Interlude 12.e

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Seven Years Ago

The interrogation room was concrete, a metal table set against the wall.  A monster was in the corner, perched on a metal folding chair that creaked when she shifted position.

It was all arranged to make the suspect as uncomfortable as possible.  The chair was situated in the corner, and the table had a bar between the legs so the suspect couldn’t turn the chair toward the table or easily put their legs beneath.

Whichever orientation of the chair they chose, they had to sit uncomfortably or twist if they wanted to look at anyone else in the room, and they had to to turn a hundred and eighty degrees if they wanted to look at the mirror set into the wall behind them.

It was to the detectives’ benefit that the suspect was not only made uncomfortable, but that body language was put on full display with no table to block the view.  Every movement of the hands, every adjustment of the feet.

It was a bit of a twist of expectations that they were on the other side of the one-way mirror.  This was the room where the various members of the station normally gathered to watch investigations in progress.  It was tempting to keep looking back, to try to read something into a scene without sound, when the speaker was switched off.  In the other room, a thirty-something woman was talking to three officers.  In this room, two officers and the suspect waited.

‘Suspect’.  Nic had already come to her verdict: Monster.

Nic stood by the door, pretending to be watching that scene.  She took periodic notes.

“We’re having a conversation here, that’s all,” Doug told the suspect, all smiles.

“And I’m Alexandria,” Jen, the young woman at the far end of the room said.  Suspect.  Monster.

“Oh, wow,” Doug said, breathy, excited, playing along and happy to play along.  “That’s amazing!”

Trying to sweep their suspect up into a rhythm.  Nic wouldn’t have gone about it that way.

The response was a sneer.  “I’m not saying anything without a lawyer.  I went to a decent high school, we got an intro to law in tenth grade.  We all saw the video breaking it down.  This.  Nothing I say can support my case, but you’ll twist it around or use pieces of it to screw me over and make me out to be the bad guy.”

“It’s just a conversation, Jen,” Doug said.  “You can leave at any time.  For right now, until things are settled, we think it’s best you’re here and not in the pit.”

The pit.  The floor with all of the desks and phones, where the most informal of interviews were held.

“Of course you do.”

“When you were sitting out there and she passed by you, your stepmom started screaming at you.  None of us want that.  Not at this time of night.  Or, worse, we get a situation where you’re outside waiting for your cab when she comes across you and there’s nobody around to hold her back.”

Jen’s response was a shrug.

“The stepmom.  She’s very emotional,” Doug observed.

Anyone would be.

“It doesn’t help her, acting like that while making accusations,” he said.  The friendly, good looking officer, playing nice.  Jen didn’t bite.

No bite, but she did twist around to look.  The woman in the other room was dabbing at her eyes with a kleenex.

“Oh god,” the monster said.

“Right?” Doug asked, smiling.

Their suspect responded to the smile by retreating, arms folding, settling into the chair.  Reminding herself she was talking to the enemy.

Doug pressed, “Look, she won’t be much longer.  A lot of the people here, we were up at six this morning, got our coffees, breakfast sandwiches, ate our oatmeal, ran through our routines.  And we’ve been up for fifteen hours.  We aren’t interested in anything that’s going to take hours.  We want this done and out of the way.  We’ll wrap up the interview with the stepmom, send her home, then we’ll let you go.  Then we get back to you in a few days to let you know where things stand.”

That wasn’t really how it worked.  Some started late and worked late.  But it made for a good story.

Jen, the monster in the chair, turned and looked up at Nic, who was pretending to watch ‘the stepmom’.

“How long have you had to put up with that?” Doug asked.

“I won’t answer any questions until I have my lawyer.”

“I’m trying to kill time, that’s all.  Trust me, a guy who’s been working for fifteen hours is not the guy who would be interrogating you.  We already got your statement.”

His finger tapped the paper.

“I’m not saying anything,” Jen said.

Tenth grade law class or no, ‘Jen’ had yet to actually ask for a lawyer.  She’d stated she wouldn’t answer questions without one, but it was a distinction that mattered.

Nic watched the ongoing back and forth.  Frustrated, she stood up straight, no longer standing with her back to the doorframe.  “Boss just waved me down.  Back in a sec, D.”

“You need me to take notes or anything?” Doug asked.

“Keep an eye on the stepmom.  Look for shiftiness, bullshit.”

“Any first thoughts?”

“Munchausens?”

Doug gave her an affirmative grunt.

Even though it was for good ends, the implications sat uneasy with her.  ‘The stepmom’, the implications that the woman in the other room was in the wrong.  The focus on that woman, while Jen was situated in that uncomfortable metal chair, feeling the pressure without any active pressure being applied.

The heel of her hand rubbed against the corner of her jaw.  That uneasiness and the tension of the long day were wearing on her.  She’d been gritting her teeth and now her jaw hurt, and it would hurt into tomorrow morning, if past experience was any indication.

She hadn’t been hailed or waved down.  Her destination was the locker room.  She had some evidence baggies inside a larger resealable baggie in her coat pocket.  She pulled them out, setting them down on the small shelf.

The pills she put into the first bag were her own pills, as was the pill bottle- she’d peeled away the label a long time ago.  The stepmom had said something about the kid being on medication.  She felt it was important, so she would use that.

Flipping open her phone, she brought up images she’d snapped while visiting the kid’s house.  Jen’s half brother.  Pages of lined paper with the chicken-scratch writing running through the lines, the words written large and along the longest edge of the papers.  It had caught her attention when she’d first seen it.  A little puzzle she’d answered later in the night, when Jen had talked about disabilities.

Owen had a syndrome, the full name was in her notes, but in addition to the obvious facial and neck issues evident in his photographs, his fingers were shorter, the joints at the base of each finger malformed and gathered together.  He had similar issues with wrist and elbow.  Writing was hard, so he wrote in a way that let him use more of the page.

She copied out his unique handwriting, slowly at first, then with more confidence.  As she wrote more, she could let herself be sloppier, always with a mind for the limitations of his hand and arm.

The pages went into another bag.  Sealed away, the contents recognizable but partially obscured by the label pre-printed onto the bag’s exterior.

She had other files still in her locker.  Take-home work.  She picked through them and she found what she could use.  Fingerprints from another case.  A kid that had been setting fires.  Paperwork from another case.  All gathered up into an otherwise nondescript file folder.

With her phone, fingers clicking on the number keys, she flicked through to find more pictures she’d taken while visiting the family home.  She found one she’d taken of Jen.  A family photo, thirteen year old Owen smiling as best as he could with his facial deformation, dressed smart in a nice shirt and sweater.  Owen’s mother and father.  And Jen, standing with a measurable distance between herself and Owen.

She couldn’t do it anymore.  She couldn’t stand in that room, apply that slow and steady pressure, wait for the interview with Mrs. Bowers to finish, have the pow-wow, work out the plan of attack, and then turn her full focus onto Jen Bowers.  Not when Jen would get defensive, insist on her lawyer in a way they had to oblige, and tie up the process.  She knew how it would go, what the lawyer would say.  What the boss would say.

Her own jaw would break from clenching her teeth before Jen broke.  She had to do something.

She had to plug her phone into the printer to send the picture.  Grainy and low-res, but that didn’t matter.

Three swipes of the box-cutter knife separated Jen’s black and white image from the rest.  It went into the file, tucked beneath someone else’s fingerprints.

She was on her way back when the chief stopped her, one hand at her shoulder.  She showed him what she had, and she watched as the older, better detective picked through her ‘evidence’.  A pen-tip ran along the case number printed with the fingerprints.  The pen turned around and the butt-end was used to lift up pages, then to prod the evidence bag with the pills.

He looked at her, quizzical.  She shrugged.

He moved on.  He knew it was all charade.  His role had changed now, as he assessed whether any of it was poorly done or oddly specific enough to give away that charade.

He seemed amused as he gave her the silent go-ahead.

Three more steps took her into the room where Doug was commenting aloud on the stepmother’s mannerisms.  Jen had twisted around in an uncomfortable way to look.

“She keeps adjusting her wedding ring.  I read that as a sign of infidelity.  Is it a sign of infidelity, Jen?”

“No comment,” Jen said, staring through the one-way mirror.  Still trying not to engage.

Jen looked, too, as Nic put the file down, then the bottle, and then the forged notes in Owen’s handwriting.

The file and papers weren’t on the table for two seconds before they were picked up by Doug.

Doug’s smile dropped off his face.  Where he had been pleasant, positive, upbeat, he was now cold.  It was an act, of course, but it seemed to shake Jen some.

There was no communication.  No words, as he read through what she’d written.  On the front, in ‘Owen’s’ words, she’d expressed grief and anger, frustration and hopelessness.  On the backside, in the same crude handwriting, she’d outlined how everything she’d put in front of him was bullshit.

He got up and he left the room, taking the file with him.

Let her believe we got her.  A note with telling information.  Or…

Nic looked at the pill bottle.  Pills for anemia, which she’d barely touched.  So long as she ate on the days she had more to drink, she didn’t need them.  In this ruse of hers, she was making a gamble, an educated guess.

Owen, a physically and mentally disabled boy who was struggling through school, friendless and frustrated, had been on more medications than Nic had been able to count.

Nic was pretty sure she knew Jen’s type.  A cousin who had been enchanted by her kitten, but when that kitten had grown up to be a cat, had emptied the food bowl into the trash or tainted the food, knowing the hungry animal would eat it.  She’d seen it in certain parents and their kids.  In kids with dependent parents.

It made sense that Jen would tamper.  Switch the contents of one bottle for another, or empty a bottle and replace its contents with something innocuous.  Hastening a disabled boy on his way as Nic’s cousin had tried to do to the cat, before being confronted.  As parents who no longer wanted to be parents sometimes did.  As children who no longer wanted to struggle to care for their parents sometimes did.

And if Jen hadn’t tampered, then they were simply pills.  They wouldn’t mean anything.

But Nic could see Jen fidget.  Her eyes didn’t miss a detail.  Her ears didn’t miss the squeak of the chair, or how Jen seemed more bothered by that squeak in particular.

She could have pressed, applied even more pressure, and it would have worked.  But if she’d pressed, she might have screamed, or shouted, or said something regrettable.  She didn’t trust herself.

Silence is damning.  Silence can tell just as much.

Long seconds passed, and then twenty year old Jen leaned forward, elbows on knees, head bowed.

That was it.  The moment every interrogation was aiming for.  The defeat, almost always the same decline of the head and slump forward, if she looked for it.

“He’s not an angel or anything, just because he’s disabled,” Jen said.  “He-”

Nic left the room, gathering up the things.  Because she didn’t trust herself, in small part.  She kicked the stop and let the door start to swing closed.  Let Jen think that her words wouldn’t matter.

A minute and a half passed.  Long enough for Jen to consider how fucked she was.  Not long enough for her to work out any answers.  Doug re-entered.

“The good cop returns,” Jen could be heard, and there was a bitterness in her voice.

“Detective, not cop,” Doug said, and there was no warmth in his voice.  He could sound like a real bastard when he wanted to.

We’re all good cops, anyway, Nic thought to herself.

Why?” Doug asked.  “Why do this?”

In the twenty-year-old monster’s defeat, her earlier composure and certainty about her way forward were shaken.  She didn’t second-guess things or think about what she’d learned in law class.

“I didn’t tell him to do anything he wasn’t already thinking about doing.  He doesn’t have that long to live, anyway.  He comes to me, saying he’s miserable, he’s sore, he’s sick of the medication, he wants to end it all, and I’m supposed to say no?  Fuck me, if he was a dog and he was that bad off then we would have put him down a long time ago.”

He’s not a dog, he’s a kid.

Doug didn’t say anything.  Nic, standing in the hallway, near the door, was silent, teeth clenched.

A monster had told a little boy to kill himself, and he’d tried.  Now he was in more pain than ever.  And for all that the classes and the workshops on powers and crisis points hammered in all of the things to look out for, it never came.  Killers and thugs and abusers, victims and victimizers.  Hundreds like Owen.  Maybe even hundreds a year.

No magic answers or anything like that.  Just… concrete rooms and human psychology.  Looks of defeat that were nowhere near enough.

Restless, angry, Nic paced down the hall.  Her boss was there, and he raised his eyebrows.

In answer, she gave him a nod.  It had worked.

At her locker, she helped herself to a drink, and she leaned her forehead against the top shelf of the locker where some loose evidence baggies still rested.  The drink burned in her mouth and throat, and frustrated thoughts burned in her head.

It was nine.  Late enough that dinner was almost certainly out of the question.  Not so late that failing to call and see if dinner was in order would be allowed.

She had a message.  She put in the three-digit code, and held phone to ear.  Was Lee mad?

“Mommee!  I had my bath and we had waffles with chocolate chips and strawberries for dessert!  Love you miss you going to bed now!  Daddy’s going to read me a book!”

Lee could be heard in the background.  “Bye!”

“Bye!” Ever said, loud enough that Nic winced.  The wince became a smile.  Still loud, Ever ordered her, “Get all the bad guys!”

All the bad guys.

The message ended.  Nic didn’t lower the phone, even as the automated voice outlined the options available for how the message could be replayed, saved, or deleted.

There was no beating the bad guys.  There was no defeating them.  A monster had encouraged a little boy to kill himself and he’d tried.  Now he hurt more than ever.  What was she supposed to do in the face of that?

Earlier in the evening

Love Lost was still, her jaw clenched, as she faced Cradle.  Cradle was distracted, barely aware of her as he sorted through her traps.

Her eyes dropped to the table.  These traps would trigger on proximity, arm, and then produce a wavelength that arced between them, forming a carpet around an area.  The effect utilized some of her emotion power.  Agitation, impulse.

“You’re getting good use out of the tinker power,” Cradle observed.

She nodded.

“The claw-lash?”

She shook her head.  The lash part worked, though the left one was being temperamental.  But the power that was supposed to channel through that-

She’d hesitated, procrastinated.  Traps instead.  The swapping rig for her arm.

“Another night then,” he said.

She didn’t respond.  Instead, she focused on getting her things together.

He rolled his shoulders, mechanical hands going to gingerly touch each before he reached out to the window of her workshop.  As he touched it, the window became a screen, just as clear and distinct as any computer.  He dragged metal fingertip against glass, moving the windows on the screen.

March’s schedule and timing.

There were windows with notes on surveillance, with added details from the mercenaries they’d turned to their side, the outreach to those mercenaries timed to coincide with Tattletale’s downtime.  Time she wasn’t as active with her power.

It made sense.  Everyone had a routine, even erratic types like Tattletale.  She lived on information and she got most of that information in the early morning and late afternoon.  After a crisis arose, a new enemy or headache, she was slower to move and recover.

Which meant paying attention.  It meant exerting pressure.

A lot of things had changed over the years, but those things were constant.  Any threat could be defeated with a combination of the two.  If the stories she’d heard were right, the man who’d ended the world had been defeated that way.

“No complaints?” Cradle asked.

She had some, but in her self-imposed silence, words had to be chosen carefully, and she couldn’t bring herself to utter the complaint.  To say yes, that she had an issue.

The plan was sound.  They had multiple thinkers on their side.  Their enemy was weak.

Her claw-tips touched the window, and when she pulled them away, a copy of the window came with them, projected into the air.  Not as dense or clear an image, but it was fine to see.

She dragged claws through air and the claws transmitted tactile feedback, a slight drag, a digital buzz.  She rotated through to other pages.

To Precipice.  To artist renditions of the face of the boy they’d seen in the cells.  He would die soon.  Seir, in secure custody because of his teleporter power, they would get him and he would die.

…Christine and Elijah Mathers.  She paused, looking at the faces.

“Soon,” Cradle said.  “Once we’re secured here.”

A swipe of the claw shredded the digital window.  In the doing, she briefly shifted from the notes for their long-term plans to the plans already enacted.  She saw the Navigators.  She looked away.

Had to be done.  If anything, they could’ve, should’ve done more.  They hadn’t expected Advance Guard to be as capable as they were.  The Shepherds had rebuffed the initial attack.

“I should go.  She has notes on the times I should leave by, to get where I need to be.  Good luck in your fights,” Cradle told her.

She gave him a single nod.

“Can I grab one?” he asked, indicating the agitation traps.

She held up two fingers.

“Two.  They’re a pair.”

She nodded.  At least.

“Thank you.  If I don’t talk to you before then, I’ll see you in the room,” he said.

She nodded, not looking at him or the screens anymore.  The tinkering- she had time to make some last-minute adjustments.  Clawed hands rested on the table as she leaned over her work.

Cradle stepped downstairs.  She could hear him giving orders to his mercenaries.  Easier people to handle, in some ways.  Tougher in others.

When alone, she removed her mask from her lower face.

Teeth grit together with a sound that someone standing next to her would have heard.  The smallest of sounds at her throat and mouth were deafening to her.

When she couldn’t express herself, it was easier.  Mask off, even the smallest thing felt like a crack in ice, an essential part of a water-retaining dam falling loose.

A fine screwdriver and a micromagnet adjusted the internal mechanisms of the mask.

A creak of her breath sounded like a whimper.

A slip of the screwdriver made it strike hard against the internal surface of the mask, metal against kevlar fiber.  She was put in mind of the tables and chairs in the mall, all folded up, strapped together, and leaned against the wall.

She saw, as clear as day, Ever’s face striking the edge of the table.  Clawed fingers dug into her work table, dragging inch-long divots.  The memory came with pain, as sure as if she’d been stabbed- not through the heart, but the base of the throat, the point where the windpipe branched to transmit air to each lung.  It choked her.

She hurt enough in the moment that she felt like she could die.  There was only regret, and that regret killed her a little more every time she faced it.   She leaned forward, forearms resting against the worktable, clawed fingers pointing in, touching flesh.

Clawed hands stretched out, fingers splayed out as far as they could go.

A set hand motion, like a gesture of a magician in one of Ever’s books.  Except they weren’t called magicians.  She’d tried to read the books since, but- it hurt too much.

Middle and ring finger extended, a sweeping, circular motion, sharp, fierce, focused.

Then her hand moved, claws turned away.  She moved gently, back of her hand reaching out-

Tactile feedback.  Hair.  Skin.

She- stupid to do this when her mask was off.  Sounds escaped her throat, touched by her power.  She usually had rules about when she allowed herself this- this illusion.

Phantom hands touched her arm, near where the rigging ran along the length of it.  They squeezed it.

The wizards and whatevers in your stories made hard choices, right?  They worked with monsters for something more important.  To vanquish greater evils.  To save worlds.

A motion of her hand dismissed the apparition.

Channel injector, wave adjuster, screwdriver.  She picked up what she needed.

She adjusted the components of the mask, then put it on.  It wasn’t anything as complex as a new setting- only ensuring that everything kept working when she made it more comfortable to wear.  New components made for a tight fit, and it was already sufficiently tight enough that she couldn’t open her mouth a fraction, her voice silenced.

The air filtered through the mask, and more feedback beamed into her eye indicated that the air quality was good.  In a pinch she’d have the ability to breathe for at least two minutes before the filters gave out.  She made sure to bring more, slipping them into her belt.

But the new components- she adjusted the dial at the side, claw-tips finding niche grooves, rotating.  In her reflection she saw the mask’s external change.  Roar, snarl, mouth clamped shut, teeth meshed.  With each one, she felt out with her emotion power- felt the people downstairs.

Anger and hostility?  Not much, all considered, but it was crystal clear in her mind’s eye where it existed.  Tension?  More than a little, and very clear, like a thrum of a guitar string.  Overall?  The setting with teeth meshed was more focused on range than a specific flavor of emotion.  It worked just fine.

The sub-settings to focus that range in a cone or a line in front of her, with corresponding increases of range as she widened her blind spot were all operational.

It would do.

Carefully, given the machinery around her arms and hands, she wiped away moisture from her eye.  She choked back the emotion that settled at the branch in her windpipe.  She stood straighter.  The sensation of the apparition clung to her, warmed her.

Everything in order.

She made her way down the stairs, claws clicking on the wood.

“It’s not your circus, it’s not your monkeys.”

Sidepiece’s voice.

“It’s kind of my monkeys.”  Colt.  “I’m here, right?  I’m a part of this.”

“Nah.  Because you can leave.”

“No.  Not really.”

“Yes really, you loser.  Don’t let someone else’s shit become your shit.  They gotta do what they gotta do.  You gotta do what you gotta do.  I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.”

“Aren’t you- you’re helping though.”

“I’m doing what I gotta do.  And what I gotta do is Disjoint, every morning and every night if I can help it, I gotta make money, I gotta keep my ghoulish figure, and I gotta work for the coolest, fiercest gal this side of the end of the world.  That’s me.  What’s you?”

“I don’t know what I am.  I’m staying away from home, being independent.”

“Nah, bullcock-and-shit.  You’re not independent.  You’re the furthest thing from independent.  And staying away from home isn’t what you are, my big-haired loser friend.  Staying away from home is what you aren’t.”

Silence.

Silence was ever damning, whether it was damning others or damning oneself.

“Anyone with powers has horrible shit they’re wrestling with, unless they’re one of the lucky ones who got the good powers for being math superstars or going to mars or some bullcock-and-shit like that, you get me?  And we deal with it.  If we’re really fucking lucky, then we’re like Disjoint and me, and we find someone really boneable who also helps us through our horrible shit.  Or we’re pretty and classy as fuck and we get a bunch of underlings willing to help us, like our boss.  But mostly we deal with our own horrible shit ourselves.”

“What if you can’t?”

“Then we don’t.  Most don’t.”

“What if… a bit more help makes the difference?”

“What if it doesn’t?  Then whoever tried to give that help gets fucked over and things stay bad.”

“But…”

“But,” Sidepiece said, and the word was a condemnation.  “Come on.  Fuck off.”

“But- sometimes when you’re dealing with your shit and you’re dealing with it alone, you lose…”

Colt’s voice faltered.

“Perspective?” Disjoint offered.

“What if you need someone outside of it to point you in the right direction?  A second opinion?”

“If you think you are in a position to give second opinions or directions to someone as badass as Love Lost, then I have a totally harmless bit of uterus to sell you, uterine lining included.  Harmless!”

“Please put that away.”

At the base of the stairs, Nailbiter passed by, glanced up, and saw Love Lost.

Nailbiter was…

Love Lost floundered in her efforts to put a description to the woman.  Scary, yes.  Dangerous, yes.  She wanted to say Nailbiter was good even though she didn’t know why, but she knew that was a lie.  Enough of a lie that amending the statement to ‘good at her role’ felt false, because it had ‘good’ in it.  Reliable?  Too minor.

Important.  Nailbiter was important, because Nailbiter was a reminder of what Love Lost had to be careful of.  The line between villainy for a reason and degeneracy was a fine one.  Nailbiter was effective, strong, focused,  and Nailbiter was degenerate.  It was important to keep in mind that a series of the wrong decisions or mistakes could put her where Nailbiter stood now.  The reasons lost.

It was easier every day.  Love Lost didn’t enjoy this war, and the damage she did or condoned along the way was wearing on her soul.  Lately it felt worse.  Like there was less of her intact.

They were all important, really.  She had spent so long working on the side of the law, and these people who worked under her now were exemplars of the different types of people she had fought to put away.  She understood them.  She could see everything that made them who they were.  The fact that they could love.  That they had priorities and dreams.  That they enjoyed certain foods or searched the internet to keep tabs on family they no longer spoke to.

With that in mind, when she’d done what she needed to, she would ensure they were killed or gone.

And Colt, stupid, immature, quick-to-anger Colt… who was absolutely nothing like Ever, and was perhaps the only younger person Love Lost could tolerate in her company and in that role for that very reason?  A girl Love Lost couldn’t decide was adult or child?

“Really, please, put that away!” Colt said.  “Please!  Uncle!”

“You’re dripping on the couch!” Disjoint shouted.

“Oh fuck!”  Sidepiece shouted, louder.

She really didn’t want to kill Colt as she killed the others.

Something in that look was communicated to Nailbiter, who remained at the base of the stairs.

Nailbiter, who understood her because they were very similar people at different points in their journeys, gave her the slightest nod.

Seven Years Ago

Nic tapped her shot glass against the counter.

“Keys,” Shelly the barkeep said.  A tattooed woman with a streak of gray hair despite the fact that she looked thirty at the oldest.

“Don’t infantilize me,” Nic said.

“Keys, Nicole.  If you want your refill.”

She took out her keys, slapping them onto the counter.  A carabiner separated her car keys from the rest.

“Making my job easier, huh?” Shelly asked, disconnecting the carabiner.  She put the car key beneath the bar counter, before returning the house and locker keys.

“I try,” Nic said, arms folded on the counter, chin resting on her arms.  She watched the drink get poured out.

“I’m going to call you a cab in a minute.  Let’s get you home to that gorgeous husband and that little girl you’re so proud of.”

“She’s asleep already.  She’s usually asleep by the time I get home.  I feel guilty when I wake her and I feel guilty when I don’t.”

“If it’s an unwinnable situation, don’t get down on yourself for losing.”

“You’ve said that before,” Nic said, before deciding she’d stared enough at the contents of the shot glass.  She imbibed.  Shelly was giving her the cheaper liquor now that it was later in the evening.

“You guys deal with a lot of lose-lose situations, hon.  But if you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t think this is a win.”

“I don’t want to bring it home to her,” Nic said.  “The anger, the ugliness.”

“This doesn’t fix that.”

“You know what haunts me?” Nic asked.  Her voice was a whisper.  Her chin continued to rest on her arms, which were folded on the bar.  “It’s not the rapists.  It’s not the human traffickers or the look in the eyes of the victims.  That gets to me, but it doesn’t haunt.  I can move forward.”

Shelly leaned closer to hear, because the words were quiet and the people at the far end of the bar were loud.

“Four times, I’ve cried in front of her.  Ugly cries.  Sober.  I… hold it together all day and then the moment she toddles over to me and gives me a hug, I think about how I don’t want her to deal with anything remotely close to any of the stuff I see, and I break.  Three times I cried so hard I scared her.”

“You said four and then three.”

Nic looked up at Shelly, blinking tears out of her eyes, then blinking fiercer.  She whispered, “The fourth time she was used to it.

Shelly handed her a napkin, and Nic dabbed at her eyes.  She saw the approach of the boys, Doug and Maz, and put the napkin away.

“You can always quit, or change to something else.”

Woah!” Maz cut in.  “Woah, Shelly.  Those are fighting words!  You can’t tend the bar the precinct goes to, then sneak around our backs and try to scare away one of our best!”

Shelly held her hands up in surrender, but she gave Nic a look.

“Our best,” Doug said.  “Not one of our best.  Not one of the boys, she’s our boy!

“When you’re drunk you get sloppy sentimental, Dougie,” Nic said.

“You’re worth it.  You get ’em all.  You- you get ’em.”

“I don’t get ’em all,” Nic replied.  “I wish I got ’em all.”

“I mean you get how they tick.  What they want.  The tells.  That thing earlier tonight, you brought the evidence bag in with the medicine bottle?”

Nic bobbed her head in a nod.  The world wobbled up and down in a mostly pleasant way.

“You knew she’d done something to his meds.”

“Seemed like the type.”

“Shel, give our Nic another shot?  A celebratory one.”

“I just gave her her last.  I’m calling a cab to send her home.”

“One more.  One more, come on!”

Shelly paused, then looked at Nic.  Nic nodded.

“I’m calling the cab.  Just in case that little redheaded girl is lying awake at night, worried her mom’s hurt.”

“Too young to know it’s a thing to worry about,” Nic muttered.  “Small mercies.”

“Perk up, Nic,” Doug said.  “At the risk of overinflating your ego, I have to remind you that today was a damn good day.  I will use the time it takes the taxi to arrive to extol your virtues.”

Nic shook her head.  “Don’t.”

“If you’re thinking about quitting, then I think it’s my obligation,” Doug said, barely getting ‘obligation’ out.

Nic felt the warmth of the bar, heard the noises, loud and muttered, the war stories, the camaraderie, the boasting and jostling, her partner’s good cheer.  She could smell the cigarette smoke that wafted in whenever the door to the kitchen or the front door of the bar opened.  The smell of the alcohol.

And, as shitty as the bad got, she could feel good about the successes.  About being appreciated.  Doug’s praise felt genuine.  It was a hell of a thing, to get to the point where people would sing someone’s praises and others wouldn’t immediately cut them down.  Especially, she admitted, as a woman.

It felt good.

“I’m not quitting,” she said, absorbing it all.  “No quit, don’t worry.”

Time was lubricated enough that the cab’s arrival surprised her with how early it seemed.  The trip home equally lubricated, massaged by the hum of the cab’s engine, the whir of heaters and the feel of wheel on pavement.

Home.  The cab waited- Shelly had given them instructions, maybe, or they knew the routine.  It was usually one or the other.  She reached the front door and put key to lock, letting herself in.  Only a few of the lights were on, giving her a dim path to bathroom and bedroom.

Bathroom first, because she had to go enough that the resulting stream threatened to penetrate the material of the toilet bowl.  She washed her face and cleaned up.

Then she looked in on Ever.  An angel in sleep, arm in a lethal sleeper hold around a unicorn’s neck.

Then bed.  She kicked and shrugged off her clothes.  Lee watched her at first, then looked away.  She slithered under the covers, finding the space beneath warmed by Lee’s presence, but as she drew near to him, he pulled away, turned his back to her.  Cold air found its way into the gap between them.

Her hand pushed the blankets down into the gap.  The good feelings from earlier in the night had evaporated.

Lose-lose.

The silence lingered in the bedroom, damning.

Earlier

Silence and a void so empty that even distant starlight barely touched it.  Fragments and facets had only themselves to reveal.

Love Lost’s mask communicated the intensity of emotion to her before her own senses recovered.  The black-haired boy, Romeo.  He was fast and he was intense, eyes wide as he lunged in.

Her claws intercepted the blade, and it slid between the two claws, which redirected the thrust to a point over her shoulder.

She was barely aware of things as she came back from that darkness- that space that was escaping her memory, but she’d been in enough dangerous situations, enough fights.  Instinct prevailed.  He tried to pull the blade away, and a shift of her hand trapped the blade between two edges.  She kicked, the claws on her foot raking for his midsection, and he drew back.

He’d recovered his balance, not just in the physical sense, and when he came at her again, it was with his power roaring.  She felt it wash over her, and it was so familiar as to be ordinary.  Pain and rage, struggling within her, trying to find an angle to push or twist at her to drive her forward.

She retaliated, swiping with claw, throwing the sword he’d let go of aside, then kicking, first with one claw, then the other, a figure skater on ice.  She turned, using the length of her body to hide the claw-lash as she extended it to its length, whipping it-

He kicked the end of it, intercepting.

So capable, and he was just thirteen years old.  She’d had to draw the line somewhere, about what was acceptable.  She’d settled on Ever’s age, at the time Ever had passed.  Too many parahumans were young, and both Breakthrough and the Undersiders were willing to employ the young.

Swansong used her power, launching herself into the air.  Arms were spread, one leg half-bent, and residual wisps of her power traced from her fingers.

Disjoint caught her, hauling on one arm, so feet were no longer beneath her.  Swansong had to fire another blast to reorient herself, rather than to go on the offensive.  Her landing was still hard.

Love Lost lashed out, whipping for Swansong.  She saw a shift in expression, a tell, and immediately changed course.  The whip cracked twice in quick succession, and the defensive blast that Swansong fired didn’t reach the length of the weapon.

The gun went off.

Imp collapsed, off to the side.

Colt.  Stupid girl.  What was she doing?

“Imp!” the littlest girl present screamed.  She wheeled on Colt.  “I’ll end you!”

Colt turned the gun on the girl.

Love Lost lashed out, cracking the blade.  Colt flinched, no longer aiming at the littlest girl.

“Fuck.  Fuck!” Imp gasped.  “Oh no.”

Swansong lunged, power flaring.  Others were closing in-

And Colt erupted into a nimbus of light.

It was weird, perhaps, that Love Lost had so often ruminated on the power seminars that she had been given back at the station, in a past lifetime, in another world.  She’d hoped, ironically, that the victims she worked for would get powers, that they would just this one time be able to fight back.

It had been a frustration that every lesson and tutorial she’d been given had been for nothing, and a part of her had been waiting for eight or nine years for it to be relevant.

Somehow her getting her own powers hadn’t counted.  The thought had never connected, because it was her, and she’d been expecting someone else.

Now… now it was Colt.

Colt pushed out with a power, and Love Lost felt her thoughts scatter.  She reached up to her mask, adjusting the dial, and changed the focus for all emotions she was absorbing and reading.

That dampened the effect.

With her lash, she struck Swansong down, while Swansong reeled.  The cut went through Swansong’s arm, exposing wires.

Colt was a parahuman.  That wasn’t- it shouldn’t be.  The idea scared her, because it took everything that made Colt important and utterly destroyed it.

Love Lost snarled behind her mask, angry, inarticulately upset.  Nailbiter had tried to reach out to the girl and convince her, and it hadn’t worked.  Love Lost had hoped Colt would either prove herself to be a child or be adult enough to make a decision and Colt had done neither.  Naibiter had given the girl an upper, something to keep her from backing down at the wrong moment and opening their flanks to an attack.

Colt’s power continued to blanket the battlefield, creating more openings.  Love Lost struck out at Romeo, who ducked the claw-lash’s tip as it cracked.

Colt rose into the air, flying, and her hands turned into blades, edged in dark smoke.

As Colt rose, Love Lost’s heart sank.

She would deal with that later.  Gritting her teeth, she turned her focus to the ongoing fight.

Imp was a problem.  Whether this was a feint or not-

Love Lost reached up to her mask, releasing the catch.  As the mask fell away, she drew in a breath.

She felt the phantom presence of Ever.  The touch, the sentiments that were so predominantly regret.  She felt the anger, the echo of Precipice’s laughter in the seconds after Ever had died rang in her ears, and that anger twisted.  If it were a muscle in one second it was black cancer through and through in the next.

The pain, she felt it, physical.  Choking her, like screaming would be impossible.  She always felt that part – the rest could be there one time and not the next, but the pain and that near-certainty that she couldn’t breathe, let alone scream?

All of it bundled up with fleeting memories.  The breath that went into promises made that weren’t kept.  That whispered hopes and fears to a newborn who would never grow up.  The choked sobs out in a wild crying fit that had scared Lee and Ever both, coming out of nowhere.

She put all of it into a singular scream that she aimed at herself, in more than one way.  Screams were usually at or to someone, but in this, she screamed at her own feet, hunching over, and the effect rippled out in every direction.

Love Lost could see that Romeo had a bullet wound from earlier, and he stopped favoring it as he retaliated.  Less affected than most, but it helped that anger and resentment naturally ran through him.

Swansong lunged, as did Imp, who hadn’t been feinting.  If Love Lost could have gathered up blood into two hands cupped together, then that was the amount Imp shed to the snowy road with every running footstep.

Even the children, both the smallest and Lookout, joined in the charge.

Her mask was set to read anger.  She could see them coming, and it was a question of timing the whip cracks.  One to Swansong’s leg, another to Imp’s ribs.

She caught Lookout and thrust her into the littlest one’s way, backing up.

Colt’s power put most of the group down for the count.  Swansong was injured and Romeo and Imp were now feeble from blood loss.  It left only Lookout, and Nailbiter had roused enough to go after her, grabbing her and locking her in place.

That didn’t mean things were completely dealt with.  The little girl with the pixie cut was quick.  She ducked around, then charged, a wicked grin on her face.

Disjoint grabbed her leg, and she tripped, falling hard.  She was on her feet shortly after, charged, and was tripped again.

It took two more attempts before the kid struggled to stand, an ankle twisted.  Love Lost put the claw-lash around the girl’s neck with care, watched the girl put hands in fingerless gloves up to the lash, and shy away when touching the sharp edges.

Love Lost drew a trap from her belt, switched it on, and tapped it hard against her leg to activate it.  As it went off, crackling with red lightning, she touched it to the lash, letting the energy conduct down to the girl.

Down and out.

Love Lost looked over the remainder.  Unconscious, severe bleeding, severe bleeding, disabled, spasming, pinned…

Her eye settled on Colt last.

What a profound fucking loss that was.  She’d hoped Colt would run or get away from all of this.  Now…

“Should I call Cradle?” Nailbiter asked.

Love Lost nodded.

Colt dropped out of the ethereal form, falling the last two feet to the ground.  Her eyes were wide, and there was a look on her face somewhere between horror and amazement.

“I have so many powers.  Blades, flight, the burst that stops people in their tracks… I think I can build things.  Studs, for my arms?”

At that, Love Lost realized what Colt meant.  Her instinctive response, inexplicable, was that she wanted to kill Colt.  To respond to this horror and alarm by eliminating the source of it.

But it was horror because she didn’t want this for Colt.  Horror because she wanted to tie up loose ends, to end this.  She was doing this for a reason, and Colt utterly defied that reason.

In the moment, she found herself hating the girl.

“Boss,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost turned.

“He wants you to bring them to him.  He wants to sever them.”

Love Lost looked over the enemy group.  Swansong stared back, angry.  In a start, she used her power, firing from one hand-

Colt used her power.  A burst of emotion.  Swansong landed hard.  Love Lost bent down to put claws against the young woman’s throat.

Love Lost nodded.

“All of them,” Nailbiter said.  “Kids included.  If it’s just the older ones, he thinks they’ll be brave or willing to take risks.”

Love Lost stared at the youngest ones.  Why was it so much harder to reach for that part of herself that felt anything but pain when thinking of Everly?

Pain, anger, frustration.

All more intense, seeing Colt throw herself headlong into this existence.

She undid the clasp on her mask.  It was just her and Nailbiter.  If she made any sounds or revealed any emotion in front of Nailbiter, she sensed it would be okay, somehow.

Her voice had a creak to it, from disuse.  “Do you think one bad experience would scare them away from this life?”

Nailbiter looked down at the one with the pixie cut, who was twitching and kicking.

“No.  It’s not likely.”

Love Lost reached for something, any shred of empathy.  Anything that would let her relate them to Ever, as she might have done before.

All there was, was a rule she’d made when she had some warmth left in her.

Her voice creaked, and the words hurt.  The creaks and unevenness of her voice mirroed the emotion that threatened to pour out.  “There’s nothing good waiting for them if they live this life.  We’ll reverse it when everything’s done.”

“There’ll never be a day when we’re done,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost shook her head.

There had to be.  She would expose and then deal with the worst capes, everyone who was willing to break the rules.  She would kill them, starting from the worst offenders, the Fallen, moving on to Teacher, to the people who would have worked for Beast of Burden.

She would take them all down in a blaze of glory, if she had to.  She had plans in mind.

She did up the mask, sealing her mouth shut.  Her breath filtered through, cleaner and easier than if she were breathing through nose and mouth.

With claws, she gestured, her intent pushed into the movements of her hands, trusting that the people who followed her knew what she meant, because they’d had to learn to.

Pick them upLet’s go.

The dream came like a bad trip.

A day so sunny it was delirious.  Ever and two of her cousins were in the backyard.

The topic of Lee was carefully avoided as she listened to Lee’s sisters talk.  She kept one eye on Ever and one eye on making sure refreshments were served.

“Do you have a lighter, Nicole?” Ever’s Aunt Didi asked.  “I’m going to cheat and grab a smoke.”

“I’d have to search,” Nic said.  “It’s been a long time since I smoked.”

Ever was watching more than playing.

“Matches, perhaps?”

“I do have a lighter, now that I think about it, it’s for the barbecue.”

“That works,” Aunt Didi said.

“Keep an eye on the kids?”

“Of course,” Aunt Didi said.

Nic had to rummage around the barbecue and the associated drawers before she found the lighter.  It had a band of stars around it for remembrance of those lost to Endbringer attacks.  She hadn’t bought it for that reason, it had just been on sale.

She was in the midst of handing it over when she looked for Ever and saw that her daughter was gone.

“Where’s my daughter?”

“She’s somewhere over there,” Aunt Didi motioned to the far end of the backyard.  Ever’s two cousins splashed in the pool.  “She’s fine.”

The backyard was long, and the trees that were scattered on the one end were dense on the other.  Her heart pounded as she ran, and with the pounding was a distant rattle, that seemed to grow ever closer.  With the shouting of the kids in the pool was an echo, overlapping cries of a crowd.

The pounding in her chest grew worse when she found her daughter, paradoxically.

Ever was crying.  It was the ugly kind of crying that Nic remained ashamed she had allowed her daughter to see, no defenses, just weeping, snot dribbling, tears appearing faster than hands could clear away.

Nic felt her heart break as she rushed to her daughter’s side.

“What happened?  Did your cousins say something?”

Only a head shake.  Ever’s first attempts at speaking only produced sobs.  Nic tried to hug her daughter, only to get pushed away, to have her daughter turn her back.

“Please tell me.  Please.”

More sobs.

“Ever,” Nic’s voice shook.

“Dad.  I want dad,” the words were wailed.  Further attempts at touch were rebuffed.  “I need dad!”

Lee.

Something she couldn’t give her daughter.  Lee wasn’t coming back.  And Ever had retreated to a place to hide so she could cry, rather than go to her mother.

She tried to draw Ever into a hug, and Ever fought her.  Sobs and shouts and fighting overlapped with accusations, blubbered, inarticulate.

“-cause of you-”

“-if you’d-”

Each accusation was like a stab of a knife.

She forced the hug, and in that moment, Ever stopped fighting and hugged her back, fierce.  The accusations stopped.  With legs and arms both, Ever clutched her like she would never let go.  And the noises and bangs of children playing became deafening.  The press of trees and branches all around them became people, hands.

Nic fought to keep her daughter close, pulling her tighter into a nook between folding tables and chairs.  People scraped by, pressed in so tight that jeans scraped the backs of her knuckles.

Ever cried out as tables nearby slid closer to the ground.

“I love you,” she said, and the din stole the words out of the air, so she couldn’t be sure Ever heard.

Then- a break in the noise of the crowd and the banging.  A second where people didn’t press in so close that it hurt.

A chance to draw Ever further into the nook, her back to the folded tables.

To say something.

But- what could she even say?  She’d said sorry before.  So many times.  She’d told her daughter she loved her more times than she could count.  She’d uttered words in anger and words in despair.  She’d made a thousand promises that she would do better or be a better mother, but she knew that she’d made those promises and broken them.  She’d made promises in dreams, and she would never ever get a chance to keep them.

“Goodbye,” she said.  Lucid words, while looking her daughter in the eyes.  “I’m going to do my best to make sure no monster ever does something like this again.”

The press of bodies collapsed nearby furniture, people climbed over them.  For once, she dreamed of her daughter, and she held her daughter in her arms until the last, instead of having her torn away.  Instead of that dreadful, sanity-shattering, life-ending impact.

Then- then she wasn’t herself.

Not past self, not present self.  Not anymore.

She was the Fallen boy.  In a parking lot.  She watched as the mall employee ran.  As Seir the horse-headed used a power of lightning and darkness to leap onto the girl, and hurl her to the ground.  The Fallen boy had his mask off and in one hand, his face etched in anger, in twisted emotions.

This isn’t the way things go.

“Don’t fucking second guess me.  You know how this goes if you fail us.  Soldier or slut, and as shitty as a soldier you’d be, you’d make for one depressing slut.”

The Fallen boy looked away.

“What?  You want to fight?  You want to say something?”

The Fallen boy turned his head.  As he did, a thin woman in white appeared beside him.

Christine Mathers.

“No,” the boy said.

Seir shoved the employee inside, but grabbed her hair, hauling back.  The girl shrieked in pain as she was yanked backward, shrieked more as the door was shut on the hair, trapping it.

She wasn’t on the ground as she had been before.  But the essential elements remained the same.

Seir produced the chain, and he bound the door shut.  The lock was placed through chain to secure it, but as always, it wasn’t actually locked.

The option was given.

“If you open that door, you’ll never be a soldier.”

“I’m not going to open it,” the boy said, stubborn.

As monstrous as Seir, just underdeveloped.  Content to talk about murder and righteousness while a girl fumbled under the blanket they shared.

Capable of laughing as people died.

Seir left.  The boy remained.

Then the explosions.  The fires.  The attack.

Love Lost could remember how scared Ever had been.  She could remember seeing Ever’s friends, seeing them run from her as she’d tried to corral them and manage them as a group.  They’d been intimidated of her.

Perhaps for the best.

There was a pause, then fists pounding on the door.  The screams, the shouts.

She could count it, almost.  More than a minute passed, but she knew, right down to the fraction of a second.  She would hear the noise as the tables fell, the distant thud, her own scream as her daughter died.

Every night.

The lock was pulled free.  Chain rattled as it was unwound.  It was cast aside, and the doors opened wide.

Then he watched as people tried to exit the hallway at the mall’s side door.  But there were too many bodies.  The people pressed in together and wedged themselves into the door.  In all trying to get out at once, nobody got out.  He reached forward, trying to grab someone- but it was futile.  A hand grabbed him.  A suffocating man on the ground had him by the pants.  Reached up, toward the mask that was held in one hand, still.

Why?

Then the last dream.  Cradle, moving through scenes, trying to keep ahold of his glasses.  Cornered in the schoolyard, faced by four girls a year younger than him.  They shouted and their words were only the rattle of chain, the pounding on a metal door, and the blare of a fire alarm.

They shoved him, he bounced off of a car, and he lost his glasses.  The car wailed, its alarm going off.

The wail became his mother’s wail.  He was in his home, standing at the door to his bedroom while his parents shouted and screamed at one another.  One held up a paper, a list of numbers and letters running down the center column.  Cradle, standing around the corner, flinched at the words, gibberish though they were.

He adjusted his glasses, and when he fixed them, he stood in the mall.

He watched as the first Fallen appeared.  Men and women in disguises that barely served.  Tattoos barely covered.  They looked Fallen, whatever else.  Subhuman, gleeful at what was about to happen.

Cradle turned, and he walked away, stepping into the pharmacy, and cutting a path for the door.  As he did, he nudged a store employee, and his voice was a thousand creaks of metal hinges.

While the store employee ran, he opened the door, to the sound of a single door’s metal hinges creaking, that same sound that had just been made a thousand times.

Then there was only silence.

Now

Phantom sensations of Ever slipped under and around Love Lost’s hand.  Just as when she used the device to simulate the tactile.

But it was, as always, a doll’s head.  A bit of curtain with attached rod, intended somehow for a window, though the space they occupied had none.

She swallowed hard as she found her way to her feet.  The pain was fresh, but in the moment it was dulled by confusion.

What had linked those three deviations from the norm?

What- no.  Not what, exactly.  Who.

She turned to look.  The black fifth cell remained black, no light entering or leaving it.  Cradle occupied the space to her left.

Across from her was the Fallen boy, who wore the demon mask.  Always wore it.  He didn’t seem to realize, a lot of the time.

She felt disgust well up.  Anger, because that scene-

-hadn’t made sense.

Silent, the Fallen boy pointed.

Love Lost turned.

Within her cell, Colt stood by the nursery bookshelf, looking spooked.

Love Lost beckoned.

Unsteady, Colt picked her way along uneven floor, over toys and a fallen changing table.  Toward the dais.

Two of them, one cell.

“What the hell?” the Fallen boy asked.

In reflex, her hand twitched.  Ready to punch the barrier, to do something to silence him.  The sound of his voice bothered her as much as anything she’d experienced, and she’d talked to a nurse who had been proud to spread hepatitis among her patients, who had been smug about it.

“What is this?” Colt asked.

Love Lost put a hand on Colt’s shoulder.  She didn’t trust herself to talk, so she relied on the gesture.

“You brought someone,” Cradle said.

People with powers can have kids with powers.  She counts?

The cells are inflicting a bad joke on me.  Taunting me with the loss of my daughter by giving me the last one I’d ever want.

“What was that dream?” the Fallen boy asked.  “Did you guys-”

“Shut up,” Cradle cut him off.

“I saw it,” Colt said.  “I felt it.  What is this?”

“It happens every night, but tonight was different,” the Fallen boy said.

“It happens every night?” Colt asked.

“Yeah,” the Fallen boy said.  “This happens.  This room.”

Love Lost’s grip on Colt’s shoulder grew tighter.

Colt pulled free, shrugging it off.

“How was it different?”

“It was everyone,” Cradle said.  “What you saw was- not the way things happened.”

“I hope not,” Colt said.  “What happened in those first two dreams was pretty awful.”

Cradle shook his head.  “All three.  But what happened in the originals was worse.  And it’s been that worse, accurate version every night for the last year and three months.”

Colt hugged her arms to her body.

“I think it was your dream,” the Fallen boy said.  “Somehow.”

Colt shrugged.  “I dunno.”

“It was what we wanted,” Cradle said, looking at Love Lost.

“I know I didn’t want people to get trapped like that-”

“The new girl being here means someone might actually believe you when you say that,” Cradle retorted.

“Fuck you,” the Fallen boy said.

“Christine Mathers,” Love Lost whispered.

Colt looked between her and the rest of the room, then echoed her, louder.  “Christine Mathers?”

“Mama Mathers,” the Fallen boy said.

Love Lost saw the look on Cradle’s face change.  They’d been plotting to deal with the greater group of the Fallen for enough weeks now that it was a familiar subject.

“She watched everything I did.  If I’d gone against the group, I would have been castrated,” the Fallen boy said.  “I would have been driven insane.  She can do that.”

“That’s scary,” Colt said.

Love Lost turned away.  Sympathy for the devil.

“It doesn’t excuse anything,” the Fallen boy said.  “I was stupid, I could have done more.”

“Probably,” Cradle said.

“Fuck,” the Fallen boy said.  “This is fucking with my head.”

“Um, I think my head is most fucked right now,” Colt said, her voice wavering.  She offered up a nervous titter of a laugh.  “First time.”

Hearing Colt be so familiar and so unaware was a special kind of hell of its own.

Then a worse kind of hell.  To be utterly alone.  Cradle ventured.  “More of a head-fuck to think maybe you were telling the truth all along.”

The words were stilted, awkward.

If they were a lie intended as bait, then the Fallen boy didn’t seem to believe them.

If they were truth, then Love Lost would never forgive Cradle.

“What was he saying before?” Colt asked.

“I can barely hear you,” Cradle said.

“Yeah,” the Fallen boy echoed.

“Meaning we have a problem,” Cradle said.

A problem.  Love Lost wheeled around, looking at the other cells, at her own room, and at the dais.  The lights that had no source that filled the area were dimmer in her shared fifth of the room.  As she watched, they grew dimmer still.

This was what had happened to Jonathan.  Her heart pounded as she reached out, fist striking the surface.

“I know why,” Cradle said.

“What’s happening?” the Fallen boy asked.

“Two people in one area.  It’s draining the power twice as fast.  They get half the time.”

“Has it even been half?”

Cradle shrugged.  He pushed scratched-up glasses up his nose.

There were some, Love Lost knew, that she’d never quite been able to get.  The very best criminals she’d gone up against.  The ones she was closest to, like Lee, who wasn’t a criminal, except that he’d left their family and left Ever, and he’d never come back.  But he counted.  She’d never been able to get him.

As her room began to dim, it dawned on her that Cradle fit both categories.  Too good, too close to her, because he was a part of this room.  This engine.

Her hand slammed against the invisible barrier, and she screamed.  They didn’t seem to see her.

A face on the wrong end of one-way glass.

Her scream became raw.  So close to that scream, Colt shied back, scared.

“What’s happening?” Colt asked.

“March released something bad,” the Fallen boy said.  “They’re calling it Class S.  She’s going to release more.”

“The plan was for her to release one,” Cradle lied.

That hadn’t been the plan.  Zero, not one.  If she found the one she needed then she would mercy kill before it became a real problem.

She screamed again.

Why?” the Fallen boy asked.

“Because all of the rules we used to operate by were based around mutually assured destruction.  We needed a scare,” Cradle said.  “Something that forces everyone to look at where they stand and what they’re willing to do.  We pose a threat without actually following through, then remind you all that you need us.”

None of it true.  Well- some.  It had been a contingency plan.  Discussed in the span of one minute, as a possibility if something did get loose.

Cradle-

She screamed.

Just as bad as the Fallen boy.

“You chopped up my teammates.  You chopped up kids!”

“We took them out of the picture!  The plan was to take the best and most vulnerable-”

“And chop them up into mincemeat!?”

“No!  To disable them.  To force them onto the bench so that if something did happen, they wouldn’t get hurt in the time it took us to step in.”

Truth… except now she didn’t believe him.

“Why mincemeat!?”

“Because I handed the tool off to a hireling and they lost their mind.”

“I don’t believe you,” the Fallen boy said, gripping the dais.  “I don’t believe any of this.”

“I’ll admit.  A bit of it was to fuck with you.  To pressure- her idea.”

Cradle pointed at Love Lost.

She screamed and pounded.

“To put you into a corner.  To force you to surrender.  That was true.”

“You’re a fucking lunatic.”

“I hate you so much I can’t think straight,” Cradle snarled.  “I want you to die in the worst ways…”

His head bowed slightly.

“Love Lost?” Colt asked, her voice small.

“I’ll show you I’m genuine,” Cradle said.

“I don’t trust you.”

“Do you have the pieces of the red whip?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll give you what I have.  All of it.”

Love Lost swiped her hand across the dais.  Clearing away rubble.

Turning up the teeth.

Nothing new for Colt.

“Take these coins,” Cradle said.  “Full strength tinker power.  Fix the whip.  Use it to undo the damage to your team.  When we offer our help with whatever March is pulling, you let us.”

“Love Lost,” Colt said.

Colt turned to look at the younger girl.

Colt indicated the floor.

Centimeter by centimeter, hair by hair, the floor changed.  The nursery disappeared, and Cradle’s domain grew.

She touched the barrier, and she could feel its movement.

Hair by hair.  Drop of blood by drop of blood.

Hers- and probably Colt’s too.

She screamed again.

Cradle held out the coins, fingers pinching at the edges while he held them to the barrier.

Why?

Were they a trap, somehow?  How?

The Fallen boy didn’t take them.  When he’d said he didn’t trust Cradle, he’d meant it.

“Why is the room shrinking?” Colt asked.

“Be-” Love Lost started.  Her throat was raw from screaming.  “Because he’s killing us as we speak.”

She watched the Fallen boy reach up, hesitating, not yet taking the coins.

He’s been killing us- killing me, for a long time, she realized.  Just not physically.  An ego death.

The coins.

The compromises she’d made.  The coldness.  The lack of warmth.  The inability to feel for the children.

When we give up our tokens, we give up aspects of ourselves.  We change the other.  Cradle’s been constantly giving up his tinker ability.  To Jonathan and me, then to me alone.

He knew.

Giving us the ability to tinker, and making us into monstersThat’s how we bleed through.

Her hand shook as she touched the barrier.

The most galling part of it all- the Fallen boy had never been given anything.  Until now.  No bleed-through.  Just him.

In the near-pitch darkness of her shrinking room, staring at the exchange between the two young men, she gripped the teeth.

All of her anger, in one gripped fist.

She would have a split second to act.  When the dream ended, she would pass on her ability, and with it, all of her rage and savagery.  To throw it into one room, in hopes they would wake before the teeth could be collected and thrown back.

If that was even a consideration.

She watched, waiting for her chance, waiting to see if the Fallen boy took the coins that would steal his warmth.  Whether he did would determine who she gave her teeth to.  All her power for the day, and dangerous, reckless rage.

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201 thoughts on “Interlude 12.e”

  1. Typo thread!

    >“Love Lost,” Colt said.
    >Colt turned to look at the younger girl.
    >Colt indicated the floor

    The middle should likely be “Love Lost”, not Colt.

    1. “Hundreds like Owen. Maybe even hundreds a year.”
      > ‘thousands a year’ maybe, since hundreds was just cited ?

      “it was already sufficiently tight enough”
      Bit redundant.

      “going to mars”
      Capitalisation.

      “mirroed the emotion”

    2. > She leaned forward, forearms resting against the worktable, clawed fingers pointing in, touching flesh.

      There are three spaces before this sentence.

      > It wasn’t anything as complex as a new setting- only ensuring that everything kept working when she made it more comfortable to wear.

      > The cab waited- Shelly had given them instructions, […]

      > She was barely aware of things as she came back from that darkness- that space that was escaping her memory, […]

      > He reached forward, trying to grab someone- but it was futile.

      > To pressure- her idea.

      Shouldn’t there be spaces before these dashes? As it is usually the case there are more such dashes in the chapter I’m unsure about, but these are the ones I’m most confident should get spaces in front of them.

      > Nailbiter was effective, strong, focused, and Nailbiter was degenerate.

      Extra space before ‘and’ (in the chapter text, not in the comment).

    1. Love Lost realized that Rain had always been honest and that the hate and the personality bleedthrough came from the exchange of tokens, specifically through Cradle’s coins.

      Colt joined the cluster because she budded off Love Lost or maybe because of the portals affecting the cluster/broken trigger effect – we need more info first.

      The most important, however, is that Cradle just Goddess’d Love Lost, he stole her power like Bianca did from her clustermates.

      1. You know maybe Love Lost should have read her daughters books. She might have learned to be more cautious about deals for power.

        Rain never had bleedthrough. Everyone else did, via the tokens, was them stewing in their own toxic emotions. Their worst traits? That was all them. Rain’s changes for the better? That was all him.

          1. I don’t think so. That screaming with the list of letters and numbers says pushy parents disappointed with bad grades, to me. Or maybe financial trouble. Either thing is not something a Fallen would have to deal with, and Cradle’s not the sort who’d join up as an adult.

            No, I think- unlike Rain, who wanted to help but couldn’t bring himself to do it, or Love Lost, who failed to help her daughter, or Snag, who tried to help Ever’s friend before she was pulled away- Cradle went out of his way to save himself, pushing somebody else into the Fallen’s path so he could escape at their expense.

  2. I knew Cradle was gonna be up to some devious shit, and it was hinted at that he might betray Love Lost, but I didn’t catch on AT ALL that he’s been masterminding his cluster this whole time. I wonder if he actually wanted Snag to die at the Fallen fight?

  3. We got a deep look into Love Losts past, turns out she really had issues. I mean, we knew she used to be a decent person before her trigger, so not too surprising. Also, we get to empathize with her, so OF COURSE she’s dying next.

    Then Colt shows up in the dream room in Love Losts compartment. So I guess her shard really was a bud. And Love Lost realizes that Rain might have been right?

    Whelp. Apparently Cradle had the same idea as the Heroes: strike at Love Lost and Colt while they’re in the Dream room.
    Two options here:
    a) Cradle’s underlings did it. He’s an asshole, they are too. Let’s hope it’s this because
    b) This is a wee bit in the future, and the Heroes found Love Lost. Cradle probably set out the scent path for the dogs to follow just to make sure this would happen. A lot of guilt for the heroes in tow. I wonder though how the Ambush fits into that.

    Also, really interesting to see the details on the bleed through. Cradle traded his Tinker tokens like the real nice guy he is, and with it he distributed his psychopathy to his good friends. Oh my. And since Rain never got any tokens, his personality change was always his. Cool to know that.
    Oh, but Love Lost has one more move to make. Let’s hope that it counts!

      1. Yeah, but… Cradle gave his ‘self’ away, every time he handed over a token. Did he know, as Love Lost suspects, and was covering for himself, or did he not and was truly surprised at that?

        Which makes me really, really really want the context behind Cradle’s dream. What on earth is going on with him? What’s his long-term problem that building hands and arms could, in some weird way, help? Even if, as powers tend to do, it helps in a way that makes it worse overall? It’s not that he’s disabled and needs limbs to move, it’s something else.

        1. He was shunned by everyone (especially the ladies apparently) so he builds extra hands to give himself hugs and high fives.

      2. I think what happened was something like, when Rain tried to give Cradle tokens in the hopes it’d work as a peace offering, Cradle got hit full force with Rain’s guilt and self-doubt, and realized just what the tokens do. The tokens seem to have some permanent effects, so Cradle was changed and realized he’d been changed, and decided then and there to turn the other cluster members like him or kill them to protect his self-identity. He’s generous with the tokens and he’d take Snag and Love Lost’s tokens because they’re not as antithetical as Rain’s are to him, but his ultimate endgame has always been the entire cluster dead or drained.

        1. If Cradle was indeed affected by Rain’s guilt and self-doubt strong enough to notice and realize what the mechanism of bleed-through in this cluster is, then imagine what Rain’s Love-Lost-charged emotional power may do to him. Could Cradle be hit by this power so strongly that he will end up feeling enough guilt to be brought to the point of suicide?

          1. I could imagine that if Cradle is cold and uncaring he would notice the impact of ANY of the other’s emotions seeping into him.

            The most obvious would be Love Lost. He knows she has anger and savagery so it’s easy to picture him noticing unexplained anger in himself if he took a token from her.

        2. Strange that Cradle have not tried to change Rain into monster by giving him tokens. Yes, it would’ve rise questions from Snag and LL why we giving something to Rain, but Cradle could have proposed uneven exchange – 2 or 3 tokens from Rain for 1 to Rain. Rain could agreed, he was desperate enough in the begging.

          1. What would Cradle have gained by corrupting Rain? I don’t think his goal is specifically to turn people into monsters. I think all he initially wanted was to kill Rain, and then later he learned he could take the cluster’s power for himself and decided he wanted that as well. Corrupting the other two helped both goals by ensuring they didn’t get cold feet and object to his methods. Lessening Rain’s empathy, on the other hand, would have made things more difficult. Rain’s guilt was holding him back. It ate at him, wore him down, and prevented him from defending himself as ruthlessly as he might have under Cradle’s influence. For example, he might have embraced the Fallen. That raid could have gone very differently if, instead of getting March to help him take down Mama Mathers, he’d gotten March to join on the side of the Fallen and only attacked MM after the cluster threat was resolved. Cradle didn’t Rain to be a monster; he wanted Rain to be weak. That’s why he kept berating Rain and telling him to die, over and over and over.

            But now Rain’s in a different situation and headspace. He’s not in a position to ally with an army of Fallen, for one. He’s also much more confident in himself. Instead of guilt, the main emotion driving him right now is concern for his friends. If Cradle corrupts him now he could cut out Rain’s motivation for fighting, lower his guard, and possibly get him to alienate his own teammates. It does make Rain potentially more dangerous via the increased ruthlessness and boosted Tinker abilities, but on the whole, Cradle probably figures he stands to gain more than he’d lose. He doesn’t need to keep it up for long, just enough to get his fangs in and start sucking him dry.

          2. > 2 or 3 tokens from Rain for 1 to Rain

            Given that in that case the bleedthrough from Rain would be 2-3 times stronger than to him, that might be counterproductive.

            > What would Cradle have gained by corrupting Rain? I don’t think his goal is specifically to turn people into monsters.

            As I understood it, the bleedthrough is what allows Cradle to take his clustermates’ dreamspace, once they become Cradle enough. So he would want to turn people into monsters not for the sake of turning, but to spread his influence to them.

        3. Quick question: do we know exactly who it was that hired Snaggletooth? We know Jonathan and Nic knew she had been hired, but did either of them actually interact with her?

      3. Because /Rain/ took his self from him. Remember how way back when Rain was getting all those Interludes, his narration mentioned how he’d given out one of his tokens once? What if Cradle was pissed at Rain for giving him the capacity to feel guilt?

    1. so OF COURSE she’s dying next.

      Alongside Colt. Terrible things had to happen at one point, but Cradle backstabbing them at this critical juncture is bloody heartrending.

      Hurry up, Breaksiders.
      There’s some extreme prejudice to be inflicted.

      1. Yes. Administer lethal blunt force trauma to the testicles via a boot. What, I can’t want a nice simple physical violence solution?

        1. Hit him in the crotch with one of Rain’s blades first. Then kick him. Try to get it as vertical as possible, so no precious nerve endings fall off.

          1. Nah, I’m with Nega. Wretch empowered kick to the groin, brain death occurring when dick and balls pass through his skull.

      1. Well, actually there were only two possibilities for Colt having such powers without introducing new mechanics straight out of the blue: 1) Colt budding off Love Lost; and 2) Colt being a power-copier with some variations on the power being copied, and copying LL or Rain. Both were called by someone, unsurprisingly. I thought that 2) is more probable, but I’m glad it’s not an out-of-the-blue mechanics.

        1. We do have some precedent for shards of dead capes attaching to new, unrelated hosts (the Jonathan scenario) but there was always a particular reason for that occurring. Here the reason would have been “cluster shenans”, which seem(ed) fairly versatile.

          And there’s still the question of where Colt’s breaker power comes from. Do we know whose night it was in the rotation? Love Lost’s analysis of where Colt’s powers came from may not have been exactly correct.

          1. Well, sure, but my point is that there’s no shard in the mall cluster that does anything even vaguely resembling her breaker powers. She has all the cluster powers (confirmed this chapter, since she mentions tinker abilities) plus an extra, which doesn’t seem like it can be fully explained by the budding assumption.

    2. So Love Lost’s tokens give rage, Cradle’s tokens give sociopathy (“numbness”, as Snag’s second interlude describes it, now that I know what I’m seeing), and Rain’s tokens give guilt or regret or something like that. Maybe even “indecisiveness” in some way. Emotions closely connected with their losses, with their actions at the mall. What did Snag give out? Sympathy, maybe, if we recall his interaction with the couple selling the doll? I wonder if that’s why Love Lost was able to rescue Colt and get along with at least some of her underlings, and maybe why Snag underwent such a drastic change. Also worth noting that Rain got two of Snag’s tokens for killing him; I wonder if that’s related to his ability to connect with the Youngersiders.

      1. If you’re looking for some influence that Snag passed along with his tokens, I’d suggest initiative. His Mover psychology making the others keen to act on their own desires. Notice how he’s the one talking to other capes to gather the attack force for the Fallen attack early in the story.

  4. Most interesting thing about this chapter? Rain wasn’t wearing a mask in his dream-room, yet for Love Lost he was- and judging by the narration, always does. The shards are altering how the dreamers see each other. Wonder how Colt saw everyone.

    At least Rain knows not to trust Cradle. Cradle’s a complete and utter bastard with a heart about ten sizes too small.

    But damn do I hope Colt and Love Lost aren’t dead, just drained. And I figured Colt would be in Snag’s old quarter, not share with LL.

  5. I… Don’t know what I’m feeling right now. In some ways it’s anti-climatic, and in other ways it’s the perfect climax. I both do and don’t feel sympathy for Love Lost. But I think her fatal flaw is that she didn’t understand the importance of sympathy for the devil. She never asked “Why”, and thus could not realize that she was going down that exact same path. It’s like how I say, the Undersiders ended up the way they did because of how the system failed them, and if you don’t take that into account when discussing their crimes, you can never truly understand their story.

    You know sometimes I ask myself why I keep reading Wildbow’s works, with where they go, or don’t go. Chapters like this remind me, that even if I don’t like that, they way they tell it is still something to see.

    So is a theme of Ward going to be the importance of Sympathy For the Devil?

    1. What’s really interesting is that Love Lost /knows/ the path she’s on, as evidenced by her acknowledgement of her kinship with Nailbiter, someone Love Lost counts among the irredeemable, a monster. Yet somehow she doesn’t quite see herself in the same light, like she’ll do better somehow when the time comes.

      Yet she doean’t extend that latitude to Rain; to her people are static, and while she’s willing to admit moral greyness exists, to traverse the gradient isn’t done, hence in part why she’s so upset by Colt triggering and becoming a cape.

      Since Colt and Love Lost share a “cell”, I wonder if Colt’s been affected by Cradle’s tokens too.

  6. Was anyone else disgusted by what LL did in the first flashback? Even if Jen is the monster she claims her to be in the narration, falsifying evidence to get a confession isn’t the kind of thing upstanding law enforcement officers should be doing.

    Admittedly, perhaps that bothers me more than all the morally questionable things the capes do because para-humans are fictional and I can forgive a lot of things for the sake of an interesting story, but reading cops doing underhanded things rings too true to what’s wrong with the real world.

    1. Oh yeah, and they said she’s the “best detective” with “good instincts…”

      She totally sent some people to jail for crimes they didn’t commit with tactics like that. She probably didn’t break the law in doing so, but you don’t have to break the law to coerce a false confession, just convince the suspect that you have evidence they’re guilty even if they’re not, force them to see confessing as the only way things will go well for them.

    2. It’s not falsifying evidence – she put strictly unrelated material on the table, the pressure and nature of it being enough to lead to confession. The pills then disappear and won’t be mentioned in any of the trial’s steps.
      It would be false evidence if she had claimed at any point that they found them in related to the suspect, and interrogated her about it. Except she didn’t. Jen didn’t use her rights correctly and was played like a fiddle, as many, many other criminals.

      There’s a good vid about this kind of situation never benefitting the suspect:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-7o9xYp7eE

      Nicole is a lot of things, but she’s not a bad cop.

      1. Yeah. I was worried at first that maybe she was intending to frame Jen because she “knew” she did it, but that’s not at all what happened. All she did was a somewhat more dramatic version of saying, “We already know about the pills, so you might as well confess.” They didn’t even use the possibility of a plea bargain to nudge her along. I see absolutely nothing wrong with Nicole’s actions.

        1. People confess to things they didn’t do all the time, and if you look at what Jen actually admits to it isn’t at all clear cut that she did anything wrong.

          Of course, what she said was still enough to nail her to the wall whether she did anything wrong or not.

          There are lots of scenarios where I could see that exact confession from a freaked out teen girl.

      2. Indeed, Nicole is clearly excellent at getting convictions against the classic criminal mastermind: “you, over there”. Note also the implication in the dialog that this totally-not-coercive interview has been going on for several hours and the clear statement that the definitely-not-a-suspect is being denied a lawyer because she didn’t say the magic words, despite clearly communicating her desire for one. And of course the assumption that someone who helped with a suicide when asked is emotionally indistinguishable from someone who tried to poison and/or starve a cat when she lost interest in it.

        1. Also interesting that Nicole compares Owen to her cousin’s cat and then gets offended when Jen compares him to a hypothetical dog.

      3. “Nicole is a lot of things, but she’s not a bad cop.”
        Ignoring that the suspect clearly wanted a lawyer is real fucking borderline.

        Nothing technically was done wrong there… but it also clearly shows that she’ll close lines she’s set before herself. How much of her accepting chopping up kids was necessary because Nicole is line pusher herself, and how much was Cradle? We’ll likely never know.

    3. That was a pretty standard set of interrogation techniques.

      It’s funny, I hate those sorts of techniques and I felt disgusted by them, but it really did make me sympathize with LL that the person she used them on was seemingly despicable and some of the techniques were supposed to be predicated on that fact (although note that it’s conceivable that the girl was innocent and was trying to diffuse her mother’s accusations, thinking that she had been framed or similar.) It made me understand how people slip into using these sorts of tactics and justify it to themselves a bit better.

    4. In the real world, things are massively more fucked up than cops being underhanded.
      Try chimerical people sewn together out of multiple bodies.
      There’s worse stuff than that, too.
      Try “immigrating to America” with kidnapped children to be used as sex slaves. They had started test runs for this one — before Obama/Trump did that whole “splitting up ‘families'”. Many stupid actions got a good reason behind ’em.

    5. Lying to a suspect is allowed actually. And they didn’t say anything. The suspect assumed it.

      If she wasn’t guilty, she wouldn’t have reacted. So. No, I am not disgusted. Ethics is an important thing but there is a line, that she didn’t cross. Alexandria did something similar… bur she also crossed the line. It got her brain dead.

    6. I agree with you here, that was some dirty detective work. The part that bothers me about it is how certain she is from the beginning, before she has any evidence to back it up, that Jen is a monster.

      This chapter actually made me lose any bit of sympathy I had for Love Lost… her plan was to set up a scenario where a known crazy holds the key to mutually assured destruction? …What!?
      And then, the whole chopping a bunch of people to bits so that Rain would turn himself in? Why not just use her team and resources to try to, I dunno, kill him instead?

      And here I was thinking that she had information that made her think that her set of actions was correct. Instead, I now have the impression that she did it just because she got some sociopath bleed-through.
      My main takeaway from learning how she thinks: her silence is damning.

  7. This is a nice echo of the previous narrative’s protagonist. LL’s myriad rationalizations seem positively… Tayloresque. So many plans that will eventually, miraculously redeem her present crimes. Of course she’s got it turned up to eleven, planning on liquidating her minions (DJ is toast and SP is in danger, but NB is too crafty for this plan and Colt has taken several levels in badass), thanks very much to Cradle for that bit of disloyal personality. Somehow I doubt she’d have been so popular on the force if she had been constantly calculating methods and justifications for taking down her colleagues. Back then she reserved that flavor of misanthropy for the general public she had sworn to serve and protect.

    I have a feeling I’m going to like Cradle, once we see more of him and his motivations. He has sold the lie, in life and in dreams, to LL and Snag for over a year now. That takes confidence and a firm grasp of priorities. Hopefully Cradle can be saved from his current predicament (as in, it looks like he’s winning, but it’s the Wildbow-verse so of course he’s about to plunge to his doom). This character would be a strong and interesting opponent for e.g. Cryptid.

    1. …You’re kidding, right? Cradle, who hacked up Aiden aka Chicken Little’s face enough that what was left of it had to be held together by his mask? But of course he remembered to take a piece of the kid’s face, along with Lookout’s leg and hands, some of Darlene’s limbs…How old are they, again? 11, 13? What Khepri did, she did to save humanity. Even with all of Regent’s crimes, he had enough humanity in him to die in Imp’s stead. No matter what Cradle’s story is, he’s not going to be redeemed for chopping up the kids or Tattletale…This chapter just revealed that this fucked up, apathetic personality bleed came from Cradle so there’s no blaming it on the shard’s influence. At least not most of it. Not even Wildbow can make me legitimately sympathize with Cradle, not really.

      1. Being a sociopath doesn’t HAVE to mean what LL is making it mean.
        Many of them are high functioning.
        She’s just being given compelling RATIONAL reasons that only empathy could really combat.

        1. That’s a common misconception. Rationality without emotions is insanity.

          We use emotions to determine our priorities; without them, you have what’s called a psychopath, who makes decisions without consideration for priority.

          High functioning just means you can pass first inspection in society. But if you talk to a high functioning sociopath beyond just surface level small talk, you quickly come to see that their perspective is completely absurd and in no way reflective of reality.

          Psychopaths and sociopaths capable of reason are a Hollywood myth. They don’t exist in real life, high functioning or no.

          1. Aname,
            That’s not correct, and correct at the same time.
            Which is odd.

            Psychopaths do not have much regard for other people’s emotions, but they do have emotions. they just don’t care who they hurt, a lot of the time. and it’s now called antisocial personality disorder (which NOTE: is only applicable when it causes problems!! Many things can be subclinical, see depression).

            Lovely, lovely people decided to sever some people from their emotions entirely — thought they’d make good assassins, if they didn’t care. That ended poorly.

          2. “But if you talk to a high functioning sociopath beyond just surface level small talk, you quickly come to see that their perspective is completely absurd and in no way reflective of reality.”
            If you want “absurd” that line of yours right there is it. Being a sociopath doesn’t make me less rational or less emotional than others. It just means I care an awful lot less (basically nil unless you’re important to me) for how others feel (and don’t suffer from/experience the natural ’empathy’ reflex). I work at emulating standard social interactions that come naturally for you, but I’m not unfeeling, nor is my perspective ‘absurd’.
            Reality is no different for me than for you, just because you see a person injured/emotionally upset and get your heart strings plucked, where I can just go right on about my day unmoved and unmotivated (I work to emulate that motivation though, it’s helpful to appear sympathetic). It does mean I weigh my actions against an ethical framework and hierarchy of goals instead of knee-jerk emotionalism, but that just means if you anger me, you’re far, far, far less likely to trigger a physical response from than from one of you emotional handgrenades out there walking around.

        2. High functioning definitely doesn’t meant what popular culture think it means. Sociopaths don’t lack emotions. They are not wholly rational. They lack empathy and they do not recognise the humanity of others. I do consider Cradle heinous and I do believe he has issues but armchair psychology and especially such complicated diagnoses like psychopathy and sociopathy are tossed too easy.

          There are people who are of sound mind, rational and still completely monstrous. It could be towards everyone or select few (think Dr. J. Sims/Mengele or Jack Slash, Bakuda, etc.). It is simplistic to put a label on them and ignore the fact that the fact that nobody called Cradle out, nobody reacted to any of his shit, shows that each of them could become a monster, given the circumstances and that it is not just a mental issue. Sure, he bled through them and each had issues + whatever manipulation the shard has put on… but… we have that shit in the real word, sans any of the “excuses” Wormiverse has.

          Hat tip to Wildbow.

          1. You make this too easy.
            Humans have innate barriers to killing each other (and particularly children).
            ANY weakening of said barriers, particularly when deliberate, is the process of turning someone into a monster.

            Every military in the world has this as a tool that they use in warfare.

    2. > This is a nice echo of the previous narrative’s protagonist. LL’s myriad rationalizations seem positively… Tayloresque.

      Not in the slightest, I’d say.

  8. Shit. I was hoping that Love Lost would get redemption, but it seems she’ll die before.

    I think this chapter really sets the parallel of Khepri and Love Lost. Both of them are trying to do the most good in the most brutally efficient way possible and both of them are slowly losing their sense of identity due to power fuckery. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to know that Cradle is the true bastard in all of this.

    Also, time fuckery made this interlude E after interlude Z. Things are going to get shittier and shittier from here on out. This will make the Navagators look like a papercut.

    1. > Also, time fuckery made this interlude E after interlude Z. Things are going to get shittier and shittier from here on out. This will make the Navagators look like a papercut.

      Maybe those letters are begging of some word? Like “zero” for example?

        1. Could be. Fits the sun/light theme of chapter names, but do we expect four more interludes in this arc? Six interludes in one arc seems a bit much, though I can’t say it can’t happen for sure, considering that we had eight of them in the eleventh arc of Worm.

          1. If it is indeed “zenith”, it could, among other things, indicate that we are halfway through the story. Feels about right.

          2. That is unless we are also going to have “nadir” too at some point, in which case we probably have seen only around a quarter of the story. Remember it started with an act called “Daybreak”. If we are doing an entire day and night, and the sun is going through both zenith and nadir, then day must be pretty much as long as night, and that would mean we are only through the quarter of the time (at least as long as we treat all of those times and positions of the Sun literally).

            Somehow though I doubt this book will be that long.

          3. Well unless we’re talking the Summer or Winter Solstice where day or night have their lengths reversed rather than being equal. And that’s before we even get into what happens around the polar regions…

          4. During a solstice the Sun may pass through through zenith or nadir (when you are on a tropic), but not through both during the same day. The only situation when the Sun passes through both nadir and zenith during a single day may happen on the equator (technically not exactly on it, but very close to it) during an equinox.

        2. @Ganuarath

          I don’t believe there’s going to be six interludes so I don’t expect it to spell out “zenith.”

          I’m guessing that 12.e was “e” because the last lettered interlude that dealt with the cluster was 5.d and e is next in the alphabet. Jonathon as 5.y (out of that ordering) so that may be why March was 12.z. Or note.

          Anyway, I’m not expecting it spell out anything, but if it does, I’m betting it’s shorter than “zenith”

          1. @Pizzasgood

            Note that ‘Zephyrus’ would give us eight interludes in this arc, as the word is made of eight different letters. Your ‘zebra’ gives us only five – even zenith is better than that.

    2. I think this chapter really sets the parallel of Khepri and Love Lost. Both of them are trying to do the most good in the most brutally efficient way possible and both of them are slowly losing their sense of identity due to power fuckery. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to know that Cradle is the true bastard in all of this.

      Perhaps you meant contrast? When Taylor lashed out, it was because people were getting in the way of her doing good*. When Love Lost does good, it’s to people that are willing to help her lash out at the world that hurt her.

      * Perhaps due to lack of knowledge, of course – it’s not like Taylor was free of flaws and she did have trouble accepting that it might be possible to actually advocate for her position rather than assume her aura of righteousness would handle the issue.

      1. Not really talking about Taylor. Just Khepri. Basically what became of Taylor and probably what would had happen to Taylor if she wasn’t taken out.

        1. In that case, I think Khepri was quite a bit further along, and possibly on a different trajectory entirely. Love Lost hasn’t really lost her humanity in the way that Khepri did. She’s lost her empathy and her conscience, but she hasn’t lost the ability to comprehend human emotional cues in the way that Taylor had, and Love Lost can see that absence in much greater detail than the confused “something is wrong here” that was all Khepri was able to get after the battle. Love Lost is fucked up, and she’s fucked up because of her powers, but she’s still fucked up in a very human way. She’s closer to an S9 member kind of fucked up, not so much the likes of Khepri, Ash Beast, or good old Unnamed Tinker 15.

  9. Cradle turns out to be even more of a monster than I thought.

    I guessed that he was the most evil/immoral of the cluster and somehow caused the others to turn bad as well but the fact that he did it to this extent…

    Directly turning them into monsters by giving them his tokens instead of it just being a passive result of bleed-through he had no control over is just… wow… I’m lost for words.

  10. Will Love Lost and Colt be condemned to the same fate as Snag? It can’t be exactly the same since they didn’t die beforehand, but it definitely seems familiar…Then again, we don’t know exactly what happened to Snag. The whole dream room thing is more alarming the more we learn about it.
    I’m scared and confused. Good chapter.

    1. I don’t think Love Lost and Colt will end up like Snag, at least not yet. Love Lost is not allowed to die before Tattletale gets to rub it in her face that she did warn her through Breakthrough that Cradle was likely to work with March to suck her power dry, and then possibly kill her.

      1. Eh, I don’t think TT is going to be calling any attention to anyone’s misjudgment of Cradle, at least not before her various parts are reunited. Surely she of all people has gotten the sharpest end of that stick?

        1. “Yeah, sorry Lisa, we still haven’t found your tongue.”
          TT points in a specific direction.
          “Nope, still no clue where it is.”

          But seriously, yeah. Lisa’s weaknesses have kinda been sussed out, or at least caught up to her, and they’ve done so enough times at critical moments it’s cost not only her but those around her. She’s not going to take what happened to Adian well. And even with Foil’s issues with her… If Foil goes off and is March’s new fashion accessory of power because TT couldn’t see what March was doing… That is going to hit some buttons for her.

    2. A more serious reason to think that at least Love Lost may think that maybe she is not going to die today yet is that in the last line of the chapter she thought about passing “All her power for the day, and dangerous, reckless rage.” If she thought she is going to die today, there would probably not frame this thought with words “for the day”, she could think about something like “for the final day” or “one last day”, but not just “for the day” – it doesn’t match a sense of finality she would feel if she was convinced she was going to die within next twenty four hours.

      1. Alternatively she could convey her sense of inevitability of her death within a day by leaving “for the day” part alone, and instead thinking of her entire plan as some sort of a final charge, but I don’t see it either. What she plans seems reckless, seems like betting everything on this one move, but I don’t get the feeling that she quite considers it some sort of her “last hurrah”, some sort of suicidive attack during which she is going to die for sure.

  11. 1. A crazy idea – could Jen Bowers be Ms. B. May mentioned in interlude 12.z? Didn’t Foil’s cluster (not to mention Victoria and Amy) trigger seven years ago (in 2008 if I count correctly)? At least I think so based on information from the wiki. It would mean that the beginning of this chapter happen around the time those triggers happened. Where did Nicole live at the time? If she lived in New York, could she meet March or Flechette then?

    2. Looks like now we know why Imp let herself be taken into a hospital – she wasn’t harmed by Love Lost’s claws. She took at least one of Colt’s bullets – possibly intentionally to protect the kids. I wouldn’t put it past her, and if this is the case, she is really willing to do a lot to protect them.

    1. 1) Seems unlikely. Jen here has clearly just had her life ruined, and it doesn’t seem like she’s old enough to serve as a tutor to someone who’s on her way to show off to Julliard.

  12. So if Rain’s still an anime protagonist, does that mean eventually Cradle is going to steal enough power to achieve his final form (probably a giant hand) or make a giant hand mecha or something, and Rain’s going to channel the power of friendship to make a giant energy blade to cut him in half, but it won’t be enough until the spirits of the other cluster members appear to lend him strength, and then he cuts Cradle in half?

  13. I wonder why Colt’s “dream” was a modified version of other people’s “dreams”. Could it have something to do with her being “whimsical” in her breaker form (at least according to Victoria), or with the fact that according to Nailbitter she may be making a mistake of not seeing her “role models” as they are, but as she wants them to be? Maybe her “dream” was a bit about how Colt would want her clustermates to be, and a little less about who they really were?

    If so, then maybe Colt’s presence in the cluster can actually allow her clustermates to change for the better? Can seeing who they could be, instead of being constantly reminded who they were in your worst moments, become the first step toward becoming better people?

    1. who they were in your worst moments > who they were in their worst moments

      Sorry for that. I decided to switch from second to third person in that last sentence just before posting it, and looks like I missed one word that needed to be changed because of it.

    2. I believe that she saw what really happened, instead of their interpretations, cradle said “the truth was much worse” but was it? For him, his trigger was literally the worst moment of his life, just like LL and Snag and everybody saw that, but when they saw rains, they originally could not see mama mathers even though she was there, they could not feel rains despair while he laughed, they only saw him laughing, the shard messes with everything to creat conflic. But it looks like since colt is not directly part of it,she is less afected so she sees the dream in a more “neutral” way

      1. What happened in this chapter is definitely not what actually happened. Love Lost didnt in reality tell her daughter she loved her before she died. What happened in this chapter, is what they wish had happened.

      2. Rain said he thinks she is seeing intent. She is seeing what they all wanted – rain does unlock gate (it dosent help), love lost keeps hold of her girl, cradle runs away before it starts

          1. And now that I think about it, the conflict between what they did and what they wished they did, doesn’t describe just that day in the mall. It is also present in all other vision of their past I can think off the top of my had. And it seems to fit entire Colt’s behavior too… Is this conflict the common thread that links the entire cluster?

          2. And the difference between intent and wish is best shown in Rain’s part of the dream in this chapter. Rain’s main intent was to avoid being turned into a slut and/or having his psyche destroyed by Mama Mathers. He wished he could save those people in the mall, but his fear of meeting one or both of those fates prevented him from doing so, and the dream clearly explained it to Love Lost, and I assume to other members of the cluster too.

          3. So ultimately Rain did choose to leave all of those people in the mall to die, but not out of malice, as Love Lost thought. He did it out of feat. His intent to save his own skin turned out to be stronger than his wish to save all of those people then. His regret over what he did then was in turn what let him become a hero later, but at that moment he did something very unheroic, but also very understandable – he chose his own safety over the safety of others.

            The big question is – can his clustermates forgive him for it, once they understand his reasons. I think that Love Lost may get to that point eventually, perhaps even soon.

          4. And while there is plenty to forgive Rain for, because what he did at the mall was just really bad, there are also plenty of reasons to forgive him – he admitted his crime (or should I call it a sin?) to himself, to his clustermates, to his teammates and to the court. He chose to become a better person, a hero who would bring down the Fallen. He risked his own safety and the safety of a girl he loved to destroy the Fallen camp, and it doing so – make amends for at least some of what he did. And then he accepted his prison sentence, and after serving it become impossible, he chose to risk himself further by fighting more threats as a hero.

            I’m inclined to call his crime a “sin”, because his entire life after his trigger is basically one big sacrament a of penance and reconciliation, complete with all five steps as they are defined by Catholics for example. Well, all except absolution, which in his mind he can receive not from a priest, but only from his original clustermates. Quite fitting for a cultist from a sect based on Christianity.

            Question is – can he gain that absolution? I think he may get it from Love Lost, but can he get it from the others?

          5. And on the topic of absolution – it is not that he never got it from anyone. Remember Staci -that girl who defended him during his hearing in chapter 7.2? She was near the mall during the fallen attack, she lost her friends there, and she forgave him. Must have meant a lot to him.

          6. By the way, I expect that Staci may become relevant again soon. Remember that one of the friends she lost in the mall was Everlyn. The fact that she forgave Rain, even the fact that she still lives, may mean a lot to Love Lost.

    3. > Maybe her “dream” was a bit about how Colt would want her clustermates to be, and a little less about who they really were?

      Another possibility would be that Colt’s dream allowed them to see what they would like that day to look like, or even just what a normal dream would allow them to reinterpret that past experience as. Normal dreams are not about faithfully replying memories, but about reinterpreting them, so that the dreamer could move on.

      By the way, perhaps this dream could also be interpreted as just another hint that there can be some degradation of memories and/or personality stored within a shard – something we already saw with Valkyrie’s “shadows” and her flock, and with Ashley. Something that March seems to be unaware of or ignoring for some reason in her quest for “eternal afterlife” within shards.

      1. Possibly on topic of memory or personality degradation, what is going on with Snag? We did not see his point of view in the “dream”, yet none of the “old” members commented on it. Were there no more Snag’s “dreams” after his death? Love Lost did not turn her attention to Snag’s space at any point, but she still called the fifth space “the fifth“, so I assume that there still is at least some Snag’s space out there, especially if you consider what she wrote in her mail to LoL that Snag told her things after his death – things that sound too much like trigger visions, especially broken trigger visions, to be just her fabrications.

    4. An idea I had today as to why the dream changed is the Shards. They show the dream to the dreamers, and the shards don’t like what Cradle’s up to. So they ‘invite’ Colt into the cluster, and use her as an opportunity to show the dreamers what they’re really like. Show that the guy they hate is not the one they *should* hate, that he was just as trapped and alone as the rest, and the one they should hate and stop is the one who wanted to escape without helping *anyone*, who coincidentally is also the one doing things the Shards don’t like him doing- or possibly because he’s the one March relies on most, and she’s doing things they don’t want done.

      1. I don’t think the Shards would dislike what Cradle is doing. They really don’t follow anything reassembling human morality, only the programming which tells them to provoke conflict between the capes, and learn from it, and Cradle is doing just that.

        I could maybe see the Shards disliking what March is doing, depending what it does to the shards and their chances to continue the cycle, but even if that was the case, I somehow don’t think they would try to strike at March by putting these sorts of obstacles on Cradle’s path. In fact I don’t think the shards are smart or capable of autonomous decision to the point of trying to do anything that would disrupt the cycle out of their volition. If that was the case, Scion wouldn’t need to put all of those restrictions on them to make sure that the powers couldn’t be used against him and his counterpart.

        The only possible explanation I could see is related to that theory posted a few chapters ago that if the shards still hold copies of personalities of beings they were connected to before, then those beings could make shards behave in unexpected ways if they could somehow take at least some control over the shards in the first place. So far though I don’t think we saw any solid proof of that happening, though maybe whatever is in the fifth space is such hypothetical creature or something related to them.

        Still, the fact that the dream changed when Colt joined the cluster makes me think that whatever happened has probably more to do with her than with the fifth space.

    5. Wow. While reading this chapter, I so much wanted to comment on Love Lost’s hypocrisy and self-deception, and to advice her to start ridding the world of line-crossers by offing herself… And then all of this went straight out of the window when I finished. And I’m glad it did. Great chapter with great explanation of the personality bleedthrough and power-grabbing.
      Some thoughts about all of it…
      1) What happens to Colt now? She didn’t get any tokens for herself (but she has damn good powers without them), and she’s stuck with LL in shrinking dreamspace. Will she be drained too?
      2) We have seen that Goddess took over her cluster nonviolently. Now it seems that Cradle does the same thing in the same way (unless his underlings are killing LL and Colt in the meantime, but LL’s words about ego-death contradict it). Big question: where the FUCK did March get her sadistic fantasies from? Or maybe they don’t actually have anything to do with transferring powers, and it’s just March being psycho?
      3) Cradle has been sharing his tinker tokens all the time, but he still was a most powerful tinker of this cluster. So (primary without tokens) > (secondary with all the tokens of someone other). It’s likely that the primary power is not influenced by sharing tokens with others.
      4) Er…I wonder what exactly LL is going to do with her tokens. If Rain rejects Cradle’s tokens, she’ll probably give hers to Rain (because giving them to Cradle wouldn’t make any sense). And if he accepts them…then she’ll give hers to Cradle? It still does not make sense, now that she sees Cradle as a bigger villain than Rain.
      5) Fifth space still remains a mystery (a good kind of mystery, as opposed to weird one which I talked about in the previous chapter). Good. Much better than if Colt suddenly would appear in there, I think it wouldn’t fit.
      6) And what’s with Colt’s breaker power anyway? No one else has it. Or maybe it’s a variation introduced by budding…

      1. 1) I think Colt will be fine, and tomorrow she’ll have her own dream-space. Either because Love Lost is dead, Colt’s room has budded from Love Lost’s, or because Love Lost doesn’t turn up as she’s powerless.
        2) March has gone Kiss AND Kill, and she doesn’t know Goddess’ method- she knows the method used by the other guy from that cluster, the one who kidnapped his clustermates, drained their blood and gave himself a blood transfusion with it.
        3) Yet Rain says the primary power is enhanced when they get an extra token. Also remember Cradle’s not been doing anything else- he’s had the most time to tinker.
        4) Whoever she gives her tokens to will feel her rage. Rage clouds judgement, and it might change how they behave, make mistakes and so on. It’s the last card she has.
        5&6) I thought Colt would have had Snag’s space, as she’s the most effective mover in the cluster. The fact she isn’t is very interesting. She may still provide tokens that improve the movement power, however; or maybe everyone will have a new breaker-ish power when they wake up.

      2. Re. 4. It might also be that if Rain will take Cradle’s tokens, she will consider him a lost cause, and would rather help (and possibly incentivize) Cradle to kill Rain than let Cradle make another monster out of Rain (something Rain would become if he kept accepting Cradle’s tokens). If she could talk to Rain, she would probably just warn him against taking Cradle’s tokens instead, but she can’t, and seeing that she could be dying she probably thinks that she may never get the chance to do so.

      3. > 6) And what’s with Colt’s breaker power anyway? No one else has it. Or maybe it’s a variation introduced by budding…

        I figure she got a bit of Nailbiter mixed in with her Love Lost, like how Victoria got her aura from Dean.

        1. Doesn’t work. Nailbiter’s a Changer, not a Breaker. And Nailbiter’s altered shape is about lengthening, stretching and hardening things, not flying around flashing pretty colours.

          She was on drugs, however, and altered mental states can influence a breaker power in Weaverdice.

      4. 3) Cradle hasn’t been sharing out his token all the time, just more than the other two. He’s been generous, supposedly to allow his allies to have tinker gear a level roughly equal to his own, but I’m sure that he will still have nights where he keeps his tokens and that’s when he does his own work. He’s got a good excuse because it probably takes much less ability to effectively use the gear than it does to build them. So he can say that by liberally sharing his power, he’s giving the group three top tier tinkers instead of one. Of course, this also allows him to do whatever personality mojo that the token sharing does.

  14. What I want to know is how Love Lost’s revelation about how Cradle was manipulating her is going to affect her behavior moving forward – is she going to try to reverse the ego death she was undergoing by turning herself in or defecting to join the heroes?

    1. From the way she was talking at the end, it sounded like she won’t be in the picture any more after she gives her power to Rain. She won’t end up like Snag bc she’s not physically dying. I don’t think she’ll end up like Bianca’s clustermates bc she’s not physically being drained. Something else maybe. Unless this was how Bianca got power over her clustermates in the first place. I was pretty confused about the timeline for Bianca’s cluster after I read March’s chapter.

    2. It’s not just an ego death – Cradle set something up so LL/Colt are being killed in the real world while they’re incapacitated.

    3. If she survives, I assume that she will want a bit of that Rain’s guilt and self-doubt. She could certainly use some of it to hold her anger and whatever Cradle gave her (cold malice, cruelty or hatred?) in check.

          1. Not rationality. Quite the opposite really.
            Cradle gave her apathy and solipsism, ignorance of and indifference to those who are not the self.

            That’s why the bleedthrough enrages him so much; it’s an assault on the single thing in Cradle’s life that holds meaning and value for Cradle: Cradle.

  15. Rain saw what Cradle did to his team. To the likes of Aiden and Lookout. Now that lunatic wants to sell it as protecting them?

    You dont take half of of a childs face with you if you want to protect it. Thats the kind of protection Monokeiros offered.

    Nobody can be stupid enough to eat that shit.

    I am a bit confused that he even tries that….

    But this was a good chapter. Nice glimpses into the psyche of some characters.

    1. Rain might figure he doesn’t have a choice, not if his good friend Tristan ever wants to do anything ever again. Or if Kenzie ever wants to have fingers again. Or if Ashley doesn’t want to go back to Bonesaw for another prosthetic. That doesn’t include the Undersiders and Heartbroken, of course.

  16. Really hope brain’s smart enough to refuse that offer. Even if he does get the ability r to remake the whip and reverse the damage, there’s stilll the matter of the missing pieces. I really don’t want to see what happens if he reverses the power while the victims aren’t whole.
    As for love lost, still don’t sympathize with her. I DID feel a bit bad for her until she decided to go along with a maniacal plan that involved cutting up children. Her reasoning reminds me somewhat of Taylor’s justifications for everything she did and that was one of the biggest things I disliked about her character.
    With that ending, is it saying that the hatred an malice comes from cradle, or from the tokens or from the tinker power (that one doesn’t make sense but I put it out there anyway)? Obviously either way cradle was using it to poison his clustermates.
    So just how is cradle killing colt and love lost? And are we ever going to find out why he calls himself cradle? wait…Did we find that out already?

    1. From what I understand, what bleeds through is the character and personality. And Cradle is a grade A sociopath. He seems to lack any and all empathy. And thats exactly what happened to LL. She lost empathy. She became cold to the suffering of others, including children.
      That explains it, I guess.
      LL was so blind in her hatred that she didnt see what Cradle was doing.

      Cradle wants to be himself again. Which to him obviously means taking out all others of his cluster.

      What I dont get is Colt. Seeing what Cradle does to those other kinds and not running. And she is new to it so she does not have the excuse of being affected by the bleed through.

      In the end we see again that everybody has a justification for their own actions. Like someone very famously said “justifications are like assholes. Everybody has them and most of them stink”

      1. Colt has been assuming for several weeks now that she would be murdered if she acted on her misgivings about Love Lost’s behavior. And it’s quite possible that she didn’t know the extent of Cradle’s vileness – she quite obviously wasn’t with him for this attack and may not have been present when they ambushed the Navigators. And now it’s very definitely too late for her to escape cleanly, of course.

        1. She was with Love Lost and LL brought Lookout to him to get sliced up. So she was there.

          And maybe she was afraid at first but once she got powers she could have just flown off.
          Vic even tried to convince her when she fought her. At that time Lookout and the others were already sliced up so she knew whats going on.

          Well.. if Cradle and the rest of his merry band finally gets sliced up I really couldnt care less if Colt gets minced in the process.

          1. LL brought Lookout to Cradle to be sliced, yeah. Along with the others. And then along came Vicky and the others, to rescue their friends, and LL and- notably- Colt were in the group that went to fight them. So Colt wasn’t there to see Lookout &co cut up, neither was LL- though LL knew what was going on.

            This is also further confirmed by the fact Cradle didn’t know Colt had gained powers and joined the cluster- he was as surprised, if not moreso, as Rain. Rain, at least, had fought Colt and knew she had cluster-powers, though didn’t know how.

    2. > Really hope brain’s smart enough to refuse that offer.

      I’d probably fall for it, because in Rain’s shoes, I don’t think I’d realize the tokens convey personality traits. I’d realize that Cradle was up to something and trying to trick me, but I’d probably assume that it was merely a gambit to buy my trust, so I’d take the tokens while reminding myself to actively distrust him.

      > And are we ever going to find out why he calls himself cradle? wait…Did we find that out already?

      We might have. When he had that big hand mech at the Fallen raid, he rode in its palm — cradled, you could say. You can also draw a comparison between the cables it used in its attacks and Cat’s Cradle. But maybe there’s a deeper meaning.

      1. > I’d probably fall for it, because in Rain’s shoes, I don’t think I’d realize the tokens convey personality traits.

        Rain also probably doesn’t realize the connection between the tokens, and personality traits, but he has a history with Cradle that should make him wary about any sudden changes of Cradle’s heart, he has seen that Love Lost is probably not as heartless as Cradle, and he should realize that:
        – Love Lost is dying, just like he saw it with Snag,
        – According to Tattletale Cradle may want to leech Love Lost’s power.
        I think he should be intelligent enough to connect those two things and come to the same conclusion Love Lost did about the cause of her imminent death.

    3. “Nobody can be stupid enough to eat that shit.”

      Rain isn’t that stupid, but he might think the power doesn’t come without any direct drawbacks and that he needs it to be able to help Cradle’s victims. He might think the Cradle’s going a social engineering route to gain influence via favors owed and not realize that there’s a direct effect.

      My hope is that since he’s never gotten tokens from them before, he might notice the effects and be able to be on guard against what it’s doing to him. Or he could reject Cradle’s coins and LL might be unable to get the teeth to him what with the room disappearing, or she might try to use her rage as a weapon against Cradle to make him reckless, or the power-drain might make any decision she makes about where to send the teeth moot.

  17. I’ll admit falsifying evidence might not be the right term for what Nic did with the pills and the forged note(and what she did with the note might not legally qualify as forgery), but it still comes across as a tactic you’d have to be at least lawful neutral, if not lawful evil to use in a police investigation. The fact that such probably mirrors many real world interrogations just makes it all the more disturbing.

    She might not have been a bad cop in the sense of reveling in the power that comes with the badge or gleefully doing evil in the name of the law, but she was, best I can tell from this flashback and what I remember of previous flashbacks, far from being a good cop, holding herself to a higher standard than the general population, being a decent role model, and when push comes to shove, choosing to do good over blindly following the law.

    Granted, she went off the deep end as Love Lost, but if this was typical behavior pre-trigger, she was part of the problem that contributes to my general lack of trust in law enforcement in real-life.

  18. Wait, so Rain got a straight dose of Snag after he kicked it? Would that explain his sudden personality shift immediately after?

    1. I’d say more: he’s going to get a dose of Cradle eventually, regardless of whether he takes his tokens now or not. His only hope might be if the shards consider personalities of dead clustermates inefficient and not worth propagating.

      1. Considering that Snag’s tokens were distributed on death and LL is about to toss hers out, it’s probably a vain hope.

        Hm. I wonder if that’s why Snag’s tokens went out, and they were two for Rain and one for LL, rather than one to each of the survivors. Snag might’ve seen what Cradle was up to, and tried to use his last moments of clarity to reinforce the other two against him. With emphasis on Rain, who had the deck stacked against him.

        Which might imply this isn’t Love Lost’s choice, and she’s being subtly manipulated by her shard into this action.

        1. Cradle got the third Snag token. I assumed at the time that it was a reward for the role they played in his death – Rain’s power directly killed Snag, and Cradle manipulated him into suicidally attacking the way he did. Love Lost didn’t really do anything to encourage things.

  19. Just trying to suss out the cluster’s emotion powers/tokens:

    Rain: guilt/misery, metal rectangles?
    Love Lost: savagery/rage, teeth
    Colt: worry/aspiration??, teeth??
    Cradle: apathy? (I don’t think we’ve actually seen Cradle use the emotion power), coins
    Snag: loss/despair, glass

    While digging I found some stuff.

    From the Jonathan chapter, as he (Snag) dies: “No anger, no numbness. He missed his brother, his store. Was it that the connection had been severed, or that this mad quest had ended? ”.

    So that’s another indicator LL isn’t off the mark regarding the token sharing effects.

    From the Cradle fight: ““I was getting everything set up, finally living the life I wanted to live, and he fucked it all up. He pulled me into this, he infected me, and now I’m different!”

    Moderately Speculative Theory, and I think others have mentioned it: Cradle’s a sociopath, and Rain gave him guilt, just a little. Love Lost and Snag gave him plenty of a longing for the time before he felt guilt and anger that focused on one of the guilt’s sources, Rain. Remember how Sier/ The Fallen didn’t expect the mall attack to be as deadly as it was? Maybe Cradle played a role in that, possible for profit, judging by the coins.

    Also found this, which seems relevant to both Love Lost and Victoria of late: “I’m not the bastard here,” Cradle said. “He is. Everyone we’ve told the story to has agreed it’s fair. When the bad guy is shitty enough, it stops being revenge and starts being justice.”

  20. Excellent chapter, and so much of it! As I scrolled down while reading there was so much left I thought there must be a lot of comments under the chapter. Then when I finished I found I’d loaded the page before any comments were made! But yeah, great work. Especially the token realisation.

    Weird coincidence: I don’t think I’ve read a “give me your keys before I give you a refill” bar scene in a story before… except in another novel twelve hours ago. (yes it took me a whole day to finish reading this, I’ve been busy). A story which also involved alternate realities.

  21. 1. Why Colt triggers with bud from Love Lost shard? Looks like Love Lost did not intended this trigger and it is probably not March’s work as well.
    So only good old Corona Pollentia, drugs and stress?
    2. Not sure how Love Lost is going to pass her token into Rain’s cell (if she decide to), as it is across her cell and so there is no border between Rain’s cell and LL’s. Token should first pass either Cradle’s cell or fifth cell and Snag’s cell (if it is still there) to get to Rain’s. And looks like throw is not enough, some pushing required:
    4b: “Cradle found the coins, gripped them in one hand, and slammed the hand against the invisible barrier that separated his section from Snag’s”
    12.3: “Cradle held out the coins, fingers pinching at the edges while he held them to the barrier”

    1. Re. 2. Since the tokens themselves seem to go through the walls without resistance, she can just throw them to Rain’s sector in hopes that Rain doesn’t need to actually catch them for them to work, that it is enough for them to land on the floor in his part of the room?

  22. I’m thinking Cradle STOLE from the pharmacy. That’s why his tokens are coins.

    Cradle used the commotion for his own ends. To steal.

    1. We should have seen theft in Cradle’s night in Interlude 4b, it is very emotional to be skipped.
      Maybe if Cradle is experienced kleptomaniac and do not feel a lot about theft then he could “hide” it from revealing in the dream, but then it should somehow affect his dream – scene of being caught or in police.

      I think Cradle failed to learn to earn money (before trigger) and that is what he was berated for during scenes we see in his dream – principal, parents and so pushes him to study to be successful, but he did not heard them (may be even literally, thus gibberish, wails and even rubble instead of words). And so he get coins as his tokens.

  23. You know, it’s kind of odd that a sociopath would trigger as a master-esque tinker. You’d think they wouldn’t exactly care about other people.

    Unless he’s just seeing other people as tools, or as extensions of his will. And lamenting the loss of that, instead of the loss of them as a human. Hence the hands, as opposed to making full-on drones.

    Aha…

    1. Or it was the trampling later…

      Actually, have we seen a non-cauldron Tinker who we know DIDN’T have some minor or major mental issue?

      Just thinking back to how Kid Win had discalcula and Armsmaster/Defiant had grandiose issues. I mean, all capes seem to have some mental problems but Tinkers feel like they have truly diagnosable, long term stuff that needs treatment beyond just counseling.

      1. The power classification whose trigger event is defined by long-term problems has a correlation with long-term problems? Color me surprised. 😛

        More seriously, I doubt it’d be the trampling, since that has nothing to do with trying to resolve a long-term problem (tinker) or of experiencing grief/loss/betrayal (master). And I don’t really see the connection to hands, there. Feet maybe, but he doesn’t make feet.

    2. Cradle lost his glasses in stampede and his hands were stepped on while he trying to find glasses, right before trigger. 4b:

      Cradle was close to the front of the crowd. He was shoved, he tried to catch his balance, and he fell. His glasses came away from his face, they were stepped on.
      Twice, *he reached for the glasses, and his hands were stepped on*. There was a desperation in it, more of a struggle to get them than there was even an attempt to stand. The scene was blurred but *his hands were as clear as anything*.
      Close by, a woman screamed, and the sound was prolonged, multi-part.
      *He found his glasses and put them to his face with bleeding fingers*. He was kicked, stepped on.

      And so his desire to build hands, I think.

      1. That seems… oddly specific.

        On the other hand (heh), it clears up the master bit a whole lot more. He didn’t care about other people, but in that scene and the others there’s this recurring pattern of him being ignored, harassed, trodden on, and shoved out of the way. It is isolation, I just didn’t pick up on it for some reason.

        Also explains the sensory aspect going on with them: that desperate, animal need to pick up his glasses, above anything reasonable. Couldn’t see without them, dropped into a sub-reason state: power gives him a thinker-ish sense factor.

        Cool. Thanks!

        1. He has a master power, because he’s a multi-trigger and one of his clustermates has a primary master power. His trigger event gave him tinker powers and that’s his primary power. He has the others because the multi-trigger means he’s got weaker variant on their powers. His personality probably shapes how that master power expresses itself, but the multi-trigger is what made him get it.

          1. I wasn’t talking about the emotion power. I was talking about his tinker power, which has very strong master tones to it, as well: he creates drones with it, and also controllable limbs.

            Yes, it’s possible for a tinker power to also be a master power.

            I’m starting to feel like I’m maybe one of three people here who actually reads WB’s posts when he’s answering fan questions.

          2. Cradle does not have a strict master power (except to the extent that shenanigans let him act like he has one for his clustermates). The emotion power is an emotion-affecting Shaker ability, not a Master ability. That said, David Hunt is right that his Tinker ability has distinct Master overtones that are mostly absent from his clustermates’ versions of the same ability.

  24. A lot of us here assumed that Love Lost is willing to give her teeth to Rain if he declines Cradle’s offer, and to Cradle – if Rain accepts. I admit that at the first glance it may appear to be the logical assumption, but what if it is wrong? Could any of you think of a reason wha Love Lost may want to give her tokens to Rain if and only if he accepts Cradle’s coins, and to Cradle, if Rain declines?

    1. One reason for her not to give Rain the teeth, if he doesn’t accept the coins could be that she may want not to force a bleed-through on a boy, who hasn’t been corrupted by it yet, but why would she want to give them to Cradle in such situation?

      I assume that she isn’t considering giving her tokens to Colt, because she wants to pass them on the floor of a section, and since Colt is in the same section as Love Lost it probably wouldn’t count as passing her tokens to anyone. Plus Colt is probably just as helpless in the “real world” as Love Lost is at the moment. Similarly she probably has no reason to pass them to Snag if it is even possible.

      Maybe she knows something about the fifth space that we don’t know, and, depending on Rain’s decision, she is considering passing her tokens to it?

      1. Here is a bit of text which may possibly hint that Love Lost may be considering giving her power to whatever is in the fifth space:

        When the dream ended, she would pass on her ability, and with it, all of her rage and savagery. To throw it into one room, in hopes they would wake before the teeth could be collected and thrown back.

        If that was even a consideration.

        With people like Rain or Cradle you must always consider a possibility that, given enough time, they may collect the teeth and throw them back, so maybe she is considering giving them to someone who can’t throw them back? Whatever is in the fifth space may be unable to. Alternatively, if Snag’s room is still there, she may be planning to give them to him, and he may be unable to move, or at least to move enough to throw them back. Only why would she give them to someone who is dead in the “real world”?

    2. I think the decision is hinging on whether or not LL decides Rain is redeemable, and why she decided that depends on him accepting the tokens.

      Cradle giving his tokens to Rain makes Rain into a sociopath, but Cradle himself is already a sociopath. Since the possibility of giving the tokens to Cradle is already on the table, that suggests Love Lost is considering the option of creating a very angry sociopath.

      This suggests that her intent actually is to create a very angry sociopath, which might result in a complete monster (who also has a whole lot of power). The reason she’s hesitating on whether or not to give them to Rain would be because she isn’t sure if he’s redeemable yet: she could very well be looking for someone who “deserves to die”, with Cradle being the default but Rain being a conditional target of opportunity.

      Rain rejects the coins: Cradle gets the teeth.
      Rain accepts the coins: Rain gets the teeth.

      1. “Rain rejects the coins: Cradle gets the teeth.
        Rain accepts the coins: Rain gets the teeth.”
        Yes. I think key words are dangerous and reckless:
        “All her power for the day, and dangerous, reckless rage.”

      2. See, I read that the other way around, with the teeth being a boon rather than a curse. In other words,

        Rain rejects the coins: Rain gets the teeth.
        Rain accepts the coins: Cradle gets the teeth.

        I knew that required a pretty big jump in Love Lost’s attitude/regard with respect to Rain’s trustworthiness, but I still hadn’t considered the other possibilities. It looks like she maybe realizes Rain’s repentance is at least somewhat genuine (but still hates his guts and would frankly like to see him dead in a ditch), but that change is subservient to the revelation that Cradle is substantially more of a smooth-talker and manipulator than heretofore suspected.
        Of course, it’s also possible Love Lost has completely misjudged the situation and there’s something else going on with her and Cradle entirely, but while Love Lost is depicted as quite emotionally driven, we’re also told she’s intellectually pretty sharp, with an eye for character.

  25. Here is another crazy idea about why people like Teacher and Cradle could actually be the good guys in a Cauldron-y way. Remember how in interlude 29 of Worm Teacher mentioned “saving us from ourselves”, and showed Contessa a photo of Taylor as “case in point”? Remember how in the epilogue e.5 he said that he wanted to “fight against entrophy, and all that is wrong in the world”, and how he asked “Can we put the whole back together? At least in part?”

    What if he wasn’t talking about physical entrophy, but about the entrophy of human society. Natural triggers cause human society to fall apart in part because they take victims of traumas, and give them power and drive to cause more damage an chaos. What if Teacher thinks that putting an Entity back together can prevent or reduce the number of future triggers, thus allowing society to recover, as it would need to face less conflict caused by capes influenced by their shards?

    If Cradle is pursuing the same goal, it would fit his claims that he does what he “has to”. It would explain why he told he wanted to provoke only a single broken trigger because in his words “We needed a scare, something that forces everyone to look at where they stand and what they’re willing to do.” – he wants to force people to do something about the triggers, to show them, that the problem can’t be ignored. It would explain why he wanted to disable “the best and most vulnerable” in case “something did happen” – he wants the most powerful capes, the capes who are good people (like Undersiders- especially Tattletale), and the capes who are most emotionally unstable, most likely to become monsters (like Breakthrough and the Heartboken), to stay away from the place where something may happen to them – both to keep them alive, so they can be used as assets later, when they realize what problems the humanity is facing because of continuing triggers, and to keep them from becoming shard-controlled monsters. It also explains why he is going after his clustermates – not only to gain their power, but also (or maybe especially) because he sees them as emotionally unstable, and as such likely to succumb to shard-madness themselves.

    It would explain why people from Cheit firs worked with Teacher, and then with Cradle. Remember that someone in Cheit is very unhappy that broken triggers happen, and how the city handles them. Maybe they also don’t want triggers to happen at all, and saw Teacher as someone who can do something about it? After the Teacher decided that causing a massive scale broken trigger to force everyone to work on preventing more triggers is to radical they, being radicals themselves, decided to work with radicals like March and Cradle to use a forced broken trigger (essentially a terrorist attack causing a very high number of deaths) to force all capes, and the government of the city to help them to implement whatever plan Teacher has for preventing more triggers in the future. What Cradle and “mercenaries” from Cheit failed to see is that March probably doesn’t care about any of this stuff – all she wants is Foil, and is willing to use any method, including a threat of forcing multiple triggers just to get her clustermate.

    The only questions are – did Teacher take part in the plan of “exploding” the portals (and from what Tattletale said in chapter 11.3 – he probably did), and what did he want to accomplish by doing so? It could be seen as a terrorist attack causing less damage than forced broken triggers, but why did he not make any demands after conducting it? Or maybe he did, but not publicly? Maybe he only issued his demands to capes with knowledge and power to do something about the triggers, like Wardens, the mayor, and possibly even Tattletale?

    1. Or maybe he attacked the portals to cut off the city – a place with the highest concentration of triggers – from the rest of humanity to isolate the biggest source of the problem from other words?

      1. And yes, closing those portals would isolate the city without damaging the sections of the city around them, but we don’t know if Teachers ability to close Doormaker-like portals translates to an ability to close the portals made by Scrub-Labyrinth duo, or if closing them would be safe. It is possible that trying to do so would release all energy stored in them causing a gigantic broken trigger or another disaster.

        1. This theory would also explain why Teacher is after mind manipulators. He wants to use them to keep exiting capes from going too insane (even in Taylor-esqe “let’s solve everything by escalating all conflicts” way – probably why he used her as an example to illustrate the problem to Contessa), and possibly to somehow calm the unpowered, so they are less likely to trigger.

          1. Speaking of Taylor – this theory also explains all of those questions Contessa asked her about regrets. She was trying to determine if Taylor is gone so far into the way of thinking that made her spread constant conflict and chaos that there was no hope for her to change those ways. Same thing with the question about anchors – it was a question asked to determine if Taylor can live as a normal, well adjusted member of human society instead of being a constant source of conflict.

            Of course Contessa herself realized that she had the same problems as Taylor, which determined the general tone of that conversation, and possibly also influenced Contessa’s decision to retire and to try to depend on her power less.

            The most ironic thing is that if I’m right, Teacher’s Cauldron is trying to fix a problem which was in no small part created by the old Cauldron, which, at Alexandria’s insistence, promoted a social order in which conflict between capes was not only tolerated, but even encouraged.

    2. [quote]It would explain why he told he wanted to provoke only a single broken trigger because in his words “We needed a scare, something that forces everyone to look at where they stand and what they’re willing to do.” – he wants to force people to do something about the triggers, to show them, that the problem can’t be ignored.[/quote]
      Two problems with that theory:
      1) Cradle is lying. Which is called out about three times right next to that quote, no idea how you missed that.
      [quote]“The plan was for her to release one,” Cradle lied.

      That hadn’t been the plan. Zero, not one. If she found the one she needed then she would mercy kill before it became a real problem.

      She screamed again.

      “Why?” the Fallen boy asked.

      “Because all of the rules we used to operate by were based around mutually assured destruction. We needed a scare,” Cradle said. “Something that forces everyone to look at where they stand and what they’re willing to do. We pose a threat without actually following through, then remind you all that you need us.”

      None of it true. Well- some. It had been a contingency plan. Discussed in the span of one minute, as a possibility if something did get loose.[/quote]
      2) I think you misunderstood his lie, he’s saying the plan was to show everyone that there are worse things out there than him and his allies, so the good guys should keep him around so he can help against that kind of stuff. He’s basically arguing that something like the endbringer truce should apply to him.

          1. This system uses html instead of bbcode. Replace quote with blockquote, and use angle brackets instead of square.

            Thanks! 🙂

      1. The way I see it he did lie to Love Lost, because she wouldn’t react well if he told her he was planning to cause even one broken trigger, and he needed her cooperation at that time. He told her that causing one trigger would only be a “contingency plan”, so she wouldn’t immediately act against him if she learned about the first trigger (the one that happened before the cluster fell “asleep”).

        At the same time he agreed with March to cause one broken trigger, because he thought that the threat would not be taken seriously by the heroes if no triggers would happen at all. The problem is that he has also been lied to – by March, who caused one broken trigger before Rain’s cluster was knocked out, just like she promised him to do it, but after Cradle was out, and couldn’t do anything to her anymore, she proceeded to the second phase of her plan, which required more broken triggers.

        Alternatively the first trigger caused a chain reaction, and the second trigger happened because the energy released during the first trigger caused a time bubble to pop. Remember that March apparently thought that she and her allies “aren’t saying for sure they’re willing or guaranteeing they’re able to walk it back” even after she gets Foil. The bit about not being willing to “walk it back” may indicate that she doesn’t care how many triggers will happen, or wants to cause more triggers for some reasons other than just getting Foil, but the part about not being able to do it may mean that she is not certain that the triggers can be stopped anymore.

        1. In other words Love Lost, Cradle and March differ from each other in how far they are willing to go. Love Lost just wanted to threaten to cause one broken trigger, and thought that it should be enough. Cradle wanted to cause one, so his threat was taken seriously, and March wanted to cause more than one and/or wasn’t sure if causing one wouldn’t result in a chain reaction and was willing to accept this risk.

          1. If I had to guess, I would say that March caused the second broken trigger intentionally and without Cradle’s consent, because of its timing. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain why that trigger happened while Rain’s cluster was out.

          2. By the way this bit:

            If she found the one she needed then she would mercy kill before it became a real problem.

            seems to indicate that either Love Lost wanted to find one particular person trapped within the time effects, release that person, and “mercy kill” them before they triggered, or, more likely, March told them that she was looking for such person.

            Who could it be that March or Love Lost would want to take out of the time effect, didn’t need to keep alive, but didn’t hate enough to call killing them an “execution” but “mercy kill” instead? Probably someone unpowered, since this person could initiate a broken trigger.

          3. …though only “probably unpowered”, because I wouldn’t exclude a possibility of a second trigger becoming broken, or even someone suffering a third trigger under such unusual conditions.

  26. So, a some people seem to be commenting on Cradle being an absolute monster, and backing this up with “His dream was only to save his own skin”, but…
    “Cradle turned, and he walked away, stepping into the pharmacy, and cutting a path for the door. As he did, he nudged a store employee, and his voice was a thousand creaks of metal hinges.
    While the store employee ran, he opened the door, to the sound of a single door’s metal hinges creaking, that same sound that had just been made a thousand times.”

    He might not want to have taken action himself, but it certainly looks like he planned to tell people something was up.

    And also… I agree that what he is doing is messed up, and not saying he is a cool dude or whatever… but I’m also leery of everyone tossing around “Dude’s a sociopath” etc etc etc.

    * Partly because I don’t think any of use are trained psychologists…

    * partly because using medical terms like “Narcissist” or “Sociopath” or whatever lends this sort of … scientific weight to an opinion when often we just me “Selfish asshole”… and sort of using clinical terms when we are really voicing an ethical stance sort of… feels like we are pretending to be more objective than we are…. I see people do this in real life, and it always seems like a way for someone to say “This person who I don’t like and disagree with is OBJECTIVELY fucked up”.

    *And… partly it just feels like its liable to leak out to hatred towards various other types of mental illness/disorder.

    Could be wrong, is just a thought.

    Also, it is easy to imagine someone who has grown up with relatively low levels of direct empathy,, but still has a moral compass because they have LEARNED one. When they pass their detatchment off to someone else, it leads to problems, because that other person used their empathy as their primary compass, as opposed to ethical rules (its not like LL seemed super upstanding before).
    Conversely, someone who has always had a temper might have good ways of handling it, and channeling it for good (emphasis on might)… but if that temper gets handed to someone ill prepared for it, that might go fairly poorly.

    … all that said, it certainly does look like Cradle is a lying liar who lies, and dissection whip is messed up, so I am certainly not taking his side or anything.
    I just am leery about prescribing medical conditions, and assuming that there is nothing going on that we don’t know about.

    1. I’m glad you brought this up because I don’t know what exactly the clinical standards are for someone to be diagnosed as a sociopath and what, EXACTLY (and no more) that might mean.

      Earlier I used the term sociopath to describe Cradle specifically because of his (potential) abscence of empathy, but I’m not aware whether or not that’s “close enough” to the clinical term to not cause problems. It a similar situation much in the same way “legally blind” does not equal zero activity from the optic nerve.

    2. You can say nobody here is a doctor (or not the right kind of doctor), and you’d be correct. It’d also be irrelevant, because neither is the author: if it takes a licensed psychiatrist to “diagnose” a fictional character, then it takes the same to write one.

      If a character was written to fit the common media portrayal of a sociopath, then they’re exactly that. You can quibble over the medical definitions, but that’s outside the context of a story unless the author has the requisite doctorate. However well researched Wildbow is, and however much painstaking care he put into accurately portraying whatever is going on with his characters, any arguments against “we aren’t doctors, so let’s not throw a diagnosis around” applies to him as well.

      As for myself, I look at these two things:

      He’s been giving his cluster mates his own lack of empathy so they’d be easier to use in his own schemes: lack of empathy and using people as tools are classic “media sociopath” traits.

      He was using that dissection whip plenty more than the minimum necessary to stop people from stopping him: a very good indicator that he isn’t using it for some higher purpose like he claims, but is using it for his own benefit (if not his own enjoyment).

      Cradle’s head is screwed in the same ways often repeated in other works of fiction. If there’s some clever subversion waiting in the wings, then so be it, but you can’t blame anyone for accepting the story as written up to that point. Not to mention, any “but he’s not actually malicious” plot twist would almost have to be an absurdity at this point, what with how he’s been portrayed so far.

      If you point at a duck and try to explain to me how it may possibly not be a duck, I’m going to call you crazy, medical license or no. Because fiction isn’t real life, the people who write fiction are not infallible, and even a medically perfect representation of a character still has to take into account how the audience will perceive them (with the vast majority of audience members being of only average education).

      1. It’s important to make these distinctions between fictional depictions and the reality somewhere though, because fictional depictions can and do influence IRL interactions, attitudes, and preconceptions. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has made some waves lately specifically because fictional/pop culture representations had strayed overly far from the condition real people live with. This is also true for schizophrenia, race, gender, and other topics where people’s pre-conceptions, their natural, inescapable prejudices, sometimes clash with reality.

        This doesn’t mean no author can ever depict a mental illness without presenting it in the exact, clinically accurate fashion.

        People may not like it, but having the pop culture version of ____ condition existing is still a useful writing crutch. How To Train Your Dragon does this with Vikings, for example. We don’t need a ton of detail exposition explaining this Nordic warrior culture and their intersocial nuances, it’s just “yeah, these louts with horns on their helmets” and yet we’re immediately familiar with them.

        I guess authors just have to make the best calls they can? Tough problem to balance when the scope encompasses everything and anything they depict.

        1. For exactly this reason, “sociopathy”, like “psychopathy” before it, is no longer actually a psychological diagnosis. It’s been replaced with Antisocial Personality Disorder, IIRC, which reauires soms malevolence in addition to the inablity to read emotions that is sometimes described as a “lack of empathy”.

          It is important not to confuse any of these with psychosis, which is a completely different condition marked by delusions and hallucinations and gets a pretty bad reputation because it sounds similar to psychopathy.

          (Nb: I am speaking from memory and I’ve never been formally educated about psychology/psychiatry. I’ve just read about this stuff.)

      2. “If a character was written to fit the common media portrayal of a sociopath, then they’re exactly that. You can quibble over the medical definitions, but that’s outside the context of a story unless the author has the requisite doctorate. However well researched Wildbow is, and however much painstaking care he put into accurately portraying whatever is going on with his characters, any arguments against “we aren’t doctors, so let’s not throw a diagnosis around” applies to him as well.”

        I… I gotta say I actually disagree with this.
        If Wilderbeast spent an afternoon or two researching and actualy thing, and did their best to portray that actual thing as accurately as possible, then that would still make them more of an expert and (presumably) more of an expert than most, if not all, of the commenters. This could be pychology, or agriculture, or different types of insects.
        The way you’re putting it it feels like a false dichotomy -“You’re either a proffesional pychologist, or random joe public”, when actually an author (or any given person) could exist in various places in between, such as “Not professional, but has actually done their research”.

        And its still unclear to me if Cradle HAS been written to match the common media portrayl of a sociopath, or if that is just something that came up in the comments, and people jumped on the bandwagon.

        “He was using that dissection whip plenty more than the minimum necessary to stop people from stopping him: a very good indicator that he isn’t using it for some higher purpose like he claims, but is using it for his own benefit (if not his own enjoyment).”

        Yes, I agree, and its messed up…
        but at the same time, I’ve got to ask, someone who could build something like that, did they have the option of building a far more lethal weapon?
        Yes, its gruesome, and maybe the whole “Not technically lethal” is only a gambit to avoid getting a kill order, or pissing off allies too much…

        I guess…
        what bothers me in some sense is that in saying “This bad person we don’t like is a sociopath” we are writing off the possibility that completely normal people will do messed up things given the right circumstances.
        But you don’t NEED a mental illness to do bad things- people do bad, and selfish and malicious things all the time. Or cling on to their ideals and start a war for their religion, or their country, or because someone they love got hurt, and now they lash out against anyone who’s even the same colour as the attacker.
        And that’s messed up.

        I’m not claiming that he’s justified, or that he isn’t malicious, I just think that we’ve only had limited interactions with him so far, and sort of… in claiming that a bad person is a sociopath, we discount the possibility that they are just a person, sort of… put blinders on the idea that a normal person could do bad things given the right circumstances.

        Or I could be wrong. I’m not claiming for sure that he ISN’T any of those things, just pointing out that I don’t know yet.

        1. I was arguing against a false dichotomy: the claim that no one without a degree in psychology could call Cradle out as being a sociopath. There might be a few doctors here, and there might not. But as you say, there exists plenty of good, reliable, cross-referenced material on the internet, and it’s not hard to be at least a little informed.

          I’m not saying he’s a sociopath because he does bad things. I’m not saying he’s a bad person for being a sociopath. I’m saying he fulfills all the classic traits of being a sociopath, which is only relevant because it highlights the particular way he goes about being a bad person.

          Jeez. Was I typing in Latin or something? Or is this just one of those “hot-button issues” where people get offended by the existence of the word while ignoring the fact that words are inherently meaningless and exist solely to convey ideas and concepts based on shared consensus?

          … It’s like everybody’s trying to change every word in the dictionary these days. And they wonder why nobody can seem to agree on anything, anymore.

  27. – so many answers, so many questions

    – interesting that Sidepiece still believes that old misinformation about some triggers being from happy shit (Solar Exaltation versus the Abyssal/Green Sun exaltation of actual triggers – there’s a reason a huge number of the earliest Wormfics were Exalted crossovers)
    – Nailbiter knows and is like yeah, whatever. Until we fight to the death, I respect you.
    – that explains something I wondered about but never actually typed: how come she got a emotion-sensor power? None of the others in the cluster did. Turns out she tinkered that shit through the mask (kind of an inversion of her rage scream?)
    – she would hard-counter Roman, wouldn’t she. She’s already in a permanent state of berzerk rage pretty much
    – how did she tinker up a haptic interface tactile reminder of her daughter’s hair?
    – at least they’re not so blinded by their hatred of Rain that they don’t spare some for Seir and Mama Mathers (and apparently Valefor too)
    – so it’s confirmed: Colt did join their cluster and she did bud off Love Lost — but it was an almost complete accident
    – but that raises more questions! If a grab-bag cape is linked to four different shards and then buds, do they all bud or just the one that supplied her primary power? If the latter, how come she gets grandfathered into the cluster and gains the other abilities despite only receiving a bud from one shard? If the latter, how four shards gonna bud at the same time?
    – CRADLE!!!!! CURSE YOUR SUDDEN yet inevitable BETRAYAL!!!
    – so their version of the carousel (passing the tokens around) combines passing along emotional/psychological tendencies along with the power boost. Damn.
    – but if Crade is feeding them his psychopathy, doesn’t that mean he becomes a good (or at least regular) person when he hands it off? Does this mean he feels guilt for his atrocities until he gets his tokens back?
    – Cradle Interlude incoming, I assume. Amazing how much we know about his past life that still tells us absolutely nothing
    A face on the wrong end of one-way glass. I SEES WHAT YOU DID THERE WILDBOW I SEES IT
    – Love Lost is such a badass. Even impending ego-and-literal death cannot stop her from finding a way to fight back. One last throw of the teeth

    ———-

    Pro-Tip: in light of this chapter, rereading Snag’s interlude brings a lot of things to light. For example:

    “You seem to be doing better than any of us. Except maybe that asshole over there,” the boy with the glasses said.

    The idea surprised Jonathan.

    “I’m not doing okay,” he said. “I feel-”

    His voice distorted on that last word, rougher, painful to make the word ‘feel’.

    “You feel what?”

    “I feel,” Jonathan said, in that painfully rough voice, “Hollowed out. Numb. Angry. Lost.”

    “Yeah. Me too.”

    Wildbow is a legit goddamn genius.

    1. “Hollowed out. Numb. Angry. Lost.”

      Oh wow, it’s just all right there, and I just wooshed right over it on a reread, /looking specifically for hints regarding the cluster’s respective emotion powers/.

  28. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that maybe the reason that Rain didn’t become a total monster is because the others treated him as one and shunned him?

    What would’ve happened if they _hadn’t_ been hostile to him and more freely shared their tokens?

    1. He would have become as murderous and vengeful as they were and gone on the attack against them — with his powers and tinker stuff boosted to boot. Look at the chapters leading up to his fight to the death with Snag (he randomly happened to get someone’s Mover token the night before the battle): he immediately becamr more ruthless and built blades into his weak tinker arms so that breaking them would equal stabbing oneself.

      Apparently, when shards fuck with your head, it doesn’t even look like mind control, it looks like you having an entirely justified reaction to the situation.

  29. “There’ll never be a day when we’re done,” Nailbiter said.
    And here Nailbiter reveals she understands everything better than Love Lost does.

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