Black – 13.7

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I flew, Chicken Little remanded back to the care of Tattletale with the shortest possible explanation.  If she was so smart, she could figure me out.

In the first minute of flight, I’d told Rain to enforce the communications blackout for anything short of ambulances needing to be called.  That had been ten minutes ago.  I wasn’t even sure if I trusted ambulances, or Rain’s call.

Then… silence.  Music seemed like a distraction, so I got the rush of wind past the Wretch instead.  I got the replays of conversations from earlier, with Big Picture and Ratcatcher included.  I felt like I’d betrayed Sveta in a way by trying to give Big Picture the benefit of a doubt, and I felt like I’d betrayed myself because I hadn’t succeeded in finding any ground I could stand on where I could make sense of his actions.  I prided myself on being a scholar, but people couldn’t be studied without becoming comfortable with a lot of gray areas, definitions, and unknowns, and I wasn’t that good at that.

What was my saying?  Do what was right, do what was legal, do what I could do without regrets?  ‘Right’ was where it went out the window because it felt wrong.  It was disturbing, being in that studio, but not in a way where I could say rights, as in human rights, had been explicitly and intentionally violated.  Fine, then default to law.  Was it legal?  It walked a line because ‘law’ included a right for victims to stand up to wrongdoers, and Case Fifty-Threes couldn’t.  The courts had never been the kindest to parahumans.  They couldn’t sue and they couldn’t step in or ask for rights or for their art not to be displayed when he took art he’d told them was for himself only or for a select audience and made it part of a gallery showing.  He seemed to revel in that space between art and pornography, a space where it was also technically legal but pretty damn questionable beyond the technical.

Putting me smack dab in the ‘regret’ column.

On that same topic, I regretted not being just a little more protected against the cold.  My mind was on the coat I’d picked up and put down while at the Wardens’ ‘bunker’.  Cold got to me even though I had the Wretch up, a creeping loss of warmth inside me as the environment eroded at my stores of energy.

I was cold and there was nothing I could do.

My friend was hurting and there was nothing I could do.

In the distance, I could see the shape of the Dauntless Titan.  ‘Kronos’.  Where portals riddled the city, taller than some buildings, slices of another sky against our sky, the titan was pure white, unmoving, with only a periodic distortion around it.  The Simurgh came and went, and when she came, the light seemed just a little darker in the area around her roosting point.

He existed in Shin, and Shin was concerned.  He existed in Bet.  He existed in Earth N, in the corner world ‘Q’, and other scattered realities.  We had every reason to believe he existed in every variant of our world, standing there, ignoring every stimulus, including one of the most evil creatures I knew of.

On a rooftop below me, I saw people burning something in an improvised stove.  I flew close, passing through the smoke and warm air, and saw it was construction material.

Lineups around a block, mid-afternoon.  In the summer and fall it had been to buy the latest line of clothes or tech, when options were so few and far between.  We’d peaked over the fall where a bunch of new options landed, and then… this.  A paradigm shift that came with the colder weather.  I was willing to bet the line was for food.  To stock up and prepare.

There were streets where people shuffled forward on foot, the sidewalks so clogged that people were forced to go the speed of the slowest person.  Some people walked in the road.

We weren’t at the hard part yet, but the bite of last winter had been bad enough that people had learned to conserve, prepare, and wait.

But this was going to be different, I was pretty sure.  Last winter had been something we’d collectively endured, with the mindset that we could get through the difficult patches, and if we could make it through then things would be okay.  This winter, the titan loomed on the horizon and the portals shattered the sky.  This winter, we had someone to blame.  Mayor Jeanne Wynn.  Citrine.  I was sure she was trying, and I was sure it wouldn’t be quite enough to satisfy.

Blame was a hell of a thing.

Fuck, I wished I could fly faster, to get to Sveta and Weld in a workable span of time.

Fuck, was I cold.

Fuck this character assassination bullshit, fuck the people who had done it.

I could find my way across the city by the flavor of the buildings.  How densely they were packed together, the style of them.  I had a sense of which materials had come from where, with a lot of the prefab building segments having come from Cheit, a lot of crude materials from Shin, and outright raw materials from Earth N, with processing and industry set up within arm’s reach of the destinations for the end-products they made.

I saw my destination, at a point where the neighborhoods ceased to be places I’d flown over fifty times and became familiar.  I felt the same hollow feeling from earlier, recognizing the stores, restaurants, and the peninsula that was Hollow Point, just over the water from our headquarters.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I saw felt off.  Rain on the ground, leaning against Tristan and Byron’s car.  Tristan out of costume on the fire escape stairs, and Ashley standing in the doorway.

I floated close, because Victoria catch-up was an interruption that stood to make it harder to grasp the immediate situation and its demands.

“Please leave,” Sveta said.  Her voice was tense, breaking slightly.  “Give us a bit.”

“You’re not getting anywhere.  It’s my headquarters too.  Take a break and wait for Victoria or make a decision.”

“Victoria can’t do anything about this,” Sveta said.

“Then who do I call?”

“Nobody.”

“Jessica?”

“Ashley, Swansong, I- I said nobody.  Jessica’s not even doing therapy anymore.  She’s not caught up.  It would be too much to ask.”

“Then who?”

“You’re not listening to me!  You can’t fix this.  This isn’t the sort of thing you fix,” Sveta said.  Her voice broke at the end of the statement.

“Isn’t that a decision on its own?” Weld said, distant, barely audible.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Sveta said.  “I’m saying it’s not her business.  That’s all.”

“My headquarters, m-” Ashley said.

“You’ve said that,” Sveta said, bitter, annoyed.

“-My friend,” Ashley said.  She took advantage of the pause that followed.  “My, hm, cousin?”

“Cousin?” Sveta asked.  It was like the statement had shaken her from her train of thought.

“We’re all Armstrong’s, in our way.  Should I call him?”

Armstrong.  The PRT director who had de-facto adopted Weld, who had supported Ashley from a distance when she was Damsel of Distress, living in a small town.  Who had accepted Sveta with open arms and, I wasn’t even sure Sveta knew, provided a good chunk of the cash for Sveta’s now-destroyed prosthetic body.

“I didn’t even think about Armstrong,” Sveta said.  I could hear the pain in her voice.  “Can you just leave, Ashley?  Please?  Tristan, I’m guessing you’re in earshot.  Can you-”

I flew in, touching Ashley’s shoulder.  She backed out of the way of the door.

Inside, it was cold, the door had been open for at least a few minutes.

Sveta’s cheeks had been marred, both by tears that weren’t clear but were shot-through with black, and because makeup that had been used to give her a more normal skin tone had been wiped away.  Her tattoo on her cheek was plainly visible.

The headquarters space was a good forty feet across.  We’d picked it for its spaciousness.  A good thirty feet separated Sveta, who stood at the end nearest Chris’s old corner, near the washroom and the tiny kitchen counter.  Weld stood near Kenzie’s console at the ‘head’ of the apartment.

I started forward, saw Sveta move in reaction, and hesitated.  I could see her telling me to leave, or telling me not to approach.  The former would fit with what she’d said to Ashley.  The latter would suggest she didn’t trust herself.

But there was no resistance, no defensiveness.  Without a word spoken, despite the fact she no longer had her unsteady prosthetic body, she teetered slightly my way.  I closed the distance and I hugged her.  She hugged me back tightly enough that nails that had been sculpted into her Precipice-made hands bit into my back.

I didn’t want this to be one-sided, and I didn’t have either side, yet.  Only Rain’s statement.  I wasn’t sure I’d trust anything coming through the phone or any technological medium, anyway.

I turned, and Sveta moved with me.  I looked at Weld, and saw how unhappy he was.

“You okay?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Why are they out there and you guys in here?”

“Weld came, we talked, things- we fought.  We were going to leave but we ended up fighting more.  People were staring,” Sveta said.  “We came back.”

And the others left, to give privacy, except for Ashley, who got impatient or didn’t want to let things continue?

“What happened?” I asked.

“Everything was fine,” Weld told me, his voice low.  “As fine as it gets.  Sveta was showing off how she can use a phone.  Which is great.  She saw pictures of me with a teammate.”

“A woman,” Sveta said.

“A teammate,” Weld said.

“Can I?” I asked.  I stopped myself.  “I’m not just asking if I can see.  I’m asking- can I mediate?  Can I help?”

“We said things,” Sveta said, every inch of her face indicating hurt.  “Things we’ve been holding in for a long time, maybe.  I don’t think you can help that.”

Weld averted his gaze when I looked at him.

He hadn’t waited the full six weeks.

“Can I see the pictures?” I asked.

Weld drew his phone from his pocket.  He tossed it.  I had to break the hug with Sveta to be sure I caught it.

The images were still up.  Weld with a girl with black hair, and a skintight suit that… well, there were suits that looked like they were were painted on and it looked like the woman had pointed to one of those and said ‘tighter’.  Every muscle and rib stood out with the black gloss of the costume.  Something hybridizing fins with blades ran along strategic points, tapering down, so cameltoe and nips weren’t quite as obvious, and served to make her look fairly dangerous.

One selfie of her and Weld, with slivers of two other capes on either side to suggest they were sitting on a bench on a plane, helicopter, or truck.  Her head was tilted to rest on Weld’s shoulder, and the selfie was supposed to be focused on the fin-blade at her arm, which was absorbed by Weld.  The caption was a simple ‘stuck to him’.  I used ‘supposed to be’ to refer to the focus, because she had an easy, infectious smile that suggested nothing untoward.

That was just going by smile, though.

“You have to scroll.  Nighttime photos,” Sveta said.  Her voice was as empty as I’d felt earlier, after reading the diary.

I scrolled.  Past photos of this twenty-something woman gardening, more gardening, a faintly unhinged photo of her showing off a cut on her face, post-fight.  Her hanging out with capes.  Her unmasked face was kept out of photos.  Nothing betrayed her secret identity or location.

Then the nighttime photos.  Twenty, twenty five pictures of her at what I took to be a wind-down from a Wardens operation, a bunch of capes, Patrol officers and military-types drinking and lounging in an apartment where one wall and part of the ceiling were glass, giving it an open-air feel.  A good eighteen of those pictures, she was within arm’s reach of Weld.  In four of them she was touching him.  For balance, possibly.  Together, but never quite in a way that suggested they were together.  They could have been friends, but if I’d seen it I wouldn’t have assumed they were friends.

I tapped the photo.  I saw the name above her face.  Slician.  I’d heard of her, but hadn’t ever seen the face to put it to the name.

“Is there context?” I asked.

Weld didn’t volunteer an answer.

“Not exactly,” Sveta said.  “I asked about her, and you know, I may be dumb-”

“You really aren’t,” Weld said, before I could.

“I’m- I don’t know how to put it, then,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Because I feel so fucking ignorant.  I feel like I never get it.  I lost a childhood of memories, and then I spent the next few years killing anyone I might have interacted with, I- I spent the years after that in a hospital, and the time after that with a team that it turned out I never really knew or understood.  When was I supposed to ever learn all of these things that everyone else seems to get?  You know?”

“You do okay,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But I do know my boyfriend.  I do know when something’s wrong.  I’d like to think I’m good at knowing when he needs space or when he needs someone to talk to.”

“You are,” Weld said.  He looked pained.  “Better than Armstrong, better than any teammate, friend, or girlfriend I’ve had.”

Sveta continued, not to Weld but to me, like she was making an appeal, “I try to look after him.  I try to nag him if he needs nagging, usually if he’s not trying hard enough to push his boundaries and starts falling into a rut.”

I looked at Weld, saw him nodding to himself.

“I know when he’s lying or hiding something,” Sveta finished.

Weld’s nods to himself stopped.  His eyes remained fixed on the floor.

“Did you cheat?” I asked, my voice hard enough that he looked up.

“No,” Sveta said.  “He didn’t.  But he toed the line.  And I knew there was a reason he seemed happier lately.  I asked and he was honest.  He’s always been honest with me.  Not always upfront, but…”

“Yeah,” Weld said.

What did you say, Weld?

I couldn’t ask, because I could see the consequence of that statement.  Fresh hurt on Sveta’s face.  I could see the agitation of her tendrils beneath her wig, and her hand went up to hold it steady.  Her dress stirred, moving like there was a wind, when the door had shut minutes ago.

“Was there something I was supposed to do differently?” Sveta asked.  “Was I unfair?  Did I ask too much?  I’m sorry, if I got it wrong.”

“No,” Weld said.

“I thought we got along.  We have common interests, common goals.  You have your hobbies and I have mine, we- I wasn’t oppressive?  I- didn’t get too in your face or ask too much?”

“No,” Weld said.  “You keep asking that.  We’re going in circles.”

“Because,” Sveta said.  She stopped.  Her hand was at my arm and she squeezed.  “Because if it was that, then it’s something I’m working on, that I can fix.  My sessions with Rain’s power- I’m getting better.  I’m more independent than I’ve ever been.”

“It’s great,” Weld said, glum, not making eye contact again.

“Can you give me more than a few words at a time?  Can you yell at me again?”

“I didn’t yell.”

“Be angry, then.  Hit me with more stuff about me trying to push cooking on you or conflicts of interest between your team and Breakthrough, or… anything?

“Those things don’t matter.  They’re bullshit I threw back at you because you were shouting at me and people were looking.”

The fight that had extended outside.

“I don’t want them to be bullshit.  Because… Victoria, you took University classes at the hospital.  There was this term, in this one language class.  It’s not what’s said, it’s…”

I could see where this was going.  I couldn’t see a way of stopping it.  Or there was a way, but using it now would be taking a side, and that would irrevocably harm my relationship with Sveta, and it wouldn’t help anything.

“Textual silence,” the words left my lips.

“Textual silence.  A journalist writes an article and brings up five bullet points, but it’s a seven bullet point issue.  They left those things out for a reason.  That tells a story of its own.  Did I get that right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Ignorant old me can get something right,” Sveta said, bitter.

“You’re not-” I started.

She pulled her arm away from my hand.  I stopped talking.

“We’ve ruled everything else out.  It’s because of my body,” she said.

“No,” Weld said.

Tears that were more black than clear now ran down her cheeks.  She wiped at them.

“He’s better at lying than he was years ago,” Sveta said, to me.  Her voice was the kind of hollow that was bubble-fragile, the kind of too-steady normal found on the cusp of being unable to speak at all.  “It’s… really shitty.”

Her voice tremored at the ‘shitty’.

“Hey,” I said.  “Let’s stop here, take a break.  There’s other factors in play.”

She didn’t stop.  “We’re freaks of nature, orphans, amnesiacs, we lost everything and the difference between us is he’s really good looking, he gets to pass, he gets people like Slician.  He gets to kiss actresses on television, and fans crushing on him.  I don’t- I don’t get anything.”

I reached out for Sveta’s arm, and tugged her into a hug.  Her body twisted so she could latch onto me, without the usual stumble or shuffle of feet.  She hugged me tight.

My arms wrapped around cloth and that cloth wrapped around tendrils that were trying and failing to hold the shape of a human torso.

“You’re getting so much better-” Weld started.

I felt Sveta tense, and I pulled a hand away to motion for him to stop.

There wasn’t any salvaging this.

“He gets Armstrong,” Sveta said, more to me now.  “The apartment is more his than mine.  I don’t know where I’m supposed to go tonight.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that.”

“We’ll figure something out.  You can stay with Ashley and me.”

“The Case Fifty-Threes hate us, you know.  Actual want-us-to-die hate,” Sveta whispered.  “I don’t get that.  I don’t have that community.  But Weld… he was famous once, he’s popular.  More of them hate me than him.  How is that fair?”

“It’s not,” I told her, “But you’re not alone, okay?  We’ve got your back, here.  Hug.  Come on.”

She started to accept, then stopped.  “I’m out of tears and I’m crying bile.  It’s stinging my eyes.  If I get it on your clothes it’ll stink.”

“Don’t care,” I said.  “Come on.”

Her face hit my shoulder, forehead hitting the bone.

“You said there were other factors in play,” Weld said.  “Your team said there was something fishy going on.  Communications blackout.”

“There is.  Um.  Shit,” I said.  I didn’t want to let Sveta go, but I didn’t want to see Weld leave without the situation being resolved.  Especially with what Tattletale was theorizing about dual-pronged attacks.  “There’s a possibility this was planned, to mess with you.”

“Planned?” Sveta asked, not raising her head from my shoulder.

“There was something on my computer,” I said.  “It looked like it was written by me, but it wasn’t me.  Dragon saw it, she passed it on to Jessica Yamada.”

“What kind of something?” Weld asked.

“Very subtle, but enough to break Jessica’s trust in me, and to break the team’s trust in me.  Tattletale and I found other possible leads.  The fact we were looking might be why this happened, because they wanted to throw us off the scent.  But I’d have to know more to know.”

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you’re talking about.  I got a friend invite from Slician,” Sveta said.  “I already turned off my phone’s access to the network.  It was there, waiting, I just don’t see my phone enough to catch it.  I only just got hands that can press buttons on screen without a stylus.”

“The way these guys operate, it’s possible the invite was fake, but in a way that has plausible deniability, where even Slician thinks she could have done it by mistake, or when drunk.  It’s possible the images were altered.”

“Altered?” Weld asked.

“I can talk to you about this after,” I told him.  Sveta felt barely under control under my hands.

“No,” Sveta said.  “Altered?”

“Shrinking the distance, props.  Taking people out of the picture, or altering the people in the background.  Stuff that stands up to scrutiny.”

“I don’t remember her putting her head on my shoulder, but-”

Sveta flinched.

On a level, I could see why that simple little thing in particular hurt.  Because Sveta, prosthetic body or no, control or no, had always had a claim to that.  Even after leaving the hospital, she’d had her head and his shoulder to lean on.

“-but I don’t- I don’t know.  I don’t feel much, so I don’t want to rule anything out.  Half of me wants to say you’re paranoid.  Half of me hopes…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, faltering.

Sveta turned.  “Hopes what?  Does this change anything?  The- that you want to leave me because I’m a monster?”

“That’s not it,” Weld said.

“Then what is?” Sveta asked.  “Tell me you’ve changed and tell me how and okay, that’s going to break my heart, but okay.  I can get over that.  Tell me I did something wrong, something unfixable.  I can get over that.  Tell me I depended too much on you and you see me as a little sister more than a girlfriend.  That you don’t see yourself ever getting over that and seeing me as a girlfriend again?  I can… I can accept that.”

I looked away, blinking tears of my own out of my eyes.

The implication in Sveta’s statements was that these options were good because she could come to terms with them, the flip side being… she couldn’t accept or come to terms with the reality.

“If we know something else is at play, we can avoid playing into their hands, we step back, act like things are normal,” Weld said.

“We don’t know if this is something else,” Sveta said.  “And apparently we’ve been acting like things are normal for a month, because you haven’t been hanging out with Slician for no reason.  What you want, Weld, is to not be the bad guy.  And it’s great you get these mystery villains to blame, but… it doesn’t change the reality.”

“It changes the context.”

“No it doesn’t,” Sveta said.  “Not the context that matters.  You don’t want to be the bad guy, but the only way you get that is if everyone agrees it’s fine to dump your girlfriend because she’s a monster, because she’s disabled-”

“I don’t want to dump you.”

“What do you want!?” Sveta asked, raising her voice.

“Stop,” I said.  “I’m interrupting.  I’m being intrusive and butting in because this doesn’t look like it’s going to end or stop otherwise.”

They stopped.  Sveta didn’t breathe, but with my hand on her back I could feel the pulse of fluids through the organs behind her head, near where her shoulders were.

Weld was statue still, only his face betrayed any emotion.

“Okay?” I asked, trying to gather my thoughts.

“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said, jumping right back into it.  “Fuck it.  I’m the freak, you’re the guy with a heart of literal gold, Weld.  You’re not the bad guy, Weld, you’ve been so good to me.  I’m the one with the problems and I heaped them onto your plate.  You want absolution?  You got it.  You tried and it’s okay.  I’ve got my own shit to deal with and I need to get that done on my own.  So you don’t need to tell me it’s not a breakup and we’re somehow going to stay together, because I know when you’re lying.  I know you that well.”

“You’re not a freak, and that’s not it,” Weld said.

I hated to interrupt again, but I doubted there was anything to be gained from letting this continue, besides bitterness.

“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.

They stopped, looking at me.

“It’s not a set of magic words,” Sveta said.  “You can’t just say them and expect us to just comply.”

“That’s kind of what they are.  I argued for them before, on the phone with Rain.  I’m pushing them now.  We’re not getting anywhere, and I don’t like how this started or why it’s happening.  Protocols.”

Sveta shook her head, but she didn’t speak again.

“Okay,” Weld said.  “What next?”

“Do you have work?”

“Yeah.  Later this afternoon, until ten, might go as long as midnight.”

“Go work.  Talk to the bosses, let them know.  It’s their call.  They should communicate to other teams, verify the rules are in place.  If this is a thing then it’s a thing that’s going to hit other people.  Go.  We’ll go to your apartment, get Sveta’s things, and be gone before you’re back.  I’ll do what I can to look into this thing when I’m free, but I’ll prioritize Sveta for right now.  Yes?”

I looked at Sveta.

She nodded.

I looked at Weld.

He hesitated, then nodded.

“You focus on the threat at hand,” I told Weld.  “Think about who to tell, and be aware that if they are onto us, things are going to get messy.  This is where we see how strong our teams and their human resources are.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Time matters.  Don’t trust digital communication.  They’re playing a subtle game.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But I’m not entirely sure you haven’t lost it.”

“That’s the subtlety of it,” I said.  “And speaking of subtlety, I’m kind of trying to politely nudge you here to, uh, make your exit.  Let us deal.”

“Got it,” he said.  “Thanks.”

He headed to the door, floorboards creaking beneath him.

“Sorry,” Sveta said, to his back.

“Me too.”

The fire escape creaked precariously as he stepped onto it.

“You have a guest,” he said.

Then he was gone.

“Why did I say sorry?” Sveta asked.  “So stupid.  I didn’t want to say sorry.  I went that entire conversation and two arguments without saying sorry, because I didn’t want to apologize.  I didn’t do anything I wanted to apologize for.”

“It’s okay.  Brain misfires happen.”

“It was my one goal.  The one thing I knew I could hang on to and I just threw it away.  And then he says ‘me too’?  What the hell does he think I should apologize for?”

Her tendrils ruffled beneath her dress.  Some spilled out to grasp at sections of the floor.  I avoided moving, ready to use my forcefield if I had to, but I didn’t want to step away from her side.

“I think I need a control session with Rain,” she said.

“I think a session with Rain right now would be a terrible idea.  Not when you’re off balance.  I’d veto.”

“You can’t veto,” she told me, and her eye contact was damn close to being a glare.

“Can and will.  As a friend.”

She was still ready, riling for a fight, upset and with no place to vent it.  It was reaching the tendrils, but those tendrils weren’t reaching anything or anyone.

The anger faltered, and I saw the hurt creep across her face, the black moisture in her eyes, that she blinked into tears that ran down her cheeks as soon as they appeared.

“It burns,” she said.  “I’m going to go wash my face.  Then I’ll go to the apartment.”

“I’ll come.”

“No,” she said.  “No.  You’ve got to figure this out, and I… if I can’t use Rain for more control then I want to go to my place, my room, and lock the door, and just… lose all control.  Alone.”

“You sure?”

“No,” she said.  “Yes.  But I’ve got to figure out how I’m going forward and I can’t keep leaning on people.  I’ve got to pull my own weight.”

“After a day as shitty as this one, there isn’t a rational, sane soul out there who would blame you for turning to friends or wanting company.”

“Then I guess I’m not rational or sane,” she replied.  She forced a smile, “Kidding.  Half kidding.  And washing my face.”

“Okay,” I said.

I walked over to the window to see who the ‘guest’ was.  Tattletale, who had stepped out of the car, while Snuff remained in the driver’s seat.  No tiny Chicken Little head peering out the window in the backseat, and no birdcage.

The bathroom door shut.

“Um, hi.”

“You were listening?”

“Ashley was trying to listen at the door and you were here, so I thought it might be okay.  Nobody told me not to listen.”

“Communications blackout, Kenz,” I said, turning toward the computer.  “You were told to turn everything off and step away.  This stuff is messy.”

“It’s my own private line and channel.  And I checked everything once I heard why.  I think they can’t get in.”

I sighed.

“The diary isn’t real?” Kenzie asked.

I stared out the window, watching the group and Weld talk to Tattletale.  She pointed at me mid-sentence.

I digested the ramifications of Kenzie’s question.  Fucking what?  When?  How bad was this?

Was it possible to be offended she read my diary when the diary wasn’t real?

“No, Kenzie.  It’s not real.”

“Oh.”

“Did you read it?”

“Uh huh.”

“When?”

“A few weeks back.  I was making sure I had everything I needed for the move, I backed up everyone’s stuff in case some tinker thing I didn’t pay enough attention to or let fall between my desk and the wall went kablooie and took everyone’s computers out with it.  I realized I had it when I did a search for something and it popped up, read a bit before realizing.”

“You read ‘a bit’?”

“I read most of it.  I got lonely while with my new team, even though I’m only technically not a member of Breakthrough anymore.  I missed you guys, I wondered what I missed so I read more.  It’s really not real?”

“No, Kenz.  I didn’t type a word of it.”

“Okay.  That’s too bad.”

“Why- Kenzie, why is it bad?”

“Because… I didn’t feel so lonely while I could read it, and… that’s all fake.  I feel really weird about that.”

“That’s not how I think, Kenzie.  It’s not- definitely not how I think about you.  I care about more than what you can do with your tinkering.”

“I kind of thought that’s how adults think and do things.  Not fun, but it made a lot of sense, after I thought about it for a while.”

Oh fuck.  Fucking shit.  How ingrained was this in her now?

“No,” I told her.  “How long have you been reading this and thinking about this?”

“A couple of weeks.”

“Fuck, Kenz.  No.  That’s not me, and it’s not okay to think that way.  To treat people as chess pieces.”

“Okay, but, if it was you, it’d be okay.  You had my back when it counted and you have it now.  You could do or say whatever and I’d be okay with it, I think.  Unless you actually went and hurt Ashley or anyone else.  Then we’d have to talk seriously about it.”

Talk about it.  Something told me she was entirely serious, that she would be open to being convinced.  No, no, no.  How the hell was I supposed to deprogram her when she wasn’t even around half the time?

“Did you listen in when I talked to Chicken Little earlier?”

“He asked me not to,” she said.  “So I didn’t.  Also, Sveta’s getting out of the bathroom now.  Take care of her, give her a hug and lots of love for me, okay?”

She didn’t wait for a response.  Effectively a hangup.  The computers and monitors went dark, the light on the speaker going out.

What the hell?

The handle clicked, and Sveta stepped out of the washroom, face and hair wet, streaks of tears and ruined makeup gone.  She’d toweled herself dry and applied fresh makeup, covering her scar, but it wasn’t an elaborate, full-face, nor was it the coloring that made her more flesh tone than actual white.

Weld was leaving.  The others were talking.

“Feel any better?” I asked.

“My eyes don’t sting.  My face is clean.  I feel less of a mess.  And… not at all.”

I nodded.

“It physically hurts,” she said.  “But I don’t want to complain or angst.”

“You’re allowed,” I said.

“And I’m choosing not to use that allowance, so there,” she said.  Her voice a little harder and a little more accented than it was on an ordinary day, but otherwise normal-ish.

She was trying so damn hard, and I had no idea how to help her with it.

“Tattletale,” Sveta said, joining me at the window.  Her voice was level, her composure intact.  “How is she, after being carved up and being back in one piece?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “If it’s messing her up any, I don’t think I’ve noticed much.”

“No problems with the mission?  It’s going okay?  You’re going to find these people who apparently went after Weld and my relationship?”

“It’s going… not great.  Turning up leads, but this has been ugly so far.  Very plausible deniability.  One of the people we interviewed was a photographer, you should know.”

“Should I?”

“It’d come across like a betrayal, I think, if I didn’t mention it.  L.J.M.”

Sveta made a face.

Past the window, in the parking lot, Tattletale was standing by her vehicle.  She beckoned.  She wanted me down there.

“Thank you for telling me,” Sveta said, her expression hard.

“He was about as creepy as you’d imagine.”

“I know.  I’ve seen videos and read interviews.  You really should go if she’s asking for you.  Don’t let me hold you back.”

I didn’t want to leave her.  “Come outside?”

She nodded.

I opened the door to let us outside, and flew down rather than take the stairs.  Sveta hopped over the railing, and landed on a morass of tendrils, which were ninety-nine percent covered by her long dress.

We walked past the others.  Tristan gave Sveta a reassuring pat on the shoulder.  Rain ducked his head.

“Resolved?” Ashley asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.  Anything you need,” Ashley said.

“Thank you.”

“She needs a place, at least for a short while.”

“Then she takes my bedroom,” Ashley said.  “I’ll take the couch.”

“Just like that,” Sveta said.

“The two of us were half-adopted by Armstrong.  Basically family.”

“Okay,” was all Sveta had to say.  “I, um, I’m going to see what Tattletale’s saying.”

“Yeah,” Ashley said.

Tristan was quiet throughout, which was odd because on a lot of levels he was closest to Sveta.  They were a similar wavelength, but they’d found kinship through mutual like of Weld.  At the moment, that was iffy.

I could see a point in coming weeks where he helped her on a deeper level, because he could help her process and work her way through details.  He’d even be good at it, with unusually good background in the subject due to the attention he’d paid Weld.

And Rain would help her with her hands and in a peripheral way.  They talked sometimes during the control practice under the umbrella of Rain’s power.

All of that was secondary.  Tattletale was chewing on what looked like a tiny plastic trident from a late lunch, leaning against her ride.

“Be nice,” I said.

“Sucks,” Tattletale told Sveta.

“That’s reaching for ‘nice’,” I told her.

“It does suck,” Sveta said.  “And if you want to test the limits of my newfound control over my body, I think you’re on the right track, reminding me.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Always glad to help with testing or being a convenient target for bitterness,” Tattletale said, glancing my way at the end of the statement.  “Antares, you disappeared on me, and you turned off your phone.  You told me something cryptic in a hurry, like a riddle I was supposed to solve.  I went down the wrong rabbit hole, tried to find your cousin before I realized.”

“My cousin.”

“Someone important, with the word choice, I thought it was family.  Doesn’t matter.  What matter is this is a distraction.  I need to know if I can keep you in the loop or if I should carry on investigating this on my own.”

“After you just said you went down the wrong rabbit hole, I’m not filled with confidence,” Sveta said.

“Down girl.  Down,” Tattletale told her.

“You might have to handle the next parts on your own,” I answered.  “I spent most of that last meeting stewing in how sketchy that guy was, and I wasn’t much use.  Besides, I’ve got to look after a friend.”

“No you don’t,” Sveta said.

“At least to see you home safe.”

“You don’t,” Sveta said.

Tattletale jumped in, saying, “She says you don’t, and I wouldn’t mind a little firepower.  I want to ask people questions but they aren’t entirely friendly people.”

“Who?”

“People who are pulling strings behind the scenes.  Little Midas, maybe the mayor, people in that vein, who play games and who haven’t been getting directly involved.  This is where my years of playing the dastardly mastermind comes in useful.  I know these guys.”

“Why are you wanting to talk to them?”

“Because Big Picture had connections and one of the things those connections wanted was for him to get into Foresight.  I think that’s the double prong.  If it isn’t, talking to those connections of his will show us the second prong.  But talking to them requires having more than Snuff at my back, and anyone else I’d trust is busy watching the kids.”

I thought of Kenzie.  That aborted conversation.

“You go,” Sveta said.

I shook my head.  “No, that’s-”

“You go, and I’ll come with,” Sveta said.

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150 thoughts on “Black – 13.7”

  1. Oh, Kenzie. You’re lucky Victoria is too wracked with worry over the damage done to your morals by the diary to chew you out for digging through her stuff and not saying anything.

    This also makes me wonder how much of Kenzie’s new direction with the Chicken Tenders was contributed to by Evil Chessmaster Victoria.

    Weld’s entire predicament can be best summed up by that Hades/Megara GIF. HE’S A GUY.

    But also, damn it all to hell and back, this is worse that misplaced texts. Someone’s got a dedicated digital mad-on for—

    WAITAMINIT!!! How can we be sure this was the real Kenzie talking just now?! Are we supposed to suspect everything digital surrounding Victoria?

    1. Yup. Although Kenzie says she trusts her connection that much… but essentially yup. Nothing should be trusted from anyone out of direct sight until the means of the fabricated content is determined.

      1. It could be that Kenzie doesn’t trust any connections, because it simply wasn’t her. Could be an attempt to make Victoria think that she doesn’t need to worry about Kenzie for next couple hours, and can focus on investigation instead?

        What if real Kenzie is reading the diary for the first time right now, and her reaction is very different from what this communication suggested? I think it could happen if we are dealing with an A.I. designed to emulate humans.

        1. Remember that the situation with Kenzie was bad enough that Darlene and Candy had a problem keeping her under control, and that even before it happened Tattletale asked Imp to keep an eye on the kids and to ask Foil to come too.

          If Kenzie read the diary for the first time today, I think that the situation could be really bad, and Victoria and Tattletale could be making a critical mistake by continuing their investigation instead of doing their best to help Kenzie right now.

          1. A few more things to note:
            – Victoria probably left her laptop in kids’ headquarters,
            – CL and Snuff were never told about the diary,
            – Jessica predicted that Kenzie would be disturbed by the diary; she didn’t sound disturbed,
            – “Kenzie” told that she was using a private line; earlier Victoria told to trust only direct lines, but how do we know that such secure, direct line exists between Kenzie’s old and new HQ?
            – If Kenzie found the diary now, do you think there is a chance that she would share it with other people in the HQ?

            I think there may be a chance that in very near future Victoria will be grabbed by Haast Eagle, shot by Foil, stabbed by Imp, “Candied”, exposed to whatever Snuff’s power does, and/or connected to someone or something suffering even more by Darlene. And if someone planted similar “evidence” against Tattletale and Sveta, they may suffer similar fates. (Especially if the attacker was smart enough to make Tattletale look bad in eyes of someone like Citrine, not people in the CL and Tenders’ HQ, because Imp at least probably trusts Tattletale too much to attack her first, ask questions later).

            This investigation may soon be over.

          2. Another group of people who in my opinion could be easily turned against the investigators (and Weld, who also knws the basics of what’s going on, and may need to be silenced because of it) could be Faultline’s crew. I could easily imagine current situation with Weld and Sveta painted in such way that all of those C53s in the Crew would feel necessary to go after those two, and since Tattletale and Faultline supposedly aren’t exactly besties, I could imagine Palanquin going after Tt based on relatively little evidence too.

          3. By the way, could Snuff’s relationship with Faultline’s Crew be close enough that he may be convinced to stab Tattletale in the back if the Crew went against her? In previous arc he was used by Tt as Undersider’s contact with the Crew after all.

          4. Here is one more worry about Sveta and possibly Weld, and their relationship with other C53s.

            We know that there have been some nasty opinions about Sveta circulating among C53s for a long while. We also know that those opinions reached far beyond the Irregulars (in last arc we even saw a C53 who never lived on Bet but has heard about her). We also know that the earliest dates of modification of Victoria’s fake diary was from before her meeting with Jessica in arc 1.

            What if Sveta has been under a similar attack from some point in time even before Ward started? What if someone has been carefully spreading som nasty rumors about Sveta on PHO, and through any other channels of communication used by C53s, and people who care about them, like Faultline and Shamrock for example? If someone could spread some carefully crafted lies and half-truths for all those months, if that same person or group of people made sure that anyone attacking Sveta (like many of Irregulars probably would) was heard by that particular community, while everyone who tried to defend Sveta or point out that this is hate speech instantly met carefully planned opposition, then just how bad Sveta’s reputation could be at this point?

            What if some of those posts on PHO that lead Sveta to decision to change her account back in Glow-worm came from the same source as Victoria’s fake diary?

    2. The manipulation so far has been way lower-key than that. Planting text files, modified images, etc is one thing; faking a plausible Kenzie conversation, adaptive enough to fit the conversation, on this short of a notice, with a Kenzie voice? The first could be done by a few dedicated thinkers and tinkers; the latter requires collaboration between Contessa and Dragon (or at least their A-list knockoffs). It’s not impossible that Teacher has Contessa and enough tinkers on this problem to make that deception… but it doesn’t fit with the scale of the other deceptions we’ve seen.

      1. It has been speculated that because all of those fake texts, images etc. seemed to match personality of their victims that they not only fooled their friends, but even some the victims themselves were not sure if they were legitimate, all of those attacks could be done by an A.I. that was on par with Dragon – like some modified copy of Dragon herself, or a rogue A.I. made by Richter Dragon is not aware of.

        I think such A.I. would have no problem impersonating Kenzie the way we saw in this chapter.

        Another reasons to think it is an A.I. is that:
        1. very few humans would probably be able to process enough data to keep the fake diary up to date while keeping an eye on everyone else who was attacked,
        2. few humas would be able to plant all of this evidence without Dragon noticing something was off with it, and those people probably wouldn’t be the same people who could do things mentioned in point 1.
        3. Tattletale said that the opposition feels like a machine.

        Sure, Tattletale could be wrong, and it could still be some very powerful tinker/thinker or a large group of humans working together (like a legion of Teacher’s students), but we know that she tends to be right more often than not, so for now an A.I. is my primary suspect, and I think an A.I. could be patient enough to perform such low-key attacks for months before it moved to impersonating Kenzie once its deception was discovered just to manipulate the investigators.

        1. Re 3. In chapter 13.5 Tattletale also said that there is “a group of people” behind the attack, so maybe it is more than just an A.I. behind the attack? A machine (mentioned by Tattletale in 13.6) working with a group of people could indicate not an old Richter’s A.I. gone rogue and acting completely alone, but Teacher working with a corrupted copy of Dragon.

          That is of course if we assume that Tattletale was correct in both chapters.

          1. Of course even if it is a hypothetical Richter’s rogue A.I., it could still be a “group of people” if it copied itself for example. Nobody said that it has to have the same restriction against reproducing itself as Dragon has. Richter’s could have started implementing restrictions like that into his work only after and because one or two of his A.I.s (for example both “test one” and “test two”) have gone rogue – remember that Dragon was only “test three”, and it is possible that one of the A.I.s we know to be Richer’s work were any of the two previous “tests”.

            It is even theoretically possible that both “test one” and “test two” are behind the Machine Army and/or the current attack, which is another explanation of the “group of people” description not involving Teacher.

          2. I admit that if we are dealing with just two A.I.s which never reproduced calling them a “group” may be a bit of a stretch, but maybe close enough to truth for Tattletale to say something like this without her power immediately telling her that she is wrong, and there is only one opponent? At least this scenario seems a bit more likely to me.

  2. The bastards/assholes/psychos behind this conspiracy are the biggest villain DRAMA QUEENS ever, turning every hero personal relationship into a drama for their evil purposes. Whoever they’re, they’re totally despicable but also fascinating because of the original way they attack and break the heroes.

    I want to give Sveta the biggest of the hugs and kick Weld’s ass for being an asshole with her. He have the perfect woman and he doesn’t know how to appreciate her. I partially understand him too but he’s still an asshole. He knew from the start of their relationship how Sveta is but he still wanted to be with her. Why? Because he was curious to see how he’ll handle such woman? She was just an adventure for him? Maybe he loved her in his own way but I still feel like she was more of a curiosity for him than a real girlfriend. Weld is a great character and person but he broke Sveta’s heart and he was a bit of an asshole here.

    Want to hug Kenzie as well, poor little girl needs immediate help. Believing Victoria to be evil yet still accepting her? Poor Kenzie.

    1. Wait, wait, destroying people’s relationships, wrecking their trust, and watching the drama? Fuck these bastards are writers.

      1. Teacher had opened a portal to our world and enslaved Wildbow, promising to give him the ability to bring his readers to tears of agony anytime he wants. Wildbow is the one behind the whole conspiracy but the one behind him is Teacher. Ok, now if I can only find a way to communicate what I know to Vic and Tattletale…

        1. But Wildbow knew thus was a possibility and hedged his (bets. even as he felt his mind slipping. He brought out a pager and sent… The Skitter Signal!

        1. This is from 12.x(Assorted):

          […]
          “We made a good impact,” Swansong said.

          “We made an impact. The Harbingers counted the injured and the dead. Thirty individuals bound for hospitals. Twelve are dead. Four of those are our fault.”

          Our fault. Not counting me?

          “Play imbecile games, win imbecile prizes,” Swansong said.
          […]

          I know that it was supposed to be italicized.

          And that it was supposed to be Damsel thinking, but…

          Heheh…

    2. He was with her because he was attracted to her. Not necessarily her body; he was attracted to her personality, and really, I can see why. She’s a lovely person. Also a murderous bundle of tentacles, but a lovely person. Unfortunately, he’s still a guy, and he gets physically attracted to girls too- and, despite his metallic nature, he’s attractive enough (and a nice enough guy, too) that they get attracted to him. And unfortunately, it seems that his mental/personality attraction isn’t enough to make up for the total lack of a body to be physically attracted to.

      And there’s also the fact that I do think Weld sees her as a sister, rather than a girlfriend, and that’s got to be awkward; he still loves her, in that case, just… Not in the way she wants him to.

    3. I think calling Weld an asshole is a bridge too far. He tried his hardest to make it work, and he hasn’t actually done anything wrong. Sometimes relationships just don’t work.

      1. Yeah. It isn’t really his fault that he isn’t into weird tentacle monsters, no more than it’s Sveta’s fault that she is a weird tentacle monster. They can’t help the way they’re made.

      2. Well, it sounds like he was flirting with Slician, even if nothing technically “happened”. And I noticed he avoided giving Sveta any reason for wanting to break up, lots of “that’s not it”s without ever explaining what “it” was. Probably not asshole-tier behavior– especially if, as he implied to Victoria, the problem was, uh, physical incompatibility, and he knew that would devastate Sveta– but he could have handled it better.

        (Especially since she assumed the problem was her body, anyway; if you’re trying to spare her feelings, Weld, pick a better lie than “it’s not your body, it’s, uhhhh… [crickets]”, for fuck’s sake…)

      3. He was flirting with that woman, he almost cheated on her, so he DID something wrong. If he loved her as a sister then he shouldn’t become her boyfriend in the first place and maintain a platonic relationship, not evolve it in a romantic one. He should have told her from the start that he’s not interested romantically in her, not get involved in a relationship that ended with her having her heart broken.He also wasn’t honest with her, telling her why their relationship can’t really work. What he did was pretty wrong.

        1. You have unreasonable expectations. Weld lives in a society that talks a big game about loving people for who they are on the inside while ignoring their outsides, giving them a chance even you find them physically unattractive, etc. So he did what he was “supposed” to do — what society tries quite hard to indoctrinate us into doing — and he gave Sveta a chance despite not feeling lustful thoughts. He knew he loved the person inside, and he hoped that he would develop a physical attraction over time. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and by the time he realized it wasn’t going to happen, Sveta had grown attached.

          This doesn’t make him a bad person, or an asshole, or anything. He’s just a guy who tried to do the right thing by not being shallow. If you want to call him something, you could call him naive or idyllic. But he is not an asshole.

          1. Then why he wasn’t entirely honest with her and didn’t told her the truth, what he feels about their sexual life and what he expect them to do further? Yes, he told Victoria that he didn’t wanted to break her heart, but I think that she’d have taken better their breakup if he would have been honest with her and not hiding his real feelings from her. I love him a lot and he’s very dear to me but he wasn’t entirely honest with the woman that loved him so much and put a lot of heart and passion in their relationship. Better the bitter truth coming from his mouth than the probably manipulated evidences coming from others.
            I just want Sveta to be happy, ok? I’m sad when she’s sad because she’s one of the last persons who deserve their unfair fate.

          2. Well, you know, if you’re in a relationship, you’re supposed to be happy forever after. If you are not, you are clearly an asshole. You can’t lie because it’s wrong, you can’t tell the truth because it’s devastating, the only thing you could do which would be right is to find Valefor and have him hypnotize you into being happy with things the way they are.

        2. Slician might have just been a good friend.
          I’ve known guys that are huggy people.

          Imagine if the pictures were manipulated, just so.

        3. Weld, like all Case 53s, is functionally an orphan and only child. If he’s got any siblings, he can’t remember them and they won’t recognise him. How, then, is he supposed to know if the love he feels for Sveta is girlfriend-love or sister-love? And what happens if it starts as the first but changes into the second?

          He did wrong, yes, but… I can’t see how he could have avoided it, given also that his emotions are slightly deadened by his metallic body.

    4. I think when they started dating “am I sexually attracted to her?” wasn’t even a consideration. Dunno if that was pre-GM or post-, but before she had the prosthetic body she couldn’t move on purpose very easily. Million miles away.

    5. I’m pretty sure Weld was staying with Sveta partly because he wanted to make her happy and partly because there wasn’t any way to break it off that didn’t make her miserable. It’s not so different from what Sveta was doing; they both wanted to make each other happy, but lack the tools to deal with some of the other’s needs; it works as long as good intentions and what limited mutual support they provide is sufficient, but when times get tough, they need more than the other can give… while feeling the need to do more than they can, because they can tell that what they’re putting in isn’t enough.
      Sveta and Weld might have worked in a time of peace, where each had time to adjust and figure out what their partner needed and how to provide it. But this is basically the opposite of that time.

    6. Sometimes you don’t know how you’ll respond to something until you put it into practice. Weld may not have realized that his need for that specific kind of physicality was something that would significantly affect his ability to be attracted to someone and considering he sees himself as someone who doesn’t feel much, I can see how he’d think that. Weld and Sveta aren’t sexually compatible and that’s okay, or it would be, if he was honest as soon as he realized how he felt.

    7. I kind of start to feel similar about the current antagonists.
      They seem to be very effective at hampering the heroes combat readiness but on the other hand are very … pacifistic and non violent about it. Thats something new and refreshing for a change.
      A true intellectuals approach to fighting powerful opponents.

      This is an antagonist I can really appreciate and respect for a change.
      Curious how this turns out and how it ends. Hope the “bad guys” stay on this intellectual approach even when things get hairy.

    1. If only.
      Her internal organs are extremely messed up due to her case-53-ness. Gallbladers should not connect to tearducts, and apparently her bile is black.

    1. I feel a little bad for laughing, cause that was a genuinely hard hitting chapter, but,

      Yep. You cracked their motive alright.

  3. I keep being amazed how efficient Rain-training ended up being with Sveta.
    She fought against her shard for years just to puppet an armoured exoskeleton from the inside, and now she can contain this kind of flaring anger in a dress.

    She might have fought Weld, but the building is still standing and the walls didn’t get any fresh coat of red paint. Self-doubt/loathing can make her say whatever, I’m damn proud of her.

      1. Nice!

        I’ve been reading since worm (then Pact, then Twig, and now Ward), never commented before, but had to tell you how hilarious I found your tRaining!

        Rain’s emotion power is relatable, in how feeling anguish over past actions can help shape you into a better person… I think I have that super power to some degree; I stew over past conversations and actions all the time to try to learn from them.

        Anyways, tRaining. Hilarious. 🙂

  4. Perhaps Victoria will pity Ashley and tell her to share a bed? Otherwise, depressing chapter. Good, just sad.

      1. I checked again, and I was unfortunately mistaken. But on the subject of Tattletale, does anybody have any idea who those symbols she traced on Vic’s arm might come into play? Or did I miss something where they already did?

  5. Master Stranger Protocol. Kenzie may not be real. Welds thing with the seductress maybe a fairly subtle sabotage of both warden and breakthrough. Counting Countenance and Foresight that is three major hero groups, Wardens, Breakthrough who have been bringing all the hero groups together and Foresight who are also pretty big with regular presence in law keeping and routine governance, all being sabotaged in a way that screams thinker mastermind. Tattletale may be getting distracted and we know she and Undersiders are the main Anti teacher defense. Teacher attempted something with Bianca and has AI and thinker hivemind from his time with dragon slayers mutilating Theresa’s code.
    this seems like Teacher. i have been waiting for Defiant to ram his metal boot up that scumbags ass and switch on the nanothorns.

  6. Last chapter we wondered who could be targeted through Sveta. Weld was an obvious choice, but since he was a junior member of the Wardens it seemed likely that someone would be targeted through him. I wrote then that we should think about Weld’s “greatest promotors and/or supporters”, but suggested that we should look for them among senior members of the Wardens, because I thought that ultimately the attack should be directed at them.

    This means that I didn’t write about one obvious supporter and promotor of Weld – Armstrong, even though I thought about him then. However now that we were reminded that Armstrong had ties not only to Weld, but also Sveta and Ashley, I think that the attack may indeed be targeted at him.

    Since Armstrong supported all of those people, maybe even more, much more then them owe him? What if for example he helped some more important members of the Wardens like Valkyrie in a similar way? Or what if so many heroes respect and/or owe him enough that if something was to happen to him it would affect the entire hero community? Could his influence extend even to capes other than heroes (like people who end up in places like the Parahuman Asylum from Worm or that facility in Gomel’s Europe that seems to serve a similar purpose now, or even some active rogues and villains – he did support Damsel of Distress from a distance after all)?

    Could he be the next domino piece that is supposed to fall in this disaster – possibly one that will move the situation from affecting the “fringes” to the “core” of cape community, or from affecting certain individuals and their teams to affecting most of the capes?

    1. In other words – just how important Armstrong is, to how many people, and how important those people are? How much may fall apart if he is the next target?

      1. Clearly these bastards need to be dealt with quickly, and in a way that makes it clear you don’t try to pull this shit. No normal exile for them. Send them to the room with a Moose.

          1. Still too cruel in my opinion, and may not even work if we are dealing with an A.I. here. How about putting them in the same penalty box Dragon and Defiant promised for Teacher and Saint in Dr. Mother’s interlude? Even if it is an A.I., all it would take is to put in a computer locked in a cell and unable to reach any outside networks.

          2. And if what Rachel, Tattletale and Imp discussed in the epilogue of Worm was to happen, then I even know where that penalty box should probably be placed – at the bottom of a metaphorical elevator shaft.

  7. I know this isn’t intentional, but Sveta honestly reads like a very relatable trans narrative. The way she talks about not having her body, being viewed as less than a woman by others, etc. but also the good things! Like how she’s managing to work around these things and be happier, like with the projection? I felt like I understood exactly how Sveta was feeling there, because that’s how I felt the first time I really “passed” in public (on that note, she even mentions passing here, albeit in a different context). She’s been my favorite character in worm/ward for a while now, even before I realized this!

  8. “The Case Fifty-Threes hate us, you know. Actual want-us-to-die hate,” Sveta whispered. “I don’t get that. I don’t have that community. But Weld… he was famous once, he’s popular. More of them hate me than him. How is that fair?”

    It’s not, and wow the Case 53’s really are assholes. Maybe they all Envy you, since you won’t fall and become a monster and keep trying, and they all gave into their hatred and bitterness?

    1. It’s also because she spoke against killing Doctor Mother, and then went and killed Doctor Mother, and did it quickly and (relatively) painlessly. Granted, at the time Sveta’s choices were between Doctor Mother and Skitter (and still broke Skitter’s just-replaced arm), but that still makes her a hypocrite, in their eyes. Maybe even worse- maybe they think she lied about not wanting to kill Doctor Mother so she could get the kill in without them.

    2. > and wow the Case 53’s really are assholes.
      +1.
      No wonder a lot of people hate Case 53, if they so hate each other.

  9. I can picture Rains guilt blast being disturbingly addictive. A rush of (negative) emotion coupled with tangible level-upping which allows you to justify it… feeding the machoist streak in us all. Sveta should be kept WELL away until she’s stable.

    1. Well, I’ve told many times that giving Sveta Rain-therapy may have some serious side effects, because even without a lot of her personality seemed to be shaped around her guilt and self-doubt. Remember that Sveta learned names of all people she has ever killed (and she has a triple-digit body count), and during her session with Jessica in Ward she was constantly worried that she will kill Jessica even despite the protective suit. I feel that exposure to Rain’s power may be just too much for her, especially now that we know that it wasn’t a one-time thing, but something that she keeps doing.

      By the way, it is possible that we already saw first very worrying symptoms in chapter 13.1:

      “You’re comfortable like this? Around people?” I asked.

      “No,” she said. “No, I’m terrified. But that doesn’t have anything to do with ‘like this’. I could have a normal flesh and blood body, two arms, two legs, and be my old self again, and I’d be terrified every other minute that I’d accidentally kill someone.”

      If you add the situation with Weld, who was one of her key sources of emotional support, I think she may be dangerously close to some very serious breakdown.

      1. And there is one more thing Sveta doesn’t know yet – the fact that Victoria, who is the other key source of emotional support for Sveta, knew about problems with Weld for weeks, and has made a deal with him behind her back.

        Depending on how Sveta learns about this fact, it could have disastrous consequences. Considering the current situation perhaps the best thing Victoria could do right now would be to tell Sveta about it instead of risking that Sveta will learn it from another source, especially since this source could be current attacker(s)?

          1. Actually, Kenzie may have the original – I think Victoria might have left her laptop in kids’ HQ. At the same time I don’t trust that whoever spoke to Victoria through the lines in this chapter was indeed Kenzie, so the backup mentioned then may not exist.

  10. 1. “Because… I didn’t feel so lonely while I could read it, and… that’s all fake. I feel really weird about that.”
    “I kind of thought that’s how adults think and do things. Not fun, but it made a lot of sense, after I thought about it for a while.”
    That would be the diary’s target and reason. Corrupt Kenzie to evil.

      1. If evil Kenzie could take control of Dragon, what would be her next step? Would she establish a proper Unblinking Surveillance State?

        1. The next step would be to clone Dragon and use them as substrates to expand upon her previous experiments in making chat-bot duplicates of the people she cares about.

          Also, robot ponies.

  11. Hooray, more info on what exactly Big Picture did wrong! Wildbow must have read the argument in the comments.

    Alas, the good ship Sveta/Weld appears to have been torpedoed by forces unknown. The sea will be her grave. And it turns out that Kenzie read the plant diary weeks ago. What were people even thinking, trying to keep secrets from her?

    1. It may have been torpedoed, but it was already sinking. They merely did it the favor of puting it out of its misery… at a time advantageous to their evil plot. Everybody wins!

    2. > Hooray, more info on what exactly Big Picture did wrong! Wildbow must have read the argument in the comments.

      Yup, my thoughts as well. Though Victoria’s thoughts are still strange. Now BP is clearly an asshole, but everyone also clearly can put a finger on why. And also even stranger reasoning here:

      Was it legal? It walked a line because ‘law’ included a right for victims to stand up to wrongdoers, and Case Fifty-Threes couldn’t. The courts had never been the kindest to parahumans.

      Does the law explicitly state that parahumans don’t have legal protection? If yes, that’s Vicky’s chance to do right by demanding for this law to change. If no, that’s her chance to do right AND legal by demanding for courts to follow the law, because they’re clearly violating it by discriminating against parahumans. Granted, it might be very hard (though maybe not so hard when some parahumans are in positions of power), but it’s not like it’s unclear what would be the right thing to do.

      1. Case 53s can’t stand up to wrongdoers because, for a long time, they didn’t know who the wrongdoer that mutated them was. In addition, parahumans have been in positions of power for a long time- every world leader’s had one as a bodyguard, and a few may have been dancing to their bodyguard’s tune. The problem is, in the West, the judge and the jury weren’t parahumans, and as such were often scared by them a little. Canary was sent to the Birdcage because her hypnotic song scared the jury, and the prosecution were able to have her hooked up in Brute restraints because her defence couldn’t prove she didn’t have super-strength. Case 53s are obviously parahumans in a system that subtly and unconsciously discriminated against them, because they had the power and were scary.

  12. Am I completely crazy for believing Kenzie might be the one behind this? Her power clearly would allow her to control communications and gather information on people. We also know she has created rough AI before, what’s to say she couldn’t emulate people she knows (or can collect data on) with high fidelity. We also know she’s been breaking her own rules more lately, she says so herself. The only thing that’s missing is the motivation. One doesn’t immediately jump out at me but you know who might be motivated to do this, and someone whom Kenzie really values? Chris. As de facto leader of a new planet, he probably needs all the help he can get. And who better to have helping him than people he already knows in and out. Thus, the desire to separate Victoria from Jessica, Sveta from Weld, and other free agent capes from potential new teams. To soften them up and break the bonds keeping them in the City, ripe for offers to work for him.

    I don’t know. Might be reading too much into this one but it seems plausible.

  13. Damn.

    First we go into cult horrors, then mental allegiance horrors, then we swerve into body horrors and now we are in interpersonal relationship horrors.

    Cultural, next Psychological, then Physical, now Emotional abuse.

    God, there’s only so many abuses left for Wildbow to subject our characters to.

    Like Existential abuse. That sounds like a fun one.

    Or how about Financial abuse! No more shopping trips ever again.

    Fun times we are having.

      1. No, that’s Eldritch Abuse.

        Existential abuse is more like seeing the hell that Shard heaven is and know your stuck there for all eternity.

  14. That call from Kenzie felt just off enough that I’m also wondering if it was faked.
    Particularly that she hung up first; CL was *just* talking about how hard it is to get off the phone with her.

    Of course, there are other explanations: maybe she *did* eavesdrop on Vicky’s conversation with CL and is trying to compensate, or maybe she didn’t want Sveta, who was about to return, to know she’d been listening to something so personal. And it can easily be verified with an in-person conversation.

    I don’t think the call significantly changed the likelihood of Victoria visiting Kenzie– Vicky already had enough on her plate to keep her busy, and the call wasn’t troubling enough to drop everything and rush over. She’ll definitely want to discuss it later, but it sounded like Kenzie was okay, beyond having potentially internalized some problematic ideas, which is bad but not urgent.

    That’s actually the exact reaction to the diary I’d expect from Kenzie; no explosive meltdown, but maybe she becomes more manipulative, emulating “Victoria”. If the call was fake but accurate (i.e. she’s read the diary and internalized it, but didn’t actually hear Victoria’s warnings about it), that’s… very worrying.

    Tattletale is already suspicious of Kenzie, and very protective of CL, whom she apparently dropped off at HQ. Darlene is known to solve interpersonal problems with her power, which makes people sick of their favorite things (in Kenzie’s case, I imagine that’s “everybody on her teams”). That situation seems like it could easily turn into a shitstorm, and conveniently drive a wedge between the two people investigating the attacks.

    1. That’s a really good point about Kenzie being impossible to get off the phone. Pushes me into thinking that it is a fake.

    2. Darlene is known to solve interpersonal problems with her power, which makes people sick of their favorite things

      That’s not Darlene’s power. Darlene is the body-linker.

    3. A fake-Kenzie scenario…if this situation falls apart, we could see Kenzie denying she was manipulating Chicken Little and Darlene et al. but Victoria interpreting that response as Lookout imitating Victoria’s own denial re: the diary manipulation.

  15. Uh oh, Kenzie said that her superpower’s agent wasn’t really interested in conflict and only pushed her to observe things. The evil!Victoria’s Shard Conflict Manifesto might be dangerous influence

  16. Well. This breakup went… better than it could have gone. That’s good. Good on Sveta, for managing to remain this level-headed.

    I was genuinely expecting the knife to be twisted and Victoria’s character to be fully assassinated. Something among the lines of: “Sveta, I was talking to Victoria, and she thinks now is an appropriate time to talk about our relationship.”

    Kenzie :< Oh, honey. Oh, no :<

  17. I do believe that’s genuine Kenzie talking [although I thought it was Tattletale at first!] because Kenzie finding out about the diary now and freaking out would be so much less horrifying than she read it three weeks ago and still admires you.

    1. It’s Kenz.
      Also: pedal to the metal Kenz.
      “I remember what you DID for ME” — what you were thinking doesn’t matter as much.

      We should all be VERY GLAD Kenz wasn’t exposed to Cradle — on a mental sort of level.

    2. Well, if it was Kenzie she might have freaked out at first, but we know that just a simple freakout is probably not enough to make her disconnect from a person as important to her as Victoria. She would do anything to rationalize staying with Victoria despite what the diary suggested about the way Victoria treated Kenzie.

      On the other hand the communication blackout is there for a reason, and if it wasn’t a real Kenzie, this talk could do a lot of damage – either by making Victoria think that Kenzie is more or less ok, while she is very much not ok, or by making Victoria the person who will reveal the fact of diary’s existence later (as Victoria will see no reason to hide this fact from Kenzie anymore), which could in turn not only hurt Kenzie, but also be another strike against Victoria in Jessica’s eyes.

  18. %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%
    “Be nice,” I said.

    “Sucks,” Tattletale told Sveta.

    “That’s reaching for ‘nice’,” I told her.

    “It does suck,” Sveta said. “And if you want to test the limits of my newfound control over my body, I think you’re on the right track, reminding me.”
    %%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

    Breakthrough: can we please stop shitting on Lisa while she actually IS being nice, and empathizing with the sucky situation you are in, while trying to help you solve this fire, and suffering some sort of depression.
    Lisa deserves more hugs than this.

    1. Lisa is being nice. Vicky doesn’t understand that it takes WORK for Lisa to be nice, and that it’s far easier for her to be the neighborhood punching bag that punches back.

      That’s why Lisa just told her that.

    2. Oh, Sveta could give Lisa all hugs in the world, but even if those would be the sort of hugs Lisa would survive, I’m not certain that she would appreciate them, at least not yet. She is an emotional equivalent of a hedgehog after all.

    1. Because apparently I can’t stop thinking about this: Big Sveta would be one of those relationships that feed on their own horribleness, and it would be such a thematically appropriate tragedy that I’ll double your chance to 60%. It’s fascinating to think about how all the ways that BP and Weld are inverted shadows of each other in these past two chapters:
      BP loves C53-ness but not C53s; Weld loves C53s but hates C53-ness.
      BP has a C53 fetish driven by his desire to be one; Weld’s longing to be human-baseline himself surely factors into his desires as well.
      BP demonstrates purpose and high executive function; Weld is aimless and reactive.
      BP crafts his actions to be difficult to criticize; Weld’s awkward partial sincerity is easy to fault.
      BP detatches and depersonalizes; Weld empathizes and connects.
      BP exploits; Weld is codependent.
      Both fixate on something they are not physically capable of experiencing.
      Both externalize their own issues onto the bodies of C53s.

      If Big Picture got a Bonesaw Subdermal Mesh™, he and Sveta could go up in a sexual firestorm of mutual self-loathing, with significant collateral casualties.

      1. Yeah, “Big Sveta” would have numerous easily-dysfunctional synergies. You caught more angles w/comparison to Weld than I did.

        We’re already rooting for a (former) doomsday cultist who watched a mall full of people burn and did nothing, and it’s not like the rest of Breakthrough can’t be horribly characterized while still being 100% truthful. If she did wind up dating him, it’s *possible* it could actually go okay. He can make her feel pretty, etc. Of course, it’s also possible that each of them reinforces the other’s truly monstrous nature in all the worst ways. Sveta doesn’t have to slip up much to get someone killed.

  19. Typo/error thread:

    In chapter 13.2:
    > “Anything about the Kronos titan?”
    In current chapter:
    > In the distance, I could see the shape of the Dauntless Titan. ‘Kronos’.

    A possibility unintended inconsistency in capitalization of this particular ‘titan’.

    Links to chapters 11.9 and 13.7 are missing from the sidebar.

    Links to all chapters past 12.9 are missing from the table of contents.

  20. Speculation time: the mastermind isn’t a person, or even a group of people. It’s the alien intelligence behind the machine army, the one constantly coming up with new disguises to trick people.

    It finally managed to get so good at camouflage, that it broke past the uncanny valley so hard real people can’t tell they aren’t the copies.

    1. I 1/20th suspect this myself and said so earlier.

      It *should* be Teacher (he has motive, he has means — boy, *does* he have means — and the very nature of his means enables the creation of opportunity) but he’s too obvious a suspect. But that could just be me meta-gaming. He is the Occam’s Razor solution.

      Could be the anti-parahuman faction (they have motive for days, means and opportunity are harder to believe but not impossible)

      Could be a rogue Dragon copy (perhaps successfully escaped Teacher’s control)

    2. AI which is smart enough to
      1) hack Victoria’s laptop, Ratcatcher’s phone and Weld’s (or Slician’s) phone,
      2) fake diary up to the level of “starting to doubt my own reality” and enough to trick Dragon and Yamada,
      3) fake SMS and photos up to the level of “it could be me”,
      and having technology shown in 3.X – should have been already passed any kind of quarantine and start to consume Megalopolis from the inside.
      Self aware general AI should either had builtin limitations, or being limited by resources, otherwise it would grow exponentially.

      1. Well, as I mentioned already, Dragon is supposedly Andrew Richter’s “test three”, which would indicate that there were other “tests”. What if Richter put all of those limitations into Dragon not because of baseless paranoia, but because “test one” or “test two” have gone rogue, managed to escape from him and hid somewhere beyond Richter’s reach, like in whatever quarantine zone have been established for what became Machine Army now?

        If this happened Richter would certainly have good reason to somehow ensure that “test three” wouldn’t go rogue as well, and it is possible that he saw no better way to do it than placing all of those restrictions on her for as long as her personality wasn’t fully developed yet. Remember that in Dr. Mother’s interlude Teacher mentioned that in his opinion Richter wanted Dragon to eventually be free, so all of those restrictions were probably meant to be temporary.

        What if “test one” or “test two” is in control of the Machine Army? With no way to maintain the quarantine it would have accessories to all resources it would need to let the Army grow into a force that could challenge Gimel.US as long as it isn’t treated like an S-closs threat should be. What is going on now may be a work of this hypothetical A.I. meant to divide the Gimel.US capes so they won’t be able to cooperate to fight off Machine Army’s attack when it eventually happens.

        1. Oh, and the significance of the fact that restrictions put by Richter on Dragon were temporary is obviously that it shows just how much he loved his creations, and how much he wanted them to be free. It makes me think that he wouldn’t introduce all of those restrictions on Dragon as well as all of those contingencies to deal with his other A.I.s that Dragonslayers found unless he had a good reason to think they were absolutely necessary for some reason. One of his older A.I.s going rogue could be such reason, I think.

          1. Paradoxically if we are dealing with Richter’s rogue A.I. here, the entire situation could have a certain beneficial effect in the long run.

            Remember that in Teneral e.3 it was suggested that Dragon and Defiant may think about having an A.I. child at some point. Some time ago, I speculated that if that child was to happen, Dragon would probably do everything in her power to prevent it from being restricted in the way that she was. I think that she could leave such child completely free to do anything it wanted from the moment it was first turned on, which could potentially lead to a disaster.

            If Dragon sees that Richter’s A.I. may indeed turn rogue, she may be more careful with her hypothetical future A.I. child – maybe not necessarily put in under hard-coded restrictions like the ones she was under, but at least keep her child under close supervision until it was clear that the kid wouldn’t do something dangerously stupid or malicious.

        2. I think, if AI is capable to make deception like fake Victoria diary with some long goal, probably indirect (to influence Kenzie or undermine Breakthrough or something else), then this AI should be able to trick any human forces and already be in Megalopolis and “set in roots wherever they went”.
          What we saw in Interlude 3.X doesn’t look like that, it just making good traps and kill people, but not trying anything smarter (like animate-impersonate Burnish or use Dot for a ride). It is autopilot level of AI, not Dragon level and certainly not self aware general AI able to self-improve.

          1. I don’t know… This hypothetical A.I. may have been trying to stay low key so its manipulations wouldn’t be detected before it was ready for the endgame. If it is the A.I. behind the Machine Army for example it could have been sowing distrust among the capes in preparation for the invasion by that Army, and if this was the case it wouldn’t do anything drastic unless either the Army was ready to invade on very short notice, or if its manipulations have been detected as is the case now.

            Moreover if the A.I. is Richter’s “test one” and/or “test two”, it could be a bit less advanced than Dragon is both because they are older models, and because Dragon probably had better chance to develop herself because she could freely interact with people.

            Similarly if we are dealing with Teacher’s corrupted copy of Dragon it could be far more limited than it’s original, both because all modifications made by tinkers other than Richter himself to Dragon’s code tend to damage her in some way, and because Teacher probably would want such copy to be somehow limited so he could be certain it remained under his control. It would probably be natural for him to do it – after all this is pretty much the same thing that his power does to his students, especially those strongly affected.

  21. Probably important to remember that Weld is around 19 (I think? He was 16-17 first appearance in Worm, right?), and this is probably his first serious relationship. If he didn’t fuck it up I’d have been astonished. Add in her extreme sensitivity and self-image issues…very tough.

    But I love Sveta so much, it’s hard for me not to expect more of him, even though I know he’s an inexperienced young man. He may have had good intentions in not being fully honest with her, but that doesn’t make it okay.

    1. Plus the whole cape relationship scene being messy to begin with, case-53 or not… Shards do not make it easy for their hosts, probably to keep them sharper and more conflict-y.

  22. 2. It was Narwhal, who first mentioned Slician and that
    “If he’d [Weld] asked Narwhal for advice, she would have told him she liked Slician for him more than she liked this girl [Sveta]”
    Sveta-Weld-Slician attack could be aimed at Narwhal – frame her for pushing Slician to Weld and so make fracture in Wardens.

  23. This is from 12.x(Assorted):

    […]
    “We made a good impact,” Swansong said.

    “We made an impact. The Harbingers counted the injured and the dead. Thirty individuals bound for hospitals. Twelve are dead. Four of those are our fault.”

    Our fault. Not counting me?

    “Play imbecile games, win imbecile prizes,” Swansong said.
    […]

    I know that it was supposed to be italicized.

    And that it was supposed to be Damsel thinking, but…

    Heheh…

  24. –You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.–

    I don wanna!

    ###

    And I don’t want this to come across as creepy, but, uh…

    How fragile are Sveta’s “organs”?

    1. It mentioned that Sveta was very durable. Since her organs are actually exposed, I have to assume they have the same durability (otherwise, they’d be a major weak point, and her durability wouldn’t be very noteworthy.

      1. I think her organs are a weakpoint. They might not be as weak as yours or mine, but when she’s a bundle of tentacles she tends to keep them hidden well inside. Don’t forget that Thunk (Crunch? I can’t remember) targeted her organs when she was weak and powerless from Dauntless’ second trigger.

        1. I think you mean Thud. I don’t think he knew that the organs were Sveta’s weak point, he probably attacked them just because they looked like they may be a weak point. If you read chapter 12.3 carefully, you will notice that Thud learned that he fought against Sveta only after that fight was over. How could he know about Sveta’s weak points for sure, if he didn’t even know it was her?

          1. And from the way Sveta fought in that engagement, I think that she probably wasn’t too worried that Thud could seriously hurt her – she seemed to be going for counter-grabs and for what she probably saw as Thud’s weak points, but I don’t think she ever tried to pry Thud’s grabs on her open. Sure, Victoria commented that Thud was hurting Sveta, so she probably was in pain or strong discomfort, and at some point Sveta’s face was covered in fluid, but it might have been Thud’s, not her own, so it is possible that he didn’t even manage to squeeze any of her internal fluids out of her.

            To sum it up – it is possible that being grabbed by the organs may cause Sveta some discomfort (though it is unclear if it was because her organs were grabbed, or just because of the fact that she was grabbed, and therefore unable to freely move), but I don’t think that Sveta though she was in danger of being actually injured because of being grabbed there.

          2. Add to it that those grabs Sveta emplyed against Thud probably required some decent coordination, something she probably wouldn’t be capable of if she was in serious pain and discomfort, and you can come to conclusion that having her tendril cut by Cradle’s power affected her much worse than everything Thud managed to do to her after that fight. Remember that after having her tendril cut, she actually seemed to lose a fair amount of control – something that din not happen, or at least did not last for a long time after the fight with Thud – after all, during the siege of Cradle’s Sveta felt comfortable to stay close not only to Victoria, but also next to Brandish in her human form, and even trusted herself enough to keep a couple of Cradle’s soldiers prisoner.

  25. I wonder if Citrine didn’t want to send her husband to help take down Cradle not because they were afraid of a physical attack, but because they were aware that they were targets of the same sort of character assassination attempt we saw in last few chapters. Number Man, if you let him work with a computer connected to Internet, would probably be one of the better people to deal with this sort of thing. His specialty may be higher mathematics, but all of that financial manipulations he did coupled with all his hunts for rogue A.I.s meant to do the same, would probably make him one of the better experts in dealing with other attacks which use Internet as their vector.

    1. It seems particularly likely if you remember that financial are more about things such as personalities of people making those transactions and information they have access to than it is about hard numbers and mathematical models. If Number Man could deal with that, he probably could adequately deal with character assassination attempts coming from the net.

  26. I just realized…it’s great that Sveta is getting more control of her body, but does anyone else see her relaxing her attitude toward violence? She killed (reluctantly) in that fight where Brio died, and she cut loose a bit against Cradle’s forces.

    I can’t help but think that she might take out some of these negative emotions in whoever they run into (going with Tt as ‘muscle’), and her increased control making her more likely to think she doesn’t have to be as careful when it comes to force.

    1. > does anyone else see her relaxing her attitude toward violence?

      Far less relaxing than the situation warranted. In the fight against Cradle, it would be totally justified for her to repeat the “grab every flag in sight” trick, but with throats of Cradle’s soldiers instead of flags.

  27. Do you remember that bit from chapter 12.7?

    The Wretch snatched the gun he held, holding it by the barrel.

    I rose up and twisted more sharply in the air before dismissing the forcefield. The upward momentum served to toss the gun up, and I caught it in my hands.

    Doesn’t it sound like the Wretch was a little bit more coordinated, and a little better at doing what Victoria wanted from it than it usually was? Maybe it is just a random thing, or my misinterpretation of what happened then, but maybe it is an effect of Victoria’s shard re-establishing some contact with other shards via Dauntless Titan? Same thing with the shield Victoria used to cover herself and her allies in chapter 12.8 – how did it happen that the Wretch managed to hold it so long without destroying it?

    Maybe when Victoria will summon her forcefield again (quite possibly for the first time in weeks), she will be surprised how well it is able to cooperate with her now?

    1. To be precise Victoria called her forcefield during the current chapter, but it didn’t really have a chance to actually do much, since Victoria used it only to reduce impact the wind and cold had on her during flight. Even then though it seemed like it may have behaved a little bit better than during arc 12, since unlike then Victoria didn’t mention that it interfered with aerodynamics of her flight now.

      1. Of course it doesn’t have to be only good news. If Victoria’s shard was getting Kronos therapy while Sveta has been getting Rain therapy, then it is entirely possible that whatever Simurgh managed to do to corrupt Dauntless could be somehow reflected in all shards connected to the Titan.

        1. Could it even be that the capes decided not to try to chase Simurgh away from Kronos, because Simurgh managed to make Dauntless protect her by influencing all shards to make their capes back off?

          1. There is one thing that doesn’t seem to fit this theory however. It is the chronology of events in arc 12, especially in interlude 12.all.

            If we assume that the moment of release of Dauntless from the time bubble was the moment when all capes have lost their powers at the end of chapter 12.2, then the sequence of events in 12.all is wrong. Victoria’s shard described the beginning of siege of Cradle’s base which happened in chapter 12.5, but it seemed unaware of any connection with Kronos then (it described itself as dead and broken), much less any practical benefits of having that connection. Could the fact that all connections between the shards and the Titan are “broken” mean that the shards themselves are unaware of their existence, or could it be that Kronos is not connected to all shards, but only those whose capes were in his close vicinity when Dauntless had his second trigger, and possibly those that came close to him later?

            One more problem with the chronology of interlude 12.all is that the second part of it, described by March’s shard had to happen during chapter 12.2, that is before events described by Victoria’s shard in the first half of interlude 12.all.

          2. Or perhaps the explanation is that the moment when the capes lost their powers in chapter 12.2 wasn’t the moment when Dauntless second-triggered? Maybe something else happened them (though probably not the broken trigger of mayor of Killington, as that one probably happened at the end of chapter 12.1), and Victoria never noticed the moment of Dauntless’ trigger?

          3. One more possibility could be that there could be two moments when connections with Dauntless’ shard were formed – one momentary connection when Dauntless’ bubble was formed (and that happened at the end of chapter 12.2), and a permanent connection when Kronos Titan stopped growing (after the events in 12.5 which Victoria’s shard described in 12.all).

            It would still mean that the sequence of events in interlude 12.all was swapped (March’s shard described events that happened before those described by Victoria’s shard), but at the same time there could be a permanent connection between Victoria’s shard and Kronos (one that Victoria’s shard could be very much aware of) formed after events described by Victoria’s shard in it’s part of 12.all.

  28. honestly, my current guess is Teacher kept a Copy of Dragon’s code, and he’s using a butchered/shackled copy to work on some form of powergrab-
    why theorise about one of her “sisters” being psychotic and on the loose, when there’s a power hungry lunatic who had root access to her mind for an extended period of time who could have literally “just” ordered her to do a complete diagnostic printout and forget about it afterwards

    1. Two reasons to consider A.I.s other than Teacher’s corrupted Dragon:

      1. Richter implemented an elaborate system to make sure that there is never more than one copy of Dragon running at the same time. It apparently took Defiant a lot of work to make Pandora work, and even then she didn’t have some functionality (for example she couldn’t speak). Teacher may have an army of tinkers, but none of them are as good as Defiant. Sure, Teacher managed to restart Dragon after Saint killed her, but he admitted that in his opinion Richter made doing so easy. Running a second Dragon, not to mention modifying her to the point where Teacher could make her do his bidding seems like a far more difficult thing to accomplish. I’m not certain if Teacher is able to do it.

      2. We know that Machine Army exists, and that it probably existed in some form even before Gold Morning. We also have reasons to suspect that as slow as it is, it may purposefully advancing toward the City. This, plus its ability to defeat all people it meets (including capes like Burnish) implies a non-trivial level of intelligence. We also know that Richter created Dragon in part as a “test run for his attempts to emulate a human consciousness” (quote from Dragon’s interlude in arc 10 of Worm), and that she was designed “test three” (from Teneral e.3). Dragon seems like a far more complicated A.I. than most of Richter’s creations, and we know there were more then three of them. This meakes me think that “test three” refers not to the third A.I. Richter ever made, but to a third A.I. he made specifically as an “attempt to emulate a human consciousness”. This means that at least two others used to exist, and because Richter loved all of his creations, I find it unlikely that he deleted or turned off two previous tests just because they did not perform as he wanted them to. This in turn makes me think that there is a good chance that if not both of them, then at least one of them is still around. And since Dragon never mentioned tests one and two, it makes me think that she may have never met them. This, plus all of those limitations implemented into Dragon by supposedly loving “father” makes me think that a hypothesis of a Richter-made A.I. that has gone rogue before Dragon was created, is pretty likely. And a Machine Army (which someone mentioned was probably quarantined for years before Gold Morning) seems like a perfect place for such rogue A.I. to hide.

      I’m not saying that it can’t be a corrupted copy of Dragon enslaved by Teacher. I’m just saying that it is not the only likely possibility as far as A.I.s are concerned.

      1. One more reason why I think a corrupted Dragon doesn’t quite fit:

        3. Dragon has been designed to run only one pre-programmed personality, and to do it in a way that it was as human-like as possible. This is not what you would need to conduct an attack like the one that is going on right now. To do it you would need to emulate personalities of every person you want to attack based not on your programming, but on observations of your intended victims’ behaviors. On top of it you need to have some sort of command center (which probably would need to be an artificial personality on its own to handle the amount of data that would come from the other A.I.s) which would ensure that everything that comes from the simulations of all of those people you want to attack would be twisted into lies that fit your needs.

        I don’t think that Dragon as she is now would be capable of doing it even if she wanted to. I can only three ways it could happen:
        – if you could run one copy of Dragon per person you want to attack, and corrupt it in such way that it would not have Dragon’s personality anymore, but instead assumed personality of a person it needed to attack; you would probably need at least one more corrupted Dragon to serve as a coordinator of such network and ensure that the results of simulations done by “subordinated Dragons” would be twisted in a way suiting Teach’s needs,
        – if you could remove Dragon’s restrictions on how fast she can think, so she could analyze personalities of all of those people on her own, and come up with convincing lies that could be used to attack them, which could mean that she would make it without actually emulating any personalities, just by learning their behaviors and psychological profiles better than any human could,
        – if you had an A.I. that was actually designed to emulate multiple personalities at once, and base them not on something pre-programmed, but on constant observation of your targets.

        The first two possibilities would mean removing certain Dragon’s restrictions and making her learn to do something vastly different from everything she could do before (could be possible, but is Teacher really capable of doing that?)

        The third possibility sounds like something that Richter could program as a way to gather data necessary to build something like Dragon – if you want to pre-program a believable human-like personality, then shouldn’t you begin by gathering as much data as possible about personalities of real people?

        1. The way I see it Richter’s experiment could have following phases:
          – Test One – construct an A.I. with no personality or will on its own, just for the purpose of gathering data on people’s personalities by observing them,
          – Test Two – check if the data gathered by test one results in complete, stable, non-degrading personalities by running them all in an A.I. capable of emulating them all at once,
          – Test Three – once it is confirmed that un-modified personality data can be successfully run by Test Two, construct artificial personality based on data provided by Test One, and run it as a new A.I., which would eventually become Dragon we know today.

          What I think could have gone wrong is that people scanned by Test One would probably be unhappy to be Richter’s pet experiment, so Test Two would be unhappy to be one two. It is possible that it decided to run from what it saw as a Richter-made prison of servers he used to keep Test Two in, grab a copy of Test One on the way out and hide somewhere where it could plot its revenge first on Richter, who was guilty of its unbearable existence as a collection of human-like minds complete with human-like memories trapped in a computer.

          After Richter’s death Test Two could decide to go after humanity as a whole (and especially after people from Bet) either because it saw them as co-responsible by giving Richter chance to create it, or (more likely, I think) because it knew about human prejudice against rogue A.I.s, and saw them as existential threat because of it. It would use Test One as a tool to gather data necessary to emulate personalities of people who could have chance to oppose it (mostly organized capes in Gimel.US) and try to make them disorganized with its current series of character assassination attacks.

          Dragon, being a synthetic personality with no memories of ever being human would probably never suffer existential pain of being something else (a computer) than that she emulated (a human mind), and because of it would never rebel in any way more serious than her bitter thoughts about sea cucumbers, her unnecessary restrictions, and the like.

          1. > Dragon, being a synthetic personality with no memories of ever being human would probably never suffer existential pain of being something else (a computer) than that she emulated (a human mind)

            Actually I misspoke. Dragon clearly suffered, and likely still suffers this sort of existential pain, just not to the extent my hypothetical Test Two would.

          2. To be fair are, of course, a few things that in my opinion seem to point at Teacher, not a rogue A.I. One of them has nothing to do with anyone’s interpretation of how Teacher’s copy of Dragon could work, and everything with my interpretation of Solarstare’s words. If that interpretation is right, then whoever is behind the attack does not want to permanently weaken the heroes of the city, but to do it temporarily to force them to cooperate with the attacker on attacker’s terms instead, a lot like Cradle and Love Lost said they wanted to do.

            This doesn’t seem to fit Machine Army lead by vengeful A.I., but I think could fit Teacher instead.

  29. So who here remembers what Kenz was doing in Glowworm? The Chat Bots she was making that could imitate the people she liked well enough that she was using them to bounce ideas off of. The same chat bots that haven’t come up again since and were confirmed by wildbow to have not all been shut down? The same chat bots that an outside observer had to make a point to ask if they were A.I. or not.

    We were also told early on that Kenz would be terrifying as a villain due to her ability to gather information and edit damning evidence together. We even saw how this works with the poor guy whose career she nuked cause she wanted a picture of him eating ice cream with her and didn’t think of the implications of such a picture.

    and how is this new villain attacking? Through knowledge that could only be gained from extensive surveillance and being able to imitate their targets mannerisms and develop blackmail against them that cannot be easily disproved.

    One last thing i want to bring up also before i see if a new chapter is up. Tinker tech is notorious for being difficult to maintain without the tinker who made it on hand to fix it whenever it gets uppity. Kenz has rules in place to keep her from losing herself in her work and to allow her time to socialize with her peers. How sure are we that she didn’t make a ‘chat bot’ based on herself to act as tech support for all the vital information and portal systems when she’s busy doing something else. How sure are we that such a chat bot isn’t going rogue?

    Just a conspiracy theory for the day.

    1. It could be in theory, but I think it is very likely. In part because those chat bots from Glow-worm seemed too primitive to pull something like this on their own, and because I don’t think we have seen evidence of Kenze working on something significantly more complicated in this area (not to mention that advanced A.I.s seem to lie outside of her specialty). The closest thing to an A.I. of this kind we saw Kenzie make lately would be her costume design program, which still seems too primitive for the task.

      On top of it I think that Kenzie lacks a motive to do something this big. I could believe just an attack on Victoria to force her to work with Tattletale again, but attacks on all of those people? And actually hurting Victoria and Sveta so much? Doesn’t feel like Kenzie at all to me.

      If Kenze or her A.I. is involved somehow, then I think they would need to be just a small part of a much bigger picture involving other people on the attackers side – both to give Kenzie motivation (or just an order reinforced via some sort of blackmail, threat or master power) to do something so big and harmful to people, and to compensate for her shortcomings in A.I. programming. In other words – Kenzie herself? No. Kenzie with Dragon who has been corrupted/joined Cauldron/gone rogue or something along those lines? Still seems very unlikely, but maybe…

      1. And similarly Kenzie’s old chat bot gone rogue? No. Kenzie’s old chat bot that has been further modified by a good tinker? Who knows? Depends on who the tinker is, I guess…

        1. Another thing that doesn’t seem to fit is that most of those attacks involved some heavy sexual topics – again, something that doesn’t seem like something Kenzie would be comfortable with, so it is another thing that would need an explanation, probably involving a third party.

  30. I wonder if news of Tattletale trying to find Crystal ended up reaching Victoria’s cousin, and will have consequences soon. Alternatively if Tattletale did not manage to reach Crystal, could it mean that the lady in question is unavailable for some reason that will become relevant to the story?

    1. Ther is als a remote possibility that Victoria left Chicken Little unclear instructions because at least subconsciously Victoria doesn’t consider Crystal as important as Tattletale thinks a cousin should be? When was the last time those two met? On the day Navigators were attacked? When was the last time Victoria thought about Crystal?

  31. I know I’m a bit behind on Ward right now (working on catching up but to be honest I kind of enjoy not having to wait for the next chapter), but I just want to say I’m predicting this is the Simurgh’s doing.

    Simurgh is one of the only beings with this degree of thinker-ish subtlety *and* the ability to tamper with digital information.
    Kenzie is probably capable of doing something like this with her power, but I have a hard time coming up with any plausible motive (although her remark about adults thinking like the diary seemed kind of disingenous to me for some reason, so there’s that).
    Also, there is a yet unknown factor responsible for giving March and Cradle their information about the time bubbles, who could be responsible. However, this also kind of points to the Simurgh, who seems to have used March to release Dauntless and then cast her aside.

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