Gleaming – 9.4

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I let Byron be the one to step outside, with me following.  It gave me time to think about what I was going to say to the others, and it was symbolic of my course of action here- he would lead, and I’d support.

The freezing rain had already coated the fire escape.  The strength of the wind this close to the breached Norwalk portal made the icicles slanted, more sideways than down.

“Do you want a hood or covering?  We could probably cobble something up,” I told Byron.

“I’m fine,” he said, stepping down from the base of the door to the metal slats of the fire escape.  The rain pelted his armor and helmet, and he didn’t flinch.  I saw his shoulders rise, then fall very suddenly.  A deep breath, his breath fogging out from the mouth portion of the helmet.

He dropped a clump of metal and chain onto the fire escape, then bent down, slipping his feet into them.

“Strap-on cleats?” I asked.

“Yeah, crampons,” he said.  “I never thought I’d have reason to use these again.”

“It can’t be because of where you lived- you were… North Carolina?”

“Reach was Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.  We were Maryland originally.  No, you’re right, it was to work with powers.  I’m surprised you didn’t know what these are called, living more north.”

“Our winters weren’t too bad, in Brockton Bay, and I fly, remember?”

Another puff of breath, like a laugh.

“Power related?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  “For a little while, I was ice.”

“Do you know what made it change?”

“We have ideas.  If it was any of those ideas, it’s not worth trying to do it again.  Too costly, with a lot of bad memories.”

I could imagine.  Murder.  A team breaking up.

“I can relate, I suppose,” I said.

“Maybe, yeah,” he said, his head turning my way.  I’d read articles about helmets and how a given shape of opening or slit for the eyes could be heroic or villainous, or evoke a certain effect.  His was more open and ‘heroic’, tracing the general outline of the eye socket, just low enough at the brow to cover the eyebrows, but even though the lighting touched his armor and the rivulets of moisture that ran down it, it didn’t let me see more than a faint reflection in the natural moisture of his eye.

I was supposed to trust him, rather than my instincts and thought processes both.

His breath fogged, very alive in contrast to the stillness of the rest of him.  “It’s weird, having a normal conversation when there’s so much screwed up stuff going on.”

“Let’s not dwell on that stuff if we don’t have to.”

“Shouldn’t we?”

“I don’t think there’s any good answers, and it doesn’t change anything.  You take point, you make the final calls.”

He nodded slowly.

I indicated his feet.  “You having those is handy, but we’re not exactly walking.  Are you going to be okay driving in this?”

“No idea,” he said.  “I’m an okay driver, but I’ve never driven in weather like this.”

“If you want, I can fly alongside.  If there’s a problem, I could… do some exterior damage to the car, but maybe make it stop.”

“You can fly in this?” he asked.

I winced, stepping outside, the door still open behind me.  My hood was up, the icon at my forehead, and my hair was tied back.  The hood was pinned to my hair at either corner of my brow- it wouldn’t move naturally or flow right, but I doubted it mattered- I just wanted it to stay up when the rain was coming down.

I was wearing a tight-fitting waterproof jacket over the hooded portion of my outfit, waterproof, and the ornamentation that helped keep my hood in place kept the one hood nestled in the other.  I had better gloves, and I had tights on underneath the tight-fitting black pants.

I wasn’t sure I would be terrifically comfortable, even with those precautions, but we didn’t have a lot of choice.

“Yes.  We’ll both do our best,” I said.

“And- I know we said we wouldn’t discuss it, but-” he started.  He lowered his voice.  “I can trust you?  You won’t… help Goddess by dealing with me?”

Funny, to have the idea turned back on me, when I was the one making the leap of faith.

I thought about it.  It seemed like I could, if he was a real threat, if I was more willing to kill.  It would even make sense.

“You’re taking about two seconds too long to answer that,” he said.

“You can trust me, and I’m extending my trust to you because you’re right.  There are a lot of factors that could mean I’m compromised.  We’re both helping her, because we’re both dealing with the same threats.”

“Sure,” he said.

I imagined he was thinking about the same thing I was- the question of what happened if I had to choose between him and Goddess in a more explicit way.

Speckles of moisture were already beading my face.  My costume seemed to be keeping the worst of it off, but it made me aware of the time spent standing in the rain, making no headway.

I turned toward the door, paused to think for a second, double-check my thought processes, and then leaned partway inside.

“Kenzie.”

She was at her desk, helmet off, costume on.  She spun in a half circle, putting her hands out to either side and behind her to catch the desk and stop.  “Yes?”

“Don’t do anything.”

“I know.  You guys already decided we shouldn’t.”

“Really.  Don’t.  Talk to us first if you’re considering anything.”

“I won’t!  We’re good.  I am low-key-enzie right now,” she paused, glancing around the room.  “I miss Chris already.  He would’ve liked that.”

“I can guarantee he wouldn’t have,” Rain said.

“He likes snarking because it makes him feel clever, so if I set ’em up so he can knock ’em down, he gets to feel good, and I don’t mind because it’s just me being a dork.”

“I’m not sure about that, but okay,” Rain said.

Kenzie turned my way.  I stared at her, and I saw a slight smile on her face, uncertainty.

“Don’t take any actions, approach anyone, or give Goddess a line of communication to other teams until you’ve talked to us.  We’re going to be super close to the front, dealing with sensitive matters.  The wrong action at the wrong time could make our enemies unpredictable or change up the dynamic.”

I’d been trying to think of a convincing reason for her to stay put and stay away since before holding the door for Byron to step outside.  This was the best I could manage.

There was a pause.

Fiiiiine,” Kenzie said, like she was finally conceding the point in a long argument.

“I’ll watch her,” Sveta said.

I glanced at Ashley, who was still being quiet, lost in concentration.

“Victoria,” Sveta spoke up in a sudden way that suggested she’d had to push herself to say it.  “Is Byron close enough to hear?”

I turned my head.  “He headed down to the car to warm it up.”

“Byron was supposed to give Tristan control.  What’s going on?”

This was hard.  Hard like convincing myself to walk into traffic blindfolded.  I didn’t have a ready answer.

“I don’t like teammates fighting,” she said.  “And I don’t trust Byron like this.”

“I normally like Byron, but I agree with Sveta,” Rain said.

I tried to give an answer, “If we have them swapping back and forth, they’re going to fight each other, or Tristan’s going to keep control, and we’ll pay for that in spades later.”

“So you’re choosing Byron?  Taking sides is also the kind of thing we pay for,” Sveta said.

“I know.  But honestly, Byron’s more powerful in this situation.”

“His power is weaker right now,” Rain said.

“It might not have as much density or water pressure or… whatever it is that’s different, but it’s water.  It’s sprays of water when it’s as cold as tits outside.  I can beat him in a fight- I just proved that.  I don’t think the water pressure that he has right now would go through my forcefield.  Trust me on this?”

“Earlier, he asked if you’d be willing to kill someone,” Ashley said.  All eyes turned to her.  “You said yes.”

“I might,” I said.  “What does that have to do with Byron?”

“Would you be willing to kill him?” she asked.

I was aware of everyone’s gaze.  I was aware of every inch of me, of my already damp costume, and the sudden realization that when I’d said yes, it might have been Amy that was my exception.

Valefor, I could hurt him so badly that he might die without care, and I was okay with that.  I could go that far and if death happened, I believed I could make my peace with it.

Peace was also the idea at the root of my thought about Amy.  She was the person I might kill for reasons other than protecting others.  The circumstances would have to be pressing, I’d have to be worn down or otherwise not at my best and most clear-headed, but I could see myself doing it.

I could imagine myself being less miserable in the aftermath, somehow.  Wrestling with shame and self loathing in the aftermath of something like that was better than wrestling with oblique shame, self loathing, and the daily fear of either running into her or a repeat incident of her using her power on me.

I knew it wasn’t rational, that it wouldn’t bring me peace or an end to the worrying.  But my thoughts could go there.

I had to look troubled, thinking like this.  I looked at the others and I finally gave my response- a nod.  If I spoke, I felt like it would sound like a lie.

“Good luck, if it comes to that.  I really hope it doesn’t.”

“Thanks, Kenz.  Me too.”

“Be safe,” Sveta said.

I closed the door.  When I turned around, Byron was still there.  He wasn’t down at the car.  It had been important that he hear.

“Shit, that’s scary,” he said, his voice so quiet that the drum of rain on every surface nearly drowned him out.

“Let’s go.  Try not to make too much noise on the stairs,” I said.  He nodded.

I ended up giving him a hand, floating on the far side of the railing, my hand on his upper arm as he made his way down.

Doubts crept over me.  I couldn’t kill him – I wasn’t sure I had that in me.  That had been a lie.  I knew I could maim him, though, break him enough that it would take him a long time to heal, and that gave my troubled thoughts some peace- until I remembered I was supposed to be viewing my own thoughts through a lens, that this wasn’t a good thing.

He started up the car, while I floated above, the Wretch out and shielding me from the freezing rain and the wind.  I knew the rain was tracing its outline, but the alternative would be intolerable.

Travel advisories had been out regarding the rain.  Too many cars lacked the tires for dealing with weather like this, with supply being short, and there weren’t any trucks to salt the ice, no work trucks clearing the roads.  If last year was any indicator, the paralysis of winter would affect most people more than the lack of food supplies.

Tristan or Byron had at least looked after their tires.  Once he found his course, fishtailing a bit as he turned one corner, correcting for the swerve, it seemed we were good to go.

Master-stranger protocols.  PRT and the organization under its umbrella had it in handbooks, and it was one of the things people got quizzed on.  Some of the largest departments had scenarios and surprise drills.

Thinking about the paperwork helped.  Black text on white.  Strict rules to be followed.

With a strong master-stranger of this type, we were supposed to implement eyes-on protocols.  Once someone left our sight, they were to be assumed to be compromised.  Didn’t matter, it didn’t apply here, until Byron started talking to people and tried to get them on his side against Goddess.

Flying through the dark with the Wretch active and the rain coming down had my heart pounding.  When the streetlights illuminated the raindrops, the Wretch was made briefly visible, the direction they were facing made ambiguous by the fact that only the surface was being seen.  Hands reaching, faces neutral.

Black text on white, I thought, turning my attention away from the images in my peripheral vision and toward the car.  Byron was doing fine, but the roads were clear of vehicles.  What had I been thinking about?  I had to remind myself.  The eyes-on protocol shouldn’t matter in this case.

What did matter was the system for when people were compromised.  Being rushed, agitated or otherwise reckless when everything was fucked up was a good way to make mistakes, so the first step was to get to a position where decisions could be made with care and deliberation.  Not so different from my warrior monk approach.

Chain of command automatically passed down the chain as though people were dead or out of action.  If discussions of the chain of command took more than a set amount of time or if the affected individuals couldn’t be trusted or detained, it meant a mission abort to a safe location with self-isolation once there.  A good team with the right organization would see the leader step down the moment he might be compromised, the next person taking up the mantle.

The wind was more intense as we got closer to the Norwalk portal breach.  On the upside, the sky on the far side was clear and bright, a slice of blue at the horizon, and the weather that extended out around it was rain-free.  The precipitation wasn’t as bad, here.

Light blue.  It was the late afternoon, I had to remind myself.  Waking up early and the sky being so overcast it was black was throwing me.

I heard a rev.  Byron picked up speed as he reached road that wasn’t icy.

“Careful,” I murmured.

The mere mention of the protocols and this course of action was supposed to be cause for a leader to quickly step down.  If their second-in-command was the one to raise the issue, the third-in-command took over, to prevent the protocol from being weaponized by the compromised.

A really good team would default to the core approach for whatever the threat was.  Defer command to the most capable person believed to be uncompromised, or to HQ if comms still worked, then stick to the protocols for dealing with strangers, or the protocols for dealing with masters.

I was aware that in this case we were dealing with a master.  The protocol?  Take them the fuck out.  Second priority, right after the thinkers, who were ASAP-level.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, taking the master out of consideration also dealt with the control.

I felt nervous at the idea that Byron might be driving, his own mind going a mile a minute as he reminded himself of protocols and options, figuring out a game plan, with eliminating Goddess as his end-goal.

It was wind and a thin layer of moisture that saw Byron lose his traction, his vehicle sliding over the dotted yellow line that marked the division between lanes.  No ice here, but it didn’t matter.

I landed on the roof, ready to act if I had to- it meant having the wretch down, my hood flapping violently, the pins in my hair pulling at the roots until I ducked my head lower, droplets of moisture stabbing at my face- it wasn’t freezing rain, at least; it stabbed only because of the speeds involved.

There was no incoming traffic, the turn he made to get back in the right lane felt too drastic, forcing an overcorrection the other way.  He came perilously close to steering into one of the memorial posts- there weren’t many here, but someone had situated one near the corner of an intersection.

Before I could activate the wretch, grab the car, and try to force a correction, he got things back under control.  There wouldn’t be handprints in the car exterior.

We drove around the north of the portal.  A slice of sky revealing the barren world on the far side, the sky nonetheless blue, the weather relatively calm there.  To our south, buildings were illuminated, people trying to go about their days, waiting for the weather to clear.  To our north, some artificial lights and the headlights of vehicles illuminated the spaces where farmers were trying to save crops, and where people were hurrying to handle the weather in tent cities.

He’d slowed down, both because of the scare and because of the upsurge in traffic near here.  Which was good.   He slowed down more as the freezing rain resumed in its full intensity, the roads icy once again.

Past the breach in reality that was almost an oasis in this weather, into the thicker portions of the city.

It wasn’t far from here.  If we hadn’t had to pause to find our way in an area that was too dark, with no street signs or landmarks, it would have taken four or five minutes.

I let the Wretch fall away, the ice that had collected in the crevices dropping down to pelt the car, which had slowed.

Two pink circles gave away Withdrawal’s location.  The lenses of his mask glowed neon in the gloom, as did some of the oils of his costume.  I raised a hand, and he raised his.

He was quick and silent as he approached, moving on three limbs while holding his giant syringe with the fourth.  The syringe attachment looked more like a nozzle, today.

“I’ll let the others know you’re here,” he said, as I floated closer.  Byron got out of the car behind me.  His voice was muffled by his mask.  Ice had crusted around the places in his mask where his breath filtered out.

“Alright,” I said.

“Can ya go easy on Finale?” he asked.

“Easy?”

“She thinks we did this wrong, and we can’t convince her different.”

I nodded.  I was worried what ‘wrong’ constituted, when so much about tonight felt wrong, but I’d wait until I had information.  With a possibly altered mental state, moving slow and carefully was critical.  It was point one of the protocols.

Well, point one would have been to not attend, but sitting out was really not my thing.

The bright lenses of his mask left trails in my vision as he nodded back.  He didn’t cross the street directly, instead hopping over to where the shadows were deeper, a narrow band of dark extending across the road where the pools of light from streetlights didn’t quite meet.  He crossed that band, barely visible.

If he was being stealthier, I would be too.  I dropped to ground, stepping close to the car.

“What do I need to know about these guys?” Byron asked.  “I know the basics.”

“Inexperienced, but eager.  That was Withdrawal, the tinker.  Caryatid is their not-so-mobile breaker.  Finale is a blaster that lacks confidence.  Lots of potential across the team, but they never broke ground.  This is one of their first outings.  Too small a team to be on most people’s radars.”

Byron nodded.  “Not Goddess’ radar, then.”

“Shouldn’t be.”

He nodded.

Across the street, in the copse of old trees that were bounded in on four sides by the suburb-like neighborhood, a slice of nature that had been preserved as everything else was cleared away and a pre-fab neighborhood was dropped down, bubblegum pink lenses appeared out of the darkness.  I saw the syringe appear in a similar way, the fluid going from dark to pink, bubbling visibly, until it was as neon pink as anything else.  He moved it like a baton, waving us over.

I took a course that used the same shadows Withdrawal had.  Byron followed after me.

They were gathered in the trees, out of sight of the rest of the neighborhood.  Finale wore a blue poncho over her costume.  Caryatid wore something similar, but it was black and more voluminous.  Her arms were folded in the midst of it, so the bright yellow and orange of the sleeves were hidden.

Withdrawal had gone completely dark.  I saw him set his syringe down and lean against a tree.  With his elongated limbs, the stilt-like legs, he looked very tall as he peered down at us, his head difficult to see in the branches of a mature tree.

Caryatid was positioned where she could stand with her back to a tree, looking over one shoulder in the direction of a quaint house.  It was the prefab sort of home, a little more boxy than what would have passed for usual back on Bet, too similar to other houses on the block, but it was still nice enough.

“I’m sorry we didn’t listen,” Finale said.

“Did something happen?” I asked.

“No,” Caryatid said.

“We did stuff in the wrong order,” Finale said.

“We didn’t.  The order didn’t matter,” Withdrawal said.

“But… the names had numbers by them.”

“Can I explain?  They’ll tell us if it was wrong,” Withdrawal said.  His tone was patient, the rest of him exasperated.

“Yeah, sure,” Finale said, an accent creeping into her voice, a truncated ‘yeah’.  She sounded defeated.

“We were tracking target number one.  Staff medical.  He met with a coworker halfway through the work day.  That coworker was also on our list.  Staff medical number two.  She has shopping bags in her very nice car, and she paid for the lunch.”

“She had some nice clothes,” Caryatid said.  Her breaker form was stirring around her legs.  Partially but not completely entered into.  Slowly, it crept up her legs.  She didn’t have to make it slow, I knew.  A way of staying warm?

“Yeah,” Withdrawal said.  “We switched to following her, because whatever she’s doing, it seemed off.”

“Sounds right,” I said.  “Something came up?”

“You know when they have an officer do regular checkups?  Making you part of their patrol, because they’re all concerned-like?” Withdrawal asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“There are people doing that for her.  We don’t think they’re officers.”

“What do they look like?” Byron asked.

“This is Capricorn, by the way,” I said.

“Hi Capricorn.  Saw you on T.V. the other night,” Withdrawal replied.  “They were driving average looking cars, but they’d slow down as they drove by, attention on the house.”

“What makes you sure they’re not after her?” Byron asked.

“One got out of their car,” Withdrawal said.  “They talked, guy on the sidewalk, woman standing on her front stairs.  Friendly-like.”

“What did they look like?” I asked.

“Normal,” Withdrawal said.  “Regular clothes, jackets.  Cars were mostly the same, beaters from Bet or garbage from Gimel.  They dressed normal.  But normal doesn’t circle the same block five or six times, driving real slow as they pass a house.”

“This is good,” Byron said.  “Exactly the kind of thing we were hoping to get with the surveillance.”

“Agreed,” I added.

“Really?” Finale asked.

“Really,” I said, with conviction and extra emphasis.

“Finale was the one who saw the shopping bags,” Withdrawal said.  “Got us thinking about what was up with this woman.”

“Fantastic,” I said, meeting Finale’s eyes.

Even in the gloom, everything already dark, made darker by the trees around us, I could see Finale smile.

“What do we do?” Withdrawal asked.

I wanted to respond.  I glanced at Capricorn, instead.  If I was compromised, it was his voice that mattered.

“We call for help,” he said.  “This is bigger than us.”

“One of the major teams?” I asked.

“We’re not sure what’s going on with them,” he said.  “Protocols.  But I think it’s reasonable to assume that the most major team is clear.”

“If they’re available,” I said.

“Major?” Finale asked.

“Wardens,” I stated.  I saw her eyes go wider.  For her benefit, I added, “Dragon, Defiant, Narwhal, Chevalier-”

“Most are away,” Byron said.  “Give me a second.”

He pulled out his phone.

“How was your stakeout?” I murmured, while Byron stepped a bit away, plugging a jack into his phone.

“Cold, wet, strangely exciting for there being so little happening for hours.  We kept each other company.”  Withdrawal said.  “Listened to music when we weren’t watching out.”

“Withdrawal has recordings of a really funny radio musical,” Finale said, suddenly effuse, just over the mention of this thing she’d enjoyed.  I smiled a bit, seeing it.

Caryatid, meanwhile, was almost one with the trees.  She looked out in the direction of the house, but her face was one of butterfly wings overlapping, unfolding, flapping.

“Antares,” Byron said.  “Look.”

I looked.

It was his phone.  Red triangles cascaded down the screen, each with an old fashioned phone in the center.  Network down, no service, no tower available.

I checked my own phone.  Following my cue, the  others checked theirs.

Caryatid dropped out of her breaker form, the butterfly-winged face slipping back to reveal her normal one.  I saw her expression change.  “They’re on the phone.”

“Who?”

All of them.

I had to step closer to a tree to look.

At the end of the driveway, a man that wore a heavy raincoat was talking on the phone.

“They know.  They had safeguards in place,” I spoke my realization aloud.  “They’re onto us.”

‘Onto us’ meant that cars were already approaching.  One stopped in front of the house.  People got out, and they wore a hodgepodge assortment of gear over white, simple masks on their faces.

Teacher’s thralls.

More cars were arriving – they had to have been parked in nearby driveways or a side road.  They kept stopping and getting out, their lack of parking jobs meant not solely to hold them back, but to obstruct traffic.

Obstruct emergency services.

There were people in one car who were working as a team to get something big from one of the trunks.  When the group moved, this long case in their possession, they did it with at least twelve people protecting the case.

The destination: the same house the woman from the prison clinic lived in.

“I’ll try to help,” Withdrawal said.

A spray of laser shots flew through the trees.  Trunks splintered, and whole sheaths of brittle mark were cast off, sent flipping through the air.

I could see the alarm on the Malfunctions’ faces.

“They keep adding more,” Finale said.  “I can’t do anything if they just endlessly add more.”

“We’re okay,” I said.  “Run if you need to.  They should let you.  They don’t want the casualties it could involve.”

More laser shots now.  More damaged trees.  What a shame.

Goddess had outlined a way that her enemies would pin her and defeat her.  Coordinated groups, seemingly endless numbers, a sharp offense coordinated by thinkers.  There was no information that they didn’t potentially have, no problem we could pose that would fatigue this intelligent morass of humans.

“Is there any way to get a message across on the secure line?” I asked.  “The one we’re not supposed to have?”

“I’ll try,” Byron said.  “Figure out what they’re up to!  We stop and interfere, but the information is key.”

He was the one in charge, with the protocols.  I took off.  “Be safe, Malfunctions.  Be safe, Byron.”

The enemy numbers kept increasing.

Against thinkers, take them out ASAP.  Distract, stress, befuddle.  Mental and psychological strain, when it can be applied, should be used, as they have an ironic tendency to have their minds be their weak points.

I used my aura, hard, and probably disturbed some ordinary residents in the neighborhood in the process.  Someone fell, losing their bag, and I grabbed it.  I hurled the bag at the largest cluster of thralls.

There had to be thirty of them.  Three to five to a car- six cars.  What had been an orderly suburb was chaos, drowned in freezing rain, a thin film of ice crusting anything that was getting rained on.

They turned guns on me, and I flew up and away, trusting the darkness and the rain that fell in people’s eyes to give me cover.  The bright shots stabbed randomly up into the sky.  There were some that didn’t need eyes, instead having powers that Teacher had granted, but they were wretched, less people with added enhancements, and more slaves who had lost more than they’d gained in ability.

It was easier, like this.  No doubts, a clear enemy, no having to juggle my allegiances and compromise my thoughts to fit someone else’s goals.  I could put Amy out of mind, let the dust settle, mend and care for myself.

I hit the large group with the case they’d withdrawn from the trunk of the car, bowling into people with the wretch only momentarily active.  The incoming fire stopped- any miss would hit a friend of theirs, but they had other methods, including makeshift melee weapons.

I leveraged my fear aura, turned to outright shoves, flying knees to vital areas with no wind-up, and backhand strikes with my hand enclosed in a metal-braced glove.  I fought through the tide of thralls, and if they might have found their footing and hit me back, those opportunities diminished to almost nothing as the fear aura slowed them down and gave them second thoughts.

They were thinker-one, tinker-one.  Each gave up a lot to get access to that power.  They were enemies of the city and enemies of Goddess.  Were they here for us?  Had Goddess been right about them tracing the echoes or traces of her power to those affected?

I hit a man hard enough he might have lost teeth.  He might have been innocent, a regular man who’d been promised power and paid too high a debt, losing all independence.  I reached the box they had been carting.  The Wretch emerged to strike at it, shattering wood.

The contents, as far as I could tell, were a long flat rectangle broken up into fragments, a sheet of exposed metal mesh.  There were engines or generators, wires with exposed metal, and reams of extension cords- enough electrical stuff overall that the box had required four people to carry.

I checked nobody was close enough, brought out the Wretch, and I smashed it.  Whatever it was Teacher wanted to do here, I didn’t want to let him.

Smashing done, I turned away, flying to the nearest clearing, so I could survey the situation.  The Wretch was still active, and as I moved, it dragged things in the dirt behind me.

It had taken up weapons- spears and twists of metal.  It held them high, ready to stab and twist, bend and snap.

Worse, with people bowled over, there was nothing to deter people from shooting at me.  They were realizing it, turning on me.  This was too much offense, when I very much did not want to kill anyone Goddess didn’t want dead.

No, I needed defense.  I took evasive action, casting off the Wretch, then resuming motion, so the scraps and twists of tinker technology  were left behind.  Zig-zagging movements.  Movements that went up, then down, then between feet that were planted far enough apart.

I dropped low, breastplate touching knee, and flew along the road.

I’d done my part- and Byron was doing his.  Water came in broad sprays, showering people, catching them at angles that hit faces, went under hoods, or caught bare legs and tights beneath shorts or skirts.

His water was normally cold, and in this weather, it was unforgiving.

I’d destroyed one device, and Byron was apparently working to destroy another, repeatedly hitting a fallen box with torrents of water.

But the enemy- we’d bowled them over, bruised, abused, battered them.  They kept coming.

Goddess hit the point where she was frustrated with these guys.  In the broad abstract, she needed our help if she was going to break up Teacher’s growing hold on things.  In the more micro-abstract, we were struggling with this dynamic.

“They’ve got teleporters!  That’s how they’re getting people!”

“The door you destroyed!” I heard Withdrawal’s voice, his accent.  “It’s not the only one!”

Door.  It had been a door.

I had to fly up to get a proper view of the scene.  Up twenty feet, pausing, with only a few momentary movements, in case someone was trying to draw a bead on me.  I could see other boxes.

He could drop a teleportation gate into things, bring in an army, and win whatever fight he wanted.  Some of those boxes didn’t look like teleporters.

We needed a path to retreat, and that was harder for Byron than it was for me.  We needed to get the Malfunctions out of here.

The Malfunctions seemed to hear my thoughts, because I saw Withdrawal enter the fray.  He moved at high speeds, skidding on wet and icy road, and hefted his syringe that wasn’t a syringe anymore.

The contents of the syringe sprayed over a wall.  He skated to it, then skated up the slick of spray.  He bounded off of it, then landed smack-dab in the middle of a large group.

Bam.  Bam.  Bambam, zaap!

Finale.  She used her blaster power to less effect than even the tinker-one ray guns and rifles.  The air distorted in front of her hands every time she fired- with more distortion each time.  The ‘zap’ was characterized by a distant sound of a whipcrack or thunder.  Her mouth moved and she made sounds as she used her abilities, even though there should have been zero need.  It put me in mind of people who could read, but who moved their lips as they did.

Caryatid was protecting Finale and Byron.   She was a walking statue in black and amber, hands outstretched and pulled back, ready for a strike or grab if anyone got in range.  Few did.

Finale dropped as she took a shot.

“I’m okay!” she shouted, as she got back to her feet.  She swung her arm like she was throwing a fastball, then threw a sphere of distorted air.

I hit the other guys a little harder, my intent on getting to and into the house before they could unpack one of those boxes and get her away.

I hit a door, knocking it off its hinges, and strode inside.  The walls were the same as the exterior, in that they were prefabricated, too neat and tidy.  The woman who lived here had painted them crimson.

In the large room I entered, I saw the woman who had to be the lady-friend of the head of the prison’s medical.  She was sweeping prescription pill bottles and bags of orange-yellow powder into a black trash bag.  Multiple thralls jumped up from their seats to face my direction.

Drugs and some kind of ploy.  Prescription medications and… something foreign.

I took it in, trying to commit details to memory, who had been where.  I did that at the same time I advanced on the woman.

She was their prize, their target, that they were willing to lose ten to twenty thralls for.  Injuries or separation would cost Teacher.  My mother had always told me to take away their prizes.  If we couldn’t take them out and arrest them, we would leave them with no wins of their own.

The woman ran from me, and I flew after her, hands gripping corners to help me navigate the narrow spaces while airborne.  She reached the front door- facing off to the side of our impromptu battlefield, and found the statue-form Caryatid standing on the other side.

Purple flames erupted in the woman’s hands.  She hurled them at the elegant statue-cape, and the statue burned.  Caryatid’s voice rose in alarm, then a prolonged cry of pain.

“No!” I shouted.

Cornered, unable to get past Caryatid in the moment, the woman wheeled on me, one hand gripping a black trash bag of loot, the other bearing purple flame that could burn the invulnerable.

“I know your clairaudients can hear, Teacher.  I want my reinforcements now.

She’d had thirty, fifty people dropped in.  Some had been capable- minor thinker powers, shooting accurately in the gloom.  Others had been equipped.

People with powers.  They had the communication advantage, and they were about to up the ante.

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46 thoughts on “Gleaming – 9.4”

  1. There’s an obvious chunk of text missing to describe Finale after she cheers up.

    I hope Byron’s magic water or Withdrawals’s magic syringe can slow down Purple Flame’s power. Caryatid seems cool.

    I’m guessing that ripping the arm off would solve the issue of the flame’s penetrating power.

    And finally, I have to admit I laughed out loud at, “I very much did not want to kill anyone Goddess didn’t want dead.” The mind control is still horrifying, but I got a bit of dark humor there. Gotta have priorities, Antares!

    1. I believe “pew pew pew” is traditional.

      You couldn’t stop me from making laser sounds if I had any kind of energy shooting power.

      Zomg what if she causes a bigger impact the more impressive sound effects she makes.

  2. “Her mouth moved and she made sounds as she used her abilities, even though there should have been zero need. It put me in mind of people who could read, but who moved their lips as they did.”

    Finale is Sleeper re-branded confirmed!

    I wonder how the Malfunctions will react to Victoria being compromised after going through something like this.

    1. I wonder if her shots get stronger the more she fires, until it hits the “finale”, and resets? Her calling her attacks might be her way of keeping track.

      1. I guess that could explain the escalation from “bam”, to “bambam”, to the thunderlike “zap”. It’s an interesting theory, I just thought it was like how some people if you gave them a blaster power might go “Pew, pew” just for the fun of it. Using that logic though, I wonder why Sleeper feels the need to read out loud in her lawn chair when no one else is around?

      1. Back when Taylor passed over Sleeper in Speck 30.4, he was described as reading to himself out loud. Now Victoria has described Finale’s added sound effects as similar to sub-vocalizing while reading. So naturally, this vague coincidence should be taken as definitive proof that Finale is somehow Sleeper. 🙂

        1. Random thought: Sleeper ‘subsumed’ that world, didn’t he? Maybe he was reading out loud because everyone on the world could hear him as a result of some really powerful Master effect.

          1. That’s because “people in the comment section” is plural, but you’re singular. If each individual only remembers 10% of the details, but you lump a few dozen of us together, there’s good odds that any given detail will be remembered by somebody.

            In my case, this was one of the details I’d forgotten, so I was as confused as you when MissingInAction made their comment. To satisfy my curiosity, I had to go back to Worm and ctrl-f for Sleeper in the chapters where Khepri was collecting people.

  3. Spelling malfunction typo thread:

    “She has shopping bags in her very nice car, and she paid for the lunch.”
    ‘has’ > ‘had’

    “the others checked theirs.”
    Extra space.

    “Trunks splintered, and whole sheaths of brittle mark were cast off,”
    > ‘brittle bark’ ?

    1. >I landed on the roof, ready to act if I had to- it meant having the wretch down

      >Before I could activate the wretch, grab the car, and try to force a correction, he got things back under control. There wouldn’t be handprints in the car exterior.

      So Victoria drops the Wretch and lands on Byron’s car, but the next time her position and the Wretch are mentioned…

      >I let the Wretch fall away, the ice that had collected in the crevices dropping down to pelt the car, which had slowed.

      …she’s apparently now flying above the car with the Wretch active. What’s missing is some mention of her flying off the car roof and reactivating the Wretch.

    2. >I landed on the roof, ready to act if I had to- it meant having the wretch down

      >Before I could activate the wretch, grab the car, and try to force a correction, he got things back under control. There wouldn’t be handprints in the car exterior.

      So Victoria has dropped the Wretch and landed on top of the car, but the next time the Wretch and her position are mentioned…

      >I let the Wretch fall away, the ice that had collected in the crevices dropping down to pelt the car, which had slowed.

      …she has reactivated it and flown above the car again, but there is no mention of her changing position.

    3. “Reach was Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. We were Maryland originally. No, you’re right, it was to work with powers. I’m surprised you didn’t know what these are called, living more north.”

      “Our winters weren’t too bad, in Brockton Bay, and I fly, remember?”

      Another puff of breath, like a laugh.

      “Power related?” I asked.

      “Yeah,” he said. “For a little while, I was ice.”
      Out of order chronologically. She’s supposed to ask about powers before he agrees that it was about powers.

      1. That’s not what he’s agreeing about. Right before the lines you quoted, Victoria says that it can’t be because of where he lived. That’s what Byron is saying she was right about, and then he’s volunteering the information that it was to work with powers. So then Victoria asks him to elaborate, and he does.

  4. Well damn. They seem to have kicked the hornet’s nest. Someone with a platoon of thralls at ready and the apparent belief that Teacher will commit heavier forces on her request. And she seems to be an at most minimally-controlled Blaster with a power I don’t recognize. This could be a trap still, but considering that it’d be for Team Goddess I’d expect heavier firepower; it took an unlikely sequence of events for it to only get the Malfunctions and Antares+half of Capricorn; if Tristan hadn’t swapped or if he’d switched with Goddess still on the line this would have baited in the entirety of Breakthrough at a minimum, and the reaction force so far couldn’t have handled that. And with the connections to crisis points that would draw Dinah’s attention and Goddess’s Trump power, Teacher’s low-grade precog minions couldn’t give him reliable detailed intelligence. So I’m pretty sure this wasn’t in his plan and the woman is important enough to Teacher to call on his regular standby quick reaction force.

    The plan presumably involves spiking the drugs for the prisoners with the powder. Which I would guess is some mix of a countermeasure to Goddess’s power and a way to make them obey Teacher either directly or indirectly. That seems like the most straightforwardly useful thing it could do, at least; it’d keep Goddess from simply claiming the entire prison population at a stroke and she and her allies would probably end up having to kill most of the prisoners, which they’d probably succeed at but with great difficulty.

    Also, controlled Victoria’s perspective is very darkly amusing. It’s like she’s not actually mentally connecting her new alleigence to Goddess with being affected by a Master power and is subconciously running this like she’s a hardline Goddess loyalist who has been compromised by a different Master.

  5. Well, Finale’s power is less exciting than all the ones I suggested when she first turned up.

    It looks like it powers up when she uses it, though, so each blast is stronger than the last. That’s quite cool, and… I wonder if, given enough time to blast away, she could demolish a building.

    1. If her power kept growing in scale it could possibly get to a point where it might say, I don’t know, subsume the area?

      *wink wink*
      *nudge nudge*

      The truth is out there.
      #SleeperRe-Branded

  6. I wonder what the purple flame effect used on Caryatid is. It might not necessarily be something physically damaging-a mental attack with the flame as a medium, perhaps.

    What are the odds Byron has been frantically texting the Wardens to inform them the team is compromised? Kenzie might have compromised his phone, though…

  7. Possibly in the brief window after he left to go to the car but before Victoria came out. He wouldn’t have been able to do it without her noticing while driving, and then once they arrived Teacher’s minions cut the phone network.

    1. Actually, remember the bit where Victoria was criticizing his driving? Maybe he was texting and driving, and Victoria did notice, but she just assumed he was distracted for more or less the same reasons she was distracted.

  8. Well, Victoria’s dialogue is interesting. At times it’s like she’s treating Byron as the one who’s compromised and at other times she’s like the annoying teenager who gets told to be nice and decides to be “nice”.

    Of course, Victoria needs to back off but won’t. I just hope Goddess’s effect isn’t permanent.

  9. This is more pertinent to last chapter than to the current one, but I’ve been thinking about Amy and Goddess.

    Just at the most superficial level, something already feels wrong about their partnership. Maybe I’m reading into it, but…

    Amy

    – Emotionally troubled. Has abandonment issues.
    – Views herself as the moral compass to Bianca, who is a selfish, domineering person.
    – Deeply empathic and suffers from the constant, overriding obligation to help others.
    – Believes she has something of value to offer Bianca that gives her leverage in their relationship.

    Bianca (Goddess)

    – Did not fully mature before being given access to overwhelming power.
    – Manipulative. Literally – it’s one of her powers.
    – Is already transgressing against Amy’s boundaries and using outside situations as an excuse for crossing the line at a whim.
    – In line with above, has no qualms about turning others into pawns.

    I’ve seen this dynamic before. It’s the opening salvo to some of the abusive relationships I’ve seen. One person thinks they can save the other but it never works out that way.

    IDK if anybody else has noticed, but Wildbow seems to be drawing very heavily from the field of abnormal psychology when characterizing his main cast. I get the feeling that he wanted to push his character development abilities further and wound up drawing inspiration from a psychiatric manual for diagnosing patients. Team Breakthrough meets in therapy. Their characters suffer from PTSD (Victoria – also, body dysmorphic disorder, played literally), Multiple Personality Disorder (Capricorn, played literally), Histrionic Personality Disorder (Kenzie, textbook case) and Antisocial Personality Disorder (Ashley, textbook case). I’m not sure yet how to classify Rain, Chris, or Sveta.

    If that’s the case, then it looks like the template for the Panacea/Goddess relationship might be abuse and control. This bodes especially ill because there’s a possibility that, for Amy, experiencing the emotional manipulation of Goddess, and the subsequent erosion of her personality could cause her to snap.

    On one hand, it might mean she finally “gets” what she did to Victoria. On the other, it could also send her spiraling drastically out of control. I’m picturing a terrifyingly powerful woman who has become deeply unhinged after the empathy which serves as the cornerstone of her personality breaks under the strain of betrayal and abuse. Disturbing.

    1. While I do think that Wildbow is definitely studying up on his abnormal psychology, I don’t think that was his intentions when creating Breakthrough. He may have drawn inspirations to make the characters more realistic and life-like, but that was not his primary concern. His primary concern was he needed a team to explain to explore the Shards in more depth.

      -Antares is the second-triggered, after Amy destroyed her body and soul. Though, she might have second-triggered after Khepri got her and took her mind. Her first triggers draw on her desires to be an invincible hero that makes civilians awe and villains cower in fear. It is also reminding her that she is not invincible because it only takes one shot for her to become mortal again. Her second trigger is further reminding her of her horrible past and how she desires to lash out against Amy.

      -Tress is the Case 53. This is what happens when Cauldron chose the wrong candidate with the wrong vial made incorrectly. Her power draws on a dependency disorder, a desire to latch onto people, but too strong that it ends up hurting whoever she does. It may also be mainly that all she is is just a pretty face.

      -Capricorn is the Case 70. Fused together because of being in touching distance when triggered, they were forced into a environmental stressor when they triggered. This helps explain exactly what the Shards look for when they trigger, and that they can confuse twins for the same host. If they can figure out exactly where the other twin goes when the other is active, it can be incredibly vital. Tristan’s power is creating obstacles in front of others and an ability to just cast off certain pieces as dead if he is no longer using them anymore. These dead pieces are easily destroyed and can depleted of all energy. He is also stubborn and won’t be pushed around easily thanks to his strength. Byron’s, on the other hand, is incredibly cold and not willing to open up to people easily. His power turned to water because he decided to go with the flow when becoming a hero. His temperature resistance is because he isn’t really affected by his environment all that much, a hint that maybe it was Capricorn that triggered and not Byron.

      -Lookout is the child trigger. Child triggers become their shard and their personality is warped by said shard. Her power can also help collect the data from the others and figure out how shards work. Her desire to be as inclusive as ever to the family manifested itself as a way to intrude on anyone she so desires. It is also a reminder of how she ended up in the situation in the first place. She can also alter videos as she pleases, like how she likes to manipulate her own memories to see her friends in a positive light without any faults. Her huge boxes that she makes is her needing someone to help her like she needs help moving such boxes.

      -Precipice is the multi-trigger. His power is shared amongst three others, one of them currently dead. The Shards also communicate with eachother via telepathic-like connections to the others. A fifth entity is also present, perhaps a shard itself. So far, only the Capricorns know these dreams exist, so Kenzie is not currently monitoring such dreams. His powers draw on the fact that he was frozen in place, now he can bring himself to a standstill, when people were banging on the door with their fists, he creates extra limbs to mimic this, but gimpy as it did no affect him to action, with all the doubt creeping in his mind, he can give other people those same doubts that can lead to indecision, and he was the one who locked them in, his actual power which could have easily unlocked such door. His power token is metal, like the door he trapped them in.

      – Swansong is the clone. Created by Bonesaw to be a member of the Slaughterhouse 9000, she is the Hero clone that decided to join up with Breakthrough until it fell through. She has an active presence with her shard, shown by her memories of Edict’s son. Her power is drawn on the ability to completely destroy her enemies in mere instance, but one wrong move can destroy something she cares about. This likens back to her life with her father, where she desperately wanted to defend her mother, but any move to protect her would just cause her more strife.

      – Cryptid is currently unknown to the reader exactly what he is, but I have a theory. Since he cannot be a clone or a child-trigger, it leaves me to believe he is the Dragon of the group. He is something non-human that still managed to trigger. Dragon triggered because of Saint using her technology against her, so she retaliated by using other tinker’s technology against him. Chris is some non-human entity that managed to trigger because of the grief it caused him not being able to classified as human, hence the Changer powers. He also has the ability to show exactly what emotion he is going through, but at the cost at changing his core self. This is hinted at when he said he was iffy at being a boy. It also explains his apparent resistances to Master-type powers, because he’s not technically human to be mastered, like when Khepri tried to take-over Dragon. He is somewhat human, but I think that’s because of careful changes to his self through his powers rather than anything else. This also explains how Cryptid and Amy met. If he’s doing that much to change his body, he’s probably being affected on a molecular level. My guess is some sort of Valkyrie/Nilbog/Bonesaw/Panacea creation. If they can create Shards, they are probably the most incredible team out there. But that’s just my theory.

      Anyways, I digress. Team Breakthrough is to look into exactly what Shards are, and which is why they are being heavily looked after by pretty much every major player. He who controls Shards controls the world.

      1. This also explains how Cryptid and Amy met. If he’s doing that much to change his body, he’s probably being affected on a molecular level. My guess is some sort of Valkyrie/Nilbog/Bonesaw/Panacea creation.

        He’s also familiar to Bitch for some reason, and he doesn’t seem to know why. Perhaps he was one of her dogs prior to some terrible accident, or maybe he was made out of the biomass that her dogs grow while under the effect of her power.

        1. Actually, she has.

          Glory Girl’s force field didn’t have autonomy before and her awe-ra can only do fear now instead of either fear or awe.

        1. Nah. She existed at that time, as an AI, but Saint mentions that her code underwent some drastic changes at some point. Defiant speculates that was her trigger event.

          1. Yep.

            This also ties in with my theory that a good chunk of her stuff isn’t technically Tinker work, both before and after her trigger event. Containment foam, in particular, is apparently replicable by the PRT at large, while Tinker tech is largely only reproducible by other Tinkers, mostly with extreme difficulty.

    2. – Did not fully mature before being given access to… power.
      – Manipulative. Literally – it’s one of her powers.
      – Is already transgressing against Amy’s boundaries and using outside situations as an excuse for crossing the line at a whim.
      – In line with above, has no qualms about turning others into pawns.

      So, basically, Glory Girl, when we first met her?

  10. You know the mention of Hiveminds and Goddess was making me wonder….
    It would be really interesting to have a two way Master effect. Something like Goddesses effect, except it hits both people involved equally and sort of tries to fold their goals and utility functions together.
    It would be a really interestingly balanced power. You could use it on Jack slash to make him less ax crazy, and more likely spare your friends and loved ones… but at the cost of probably becoming some sort of derranged murder hobo yourself.

    What would happen when you glommed the goes of a dozen or so capes together?

    It would be really cute if its later revealed that this is what Goddess does, and the reason she isn’t effected much by team Breakthrough is because she’s already linked up to several dozen other utility functions (higher “utilitarian mass” as it were)… but I don’t think this is what is happening here.

  11. So, the major villains of the story so far have all had mind-control/influencing abilities (Mama Mathers, Valefor, Goddess, Teacher). Teacher speculated that Scapegoat’s power is a trump, and has proven able to shift power-related effects as well as any physical or mental abnormalities. Is it possible the true extent of his power, when boosted by Teacher, is to be able to swap powers between people? When we know Dinah is with them? This could become extremely dangerous extremely quickly. Say, Teacher happens to find out where Khepri is now…

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