Interlude 10.y

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The world greeted him with a chitter and a dozen spidery legs prying at his upper body and face.  Legs hooked onto teeth, where he had teeth, and onto gums, where the teeth were absent, bottom and top row, prying his jaw open until it cracked and he wasn’t sure it would close again.  It shoved its face between the legs, into his face and his mouth, and the texture of it was like wet sandpaper on cold, naked skin.

Its head narrowed, a spear or a wedge, and it tried to force its way into his mouth.  Its shell was like scales, oriented so that passage in should be easy, the grit of the sandpaper and the slant of the shells making entry smooth.  To go the opposite way was to have the sandpaper texture scrape and the scales catch.

It couldn’t enter, so it withdrew, and it gouged chunks out of him in the process.  It thrust in again, and he fought it now.  His hand -his only hand- dug for an opening, sliding across scale without finding gaps.  It tried to grasp the spider leg, and found it thorny.

His enemy pulled free again, and the slant of the scales resisted, design resisting the effort.  Scales caught on some of his only teeth and with the creature’s legs and body straining, pried them loose where they weren’t pried out altogether.

He fumbled, searching for eyes to gouge- and found a smooth, slightly convex surface, that small fingernails couldn’t scratch or find purchase on.  He fumbled again, his hand momentarily paralyzed as the creature fought its way forward again and caused him to nearly black out, and found the shoulder of the thing.  A mess of cords and tendons beneath a cupping of shell.  He tore, dug fingers in, and did what damage he could.

He fought a machine of a thing, all instinct, and it wasn’t a machine that learned.  It sought to continue doing what it was doing, but as it fought to open his mouth wide and shove itself within, it tried to use the leg that was now damaged, pulling and throwing its weight to one side.  It lurched, lost some of its hold, scrabbled to retake its prior position, and did it again.  Each time, it scraped, scales dug, legs scrabbled and scratched, and the part of it that he could damage was only in his reach for a second at most- a second where his vision doubled and everything was slick with moisture and fluids.  An acrid, chemical smell flooded his world.

He did enough damage to the shoulder that the limb hung on by a thread.  The shoulder was like a knot and the knot came free, so he started digging within.  To scrape for something vital, in a chest cavity larger around than his own, to scrape at connecting tissue that held shell plates together, and when that failed, to take handfuls of fluid from where they belonged and drag them out.

He found something that bound an upper half of his enemy to the lower half and held on, twisting and wrenching until it broke.  That gave him a chink in the armor that he could consistently use; a gap now ran between head and shoulder, opening and closing like gnashing teeth or two blades as the creature rocked and moved its body, but if he chanced to put his fingers or hands inside he could reach the parts that connected body to head.

His other arm was only a flipper, if it could be called that.  Too broad and rounded to be blade, too hard to be a fin, not long enough to be useful.  Its scrapes to find purchase on the ground beneath him were what told him that he wasn’t just lying there with a monster perched on top of him, but something monstrous lay beneath, dead, a staring and unmoving eye as large as his head staring up at the sky that was depositing so much of the moisture on the scene.

It took three tries to get at the neck-bundle.  The second try saw the two pieces of shell come together and slice at two of his smaller fingers on his hand.

In getting his hand on it and tearing, he killed the monster that had been fighting to get inside of him.  He felt it go still, its legs curling up, releasing his ruined mouth.

In the stillness, moisture splashing down around him, he became aware of other movements.  His eyes weren’t good, and it was hard to make out more than silhouettes in the dark.

There were ten more of the things he had fought, some twice the size.  There were other things.  Dead things like the one he laid on.  There was no ground, only a sea of hostility and death.

He laid there, aware that his fight was one of several he’d have to engage in.  His mouth was open and wouldn’t close and he was glad for it, because it could catch some of that moisture.

Survive, was the imperative.

The imperative gave him the strength to dismantle his attacker further, to work the gap open and to tear what he could free.  Already, another hostile thing was scratching idly at the body of the dead thing he laid on.  It might have been seeking entry.  It might have been seeking him.

Much of his enemy was hollow, the space occupied by fluids that were easily displaced or lost.  He tore what he could and worked his way inside, his hard nub of a limb doing some of the work.  His head was heavy, and following the imperative meant that he had to stop taking that meager water from the sky and put his head within.

It was not an easy fit, and it was one that took some effort.  The roles had been reversed, and it was him that sought ingress.  Him that had to retreat, then try again, fight and scrape away.

He worked most of himself within the shelled carapace, then stopped to rest.  He couldn’t close his mouth, but with his reaching tongue pressing things to the roof of his mouth, he could suckle and pressure.  Dangling bits of meat provided moisture, sustenance.

The world of scales and moisture around him shuddered, and he flipped over, fluids spilling into the cavity he occupied, then quickly draining out.  They tasted as before, chemical, acrid, filling his nose and coating the back of his throat with the smell, leaving his head pounding.

He’d been buried.  Ensconced within a borrowed shell, he couldn’t see the black-gray expanse of sky overhead anymore- only writhing and struggling scale, plant life, and the occasional twitching limb.

Survive.

He gathered his strength.  Time passed, and he remained alert for the scraping of the things like the one that had attacked him.  Now and again they prodded and crawled through the forest of living matter, but they didn’t bother him while he was shelled.

The world turned upside-down again.  Not to add more, but to separate.  There was more noise as they were separated further, and with blurry eyes, he watched while a massive figure brought a weapon down, severing the head of a living, writhing thing.  The action injured the shelled thing that had taken up residence inside, and the weapon killed that.

Through the gap, he watched as other shelled things made their way closer to the monstrous figure.  He watched as the figure stepped on the shelled thing, killing it, then killed another with the weapon- a blade on a pole.

It wasn’t that the figures were large, he realized, but that he was small.  They were covered in protection like he was, but it was made to fit their form, covering every part of them while moving easily.  His protection limited him as much as it walled off the outside world.  This was their world.

Small meant vulnerable.  Vulnerable meant that it was best to stay quiet.  Quiet while they killed.  Quiet when they struck him with the blade, not to kill, but to move.

The dead life and plants were put separate from the living, and the living was steadily killed or taken away.  He’d been taken from the dangerous writhing jungle to a dead one, of shells and smooth, cold scale.

The dead weren’t to be left alone.  Off to the side, a great light burned and consumed, fed regularly with plant life, and it reduced the dead to odors and tastes that made him salivate, before reducing them to char that made his face wrinkle.

He waited, watched, and listened to them communicate in grunting and sibilant sounds.  When the great light illuminated the transparent coverings in front of their heads, he could see their faces, see how those sounds were huffed out and mashed into shapes with lips like his own mangled lips, with teeth that were intact, and with tongues like the one that he used to suckle.

Survive, the imperative demanded.

He played dead, limiting himself to suckling for moisture and then chewing when he felt like he could move his jaw enough.  He watched, saw the pattern, and when he judged he’d waited as long as he could before that blade found its way under him and turned him into a blackness that made others drool, when he judged the way was clear, he pried himself free and crawled his way into the darkness, where plants pressed in on him from every direction.

“You don’t remember anything before your trigger?” Rain asked.  The guy was trying to look disarming, but there was scratch that traced the line of his eye socket and turned his lower eyelid black, just swollen enough to make the eye squint in a suspicious way.

Define ‘trigger’.

The rest of the group was paying attention to him now.  Eyes trying to get past the shell he’d erected around himself, see parts of him he wasn’t comfortable revealing.  He trusted Ashley’s cold, uninterested look more than he trusted Kenzie’s small smile and wide eyes.  He was glad for the eyepatch he wore, because it meant he didn’t see Kenzie staring and studying him.

“Nothing before,” Chris said, shrugging.  He wouldn’t tell them about the bonfire, the bugs, the quarantine crew.

“I don’t remember anything either,” Sveta said.  She was always quiet, trying to sound gentle and nonthreatening.  She said ‘sorry’ a lot, stared at the ground.  She went on, “But I dream.  I’ve tried to paint it, to take those fragments of dreams and put a puzzle together.”

“Do you dream, Chris?” the therapist asked.  Prodded.  Pried.

“No,” Chris said.  He had nightmares regularly, and even though he considered those ‘dreams’, he wouldn’t share that.  It was knowledge that could be used to trace his background.

He saw her scratch words onto the notebook that laid on her lap.  She avoided looking at him as she wrote.

“I dream,” Ashley said.  “Ms. Yamada told me that dreams may be important to parahumans.”

“Do you keep a dream diary?” Sveta asked.

And the conversation moved on.  Chris was aware of the therapist glancing at him more than she glanced at the others.  Her pen rested on the page by the note she’d made.

Second imperative: migrate.

Surviving meant eating, and eating gave him the strength to walk instead of crawling.  He was growing, and the rate of growth made his entire body hurt.

Eating meat was hard, because it required catching that meat, and eating enough vegetation to keep himself going required constant eating, which conflicted with the second imperative.

It also meant that he had to experiment with eating different things.  He’d eaten some shoots last night, and had spent his usual sleeping hours enduring stomach cramps and a forced evacuation of everything he’d eaten and then some.  Now he was delirious, thirsty, and having to stop because his stomach was contracting and cramping so badly.

He needed to keep moving, both because it was imperative and because he needed water and there wasn’t any here.

He found himself slowing, taking more breaks.  To do otherwise would have meant collapse, but stopping and not reaching water or destination meant death or-

Or nothing.  There was no alternative.

Five hundred breaths of walking.  Three hundred breaths of sitting, resting.

Then four hundred breaths of walking.  Four hundred breaths of sitting, resting.

Two hundred breaths to walk.  Six hundred breaths to sit.

All measured out.  Forward progress was the only option.  The weather was wet and cold and he felt like the warmth in him had died some time ago.  The plodding forward was monotonous – he no longer looked for danger or for food.  He breathed and he marched.  The breaths were even, in and out, and they were his clock.

Fifty breaths of walking- he had to stop, his stomach cramping.  He lost count of his breathing while gasping in pain.  He imagined it was close to a thousand.

A hundred breaths of walking.  A thousand breaths of rest.

A hundred breaths of walking.  A thousand breaths of rest.  He wanted to rest longer, and he couldn’t let himself.

A hundred breaths of walking, not toward his destination now.  His heart hammered in his chest as he took those hundred breaths and the steps that went with them, because he now knew the danger he faced.

He put himself in the most open space he could.  Predators would see him here, but if he didn’t choose this location, then the scavengers would get him.

He collapsed, and the exhaustion and pain that ran through him was enough that the feeling of hitting the dirt didn’t even reach his thoughts.

He faded in and out from there.  Cold and wet, then cold and dry.  Then movement.  Covered in a soft wrapping- too soft to be any protection.  His half-formed left hand gripped the material.

When he came to again, he felt better.  He felt nourished, and he felt rested.  There were few aches and pains, no longing for water.  He moved the material that covered him aside, and found a distance between the soft material he had been resting on and the ground below.

He landed, and he fell, but he made little noise.

Second imperative: migrate.

They caught him before he could get there.  People like the ones that had been killing and burning, but without the coverings that were the same color and material from head to foot.  Bigger people.

He struggled and fought, heard their utterances and knew no meaning in it.  He saw their kin- a long, long line of people all migrating in their own way.  To the wrong place.  People with belongings gathered, moving at a crawl, unwary of the hard-shelled things that traveled along hard surfaces, so close to them.

He tried twice more to get where he needed to be, and on the third try, two of the people decided to confine him, imprisoning him in a large shell, with soft material within.  This shell moved, and once he saw that it moved in the direction he needed to go, he relaxed.  When they stopped he pointed with his fist, insistent.  He knew the destination by heart, even though he knew so little else.

A deserted place, of shelters like the tents, only hard stone.  Some towered high, others were squat and low.

His destination was down stairs.  The grown ones with him tried to stop him, because now they were wary.  He fought his way free, and he ran.

Down the stairs.  A door, and a panel on the wall.  Each bump on the wall produced a note when pressed, and they had to be pressed in the right order.  It was imperative.

The door opened, and a world of manufactured concrete stood out before him.  There were more metal doors, more panels, but all the doors were open.  Shells and guts of metal, crystal-clear containers that housed fluids with things within.  Shells meant to be worn, now draped in a covering of gossamer, courtesy of the tiny shelled things that swarmed them.

The grown ones followed, and they looked scared.  They picked up their pace, to reach him before he could reach the chamber he needed.  They were just in time for the light.

A single light, focused on each of them, blinding, so they all covered their eyes.

When he looked, he saw that the light that shone on him had turned green.  The one that shone on them was the red of bodily fluid, of injury and pain.

He didn’t jump when there was a sound like there had been when people had been doing the killing.  A sharp cracking sound, as boot came down on blade, severing life.

No blade here- it was a series of narrower things, so fast they were invisible.  Both of the grown people collapsed.

He advanced, reaching the destination.  His hand mashed the raised markings there, and the markings depressed as the ones on the panel had.

Things lit up, and the face he saw on the other side of the clear glowing panel  was of a grown man, teeth crowded toward the front, hair brown and tousled into a mop, eyes wide in a dangerous way.  He moved like he was afraid, moving things, putting fluids in things, and making utterances in a quick, nervous way.

What he said didn’t matter.

Migration done.  He instinctively knew what he had to do.  The scene on the panel continued as he found everything that seemed familiar and made sure it was in place.  By the time he was done, the scene was repeating itself.  The same sounds, the same movement.

Third imperative: download.

Feelings were just chemicals in the body and the brain.  On the glowing panel that showed the repeating sequence of events, he could see some of those chemicals.  Running through clear artificial veins, or residing in cases and shells.

Metal tips pressed against his flesh until they pierced through.  He turned the segment, and chemicals flowed into his arm.  From his arm, they traveled through his body.  They were meant to evoke a specific situation, a specific instance.

Something slowly began to shift, his head pounding, and he understood what he was doing.  He understood the chemicals and he understood the machinery around him.  It came in waves, of increasing clarity.

The memories came after.  He could put names to what he was looking at.

He could remember the shape of the the moment he’d ‘triggered’ -the word ‘triggered’ popped into his head amid the stream of memories.  And he could remember everything that had come after.

He had a name for the person on the screen, now.  A name for himself.

PRT’s second most wanted, 2003.  Seventh most wanted if counting international threats.  He’d fought the PRT’s headliner team three times.  One win, two draws- he’d lost both those times, technically, but he’d gotten away, and he counted that as a draw.

Then they’d caught him, found him mid-experiment.  He’d been a prisoner in a regular prison, until they’d grown lax.

Then the Birdcage.  Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  Seven years of cameras and eyes watching his every move while he was contained.  He could imagine the fingers tapping on the glass.  Dragon handled the announcements, but he could imagine the other staff watching.  No one woman could do all of the watching.  A hundred eyes…

The memories were overwriting and overshadowing the creature he’d been, that had fought so fiercely and wrapped itself in the shell of one of Breed’s spawn.  He’d been dredged up along with them while, presumably, people had been looking for heroes in the wreckage after everything had gone wrong at the oil rig.

He reached out to touch the screen, feeling a kind of dread.  He didn’t want to be thatHim.  Himself.  He’d spent a long, long time not wanting to be himself, but now it was imperative.

As if responding to that thought, the man in the recording turned to face the screen, still talking, chattering.

Lab Rat.

“You lied to the group.”

Chris slumped back in his seat, staring at the therapist with his best ‘are you for real’ face.

“About a lot of things,” she added.

“You said I needed to do this.  You didn’t say how.”

“How are you doing this, then?  I’d love some insight on your approach.”

“I’m protecting myself.”

“I guessed that was the case.  Can you elaborate?”

He let out a long, belabored sigh.  People were so much more trouble than they were worth.

“Name a statement, anything I said, and I’ll explain why.”

“Your background.”

“It can be used to track me.  If they know where I came from, then they know who and what I am.  That matters to people.”

“You think certain people hold grudges?”

“I think certain populations hold grudges.  Riley Grace Davis, imprisoned and made to do work for your organization-”

“I’m not affiliated with them.”

Chris snorted.  “Whatever.  Tom Moss?  Dead.  They didn’t put much effort into investigating that one.  Ricario D’Alleva, imprisoned.  Akemi whatshername?  Imprisoned.”

“She seems reasonably free and happy by all reports I’ve seen.”

“Led around like a dog, watched constantly.”

“That strikes me as the kind of thing that you’re very conscious of.  Being watched, observed, manipulated.”

“Eh,” he said.  “If you haven’t picked up on that already, you don’t deserve your credentials.  Jamie Rinke, imprisoned.  Meadows?  Dead.  I can’t even remember which of the other Slaughterhouse or Class-S threats are alive still, but for most it’s because they’ve been dead or imprisoned for so long that we’ve mostly forgotten about them.  Which is my point.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re all over the place here.”

I mind,” Chris said, frowning.  He’d let himself get agitated.  “And I’m in one place.  These are the dangerous ones.  The ones they wanted to get rid of but couldn’t.  The lovely Ms. Webb?  Imprisoned-”

He saw her open her mouth, and quickly added, “-until released by Benjamin Terrell.  Who is public enemy number one, and I would guess is either going to die before the year is out or live to be two hundred.”

“Fair assertion.  He has a lot of resources at his disposal.”

“Speaking of?  Your Valkyrie?  Ms. Ciara?  Imprisoned.”

“You have a very loose definition of ‘imprisoned’, Chris.”

“Dog, leash.  Monitored, fretted over, limited in what she can do.  If they could have done better in locking her down I think they would have.”

“She’s free and she’s helping.  I think most have earned and are exercising their second chances, Chris, and she’s more evidence for my belief than evidence against.  Why are you so fixated on this?”

“It’s too dangerous to tell the truth!  Even if they forgave my past, they won’t overlook my potential.  Tinkers get kidnapped.  So I say I’m a Changer.”

“Why Changer?”

“Because it makes sense.  I can sell it.  I can fake it.  And because changers are second to last on the good ol’ PRT priority list.  Everything else being equal, changers get left alone while the thinkers and masters get gunned down first, tinkers are probably next in line if they can’t be disarmed, and then you get rid of the bog-standard break-shit types.  Changers come after all of that.”

“Which is why you lied about that,” she said, and he saw her take her note as she said it.  A mark on the paper, something to keep track of.  A continuing study of him.

“Survival is always going to be my first priority,” he said.  “The way I see it, half of the parahumans out there are doing it wrong.  They aren’t protecting themselves.  They aren’t making the right moves.  They aren’t optimizing, and optimizing has to start with staying alive and keeping from being exploited.  Which they are all really fucking bad at.”

“I have many patients who I wish were still alive right now.  I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, but… it’s a scary world.”

“It is, and those patients were idiots.  Your current sitting-in-a-circle ring of patients that you made me sit with?  Idiots.

She seemed exasperated now.  “We’re all doing our best.  Did you get anything at all out of the group session?”

Chris snorted.

“If you put a little bit more of yourself out there, then maybe you’d get more out of it.”

“I told them enough.  What did I say?  Tinker got me, experiments, abuse, fucking asshole kept me for a while.”

“You didn’t mention that the tinker was you, Chris.”

“Would’ve kind of given away the show, don’t you think?” he asked, as sarcastic as he could manage.

“I get the impression that when you came here, you were irritated,” the therapist said.  “You were already plotting how you would tell me you didn’t want to attend.  Yes?”

“Yes,” he said.  He smirked.  “I like the word plotting.  Fitting.”

“Can I negotiate with you?”

He shrugged.

“Keep attending, and-”

“Why?”

“Because I think there’s value in it.  I think if you give it time, it’ll be easier to talk and to share.”

He snorted again.  “You think that’s going to help?”

“With therapy?  Careful guidance and attention?  Yes.  I believe that.  But you have to want it.”

He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone.  Not nearly enough time had passed.

“Agree to this, and I’ll talk to the institution.  They can relax the disciplinary measures for your outbursts, give you access to your things, and give you the freedom to visit your workshop.  Provided, of course, that you keep it safe, sane, and sensible.”

His fingers drummed on the phone screen.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“I don’t need the institution.”

“You’re a young teenager with nowhere to live.”

“I’m a thirty-two year old man in a body that was meant to grow fast, not well.”

“It’s not quite that defined, Chris.  You seem to enjoy that it’s not defined, because if I approach you as a juvenile, you claim you’re a man.   If I approach you as if you were a man, you retreat to being the teenager.  Petulant, sarcastic, immature-”

“So flattering,” he said.

“And clever, independent, with varied interests.  A far cry from the person described in the write-up for Lab Rat.  A distinct, natural personality of its own.”

“We could debate it all session.  Oh wait!  We have!  Multiple times!

“By your choice.  I think you like that you resist labeling as one or the other.  A circular argument is safe ground to retreat to when you don’t want to discuss other things.”

He shook his head.

“When the institution isn’t upset with you, it’s not such a bad place to be, is it?”

“Noisy, chaotic, tons of test subjec- kids running around.”

“Not funny.”

“It sucks.”

“It has food, power, televisions, running water, internet-”

“Crap internet.”

“There are amenities.  I know your supervisors have remarked that you had fun playing video games with peers.”

Supervisors.  He felt a frustration well inside him.  People that tapped on the glass, peered in.  That thought they knew him.

“They are the furthest thing from being my peers.  I outclass them in every way.  They suck at the games, they can barely spell…”

“You had fun,” the therapist said, firm, like there was no room for disagreement.  “It’s easier, isn’t it?”

“…I definitely don’t need the group.”

“I picked members for the circle because you have common focuses.  I can see you perk up whenever tinker-related talk comes up.  Rain, Kenzie.  I know there are parallels between yourself and Ashley, that you aren’t the originals.”

“She’s a legitimate clone.  My predecessor got creative.”

“There are parallels, aren’t there?  If you talked to her about your dreams and she talked to you about hers, I think you could teach each other something about what’s going on and what you’re going through.”

“I’m still not going to share.  Weighing the values, I get more out of keeping it secret than sharing.”

“Optimizing?”

“Exactly.”

“And the side effects of your transformations, and your insistence on transforming yourself?  Is that optimizing too?”

He shook his head.  No snort, no laugh, no dismissal.  In a way, it was as grave a thing as talking about a family member dying.

Not that one more family member dying would have been such a bad thing in his case.

“That stuff’s for fun,” he told her.

The therapist offered no immediate response to that.  But her pen marked it down.  He wondered if she was doing that on purpose, to let him know she knew.

Cortisol, epinephrines, and noradrenaline flooded into his arm along with a mess of acetylcholines.

Third imperative: Download.

Every two to three days, depending on how long he could hold out, he ‘downloaded’.  Powers and agents, as the literature called them, had a way of connecting better to the hosts when the host was in alignment with the moment they triggered.  It was at this time that the agent performed its deepest study of the host, the context around the host, and all necessary things relating to the power.

With a specific feeling derived from a specific balance of neurotransmitters that he pumped into his system, his brain hooked up to a machine to read the various levels, he replicated the feelings of one specific length of time, then the moment that it all came to a head.

A slow ramp up- his finger adjusted the switch, slowly sliding it across the dusty, cracked terminal.  He watched the cortisol levels rise, felt them rise.  Stress.

He could visualize the scene clearly now.  It was the most intact of his memories.  He had been forbidden from entering his sister’s office, which had once been his dad’s workshop.  He’d entered.  He’d seen.  A few seconds of horror, which had sent him spiraling into self-destruction.  Bed wetting, smearing feces on the walls of the school bathroom, and picking fights without realizing why.  Anything to feel like he could make the world make tangible sense again.  Anything to get the image out of his head.

A teenage guy, lying on a table.  She’d removed the gag and the guy had managed a brief yelp before the plastic covered his mouth- part of a hose and tube assembly, connected to a canister.  The contents of the canister had been released, and they’d vented out explosively- so explosively that it erupted from the teenager’s nose, a thick foam.

He’d snorted, failing to get enough foam out to breathe.  He’d struggled, his back arching with the force of his desperate attempt to pull arm from restraint.  The arms had been injured, marked.  There were cuts with blue ink smeared into them and onto the skin around them.  His eyes had rolled back into his skull-

And the boy that would become Lab Rat had fled, feet stomping because he hadn’t thought to be quiet.  His sister didn’t follow or make any mention of what had happened.

He had broken down.  He had tried and failed to make sense of a scene that made none.  He had had nightmare after nightmare and he had sat with his brother and sister at the dining room table, eating the meal his sister had made and trying not to think about that scene and the role she had played in it.

Years later, he summoned the courage to tell his sister he knew.  He’d expected to find some strength in it, to disarm her.  Something.  All he had achieved was to allow her to be less careful about what she did, on those days she found a hitchhiker or homeless kid willing to follow her to her home.

He couldn’t tell anyone, because he was already the delinquent by that point.  She was the angel, the twenty-one year old who had taken custody of her two kid brothers, who put up with him when he’d acted out so much after their parents had died.

He adjusted dials.  More cortisol.  Heavy noradrenaline.  The moment of panic, the culmination-

The memories.  Everything had flowed from that point, and everything that had followed was now clearer.

Every two to three days, he inserted the needles, and he hit the switches.  Imperative.  Half of the rest of the day was spent both reeling and trapping small animals so the requisite hormones and neurotransmitters could be harvested.  Rats, ironically.

It was sheer ego, helped along by the panic of a very limited timespan, that had made the original demand this kind of adherence.  If there was going to be a legacy or an emergency out, then he needed to ensure that the process was repeated until the memories and personality were as close to real as possible.  Except they never could be.

So long as the imperative held, he couldn’t stray far from this bunker.

Chemicals.  He gathered what he could.

Six minutes to rig an extraction gun.

Ten minutes to extract from every animal in the shelter.  His hand was heavy on the top of the cat’s head.  The machine pumped at the back of its skull, extracting.  It died in bliss, which was better than most would get, the way this was going.

The inter-dimensional door opened nearby, and wind whistled in.  He made a face.

“You’re working so small,” String Theory taunted him.

With more force than necessary, he plugged his machine into another cat.  The machine bucked as it kicked in, nearly throwing the cat from the table.

“You’re not working at all.  We barely have time.”

“They found a way to give us time.  Time manipulators have been allotted to each of us.  If we can give a convincing elevator pitch.”

“Our reputations should be pitch enough,” he rasped the words.  In the lead-up to everyone getting out of the Birdcage, he’d spent far too long talking and negotiating, smoothing tensions and ensuring that if there was any hassle, it wouldn’t come from his block.

So long as he was a rat in someone else’s maze, he’d give them what they wanted and he’d get his cheese.

After… was after.  He just had to get there.  He had to get through the next day.

“What are you making?” String Theory asked, sticking her head between his elbow and his body.

He dug his elbow into her back, hard, and she squirmed her way out.

“Let me be your rubber duck,” she said.

“Shouldn’t you be building something impractically large?”

“I set my servos to build.  Tools in motion, engines heating up.  I’ll go back in… two minutes and thirty one seconds.  But I clearly need to make fun of you before then.  What can you even do with that?”

He had no plans.  Or rather, he had a hundred.  He’d spent seven years thinking about what he would do when he had a chance, a real chance that didn’t use food byproducts and what he extracted when he performed procedures on his cell block inmates.  The mentally ill, the suffering.  Take from one, give to another, level out serotonin, reduce aggressive urges.  Now and then their parahuman overseer would get upset at him for building up too much of a collection, demanding he dump it.  Until then, he had some freedom.

He kept a cell block of people quiet, when they were of types who had no reason to be quiet, and in exchange, they left him alone six days out of seven.  Another of the seven days was reserved for dealing with disputes and talking to other block leaders.

Now he was out, all of those notes in his head, and with a hundred ideas to pick from, he had no ideas.

Not that he’d tell this grinning runt of a woman.

“Better seen than heard.”

She smirked, and it was a really punchable smirk.  She slouched and rather than straighten up to smile at him, she twisted her head so her chin craned up, looking up at him with overlarge glasses and a forced smile on her face.

Somehow more irritating than if she’d been looking down at him.  Not that he would punch that punchable face.  Maybe in the right situation, he could do something more creative.  Take the right formula, the right form, and claw that face off.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said.  “Before I go… a bet.”

“What?”

“Which of us makes the biggest difference?”

“What are the stakes?” he asked.

“Existing,” she said.  Her watch beeped, and she turned around.  “Take me back to my lab.”

He watched her saunter off, through the portal that opened.  He could see the scale of what she was building, saw her turn to smirk at him in the moment before the portal closed.

He was left in the animal shelter, the lights dark.

This wouldn’t do.

He was thinking small and he hated that she was right almost as much as he hated her guts in general.  Yet however much he hated her and however much she claimed to detest him, they ended up together, over and over again.

This- it had been her saying goodbye.

Couldn’t think small.  Couldn’t let the runt win.

“Give me a portal in the ceiling… someplace bright.”

The portal opened.  A square of light that illuminated the interior of the shelter.  Animals shuffled in cages and kennels, their cries overlapping.

“So that worked,” he said, his voice a quiet rasp. “Give me a portal to… where the confiscated PRT tech ends up.”

The door opened.

He smiled.  “Stakes are bad enough you’re not even going to say no?”

It would be a start.

Ensuring he had the last laugh would be the next part of it.

It meant surviving.

Imperative: download.

It was instinct and preprogramming that forced his hand, that made the routine of the procedure something that he could stall but not stop.  No more than he could stop from sleeping.

Needle in, dials adjusted, fluids loaded.

Replicating a feeling, then experiencing everything that had flowed from that point.  The him that he’d been, small and stupid as it was, had been him.

Elephants were scared of rodents, or so the story went.  Dogs ate cats, cats ate rats, and rats scared the elephants that terrified everyone.

He knew he was put together weird, as though none of the pieces of his body fit with the other.  If anybody had ever really liked him, his little brother excepted, then they’d never let him know… and his little brother wasn’t around anymore.  The last victim of the so-called ‘angel’, his sister.

Now he was alone.  For a moment, there were only the eyes that watched him, waiting for him to ask for a portal.

He put on his coat, he gathered his crate and a backpack, both full of injectors, the housings procured by way of a portal to a medical supply company, and he grabbed the ball.  His emergency out, quickly cobbled together.

“Portal… to where the fighters who won’t be fighting at this next battlefield are.”

The doorway opened.  There were people gathered.  Some would be friends and allies of the people who were fighting front and center in a matter of minutes.

Quickly, he handed them out.  No time for explanations, and he knew he was untrustworthy enough by reputation and look that explanations wouldn’t help much.  If they wanted one, they could take one.

He’d get as many out as he could.  Maybe one would matter.  Maybe all of them would.

A rat could scare an elephant.  A thousand rats could kill one.

Heroes, villains.  Some stared at him.  He’d never taken off his Birdcage sweats, only put stuff on over it.

“What is it?” someone asked.  A girl in a gray horned mask with slanted eyes, a scarf, and a black bodysuit.

His voice was still a bit of a rasp.  “Wear it.  It activates when you’re hurt.  Maybe keeps you in the fight.  Makes you strong in a desperate moment.”

The girl tossed the small box up in the air, then caught it.  “Okay.”

He handed others to people nearby.

“Can I have one for my dog?” one of them asked.

He looked at the ‘dog’.  Grown large, monstrous, clearly some kind of growth effect in play.

He would have liked to study it.  He would have liked to see the interaction.  Would it fizzle?

It stirred up his tinker brain, and he had to suppress it.  He’d had some experience in suppressing those thoughts, in all his time in the Birdcage.

“Go nuts,” he said.

“Then I want some for other dogs.”

He pushed a handful into her hands.  She nodded, satisfied, and began putting them into the pockets of her baggy jacket.

He considered his next move, who he should approach next, thought twice, and dropped the crate.  “Find someone to hand these out.  I should be there.”

“You’re going huh?” the girl in the gray mask asked.  “You don’t need your badge things?”

“Injectors.  And this bag is full,” he said.  He patted the backpack.  “Give me a portal.  Last stand.”

The portal opened.  He could see the oil rig, and everyone assembled there.

So many strangers, and he didn’t necessarily like the people who weren’t strangers.

“Look after the people there,” the girl with the thing about dogs said.

“That’s the intention.”

That got him a nod.

He was greeted by a man in power armor he couldn’t place by name.  Quizzed.  Then he was handed an assortment of other things to hand out with the injectors.

String Theory, too, greeted him at the door.

“I’ve got you beat,” she said.

“A thousand rats can kill an elephant,” he said.

“What are you even talking about?  Did you snort something, to help you get through this?  I wouldn’t blame you.  I know you’re a coward at heart.”

His voice rasped, “That’s rich, coming from the runt of a woman who keeps her location secret and hides from the authorities while her weapons do the work remotely.  I know you’re not very bright, but put the pieces together.  It’s not a one man show.”

“One woman,” String Theory said.  She looked around.  “Sad, that Lustrum isn’t in earshot for that.  It would have got me points with her.”

“You’re so far into the negatives with her that it doesn’t matter.  We have eighty people with powers here.  Think for once.  I aim to multiply that power, or at least keep it in play.”

“You’re underestimating how big my gun is.  We’re not rats, you know.  We’re ants.  Little winged insects, buzzing around him.”

He handed out devices to the people who were taking the opportunity to file into the portal to the oil rig.  Armbands, earbuds, and injectors.

“My plan, my approach, it acknowledges that we’re ants.  The trick is to realize that because we’re ants, we can operate like termites.  We bring the building down, and we can kill your elephant.  All it takes is the right timing.”

“Termites aren’t ants,” he said.

“Same family, Rat.”

He shook his head slowly.

“When you’re dying, Rat, die knowing I win our bet.  I made a knockout punch, you made knick-knacks.”

He gave her a pat on the head as he passed her.  He knew she hated it.

Onto the platform, where things were mercifully quiet.

He handed out the armbands and earbuds as well as the injectors.  He wove his way through the crowd.

A girl with a bug costume.  Tinted lenses.  Either symbolic, given the recent conversation, or the universe mocking him.

He drew the equipment from his bag, then hesitated.  Something more fitting.  A bug in a box for the girl with the bug costume.  Maybe she would be more comfortable that way.

Imperative: Download.

It pressed on him.  The need to return to memories, refining them to perfection when the agent in his head would never provide a perfectly clear image.  He knew from those memories that he’d intentionally designed the system so he could only break the loop when he was ‘himself’ enough to figure out an escape.

Until then, a kind of torture.

He had other projects in the works, cobbled together from pieces of confiscated PRT tech in this emergency bunker.  As he succumbed to the imperative, dropping what he was doing to head to the station, to inject the needle and set up the emotional state that put him closest to his agent, he left a burner on.  A chemical burned.

Cortisol steadily cranked up, and his knowledge of what was coming made the stress worse.  Even the limiters that were supposed to adapt the incoming dosage to his current stress levels weren’t doing a lot to help.

He was mainlining stress while watching bubbles rise to the surface with an increasing intensity.

The glass detonated, and the contents sprayed across the room.  It aerosolized, and he inhaled it.

Twenty breaths.

The drug found its way into his system.  His cells multiplied, and they multiplied with a design in mind.  Other DNA took over his DNA, and with the change, the tinker knowledge dropped away.

He’d needed to make himself strong, and he’d needed to make himself angry.  Angry enough that it overrode the lesser imperatives.  Not so angry that it overrode the first imperative.

Muscles expanded, and skin stretched.  His hands became more like hooves as the fingers cloyed together.  His face, too, changed.

With fists, he destroyed.  His face was a blunt object as much as his hands were, and his body was simply muscle, and a vehicle for allowing him to smash.

Computer screens, the looped recordings.  Terminals.  Armor that he’d repurposed to scan body parts.  He destroyed, changed further as he drew in breath, panting, and destroyed more.

It was meditative, even freeing.

It was even more freeing as the effect faded, roughly twenty minutes in.  He gradually took his juvenile form again.  The machine was broken, the equipment lost, and even with his memories mostly intact, he’d had no idea if the imperative would still be in effect.  Would he be forced to build and rebuild endlessly?

He felt for it, and he felt nothing.  The only feeling was the pain from the spots all across his body where glass had dug in.  The change had helped to heal, but only partially.

Maybe when he was looking for artistic inspiration, he would do something similar to this form.  No need to tie things down, but if he was going to pretend to be a changer, it would be best to appear like someone who didn’t have all of the choices in the world.

Slowly, steadily, he packed up his things.  Then he set out on his journey to find where people had escaped to, if there were even any left.

I win, he finally allowed himself the thought.  He walked past the bodies of the couple that had taken it on themselves to see if the naked, malnourished boy that they’d found had any people he was so insistently trying to return to.  In the time he’d been here, the bodies had dried up.

Already, instincts were kicking in.  Another imperative.  He was much happier with this one.

Imperative four: Take action, and whatever it is we do, it needs to be big.

He found her crying.

Amelia Claire Lavere.  Marquis’ daughter.  Victoria’s sister.

The Rinke creation sprung to its feet as he drew near, prowling with long legs and a sleek, long body.  It brandished a box-cutter at him.

“Lab Rat,” Amelia said.  She sat up straight and wiped at her eyes.  “You followed me?”

Found you.

Already, he was changing back.  He’d timed his arrival, done one circuit around the area.

“Come.  Let me touch you,” she said, trying to sound steely and failing.  She was still very close to returning to sobs.

He allowed it.  He approached.  The Rinke creation leaped onto his leg, then up to his long neck, where it held the box cutter at an area where the blood pumped hardest.

The hand was warm, with his scaled body soaked with the freezing rain.

He’d called this piece of work ‘Fleeting Memory’.  Fast, thus the fleeting, and Memory because it reminded him of the time he’d been born.  Not reborn as Lab Rat- he’d told the others about that.  But when he’d been birthed onto a bed of scales and Breed’s bugs, dredged from the water beneath the oil rig.  This body was spindly legs and sleek writhing scale, holding the vague profile of a very narrow wolf.

Memory, too, because scent was tied to memory, and this form was a very good tracker.  Less good in the rain, but… good.

Amelia helped him transform faster, and as she did, she removed the compulsion that Goddess had laid on him.  As he lost his humanity, he wrapped the cloth sash around himself, concealing his manhood.  A length of it went over his head, to keep the rain off.  It didn’t really help.

As he fixed the position of everything, he adjusted the boxes that were tucked into pockets.

“How did you know it was me?” he asked.

“You shed.”

“Your power doesn’t work through hair.”

“Not well.  But that body didn’t have hair.  Besides, you resemble him.  You’re not him, though.”

He shrugged.

“What have you done to yourself?” she asked.

He was very aware of the distinction.  It wasn’t ‘what did he do to you’, referring to his creator.  It was what he had done to himself.

She was sharp.  Stupid, so very stupid when it came to some things.  But sharp in some things.

“I’ll let you in on that secret, if you let me ask you a few questions after,” he said.

“I’m not in a mood for riddles, Lab Rat.”

“They think I’m fighting to keep my humanity, while changes wreak havoc on me.”

“They being Victoria?”

“Them.”

“What’s the truth?”

“I can’t be rid of it soon enough,” he said.  “Every change pulls me further away from being this.”

“To become what?”

He reached into one of the pockets in the sash.  He’d told the others that he needed to carry equipment and drugs with him, in case his body started going to pieces.

Not so.

“This,” he held up a syringe, “Is Brooding Anger.  I scanned Nursery during the Fallen fight.  It would be interesting.”

She put out a finger.  He extruded a droplet, let it rest on her fingertip.

She shook it off, then wiped her finger on her clothes.

Fucking rude.  Still… bigger things.

“Maybe another,” he said.  He smiled.  “Maybe they’ll all get a turn.  I’ve collected a few, lurking near powerful capes.”

“What do you even want, Lab Rat?  I’m kind of- I’m dealing with shit.”

“You had a face to face with her, finally?  Despite everyone telling you that you shouldn’t?”

“I don’t understand it.  Or- I understand, I think.  I just don’t want to think about it at all.”

“I could give you something.  You could be mindless for a while.  Peaceful.”

She shook her head.  “I should feel like shit.  I just wish…”

Her face crumpled up.  She looked away, burying her face in a sleeve that draped over one gloved hand.

He looked away too.  Rainwater was streaming down, and it was cold.

He’d dealt with worse.  Lab Rat hadn’t, but he had.

“I told you something I never told that team,” he said.  “You said you’d answer my questions.”

“Lab Rat-”

“You thought you had an answer.  You’d help Goddess, she’d take power, you’d keep her from being a despot somehow, and as for Victoria…”

“Don’t.  No commentary.”

“You thought she’d be so glad to be rid of you that she’d forgive you?”

“Stop.”

“Goddess can’t lead.  She’s too dangerous.  She’s missing necessary tools because she never had to go through the hardship to acquire them.  Survival.  Having to work to get somewhere.  Having to learn things the hard way.”

“That ship has sailed, Lab Rat,” Amelia said.  “If she doesn’t take power, it’s going to be because someone worse beat her.  Teacher is in the running.”

“You said you’d answer my questions,” he said.

“I didn’t say anything like that.”

He shifted position, irritated.

“What questions?” she asked.  She looked tired and resigned, and even in the gloom her eyes were visibly red.

“Shin has a manufactured slave class, doesn’t it?”

“What?”

“She has a servant who can make armies.  Nothing behind the eyes, nothing between the ears.  They follow simple orders and they can use weapons.  Yes?”

“You want an army?”

“No,” he said.

Test subjects, not an army.

He saw the suspicion in her eyes.  Her hands clasped each other now.  She worked by touch- touching her hands together was alike another man resting his hand on the hilt of the knife he had holstered at his belt.  A security thing.

“Would you fight me?” he asked her.  “Would your father?”

“What are you doing, Lab Rat?  What do you want?”

“All I want is for you to do nothing.  She senses danger.  I’m… perpetual danger for her.  But she wants to keep me close.  She likes me.  She thinks she’s safe because she can beat me.  I’m just a changer.”

“And?”

“And when I take the form of Twisted Betrayal…” he said.  He drew a syringe from the case, and he held it out, producing a droplet.  She removed her glove to touch it once again.  “It’ll be a sightly different formula to the one she thinks she can handle.”

“And all you want is for me to do nothing?”

“Do it and I’ll fix this.  I will give you Victoria however you want her.  If you want to talk, I’ll get you there.  If you want to keep her forever-”

Amelia shook her head.

“-I can get you there,” he said, lowering his voice.

“I just want answers.  I need to think about what I’ll do for her.”

“I can give you answers,” he said.  The thirteen year old was gone for the time being.  “All I need…”

He repeated himself to lull her in.  He’d had to do it with the more vulnerable members of his cell block.

“Is nothing?” she asked.

“And if Goddess can’t rule Earth Shin, then you let me help you and your father.”

“And give you slaves?”

“Mindless drones.”

“And you want to be a monster?  And how is it you’re going to get Victoria-”

Her voice rose slightly as she talked, and she shook her head, as if the ‘no’ was already there and she was fighting her way to get to it.

“Amelia,” he interrupted, and his voice was rougher.  “Do you want me to act, here?  Don’t overthink it.  Do you want someone to step in?”

Again, the hands touched.  Insecure.

She nodded.

“I know where the last member of her cluster is.  I found her before I found you.  We had a chat.”

“Like the one you just had with me?”

“Don’t overthink it,” he said.  “Don’t signal anything to her.  Just… work with me.  Accept what comes and don’t get in the way.  Do you want me to give you something, so you seem less dangerous to her?”

“Can I trust what you give me?  I know some of what you’ve done.”

“If I hurt you, your father will have my head.  I’m eliminating problems, not creating them.”

Hands clasped together in front of her, she nodded.

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153 thoughts on “Interlude 10.y”

    1. Yes, which he himself mentions. It’s why he has what it takes to go big, and Goddess didn’t.

      This is why he gets his own planet while others are “on leashes.“

      Also, the part where his Cryptid forms are (sometimes) actually efforts to turn into other, specific capes? That was brilliant, and I never thought of it. He’s Tinkering himself into being Valkyrie/Eidolon.

  1. Wildbow, you cheeky son of a bitch. All this from what seemed like a throwaway line about Lab Rat trying to toss something off of the oil rig before he died back in Worm. It’s kind of scary to think about how many potential extra plotlines you have rattling around in your head.

  2. God. I’m not sure what to think.
    Those little boxes — enough to even give Bitch ones for her dogs.
    Dreaming big, is he?
    On the OTHER hand, he’s trying to find the least ‘problematic’ slaves to torture/experiment on. (because, let’s get real, cortisol IS torture, in high enough quantities).
    He’s… been through it. The torture he wants to inflict on others.

    He leaves me flip-flopping back and forth.

    And I want to read every single page again!!

    1. Those boxes were the Golden Morning ones.

      Partial credit for a Khephri assist; arguably more impact than big sister’s God Driver.

  3. Chris, not quite Lab Rat, I would call him the son of Lab Rat. Also, the most terrifying baby in all of existence. Ripping apart Lovecraftian horrors at the ripe old age of a few minutes.

    How does one classify this? Recreating yourself and then subjecting yourself to torture except it’s not quite you? Should this fall under self-harm or child abuse?

    1. Chris is the manifestation of Lab Rat as a teenager who is filled with self-loathing from walking in on his sister “going Dexter”.

      1. Yes, once again we see the true big bad of Parahumans, the System when it fails. I mean this time we’ve got someone getting left with their serial killer sister, nobody realizing why the did was acting out the way he was and failing to realize the “angel” was a devil until she killed their younger brother.

          1. It seems like Chris actually managed to avoid reliving that memory by just a bit. It was coming qup right as he found away to trash everything instead.

  4. First of all, props to wildbow for letting me get from “yesss, this must be the chris interlude!” to “No, I didn’t want to know that” with in the first few paragraphs.

    Also, as far as I remember all chris theories always assumed that he wasn’t lying about his powers, so none predicted this. I guess that means we can derive another general rule on powers: The weirder and more complicated a powerset is, the more plausible it seems.

    1. I’m pretty sure a large portion of the fan base had guessed “something to do with lab rat” up to this point but very few if any bothered to guess “actually is lab rat himself.”

    2. I called “transformation induced by external factor rather than innate” but thought it was someone else doing the external modification.

    1. “he wrapped the cloth sash around himself, concealing his manhood. A length of it went over his head, to keep the rain off.”

      Global ambiguity. Boy howdy.

    2. rounded to be blade > a blade
      the living was > were
      there was scratch > a scratch
      Ms. Yamada (first time in Ward she’s been referred to as Ms)
      instead of crawling > crawl
      having to stop > had
      the the > the

  5. Well, Lab Rat won the bet I suppose. String Theory was the one with the giant cannon thing right? That ended up doing essentially nothing to Scion. Lab Rat’s formula saved Taylor from bleeding to death.

    1. Yeah I was going to comment on just that. Also he found a way to cheat death, unlike her. But he did keep Taylor alive, alive Taylor became Kephri, and Kephri killed Scion. So he wins by a big margin.

      Also he’s now the potential big bad of the sequel. That definitly counts.

      Smurf’s still ahead of both of them by a bazzilion points though.

    2. Lab Rat’s formula is also what removed the limiters on the growth that Bitch can give to her dogs. Which in turn allowed them to produce enough organic mass for Amy to create the first fake Eden, which showed everyone that Scion could be hurt emotionally.

      String Theory lost that bet HARD.

    3. It did nothing the first time. Wasn’t String Theories gun part of what they used to kill Scion after Taylor and the other bullied him in complacence?

    4. Ah, but seeing String Theory’s cannon thing inspired Lab Rat to think bigger, so technically didn’t she win the bet…?

  6. Oh my sweet Jesus. That was awesome. I’m surprised he was public enemy number though. Sure he’s dangerous, but I can name a dozen scarier capes off the top of my head.

    1. We only saw what he can do with about half an hour and access to limited equipment. With more prep, he could have been a literal nightmare.

      1. His power may not be as dangerous as original Lab Rat’s, at least not yet. Remember that his method of ensuring he will not become his predecessor involves altering his DNA, thus weakening his connection with his Shard.

        1. Does he want to not become his predecessor?

          > Every change pulls me further away from being this.

          I took this line as him wanting to pull away from his origin, given that he was in the Fleeting Memory form at that time.

          1. Of course he does not want to become his predecessor. All I wanted to stress is that his method of archiving this goal has a side effect of disrupting his commection to his Shard, and thus reducing his potential as a tinker compared to original Lab Rat, at least as long as he or his Shard learn to compensate.

          2. Considering his shard is giving him the data to alter his DNA without giving himself cancer, I dare say his shard’s able to keep up with him.

          3. @ Earl of Purple

            To some extent, yes, but probably not completely:

            > The drug found its way into his system. His cells multiplied, and they multiplied with a design in mind. Other DNA took over his DNA, and with the change, the tinker knowledge dropped away.

            My guess is that Chris may plan to make the above situation permanent to some degree. It is probably why after his transformations he is never exactly the same as before.

          4. > Of course he does not want to become his predecessor.

            Dunno, it was phrased ambiguously, as I read it (though English is not my first language, I might interpret something not like a native speaker would). And losing his connection to the shard is a pretty obvious consequence, especially to Lab Rat/Chris, given that he had success in creating this connection; so if Chris becomes not Lab Rat (on DNA level), he loses his power, and it conflicts with his desire to do something big. Granted, it’s an imperative from the original Lab Rat, but Chris had never shown any desire to counter it, so I think it’s his enough.

          5. It may just as well be that I’m the one who is misreading something here. I’m not a native English speaker myself after all.

          6. T.T.O. I think that Chris has found a way to keep most of the power of his predecessor, while staying his own person to a greater degree, then Lab Rat has intended him to. I also don’t think that either of us is misreading something important because of our less then perfect knowledge of English. It is more likely that at this point Chris’ situation is open to more than one interpretation.

            I’m just going with the interpretation that in my opinion best fits what I think is one of recurring themes of Ward – a theme of breaking bonds that bind major characters in the story (especially members of Breakthrough), but it is just my hunch at this point. There is probably not enough evidence in the text yet to disprove either of our theories. At least I don’t see it. I guess we will just have to wait and see what future chapters bring.

          7. > It is more likely that at this point Chris’ situation is open to more than one interpretation.

            I think this is the key thing, and I’ll put forward the idea that even Chris isn’t sure which interpretation is correct.

            Part of him wants to be Chris, the kid Lab Rat never got to be. The emotionally scared survivor who hides behind immature humor, bad puns, and sarcasm. The one who spars with Kenzie and loves video games. The one who (whining and complaining the whole time) does the heroic thing when the chips are down.

            Part of him wants to be Lab Rat, the brilliant bio-tinker who ruled a wing of the birdcage before getting set free because people “realized how awesome he was” and arranged his own resurrection as a side-project while helping to save the world.

            And then another part of him-the part that seems to be winning right now- doesn’t want to be Chris /or/ Lab Rat. It wants to be Cryptid. The thing that can be whatever it wants to be, do whatever it wants to do, and never has to feel afraid or weak or care about anything or anyone else.

      2. Yeah with time he could be a nightmare, but that was with cauldron assistance, portals, time warpers. His creations might be stronger than blastos but they seem less controllable.

        1. That doesn’t keep them from being horrifically dangerous. Them being less controlled is likely to bring them more to the attention of authorities and mean he’s further up on the most wanted list. Blasto being able to more precisely target his creations (relative to Lab Rat) makes him less of priority as there are less collateral casualties.

          1. This is true. Blasto was never considered an A lister. More like a low key high powered B lister. Lab rat seems like he could let the world burn while he tinkers.

  7. So that’s the reason Chris sometimes seemed so formidable and badass for his age! I feel that we’re still owed a scene with Brooding Anger…

  8. Huh.
    “Lab Rat’s back-up plan” was on one of the lists of theories, although the theory still turned into being a changer rather than faking it with tinkering. I discounted it because Lab Rat hadn’t been mentioned at all in Ward, and I figured a sequel should be just a little more self-contained in its set-ups and pay-offs. Which… still stands, to be honest.

    Hey Chris you said you’d accidentally killed someone and I know you lied about everything else too but that just feels way worse.

    1. Well, technically Chris leading the two adults into a bunker that was trapped to kill anyone it didn’t recognize was, in fact, an accident.

      Unless you mean the fact that he’s probably killed before dying, as Lab Rat. But Chris has shown that he’s willing to switch whether he considers himself to be an extension of the previous lab rat (an adult in a teenage body) or as a new individual (acting as a full teenager). Lab Rat may have killed people, but Chris has only killed by accident.

      1. Yeah, somehow I finished the chapter the first time thinking of Chris as… just Lab Rat. He’s definitely not only Lab Rat.

  9. Me, as I read: ‘Oh, it’s Chris, this’ll be fun. Some kind of death match. Is this Chris? It doesn’t seem right. Oh, no, it’s not Chris. Oh, it really is Chris. I did not see this coming.’

    It’s great and fantastic and amazing and really creepy and a little bit weird.

  10. So… are we still supposed to like Chris? Seems to me this could go one of two ways: One, redemption arc followed by Chris’ death, because Wildbow. Or two, Chris becomes the big bad and loses to Team Breakthrough. Either way, I’m going to feel unhappy. Aw, man.

    Lab Rat, you absolute mad lad, how could you do this to us?

      1. He had Moments of Awesome, and didn’t kick any puppies.
        I don’t think he’s supposed to be SuperSympathetic (like woobie Sveta), but you are supposed to at least care about him.

      2. I’d like to defend him here, but you’re not wrong. He wasn’t the best of people. But he was sarcastic sometimes in a way that was very amusing, and I liked that he called things like he saw them.

        1. I for one do sympathize with him. One important thing to remember is that Chris is NOT the original Lab Rat. He is a person trapped on many levels, who is struggling to find his freedom.

          He was under constant surveillance, something nobody would like, but it is especially problematic to Chris due to his memories inherited from Lab Rat (especially his time in Birdcage, though the name Lab Rat indicates, that the problem is much older than that). Even if he knows a lot of this surveillance is done for his own good, he can’t help but feel trapped by it.

          He has to follow a set of imperatives forced upon him by the original Lab Rat. He managed to find a way around imperative three (at great personal cost), and has basically fulfilled imperative two, but he is still bound by imperatives one and four. Especially the one number four remains problematic.

          He is trapped between memories of Lab Rat and awareness that he is not that Lab Rat. He faces threat of losing himself to those memories against his will, while at the same time being unable to truly become the original Lab Rat.

          Chris is not Lab Rat, he is a lab rat created by Lab Rat – a being even more trapped than his predecessor. And all that he wants is to be free, and to be his own person, not just some continuation of someone else. It is a situation which causes me to look at him with a mixture of pity and sympathy, and I can’t wait to see what he will do to get out of this rat maze.

          I admit it could end up really bad for everyone, just like Noelle’s story ended poorly for pretty much everyone involved except Ziz, but does it mean that Noelle’s situation did not justify simmilar sympathy and pity? She was ultimately as much a victim as Chris is.

          1. He’s at significantly greater liberty now, isn’t he? Too bad, because I was almost expecting the famous second trigger about two-thirds of the way through your explanation.

            By most measures, killing a goddess would satisfy “do something big”.

          2. Not big enough for him I think, he may have something bigger in mind. Remember that when his predecessor thought big, he meant killing Scion, and making sure he will survive it, and he had mere hours to arrange both. Chris has much more time. He will probably try to make something even bigger.

            By the way being bound by multiple constants, locked in multiple metaphorical cages, and strangling to break free seems to be an important, recurring theme for many characters in Ward – everyone in team Breakthrough, Panacea, Bonesaw, Niblog, even Tattletale, Valkyrie and Dot in their own ways, and many, many other people.

            In fact every parahuman seems to be under two major, connected constraints – being influenced by their Shard, and being to relieve whatever experience caused them to trigger, but unlike the ones I listed above, not everyone even tries to break free. Breakthrough seems to not only try, but also already has some serious successes in this regard. They could be called Breakout or Jailbreak, and it would fit them almost as well as Breakthrough.

          3. Though I still prefer Breakthrough – it has more meanings not tied to the theme of breaking ones own bonds, and those meanings also fit this team, what they try to do, or how they try to accomplish it. Plus it just fits a team led by a brute, and often operating like a brute.

          4. > He managed to find a way around imperative three (at great personal cost)

            Just as planned. He wanted to break free from it because the process was painful, and he could do it only when he became Lab Rat enough, so he has essentially fulfilled this imperative too.

          5. The way I see original Lab Rat programmed Chris to be like the original to the point where Chris would no longer be his own person, but just straight continuation of his predecessor. This is something Chris didn’t want to do, and probably couldn’t do no matter how much he tried. Chris just wanted to become Lab Rat enough, to have enough power and opportunities for an adult cape, and coincidentally enough to have a shot at fulfilling imperative four, though he probably realized this one after breaking out of imperative three.

            He broke out of the trap of imperative three by using what he already had of Lab Rat’s power, and memories to become not-Lab-Rat on genetic and emotional level which weakened the hold of both Shard, and Lab Rat’s imperatives on him.

          6. In a way he broke out of Lab Rat made prison instead of waiting until the end of the sentence at which point he would no longer be Chris, but his predecessor.

          7. As the prison was designed, “end of the sentence” is whenever Chris manages to break the loop, and he can break it only when he’s Lab Rat enough. Still not perfectly, as Lab Rat lacked cloning and memory-implanting tech from Blasto and Bonesaw, but as good as it could be attainable with his tech. The prison worked as intended.

            > He knew from those memories that he’d intentionally designed the system so he could only break the loop when he was ‘himself’ enough to figure out an escape.

          8. In that way that Chris had to become enough of Lab Rat to break out, the prison worked as intended, but I suspect it did not work the way original Lab Rat wanted it to. Chris took a drastic approach of altering himself, and weakening his power to break free before he become too much like the original. Probably not what Lab Rat wanted.

          9. Well, mutating into some kind of a monster, together with emotions tied into the transformation – seems like a pretty standard Lab Rat tech for me. It could work not as he expected only if he didn’t try his tech on himself earlier (unlikely, I think). But certainly Chris could still want to be different in some way, as you and Scorpion451 said in another branch. This difference doesn’t even have to have anything to do with DNA, we have seen that Ashley wants to differ from the original Damsel too, and she manages fairly well.

          10. The DNA change may be needed if the imperatives come from the Shard, to weaken it’s grip on Chris. It seems stronger than the one Ashley’s Shard has on her.

  11. Well, Chris isn’t what I expected at all. It is also interesting that he switches between thinking about himself as a thirty-something years old, and a teenager, while he is technically two years old.

    On the other hand this slave army from Shin sounds a lot like the gunners from last chapter. They fit the theory of “They can’t feel fear, only awe” even better than cultists I speculated about underneath the last chapter. If this is true it would mean that Wardens are keeping an eye on a wrong person. Amy doesn’t really control anything that’s going on Shin if Chris’ “test subjects” can be used to go after a group of heroes including Victoria.nIt would also mean that Chris either doesn’t control the slave army (or at least some of them), or he never felt an ounce of loyalty towards anyone in team Breakthrough. If it is the latter, then I worry about Amy’s safety.

    1. Also, I wonder if Amy tried to touch Victoria before Goddess and Breakthrough departed to prison to clear Goddess’ influence on her sister. It would be a bad idea for two reasons – because she knows that Victoria would treat any attempt to touch her as an attack (and she did), but also because it would probably immediately trigger Goddess’ danger sense, unless Amy manipulated Victoria’s brain in such a way that Victoria wouldn’t be a threat to Goddess for at least some more time, and we know how Victoria would react to having her brain manipulated by Amy.

      1. I agree with everything you wrote above, except that Amy knew that Victoria would treat the touch attempt as an attack. For us, who have been in Victoria’s head, or just about anyone (except her parent) who knows her at all, the degree of violence Victoria reacted with is not at all surprising. However for Amy, she’s been hoping and praying for a reconciliation for two years. Up to that point, she hadn’t managed to grasp just how she had hurt Victoria. Plus, the hope that she’ll be forgiven is one of the things that’s kept her going. She just thought that she’d undo the alignment and that grand gesture would “even the scales” for what she did to Victoria before and she’d be forgiven. Until Victoria almost killed her, I don’t think she had an inkling of how far-fetched that forgiveness is.

        1. After the fiasco of the family meeting organized by Carol, Amy must have had at least some suspicion about how badly Victoria would react to an attempt of her making a physical contact. Victoria did shred a good chunk of ground just to avoid Amy closing to her, or having to turn around and having to talk to her sister.

          There is no way Amy could misinterpret Victoria’s gesture then to the point where she wouldn’t at least suspect Victoria may lash out again. It was actually a mark of either bravery or desperation (probably both) on Amy’s part to try physical contact at that point.

    2. Oh, and imagine Ashley’s grin once she realizes there is a Breakthrough member who is actually younger than her. It is even more funny, because he has memories of a person older than anyone else in the team implanted in his head. Depending on how you look at it, Chris is by far both the oldest and the youngest hero in the team.

      1. Actually if you can believe wiki Ashley is the second oldest member of Breakthrough after Chris, so in a way he took her spot as both the youngest and the oldest member of the group.

        To make matters even more fun, Sveta may be their polar opposite. There is a good chance, that her memories are shorter than Kenzie’s, and nothing says she can’t be chronologically older than any other member. After all we don’t know when she was born, and how old she was when Cauldron abondoned her in Russia, nor how long ago it was exactly.

        Imagine how complicated it would be if team Breakthrough lived in a society that puts strong emphasis on seniority, like Japanese do for example.

        1. I meant to say that Ashley is second oldest member of the group (after Chris) MEMORY WISE obviously. She is still the second youngest (again after Chris) if you count it chronology since the time of “birth” of her current self.

          1. Actually, I think the only members of team Breakthrough with a single, well defined age are Rain and Kenzie. Maybe they should change their name to Theory of Relativity or something?

          2. Maybe even Team Relative, because if they continue like they do, they’ll soon be able to write a book on moral relativism or something. On top of it time dilation-related effects may be the only reasons why age difference between two people can’t be well defined, that DON’T seriously affect relative ages of team Breakthrough, at least not to the point where seniority between at least one pair of them could be questioned.

  12. Am I the only one who didn’t quite understand what Chris’s exact relation to Lab Rat is? I guess I’ll need to re-read.

    1. Lab Rat expected to be killed by Scion. Good prediction, because he was killed by Scion. However, he left behind a remnant that was programmed to survive, find his hastily-constructed lab, and use the resources there to trigger with an attachment to his shard. (A question occurs: why not just leave the remnant in the lab in the first place?) This remnant is a tinker like Lab Rat, and apparently has similar motivations, but he (it?) uses his power to transform himself as if he were a Changer. This remnant has been called “Chris” by Breakthrough but is probably just “Cryptid” now.

      1. I think he didn’t want to have a second him running around. Rather’n make multiple backups, he wanted just one get out of death free card. Probably didn’t know enough about how shards work to realized that it would work. Remember, this was back before word spread on the whole alien crystal space whale bit.

        1. If he didn’t know much about shards, his shard certainly filled in some blanks for him! Anyway, now he knows. If he gets together with Valkyrie they’ll pretty much have cape immortality figured out.

          1. Good point considering that Valkyrie collected the dead from the oil rig. Maybe the thign she is terrified of is reviving labr rat and having him meet his legacy?

            Lab Rat and Cryptid working together..?

          2. > If he gets together with Valkyrie they’ll pretty much have cape immortality figured out.

            They already have it figured out together with Nilbog and Bonesaw.

    2. He’s a jerry-rigged fast-growing clone that was programmed to seek out Lab Rat’s lab and download copies of his memories, and then experience his trigger over and over again until he had enough of Lab Rat’s power to break the programming.

  13. Props to the people who guessed Chris was secretly Lab Rat’s “child” for lack of a better term.
    MASSIVE props to the person on Reddit who actually managed to predict that Chris was a Tinker and not a Changer.
    MASSIVE MASSIVE props to Wildbow for delivering yet another mindf**k.

  14. So now, once again, we face the question: is this what Jessica Yamada was worried about, or does Sveta have something really wild in store for us somewhere down the road?

    1. I think the “threat” preventing Ciara from strolling around the Megapolis is the amount of shard-raising that’s been happening lately.
      Aside from broken triggers (those are nasty enough, mind you), too many cloned shards are out and about. Ashley’s shard brought memories she shouldn’t have. Lab Rat successfully and purposefully caused a trigger event (so far considered impossible). Clusters are starting to abuse their shards’ weak limitations. Teacher is planning his next big thing and accumulating a horde of enthralled capes.
      How much longer will the shards stay independant from each other when there are so many forces in play trying to merge them ?
      Adding Valkyrie to that mix might just go over a critical mass, producing the next worm generation against her best intentions.

      Or I’m completely wrong, which is usually the case. I’m not the guy who correctly sleuthed Chris out months ago, after all.

      1. > Lab Rat successfully and purposefully caused a trigger event (so far considered impossible).

        He didn’t. His tech rewrites Chris’ DNA to match Lab Rat’s, for Lab Rat’s shard to latch onto, and recreated Lab Rat’s physical and mental state during his trigger because this state is most productive for powers to develop.

        1. I don’t think Lab Rat’s tech rewrites Chris’ DNA to match Lab Rats. I think Lab Rat created Chris with DNA as close as possible to his to begin with. What Lab Rat’s tech did to Chris was to place Chris in a state of mind as close as possible to the conditions of Lab Rat’s trigger event, since in this state it is easiest for the Shard to influence Chris’ mind (which allows the Shard to upload Lab Rat’s memories into Chris, and at the same time strengthen his tinker power).

          Because of the imperatives implanted in him by Lab Rat, and probably strengthened by his Shard (or possibly even implanted by the Shard in the first place) Chris had to go through memory upload process until he figured out how to weaken a hold of his Shard on him by changing his DNA to no longer completely match Lab Rat’s.

          In a way it is a simmilar approach to the one Bonesaw used to link Slaughterhouse Nine clones to their powers. She implanted them with memories simmilar to those their originals experienced in their lifes, in particular those linked with their trigger events, and those that shaped their psyche in a way that would make them susceptible to those particular triggers. From Bonesaw’s experiments it looks like it is not enough for a clone to have the right DNA to get it’s original’s power. The clone must also have a personality (especially trigger-related trauma) simmilar enough to their original.

          Lab Rat or his Shard managed to somehow set things up in such a way that Chris was at least under imperatives one to three even before he had any of the Lab Rat’s memories.

          What is also interesting is that entire Lab Rat’s behavior seems to suggest that he was one of the individuals who were under a particularly strong influence of their Shards, to the point where it is difficult to tell how much of their decisions were made by them, and how much by their Shards. It is another way in which Bonesaw was simmilar to Lab Rat before Contessa saved her.

          Part of why Chris resists Lab Rat’s plan for him may be not that he does not to lose his personality to Lab Rat’s memories, but because he doesn’t want to lose his humanity to the Shard the way Lab Rat did. He knows Lab Rat’s story, he may know Niblog’s (another man who was basically possessed by his shard) and Bonesaw’s stories, so he probably understands the danger of it happening to him.

          He does not want to break his connection with his Shard completely, because he wants to do “great things”, or at least to get from his other cages – like being under constant surveillance, and needs power to do so. His Shard would probably make it next to impossible to do it anyway. He can however, and probably does try to thread a line between being so different from Lab Rat that he would lose his power completely, and being so simmilar to Lab Rat that his personality would be cosumed by his power the way Lab Rat’s was.

          1. I’ve been thinking some more about the Scion’s interlude, about how Lab Rat seems to have a particularly strong connection to his Shard, and about how Chris’ imperatives reassemble something a Shard would want from his parahuman, and I’ve noticed two things.

            One is that imperative two, and to a degree imperative one seem to not quite fit what a Shard would want from a parahuman, but what an Entity wants to do as a whole. They want to survive (imperative one), and to migrate to new places (imperative two – the Entities even use word “migrate” in their conversation in Scion’s interlude!), where they will perform a comtrolled, scientific experiment based on pairing their abilities split into Shards with lesser beings (parahumans) who will fight each other to test the utility of those Shards. Then the data from the Shards will be gathered together in one place (imperative three?) and evacuated to inform how to recreate the entire Entity (imperative four maybe?) in a way that it is better prepared for future challenges.

            It may be that Lab Rat may not just have had a strong connection with his individual Shard, but also a good understanding of what the Entities are, and what they want to do. If this is the case, then name Lab Rat may indicate that he understood that every parahuman including himself is a lab rat in an experiment conducted by the Entities, who are the ultimate observers “tapping on glass”. It could mean that his understanding of the Entities rivaled that of Glaistig Uaine’s and Contessa’s.

            If this is the case, then Chris may indeed be destined to do something really big.

          2. Small correction – one of the Entities use word “migration” not “migrate” in Scion’s interlude in arc 26. “Migrate” is how Chris (or his Shard – the word IS written in italics) describes imperative two in this chapter.

          3. The old Experimentators-Entities are dead, but the experiment and the lab rats remain. Could a lab rat become a new Experimentator? Some of them seem like they may have this ambition (Teacher maybe?), some seem to have the necessary tools, some may have the necessary understanding (Teacher? Valkyrie? Cryptid? Contessa?) or a way to obtain it if they focus on it (Tattletale? Miss Militia? Chevalier? maybe even Eidolon?), but is it doable? Can a lab rat become a new Experimentator? If so, should they do it?

        1. I’ll reply to everyone in here:
          Re – Lab Rat just made something with his DNA and reproduced the exact emotional conditions of his trigger event:
          That’s the secret noone got so far. All the people who put themselves in danger randomly expressly to trigger never did (that we know of…). It is rather special, after all – it only works if you know exactly your trigger events’ circumstances. Enough of an egg/chicken problem that noone can abuse it, aside from clones able to somehow remember those details.

          Re – Contessa (and others) made other people trigger:
          There never was any issue making other people trigger; Jack Slash was pretty good at it too, although it left countless dead for each new recruit. Contessa’s more efficient because she can PtV anyone able to trigger, without wasting time on those who’d never trigger.
          Here, Lab Rat made it so his successor would be able to trigger himself after his death. That’s different enough from everything else.

          Re – Cauldron vials:
          Come on, we’re talking actual trigger events here, not overpriced alien soup. Scrub didn’t trigger so much as didn’t stay relaxed enough while the shard was mucking his brain up to create his corona, so it ended up a poor experience for him.

          1. Scrub’s a natural trigger. He gave the vial to a friend, one who tried pulling him out of the impromptu arena created by Skidmark.

            Also, Lab Rat did to his clone what Bonesaw did to the clones she created, except Bonesaw’s clones weren’t clones of Bonesaw- and she managed it for Cauldron capes and Case 53s too, not just natural triggers. Capes who didn’t have a trigger event more complex than drinking alien soup.

            Other than that though, I agree with your points.

          2. Should reread Scrub’s one, seems to have slipped my mind.

            For Bonesaw though, it’s again different – she cloned the capes with their shards already active and had to tweak them so they wouldn’t take over the newborn clone entirely; she didn’t cause thousands of triggers. From that and her lack of information on many of the member’s childhood, she admitted the S9000 weren’t perfect reproductions.

          3. One thing Lab Rat somehow managed to do that Bonesaw did not do to the S9 clones, was to ensure somehow that Chris would start the memory download process himself. Either Lab Rat somehow manages to put the imperatives in Chris’ biology without altering his DNA to the point his Shard wouldn’t recognize him, or he somehow knew, that the Shard will manage to impose those imperatives on Chris before Chris established full connection by emotionally putting himself close enough to Lab Rat’s trigger event to download the memories.

            Either option is very disturbing, and either one could indicate a very strong connection between Lab Rat and his power, possibly to the point of Lab Rat’s personality being largely overtaken by his Shard. It doed not bode well for Chris. Tattletale’s interlude clearly shows how difficult it can be to fight against such strong influence of ones Shard, and considering the imperatives, and Lab Rat’s memories it may be an even more difficult fight for Chris.

          4. Not all Bonesaw’s clones had ‘active’ shards, or no more active than Lab Rat’s was when Chris emerged and started downloading memories. Crawler was dead, as was Mannequin. Winter and Nyx, too, plus Nice Guy, Chuckles, Siberian, Grey Boy, Breed, Crimson, Shatterbird, King, Screamer, Hatchet Face, Damsel of Distress and Burnscar.

            Most interestingly, however, is Cherish. She wasn’t dead when Bonesaw grew the clones, but she was at that point Butcher Fifteen, and the clones didn’t get copies of Butcher’s power despite sharing her DNA.

          5. Interesting remark about Cherish and Butcher Fifteen. Seems like Butcher’s power is transferred in some unusual way. It may be possible that original Butcher’s Shard has somehow learned to recognize an individual person, and not just DNA better than most Shards do. Alternatively killing a previous Butcher for some reason counts as something akin to a trigger event in the sense that memory of doing so is required for Butcher’s Shard to affect you, and Cherish’s clones were simply not equipped with this memory. Of course there could also be also a simpler explanation – that Cherish died off-camera, and Butcher’s Shard just moved on to some Butcher Sixteen.

            In any case Butcher’s Shard seems to be an interesting one, as it seems to either copy powers given by other Shards, or maintain some sort of link with other powers, and that it seems to be able to switch to new DNAs recognized as the ones it is keyed to. Definitely an unusual Shard, and worth remembering, especially since there seem to be more and more hints and examples of Shards and powers possibly cooperating or merging into a bigger whole (either on their own – with increasing number of clusters and the like, or on some person’s initiative – like with Valkyrie and Eidolon). If the powers are trying to reform into a whole Entity for example, powers like Butcher’s, Valkyrie’s, or possibly Eidolon’s or those belonging to clusters may play a bigger role in the future.

            On the subject of clusters – what if Butcher’s power works by forcing other powers to merge into a cluster? I think it would be the only known cluster that is forming gradually over time instead of once, within minutes or even seconds of subsequent triggers linked by single event that caused them. It would also be the only cluster which always has a single living member, but what if thre are some rules which normally apply only to clusters that also apply to Butcher’s power?

          6. > There never was any issue making other people trigger

            There was. Too lazy to find quotes, but it was mentioned multiple times. It’s possible to make someone trigger on purpose only if you’re Contessa, or if it does not matter to you who triggers and at what time, you care only about triggers happening to someone from time to time.

            @Alfaryn, regarding Butcher: I think this power is just tied to a specific physical body, so Cherish clones don’t get it. Does not look like clusters to me. BTW, it’s another one of the “foreign agent” powers, so definitely an interesting one.

          7. It was mentioned that experiments in forcing triggers, even ones where the test subjects didn’t know it was an experiment, had drastically lower success rates than would be expected given how often people triggered from comparable trauma. However, it’s not impossible; the Merchants’ improvised trigger factory got them Scrub, Theo’s trigger was forced, and there’s been occasional mentions of other successes.

            Given Scion’s interlude, I suspect it’s because the first wave of Shards were sent out to specific trigger events, so each has a suitable natural trigger lined up while artifical trigger attempts are blindly flinging darts at “all human misery” and hoping for a bullseye. Bonesaw could manage the clones and sometimes force second triggers by already knowing the original trigger event. Skidmark demonstrated a good bit of street wisdom by having a rotating set of trials by ordeal; Scrub’s was a Brute/Striker/Shaker trigger arena battle that got a Blaster/Shaker out of the deal, then the Nine interrupted his “take poison and be trapped in a coffin” Brute/Shaker/Mover trial.

          8. I would guess Scrub was “supposed to” trigger during a large-scale gunfight more suited to a Blaster/Shaker power, and his Shard improvised, which is why his power is erratic.

      2. Trigger events can be caused deliberately. The rule is the person you’re trying to trigger can’t know you’re trying to trigger them. The Fallen know how to do it, it’s why they sent Rain out to attack the mall, and sure enough he triggered- but so did other people, and they weren’t expecting that. So did the Merchants, and it got them Scrub- though the ‘winner’ would have gained powers anyway as they’d have won a Cauldron vial.

        What you can’t do- even with a Cauldron vial- is know what the power granted will be beforehand (though Cauldron have a rough idea with their vials) and, with the exception of Cauldron vials, there’s no guarantee of success.

        1. > The Fallen know how to do it, it’s why they sent Rain out to attack the mall, and sure enough he triggered
          Does this is based on some hints in the text or it is just a guess?

          1. Mostly a guess, but backed by some evidence. It takes shit situations to make a trigger event, and the Fallen rank parahumans above normals, so they put a lot of pressure on their parahumans to marry and have children. Those children are then under a lot of pressure to trigger. And once they’ve got enough parahumans for the leadership to have a rough idea of what causes trigger events, they’re going to do it more and more and get it right more often, too.

            Most parahumans know how they triggered; power types run in families- Masters in the Mathers, duplicators in the Crowleys (I think), etc. I would not be surprised to find out Mama Mathers tried duplicating her trigger for Valefor.

  15. So… random thoughts following the chapter:

    Chris is kind of messed up… and the relationship between him and Kenzie is even more confusing – what I mean by that is here he shows nothing but contempt/suspicion, but in previous chapters they seemed to get on “well” in terms of heckling, and talking tinker stuff.
    The relation between the “observers tapping on glass” thing as he describes the birdcage, and his description of Kenzie WAAAyyyy back in the prelude is amusing.

    “If I hurt you, your father will have my head. I’m eliminating problems, not creating them.”
    – I wonder if Chris is actually afraid of Marquis, or just pretending to be to reassure Amelia…
    Some how… some how I think that given Chris’s levels of caution/paranoia/survival drive, Marquis probably passes the bar of “Dangerous enough that I don’t want him as an enemy”… and that unlike most villians, this bar may well be fairly low for Chris/lab rat.

    Still hanging ominous threads/things to wonder about:
    Valkyrie is scared by a thing. What thing?
    Yamada said there was something funky with the group. Was it Chris? I don’t THINK it was, on the grounds that she clearly already had eyes on him. If he was the one she was suspicious of she wouldn’t have been actively encouraging him to stay.
    Honestly, I suspect it was the group dynamics, and precog interference (looking at you, Ms Alcott)

    Also… what sort of crazy high level “Opportunity” got dangled in front of Jessica that made her LEAVE this lot in V’s hands? She said there was a thing she was excited by, and needed time for, but what the hell was it?

    Also, I wonder what the current relationship between Dinah Alcott and faultline’s crew is?
    Is she their ‘leader’? Are they bodygaurds? Is she just a random member? Or a mercenary they keep around because of her miles high prices that TT is apparently willing to pay? (Or is TT owed favors by Dinah?)

    Hmmmmmm…..
    So many threads in the air.

    1. The “observers tapping on glass” thing has some fun added layers to it too.
      OG Lab Rat obviously saw “The Glass” as being the Birdcage, and “The Observers” as being Dragon and the PRT. Chris still feels the same way to an extent, feeling trapped at the orphanage under observation by Yamada, however there’s also the argument that, for Chris at least, “The Observers” could be Lab Rat himself, tapping on the glass of Chris’s brain and subsuming Chris’s personality from beyond the grave. The fact that the first time Chris sees the originator Lab Rat is through a glass TV Monitor feels like symbolism too obvious to pass up.

    2. > The relation between the “observers tapping on glass” thing as he describes the birdcage, and his description of Kenzie WAAAyyyy back in the prelude is amusing.

      Speaking of Chris describing Kenzie, here is one description from chapter 2.6:

      > You said you had info about hero teams, Victoria,” Kenzie said. “And I’m interested in that because I do want to try to be a hero first.”

      > “First?” I asked.

      > “I’m saying I’ll try, maybe a few times, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll try other things but if it doesn’t work out then I might try being a mercenary, or a villain.”

      > “You would be terrifying as shit if you were a villain,” Chris said.

      I can now see why Chris would focus on calling Kenzie a potentially terrifying villain not that he is wrong.

    1. We also have Ingenue’s surname and Teacher’s name. Teacher’s the guy who will ‘die before the year is out, or live to be two hundred’.

  16. Why do I think like imperative four is a recipe for disaster? It seems to be so close to what Shards would want that it is almost as if he is asking to be completely consumed by his power if he isn’t already.

  17. Oh holy fork. If it were coming from comments, it would seem like another random crazy theory, but when explained, it actually makes sense. I wonder how Breakthrough will feel whey they learn they had an S-class threat (or at least something close to it) on their team.

  18. Okay, why was Chris admitting all this stuff to Yamada? Doing so would only put him at risk, and it goes against everything we know about his cautious nature.

    1. Maybe someone other outed his identity to her. Dragon, Chevalier, Valkyrie and Panacea had access to Dr. Yamada, plausibly could see Chris and would easily learn who he is.

  19. I’m happy to see that Panacea is on the ball enough to lie to Cryptid about her power. She claims to recognize him through material shed in his Fleeting Memory form. I think it’s more likely that she was able to examine Lab Rat’s handiwork in minute detail when she healed Weaver.

    1. Actually she could have just meant shed skin or something. Her power works through skin. It may be possible that it can also analyze dead skin fragments or something.

      It may also be possible that she has seen a form simmilar to Fleeting Memory earlier at some point. Remember that Wardens used her to verify Riley’s work. It may also be possible that they involved her in keeping eye on Chris enough for her to know that he poses as a changer, and since we know how Chris feels about about being under surveillance (something she probably also knows – if not from observing Chris, then from being in the same prison with Lab Rat for years), she may have lied to avoid admitting she already knew about him posing as a changer.

      1. It is also possible that Yamada, or more likely someone else who knew about Chris being Lab Rat simply informed Amy about it when Victoria volunteered to be a Coach of Team Therapy. Dragon comes to mind as a possible source of this leak, both because she told Victoria in the end, and because Dragon always felt bad for putting Amy in the Birdcage.

  20. I see quite a few people saying that Lab Rat managed to force a trigger on his Chris clone. I read it much more as his clone was already linked to his shard, the same way Ashly was with hers, and the Download behavior was an attempt to force the memory bleed we see in other cloned capes. By returning his clone to a state of mind identical to when he first triggered, he is prodding the shard to bleed over more of those retained memories of the original Lab Rat, which in turn gives him more control over his tinker powers and pushes him closer to being an exact copy of the original. We know Lab Rat had access to whatever information the PRT and Cauldron gleaned from Riley’s cloning shenanigans, plus whatever he might have learned from Valkyrie and Amy while in the Birdcage. It’s not a leap to think he might have concluded shards can retain and transfer memories of their original hosts. I might be wrong, but that’s how I interpreted it.

    1. The thing is that Riley had to implant false memories into clones to link them to their Shards, and at the beginning Chris has no Lab Rat’s memories, so how was he under any imperatives, if they came from Lab Rat’s Shard? And if they don’t came from the Shard, how did Lab Rat put them into Chris, and why are they so simmilar to the imperatives the Entities themselves seem to both follow, and implant into parahumans via Shards?

      1. > at the beginning Chris has no Lab Rat’s memories, so how was he under any imperatives

        It may be possible for Lab Rat’s tech to implant them. Inducing emotions is a standard effect for his tech, with some work it’s probably possible to induce some basic imperatives. The first one is even present in nearly all life forms without any tinker interference, and the fourth one is assisted by shards’ conflict drive (and Lab Rat himself has set this imperative likely with his shard’s influence).
        (as for similarity with Entities’ imperatives, I think that “migrate” and “download” imperatives have a very different meaning for Chris, and their presence is perfectly explained by Lab Rat’s motives, no need to bring Entities in)

        1. I also think it is a likely explanation, but the fun part is that at the he moment we probably don’t know enough to exclude either, or even some combination of them for sure.

      1. Unless either she will grow enough, or he will find a way to free himself from this imperative too. I still think that Kenzie and Aiden have more chance though.

  21. Wow. Fucking wow. Everyone else has their theories. I’m just blown away. Holy fucking christ. The Bow is literally one the best scifi/superhero writers in the world, and definitely the best one I’ve read from.

  22. Woo, yet again Wildbow has next levelled (most of) our guesses! I certainly never put together any of this. Sure I figured the ‘Lab Rat creation of some sort’ or ‘something to do with Breed’ ideas had some weight but… this is so much more. It all fits together and ties some bits of Worm together and gives us some information we wanted, some we didn’t know we wanted, and probably some we didn’t want 😛

    I didn’t really like the character of Chris before, but now he’s really quite fascinating and I’m here for more. Especially since he’s hanging out with Amelia. Heh. This is gonna be interesting…

  23. So, is Chris a clone of Lab Rat or someone who was turned into a mini lab rat? The second fits his power base more I guess. And I’m trying to work out where the divide between Chris and Lab Rat personality wise- is the snarky teenager Chris based off 13 year old Lab Rat or a personality he’s cultivating to distinguish himself from Lab Rat? Why did Lab Rat make him a teenager not his adult self? And can I still feel ok about shipping him with Kenzie?

    1. Lab Rat didn’t make his clone a teenager. The clone’s only two years old; the fact Chris looks like a teenager is because getting to adulthood is a slow process. Chris started small enough he had to fight one of Breed’s bugs, one still small enough to fit down somebody’s face. And maybe Lab Rat wanted to enjoy his youth again, so now he’s hit puberty he’s not growing so fast as he was before.

    2. Regarding shipping, the main reason society objects to large age gaps is due to the high likelihood of a power/experience/authority imbalance. So, if you’d feel uncomfortable about shipping a “normal” thirty-two year old cape with Kenzie for those reasons, then you should also feel that way about shipping Chris with Kenzie.

      Personally, I find it uncomfortable to ship Kenzie with anyone, given her issues. She needs to develop more of a social immune system first.

    1. From chapter 27.4 of Worm:

      > Lab Rat walked among us, a backpack dangling from one hand. He handed us devices. An armband, for communication, earbuds for those of us who didn’t have them, and little plastic cases the size of matchboxes, complete with straps.

      > He was already wearing the full outfit, the wristband over the sleeve of his labcoat, the little matchbox similarly positioned, but over his bicep, like a blank white badge.

      > He held one out to me, then hesitated. He fished in the backpack, then handed me another.

      > “What’s the box?” I asked.

      > “My work,” Lab Rat said.

      > “That doesn’t answer my question.”

      > “You don’t want the answer to your question. Wear it or don’t,” he rasped. “I’m wearing it.”

      > He continued on, handing out the packages.

      Taylor has certainly suspected that Lab Rat was doing something funny, when he swapped the boxes at that point, and she did call herself “a cockroach” after she changed in chapter 27.5 (probably not only because she felt like next to Scion at that point):

      > I wanted to help. To stop him. I was powerless. A cockroach.

      I’m not sure though if she ever stopped to fully appreciate Lab Rat’s joke at any point. At least I can’t find it anywhere spelled out in those two chapters. Maybe she did it at some later point.

  24. Not enough. Lab Rat wasn’t one of those prisoners who’d packed on muscle in prison. The ball fell short, then started rolling slightly back towards him.

    He swore in a language I didn’t know, started to run towards the object. Too slow. If he wasn’t going to make it over the edge and get to safety, he wasn’t going to reach the object.

    My bugs hit the object as a mass, rolling it. It tipped over the edge. Lab Rat stopped.

    The bugs around him caught one word. “Angel.”

    1. @No

      It is a good quote you posted, but next time you do it please at least mark it in a way that makes it clear to everyone it is a quote. Ideally also let us know, where the quote is from (unless it is something obvious, like the chapter you are commenting), so everyone can find it in it’s context.

      @ everyone who is confused by above post

      No quotes a moment from chapter 27.5 of Worm, when Lab Rat, knowing he is about to die, attempted to throw proto-Chris into the sea under the oil rig to protect his creation and his second chance to live from death by Scion.

  25. Here is a fun quote from chapter 2.5 of Ward:

    > It’s fine,” I said, glad I was able to find and use a normal tone of voice without any giveaway. I turned back to Chris, “Yeah. I was there. Arrived midway through twenty-eleven, year and a half, and then the Asylum-supported housing after.”

    > “Right,” Chris said. “Brockton Bay before that?”

    > “Yeah,” I said. I wondered for a second at his jumping to the conclusion, before I remembered I had the city and its name on my dress.

    > “There was a lot of Brockton Bay in the news, before,” he observed.

    In hindsight it shows that Chris was lied about his amnesia. It is not like someone who didn’t remember anything before Gold Morning would have much reason to watch news archives that closely, wouldn’t he?

    1. “Lie” or “was lying”… Apparently I need to somehow remember not to change tense in the middle of the sentence… Once again sorry everyone.

      1. Grr… “lied” or “was lying”, not “lie” or “was lying”. Once again sorry for hitting the “Post Comment” button too quickly.

  26. Found this one in chapter 3.2:

    > Tristan explained, “He changes to one, he gets a little taller, a little stronger, a little more sluggish. He changes to another, gets better eyes, ears…”

    > “Thus the headphones,” Kenzie said.

    > “…and less responsive in hand-eye coordination to go with it. He tries to balance, but lately it’s been getting worse.”

    > “What happens if he doesn’t change?”

    > “The body stays the same,” Sveta said. “He doesn’t change physically.”

    > “Which is good.”

    > “But he doesn’t change mentally either. He says he can’t tap those emotions he’s not using, he can’t think as clearly, his thoughts go in circles.”

    > “Lose-lose,” I said.

    Looks like Chris is using his temporary changes to force some smaller permanent changes in both his body (and with it possibly DNA), and his emotional state. Victoria sees it as Lose-lose, because it looks to her like he apparently can’t full range of emotions if he doesn’t keep changing, and if he keeps doing so, his body keeps drifting away, from what it originally was, but she is wrong. In fact it is what Chris wants, because it allows him to break some of Lab Rat’s and his Shard’s influence on him. Possibly enough for him to stay his own person.

  27. I’ve just realized something while re-reading Scion’s interlude in arc 26 of Worm. Scion called Taylor’s Shard in a few interesting ways. First “queen”, then “administrator”, finally “Scarab. Chariot. The Brother. The Sky Barge.”. Considering that Glaistig Uaine called Taylor “queen administrator”, could it be that Ciara’s power let her see Scion/Warrior Entity’s memory or thought process? And since Khepri is an ancient Egyptian god associated with scarabs, and is supposed to move the sun across the sky, could it be that the name Khepri came from Ciara?

    If it is true than perhaps it could offer us some insight into how Valkyrie’s power works? Maybe it is supposed to gather memories of other Shards after their experiments with their parahumans are complete, and store them in Entity’s central memory of some sort in preparation for the next phase of Entity’s life cycle? Maybe even gathering of Shards is accomplished by gathering only their memories, and then recreating the Shards themselves from those memories instead of reconstructing the Entity from existing Shards?

    1. I mean, the existing Shards seem to limit themselves as a part of trigger process. Scion in his interlude says that Taylor’s and Jack’s Shards are “crippled”. Maybe they could be crippled, not because it was a reversible process, but because they were never meant to be a part of the Entity during the next cycle. Maybe new Shards were meant to be constructed based on just data taken from the old ones? Maybe Valkyrie’s shadows are just that – data downloaded from the shards once their parahumans died? And since personality of those parahumans is probably not important to Entities after those parahumans die it degrades in whatever data bank Ciara is connected to? Maybe Ciara’s Shard IS the data bank? It could explain an apparent degradation of personality seen in her shadows and members of her flock.

      1. Maybe they’re ‘crippled’ because they’ve been extremely hampered- deliberately- to stop them giving too much insight into the nature of Scion and powers? Taylor’s shard is the one that Scion uses to keep track of himself; it does lots of things all at once. It contains a lot of encoded data about Scion, shards, and the resultant powers, most of which it doesn’t need to express what it does, so Scion deliberately injured/damaged it so it can’t access that memory. If Scion didn’t do that, then Taylor might have had odd dreams about space whales, and if he’d destroyed the data entirely then he’d have to relearn how to sail through space.

        Jack Slash, meanwhile, has the Communication shard. The one used by Scion to speak to Eden, and Abaddon, and any other Entity they may have encountered. With the hampering, Jack Slash gets a moment of warning when a parahuman attacks him and how it’s going to attack him, because his shard talks to their shard and their shard listens. It’s why he ‘always wins’ against other parahumans. His shard is the diplomacy to Foil’s Sting. Without being hampered, it could communicate with all parahumans all the time, possibly displaying as a full trump power as it basically learns how all the other shards work and copies them into Jack. And it contains the method of communicating directly to Scion, which Scion didn’t want humanity to do.

        1. I think it is a likely interpretation of what happened to Taylor’s and Jack’s powers, but see this bit from Scion’s interlude about Aisha’s trigger:

          > The shard opens the connection as the stress peaks, and the host doubles over in pain, bewildered, stunned. The shard then forms tendrils that contact each individual in the area. It retains traces of the entity’s tampering, of the studies in psychology, awareness and memory, and is quick to adapt. It finds a manner in which it can operate, then alters itself, solidifying into a particular state. The remainder of the functions are discarded, the ones in the shard itself are rendered inert to conserve power, while the ones in the host fall away, are consumed by the shard. The host’s neural network changes once more.

          Is it possible that Shards are not recoverable in their current form after some of their functions are “discarded”, “rendered inert”, or does the fact that Shards may form buds giving new, different powers prove that this functionality can be restored without creating a new Shard based on the old one? I think that “bud” could indicate a new Shard created from data contained within the old one, so it might be that those functions are lost in the original Shard.

          There may be an argument made that second triggers prove that a Shard may restore some of it’s inert functionality, but I think second triggers may just remove limitations on functionality that has not been rendered inert.

          If Shards multiply, create offspring when they bud, and if budding is achieved by creating a new shard based on data taken from the old one, then when it is time to begin a new phase of the cycle – recreate the full sized Entity, it may be easier to create new Shards (using a process simmilar to budding in that it makes a new Shard from the old Shard’s data) in a form that is suited for interdimentional travel as a part of the whole Entity, rather then trying to turn all of those moon-sized objects, the Shards have been turned into, back into form suited to be a part of reconstructed Entity?

          Either way it does not explain why the terms Ciara uses to describe Shards so closely match those used by Scion. It sounds almost as if she is sitting in his head, listening to his thoughts, which makes me think that her power has something to do with Scion/Warrior’s memory, or his thought process. And if The Faerie Queen (as Ciara calls her Shard) has something to do with the memory, and it seems to collect and store something about the shards that manifests as Ciara’s shadows, then maybe her Shard is supposed to be the one which manages collection of data from other Shards for some reason – either to use this data to create a new incarnation of Shards as described above, or maybe just to pass this data to some sort of a central location used by Entity to manage or store its memories?

          1. Considering that in chapter 27.4 Ciara singles out The Faerie Queen, Queen Administrator, together with “the champion, the high priest, the observer, the shaper, the demesnes-keeper” as something special, and that we know that Queen Administrator was such to play a vital role in how the Entity functioned as a whole, it is possible that the other Shards Ciara mentioned there were also supposed to play such vital roles in the way their Entities functioned?

            If Queen Administrator is supposed to keep track of parts of its Entity, then The Faerie Queen handling something like the Warrior Entity’s memory, or at least a collector of data from Shards, could fit as something of equally vital importance.

            “Queen” titles could mean that they are both supposed to take part in controlling and managing the other Shards. Queen Administrator could pass commands to them, while The Fearie Queen would be tasked with receiving, and possibly processing data feedback from them.

          2. Here is another thing that may support my theory about The Faerie Queen. Throughout his interlude Scion keeps stressing DATA that could be gathered from Shards, not gathering the Shards themselves.

  28. I need to re-read or re-listen from the start, after this chapter! I usually let a few audio chapters stack up before listening to rhem and re-listening to We’veGotWard, and I just had Torch-dot-VictoriaVisitsChris’sOrphanage…. now I need to go back to GlowWorm!

    past the prologue, what are the Chris-centric chapters I should revisit?

    1. In case you’re waiting for an e-mail informing you about a response to your question about Chris-centric chapters, I’ve posted it a couple of days ago, but by accident made it a standalone comment below, not a response to yours.

  29. Oh boy… I think it is less about Chris chapters and more about Chris hints scattered all over the place, so other than bits from 2.5 and 3.2 I’ve mentioned above just Ctrl+F and search for “Chris”, I guess? You may also want to take a look at chapters 27.4 and 27.5 of Worm, and search for string “Lab Rat” in both stories.

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