Blinding – 11.1

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I could remember conversations that Gilpatrick and I had had, back with the patrol group.  Gilpatrick had worked as a PRT squad leader, and he’d had his fair share of bad days.  I’d had my bad days too.  Even ignoring the obvious, I’d grown up in Brockton Bay.  Gilpatrick had wanted to root out all of the ‘powers are cool’ types.  To reduce the roster for his school-peripheral program down to a minimum, to the people who had to be there.  Not every school had done the same.

A half dozen men and women and three dogs now rippled with enough muscle that their skin had split in places and they couldn’t move in straight lines.  Their eyes were bloodshot and their throats produced noises like they were trying to scream while being strangled, and they hurled themselves against doors and windows.  Inside, the members of the area’s patrol block were all gathered together, trying to barricade doors and windows.  Lights moved wildly, because some were using flashlights and others were doing the work, and the way those lights didn’t hold steady told me everything about how they were coping.

Gilpatrick had tried to train his squaddies for a crisis.  To paint pictures and mix up the drudge work with some degree of strategy.  He’d run over the basics, had talked about chains of command, and had drilled the older students on worst case scenarios.

A squad of twenty trying to hold out against nine monsters that had once been ordinary people and animals, when any one of those monsters could rend all twenty individuals limb from limb?  It worked as an example.

One of the smaller dogs fought to get past the others and get a piece of the action, black froth at the corners of its mouth as it lunged, tried to climb over and was hit with one elbow, flying ten feet.

It stopped making its strangled scream sounds as it recovered from the hit, then resumed its strangled scream sounds, I could see the jerky full body contractions and expansions as it worked at breathing.

It didn’t try going back at the main wall of people and animals, who were battering at the front of the building and threatening to pummel their way through the concrete.  Instead, it circled around.

The smaller dog leaped through a window that wasn’t sufficiently barricaded, got halfway through, and scrabbled to get the rest of the way through.  Putting my mask on, I flew after it.

People shot at the animal, and the shooting did nothing to slow it.

I collided with it, smashing it down into the floor, my forward momentum driving it across the floor.  The Wretch hit it once before the forcefield flickered off.  I flew up to the ceiling, back flat against the painted surface, as  the dog scrabbled to get its limbs under it.  The muscles hampered more than anything in the moment.

I used my aura, but it agitated the room more than it bothered the dog.

“Don’t shoot!” I called out.  “Don’t waste your bullets!”

And you’ll hit me.

“What the hell are we supposed to do!?” a young woman shrieked at me.  One guy in the background was audibly sobbing in his panic.

Fuck me.

“Do you have an empty cell!?”  This was supposed to be a jail.

I didn’t get a decisive answer, only a muddle of ten voices talking at once.  The dog was back on its feet now, and the Wretch was active.

I’d fought mutant dogs before.  Those had been a bit bigger, armor plated, with sharper edges, hooks, and decorations.  This was… denser.  It was the only way I could put it.  I flew at its legs, expanding the Wretch out to knock its legs out from under it, then punted it across the floor.

“Which way are the cells!?” I barked the question like an order.

A hand pointed.

“But they’re full!”

“Get over there, move people to another cell, and get yourselves into that same cell if there isn’t an escape route!  Leave me a door open!”

Some people headed that direction.

“You have thirty seconds!” I told them.

The dog didn’t even have all four legs under it when it hurled itself to one side.  The wall partially caved in with the impact, and the dog fell to the ground, slick body sliding on laminated flooring.  It was on its feet again before it finished sliding.  I could see in the background that the patrol block members that hadn’t headed off to the cells were now backing up, or trying to hide behind cover.  They’d been paralyzed by fear and now they were being punished for their fear by being stuck in the main room of the ground floor with me and a beast that I was barely keeping under control.

To my left, at the front door of the building, the drumming of fists against the door was causing the metal door to curve inward.  It wouldn’t break, I was pretty sure- by the spiderwebbing of cracks around the frame, the pressure and the pounding would see the frame come out of the wall first.

To my right, the patrol students were down the hall, presumably at the cells, and from the sounds of it, they weren’t as organized as they could be.

I was being really fucking generous, giving them thirty seconds.

The beast made its strangled squeal at me.  It lunged, and I didn’t retreat.  Instead, I put my arm out for it to bite.

The Wretch expanded out from me, starting at the skin and unfolding into its true shape shortly after.  The mutated dog didn’t catch me by the arm.  My arm caught it by the inside of the mouth.

I used my flight, raising it up so it only had its back legs, and those legs were only barely touching the ground.  Here and there it scratched the surface with claws and found some traction, jerking at me.  I used my flight to correct.

Someone was aiming a gun at it while it was momentarily stuck in position.

“Don’t fucking shoot it,” I growled the words.  “They’re bulletproof like this.  You’ll just draw its attention to you.”

I had very little experience having the Wretch active and a living combatant who wouldn’t be torn to shreds by it.  I flipped myself around, arm and Wretch still in its jaws, holding its mouth open enough that it couldn’t muster the strength to close its jaws and break my forcefield, and I wrapped my legs around the dog’s neck.

It was about as tall at the shoulder as a pony, but it was muscular, and the loose skin that had torn around the expanding muscle made getting any leverage hard, but the placement of the Wretch didn’t obstruct my freedom of movement or my ability to get my legs into place.

As it fought me, scrabbling and periodically losing its footing, I began to drag it into the hallway where the students had gone.

“Coming in!” I hollered the words.  The dog responded to the holler with more struggling, which seemed to shake it more.

The jail cells were a dozen individual cages, each cage with a cot in the center and a cot against the wall, more bars and not walls separating one cell from the next.  Most were so full that people were sitting on the ground, even in a time of crisis.  Some hadn’t risen to their feet, reacting only as I came into view.

“We’re still moving people!”

“There’s a nearly empty cell at the back!” I retorted.

“They’re capes.”

“Get them out!  Get the way clear now!”

They obeyed.  The proximity of the snarling, struggling dog was a good motivator.  People who had been moving between cells with armed people directing them were now backing into one cell or the other.  I had a glimpse of the two capes.  B-listers.  Etna and Crested, moving into a cell with others.  Both of them had shackles that encased their hands entirely.  Crested’s connected to his belt.

Doors were shut with bangs.

The length of the dog was an issue, because the door was too small for it, and as strong as I was, I didn’t have the leverage when it was this lively.  I felt the Wretch’s grip slip, saw how the head moved.  I knew if the forcefield broke that I wouldn’t get a good chance to use it again- the situation would be too chaotic.

The Wretch wasn’t helping, either.  Hands and feet gripped and banged against bars and the floor.

No, if I was going to lose control, I’d do it on my terms.  I shucked off the Wretch, and pulled my arm free in the moment before the jaws shut.

Feet on the ground.  I struck out, activating the Wretch in time to land hits, trying to pummel and push to work it into the doorway.

“Behind!”

Tristan.  He came up behind me, gripping one of the dog’s legs, and threw his weight against it.

Sveta went over our heads, into the cell.  She had an attachment on her suit, an arm with long slender fingers and a face shield.  It made her lopsided, and the landing was harder than it might otherwise be, but it did give her leverage, as the hand gripped bars, tendrils gripped the cot, and the rest of her grabbed onto the dog, pulling it in while Tristan and I pushed.

We got the dog into the cell.  Sveta got out before the dog could recover, with me catching her and helping her to maintain balance as she landed.  The door banged shut.

The dog threw itself against the bars.  I didn’t see any bending or distortion in the bars.

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

“Are you asking your team or-”

“You,” I said.  “Prisoners, Patrol.”

“Pretty fucking freaked out,” someone else said.  “What is this?  That used to be one of the jail’s dogs.”

“They came after a team of heroes with the same setup and plan yesterday,” I answered.  I turned around, looking at Etna and Crested, who were being given a wider berth by their new cellmates.  “Past three days, things have been going a bit downhill.”

“A bit,” Tristan said.  He rolled his shoulder, like it was sore.

“You alright, Capricorn?  You’re not healed yet.”  Rain was asking from the doorway that separated the lobby of the station from the hallway with the rows of cells.

“Yeah,” Tristan said, and it wasn’t clear if he was saying he was alright or if he was agreeing he wasn’t healed.  “We needed some muscle.”

“We need you in one piece,” Sveta said.

Tristan pulled off his gauntlet, and shrugged a bit to create a gap he could reach his hand inside, between neck and armor.  It came away rich with blood.

“Shit,” he said.  He immediately switched out to Byron.

“Could really have used his power,” I said. “We’ll get you attention ASAP.”

Byron nodded.

“What’s going on?” a man asked.  He approached the door of one cell.  He had a goatee made more pronounced by a jutting chin, narrow eyes, and styled hair.  By his outfit, which was a Patrol combat uniform that had been stripped down enough for regular wear, I had to assume he was an instructor.

“You’re Harris?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Were you here before or were you called in?”

“Called in.  We arrived and it was chaos.”

“The staff at this jail must have been exposed to the power effect somehow,” I said.

“The food,” Rain said.  “On the desks, everyone ate food from the same place.”

“Good eye,” Byron told him, head bowing a bit.  He had to be anxious about his brother.  And the constant pounding of fists on the front door.  And the dog that was still struggling.  Ineffectually, thankfully.  “They would have had to give food to the dogs.”

“They probably did,” another boy said.  He seemed young to me, which was odd when he was probably older than Rain and definitely older than Lookout.  “There are four K-9s here.  One for contraband, two for regular police work, and one for search and rescue.  One of the regulars is pregnant with a litter, she wouldn’t get food.”

“You pay attention to that stuff, huh?” Sveta asked.

“I come here regularly on my shifts.”

I nodded.  A clearer picture, now.  We’d come in knowing the basics, though, and the basics hadn’t changed.  The basics were bad.

I tried to compose my thoughts.  “Then they might have intercepted or impersonated the delivery person.  They transformed the staff into those things.  Bulletproof tough and strong for as long as the effect lasts.  They must have felt unwell, called for an ambulance, I’m guessing, and got as far as the ambulance before they started changing.  No other reason for them to already be outdoors.”

“Is the ambulance staff okay?” a boy asked.  “We saw them but we couldn’t get to them.”

“They were alive inside the rolled vehicle.  Light injuries.  I evacuated them,” Sveta said.

“Why?” Instructor Harris asked, his eyebrows knit together.  “Why are they doing it like this?”

“To show dominance,” I answered.  “To achieve their goals, which is to hurt the local law enforcement, and to break in, but the reason they’re doing it this way in particular is that they want to show their power.”

On the topic of dominance, even with the main power out and the only power being provided by an emergency generator, I could see how the cells had been divided into prisoner and patrol.

Instructor Harris seemed to notice too.  He pulled out his keys.  No prisoners moved to take him hostage or fight for those same keys.  They were very still, if wide-eyed with alarm.

“You might want to stay,” I told him.  “This is a waiting game.  While you’re in those cells, you’ve got metal bars between you and the attackers.  If we can wait out the transformations, things should settle down.”

“Will the front doors hold?” Instructor Harris asked.

I glanced at Rain.  Rain shook his head.

“No,” I said.

Harris put key to lock.  “Senior students, I’d really appreciate it if you were with me, but I’m not going to make you.  Step forward.”

“I’ll help, whatever you need,” a prisoner said.  He was a guy with hair down to his shoulderblades and a tapered beard that touched collarbone.

“Sorry,” Harris said.  “I don’t know you.”

“You get credit for courage,” I said.  “Good man.”

Byron entered the open front area of the station, stepped up onto a desk, and with his arms folded, began to create his motes of light.

“How much property damage can we get away with?” Rain asked.

“Construction is cheap.  At the Lyme center, I drew the line at damaging people’s cars- it’s too personal, upsets people, sets them against capes.  The power at the center, I uprooted the wiring, but even a threat of a brief blackout is… not as personal?”

“Speaking as someone who’s dealt with having no power for long stretches at a time, it might be more personal than you’re thinking.”

“I became less convinced of what I was saying before I finished saying it,” I said.  “I don’t know, Precipice.  If you’ve got to break stuff to save people, then that’s fine.  I think those things out there are dangerous, and I don’t think people would hold it against us.”

“Don’t underestimate people’s ability to blame others,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” I said.  We’re here right now, aren’t we?  “You can put holes in the ceiling, Precipice.  I think they’ll accept it.”

He looked around.  The smaller length of arm that was attached to his elbow touched a nearby table.  “I was thinking floor.”

“Go for it,” I told him.

I picked up a desk, sliding it over to where the damage was worst.  After a moment’s consideration, I flipped it over, so the legs and struts were pointing up.  It crashed as it landed there.

Sveta and others joined me.

“Why upside-down?” someone asked.

“They’re strong but they aren’t balanced or coordinated,” I said.  “Tripping is better than putting something heavy in their way.”

“What are these blue lights?” a girl in a patrol uniform asked.

“A water gun,” Byron said.

“Are they safe to walk through?”

“They’re safe.”

The pounding continued.  I could see the spread of cracks.

This was going to be bad.

“Do these guys have a firehose, containment foam, nets?  Anything like that?” I asked.

“No,” Instructor Harris said.  He sounded pretty grim, and he looked anxious.  More annoyingly, he wasn’t really helping.

“You sound pretty sure for someone who doesn’t work here,” Rain said.

“It’s the same building layout as the one we operate out of,” Harris answered.  “Except instead of the cells we have a shower room.”

Made sense.  Many of the buildings were prefabricated, arriving on trucks and put together like assemble-it-yourself furniture.

“Besides,” he said.  “Water pressure here isn’t all that.”

“I wasn’t asking for the water.  I was asking because it’d be tough for them to tear, and I could tie them up.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.  He was watching the cracks expand.  Concrete was coming out of the widening cracks in dribbles and tufts.

“Where were you a squaddie?” I asked, as I used a burst of my strength to send a desk skidding across the floor.

“I wasn’t,” he said.  “I was admin in a PRT office.  Beartown.”

A paper pusher?  The distinction between an office and a department was a pretty big one.  The office would be the kind of place that serviced a town like the one Ashley had come from.  The department was the kind of place that served Brockton Bay, New York, and any other cities that were large enough or in dire need.  There had been sixty-five or so at the time the world had ended.

So not just a paper pusher, but a paper pusher in a workplace that had twenty employees at most.

“How many capes?”

“Two of us, two of them.”

Correction: eight employees at most.  Probably an office with three to five people in it.  Fuck.

“I’m willing to follow orders if you want to lead,” I said.

“Are you?” he asked.  He sounded slightly surprised.

“Yeah.  But I really hope you want to and you’re able,” I said.

“No,” he said.  “I don’t and I’m not.”

“Focus on your kids, then.  Keep them in one piece.  Some are freaking out,” I said.

The pounding continued.  The dribbles were now more like brief waterfalls, contiguous along the long horizontal crack above the door.  It was ready to fall.

Sveta used her modified arm, slender fingers on a feminine hand moving furniture to stack chairs in the cups formed by the struts and legs of desks.  The arm was one piece of a greater project.  She was strong, really, and her ability to pull and constrict was being leveraged into mechanical movement.  The only difficulty was the lack of balance and how she had to brace most of the rest of her body.

Still, she seemed more happy with having a human limb writ large than she’d been with the tentacles.

Or content, if not quite happy.

I looked around.  Side windows had been blocked with rock- Tristan’s work, before he’d joined me and helped at the cell.  I could see the food wrappers and half-eaten dinners.  The ones that were possibly laced.

I added more chairs to the mix, kicked over some garbage bins, and then stepped back.

The pounding was less sharp than before.  The impacts were heavier.

They’d sensed or seen the movement and now they threw their bodies against the wall instead of punching or clawing at it.

“How long since you got the call?” I asked Harris.

“Thirty-”

The wall shifted, the scraping and crunching loud enough to drown out Harris’ reply.

The villains had attacked the Shepherds earlier in the day, and the transformation had lasted for longer than thirty minutes.  They’d estimated close to an hour, after talking to the people who first sighted the changed people.

“If someone gets dosed somehow, we need to get them into a cell before they chage,” I said.  “Harris?”

“We’ll try.  They’re already sardines.”

“Better a sardine than dog food,” I answered him.

“It took a while to change,” Byron said.

“I’ve been reading up on tinker transformations and the kinds of drugs they make,” I replied.  Again, there was an impact that shifted the whole wall.  “They can change it up.  Force a faster change, but weaker or less predictable.  Or more side-effects for the victim.”

“Why are you reading up on tinker transformations?” Sveta asked.

“A topic for another time,” I told her.  “Right now we need to focus on this.  It occurs to me, now that I’m thinking about side effects, if this does wear off, we need to make sure they have medical care.”

Another impact.  I could see where the cracked segment of wall stood apart from the rest of the wall now.

“Nobody shoots,” I ordered.  “Save your bullets.”

The wall came out- I thought it would fall, but it remained suspended.  Everyone in the room tensed.  There was so much floor space where the desks had been.  Our arena.  If they got past that open space, then civilians were in danger.

“I’m gonna-” Rain said.

“Do it.”

“Not the floor yet,” Byron said.

Rain created his blades.  He flung them, and they hit the door, criss-crossing it.

It was a hulk of a man that came tearing through, stumbling when he broke through with more ease than expected.  He was taller than normal, with arms like tree trunks, fingers lost in the mess of muscle, blood streaked his body and the rags he wore.

His stumble carried him into the mess of desk and chair legs.  They caught his legs and feet and as easy as it was for him to get into it, it was hard to extract- hard to do it when barreling forward.  He fell.  Others were following after, and they ran into the same barrier.

Byron didn’t use his power.

The dogs came through, over the bodies of their kin.  A straggler, heavy around the middle with a grossly distorted abdomen, followed through.

The dogs weren’t as hampered.  They stepped on the people and they leaped, one landing a few feet from the desk Byron stood on.

“What are you waiting for?” Rain asked.

The dog reared up, muscular club-limbs raised high, ready to crush Byron.

He used his power.  A geyser of water that could have carried cars away, aimed at the hole.

Two remained, catching on the tangle of furniture by accident or dumb effort.  Sveta and I each went after one.

Getting them back outside only bought us time.  Byron was drawing out more lights, and now Rain was slashing at the floor, the slashes forming ‘x’ shapes.

It didn’t take long for the attackers to bounce back.

“They’re bleeding a lot!” Rain shouted, as he backed up.  “I think the effect is softening!”

A damn good thing he spotted that.  If I’d hit them when they weren’t bulletproof tough it could have been a disaster.

Fucking irresponsible to do this like this.

But it didn’t feel like anyone was being responsible right now.

They came for us, and the first three that came barreling through with feet pounding on the floor of the lobby hit Rain’s trap.  The ground shattered beneath their feet and they fell, chests and collarbones slamming into the edge of the hole.

I winced.  I hoped they’d be okay.  Too much strength without durability could be disastrous.

Byron followed up.  A torrent of water, to slow them down, push them back, and to turn finer debris into mud.

The air was frigid, with moisture heavy in it.

This was a losing battle.  They came at us so hard that there really was no way to even block a hit without causing them harm, we couldn’t even really redirect them.

“Keep destroying their footing!”

Rain did.  My focus was on flying, on short bursts of strength to hit them and make them stagger into one another.  If I could keep them in place long enough, they could tumble into traps.

Sveta wasn’t fighting, but she was managing the ones who’d fallen.  If they started to climb out of the waist-deep holes, then she hauled on them or moved past them to push them back in.  The water helped.

Ambient moisture in the air clung to my mask, the parts of my face the mask didn’t cover, and my hair, beading my costume.  My breath fogged with the cold air that had flooded in.  The others weren’t much better.

They didn’t stop, and the slow loss of their strength and durability was a really fucking slow one.

Rain was using his power again, and I was at the point where I could have snapped at him, cussing him out for catching me in the effect, except I would’ve felt shitty.  I knew he was trying, and he was finding his effectiveness now.  I even felt bad that I was thinking about shouting at him, but I suspected that was the power.

“I think we should have called for backup anyway,” Byron said.

I panted for breath.  It was painful, with the air being as cold as it was.  I shook my head.

“We could have tried.”

“They’ve got their hands full.  It’s all stuff as bad as this,” I said.

A dog that was feigning injury sprung to its feet, leaping.  I flew to intercept and hurled it down into the thickest grouping of enemies.

I could see the fight go out of them.  Where they’d been incessant before, they paused, retreating.  We were one hundred percent willing to let them, just for a chance to recover a bit ourselves.

They retreated further, then backed off, a third of them moving to one side, two thirds to another.

Past them, past the steaming air where the remaining warm air from indoors mingled with the winter air outside, I saw the culprits.

Bitter Pill.  Medical mask only barely visible behind a scarf, white coat, and a short stick with a caduceus.  She wore one of those packs that looked like a fanny pack, that was worn over one shoulder instead.  Tinker stuff was attached to the strap.

Birdbrain.  Bird mask, black coat, and a handgun in each hand, another gun at her back.  She stood with back straight, beak pointing up- no indication she was using her eyes to view her environment.

I saw her gun-hand move.  As she moved it left and right, it moved as a hand normally would.  Up and down, it was nigh-instantaneous, with automatic tracking.  Headshots every time.  The way her head moved around like she was daydreaming or drugged and her hand moved with such precision was jarring.

Foggy Idea. He’d been in Hollow Point but he’d ducked out of the worst of the fighting.  He was a kid, with Einstein hair dyed gray, and a mask that covered too much of the scalp behind the hairline, eyes too far down.  It gave him a creepy, impish look, like he was emulating a baby’s proportions.  His namesake fog seeped out from the collar and sleeves of his costume.

Bluestocking.  Elegant, her trademark indigo blue stockings and opaque blue lenses in glasses stood out amid an otherwise gray ensemble.

A scent like really strong black licorice mixed with gasoline preceded their group.  The mutated people and animals retreated further, heads down, bodies hunched over, subservient.

“Pill!” I raised my voice to be heard.  “What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?”

“I want my teammates.”

Etna and Crested, back in the cells.

“I didn’t think Etna was yours,” I replied.

“Close enough,” Bitter Pill answered, her voice cool.  “Now fuck off and get out of our way.”

“What are our odds?” Rain murmured.  He was situated where he could be heard by Sveta, Byron and I.

“Birdbrain is the big threat.  The muscle is second to that.”

“I’m flattered,” I heard Birdbrain’s ethereal voice.

“She’s halfway to being an all-or-nothing threat.  Like Swansong with her blasts, but with aim.”

I saw Bluestocking turn her head, asking a question.  Birdbrain answered, no doubt passing on what we were saying.

“You’re using that term wrong!” Bluestocking called out.  “All-or-nothing isn’t right!”

Bitter Pill said something, annoyed.  Too far away to be heard.

“If she aims she’s guaranteed a hit if her gun’s at the right point horizontally.  Vertically, doesn’t matter.  All-or-nothings are PRT terminology for anyone who’s strong enough that you can’t defend against their attack unless you defend against anything, can’t dodge unless you can dodge everything.  She’s halfway there and that makes her a good enough shot we can’t afford to get in an engagement.  Headshot every time.”

“I’m a game shooter,” Birdbrain said.  “Even these days.  Killing doesn’t interest me.”

“Game shooter?” I heard Harris behind me.

“Guns are verboten if you’re playing by the rules of cape fights.  Unless you use your power on a gun to augment it, pack tinker guns, or you have a power that helps you not kill what you’re shooting.”

Foil had been all three at one point.

“The term applies, Blue.  At least in part.  She shoots, she kills,” I said, my voice pitched to carry.  “Or…”

“I place the bullet to where it should take a month to heal,” Birdbrain said.  “Don’t mess with us.  Give us what we want.”

“I would have thought the brains of Hollow Point would have kept their noses out of this war that’s unfolding,” I said.

“All of the intel says the time is now,” Bluestocking said.

“Intel is one thing.  Respectability?  Common sense?”

“Are you trying to stall because you hope our steroid soldiers are going to return to normal?” Bitter Pill asked.

“Give us a second?” I asked.  “We have to confer.”

Bluestocking jumped in, asking, “Leave us standing in the cold, too, why don’t you?”

A bit irritable.

“Can we win this?” Byron asked.

“Birdbrain is a massive threat, Pill has tricks up her sleeve, Foggy can distract and stupefy with his gas, and Bluestocking is a thinker of some kind.”

In the background, I saw Birdbrain nod to herself.

Was she aware she did that?

“The last couple of days have been back to back crisis management,” Byron said.  “Yes, this is important.  Keeping the bad guys locked up in jail, especially ones we locked up?  All for that.  But what does it mean tonight, when there’s another issue and we’re all hurt or out of gas?”

I could see Rain nodding.  Better to say that I could see Precipice nodding.  His mask hid his expression, but his added hands allowed for more gestures, which hinted at the emotions in play.  Fidgety, one hand raising, then dropping.

Sveta wasn’t moving nearly as much.  Even her tendrils weren’t that lively.  She stared at the brains of Hollow Point, her expression hard.

They were exhausted.

“We give them what they want?” I asked.

“You sure?” Rain asked.

“They want two capes, fine.  But we can negotiate.”

In the background, Birdbrain nodded again, said something.  Reporting on what we were saying.

“What do you think, Mr. Harris?” Byron asked.

Mr. Harris stared at the villains much as Sveta did.  In a way, it was like standing at the foot of a mountain and seeing just how daunting the ascent was going to be.  There was such a gap to be closed, and getting there was going to be so hard.

Worse, this ‘mountain’ had no interest in making the process any easier.  It was going to do whatever the fuck it wanted.

“I won’t stop you,” he said.  “If I get asked why I let it happen, I’ll tell them it was the right thing to do.   The way that gun moves unnerves me.”

“If we say no to this, we need to take a few hours off,” Sveta said.  “Otherwise I feel like it’s going to end up the same way next time.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t super happy about her mentioning that we were tired or taking a break to people who might pass that on to our enemies, but I wasn’t going to get on her case about it.

“Can we talk!?” I called out.

After they consulted, it was Bluestocking who approached, stepping over rubble.  She had nice boots.  Her approach made the creatures back off.

I floated closer.

What would happen if I decked her and knocked her out right now?  If I took a hostage, and played as ugly and as dirty as they were playing right now?

Bitter Pill approached too, maybe because she wanted to say something.  I looked back and met Harris’s eyes.  Best to connect to the real authorities where possible.

Bluestocking and me, with Bitter Pill and Harris as our seconds, I guessed.

I looked at Bluestocking, and I saw- something in the way she held herself, and what I could see of eyes behind mostly opaque lenses, and in her eyebrows.

A familiar attitude.  I wondered if I was comparing her to anyone I knew, but when I reached for it, I couldn’t place it.

It didn’t help that they stank.  The smell I’d noted before was emanating from them in wafts, worse when they moved.  It was, presumably, what was keeping the mutants docile.

“We’ll give you the two capes you want from the jail.  With stipulations.”

“Which are?” Bitter Pill asked.  She looked pissed, by the way she set her mouth and folded her arms.  Or was it resting bitch face?

Oh.  There’d been a woman at my rehab who’d given me dirty looks.  So that was the answer to my little mystery.

That tiny bit of closure was a note of success in a day that had been hard, bloody, and miserable in large part.

“Nobody gets hurt.  If you have the ability, you need to return these people to normal now, with no injuries.  You can’t take them with you.”

“They’ll be eighty-five percent healed up, unless you’ve punctured a vital organ or something,” Bitter Pill said.

“Not good enough.  You can’t go after civilians.”

“Can and did,” Bitter Pill said.

Bluestocking didn’t agree, but argued the point instead, “Cops.  Cops are fair game.  So are the anti-cape soldiers.”

“We’re not anti-cape,” Harris said.

“And you can’t take them with you.  They’re not your pawns.”

“Couldn’t if we wanted.  They go dormant, that’s all,” Bitter Pill said.  “No need to worry your little head over that one.”

“Fine.  That’s stipulation one, you fix them,” I said.  “Stipulation two, is you need to drop some money on this place.  Make amends, give them what they need to rebuild.”

“Fuck that,” Bluestocking said.

“Stipulation three?  Take a fucking break.  Back off, don’t pick fights, don’t go after heroes, take three days and stop being complete dicks for that long.”

“We’d lose ground,” Bluestocking said.  “Numbers, social map, demos, territory, ratios…  No.”

“You’ll lose ground if some of you get broken bones,” I replied.  “This is a way to do this without fighting.  We benefit, you benefit, civilians can mend and repair.”

“You’re asking for way too much,” Bluestocking said.

“Heal the people you hurt, make amends for what you broke, and back off for three days.  If you want to negotiate down on any of those parts, you can give us some intel on the people who opened fire on us two days ago.”

Bluestocking sniffed with amusement.  “That passed under my nose before I thought to pay attention.  I know some things, but… you hand those two over, we’ll give you the information.  Nothing else.”

“Information, healing-”

“-And that’s it,” she interrupted.

“Not good enough,” I said.

“Fucking deal with it.”

I turned slowly, looking up at Harris.  He gave me a slight shrug and shake of the head.  Resigned.

Fuck no.

I didn’t want to let them win like this.

“Instructor Harris… stuff for Etna and Crested is on the Captain’s desk.  Get them set up and bring them out?”

“Yeah,” he said, voice terse.

He jogged back.

“What’s it going to take to heal them?” I asked.

“I have the stuff.  Healing.  It should get them to ninety, ninety-five percent.  They’ll be hungry.  Good enough?” Bitter Pill asked, a condescending note in her voice, her gaze too casual and distracted.

“Good enough,” I told her.

Bluestocking added, “Small expenditure of resources.  The fixing of this building when you did half the damage?  No.”

“How do you know how much damage we did?” I asked.

She gave me a look, half glare, half disdain.

I hated being ignored, patronized, and looked down on.  I’d triggered because it had been so oppressive.  Now here she was, just pressing that button.

I consoled myself by telling myself that this was handled.  Things were calm.  We could still negotiate.

Maybe Bluestocking had some postcognitive powers.  Past-reading, like the time camera had been able to do.

In the back, Birdbrain perked up.  She raised her voice, alarmed.  “Blue!  Bitter!”

She was running now, catching up with our group.  Bluestocking raised a hand, motioning for her to stop and stay back.  She might have been thinking that this was already a two versus one discussion, and a third person would make it lopsided enough to stop being civil.

But then Birdbrain drew close enough that the alarm in her eyes was visible through the eyeholes of her bird mask.

“What did you do?” Bluestocking asked.

Bitter Pill seemed to connect before Bluestocking did, because she pushed past me, hurrying toward the building.  I motioned for the others to back off and let her through.

The others followed, with Foggy Idea trailing behind.  Birdbrain held out her guns, threatening anyone who threatened to attack while the thinker team was surrounded.

I flew to keep up.  I had to be ready to protect Harris if-

He was already backing up, hands up, when the thinkers arrived at the door to the hallway.  He’d dragged Crested from the cell and shoved the food that had been left on the captain’s desk into Crested’s face.

“Are you stupid?” Bitter Pill asked.

“Did you eat it?” Bluestocking asked.

“He ate enough,” Bitter Pill said, sounding pissed.

“Your call,” I told her.  “You can travel with someone that’s going to go monster and either wreck everything or refuse to budge… or you can let them stay in this cell here.  We’ll wait for our reinforcements, see if they come…”

“Shut up,” Bluestocking said.

“Or you can accept my terms, and we’ll keep this easy for you.”

There was a long pause.

My team was standing beside me.  I could see Bitter Pill holding a bottle so the cap was between her index and middle fingers, ready to drop it.

I wondered if Sveta would be able to catch it.

She hadn’t let herself be surrounded without a trick up her sleeve.  The question was whether she’d throw all sense to the wind and go with that, or if she’d take the other route.

It was Bluestocking who responded.  “Reduced terms.”

“Let’s talk,” I said.  “We give you passage with your prisoners, no fight, no hassle, we’ll hold them and turn them over… you fix the wounded, you pay-”

“-Not the full price.  Two thousand.”

“Pretty paltry.  Twenty thousand minimum.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“They’re your teammates.  You risked all of this for them.  Are you now saying they aren’t worth ten thousand each?”

“We’re not teammates,” Etna said.

“You’ll fucking do a few jobs with us if we break you out, okay?” Bluestocking snarled.

“Okay,” Etna replied.

“Three day break from all activity,” I said.

“One day.  Twenty thousand.  We fix the injured.  And you fucking pretend we don’t exist while we wait for the steroid soldier drug to run its course.”

I didn’t reply, letting the others take that in.

“Yeah, probably,” Byron said.  I saw Sveta and Rain nod.

“Then fucking leave us alone, and if you try anything we’ll bring hell down on your heads,” Bluestocking said.  “Bitter has stuff.”

“I do.  For a rainy day.”

“It’s a fucking rainy day when-”

We backed off, leaving them to bicker.

Harris looked more resigned than victorious when he emerged.  When I put out my hand, he gripped it firm.

The hole in the wall meant that the snow and moisture were getting in.  The water that Byron had created had frozen so the very top layer formed a paper-thin sheet.

The members of the patrol squads emerged.

“We need help,” I told the instructor.  “We need boots on the ground, not just heroes.  It’s bad right now.”

“I’ll get my grads on board,” he said.  “We’ll see what we can do.”

“We might need seniors too.”

“School-age kids?”

“Seventeen and eighteen year olds?  Older than some of us,” I said, indicating my group.  “The city needs all the help it can get.”

“I’ll talk to parents.  I can’t force anything.”

“And other instructors.  Any friends or superiors you have.”

I saw him nod.  He put a hand on my shoulder as he walked by, going over to talk to the most unhappy and stressed of his patrol block.

I grabbed a desk that had been tossed across the room and righted it, before sitting on it.  Sveta plunked herself down beside me, her giant arm around behind my back and resting on the corner of the desk to my left.

I pulled out my phone, and immediately she pushed it down and away.

“No more,” she said.

I fought her, play-wrestling just a bit, and finally got the phone unlocked.  I closed the chat I’d had open, asking for intel on this specific situation so we knew what we were getting into, and brought up the map.

The city, lit up by icons.  Each icon had a brief bit of text, describing the situation and the report.

Incidents all over.  Nine ongoing situations that didn’t have a team working on them, where the things were was bad enough the police didn’t have them under control, or where capes were involved, or both.

The city was on fire, metaphorically speaking, and we didn’t have what it took to put it out.  When Kenzie had put the application together, she hadn’t seemed to expect that things would get this bad, because a lot of the text was unreadable or offscreen.  Too much at once.

This time, when Sveta pushed my hand and my phone down, I let her.

“We need a break,” she said.  “You need one.”

“I wanted to procrastinate,” I said.  “I told myself that we’d wait until Swansong and Lookout are out of the hospital.  Then Lookout ended up having to stay the extra day.”

“She’s out tonight.”

“I know.  But… I had something to bring up and talk to the group about, and I needed time to digest it.”

“The files from Jeanne Wynn.  You went to see Dragon, you got the files, and you found out something.”

“Mostly right,” I said.  I gave the phone a shake, bringing it to her attention, the map still glowing with its bright yellow icons on a purple cityscape.  “This seemed easier.  A relative distraction from that something.”

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78 thoughts on “Blinding – 11.1”

    1. “If someone gets dosed somehow, we need to get them into a cell before they chage,”

      I suspect the last word was meant to be “change.”

    2. >A half dozen men and women and three dogs now rippled with enough muscle that their skin had split in places and they couldn’t move in straight lines.

      >One of the smaller dogs fought to get past the others and get a piece of the action, black froth at the corners of its mouth as it lunged, tried to climb over and was hit with one elbow, flying ten feet.

      >The smaller dog leaped through a window that wasn’t sufficiently barricaded

      >It was about as tall at the shoulder as a pony

      Two things:
      1) The size of the dog is not made clear until WELL into the fight. This is especially confusing because it’s referred to as a “smaller” dog, yet it turns out it’s the size of a pony. You should add a little description when the dogs are introduced, that explains their size. Without that, the assumption is that they are roughly dog sized or just a little bigger with the extra muscle.
      2) It’s unclear at first whose elbow hit the dog. In retrospect, it’s deducible that it’s Victoria, since no one else could hit strong enough to knock a pony-sized creature 10 feet back, but in that initial description, it’s only referred to as a “smaller dog”, so it’s unclear until later who elbowed it, since anyone could elbow a small dog hard enough to knock it that far back.

      >The wall came out- I thought it would fall, but it remained suspended.

      The wall came out- I thought it would fall, but it remained upright.

      (Suspended implies that it’s hanging from something. Upright would be a better word to describe a wall that is still standing.)

      >Rain was using his power again, and I was at the point where I could have snapped at him, cussing him out for catching me in the effect

      You should clarify that he’s using his doubt power. At first it seemed as though he might have hit Victoria with one of his blades by mistake.

      1. She said that it was a little smaller than bitch’s dogs, and that it could barely fit through a window; that seems pretty clear.

        As for the wall, I figured that it was being held in place by rebar, so suspension would be accurate enough.

    3. strangled scream sounds, I could (should this be a fullstop)
      blood streaked his body > streaking
      them harm, we (suggest “and we” or dash)
      were was bad > were bad

      I looked at Bluestocking, and I saw- something in the way she held herself
      “Which are?” Bitter Pill asked. She looked pissed
      (Shouldn’t these both be the same person?)

    4. I saw her gun-hand move. As she moved it left and right, it moved as a hand normally would.
      -she has guns in both hands

      I looked at Bluestocking, and I saw- something in the way she held herself, and what I could see of eyes behind mostly opaque lenses, and in her eyebrows.
      -not sure what’s going on with that dash.

    5. “as the dog scrabbled”
      Extra space.

      “tapered beard that touched collarbone.”

      “where the things were was bad enough”

  1. So, the woman at rehab giving Victoria dirty looks was Bitter Pill? Or did V just realize that the woman probably had resting bitch face, in the way that sudden realization somehow works?

    1. Looks like that woman was Bitter Pill yeah. She was at the rehab after the assault on the Fallen, which was after all the Hollowpoint stuff. Victoria goes around without a mask even in costume, so Bitter Pill could recognize her. Obviously, she doesn’t like her.

    2. I got the impression that that was referring to Bluestocking and just re-read that bit to be sure. Are you sure it’s referring to BP?

      Victoria wondered after if Bluestocking had some way of reading past traumas or something, which may mean that she wasn’t actually the person in rehab, but read Vic and used that posture/expression on purpose to annoy her.

    3. -continued-
      Here’s the part I mentioned in previous comment, that came after the bit about rehab:

      “She gave me a look, half glare, half disdain.

      I hated being ignored, patronized, and looked down on. I’d triggered because it had been so oppressive. Now here she was, just pressing that button.

      I consoled myself by telling myself that this was handled. Things were calm. We could still negotiate.

      Maybe Bluestocking had some postcognitive powers. Past-reading, like the time camera had been able to do.”

  2. What’s their team name? Hindsight? Catastrophe? Anyways, they seem to follow the same formula as the undersiders. Create chaos, have enough firepower to be a threat, grab your prize and get the Hell out.
    Foggy idea-grue
    Bitter pill- bitch
    Blue stocking- tattletale
    Birdbrain- skitter

    1. Great comparison.

      Bitter Pill certainly seems to be very in line with what Lab Rat does. There’s some distinctions but they seem very subtle.

      A pity there’s no hope to work with Bitter Pill around understanding or countering Lab Rat better.

      1. Thanks. Yeah I was wondering how different lab rat is to bitter pill. Also lab rat was a cell Block leader and massive prt target. Bitter pill seems like a competent b lister. It’s interesting how different their lives are with such a similar power.

        1. Bitter Pill’s transformations aren’t as extreme. Also, she specialises in short-term work, including medicines and so on. Lab Rat is specifically the transformation elixirs, he can’t easily do the other stuff.

          The first stuff of Bitter Pill’s we saw was the squad of people with their heads back, trying not to spill the stuff they were gargling as Bitter Pill sent them into combat.

          1. Most of the Lab Rat’s and Chris’ work we know of also has temporary, or mostly temporary effects, so there seems to be not much difference between them and Bitter Pill in this regard.

          2. Chris/Lab Rat’s stuff was temporary, yeah. But all it was, was transformation stuff. Bitter Pill’s range is wider, but in transformation tech, it’s not as effective. Because she can also create formulae that produce less brutish minions, and pain killers, and so on. She can’t create a Mad Anxiety, however, or a Brooding Anger. That level of transformation is beyond her.

            Compare a camera built by Kid Win, with his focus on modal tech that does different things, and a camera built by Lookout, whose focus is almost entirely on cameras. Kid Win’s might be able to flicker between normal, infrared and ultraviolet modes, but Lookout’s can do all that at the same time, is smaller and can also detect sound waves.

          3. I didn’t want to suggest that those two powers are identical. All I wanted to say is that they are similar in one aspect – they usually work for a limited time. They even seem to break this rule in different ways. Lab Rat managed to create permanent Chris, and some side effects of Chris’ transformations may be permanent (though they may also be just long lasting – it would explain why he keeps changing periodically), while Bitter Pill seems to be able to provide at least some permanent healing effects (at least she suggested she can do it with the policemen and the dogs).

          4. I think the core distinction is even simpler; Lab Rat’s agent seems to like working top-down, Bitter Pill’s agent seems to be better at bottom-up design. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top-down_and_bottom-up_design )

            Lab Rat seems to start with dramatic dartboard effects, and then he refines that down to specific results with further tinkering, while Bitter Pill seems to start with small specific tweaks to individual metabolisms, and then with further tinkering she can build up to more dramatic effects that work on a wider range of subjects.

            In other words, Bitter Pill’s easy fix for a broken arm is accelerating the bone deposition process. Lab Rat’s easy fix for a broken arm is to make your entire skeleton dissolve and reconstitute.

  3. Ah, a neat little Batman Cold Open. Instructor Harris really came through great for a paper-pusher, the man is certainly deserving of his place.

    So, it’s soon gonna be time for the spilling of the beans. I wonder how the team is going to take the fact that one of their teammates was a failed attempt at a soul jar for a Birdcage villain?

    1. Kenzie- “Uh so please don’t anyone else have a horrible secret like that, Kay?”

      And sheesh, seems like Capricorn is having a hard time not getting hurt. Though Tristan seems to be pushing himself.

      1. Well looks like Tristan did reopen his wound, so yeah he is pushing himself. He probably should have stayed in bed, or let Byron handle everything from the start, but especially with situation being as bad as it is, it is difficult to expect Tristan of all people to behave differently, isn’t it?

        Looks like he will need new stitches. If it goes like this paradoxically he may be the brother who dies, and Byron the one who gets trapped in the darkness forever (assuming that is the way their power would work if one of them wouldn’t be alive to bring the other out).

    2. I’m not worried about that particular element, not with Swansong’s precedent in the mix. What I’m more worried about is the reaction to the fact that, despite that precedent, Chris continued to lie to them all.

  4. Man. The city’s on fire and everybody is fucking tired.

    No wonder why Tattletale was fucking exhausted.

  5. So everyone will need to stay put for another hour or so before the drugs Etna and Crested took stop working? Wouldn’t it be a great moment for AG to waltz in and f… the truce up?

    1. Given what’s happening on the map, with nine places that need immediate attention, I think Advance Guard is a little busy. Given their team philosophy, they’re probably the first onto every scene they can, working to get everything sorted, and not resting.

      They’re mostly dicks, but I’ve never had the impression they’re slackers. Breakthrough’s working hard? So’s Advance Guard. Maybe not as hard, but only because they have a larger team and can afford more downtime, and because they have less injuries.

      1. Yes , but they also tend to split into smaller subgroups to cover many places at once. They could send a couple people to check on Breakthrough if they realize that status of the situation Breakthrough was supposed to handle has not apparently changed for a good part of an hour.

        They would even think that Breakthrough would be thankful for the assistance in what to them may look like a big problem, since it is taking Breakthrough so long to sort out and report to the network as handled.

        1. I could imagine Shortcut and Spright showing up, messing everything up, and then explaining “You were not moving, or giving any signal. We just wanted to check if you aren’t all bleeding to death in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.” And Victoria couldn’t even blame them, because I don’t think that anyone in the network carriers life signs monitors, like those armbands everyone used during Endbringer attacks. If they did, the heroes would know about the attack on the Navigators before anyone else did, and it is not what happened (Kenzie’s call to Victoria from chapter 10.10):

          Dead bodies. Heroes from your tracking program.”

          I found myself holding my breath. “Who?”

          I didn’t want to hear. I didn’t want to know.

          “Slingstone, Nailfarer and Scaffold.”

          and just a few seconds later:

          “There’s chatter on the lines. Villains know it happened, and they seem split on what they’re going to do about it.”

          So it looks like the villains were chatting about the attack even before Kenzie knew it happened, and she was apparently monitoring the network at the time. If there was an Endbringer-armband-style alarm like “Slingstone, Nailfarer and Scaffold down.” implemented in the network Kenzie at least would probably hear it, and call Victoria even before whoever attacked the Navigators managed to tell anyone about their success.

          1. Which means that AG, or anyone else tracking what is going on in the network, could have a legitimate reason to be worried about Breakthrough at the moment, and AG could “come to the rescue”, and be every bit as surprised with a cold welcome from the rescued, as Shortcut was in the first chapter.

          2. Yeah, it’s taking an hour, but there’s a hero team on site. Those nine other emergencies? No hero team on site. Sprite and Shortcut- indeed, pretty much every member of Advance Guard we’ve seen- has been quick and mobile. They know Breakthrough has a number of shakers and some brutes; Shakers are… pretty effective at holding ground and sieges, or can be- reinforcing structures, altering the landscape, slowing attackers, etc- and brutes can take a beating and dish one out. I’d be a little surprised if they were worried enough, and considered butting in of enough value when there’s nine emergencies that also need attention, to actually turn up.

            If there were two, three or maybe even five emergencies? Sure. Then they can also maybe say ‘We wanted to see if you were up to helping out at place X once you’re done here’. Besides, we don’t know if they know what those emergencies are. They’ve been here an hour? OK, sure, how long can it take for a large fire to be controlled? Breakthrough’s got the powers to be good at firefighting- a shaker that can build permanent structures of nonflammable material, another that creates water, two brutes that don’t burn easily, a blaster that can break things to create emergency exits and a tinker that can create cameras to find people inside. Would Sprite and Shortcut turn up to help then? They can’t do anything that would be useful.

          3. I think they know what the emergencies are. Remember that a few teams (including AG) volunteered to take some of them within minutes since the network’s first activation, and were for the most part successful in handling them. It wouldn’t be possible if they didn’t have a good idea of what they were getting themselves into. The whole idea of the network is to supply the heroes with information anyway, so keeping the nature of the emergencies would be counterproductive.

            Considering how fast AG works, they could handle plenty emergencies within an hour. There are also other teams. If not enough new situations pop out within the hour, there could be more than enough time to check on Breakthrough.

            Not to mention that if they think something could be wrong with Breakthrough, they could prioritize Breakthrough’s safety over the emergencies not being handled by anyone. Remember that everyone remembers what happened to Navigators and to the capes who went to investigate the crime scene. They have every reason to be afraid that it can happen to other teams, and at this moment loosing more heroes is a sure way to lose the war against the villains.

            Short-term AG, and other teams may value other heroes safety over safety of civilians simply because losing heroes now can lead to more crime, and very likely more civilian losses in the future. There’s also a question of solidarity between heroes – one of those few things that tended to be their advantage over villains. On top of it there is the fact that team Breakthrough (Kenzie and Victoria in particular) are key linchpins keeping the network together. Heroes can’t afford to lose them at the moment, so they are likely to react if it looks like this team is in trouble. Finally as clumsy about showing it he is, I think Spright may like Victoria, and go after her for personal reasons.

            In conclusion- if other teams’ trust that Breakthrough can handle the situation is weaker than their concern that something could happen to Victoria’s team, many of them are likely to help, even if it means leaving other situations not handled. It is not like the network has a formal command structure to stop them, and some teams (including AG) may still have their doubts about the ability of Victoria’s misfits to handle a serious emergency themselves. Especially since Breakthrough is under strength at the moment.

            Victoria could probably prevent this whole scenario by reporting some of the details about how she handled the situation to the network, but it does not look like she did before Sveta made her put her phone away. Kenzie could also do it if she is on the coms, and saw details of what happened, but we don’t know if this is the case considering that Breakthrough has apparently been handling emergencies almost non-stop for days, and Kenzie is supposed to be resting.

          4. Those are fair points, though then again it still depends on how much information they have- ‘Tinker-altered innocents attacking the Patrol Block HQ’ is still something that might take a while. Can’t just fight off the tinker-altered innocents, you need to wait for them to return to normal and make sure everything’s fine.

          5. I guess, we’ll have to wait and see. Not that I ever said I think AG will show up. I still think it is unlikely, because just how many times they could do the same mistake, before it starts being boring to the reader anyway?

            I only wanted to point out the possibility, the damage they could do if they did, and how it could happen without feeling just like all previous times they did similar things.

          6. Re-lifesigns monitoring, it wouldn’t have worked – the Navigators didn’t exactly die. Suffering the mother of all pains, but perfectly ‘healthy’ aside from that.
            I don’t think the alarms designed for Endbringers fights (where you’re either able to fight or a black spot where you used to be) would report those either.

          7. The Leviathan armbands would have reported ‘Navigators down’, rather than ‘dead’, since they are down and unable to continue fighting. Which is what those armbands were mainly for- to keep track of who was fighting, who needed evacuation, and who would never need anything ever again. And use the knowledge of who was where to keep track of Leviathan, except Leviathan escaped down the storm drains and everyone lost track of him for a bit.

          8. I know, I did write “Slingstone, Nailfarer and Scaffold down” rather than “deceased” in my example above after all. On the other way it is not impossible that the armbands could be fooled in this case, as there probably was no certain life signs like heartbeat to detect anymore. They were fooled during the Leviathan fight in Brockton Bay, when after Armsmaster’s EMP took out Skitter’s armband, she was reported as “deceased” (see chapter 8.7 of Worm for details), so they might be fooled in some other unusual situations, and Navigators’ situation definitely qualified as “unusual”.

  6. “He used his power. A geyser of water that could have carried cars away, aimed at the hole.”

    Byron’s powers seem way stronger than usual.

  7. They could decide to check what’s taking Breakthrough so long, and decide to shoot first, ask questions later as soon as they see the villains.

    As much as it would fit them, I doubt it will happen this time for storytelling reasons. How many times they could make the same mistake before it gets boring? Unless the author wants to give Victoria a pretext to have a really serious chat with them this time, which could lead to it’s own set of problems (besides those AG would obviously create directly by breaking the truce and making it even more difficult to convince anyone to maybe return to playing the Game, not to mention possible casualties at the police station)?

    1. Strange, I could have sworn I remembered to hit the Reply button this time. The comment right above this one was obviously supposed to be a continuation of the my other comment directly above it – the one about AG showing up.

      Sorry everyone for making mess once again.

  8. So when the Wretch unfolded between Victoria’s hand and the dog’s jaws, and the hand stayed between those jaws. Then Victoria managed to put her legs around the dog’s neck, and the Wretch did not push the dog so far away from her, that Victoria was unable to do it. Finally there were no scratches on the floor, walls, ceilings or cell bars at any point, while Victoria moved the dog into the cell.

    Is it only me, or did the forcefield either did not unfold to it’s usual size, and/or the Wretch felt particularly cooperative today?

    1. I had the impression it just couldn’t really hurt these things. I think she actually commented on it somewhere in line with the bullet proofing.

      But on it unfolding to full size; it probably did but she knew that particular part didn’t extend that far. So in her wretch days, maybe that arm was only a bit longer and bigger or more extended from her current arm due to her body being expanded.

      Really, once she knew the wretch couldn’t hurt them she could use it continuously and not care much.

      1. It is not about the dog being bulletproof. It is about trashing the dog around in a way that Victoria would have a problem getting it’s neck between her legs.

        I had very little experience having the Wretch active and a living combatant who wouldn’t be torn to shreds by it. I flipped myself around, arm and Wretch still in its jaws, holding its mouth open enough that it couldn’t muster the strength to close its jaws and break my forcefield, and I wrapped my legs around the dog’s neck.

        It was about as tall at the shoulder as a pony, but it was muscular, and the loose skin that had torn around the expanding muscle made getting any leverage hard, but the placement of the Wretch didn’t obstruct my freedom of movement or my ability to get my legs into place.

        How come that the Wretch ended up in a position that allowed that, even is Victoria had to flip herself around to get into the position first? Either Victoria is getting better at predicting Wretch’s exact behavior, or the Wretch seems more cooperative than usual.

        It is also the fact that since this does not seem to be full-sized prizon I wouldn’t expect the hall leading to the cells to be so wide and tall, that the Wretch couldn’t reach it’s floor, ceiling, or walls at any point. How come the Wretch did not at least scratch at the surroundings while Victoria has been flying with the dog into the cell? Is the hall actually larger than I thought?

        I also found it odd that the Wretch did not attack the door and the doorway to the cell itself at the moment Victoria was putting the dog there, but it looks like th Wretch did do something close to this, and I just somehow missed it:

        The Wretch wasn’t helping, either. Hands and feet gripped and banged against bars and the floor.

        So maybe it is not as cooperative as I thought, and it is just a combination of Victoria getting better at predicting when and how the Wretch will lash out a little better (at least in the first couple of seconds after activating her force field – long enough to put the dog in a headlock), and the hallway leading to the cells being a bit wider and taller than I thought.

        Come to think of it, it seems like the Wretch is always or almost always taking a second or two after being summoned to start trashing around (possibly right after it extends to it’s full size, possibly even a second after that), and the accidents like the one with that man whose arm Victoria has broken in chapter 10.13 happen when Victoria overestimates the time it takes.

        1. Scary thought. Victoria has three heads. Did she have three brains? Like Siamese triplets? Could it be that the wretch is actually controlled by one or both of them and they reside in something similar to Capricorn’s twin back seat but without the view?

          So a wretch taken out after a period of inactivity might be caught off guard, but bring it out again quickly after and it might react quicker once it’s had a taste of what’s going on.

          1. Or it is simply unable to move before it’s fully formed, and it just takes so long to happen.

            As for the extra brains, I’m sure her Shard also counts as one, so there is probably no need to consider extra heads. They probably didn’t have minds of their own (or at least nothing resembling human minds), or they could do nothing to move her body with any sort of purpose or direction, considering that Victoria didn’t seem to display anything like alien hand syndrome while she was in the asylum.

            It would be strange if those heads started moving the Wretch now, especially considering that the current Wretch is just a Shard-made construct now. Of course it is not entirely impossible that the Shard is emulating those hypothetical minds right now, and giving those emulations control over the Wretch, but unless there is some way to test if that is the case, Ockham’s razor suggests it is probably too complicated to consider.

          2. And on the topic of theories that the razor would tell us to cut, what if it is an imprint of Victoria’s own mind in the Shard that moves the Wretch? If my theory about Ciara’s shadows, and the mechanism of the clones like Ashley or Chris inherit at least some of their memories from their originals is correct, then every Shard creates an imperfect copy of their parahuman. What if Victoria’s copy is what is moving the Wretch?

          3. The question is – can all of the Shards use the data they gathered to emulate the minds of their parahumans without a physical human brain, or is it something only select few (or only Ciara’s) shard can do?

    2. As I picture it in my mind, a fully-developped Wretch has Vicky somewhere inside it, but not always at the same distance from its surface. She can move inside it and somewhat move it like a small hand inside an oversized, 12-fingered glove.

      It never changed behaviour in that regard, just went from a very close fit (few pounds gained and lost here or there) where all her movements caused it to move along (benefitting from the strength boost it provides), to the current mess where she drags the majority of her randomly flailing wretchlimbs around her.

      So in this case she kept her arm in the middle of the wretch-arm ‘sleeve’, and pushed her legs against the exterior to wrap them around the dog’s neck.

      1. Could be. Still I would imagine Wretch trying to throw the dog around at least a bit, making Victoria’s attempt to grab it’s neck more difficult than it was. On the other hand Victoria did call the dog “denser“, without telling how much denser, so maybe it was just too heavy to be moved by Wretch’s trashing? Though if that was the case, how would Victoria’s forcefield manage to lift the dog to the point where it only barely touched the ground with it’s rear legs?

        1. Victoria has stated in the past that she can bench press a concrete mixer truck. I dont think lifting a pony sized dog would be an issue for her strength wise.

          1. Except that the dog is also supposed to be “denser”, which could indicate it has a larger mass than its size would suggest. The problem is – how much larger if on one hand Victoria can lift it, and on the other hand Wretch’s random trashing does not seem to move it to the point Victoria would have trouble keeping the dog where she wants it.

  9. I love the bit at the end about the city being on fire and a ton of situations happening everywhere. Kind of like the chapter being one huge lead up and the pay off is something along the lines of “and that’s just one of the things that have gone wrong.”

    I love it when stories do that.

  10. By the way making a deal with the villains seems like just one more of those morally ambiguous decisions Victoria seems to be so fond of lately. I wonder if there will be major unforeseen consequences of going down that route (and of what kind).

    1. Victoria just can’t catch a break. She fights villains and commenters complain that she’s escalating. She deescalates, and commenters complain that she’s being morally ambiguous.

      I don’t see what was ambiguous about this. Should Breakthrough have caused even more property damage and sustained injuries in a futile attempt to keep Crest and Etna secured? Should they have executed Crest and Etna to keep them from getting free? Because those are the only other ways I see this situation going. The resolution they brokered is pretty good — not only did they avoid fighting, they also deprived the villains of $20k, secured $20k for the good guys, got those villains to stand down for a day during a time the city really needs it, and got the injured victims medical attention without having to burden the already strained hospitals. In theory, anyway. This could still go sideways.

      1. I know that what Victoria did doesn’t look bad, considering the situation and the knowledge she had at the moment. What I’m affraid of is that not everyone in the multiverse (and especially in megalopolis) will view it that way. Some heroes may lose their trust in her for example. Some villains may see it as a sign of weakness. They may think she may cave to more such demands in the future.

        Not to mention that we don’t know what Bitter Pill’s plan for Etna and Crested is. What if they will do something so bad that everyone will curse Victoria for not fighting until the end?

    2. I’ve been waiting for Breakthrough to at least debate going villain since we first met them, and Victoria facing that kind of change in worldview, whether or not they actually went through with it, would fit in with a) her own personal character development and b) her and Tattletale reconciling. Regarding consequences, they could go villain in a relatively “good”, constructive way…or they could collectively meltdown in a way that confirms all of Jessica Yamada’s worst fears.

  11. Finally caught up to date on the parahumans storyline here (hoping to come back to Pact and Twig). I started Worm some time around Oct31ish, so reading + working + other “life” stuff it’s taken me about 49 days, prrrrobably averaging at least 2 hours of reading / day.

    As someone who’s just caught up, I might have to go dig through the fan sites to see if we ever found out what the Simurgh gunbaby Teacher+Lung destroyed was about, but other than that, all the questions I have as a reader are ones I’m content to wait and see on.

    Re: current stuff+rhetorical questions, Why does someone with a name like /Birdbrain/ seem like the most sane, competent one of these not-Undersiders?

    1. Welcome to the comments section. I hope you will enjoy your stay here.

      Unless I missed someone it looks like you may (and hopefully will) be taking over my position as the latest regular poster here. I caught up with the story and started posting at some point in October, and I also still need to finish reading Pact, and read Twig.

      As for the Simurgh’s baby, I think nothing has been confirmed yet as far as I’m aware, and there are plenty of theories about it. One of the most popular ones (it even got mentioned in the Worm Wiki in the Simurgh’s entry) is that the baby was a clone of Eidolon.

      1. Thanks, I plan to. There’s some fairly observant people here 🙂

        The Simurgh “borrows” nearby powers, if I recall correctly. WB’s mentioned a certain hero tinker (maybe with the Shepards? On portal duty?) with a similar device a few times now, I think. Maybe a potential interlude for later.

    2. Simurgh baby was almost certainly a clone of Eidolon, considering that they were both described as having large ears and a heavy brow.

      1. Oh, that does seem indicative. Makes sense too. Maybe that’s why the bigshot Wardens are steering clear of The City. If the Simurgh goes after eidolon via Ciara/Valkyrie there, with only the one city to house the entire Gimel population (and a high density of capes), the Simurgh induced-fallout would be catastrophic, especially if she succeeded in bringing Eidolon (source of Endbringers) back to life somehow.

        On the other hand, niceSimurgh is one of my favorite characters. I’m kind of hoping it’s not so cut-and-dried as bringing Eidolon back.

        1. I don’t think that the megalopolis is a home to the entire Gimel population. It may be big, probably the last population center on the planet, but there are more. I can’t remember where it was said exactly, but I think that there was a girl in the hospital Victoria visited after Fume Hood was shot, who triggered (see chapters 2.2, and 2.3), and ended up in some sort of facility (presumably simmilar to the asylum Victoria ended up in Worm) in Gimel’s Europe. It would suggest that enough people live in Europe to provide services Gimel.US can’t get internally. There is also the fact that there is an airport in the megalopolis that as far as I remember services civilian traffic. Those planes need to fly somewhere, so there need to be other population centers big enough to have their own airports.

          1. If I remember correctly back in Worm Faultline’s Crew created multiple portals to other Earths in various parts of Earth Bet. Some of those portals presumably led to Gimel. I would expect that after Gold Morning people settled in Gimel mostly in close vicinity of those portals. Each of them can have a major city around it. Perhaps not as big as the megalopolis, since Taylor turned it into a hub of portals to multiple Earths in arc 30 of Worm, but cities nevertheless.

          2. I don’t remember anything about an airport. But if there is one, I would expect that it mainly serves as a link to the European city, and the rest of the traffic would be bush planes carrying mail and specialists like doctors out to remote little farming communities, mines, oil wells, and places like that.

          3. Well, Yamada mentioned something, which seems like a parahuman asylum in Europe in chapter 2.5, so there must be someone there:

            I’m referring the ones I can to other therapists. I’m in touch with twelve people who work with parahumans and a few who are breaking into that field. Not a single one of us is working less than seventy hours a week. Some of my patients didn’t need counseling anymore, and I was only helping them to find their equilibrium after Gold Morning. Others are on their way to a new facility in this world’s Europe, which they’ve been anticipating for over a year now. If you were still in the same condition as you were when I first met you, I would be recommending you go there.”

            It also looks that the (presumably) freshly triggered child from the hospital ended up there (chapter 8.7):

            I mused for a second before saying, “I visited Fume Hood at the hospital, Tempera and Crystalclear were there. Later that night, I had Tempera help me with a kid in crisis – she would have told Crystalclear. The kid ended up going to Europe. He should be able to confirm where we’re at, then see what he has to say.”

            Looks like I probably misremembered the thing about the airport a bit. This is what I found in chapter 5.6:

            Stratford station and the surrounding neighborhood were an area of the megalopolis I primarily knew for its airfield. Helicopters were in and out, and as someone who often had to fly past, I had to be mindful of the airspace. I usually flew low or gave it a wider berth, using the highway to the north as my guide.

            which doesn’t sound like a proper airport, and in chapter 8.5:

            “There’s an aircraft runway and helicopter landing pad at Westport Stretch!” I warned.

            An aircraft runway may mean anything from a small international airport (a big one would have multiple runways, but Gimel probably has neither population nor industry for that) to an aeroclub or something.

            Interestingly the word “airport” appears only once in Ward, in interlude 9.x, but that one was obviously about an airport on Bet.

            I still think I remember reading something that I interpreted as a confrontation of long distance flights on Gimel, but unless I can find it, I’ll probably need to take back my statement about any proper airports in megalopolis. The ability to send people to Europe means nothing here. They could use plenty of other ways to do it – from ships, through portals, to capes with long range teleportation powers.

          4. Also Dragon suits don’t need airports, or even runways, and there is nothing that says at least some of them can’t have transatlantic range. The only problem with them is that until recently it probably needed to be kept a secret that there were working ones still out there, as it could likely clue too many people around that Dragon is back.

  12. The in media res scene cuts in Ward are just really not doing it for me. Every other part of this scene I really enjoyed, or rather, would have enjoyed if I’d had some context. But I spent half the chapter trying to catch up and figure out what the hell was going on. And the rushed frenetic feeling that such an introduction gives directly undercuts the whole steady and purposeful vibe that’s so central to Victoria’s character, and which sets Ward apart from Worm, Pact, and Twig. These sudden “what in the world is going on” cuts detract from our ability to understand the scene and, unlike in your previous works, aren’t giving us any compensating benefits via tone-setting because they’re actively undercutting the tone of this story.

    Literally one sentence worth of introduction, “Someone was trying to break a pair of parahumans out of jail”, would have completely changed the chapter. It wouldn’t have taken anything away from the chapter at all, but it would have allowed me to actually enjoy the chapter as I read it. Instead the chapter was two-thirds gone before I actually had my footing enough to visualize / enjoy what was happening, and by then the action was already over and we were dealing with Victoria in full analysis-mode which was just full tonal whiplash.

    Looking back on the chapter I can see *tons* of stuff I would have loved about it. Just *tons*. The way Victoria handled the dog was really cool, the contrast with her existing concern for property damage vs her former self, the way the volunteers were so overwhelmed and scared and were freaking kids was worth a long look, the team working together cohesively was awesome, Sveta experimenting with herself was intriguing, there were a lot of cool moments. But I couldn’t appreciate them *in the moment*. I can only recognize them as good looking back, because at the time I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on.

    Starting in media res is a tool which has to be used with purpose. There was no purpose to it here. It just undercut what would have been an otherwise fantastic chapter.

    1. I actually like this way of scene presentation, at least in moderation (and I don’t think Ward went too far in this regard, at least not for me). As far as recent chapters go I think it worked particularly well in Chris interlude, but I enjoyed it pretty much everywhere, where it happened. Maybe I just like those little puzzles more than you do. It also makes re-reading those parts of text a more interesting than it would otherwise be. There is no way to please everyone, I guess.

      1. Aside from the puzzle aspect, and the fact that it makes a second read a different experience, I also like how making reader guess the meaning of what the text says puts the reader under some tension, he would not feel otherwise. If you think when Wildbow employs this technique, you may find that it is not done randomly. I think he intentionally does it to put the reader in this state of mind when the plot calls for some tension.

        1. So here is your purpose of this technique in this chapter – it is done because the situation is tense from the very beginning. We have powerful, mindless “zombies” trying to break into a building full of panicked patrol block members, who can’t fight back. Both because of theit panic, and because they physically lack the means to do so. It is also a tense situation for the heroes, who need to find a way to hold off the attacks without harming them. Doing what Wildbow did makes the situation tense for the reader, and thus puts him closer to Victoria’s mindset, which later makes it easier to understand why she decided to let villains “win” this engagement, and lets us feel better that even forcing some concessions from the villains required some serious bravery on Victoria’s part.

          1. Also I don’t think Victoria would be all that steady and purposeful in this situation. Remember that she is dealing with awareness that half of her team members are wounded, Chris has turned out to be someone entirely different than the team suspected, and she still needs to find a way to tell them that, there is a villain-hero war going on, she has yet to find out who is behind the attack on the Navigators, or the heroes who investigated that case, and on top of it she probably had very little sleep during last few days.

            I don’t know about you, but if I would be under this kind of stress, I probably wouldn’t analyse, and react to everything around me as calmly as usually.

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