Polarize – 10.3

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“Back!” Kenzie announced.  “Incoming, clear a space!”

I exchanged glances with some of the others.  Sveta.  Ashley.  Tristan.  Rain.  An unfinished, sensitive topic still hung over our heads.

“Back with a shitload of tacos,” Tristan observed.  “Brain fuel for a tinker brain?”

“No, geez.  I don’t think I could eat all of this without exploding all over the place.  I thought I’d get extra and share,” Kenzie said, as she set the tray down, lifted it up, leaving a second tray on the table, then set it down beside the empty tray.  She began dividing stuff evenly across the two trays, taking extra care with drinks.

“I’m not complaining,” Tristan said.  “Let me pay you back for what I eat.”

“You don’t have to.  I have a stipend, and we’re getting some money now.”

“You’re a tinker.  You’re probably paying for your stuff out of pocket.  Paying you back means we’re keeping it fair for the team.”

“M’kay, won’t complain,” Kenzie said.  She worked her way into the space between the two Ashleys.  “What are you guys talking about?”

I met our Ashley’s eyes.  She nodded just a fraction.

This wouldn’t be easy.

“Chris,” I said.

“Oh,” Kenzie said.  I could see her register that- no hurt on her expression, only a quirk of an eyebrow.  She flashed a smile at me, before lifting her taco with its hard, blood-red shell to her mouth, taking a big enough bite that her expression was unreadable.

It might have been fascinating if it hadn’t sucked so much to see.

“We’re going straight to that?” Tristan asked me.

Kenzie held up a hand until she’d finished chewing and swallowing.  “To what?  Chris?  Why not?  Because I’m here?”

“Here’s the deal about us talking about it when you’re not here, Kenz,” I said.  “We don’t want to leave you out, and I want to minimize the secrets we’re keeping, but this is tricky.  So we touch base with each other.  We ask each other how best to do this kind of thing.”

“Uh huh,” she said.  She took another bite, turning her head sideways.  Before biting, she said, “I got you iced tea, by the way.  I dented the lid.”

Deflection after deflection.  The bite of food, pointing out the iced tea.  Would Sveta register that Kenzie was off?  Would Rain?  Tristan?  Erin?

I leaned over.  Out of the drinks she’d balanced across the tray, the plastic lids had little buttons that could be depressed to show what type of drink it was.  I grabbed the iced tea and didn’t think too hard about how Kenzie might know it was my go-to drink.  I’d think on it later.

“We checked with each other before bringing it up.  Just like you guys probably talked about how you wanted to keep Amy’s involvement with Goddess a secret at first, because it would have been awkward and unnecessary.”

Kenzie nodded.

“That was fine for me.  We wanted to figure out if it was fine for you.  It needs to be talked about.  Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Gotta talk about it.  One hundred percent.  So long as we’re fair.  I know he did something weird and betray-y the other night, but I think he would have had to have good reasons.”

“He’s always kept things close to the chest,” I said.

“He had a lot of secrets,” Tristan said.  “But when someone like him tells you who they are, believe them.  He told us what motivated him.  He wanted to dive head-first into the intense, powerful cape stuff.  He was grumpy about being left out of the visit to the W.H.Q., and he was perfectly happy to be in the midst of the Fallen thing.  Now he’s maneuvered to be in the midst of the Earth-Shin thing.”

“I don’t like that interpretation,” Kenzie said.

“Why not?  It’s fair,” Tristan asked.

“Because it makes it seem like he schemed his way through it all.  Isn’t it better to give him the benefit of a doubt and be wrong, than to not and be one hundred percent worse than we could pretend he is?”

“Honestly, I like giving him the benefit of a doubt,” Rain said.  “I know how shitty it can be to not get it.”

“I’m not painting him as the bad guy here,” Tristan said.  “Okay?  There’s no need for doubts or benefits of the doubt.  I’m laying out basic facts.  This is what he always wanted, and this is what he was open about, and it’s what he ended up doing, apparently.  Going to where the powers are.”

“The reason I don’t like it is that if you put it that way, it sounds like we were only a means to an end, and I refuse to believe that.”

“That-” Tristan started.  I moved my hand, indicating for him to stop.

“Let’s take five,” I said.

“Sure.  Sorry Kenz.”

“It’s fine,” Kenzie said, with a shrug.

I’d been able to see Tristan starting to get riled up for a debate.  I’d seen it a couple of times before, and my gut feeling was that when it came to facts against feelings, and the facts came from someone as convicted and die-hard as Tristan, the feelings from, well, Kenzie?  There was no way it would end well.

Others were taking food from the tray.  I waited until people had made their choices, then took a wrap.

Erin and Rain ducked out, heading to one of the other vendors.  A burger place had just opened for lunch.  ‘Patty’s Patties’.  That took me back – if I had to go back to earliest memories, then fuck, one of my five or ten earliest memories of Amy was from a family trip – would have had to have been, since the franchise wasn’t in Brockton Bay.  She had been outright weeping because she’d been so bothered by the decorations around Patty’s – whole herds of tiny cartoon cows marching off assembly-line style through the process of getting carved up and served, then dining on burgers.

Sure enough, the cartoon design had been updated to something more clean around the edges, but right beside the store’s sign was a cartoon cow with knife and fork, disembodied upper body floating over the pelvis and legs, a slice cleanly removed from its middle.  Because of the design, it had no expression, only vertical lines for eyes and two circles inside an oval for the nose.

Of all the things to survive the end of the world.

Rain ventured partway back, with Erin hanging closer to the counter.  Order put in, and he was close enough to listen in while waiting.

Kenzie took another bite of her food then sniffled once, before reaching for a napkin.  She dabbed at the corner of one eye, then wiped at her nose.

“Kenz,” Sveta said.  “You okay?”

“This taco is really, really spicy.  I had no idea,” Kenzie said, her voice distorted by the spice.  She made a small cough, then thumped her fist down on the table.

“It really is,” Tristan said.

Reconciliation?  Middle ground by way of hell tacos?

“I was worried you were really upset,” Sveta told Kenzie.

“I don’t get weepy,” Kenzie said.  “I am slightly annoyed.  Chris had a hard time with people, but he showed he cared in other ways.  He cared about my stuff, he listened to me blab on about my work when others would run away.  He always was up-front about calling things out the way he saw them.  That’s how he cared.  Even when things got nasty, he’d usually step in and pull it back to say something nice after taking it too far.  He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t care.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Damsel-Ashley said.

“Don’t you start.  You didn’t even know him,” Kenzie said, jabbing her partially-eaten taco at the projected Ashley to her left.  “When he was nice he was so nice.  So clever and thoughtful.  There was something in there, that he had to keep protected and secret.”

“She’s not wrong.  I’ve told you that you have to watch out for people like that,” our Ashley said.  “When someone treats you badly nine times out of ten, and treat you really nice the rest of the time, that means they’re bad for you.  It’s easy to fake being nice the one time out of ten.”

“He wasn’t nice only one time out of ten, okay?  Please and thank you,” Kenzie said.  “He was the first friend I ever made that was close to my own age, who stayed with me more than a couple of weeks.  He listened to me geek out and watched stuff or read stuff because I mentioned it.  He’s one of only a couple of people I ever knew who understood what it was like to be one hundred percent lonely.”

“One hundred percent lonely?” Sveta asked.  “I think  a lot of people have experienced that.”

“I don’t know exactly how to put it.  A bunch of people here probably get it, or they got a taste of it,” Kenzie said.  “You don’t get powers unless you don’t have anyone to turn to, or something?  But there’s a difference between being totally alone the once and being totally, one hundred percent alone because that’s the way things are, or it’s the way you are, and it’s a pattern.  And because it’s a pattern you’ll probably be this alone again in five years or ten years.  It’s a loneliness that’s lonelier because there’s no way it can get better.”

“I think you’d be surprised how others relate to that,” Sveta said.

“I guess so,” Kenzie said.  “I haven’t thought that much about it.”

“I hope you know that pattern ended here,” our Ashley said.  “I’m with you.”

“Except you  promised me that and you went to jail,” Kenzie said.  She stopped herself, then smiled at Ashley.  “Sorry to say it like that.  You did stay in touch but you did go to jail too.”

I saw Ashley digest that, then nod.

“Um.  Anyway, that pattern?  There’s more to it.  Chris gets it, I think.  He welcomes it, encourages it.  We’re different because I don’t want it, but he and I have that common ground.  We’ve both nosedived into big projects that you can only really do if you don’t do anything else, and we can talk about those things.  That was a me and him thing.”

“Hobbies?” Rain asked.

“‘Hobbies’ feels like too much a group thing.  Anyway, I was talking with him about it not all that long ago, especially over the summer when there wasn’t school, and I remember thinking it would be so nice to do that for a long time.  It made so much sense because we had that common ground, right?  I kind of fell in love with that idea and I fell in love with him at the same time.  Not regular love, it was a bit different this time.  Maybe crush-love.”

Ah.  So that was what she’d been getting at.

“Aw, hon,” Erin said.  She’d returned a minute ago, and I hadn’t noticed.

“He said no, by the way,” Kenzie added.  “He said we’d never get along and he’s right.”

“Can I squeeze in there?” I asked Damsel.

She stepped back from the table.  I slid across, and took the seat beside Kenzie, putting my arm around her.  She leaned into me hard.

“There’s a possibility he needs help,” I said.  “I know you guys got the basics from him in group.  Normally we’d want him to share it on his own, as he feels free, but he obviously can’t do that now.  I don’t know his background, but I think we need to make sure we all have the information.”

“You want his story?” Tristan asked.  He leaned back into the cheap food-court seat.

“Please.”

All around us, the seats were empty.  The only people were way off to either side, in the spaces where lines would form, walking to the food stalls, where skeleton crews were working.

“I guess since I’m one of the people who knew him best, I’ll cover this?” Rain asked.

Tristan shook his head.  “It’s tricky.  He’s dropped contradicting details.  I think when he did tell us stuff, he changed particulars around.  Keep in mind there might be some misleading details in this.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Something like that.  I think to hide particulars about the people he had to kill on the way.”

“Multiple people?” I asked.

“His first memory, the way he explained it in group, is that he was changing back from one of his other forms.  It was a dangerous form, and a third party was reactivating him.”

“Reactivating him?”

“Yeah.  Keeping him in a loop of changing into a senseless, dangerous form, letting it start to lapse, and then getting him back in that form by giving him a new target or something before he had his senses again.  For a while.  A while.”

“Why?”

“This is where we have to read between the lines,” Rain said.  “He does really interesting things with biology, and apparently it’s things that outside parties can use.  He creates extra mass and stores it elsewhere, he has tissues that heal quickly, he has natural weapons, and he can have materials in his biology that are as durable as a steel alloy.  He dropped a hint once.  That it was a tinker that sold him or rented him out so others could study his power, or a tinker enclave that kept it all in-house.  I don’t know.”

“He talked about brain scans,” Tristan said.  “Also the feeding- the forced reactivation I mentioned before.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “The initial change or manifestation of powers- I won’t call it triggering because I don’t think he remembers triggering, it broke his brain.  He doesn’t have much in the way of old memories.  He might have tried to survive on his own for a bit, but he got caught and used by third parties.”

“He never fully recovered?” I asked.

“Nah,” Rain said.  “But he was working on it.”

“There was a girl from my hometown who got caught and used for her power.  I missed the chance to be there when she got out, and I never got to talk to her,” I said.  “I hope she ended up okay.”

“It might be happening a lot more than we imagine,” Tristan said.  “Resources are scarce, the wealth divide is pretty nuts.  Some people got lucky, like Byron and me, we had stuff from back home we were able to salvage and sell in lots, and a lot of that got spent on, uh, insurance.  Most others started on the ground floor, wealth reset to zero, and people like some of these monsters out there, they hate being on an even playing field.  They’d prey on others if it meant an advantage.”

I took a bite of my neglected wrap, thinking.

“Does he want revenge?” our Ashley asked.

“He never gave me that impression,” Rain said.

Tristan drummed his fingers on the table.  “We should keep an eye and an ear out for creeps like that.  The kind of people who would traffic in changers for their power, catch tinkers like that girl from your town, Victoria.”

“She was a thinker, but yeah.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe we can get some answers in retrospect.  Figure out how to deal with him if we cross paths again.  Give him some peace of mind, if it’s eating at him, or get a better idea of who he is and where he came from.”

“Seems risky to pick up prisoners like that,” Sveta said.  “Prisoners trigger or second trigger.  Or escape.  Chris escaped.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  “Thing is, money?  If you have it, it’s easier to make it.  If you have more of it than most people, then your money will grow faster than most people’s.  Right?”

“Meaning that if we wanted to keep an eye out for people who might know what happened, we might keep an eye out for people with money,” Sveta said.  “Or a lot of resources.  Like Mortari.”

Jeanne Wynn and her assistant.  Citrine and the Number Man.

“Or Teacher,” I added.

“Which kind of dovetails into what we were talking about before,” Sveta said.  “If- is that okay to bring up?”

“Yeah,” I said.  Let’s minimize the secrets.

People were paying attention, finishing off their meals if they’d been doing a lion’s share of the talking, as Kenzie and Tristan had, or picking at their fries and sides, if they’d been mostly quiet.

“Let’s talk about shifting gears,” I said.

“Shifting gears how?” Rain asked.

Foresight.  Shepherds.  Advance Guard.  The three biggest teams that acted as teams.  The Wardens might have counted, but the Wardens weren’t present, and I wasn’t sure they were a team by definition.

There were smaller teams too.  The Major Malfunctions.  The Lone Wolf Pack.  Paint Fumes.  Super Magic Dream Parade.  The Keepers of Peace.  Green and Bear It.  The Homonculus Three.  The High Road.  The Fifth Brigade.

This had started out with just a discussion with Foresight.  We’d cooperated the most in the past.  They’d been there when Amy had left with the prison population.

From there, it had been a question of selling things to the Shepherds, led by Moonsong, who had her doubts about Tristan, and to Advance Guard, who had their doubts about me.

Once we had the big teams on board, it had been a question of figuring out who would accept, and who would refuse.  The Major Malfunctions were easy.  Eager, looking to help.  Others?

Others were scared.

These guys, who were approaching to stand in front of me and the rest of Breakthrough, looked scared.

The leader was hardest to read, because his bodysuit was skintight, capped off with a helmet that hugged his head, an opaque black visor covering his face.  The decoration was also the wiring that connected his nervous system to the enormous portal that he wore on his back, the size of a pair of motorcycles.  It was only by the device’s hovering capability that he was able to venture indoors with it, though the pack  did scrape up against the sides of any door he passed through.  A young teammate of his had a tall, musclebound brute projection around and above her, carrying the weapon that went with the portal.  The third member of the group wore a bodysuit that was so heavily decorated that the theme was lost in the jumble, all whites, reds, blues, and oranges, with some revolving segments.  The mask looked like a door knocker, complete with a heavy metal ring.

“This is ominous,” Accession said.  The machine at his back whirred, as if reacting to his emotions.

I held out the pamphlet we’d put together.  One for every team.

“You’re a mercenary group,” I said.  “Heroes for hire.  You take bids for the most pressing jobs and you do your best to achieve them.  If you fail, you refund.  Right?”

“Right.  We have a pretty decent track record, considering the difficulty of some of these jobs.”

“I would like to improve that track record,” I said.  “You’re a tinker, right?  You didn’t get the tech from someone else?  I know some tinkers do that to stay out of trouble.”

“It’s my tech.”

“Page seven,” I said.

The representative members of the other teams were all gathered, listening and waiting.

“Tinker notes,” Accesssion said.  He twisted around to show his teammates.

“Doesn’t mean anything to me,” Mamori said.

“It’s nice,” Accession said.  “But you wouldn’t have everyone here if you wanted to trade tinker work.”

“If you think that’s something you can use, you can have it, courtesy of Lookout here.  You can also have a turn at looking at the tinkertech of every person here.  If you get on board, agree to some rules, you can get an edge.”

“We make okay money.  This is stuff I can buy,” Accession said.  “I can get it without selling my soul.”

“No soul required,” I said.  “Only cooperation and information.  We’ve already set up an infrastructure, some loose jurisdictions.  We’ve grouped teams by who they’re willing to work with and the ground rules they’re willing to follow.  If you’re violent vigilantes, fine.  So long as you’re working for the good guys.  We’ll pair you with the other violent ones and we’ll leave you to it as long as you aren’t crossing any critical lines.”

“We’re not violent,” Accession said.

“No.  But if you’re willing to shoulder your share of the city, we’ll pair you up with people you can get along with.”

“Other mercenaries?”

“No.  Mercenaries are competition,” Tristan spoke up.  “Volunteers.  Selfless guy heroes who are willing to lend their help to ensure a job is completed all the way.”

I glanced at Withdrawal, who was standing off to one side, glowing teal tonight, not pink.  He’d welcome the chance to get some experience, to help out good guys.  Hopefully we could get him contacts.

“What’s the catch?” Accession asked.

“If you arrest any of the massive scumbags?  Anyone on our lists?  Let us interrogate and disappear them.”

“Disappear?”

“One of our teams has the means of imprisoning them indefinitely.  Reasonably safe, reasonably humane.  But we’re not sharing.  The more people know, the more they can figure out how to break ’em out or try to capture them like they did with the parahuman prison outside of Greenwich.”

“That’s it?”

“We also require information,” Swansong said.  She raised her chin a fraction.  She was alone- Damsel was back at the apartment.  The lingering influence from her other half still seemed pretty darn apparent.  There was more of the imperiousness I’d seen in our initial interactions.

I added my voice to hers.  “We’re reconstructing old case files and databases.  We’ll need something at regular intervals.  It can be old information on current threats, it can be secondhand information, bought from others here and contributed with your own hand.  You will have access to these files and databases.”

Swansong added, “You will briefly lose access and other benefits of signing if you provide incorrect information.  You’ll permanently lose access and benefits if you provide misinformation.”

She was good at sounding intimidating, at least.  I’d have had to use my aura to achieve the same effect.

“Can we look this over?” Accession asked.  “Talk it over as a team, discuss with our manager?”

“That would be a good idea,” I said.

The floor of our headquarters had a Capricorn-created pad of flat ground near the door.  From my altercation with Amy.  The building felt smaller than it once had, and I wasn’t sure if it was because she had been here, instilling a claustrophobic effect.

We’d reached out to every team that would listen.  We’d used the teams that had been willing or interested to get others to the table.  Hours of meetings, of handing over packages where rules and tech were outlined.  Erin had been in the back with Rain, printing out and binding the next pamphlet so it would be ready for the next people to come in.

Formalizing deals we’d made in abstract before.

It was done.  We were tired, and some of us still had our shopping with us from earlier in the day.  Others, myself included, had been weathering the initial storm, re-forging connections.

“There’s not much I can do with my stuff broken,” Lookout said.  She undid clasps on her helmet and pulled it off- the helmet itself had been re-styled, doing away with the buns.  Even with more allowance in the helmet’s shape to let her hair hang free, it now stuck to her face and scalp with sweat.

“Whatever you can do is great,” I said.

Sveta looked anxious as she passed me, making her way to her station where her things were.

“And I should get back to the institution before it’s too late.  They might not care much where I am, but-”

“Curfew,” I said.

“You know, I’d be safer at my old place.  I have surveillance over there.  I’d just need to find some conventional weapons I could hook up to that surveillance.”

“I think that sounds like a dangerous way to deal with more home intruders.  For now, let’s just endure.  Let’s get online, make sure we have the sites up so people can contribute info.”

“We don’t have the crazy power outages we were having before,” Rain said.

Tristan was taking off his armor.  “It could be because the Wardens are coming home.  That means Weld and Crystal.”

The computers were booting.  One cube was by the desk, but the other was back in Kenzie’s old workshop, at her parent’s house.  The cube lit up and began humming.

There was a clatter as Rain moved a box of his spare parts.  Traps, blades, mechanisms and housings for his arms.

We were home again.

“Connecting,” Kenzie said.

The laptops were booted, the screens online.  Without the projector system in action, we were limited to the real, actual screens.

“Overlaying to satellite image of the area.”

On the largest screen, a map appeared, just large enough to have the New York district in its bottom left and Brockton Bay in the top right.  Icons with their own abbreviations worked into them were scattered across the city, many flowing from the same general point.

“Good for now, but before we stumble onto anything too sensitive, we need to put the unwritten rules protocol in place.”

“I can’t promise it’s going to work perfectly,” Kenzie protested.

“It’s okay.”

She hit a key, and the screen went dark.

We’d brought Foresight on first.  Foresight had thinkers, and their thinkers could read people for trouble.  We’d scanned all of the heroes coming in, and we, through tags on the pamphlets and tags surreptitiously placed on people, had established a way to track movements for the next few hours.

The screen slowly illuminated again.  The map was back, but the moving dots and labels were gone.

“We should get you back for curfew,” I said.  “Can we leave the computers running and come back to this in the morning?”

“I might stay,” Sveta said.  “You’re coming back, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“We’ll hang out, get sorted.”

“Sure,” I said.  I smiled.

“Aw, I want a sleepover.”

“There won’t be any sleeping here, Kenz,” I told her.

She sighed.

She was still mock-pouting a bit a minute later when her hand went up, finger pointing at one of her screens.

One circle with initials was back on the screen.  It flashed periodically to draw attention.

Accession, or one of his subordinates.

Kenzie hurried to the computer keyboard, and began hitting keys.

The images that came back were blurry, monochrome.  Taken from discreet omnidirectional cameras in the notebooks.

“This one was flagged for us because the camera recognized money,” Kenzie said.  She tapped the screen.

Accession.  He was meeting with someone.  Young, female, with a coat worn over a bodysuit, a mask on her face that blurred the shadows around eye socket and brow into a singular black blob.  The cash sat on a table, the face of the bills barely visible, obscured by the pale band that encircled each bundle.

“They’re mercenaries,” Tristan said.  “Cash is the norm.”

“Yeah, but if you’re a heroic mercenary, you don’t get paid in bricks of cash,” I said.  “You crowdfund or you get paid by legitimate channels.”

I knew the silhouette pretty well.

“Besides.  Look at that person there.  We know her.”

People turned their heads, striving to get a better view of a two-tone picture.

“We wanted to traffic in information.  Were we baiting her?” Rain asked.

“No, not really,” I said.  “Where is she having this meeting?”

“In the city,” Kenzie said.  “Coffee shop.”

“No sound?”

She shook her head.

“Tattletale’s in play,” I announced, for those who hadn’t seen or recognized the blurry face yet.  “Always has to make the hard things harder, doesn’t she?”

Kenzie hit other keys, moving around the snapshot to see different angles and mark light and shadow.  Breakthrough was gathered, shoulder to shoulder, leaning toward the screen.

“Nothing else that’s useful,” Kenzie said.  “That blur might be Chicken Little.”

“You can’t enhance-enhance-enhance?” Rain asked.

Kenzie shook her head.  “My tech isn’t all that right now.”

We broke away.  I saw one or two people rubbing their hands together and blowing on them.  It was an issue with the rushed constructions, that so many lacked good insulation.  The snow was coming down outside, and the snow would insulate some, if I remembered right, but I was pretty sure it would have to be a lot of snow.

We’ll have to buy heaters, I thought.  I wonder if Tattletale is comfortable where she is, or if there’s a reason she’s this far from home.

“I can take more pictures, but it’s going to burn out the tracker by the third or fourth,” Kenzie said.  “Also, it might cause radios or walkie-talkies to sneeze.”

“Sneezing is a funny way of putting it,” Rain said.  “If we’re laying low and keeping an eye on things from here until we’re needed, I need a project.  You’re okay, Ash?”

“I’m fine,” Ashley said.  “No sparks, no twitches, the fingers move like they should.”

“Sveta?”

“Oh.  The tentacles?”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Do you want something similar?  I can adapt.  Obviously, I’m limited.”

I was silent, watching the monitors.  One with the map, the single blinking icon, moving slowly across the map.  Another with the two-tone snapshot of Tattletale meeting Accession.

“Not tentacles,” Sveta told Rain.  “What about… something more human?”

“I might have ideas.  They’re going to have to wait.  The powers are rolling out randomly, ebb and flow, and Cradle got most of them last night.  I’m working with baseline Rain tinkertech.”

“I’m not in a rush,” Sveta said.

“I’ll come up with something.  For now I’m going to work on arms for myself, but I haven’t forgotten.”

“It’s okay, whatever you do, I’m fine.  I’m grateful.”

I watched as the dot continued moving.  Faster this time.  Car?

Dog?

“Let’s wait and see where she stops,” I decided.

Kenzie was packed up.  The others were settling down, breaking into the weeks-old snacks we’d stockpiled, and unwinding from the day.

Erin was keeping to the background, but when she wasn’t staying quiet while we conducted team business, I could see how animated she was, and how she smiled.  I could see, too, how Rain was almost revitalized.  He had courage now, opinions, almost a new man.  Some of that ‘new man’ veered into jumping to assumptions about what Sveta would want, but that was manageable.

I could see it in Ashley, with her clothes obtained.  Her hands were working.  She was free.  There remained a question about what would happen in the future, but for now, things were good there.

It was Kenzie that was hurting.  Sveta needed help.

I’d come here to be a coach and I wanted to guide.  I’d come to help the city and I wanted to do that.  To pull things together.

As I kept an eye on the others, I kept an eye on the icon.  I saw it stop, and I saw it remain stopped for several minutes.

“One more snapshot, while she still has the pamphlet,” I said.  “Then we take you back to your place, Kenz.”

One more snapshot.  She hit the key.

It was Chicken Little, face close to the camera, making a silly face directly at the lens, cheeks sucked in between teeth, lips puckered.

“Of course,” Tristan said.  “Of course.”

She was on to us already?

“Come on,” I said, biting back my disappointment.  I’d hoped to have a slight edge in this.  “Let’s get you to bed, Kenz.”

She didn’t budge from her seat.  She reached out, and she hit the arrow keys.

Slowly, the view panned.  It was an omni-directional image, and the image could turn away from Chicken Little’s face.

“Do we know what’s at that address?” Sveta asked.

Kenzie kept the key held down while navigating with her mouse.  “Hotel.”

Hotel.

The camera panned.  Chicken Little wasn’t the only kid there.  There were others.  Younger girls and boys, most with dark, curly hair.  All with masks and costumes.

Bags.

And finally, her back partially turned, Tattletale talking to another woman, who might have been Bitch or might have been Foil- only a sliver of the woman was visible.

“She brought troops,” Tristan said.

“Heartbroken,” I said.  “And luggage.  They’ve left the New Brockton area.”

“Were they driven out?”

I had trouble imagining another reason for them to be gone.  New Brockton was their territory.  They’d put everything into it for years and now they’d left it?  What had happened there, or what was happening here that was pulling them together?

Worrying to imagine, that my old enemies might be cornered or desperate.

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100 thoughts on “Polarize – 10.3”

    1. God please yes.
      Funnily enough he’s actually a character I want to see return quite a bit, one off guy he might have been.

      1. that impressively professional Merc?
        trying to Remember, was he a para or a “baseline”- didn’t he get something broken without even flinching?

  1. Wow Victoria just getting in on that morally ambiguous decisionmaking huh. Indefinitely imprisoning people without trial, greaaaaat.

    1. To be fair, it looks like she got public support from all the major hero groups for this.

      > Foresight. Shepherds. Advance Guard. The three biggest teams that acted as teams. The Wardens might have counted, but the Wardens weren’t present, and I wasn’t sure they were a team by definition.

      > There were smaller teams too. The Major Malfunctions. The Lone Wolf Pack. Paint Fumes. Super Magic Dream Parade. The Keepers of Peace. Green and Bear It. The Homonculus Three. The High Road. The Fifth Brigade.

      > This had started out with just a discussion with Foresight. We’d cooperated the most in the past. They’d been there when Amy had left with the prison population.

      > From there, it had been a question of selling things to the Shepherds, led by Moonsong, who had her doubts about Tristan, and to Advance Guard, who had their doubts about me.

      > Once we had the big teams on board, it had been a question of figuring out who would accept, and who would refuse.

      1. Sure but their perspective isn’t one that’s helpful. There are reasons why every nation that matters has different people responsible for the catching and the judging

        1. No reason they aren’t doing that, actually. Remember Vicky’s mother is a lawyer.
          All she’s doing is saying “we have a place, and we’re not gonna tell you much about it.”

    2. Well, Victoria’s moral ambiguity may bring her closer to a less forced cooperation with the Undersiders. It is one point they could agree upon.

    3. keep in mind, the ONLY (makeshift) metahuman-grade long-term prison didn’t just get Levelled, but had ALL its security measures Effortlessly Checkmated-atm its literally the only Viable option, especially since one of the Current Movers and shakers in politics is a in-denial patsy to one of the two parahumans responsible (though im having issues remembering if that’s meta-only info)- im half-suspecting that Teacher may be trialling Control of “normal’s” by using whats-his-name to transfer the Intelligence Degradation/Control effects to non-capes…

    4. One more thing we need to remember is that when parahumans are tried no parahumans are judges or members of jury if I remember correctly. These trials can be seen to be not about justice, but about unpowesed people defending themselves from the powered. Same as what the system was about before Gold Morning. For Victoria it probably is a less important factor, then insecuriry of any regular prisons, but it may contribute to willingness of many parahumans to go around the system the way she propposed.

      That said – Carol and Natalie are going to be very disappointed with Victoria once they find out.

      1. > unpowesed people defending themselves from the powered. Same as what the system was about before Gold Morning.

        Yeah, and this system worked before GM exactly as well as it could be expected, with Alexandria, Coil and probably others. And we already see it’s going to continue functioning like that.

    1. Probably after a point where if they’d nicely gotten together and politely shared information they could have avoided a lot of trouble. Or in other words, after a lot of shouting about how everything going to shit is the other ones fault.

    2. I’ve said this before, but the entire story of Ward is Victoria trying to be Tattletale and being bad at it.

      Also, I find it unlikely that the Undersiders could be displaced. They are missing Skitter and Grue and Regent, but the Heartbroken and Foil make up for that.

      1. Yeah, the Undersiders are definitely making a move of their own, and I really hope that we’re going to get more of them when they do, showing Breakthrough how to actually get proactive about dealing with problems.

      2. Given how ragged that Tattletale is described every time that she shows up, I think that Tattletale is being bad at being Tattletale at the moment.

        1. Tattletale has a finite quantity of Tattletaleness and can only do so many things at once, and she has a habit of trying to do more than she can manage. Taylor had to tell her to cut back during the Warlord Of The Boardwalk period, and now Taylor is gone and there are so many more things that need doing.

          Pretty sure that’s what ended up getting Rain maimed; Tattletale didn’t devote enough of her focus to it to pull off her cunning plan to get paid for getting Rain tortured to death while simultaneously ensuring Rain’s cluster would stop trying to torture Rain to death. Plus unlike some of her previous screwups it was not salvaged by the prompt intervention of a billion spiders. Because it turns out it’s surprisingly hard to screw up so badly you can’t be bailed out by a billion spiders.

  2. We can assume Tt wanted them to see that particular image. I wonder if the sliver of a woman is Imp, and the image will self-delete.

    1. It doesn’t self-delete as I recall, just make the system throw a hissy fit. Or maybe that’s just for a live feed, I don’t know.

      1. I believe Victoria mentioned in addition to that, images of her tend to self-delete over time. That might be her power, or it might be some super-hacker employed by the Undersiders doing it to confuse how Imp’s power works.

        1. How would Victoria remember that Imp even exists?

          I thought that everyone forgot Imp unless Imp actively interacted or suppressed her powers.

          1. Short-term memory, not long-term memory. You can remember who she is, you just can’t remember interacting with her. And it doesn’t work properly through computers, though she caused some glitches in Lookout’s system before the Fallen raid, when she was Looksee.

          2. I’m a bit unsure about the exact mechanics, but I think Imp’s power causes people to be unable to remember her specifically while it is on unless they have weird brain stuff; some people with perception powers can bypass it but there’s no clear pattern to who can or can’t. She is not able to suppress people’s knowledge that the Undersiders are in possession of a Stranger but only Tattletale has ever seemed to be able to plan around Imp’s specific abilities while her power was on, and her Shard is apparently the one that does the trigger vision memory suppression, so her power must behave in a related manner though probably not exactly the same way.

            I don’t think it works on computer systems period, but it’s ordinarily just as impossible to notice her in video footage as it is to notice her with the naked eye. Computers don’t have this problem, though; when the Undersiders had their first run-in with a Dragon suit they assumed Imp’s power wouldn’t work because it was a machine. Might have changed, mind; by her epilogue her power is definitely stronger than it was originally.

  3. Maybe they’re afraid of Breathrough’s alliance. Or, they want to move into their territory, knowing that they can take the information Victoria’s so desperate for, and exchange it for amnesty?

    I was also legit shocked Kenzie had a crush on Chris. Dunno why, it makes a lot of sense. But for some reason I feel like she’s lying.

  4. So many things happening in this chapter, so I’ll try to control myself:

    1) I so badly want a horror movie with Kenzie as the protagonist, with her broken ability to emote, and Swansong as the younger-Morticia-Addams odd-but-understanding parental figure. Their dynamic is amazing.

    2) So Chris was used as a lab rat and a bioweapon? He doesn’t remember triggering? Ominouser and ominouser.

    3) Tata is back! As always, we have to assume that everything Breakthrough sees, Lisa wanted Victoria to see. Primary question is, at what point is she going to admit that Breakthrough’s teaming up effort is something she can probably get in on?

    4) The mercsenary schtick with getting teams onboard. Breakthrough wanting to serve as the heroes’ infobroker – basically the opposite to what Tata did for Hollow Point? – is probably going to generate a lot of interesting new contacts and conflicts. The Wardens coming back is only gonna make this fire burn hotter.

    C’mon, Saturday, come faster!

    1. I wonder if he was being used by Orchard, wasn’t that their whole schtick, kidnapping and brainwashing capes to use as slaves?

      1. I don’t think they usually went for capes. I think they went for non-capes then physically and mentally altered them. Want a real-life barbie? They’ll abduct a blonde and make you one. Want a gladiator? They’ll take a quarterback or whatever, add more muscle and some bone spikes and ramp up their aggression.

        1. Like real-life human traffickers, it seems like they mostly imported people from other countries-less of a headache with the authorities that way.

          Unlike real-life human traffickers, they modified their victims in mind and body to fit their clients specifications. The thought occurs that Chris’ power looks a lot like what you might get if you were in a situation where your body and mind were constantly changing-he gains the ability to regulate his physical form and emotional state, but at the cost of anything approaching healthy emotional thought and with his body still falling apart from Orchard’s ministrations.

  5. The woman is probably Imp, given that 1. The heartbroken are there and 2. The camera missed her despite being omnidirectional and 3. The delicious irony of Victoria saying it might have been Bitch or Foil, forgetting Aisha exists.

  6. “Tattletale’s in play,” I announced, for those who hadn’t seen or recognized the blurry face yet. “Always has to make the hard things harder, doesn’t she?”
    Odds of Lisa saying the exact same thing about Victoria?

    1. Lisa has been able to work around Victoria forever.

      Lisa worries about Victoria the way a matador worries about the bull. Yes, the bull is dangerous, but the matador is in control.

      1. And then we get to see what a man looks like when a bull’s horn enters his groin and exits his chest? Corrida is kind of a dangerous sport and minor missteps can have life-crushing consequences.

        1. i can genuinely see that happening-aside from her power’s geometric decrease in accuracy the less info she’s running on, her PERSONAL flaw is she doesn’t know when/literally cant stop talking-if i remember what,THAT was how she got her smile widened….

          in this case, i could see her doing an Alexandria- just keeping to PUSH with an incomplete/impaired understanding of her target’s psyche until they snap…

          1. I tend to think the reason she never stops talking in a crisis is that she learns things by talking and watching people respond. This usually works out for her, but she said the wrong thing to Jack Slash and he responded by slashing her.

            I figure most of the time when she’s talking like she was in that scene she’s feeling pretty desperate and taking risks; she only seems to be in total control of the situation because when she isn’t she keeps talking until she is.

          2. As guy mentioned, Tt will keep metaphorically poking people because how they react to that gives her more insights into her opponent. Given enough time, she can throw them totally off-balance like she did with Panacea and Glory Girl at the bank. There are major risks to poking people who can literally tear you limb from limb but that is the tool she got.

            I suspect that her power is usually giving her insight in how far her target can be pushed, how close they are to snapping and how likely that breakdown is to be violent. Unfortunately, Jack Slash sends out signals that muck up all the capes around him. Just like Taylor was probably subtly influenced on a few occasions to not kill him with a swarm, Tattletale was getting a wrong signal about where the Line was with Jack. It got her cut.

            Or that’s my guess.

          3. Yeah, I think it pretty likely Broadcast messed with Tattletale at least a bit. It basically ensures parahumans don’t beat Jack Slash by talking to their Shards.

            It’s pretty much 50/50 whether it told Tattletale’s Shard to get her to say something which would get her slashed, or whether it told Jack to slash her before she figured out enough to win.

          4. Also I think it’s possible Tattletale could push too hard and have it backfire without Broadcast interfering, but only when she’s under severe time pressure and can’t just wait for her power to tell her if saying something is wise. When she was in the bank and when she was being stabbed by Cody she seemed to just be throwing out guesses until something stuck, while usually she isn’t talking quite so fast and what she says is a lot more on target.

        2. Maybe! It’s kind of Tattletale’s thing that she’s completely in control of any situation, right up to the point someone with a straightforward offensive power beats the shit out of her. Leviathan, Jack Slash or even just Cody. Antares definitely has the brute force to shut her up, if it comes to that.

          1. I think Tattletale’s thing is more accurately described as maintaining the illusion she’s in control of the situation so hard it becomes reality. Jack destroyed the illusion before it became true. Against Leviathan, there could be no illusion about who was in control; it was self-evidently Leviathan.

            Cody didn’t pull that off on his own merits; Tattletale was able to make the illusion real enough she stopped him from finishing her off. The deeper reality was that Tattletale lost in a head-to-head duel with an Endbringer just as much as Aegis did against Leviathan. The Simurgh put her in check before Tattletale realized the game had started, and secured checkmate while Tattletale thought she was playing against Behemoth. Sure, Tattletale lived, but her death wasn’t the point: with her, Accord, and Chevalier out of action due to treachery by the Yangban the human forces lost cohesion and Behemoth slaughtered them. Only Scion suddenly changing tactics (the one thing the Simurgh could not forsee) kept New Delhi from becoming an unmitigated catastrophe and delivering a finishing blow to the Protectorate as an organization, widening the cracks from her previous strike with Echidna.

            That’s the Simurgh’s thing; Behemoth could have leveled Madison in hours. Two years after the Simurgh attacked Madison the Protectorate wishes she’d flattened it. And I kinda suspect that two years from now Shin will wish that too; during the attack she released a bunch of memory-damaged parahumans with massive physical alterations from the clutches of an organization retaining them for study and exploitation. Sound familiar?

  7. Spicy taco typo thread:

    “I think a lot of people”
    “Except you promised me that”
    Doubled spaces.

    ““Tinker notes,” Accesssion said.”
    Extra s.

    ““You can’t enhance-enhance-enhance?” Rain asked.”
    No zoom/tracking ? Enhancing alone is a bit moot without those.

  8. Hmmm.. I think knowing TT as well as we do, I think it’s safe to say that Breakthrough saw exactly what Tattletale wanted them to see. And they saw the Undersiders and the Heartbroken there with their bags, clearly there for more than just a day trip.

    Breakthrough is setting up a loose alliance and an intelligence network for the good guys. At that, Tattletale sends them a clear message: “I see what you’re doing. We’re coming over, and we’re here to stay”.

    Is this TT extending an olive branch? Or delivering a warning? She’s trying to deliver a message for sure, but I’m not sure what.

  9. If WB thinks we’re going to root against TT and the undersiders, especially for Vicky, he’s nuts. Guess they’ll be teaming up…

  10. On a note totally unrelated to all the discussion elsewhere, could an American please enlighten this Brit as to the reality (or not, either works) of Patty’s Patties? Is it a real franchise, or was it made up for the story?

    Because it’s just poorly-thought out enough that I’m not sure if it’s real or not.

    1. I’m American and I’m preeeeeetty sure it’s just made up. At least I’ve never heard of it and a logo like THAT would have people in an uproar. I think it’s just a little funny blurb.

    1. Especially that I’m a little Teacup master girl.

      She was a real threat that will be faced by them.

  11. I hope the Dallons did not have a bright idea to eat at Patty’s Patties after Panacea through her power experienced death of someone or something she thought capable of suffering . If little Amy had enough empathy to cry after seeing stylized pictures of killed cows, imagine how she must have felt if she was reminded of that moment after she could experience death in such intimate way. Just another aspect of the burden this poor girl has been carrying since the day she triggered. It was not just guilt about people she could not heal, but also this intimacy with death she could not truly share, because it is not something Amy could just explain with words – not to a friend, not to family, not to a therapist. No wonder she showed so little empathy in the early chapters of Worm. It is how she coped with all of this.

    At the same time the fact that Victoria can now feel little Amy’s pain is just another thing that shows how much she has progress. During just a few hours Victoria was forced to look at Amy, meet with her – first via camera, then in the same room. Then Amy inadvertently provoked Victoria to show her the Wretch – a threat, and an accusation, but also a confession. In return Victoria saw Amy’s tears. I think that it was this moment when the barrier that prevented Victoria’s emotions from healing broke.

    A couple more hours later Victoria was able to voice a protest, when Amy announced her plan to go to Earth Shin. A couple days from then Victoria is capable of not only talk about Amy without locking up, but also remember little Amy’s emotional pain without being crippled by her own. Victoria still has a long way to go on this front, but in those few days she achieved more, than during past two years.

    I just hope, that soon Amy learns enough about it to know that there is hope. That she can stop grieving. That has not lost her sister yet.

    1. I think it will be really interesting to see how Victoria’s perception of Amy changes. Wildbow used popular character Sveta backing up Victoria and attacking unpopular, unlikable character Carol to disguise just how warped Victoria’s view on Amy has become. Victoria realising just how broken Amy still is might finally lead to her to stop hating the very thought of Amy.

      1. Yeah. Both sisters still have a lot of healing to do. At least they are close to a point when they can talk to each other. As for Carol – she always meant well. She just does not understand, that Victoria is not ready to talk with Amy yet, and trying to force the issue only drives the entire family apart.

        1. i think Amy summed it up perfectly back in Worm-
          Carol is Empatgicly impaired- not really sociopathic, but with …issues.

          she literally doesn’t seem to have the Ability to TRULY care about more then one person other then herself at a time-she just Switched targets from Victoria to Amy.
          look at how she automatically disregards everything Victoria says/feels about how her sister physically and mentally violated her,because Victoria isn’t really REAL/important to her mother anymore at a VERY basic level-right now she’s just an obstacle to helping Amy “recover”:

          1. Victoria echos Amy’s assessment of Carol’s empathy, when she talks to her at the barbecue in chapter 1.7 of Ward. Weather this judgement of Carol’s character is fair or not, one thing is certain – she is, and probably has always been since the day she triggered, too emotionally guarded to do what she really needs to do. She should open emotionally, show enough of her own vulnerability to have an honest heart-to-heart with Victoria, and another one with Amy. Only this would let her know what she can do to help further. If there is for example something Victoria is comfortable telling to or hearing from Amy through Carol. Or vice versa. Then Carol maybe could be go-between or a mediator she wants to be for her daughters.

            Unfortunately mrs. Carol “super-lawyer” Dallon is to emotionally hurt or immature to “mom the fuck up” like that. As harsh as Sveta’s comment was it wasn’t entirely unfair, and her harshness only shows just how much she cares for the family she has just been invited to. At this point it looks like despite all of his problems Mark is the only one who can do what Carol can’t and “man up”, reach out to his daughters, and hopefully put the family back together. He has certainly shown that he is willing to try. His daughters need it. His wife needs it. His niece needs it – Dallons are the only family she has left. Sveta needs it – other then hopefully Weld Dallons are likely the only family she can have. And Mark himself also needs it.

            Let’s just hope he can find the strength to actually do it.

          2. Yeah. Victoria judged Carol in Ward just as Amy had judged Carol in Worm. I think, that at least in Ward Carol is not as much devoid of empathy, as just lost. She clearly wants to be a mother to both of them, but does not how to do it, and instead turns to what she knows – being a prosecutor, trying to solve a problem by forcing a confrontation. It is just, that what may work in a courtroom does not always work at home.

  12. I really hope the Undersiders will be a playing a bigger role in Ward after this. Ward is exceptionally well-written, but I just find Victoria less interesting than any other member of Breakthrough or any of the Undersiders, and loads of problems in Ward have been Victoria trying to pull a Tattletale and failing. The Undersiders coming into play as they start being proactive about threats will contrast nicely with Breakthrough’s defensive, reactionary stance, and it will be really cool to see how the Undersiders MO of decisive, lightning strikes will remind Victoria of why they were such a big deal to begin with and how they took over an entire city in just a few months. It will also be cool to see how terrifying it is to fight against them, shown from probably a tentative ally.

    Also, I bet that the other person in the photo is Imp, and Victoria just can’t remember who she is. Really excited to see the Heartbroken coming back into play, and I can’t wait to see which other cape kids Aisha has collected. Given another two years, she’s bound to have gone further along the road to ‘dashing, sophisticated villain’ that she and Alec originally aspired to. Aisha was one of the best characters in Worm, and if she doesn’t make a solid appearance in this arc then I will be very disappointed.

  13. What could cause the undersiders to cede territory? If in fact that is what happened. Breakthrough’s associates still putting pressure there maybe? Could some other villain have moved in and forced them out? Hrr. If it’s the former, then Breakthrough might have a powerful enemy in the undersiders. If it’s the latter, then maybe a reluctant team up? Or maybe they just moved cause they were bored.

    1. Looks like Undersiders may need hero’s help. Unfortunately I’m almost certain, that Tattletale is going to try to manipulate the heroes again to get this help instead of swallowing her pride and honestly asking someone like Victoria for it. Can’t imagine that it will end well.

      1. And it should have been “heros'” instead of “hero’s” above. If the problem is something Undersiders can’t deal with themselves, one hero most likely won’t be enough.

      2. They’ll probably recruit Breakthrough for some help, but I really doubt they need it. I find it weird how everyone assumes that the Undersiders are being driven out of their turf instead of just making a move and going on the offensive. The Undersiders are big leagues, and I seriously doubt Teacher would be able to force them out that quickly without Breakthrough even hearing about it.

        1. I didn’t assume they were driven out. I wondered what could drive them out if that’s actually what happened. It was just idle fancy. And tough as they are, there are tougher capes out there. Plus foil doesn’t kill. Doubt she’s into maiming either.

          1. I also didn’t assume they were driven out, but I find it quite possible. There have been hints about new threats in The City, including somethin, that even Valkyrie is affraid of. On top of it someone may have linked the Undersiders to the use of guns by the Hollow Point villains during the assault on the Fallen camp, and decided that they can get away with using lethal force against them now. Tatteltale may have decided to pull out not because she thinks she can’t win, but because she is too affraid people will die.

          2. A factor to remember is the portal attack. Brockton Bay got cut in half, and we don’t know where their humongous portal connects to now. Perhaps somewhere very inconvenient, like Earth Zayin (Sleeper), or an Earth that has been overrun by Teletubbies.

          3. The portals certainly are likely to be linked to whatever big threat is looming on the horizon. They were not exploded just to destroy some buildings, kill some random people, scare the public, and mess with the weather. Someone or something will come through them one day, and I bet it won’t be a good day for people of The City.

          4. I’m still pretty sure the portal attack was at least proximately Teacher, though the big threat might have arranged for him to do so. And at the very least it permitted the attack to succeed by keeping Valkryie from intervening. Very likely it’s the real reason “Valkryie cannot engage this group of Fallen”; while obviously it’d be really bad if she got controlled that seems as likely as her being killed by a 37-mile tall Tinker doom fortress, i.e. not.

            Main reason to think it’s Teacher is that it involved a ton of Tinker devices that manipulate portals, and Teacher’s Tinker minions are extremely numerous and can make portal-related tech.

            As for things that might drive the Undersiders out, I think the only way to drive them out of a territory is to render the territory itself undesirable somehow. They’re stubborn enough to stand and fight if they think they can win, and Foil can kill literally anything so they’ll always think they can win. Even Sleeper wouldn’t intimidate them into backing down, but they might ditch territory he’s subsumed because they no longer want it.

    2. I think most likely the Undersiders are just migrating, not being forced out. They’ve got a measure of Taylor’s stubbornness and they’ve previously held their ground in the face of the Slaughterhouse Nine, Dragon, and Alexandria. And remember Bitch’s response to Behemoth. “We’re tough. Let’s fuck him up.” And they have Foil along, and Foil fucked up Scion. If they’re giving up territory they don’t want that territory anymore.

      The fact that they ostentatiously and intentionally told Breakthrough that they’re going makes me think either this is just a fakeout or they’re off to fuck up an S-class threat and want Breakthrough to keep their seat warm while they’re out.

  14. Did WB just make a Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy homage in his own disturbing way?
    Also, was Vicky refering to Dina with that thinker recollection?

  15. Victoria at the start of Ward: “I am damaged, but present, and whole. I cannot be what I was before. I can strive towards the ideal of the warrior monk, the conscious and controlled fist.”

    Victoria several months later: “We’re gonna slam some pricks in indefinite detention without trial and without consulting civilian authorities, while styling on Tattletale with surveillance equipment which she certainly cannot detect, definitely, 100%. I am a SUPERHERO.”

    Fuck’s sake, Victoria. Look, this is meta, this is meta as hell, but you know, we had a warrior-monk-with-powers-female-protagonist in another story a little while ago. You didn’t like her.

  16. So Chris has an amnesia. And here I thought, that my theory of Chris being Heartbroken/Tatteltale agent I posted underneath last chapter couldn’t get any more weird. Look what Tattletale said to the Looksee’s camera in Interlude 5d:

    “Optics, or whatever you’re calling yourself now. Capricorn. Sveta. Creepy kid. Boy from the Fallen. Not sure if I just outed you, but there we are.”

    With Kenzie and Rain, she was not sure how to call them, and she admitted that. She knew Sveta’s and the twin’s names, and just used them. She is just as brief with Creepy kid as with Capricorn and Sveta. Could it put them all in one category? She could have done it just to annoy Chris, but what if it had been his name, just from before his amnesia? What if Chris used to be Creepy kid – someone Lisa knew well, and cared for before his amnesia, a Heartbroken or one of the other kids Undersides took under their wing?

    My current working theory is that Chris used to be Heartbroken, got kidnapped, suffered a second trigger explaining the changer aspect Saevarion pointed out to me in last chapter’s discussion as something, that does not fit the Heartbroken, and before Undersiders could rescue him got used by his kidnappers (or sold to somebody, who had a use for his new power) to the point, when he broke for one more time, and lost his memory, because hi could not trigger for the third time.

    If that is the case, Lisa cares about Victoria’s team not only because she can use them, or because of someone distant acquaintances like Victoria or Sveta, but because there is someone on the team, who she really cares about.

    Sounds awfully complicated? Sure, but how many members of team Breakthrough have simple backstories?

    1. I don’t think the Heartbroken theory fits with his interactions with Imp and Bitch during the Fallen raid, unless he’s been left unrecognizable to Imp and Tattletale didn’t bother to inform her.

      1. You are quite possibly right. I still wouldn’t bet my money on Chris being Heartbroken. If any of them were kidnapped, Imp would move Heaven and Earth to rescue them.

        Interestingly if Chris is not someone from Tattletale past, then it just shows how much Lisa has grown since Worm. At the beginning of Worm she cared about only one person – herself. The Undersides, Taylor especially have done wonders to reawaken her conscience, and empathy, but I still couldn’t imagine Lisa working, or putting herself on the line to help some concrete person in need if this person did not fall into Lisa’s “us” category of people instead of “everyone else”. She could do it for a large, abstract group of people – from citizens of some district to entire humanity, but she was not a good Samaritan. The only further progress she has shown in Worm was that her category of “us” has encompassed more and more people over those two years.

        Now Lisa is helping Victoria – a person she really knew only as that obnoxious “Glory Hole” and is motivated by… what? Guilt over where her involvement has led Amy and Vicky? During Worm Amy has certainly ended up somewhere on the fringes of Lisa’s “us” category of people, and she could have crossed that line, if they interacted more afterwards, but if that was the case, then I believe that Panacea would be present in the meeting that the Undersides have organized in the Epilogue of Worm. She was only mentioned as someone who Tattletale could contact then. Either way Victoria does not belong to that circle of people Lisa considers hers, and if guilt alone is enough to motivate Lisa to help her, then we see something in this new Lisa, that we haven’t seen in Worm.

        Empathy, or rather combination of guilt and empathy? Possible for the Lisa from Worm if Amy managed to become one of Lisa’s “us” people. In that case Lisa would help Victoria of empathy she would feel for Amy, but even this explanation seems to be a bit of a stretch.

        So if Chris is not one of Lisa’s people, then what I believe may be and hope is happening is that in those years between Worm and Ward Lisa has at least started to abandon the notion of perceiving people and basing her decisions on the “us” versus “them” or “everyone else” dichotomy. She may not even fully realize that yet, but if this is in fact what is happening, then I see that there can be a very bright future in front her.

        1. Actually I take some of the above back. Taylor managed to convince Lisa to put herself on the line for a stranger once – that stranger was Dinah. For that universe deemed to teach Lisa that no good deed goes unpunished. All the more reason to admire Lisa if she is trying to do the same for Victoria now. Let’s just hope, that this time the final lesson will be different.

  17. If the Undersiders are being forced out I’m wondering if it could be the machine race that’s slowly taking over there is unstoppable enough that they had to leave.

  18. It took me almost 2 years, but I finally caught up with the publication of the serials. I started reading from Worm (read about it in a comment on one site that talked about smart use of superpowers), went through Pact (liked it very much, and would love more from that world) and Twig, and now reading Ward with much delight.
    Currently listening to the Worm audiobook too, with my partner and he is getting hooked as well.
    Wildbow, please keep up feeding us your terrific stories. You are one of the best writers I enjoy reading, in my humble opinion.

  19. Chris’s story as related in this chapter is dead on for being one of Cauldron’s failed test subjects they got some use out of. No pre-trigger memories, imprisoned and exploited by an organization that could manipulate his power’s attributes, and conspiciously lacking the ordinary safety precautions of natural triggers and Cauldron’s stabilized vials. If Breakthrough hadn’t asked the Mortari about him and gotten a shrug I’d be absolutely certain that’s what happened. Even with that I’m still thinking his power came in a vial from someone. Maybe Dr. Manton swiped a reject along with the one he drank. Or maybe someone asked “can we split a vial?” and didn’t get told “you really don’t want to do that.” We have exactly one known example of what happens when you don’t drink the whole vial, and it’s Echidna.

    1. The counterpoint is that it’s a known fact that people who aren’t Cauldron subjects sometimes get mutations from natural triggers too. Except I’m not sure that known fact is a true fact. Set aside Crawler*, whose mutations are inseperable from his core power and have no downsides except looking nasty and making it hard to enter small spaces. Do we know of anyone who got mutations akin to Canary’s feathers or Sveta’s body and definitely didn’t drink a vial or get a damaged Shard thrown off when Eden crashed or Scion died? I certainly don’t remember any.

      Chris’s transformations themselves are plausibly a natural Changer power, but he apparently regularly suffers internal injuries as a result, and normally that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s like a pyrokine buring themselves; that doesn’t happen because they’re fireproof.

      *we don’t know his trigger event so it’s possible he took a vial, but considering we know a couple other S9 members took vials it’d probably have come up if Crawler had too.

      1. Alabaster the 4.5-second-looping Breaker in Empire Eighty-Eight had pure-white hair, skin and eyes as a result of his power, and he was a natural trigger. And Scrub had a trigger we witnessed, and his eyes and mouth glowed. And Tattletale mentions to Canary and Taylor that mutations are rare with natural triggers, not unheard of.

        And Crawler’s power was Brute with Changer aspects- he mutated into the shape we saw. He started off human, but his adaptive regeneration quickly found something far better suited for keeping himself alive.

        1. Ah, Alabaster I didn’t know we’d had WOG about. So it’s not impossible, at least for powers that affect the parahuman’s own body.

          Scrub’s glow I wouldn’t necessarily count as a mutation per se; it seems more like he can’t switch his power all the way off rather than like his cells were altered to become bioluminescent. Same net result but different mechanism. I knew Tattletale believed mutations could happen with natural triggers but she doesn’t have a perfect track record when it comes to Cauldron things so I considered it reasonably likely that was a lie manufactured by Contessa to provide buyers with an alibi.

          And yeah, that’s how Crawler got his mutations, but he can’t undo them so he’s sort of in the same boat as Weld in the end. The reason I said to set him aside is that his power is focused on protecting against and healing from physical harm and the mutations make him strictly better at that. As opposed to Canary’s feathers, which do not make her a strictly and unambigously better Master and most definitely not in the same way her singing voice does.

          And the big difference between Chris and Crawler is that Chris’s changes reportedly sometimes inflict internal organ damage that could potentially kill him. Crawler’s changes most definitely cannot kill Crawler. Only one of these seems a likely outcome of getting a Shard Scion carefully tuned to ensure it would not kill its recipient.

          If Chris is a parahuman (i.e. not something a Master or a biotinker made) and has a non-broken natural trigger, it’s almost certainly akin to that Tinker 15 trigger; rather than giving a power to see how he used it, he got the power so it could use him. Which actually does fit; his transformations affect his emotions and behavior a lot. He picks which forms he uses… he thinks. Maybe once upon a time the Tinker 15 thought he picked what he built, too.

          1. > If Chris is a parahuman (i.e. not something a Master or a biotinker made) and has a non-broken natural trigger, it’s almost certainly akin to that Tinker 15 trigger

            Far too underpowered in that case. Changer 15 would be something along the lines of “change instantly to anything you wish (or anything the shard wishes, actually), not limited by size, materials and anything else, including turning into an Endbringer”.

      1. I had completely forgotten they split the vial on purpose and remembered it as her spilling the vial due to circumstances no one except the Simurgh could anticipate.

        Apparently Oliver got the part that adds the Manton Effect and such to the unprepared Shards and Noelle got the other part.

        1. I don’t think the split vial led to a Manton effect problem – Noelle’s power wasn’t hurting her, and affected living things only (typical Manton limit). It was also pretty much perfect for conflict generation. Too perfect, really; Eden would have tuned it down a bit to level the playing field.
          I’m pretty sure the issue was the lack of understanding – noone aside from Cauldron knew the drinker’s mental state is used to shape the result (as indicated in Battery’s interlude). Even if Noelle drank the whole vial, focusing on her eating disorder like she did would have produced something in the same vein. If anything, the extra ‘Temperance’ ingredient would have diluted the mixture and lowered her Trump level.

          1. If I’m interpreting the spiel Battery got correctly in light of the Scion and Eden viewpoints, the good vials are made by carving off bits of the Shard used to install the safety measures that create the Manton Effect and mixing it with dead Shards that don’t have the safety measures, and taking a vial without part of the safety measure Shard usually kills you and if you survive you’re almost certainly a Case-53.

            Also remember that the Simurgh kidnapped the Travellers from another dimension and herded them to the vials. The fact that Noelle survived and got a power perfect for the Simurgh’s purposes (specifically getting evil Eidolon to rant about Cauldron in front of hundreds of witnesses including Weld) doesn’t mean that would happen more than 0.001% of the time. When the Simurgh plays the lottery she always gets the jackpot.

            Also, the Manton Effect is apparently the safety measures erring on the side of caution; the goal is to keep the power from hurting the host and the Manton Effect is it going overboard so it can’t directly hurt anyone. Two demonstrations for sure are Amy and the Pharmacist. Amy’s got the “only affects living tissue” version of the Manton Effect, but that’s completely inadequate to keep her safe; she can kill people instantaneously and if she used her power on herself she might accidentally kill herself. So she can’t use her power on herself; mission accomplished. The Pharmacist’s fire is weird and all but I’m about 95% sure it’s not subject to the Manton Effect; I think burning Lung and Catydid counts as a Manton Effect violation even though technically it is the powers that are on fire. But when Antares pulsed her aura and it ignited, the Pharmacist was very much less on fire than she should have been considering the room went up in flames instantly. Likely she’s flatly immune to the purple fire; it’s not clear if she’s totally immune to all fire and just her clothes caught, or if the secondary normal fire her purple fire starts can burn her. Sundancer is similar; strictly speaking she has the Manton Effect(her vial had enough stabilizer) because she can’t generate suns inside people, but that’s totally inadequate to protect her from being incinerated by radiant heat so also a four-foot radius around her cannot be heated up while she has a sun out. Everyone else, well, they’re not the host so sucks to be them.

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