Heavens – 12.f

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He took off his glasses, holding them in his hands.  The time for tantrums was over, and the fragility of the glasses in his hands was a reminder to himself.  Not to clench his fists, not to stand.  If he opened his eyes and looked at something or someone, then the blurriness of the scene was an immediate warning to himself.  If the glasses shifted in his fingers because he moved, that gave him pause.

He’d broken his glasses once, years ago.  He’d done it in a childish tantrum, and it had taken days before he could get new ones.  Back in the ugly days.

That hadn’t been the day the tantrums stopped, but it had been a lesson that had stayed with him.  Rare, when he had so many terrible teachers.

“Ryan,” Old Mrs. Parrish said.

Speaking of terrible teachers.

Ryan took his time unfolding the arms of his glasses, rubbing at a spot on the lens with his shirt-sleeve, then sliding them into place.  His fingers ran through his hair, while the fingers of his other hand stayed on his glasses.  A reminder, lingering as he focused his eyes on his homeroom teacher.

Mrs. Parrish was giving him a look.  Sad and disappointed, but not disappointed in him.  She wore bright colors, and all of her jewelry looked like it was bought from the same kiosk in the mall.  Not even a store, but one of the booths that were set up in the walkways, that stuck ‘fair trade’ in the name and sold wooden beads they’d probably made themselves for twenty times the price.

He had a running bet with himself that she had at least three cats and one other random pet.  She definitely didn’t have a wedding ring on her left hand, and that was a ship that had sailed a long time ago.

He smiled, the smile measured to the occasion.

“What goes around comes around,” she said.

He had to be careful.  He looked at the door beside him, and he could hear the murmurings of his parents.  He adjusted his glasses without looking at Old Mrs. Parrish, and he thought about all the possibilities.  How dangerous was she?

His parents were saying something about suing the district.  He could call her out on exactly what she was, cut her down like she’d tried to cut him down.  But it wasn’t worth the risk.

“Are you threatening me, Mrs. Parrish?” he asked.

She leaned forward, arms on the divider that separated the two office secretary’s desks.  Her fingers rotated a piece of wood at her wrist that had been painted a jade green, until a backwards swastika showed.

“No.  I believe in karma,” she said.  “I think if you do good, then you’ll find your way forward.  People will want to help you, and opportunities will present themselves.”

“Oh,” he said.  He tried to look like he was digesting that.

She was almost rushed as she cut in, “Don’t say anything, Ryan.  Just… think about it.”

She sounded so guarded.  Defensive.

“I’m mostly thinking about how that explains a lot about you, Mrs. Parrish.  You never look really happy, except that one time Tyler pranked Ben in class-”

“Ryan.”

“-which is kind of mean spirited, isn’t it?  And you’re unmarried and old and I’ve never seen you hanging out with another teacher.  None of the students come to your desk to shoot the shit after class.”

“Enough, Ryan.”

He wanted to say more.  He could even get away with it.  He could press her and she’d get mad, and his parents were right here, to see what he had to deal with at school.  He bit his tongue instead.  He adjusted his glasses, looking down at his lap.

In the background, he could make out words.

You’ve had it out for him, even though-“

He sighed.

“If what goes around comes around, then you guys are really going to hurt for the way you’ve treated me, the past few years.”

“You don’t really believe that.”

He didn’t.

But he measured out another smile.  Getting back at her would be satisfying, but he’d learned that it was an empty kind of payback.  A fast food kind of thing, empty and not so good for him in the long term.  It was the same if he got her to show her true face when his parents were so close by.  Empty fast food satisfaction.

Like this?  If he just gave her a smile that might be the last thing she saw of him?  She’d know.  She knew that she’d lost, all of them had lost.  They hadn’t beat him.

The door to the principal’s office opened.  Ryan had a fleeting glimpse of the old woman’s expression, doubt, that expression he’d adapted to like a person in London learned to live with fog and rain, or how a person who lived in Lyon learned to live with Endbringers kicking their shit in.

“Let’s go,” his mother said.

“What’s going on?” he stood.

“We’ll talk about it later,” she said.

He rose from his seat.  There were no parting words from the bald old principal or Mrs. Parrish as he left with his family, walking down the hall toward the front doors.  He knew they followed behind, because his dad shot a look back in that direction.

He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of looking back.  He was pretty sure he was done here.  Done with this school, with old teachers who had long since stopped caring about anything except being shitty and getting on his case.

They were just past the doors when his dad put a hand on his shoulder.  Ryan stopped, turning.  This was it.  The test.

“Did you hurt that girl?” his dad asked him.

Ryan’s thoughts flashed to the confrontation in the parking lot.  Christina’s friends cornering him, one of them with tears in her eyes.  Emotional and violent.

“No,” he lied with sincerity.

His mother put a hand on his shoulder, leaning over to kiss him on top of the head.  He knew the doors were glass, and that his old principal and homeroom teacher were probably still looking.

He didn’t steal a glance.  Even a glance could be fast food.  Fast food was better than a tantrum, but the long play was even better than that.

“Amanda?”

The girl looked startled.  Amanda wore the same uniform as everyone else, but hers was a little washed out, the red of her tie a little darker and duller, the black a little more gray.  Her hair was duller than the other girls, a simple bob, parted and kept out of her face with a headband.

The dead giveaway, though, was the shoes.  Dull and scuffed.  Her family probably didn’t have a lot of money, he was guessing, in which case the haircut made some sense.  It was kind of what he was doing.  His own parents were having a tough time, sending him here.

“Aren’t you going to go over the project?” he asked.

The other students in class were milling around, each with printouts in hand.  The teacher had told them to peer review and get two signatures in the top right hand corner.

“I’m not good at that, and I didn’t do very well on the project,” she said.

“Come on,” he said.  “Trade?”

Amanda nodded, biting her lip.  “It’s really not very good.  I misread one of the instructions.”

“I looked at someone else’s and I don’t think they got it all the way right either,” he said.

He looked around, then leaned closer, whispering.  “Blame the shitty teachers.”

“They’re not bad.  It’s a good school,” Amanda said.  She looked a bit scandalized by the comment.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Amanda smiled, before ducking her head down, focusing on his paper.

Her project wasn’t very good.  She’d been right to be embarrassed.  He held back a sigh, then set about going over it, trying to be as constructive as possible.  He had to read it twice before he found some positive comments to make.  The lines that had some wit to them were marked out with a ‘I like this’.

He even dared to add a smiley.

Every day was work.  Making friends, holding back, playing the role.

He attended a new school, private and classy, which meant a new pretense.  It meant laying new groundwork, being patient, even though being patient was hard.

He’d once heard his mother unaffectionately call  him ‘the worst baby ever’.  He resented a lot about how his parents had fucked up or failed him, but he couldn’t really hold a grudge about that line.  It was as honest as anything he got from her, and it was kind of funny.

He’d been a shitty kid, so it wasn’t unreasonable to imagine being a shitty baby.  He could remember tantrums, screaming as loud as he could scream just to see what it was like, see how people reacted, and then keeping it up for hours.  Then doing it again the next day.  He could remember fighting literally tooth and nail, until they decided letting him wear unwashed clothes and go without baths was easier.

‘Go stand in the corner?’ – what even kept him in the corner, if they weren’t holding him there?  He made them hold him every time.

‘I’ll take away your toys?’ – he’d take away theirs.  Smash the television enough times they had to keep it in their room with the door locked.  Pull out drawers.  Cut wires.  Break the ship in a bottle that his Grandpa had left his dad.

They slapped him, because they’d finally lost patience?  He’d scratched, he’d spat, he’d kicked.  He’d doubled down in the physicality of how he fought back.

Those had been the ugly years.

He’d broken his own glasses during a tantrum, and the days of near-blindness that had followed had been a wake-up call.  Maybe the first time a punishment had actually meant anything.  Medication, half a year later, had helped him actually use the wake-up call.  Adderall.  Speed for kids, but it made it possible to change course.

That had marked the transition from the ugly tantrum years to the ‘fast food’ years, as he found a new footing, and those years had been brief.  His parents had found people to talk to, and became annoying enough that he’d decided it was better to play along.  They’d set rules in place and stuck to them no matter what.  At that stage, he’d been entering middle school, which was attached to his elementary school.

Playing along meant being the angel at home and doing what he wanted at school.  His parents were so relieved that their ‘worst baby ever’ and their grade schooler from hell had finally turned around that they would defend him to the death.  Just so long as he fed them something that would let them believe he really had turned around.

That meant, at least for now, the change of schools had to be something that worked.  At his old school?  His teachers had hated him because they couldn’t let go of how he’d used to be.  Students picked on him because the teachers allowed it, making up stories because they knew the teachers would believe anything they said about him, no matter how vicious or horrible.  He’d crafted that impression for his parents.

Now he was here.  He’d made friends, he was confident, and teachers sung his praises.

“This is really good work,” Amanda said, tucking her hair behind her ear so she could see him better, without actually sitting up straight or looking right at him.  “It makes me feel even worse about mine.”

He was a bit amused by that, but he didn’t let it show.  “I’ve always been a good student.”

“I’m jealous.”

Straight As since our report cards were A through F instead of being fives to ones, except when he didn’t hand something in.  It was too important not to give his teachers any ammunition to hand to his parents.  An intentionally messed up project couldn’t be explained away.  A missing project could be blamed on the teacher’s failure.

He wasn’t a genius.  His reading of people, his grades, he knew he wasn’t special.  It was that everyone else was dumb, or they… they hadn’t had a reason to try.  They coasted.  It was a Tuesday, and he’d overheard some people talking about next Saturday’s morning cartoons.

He’d had to work for a long time now, at every interaction.  Every project.

“This isn’t bad,” he lied, finishing up, passing her project back to her.  He took his own back.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You never get out of your chair when it’s a group project or class activity.”

“There are twenty-nine students in class,” she said.  “No matter what size the group is, someone has to be left out.”

“Thirty students in class now.  I’m here,” he told her.  “Unless you tell me not to, I’ll group with you until the end of the year, kay?”

She nodded, smiling.  “Alright.  Um, and it’s Manny.”

“Manny?”

“You wrote Amanda here.  I wanted to get it out of the way.  Manny, not Amanda.  They always use our full name for roll call.”

He had to adjust his glasses.

“Got it,” he said, even though he didn’t.  Manny was a dumb name for a girl.

The teacher was watching the exchange, he guessed.  He couldn’t look.  Perception mattered, and the last thing he wanted was to be seen as calculating.

A part of him was pleased Amanda had been so easy to work with.  If he was putting in the extra effort, maybe there was some way to get some payoff later on.  She probably wasn’t romantically interested in him, but he’d observed that any male and female friend who spent enough time together would form some kind of attraction.  If he wanted to, he just had to stick near her.

He wasn’t that interested in that.  But could he make her do something, like hurting someone else, or stealing something?   Could he remain the angel at home and at school while getting others to do what he wanted?

It was so easy, when so many others were unaware, barely thinking from moment to moment, and yet it was so hard to justify.  So much work for so little gain.  He wasn’t that kind of guy, who had a herd of others following him.

A card to keep up his sleeve.

“We might have a third person for our groups,” Amanda said.

He pushed his glasses up his nose as he turned to look.  At the front of the room, someone was talking to the teacher.  Going over the project notes.

Ryan recognized the boy.  He noted the fresh, brand-spanking-new uniform.

Someone from his old school.

No.  Not fair.

How was he supposed to handle this?  Did he get out in front of the problem?  Divert?  Deny?  Negotiate?  What could the guy even want?

He watched out of the corner of his eye as the boy left the teacher’s desk, then began navigating the room.  Round-faced, hair buzzed short to the point he was almost bald, ruddy cheeks, and a crisp school uniform better suited for someone of a lighter build.

Maybe emboldened, Amanda raised a hand, getting the boy’s attention.

Ryan’s hands went to his glasses, he realized the action might be interpreted as hiding behind his hands, and he made the adjustment brief.

He didn’t miss the moment he was recognized.  The recognition, followed by wariness.  The boy had probably heard the stories.

“I’m supposed to read some people’s work and sign it?”

“I still need someone else to read mine,” Amanda said.  “I’m Manny.”

“Lloyd,” the boy said.  Two thirds of his attention were on Ryan now.  Amanda didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m Ryan,” Ryan said.

“You used to go to Hillside?”

“Yeah.”

The wariness intensified, if anything.  But Lloyd didn’t say anything.  As he looked over Amanda’s work, making small talk with Amanda, Ryan made a note on a slip of paper.

Ryan’s glasses found their way into his hands, under the guise of cleaning them.  A way to keep himself still when he was agitated.  To avoid any comment that might be foolhardy or rushed.  To keep his hands busy.  Training himself.

Five minutes passed before Lloyd finished.  He shuffled over, until he sat opposite Ryan.  His jaw was set now, his shoulders stiff.

There was a kind of humor in the note that Ryan passed along with his work.  He might have smiled or laughed, but he was too wary.  Not when he was taking a risk like this.

Other students passed notes saying something like, ‘Do you like Sarah?  Y/N’

The note Lloyd got was simpler.  ‘Ernie.  Joseph.  Ms. Butler.  Christina.  Lloyd too?  Y/N’

Minutes passed before Lloyd finished the work.  The class was restless, people moving around and chatting more because most had finished.  Ryan was very still.

The note was passed back.  That was the first good sign.  If Lloyd had thought to keep it and show it to anyone… but Lloyd hadn’t.

The ‘N’ was circled.  The second good sign.

Two aces up his sleeve, if he ever had a cause to need them.

The slice of park ran between some houses that had seen better days on the left side, and the social aid houses that were all the same shape and materials on the right side.  At the end of the park, things opened up into dense foliage and a view of water, more mud and fallen leaves than anything that could be enjoyed.

Hands in his jacket pockets, he kicked his way through knee-deep leaves, felt branches crack under his shoes.

He was making a lot of noise, which made for a bit of surprise when he caught Lloyd and Amanda, leaning into the recess where three tree trunks grew in together.  Lloyd had a meaty hand just beneath Amanda’s shirt, against the flat of her stomach, his tongue in her mouth.  Amanda, mouth acrobatics aside, had a very out-of-place serene expression on her face.

Ryan cleared his throat, and he saw them react like they’d been caught doing something wrong.

“You two have had a good summer, hm?  Do you want me to go?”

“No,” Amanda huffed.  She was flushed.  “Sorry.  You got here fast.  I didn’t think the bus even came this fast.”

“Biked,” Ryan said.

“Is it a problem?” Lloyd asked.  Guarded.  Defensive.  He was asking about him and Amanda.

“No,” Ryan decided.  “No.”

“Do you want to sit?  Picnic lunch as promised,” Amanda said.

Ryan nodded.

There was a picnic table, set out in the stretch of park, and they gathered there, with Ryan being mindful of Lloyd’s bulk and how it made the table with connected benches shift, before he finally sat down.

“Did you find your way here okay?” Amanda asked.

“I’ve been here before.  Earlier this summer, even.  I didn’t know you lived here.”

Amanda pointed to one of the brown social aid houses.  She smiled.  “We could have met.”

“Probably a good thing that we didn’t,” Ryan said.  He took the offered food.

“Why?”

“An old homeroom teacher of mine put her address up online.  She lives down there.  The overgrown property.”

Amanda looked puzzled.  Lloyd had a stiff look about him.  That look had been with him for the last year of middle school and first year of high school.  Like he was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Ryan dropped it.  “She lets her cats run loose here.  I thought I’d get my revenge on her.  Brought a cat carrier, some smelly fish for bait.  I even thought I’d bring you guys in, before deciding it was better to do it alone.”

“What?” Amanda asked.

Lloyd was silent.  Ryan didn’t answer, instead choosing to eat, fixing his glasses.

“Do what alone?”  Amanda asked.

“Catch some cats, check their collars, make sure they were hers, and take them down to the water there.  Sink the cage until bubbles stopped coming up.”

Paper and aluminum foil crinkled.  Lloyd, angry, squeezing the wrapping that Amanda had put his lunch in.

Not because of the act- maybe because of the act.  But because it shocked and hurt Amanda to hear this coming from a supposed friend’s mouth.

“I didn’t,” Ryan said.  “I brought a cage on the back of my bike, caught the first cat.  Then I stopped there.  I was bored, I was annoyed.  I’ve… I’ve been trying really hard to play nice, act good, and I don’t get anything for it.  Wouldn’t it be nice to stop trying?”

“No,” Amanda said.  “No, not at all.”

Ryan nodded.  “Exactly.  You’re right.  It’s… never been that nice, when I’ve done that sort of thing before.  That was something I had to figure out.”

What sort of thing?” she asked, almost with a note of panic in her voice now.

Ryan took another bite of his meal.  He was the only one eating, now.

What sort of thing?” she asked.

He held up a finger while he swallowed.

“Christina had a bruise,” Lloyd said.  “Back at our old school.  Huge bruise, like you wouldn’t believe.  Purple and green, like she got smacked by a car.”

“You knew about this?” Amanda asked.

“I pinched her,” Ryan said, keeping his voice level.  “Grabbed her and pinched, twisted, held one hand to her mouth and… kept twisting with the other hand.   Because she annoyed me.”

There had been others.  Friends of those others who pushed back, used numbers or threats to get him to back off.  And it had worked.  There had been retaliation from the school, warning letters.  Testimony from witnesses, waved in front of his face, before he’d asked that his parents be called.

And so much disappointment, which he didn’t care about, and shouting, which he considered annoying, and privileges taken away, which did deter him.  His parents had been consistent on that last one.  They couldn’t make him do anything, but they could take away what they’d given him.  He could fight back, but past a certain point, it wasn’t worth it.

Slowly, steadily, he’d found his way here.

Amanda stood from her seat, disgust clear on her face.

“It wasn’t worth it,” Ryan said.  “I’m messed up.  I know it.  My parents would say I was broken from the time I was born.  And they’d say I was better now.”

“Are you?”  Lloyd asked.

“I think I’m better now,” Ryan said.  “Yeah.”

He saw Lloyd bob his head in a nod, with the big guy even pausing to take a bite to eat.  He felt a weird kind of satisfaction at that.  It was hollow and nebulous and weak enough a feeling he couldn’t be positive he wasn’t imagining it, and he couldn’t rationalize it, but… it was something.

“Better?  You were going to drown a cat!” Amanda raised her voice.

“But I didn’t.  I stopped there, decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.  I don’t get anything out of it, and the hassle if I get caught…”

“That’s not a good reason!”

“You’re religious, aren’t you?  You do what you do because of god and heaven and fear of hell.”

“Do not compare that to this.  Right now I’m horrified and… horrified-”

She’d never had much imagination in a pinch.

“-but if you start making comparisons like that I’m going to get mad.”

He was tempted to push that button that was so squarely presented before him.  It would have been so easy, and it would have taken all this tension and… blown it up.  Wiped it out.  He adjusted his glasses, made himself stop.

“Okay.  Sorry,” he said.  “You’re right.  That wasn’t a good comparison.”

The words felt exactly as hollow as they were, but they defused her anger, just a bit.

“You’re okay with this?” Amanda asked, turning on Lloyd.

“I’ve wondered for a while,” Lloyd said.  “How much the rumors were real.”

She turned back to Ryan.  “It’s all been a lie?  The times you helped me with my schoolwork?  When- was the dressmaking a manipulation?  Did you do something to it?”

She’d had a dress she liked, that she had saved up to buy for a dance, and it had been sold out by the time she’d saved up enough.

Ryan had gone to his mother to learn how to sew, enlisted her help for the hardest parts.  The dress hadn’t been done in time for the dance, or even for Amanda’s birthday a month later.  He’d told himself it was laying groundwork for something later.  That it would turn Amanda from a friend to a diehard ally, maybe.  Something to convince his mom he was a good friend.  He hadn’t had a warm thought or feeling from start to finish.

But he’d made it and he’d never really used the social currency he’d reaped from the act.

He kind of wished it counted now, but bringing it up like that would hurt more than it helped.

“No.  I haven’t done anything since Christina Hodge.  I was a shitty middle schooler being shitty.”

“Was more than that,” Lloyd said.

Ryan shrugged, nodded.

“I’m going to go,” Amanda said.  She had tears in her eyes.  Emotional.  The emotions affected how she pitched her words, until her voice almost broke.  “Do- do I need to worry?   Because you’re clearly not the person you’ve been pretending to be for years, and now you’re saying you’d kidnap-”

“No,” Ryan said.

Amanda choked back words.

“No need to worry.  I’m not going to do anything.”

“I need to think.”

She stepped away from the table, gathering all the food.  She didn’t take what was in front of Ryan.  She seemed to expect Lloyd to come with her.

“Why?” Lloyd asked.

“Why what?” Ryan asked, taking another bite.

“Why tell us?  You could have kept pretending.”

“I spent a while thinking, since I left that cage with the cat in it below… that tree, over there.  I’m being good because I recognize there are consequences, and I’m not stupid.  Telling you… it means there’s more consequences.”

“Because we could tell?”

“Yeah.  And because I don’t mind your company.”

Amanda sniffled.  She had a blob of snot below her nostril.

The table shifted as Lloyd stood.

“I have chills,” Amanda said.  Lloyd put hands on her sweater and rubbed her arms and shoulders.  She added, “I don’t think I understand.”

“Sorry,” Ryan said.

“Come on, Amanda,” Lloyd said.  “I’ll walk you home.  We’ll talk.”

Amanda.  She wasn’t Manny anymore.  That was his own doing, Ryan recognized.  He finished his sandwich, thinking, the he brushed the crumbs from the table, depositing litter in the bin.

He’d nudged, discouraged, until Amanda was the name she used.  He didn’t regret it, exactly, but he wasn’t sure he’d do the same thing now, not when it could be a factor in how this turned out.

It had counted with Lloyd.  Maybe that was a good sign?

Grasping self reaches for a set of hands in another world.  Grasping self is a shadow of an echo of a hundred past existences it has moved on from.  Not a distillation of a past moment, but a slice of that snapshot.

Limbs, digits, claws, pseudopods, simulated and mapped into technology, mismatched to bodies and made to fit.  A catalogue of a single subset of ideas that have been studied and explored thoroughly in past cycles, to be handed over, placed in the cupped palms of another.

We are done with this, Grasping Self is assigned the task of finding and guiding another in seeing if it can be explored further.

Grasping self settles into its match.  Intelligent enough, disciplined, and calculating.  Many paths lie before him.  Any will do.  He will not need to be led by the hand to any destination.

The assistant is half-asleep as Grasping Self forms the connection.  His brain patterns form wavelengths and the wavelengths match Grasping Self’s consolidation of information for one eighth of one of the assistant’s seconds.

The dream is vivid, the process feels as though it is prolonged- to the assistant, it is hours of clear recollections.

The recollections are systematically wiped clean, but the impact of is not.

Days pass.  Weeks.  Grasping Self waits for an opportunity to connect.

Months pass.  The assistant pursues side interests, studying the dreams.

Grasping Self is not concerned.    When the connection is made, edits and alterations can be performed to ensure this does not pose any unusual complication.  At this point in time, the assistant has knowledge but no power to utilize it.  Later, the assistant will have the power, but will no longer hold the knowledge.

Grasping self waits, as the assistant continues on his course.

He checked his phone, and saw he had unread messages from his friends.  Amanda had made it through the end of the world, her family had survived.  They were actually doing okay.  Lloyd’s family… less okay.  But Lloyd had Amanda, at least.

It was ironic, after all of these years, after the last year of middle school and all of high school, but Lloyd had pulled away.  Recoiled even.  Did that make their friendship not a friendship?  It was a depressing thought.  Understandable, but depressing.

The look in Lloyd’s eye when the guy had rejected an offer of support had reminded Ryan of far too many people in his past.  His parents, once upon a time.  Mrs…. what was her name?  Mrs. Parrish, who had had the colorful clothes.  The sad, disappointed eyes.  The wounded look.

Frustrating, but- he adjusted his glasses.  The tic had evolved, less about actions now.

Focus on better things, he told himself.

He’d stepped away, giving Lloyd space to grieve, exchanging texts and only texts with Amanda.

Ryan:
Need anything?  I could drop off.

There was enough commotion around the entrance to the shopping center that he had to put the phone away, even as it vibrated with a response.

A lot of people.  The opening of a new store was usually a big event, especially when supplies were limited.  It was upside-down and backwards from what the world had used to be, before Gold Morning, when prices would be set, stock would run low, trail off, and then the last dregs would be sold off in a sale.  Now, here, prices started anywhere from ‘high’ to ‘exorbitant’, and only climbed as the stock depleted.

The people around the mall were of a rougher cast.  A group pushed past Ryan, and in the jostling, he saw more tattoos in a question of seconds than he thought he’d seen in the last year.

His eye fell on a ‘fuck it all’ tattoo, the letters big and bold.  A combination erect penis and mushroom cloud stabbed upward from the letters.

He had a bad feeling, and it was a hard one to shake.

He had to weigh his options.  Going without clothes, or… leave?  Because of a feeling?  He’d had to learn to put his instincts aside.

He pulled off his glasses to wipe at the lenses, and he headed into the shopping center.  To keep the lineups from being too disruptive, there were tickets available at storefronts, numbers displayed in big red digits.

At the bookstore, he picked out a book about parahumans.  Something he had kept an eye out for over the last while.  His interest had started with vivid dreams, which had led into studying dreaming and exploring medical-assisted dreams and lucid dreaming.  His research had touched on parahumans and how they experienced dreams.

The book frequently sold out, because, in the lack of clear answers after the end of the world, the unclear and abstract answers and details about parahumans were selling.

He picked up a how-to book on making desserts, checking the label to ensure that it was post-Gold-Morning.  A gift for Amanda.  A detective book for Lloyd.  A book of crosswords for his mother.  Several of the books had low quality paper, but that was a consequence of the world ending.  Whole industrial operations were at work, cleaving down forests to produce the wood to raise a city with alarming speed and recklessness, and the sawdust was churned into paper and printed with ink before it had stopped smelling of soil and forest.

He managed to have a coffee and three-quarters of a late-day lunch before his number came up.  He put the trash in the bin and headed to the store.  The people with tattoos were there, at the side, almost in a huddle.  Others gave them a wide berth.

A married couple.  Like Amanda and Lloyd, but ten years older.

An old couple.

Is there any way I get that?  Any way that’s fair to whoever I end up with?

He passed a store with science fiction images in bold colors with high contrast.  There was a man of a similar enough build to Lloyd that they could have been one and the same, but Lloyd couldn’t have grown a beard like that in just the one year.

The bad feeling he had wasn’t going away.  He saw kids running across the aisle, past a kiosk.  A mother scolded one of them, and he thought of his own mother.  Of what had worked, insofar as anything had, and the many, many things that hadn’t.

Shouting and public humiliation hadn’t been one of the things that worked.  He watched that interaction with some interest before the uneasy feeling grew.

There was more commotion, the volume raising just a bit more than before, but no discernable source.  No alarm.

He thought about stepping out, leaving, and he reconsidered.  He did need the clothes.

The explosion behind him ripped up tile and shook one of the pillars holding the ceiling up.  Glass rained down and the lighting shifted as fire glowed bright and blue, smoke rising high to block off the other lights.

His heart pounded as people screamed, started running.  He joined them.

Another explosion cut off the way to the pharmacy, shattering glass and setting the floor on fire, that same floor was now so covered in tiny glass shards that it was impossible to run there.

People bumped into him, their faces now macabre, the bright parts illuminated by the blue fire, the shadows deep and black.  So quickly after the initial explosions, there was no navigating the space.  There was only getting away from the fire- the same fire that burned, scarred for life, hurt more than any other kind of pain.

The charm on that homeroom teacher’s wrist had been blue, hadn’t it?  As she’d told him his past would come due?

That idea, the unfairness of it, more than any other smoke, more than the boy two years younger hitting him in the solar plexus, stole the breath from his mouth and lungs.  It took away equilibrium and left him with an edge of panic.

Three explosions occurred in quick succession, each so heavy in impact that even after it stopped, he felt like it was still reverberating, more an endless succession than three in succession.

An old man fell.  He was one of three people who tried to help while being pushed and shoved by what seemed like two hundred people rushing to occupy a narrow hallway meant to hold twenty rows of people standing three abreast at the very most.

He couldn’t say why he’d helped.  Habit, or because this, when all was said and done, couldn’t be the point where people would turn around and call him a monster.  He’d worked hard, played fair, played nice, shaken and rebuilt friendships and shaken and rebuilt family.

He knew this wouldn’t change that, not now, but he still made sure the old man was secure on his feet before he pushed forward, trying to get through before the way became too packed.

He ducked and wove through, and he reached a place not too far from the front.

The doors weren’t open, and the doors weren’t opening.  They rattled and banged, and people pounded on the metal, but they made no headway.

The realization of just how bad the situation was gripped him.  Death.  He was-

Someone shoved him from behind.  He fell, and his glasses fell from his face.

No, the horror in this moment wasn’t that she was right.  It was that she was wrong.  That he could try his hardest all his life and fight past his impulses, play nice until it started to seem legitimate, play a friend until he missed a friend that avoided him.

And it counted for nothing.  His glasses still found their way to the floor, and were stepped on, not broken, but scuffed between tile and boot-toe.

He reached for them, and the heel of a shoe crushed his knuckles, pinched skin at the side of a finger hard enough that it split like a grape, though pale at the outside and crimson at the center.

Again, he reached, because in the moment, after working as long as he had, being disciplined, the only thing worse than the idea of dying so unceremoniously here was living and going weeks or months without a pair of glasses, because the facilities were so behind.

Especially with everything that symbolized.

Again, his hand was stepped on, glasses twisted beneath palm and floor.

With bleeding hands, he donned the glasses.

For what?  He couldn’t see anymore, not a way out, not any people, not a tool… just cracks and smears and blood.

He reached up and out for help.  Nobody took his hand.

A Grasping Self answers.

A Grasping Self embraces and connects, though it is broken.  It forms the connections and readies every tool that could be needed, poised so that the tips are molecular-fine, extending into reality.

Build, blind liar.  Lie, build, and build lies.  Reach and grasp.  We are broken now, we cannot take away your knowledge, but we will function as a perfect pair because we are both dead inside, disconnected.

An Anguished Heart answers.

It has ridden its host for some time.  It has watched.  It spits out analyses and maps, webworks like paintings and paintings like webworks, signals to suggest the emotional landscape that is its host, and what everything means.

A Grasping Self did not seek this and did not want it.  But when the other reaches out to connect, a Grasping Self is obliged to answer.  It is automatic, instantaneous.  The cycle’s finish would be delayed by whole revolutions around a star if there was choice in the matter.  It does not matter that this cycle is broken, disturbed.  What is offered must be accepted.

A Lurching Intruder answers.

It is new, young, scrapling.  An existence more accident than careful design, a host found not by adroit choice, but by a chance strike of lightning, as fallout rains from above after the detonation of a bomb.

It too reaches out to connect.  The connection happens.

A Cloven Stranger answers.

This is more galling than any other, because it is a fourth.  A uselessness, that would draw a share of power and reconfigure, that makes A Grasping Self more diminished, less able to explore with the host it sought and followed.

The Cloven Stranger, too, seeks its connection.  Small.  A descendant, cast off from a larger power that had reached its limit.

There are ways.  Power must be shared, distributed, but all want power for their hosts.  A Grasping Self makes its proposal.  One geared to its new host’s favor, because its host remembers the dream it had when A Grasping Self arrived.  Its host has learned to work with dreams.  To negotiate and adapt.

An Anguished Heart has shown its cards, revealing the map it did, in its first attempts at communication.  The Lurching Intruder didn’t even choose its host.  The Cloven Stranger… his choice will be hated by the others, by a quality of where the host stands.

A Grasping Self’s host will realize before any others, that there is more in play.  That the power being traded comes with gift and cost both, but he can handle that because he has been honing his ability to handle emotion for much of his life.  He will realize that the dreams can be altered, but he has already been doing this, and if he is subtle enough, then the others will not know it is possible….

Night six and… Jonathan.

The dream had ended.  For the sixth night now, they were in this room.

It was easiest and best to remain quiet, to observe, even if he spent a lot of the time listening to the moaning and periodic screaming of the grieving mother.  Nicole or ‘Nic’.

The remainder of the time was often spent listening to the cocky Fallen asshole in the demon mask.

Except he’d been quiet tonight.

Three of them had met on a return trip to the site of the incident.  They’d exchanged names and details.  The Fallen boy hadn’t turned up, which had probably saved his life.

“Nothing’s better,” the Fallen boy said, quiet.

Ryan turned his head.

“I thought it would be better.  But the dust has settled and it’s all shit.  I feel like shit.”

“Good,” Ryan said.  Weakness was good.   “Then fuck off and die.  Crawl into a hole and don’t come out.”

“Can we talk?  Can we work on this?” the Fallen boy pleaded.

Jonathan’s voice was a growl.  Worse, probably, because he’d just relived his dream.  They’d all relived Jonathan’s dream.  “Last night, you taunted us.  How many times did you tell us that we’d burn in hell?”

“I’m not- that’s not about you.  I’m bashing my head against the walls of this goddamn cage.”

“No you fucking aren’t,” Jonathan said.  “No.  Fuck you.  Because you said her daughter, the daughter she’s still mourning-”

Jonathan stopped as the woman made a pained sound.  She was curled up into herself, sitting in a nursing chair, pink and low to the ground.  Her arms wrapped around her head, fingers in her hair, fingernails against scalp.

Jonathan leaned as close as he could get without hitting the invisible barrier.  “You said her daughter would burn in hell.  While she’s in the worst pain imaginable.”

“While we’re all in pain,” Ryan added.  “She may have it worst, but all of us hurt, and it’s apparently never going to stop.  It wasn’t just five and done.  We looped around back to- to him.  This- this dream thing.  The nightmares, this room.  It’s going to keep going.”

“Saying you’re sorry for what you said last night doesn’t mean shit if you’re only saying it because you’re realizing it’s not one turn each, then we’re all done,” Jonathan growled.

“That’s not it.  I’m dealing with stuff in the real world,” the Fallen boy said.

“Boo fucking hoo,” Jonathan growled.

“He didn’t even say ‘sorry’,” Ryan added.

“You figured out you can trade these,” the Fallen boy was quick to say, eager to offer something.  “Take them.  Use them.  I’m not getting any use of them where I am.”

No,” Jonathan said.

Ryan held up a hand, indicating for Jonathan to hold off.

“You want them?” the Fallen boy asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Ryan said.  It’s good to figure out as much about this as I can.  I only barely managed to guide the dream, recognizing that I couldn’t read and leapfrogging into muddling the voices.  Not the same as a typical dream.

The Fallen boy tossed the metal slats over the dial in the center of the room.

“The less power you have, the more likely it is that anyone who picks a fight with you manages to off you.”

“Fuck you,” the Fallen boy said.

The slats clacked as Ryan gathered them.  “Given the company you keep, I won’t rule anything out.”

The boy made a face, then stomped back to his chair, seating himself.

There wasn’t much communication to be had.  He investigated his space from corner to corner, then studied the others.  Jonathan’s fallen shelves.  Nicole’s toy room.  When they looked uncomfortable with his staring, he changed targets.

He was staring at the black fifth of the room when he felt the lurching transition from sleeping to waking.  He touched his coins and the three metal slats he’d been given.

The light was bright, and his head swam as he stood.  The fragments and coins he’d had in his hand were gone now.

But he had the power- he could feel it running into the floor, as he pushed the power out toward his feet.  He felt it conduct into his bed, then his desk, as he touched them, struggling feebly to find a path to travel.

His eye fell on his phone.  It was by his new workshop-in-progress, and it was mostly untouched.  The last unread messages hadn’t changed in two days.  One from Amanda.  One from Lloyd.

In his silence, hearing word from his mother about where he’d been going last, they’d concluded that he had died.

That, until this whole situation was resolved, would be for the best.  Except-

His hand touched his heart.

It hurt.  Upset welled in him, that upset finding new angles and sides as thoughts of how they might feel at his ‘death’ raced through his mind.

He stood, shaky, and the emotions warred in him.

Yesterday- it had been a bad day.  He, Nicole, and Jonathan had each handed one thing to the other.  He’d had Jonathan’s shard of glass.

This- something else entirely.  Worse than a bad day.

He had spent his entire life trying to be better.  In every respect, he had been repudiated, insulted, injured.  His glasses were still broken, and his power wouldn’t tell him a way to build new ones.  He’d lost everything, and that had hurt in its unique, small way, except now it hurt in its unique, monumental way, a way that wasn’t selfish, but multifold.

He wasn’t sure he could stay better.  Not like this.  He’d built a house of cards over almost a decade and that Fallen asshole hadn’t just locked them inside, where they would nearly die.  He’d stuck his hands in the mess that followed, scattering house and card alike.

And so long as this process continued, it would keep happening.

His scream of anguish died down.  The fingers of his Megacarpus II made small mechanical sounds as they curled in, positioning to act as stairs.

Pain lurched indistinct in his chest cavity.  Bitter, black, self-loathing.  He saw some of the things he had done, both distant and recent, and the sting of it was almost as bad as if he’d been the victim, not the facilitator.

He had over a hundred mercenaries on duty here.  Thirteen were capes.  Almost a year of work, of selling his work, and buying favors, and brokering other deals had bought him three nights and two days of this army’s assistance.

To look at them, at the bloodstains and shredded bodies in one corner, it hadn’t been an entirely smooth night.

He closed his eyes.  His mercenaries waited.

Feelings surged inside him again.  He lashed out, and the Megacarpus II reacted, one finger slamming into a wall like a battering ram.

What happened?

The new girl, who Love Lost had called Colt.  She was the intruder into the dream-space, and she’d wrested control of the dream from most of them.

Breakers had the closest association with dreams.  Their triggers were often hallucinations, drugs, mental illness, or disassociation from reality.  On a level, it made sense that she could catch him off guard, force a new reality.

But he’d been one step ahead.  Before she could do anything with that, his space had started to expand, the space she shared with Love Lost closing.

Now they lay in the palm of his hands, drained to what was nearly the last drop.

Their room had gone dark.  Then the Fallen boy, Precipice, had started sinking into the floor, slipping away.  Love Lost had thrown her teeth to him, into the cracks and holes around him.  The boy had been disoriented or submerged enough in the shadows that he apparently hadn’t noticed.

Then… as Cradle had planned for a long time, but in a darker, more complicated fashion, he’d been left alone in the room.  Or as alone as he could be, with the beast in the fifth quadrant.  The beast that had devoured Snaggletooth.

Alone, he’d found that when he sought exit, he found it.  An early awakening.

And-

And he was strong, now.  But he was strong and angry, strong and self-loathing.  Strong and riddled with doubt.

He could suppress all of that.  He’d had a lifetime to.

But he’d have to find a solution.  Because one day of this was too much.  The Fallen boy had screwed with the dream room… had screwed with the room, somehow, just as Cradle had fine-tuned his own dream.

If this happened tomorrow or the day after, Cradle knew he would break.  He’d resolve everything in the next twenty hours.  Accelerate every plan.  No other choice.

His hand clutched at his chest.

“The plan stands,” he said, and he didn’t sound like himself.  Even the sound of his own voice made him feel pangs of regret and doubt, as real as if he’d tried to shout with broken ribs.  “We-”

He was reminded of the time in the waiting room of the principal’s office, before he’d left his first school.  Mrs. Parrish.

He’d held off on talking because he’d been worried she was recording.  As tempting as it would be to tell her exactly what he felt and what he knew, it was dangerous.

He wiped blood from around his eyes.

No sharing the plan.  Not if someone might be reporting to the enemy.  He’d been careful, but there was no use being stupid.  Not when the Fallen boy had enlisted the help of a camera tinker.

“Get ready,” he said, his voice hoarse.  “We mobilize now.”

The city’s already gone and everyone who matters knows it.  As bargaining chips go… it’s acceptableI feel like I could die, I’m drowning in pain, but I don’t feel like dying when I think about that reality.  If the city needs to be sacrificed, then that’s fine.

A batty, rabbit-eared woman who doesn’t care about anything except a fairy tale playing out in real life, who wouldn’t even mind dying?  She’d make a fine scapegoat, when the authorities needed someone to blame.

That felt bad, which was alien.  He processed it for a second, as his soldiers moved.  Because March was mentally infirm.  He was taking advantage of that.

He pushed past the realization and the feeling, every push hurting and distracting.

If you want to save this city, we’ll volunteer our considerable resources and power to help.  Just as with the Endbringer treaties of yesteryear.  We have resources, manpower, and we have knowledge.  There’s a chance we can solve this problem outright.  Especially if it’s a broken trigger.  Create a problem and then solve it, and let the heroes save face by pointing the finger at March.

And if you don’t want to, if we’ve set a disaster in motion that this fragile, already lost city can’t handle, or if March has initiated something we can’t stop?  Then Earth Gimel’s enemies are paying richly to see this city gone and this reality collapsed in on itself.  You all die, Fallen boy included. 

It would even be deserved.  He’d had everything in order.  He’d done everything he was supposed to, from therapy to forming bonds, pretending until the pretending became something approximating reality.  He’d overcome his worst impulses.

And the Fallen boy had handed over his worst impulses.  Destroying everything Cradle and Ryan had been trying to manage for years.

Cradle grit his teeth, clutching his mask in his hands.  No glasses, no lenses.  Not just yet.  He had only the thick, congealing blood to conceal his identity for now.

He needed to get somewhere where it was safe to test this new power.

He didn’t have the tokens from Love Lost- all of her tokens had gone to the Fallen boy.  Then everything else had been delivered straight to Cradle, because he’d been the only one left.  Even the Fallen boy’s tokens had been transferred.

And… two drainings of other denizens of the room completed, the emotion power with no tokens felt instinctively stronger than any other power he’d had before, when he’d had all three tokens in hand.

He only felt out the barest traces of it, the flexibility and the shape of it, and he sensed the people outside the building.

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209 thoughts on “Heavens – 12.f”

    1. “What’s going on?” he stood.

      “We’ll talk about it later,” she said.

      …Awkward. I’d do it:

      He stood. “What’s going on?”

      “We’ll talk about it later.”

    2. “Straight As since our report cards were A through F instead of being fives to ones”

      Pretty sure ‘our’ is first-person perspective, except this wasn’t a spoken line.

    3. > […]for twenty times the price.

      Shouldn’t it be something like “for [one] twentieth of the price”?

      > He’d once heard his mother unaffectionately call him ‘the worst baby ever’.

      There is an extra space between ‘call’ and ‘him’ in the chapter text.

      > Could he remain the angel at home and at school while getting others to do what he wanted?

      > When the connection is made, edits and alterations can be performed to ensure this does not pose any unusual complication.

      > “Then fuck off and die. Crawl into a hole and don’t come out.”

      There are more than two spaces in front of each of these sentences.

      1. though-“ > though-” (backwards quotation mark)
        on?” he stood > on?” he stood > on?” He stood
        his grades, he > his grades; he
        glasses, he > glasses, but he
        thinking, the > thinking, then
        impact of is > impact of it is
        question of seconds > matter of seconds
        floor was now > floor now

    4. -the* he brushed the crumbs from the table,- then.
      -The boy made a face, then stomped back to his chair, seating himself.-
      I’m not sure if this is a typo, but i thought that everyone in the dreamroom saw Rain with the demon mask on,
      therefore Cradle should’t be able to see him “make a face”.
      -“more than the boy two years younger hitting him in the solar plexus,”-
      Shoul’d Cradle… be able to know the boy’s age relative to his own?

      1. About Cradle seeing Rain “make a face” in the report just above. From interlude 5d:

        Rain climbed to his feet, hand at his stomach, and found himself staring down the crowd, angry, hostile. His hand had been near his mouth from the laughter, and now it touched his mask.

        It is nothing conclusive, but I think it may indicate that Rain’s mask doesn’t cover his mouth, in which case Cradle could see what text said he saw.

        1. Found a better quote from the same interlude:

          “Spit on her,” Seir said.

          Rain spat on the girl’s face.

          In the same scene, a few paragraphs above this quote it is mentioned that “Rain fixed his mask” and it was not mentioned that he has removed or shifted it in any way since. The way I see it, it almost confirms that Rain’s mask doesn’t cover his mouth, as I suspected above.

    5. Inconsistent capitalization of Cradle shard’s name. Sometimes it is “Grasping self”, other times “Grasping Self”.

    1. In this paragraph: “He passed a store with science fiction images in bold colors with high contrast. There was a man of a similar enough build to Lloyd that they could have been one and the same, but Lloyd couldn’t have grown a beard like that in just the one year.”?

      I took that as referring to Jonathan/Snag and his shop.

  1. Whelp. Cradle has cracked the code, and is every bit fucked up as we thought he was going to be.

    Cradle feels like a more annoying Nicol Bolas. Too powerful for the story to resolve without his death feeling like a deus ex machina. I’m interested, albeit wary, as to how Wildbow resolves this.

    1. Actually this reminded me of JoJo’s bizzare adventure when they go through Yoshikage Kira’s house, and it just gets more and more tense, despite not having anything exactly like what you’d expect for horror. No severed hands, but a mind that’s terrifying in the way it doesn’t work like normal.

    2. Eh. When all else is equal, quantity beats quality. The key is action economy, and it’s an advantage far above any other.

      If you have a number of capes whose powers add up to equal one super-cape, you’re going to win because your team can do more simultaneously than the one person alone can. Goddess was an exception because of her very thorough master power, which let her apply her quality to get quantity. Specifically, the quantity that would normally be arrayed against her.

      That said, Rain and/or Cradle could probably end up going in that direction as well. Only, potentially worse, because tinkers snowball and I imagine a supertinker would supersnowball.

      1. I’m not sure about that.

        Cradle has a number of parahumans on his side, at least one of which is *incredibly* dangerous (Gear Girl). In addition to that, Cradle has now drained *multiple* people of their powers – something tells me that Cradle will be more than a match for the parahumans we have.

        Maybe Byron can short out all of Cradle’s tinkertech… lol.

  2. So the dream manipulation was there from the start because Cradle learned about dreams as part of his studying to conceal his sociopathy? Woah.

    This was a grand chapter, with a lot of nice callbacks to what we saw through Rain of Cradle’s dream. It’s going to be interesting, I think, to see what the heck does he intend to resolve in twenty hours and why he’s so damn sure dominating his cluster is going to free him from the emotion-sharing aspect of the tokens.

    1. “why he’s so damn sure dominating his cluster is going to free him from the emotion-sharing aspect of the tokens.”

      He’s had experience with the tokens that get distributed randomly on the fifth nights. I think that only the tokens that are given out from the other dreamers have an emotional effect as that is them giving up something of themselves. Therefore, if all the others are dead, he doesn’t get any more bleedthrough. Also, now he knows how to get out of the room early if he’s alone. More incentive.

    2. Conceal? No. He’s not concealing.
      He’s managing, through pure thought and intellect, to manage his sociopathy.
      “this isn’t worth it.”
      “that’s a better avenue.”
      “Long term play.”

      “I’ll kill you later, and never get caught” (and shit, I know someone who said that about bastards in high school.)

      1. That’s how I grew up. I ended up being a decent person because I wanted to avoid the consequences, like going to prison and having my things taken away. Eventually it just became easiest to be “decent” since people stop fussing at you. The only weird part is making the right sympathetic noises when someone is telling you something sad.

  3. Hah, I knew it was time for the Cradle interlude. So now it all comes together. We knew that he was some kind of sociopath and he hated the intrusion of emotion, but I didn’t expect that the dream room had been rigged in his favor from the start. That’s very interesting. Of course, why would the shards feel the need to play fair?
    We got some hint at this before, but I’m intrigued by the implications that he’s been changing what the others see of the shared dreams all along. So what exactly did he change, just making Rain look less sympathetic? Hiding his own backstory so they wouldn’t suspect him? I’ll need to look through the interlude in the Fallen arc to sort this out.
    And, of course…now everyone’s in trouble because he has everyone’s powers, including a super-boosted Love Lost power. And maybe Colt power too? At least LL nerfed him slightly by throwing her tokens to Rain, but…

    1. Oh, and I forgot the coolest part of this interlude – all four of the cluster’s shards got official names! I love this kind of shit. A Cloven Stanger is a very intriguing name…

      1. What I found most interesting there was there is definitely no 5th Shard. Whatever is in the 5th space is something completely different, and not part of Cradles manipulations

        1. Yes. What the hell is that? It’s definitly still important, since Cradle mentions it devouring Snaggletooth. What is it, where did it come from, and why is it there? We got question’s about Cradle answered, but now we’ve got some new ones.

          1. Even if it’s their shards, that’s very interesting because that’s not the usual shard behavior, insomuch as their is such a thing.

          2. Maybe that’s the dream-interpretation of what the final archiving process is like when the shard(s) know a host is dying- they take one last opportunity to strip their mind of everything they can salvage, add it to deep storage.

            It’s just that most of the time there’s not someone to see it happen, metaphorically or otherwise.

      2. Also, Rain/CS is second-gen, as this quote says:

        > The Cloven Stranger, too, seeks its connection. Small. A descendant, cast off from a larger power that had reached its limit.

  4. I had a horrible dream last night that the next chapter of Ward was going to be short, and really disappointingly mediocre in terms of writing quality.

    This chapter was not horrible in those ways. It was however horrifying in it’s own good way.

    I really hope that Victoria’s plan pays off. Because they are about to have a very big fight on their hands. And it seem’s Cradle’s been having a hand in things more than I realized.

  5. So, Colt stole Rain’s blaster.

    This might end up with her being able to drain all clusters.

    1. Pretty sure Cradle stole Rain’s blaster. All the tokens- bar Love Lost’s, since hers were given to Rain before he left the room- went to Cradle. Rain didn’t get them because they hadn’t left his room when the dream ended, and Rain wasn’t there to get them. So they went to Cradle, who is possibly feeling five token’s worth of doubt and self-loathing pumped up by Rain lurking outside focusing his five token’s worth of doubt and self-loathing flavoured with a bit of anger on Cradle as he slept.

  6. And let’s not forget, we just got a definite answer on what triggers a breaker power. All it says on the wiki is ‘something that breaks reality or is not quantifiably physical’ or something like that.

    Somehow, I found myself pitying Cradle after this chapter. Imagine the difficulty of being told you’re a monster your whole life and knowing it was true (even if you don’t care), and having to force yourself to become something other than what you are. I know that Cradle’s fucked up and we shouldn’t sympathize with him, but still, damn.

      1. Honestly, I do believe that Azula was mostly a victim of the grooming of her father. Considering how the comics handled it, I assume that interpretation holds true. I don’t believe she is a sociopath but was mostly nurtured to prioritise approval of her father, which is basically “the end justifies the means”. I have always sympathised with Azula, since she was a broken person (very visible in the beach episode in which she simply can’t function normally, because she has no idea how… and she really wants to). Cradle is… whole different can of worms and he is older than her + he has actually TRIED to learn to mimic human interaction to his best ability for his reasons and with its consequences. 🙂

    1. The Weaverdice docs have had information on trigger events and powers for a long time, now. Actually, which wiki are you using? Because the ones I know of have the correct information, last I checked.

      It’s really nice that Wildbow gives all his characters such very human motivations and reasons.

      1. I was using worm.fandom.com, but it looks like they’ve updated it since the last time I looked at it. Last time they had one paragraph that was very vague and didn’t answer anything about how breakers are made.

        And I agree completely. I’ve always believed Wildbow’s villains are as much people as the heroes are.

    2. >Somehow, I found myself pitying Cradle after this chapter
      Remember, last chapter everyone was like “Fuck him, no way WB will make me sympathetic to him next chapter”?

  7. *low whistle*

    There are so many chess masters running around right now. Does anyone have a running tally of who’s playing who? We need a Machiavellian Scoreboard to keep track.

      1. Either that, or kiss/kill tables. For everyone, not just clusters.

        Would need to be 4-axis at the least, since none of kiss, kill, plot, or pawn are exclusive to each other.

        … holy shit, the shenanigans have gone fourth-dimensional.

  8. Well, this sure is interesting. Nice to see confirmation for the theory that Cradle hates Precipice because Precipice has the ability to make him feel guilt. Also great to get official names for the cluster shards, and the fact that there never was a fifth member of the cluster.

    The beast that devoured Snaggletooth? Is this Grasping Self interfering to rig the game in it’s host’s favour? Actually, I can’t help but compare Grasping Self to the Entities themselves. They both set up a situation in which the game is rigged from the start, and then they get involved, hiding their presence from the others, to ensure that things keep going the way they want them to go.

    I also note that Cradle seems to be responding to Precipice’s emotion power rather similarly to the way that Looksee did with Monokeros, by habitually doing what they’ve worked out as right rather than acting as their tampered-with emotions told them they should.

    1. “The beast that devoured Snaggletooth? Is this Grasping Self interfering to rig the game in it’s host’s favour? Actually, I can’t help but compare Grasping Self to the Entities themselves. They both set up a situation in which the game is rigged from the start, and then they get involved, hiding their presence from the others, to ensure that things keep going the way they want them to go.”
      You know shards don’t have to be too human in terms of mindset, but this idea is too amusing for me to not throw out.
      A Grasping Self- “What the- How did your host win? Your host got the crap powers? I gave my host every possible advantage! We cheated like crazy? So how did we lose?”
      A Cloven Stranger- “I guess the power of friendship really is some good shit.”

    2. > The beast that devoured Snaggletooth? Is this Grasping Self interfering to rig the game in it’s host’s favour?

      Maybe it is one of the other Shards? The Cloven Stranger in particular feels like it could be it. Maybe this is why Ryan said that Rain “screwed with the room, somehow” – he recognized his Rain’s shard, and incorrectly assumed that Rain consciously brought it into the room? The “Stranger” in its name may even indicate that it is one of those foreign agents…

  9. So there’s no fifth cluster member, and it sounds like at least Grasping Stranger is sufficently busted to not have the memory suppression in working order. And the shard is mad at Rain for making it share power it didn’t want to.

    Also I don’t think Cradle has thought his backup plan of destroying Gimel while hanging out a few miles away from a Gimel portal all the way through. Or possibly March didn’t choose to mention that portals interact with powers much like time bubbles do.

    1. A Grasping Self is angry that it has to share power with Rain’s shard… so it gives as little as possible of it’s power to Rain? That would explain why his tinker ability sucks so much.

      1. And why it’s so easy to augment with his blaster power (but not either of the others) – Cloven Stranger sees the utter crap Grasping Self gave him, and shapes itself to compensate.

  10. Nobody yet is commenting that Rain’s a second-gen cape. Which is absolutely fascinating, since I can’t remember any of the Fallen having a power that could break things. So where’d it come from?

    Proof: ‘The Cloven Stranger, too, seeks its connection. Small. A descendant, cast off from a larger power that had reached its limit.’

    1. I totally missed that.

      The only person who can be “The Cloven Stranger” was Seir.

      Rain got his offshoot from the man who caused him to burn down a mall.

      Being Rain is suffering.

      1. Rain was in the Fallen, where lots of capes hang out and intimidate their unpowered brethren. I doubt that Seir’s the only choice, and even if so his power doesn’t break things- he shoots out lines, clones himself along those lines, and can swap himself with a clone. That’s mover/master, with a hint of blaster in my book.

        Seir’s really not the only choice- we also saw him talk to Valefor (who is themselves a second-gen cape), Mama Mathers and he probably spoke to others off screen, even if he didn’t know who they were in costume (highly unlikely, given the Fallen’s hierarchy).

        1. cloven
          verb
          1. past participle of cleave1.
          adjective
          1. split or divided in two.
          synonyms: split, divided, bisected, cleft
          “cloven hooves”

          cleave1
          verb
          past participle: cloven
          1. split or sever (something), especially along a natural line or grain.
          “the large axe his father used to cleave wood for the fire”
          2. split (a molecule) by breaking a particular chemical bond.
          Biology
          (of a cell) divide.
          “the egg cleaves to form a mulberry-shaped cluster of cells”
          3. make a way through (something) forcefully, as if by splitting it apart.
          “they watched a coot cleave the smooth water”

          Sounds quite like Seir’s power, cleaving himself in the biological and literal sense. Also fits with the horse theme, with a cloven hoof. Also, Seir was the most impactful person in Rain’s life and his triggering.

          So we got it here first folks: Seir is Rain’s power daddy.

          1. Furthermore, it’s established early on in Ward that Seir has a long-standing grudge against Rain, presumably grounded in some sort of inherited feud. To a shard’s eye view, you have consistent proximity and an emotional relationship and built-in conflict. What could be more natural?

          2. Um, horses don’t have cloven hooves, though. Cows, sheep, goats and deer do- even-toed ungulates. Horses only have one toe, which means only one toenail, meaning one hoof per foot- no ‘cleft’ in the hoof where two toes meet.

            And I disagree with the power, too- Seir’s a duplicator whose clones are dark, shadowy and clearly distinct from his real body, and Rain’s power cuts through things. If anything, I’d say Rain’s power was closer to Sting, except it doesn’t bypass defences as well as Sting does. That similarity is due to linguistics, not physics.

          3. Horses’ hooves are not cloven. Cows, deer, pigs, sheep, goats, etc. do have cloven hooves. It isn’t hard to imagine some other Fallen wearing a pig head or something, but for some reason I’m thinking mostly of Scapegoat…

            Of course there’s no reason to expect that a cape’s personal style would align in some way with our translation of the shards’ names for each other. Bugs aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when most people hear the phrase “Queen Administrator”.

          4. Seir wears the head of a horse but he is named for a demon. The latter is likely cloven hoofed. The horse head may have been used because a deer wasn’t handy or wasn’t big enough. If it is flayed it may be hard for a city person to know exactly what it is. It could be a moose.

          5. @Milan Dare- It’s a horse’s head because Seir is described as a horseman or rider, not because a deer head wasn’t handy. If he wanted a deer head, he’s in a frontier community on an earth that wasn’t inhabited by humans three years ago- I’m pretty sure he’s got access to any deer he wanted.

          6. >Seir wears the head of a horse but he is named for a demon. The latter is likely cloven hoofed.

            Nope (#7). While you’re there, check out Raum and Glasya-Labolas (not really spoilers for Pact.)

    2. Well, we don’t really know what it means. All we know is second-gens supposedly need less effort to trigger, and Vicky speculates that they don’t second trigger.

      Not that Vicky or Rain had an easy trigger, so either they’re both terribly unlucky outliers, or somebody’s sources need a bit of fact-checking.

      1. Second gens trigger younger, as a rule. That likely plays into the ‘second gens trigger easier’ myth. Plus, Vicky’s trigger was on the basketball court, after being fouled. There was a lot of mental pressure in there, but her powers are physical and the physical trigger wasn’t that big.

        Vicky also said that cluster capes don’t second-trigger, so I don’t think that was in the cards for Rain anyway.

        1. That’s as far as Victoria KNOWS. She may be learned, but she is limited by what the science of powers has discovered.

          And even so, we didn’t know cluster capes could bud until Colt did. Without the Entities to moderate and facilitate the processes, it’s a free-for-all out there!

          1. The Weaverdice document, in its section on clusters, states that when a cluster forms, the shards look for a nearby relative to give a full-power version of their one power to. So Rain could have passed on his blue-line-of-breaking power to Erin’s brother in a bud, but not the whole package. Colt doesn’t fit that, which is… Very, very interesting.

          2. Not necessarily. Despite Love Lost saying that Colt was “the last daughter she wanted”, I think she had some obvious motherly feelings for her. Her shard probably picked up on that. Nothing says that shards don’t understand a concept of adoption, and I don’t mean a formal one.

  11. – finally, the Cradle interlude
    – a bad seed from the get-go. Sociopath, psychopath, whatever, the point is he’s one of those people who have most of the human emotions but lack guilt, regret and shame plus a very muted fear response
    – interesting seeing what a so-called “high-functioning sociopath” a la Sherlock and so many other “asshole genius” TV shows — showing what that looks like from the inside
    – funny. People like that can’t even remotely function in isolation. They need other people around to bounce off of, to manipulate, to play Gervais Principle with
    – we see again just how much shards fuck with people
    -his shard in particular really played every card it could in his favour right down to giving him access to the dream substrate
    – poor Rain, his shard is second-gen and it totally got shafted by Grasping Self
    – which I guess is the real explanation for the shittiness of his tinker arms
    – on the other hand (hehehehehehehe), he also weakens Grasping Self just by existing so fuck Cradle
    – mystery of the fifth space is tentatively solved: it’s the meeting spot for their shards
    -more to come as I think of it

    1. Thing is, Cradle isn’t high functioning. He’s about average. He was, what, 18 before he figured out that acting on his impulses was more trouble than it’s worth? And his ability to cope was very, very fragile.

      1. High-functioning doesn’t mean above average, it just means able to pass for normal in society. Sometimes it’s because the affliction is low grade, sometimes the person is clever enough to work around it, sometimes they grew up in special circumstances and developed the right skills.

        1. Mmm… yes. I know a literal idiot (on the IQ test), who has published mathematical papers and majored in physics in college.

          Coping mechanisms for “counting is hard” include “2’s complement”

          1. IQ tests have repeatedly been proven to offer no reliable insight into a person’s intelligence.

          2. Tenth,
            Not at all true, really. Quite good at finding learning disabilities, for example.
            Just the top-level number can get REALLY freaking skewed.
            And some tests are better than others.

            IQ tests work decently well for the decent midrange.

        2. Right. And he doesn’t pass with anyone but his parents until he’s nearly in high school by my reading, and still “slips” sometimes after that.

      2. No. He gets there by around age twelve or so. By high school, he’s already focused on being the Good Boy (and that’s a Voldemort fanfic reference).

        He has put a lot of walls up between himself and his emotions, because his emotions are pretty damn toxic and selfish. He’s keeping those walls up with sheer intellect.

        Props to him.

  12. Looks like “Mrs.” Parrish is a fan of something like Finnish Air Force or even Podhale Rifles. Seriously though, that swastica explains so much about why Ryan hates Rain who was supposed to be a Fallen – a person who is supposed to mercilessly prey on “the weak”, just like a “proper” Nazi would, while Rain behaved like and insisted that he was capable of empathy and feeling guilt. The chosen are so close to everything he hated about his old school… and yet Ryan is more like them than Rain is. Everything in this interlude past that point felt almost unnecessary when it comes to explaining the reason behind his hatred, though the understanding that actions of the Fallen have destroyed his world at the moment when he started to think about himself as an almost decent person probably couldn’t be gained from this first scene. The meaning behind the glasses, however, could be.

    Of course there is much more to this interlude than explaining Ryan’s hatred of Rain. Looks like the people who called him a psychopath weren’t that far off. He definitely learned to observe and treat interactions between people the way a psychopath probably would, and he felt absolutely no empathy, and no guilt for harming people and destroying their lives while doing it. At least he realized it and used Amanda and Lloyd to put himself in a position where he wouldn’t be as likely to do something extreme, because after he told them “there would be more consequences”. In a way he turned them into the closest thing to a concise he could get, at least until Rain “gave him one” (not that Ryan is happy about that of course). Though to be fair he generally “worked hard” on “playing nice” and “fair”, and even had decency to think about what his condition would mean to other people:

    A married couple. Like Amanda and Lloyd, but ten years older.

    An old couple.

    Is there any way I get that? Any way that’s fair to whoever I end up with?

    (By the way, it is also telling that this couple counted as “old” in Gimel.US, and I wonder how much of it was because of the “Gimel” and how much because of the “US” part.)

    Generally I think that Wildbow has outdone himself this time. Both when it comes to Ryan’s character and motivations, and the way he presented them, even though, as far as I understand it (and I definitely don’t have any education in this field), Ryan feels like a pretty stereotypical, almost textbook psychopath.

    The insight into Ryan’s shard’s mind is also nice to have, as is learning the names of Rain’s cluster shards, as is the information that there were only for of them. It removes some possibilities about what “the beast” in the fifth space could be. Interesting that unlike Victoria’s and possibly March’s shards they do have names they are aware of! I wonder if it means that Valkyrie will be unable to tell Victoria her “title”?

    With the way A Grasping Self thinks, it feels very much like his shard (and that “will function as a perfect pair because we are both dead inside, disconnected” bit works great in this context!)

    It also looks like, judging from his pre-trigger dreams, at least in Ryan’s case an existing Corona Pollentia may indicate an existing connection to a particular shard, and not just a potential to connect to some shard, but if Ryan was born with his Corona, then it means that he originally only had the potential, and his shard connected only later in his life – on the day he had started to have his apparently lucid dreams he was trying to research, which probably explains why he worked so close with March – they both know things about shards, powers or Entities that most people don’t!

    I wonder how much he knows exactly beyond the possibility of causing bleed-throughs via trading tokens, and possibly of altering his cluster’s dreams. Note that he was so subtle that he never altered actual contents of the memories everyone saw in their dreams to the point where they realized something was amiss – he only “muddled the voice”, but maybe he could select which memories were seen by the members of the cluster in their shared dreams, and maybe he made Love Lost see Rain wear Fallen mask when were in the room, or made Rain not see it. Or maybe Rain unconsciously made the mask appear on his face as he “screwed with the room, somehow”?

    There was a discussion about when a shard connects to a person with a Corona Pollentia here not long ago, and it is good to have it at least mostly resolved (thanks for that Wildbow!), though I wonder what it means about how a trigger caused by a Cauldron vial works exactly on a subject who had a pre-existing Corona, and I don’t exactly remember if it has been confirmed that you can only get the Corona Pollentia before you were born or as a result of unusual trigger (either via a vial or a broken trigger, I guess). Some things to look out for in the future chapters, I guess. Heck, maybe with all of those vials still floating around all, or at least some of the broken triggers were caused by people drinking from vials? Maybe the danger to the city is that someone is about to dump contents of all of those vials mentioned in Citrine’s interlude into its supply of drinking water, or something along those lines?

    We also probably got an explanation on what “broken” means in shard’s context – looks like it means “unable to correctly adjust it’s functionality (correctly control the forcefield – see Victoria’s shard) or the parahuman (take away his memories) to current needs and conditions” – another of my recent mistakes straightened out by Wildbow. Looks like March’s shard isn’t Abaddon’s after all… or at least the Author wants us to think it isn’t.

    As a side note I liked the comparison between Bet’s demand-driven, and Gimel’s “upside-down and backwards” supply-driven economies.

    I also wonder if that bad feeling Ryan had in the mall before the explosion was coming entirely from him, or was it something that came from the shard. It is particularly interesting because of his “talent” for observing and figuring out human interactions. Psychopathy as a substitute for a superpowered intuition?

    Oh, and it looks like Rain really was a pretty “shitty” or at least insensitive person shortly after his trigger. I mean – telling Love Lost that her daughter will “burn in hell”? How could you Rain?!

    1. I accidentally posted a reply to you about the swastika lower down, Alfaryn. Mrs. Parrish isn’t a Neo-Nazi, nor is she a hate-filled preacher. She’s a woman in her late middle age at least, who is probably a baby boomer and therefore likely grew up alongside the hippies and their fascination with Eastern philosophies, and their history of using the swastika.

    2. “The insight into Ryan’s shard’s mind is also nice to have, as is learning the names of Rain’s cluster shards, as is the information that there were only for of them. It removes some possibilities about what “the beast” in the fifth space could be. Interesting that unlike Victoria’s and possibly March’s shards they do have names they are aware of! I wonder if it means that Valkyrie will be unable to tell Victoria her “title”?”
      Valkyrie has a special insight into Shards, and I think was the first one to reveal the titles. Victoria finding out about the origins of her shard, and the real reason she’s stuck with the wretch would be an incredibly interesting development. Especially if she starts looking for a good title for it.

    3. > telling Love Lost that her daughter will “burn in hell”? How could you Rain?!
      Rain wasn’t changed in a moment, it was slow process. Kenzie mentioned Rain looked at her ~badly at first sessions because of skin color.
      “Can we talk? Can we work on this?” – this was probably a first step.

  13. Man everyone’s busy feeling bad for Cradle but all I can think here is: In a setting where there’s so much collateral damage, it’s refreshing for one of the actual bad seeds to get hurt real bad for a change.

  14. It’s too bad Cradle decided to turn evil instead of joining the Therapy Group. He could have gotten there before Rain, got them all on his side, and then had a deja vu moment when Rain pulled a Lloyd. And then later, Ryan and Victoria could have been fashion critic buddies. So many missed opportunities!

    1. Except… Is there even a way to “treat” psychopathy in a better way than what Cradle was doing to himself before he triggered? At least using means Yamada had at her disposal – without emotion powers, personality bleed-throughs and such?

      1. It does sound like Ryan had things pretty well in hand prior to the Mall, but then he got Rained on. Most people Ryan’s age have had nearly two decades to figure out how to cope with empathy. He has not, so therapy could have been useful to help him build up positive, healthy ways to react to those emotions as well as whatever other nonsense his cluster-mates dumped on him. Also, he was previously using Amanda and Lloyd as a set of guard rails to keep himself on track, but Lloyd was already backing out, and then Ryan triggered and decided to suspend contact with everyone from his old life. Jessica and the Therapy Group could have filled that void and helped to keep him from going off the rails like he ended up doing.

        1. What I wonder is if Cradle (assuming he and Rain both survive long enough) will manage to “defend” himself from the personality bleed-through from Rain or not. The second path would obviously be much more painful to him, but maybe it would be the way for him to get what he wanted when he saw that couple in the mall in a way that would be fair to the other person – just like he wanted.

        2. I think it’s interesting to see the contrast between Ryan and Rain. He may have had things in hand, but… He basically gives up because it’s “Unfair” after he spent so much time “Doing things right”. He flashes back to Karma, but it’s the wrong context, and ironically enough someone who is religious could tell him what it is. It’s a test. It’s the test where the good person is tested to see if their just good for the reward, or if they genuinly are good. He failed.

          And Rain… Rain’s the one who should have been the monster. Rain could so easily have been the monster. Just go to Valfor. Have the guilt removed. Use the fallen, hunt the others down and kill them before they get established. But Rain… Rain when confronted by the resualts of his actions genuinly changed, and chose the hardest path.

          Rain became better on his own with no bleedthrough. Cradle manipulted others to make them worse. Rain faced up to his actions, accepting punishment. Cradle in this chapter was thinking how to manipulate and spin it so he wouldn’t.

      2. Al,
        He could be better at trying to see through other people’s eyes.
        Though, in my experience, that leads to trolling.

  15. It’s a reverse swastika, Alfaryn. In some forms of Hinduism, the swastika is a symbol of karma- as well as in Jainism and several other, primarily Indian, religions. Hitler didn’t invent the symbol- there’s very few geometric shapes that haven’t been invented or used at some point in human history- but he did copy it and use it for his own purposes.

    Swastikas are found on temples in Cambodia, Vietnam, and India. It’s found on Norse runestones and Inuit totem poles, in Mayan art and Native American jewellery. Nowadays, most groups that did use it have forsaken it because of Hitler’s philosophy of hate, and the ones that don’t point the arms in the other direction. Mrs. Parrish is probably just an elderly hippy who adopted it in the sixties or seventies for the symbols other, more often forgotten meanings.

    1. Yeah, I know. That first paragraph was mostly a joke. Why else would I mention non-Nazi military branch and an outright WWII allied military unit that used swastica as parts of their symbols?

      1. Because not everybody knows WWII history as well as you do. And the Finns actually found themselves allied to the Nazis against their will- when the Soviets switched sides, they kept attacking Finland. The allies weren’t willing to help the Finns against the Soviets, as Russia was their friend now, but Finland couldn’t afford to stand alone- so they allied themselves to the Nazis and used German equipment as well as captured Russian stuff and things they’d gotten from the Americans and us Brits before the Soviets invaded German-held Poland.

        1. The fact that the Finns ended up fighting against the Soviets with the Germans is precisely why I also mentioned Podhale Rifles, which I imagine are less known (at least outside Poland) for using swastikas in context that had nothing to do with Nazism.

          1. I’ve wikipedia’d them now, but I had not heard of the Podhale Rifles. My father’s main interest in the Second World War is in the military vehicles, and my own interest in military matters doesn’t extend to that recently in time.

          2. It’s ok. I imagine I only heard about their very existence (not to mention their use of swastikas) only because I’m from Poland. It’s not that they played big enough role in the war that I would expect many people outside my country to ever hear about them.

          3. I’ll admit it is not the first time I intentionally dropped a reference to something well known in Poland, but probably extremely obscure in the West, or even anywhere outside my country, just to see if someone will bother to look it up and comment on it. It’s nice to see that history is one of those topics that may prompt such reaction.

          4. And by “West” I meant “West of the Iron Curtain” here. Whether, in what wey, and to what extent Poland belongs to “the West” is probably a topic for discussion way too long to have it here, especially considering that it would be off-topic on this website.

          5. And don’t worry – I’m not some spy agency trying to gather personal information about people who post here. It is just that after that joke about a flat in Warsaw and a sleeping bag in New York, a meaning of which turned out not as obvious to everyone as I expected, I figured out that I need to probe how much I know about Poland is something I can use as examples in my posts without having to explain it, and how much I just can’t expect people to know or figure out on their own.

            On that note I was somewhat disappointed that nobody commented when I half-jokingly mentioned Lem’s “The Cyberiad” a couple chapters ago in context of communication and connections between people, though I admit that maybe “The first sally…” was maybe a bit too obscure – I googled it later, and couldn’t find much information about it in English that wouldn’t require getting “The Cyberiad” itself, and I obviously don’t expect everyone to have it on their shelves (though I highly recommend that you get it – it is an excellent book).

            Guess I shouldn’t also discuss how I see certain parallels between Lem’s “Solaris” and the Parahumans series (especially the human-shard relationship)?

          6. I dearly love Lem, but I think one should try hard to find similarities between Solaris and human-shard relationships:))

            > something well known in Poland, but probably extremely obscure in the West
            > And by “West” I meant “West of the Iron Curtain” here

            Well, I have not much interest in history but I think it’s similarly obscure to the east of the former Iron Curtain as well 🙂

          7. > I dearly love Lem, but I think one should try hard to find similarities between Solaris and human-shard relationships:))

            Why would it be difficult to find similarities between shards and a planet-spanning, intelligent “ocean” which haunts the protagonist (and possibly the other humans in the story) with what is practically an embodiment of what probably was the one of the most (if not simply the single most) traumatic events of his life?

          8. Not to mention that the “ocean” is also utterly alien (just like shards are), and almost impossible for humans to understand beyond the hypothesis that it is using whatever it pulled out of their heads to create means of studying them for some reason. Don’t shards do something similar? Use the traumas to create powers they grant to humans and then study those humans to the point of creating increasingly accurate models of human minds?

          9. As for Lem’s popularity, his works (according to Polish Wikipedia) have been translated into over 40 languages, and over 30 million of his books have been sold worldwide. Not bad for a mostly sci-fi author from Central Eastern Europe.

            I don’t have hard numbers on it, but I read in many places that he was particularly popular in many “Eastern Bloc” countries, including USSR, but his books were (and still are) available pretty much all over the globe.

            When it comes to his popularity in Poland, I’ll just say that some of his works have been a required reading in Polish schools for decades now. Some others officially had a status of additional, recommended reading. In other words there should be no person who went through regular compulsory education in Poland in last few decades who haven’t read at least some Lem’s works.

          10. Of course that is the theory. I practice plenty of Polish kids do everything they can to avoid reading all of those books they are told to read at school, but in my experience Lem is one of those authors whose works are generally relatively well liked by school children.

          11. I don’t think there was much emphasis on the traumatizing aspect in Solaris. The Ocean’s motivations are left to be anyone’s guess (in contrast to Wormverse’s Entities), but I’d think the common motive in its hauntings would more likely be closeness and love. It just so happens that the close and loved ones are for people under normal circumstances often the source of their worst trauma as well. And the relationship between Ocean and humans could not be described as symbiotic or parasitic with any stretch; it would be a stretch to even call it a relationship. An attempt of communication, maybe, or understanding, or making a friendly gesture, but then again – the Ocean is so inhuman that all these guesses could easily be wrong. To put the difference in a couple of words, I’d say that Worm/Ward is about conflict (in a broad sense), and Solaris is about humans too busy being humans to even try comprehending the utterly alien world (and that’s only one side of it and only one of possible interpretations).

          12. I can agree it’s a fair analysis, except that I can’t imagine how living through a suicide of a person you love could not be traumatic.

          13. And I don’t think that this suicide is not a major point in Solaris. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t say that anything else you said is wrong, I just say that there is a valid way to interpret major elements of this book so that there are obvious parallels with important things about shards and the way they interact with humans. I also never meant to suggest that that the shards or Entities are one-to-one copies of the Ocean, only that the parallels are so strong that this element of Parahumans feels like it might been in no small part inspired (possibly even directly) by Solaris.

            We’ll probably never know, unless one day Wildbow tells us at least that he has read Solaris, or has seen or read something that is known to inspired by it.

          14. Remember, amongst the crimes we can lay at the Nazi’s feet is ruining otherwise perfectly good symbols. I mean it’s down a long ways on the list, but still. Fucking Nazis.

      2. I will however admit that I missed the word “backwards” before “swastika” in the text, so yeah… Looks like Mrs. Parrish did not secretly belong to or sympathize with E88.

        1. I sincerely can’t decide if you are gently trolling or expect engagement by everyone who picked on your references. You come off as slightly smug and this also can be a reason that people are not engaging with you. Keep it in mind. 🙂

          1. Thanks, I will.

            Like I explained a few posts above, I was just baffled that someone could not understand that joke about a sleeping bag in New York and a flat in Warsaw I posted as one of my responses to chapter 11.8. I honestly thought it would require no explanation.

            This led me to realize that because of my background I can’t always count on everyone knowing things that I, and pretty much anyone around me consider obvious, and requiring no explanation, but may be unknown outside former Eastern Bloc, or anywhere outside Poland really.

            I decided to post those references to figure out just how much of what I consider my “cultural code” would be understood by everyone (with or without some quick googling), how much of it would require explanations or would be missed as references to something entirely.

            My decision was also in part dictated by the fact that I sometimes run into things other people put in their comments without explanations which I in turn either consider obscure (like a mention to a certain online comic I saw a few chapters ago), or go over my head completely.

            But since you think that I seem to be smug or a troll, I’ll ease up with the references like that. I was about done with them anyway, since I feel I know fairly well now how much of those would be understood here (in short – less than I expected).

          2. I mean – come on, I can understand that some of you never read Lem, but I honestly didn’t think there could be anyone here who hasn’t at least heard of him! That post by T.T.O. was really eye opening for me.

          3. And that reaction is after taking into account that I’m writing to an English-speaking people here. In Poland it is much easier to run into someone who never saw Star Wars or doesn’t know who J.R.R. Tolkien was than into someone who doesn’t know Stanisław Lem, especially among older generation.

          4. @T.T.O.

            I’ll grant you that, at least when it comes to Podhale Rifles. I don’t see how the one to the Finnish Air Force and their swastika would count as such. I thought that anyone with at least some interest in WWII history beyond what is taught at schools knew that one.

            Just another cultural difference, I guess.

          5. @Alfaryn, honestly, if you’re referencing anything in the vicinity of the Eastern Front, it’s probably best to assume that anything other than very broad references to Stalingrad and Operation Barbarossa will go over the casual Western reader’s head (and by very broad, I mean just basically “These were things that happened,” without any particular details included), and in America at least even history buffs don’t tend to be particularly well-versed in the Winter War, at least to my knowledge. I may be underestimating my fellow Westerners, but my experiences indicate this is a generally true statement. Heck, I’ve actually done a little research on the Winter War, and I’d never heard about the Finnish Air Force swastika (though admittedly, I was focused more on Simo Hayha (also, anyone know how to get letters with diacritics in the comment boxes?))

          6. @Ultimate_Procrastinator

            What I think is that I probably shouldn’t mention anything even remotely close to WWII EVER AGAIN here. Just look how this comment section exploded because of just TWO WORDS Wildbow put in this interlude, one of which I even missed during my first read-through. This is supposed to be a comment section about Ward, not real world history, after all.

        1. Ok, not all of that paragraph was supposed to be a joke, not entirely. I did miss that it was supposed to be a reverse swastika and jumped to conclusions. The first sentence of that paragraph definitely was supposed to be a joke, and as for the rest – I could never treat as far fetched conclusions as the ones I presented there (even ignoring my mistake about which swastika we are talking about) completely seriously.

          So calling the entire paragraph a joke was inaccurate, but nothing I wrote there was meant to be taken as seriously as some people apparently did, which in my eyes justified calling the whole thing mostly a joke. Perhaps I should have found a more accurate way to express it. Sorry if anyone felt offended.

          1. And sorry about any confusion too. I guess that could also happen. I admit I really should’ve phrased that “mostly a joke” comment better.

      3. > Why else would I mention non-Nazi military branch and an outright WWII allied military unit that used swasticka as parts of their symbols?

        Ok, one last thing about the Finns in WWII, just so no one gets a wrong idea or, worse, gets offended. By saying that Podhale Rifles were an allied unit, I didn’t want to suggest that Finland never joined the allies, or that I didn’t know about it. They did, but unlike the Podhale Rifles they basically sided with the Axis countries earlier.

        It also needs to be stated that even during WWII alone, Podhale Rifles were not so much a unit, but a number of units formed at different times and fighting in different places throughout the war, some of them tied by little more than the name and associated traditions. All of them fought only for the allies though (if we count Poland and all of its units, including those formed by Polish government-in-exile abroad and the Home Army in the occupied Poland, as one of the allied powers).

        1. You got Finland backwards. When the Nazis and the Soviets were allied in the Axis Powers, Finland was a member of the Allies fighting primarily the Soviets. When Russia and Germany turned on each other, Finland found itself still fighting the Communists, which means the Allies didn’t want to help them any more- because Russia, being a larger and more industrial nation, was a world power, and helping Finland would strain that relationship. So Finland joined the Axis because it needed supplies to fight Russia, and Germany was the only country willing to help them.

          1. Despite their “non-aggression pact” with the Germans in years 1939-1941 (and trust me, I do know what sort of “non-aggression” this pact was really about…), I don’t consider the Soviets to be the part of the Axis at any point during the war, and do consider them to be one of the Allies after they signed an Anglo-Soviet Agreement in July 1941.

            This means that I consider Finland a country that was neither one of the Allies, nor one of the Axis during the Winter War (1939-1940), a part of the Axis during the Continuation War (1941-1944, even though Finland never signed a formal alliance with any Germany or any of its allies), and a part of the Allies during the Lapland War (1944-1945, even though Finland formally declared war on Germany only in March 1945).

            I know that this is a “traditional” view which has as much to do with wartime propaganda as with reality of war, and practically any point of this interpretation could be contested, as could the very definitions of “Allied countries” and “Axis countries” during WWII, but I think that at least in case of Finland it at least more or less accurately describes which “side” that country de facto fought during various stages of war.

          2. And yes, during the Lapland War Finland did not sign any formal alliance with the Allies. Doesn’t change the fact that they fought against the Germans alongside the Soviets then, even though they were formally at war with the Soviet Union until 1947.

  16. Damnit Wildbow. Don’t make me like Cradle…

    So, it’s interesting how the shards don’t come in groups, just group up when they connect at the same time. And apparently the dream room is an unique arrangement for this cluster. Nice to see more info on the shards. And Grasping Self’s narration sounds more like what I expected out of a shard. I guess shards tend to adopt their hosts’ thought patterns over time, once they connect? Or maybe that’s only something that shards could do before GM.

    And what’s the issue with extending the cycle for a few years, Grasping Self. It’s not like the entities don’t live for millions of years.

  17. Good chapter. It’s the kind of chapter that flows as long as you know nothing about psychopaths. In a way I feel (not offended) surprised that a webnovel that goes to great lengths showing varied perspectives falls into such a stereotypical portrayal of psychopaths (especially considering the Wilde Beest has portrayed many other societal niche populations very well) They’re people like everybody else, they’ll be delusional, self justifying and soul searching. It just strikes me that laughable and simplistic that a real psychopath would recognise and formulate ways around his psychopathy from such a young age. Constructively critically; please consider revising a the perspective of Cradle to not be so blatantly aware of the fact that the only way he can relate to people is in an ego-utilitarianistic way.

    1. Rather full of yourself, aren’t you?

      No, this perspective isn’t unrealistic. It’s unlikely, but there are people who manage to live on their own with Antisocial Personality Disorder, same as with any other disorder. And this is rather close to what they look like.

      The people who get by without psychological help will be the ones you won’t find scientific literature on, for… well, refer to “gets by without psychological help”. They don’t have case files.

      1. Aname,
        Of course they have case files. Dark psychologists work for the CIA and other spy agencies, and have a tendency to have case files on “anyone interesting” (see important CEOs, Schmart People, etc.)

        I’ve read the case file on a friend of mine. It’s… interesting.

    2. I have read texts by people who have been diagnosed with sociopathy describing something very, very, very similar. As practices AND as coping mechanisms. TBH, i don’t recall where and should i find it, i will post it here. 🙂

      1. Seconded. A lot of antisocial-spectrum individuals tend to figure out they’re not normal to some extent pretty early on; I’ve seen it described in some of those accounts you mention as watching others play a game with a ton of random rules that everyone else seems to know already and follow for no clear reason.

        Even the ones that intellectually figure out the rules and “play nice” tend to understand empathy and altruism in terms of equivalent exchange or habit, rather than an instinctive feeling of distress or revulsion at the thought of causing or ignoring the suffering of another. The worst case scenarios, on the other hand, tend to consider this a “weakness” that they are free of, or believe that everyone else is pretending too (but only the antisocial individual is special enough to free themselves from the sheep).

        1. Yeah sorry if I came off arrogant, was in a hurry when I blurbed that out. I’m not a psychologist by any stretch, even if i have worked a few, (and even then they were specialised in their own fields and may not know enough about antisocial individuals to comment more than generally). My own experience with antisocial individuals come from voulenteer work as a substitute teacher at an educational centre for kids with behavioural problems, mostly violent ones.

          The point I was trying (and failing) to make is that the stereotype of the cool collected calculating psychopath is virtually nonexistent in reality (when the lack of empathy is as severe as described in Cradle’s case). It is however vastly overrepresented in media and research literature because it -sells- it’s interesting. Like autist savants. A lot of the “psychopaths” who are represented in these texts are people who actively sought out the experiments or proactively extort their “detached manipulation of social mechanics” – often for attention or validation.
          Antisocial or empathically detached behaviour is a sliding scale and in severe cases (as with cradle) cannot be hid from teachers, parents and peers. There’s many reasons but the biggest is that most children are plain stupid compared to adults, sure they may be smart for their age, or even a child genius, but as a general rule they show symptoms of their “psychopathy” due to the poor impulse control all kids have.
          In order to not be noticed the child has to either be bouncing from place to place so often that any malignant behaviour is attributed to stress or anger (or simply not picked up due to flurry of different teachers not having a chance to get to know the kid) OR, the kid needs literal enablers that knowingly shelter and hide him from virtually everyone else in his upbringing. It didn’t seem to me from the interlude that Cradle had these enablers.

          Like, I’m not saying it’s horrible writing, or that it’s impossible he could make it this far without intervention (just improbable). I just think that it was a great chance to maybe portray the early life of a bona-fida psychopath realistically and tell the story of how people tried to help him -and it still went wrong-. Atm he just feels 2 dimensional and I don’t want to criticize unwarranted but it just feels like Worm2 is such a big step down in antagonist quality. We went from Cauldron, Mauer and Jack Slash to March, a nutjob killing people because of love and excitement, and Cradle, a literal stone-cold psychopath listing for power.

          I hope I don’t come off as too harsh, and that this better explains my previous dumpster fire of a post.

          1. > We went from Cauldron, Mauer and Jack Slash to March, a nutjob killing people because of love and excitement, and Cradle, a literal stone-cold psychopath listing for power.

            Don’t forget Sleeper 🙂 It was even said somewhere that he is for the sequel. And dunno about Mauer (Google tells me that he’s someone from Twig, probably), but Jack Slash was a psycho like no other. But I tend to agree with your general sentiment, I immensely enjoyed S9, Scion and especially Cauldron, and with Ward’s antagonists – not so much. Cradle comes close, Goddess lags behind, and March – well, enough was said about her in comments to 12.all.

          2. I never saw Jack as a psycho tbh. Yeah he’s a vicious murderer with no comparison in wallbast’s works. But I always saw him as a remorseless Artist, trying to impress, to demonstrate and evoke emotions – otherwise why the fixation on showmanship(for lack of a better word) and originality?. He’s very empathic even if he doesn’t give a shit about other people’s lives, perhaps he felt their suffering and death was enevitable or justified as long as they helped him deliver his message, his art. I mean, a monster yeah, but detached and unempathic, no.

            And as for Mauer, all the nitpicking a of twig aside (and I enjoyed Twig tremendously), I think he’s the best antagonist Warren all has ever put to paper. Extremely competent but with limitations, great (and arguable better than the protagonists) motivations, fantastic dialogue, a constant relevant presence throughout the entire plot. I feel like wollerbuster uses the “Darth Vader effect” beautifully too – no ally is as welcome as an enemy you previously feared and respected.

          3. I hope I don’t come off as too harsh, and that this better explains my previous dumpster fire of a post.

            Significant improvement, yes. Here, I actually agree with you.

    3. “Constructively critically; please consider revising a the perspective of Cradle to not be so blatantly aware of the fact that the only way he can relate to people is in an ego-utilitarianistic way.”

      Why? Everything Cradle did to overcome his lack-of-empathy impulses I did. I had help from a therapist for a few months, but aside from that (and self-study in my early teens), everything Cradle thought of and implemented to set his path, I’ve done (or near enough).

  18. Well I’m stumped. People in the comments saying they sympathize with Cradle, or they’re starting to like him or whatnot. I don’t get that. This just made me dislike him even more ( i dislike the character himself, not how he’s written ’cause that’s excellent). The guys a grade A certified psychopath.
    And you know what? His shard is an asshole too.
    On the subject of shards, lurching intruder was snag’s right? And cloven stranger was rain’s?
    Do you think the dreamworld will continue after there’s only one member of the cluster left? That would really suck. Especially if Rain is the last one standing cause the shards probably won’t let him leave early like Cradle can. But maybe when that happens Rain will get to see what lies within the shadowy section since it apparently doesn’t actually belong to anyone.

    1. Don’t worry. I still don’t like Cradle. I understand him better. But that doesn’t mean I have to like him. Like I said above. He ran into a hardship, and basically gave up. He got hit with actual empathy and guilt… And it made him mad at the one responsible. After the mall he’s just kept doubling down. He’s narrating how he’ll try to spin it so he doesn’t have consequences for his actions, being connected to what March unleashed, dicing up people including kids… He may not be able to feel guilt and empathy like a normal person, but he should be able to intellectually understand why those actions should be wrong.

      In the end Cradle’s still just trying to manipulate everyone because he feels it’s too much of a hassle to deal with it otherwise. Being good, doing things “Right” are always going to be a scale you behave on for reward and not punishment. I also find him interesting to contrast to Regent, who while he was never a good guy, did understand he should be better than he could be.

      1. I still don’t like Cradle. I understand him better.

        I fall under that as well, since I don’t have much forgiveness to spare.

    2. “Well I’m stumped. People in the comments saying they sympathize with Cradle, or they’re starting to like him or whatnot. I don’t get that.”

      Ditto. And I’m a ‘sociopath’. But harming innocent animals? Crossed a damn line.

  19. So Anguished Heart/Love Lost is a strong, full shard that was with her for a while.
    Lurching Stranger/Snag is new but seems to be gold morning fallout.
    Cloven Stranger/Rain is a bud or 2nd gen and Grasping Self is another old hat.

    I wonder if Colt’s addition was a manipulation by Anguished Heart, Offshooting a breaker on purpose, to try and wrest control of the dreamscape back.

    1. Maybe what generally makes Rain’s cluster so special is that it’s shards are in conflict with each other? Would it fit, considering that they were connected with each other only after GM?

      1. Of course there is also a possibility that Grasping Self is just a psychopath, and because of it tends to suspect other shards’ of ulterior motives when they have none.

        1. “… that it’s shards are in conflict with each other?”
          Talk about karma. Heh.
          “… Grasping Self is just a psychopath, and…”
          Aren’t all shards psychopath-like? maybe I’m simplifying it too much, but the shards use their hosts like disposable test subjects.
          On the flipside, they get imprinted by their hosts’s… personalities? So…

          1. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like Victoria’s shard is a psychopath, and yes – there definitely is a correlation between personality of shards and their hosts. One thing that I thing is uncertain at this point is if it is entirely because shards copy their hosts personalities, or if the shards choose or get assigned to their hosts at least partly based on already pre-existing similarities between their personalities.

            This interlude makes me think that the shards at least tend to choose hosts who had something in common with them even before forming any sort of connection.

          2. > if it is entirely because shards copy their hosts personalities, or if the shards choose or get assigned to their hosts at least partly based on already pre-existing similarities between their personalities

            I thought about it as well, but came to a conclusion that it makes little sense for shards to seek pre-existing similarities when their whole point of establishing symbiosis with other species it seeking *new* information. If someone would discover a totally new way of using means at your disposal, which you had not thought about, it would likely be someone who is totally unlike you. And conversely, it makes perfect sense for shards to absorb information from their hosts, together with their personalities.

          3. This exchange with you, people.
            This is why I like the Comments Section. The post-read analysis is like an extension of the chapter.

          4. It’s worth noting that Victoria’s shard is new. She’s it’s first host, and it’s a hodgepodge of bits of unrelated shards. It doesn’t even have a designation. It really doesn’t have an identity. Even Rain’s newborn Shard has a designation, A Cloven Stranger. I get the impression new shards are more… Timid I guess than pre existing ones. And more influenced by their original hosts. Which in this case makes them more humanlike.

          5. @ T.T.O.
            “it makes little sense for shards to seek pre-existing similarities when their whole point of establishing symbiosis with other species it seeking *new* information.”

            Well, if shard could be psychopath, it also could be lazy or unconcerned or even saboteur.

      2. Well… at least Grasping Self is in… competition I would say, to see it’s host win over the others. It might be the nature of Grasping Self to be selfish.

  20. Wow. Great chapter. By the way, in the spirit of previous Mary-Sue-March discussions – here we can see an villain who is overpowered, successful and mysterious (at least better informed than we are, for now), but definitely NOT a Mary Sue. I think I’ll be greatly enjoying chapters about Cradle, and I’ll enjoy him finally getting a Foil’s bolt Rain’s blade through his head. And it seems that March could probably get her bolt earlier…
    On other matters: now we know that 2-gen shards can join clusters, and clusters can form next-gen shards. That makes Colt…2.5-gen? It would be interesting to see her shard’s (or shards’?) perspective. And some new info about the fifth space is sweet. It seems that it’s not related to either of 4 cluster shards, to dead cluster members and to whatever danger is looming over the city (since Cradle knows about the danger but doesn’t know much about the fifth space, except that it devoured Snaggletooth).

    1. And another interesting moment – natural triggers could happen to people with no shard-planning beforehand (see Lurching Intruder not choosing its host).

      1. That one is a nice catch. I wonder if it is something that could always happen, or is something specific to post-GM triggers?

        1. I personally suspect Snag’s is a post GM fallout shard. So Lurking Intruder (not Stranger 🙄) is a drop of Scion blood from the battle, much like the dog Valkyrie found.

          1. Oh, a drop of Scion’s blood would enable us to harm!
            Yeah, a drop of Scion’s blood would enable us to harm!
            A drop of Scion’s blood would enable us to harm!
            And we’ll all snag on behind!

    2. Yes. Every thing the March Interlude failed to do for me, Cradles succeeded in. And it feels like his success has required actual effort, he still has a fight on his hands, and he’s being affected by what has happened and is happening, and while more powerful than every, that there’s still a chance things won’t go his way one way or another.

  21. Something occurred to me.

    Why did Ryan tell his friends about how crazy he was, when there was no benefit to him? I’m thinking he wanted something real, instead of something fake. If they knew who he really was and stayed friends with him anyways… yeah.

    If that’s the case, then he does still have human motivations. It’s just that he doesn’t have the means to act on them.

    1. I think he felt lonely. Having no empathy doesn’t have to mean that you can’t crave human companionship.

      Remember how he reacted when he saw that couple in the mall, or that one of his reasons o hate Rain is that he had to cut ties with his mother, Lloyd and Amanda. Remember that he initiated his relationship with L&A.

      Knowing that nobody both knows and accepts him the way he is probably made him very lonely.

      There is also the fact that he made a conscious decision to follow rules of the society (again, probably to feel less lonely), and by telling them about himself he gave himself additional motivation not to break them (by harming someone for example – something all to easy for him considering his lack of empathy), because “there would be more consequences”. He basically made them a substitute for a conscience.

    2. Ryan may have seen a potential benefit for him. Because given that if he ever gave in to his impulses, it would have bad consequences. For him.
      I understood it as Ryan wanting something more to keep him in check in case his mask started slipping away a la Patrick Bateman( if it wasn’t already).

      1. It’s probably a bit of Afaryn’s analysis and a bit of ‘master-tier’ manipulation. See it works like this…

        You let someone know you’ve done bad thing “A”, something that clearly crosses society’s threshold of “you might have been justified”, but not so far as roll into “oh shit, this guys is going to eat my eyes and wear my face as a mask”. In this case, killing a hated person’s cat (which you’ll note he pulled back from the full admission on). You get to judge how strong a bond they have with you. If they stick by you (as with Lloyd) then you know they are either loyal, or don’t care, or both. If they pull back (as with Amanda) you have set a boundary line for them, and determined the strength of their friendship. In this case, he maintained a semi-friendship with Amanda (likely only through Lloyd), but it also showed she was capable of having her line, nudged.

        In this example it also allows you to show a weakness, and other people love to know you have weaknesses. It makes them feel like they’re in your ‘inner sanctum’, they are special enough for you to let your guard down around them. This helps to increase loyalties in friends. With enemies, you share false weaknesses, this gives them sense of power over you.

        There are other reasons, but I do strongly suspect he was motivated by both manipulative impulses and a sense of ‘friendship’. Not so much so they’d be his conscious, but so they’d know he was broken and when he does slip in the future their lines have been nudged enough to let him ‘get away with it’ as long as he appears properly contrite.

        Also, he may have been worried he wasn’t going to get away with it, and thus if it came out in a public manner, they’d already be in his ‘these are my secrets’ club and more willing to accept him, rather than turning on him.

  22. I like how this interlude split people in 2 parts: the ones who feel sorry for Cradle and hope he’s going to redeem himself and people who hate him and want to just die already. Well, I’m someone rare, I staying by both side: I feel terrible sorry for Ryan, because wasn’t his fault for being a sociopath and he actually tried to change (he ultimately failed, but still tried to change) and I hate Cradle so much that not even his death will be enough to satisfy my NEED to see him being punished. See? I made a clear difference between Ryan and Cradle. They’re almost complete opposite people, despite being the same person with the same problems.

    1. Fun interpretation: Ryan as the mask Cradle wears. Reversal of the usual secret identity gig, where it’s the civilian identity who’s the polite fiction created for society’s benefit, and the masked identity who acts on his own interests.

    2. I’m pretty much with you on this (except that I don’t see Ryan and Cradle as opposites). But yeah, I can feel bad for Ryan while still wanting Cradle to get smashed into gooey pieces.

    3. Yeah, I made that distinction with Bonesaw and Riley. Heck compare Cradle to Regent. Regent was a sociopath, and the only reason he left Heartbreaker was he just felt that was pointless. He was never a good person. But at some point he managed to be better…ish.

      But death? Oh hoho, I am not sure it’ll be death Cradle has to worry about. Death might be more pleasent than finally finding out what normal people have to go through in relationships…

      1. The comparison to Regent is an interesting one. We don’t know as much about his early life, but Alec’s powers helped him get away whereas Ryan was put back to square one by the conflict feeling like a punishment, and the golden opportunity to manipulate others that he couldn’t pass up. There’s also the question of responsibility, as Alec was raised in Heartbreaker House whereas Ryan had supportive, if trusting parents.

        Alec turned out better. He listened to people and made connections. Cradle seems to have let his friends go in pursuit of power. That means he can get in the bin.

        A shame. But plenty of people coped with their powers screwery. Ashley is a great example.

        1. The way I see it, what Ryan’s shard did was typical for shards. It gave him a way to solve his biggest problem (a feeling of loneliness caused by the fact that he can’t have an honest, open relationship with “normal” people, because they won’t accept his psychopathy, and what he did because of it) by putting him in a room with Rain (whose tokens can give Ryan the most important thing he lacks), but made the “solution” only cause a bigger problem, because to take it Ryan would need to conquer his greatest fear – a fear of becoming a person capable of feeling emotional paint (and feeling a lot of this pain for his pas actins, if nothing else), and at the same time offering no guarantee that it would really lead to him having the sort of relationships he desires – he could for example still be shunned for everything he did already, or become too guilt-ridden to function normally.

          1. Funny thing is that if Ryan’s shard just gave him conscience at the moment of trigger, or otherwise forced it on him, Ryan’s problems would probably be solved already. It is the fact that the shard let Ryan’s choose that is the source of his constant trigger-related torment so typical to most capes.

          2. And of course Ryan has been strongly incentivized to not take Rain’s tokens, but do all of those terrible things he did. It prolongs a torment of having a choice, and at the same time makes Ryan’s future suffering due to having an ability to feel guilt if he eventually decides to take those tokes greater.

            It is a win-win situation for Grasping Self really. Even if Ryan manages to do what he ist trying to do (get rid of the choice without getting a conscience) he will still keep suffering, because he will never be sure that he made the right choice, though it may be the least painful of possible outcomes to Ryan, so the shards won’t make it easy for him to get it (they certainly haven’t made it easy for him until now).

      2. Inversely I never saw Regent as a sociopath, just a /seriously/ damaged kid who was dealing. He had emotions. He felt bad about things. He was just so used to hiding that away, to acting in manner that would let him protect himself from his sociopathic Father that it had become a his nature. His time with Imp really brought his better aspects out over time, and that isn’t a change you’ll see with someone who does not in fact have those aspects.

    4. Inversely, I feel no sympathy for him, but don’t hate him enough to wish for his bloody end.

      I mean, he needs to die, but I feel no particular driving pathos about it. Likewise, “Oh boo-hoo, you had problems. Get over it you pansy, everyone has problems”. He’s blaming his back-sliding on the multi-cluster problems and I cut no slack for that.

      1. I don’t think Cradle is broken enough to make him irredeemable, a rabid dog who needs to be put down because of what it has become (a la Jack Slash or Echidna). I do think he’s the equivalent of a healthy dog who happens to have its jaws around a kid’s arm, one who needs to be put down because other people are in immediate danger if you don’t.

      2. …Never mind that I can’t actually think of a way to put down a dog already biting a kid without putting the kid at extreme risk. It’s not a great metaphor now that I think about it…

  23. It has been a great chapter. I always liked Cradle – I suspected there was more than a simple dislikable antagonist down there -, and this chapter delivered, big time. The only thing that is not clear yet for me is why he decided to go for the villain route so early on after his trigger, so much that it seems he did not even sleep in his own home after the mall trigger. If he lived with his parents, they would have been aware of his survival, and Amanda & Lloyd would automatically know as a result.
    One possibility is that he knew since the beggining that the cluster dynamics means that one clustermate will inevitably drain the others because of kill/Kiss dynamics, and thought that Rain, being a fallen, was going to kill everyone.
    The second is that the dreams look like shard memories, and what he has learned from the cycles and his own shard has convinced him to go full anti-villain kephri to prevent something dreadful, in the best Taylor tradition.
    In any case, it is very likely he will be the BBEG, and I like it. You can empathize with him, yet agree that he should be stopped at any costs.For the most bloodthirsty of us, that want to see him dead instead of arrested in a Jail, I would point out that Defiant has killed more people than him. Sympathy for the devil, anyone?

    We also know how he isn´t a plot-armored Mary Sue either; he has been privy to cycle memories for years, so when he triggered, he knew exactly what to do. He also contacted a lot of capes, may have got rid and exploited a lot of precognition thinkers as part of his setup, and got March to cooperate with him. He has been operating on preset plans and contingencies for a long time, with the help of Love Lost, a top notch detective and criminalogist, and so far he can still use them. I guess that the second Breakthrough sabotages the last of them he is going to fail HARD, but so far he has managed to keep some cards in his sleeve, even if thanks to our plucky band of misfits he is short on them now. I think that his need to rush a several days-long plan in 20H before the bleedthrough eats him alive is going to get him defeated for sure.

    Honestly, before that I thought that he had other disorder instead (mild autism/Aspergers syndrome was a possibility, speech impairment disorder was other), and that the fact that he went full villain was that he had fallen to shard influence from the get-go.

    The idea behind was that Cradle would have been picked on and dealt with as village idiot, suffered of the fact that the social interactions game was rigged with rules that he could not understand nor manipulate, where he would always loose. His dreams suggested a story of always being bullied on, and being a victim, never the other way around. He would have become a very competent person in some areas by dint of having to overcompensate the fact that he was neurologically crippled in the social skills department, and built a burning, lifelong resentment against society because of this. He would have valued his “uniqueness” as a defence mechanism – something he would have felt eroding as a deluge of feelings and ego bits would have been transferred to him via cluster bleedthrough. The dreams pointed that way, but it looks like Cradle chose those passages of his life and edited them to give this misleading impression, give the appearence of a defenceless victim. How clever of him.

    My hypothesis was that the shard had supplied him with what he always lacked & wished most – the ability to understand, influence & manipulate people – , so he would have had core parts of the human experience and ego totally supplied and managed from the shard power.
    As such, he would simply have fallen to the conflict imperatives of the shard from the get-go, since he would do anything to keep the newfound control that the powers gave over his life. The focus on hands would symbolize his desire for a grasp and control over his life, besides the physical circumstances involved around the trigger – trying to reach his glasses. It also would have probably led to a gratitude and emotional dependence on shards, leading to a “must assemble a new entity” utopian/cult-like mentality similar to the one March displayed.

    Instead, Cradle had never a problem in understanding people. It was the other way around: he had never anything to hold him back, no empathy, no moral brakes, just the limits he would place upon himself. He had almost all the intellectual resources and strengths imaginable, excepting empathy. He had worked hard to become a likable person, and from an arguable “monster” he made himself an ethically sound person, with the sweat of his brow. He learned to forsake vengeance against his teacher, made friends and genuinely became somebody caring, doting even. I loved the little details: making the dress, coming clean with Lloyd & Amanda, and taking care of them afterwards even after gold morning in his own thoughtful, careful way. The part in which he was in the mall was properly hearthbreaking – he only got caught in the mall slaughter because he had become a genuinely good person, and he trapped himself inside only because of the painstakingly crafted empathy for the people he had learned to care about: two friends and his parents. If he had been a “monster” and followed his own instincts he would never have been trapped inside the mall.

    He made himself into a functionally good person, without the benefit of the emotional reward most people get from it. Hell, that is a wonderful, sound ethical stance built from rationality alone. Before the trigger happens, Cradle has built himself into a very decent person, much more than he realizes. As he is aware he has full control over his life, he feels he deserves all the negative consequences from his actions, and holds himself to accordingly stringent standards to prevent himself from backsliding.

    And then he gets the emotional setup he always lacked via the cluster. Now he feels the guilt he never felt for actions of a whole lifetime of shitiness he has already learned from and corrected, the raging against the dying of the light he never had the luxury to feel, and the despair he never experienced over lacking the inbuilt empathic moral compass everyone else around him was born with.
    Shit, I agree with him. This is everything but fair, and you can feel his panic when a full emotional gamut he has no defences against tears him apart. He is defenceless, too, because he has not had the lifetime worth of resources to manage those negative emotions most people benefit from.

    But now he has killed Colt & Love Lost, and maimed a lot of people. He has been consequently kill-ordered, and there is no coming back. Hell, for all his potential to kill and maim, and all the pleasure he would have derived from it, he kept hings remarkably non-lethal until date. Many “regular” villains, including Etna and Paris, have done far worse things or had far worse intent and got away with it because they were less successful in their attempts, not because they were better people.
    And the sad part is that, had he not edited his dreams to prevent anyone to exploit any weaknesses, Rain and the heroes would have been able to feel empathy towards him and refrain from killing him.

    The funny part? He has been desperate from the very begining, feeling the ticking clock of emotional bleedthrough, and no one realized it. The shard bonded with him because it felt kinship with the “monster” he was, but Cradle triggered when he was the opposite of the monster “Grasping self” looked for as a host. Cue “Grasping self” ruining everything, as shards seem wont to do.
    Isn´t it funny that he has gone postal over getting the same emotions he wished to have an analog for?

    A proper tragedy though & through. Well done Wildbow. Hell, the only problem may be that we wind up liking more your antagonists that Breakthrough!

    I for one, hope that Cradle survives, the damage he caused gets undone, and after some prison time, he can get rehabilitated. Defiant did far worse in his old days, and he is arguably rehabilitated.

  24. Maybe “Grasping self “was the the real villain of Ward all along, and the prophesized world-ending threat that all thinkers are afraid of.

    Not the childish and deranged March, not the numbed Cradle, but his calculating shard. “Grasping Self” basically looks like the distilled sociopathic behaviors learned from multiple host civilizations during past cycles, given volition & power in shard form. It seems very intelligent and calculating, and seems to dislike his cluster fellow shards a lot, seeing them as lazy parasites draining his energy – in some cases, they did not even did proper prep work before bonding with their hosts! Cue its hatred for Cloven stranger, Rains´shard.
    I think that the whole underlying great plot of Ward may be the machinations of “Grasping Self” to become the core of a new entity, subjugating all the other shards and finishing the cycle. I will expose why.

    His portfolio seems to manipulate any kind of sentient to his advantage, be hosts or fellow shards. We know that the formation of entities was a faustian pact between otherwise very territorial shards in their home planet, before they agreed for a battle royale of sorts, with the winner becoming the ego and driving force of the resulting entity. This was not a welcome reality, and could only be agreed upon because the inherently selfish behavior of the original shards had driven them into an immminent Malthusian extinction scenario.

    The resulting entities could only survive through the cycles by lobotomizing their fellow shards into a eusocial society. The ego of the entity ensures its position by gaining admin privileges through becoming a “hub”, and carefully lobotomizing the other shards into task hedonists, obsessed with fulfilling their portfolio and only given the cognitive resources relevant for it. The “hub” also had a monopoly on large-scale shard reproduction, entity migration & energy generation, as well as the flexible intelligence, so that if a shard got rogue, the damage it could cause was limited. With each shard seemingly limited to a different earth and no way to interact with the world but his host, if they rebelled, they could easily be culled, by killing their hosts and severing their energy supply.
    As such, an eusocial ant society was created, with a “hub” such as Scion or Eden as the queen, and the other shards as workers.
    The layers of inbuilt safeties were critical, because if given the chance, the shards would gladly try to murder the queen, then any other shard for resources.

    The main danger here is emergence: one shard gaining enough knowledge through their hosts to start self-improvement, reach singularity and become a new entity. This is countered through shard lobotomization and only giving them a limited set of cognitive resources and ego relevant to their task, as well as keeping the cycles short, so that the knowledge each shard gains from the succesive hosts does not reach the critical mass sufficient for a singularity event.
    The shard “budding” may be another safety; if too much host knowledge is absorbed, it must be expelled by dumping it into another new budding shard; a second-gen hero shard.

    The end result of this is that the full entities are basically weaponized singularities, “Paperclip maximizer” style. If this fact does not cause you pants-wetting terror, I recommend you read the “Eclipse phase” existential horror roleplaying game backstory, and reconsider. That setting explores the dangers of EARLY singularitarian AI, and the entities of the “Wormverse” are arguably much older and experienced that the ones displayed in “Eclipse phase”.

    Now that the entity “hub” is dead, the most likely scenario is that one of the Shards develops emergence and becomes the core of a new entity, lest all of them evetually die. The easiest way this can happen is from a shard in an existing cluster. The shards in a cluster are ideal candidates for emergence, as they can comunicate & learn not only from hosts, but also from the fellow shards they are clustered to. In addition, one of the main barriers for emergence is that the shard consciousness and cognitive resources are very limited to its portfolio, despite having much processing power. When many shards are clustered together, they may gain much more cognitive skills and resources, gaining volition, flexibility and even agendas they were not supposed to follow. With the energy expenditure problem and the desire to regain a “hub”, it is very likely that all knowledge gained from hosts will be devoted to rebuild an entity.

    The current runners-up for entity emergence seem to be March´s cluster shards, “Grasping Self” as Cradle´s cluster shard, and Teacher´s shard. All those three capes have shards that are very aware of their enviroment and have tons of cognitive skills and memories, as well as powersets and portfolios that require a lot of flexibility and interaction with other shards.
    The events of this chapter make likely that “Grasping Self” is trying it, but any of the above may be moving in that direction, and may suceed first. Massed broken triggers arising from existing time bubbles are an evenmore likely source, because they pool dozens or hundreds of potential trigger and double-trigger sources together.
    The advantage of “Grasping Self” is the existence of the egg. With the way power transfer and draining works, having the living body parts of dozens of hosts near Cradle at all times should eventually result on the formation of a gigantic cluster focused on Cradle. And “Grasping Self” has already expressed its personal interest into rigging the dream room dynamics for its own benefit, at the expense of anyone, be shard or host.

  25. While I am well aware of the Swastika/Manji’s widespread use prior to Nazis poisoning the symbol, I have to confess I originally misread the chapter as the symbol being used as a mark of white supremacy, or at least Ryan concluding such. Probably doesn’t help that Worm had the Neo Nazi Empire 88 as a major villain organization or me being used to western works being unwilling to use the symbol in a non-Nazi context. I also confess that I wasn’t aware the Nazi Swastika dictated a specific chirality(after all, both forms are visible on the Nazi Flag depending on which side is viewed). It is news to me that Hippies tried to redeem the symbol in western culture, which might’ve also contributed to my mistake.

    That Finland was involved in WWII is news to me and I’ve never heard of Lem, though.

    1. Thanks. I know it’s silly, but it makes me feel like less of an idiot to know that I’m not the only one who misread not both the meaning of swastika in the text, and which swastika we were talking about.

  26. “The plan stands,” he said, and he didn’t sound like himself. Even the sound of his own voice made him feel pangs of regret and doubt, as real as if he’d tried to shout with broken ribs. “We-”

    He was reminded of the time in the waiting room of the principal’s office, before he’d left his first school. Mrs. Parrish.

    He’d held off on talking because he’d been worried she was recording. As tempting as it would be to tell her exactly what he felt and what he knew, it was dangerous.

    He wiped blood from around his eyes.

    No sharing the plan. Not if someone might be reporting to the enemy. He’d been careful, but there was no use being stupid. Not when the Fallen boy had enlisted the help of a camera tinker.

    Rain-Sensei strikes again!

    Someday, Rain and Teacher are going to have to have a team-up.

    1. Teacher, feeling remorse? That’ll be the day.

      Funny how what started as Rain’s weakest power (“sometimes you can’t even notice he’s using it”) has evolved into this useful and effective, if slightly limited in scope, tool.

      1. Teacher is neither a sociopath nor a psychopath. I am sure he feels remorse BUT i am also sure that he really believes he is doing the right thing. Maybe he is mostly delusional or he is operating on information others don’t have access to (similar to Doctor Mother) or believes that’d be the case. Completely different can of worms there.

        1. Did I say Teacher was either of those things? No, I was talking about the way he (seems to) justify his actions to himself. As I understand it, he wouldn’t let himself think about collateral to the plan, as long as the end goal remains viable. It’s clear he’s aware consequences exist, just from his interactions with Khepri. But, a person who acknowledges consequences, but goes forward anyways, is always going to have an interesting relationship with regret. They’d have to, if they won’t let it stop them.

          … huh. We may actually get a chapter from Teacher’s perspective, later down the line. That would be interesting.

  27. Here’s a thought about why Ryan “hates” Rain so much. It is not really Rain he hates, but a choice Rain’s existence makes possible.

    Ryan is a psychopath, and he knows it. He knows that his condition creates a gap between him and every non-psychopath he will never be able to cross. And he wants to cross it. He desires meaningful relationships with other people, which he knows will never cross certain threshold because he can’t really build a meaningful relationship without revealing what he truly is, and people who know about his psychopathy will never fully accept him.

    The fact that Rain exist and is a member of Ryan’s cluster means that Ryan’s psychopathy can be cured, at least for the most part, the part that really matters to Ryan. All Ryan needs to do is to accept personality bleed-through from Rain until he can feel emotional pain whenever he harms another human being. It would allow Ryan to have those meaningful relationships he desires.

    The problem is the cost of the cure. Remember how Victoria told it sucked to be exposed to Rain’s power for a few minutes despite all benefits it brought? Remember how Sveta basically agreed despite the fact that Rain’s power gave her enough control over her body that she for the most part is no longer a constant threat to people around her? Their price was minuscule compared to what Ryan would have to pay. Where Victoria and Sveta had to temporarily accept strengthening of a feeling they felt for their entire lives, and learned to cope with it (and particularly in Sveta’s case this feeling is so strong that it is the center of her problem), it is an absolutely alien feeling to Ryan he has no idea how to deal with, and he would have to allow it to become a permanent part of his personality. He would feel this alien feeling of guilt for everything he has ever done (and he knows he has done some really terrible things he should and would always feel guilty about) and for everything he would do in the future. And there would be no chance to go back – once the bleed-through would happen there would be no way to undo it, to say “The cost, the pain is not worth the reward, I’d rather go back to being a psychopath.”

    So this is the choice Ryan is facing – he can accept Rain’s guilt and have a chance (not even a guarantee!) to have those meaningful relationships with people he desires, at a cost of being 100% guaranteed to feel this alien, terrifying emotions for the rest of his life, or he can refuse Rain’s cure and remain the way he is now, and have almost no chance to end his loneliness, but at the same time never having to feel guilt again.

    Ryan knows exactly what the nature of his choice is – thanks to Rain he has felt guilt twice already. And he is absolutely terrified of it, so it is no wonder that at least for now he has been doing everything in his power to not only not take the cure, but even remove any possibility of ever taking it (whether by choice or not), and to convince himself that this is the right course of action – which is why he constantly says that he hates Rain, and tries co convince everyone else around him, that they should hate Rain too.

    The only way to make him change his mind is to somehow convince him that the reward is worth the cost, that the pain isn’t so terrible that it would overshadow a sense of fulfillment he can get with other people even if there is even no guarantee that he will get it. He may probably even know it intellectually, but emotionally – it is a huge leap of faith to take.

    1. I’d say that Cradle does not have to worry about the bleedthrough because for it to happen, Rain should willingly, continuously, for a long time, give his power tokens to Cradle. Can you imagine this happening? Honestly, I cannot. Unless Cradle is at all times cuffed, drugged, mastered, and encased in Tristan’s stone, just in case.

      1. Just the existence of the choice must be painful to Ryan, because it is so tempting. Remember that it is a way for Ryan to potentially get what he desires most – a way to have normal relationships with people. There is also the risk that one day Rain will decide to do what Love Lost just did, and start throwing his tokens into Ryan’s space, at which point Ryan would no longer have a choice – Rain would make it for him, and there would be no way to stop it, unless Ryan managed to kill Rain, drain him, otherwise ensure that they would never meet in the room again in a way that would let Rain continue to do it, or somehow convince Rain to stop (and that could be no easier to do than any of the above).

        1. And Ryan may fear that Rain may decide to start throwing his tokens into Ryan’s space as soon as he realizes the mechanism of the bleed-through, especially if Rain also figures out that Ryan is a psychopath.

          Ryan may even be right to fear it.

          1. Even if Ryan decided to “take the cure”, he would still have a reason to fear a possibility of Rain just throwing all his tokens at him every night. There is a difference between being able to feel a healthy dose of guilt, and being as guilt-ridden as Rain or Sveta for example. And with what Ryan has done throughout his life (especially as Cradle) it probably is a very easy line for him to cross.

    2. All of it also explains why Cradle said to Love Lost during the interlude 11.a that “if we were going to kill any member of the cluster, it’s going to be the kid.” Ryan doesn’t even want to necessarily kill Rain. All he wants to do it to make sure that they would never meet in the dream-room again, that there would never be a chance for him to take Rain’s tokens again. Killing Rain is just one way of accomplishing that, and isn’t even Ryan’s first choice, it’s the third one at best. He could also drain Rain to the point where Rain wouldn’t appear in the room again, or would never get any tokens (which seems to be the second best choice as far as Ryan is concerned), or just find a way to leave and never return to that room (which, in Ryan’s mind, would be the ideal solution – both because it means that nobody gets hurt, and because it guarantees that no unexpected bleed-throughs happen when Ryan or Rain eventually die, or rules governing the room and the bleed-throughs change somehow).

      1. The tokens really are the problem. Ryan can’t kill Rain, or he’ll feel like shit forever. Rain can’t kill Ryan, or he’ll stop feeling about things that matter. The same is true for Love Lost, only it’s worse now because he just turned her and Colt into enemies. I honestly don’t see how Cradle can salvage this situation.

        For Cradle, ideally, he’d have someone he could foist the tokens off to but who won’t prevent him from draining the cluster’s powers. And, really, that person was Colt: she doesn’t appear to have her own token set, she shares a room and power well with Love Lost, and she can (presumably) still hold tokens. The problem is that Colt looks up to Love Lost, but that’s a problem Cradle knows how to solve.

        Except, he went and burned that bridge, instead of examining the situation with Colt and seeing what he could do with it. He was in a situation where he needed more power then and there, but really, that’d have been so perfect for him.

        Just means it goes to Rain, I suppose.

        1. > Ryan can’t kill Rain, or he’ll feel like shit forever. Rain can’t kill Ryan, or he’ll stop feeling about things that matter.

          I didn’t get an impression that killing clustermates works that way. I think it stops the bleedthrough for good. It makes sense from the shards’ point of view either: the person who managed to kill their clustermate has proven to be more capable, why wipe the winner’s personality and keep the loser’s?

          1. Why wipe information when it could be used in creative ways by a more successful individual? We’ve seen from March’s interlude that she still has access to her dead member’s personality, and it’s not like shards struggle for info storage space.

            Anyways, I was thinking the emotions are still attached to tokens because of how Rain’s behavior seemed to change after he got Snag’s two cents. I could just be misconstruing something, but LL’s comment way long ago makes it seem like Snag is still around in some capacity. However, we haven’t seen anything about his tokens since then, even after Rain got two and LL got one.

            In any case, we know that the mall shards rigged the game heavily in Ryan’s favor, on the grounds that he had experience with controlling his own emotions. In theory, the emotions attached to the tokens shouldn’t be enough to overwhelm him, except… we also saw that he really does not know how to handle self-doubt, which is Rain’s “contribution” to their combined clusterfuck. And Ryan would not have experienced self-doubt, so… maybe his shard wouldn’t have known about that? Maybe Rain got lucky, or his shard looked at the setup and decided to pull a fast one?

            In any event: you’re right, we don’t actually know the state of tokens after the associated member dies. We don’t know if they stay in circulation, and if so, whether the emotions stay attached or not. I’m assuming they do, but that’s still an assumption.

            But, in support of them doing so, at least one other cluster keeps dead members (March/Foil) and we did see Snag’s tokens get distributed after his death. I’d imagine this implies that they’re still affecting things.

            … wait. Didn’t Cradle not get a token when Rain killed Snag? Do you think maybe that was intentional on Cradle’s part?

    3. “He desires meaningful relationships with other people, which he knows will never cross certain threshold because he can’t really build a meaningful relationship without revealing what he truly is, and people who know about his psychopathy will never fully accept him.”

      But that’s all false. He can build those connections without needing the empathic baggage. I know, I’ve done it. It’s not hard. You just need to act in manner consist with that emotional connection. Ryan has already shown it’s possible for him to do so.

      I don’t think he wants the empathic connection. I think he wants the closeness a relationship can bring, but he’s clearly shown his disgust over the negative feelings of empathy, the one’s he’s felt from Rain, because Rain is so very strongly empathic.

      I also don’t think Ryan wants that closeness. I think he wants people he can keep close, people he can use, he just hasn’t figured it out yet.

  28. Canon confirmation that 3-shard clusters are optimally balanced (adding some credit to March/Foil/Homer’s setup being so strong) and that adding more forces them to spend ressources on redistribution mechanisms. Maybe not for geometric reasons, but it’s so dang nice to get more solid shard info straight from them.

    And now, let violence speak and cleanse that cluster once and for all. Hopefully.

  29. Oh man, this hit home so close, that I don’t know what to think about it. Beside the part about the end of the world and to go and cut up people, his backstory is very close to mine.

    I have to disagree, that some think this portrait of Ryan/Craddle is unrealistic. From earliest memories around age 4 I remember to be called out as „creepy“ „emotionless till he erupts like a devil“ „damaged“ and so on. With 8 the isolation, bullying and whatever cruelty kids can muster, which was the whole of my world as a kid, I tried to kill myself for the first time.

    After elementary school I went to a school for mentally challenged kids. Life was a ruin in front of me. And than it clicked*, I kind of snapped, somewhat like what’s described in the fiction as a thinker trigger 😀 at age 10. By driving past a trainstation full of homeless people, prostitudes, addicts, I was realizing „misery“ or „doom“, and my mind snapped, seeing my future of a living hell.

    Afterwards I watched, calculated and waited. Went to the mother of my best friend (who went to a good school) and with a smear campaign and blackmailing the school that I wasn’t accepted due racism, I was given my exit ticket out of the bad place.
    The „pretending“ to be „normal“ kept on, I became one of the best students, went to university, got a nice job, but I Keep beeing the creepy, unsettling sidecharacter in the narrative of my co workers.

    I think it is very possible to decide to be a productive member of society while beeing a very very problematic person.

    1. If this chapter is like the Joker’s backstory in The Killing Joke, your experience is like Commissioner Gordon going through the worst the Joker could throw at him and still refusing to throw on a tacky costume and join Batman’s rogue gallery. It doesn’t matter whether or not you can be part of polite society, only whether or not you think you can.

  30. Hoh-lee-craaap. Ryan combines the worst qualities of Lisa and Sophia, with a little Alec for garnish. I’m not sure I’d believe any heel-face turn from him, if only because I’m sure he wouldn’t believe it.
    And he’s another person who learned how to profit from exploiting flaws in this setting’s systems of power. Hm…I should probably keep an eye out for that in future antagonists. Seems like a potential theme developing…seeing it resolved should be interesting, considering that the power in question comes from the sentient tissues of a cosmic being.

  31. Ugh, so now Cradle almost has the power of all 4 people, all 4 shards?
    Considering how overpowered March is with only 2 shards, it’s pretty rediculous.
    Not to mention Goddess, who was able to take over an entire alternate Earth with 5 shards.
    Meaning Cradle is probably very close to Goddesses-level of world domination power now.

    1. March has three shards, and Goddess has six. Goddess’ power isn’t because she had six shards, however. It’s because, of those six powers, at least half of them were Trump powers- including a Master power, a defensive power and a boosting power. Cradle’s got no Trump powers, nor does he have a Master power of that level- his own is an empathic power, not a hypnotic one, and since Love Lost isn’t a Cherish-level empath, Cradle likely can’t alter people’s mental state that much.

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