Beacon – 8.4

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“Crystalclear,” Capricorn said.  “As employee, or-”

“No,” Ashley said.  “Inmate.  Rain was paying more attention to the employees.  I was focused on…”

She paused.

“The competition?” Capricorn tried.

“The pecking order,” was her reply.  “They limit contact, make us keep a certain distance from one another, but we cross paths and we see each other.”

“Not solitary, not segregated confinement,” Cryptid said.  He was standing by the picnic-style table with its broad top, rather than sitting.  He spoke differently when he was in costume.

“Kind of segregated,” Rain said.

“It used to be fully segregated,” Ashley said.  “There are too many of us now.  They can’t send each of us individually to go exercise and still give us enough exercise.”

Rain put his elbows on the table, hands together, cracking his knuckles, before cocking his head to look at Ashley.  “I haven’t seen Crystalclear, and you didn’t mention him.”

“It was recent.  The main yard isn’t that far from my place.  You can see it from one of the windows.  The boys go to their windows to look when the women exercise, and the women go to the window when boys exercise.  I heard the jeering and went to look.  He’s recognizable from a distance.”

“I don’t have a view of the yard from my place,” Rain said.

“You draw the shittiest hands in life,” Cryptid said.

“I guess.  I’m as red blooded as anyone, but I feel like I’d watch for five minutes and then get bored.”

“Five minutes is long enough for most,” Cryptid said.

“Maybe for you,” Tristan said.

I rolled my eyes.

Lookout looked from me to the boys.  “Oh.  SO gross.”

“Yes,” Ashley said, tilting her head Lookout’s way in a conspiratorial way.  “Keep this in mind when you’re older and interested in your first boys.”

“In my defense and in defense of my gender, I’m not part of this,” Rain said.  “This is those two.”

“It’s standard teenager talk,” Cryptid said.

“Everything’s fair game, so long as nobody’s uncomfortable,” Capricorn added.

“Okay,” Lookout said.

“Um.  Sorry, I’m feeling a bit awkward.  Can we just go back to talking shop?” Sveta asked.  When eyes turned her way, she shrugged as best as she was able.

“Okay,” Cryptid said.  “Sure.”

“Thank you,” Sveta said, “Where were we?  Crystalclear?”

“Crystalclear,” Capricorn confirmed.  “From the good guy side in the community center attack.  You’ve talked to him, Victoria?”

“Yeah.  Fume Hood and Tempera didn’t mention him going to prison,” I said.

“Maybe they don’t know,” Ashley said.

“Probable.  He doesn’t seem like the criminal type.”

“Spooky, that you never really know what your teammates are like,” Sveta said.  “Do you think he’d talk if you reached out?”

“I can try,” I said.

“I thought he seemed out of place, he’s a contact of yours, and from what little I saw, he was talking with others.  A lot.  That’s not always easy,” Ashley said.  “Guards weren’t really pulling him away, I think because he’s got a past record as a hero.  He seemed like a good person to ask.”

“How does that work?” Capricorn asked.  “Talking to others.  There’s talking across the balconies, right?”

“At yard time, four buildings with sixteen people get out at the same times,” Rain said.  “We get split up into areas.  There’s a weights cage, a basketball court with one hoop, two people allowed at a time, but you can’t play with someone if you’ve had any altercations.”

“The basketball hoop is the Queen’s court,” Ashley said.  “Top woman on this side of the prison, Llorona, gets the court and nobody argues if they want to have a good stay.  She invites different people every day.”

“Similar for the guys who get out around the same time I do, but they hog the court,” Rain said.  “Coalbelcher and his right hand man get the court every day.  It’s rare that someone else gets to go.  You basically have to kill someone to earn enough respect to get in.”

“If you go that far you’re never leaving,” Capricorn said.  “Maybe they figure they might as well get to know you, if you’re committing to being a lifer.”

Rain snorted, a laugh without humor.

“Court, weights, and…” I prompted.

“And the main yard,” Rain said.  “There are a lot of rules for all of it.  Weights cage, you get seven minutes at a time, have to clean up and reset the area as part of those seven minutes, or you don’t get a turn for a week.  You go from there to the yard, next person in the yard gets a turn.  Court, you can’t have a record of altercations with other prisoners.  Yard is where most go.”

“Most people run laps,” Ashley said.  “You have to stay a set distance from others.  If you don’t, your ankle beeps until you get away.  We can’t stand close to one another, but there’s leeway if you’re in the middle and doing something active.  Some throw or kick balls.  Talking happens while running thirty feet behind someone or playing catch.  You’re always far enough apart you have to raise your voice, and so you can’t conspire with anyone.”

“I’m not really social,” Rain said.  “I haven’t really tried, but it’s hard enough to run that long and not look like a wuss.  People try to lap you, too.  They’ll signal the guards, guards call out for you to stop in a corner and let them pass.”

“They do it on purpose,” Ashley said.  “You get the people who run together, just close enough to not cause trouble, talking while they run, others try to lap people, shame them, show off their stamina, and the rest are either trying not to look bad or they give up and throw balls.”

“Sounds right,” Rain said.

“Can you talk to Crystalclear?” I asked.

“You might have better luck than me.  I haven’t seen him yet.  They keep some buildings of people segregated from others.  Like, they don’t want Fallen in the same yard as me, you know?”

“You have a better chance of ending up in the same yard with him than I do,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Sure.  I mean, if the chance comes up, I’ll try.”

“And I’ll try on my end,” I said.  “I’m not sure if it’ll ring alarm bells, me being too obstrusive, but I’ll see what I can do.”

Rain nodded, cracking his knuckles again.  “While you’re at it?  Could you keep an eye on Cradle and Love Lost?”

“We have been,” Lookout said.

“Cradle is in custody here,” I explained.  “Other end of this complex.  I wasn’t able to check in for his meeting with the court processors, because I had physio.  I would have skipped, but Capricorn had it.”

“I looked in, sat in the back,” Capricorn said.  “It went by quick.  He’s been doing a lot of business, which is working against him now, because he can’t explain where his money came from, but he doesn’t have many friends, either.  Not while Tattletale is freezing him out.”

“She’s staying out of it?” Rain asked.

“She’s staying out of it,” I confirmed.  “As far as we can tell.  It’s hard to know for sure with the masterminds.”

“Do you trust her?” Ashley asked.  “Or will she try something?”

“No, I don’t trust her,” I offered up half of a laugh to go with it.  “But I do believe her, I guess, when it comes to this.”

“That simplifies things,” Sveta said.  “I don’t think she’d breach a contract, written or unwritten, if it’d hurt her ability to do business.  I believe her too.  And I’ve been on the same side as her, I guess.”

I nodded.

“What about Love Lost?” Rain asked.

“She’s hanging out with Nailbiter, Sidepiece, Disjoint and that group,” Capricorn said.

“Oh, my friends,” Ashley said.

“I think she’s in charge,” Lookout said.  “I don’t know how that works, someone who can’t talk being a leader.”

“Keep an eye on her?” Rain asked.  “She’s stronger than she was.  Cradle too.  The bias of power shifts around a lot between our group.  Since Snag’s gone, it’s… stormier.  The pendulums swing further and harder.”

“We will,” Capricorn said.

“Scapegoat’s here, Seir’s here,” Rain heaved out a sigh as he said it.  “Valefor is in a hospital with one of these ankle bombs attached.  Mama Mathers is…”

“Isolated,” I said.  “Classified location, given the likelihood the Fallen would try to get her out.”

“I don’t know why they would,” Sveta said.  “She ruled by fear, everyone’s finally free.”

“I think being controlled and managed, having that firm a hand on you, it’s reassuring to some types,” Rain said.  “Like how some people can’t handle it after they get out of prison.  They no longer know how to be free.  She’s had control for a long time.”

“Creepy,” Sveta said.

“Definitely,” Rain said.  “Just… keep me updated?  I feel so out of the loop, stuck in this weird prison-town, ghost-town setup, a universe away from you guys.”

“Three universes away, if you consider the number of steps you need to take to get here,” Cryptid said.

“Thanks, Chris.  Thanks.  That really helps with the weird disconnected, homesick feeling I’m wrestling with.”

“I’m sorry, Rain.  We’ll send a care package, okay?” Lookout said.

“Okay.  Just to warn you, I think they’re pretty careful about what they let me have, though, given how I’m a tinker.  They measure out all the materials I get and what goes into Ashey’s hands.”

“Okay.  Books should be okay, right?  And you’re online, so we can message you?”

“Yeah, but they look at everything we send, so… secret identities, and be aware our enemies could be getting the same info.”

“I’ll message you, we’ll catch you up,” Capricorn said.

“Cool,” Rain said.  “Just keep me in the loop, and I think I can do this.  Maybe.  It’s the boredom that’s making me second guess what I felt before, that I can ride out this entire sentence, whatever it winds up being.”

“I’m patient,” Ashley said.  “We’ll entertain ourselves with our side of the investigation.  I won over Llorona, I think.”

“The Queen of the basketball court?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.  Everyone meets with her, if they’re here for a couple of weeks without incidents.  She keeps the peace and smooths out wrinkles, so they let her.”

“I would have thought you’d have to play a good game of basketball to win her over,” Capricorn said, pausing while Ashley nodded.  He added,  “And your hands aren’t working.”

“Yes.  That’s one way.  And I’ve never played basketball.  I’d lose if it came down to it.”

“Then how did you pull that off?” Capricorn asked.

Ashley smiled.  “When she acted like she was better than me because I wouldn’t play, I tore my left hand off in front of her.”

“Awesome!” Lookout reacted to the self-dismemberment with awe and glee, because of course she did.

“That’d do it,” Cryptid, by contrast, was almost smug, even though he hadn’t had anything to do with it.

“I think she likes me now.”

“You do realize staff are watching you, and they report these kinds of things, right?” Sveta asked.

“Yes.  I told them I needed maintenance, no sweat.”

“It was such a mess,” Rain was almost despondent in tone, contrasted with Lookout’s excitement and Cryptid’s satisfaction.  “I’m the maintenance, you know.  And there’s blood with forced removals like that.  Like, hurry, hurry, get dressed, shoes on, and run, because she might not live if it’s not plugged in right.”

“Spooky,” Sveta said.

“Messy!” Rain exclaimed, to Sveta.  To Ashley, he said, very seriously, “Messy.”

“Letting the Queen place me at the bottom of the totem pole would have been worse,” Ashley said.  “It helps Rain, too.”

Helps?” Rain asked.

A buzzer sounded across the complex.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Rain said.

“Time’s up?” I asked.

I saw their nods.

“Aww, what?  No.  We just sat down,” Lookout said.

“Another time,” Ashley said.

“Keep an eye out for the care package,” Lookout said.

“It’s not like I’m going to be out when it arrives,” Ashley said.  She stood from the picnic table.

“I wasn’t sure what to do but I thought books would be best,” Lookout said.  “They were always something I went to when I couldn’t sleep.  I had stacks of them on my bed, piled high enough they could have tipped over and bruised me.  I’d sleep with my head on a book sometimes.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do that,” Ashley said.  “But I’ll read what you send me.  C’mon.”

Lookout went to her.  They hugged.

The buzzer sounded again, more intense.  Rain’s anklet beeped once.

“I should go,” Rain said.  “They’ll get pissy if we get in the way of schedules.”

“Yeah.  I can stay, I think.  It’s my yard time,” Ashley said.  “They’ll let me know if it isn’t.”

“Then I’m going to duck out,” Rain said.

He clasped hands with Capricorn, then the handshake became a half-shake, half-hug thing.  “Keep us up to date on that team thing.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.

We parted ways, our group heading back toward the gate, while Ashley walked on the other side of the road.

Guards were out, each with positions in mind.  They fanned out, each armed and uniformed, their belts heavy with gear.  For the most part, they were isolated – one guard to a given location.  There was one case where the guards moved in a group of three, with something of a determined cast to their features.

We were almost at the gate when Lookout took a hard right turn, striding away from the group.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She was silent.

Something was wrong.  I lifted off, but in that same moment, Sveta’s arm went out, propelled by tendrils.  She grabbed Lookout by the shoulder, stopping her in her tracks.

I wasn’t the only one to look in the direction she’d been going.

Off by one of the buildings, a woman with black hair and a few tattoos was leaning against the side of a building, camouflaged.  She was a considerable distance away, to the point where I couldn’t make out details of her face, tattoos, or outfit – only a top with a ‘v’ cut at the neck and a frilly flap that went from collar to shoulder, black pants, and shoes.

“Monokeros!” Ashley shouted the name.  When she had Monokeros’ attention, she shook her head.

The woman laughed in response, audible even from a considerable distance.

The woman stepped away from the wall, thumbs hooked in pockets, and started walking away.  We’d been traveling north to south, and Monokeros had been a few hundred feet to our west.  She walked north, which put her behind us and off to the side.

A non threat, supposedly.

Ashley stared, watching the woman as she left.

“Fuck,” Capricorn said.  “You okay, Lookout?”

“It was like getting hit with Victoria’s aura, but without the jittery oh-shit-ness of it,” Lookout said.  “Purer, stronger.”

I folded my arms, thumb hooked into sling.

“I pretty much only ever get the jittery oh-shit part from Victoria,” Capricorn said.

“Same,” Cryptid said.

“I’ll talk with her,” Ashley said.  Her expression was cold.  “She was testing me.  That can’t stand.”

Don’t get yourself in more trouble,” Sveta said.

“She fucked with Lookout.”

“Stick with the rules,” I said.  “Use the system against her.  Report her, let them handle it and change their policies.”

“No, don’t use the system,” Lookout said.

We looked at her.

“If you do, they’ll say the easiest fix is to not let me come back.  They’ll say it’s too dangerous to let kids come here, and then I won’t be able to see you.”

“They’d punish her, not you,” Sveta said.

“They might punish me.”

“I’m on the kid’s side,” Cryptid said.  “Institutions are dumb.”

Ashley drew in a deep breath.  Holy shit, she looked more pissed than she had with Beast of Burden.  I could imagine the only thing that was stopping her was that her potential target was out of reach.

“Leave it,” Lookout pleaded.  “It’s fine.  Please?”

“I’m not going to leave it,” Ashley’s voice was quiet.  “But I won’t make it an incident.”

“Take care of yourself,” I said.  “If you let her get to you, she wins.”

“It’s fine,” Ashley said.  “I’m betting she’ll go back to her cell to hide, the coward.  I’m going to run, and I’ll think for a while before doing anything.”

“Good plan,” I said.  “Except the doing part, I’m worried.”

“It’s fine,” she replied, with a tone that suggested it was also final.

“Okay,” I said, glancing at the others.

“I’m sorry things ended on that note,” Ashley said.  She set a hand on Kenzie’s head.

“Me too,” Lookout said.

“Don’t let this place get to you,” Sveta said.  “Remember your goals.”

“Yeah.  Always focused on the future, hm?” Ashley asked.

“Exactly.  Just get through today.”

Ashley stepped back, like it took a measured effort to separate herself, then she smiled.  With that, she left, heading back into the deeper prison, while leaving us to enter the gate.

Capricorn and Sveta each placed a hand on one of Lookout’s shoulders.  I glanced at Cryptid, but I couldn’t read the expression he wore, Lookout’s device masking his face.

There were people to keep tabs on, both enemies and on our side.

Our hideout was coming together.  Kenzie’s computers were hooked up, monitors and projected screens arranged.  Whiteboards and desks were being moved around.  Ashley’s whiteboard with ‘Swansong’ across the top in fancy script was now joined by ‘Rain’.  The preliminary notes on what they needed and what they’d found were going up on their shared board.

The board we’d freed up listed the other teams, from the Wardens, the Guild, all the way down to the pairing of Fume Hood and Tempera.  It stood at the back of the room, furthest from Kenzie’s workstation.  People we’d rope in.

Kenzie’s projectors started showing images from her camera feeds.  A couple were from Cedar Point.  The graffiti had been painted over in places, or had chipped away because some of the yellow paint they’d co-opted and used had been meant to draw temporary lines for outlining buried power cabling or highlighting spots for danger, not to paint something in a way that lasted for weeks or months, across weather changes.

Tristan’s laptop stalled as it loaded the page.  I’d stepped away to sort out whiteboard markers while it took its time, and now I approached again.  He was wearing only the lower portion of his armor, the upper half just the under-armor part that prevented chafing.  Sveta was beside him, hands clasped behind her back as she bent over to a degree that most would find untenable after a minute or so.

The page that had only loaded ninety percent of the way was a map with a list of crimes reported, as compiled and shared out by the police of the Megalopolis.  Citizens managed it, apparently, listening in on the police scanners and putting in push-pin style markers on the map.

A slice of the map was gray, refusing to load in, but the overall situation was clear, especially as Tristan moved the slider.  Petty crimes were up.  People were cluing in that the heroes and the police didn’t have the authority or power to arrest everyone.

In Cedar Point, things were ‘better’.  The vacancies were filling, as people relocated here from places nearer to the devastated portals, the villains were scattered with only a few lingering and not really conducting business.  Even here, according to the map, there were burglaries, robberies, and concerned citizens reporting that they’d seen drug deals or drug-related activity.

It was a ‘good’ area, with an influx of hopeful people and criminals still spooked from the recent crackdown and collapse of their power structure- there were bad areas too, and there were areas that had been bad, that had been lowered a few notches by the portal fiasco, and by the threat of war.

“We need to figure out how to handle this,” Capricorn said.

“Is that even possible?” Sveta asked.  “Handling this?”

“Let me refresh before I try to answer that,” Tristan said.

He refreshed.  Some of the site elements lingered, while the map reloaded.  I bit my tongue rather than comment or complain.

“I’ll have you guys hooked up to my internet in five or ten minutes,” Kenzie said.  “Things will be faster then.”

“Please God,” Tristan said.  “Thank you.”

I looked at the other pins on the loading map.

“Domestics, assaults, threats, noises at late hours,” Sveta recited, listing pins.

“Those are rare,” I said.  “At least compared to some of these others we see over and over again.  Look.  Robbery.  Dealing.  It’s about resources.  It’s about people feeling the cold and not feeling ready to face months of it, of darkness and food shortages.”

“That’s not law and hero stuff,” Sveta said.  “That’s infrastructure.  We can’t do much about that.”

“Drops in the bucket,” Chris said.  He was standing beside Kenzie’s chair, watching.

“I could help a little if they let me give them tech,” Kenzie said from her workstation.  “But they won’t.  Speaking of tech, second box going live.  Additional systems, monitors, and information, no super internet just yet, sorry.  We’re booting up in five, four, three, two, one-”

There was a pause where a second or two passed.  She kicked the box to her left.  Projected images began to fill up more of the walls.  News having to do with capes, with politics, with crime and industry.  Some terrible newspaper comics popped up briefly, before being replaced by more pertinent things.

“And zero,” she said.  “Tinker internet hookup next to come.”

In one area, according to a headline on a news ticker, Mayday was getting a hard time.  The territories that Advance Guard was managing were seeing civilian pushback, citing Mayday’s lack of leadership in years before Kenzie had even joined his team.

I glanced at her, but she was busy enough that she didn’t see it.  I watched as it lingered on the ticker before other news pushed it off.

The map had loaded incompletely again, with more gray than before.  Tristan groaned loudly in frustration, walking away.

“We can’t make this about riot duty and supporting a crumbling infrastructure,” I said.  “We can’t be extra police officers, with some extra capabilities and a lot of access and procedural stuff missing.  It’s inefficient.”

“We stop going after criminals?”  Tristan asked.

“We go after the key ones, prioritize the worst, and the ones our team can break up.  The courts are under enough strain as is.  They aren’t going to appreciate us sending petty drug dealers their way.”

“And there’s subversive, hostile elements in the city,” Sveta said.  “Earth C’s soldiers.”

“That’s the big reason we’re needing to coordinate,” I said.  “Them.  The Fallen.  Maybe Love Lost’s group.  Possibly Prancer’s remnants, depending on how resentful they are.  Those who aren’t playing along or who pose too big a risk.”

Tristan added, “And each group or major location may be targeted by hostile powers.  Dragon, Defiant and others at the top know, but…”

“We have to keep an eye on the prison,” Kenzie said.  “Ashley and Rain.”

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.  “Among other things.”

“I was thinking about it,” Lookout said.  She swiveled around in her chair.  “It’s a lot.”

“It’s a lot,” I agreed.

“We can pick something to do, and we can go after it, but other stuff is going to come up while we’re doing that, even if we’re really, really good about it,” Kenzie said.  “Even if we get the other teams to coordinate and we’re really, really, really fast with getting other teams to cooperate with us, it’s going to be hard.”

“Maybe impossible,” Chris said.

“Why does you chiming in like that make me suspicious?” Tristan asked.

“Me?” Chris asked.

“You’re hanging out with Kenz, no snark, no hostility, you’re being quiet, you’re helping-”

“Because he likes me,” Kenzie said.

“No, it’s because,” Chris said.  “I’m not stressed about being in the latest of a long, annoying line of institutions.  Don’t put me in a hospital, orphanage, jail, school, I’m good.”

Good might be overstating it,” I said.

“You two are conspiring,” Tristan said.

I studied their expressions, carefully neutral.  Kenzie had the hint of a smile on her face, but she mostly seemed jittery, heel on the top of a cardboard box, foot jiggling.

“I can see it,” I said.

“It’s not a conspiracy.  Can I just make my pitch, explain how I see things, and you can correct me if I’m wrong?” Kenzie asked.

“Go ahead,” Sveta told her.

“This is a big thing.  I’m going to end up working really hard either way, but if we go the way I was just talking about, where we try to do one big thing at a time and other stuff keeps coming up and getting in the way, we’ll get buried, we’ll start slipping, and I’ll end up working super late to build stuff we super duper absolutely need.”

“It’s possible.  We could establish rules to avoid that,” Sveta said.

Or,” Kenzie said.  “We agree we’re in trouble.  If things were really terrible in a fight, Victoria would stop holding back and would hit hard to smash people to smithereens.  Tristan and Byron would use some of their tougher tricks, like stalactite rain or drowning people in rock.”

“I’ve never had cause to do that.  I’m not even sure I could.”

“Sveta-” Kenzie started.  “There’s maybe possibly a situation where things were dangerous and you’d leave that body.”

“Let’s not discuss that,” Sveta said.  “I don’t want to entertain the idea.  I know how bad it could be.”

“My point is, we’re all really strong.  Sometimes there’s a situation where we stop being nice about it and just do our best.”

I saw the almost-smile become more of a smile.  Because her means of self expression was different, with a smile meaning something totally different, I had to parse eyebrows, eyes, mouth and body language individually and then piece it together to read her.

Worry, guilt?

“What did you do?” I asked.

She froze.

“Smooth Kenz,” Chris murmured.

“Fuck off if you’re not going to help,” she said, under her breath.  “I figured we needed all the info we could get.”

“You didn’t take Dragon’s files, did you?” Tristan asked.

“No!  No.  Nothing like that,” Kenzie said.

I imagined everyone in the room breathed a faint sigh of relief at that.  Even Chris probably would’ve, and she’d apparently included him in her plan, confiding in him.

Taking Dragon’s files would’ve been a potential shitstorm of epic scale.

“I took over the prison security system, so we can use their surveillance” Kenzie said.  “And Chris and I kind of worked together to get cameras inside.”

She hit a key.  The feeds along the wall switched to footage from the cameras spaced across the prison.  A few of the scenes flicked between multiple perspectives across the building.

I closed my eyes.

“Chris, why?” Tristan asked.

“You’re getting on my case?” Chris asked.  “She’s as culpable or more culpable than I am.”

“She’s two years younger than you and you’re supposed to be a good role model.”

“I failed at that a while ago, Tristan.  And she’s right.  We need this, because we can’t take the long road every time.  We were going to end up doing this anyway.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” Sveta asked.

“Because,” Kenzie said.  “It’s the kind of thing where it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than ask permission.  Plus if I got caught, you all can claim I’m the ditzy tinker kid and you had no idea what I was doing.  It’s proof against even lie detector capes.”

There were some out there, in Foresight.

“But I didn’t get caught and now the chances are really slim we get caught.  Just like my being on their server.  Now that it’s done… I think it’s done, I can tell you guys and you can decide what you want to do with it.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“Um.  Here.”

She reached for a book at the edge of her workstation, checked it front and back, and tossed it to me.

A novel of the sort that was aimed at young adolescents.  It was one I’d read a long time ago, but had largely forgotten.  I remembered more of the movie of the same name.

Examining it, I found the circle of the ‘o’ in word ‘Holt’ on the spine had been colored in black.  The book opened and closed, with nothing shaking out of it.

I pried at it, got my fingernails under it, and pulled it out.  It was the eye camera that Kenzie had placed in Ashley’s eye.  It had phased into the book, the extra bits almost invisible, they were so phased out.

“The books you were talking about,” I said.

“My care package.  It comes with a way to keep a better eye on things.”

“You helped?” I asked Chris.

“The tech I had on me that they looked at was what let her get access to the security cameras,” Chris replied.

“Let me get this straight,” Tristan said.  “You hacked a secure facility.  Using a… virus?”

“Vector of attack,” Kenzie said.  “Yes.”

“Chris feigns being an asshole to buy time to hack in-”

“I didn’t feign, thank you,” Chris said.

“You had and have control of prison oversight now,” Tristan continued down his list.

“Yes,” Kenzie replied.

“And you snuck in a camera- multiple cameras.”

“One for Ash and one for Rain,” Kenzie said.  “So I can show you stuff, and we can communicate with them, and it gets a lot easier to do stuff.  Look, look, I can show you-”

She swiveled around and then hit buttons

“Kenzie, stop,” Sveta said.  “We need to discuss this, then we need to discuss what we do with the aftermath.”

“Too late.  Feed’s up,” Kenzie said.  “Sorry.”

“I’ll cover your entire system in stone if you aren’t careful,” Tristan said.  “Soak it in water.  You’re getting carried away.”

“I’m saying we might need to get a little carried away because the whole situation is carried away.  I had to do this little dodgy thing, but it means we can communicate better with them, and we definitely need that.  It means we can communicate more to other teams, and that’s super important.”

The projected icon showed a slice of Ashley’s cell.

“This is old footage,” Kenzie said.  “About half an hour ago.  She figured it out.”

The image distorted, the book’s perspective shifting.

As Ashley’s prosthetic hand reached in, almost covering up the lens in entirety, it was momentarily possible to see the artificial texture of the thumb-tip.

“I can’t get you out,” she murmured, her voice amplified by the speakers.

There was a thud as the book was allowed to fall to the table.

“Problem?” Ashley asked, audible through the computer speakers.

“I need your claws.”

“They’re mine, and I’m not about to hand them over.  I like looking dangerous.”

“To pry something free.  And for something else.”

“Pry?  Now I’m curious.”

“Voice down for the camera.  Come.  Here, see the ‘o’?”

“I see it.  You want it cut out?”

“No!” Kenzie said, to the wall.  The wall and the two Ashleys weren’t in positions to hear.

“No.  Bring your blade this way, pry.”

“Don’t scratch the edges of the lenses,” Kenzie said, again talking to the wall.

There was no echo of her statement this time.  The Ashleys worked in silence.


“Got it.  Here we are.  I’ve seen this before.”

“It looks like someone wrapped barbed wire around an ice pick and put a lens on the butt end.”

“A small ice pick, maybe.  I need you to stick that into my eye.”



Kenzie’s eyes widened.

“Didn’t leave instructions?” Chris asked.

“I… kind of forgot that her hands are wonky right now and her sister’s hands are even more dangerous.”

“We might need to turn it on,” Ashley said.

“It’s on!” Kenzie hurried to say, shouting at the wall.  “Don’t flip the switches or you’ll change polarity or bias, or you’ll turn it off and it’ll become a weird stabby knife instead of one that goes through eyes!”

They couldn’t hear us, and a phone call or message was a procedural nightmare that would take a while to arrange and use.  Even if we did tip them off about what was going on, we’d risk the ‘good guys’ finding out about the cameras.

I folded my arms.

The camera’s focus changed.  The strange Ashley had the lens gripped by the flats of four blade fingers.  The points of the fingers extended a bit beyond the pad or ‘head’ of the eye camera.  If everything went in smoothly, the points would bury inside the eye before the object fully did.

Ashley took it, not flinching as the point touched home.  Other parts of the camera flowed in.  The points of her sister’s claw came perilously close to her eye and eye socket, but they didn’t penetrate.  Our Ashley pushed it the rest of the way in with a stiff finger.

“One eyeball on the inside,” Tristan said.

“Until battery runs out,” Chris said.

“Nuh uh,” Kenzie said.

“Batteries run out.  There’s no way you hooked that up to some greater power source and still sent it that far away from the source.”

“I included a battery recharger,” Kenzie said.

“What you said about sleeping with your head on a book,” I said.


“Did you worry, when I had my claws so close?  Did you fear me?”  It was the other Ashley, talking to our Ashley.

“I trust you as far as I trust myself.”

“So corny,” Chris said.  “I can imagine them just doing that nonstop for the next two years, and acting like it’s still cute or funny.”

“For the record,” Tristan said.  “You’re not in the good books either.  This whole thing with being underhanded and potentially screwing up everything is so not good.”

Kenzie protested, “In really tough fights, Victoria can go all out and hit full strength.  In really tough information warfare, why can’t I do the same?  This stuff is maximum importance, and now we can do more with less!”

“We might,” I said.  “But we talk this sort of thing out first.  This is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do.”

Kenzie nodded, smiling.

“We should talk restrictions,” Sveta said.  “Make sure we don’t make anyone suspicious.  What if we waited a while before visiting again?”

“What?” Kenzie asked.  “You’re joking.”

Sveta said, “We just dropped some tech off at their place and compromised their systems-”

“It’s not going to get caught.  I guarantee you.”

“Just to be safe,” Sveta said.

“You’re punishing me.”

“I’m being safe,” Sveta said.  “If it’s unreasonably safe, maybe it’s because I don’t like my team doing things behind my back, and I’m uneasy.”

“I’m- really sorry,” Kenzie’s voice had unexpected emotion in it.  Her expression was a contrite half-smile.

“Good,” Sveta said.  “Apology accepted.”

“I really thought this would be best.  We can get info to and from there without it being stuck behind paperwork, or super difficult to get there and back.  We’re so behind on everything, and-”

“And we communicate,” I said.  “Please.”

Kenzie smiled and nodded.

Damn it.  I’d have to figure this out, in a time and place where I wasn’t putting her on the spot.  Smooth things over, make sure she wasn’t too upset.

“Speaking of communications,” Chris said.  He was on a computer.  “We have a peek at their systems.”

“Stay away from classified files,” Tristan said.  “We’ve torn past enough boundaries today already.

“Nothing classified,” Chris said.  “Employees make notes of frequent callers and people who request visits.  We’ve got some threads to follow.”

“Cheit?” Sveta asked.

Chris tapped the screen, before stepping back.

Rather than us go to the computer to look, Kenzie changed the display, broadcasting the image of yellow text on a black background onto the wall.

The self-proclaimed Blue Empress was wanting to see people within the prison.  She had been refused a few times.  For good reason.

She went by other names.  The Woman in Blue.  Goddess.  She’d taken over a world single-handedly.  After Gold Morning, she’d been left in our world, where she’d lurked on the fringes.  Something or someone in the prison had piqued her interest, and now she was exerting pressure, trying to get inside.

What to even say?  On the one hand, to dismiss this would be madness.  On the other hand, to mark it as important when doing so would only encourage Kenzie…

Pieces were almost falling into place.

“Chris, can you find information on Crystalclear?  Requests, communications?”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “I can try.”

I folded my arms, looking at the image on the screen, the moving text, the slow-moving query.

My aura was like a push, fear or awe.  Lately it seemed to be only fear, with a few rare, weird exceptions.  Monokeros could pick one person and sway them wholly and completely.  The Woman in Blue was the best of both, or even stronger.

She’d been making subtle moves, biding her time, and nobody knew exactly why or what that patience served.  Now we had a glimmer of what she was doing.

She was after someone, something, or what the prison offered to someone who had absolute control over others- an army.

“Crystalclear is in communication with others,” Chris said.  “It’s encrypted.”

“We can get in,” Looksee said.  She looked at us.  “If you’re okay with that.”

One of the biggest players around was circling around one of the biggest, meanest collections of parahumans around.  Cheit knew and planned on turning it into a trap for her, explaining their interest in the place as a form of bait, or they’d happened to be after the same prize.

This was going to turn into a battlefield.

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66 thoughts on “Beacon – 8.4”

  1. Guys, you need to actually not encourage Kenzie. Boundaries don’t work if you’re also telling her they don’t matter.

    The rules matter, right?
    (They’ve changed. How far?)

    1. It’s all fun and games until Ratcatcher comes to visit Crystalclear and detects the cameras.

  2. Glad I totally called that Crystalclear was an inmate, not a guard.

    Other fun revelations include the Stillons sisters co-operating, Chris and Kenzie co-operating, Rain and Tristan being best buds and we all agree that Monokeros is going to die a complicated and gory death, right?

    This was a fun chapter, thank you!

    1. Crystalclear is probably in there as a spy.

      I wonder if he can see Lookout’s tech. He’s probably going to get into communication pretty quickly on his own, if so. “Oh hey Rain, I heard you were working with Antares, what’s that in your eye?”

    2. I was sure he was there as an advocate for Blindside. I really want them to turn up again.

      Though it’d be hard to determine which half of the prison Blindside belongs in, given their power.

      1. This is what cameras are for. I suppose Blindside’s power might stop you from aiming a camera at them, but that just means you make them walk in front of a wall-mounted camera instead. If they refuse, deny them food and water until they either stop refusing or cease to be a concern.

        Or you just ask them. Sure, they could lie, but so what? And if they refuse to answer or say they’re non-binary, then that means you get to stick them wherever it’s most convenient.

    3. She promised not to cause an incident, so Monokeros will probably avoid the gory path. She might just… suddenly go poof one day. Out of nowhere.

      1. Have you ever seen any of Charles Manson’s parole hearings? In one, they ask him what he would do if he was released. He replies seriously, “I would just go *poof*.” Asked for clarification, he confirms “yeah man, just poof.” He was not given parole.

        1. Even someone of such dubious sanity as Manson would have known that he had zero possibility of parole, so the whole episode was just a chance for him to have some laughs. He was the main beneficiary of the California Supreme Court’s 1972 attempt to get a handle on the death penalty… Lots of death row inmates are innocent but Manson sure wasn’t one of those.

  3. Man, there are way to many variables going right into this prison that can make this turn ugly. There is also no way that Tattletale doesn’t know this, so here’s hoping we can see Undersiders back in action again.

    Of all the people possibly in the prison, Goddess might be going after Scapegoat. I remember back in Worm that Tattletale said that Scapegoat is not using his powers to his full potential. Goddess might be wanting to cash in on that. She’s also probably pissed off against Khepri controlling her back in Golden Morning, so she might be looking for a way to strike revenge.

    Also, Ashley x Ashley is my new ship.

    1. My money is on Goddess going for the entire prison. It’s not clear what her Master power is or how it works, but it ensures the loyalty of every parahuman on her world. Obviously there’s some limiting factor on it or she’d have become absolute multiversal ruler five seconds after Doormaker died, but it works on very large numbers of people and there’s no reason not to take the entire set while she’s there. And she’s seemingly such a heavy hitter by herself and has so many parahumans already that it’s pretty unlikely any individual cape who isn’t class-S tier would catch her interest. The only way I’d see her going after a single prisoner is if they’re a relatively high-end Thinker or Tinker who might contribute to her overall strategizing well out of proportion to their individual combat ability.

      1. Perhaps there is a cape in the prison who would help her overcome some limitation we don’t know about. Just as Doormaker was very useful for Khepri, some thinker or tinker or shaker might give Goddess just what she needs for her master abilities to surpass even what she had in Shin…

        1. A Doormaker and Clairvoyant combo might just be what Goddess needs. If Scrub or Labyrinth are in the prison, then Goddess might have her target.

          They are the only people known to be portal creator just like Doormaker. Perhaps she’s hoping for a sneak attack with her own Doormakers upon her Clairvoyant target, possibly Dinah or the Number Man.

          I don’t think Goddess would be the type to break into an entire Prison for the sake to rummage all the cherries. I mean, why go through official channels to allow her in to speak to a prisoner, twice I might add, if she’s planning to take them all anyways? That sounds like a massive heads-up for any full-attack she might be planning to subsume them all. More than likely, she’s got her sets on one or two targets. Targets that she’s willing to play safe and go through official channels for rather than a sneak attack.

          But, based on her powers on the wiki, I don’t think she can easily subsume any parahuman in her grasp. But rather it takes time.

          1. I doubt it will be a repeat of portal-makers; Wowbild is more creative than that. He’s not writing fanfiction here. Let’s say we go with what you’re talking about with a time limitation. If the Speedrunners were captured, perhaps one of them could help her out…

  4. Prison contraband typo thread:

    “I think it’s done”
    Weird italics selection.

    “and then hit buttons”
    Cuts short.

    Also, not really a typo, but early on:
    “Ashley said. She set a hand on Kenzie’s head.”
    Not totally clear how she got close enough to Kenzie to do that – she was across the road, and no guards raised an alarm for Kenzie suddenly getting closer to her so I assumed Monokeros lured her the other way. No mention of Ashley moving closer before/after she yells, either.

    1. “Stay away from classified files,” Tristan said. “We’ve torn past enough boundaries today already.

    2. I just assumed Kenzie turned in Ashley’s direction. They are allowed a hug at the beginning and end of the visit, so maybe the guards were letting them have their goodbye hug.

  5. I guess if you need to murder someone in self-defense for prison rep there are worse targets than a serial killer who targets children. Honestly it’s surprising nobody has grabbed a buddy and gone and murdered Monokeros yet, her power works on one person at a time and even to career criminals she’s repulsive.

    1. They feel admiration for her when they’re under her control. That might mean they love her more than their mates, and turn against their buddy in her defence.

      Secondly, everyone has a bomb on their ankle that will go off if they spend too much time too close to another prisoner. Good luck organising a murder with a buddy when you can’t get within thirty feet of the victim OR your buddy. Or you could, and lose a foot, plus your buddy loses a foot, and if Monokeros survives, she’s also lost a foot. Now the bomb is on your other ankle.

    2. Ashley will just get Not-Swansong-Ashley to kill Monokeros for her. That Ashley will be happy to do it, she has no intention of every going hero, or anything but villain.

  6. “You draw the shittiest hands in life,” Cryptid said.”

    Bad pun Chris, bad pun. Plus it’s not like Rain’s a great artist and hands are notoriously hard.

    Besides he’s probably still in love with Erin, and that ship will make it through rough waters and anchor, and la,la, la I can’t hear you!

    Also geez how many people are in that prison that would want to murder Rain? We’ve got a bunch of fallen including Seir and Love Lost for starters.

    1. Love Lost isn’t in prison. She’s outside; inherited control of BoB’s group. At least, the female half of it. Otherwise Rain wouldn’t need Breakout to keep an eye on her- he’d be able to do it himself from prison.

      1. (Breakthrough. Breakout isn’t on the table… yet.)

        Cradle is around, though. Hoping both Seir and he will behave is rather optimistic.

        1. Would Seir’s clones each have a bomb strapped to his ankle? If not, he can get out of the device fairly easily (and probably blow up someone else in the process). If so, he could rig a super-bomb with a dozen of his clones, which he could enjoy watching from afar. Also, two of his clones together might be enough to trigger their own bombs…

          1. As I understand it, his clones would not have bombs, but when he teleports into a clone to replace it, then he’d bring the bomb along with him. The bombs are potentially Tinker-tech, or Dragon-tech which is nearly the same thing, and probably hack into the same defence mechanism that stops teleporters from turning up naked every time they want to be somewhere else.

            Or else the moment he creates a clone, the bomb explodes and we don’t find out if he would carry it with him.

          2. Based on Taylor’s experience with Oni Lee, I would infer that the bomb would follow teleporters/duplicators. When their powers bring along their stuff, they also take things they don’t want to keep.

          3. I’d say WB can make it work just exactly how he wants it to work, and I’m looking forward to finding that out. Seir is like Chekhov’s neighborhood asshole here…

  7. I wonder I Scapegoat’s full potential is would enable home to replace missing limbs after ankle bombs go off Scape Goat is is there and all those ankle bombs go off, he can replace the damaged or missing limbs. it might take him a little while but get everyone out then heal them

    PS. Hoping to see resurrected capes, (ala the oil rig casualties), And some meeting between Madison Clements and Greg Veder, (if he survived Gold Morning) Preferably right in the thick of it, with Breakthrough and the Undersiders nearby.

    Well, I can dream eh?

    1. I don’t think Scapegoat could pull this off. As a general rule, he replaces the hurt parts of his “patients” with unhurt versions, yes. But he also takes on the injuries himself. If he gets knocked out in the process, everything reverts and the injury comes back, sometimes worse that before. If he replaces a missing limb, he loses his limb as well, if he even CAN replace it. If the bloodloss kills him or makes him faint, everything gets reverted and the other guy might die as well.

    2. I really don’t want to see resurrection of capes. I think that once you have a reliable way to bring people back it takes the stakes off the table in subsequent conflicts. It makes past moments less meaningful and future moments less tense.

      1. I suspect that any of the Einherjar could only be resurrected as bad copies. They’re at most personality echoes imprinted on their agents and probably incomplete and distorted. They might provide a base for Riley to repeat her prior resurrection process more easily, but somehow I don’t think the Wardens would consider frequent use of that safe or reliable.

    3. I figured the ankle bombs are big enough to actually blow them up entirely. Too many of them can heal themselves or others, so what would be the point? A lot of them have suffered worse than a blown off leg and walked away.

    4. “Scapegoat pulls high definition simulations and images from other realities and situates them in ‘1.5’ space with an eye to making them permanent. He also transfers hard-to-define factors, realities and signatures (such as ongoing power effects) and takes them on or shoves them into other individuals.” — Wildbow,

      This seems way more flexible than just a healing power. It doesn’t seem much of a stretch for Scapegoat to upgrade people. Instead of swapping out a damaged limb for a healthy limb, what if he swapped out a healthy limb for one from a potential reality where the limb is stronger? It’s still basically “healing” a debility; just setting the baseline higher.

      Further out there is the potential to take upon himself positive attributes in the same way he gets negative ones. Give himself a swimmer’s lungs, a marathon runner’s legs, a model’s face, and other more abstract factors. He could also push lower-key problems onto others, like giving an enemy his fatigue and muscle soreness.

      The most potential I see, though, is working with the brain. Can he swap in memories from “what if” realities to cheat out information Coil-style? Can he remove the “debility” of, say, being bad at math? Would this let him pull skills and knowledge out of people’s heads?

      Then there’s the Corona Pollentia. Can he tweak powers by swapping in alternate trigger results? Take a potential trigger and swap in a triggered version? Do the opposite and depower capes? I could see there being some constraints since he’d have to alter his own Corona Pollentia at the same time. Perhaps it doesn’t work at all, perhaps he could only do it once then he’s stuck with whatever power he just “healed”. Best case, though, is if powers are one of those “hard-to-define factors” and he can just pick up extra powers.

  8. And of course Kenzie infiltrated the prison security systems. Why the hell wouldn’t she. I’m sure this won’t come back to bite the team in the ass.

    1. When caught they’ll be classified as a villain team and Vicky will be forced to make nice with Tattletale because no hero teams will work with them anymore.

      You heard it here first!

      1. They can bond over both having stolen data from Dragon, after Kenzie reveals she actually did that too.

    2. Frankly, I’m surprised that they’re surprised. That is, that they haven’t realized that Kenzie virtually never *doesn’t* attempt to take control of or at least infiltrate *every* electronic system she encounters. Even from their perspective, Kenzie has been pretty upfront about having infiltrated systems unasked. Now imagine all the systems she didn’t consider important enough to mention. Again, I’m saying even from their perspective they should have expected this.

      That said, unlike Soadreqm, I don’t think Kenzie attempted to compromise Dragon’s systems (beyond passive observation) but only because she didn’t think she could do it without Dragon detecting it. (If she did have high confidence that she could, she absolutely would have tried.) I would be only mildly surprised if Soadreqm turned out to be right though, mainly because that would mean I overestimated Dragon’s ability to defend herself.

  9. “In really tough fights, Victoria can go all out and hit full strength. In really tough information warfare, why can’t I do the same?

    Getting Taylor-Flashbacks here. This is exactly what Taylor argued while she was with the Chicago Wards. I think it was in that dispute with Glenn Chambers, where she said something to the effect of “There has to be a point where the kid gloves come off and I can go all out.”
    Clockblocker voiced a similar sentiment, with the rules and regulations being the reason why the bad guys seemingly always come out one step ahead.
    It’s unlikely Kenzie will make a complete recovery and restrain herself in the foreseeable future, so the best they can hope for is that Kenzie TELLS her team when she’s pulling stuff. They can’t really stop her (she will just stop telling them if they try) but maybe that way they can steer her. If she’s just doing stuff like this, that’s actually manageable. Especially if they really don’t get caught. In addition: Kenzie DOES have a point here. What she discovered might prove to be vital. I think Team Breakthrough might owe its youngest members an apology here.

    1. As a side note, it’s interesting that Bet!Grace Hopper grew the same snark post-divergence.
      Assuming Kenzie learnt the permission/forgiveness line from him, that is.

    2. Kenzie is eleven. I’m not so sure that the kid gloves could or should come off. I am oversimplifying, but I also think that she could really benefit from having a positive authority figure in her life (Victoria or Dragon perhaps). I don’t want to shortsell Lookout (she’s amazing), but I think that her moral compass hasn’t developed completely yet.

    3. It could prove vital, but it’s also illegal and a serious risk to the entire team and she should not have done it without authorization from the team’s vague blob of leadership. This was not a snap decision that she didn’t have time to get approval for; she was almost certainly planning this at the meeting.

  10. Why do I feel like multiple factions are going to converge on the prison and it’s going to leave the megalopolis in an even worse position than before?

    1. Because this is Wildbow, and “an even worse position than before” is basically his catchphrase.

      1. Actually, I’m pretty sure Wildbow’s catchphrases is: “And you thought I couldn’t come up with a bigger problem.”

  11. Time to call in a team that actually knows what it’s doing and isn’t compromised of walking time bombs liabilities, right? Right?

  12. [[and concerned citizens reporting that they’d seen drug deals or drug-related activity.]]

    I’m kind of amazed that the “war on drugs” is still a thing and that they bothered to put anti-drug laws in place in the new world. It’s not like laws against theft, robbery, or murder. Even if you want to restrict certain substances, like tinker-tech, imports from other worlds, or certain drugs, there’s no reason it has to be a police matter. This one like tells me how poorly the new legal system is prioritizing, if “drug deal” are considered something you call the police about.

  13. I wonder if recent events will make extraction difficult for Crystalclear in the future.

    1. But would this really be a crossover reference, rather than the reintroduction of an Ascended Extra? Maggie Holt novels were first mentioned in Worm, long before Pact existed.

  14. Oh Kenzie, I worry about you. Sure it’s helpful to survey situations in the prison, but as we saw with the two Ashley’s and the wall talk, she can’t communicate with them. Speaking of communication, Kenzie really needs to be more upfront with her team. Putting her team at risk and not telling them isn’t going to help this already wobbly team with their camaraderie and staying together.

  15. I note Kenzie is referred to as Looksee again by the end of the chapter. Is that a mistake, or is V unconsciously viewing this rash action as regression/need for wariness and thus labeling K as she would an earlier self?

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