banding together with another Earth was tempting, if it meant a steady supply of food in the winter.  More people that could fight off attacks like the horrendous one earlier.

“I can see the beginning.  I could perhaps see the end,” Gary said.  “What would fill the gap?”

“For that, you need ammunition in the chamber,” Erwin said.  The man smiled.  “I have a list.”

He picked up his phone.  He found a page and showed it to Gary.

“A list of people with stories to tell.  Horror stories about parahumans.  Stories that stoke anger.  You would pick the right stories at the right time to hand over to the press, see if they bite.  You use these narratives to build something.”

Stories about people in positions on teams.  Stories about the monsters.  Stories about those who had re-engineered their identities.

“You’ve been keeping this up to date,” Gary observed.

The most recent was from four days prior.  A family, it looked like.  Julien and Irene Martin.

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153 thoughts on “Torch – Interlude 7.y”

  1. There is roughly a 110% chance this is being orchestrated by the most manipulative and controlling parahumans of them all. Welcome to team Teacher-Caldron, Gary.

    1. Note how Gary doesn’t even TRY to consider Erwin may be a cape himself or working for one from a faction opposed to the Ambassadors or Undersiders.

      1. The problem with paranoia is it’s exploitable. Garry is angry at parahumans and works of the assumption they’re no longer human, and it forms some of the basis of his worldview.

        Erwin is saying the things he wants people to say, validating what he wants to hear, and giving him ammunition to lead into and fuel his paranoia, so Gary isn’t suspecting him at all. He doesn’t have a costume, so he must be a good person, right? the fact he’s almost barefaced an agent for earth c (the same people who, presumably from info we’ve been given, where the ones behind the raid) is buried because he wants to see the supers as villains and see himself as someone keeping order

        and all the supers are totally the same, so they’d only work with each other right, and never side with a good, proper, “normal” person against other supers, right? so, yeah, this is gonna bit garry and the world in the ass

        1. Now when he eventually finds out he’s been played and realizes how many his actions have killed will Gary be horrified? Or will he simply be too blind to realize he’s a monster now as well?

      1. Capes confimed alive upate, Dragon and Defiant. interesting that she said, ‘we’re only human.”

        Leader of the Undersiders. Unidentified. so is it a recent photo with Tattletale there or an old one with Skitter in the frame?

        Addendum. The Undersiders will never be the same force they were when they had Skitter, Regent and Grue. The iteration with Tattletale as leader may yet fall to a membership of four.

        And that last line of this chapter? Oh, crap.

        I hope D@D adopt kenzie….

          1. Good point, though, post Taylor’s defection, they did last for two years, so this iteration has pretty much lasted as logn as the orignal four. And two of the originals are still here.

            Hmm and the sister of aone of the others… and aidens whoses shard budded from skitters…

            Okay, sooo not going to understimate them. Honestly the only thig limiting them is tat pesky conscient Tattletael sees to have developed; the oen that seems to have her trying to honour what the best qualities in missing her friend wanted.

            I suppose Victoria could always end up joining.This is wormverse, stranger thigns have happend, like Defiant developing social skills.

  2. So he’s going to use Kenzie’s abuse and her hamhanded attempt at trying to force her parents to reform to score political points? That asshole.

    1. I feel like this is likely to backfire hard because, like…Kenzie has extensive visual documentation of severe physical abuse from her parents. There’s “these people are victims” and then there’s “these people beat their daughter until she snapped.”

      I wonder if that’s intentional? Build up Gary’s anti-cape movement, then undercut them with something else to make way for someone else to take over.

      1. Unfortunately the visual documentation is useless. Only a Tinker could even possibly verify its authenticity, so it won’t persuade anyone who already distrusts parahumans. It’d matter in a court of law if Dragon testified it showed no signs of tampering, but to the court of public opinion it’s less persuasive than verbal testimony.

        It could backfire if someone gets the physical court records from Bet when they got convicted, but odds are good they’re in a sea of magma.

        1. One suspects that at least some of the authorities on the case are still around, and there’s no way they would forget about Kanzi Martin. Mrs. Johnson? Mrs. Yaris? Even Anton or Keith might step forward if it appeared Kenzie was being railroaded for her response to unconscionable parental abuse. This all happened fairly recently, and the public would probably trust any of those people more than Dragon.

        2. Anyone truly stuck in their ways? No.

          But merely being accused of child abuse will make most think twice. Video evidence, even with the chance of it being fake, will cast even more doubt.

        3. I don’t really see what you mean. Why would the public mistrust video footage? Or why would a court of law? If there was some recent scandal over tinker-manufactured evidence, I’ve missed it. Kenzie does that sort of thing all the time, and there are a number of people who know she’s capable of it, but she’s not really a public figure, and anyone looking for evidence of her faking even ordinary photographs would likewise need to dredge up old records from her Earth Bet pedophilia cases.

          When an average person sees a low-res post-apoc Youtube video, their first instinct is going to be to unconditionally believe it. Even if they know, in principle, that the external world they experience might be naught but the lies and deceptions of some evil demon.

          1. Well, she did make that fake footage of Damsel Vs. BoB. A copy might show up (Kenzie trying to help, someone stealing the footage, etc. etc.) and that would cast a doubt over all other footage she has….

          2. @Butagami, Yeah, but only one person saw that video, and she’s Ashley’s lawyer. She probably has some incentive not to screw over Ashley’s teammates, and she only has Ashley’s word it even was fake. Kenzie does that kind of thing, all the time, but as long as no one’s seen her stuff, it can’t really be used against her.

            And sure, if someone stole all her stuff, they could use any old diary holo to prove she can fake stuff like that, but robbing a tinker is not an easy task. It’d need personal attention from someone like Contessa or Teacher to disable all the tracking devices and remote monitoring capabilities, and Kenzie’s tinker quirk is that all her best stuff is difficult to move. There have got to be easier targets.

      2. Kenzie is also an expert at doctoring images. My guess is that they would declare any video proof to be invalid because she could have faked it. Just like how Canary couldn’t do anything to defend herself in court because people argued about the risks she “could” cause. And some of those risks people worried about weren’t even related to her known power but to any power, she could possibly have kept quiet!

        Kenzie’s footage would probably be accepted if she went to court right now, because the people in charge would know there are nuances when it comes to parahumans and they would believe the testimonies of other parahumans… but if they launch a propaganda campaign to stokes the fires of the anti-cape sentiment things could get worse fast. Basically, any proof or explanation coming from parahumans could be dismissed, with people saying that capes are protecting their own and doctoring evidence.

        1. Which they are and have already been doing, with a dash of “Secretly a Simurgh victim” on the side.

      3. Also, abuse if Kenzie doesn’t make her abuse bof her parents ok.

        It’s like how people abused as children often grow up to abuse their own children.

        Well, Kenzie’s powers means she doesn’t have to wait to grow up and can just abuse her parents.

        1. Which is a *whole lot different* than abusing innocent kids. They’re hardly comparable at all IMO

  3. I was guessing from a few paragraphs in that this will be the guy’s trigger event, especially when the fight went down… but this seems to be going in an even more interesting direction.

  4. Aaaand Kenzie getting unmasked in 3… 2… 1…

    This was a blood-chilling tale of proper heroes getting screwed over because there’s too many ‘heroes’ running around to begin with.

    It’s all gonna come down to politics in the end, right?

    (Also, did Ratcatcher make it out okay?)

  5. ohhhhh boy, that last line. this is definitely…. not good. (its fantastic to see dragon and defiant again, though.)

    1. Eh, I think we might be getting too focused on Teach. He was only ever a bit player in Worm. His power is interesting, and lends itself to long-term shard-assisted plans, but as a human being he has no vision. As before, he’ll do something dumb but ultimately pointless, get himself in somebody’s crosshairs, and then he won’t be an issue anymore. The only reason we’re focused on him is that he is personally repulsive enough to have inspired the enmity of the Undersiders.

      The unknown threats seem more interesting. Cheit is probably the most obvious patron of Erwin Daeyoung, but it could be another world or another party in this world running a misdirection. It wouldn’t surprise me if he were linked to Lung somehow, or he could be part of the group behind the portal attack.

      1. I don’t know. The Teacher’s epilogue chapter really made it seem like he had big things in store and Both nu-Cauldron and the Undersiders have mentioned him.

      2. Considering we just found out that the war with Earth C is a distraction, even if he is from Cheit, that doesn’t mean that Teacher isn’t behind it.
        Teacher isn’t really a bit player, and citrine has been trying to work against him, so it would make sense that he would be trying to get her out of power.

      3. I don’t really think anyone except Teacher and the factions who this is a direct threat to have the logistical capacity to pull this off. Maybe Goddess, but I kinda get the impression from what we know of her that her plan for conquering Gimel would be 1. Show up with an army and demand their submission. 2. Receive their submission.

        The perpetrators need to have the capacity to infiltrate Gimel’s remaining government, place a large armed force with multiple parahumans on Bet, and be aligned with or influencing at least one advanced alternate Earth. That implies they possess the capacity to create portals and sufficient information to locate Bet and establish portals to it, which would tend to rule out alternate worlds unless aided by a significant Gimel faction.

    2. this, honestly, feels a lot more like the folks of earth c than Teacher

      the mentions of vassal states, someone getting approached for info and to stoke anti-hero sentiment almost immediately after a military raid by the earth that they’re (technically) at war with who is suggesting allying with said earth to capitalize on the sentiment. it all feels staged and manipulated, but it doesn’t feel Teacher

      Worm told us he’s got a rep of being very, very, undenialy noticeable for his plans. he’s smart and scary, and he’s subtle until the execution, but he goes for the major plays that can’t be associated with everyone else. this feels too subtle for that.

      1. This could be part of a major play. When the execution occurs, all the pawns are obvious. But this plan isn’t near execution yet, it’s only just starting. I think it’s Teacher, although the Korean is an interesting touch, as a language with no clear relationships to any other language. I wonder if that’s going to be a clue later on?

  6. yay Dragon and Defiant!
    That is defiinitely the only thing that happened in this chapter nothing to see here moving on if I don’t acknowledge it it doesn’t exist!

  7. Oh my god, well, there’s Dragon, then, there’s this mysterious Jack Slash clone who wants to kill Kenzie… JESUS…

    1. Not acomofrtign thought when you consider that the orignal is still alive and that it’s been touted that heroes have been working to free Dauntless and others caught in time traps. if heos can be released, then some sociopath might try and release the original Jack.

      1. It’s not Jack, he has no special advantage over non-capes. (I mean, aside from that visible power we didn’t see here.) Could be a Harbinger clone.

        1. Doesn’t look like it; he seems to be a reactive teleporter rather than able to anticipate attacks. I don’t think it’s anyone we know; all the capes I can remember teleporting away from attacks had additional capabilities they’d have used.

          1. I meant that the orignal Jack could still possibly be retrievedby an idiot and weaponised by simply beign set free. The first casualty would likely be the ‘rescuer’

  8. A big problem here is that the Parahumans have left themselves far too open towards this.
    Too many secrets, too many lies, too little cooperation, too little coordination, most of them don’t even pretend to care what the muggles think, etc.

    1. Well, it all boils down to the very nature of the beast.
      Humans are relatively weak creatures who found out living in society gave them better odds than if they remained on their own. Anything different enough was deemed a threat to the hegemony of the society and that us-vs-them mindset got ingrained deep in our interactions, with consequences still lasting to this day.

      Now with that in mind, consider the biggest secret is “Parahumans are essentially people affected by an extraterrestrial brain parasite with unexplainable (for our technological level) consequences.”
      Put that way (and of course someone would, if everyone knew), noone in their right mind would allow parahumans to do anything. They would all be quarantined, examined, dissected for science in some places, because that’s how humanity deals against unknown threats of potentially world-wide scale against them.
      Then some of the more nasty-powered victims would eventually snap under that pressure and kill a few million people on their own, causing others to lash out in a similar fashion, essentially wiping humanity’s resistance and forcing some kind of tyranny on the survivors so everyone lives in relative peace… with 5~10% of today’s population.

      Clearly parahumans do not want this to happen, and keeping the ultimate answer hidden caused most if not all the other secrets. Contessa only wanted to help every dimension against Scion, but the path to victory was Cauldron and their rule from the shadows.
      This situation exists by design and there’s no clean way out. Reveal the secrets, and anti-parahuman sentiment explodes, ending up with the result above (submit to voluntary segregation/”treatment”, hide your nature as long as possible, or go out with a bang). Increase cooperation and the secrets won’t last long either, with similar outcomes.
      It’s not that paras don’t care about muggles, it’s that the situation is hard enough to balance without bringing them in the mess, and they cannot be trusted to even know about it.

      This theme is a staple of all the works depicting such an internal split in humankind. It’s one of the terrible philosophical questions where we have no practical answers that work out for everyone, and we hope it will remain philosophical because we don’t want that blood on our hands.
      At least I sure don’t.

      1. Contessa could fix this. Contessa could fix every single problem.

        Her shard couldn’t give an I win to defeat Scion because it was so explicitly disabled against him.

        But he’s dead now.

        Give me the path to victory to have food for the winter, stable government, and safety from other Earth’s.

        It would happen. Her non Scion goals literally cannot be thwarted.

        1. Path To Victory only provides steps to achieve a goal. It can’t help her with anything she lacks the physical capacity to do and is ineffective against Endbringers and at least some Trump powers.

      2. There’s also a trap there, thinking it’s just the brain parasite that’s the problem. Because a lot of trigger events involve good old humans acting inhumanly. Sophia may have been a Parahuman. But Emma wasn’t when she turned on her former best friend and shoved them in a locker after doing their damndest to destroy them. The ABB members who attacked Emma weren’t parahumans. If it’s canon, Jack’s parents weren’t parahumans when they kept him in a bomb shelter. The Martins aren’t parahumans. The entities were attracted to Earth because of how well it’d fit their needs, and human shittiness certainly can help feed that sweet, sweet conflict they are looking for.

  9. Someone probably should in fact do something about the supervillains running for office. Like I get that the heroes don’t want to interfere with the elections, but Citrine taking over the world isn’t a great thing. Gary might have been able to help with that if he wasn’t in the process of selling out to another Earth and starting lynch mobs.

    I wonder if the attackers were a Gimel-based faction trying to stir up support for their own catspaws or Cheit making a move? They don’t have a lot of parahumans so wasting one on a terror attack without strategic value seems odd.

  10. I’m liking Gary, he reminds me a lot of Piggot. I hope those two meet at some point, cause I really think they’d get on like a house on fire. I can’t shake the feeling that this Vassal state plan is going to end badly. Capes are already on thin ice when it comes to public opinion and combatting Accord’s mostly effective plans seems like a recipe for disaster.

    If the story of the Martins was four days after the end of this chapter, which is three days after the start, would that mean this interlude is set a day after the last? That probably implies things went seriously wrong after Kenzie told her story to Victoria and word got out about Kenzie blackmailing her parents, right?

    1. Yeah I’m thinking things went “seriously wrong” for Irene and Julien… after all it would be difficult to drum up much outrage for those two if they were just on camera complaining that their daughter, whom the state had taken away five years ago, had returned to the home only to run away again. If they had been ripped limb from limb by the Wretch, while seated at the supper table in their home with plates full of poisoned food, on the other hand…

  11. Parahumans get more powerful the more experience they get, so it could have been a low-risk (well… without Dragon, it would have been) training mission. And a thinker/mover whose precognition is linked to his teleportation is usually pretty survivable.

    He could have simply been a mercenary, hired to do the job. Or it could have been Teacher, probing defences for his own weird plots. Or even a Fallen who had converted to Cheitism, since all we know of their religion is it’s Abrahamic, has apocalyptic sects, and doesn’t believe in birth control.

  12. In a way this seems slimy, largely since we’re assuming the PR guy works for Teacher, but it’s hard to shake the basic argument there. We already have one world dominated by a single Parahuman and I guess Numbers + Citrine could very easily be the next Goddess.

    It would be interesting if this guy was part of a Shin-based anti-Goddess movement, rather than part of Teacher’s Cauldron (or Citrine’s Cauldron). Sure, it’s probably all a Teacher plot, but wouldn’t we all be pleasantly surprised and intrigued if this really was a genuine effort to avoid another Parahumanocracy?

    1. Well, yeah, Gary’s right. He was right in his last intermission. The problem is, as it was then, that he doesn’t really have any answers that don’t involve superpowers. None exist. Even if he can oust Citrine and seize control of Megalopolis, all that accomplishes is that he can prevent Accord’s plots from saving humanity. The thinker masterminds vying for world domination are competent, in a way that an unpowered human could never be, and preventing them from taking over means losing those abilities.

      Besides, it’s not like he can get rid of the capes, anyway. They don’t strictly speaking NEED public support. That’s what the masks are for.

  13. Gary is a truly good man. Gary is also a fucking idiot.

    It’s bittersweet to see D&D. I was hoping, in a naive fashion, that they had escaped the page and were happy ever after.

    Also, parahumans with bullet defences > parahumans without bullet defences. If you’re not bulletproof by power, get a bulletproof bodysuit, Jesus.

    1. “Gary is a truly good man. Gary is also a fucking idiot.”
      That seems about right. He also seems to be great at saying how you are doing it wrong, but really no good at saying how to do it right.

      1. That’s pretty much Citrine’s assessment as well (from 5.x):

        “He was slow to provide workable solutions and quick to criticize. In another era, he might have been a politician who rose up by being an effective critic of the incumbent. In this era, there was no incumbent.”

  14. I really like Gary in this story. It feels like a lot of the characters take the non capes feelings for granted and it’s nice to get this perspective on things. I hope he is at least a moderating force for the more extreme elements in this rising anti-cape movement.

  15. Regarding there being twenty-two million still on Bet, I wonder if that’s just North America? One of the odd things about Ward has been the near-total lack of any real info on what the rest of the world is up to. The CUI have their own world, there were portals to Gimel on five continents…yet everyone talks as if the very American Megalopolis is the last bastion of Bet’s civilization.

    1. I think Europe has a world, but I don’t know for sure. And Australia evacuated to a world that was then invaded by the CUI. That’s where the Simurgh killed one person to show Tattletale she isn’t doing what she’s told.

      Any surviving Englishmen are probably evacuating to the same world as the nation they were visiting is, since Scion sank us all.

      1. And our Scotish and Welsh neignhbours, too, eh Earl of Purple? And if anyone in the Us asks what i’m talking about, I can link you to the five minute video explaining the differnece between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England.

        Sorry about that guys, it’s irrestible for me especially when I’m gaming online with my Welsh friends and our American team mates, say, “Go, England.”

        I lvoed this chapter and after reading Erl’s pot felt like teasing in a non serious good natured way. Hope it worked.

        Addendum, Wondering if Dragon can speak Welsh now…? Hoping our dear writer, WelshBurn wil anser that one.

        1. Well, I was kinda hoping that maybe some of the Scottish islands might have made it out OK, besides the inevitable tsunami when all 209,331 square kilometres of the island next door sank.

          Welsh should be OK, to some extent- Patagonian Welsh is spoken in Argentina, and apparently there’s over 2,000 households in the US that speak Welsh at home (going by Wikipedia’s article on the language).

          1. The probllm being with Albion is that it doesn’t cover non UK Britain or UK protecorates or her non mainland islands… an then there’s the Isle of Man.

            And yep. I do believe there’s a sizeable amout of students at Bryn Mawr university in Pennsylvanai thatare either Welsh speaking or know a fair bit about it.

            I could use Prydain I suppose, which is the od Welsh word for our ilsand and from which Britain evolved, especially since welsh is Brythonic Gaelic and gave rise to Brittanic (iirc that is)

            Anyway, I still thingk soem of our royal navy survive, mostly the subs…

        2. Hey now, it’s easy to get all you people crammed into that tiny little island confused. Especially the Welsh, all nestled up on top there*

          *I know where Wales actually is. But I know a lot of people who’d probably get it wrong.

          1. We upended a railway station sigh and made a boat. It was a certain Welsh railway sign. So it held a few dozen passengers. All of us Bits and some very well spoken Americans know the one.

            This includes the American weather man challenged to pronounce it.

            Also, can Andrew Richer please have been Canadian Welsh stock?

          2. Wow I just realized that in our timeline Andrew Richter became Conan’s sidekick. Almost as impressive as creating Dragon…

  16. Gary got played, which is sad.

    But I can’t say I’ll feel too bad for him when it all comes crashing down, even worse than before, and he becomes even more hopeless.

    1. To make an analogy;

      Gary has just, upon having a mild forearm fracture and dealing with an incompetent and lazy Doctor, decided his best course of action is to cut off the entire arm with a hacksaw in his basement without any painkillers or thought of how to stop the bleeding.

      His frustration is understandable, but his course of action will only make the things he’s angry about exponentially worse and potentially even more fatal.

      1. I’m not sure his frustration really *is* understandable, actually.

        Parahuman rule, ono!

        Ultimately, the issue is that parahumans *are* better than humans, and therefore *should* rule.

        1. He has some pretty good points about being snubbed and ignored by capes. The Shepherds really should have kept the organizers of the civilian volunteers informed about the potential threat, and more importantly the fact that they were leaving to deal with it and leaving them unguarded. Even if parahumans should be in charge, that doesn’t mean regular humans should be second-class citizens.

          His error is mostly in lumping all capes together, and assuming the worst of them. Even when Dragon demonstrates to him that “not all capes”, he doesn’t change his mind at all, he just shrugs it off. And he thinks Ratcatcher is detestable, which demonstrated the depth of his bias. Doesn’t even seem to change his mind when he sees her rushing straight into danger, although he did have other things to worry about…

        2. Parahumans are bonded to alien parasites that to varying degrees seek and drive conflict, violence, disruption.
          Not in fact straightforwardly better.

          1. That just makes them worse *people*. Leaders don’t have to be good people to be good leaders. In fact, many of the greatest leaders in history were *horrible* people.

            Nothing changes the fact that a Thinker with the right powerset is simply a better decision maker for the big picture than any unpowered human.

  17. Do you think Victoria’s mom is on that list of capes with closet skeletons? She’s a prominent lawyer, who was a public heroine in the old world, whose adopted daughter did time in Birdcage before Gold Morning and the general amnesty. That’s gotta be worth a few tabloid headlines.

    1. Unlike most, her situation (and New Wave’s as a whole) was entirely public. That won’t prevent mob mentality from hurting her, but at least she won’t be used to stoke its flames.
      Small comfort.

          1. She went to the Birdcage by request without trial shortly after both Leviathan and the Slaughterhouse Nine wrecked the city, during a time when Cauldron was in charge of both the PRT and Protectorate and routinely worked to keep the misdeeds of heroes quiet, handling punishments in-house. Odds are high that the general public was not informed about what Amy did or why she was no longer present. Just another casualty of Brockton Bay.

  18. I hope Ratcatcher is okay. Nice to see D&D again, and nice that they’re actually useful in both combat and social situations. That last line though, Breakthrough is going to come under some fire.

  19. In the previous interlude with Citrine, I have felt that she is missing the connection to people, the ability to lead. Accord’s plans are efficient, but I his flaw was inability to understand and account for human nature. I think Erwin fibs in how successful Citrine would be – fears of Parahumans is a genie, she can’t put back into the bottle and something will come out of it. Erwin is simply trying to control the inevitable explosion by manipulating Gary, as it’s conduit.

    1. I think this is only true in the sense that human nature tends to prevent people from following the plan. If Accord’s plans didn’t work when people did follow them, his ability to prosper or even survive as long as he did would become a total mystery. That guy was intolerable.

      1. His plans were excellent at keeping himself alive and running his own relatively tiny supervillain orgaization, and that was WITH Cauldron support. For someone whose power was the ability to create “perfect” plans, he didn’t actually rise all that high on his own.

        Let’s not accept the hype quite so readily. He had crippling flaws, which Citrine does not appear to have grasped herself. I think the PR guy’s hypothetical is just that: a hypothetical that is unlikely to be true. Parahuman tech and plans explicitly have a tendency to have nasty little surprises embedded in them.

        As a side note, I forget exactly: how does Cute one have an Accord plan that is specifically tailored to a situation 2 years after Accord’s death?

          1. Tattletale once had a rather fractious discussion with Accord where he tried to get a contract with her after she agreed that Accord’s plans, including the apocalypse contingency ones, we’re pretty good.

            Whilst her ‘fuck, no’ response irritated Accord he did agree to leaving Tattletale with a copy, admitting that at he made better progress with her than he ever had with others.

            And given Tattletale’s relationship as an old ally of Citrine…

            Or maybe Citrine got them frothed ex cauldron husband. After all the chances if them having copies too, seem fairly high.

        1. Because Accord was an overachiever. There was a scene in Worm where Teacher and Satyr were raiding Cauldron’s base after Scion’s visit, and there were drawers upon drawers full of Accord’s plans. He accounted for as many possibilities as he could think of, and he had access to Cauldron’s considerable resources in doing so.

          That’s probably why he didn’t rise very high. It wasn’t time yet. He could have built up a bunch of stuff, but Scion would have just smashed it a couple years later, so why bother? Instead, he rose just high enough to get the resources he needed to protect himself and live in comfort, then he dedicated the bulk of his efforts to planning for the post-Scion era when he’d be able to accomplish so much more.

          Unfortunately for Accord, the Simurgh is a dirty cheater.

  20. Not-really-typo thread:

    “so easy for them to be at each other’s throats. (…) seen them at each other’s throats.”
    Awkwardly close repetition.

  21. Woo best girl dragon is back I was wondering why we hadnt heard about her considering the breadth of her abilities looks likes she has been laying lowish to lul the bad guys into a false sense of security I hope at some point we get to see defiant take out his grievances against teacher in violent gory detail

    1. I’m assuming Dragon has been busy turning Gimel-Europe into some kind of transhumanist paradise or something. The problem of an unshackled Dragon is that she needs to be crippled or busy for a lot of the problems we’re seeing on the macro scale to really make sense, or have some kind of noninterference thing going. Her being busy devoting most of her processing power to continents other than North America would be the easiest way to justify her absence from a lot of the story that doesn’t involve killing her and/or Defiant.

      1. She’s lost a lot of her infastructure and drone swarms in Golden Morning and had her code tampered with by Teacher in the leadup, so she’s been knocked way down from the Panopticon Of Doom from the S9000 arc.

        Assuming Teacher hasn’t disrupted her ability to run parallel selves, most of her remaining combat drones are probably committed against the machine army, other breached containment zones threatening portals, and extradimensional death worlds.

  22. Seriously, did nobody tell Gary about the aliens?

    He’s acting like he doesn’t see anyone to blame besides capes. There’s an alien species that caused all of this and will definitely return at some point to kill the rest of humanity if we don’t address this.

    1. Of course no one told him about the aliens. As per some informal, unstated agreement, no one is telling anyone anything about Gold Morning, or Cauldron, or any such topic. The aliens are definitely classified information.

      As to why, I think it’s safe to assume that some thinker somewhere has decided that it’s a good idea at this point to keep the public in the dark, the same way Contessa deemed it a good idea for Cauldron to operate in secret before Gold Morning. There’s plenty of thinkers who could make educated guesses about public response, and who are able to blow the whistle on their own if they think it’s a good idea, and none of them have.

      Also, the fact that there are aliens does not actually invalidate the fact that capes are the problem. Capes are the vector through which the aliens are ruining everything. They’re a bioweapon test that was meant to doom Earth. Knowing this doesn’t change anything, or help anyone make decisions regarding capes, any more than it would help to know the ignition source of a fire that’s destroying your home. It will be useful to keep in mind if humanity ever overcomes its internal problems and starts sending probes of its own to the stars, but that relies on all current issues, including the Simurgh, being already solved.
      Also, it’s not at all certain that other Entities will ever show up to fuck with Earth. They’re not organized. It’s not common for them to meet each other, meaning it’s not especially likely another will show up on Earth inside a reasonable timeframe. And if they have any sense at all, they’ll likely seek to avoid areas where others of their kin have been killed. If anyone’s watching, humans are probably looking pretty scary right now.

      1. See, you noticed the problem and added “inside a reasonable timeframe,” but I doubt you can really justify that description. We want humanity to prosper, to reach the stars, to survive the heat death of the visible universe if that turns out to be possible. The Entities stand in the way of that. If they knew anything about us, they’d know this, and would correctly view us as a threat to be neutralized quickly. Moreover, there is no reason whatsoever why humans at this point in time would cause an Entity to hesitate – we survived their first visit by sheer luck or an unforced error by Eden. Right now we have no Path-to-Victory blocker, meaning we’d lose automatically. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if any Entity were actually thinking about Earth they’d immediately use PTV to confirm the absence of a PTV-blocker and would thus have killed us already.

        Capes, in addition to being the weapon we used to exploit the enemy’s error, are not ruining everything. They are, at most, ruining a small fraction of the myriad available Earths. The Entities are genuinely ruining everything, continuing their ongoing genocide of the entire cosmos with every second that ticks by.

        We’ve seen an advanced alien race expel the passengers that latched onto them, after which the true threat just shrugged and blew up their planet in every timeline. In principle you can imagine possible futures wherein humans reject capes, yet get so advanced we can take on the enemy. We don’t have the slightest reason to believe that can happen, however. Precedent is strongly against it. In fact, while I don’t know for sure that the setting holds up under this level of scrutiny, logic tells us that if ordinary science could take on the enemy, some species in some timeline would have done it by now. All the evidence says that the Entities’ bio-tech (starting with the ability to cross timelines) was a fluke that can’t be reproduced from scratch. (I guess this is evidence for a Far Realm origin.)

        Oh, and powers were not meant to doom Earth. They were meant to be a part of Earth’s doom under the closest of supervision by the late Eden. That plan crashed.

        1. No one at this point can afford to care about big-picture space stuff though, humanity has its hands full just surviving at all.

          1. 1. Do they? Per Besagew below, it seems like most people don’t have their hands full surviving at all. I can imagine Gary losing sight of this due to what he’s been through, but:

            2. Ignoring the big picture is unsafe in Parahumans. Speaking of:

            3. Gary needed a story about the big picture that explained the Apocalypse. To him it wasn’t a revelation, just the end of everything he knew. Somehow nobody told him what happened to his world. He naturally made up a big-picture story that placed the blame on parahumans (like the ones who wouldn’t answer a simple question). If, in fact, some thinkers decided not to tell him, I think they’re thinking about it wrong.

        2. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if any Entity were actually thinking about Earth they’d immediately use PTV to confirm the absence of a PTV-blocker

          You can’t definitively confirm the absence of a power-blocker with the power the blocker would supposedly block. A negative read might mean there is no power-blocker, or it might mean that a power-blocker is causing you to get incorrect results.

          1. That’s not what we saw with Contessa (for any of the three apparent blockers). Do we have any reason to think it could happen with PTV?

      2. Humans didn’t kill the entities. Another entity killed them. Reread the interludes that were written from the entities perspective.

        “Our” entities has evolved into a pairs perspective over eons, but not all the entities would have been at a paired equilibrium. One entity had mostly physical powers with lower level mental power and the other had mostly mental and predictive powers with lower level physical powers.
        When they encountered the third entity (which was traveling solo) the mental entity tried to trade shards with it the same way it traded shards with its pairmate. But the third entity was a solo entity and not really cooperative. It had (unbeknownst) to the pair much more developed precognition shards than they did. It picked a future where they died. Then it exchanged shards with Eden. When eden got the shards ‘she’ was impressed with all the new stuff she was seeing and digesting. She then used the new upgraded more powerful precognition shard to plan their earth invasion. But this shard had been sabotaged without her detection.
        When eden got close to earth she started giving away shards to earth people. She gave away the enhanced new precognition shard to the girl who would become contessa. Once eden had given away that shard she fell back on her own lesser procog shard and saw that the future she had picked was one where they both died, but at that point it was too late and she crashed into earth.

        Basically the entities were path to victoried by the third entity. Humans don’t really deserve credit for the kill.

        1. No, the enhanced new precognition shard was probably Dinah Alcott. Remember, Scion has a power identical to Contessa’s, so it couldn’t have been her. Contessa’s shard just broke away when Eden crash landed.

          The rest of this stuff is just speculation, we don’t actually know all that about the third entity and its goals 0.0

          1. Nope. That was Contessa’s shard.

            And Abaddon didn’t really give power shards, but instead gave knowledge. Eden took that knowledge and made her Path to Victory better. She and Scion already had the power, but Abaddon’s knowledge made it better. Then Eden got distracted by her shiny upgraded toy and faceplanted the planet, whereupon the shard flew off and connected to Contessa (along with a whole lot of other shards, but most of those had no idea how to connected to a human so turned them into monsters. PtV presumably just precoged how best to connect to a human).

            One thing we do know about the Abaddon is that it had a much better knowledge of culture, IIRC.

        2. Interesting take on things. The way I read it, Eden was just distracted and fucked up on her own, letting go of her own Path-to-Victory shard without setting the limiter features that would have stopped it from being used against her. That was enough for Contessa to instantly identify her entire plot and locate her weak spot while she was still weak from planetfall.

          The third entity casually fucking over the other two by giving them poison shards is kind of an appealing image, though. It pretty much matches how I expect the entities to operate. Solitary hunters that are used to seeing each other primarily as competition and secondarily as food. Of course it’s going to be a backstab. Plus, giving others shards programmed to fuck them over is exactly how they approach other species.

          1. I’m a bit late to the discussion, but I always theorized that Abaddon was actually the one who gave Contessa her shard with the intention of killing Eden and Scion (and also causing more or less Eden’s crash landing).

  23. I can imagine how easily the word Parahuman could be replaced with “Black” or “Jew” and people wouldn’t be so quick to call gary a good guy.

    1. Yea, last time I checked most minorities didn’t have the ability to unhinge the very laws of time and space to rip your soul out of your eyes on a whim.

      1. Yea, last time I checked most minorities didn’t have the ability to unhinge the very laws of time and space to rip your soul out of your eyes on a whim.

        All the gay people I know do. That’s why we go out to brunch so often, to practice.

    2. I can imagine how easily the word Parahuman could be replaced with “Black” or “Jew”

      Could it really? Let’s try that out, by changing some true statements about parahumans to be about Jews:

      * Judaism is caused by an alien parasite that influences the host’s behavior in subtle ways to encourage Jews towards conflict.
      * There has previously been a Jewish conspiracy to secretly abduct thousands of people and give them a Jew serum that turns them into Jews, and then dissect the newly created Jews to study the effects.
      * The Jewish God recently caused the world to end, but all the world’s Jews were brought together under a mind-controlling Jew and were able to destroy Him.
      * Jews are controlling the world from the shadows, and systematically keeping secrets from non-Jews regarding the true nature of the now-dead God, the cause of Judaism, and previous Jewish plots.
      * In this chapter, Jew-led mercenaries attacked a group of innocent refugees, in a political maneuver likely directed towards other Jews.

      As you can see, “Jew” and “Parahuman” are not quite interchangeable.

      1. It might not quite be interchangeable, but you can be damn sure I’m going to mentally change it from now on.

        Going to hell has never been such a fun read!

      2. Um… I can easily see 3 of those being believed by white supremacist groups in our world. 2nd, 4th and 5th. Not too logical, but then, conspiracies rarely are.

        1. That’s the point, in our world they are crazy conspiracies, but in the world of Ward, with parahumans, these crazy conspiracies would be actually true. So, it would be less from a crazy conspiracy theorist and more from someone being justified.

      3. I mean…that is not too far from some anti-semitic conspiracies which real people actually believe in, minus the specifically ‘alien powers’ bit.

      4. Several of these do sound like actual anti-Semitic tinfoil hat ramblings I’ve seen.

        Problem being that swapping parahumans back into those statements places them adjacent to actual facts, which significantly complicates the issue.

  24. I find it very bittersweet to see Defiant and Dragon again.

    I’m glad they were there to save the day, but there was a part of me that sort of hoped they wouldn’t appear in Ward at all, having retired to a nice quiet world to bootstrap it into a transhumanist utopia and staying safely out of any multiversal wars.

    And maybe raising a daughter together, named in honour of a troubled young woman who had a profound impact on both their lives, and who the rest of the multiverse was determined to try and forget about.

  25. I’ve enjoyed all of the interludes about Earth Gimel’s political situation so far, and this one was no exception, but I feel like there’s a disconnect between what we see here and the rest of the story.

    In the interludes, we hear that Gimel is in a state of crisis and struggling to survive. In the main story, we see shopping malls, dress stores, fancy hotels, giant statues, cell phones, videogames, professional realtors living in three-story houses with garages; people throwing away edible food without a second thought; security so effective that the non-fatal shooting of a minor cape is a big, newsworthy event. We never hear about anybody in the megalopolis looking malnourished, or sick, or dirty. Nobody begs, or sleeps on the street, or has to take care of homeless friends or family.

    Where is the supposed barbarism? What lack of amenities is Erwin talking about? I want to believe in his and Gary’s complaints, because that makes for a more realistic and dramatic story, but I feel like they belong in a different world to the one Victoria lives in.

    1. That is because they do. I live on the city. Things are drastically different here when compared to some of the most unfortunate parts of my country. Seems to make sense to me.

    2. We never hear about anybody in the megalopolis looking malnourished, or sick, or dirty. Nobody begs, or sleeps on the street, or has to take care of homeless friends or family.

      Um. Victoria herself has been homeless for most of the story…

      More generally, you have to remember that the homeless people in Ward are not the same kind of homeless people you see sleeping in an alley in real life. When people sleep in alleys and spend their days panhandling, it’s because there is something preventing them from being able to support themselves with a normal job. A job shortage, a mental or psychological issue, a chronic illness, an addiction, a criminal history, severe prejudice, or even just old injuries that ache too much to let them focus. Since they can’t work, they have to survive by begging.

      That’s not the situation in Ward. People are homeless in Ward because there either aren’t any homes available for them or they’re not willing to live in the ones that are. There are plenty of jobs to go around, though, so begging for money isn’t necessary. It’s also likely that the city provides adequate sanitation and hygiene infrastructure for the large portion of temporarily homeless refugees to keep themselves tidy and reduce disease and parasite transmission. And for sleeping arrangements, since folks are making money with their jobs, they can afford to buy a tent for the interim to keep them out of the elements (much cheaper to mass produce than houses), and there are designated tent-areas the city set up so that they’re not pitching tents in the roads and on people’s doorsteps.

      Point is, most homeless people in Ward look like everybody else. Just like Victoria does.

      In the interludes, we hear that Gimel is in a state of crisis and struggling to survive. In the main story, we see shopping malls, dress stores, fancy hotels, giant statues, cell phones, videogames, professional realtors living in three-story houses with garages;

      Note that one of the big things Gary complained about in this interlude was lack of leadership. There is no one person definitively in charge, forcing people to build nothing but barracks, farms, and cafeterias. Nobody willing to stick their neck out and start rounding up all the dress makers and sending them to reeducation camps to turn them into farmers and construction workers. No government with the power to back the use of force on that scale.

      In lieu of such oppression, people are doing what they personally think will help. Some people are very good at making dresses and precious little else, so they scrounge up materials and tools and get to it; people need to wear something, after all, and morale matters. Other people recognize that society requires a lot of stuff to function — paper towels, shower heads, post it notes, dry erase boards, hairpins, socks, tampons, toenail clippers, calipers, bicycles, etc. So, they build shopping malls so that those things can be distributed. And some people build giant cows, because they’re special like that.

      This is what happens when you exile your Queen Administrator.

      1. Victoria has never been homeless in any sense that matters. But you’re right: she never needed to worry because she could stay with family. Where are all the other people doing that? Where are the friends and extended family sleeping on the couch, or begging for money to take care of their elderly relatives? How is it that we never hear of this from anyone?

        So, on the one hand, Earth Gimel has a miraculously efficient government that provides temporary housing, healthcare, food stamps, work, sanitation, garbage collection, schools, policing, mail delivery, courts, childcare, public libraries (!), etc. etc. And all this on a vast, vast scale, while millions of sick people with nothing are pouring in weekly to a world with no prior infrastructure. On the other hand, Earth Gimel has no government and no organization at all? Really now?

        In this chapter we hear that people are going lean for the winter. That they don’t bring food to funerals because they’re saving. So who can afford to buy dresses? Who stays at the fancy hotels or shops for electronics and video games at the shopping malls? People worried about starvation are not going to be spending money on this evidently enormous service economy. It can’t just be rich people, either, because there wouldn’t be enough of them to keep all these places in business and they would be saving, too–probably in the form of gold bars, canned food and guns. Hoarding, more likely.

        Who decided to pay for giant statues, in this situation? The same people who are accomplishing wonders organizing refugees into temporary housing are also evidently building three-story suburban homes for families of three, hotels with velvet curtains, mall fountains, stores with huge display windows. On one side they’re selfless superhumans, on the other they’re disorganized and corrupt messes?

        This is not a normal situation, where some relatively few number of refugees are being taken in by a built-up, urbanized city with centuries of development in infrastructure behind it. They built all this stuff in two years, while the crisis was going on all the time. At the end of Gold Morning, every character we know was in the same state as these refugees fresh from Bet, more or less. How did these incredibly wasteful and frivolous attitudes survive? And how do they continue in the middle of this supposedly massive crisis?

        I just feel confused as to what we’re supposed to be seeing here. It’s the post-apocalypse, the world ended, billions died: refugees, hard winters, angry and desperate people…but everyone we actually meet is healthy and affluent, living the American Dream in a concrete wonderland of modern consumer products.

        So is Earth Gimel actually in trouble or not? When Erwin talks about missing amenities, what is referring to? One half of the story just seems to contradict the other.

        1. Victoria has never been homeless in any sense that matters. But you’re right: she never needed to worry because she could stay with family. Where are all the other people doing that?

          All around. You just can’t spot them because they don’t have big flashing signs over their head saying, “I slept on my cousin’s couch.” They look just like everybody else. Unless you follow them home, you won’t know that they’re living with their extended family, their old college buddies, friends made in the Patrol Block, or whatever.

          In this chapter we hear that people are going lean for the winter. That they don’t bring food to funerals because they’re saving. So who can afford to buy dresses?

          They’re saving food, not money. The problem isn’t money. You can’t eat money. Saving the money instead of buying a dress doesn’t cause more food to grow. At best, you can use it to convince somebody else to give up some of their food and go hungry so that you don’t have to.

          You could use money to incentivize people to farm instead of make dresses, of course, but that sort of thing takes a few years to work, and it requires people actually using their money that way. People won’t usually do that on their own; that’s why taxes and subsidies exist.

          Unfortunately, the megalopolis is still putting its government together. What leadership they have is distracted with frantically trying to deal with managing the refugees, keeping the megalopolis safe, building houses and infrastructure, competing with each other, and coping with all the external threats (Cheit, Machine Army, Teacher, whatever other shit’s going down that they’re keeping quiet about). So, in the midst of all this, apparently a ball or two were dropped in the food production department.

          Meanwhile, the common folk are trying to maintain an illusion of normality, giving their emotions too much rein, and making bad decisions. As usual.

          That said, I want to point out the fact that dresses are not inherently expensive things. In fact, a dress is pretty much the simplest and cheapest form of modern clothing you can make. Fancy designs, materials, and branding can drive the price way up, but none of that is strictly necessary. Done correctly, dresses can be a more efficient solution to clothing than pants and shirts, at least in contexts where a skirt isn’t a hindrance. Not so great if you’re out in the woods, but perfectly fine if you’re hashing out the new legal system, processing food, shipping food, working at a hospital, caring for orphans, or basically the vast majority of things.

          People worried about starvation are not going to be spending money on this evidently enormous service economy.

          What enormous service economy? Yes, there are some malls. Yes, there are some hotels. Yes, there are some video games. Do you expect those things to be totally absent in a city of 50 million? We’ve seen that they exist, but I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence that it’s some thriving omnipresent monster draining everbody’s wallets. In fact, we just saw an abandoned mall a few chapters ago. The construction companies evidently messed up and built too many commercial buildings (unless this is all part of the plan), but that is not at all the same thing as there being too much commerce.

          On one side they’re selfless superhumans, on the other they’re disorganized and corrupt messes?

          Yes, exactly. People are messy.

          They built all this stuff in two years, while the crisis was going on all the time.

          Four years. Tattletale instigated the first portal into Gimel two years before Gold Morning, and she very quickly started funneling her resources into building up the other side so that she could get in on the ground floor, and also so she could hopefully save a bunch of people when the Jack Prophesy struck. Cauldron had also been planning and stockpiling for this possibility for a long time and likely played a big role in the early efforts to build fallback locations in Gimel and other Earths. Scion then proceeded to smash many of those preparations, but a lot survived since his main focus was Bet.

          When Erwin talks about missing amenities, what is referring to?

          Unreliable power and power rationing. Slow, unreliable internet. Insufficient and low quality food. Rushed, low quality construction, and insufficient homes. Lack of standards in road design, and poorly laid out road networks. Insufficient buildings, teachers, and free time to have full-time schools. Insufficient prisons and an overburdened judicial system. Lack of a definitive legal system, government, etc. Lack of an official military. Probably a bunch of other stuff.

          Obviously there are exceptions. Some places have quality things. And some places and things look like they have quality, but it’s just a facade. We don’t know how sturdy Kenzie’s fancy house is, for example. For all we know, it’s going to be unfit for habitation in five years.

  26. I mean, he’s not wrong. Parahumans are without doubt the worst thing that’s ever happened to Earth Bet. Even before Gold Morning they’d spent thirty years not so slowly pushing every civilisation towards collapse through their endless conflict with each other and parasitism on society. Countries that weren’t rich and politically stable enough to mitigate the damage had already made it there even before Scion went on his murder spree.

    Even the heroes are just mitigating the damage the rest of them do and not very well at that. I’m surprised there isn’t more conflict between parahumans and muggles already, but maybe there is and it just hasn’t been shown too much yet.

    1. The existence of the Endbringers and their attacks every two months necessitated the continued acceptance of Parahumans (prior to gold morning) to an insane degree. No human weaponry has any meaningful effect on just about any Endbringer.
      Now that the Endbringer attacks have ceased, Anti-Parahuman sentiment is starting to become more prominent.

      1. And wait until they learn the Endbringers were there because of yet another of the strongest capes…
        Seriously, everyone’s dancing on a keg of nitro drenched in kerosene while smoking cigars.

        1. Don’t forget that Tattletale has demonstrated the ability to talk the Simurgh into doing things post-Eidolon. People definitely wouldn’t lose their shit over that at all.

  27. I don’t see how Kenzie’s actions in relation to her parents would make people more paranoid against parahumans, regardless of the validity of the videos. She blackmailed them, sure, but the things she wanted them to do are the things that parents are supposed to do.

    Unless, of course, Kenzie’s parents are parahuman themselves.

  28. WB, just to let you know, semiautomatic means one trigger pull one bullet. The word you’re looking for is automatic.

  29. Obviously Gary is being manipulated, but has anyone considered that the manipulators’ being revealed as (potentially) parahumans is a contingency to still further the anticape sentiment? I mean, either way, they’d win: capes would be further persecuted either way, allowing them to continue doing whatever else it is they’re planning.

  30. Now that we’ve been told the war with Cheit is a diversion, my money is on Goddess as the spider at the center of this web. We were subtly reminded that she exists back during the negotiation with the Undersiders over Cradle, and that’s precisely the sort of thing that makes me suspect she will be super important down the road.

    1. Eh, I think that rather unlikely. She might have control of the necessary powers for a multi-dimensional conspiracy, since she’s got the largest known group of organized Parahumans outside Gimel, but it seems inconsistent with what we know about her. For someone openly running an authoritarian imperial cult, an elaborate many-pronged conspiracy inflicting heavy collateral damage on her would-be conquest seems uncharacteristically indirect.

      And while she might have surprisingly deep reserves of subtlety, or at least a Thinker council to delegate subtlety to, this plan seems to be moving things in entirely the wrong direction for her. She runs a Parahuman oligarchy with herself at the top, so stirring up sentiment opposing rule by Parahumans would make it more of a headache to hold Gimel once she got it. Plus, the fact that the Parahumans of her world serve her without exception indicates she might have a Master power affecting Parahumans, in which case her play would be to entrench Parahuman rule and convert the rulers.

      1. Not necessarily.

        Classical tactics for this sort of maneuvering include things like inciting the peasants to revolt as an excuse to crush them and break their spirit so they’ll be more compliant slaves for a couple generations…

        Inciting anti-parahuman sentiment on Gimel and then offering to swoop in and save the besieged parahumans? That would totally work.

  31. I can’t believe no one has mentioned that this guy is called Die-Young. That’s a bit on the nose isn’t it? Like calling yourself Kilgrave or Murdercorpse.

    1. I believe that would actually be “Daiyoung” in this romanization. The weird thing about this guy’s name is that he has two given names, like “John Scott”. I’m not sure I’ve seen “Daeyoung” as a family name.

    1. Claw at your face like a Chris-monster until Tuesday. Rinse, repeat until Saturday. Then return to step one.

      1. You can achieve a short reprieve from the face clawing by posting zany theories in the comments or updating the wiki, but it won’t last.

  32. Not sure what’s going on here. There’s a disconnect of some kind I’m not following.

    “He dropped the gun. It wasn’t needed, and it wasn’t him. He wasn’t the kind of person who could give medical care.”

    Sounds like it’s saying the gun is medical care. I figure it’s more like he’s saying it wasn’t needed and neither was he, but the phrase seems off.

    Am I missing something?

  33. The problem with anti parahuman sentiment is that a huge portion of the population can trigger. This isn’t x-men were you can identify an x-gene and hunt them down.

  34. Really hope this particular plot thread dies fast. I have zero interest in reading about any parahuman movements.

  35. So we have Citrine in a leadership position, and the problem with that is that she will do TOO WELL. And we’ll have none of that, because she is a parahuman, booo! Instead we’ll consider the plan to help the invasion of another Earth (which, besides all other things like *already being at war with you*, may be led by parahumans as well…but who cares) and become their vassal state. A clever plan, indeed. This will most certainly ensure that anything won’t go too well.

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