Gleaming – 9.3

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“Bianca.  This wasn’t what I agreed to,” Amy stated, a tightness in her voice.

“I told you the damn stakes.”

No, Bianca,” Amy said, firmer.  I watched the projected image on the wall, and saw the little creature crawl out of the space between duffel coat and body, perching on Amy’s shoulder.  She held what looked like a razor blade melted into the plastic end of a pen, but the nib of the pen was a spike- the resolution and angle weren’t good enough for me to see.  “This isn’t okay.  This is not how you win me over.”

I blinked a few times, my thoughts turning over.

“Amy,” Goddess said.  “I like you.  I like your father-”

“Then don’t mess with my family.”

“-But I can’t make concessions to win you over if I lose everything else.  You know the stakes, you know the situation, and if you want to change my mind, you’d better stop posturing and start thinking of some good fucking arguments or options.  I have no patience right now.”

“Okay,” Amy spoke with measured words, “I would appreciate it if you would free them to think coherently so they can also come up with arguments and options.”

“They’re clearheaded.  Or they will be.”

“They’re stunned.”

Were we?  I didn’t feel like I had my mental footing, after the realization of what Goddess had done.  I didn’t feel especially bothered by the realization either, but I couldn’t find a train of thought that went anywhere and that did bother me.  It wasn’t that they were stalling or being derailed, but that it was a complete and total paradigm shift to switch over to thinking of something that would work for both Breakthrough and Goddess.  My eyes darted over the room and looking at anything, everything, in my effort to find inspiration.  Everything except the image of Amy on the wall.

“Give them a moment.  Once they’re with us, this discussion will move more smoothly,” Goddess said.  She sounded calmer than before.

“I-” Amy started.

“It’s fine,” I said, authoritative.  If I’d had my aura, I might even have used it for punctuation, for all the good it would do against Amy.  I didn’t want to let her respond if it meant I had to hear her voice.  “Let’s do what we need to do, you can leave for some world where you get to be a queen, and I never have to see you again.”

“That’s-” Amy started.  She winced.  “That’s a gut punch, Vicky.  For what it’s worth-”

“It’s not worth anything.”

“She was going to come after you all anyway.  I convinced her to talk to you and your team-”

“We talked,” Goddess said.

“-but you didn’t talk enough before doing this.  Please believe me, Victoria, I didn’t want this.”

A refrain that I’d heard before, that played through my nightmares.  I shook my head, as if that could cast off words or whatever else.  “Just stop, please.  Stop talking.  Leave, get lost.  Please, you owe me that much,”  I talked over her, too impatient and angry  It was worse because I was experiencing a moment’s hesitation, a lurching feeling like I stood on a cliff’s edge and I was unable to fly.

“I do, but- there’s no point where I’ve done enough to make up for it?  I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

Did she mean to let bygones be  bygones, as if that was even possible?  Was I misunderstanding?  ‘Done enough to make up for it?’

“I mean, I’m doing more harm if I let this happen,” she said, as if to clarify, her voice quiet.  She sounded lost, a little hollowed out.

I tried to ignore her, my skin crawling.  She sounded lost, hollowed out, and she communicated that same sensation or experience to me with her voice.  It wasn’t an unfamiliar voice, either.  I heard voices like that around the edges of my nightmares, images and scenes my brain couldn’t keep in my long-term memory.

There were other things to dwell on.  Goddess, for one.  This feeling- I could place the why of it.  I’d made assumptions.  I addressed Goddess.  “I said we’d part ways after this was done.  Was I right about that, or is the plan that we come with you after?”

Goddess answered me, “I’ll end my relationship with Breakthrough after I have what I need from the prison, a few of our mutual enemies’ underlings removed, then you can decide with clear heads if you want to come with me.  Agreeable?”

“No, it’s not agreeable to me,” Amy said.

“It’s perfect.  Stop talking, Amy,” I said.

“Victoria-”

Stop!” I raised my voice, taking a step forward.  It took Capricorn’s hand on my shoulder to remind me that she was more than sixty miles away.

I’d spooked Lookout by being so loud, by the looks of it.

I saw Amy drop her hands from the small raised ‘hands up’ position that had followed my shout.  It would have been comical if just about anything about this scene had been different.

I didn’t like feeling so off when it came to my mental footing, especially when I had to deal with the relative proximity of someone I’d really hoped I’d never have to see again.  I avoided looking at the screen- I didn’t want to make eye contact, to see if she was staring at me.

“Make her stop talking, I’ll stop, you can talk to the team,” I said.

“Breakthrough?” Goddess asked.

The others were voicing their agreement- most of the others.  My thoughts were chaotic enough that I was momentarily incapable of sifting through overlapping voices.

“…should work out,” Capricorn’s voice trailed after the others.

Even the projections of Swansong and Precipice nodded assent.  Good.  The satisfaction that we were all on the same page was disrupted by the sound of her voice.  Amy’s voice.  I grit my teeth.

“Vicky,” Amy said.  “I’m on your side here… and I don’t think you’re on your own side.”

“Are you working against me now?” Goddess asked.

“No,” Amy said.  “Because I think this is a bad move.  I’m helping you by saying no to this.”

“You don’t get it,” I said, and my voice went weak on ‘get’ in a way that made me think it would crack.  I didn’t want to be weak.  I wanted to be angry, so I spoke with more fervor, more harshness in my voice.  “The fact that you’re here, that you wanted to talk to me, it shows you don’t get it.  You invade my thoughts every few minutes.  You altered me as a person, on multiple levels.  Everything I do now, everything I touch, everything I eat, it’s stained with- with you.  You intruded that deeply, that thoroughly, and the very fact you think you can talk to me is screwed up.  It’s another intrusion, your words in my ears.  Whatever you think you’re doing- this isn’t helping.”

“After this is done with, I think you’d thank me.”

Heavy words.  I was pretty sure she’d said the same thing way back then.

Something in my expression seemed to communicate that.

Her expression was forlorn, lost.  Fuck her.  She asked, “What am I supposed to do?  If I let this happen then you’re never going to forgive me.”

“I was never, ever going to forgive you in the first place, even before this meeting,” I spat out the words, and the pent up emotions found some release in those words, anger etching the sounds more and more.  I was aware of my team in my peripheral vision, and my voice softened a bit.  The Warrior Monk.  What would Jessica want?  I didn’t have an answer, so I asked a question instead, with no anger in my voice.  Only the disappointment equivalent to an entire childhood of friendship, loyalty, trust and respect being dashed to the rocks, infusing quiet words as much as anger had infused the loud.  “How do you not get that?”

She didn’t have a response to that.  Her creature looked between her devastated expression and ‘me’- the projected image of me.

“I could ask you to,” Goddess told me.  “Forgive her.”

“No,” Amy said, as I shook my head.

The standing-on-a-ledge feeling lurched inside of me at the idea.

Goddess reached out to fix a lock of brown hair that the rain had pressed down to Amy’s ear.  I moved my shoulders, shifting my weight on my feet- I wanted to squirm free of skin and awareness to not be a part of this.

Goddess asked, “What am I going to do with you, Amy?”

I stared at Lookout’s workstations, at the other monitors, the email feeds, desperate for something that would give me an excuse to not be here, a distraction or a daydream.

“It might be better if I handle things from here on out,” Capricorn murmured in my ear.

“Yeah.  A lot better,” I murmured back.  “Thank you.”

Goddess was talking to Amy in the meantime.  I didn’t want to listen, but she wasn’t the kind of person who was ignored.

“…asked you what you wanted, you said you wanted to talk to her.   You wanted resolution before you left.  That was part of the deal.”

“I meant- I didn’t say to force her.”

I winced.

I heard Goddess talking to Amy, telling her, “You didn’t say it, but you wanted it.  Needed it, even.  Now you have it.”

There was only silence.  I imagined a head-shake, but I didn’t want to look.

A damning silence, I thought.

Something about Amy’s voice with an edge of desperation to it hit me to my core.  Silence was better.

“We’ll return to that if we have time.  Breakthrough,” Goddess said.  “Let’s talk strategy.”

There was a moment’s hesitation before Capricorn responded.  “Let’s.  What do you need?”

That hesitation was a factor- especially if the hounds were coming calling.  I knew Capricorn’s own thoughts were no doubt working on getting used to the new paradigm.  There were wrong answers and right answers, and nothing was explicitly saying we couldn’t choose the wrong answers, but… why choose the wrong answer?

“The last time I made a play, there was a twenty minute delay before they came.  This time, my danger sense suggests something closer to ten or twelve.”

“Good to know,” Precipice said.

“What does it mean?” Capricorn asked.  “When the hounds come?”

“They’ll come for me, at first.  Lesser tinkers and thinkers with guns, grenades, more tricks than sheer power.  I don’t get the feeling he’s willing to go for outright war.  Squads are led by people with enhanced coordination and special means of communication.  They strike in coordination, multiple squads with perfect timing between them.  I can fend them off, but not forever, not without my full complement of powers.  If I use my full powers, it draws hostile attention of other sorts.  Your Wardens, or what’s left of them.  Others.  If I run, I have to abandon my missions, they gain ground, and they will divine who I was working on and target them.”

“This is Teacher?” I asked.

“It is.”

We’d heard some of what was going on from Tattletale.  To hear about Teacher having this kind of clout was a little daunting, bringing home some of Tattletale’s anxieties.

Forget Goddess having a small influence over us- the notion that I was both facing down Amy and sympathizing with Tattletale threatened to break my brain in half.

No.  This wasn’t okay.  The wrongness of the situation crept through my bones and belly.  If I’d had to talk more or ask follow-up questions, I felt like I’d be stuck for what to say.

“You had a camera person?” Goddess asked.  “It came up on the television program.”

“Me,” Lookout said.

“And you’ve networked with other groups?”

“Yes,” Capricorn said.

“Connect me to those groups.  I want straight video feed, or multiple groups gathered in one place.  Internet is unreliable and phones are frequently down.  What can you do in ten minutes?”

“I have connections already,” Lookout said.  Eager to please, happy to have been proactive.  “Secure line, separate and distinct from what the city has.  It doesn’t connect directly to most of those guys, but I can leapfrog from a place very close to them.  I can do it in a minute, as fast as I can dial the numbers.”

No hesitation curve there, I noted.

“I’ll come to you.  Be ready.”

“No,” Cryptid said.  His voice nearly overlapped with Amy’s.

“Why not?”

“It doesn’t make sense.  We should be compartmentalizing more.”

“Compartmentalizing like having thirty-two online accounts?” Rain asked.

“Like that.  Break operations into cells.  You want to do something, Goddess?  Fine.  Hold off your small army and let us do what you need us to do.”

“Just you?  No.  I want others.”

“If you reach out to others, people are going to realize.  Thinkers watch out for this kind of thing.  Some teams have their precogs, others are scattered and wary.  We’ve told them to be careful, because multiple players in this game have stranger or master powers.”

“Cryptid is the paranoid type,” Capricorn explained.

“If you’re not super paranoid then you’re not paying enough attention to how fucked up things can be,” Cryptid said.  “There are people still trapped in time looped torture bubbles.  The kid who did it?  He was supposed to be dead.  There is no degree of ass-covering that’s too much.  This? You can’t show your hand.”

Amy had been murmuring with her creature- to Dot, she’d called it.  Trying to work out a course of action.  She’d paused to observe this part of the conversation, and that she was observing that keenly was something worth paying attention to, as much as I didn’t want to.

“I’m not convinced,” Goddess said.  “There’s no time for subtlety.”

Cryptid explained, “They put the prison behind two portals.  They have the means to close ways between universes- they used it to seal off Aleph entirely.  That’s the trap.  If you go there, they abandon ship and lock you in, or they’ll just blow up the prisoners that might end up compromised.”

“Let’s avoid that,” Precipice said.

“They’ll try to evacuate staff, they have ways to get them out fast, but they will lock them in if they have to.  If you try to take over teams and word gets out, they’ll take similar measures, blow up anyone who might be compromised, or they’ll lock off the prison, temporarily or permanently.”

“We could shut off communication,” Lookout said.  “Keep them from sending out an alert.”

“Sure.  Except are you sure that wouldn’t set off failsafes?”

“Uhh.”

“I think it might set off failsafes,” Cryptid said.

“Things were rushed,” I said.  “They can’t get universities up and running, groups are underfunded, we’re just getting a working government.  And you think they’ve built a perfect prison?”

“I think the stakes are high,” Cryptid replied.  “Swansong probably wants to keep her legs.  Precipice too, though he could probably do a prosthetic arm for a leg.  And I’m betting our Lady in Blue doesn’t want the other guy to win.  Screwing up would hand him that win.  We can be better than that.”

“A good-enough prison, maybe?” I asked.

“Let’s anticipate everything,” he said.

“It’s hard to imagine you were being so unreasonable a few hours ago, and you’re Mr. Rational now.”

“I was reasonable and rational all along,” Cryptid retorted.  To the screen, to Goddess, he said, “I’m confident I’m right here.  This isn’t the way to do this.  There are too many traps.”

Goddess didn’t respond.  The silence stretched.

Cryptid was staring at the screen, chin up, headphones and headgear on, but masked with the projection plate that dressed up his body in weird shapes and shades.  I could see his silhouette, slightly broken up, but I couldn’t see much of him.

Between Rain and Capricorn, Swansong was staring off into space.  Was it a consequence of being on the other side of a computer screen, two steps removed?  No- because Precipice was more or less normal.

She was fighting this- treading water.  The inverse of Lookout.

Amy approached Goddess, and she spoke in a very low voice, inaudible.

Lookout glanced over her shoulder at us, then typed something out.

The audio distorted, then settled at a point it was audible.  Nobody complained- I suspected because they all wanted to know.

Even my desire to know outweighed how little I wanted to hear Amy talk.

“-to do things better this time.  You wanted people who weren’t yes men.  I’m trying to be that, but I’m not good at it.  I’m not a debater, I’m not quick.  Cryptid’s team has information we don’t, and he says no.”

“We can hear you,” Cryptid said.

“Chri-ptid!” Lookout hissed.

“So don’t go talking about anything private,” he added.

“Is he trustworthy?” Goddess asked Amy.

“No,” Cryptid said.  “No I’m not.”

“He’s reliable,” Amy said.

“Cryptid.  You’ll come to me by the fastest means possible.  Head to Bridgeport, the downtown crossroads, wait five minutes, then head East from there.  Stop at landmarks.  I will find you.” Goddess said.  “We’ll compartmentalize, as you said.  Individual cells.  You’ll come with me and coordinate.  Breakthrough?  Work on the prison problem.  I will be in touch.  Acceptable?”

“If I’m understanding the way this works, you could tell me to level the entire city, and I’d think it was acceptable,” Capricorn said.  There was something in his voice that made me think he was smiling beneath his helmet.

It felt disconnected, weird.  The storm still raged outside, there was virtually no light out there, and the lights inside seemed artificially bright.  It was like we were in a box, and the world beyond wasn’t real.  This was just a story, a contained, ethereal scene.

A nightmare in a box.

“No,” Goddess said, approaching Capricorn’s projection.  She studied it- a head and face that perfectly matched our Capricorn’s in position and in every last detail.  “You’re not capable.  By asking if it was acceptable, I wanted to know if there were questions or concerns.”

“You’ll be in touch,” Capricorn said.  “We’ll ask then.”

“Then we’ll go, there’s not much time before the asshole’s mind-slaves are after us,” she told Amy, Dot, and Luis.  “I’ll be in touch, Breakthrough.  Next time, we meet in person.”

I glanced at the screen just in time to see Amy glancing back.  Momentary eye contact I hadn’t wanted.  She flipped up the hood of the white coat, with its red cross at the brow.  I watched her go, her squirrel-gremlin climbing up to her shoulder, to wave its toothbrush-razor in what might have been a wave or might have been menacing.  She put a hand up to catch it, pulling it down to the front of her coat, where she rummaged, presumably getting it settled there.

I didn’t know how to digest it all.  I had fear in my chest, anger running through me and a pit of something bleak in my gut.  I felt like I could burst into tears and I felt like I was too numb to move, let alone cry.

I suspected that if we’d been there in person, I would have hit her hard enough to kill her.  As part of that thought, I well and truly believed that had I hit her hard enough to kill her, I would have felt better.

Cryptid dropped his costume-projection, becoming Chris in the process.  stretched on his way to the door, taking only a short detour to grab his bag and coat, flipping his hood up to brave the rain.

“You’ll be okay?” Sveta asked him.

“I have a form prepared.”

The door slammed behind him.

Capricorn immediately began shucking off armor.  Sveta backed away from the consoles, while Swansong and Precipice exchanged looks- Precipice losing his mask to become regular Rain.  It was done.  That was the meeting.

“That could have gone worse,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” Capricorn said.  “Like Victoria said, the effect from her isn’t that bad.”

“Tolerable,” I said, again.

“Are you okay?” Sveta asked me.

I shrugged one shoulder and shook my head.

“Did it help to get things off your chest?”

“If it did, it was outweighed by how much that sucked in general,” I said.  “I don’t know if it helped.  Ask me again in a week, when I’ve replayed these conversations and those expressions over and over in my head a thousand times.”

“For what it’s worth,” Tristan said.  “Thanks for coming, Victoria.  I think someone as powerful as Bianca is used to getting her way.  If you hadn’t been here, the meeting wouldn’t have happened, and she would have plowed forward- probably triggering the trap.”

“They’d shut off the prison portals, cutting it off from everyone and everything,” Sveta said.  “Except maybe the man who can apparently travel between dimensions.”

“At least now we have Cryptid on the case, and he’s guiding the game plan,” Tristan said.

“That doesn’t make me super confident,” I told him.

“It’s better than what it looked like we were going to be doing with her,” Tristan said.  “We’ll find a way to help Goddess and we’ll do it while avoiding hurting the other teams.”

I walked over to Ashley and Rain, my arms folded.

Rain was walking over to Tristan, noting the gear, his attention on tables and tinkerings.  Lost in thought.  It had to be a tricky situation, to be so far away and so relatively helpless.  He’d be more helpless if they figured out he was spending hours a day in front of his computer and logging next to no hours online.

And then there was Swansong.  Ashley.  She stared at a point on the table like she wanted to kill it.

“You’ve been quiet,” I observed, to Ashley.

“I’m trying not to think, so I don’t fall into her way of thinking.  I think I’m slowly losing.”

“It’s fine, we’re fine,” Kenzie said.  She had removed her helmet.  “Chris is gone, which sucks, but we’re all mostly okay.”

“I don’t think we are,” Sveta said, her voice gentle.  “But we have a way forward.  We’ll have to rely on Chris to handle his end of things.  In the meantime, we do what we need to.”

Tristan was still pulling off his armor.  “We should touch base with the other teams.  If we’re going to get information, it should be soon.  Byron, I owe you time, but can you do me a favor, and let me swap back to pick up my gear before you leave to go anywhere.”

Tristan blurred.  In frame and the color of the clothes he wore, he changed.  The momentary blur faded.

I saw Byron with his eyes wide, like the deer in the headlights.  I knew, with the same certainty that I’d known she had us.  He was unarmored and unarmed, and wholly his usual self- which was also the self that would look most alarmed by the status quo.

She didn’t have him.

“Think very carefully about what you do next,” I said.

“I’ve had a pretty level head when it comes to sitting in the back seat and watching someone do something awful.  I’m careful, don’t worry,” Byron said.

His movements betrayed his words.  He backed up, moving toward the largest, most empty portion of the room.

“Byron,” I said.  “If you make this whole thing more complicated than it is, there’s a chance people get hurt.  A chance Rain and Ashley get hurt, their legs blown off or they’re stuck on a prison world with no way out.  There are bystanders.  Prison staff who could get hurt.”

“I can sympathize with your sister in this,” he said.

I winced.  “Bad choice of words.”

“In this.  Trying to deal with you, when you’re like this.”

“It’s not major,” Sveta said.

“Are you telling me that in your current state of mind, you wouldn’t hurt a bystander if it helped her?”

I paused, my thoughts working out the best possible answer, which took some doing, since it was pretty far from what I might have normally said.

“There’s always a chance I hurt someone,” Sveta said.  “And I lead the most selfish existence because I go through everyday life and I do the costumed thing despite that chance.”

“I know,” Byron said.  “But… would you willingly do it, instead of your body doing it?  If it helped her?”

Sveta didn’t answer.  I could see her eyes move.

“I might,” I said.

“Then you’re not you,” he said.

Kenzie was in the back, staring.  But she was on our side.

Rain was behind Byron, but Rain was limited in what he could do.  He was a ghost.

Ashley, too.  But Ashley stepped forward, talking.  “That’s not the way it works.  When your brother said something about leveling the city, she said it wasn’t something he was capable of.  It has to be something you’re capable of.”

“You think you’re capable?” Byron asked me.

“I came close with Valefor.  Raise the stakes, and-”

“You keep saying that.  You got that from the Lady in Blue.  You and Kenzie are the good ones.  The only ones besides me who haven’t killed.  You can’t be so casual about it.”

“It’s not being casual about that,” Ashley said.  “It’s about being serious about this.”

“I was thinking about what we could do.  She wanted the connection so she could get people right?” Lookout asked.  “If they see her on camera, she can take control over them.  If we do that enough times, we can get an army.”

“See, that?  That’s terrifying,” Byron said.  “That doesn’t sound like you, Kenz.”

“It’s a plan,” Sveta said.

The lighting in the room changed.  It was Byron’s motes- like fireflies that left lines drawn in the air as they traveled their lazy helixes and loops.  All around Kenzie’s workstation and tinkerings.

“No, no, no,” Kenzie said.

“You guys broke free of Valefor.  Can’t you break free of this?” he asked.  The water-to-be floated around the computers and things like a knife held to a person’s throat.  Kenzie’s work.

I shook my head slowly.  I wasn’t the only one.  Sveta did too, the logistics of her body obviously applying.

“Byron,” I said.  “Switch back with your brother.  Take a backseat role while we do the high-risk stuff.  I know you didn’t ask for this life, and there’s no reason you should be caught up in something bigger.”

“I don’t think I’m going to do that.  The problem with the powers thing is that it sweeps through everything and leaves ruin and devastation,” Byron told me.

“It does.”

“This is a lot of really big powers in one persons’ hands, and she’s catching you guys up in her wake.  She would have caught me too, if I was out and Tristan was in, like he was supposed to be.  We can’t let that be a thing- the devastation.  I don’t want that here, with you guys.”

“Two of us aren’t really here,” Rain observed.  “Whatever we’re made of, it’s cracked and broken.”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t believe that.  Because they’re still here.  They’re here in the way that counts.”

“Maybe,” Byron said.  “But I’m not sure that’s true.  That Woman in Blue is not equipped to lead.  As far as I can tell, that’s a woman who was younger than I am now when she took over her planet, and nobody was strong enough to stop her.  She didn’t know how to lead, she just… things work out because she keeps everyone united in fear, if they’re unpowered, or united under her banner if they’re powered.  She’s spoiled and unhinged.  I can’t see a good outcome from that.  If I don’t take a stand here, there’s going to be more ruin and devastation.  This whole thing needs to stop now if we’re going to keep this from ruining Breakthrough, hurting the other heroes, letting Teacher or Goddess win, or letting both win while everyone else loses…”

There was a pause.  I suspected nobody involved really wanted to pick a fight or force a move.  Too messy.

“Um, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Kenzie said.  There was nothing to interrupt, really.  “Your Malfunction Junction guys have an major update, Victoria.  Please don’t drench my workstation, Byron.”

“Noted.  Thank you, Kenzie,” I said.  My voice was empty of emotion.  My expression was unflinching, as I stared down Byron, one corner of my eye noting the blue motes.  The stalemate continued.

Ashley was stock still, watching.  Sveta circled the room, flanking him.

He rushed me.  I held up hands to either side, telling the others not to intervene.

With fear clutching my heart to alternately slow and hurry its beats, a sick weight in my stomach, and nervous energy running angry through my limbs, I caught Byron’s wrist as he reached for me, pulled it down, and used flight to help step into his stride, planting one foot such that it was right behind his, the length of my leg leaning against the side of his knee, keeping him from extending his leg.  It put him off balance, and he grabbed me to try and regain that balance.

I didn’t need to care about weight or balance.  I let flight carry me off the ground, got to the point my foot could touch down, and with a push forward, drove myself into him.  He tumbled to the ground, started to grab my breastplate with both hands- and ended up grabbing it by one hand, because he might have stabbed himself on decorative spikes if he’d used the other hand.

He tried to pull me down on top of him, and I used flight to help arrest my fall.  He was hanging off of my breastplate now.

“You have to realize there’s something wrong here!” he grunted.

Even being out of practice, after having my arm in a sling, followed by a move that saw my weights and bars packed up, and even with my injured arm not being at one hundred percent, I was stronger than him.  His build was the build of an average guy who ate and exercised an average amount, but who had also never developed his strength.

Because it would make him too similar to his brother, maybe.

I hit his sternum with the heel of my hand.  He let go, and he dropped to the floor.  All of the negative emotions were stronger, not better, after this exercise, and it pained me.  I didn’t want this to continue, I didn’t want to think about the situation with Goddess and Amy.

“Victoria!” Sveta called out.  “Above!”

Water hit me perhaps half of a bathtub’s worth, with no pressure beyond the fact it dropped from ten or so feet above me.  But the weight of it and the surprise made me sag, bringing me close enough for Byron to grab.

He’d had training.  He was rustier than I was, but something went into him gripping my armor and the cloth of my costume, and using that leverage to hurl himself from a lying-down position to a position where he was beside me, pushing me.  Blue motes swirled around us.

“Give me something!” he said.

There was desperation in his voice, like there had been desperation in Amy’s.  He gripped my throat, the whites of his eyes showing as he stared me in the face, and then he let go just as quickly.  My skin didn’t feel like my skin as his fingers slid off of it.  Slick with anxiety sweat, prickled with the goosebumps of cold, even though I was hot in this outfit, in a room with too many hot lights overhead, with muggy wet weather outside.

I got a grip on the shoulder of his v-neck shirt, and used flight to wing around him, twisting up his shirt and putting my arm part of the way around his neck.  I started to pull my arm into a proper headlock.  He knew how to break it.

Had I used my strength, the Wretch would have torn him to shreds.  This was the scenario Uncle Neil had been preparing me for when he’d sparred with me.

I’d sparred with Dean too.  Roughhousing and real sparring both.  The difference was that Byron kept trying to grab me, but Dean had been more of a striker.

“What do I say to convince you!?”

Byron brought his leg around, hard enough to bruise my side, and tried to use the momentum of the kick to drive me closer to the ground, where he could try to grab me again.  I wasn’t sure what he aimed to accomplish.

I knew what my goal was, though.  To grab him, subdue him, and if we couldn’t have him become Tristan again, we would keep him from calling the wrong people until Goddess could bring more people onto her team.

Again, I tried the head-lock.  I let my aura burn at ember-level heat, my cold breastplate pressed against his back, the icon at the pointed top near my clavicle pressing in between his shoulder blades.  As I’d used my flight to stress myself, I put weight on his shoulders, pressing him down with more than just my physical weight.  His legs buckled.

“Victoria,” he said, his voice strangled.

“You shouldn’t be able to talk that easily.”

“Apparently… perk of.. water-focused power.  Didn’t know,” he said, each couple or trio of words heaved out with a fresh breath.

I maintained the pressure.  It was having some effect.  I gave Sveta a look, a jerk of my head.  She’d help.  We’d bind him if I couldn’t make him pass out.

“Master stranger,” he said.  “Master stranger protocols.  You have to have studied them.”

Master stranger.  It put me in mind of my study sessions with Dean.

A second thought of Dean.  It was refreshing and bright when everything else felt so dark.

“You’ve been a hero since birth.  You studied this shit.  You have to know this.  They drilled us on it in Reach, you-” he huffed out a laugh.  “You probably enjoyed it.”

I nodded, unable to speak, as if I was the one being choked.

“Follow the protocols,” he said.

Sveta had reached us.  She had straps that had been used to bind boxes closed.

“Follow the protocols,” he said.  “You’re compromised.  You know you just interacted with a strong Master.  Your team’s at stake.  Master stranger protocols.”

It was such a subtle effect, wasn’t it?  I felt like I’d barely been influenced.

I released him.  Sveta grabbed my wrist, hard, like I was the danger, all of a sudden.

“It’s fine,” I said.  “Trust me.”

I wasn’t sure it was fine.  I wasn’t sure I trusted this.  This course of action felt wrong.

“It’s fine,” Byron said.  “I won’t cause trouble.”

Sveta bit her lip.  She released my wrist.

I didn’t feel quite as lousy as before.  Less fear, less bile, less anger.  A whole lot more doubt.

As if Goddess and my sister both were power so great that they had their own gravity.  As Byron had said, they left chaos in their wake.  Devastation, if we weren’t careful.

“The Major Malfunctions have something?” I asked, trying to change the subject away from Byron.

“They moved on to another prison employee.  He turned out to be shady.  They’re waiting for backup before they act on it.  It’s what we’re looking for, and it’s what Goddess wants.”

I closed my eyes for a moment.

“I’ll go with Byron,” I said.

“You’re sure,” Sveta’s tone made the question a non-question, more of an accusation.  I was crazy to do this.

“Have to be.  We can’t leave the kids alone with him.  He is interested in helping, right?”

“Yes,” Byron said.

“I can manage him.  Can you get the info from Kenz?” I asked.

She gave me a dubious look, but she went to do it.

When it was the two of us again, I lowered my eyes to the ground, and with words I scarcely believed in, lit by a glow of warm feeling. That feeling emanated from a scene in the back of my mind, of me studying classifications with my boyfriend.  I’d honor that memory by throwing myself into this morass of doubt, this wrong feeling, when the last thing I wanted was to feel the weight of more wrongs.

“You’re going to have to steer me away from the wrong kinds of actions,” my voice was a whisper, words in confidence to a person I didn’t know well enough to have confidence in.

“Okay.  Thank you,” Byron whispered back.

“We have to get ahead of this whole thing, fast, before Chris or the others do their things,” I said.

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128 thoughts on “Gleaming – 9.3”

  1. This was a really cool small fight scene and Byron showing a trained, rational side. That one small line “She didn’t have him.” was just so powerful as well. What a great chapter.

    1. The only weakness this could have is that it might have a duration, but I really don’t expect it now – much too convenient. Or it’s longer than dozens of years.
      One moment of focus and she gets pawns so subtly noone in their surroundings would suspect anything. Forget the >60 miles range, she reached through dimensions at the same time; I thought it could be a ‘force them to act against their will’ kind of overwhelming power, but no, their will was completely shifted and they only noticed a minor uneasy moment.
      The perfect trick. No wonder she ruled over an entire world.
      Makes you wonder what she’s missing right now to feel that fragile.

      1. Good question.

        My money is on some kind of absolute defense. She feels she needs it to rule Shin, and her Master power means she doesn’t have that much to fear from parahumans personally attacking her. Even if she’s down her Trump power, I don’t think she’d be more vulnerable to surprise power attacks as ruler of Shin than as someone under observation on Gimel. And she apparently thinks it’d let her fend off Teacher’s minions forever. An immunity to physical attacks would render non-parahumans largely harmless to her, particularly with powerful TK to blast apart any elaborate traps to kill her with some indirect means and danger sense to watch out for poison. Or it could render her tireless, able to use her current suite of powers with full effectiveness forever, without fatigue or sleep.

  2. Holy crap Byron is the *boss*.

    Is Victoria now totally free or just aware she’s compromised and is taking the least destructive path she’s allowed to take?

    1. They’re all aware they’re compromised, but the effect of the power is such that they don’t care – it fundamentally alters what they think of as right to include whatever’s best for Goddess. They still have free will and individual agency, so if they deliberately do things they feel are wrong they can work against her. I’m guessing that’s one of the tricks they teach people to try and deal with Masters – if you know you’ve been compromised but you still have agency, ignore your own instincts and do nothing or do the “wrong” thing.

      Victoria is going to do the “wrong” things now, but she needs Byron to keep her from doing stuff which is actually wrong, because in her state it’s hard for her to distinguish between what’s bad because it’s evil and what’s “bad” because it hurts Goddess.

    2. If we liken it to being heavily intoxicated- when you realize that you’re drunk the realization doesn’t actually cure your drunkeness, but you’re more likely to let your sober friend keep you from walking off a cliff.

      It sure was decent of Tristan to trust his DD. XD

    3. It was such a subtle effect, wasn’t it? I felt like I’d barely been influenced.

      She isn’t free. She isn’t even fully aware of what’s happened. But, she knows been in contact with a Master, and that Byron hasn’t. She knows it because it’s the reason she’s strangling him. She can logically deduce she’s been compromised, and the PRT standard operating procedure in this situation is to stop fighting the teammate who hasn’t been exposed, and to follow their instructions no matter what.

  3. This is a great presentation of her mind control effect. It’s chilling to read.

    I wonder if Chris will accidentally switch into an introspection form and throw the whole thing for a loop? Really, I wonder if Chris is actually trapped *now.* He’s been a difficult ally for a long time, it would be interesting to see him in a situation where he pulls the whole team through.

    1. I really hope so. Chris is awesome and I hope this is what he needs to move past his paranoia, at least in regards to the rest of his team. Paranoia around everyone else is totally warranted, however.

    2. I wonder if Chris has a master form that’ll allow him to mind-control Goddess. Just imagine- Chris in control of everyone.

    3. When they all looked at each other they ‘knew’ each of them were now under Goddess’ control – as easily as they could tell Byron wasn’t (getting taken over granting a Thinker power isn’t exactly unheard of *cough*Teacher*cough*).
      The possibility that Chris will break off the shackles on his own is not zero, but if he does he will probably go dark and avoid everyone, so I’m not expecting much from that front.

      1. In the last chapter Victoria specifically says “I saw it in her eyes” when she realizes Goddess has her and Sveta both. That might be literal, and she needs to make eye contact which Cryptid isn’t allowing thanks to wearing Kenzie’s tech.

    4. I have a feeling Chris is potentially similarly unaffected, or at least partly so. A few chapters ago it was mentioned or speculated he might not actually have a power but is being affected by someone else’s power instead.

      1. Wait, what??? Chris is unpowered. And someone else is doing this TO him. There’s a lot of stuff going on that doesn’t seem to make sense that I just let go for now, but I did not miss THAT.

        1. Back when Victoria visited the facility and Chris was talking about how he kept leaving blood and meat in the toilet Victoria pointed out powers basically don’t do that; all of Scion’s Shards released prior to his death have safety coding installed such that they don’t hurt the user except for intentional limiters on Thinkers and such. This also applies to many Cauldron Shards; Sundancer couldn’t be burned by her own sun in probably the most dramatic example. Even Case 53 Shards are usually stable. If Chris isn’t a broken trigger, and aside from Contessa’s neighbors no pre-GM people are, it is basically impossible he’d have health problems resulting from using his power to transform. There is a very small probability he’s a failed Cauldron experiment who didn’t get the Case 53 mindwipe and tattoo, but Victoria thinks the most likely cause is someone else using a power on him. I’m pretty sure he does have a power himself as well, though.

  4. That chapter had me sitting here with a slowly-growing ball of dread in the pit of my stomach. Well done.

    So Bianca’s mind control is like, several tiers above what we’ve seen before. While Valefor basically inserts obvious, unbreakable (but not ungameable) commands into your head, this power basically realigns your value system in such a way that you there’s nothing to really fight against. It leaves you with all your natural predispositions intact – which is why I assume Ashley, who’s used to second-guessing her “natural”, alien-tainted thought processes was resistant – but since most people don’t have a tendency to doubt their every waking action that’s not much of a defense.

    And Master Stranger protocols finally make an epic appearance! What’s the best way to short-circuit potentially biased/compromised newly-developed trains of thought? Precommitment!

    Awesome, awesome chapter. Here’s hoping the effect isnt permenant.

    1. And brainwashing typo thread:
      “bygones be bygones,”
      Extra space.

      “She sounded lost, a little hollowed out.

      I tried to ignore her, my skin crawling. She sounded lost, hollowed out,”
      Weird insistence.

  5. Holy crap, it’s all up to Byron and the Malfunctions now.

    I suspect Victoria could break through Goddeses influence if forced forgive Amy, she almost did when it was brought up. I suspect to break it you need to ordered to do something you find completely unimaginable. Like something no amount of moral stretching or rationalization could make your mind move past it and cope.

    Also Chris unintentionally bought them some time to warn other teams so that’s a plus.

    I hope Ashley can break through this too, would help rein in Rain

  6. That was a really intense chapter. Such a good payoff to all the buildup, and watching the Master effect take hold as an observer, it’s chilling how natural it read. I am really curious to dig into this memory of studying the Master-Stranger protocols further.
    Also, we know Chris lives for this kind of stuff, but he got eerily confident and competent. I continue to get the foreboding feeling Cryptid is even more than meets the eye.

  7. It’s the power of friendship! Okay, it’s a bit more than that. But if it was just the thing were she looked for solutions that helped worked for Goddess and Breakthrough? It would be the power of friendship.

    1. I wonder if Chris isn’t able to somewhat resist it… By doing the “Help so much that while it’s “Better” for what they “Need” it’s worse for what they want.” bit.

    2. Forget friendship, this is as close to Broadcast+Administration as it gets.
      Taylor was (originally) limited to invertebrates and Jack never really worked out his full influence until Gold Morning, but it’s pretty much the cleanest way I can describe it.

  8. I’m still amazed these idiots didn’t cover the entire room with post-its saying MASTER STRANGER, THE GODDESS LIES or somesuch.

    Loved the explicit mention that Rain and Ashley got zonked through double-dipped projections, b/c this makes Kenzie an INSTANT WIN button for Goddess.

    Shitfuck.

    1. Like in Memento. But who knows if that would have worked. Maybe they would’ve just taken them down- “What a stupid idea that was, of course Goddess is great.” Even if Kenzie prepped a hologram of themselves on a timer, to pop up and warn them, she might have just confessed that to Goddess immediately, or just preemptively disabled it since “it turns out we don’t need it.”

  9. I can’t help but feel, that the plan to get all other team under control was actually workable. With Lookout, Victoria’s knowledge of other heroes and Breakthrough networking with others. I wonder if Chris sunk the idea because he is good or because he is bad.

    And a very convenient shady prison guard, providing an in, just as Goddess needs it. Cheese in the mouse trap?

    1. Either is possible. The reasonably likely outcome of the plan would be siezing the vast majority of the network but bumping into an immunity or precog or danger sense or just someone not quite targetable due to being out of the room that raises the alarm, setting off a confrontation with the Wardens. So it’s to be avoided if they’ve got sufficent assets already. And if Chris didn’t have a point his teammates would have overruled him.

      I also get the sense that the loose nature of Goddess’s control means the team (besides ever-eager Kenzie) actually doesn’t want to control more people if it’s not necessary. They will if they think Goddess needs more support, but they’ll pick plans that won’t if Goddess approves them.

  10. I didn’t even realize what was happening until Byron freaked out. Man are master stranger powers terrifying.

    Also, the smooth execution of Goddess’s trap was both flawless and unnerving. That’s all it took? A quick call, a controversial ally, and a holographic call?

    I just realized that the whole reason Amy disagreed with Goddess was so it’d be easier for Victoria to agree! Or maybe not? Screw master stranger!

    1. Haha there’s no way that the old Amy could be that smooth. Amy under the influence of Goddess? Maybe! I have a feeling that Marquis would be very happy if Amy could add this sort of skill at unspoken lies to her arsenal…

  11. Notice how Amy called breakthrough Cryptid’s team? Something significant there? Wondering if it was crypid in particular they’re after, beyond the prison angle. (Do we know what/who she’s after in prison or is it just non specific capes? Both? I didn’t get the feeling she’s the sort of mastermind whose plans work on dozens of levels a la contessa teacher and tt, but hey, could be wrong.)

    1. “Possessive” grammar also shows mere association, it really doesn’t have to imply anything significant. My workplace isn’t owned by me.

    2. Well, Amy apparently has history with Cryptid and Victoria is a sensitive subject. She doesn’t know anyone else on the team, I don’t think.

    3. Also, when Amy whispered something about Chris to Goddess while Lookout aimed the audio camera, Chris immediately let them know they were being listened so that Amy wouldn’t give details about him… Weird…

  12. So satisfying. Chekhov’s Case 70, Byron, finally comes down off the mantle and is so very great. He and Antares have a lot of potential as “odd couple on the run” over the next few chapters. If Breakthrough remains a team, these two will be how that works, in microcosm. It’s good for Byron too. Does he have friends? If Antares becomes a friend, does that change how Byron interacts with the rest of the team? If so, we could see some of the Tristan whom Moonsong predicted. The annoying characters are always right eventually.

    Cryptid continues to be the best Breakthrough, playing 4-D chess while POV character and OP Master are still struggling with checkers. (I still want some skullbaby deathgrub action, and I doubt the “pregnant Crawler” form is the “fastest means possible”, so he still owes us something.) Goddess immediately identified Cryptid as her most valuable new asset. We now know that Cryptid was present at HQ to get the full blast of Goddess mastering, so he probably is mastered enough not to work against her. Still, smart suspicious capes have more options than dummies who rely on their powers alone. He will see more ways to help Goddess out of their lives than Tress or Lookout can imagine. What school did Cryptid attend, that has him operating on such a high level before he can even get a driver’s license? Breakthrough may emerge from this crisis with a leader who is asshole enough to be a good leader. (I still think that he already sees Antares as a mother figure, and once he works out his teenage crap he’ll be intensely loyal to her.)

    Lookout is an adorable “nightmare in a box”: “If we do that enough times, we can get an army.” Yes sweetie, that’s what S-class is all about. You’re close enough by yourself. Dominated by Goddess you are way over the line. It’s a good thing Cryptid is your friend, because he just saved you from all the kill orders.

    Goddess may be the most intriguing, despite initial impressions. She seems to know her intellectual and power limits, or at least that she has limits, even though as everyone seems to sense she started the cape game on third base. She’s like a Valkyrie who never got the Yamada treatment. I wonder how Panacea was chosen as her Jiminy Cricket? (I still have more sympathy for Panacea than anyone else in the ‘verse.) Did Goddess really want Panacea to keep away the instant power multipliers like Lookout? Tactically that’s dumb, but strategically it’s probably for the best. Like Tattletale, Goddess’s life is much simpler if she isn’t using Lookout the way Lookout wants to be used. One could imagine that this is one way Goddess can beat Teacher: he is always greedy for another dangerous power boost. (e.g. Black Goat?) Goddess may have been around long enough to know that there are some capes you just don’t want to have around.

    1. What school did Cryptid attend, that has him operating on such a high level before he can even get a driver’s license?

      The School of Hard Knocks, obviously.

    2. I would bet that Cryptid is either not mastered or is easily able to fight off the mastering effect ala ignoring the wrongness like Victoria is trying to do at the end.

  13. “I suspected that if we’d been there in person, I would have hit her hard enough to kill her. As part of that thought, I well and truly believed that had I hit her hard enough to kill her, I would have felt better.”

    I’m not sure which would be worse for Victoria. If she eventually felt worse for having killed Amy, or if she never did. Forgiveness… Is a complicated thing. It’s a hard thing. I’m not sure if Amy is deserving of it from Vicky or not. But sometimes it’s also more beneficial to the one doing the forgiving than the forgiven. I can honestly sympathize with both of them this chapter.

    And I think Goddess set the chances of a cordial family Christmas for the Dallons back about a million years.

    1. >And I think Goddess set the chances of a cordial family Christmas for the Dallons back about a million years.

      I’m not so sure. Once Victoria regains her senses and realizes how Amy stood up for her against Goddess and tried to spare her further mind-domination, she may be a little more likely to get along with her. Amy did that even though Victoria was saying cruel things to her and pressuring her not to, which must have been difficult for Amy, not to mention the risk in opposing Goddess like she did. I don’t think that’s “enough” to forgive Amy, since that’s not an option, but Amy didn’t make it any worse. Goddess would’ve taken the team without even meeting them if not for Amy’s intervention.

      1. What Victoria needs to realise is that Amy needs to have a clear mind for herself and forgive Victoria. Did Amy do what she did in a rational sane state of mind? No. does this exonerate Amy? Hell, no.

        Amy invaded Victoria’s thoughts? Noted. Victoria cannot stop thinking about her sister because of a mind whammy? Noted. Victoria is completely fucked up because of her abusive sister? Noted.

        And now, I can go back and change the names around fairly easily.

        Have I missed a deeper problem in this story? of course I have, it’s one by WinterBell and that means some kind of storm is coming. But something I have notice with each passing Arc is that Victoria Dallon rises to meet the challenge. This will probably be the first arc where she doen’t overcome the challenge set before her. But she will still make progress.

        Note that she also found common ground with Tattletale (who fi she turns u near Amy, will do so in a hermetically sealed hazmat suit.

        Hm, as I was writing, I found myself thinking that if Amy goes rogue and completely villainous with no desire to hold back, it could take a Victorai/Lisa alliance to stop her.

        Maybe Victoria ends this story by saying “And I hugged my sister.”

  14. Very big props to Chris, Byron, and Victoria. Impressive work from all if them; I didn’t think they’d find a way to subvert it so quickly.

  15. Okay.. I think I need some help clarifying things. So the entire team IS compromised, and has been since she initiated her power? It’s just so subtle that when you’re reading it the reader(me) couldn’t definitively tell? ( which is massive props to Wildbow for writing it in a way that made it seem natural for the characters even though it goes against them as people) Meaning Byron literally is the only completely rational one currently, with Victoria starting to come too ish? I know that might seem obvious, but for some reason I’m slightly confused, I dunno why haha.

    Speaking of Byron, I have to say I love Tristan but man, it’s good to see Byron really start coming forward more. Like as soon as someone said to him,’ Switch back to Tristan,’ I was like damn, that’s seriously cold since he’s pretty much always put on the back burner and loses so much of the shared time they have.

    1. Yes, as soon as Goddess used her power “do what Goddess wants” got added to their list of goals at highest priority. It didn’t replace their other goals, however, so they’re trying to accomplish it and their goal of protecting the team and the other heroes at the same time.

    2. There was a sentence toward the end of the last chapter: “Then there was a moment, and it was like she’d said a word with monumental emphasis.” Ever since then. We weren’t sure whether Cryptid would be an exception, but today we found out he probably got mastered too. Fortunately it seems Byron didn’t get mastered at all.

      1. Honestly, I’m not sure just what emotional states he can channel, and how broadly his power defines emotions, but something like paranoid sociopathy would likely keep him largely free. One doesn’t care about how furniture feels, and if you suddenly started caring about how the furniture feels obviously it’s because they want you to think that way and as long as you reminded yourself furniture is furniture you could probably work around it. Probably not the most team friendly transformation, but if you needed to fight your team you wouldn’t be held back by any of those pesky feelings of guilt like Byron was in his fight.

    3. Subtle? It seems pretty obvious to me. Goddess used her power. Breakthrough is now working for goddess. They will try to help Goddess fight Teacher, or do whatever else Goddess wants to do. They will conceal Goddess’s activities from anyone not under Goddess’s control. They will contact other hero teams under false pretenses, so that Goddess can user her power on them. None of these are things any of the characters would normally do, and they are doing them because of Goddess’s mind control. They’re still the same people, only now their ultimate loyalty is towards Goddess.

      Victoria explains exactly how it works near the beginning:

      I didn’t feel like I had my mental footing, after the realization of what Goddess had done. I didn’t feel especially bothered by the realization either, but I couldn’t find a train of thought that went anywhere and that did bother me. It wasn’t that they were stalling or being derailed, but that it was a complete and total paradigm shift to switch over to thinking of something that would work for both Breakthrough and Goddess.

      She knows she’s been mind controlled by Goddess, and it doesn’t bother her. She’s completely fine with being Goddess’s pawn. It’s difficult for her to think about WHY she’s fine with it, and she thinks this is a bit unnerving. She still doesn’t want to go against her old value sets (be a hero, don’t hurt innocents, don’t hug Amy etc.), which is why she’s trying to find a solution that’s best for both her and Goddess.

  16. So Byron didn’t manage to take out Kenzie’s equipment, right? That’s a problem because Kenzie is Goddess’ main path to controlling the other heroes. At least Chris seems on top of that?

    Also, I keep getting the “you are posting comments too quickly” notice even though this is my first comment today. What’s up with that?

  17. I don’t think Chris is actually Mastered.

    Obviously, he disagrees with the group all the time, but I don’t think this time is because he’s on their team. Tristan was probably right on the money. Chris took a double-hit of Paranoia so he could combat Goddess to the best of his abilities. By being incredibly paranoid, he can make sure things go as smoothly as possible, also while doing proper Master-Stranger protocols. He’s probably in the same boat as Victoria right now. He knows he’s been influenced and has to go to what seems wrong and have his paranoia steer him right.

    That’s also why he doesn’t tell anyone about it. If they get controlled, then Chris is fucked because they know he’s not on their side. This whole thing is about whose on whose side when really they are always on the same team.

    The simple fact that Chris willingly changed himself to be as paranoid as possible to the scorn of his own team means he’s probably the most heroic of them all.

    1. “To answer you question from before, Tristan: Why yes, I *did* double-dose on paranoia before meeting with the world-conquering Goddess Master. Any objections?”

      1. Exactly. Also, he actually is also shown to have some master-proofing from Mama Mathers.

        Cryptid called the whole thing “minorly distracting.”

        There is something going on with Chris and I would love that interlude.

        Like 9.x. Please? I crave knowledge.

    2. I think it’s both. The paranoia doesn’t protect Chris from mind control, but it makes him less useful to his allies, including Goddess. As soon as he meets up with Goddess, he’s going to do his best to convince her that everyone is working against her, that all her other gamepieces are actually just faking the control, and that whatever she intends to do is exactly what teacher intended. Not out of any desire to harm Goddess, but because he genuinely believes it to be true. And he knew this beforehand. He couldn’t make himself immune, so he made himself an unhelpful asshole. A paranoid little shit who undermines every plan around him, just in case.

      Not that it’s easy to tell.

      1. Thank you. This threads the needle nicely. The only quibble I have is that the fastest means of him getting wherever is for Victoria to fly him, and he didn’t volunteer that, and at the same time, I don’t see how paranoia would call for a different course of action.

        1. Chris can fly on his own. With the Trial & Error fight he turned up at some point without being noticed and in enough time to transform from flight-shape to Brooding Anger. And whilst Victoria can fly, she doesn’t have super-speed, and he does- in Mad Anxiety shape, at least, along with the ability to walk on walls.

          In short, we don’t know enough about Cryptid’s flying shape to know if it’s faster or slower than Victoria, but also remember she’s not the fastest flyer in her family- that’s Laserdream.

        2. That would both take Victoria away from doing other prepwork with the team and bring her to meet Goddess when her presence has not been requested. It would also not necessarily be useful, because Goddess commanded him to head in a direction until she met him rather than to come to a specific place, so the time factor is really about when Goddess gets around to coming to meet him.

  18. Hot daaaaaaaaaang this is one heck of a chapter! It makes sense that this would happen- the best way to understand how a master controls their victims is to show it from the point of view of the victim, after all.

    I think I’m beginning to see what their backup plans were-
    1. that whichever of the twins wasn’t present would be exempt from the control (meaning they originally intended for that to be Tristan, not Byron)
    2. that Vicky’s status as a low-level master via her awe-ra would offer her resistance to control
    3. (maybe?) that Chris would get close to Goddess while continuing his preciously planned pattern of forms, which will put him in a control-resistant state at just the right time to stop her
    4. (maybe?) that Rain will be unaffected by the control once he’s asleep, meaning he can communicate to his cluster-mates and hopefully manipulate them into ruining Goddess’ plans

    above all, this arc is already looking to be incredible!

    (and… I really do hope that Amy standing up to Goddess for her winds up meaning something to Vicky later, once she’s no longer controlled…)

      1. Especially the Capricorn contigency. All Tristan has to do is not switch back. It just seems that Goddess has no experience with Case 70s.

    1. >Vicky’s status as a low-level master via her awe-ra

      Victoria isn’t a Master in any way, this is a common misunderstanding of power classifications. Wildbow has explicitly confirmed she is a Shaker and not Master or Stranger in WOG [1]. Usage of auras and wide area effects are Shakers. Masters are specifically about controlling or creating minions/duplicates/projections.

      Examples of Masters: Skitter, Reagent, Bitch, Nilbog.

      [1] https://forums.spacebattles.com/threads/worm-web-serial-discussion-iii-after-the-end.274031/page-68#post-12852536

      1. Victoria’s aura does make her resistant to emotion effecting powers and makes it harder for empaths to read her, so technically it does give resistance to Master powers, just only specific types.

  19. That was without question the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. To have a level of mind control that influences you that subtly; especially from a pov perspective… I literally couldn’t un-clench myself the whole chapter watching it play out. Well played Wildbow. I can tell the rest of gleaming is going to be hard to watch.

  20. I’d just like to remind everyone that Tristan, perfectly conscious and mastered, just witnessed Byron not obeying Goddess, and convincing Victoria to work on doing the same. Imagine his reaction at being trapped inside a traitor to his new cause – pretty sure Victoria wasn’t the only one tempted to kill a sibling in this chapter.
    Byron never really practiced to remain in control when Tristan wants back, did he ? He and Vicky are on a clock, and the moment it rings everything goes right to hell.

    I have a bad feeling about the Ashleys. Please don’t make it so, wb.
    Please.

    1. That’s partly true, but remember that Tristan and Byron have a pre-existing tactic to fight mind control by transforming. I notice Tristan stripped himself of his gear and lampshaded it heavily before changing. It seems like “I need to change because I owe my twin time” would be an acceptable side-dodge to Goddess’ control.

      Tristan may be temporarily unhappy, but I think he intentionally changed to take himself out of Goddess’ hands.

      Also, I think that timer is totally voluntary and trust-based, not actually power-related.

      1. Yeah, the switching being voluntary and trust-based has been my impression as well. I don’t think Tristen can get back out again, at least not while Byron is conscious. I wouldn’t be surprised if sleeping or being knocked unconscious triggered an auto-swap or allowed the inactive brother to seize control, though.

    2. There’s no suggestion that the absent twin can force the change. It’s not something Byron needs “practice” at. Don’t worry.
      …about that.

  21. How did Goddess become any kind of powerful leader type figure if she ruled the powerless through fear? I don’t get it. She would’ve been assassinated if she’s that bad a leader. But she can’t be a good leader as evidenced by how…shitty she is at talking to people affected by her power and asking them to do things…it’s like she doesn’t fully understand how her power works or something. She feels slightly off as a character to me.

    Just to clarify: All of Victoria’s team are under her control now (except Byron)? If so, very well done WB. It’s not clear…but it is. Subtle. Scary stuff.

    Thx 4 the chapter!

    1. She has danger sense and can surround herself with loyal parahumans of all types, including various thinkers. She’d be pretty difficult to assassinate.
      I get the sense that she ruled through sheer brute force – she controlled all the really scary capes and used them as bludgeons against any opposition. I can see it being pretty effective.

      1. Also, I believe Wildbow once described parahumans on Earth Shin as basically operating as terror cells to destroy infrastructure and make the normal people dependent on parahumans to provide resources. I would not be particularly surprised to learn that Goddess had a death toll in the eight or nine digits just from denying supplies necessary for continued survival to most of the population.

    2. Between her telekinesis, her danger sense giving her several minutes of warning, and her minions she’s basically immune to unpowered assassins. Even Teacher with his army of enhanced minions with Tinker guns and portal devices is evidently unable to assassinate her without first baiting her into a trap when she’s apparently down a power she considers essential to her reign.

  22. So that happened. More or less how I figured Goddess’s power worked, from what Khephri said about how Shin’s government was organized; it wouldn’t make sense to have sub-rulers if they were in total thrall. It’s in some senses the most useful non-Khephri Master power we’ve seen yet, because her minions are proactively helpful, but also a bit tricky because her minions still have their own agendas they’re trying to advance. Which can end up inadvertently hurting her agenda.

    So I’m pretty sure everyone but Byron was controlled initially, and won’t actively take action to break that control. Tristan did switch to Byron, but I think he assumed that Byron was controlled too and if he didn’t expect that to be the case he’d have gotten Byron controlled too. Chris induced a change of plans, but he also has a point about potentially raising the alarm and I think he’s presently onboard with Goddess. However, it’s possible he’ll break free when switching forms for some other purpose.

    Big question is whether Amy is also controlled. I’m inclined to go with yes because she’s following along with Goddess’s plans and I don’t see why Goddess wouldn’t control her given that she had to be talked out of the mass control relay thing.

    In other news, Goddess has a fifth power to go with the four Khephri listed and is presumably short a sixth. Each of which by itself would qualify her for the big leagues. She’s plausibly Eidolon-tier. No answer as to how she has info on what’s happening inside Teacher’s fortress, though. I’m guessing parahuman with a narrow-focus remote viewing power, because she is open to the possibility of defenses on the prison she doesn’t know about and can’t discover.

    1. Also, I think we can infer that her power works better with physical proximity, since she’s instructed them to meet in person and specifically called Cryptid over after asking about his trustworthiness. While it could be a personal whim, I’d expect a former global overlord to be inclined to make Kenzie Mistress Of Telepresence and handle all buisness by holocall, especially when she’s concerned about detection, unless there’s a strategic reason to do it in person.

    2. I don’t think Amy is controlled.

      Amy says that Goddess needs a “No-man”, someone who actively disagrees with her, yet on her team. I think Amy is her No-man, and it makes sense for Goddess to want more of them.

      Though, this could simply be because Marquis is, in fact, the one under her power and Amy just wants to make sure nothing happens with Marquis. Making her along for the ride, but yet able to say no.

      1. With how loose Goddess’s control is, I think it more likely she’d control her no-men and then order them to raise any objections they think of.

        Certainly Cryptid shooting down her plans didn’t raise a clear red flag; that’s something a minion of hers might do.

        1. Would she think of that, though? She’s pretty spoilt, and it seems that Amy’s idea of being a no-man was something Bianca wasn’t used to.

  23. On a scale from 1 to 10, how sure are we that Goddess isn’t related to Eden? I was at about a 9, but I think this knocked me down to 8. I won’t post direct spoilers, but that “administrator plus broadcaster” comment got me thinking. The two entities had similar but subtly different shards, afterall. Whatever happened to the shards Eden was preparing for itself? There’s always the possibility they just sat there with Eden, but a potent cocktail of strong abilities like goddess is packing just might fit the ticket.

    If true, I am not sure it’s too relevant, except in pursuit of whatever caused Goddess to lose a subset of her abilities.

    1. She’s a Cauldron cape multitrigger. It’s possible she got the Thinker Entity’s version of the Broadcast and Queen Administrator shards, yeah.

    2. Don’t we already know that lots of Eden’s shards were used to make Cauldron formulae? I think it was also strongly implied that Goddess is a Cauldron cape, although how that works with her theorized cluster-eater status is unclear to me. Goddess wouldn’t be the only Cauldron cape who scared the shit out of Cauldron themselves; Gray Boy also did that.

    3. Whatever happened to the shards Eden was preparing for itself?

      Some were torn loose when she made planetfall, and polluted the surrounding environment. Fortuna’s home was destroyed by the fallout, with people getting triggers for no reason, and half the powers not working right. Some wound up much farther away – Zion noticed people with them in his interlude, most or all damaged. Eden may also have dispersed some shards on purpose, like Zion did, though it wasn’t a focus for her. Countless shards remained with Eden, and were carved out from her body by Doctor Mother and processed into the vials that Cauldron sold.

      I don’t think we actually know where Bianca got her powers? Some people are saying she was a Cauldron test subject, and yeah, she could have just gotten a really good roll like Eidolon, but I don’t think it’s been confirmed. It was Cauldron who deposited her on Earth Shin, but that doesn’t mean they made her. I think March or someone alluded to her being a multitrigger in a situation similar to Rain, but I’m not sure how she’d actually know that. If that’s true, she could still be either a “natural” multitrigger that just got powerful through random chance, some kind of intended special project by Zion, or even a rare non-Cauldron Eden trigger. Most of the powers Eden shed on impact were broken, but some worked fine. The Path to Victory did.

      1. According to Tattletale, she was part of a six-person cluster and all the others got depowered and strengthened her. According to her last chapter, the labs of her world studied powers and made her what she is by accident.

  24. I love the bit where Chris warns Goddess they’re listening in. Turn in the towel, underhanded eavesdroppers! For Cryptid, the staunch Champion of Privacy, is here to foil your dastardly plans!

    1. I think that was to prove loyalty to Goddess, making her believe that he was on her side.

      Remember, he was only too eager to help Kenzie take over the prison system.

      1. I think that was genuine loyalty. Instead of the paranoia hit making him suspicious of Goddess, he’s suspecting treachery from his own teammates against Goddess.

        Either way, that whole exchange was great. Kenzie doesn’t have any moral qualms about spying on her allies, even ones who have mind controlled her.

        1. That and he raised a good point about the prison defenses. Assuming the Wardens have the capacity to shut portals (not demonstrated, but Dragon is an endless font of 2.0 versions of Tinker stuff) there’s no way they wouldn’t have their extradimensional maximum security prison set up to seal off in the event of a major attack. With Valkryie holding Doormaker, they could even trigger it, then evacuate the staff.

      2. I think I agree with an earlier comment that it was because he didn’t want them spoiling anything about his powers. I’m sure he’s loyal for now, but I’m hoping he finds an excuse for Dark Introspection. Too bad that isn’t his fastest form too.

    1. Eh…A lot of this is Victoria looking back to a time in her life when basically everything was better, and when she had not yet been forced to confront how fucked up both her world and her own self really were. From outside perspectives, people who knew them at the time, we know that they broke up and got together again multiple times, and were both in their late teens at the time. I really don’t think that Victoria and Dean would have transitioned to a stable adult couple. A decent superhero partnership, perhaps, if romance could be healthily moved past.

      As a somewhat tangential note related to this kind of observation: I do find the attitude of “The first person perspective is an unreliable narrator and that explains everything, including my preferred interpretation of events,” to be rather overused and obnoxious. Two questions should always be put against it.
      First, “Exactly which events as described by the first person narrator do you hold to be fabricated or misunderstood? Which alternate narrative do you propose instead? Please understand that in doing this, you are explicitly constructing and proposing an alternate narrative.”
      Second, “Which events and interactions can be corroborated by outside perspectives? If an event is seen through the eyes of a potentially unreliable narrator, but is also described by a side perspective in a way that looks really similar and has the same outcome, then either they’re both unreliable narrators who are alike in their bias, or that event can be assumed to have happened pretty much as described.”

      The helpful thing about Wildbow’s works is that he gives us biased first-person narrators…but then also gives us third person interludes in which we see that the first-person narrators may be biased, but not flat out delusional, this shit really is happening.

      1. We know that she and Dean fought and broke up a lot. Makes sense that she’d… smooth that over, in her memory.

        Also, if he were alive right now? He didn’t trigger.

  25. I take issue with Goddess’ timing here.

    She could have waited a bit, kicked ass, gone away (Shin?), and returned later as an endgame threat. She could have waited another 15 arcs, been a vague overpowered supporting figure that doesn’t directly enter the story often, and been the End Boss. She could have attacked prematurely and done irreparable damage to everyone while they were totally unsupported and unprepared, maybe coming back briefly later after Tattletale recruits her as an upgraded ally to distract the End Boss!

    But nooooooo, she pulled a whole support network down on her head to serve as a Wake-Up Boss to carry an arc in between more lasting developments. She had enough power and backstory to choose between being Jack Slash, Scion, or Leviathan, and she made herself goddamn Bakuda.

    I had such high hopes for her, and she ruined them. T_T

  26. Building an army of mind-controlled capes doesn’t seem very respectful of Khepri’s memory. Imp is going to have words, with Goddess and Teacher both.

    1. Imp, may be an ace in the hole for the Undersiders when it come to Goddess. Her power protected her from Khepri, so she may also be safe from Goddess’ mind control. She may already have been desginated as Undersider mental defense. And Tattletale’s power should let her know when sh herself is compromised.

      ‘power says, compromised and not by team mate. Power says, call in back up plan, codename ‘Friendly neighbourhood Gaslighter.’

      I definitely want to see how the Undersiders deal with Goddess. wouldn;t be surprise df they returned to their original modus operandi, “Run like hell, and hide.”

      1. I actually don’t think Imp’s resistance to Khepri would work against Goddess based on what we know so far.

        Khepri had to actually keep up control of people, it was a mental effort and would work on anyone she was *aware* of within her AoE. She couldn’t control Imp because Imp’s power is to not be known. Not just not seen but she literally stops existing from the perspective of anyone else. Goddess however doesn’t need to be physically present or exerting a constant influence. She took over Breakthrough through video camera and the control persists after they stopped contact which is exactly what she explained last chapter. Imp’s ability to disappear wouldn’t change that her mind is already tuned towards Goddess’ intentions. The only bonus to Imp would be the difficulty in initially mastering her, not any sort of resistance after being mastered.

        I’m wary that Tattletale knowing she herself was mastered would make a difference either based on what we’ve seen in this chapter. Victoria and others are completely aware they are controlled but the power works in a way that makes them think that doesn’t even matter. They’re telling themselves everything is cool and they’re doing this of their own free will when they are aware that’s not true.

    2. As amusing as that would be to see, it would be sooooo bad for the Team in Ward to have their asses pulled out of the fire by the Undersiders. The main characters of the current story being rescued and outdone by the stars of the old story? Wildbow’s a great storyteller and I suspect he could make that work, but I don’t think he’d want to.

  27. Reading Ward makes you realize how much Breakthrough is missing a Tattletale.

    Victoria is sort of playing the role of the leader/organizer and she is spectacularly bad at it. Not in the day to day, but in terms of important moments.

    1. One of the themes of the Wormverse is that Thinker powers are really, really good. I’d say the only category that clearly beats them overall is assorted dynamic powersets (Eidolon, Valkryie, strong Tinkers with prep time, and Masters who can make other parahumans use powers on their behalf) and that’s in part because they can get a Thinker power and also others. The Undersiders didn’t have a real source of heavy direct combat besides Regent’s controlled parahumans until Parian and Foil joined, and look what they managed.

      Their characteristic combat edge was a massive lead in battlefield awareness and coordination. Four of the original five could maintain at least some situational awareness in Grue’s darkness, and Taylor generally knew everything that was going on within two city blocks and was usually able to communicate in that range as well. Tattletale’s power also let her get a better sense of the action than normal.

      Breakthrough does not have that. Kenzie can get survellience coverage, but they haven’t been super great at communicating in real time and she wasn’t involved in the Trial and Error fight at all. They also don’t have any ability to rapidly discover characteristics of enemy powers; they can’t do anything like Skitter and Tattletale beating Glory Girl in close quarters. The net effect is that Breakthrough hits a hell of a lot harder than pre-Foil Undersiders but they’re never really in control of the situation. The Undersiders frequently ran into opponents they couldn’t easily hurt, but they were rarely surprised and never for long.

      Nowadays they’re out a huge chunk of their competitive information advantage, especially when Tattletale is distracted from providing battlefield coordination, but they have more henchpeople and also Foil’s ability to hurt literally anyone.

      1. In universe, Victoria is a power geek.

        She should know this and should be seeking to remedy it.

        Instead, she is trying to organize by herself and it isn’t working. Her team isn’t blind, but it has no tactical center.

        1. It’s not like Breakthrough is recruiting; given their team history they’re hardly likely to bring in someone new because they could use a new power. Kenzie has the capacity to give the team HUD maps and such, but Victora is rightly reluctant to ask too much of her because she knows Kenzie will stop sleeping before saying no.

  28. Wow, reading this was almost exactly like what I imagined it would be like to be touched by Loki’s Sceptre when I first saw it in the Avengers film. For those who haven’t seen it, the mind control effect didn’t produce a mindless zombie, and the brainwashed person acted exactly like they normally would, just with a different allegiance. When Hawkeye later described it as a more simplistic “demonic possession” type of brainwashing, I was really disappointed, because the type described so brilliantly here is much more insidious and creepy.

    On a different note Aaaaaeeeeerrrgh! after a year of reading and re-reading all WBs other works, I’ve finally caught up. And I couldn’t unwillingly join the “wonder what to do with your life until the next update” club during a peaceful, slow, introspective bit, oh no, I just had to join right when things start to get horrifyingly tense again. Oh well, time to start counting down the hours.

  29. I just had an awful thought. Given what Amy did to Victoria’s mind, creating an all-encompassing obsession, it might be the case that she can remove Goddess’ influence. How horrible would it be if the only way for Victoria to cure herself of Goddess’ influence is to trust Amy to fix her brain?

    1. That seems like a bad thing.

      Master powers aren’t permanent and don’t change physiology. Amy’s stuff does.

      Amy could remove the control, but it would be equivalent to cutting off an arm to make it so them having a grip on your wrist wasn’t an issue.

      1. A lot of Master powers work by manipulating the brains of their targets and how they work. I haven’t read any of WB’s various comments about that stuff in a long while, but I got he impression that “telepathic” effects were rare to nonexistent. If Goddess accomplishes her effects by manipulating brain chemistry in some fashion, then Amy would definitely be able to eliminate the influence.

        1. Mind-reading is practically unheard of, with the Simurgh as the only confirmed ‘true’ telepath, and Monokeros edging on slightly. Other forms of telepathy are not. Regent telepathically hacks his victim’s nervous system; Skitter telepathically directed her bugs; Imp telepathically wipes herself from the short-term memories of those around her; Victor telepathically steals his opponent’s knowledge. Rain’s cluster has a telepathic dream room, but as Breakthrough lacks a master/stranger/thinker, they don’t have a mini-telepathy power of their own.

          True telepathy is speculated (I think by WoG, but not sure) to be what Eden and Scion were working on developing with this particular cycle, so telepathic effects are totally common, as different shards were tasked with figuring it out.

        2. things work out because she keeps everyone united in fear, if they’re unpowered, or united under her banner if they’re powered.

          If her effect works via the shard, though, Amy wouldn’t be able to touch that.

  30. I just want to add my appreciation, that the confrontation between Amy and Victoria we thought we might have, just had the gravitas rug pulled out from under it by happening in the context of Blue making herself the priority. We have Victoria spilling her soul, breaking the silence, but we also have her distracting herself with how much she doesn’t want Amy getting any more of her attention. The kicker is that they might actually be making progress, in that now Amy knows where Victoria is coming from, and they could both agree to opposing Blue forcing the forgiveness. We’ll see where it goes from here, but this chapter holds both Amy-Victoria and Blue-Teacher tension well, pulling double duty.

    If Blue resets the Goat’s priorities, would he still see it in her best interests to shift Teacher’s whammy to her? Hard to see that. But then, potentially, the two giants could lock horns. Teacher would have to look out for Blue’s best interests, and she would have to depend on him to look out for her best interests, until she becomes a vegetable. Or not. Who’s taking the two of them and their armies, which includes war consigliari Amy, down?

  31. OK, Byron was not affected while rest of the team was mastered, including Rain and Ashley.
    So non-presence, distance and portals are not an issue, but Byron either did not heard like-a-word “with monumental emphasis” from Goddess or not affected because she was not aware about Byron’s part of Capricorn. But still Goddess can’t master whole prison by her own and can’t just subdue attacking “hounds”.
    This probably means, she need 1) for person to see her, 2) for her to be aware of him on some level, 3) time or some attention from a person
    Prison security is not mastered due to 1 and 3, “hounds” due to 3, Byron due to 2.

    I wonder what happens with this idea from 8.8:
    “Let’s make sure we have some resources,” I said. “We have the greenlist. It might be worth seeing if anyone could help us if she goes rogue or if she tries to collect people by force.”
    “Power nullifiers?” Tristan asked. “Thinkers? Masters?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Let me do that, then.”
    All forgotten due to Hard Boil?

  32. Things are really heating up now! Luckily Bryon can cool the team off (or at least Victoria) and help them do what’s right against Goddess’s plan. Basically I’m saying I’m happy Bryon is getting more of the spotlight, plus Cryptid might get some praise in the next chapter! Hopefully.

  33. Nooooo it’s finally happened, I’ve finally caught up!! I’ve been waiting for this Amy-Vicky show-off (and more Dot!) for ages, so silver linings. So!

    1- Yesss shine on, you introvert hero! Will Byron use his extra time here to get things sorted? What happens when Tristan is back and rats on them? Also, out of queer curiosity, has Tris been confirmed as gay, or is he bi/pan/other?
    2- Even with endless forewarnings on Lookout being a living cheat code for world domination, there WILL fallout. She’s doomed. They’re doomed.
    3- Betting that Cryptid (who’s already bragged about wearing multiple masks) isn’t under control and that’s why he intervened on the LO’s brilliant video conference of the damned…or does he need to be in an introspective form for that to work? Maybe he’s got but will get out?
    4- I know it’s Amy’s time but I’m dying to know how all the major villains know Chris (and who’s cursed him). I may need to reread Worm and see if there were clues…

    1. The story has definitely implied that Tristan is gay, not bi or pan, I’m pretty sure. Of course, I’m still wondering if anyone else in Breakthrough might be queer in one way or another, too, tbh!

  34. WHOA WHOA WHOA HERE. Did Byron’s power just make communication easier, here? Is that the first time this has ever happened? This was a major theme in Worm, and I don’t know what to think except this is different and probably better

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