Gleaming – 9.6

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“Reality is on fire,” Jester said it in a very matter of fact way, before adding,  “purple fire.”

“Is it spreading?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Shrinking, but slowly, and it looks ominous.”

“It’s around the door thing?”

“Is that what that was?  A door?  Yeah, it’s mostly around some tech stuff at the base.”

“Then it’s fine.  Get people to stand back, in case it blows.”

“We already did,” Jester said.  He didn’t move from his spot underneath the shelter of the bus stop.

The street was now crowded with police cars that didn’t match each other, Jester’s patrol bus, and two ambulances.  My hand was bandaged, and the Malfunctions were being looked after.  The patrol had done its work, and Jester was keeping me company, under the guise of getting updates on the situation.  That had taken two minutes, really, he’d stepped away to report to others, and he’d just come back.

As for the rest- it was only in the wake of the event that I could really take stock of just how much of a battlefield this neighborhood had become in a very short span of time.  There were a lot of combatants, disabled or otherwise not putting up a fight, who were being put in the patrol bus.

“Are you okay?  Really okay?” Jester asked me.  “I know we’re not close, and that’s a very personal question, but…”

“We worked together.”

“For a bit over a year, and even this week, I was going into work and thinking I could bug you about some power classification thing or something I saw online.  I forget what.”

“You miss me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

He shrugged, shoulders straining against the straps of his vest- the stripped-down PRT armor with the identifying marks scraped off.  In the cold weather, he was wearing a jacket over the vest.  His tattoo wasn’t visible beneath the long sleeves.

“I kind of miss you guys too,” I said.

“That’s a very nice generic, ‘you guys’.  A deft deflection from saying you miss me in particular, Miss Dallon.”

I smiled.

“Is that your way of saying you’re not okay?  You miss when things were simpler?” he asked.  “Because holy shit, um, I told Gil to wake me up or pull me in if your team ever needs anything, and I keep getting brought in for really messed up shit.”

“You don’t have to,” I said.

“I like it!  Don’t get me wrong.  Not the messed up stuff-”

“You’re losing me.  You like it but you don’t like it?”

“I like you,” he said, before his eyes registered the words, and he gave a fraction-of-a-second-late, “-guys.”

“Deft.”

He spoke with more energy and verve, as if he could stampede all over that exchange, leaving it behind him.  “I did this whole Patrol thing because powers kick ass and I thought if I didn’t have powers, I could still be the guy in uniform that the big goddamn hero turns to and says, ‘Hey, guy with the cool callsign, are you going to have our backs?’ and I could say yes.”

“Cool callsign, huh?  That’s an integral part of this fantasy?”

“It’s not a fantasy.  It’s a mission.  I’m going to become an instructor and team leader one day, and it’ll be mandatory.  No gun until you have a decent nick.  Exceptions if you have a badass last name and you go by that name.”

“I feel sorry for your students.”

“Quiet, you,” he said.

Another patrol bus drove up.  Jester raised his hand, and behind the glare of the headlights and the windshield with ice at the edges, the driver raised  a hand in response.

I punched Jester in the arm.  “Thanks.  For backing us up.  You were there at the Fallen thing, you were there for Swansong.”

“You’re welcome,” Jester said.  “It’s nothing big.  Trying to help out when I can, help the people who are doing the big stuff… like tearing through seventy-five jerks with tinker guns.”

He indicated the neighborhood street.  The road was low quality beneath puddles and ice, already cracking less than a year after it had been laid down, and the wet surface reflected the flashing blue and red light of emergency vehicles.

“Fifty at most,” I said.

“How’s Swansong?” he asked.

I raised my eyebrows.

“I guarded her, kept watch, like you said.  Spent enough time doing it I’m invested, and she’s cool.”

I had no idea how she was.  The question was enough to get me to check my phone for any status updates.

“I’m going to see her shortly,” I spoke slowly as I scrolled.  “Last I heard, yeah, she was okay.  But with everything going on-”

I stopped myself.

“She’s in prison, though.  How would she be involved?”

Damn it, Jester, why did you catch on to that?

“Nah.  She feels like her hands are tied,” I covered.  “And that’s hard.”

Jester nodded.

Byron was at the periphery.  A cop had stopped him, but a moment later, was calling out to someone else.  Getting backup, since it was no doubt intimidating to have a guy in armor show up at the edge of the battlefield.

“I should go,” I said.  “Good luck with dealing with that patch of reality being on fire.”

“It’s really cool, if you haven’t seen.  It’s like if they froze lightning and then set it on fire.”

“I got a close-up taste of it,” I said, raising my hand, where I’d pulled my glove on over bandages, the bandages peeking out the end, and tapped the bandage.  “And you guys should keep your distance until it burns out, to be safe.”

“We will.”

I headed in Byron’s direction.  He was still held up with police, but they didn’t seem as bothered.  He indicated me, and I gave them a wave and thumbs-up.

The Major Malfunctions broke away from the paramedics, hurrying to my side.  I paused, letting them catch up, while keeping an eye on Byron to make sure he was alright.

“Are you going after the pharmacist?” Withdrawal asked.

“Not sure yet.  We’re rendezvousing with the rest of the team.  Once we know what we’re doing, we’ll be in touch with everyone.  You guys should rest, resupply, if you feel like you’re done, that’s perfectly okay.  If not, let us know that you’re game, and we’ll let you know as soon as we know more.”

“I’m out of accelerant,” Withdrawal said.  “And my exoskeleton took a beating.”

“It should be go-goo or speedslime or something,” Finale murmured.  “And if you’re going to call it that, your suit should be a go-suit.”

I had the impression this was a discussion they’d had before.

“You guys are battered, burned, and bruised.  You did more than your fair share- you did great.  I totally did not mean to get you involved in something that intense.  If you want to sit out, I will absolutely not think less of you for it.”

“I was gonna say,” Withdrawal said.  “Accelerant is gone, Finale is spent, and Caryatid got burned-”

“It’s not a big deal,” Caryatid said.  “Antares got burned too.”

“-and,” Withdrawal pressed on, voice muffled by mask, insistent as he fought against getting sidetracked, “I think I speak for everyone when I say we found out the pharmacist was up to something, we started this, and it would be satisfying to be involved when it wraps up.  I want to get her.”

“Yes,” Caryatid said.

I looked at Finale.

“I want what they want,” she mumbled, evading eye contact.

“Sit back, recover, reload your slime, heal.  We will be in touch,” I said.  “We have to step carefully when it involves the prison.  They’re wary of us, and they won’t believe us if we try convincing them that their staff member is a problem.”

“Alright,” Withdrawal said, his head turning, attention between Finale and me.  I saw him take a deep breath, halfway through which he seemed to notice something about the frame he was wearing, his hand going to one shoulder to touch the metal there.  It stayed there as he exhaled.  “We’ll hang back for now.  Thanks.”

I could see the tension release in Finale’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” I said.

Byron opened the car door as I approached.  He’d apparently fended off the police.  I waved for him to get back in, glancing at the cops to make sure he hadn’t complicated things by setting them against Goddess.

“Didn’t you get permission to take the box?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I’ll get it.”

“It’s heavy, and you’re injured,” he said.  “I’ll help.”

I wanted to protest.  I shut my mouth.  Master-stranger protocols.  They didn’t really apply here, since this had nothing to do with Goddess, but maybe it was better to get used to letting him give the orders.

The box was roughly the size of a coffin, and it did take the both of us to get it into the trunk, the back seats folded down.  Byron slammed the back closed.

“No injuries?” I asked.

“Benefit of being long-ranged.  I got zapped a few times, nothing too bad.  Weak guns.”

“Nonlethal,” I said, my voice quieter.  “Just about all of it, as far as I could tell.  Pharmacist excepted.  I think it might be part of how they get recruits, now.”

Byron’s breath fogged, a lingering aftermath of a sharp, sudden exhalation.  A swear expressed unspoken.

I didn’t miss the sideways look he gave me.  His train of thought was easy enough to follow.  Recruits.  Altered mental states.  ‘Quote-Brainwashing-unquote’.

The second patrol bus was picking up the wounded and disabled.  It had come stocked with blankets, tending to those who’d been splashed or left lying against cold ground.  The thralls didn’t fight or argue much.

“Thanks for having my back,” I said.

“I felt stuck, looking after the Majors, I saw you needed help, but getting there was tough.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “He’s… he has an answer to anything, and I was the threat that stuck out.  They brought out the anti-air brute-binding measure, that’s on me.  I could have been more strategic.  We’ll figure something out.  We have other teams, we have Goddess…”

“And-” Byron started.  “Sit with me?  I won’t go fast.  We’re not rushing.”

I nodded.

We both climbed into the car, and I was glad for the warmth that was blowing in noisily from the fans.  Byron had to work a bit to get in, with the weight and less comfortable aspects of having armor on.  For me, it was just the breastplate, and I could use my unburned hand to loosen it.

“We have an issue,” Byron said, as he pulled the car around in a u-turn.  “It means things might not go that smoothly.”

“The changing powers?” I guessed.  “The ebb and flow between you two isn’t favoring you as much.”

“Not that,” Byron said.  We were approaching a turn, and he turned to look over one shoulder.  “Is my left side clear?  Wearing a helmet while driving is not good for the peripheral vision.”

I twisted around to look.  “Clear.”

He turned, moving more slowly than usual.  More emergency vehicles were coming in the opposite direction, heading to the site we’d just left.

“Tristan and I made arrangements.  I’m getting calls.  They’re impatient, and Tristan didn’t pick them because they were easygoing.”

I could hear the friction of Byron’s glove on the material of the steering wheel as he gripped it tighter.

“The people from Lord of Loss’ territory?”

“Ah, you caught that.”

When we’d gone to the other Earth to track down the Fallen sypmpathizers from Cheit, there had been a group of people who Tristan had paid attention to.  They were in Lord of Loss and Marquis’ orbit, which suggested things. Professional, off the grid.

“Hit men?” I asked.

“Is there a term for people worse than hit men?”

“How does that work?  Hit men are generally pretty bad, they’re professional, they’re about as criminal as you get.  How do you get more extreme than that?”

“They don’t kill,” Byron said.

I set my jaw.  Too many complicated thoughts were stirred up by that line of thinking.  My first, almost hopeful thought was that he meant they were worse as in less-effective.  The summary thoughts led me down a trail that made me think about my sister.

“An end worse than death,” Byron clarified, unhelpfully.

“I got it,” I said, my voice tense.

The car’s tires cut through the wet, icy roads.  It was far from being good hero transportation.  Only the fact that license plates didn’t mean anything kept it somewhat anonymous.  If anyone cared to pay attention, it’d be a problem.

Fates worse than death.  As an idea, it was too close, too fresh.

Fuck, my burned hand hurt.

“Why in the upside-down fuck would you pick people worse than hit men?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” Byron said.

“It was Tristan?”

“He decided on it and moved forward.  He does this thing where things get bad, and he sees a possible solution- he gets all gung-ho for it.”

“So he hires a fate-worse-than-death hitman?”

“He said it was extreme enough that he’d have to stay in line.  I was witness to it, as I am to all things Tristan.  Then it was done with.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“I’m resigned to it,” Byron said.  “It happened, and by the time I wrapped my mind around it and did my own research, it was done.  Too hard to revoke, and things were better.  They were almost good for the first time in years.”

“Things go wrong, Byron.  This exact situation, it’s one of those things.”

“I know.”

“What the hell are the particulars, here?  Who are these guys?”

“Barcode.  Most of the time they deal in death.  But they have contacts, the sort of people who might be out in one of Marquis’ cabins in the middle of nowhere, not wanting to be bothered.  I don’t know for sure where those contacts are, though.”

“And?”

“And one of those is a striker.  A dealer in human parts.  They take people apart with physical blows as if they’re dolls.  Takes an arm and a leg, literally, takes kidneys, hearts, genitals, whatever people are willing or desperate to buy.”

“No,” I said.

“If one of us steps out of line or try to game the system, he makes being swapped in just as miserable or worse than being inside-”

“No, Byron.  Just- stop?  Please.  No details.”

“Mm.”

The car sped along a road, down a street that, even with the periodic streetlight, was mostly too dark to see.  The city wasn’t that bright around us, with lights in windows easily confused with the light catching on the edges of raindrops and flecks of frost.

“What’s the procedure?” I asked.  “Forget the consequence- it’s bad.  I get it.  How do you do it?”

“We meet up every few days.  We confirm we’re okay, we swap.  There are two or three people who show up, sometimes with backup, whoever they’re working with at the time.  One is usually a thinker.  They can read people.  Read us.”

My phone lit up, brighter in my lap than any light outside or on the dash.  It was Lookout.  They were close to our destination.

“They read people.  For altered mental states?”

“Yep.  Drugs.  Amnesia.  Brainwashing.”

He put emphasis on that last point.

“So you would go.  You’d swap over to Tristan-”

“And whether he cooperates or not, he’s under her influence.  They come after me.”

I closed my eyes.  “What if the thinker doesn’t show?”

“And Tristan doesn’t sound the alarm?  There’s no guarantee he switches back to me, for one thing.”

“And the deadline?”

“Last night,” Byron spoke in the kind of monotone reserved for those trying very hard to keep their voices level.  At my look of surprise, he elaborated, “We had the TV show.  They were willing to delay.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Tight time limit,” Byron said, and his voice was tense.  “I can maybe fend them off for tonight, we did say we were busy.  I’ve been thinking about other options since after you and I had our skirmish.”

It was hard to think of the skirmish and not find the doubts welling, my mind immediately going to the perspective of how Byron was a problem first.  The protocols didn’t jump immediately to mind.

“How did he even find these guys?”

“Ha,” Byron said the word, humorless.  The car swerved a bit on what looked like normal, not-icy ground, and he corrected.  “I saw it happen and I don’t even know.  I smile and it’s… it’s an expression.  He smiles and people like him.  He gets online and finds people we used to fight, people we threw in jail, asks how they’re doing, finds common ground in the world ending, fishes.  A couple weeks later, somehow he has these guys, with a clandestine system for getting in touch.  I didn’t even think it would happen, so I just let him do his thing, focused on my own things, and… surprise, it all came together, am I willing to shell out some of my own cash so it’s not one party paying the scary mercenaries?  I should know not to underestimate him when he sets his mind to something.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Then we have a time limit.  Goddess, prison, pharmacist, make sure Rain and Ashley are okay.  Tonight?”

“Tonight, yeah.  All of that tonight.  Then if we can’t fix it by then, you’re going to need to put me into a coma.  Say I was hurt in the field.”

“If they have that thinker, and if I’m actually brainwashed, then they’ll catch on.”

“A neutral third party then,” Byron said.

“And we lose our one unaffected person in the chain of command for the master-stranger protocol.”

“Yeah.”

I folded my arms, being careful with my burned hand, and stared out the window, thinking.  I had to anticipate what the others would say and do, I had to second-guess Byron while at the same time supporting him, and I needed to think about Teacher and his motives and goals.  Even simpler things were made that much more problematic by the things in their orbit, like Amy’s proximity to Goddess.

We drove in silence.  There was no radio, and our only soundtrack was the noise of the wheels through wet ice and the patter against the car roof.  I’d spent relatively little time in cars and vehicles for the past seven or so years, even during my stint with the patrol block, and my awareness of the individual noises was harder to block out.

Not that I minded.  White noise was a good grounding for contemplation, and the sounds were alien enough that I wasn’t reminded of anything particular.

I checked my phone and found it marked with the ‘no service’ icon.  No internet waypoints, no cell.

I wanted to have neat and tidy answers and excuses like I had with Kenzie before we’d left, where I’d been able to keep her from going off and doing her thing to try and be helpful.  Or so I was hoping.  I didn’t have much of anything.

That left the battle plan.  In twisting ideas around in my head, trying to think of how we might help Goddess in a way that Byron might approve of, or deal with a prison with a massive red button, where our enemy could run roughshod and we couldn’t…

It was all backward.

All backward.

The most un-superhero hatchback found its parking space at the desolate parking garage.  Natalie’s bug was already parked in a spot.  It was startling, on a level, to recognize how small that car was, that Natalie had to be the person driving it, and the rest of the team had fit in it.

The answer, of course, was that two of our members were in jail.  A third was in Goddess’ company, no doubt enjoying how very simple and clear life was.

We were seven, eight if we included our tertiary member Natalie.  Three were gone.  That left three for the car, Byron and myself.

Capricorn and I got out of the car.  The others were waiting.  Natalie was fidgeting, her eyes wide.

Was it a good thing or a bad thing that they hadn’t been able to keep her in the dark?

“Swansong and Precipice are sitting out.  No holograms for right now.  They’re more focused on immediate happenings in the prison,” Sveta said.

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Can I see the tech?” Lookout asked.

“Sure.  As soon as we unload it.  Can you give us a hand, Nat?” Capricorn asked, popping the trunk open.

I saw Natalie studying us, wary like she thought I’d suddenly grab her or something.  I saw Sveta studying Capricorn in particular, suspicious.  Still, Natalie helped, and we slid the box out of the back of the car and down to the floor of the parking garage.  Sveta snatched up a few things on the ground that we might have tripped on.

The lights of the garage were only half-illuminated, and the half that were illuminated were dim, the glows orange and diffuse.  There weren’t many cars, and the cars looked like they had been there for a while, with rust and dust creeping over their exteriors.  For a couple, it looked like people might have been living in them.

“So cool,” Lookout said.  “It’s not every day that I get to look at a tinker’s stuff.”

“There’s a time limit,” I said.  “If we move, we need to move tonight.”

“I remember you guys talking about not wanting to overwork K- Lookout,” Natalie said.

Still wary, even as she protested.

“I’m conserving my energy for the times and nights when it really matters and my talents are needed,” Lookout said, kneeling beside the now-open box.  “And everything’s intact!”

“I smashed one box,” I said.  “They unpacked and activated one.  This was one of two others.”

Natalie looked downright desperate to figure out what was going on, suppressed alarm clear on her face.  She couldn’t ask, though, not without signifying that something was wrong.

“We’re going forward with Chris’s disconnected cells idea,” Sveta said.

I approached her, reaching out.  She put her hand in mine, and I gave it a waggle.

Tension across her face seemed to ease slightly with that.  The smaller signs of anxiety like free tendrils finding their perch or the rustle of movement inside her shell of a body were muted in a similar way.

“Disconnected cells,” I echoed, confirming I’d heard.

“She has two other groups.  We’ll move in coordination once we know for sure what we’re doing.”

Natalie touched her phone, which was in her jacket pocket.  The layers she wore seemed overly warm for even this shitty weather, but I could see that she’d gone easy on the top beneath the sweatshirt and jacket.  No doubt choosing clothes that didn’t press on her cut.

She didn’t draw out the phone, though, or tamper with it in a way that made me think she’d opened a call to emergency services, holding a button too long or tapping one area of the screen while the phone was still in a pocket.

I let myself relax.

“What’s the verdict?” I asked.

“Still studying it, but…” Lookout pulled out her phone, held it out, and clicked a button.  A little square robot face with hearts for eyes pirouetted across the screen, providing the object of focus for a side-wipe screen transition.  What was left in its wake was gibberish data.  “Portal to another world, obviously.  You mentioned that already, over the phone.”

I nodded.  I was hyperaware of everyone’s state at this point.  Natalie’s anxiety was creeping up.  Capricorn was quiet, lost in thought.  Lookout was lost in her work, naturally.  And Sveta…

She didn’t look like she was wholly in control of herself.  More tendrils snaked out here and there, finding gaps and crevices, or old damage.  They weren’t the long tendrils- those were managed.  It was only the shortest, narrowest ones.

It sucked that she could accept the hand-waggle, but she gave me a look with doubt in her eyes when she didn’t think I was paying attention.

Lookout was humming.  “Hmm.  Okay.  Can you get my laptop?  Oh, and the projector disc.  I’ll image it.”

I got the computer.  Kenzie tinkered, plugging projector disc and phone into the laptop, while holding the phone out near the door in a box.

“I can’t get the teleporter working, I don’t think,” Lookout said.  The bun-encasement at the back of her head opened up, making eye contact with me, while she hunched over her work.  “But I know space and coordinates, and these things were made with coordinates built in.”

It took three tries before it worked- a three-dimensional map, incomplete, with some rooms and areas simply in blocked-out estimations of building dimensions, other areas hyperdetailed.  The route we’d traveled was as clear as day.

“There.”

Everything about the three-dimensional replication was cast aside as the image zoomed in on the pharmacist’s destination point.  The image was supplemented by more rectangles that had video feeds.

“This is pretty awful work,” Lookout said.

“It looks good,” I replied, but I was lost in my observations.  The pharmacist was in the room I had to assume was the pharmacy.  The black trash bag was emptied, pill bottles put on a shelf with other bottles.  I pointed at her.

“Can we get video of the area when she would have been leaving the scene?” Capricorn asked.

“Maybe.  I use the cell networks, and they’re hinky right now.  Some of this is old or out of sync.”

“Is that accident or intention?” Capricorn asked.  “The towers being down?”

“I don’t know,” Lookout replied, even though I suspected he hadn’t really been asking for her verdict.

What is the pharmacist doing, and how does it factor into Teacher’s agenda?

“Can you get eyes on security, while you’re at it?” I asked.  “I’m curious who was watching the monitors when a woman with punk hair and a purple metal shirt waltzed through a door made of lightning.”

“On it.”

Natalie shifted her weight from foot to foot.

Capricorn checked his phone, which was gripped in one gloved hand.  “Feeling the time limit.”

Another call from the guys?

“Working as fast as I can,” Lookout said.

There.  It hitched and glitched here and there, but the image split into two rectangular screens.  In one, the electrical door appeared.  The pharmacist came through with the latter portion of a leap.  In the other, we had a view of one of the security guards reach out and change the image on the screen away from the violently flickering image.

“We want to know who he is,” Capricorn said.

“Already on it.”

I got to watch the pharmacist get settled, torch the portal from her end of it, and then set to work, pulling things from the bag and organizing them in a painstaking way… then getting the baggie of orange- I presumed orange because the image wasn’t great enough quality to contrast the warm colors and it was close-powder.

That was the main attraction in our little theater here, enacted in a neutral location that put us closer to the portal.  On the sidelines, Lookout’s system was pulling out schedules and images.  We had one pharmacist and one security guard confirmed as Thralls – or whatever it was when they weren’t outright brainwashed.

It was like dominoes falling.  Security guard confirmed compromised.  Schedule came up, as did address.  Then there were the images, from prison video, from online, and from traffic lights that recorded those who passed through intersections.  On a map, routes he regularly traveled were highlighted.

From that guy, another guy, tracking destinations and more, the system clearly inferred other moles in the prison staff.  As portraits lined up, they became brighter or darker as new information came to light.

“Victoria?  Can I talk with you?” Natalie asked.

Right fucking now?  The dominoes are falling.  We’re getting a sense of what we’re fighting here.

“Can you give me a minute?” I asked.

“I’m kind of freaking out.”

“Okay.  As soon as we make sure everyone is contributing.  Tress, try to communicate to Precipice and Swansong that they should absolutely not take their medication of the day.  We still don’t know what that woman is doing.  Lookout, where are you at?”

“I don’t know.  I’m trying to figure out this door.  I might be able to open it, but it’s going to mean taking this stuff back to my workshop, where I was fiddling with the teleporter project.  I can kludge them together and give us a way to move to where the woman with the purple shirt went.”

“How long?” Capricorn asked.  Byron was concerned about the time.

“Four, five hours?  Closer to four if I have someone helping.”

I looked at Capricorn.  We couldn’t afford four or five hours.

“No.  We’ll go with another tack.  We do this backwards.”

“Backwards?” Sveta asked.

“Cryptid thinks Teacher’s plan is to get them to close off access to that world.  If Goddess is baited into going in there and they close the gate behind her, or worse, catch her between realities.”

“Why do you-?” Natalie started.  She stopped as Capricorn moved slightly.  A nudge or small wave, easily missed.

For all that he’d talked about his brother, he did okay when it came to convincing others.

I went on, “If he closes off that reality, especially with another person at the helm, then he can raid it continually, gathering thralls at his leisure.  So let’s get ahead of him, start from his win condition.”

“That sounds like a thing your mom would say,” Natalie murmured.  Her earlier insistence on talking to me was forgotten.  She had stars in her eyes as emotions that clearly mingled with the worried curiosity, the fixed stares, and the nervousness.

“It very much is,” I said, agreeing.  “If they’re running with cash in hand, take that cash.  At best, if we can do that, we force a draw.  Teacher wants to lock off the area and loot it?  We beat him to the punch and close it off first.”

I looked Lookout’s way as I finished saying that.

“Do you want me to rig that?” she asked.

“Can you?  Use the data you have from that door, and figure out a way to scramble coordinates so they don’t let people in, or so they don’t let people out?”

“I can make it so they can’t leave,” Lookout said.

“Perfect,” I said, smiling.  As an option, it fit with timeframes Byron had outlined, and it helped to sway an otherwise untenable situation to our favor.

It made a kind of sense that Lookout’s toolkit would point in that direction.  It was easier to destroy or distort than it was to create.  Here, in the midst of it all, when so many other things were tainted with doubts and small betrayals, it was good to know that we could potentially be the ones with the keys.

It made too much sense.  I wasn’t supposed to be following my instincts like this.  I had to stop myself, and look to Byron.

“Yes,” he said.  “Sealing him in there or sealing him away will be very good plays, if timed right.  For now, we should inform the other teams we were talking to, see if anyone can do something about the bombs that are strapped to our teammates’ ankles, and while we’re doing it, we should be very, very careful to keep the cells discrete.”

Keep them away from Goddess?

“What about the medication?” Sveta asked.  “I think they give those out around mealtimes, and as dark as it is outside-”

“It’s only the evening now,” I finished.  “Meals aren’t that far off.”

“Do we roll the dice?” Capricorn asked.  “We have some sense of who is compromised.  If we reach out to prison staff and get them to stall-”

It wasn’t so easy as that.  Too risky.

I shook my head, and he didn’t press for it.

“We tap other sources for help, we see what they have to say, and we see if they’re game for this,” I suggested.  “Bigger powers.  Maybe ones that can disable the bomb threat.”

“The Wardens?” Natalie asked.

“Goddess,” Sveta and I spoke in near-sync, with a distracted Lookout a syllable behind.

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48 thoughts on “Gleaming – 9.6”

    1. Some innocent prisoners and guards would be stuck with her–keep in mind that many of these prisoners haven’t even had a trial yet–and Teacher could *still* probably get in to brainwash them eventually. This includes Goddess herself becoming a thrall, with some preparation, and if she lost her tuning power then it’s not even that much prep.

      Teacher wouldn’t be planning this trap unless it was a win for him. Teacher wins are bad.

      Furthermore, two of those prisoners are members of the team that is making this plan, so there’s a valid bias entering in.

      Personally, I don’t see why the team can’t rationalize calling the Wardens. The Wardens might not directly help Goddess, but surely they’d oppose Teacher, which isn’t *not* helping Goddess.

      1. Under the circumstances, it’s pretty unlikely the team can get the Wardens to deploy enough force in the avaliable time, short of spilling the entire story including the bit where they’re working for Goddess at the moment. That would definitely be bad for Goddess. Also, the Warden elites are badly overcommitted for unclear reasons and even specific actionable intelligence like this might not be enough to shake Valkryie loose from whatever the hell she’s spent most of her time doing. Something that, I should note, is beyond her capacity to handle; she needed support from Dragon and Defiant on a fairly urgent basis at one point. That means it’s like Endbringer tier.

          1. They are busy with a great many things. Machine war is one. But neither it nor any other known issue seems likely to result in Valkryie calling in for unscheduled reinforcements. Especially not the machine army; they’re spreading out slowly yet unstoppably but seem unlikely to have sufficent local concentration of force to seriously threaten Valkryie when she’s called up Eidolon, Grey Boy, and Doormaker. She probably can’t sweep their entire territory fast enough to outpace their production capacity, but the situation wouldn’t change in a way that requires outside help within a couple hours.

            Sure, their advance might accelerate locally and threaten a portal or evacuation convoy, but if that’s all Valkryie would be the help. If anything, I’d infer she’s fighting some creature or organization with Trump powers. That seems most likely to result in her needing help from Tinkers. Dragon does have the capacity to do large-scale search-and-rescue or sweeps that are beyond people with greater combat power, but aside from Endbringers or earthquakes that’s not a need that arises unexpectedly. And if it’s a natural disaster Chevalier or Legend seem more likely to be responding. Valkryie is a New Triumvirate member but I kinda don’t see her being put in charge of anything except combat operations.

    2. If it’s done in a way that gives Teacher sole access to her, then definitely. Imagine what Teacher could do with Goddess under his thrall. He could take over all of Earth Gimel in a week.

      1. I doubt that’s a particular risk; her Trump power would almost certainly block it and I don’t think that’s the power she’s missing. We haven’t seen it demonstrated in Ward, but it’s not really applicable to either of the things she wants her missing power for, namely controlling a world where she’s already controlled all native parahumans and defending against Teacher’s human wave attacks; I don’t think Trump powers usually work on Tinker guns or that hers would disrupt most Thinker powers. So it seems pretty clear her missing power is largely useful against unpowered people and she has directly dealing with powered people sewn up.

        It’d still probably be bad to let Teacher seal her off, though. They’re in direct conflict, they’re highly unlikely to team up, and while they’re both egomanical would-be/former global/interdimensional dictators Teacher is probably the worse of the two. So ideally their conflict would end in mutual defeat or failing that Goddess winning. Teacher removing Goddess from the board at the price of a couple hundred thralls is probably the worst of the plausible outcomes of their fight.

        Y’know, maybe that’s exactly what Dinah was thinking. Assuming Teacher was right about her actions, she rather specifically touched off a chain of events that led very directly to Chris warning Goddess off a direct assault. Goddess recruiting them was touched off by their talk show appearance, in response to the anti-parahuman sentiment in general and Nives getting a description of Kenzie’s situation specifically. By precog standards that’s a pretty straightforward plan. Definitely simple enough the only likely way Dinah wouldn’t have included this outcome in her planning (at least under the heading of “chance sending this memo will result in significantly worsening Teacher’s strategic position”) is if her foresight has been badly disrupted by all the other precogs surveying the situation and/or Goddess’s Trump power. But Dinah specifically just loses sig figs in her forecasts under those conditions, so she’d still be able to generally forecast the likely outcomes in loose terms. Her forecasting now can’t be worse than her Golden Morning forecasting, and while no one is particularly pleased by the quality of that everyone (except Scion) would probably concede she at least marginally improved the outcome.

  1. Man. Look, I want to like Tristan but every so often you get reminded that for all of his good intentions he’s an almost explosively shitty human being.

    Also, yay Jester talking about his feelings and taking a subtle ‘no’ in a reasonable fashion!

    I like Natalie. A lot. She’s great.

    More than anything, though…Chris Interlude when?

    1. Well, it’s one hell of a motivation to keep things equal between the two of them and avoid loopholes, that’s for sure.

      I didn’t guess that the brainwashing itself would also come as a problem, but the Capricorn-switching deadline was an easy enough crisis to predict (although I inferred it from the wrong assumption… eh, I’ll take what I can get).

  2. Natalie: “Really? I’m in the hospital for one day and everything goes to shit.”

    I wonder if Goddess’s Master effect increases with stress? Victoria seems to think of her consistently after things begin to ratchet up with the revelations.

  3. I’m now left wondering how much of Glow-Worm was actually Byron.

    Also Victoria’s completely forgetting that Natalie could also act as chain of command for the master-stranger protocols.

    Also I don’t think I like where this plan is headed.

    It also seems that Sleep… er, I mean Finale is really passionate about the whole go-goo thing. Personally I think he should call it his go-go juice.

    1. I think the interaction with the hit men was Byron, as well as when he was ‘B’. I think that was him confirming Tristan’s contacts with the group and clarifying how it worked when he had control, because when Tristan is in charge, Byron can’t exactly ask questions to make sure he’s on the same page.

  4. Couldn’t Capricorn show up as Tristan, then change to Byron? If they are “forced” to each show themselves, it would make it easier for B. to walk away instead of T.

    1. The “Tristan doesn’t switch back” thing is only half of the problem though. There’s also the whole “the scary people realize Tristan is being controlled” thing as well, which would mean both that the jig would be up, and that the scary people would probably see that as reason enough to take Tristan (or Byron maybe?) apart.

    2. The procesure sounds like both twins need to be fully worked over, and Tristan will register as Mastered to a check for Mastering.

      Not to say anything at how he might react if let out after witnessing Byron and Victoria canoodle her own Mastering around into going if not against, then at least laterally to Goddess’s orders.

      It’s like sitting on a powderkeg that some demented Shaker is slowly replacing the powder in with thermite.

    3. There are two significant problems with that:

      1. It seems pretty evident that Byron expects the result of them determining one but not both is brainwashed is them assuming it’s the unbrainwashed twin’s fault and that hits one of the triggering conditions. And they won’t consider Tristan saying otherwise reliable because he’s brainwashed.

      2. It’s pretty unlikely there’s a way to resolve this to the satisfaction of the contractors without telling them what’s going on, given that there’s a disparity in the brainwashed status of the twins (if they were both brainwashed the obvious inference is that it was external hostile action). Which would require revealing the fact that Breakthrough has been brainwashed to an external party. Now, Tristan certainly would very much want to keep them from coming after Byron or himself, but unfortunately for the utility of that to everyone else, he has a cell phone and the contractors have powers and will be coming to a meeting at an arranged location. So the meeting will probably go like this: “Why aren’t you alo-” “This is no longer necessary. I have a new task for you.” “It shall be as you command, Goddess.”

  5. Seems like teacher plans on using scapegoat to force anyone who won’t negotiate with him to be a thrall. That’s the only way I see for him to snag goddess since his power otherwise seems to need the persons permission. Even if he seems to be collecting masters right now.

    And if goddesses dimension hopping power is in that prison and teacher gets it? I’m picturing a doormaker situation here. With humanity now spread across multiple earths giving teacher the ability to travel to potentially any point on any one of them and then use scapegoat to enthrall anyone he wants? How do you fight that?

    Also I know everyone is hollering for a Chris interlude right now but I’m rapidly losing interest in him. Meanwhile Capricorn gets more interesting every time we learn more about them. Can we get that interlude?

    1. I thought Chris would be the next focal character, not Capricorn. I still love Chris, I think you’ll regain interest when he turns into Rampant Disgust and runs around vomiting spiders on everything*. But yeah, I want more Capricorn info now, too.

      *Rampant Disgust is not a confirmed Chris-shape, and vomiting spiders is not one of his known abilities.

  6. Typo thread:

    “the Fallen sypmpathizers from Cheit,”

    “orange- I presumed orange because the image wasn’t great enough quality to contrast the warm colors and it was close-powder.”
    Em dashes’ formatting and spacing.

  7. crap crap crap nO NOT GODDESS ARGH

    I’m surprised Victoria’s phobia of Amy isn’t enough to make her not want to contact Goddess any more than absolutely necessary

    1. I strongly suspect, seeing as all Chris forms are creepy or weird or both or both and also bizzare, and possibly other adjectives, that he wouldn’t vomit up something as mundane as spiders. Maybe octopus-scorpion-bat-spiders?

  8. Is it just me, or is it getting hard to understand all the subtle things going on? I get that explaining everything explicitly to the reader in a POV style story like this isn’t great, but the last few chapters I’ve had to read the comments to understand what’s going on anything other than the broadest of possible terms.

    1. It’s very much by design, I think. But staying on the main plot thread and understanding these subtleties only once they’re explained is a fine way to enjoy this story, isn’t it ?
      Kinda like reading a detective book and either trying to use the evidence to find the culprit yourself, or just following the MC’s deductions and waiting for the reveal.

      1. It’s not that I don’t know what’s going to happen, or who’s the “bad guy” or whatever. It’s things like, when Goddess Mastered everyone, I really didn’t understand what was happening. The description of what’s happening in the prison is really confusing to me. Just keeping track of what is *actually happening* is really, really hard.

        I’m still not clear on what, exactly, Goddess’ Master power *is*. It doesn’t seem to be outright control, and it doesn’t seem to be subtle influence. I’ve seen some comments talking about value reshuffling, but then I don’t understand why Victoria can’t explain this to the others and have them work around it in the way she is. And clearly it’s not that powerful, since Victoria can work around it. All her agonising aside, she doesn’t really seem to be that hampered by the Mastering.

        1. Goddess’s power replaces the *higher brain functions* which select your goals. You still believe you have goals and you will do whatever you can to achieve those goals (subject to normal human limitations) but those goals are now in the service of Goddess. It seems Goddess can only *add* goals, though, since the team seems to be concerned about helping both Gimel and Goddess.

          So instead of Chris wanting to screw around with the team so he can practice his own sarcasm and be a moody teenager, he’s now using his insane paranoia skillz to give Goddess important strategic and logistic advantages.

          Antares is using her memory of Protectorate Master-Stranger protocols to somewhat sidestep the mastering. It’s not likely to work with any other member of Breakthrough:

          1. Lookout/Optics was presumably too young at the time to actually have gotten taught all the important protocols.
          2. Cryptid is only slightly older than Lookout, and is very likely never to have been near the Protectorate.
          3. Precipice and Swansong/Damsel of Distress are ex-villains and never were taught the Protectorate protocols.
          4. Tress is a case 53 and probably also never exposed to Protectorate protocols (except perhaps on the receiving end, and she’s Brute, not Master/Stranger).

          Only Capricorn and Antares have the requisite training to know about and apply the Master/Stranger Protectorate Protocol, and that’s what you’re seeing: Capricorn-Tristan realized that as leader he was possibly compromised by Master/Stranger and gave command to Capricorn-Byron, Antares is now also following the protocol and forcing Tress in particular to back off on Capricorn-Byron.

        2. It basically makes the people she uses it on want to advance her agenda. But it doesn’t make them stop wanting the things they already want, and it doesn’t change how they approach things. So moment-to-moment they don’t act very differently, especially in cases like this where they and Goddess already had the same goals. Victoria already wanted to keep Teacher from enthralling the prison population; now she also wants to stop him from keeping Goddess from recovering her missing power.

          Where this gets confusing is that Victoria also wants to keep Goddess from controlling anyone. Which means she and Breakthrough are trying to pull off recovering Goddess’s power without her needing to control anyone else.

          Also, Victoria is resisting by falling back on her Master-Stranger protocol training, bolstered by her limited resistance to mental influence (apparently a side benefit of her aura). And Goddess’s power seems to be scrabbling at it; she spent the ride with her subconcious coming up with excuses to stop listening to Byron because of protocols obviously irrelevant to the situation.

          Finally, while all the things Victoria has done are things she’d normally do, there’s one thing she notably hasn’t done: she hasn’t made any attempt to warn the Wardens. Most clearly at the very end, where Natalie suggested that and Victoria overruled her. She’d never leave them in the dark about multiple S-class threats normally.

    2. I constantly have the same problem with this story. Perhaps we just have to wait for the entire thing to finish and read it through a second time before it’ll fully make sense. I don’t recall anything like this with Worm.

      Worse, the comments often make things MORE confusing, like this insane Finale = Sleeper thing some commenters are insisting on. Are they all joking/trolling like in the comment sections for Practical Guide to Evil? I don’t know! PGtE’s comments are worthless and I’d be sad if that happens here too.

  9. So… I’m wondering if they can use this as leverage to get Goddess to RELEASE Tristan.

    “Look, Bianca, we know you appreciate the loyalty, but this guy has a bunch of Torturers who are waiting to take him apart if he shows up mastered, and I really don’t think that’ll be great for the team morale OR stopping teacher… so if you wouldn’t mind just…. letting him go for a couple hours, we think it’d be way better for your plans

    Cheers,
    Your adoring fans,
    Breakthrough.”

  10. Are we sure that Goddess is… alive? The last time we saw her, Extra-Paranoid Chris was on his way to meet her with a pre-prepped form. Maybe it’s just rampant paranoia, but I can’t help but feel like their next meetup with her is going to have some Problems.

    1. I’m pretty sure that Chris is free (or mostly free), but I’m almost completely sure that he can’t kill Goddess on his own. Between his paranoia, his being used dealing with mental interference due to his power, and the form he had prepared I doubt that he’s obeying her, but she’s powerful enough that resistance or even immunity to her master power isn’t enough to kill her.

    2. Also I think (not quite sure here so correct me if I’m wrong), it was mentioned when they took Mama Mathers into custody some Master effects like that can be kinda screwy if you kill the Master while they’re in effect. Do we know for sure that killing her would put people’s priorities back in order? Or would there be a residual compulsion to carry out whatever plans she laid out before then?

      1. I expect this one is fairly freestanding but once she’s dead it’d become mostly irrelevant. Since it leaves them with a great deal of inititive I doubt they’re specifically driven to carry out her orders regardless of context. So they’ll only continue to follow plans that haven’t been invalidated by her death. If she laid out a political agenda that didn’t specifically involve her as dictator, or worse, named an heir, that would be serious trouble, but all her currently-expressed goals relate to her personally in some way.

  11. Would Purple Fire girl be able to kill Crawler with her power?
    I’d have to imagine his power is working constantly, making him immune to microbes and fighting oxidization, so she could just light him like a candle. Would igniting him burn him until he died or would he develop a trump ability against her power? Let’s say this isn’t a situation where he can tank the fire long enough to kill her. She lights him up and fucks off. Do normal anti fire tactics work on the purple fire? (Extinguishers, water etc.)

    1. My bet is that it’d only kill Crawler if it just incinerated him pretty much instantaneously. We don’t know its exact characteristics, but if it’s impacted by the material properties of what it’s attempting to burn Crawler would regenerate into something it can’t burn. I’m not sure his power could specifically cancel out other powers, but it could apparently produce pretty much any physical thing necessary to counter a threat. But if it couldn’t do that, there’d be a rapid runaway reaction; it’d damage adjacent tissue, Crawler’s power would start to regenerate that tissue, and the power would ignite. It’d spread throughout his entire body in seconds.

      Actually that could happen anyways; given how Crawler died it seems evident his power needs at least some amount of time to produce a defensive adaption, so the fire could potentially kill him faster than he can adapt.

      1. It burned a portal. Not the portal generator, but the portal itself and the distorted space left behind. That’s what Jester was talking about when he said reality was on fire. So no, I don’t think Crawler would be able to turn into something it doesn’t burn.

        His best bet would probably be to immediately amputate any bits of himself that caught fire. Unfortunately for him, he’s very tough and the fire seems to react strongly to powers. I’m not sure he’d have time to do anything meaningful unless he’s either adapted a way to eject his head for some reason, or had Bonesaw implant a powerful explosive in his neck.

        1. Thing is, it’s specifically the portal that’s on fire. It seems like the purple fire doesn’t directly affect normal matter, except by radiating heat that starts normal fire. So if it hit Crawler, it wouldn’t set Crawler on purple fire, it would set Crawler’s regeneration on purple fire. If his regeneration stops working when it catches fire then suddenly his entire body catches fire and he can’t regenerate his burns and dies basically instantly. If he can regenerate while his regeneration is on fire, his entire body catches fire but the fact that it’s backed by the purple fire doesn’t really alter matters. It is not certain whether or not he’d survive his entire body catching on fire; he’d need to live long enough for his regeneration to kick back in. Probably Crawler-prime had been lit on fire often enough to be resillient to fire even internally, but the Crawler clones were less hardy.

          Then again they developed resistance to nanites that cut molecular bonds right quick so I wouldn’t put much of anything past them.

  12. Right , I’m confused. What’s the deal with Capricorn and the Fate-worse-then-death-hitmen? Tristan hired them for what? To make sure they’re switching out properly? To torture them if they aren’t? That doesn’t make any sense at all. And if they’re hirelings, couldn’t you just cancel their contract.

    1. Basically, it’s because the active twin controls whether or not they switch absolutely. So the hitmen are to blackmail them into switching, because nothing would stop one of them from just staying out forever. Theoretically the contract could be cancelled, but Tristan would have to agree to cancel it. And the hitmen have a Thinker who can detect brainwashing, and the contract apparently includes making sure they can’t cheat by getting someone to brainwash the other twin, so while Goddess has Tristan brainwashed the hitmen won’t believe he’s cancelling the contract of his own free will.

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