Breaking – 14.z

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Obsequious was the word.  A flurry of young men and women in very precise haircuts and outfits made absolutely sure that he and Ms. Matteson were cared for, that they had cold tea, that they had nuts, vegetable platters, and bread.  One even offered a bath, which bewildered.

It made it hard to find ten straight seconds to think.  That might have been the very point of it.

Kamil’s hand absently brushed against a pillow that was built into the arm of the chair he sat in, while Ms. Matteson worked her way through a conversation with a young ‘pen carrier’, a boy with hair and clothes that could only be described as a uniform.

Ms. Matteson was of a type that Kamil had seen often enough, when talking to prospective employees who were fresh out of college, traumatized by the academia to the point of perpetual anxiety, wide eyed and fidgety, twenty or thirty pounds overweight, not used to sleeping normal hours, giving evidence to faint circles under the eyes.  Someone who’d had enough on their plate that they’d started and ended the journey from adolescent to adult with the shakiest of ideas what an adult was to wear.  Where some clung to the ‘teenager’ look, Ms. Matteson had lunged for a more formal, adult look that she wore with what looked like perpetual discomfort.  A black skirt, a formal shirt, a styled suit jacket, and large, round glasses.  A boring hair cut.

It endeared him, really.  He’d been almost exactly that, many years ago.  It endeared him too, to see her relaxing and forgetting her anxieties as she engaged with the ‘pen carrier’.  He’d worried what kind of people Sveta had near her.

The ten year old boy in the severe haircut and uniform spoke, “I write, I organize, I learn, I-” he made a hand motion, more like he was trying to remind himself than anything.  “-am rised-up.”

“Raised up,” Natalie said.  “Is that related to social class?”

The boy’s eyes went wide, as he took a second or two to try to wrap his head around the words.

“I’ll rephrase.  Is it about power, family status, rank?”

“Rank.  My family… no wealth.  No rank.  Never fortune.  My patron… fortune.  Is taken-right of those above to rise-up those below.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Responsibility, I think,” Kamil volunteered.

The boy nodded.  He stole looks at Kamil, eyes traveling up and down arms and across Kamil’s face until he realized the person he was looking at was looking back.    “I have father, mother, urm, father I carry pen for.”

“How did they pick you?” she asked, leaning forward.

“Urm… random?  Is luck.  I have chance and cannot waste.  Heavy… to carry?”

“It’s a burden.”

“Yes.”

“Expectations.  From your parents and family?”

“Yes.”

“I know what that’s like,” she said.  “I’m grown up, I earn good money, I studied hard and graduated Magna Cum Laude.  Now I help write laws.  But my parents?  Not happy yet.  I’ve carried that burden for a long time.  I might always.”

“That’s their failure, not yours,” the boy said, with all of the innocence and brazenness of youth.  It seemed to shock Ms. Matteson into a rare smile.  “Oh.  I should go.  Should I give word you have need- for anything?”

He’d stumbled through that last sentence.

“No need, we’re well taken care of,” Kamil told the boy.

He watched the boy duck and jog off.  That there was a gap in the torrent of attention might have been a failure in the team that was managing them.  He could imagine another room or a hallway where distractions, people with food, and young people with questions were all ready for someone to send through to them, to distract and keep them from wondering where Breakthrough was.

He checked his watch, heavy on his wrist, and estimated it had been about an hour and a half that they’d been here, waiting for their escort to the prison.

It had started with the inital foray, talking to diplomats, meeting Luis and Yosef, and promising exchanges of ideas.  Parahuman knowledge for parahuman knowledge.  He was an advisor to the police and an ex-PRT Director, so he knew enough that he could make offers.

From there, the more political maneuvering.  Not his specialty.  Jeanne Wynn had armed him with a few things.  There was talk of opening trade, something about a ‘textile pathway’, and from the time those specific words had left his mouth, a lot of unfriendly people had started acting more friendly.

Yosef hadn’t been among them.

But due to the mis-alignment in attention, or the fact that they’d run out of people to send, there was a pause, a gap.  A chance to think and to talk.  The door at the other end of the room banged shut as the pen carrier left.

“Ms. Matteson?” he asked.

He intimidated her, he could tell.  That brief widening of the eyes, apprehension at just the idea of having to respond to something open ended.

“Call me Natalie, please.”

“I will.  How are my girls doing?”

“Your-”

“I shouldn’t call them that,” he said.  “Sveta and Ashley.”

“Oh,” Natalie said, dropping her eyes to her hands in her lap.  “I have no earthly idea how to answer that.”

“Is it that bad?” he asked.

“No.  I don’t know,” she said.  She opened her mouth like she was trying to formulate a sentence, then partially closed it, her eyes widening instead.  Like she’d glimpsed something too big to wrap her head around.

He’d seen that too, in his years with the PRT departments.  A part of him was impatient, worried for a variety of reasons, and he didn’t want to waste their window of time, so he filled in, led her along.  “You look after them.”

“I think of it less as looking after them and more like I’m clinging to the outside of a fast moving vehicle.  Sometimes I reach through the window to grab the steering wheel, if I really think I have to.  Mostly I shout and worry that the rush of wind is drowning me out.”

“Poetic.”

“I think that part of that whole culture has rubbed off on me.”

The door opened, and he felt frustration as a young girl, twelve or so, approached, ducking her head down before collecting some of the serving platters.

He controlled his emotions, working on the suspicion that they wanted him on edge.  They wanted him in a state where he’d be too disorganized to counter them or challenge them.

Instead, he picked food from the platters that sat on the little table between them, and spent a moment eating and observing the situation.  The room had large windows with wire running through them in an illustrative fashion, like stained glass windows without the staining.  The light that shone through came in at an angle that made the windows seem to glow of their own accord, illuminating the otherwise lightless space.  The room had a painted floor that looked like it could have been a pool of not-yet-congealed blood, smooth and uninterrupted by seam or tile from one corner of the room to the other.  The walls were brighter, a foggy pink broken up by white.

The space was long and wide, in a way he suspected was designed to make them feel small.

Joke on them.  This was nothing compared to some of the things he’d handled.

Natalie filled the momentary silence with her voice, sounding like she regretted saying what she was saying before she was even a few words in, “I got into this because powers are neat.  Now I’m seeing the people behind the powers and I’m thinking about getting out.”

“Anyone would have doubts after being caught up in a situation like this,” he said.

“No.  I mean, kind of, but that’s not what I mean.  I don’t want to suggest they’re doing badly, either.  Except, um, obviously, they’re in a strange prison.”

“Yeah.  But that’s something we can fix.  Besides that?”

“Ashley’s… really grown since I first met her.  Sveta’s- obviously Sveta is doing terrific.”

She’s going through a breakup with grit teeth and she’s keeping up her day-to-day.  A body doesn’t change that.

“But?” he prodded.  “It didn’t sound like that was the end of it.”

“But I see them grow and do better or do worse, or they get hurt and… I realize I don’t really matter.  The laws don’t really matter at this point.  When it’s stuff like this I’m glad, as awful as it sounds.”

“Because it’s a chance to matter?”

“No.  Gosh, no.  I’m explaining myself badly.”

The chair’s seat was too low, and Kamil’s arms and legs were long.  He stretched legs out in front of him and crossed ankle over ankle.  “They’re their own people.  We can shepherd and we can find opportunities to nudge them to a better path, but we can’t stop them when they get started or reverse their courses.”

“Yeah,” Natalie answered.  “Sorry, I didn’t end up answering your question.”

“You did, a little.  You’re thinking of leaving?”

“I thought about it.  I feel like right now I’m serving more as a… witness.”

“To a crime?” he asked.

“No.  To… whatever it is that happens.  Gold Morning happened and it was a long, long time before we got anything even close to the full story.  I don’t know if people even believe the story we got.  Whatever happens next, these guys are going to be on the periphery of it and if I’m on the periphery of them then…”

“Then you might be able to explain, when people want an explanation,” he filled in.

“I go back and forth on whether it’s worth it,” she told him.  “I like them, I feel sorry for them.  A lot of it is interesting, I really feel like I helped and am helping with Lookout.  I’m even happy to help here, as stressful as it is.  But I can’t shake the feeling that things are going in a bad direction and I can’t stop that.  I like a lot of the people individually but… the collective and the momentum of them all worries me so much.”

“What I can tell you,” he said, “Is that seventeen years ago, I got interested in all of this because I thought powers were neat.  Then I saw the people behind the powers and that’s when I truly committed.”

“Different times?” she asked.

“I don’t know that they were.  Around the time I joined the PRT proper, the Siberian killed one of the greatest heroes.  Alexandria publically executed a person with powers that wouldn’t stand down; controversial then, but nowadays we don’t think about it.”

“I think about it a lot,” Natalie told him.  “Not that, specifically, but similar events.”

He nodded, giving her a sympathetic smile.  “Collectively, we don’t think about it enough.  My era and my first days outside of power testing labs and in the PRT were marked by the Simurgh appearing, and people starting to talk about the possibility they’d keep coming, and that we wouldn’t win in the end.  Europe saw political upheaval, Russia enlisted parahumans into its military and started hunting down those who wouldn’t enlist, activists across the United States were emboldened by leaders with powers.  That momentum and feeling of being small and behind is… not new.”

“But everything’s so fragile right now.”

“It is.”

“One bad winter we’re not prepared for could cut our population in half.”

“Yes.”

Natalie wrung her hands.  “Billions of people are lined up against Gimel.  Shin is scared of us, Cheit wants to take over, they’re the big ones.”

“And we have good, capable, intelligent people on our side.  Great minds that saw us through the end of the world are watching, waiting, and preparing.  This team you’re looking after, I think it has some genuinely good people in it.”

“Good people doesn’t necessarily mean they do good things.”

“Did they do something that concerns you?”

She shook her head.  “Nothing that I could point to and say ‘that’s wrong’.  A lot of things I spend time agonizing and wondering about.”

“Try talking to them?  When there’s a chance.”

“The way they’re going, that’ll be in a few months.”

He smiled.

He’d been her, once.  Lost, anxious, fresh out of school with no idea of how to disengage from adolescence and commit to being an adult, still figuring out how to balance work in the labs with ensuring he was keeping the door open for professional growth, with family, keeping up with pop culture enough he didn’t end up alienated from friends, trying and failing to manage a love life, and the little things like keeping his apartment clean.

Like her, he’d dressed himself up like an adult, faked it, put on a mask.  He’d picked a few things to do well and let others flounder.  Maybe that had been a mistake.

The door opened.  They had guests, and these weren’t pen carriers or serving girls.  They were the closest thing Shin had to royalty.  Luis, the head of the Founders, who had been closest to Goddess, and Yosef from the Lone Sands or the Cold Sands, depending on the season.  With them were some of Shin’s parahumans.

Cryptid, a woman he thought he might have recognized from old files, and a man he didn’t recognize.

He stood from his seat, and Natalie Matteson followed suit.

He couldn’t help but pay attention to Cryptid.  The boy was halfway to being a man, but he had skipped puberty, applying the components of the adult man with broad and inconsistent strokes of the brush.  It made his frame seem uncanny and wrong, and the collar with cloth draping down from it obscured some details enough that Kamil had no idea if it hid the worse details or exaggerated the bad by hiding the good.

Ungainly, not lopsided but imbalanced.  Put together wrong.

Kamil knew he had a longstanding habit of finding parts of himself in others.  Empathy run amok, maybe.  When he was young he had alienated people, responding to every complaint and problem by relating to it.

He couldn’t help but relate to this uncanny boy with the mind and memories of an adult.  Memories of kidnapping people young and old, of various nationalities, disabled and able, subjecting them to brutal experiments, some of which had changed the permanently, in mind and body.  Had the man known as Lab Rat been a power in his era, in his area, then Kamil might have been haunted for the rest of his life by the fact that he hadn’t stopped him sooner.

He related because he felt uncomfortable in his own skin.  He was gangly without being tall, at five feet six inches, with a tendency to put on weight toward the stomach and hips.  He was cursed with a perpetually angry look that almost never matched his mood, a jaw that seemed set like he was spoiling for a fight, and a crooked nose.  His hairline was receding, and gray hair had coming in early, in locks and patches with no rhyme or reason to it.  If none of that was enough to prejudice people against him and force him into an uphill battle when it came to proving himself as an academic and leader, the fact that he was black might.

Me too, he thought, while looking at the boy who was put together so strangely, who seemed so lost in this strange world, as much as he tried to hide it.

He walked down the length of the long, empty room, Ms. Matteson following.  Cryptid and the other two parahumans remained where they were, even while the ambassadors made a show of meeting him halfway.  Luis shook his hand, grip warm, and smiled, while nothing warm was visible behind the eyes.

Yosef’s grip was harder, no smile crossed his lined face.

Luis leaned closer to ask, “You were looked after?”

“Very well, thank you,” Kamil answered.

“Our apologies for the wait.  We had other business to attend to,” The steel didn’t leave Luis’s eyes.

“I understand very well.”

He was led to the door.  Seeing Ms. Matteson’s reticence, he put a hand on her shoulder to support her, leading her past the parahumans.

“We’ll be guarding you,” Cryptid said, his voice strangely low, even considering his pseudo-adult frame.  “As you’ll be entering a prison with dangerous parahumans within.”

“They aren’t dangerous, Chris,” Natalie said.

“The law of this land would disagree with you,” Cryptid said.  “My own experience and observations, even.  You get our protection, and we keep the peace while we’re there.”

“Very well,” Kamil said, giving Ms. Matteson a look.  “I welcome whatever measures you think are sensible.”

The woman with the tattoos of ‘Crock’ and ‘Shit’ on her face smiled, showing him teeth that had been narrowed to points.

“Don’t fib,” she told him.  “You don’t welcome it at all.  You’re concerned.”

He knew who she was, now, he was fairly certain.

Someone he couldn’t empathize with, even if he’d wanted to.  She was too far gone.

Years of experience leading a PRT department had conditioned him to want to jump to action in a crisis.  Had Shin wanted to twist his arm and get a certain result out of him, they could have done just this – set off alarms, deploy men with guns to a crisis with parahumans allegedly involved, and make him sit, make him wait.

He paced, while the woman who Cryptid had called Crock o’Shit remained still, watching him and Natalie.

Cryptid had raced off, leaving them confined here.  ‘Somewhere safe’.

Crock of shit indeed.

The men with guns in the room were more likely to use those guns on him or Natalie than they were to use the guns on any parahumans or rioting prisoners.

Coalbelcher and Cryptid were gone, leaving only the one.

All because of a riot, apparently the second incident in a matter of hours that they were blaming Breakthrough for.

He worried, and he couldn’t let on that he worried.

Yosef was the authority here.  He leaned across the table and spoke, unsmiling.

“Mr. Armstrong,” the translator offered.  “A question.”

“Yes?”

Yosef asked.  The translator translated, “M and S protocols.  What are they?”

There were very few things that an ex-PRT director wanted to hear less.  Youth Guard, that was a bad one, it promised headaches every week for potential years.  But Master Stranger protocols?  It demanded paranoia.

“I’d need to know the context,” he answered.

After explaining the back and forth, the translator elaborated, “The parahuman Antares was going to go see her friend, Tress.  She made an offhand remark and said you could explain it for Yosef.”

“I’m not sure what to say.”

“He knows,” Crock o’Shit said.

The Translator’s single word followed her statement.  Yosef’s expression didn’t change a hair.

There were lie detectors who worked through the letter of the law, and there were lie detectors who worked by the spirit of it.  She was the latter.  That made this harder.

Natalie Matteson clutched her hands together in her lap.

A stone room, twelve guards, one parahuman, a world leader and his translator, and a riot going on outside.

“It’s confidential,” Kamil told Yosef.

“Partially true,” Crock o’Shit said.

Yosef’s words were a rumble.

“This doesn’t endear us to you, Armstrong,” the translator said.  “It comes across as subversive, a message passed from her to you.”

“If it was a message it wouldn’t be one that makes me look bad when I tell you I can’t answer.”

Yosef’s gaze went to Crock o’Shit.

“True,” the tattooed woman said.

Yosef didn’t wait for the translation of that, going straight to his response.

“I don’t want to hear any more coded phrases, Armstrong,” the Translator told Kamil.  “Confidential or otherwise.  You will be escorted from the prison and sent back, and any parahumans engaging in it will be punished.”

“Understood.”  No choice but to play along.  It had been a trap, no right answer.

But why had it come up in the first place?

Yosef said something, almost under his breath.

“You worked with the parahumans for a long time,” the translator offered.

“I did.  I work with the police now, counseling them, and I do some research into powers.”

Yosef’s response was dark and suppressed enough anger that there wasn’t much need to get the translation.  “What a shame that we can’t trust you now, Mr. Armstrong.”

Kamil kept his composure.  This, at least, was another thing he’d had to learn.  Weathering the pressures of government authorities, of media, of the public.

Holding true to what he believed and knew.  That the capes were good.  They wanted a better world, whether for themselves or for everyone, but they often struggled to find the way there.

Hearing an allusion to Master Stranger protocols made him paranoid, but that paranoia was largely reserved for specific people, for anyone he felt intensely about, as enemy or ally.

His phone buzzed in his coat pocket.

A call?  A text?

He drew his phone from his coat, looking down at the glowing screen.  His heart started racing.  His phone had been on airplane mode.

Yosef barked a question.

“A phone call?” the translator asked, looking just about as alarmed as Kamil felt.

“Not a call,” Kamil said, looking down at the screen.

You’re in danger.  Escape.  Crock o’Shit will attack.

“Partial truth,” Crock o’Shit said, making a hand motion.

Yosef had a question.

“A signal?” the translator asked.  Yosef barked a single word in another language, and this one wasn’t translated for Kamil and Natalie’s benefit.  Guards by the door lowered guns, pointing them at Kamil.  Natalie shrieked, scooting back, and one gun followed her.

Kamil, slowly put the phone down on the table, before lifting his hands.

Yosef picked up the device, then handed it to the translator.

Yosef was tense, back rigid, as he looked over the translators shoulder.

They’re so scared.  Gold Morning caught us by surprise, but it came and went quickly.  They effectively lost their world to a parahuman takeover and endured it for years.

“Medication.”

Medication.

Ashley and Sveta both knew he took medication at mealtimes.  Had they-?

To be safe, Kamil clapped his hand to his chest twice, looking at Yosef.

One word, barked.

“What medication?” the translator asked.

Forcing his hand.

“Nitroglycerin.  For my heart.”

Crock o’Shit nodded when Yosef looked at her.

Yosef put the phone down.  Kamil could read it upside-down.  The screen had changed to an alarm telling him to take his nitroglycerin for his heart.

“You looked scared,” the translator stated, following Yosef’s response.  The man was growling more than he was speaking now, his words a mumble, like being audible and clear for Kamil and Natalie wasn’t even a consideration anymore, that he was that angry.

“I was almost positive I turned my phone off.  I clearly agitated all of you.”

“Partially true,” Crock o’Shit said.

The translator echoed both statements, then listened while Yosef responded.

“I’m losing my patience,” the translator said, while Yosef stared down Kamil.  “I don’t trust you.”

“I’m sorry that’s the case,” Kamil answered.

Yosef asked a guard a question.

The guard, in turn, opened the door, asking someone outside.

“Yes,” was the one word, accented response, in English.

Another question.

“All of them are accounted for.  They’re in the plaza.”

Yosef spoke, not as much of a growl now, but the look in his eyes was all steel and darkness, his face even more humorless than before.

“Let’s get this over with,” the Translator said.  “You’ll go to Sveta Karelia’s cell to talk with her and wait while we organize the others.  This will free our guards to manage the other parahumans.”

How to get out of this?  He picked up his phone, and the screen changed as soon as it wasn’t facing anyone else.

A button to press if he needed help.  If there was anything else, he didn’t see it.  He couldn’t study his phone for too long without drawing attention.

“Crock o’Shit will escort you.”

Did he hit the button now?  There was a reason they hadn’t just come to help and had left it an option.  It was dangerous if they helped.  Costly.

But the alternative was that he was ‘escorted’ by Crock o’Shit and they killed him?

He approached Yosef, and shook the man’s hand.  “It was good to meet you.”

“I wish I could say the same,” the translator conveyed Yosef’s response.

“I really do believe that with our help, you could implement something like our PRT.  Adapt, assimilate, condition, and use the institution as a bridge between parahuman and human.”

The translator motioned for him to slow down.

He didn’t wait for the translator to completely finish before starting again, “You have a prime opportunity here, infrastructure already in place, and so much research.  We could each share the best parts of our cultures with one another.”

Yosef shook his head.

Kamil pressed, trying to channel all of the enthusiasm and fervor that he’d had as a young scientist into a certain kind of energy.  Irrepressible, the geek that believed everyone was as interested in his favorite subject as he was.  Relentless.

Yosef tried to interrupt, and he pressed on.  “The textile bridge, the sharing of knowledge, security, it’s the start of something, and I’m really excited about that.”

“Lie,” Crock o’Shit cut in.

Kamil stopped.  The smile dropped from his face.

“Words backed only by desperate fear, not truth,” Crock o’Shit said.

“What do I do?” Natalie asked.

“You stay,” Kamil said.  To the rest of the room, he said, “You keep her safe.  Whatever happens in… in this riot, you keep her here and safe.”

Yosef responded.  Translated, “We have no grudge with her.  We have no grudge with you.”

What were the options?

Crock o’Shit stepped forward, arm out.  She was of a height with Kamil, but stronger, her arms muscled and past what looked like three layers of fishnet sleeves, they looked covered in scale tattoos.

No phone, no weapon, and a dangerous parahuman walking him to his execution.

Yosef said something in his tongue, brief.  There were nods from guards and the translator.  Kamil could imagine what it was, knowing the deeper context.

This was an unsanctioned execution.  Yosef would be saying something like how he was never here.

Crock o’Shit escorted him from the cell.  Into a prison hallway, past prisoners who kept their heads down and gave Crock o’Shit a wary look.

“You were Fidelis, weren’t you?” he asked.

“Was.”

“I would have liked to study your problem.”

“You’re telling the truth, but I’m not your guinea pig.”

“I know.”

He had related to Ashley Stillons, back in the day, by thinking of his own upbringing, the hard road to get out and away, the desperation.  He had related to Weld by tapping into a part of himself that wanted to do good, by tapping into the boy inside of himself.

Every negative thought and feeling was a building block, a tool or a lens through which he could interpret and study the people around him who struggled.

And he was now in the custody of Crock o’Shit.  Fidelis.  A heroine who had abandoned or lost everything good about herself.  She had gone after a crime boss as a hero, lost her heroism along the way.  By the end of that particular journey, she found him, ate a third of him, starting at the genitals and ending at the throat, and then left the mangled body on the floor for the first twenty-four hours she conducted business thereafter, taking over his position.

She had been arrested a few years after, then went to the Birdcage, which was probably the worst place for her.  Placed under Black Kaze, if he remembered right.

The worst place for her.  Any prisoner picked up bad traits and habits, defensiveness and a loss of faith in the system from their time inside.  She was particularly vulnerable, with the way she absorbed dishonesty and ugliness, making it manifest in the form she wore.

He felt for his phone in his pocket, and he wanted to find an excuse to reach out.  Instead, he could only hope it worked when he needed it to, if he had a free moment.

And there were no guarantees.

“What are you getting out of this?”

“Out of what?  Walking you to a prison cell?”

He looked back over his shoulder at her, and saw her smile, toothy.

“Working under a boy pretending to be an adult and a healer.  Living in a strange world.  Doing menial errands.”

“They let me eat the leftovers when they fuck up a healing or experiment.”

“Leftovers?  They-”

“A joke,” she said, with no humor.  “They experiment on dolls.  Brainless human bodies made to supply organs and tissue.  I’m their dog, drooling and wagging its shitty tail, eating off the floor when they make a mess.”

“Why refer to yourself like that?”

“Because I don’t care,” she told him.  “I have servants and drugs, booze…”

“That’s not a life.”

“It’s my life,” she retorted.

“Aren’t you better than that?  You had status as a Protectorate hero.  People fought to have you on their teams.  Watchdog wanted you.”

“Status isn’t important to me.”

“Crock o’Shit.  Fidelis-”

“You sound desperate,” she told him, laying a hand on his shoulder.  When he looked, he could see the fingers were wider apart and longer than they should be, the knuckles pronounced.  She leaned in close, whispering, “I know why.  They tipped you off.  It doesn’t matter.”

They reached an intersection as she finished talking, and she gave him a shove on one shoulder.

There were PRT directors who came from the army.  There were ones who came from the FBI.  Some were ex-CIA, others politicians, and still others graduated from squaddie to captain and kept gaining ranks until they ran a department.

Some of those, many of those, they could have fended for themselves here, found a way to get a gun and use it.

His eye fell on her hand.

Changer.  They tended to trigger from crises of identity.  Once triggered, those crises tended to stick with them.  They were, in PRT parlance, very hard to hold onto, beause they were most likely to leave and try to go another route.  Movers tended to change departments often, Blasters, Strikers and Brutes tended to bear heavier weights of post-traumatic stress.  But Changer-

If there was something about her he could get at, figure out, or use to avert this march to execution, it was her identity.

And he couldn’t even begin to fathom the puzzle of a woman who was force-marching him forward.

The claw at his left shoulder tightened as they reached a door.

“Here’s good,” she said.

She was supposed to take him to Sveta.  She took him to an empty chamber instead.

“You were military,” he said, talking despite the fear that gripped him.  He stepped forward, but she stood in the doorway.

She was taller, her face slumping down at one side, so the lower row of sharp teeth were perpetually visible.  One of her arms was longer than the other, twisted up like a braid.  The same arm that had been resting a hand on his shoulder.  The tattoo with the corps motto on it was stretched out and distorted.

“Marine,” she said, with slurred speech.

“What happened out there?” he asked.  “Where did Fidelis come from?”

“Fidelis came and went a long time ago,” she said.  “You can’t talk your way out of this.”

“I’m only partially trying to talk my way out of this.  Part of it is that I hate unanswered questions and unfinished stories.  I want to know the full story behind what kills me.”

“You’re telling the truth,” she said.  She smirked, leering.  her face was stretching out, long.  “Not knowing is going to be the least agonizing part of this.  I can’t eat you, that’s too obviously me, but I can break you.  If I break every last one of your ribs and pelvis, how long does it take you to die?”

“This isn’t you.”

She snickered.  “Can’t breathe so easy without your ribs.  Can’t move your arms, can’t move your legs.  Do you stop breathing?  Do you drown in your fluids?  Do you go into shock?  You’re a doctor type.  Don’t you know?”

“No,” he said.

She was a changer.  Her change was tied to prerequisites, and prerequisites were commonly tied to specific kinds of trigger event.  There was the theory that it was drugs and altered mental states that did it, that there was something small but ‘Breaker’ in the trigger that added a bigger on-off switch or component, tied to something external.  Lung in Brockton Bay had been in his files as an example.

Another theory was that it was failure that did it.  The rise, the fall, the deed… all in a trigger that tied into a power that had a higher barrier of entry.

For Crock o’Shit, that barrier of entry was lies, it empowered her other form, in a reaching way.

Except… she didn’t need lies to change.  She could change either way.  The lies were… background.

“What happened out there?  You joined the Marines, you had a natural sense of justice, you tried to do something or right a wrong?”

She’d changed more over time, darkness seeping in.

“Was there corruption?” he asked.

“Boys and girls, using their access and station in various ports to ship drugs back home to Lousiana,” she said, her voice taking on a monstrous note. “They don’t check naval vessels like they check other shipments from overseas.”

Her braided-together tangle of a body was only barely human in silhouette now.  Branching, forking limbs formed a webwork between one arm and one leg, bristling with claws.  The overall form was more like something between a naked mole rat and a bat without wings, with skin like callus, only resembling scale when it was pebbly and not a sheet of the stuff.  The tattoos stood out and multiplied as the skin did, casting whole areas of her in blue-green.

There was more to it, he saw.  Folds and flaps parted as she breathed or moved one way or the other, and he saw hidden teeth or limbs, buried within.

Nothing at all like a crocodile, tattoos aside.

“You tried to stop them?” he asked, holding his composure.

“I was them.  I was one of the ones in charge.  I shipped drugs and people back home cut it wrong and killed friends of friends of mine,” she said.  “There was an investigation.  I worried every second of every day that my life was ruined, until I got powers from how it tore me up inside.  I was the one they would finger as the boss, the top dog.  And it was all for nothing.”

“Nothing?” he asked.  Top dog… is that a component to why she grows?

“They swept it under the rug.  I turned over a new leaf,” she said, and she sneered in a way that made him unsure if she was joking or if her face was just transforming that much.  Her words were less intelligible now.  “But others didn’t forget or sweep it away.  They blamed me for us getting caught, want money.  So I dealt with ‘m.”

“What you’re doing now, you’re just repeating those mistakes.”

“What I do now is what I’m good at,” she said.  “I break you.  I drag it out as long as I can.  Director Armstrong.”

She made his name and old title an epithet.

“No you don’t,” he said.  He pulled the phone from his pocket.  He held it out.  “You’ve been recorded.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Crock drawled the words.  She started forward.  “I destroy the phone.”

“It’s being broadcast,” he said.  He turned it around, checked- and surprised himself, because there was footage and there were clips that… weren’t from his phone.

Breakthrough.  They’d recorded things, but they couldn’t say they’d recorded it, or it would damn them.  It would be use of parahuman powers while they were in prison, a violation of rules that had been established.

But him?  He was safe.  He could be a spy, and while that wasn’t great from a diplomacy perspective…

Well, neither was cornering him in a holding cell with a monster and setting him up to die.  Whatever their purpose was.

“It’s being transmitted,” he said, still looking at the screen.

“Not possible.”

“You know I’m not lying.”

Crock o’Shit twisted around, hauling the door open.  She started to go, or to lean out, and then reconsidered.

Twisting around, she grabbed him, picking him up like a child might pick up a doll.  He grabbed her ‘forearm’ for stability, and found it alternately too hard and too soft, depending on where he gripped.  He wasn’t sure which was worse for the situation.

He was carried bodily, held up so high that his feet dangled above the heads of prisoners who ran for cover.

“Crock,” he grunted.

“Shut up.”

“You admitted to a lot.  Dangerous admissions.”

“Shut up.”

Her claw tightened around him.

Breakthrough was waiting, close to the door that led from the secured hallways around the prison into the prison proper.  The group had assembled.  Cryptid and Coalbelcher stood by.

“They have something.  A tinkered transmitter.”

“No they don’t,” Cryptid said.

Crock o’Shit huffed for breath.  She slurred the words, “What the hell?”

“They have only the faintest scent of electronics on them,” Cryptid said.  “If they had anything, it’s gone now.”

Kamil had learned to read Ashley since getting to know her, too late to save her, but early enough to support her.  He could see the posture, the shift in footing, the way she rolled her fingertips into place as she folded her arms, pinky landing first, index finger last.

The evidence would be annihilated, as would, he presumed, anything tying them to the riot.

Crock o’Shit turned, storming away.

“Where is she going?” Antares asked.  “Stop her.”

“Why?” Cryptid asked.  But he raised his voice.  “Don’t do anything stupid, Crock.”

Crock only growled.

Kamil had figured her out, if only to a small degree.  That she had committed a wrong, once, and somewhere along the line, because she hadn’t dealt with it, it had festered.

“I’m going,” Swansong said.

“No.”

“If you want to get in my way, do it at your own risk, Cryptid.  She’s going to do something.”

“You’re pretending I care.  We rule a continent, you’re prisoners.  Guess who gets a say?”

“There’s too much at stake,” Antares said.

“Chris!” Lookout’s voice was higher.  “Don’t be a shit, you’re-”

And then they were out of earshot, the latter part of the sentence unfinished.

The path they traveled was a reverse one.  Back to the single cell, where she was supposed to kill him.

The charade was over, and she didn’t even seem to care.  She’d been seen.  There would be witnesses.  A cover-up was so much harder to manage.  Impossible, even, because there were other cameras or devices tracking all of this, and now she knew.

And she was still going to kill him.

And Breakthrough wasn’t following, wasn’t taking action.

She had to work to shoulder her way through the door, and doors in the prison were larger than doors back home.  Once free to stand tall, she tossed him.  He was airborne for two heart stopping seconds before he crashed into floor and bars at roughly the same moment.  The bars separated the last two thirds of the room from the front third, and there was no way through, no way to hide on the other side while the enraged changer dealt with him.

“If you do this,” he said, grunting as pain from the fall set in.  “Everyone loses.  If you don’t… you go back to the life you were living.”

She flexed one braid of an arm, and a lunging, eyeless maw, the closest thing to ‘crocodile’ about her, reached out in his direction.

It stopped, pulling short.

Ribbons and bands of flesh encircled part of the limb.  More encircled part of her head.

Sveta.  She had appeared through a closed door, or she’d been in the room all this time.

No, she was still slipping in under the door, more of her, more flat, razor-edged tendrils, that bound up Crock o’Shit.

The changer lunged, charging forward blindly, to bludgeon him to death.  He scrambled out of the way.

She crashed into bars with enough force to bend them.

More of her body unfolded, arcing overhead, set to crash down on top of him and on either side of him.  He hurried to cover.  A tendril gripped him, helping him slip past.

More of her opened up, until everything humanoid was gone.  Her body was a pod, an installation that the changer mutations reached from.  All ugly, all monstrous, eyeless, earless, fangs and teeth.

All ugliness she’d absorbed.

“Stop!” he shouted.  “Fidelis!  You’re better than this!”

But she wasn’t.

What followed was so frantic he couldn’t process it all.  Lunging bites that he only avoided because he dodged them or because he was pulled out of the way.

Croc uttered a single word, drawn out as a roar, guttural.  He could guess it was ‘Director’.

An anger, seated so long it had eaten her up inside.  A betrayal or great wrong done to her, that she’d never recovered from, or that she’d manufactured to keep her identity intact.

Sveta hurled him, violently enough it hurt when he landed.

He realized it late: every move she’d made, every push she’d given him, it had been to drive him toward one corner, as far from the door as possible.  With the throw, she’d placed him next to the door.

A tendril opened it before his hand reached it, and he escaped to the hallway, bleeding in two places, bruised in a way that would hurt for a week, but alive.

Guards came running, now.  The commotion earlier was too hard to justify ignoring.

They checked on him, and they looked in on the scene.

Crock o’Shit roared at them.

They dragged him by the arm, and they opened the door two cells over.

Sveta, stooped over the drain with water running out of the hose, drenching herself.

“Oh,” she said, covering herself up with a towel.  “Mr. Armstrong!”

She didn’t quite cover up the three wounds she’d sustained, all a funny shape, but the guards weren’t looking hard enough to notice, it seemed.  They were preoccupied, more than a little scared.

It was over.  The charade broken.  If they’d been looking to make parahumans look unruly by using tamed Shin parahumans to force the hand of foreign Gimel ones, that was over with.

If Yosef had indeed wanted this to be discreet, it wouldn’t be.  The answers would come out.  Answers had a way of doing just that.  Crock had triggered from just that very reason.  Even now, guards were looking to make sense of the situation, investigating.

“I was getting ready to leave, thought I’d rinse off,” Sveta said, getting dressed behind the divider by the shower stall.

The shower.  The drains.  She had slipped through, crossing over to the cell with the most commotion.

Control like she’d never had.  A light of heroism and pride in herself that shone in her eyes, that she’d been chasing for so long.

Maybe the difference between himself and Ms. Natalie Matteson was that she hadn’t had the chance to see this light yet – only the darkness.

Dressed, Sveta crossed the room, wrapping him in the tightest of hugs.

“Let’s get you all out of here,” he told her.  “Everyone’s waiting.”

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127 thoughts on “Breaking – 14.z”

  1. So, Sveta saved Kamil Armstrong from being ripped in pieces by the Female Crawler? Did I got it right? Armstrong will remain grateful to Sveta forever. I love their relationship, they’re like father and daughter.

    And FUCK YOU Yosef, not only that he proved to be a bigger monster than people he hates so much, but also his plan FAILED, Breakthrough have a clear win this time and Shin will get to see his ugly and monstrous face. No way they’ll forgive him for almost dragging them into a destructive war.

  2. Now… Let’s see how this leads to something that blows up in the protagonists faces ;P

    But until then; Yay! Victory for the people I care about! 😀

    1. Things worked out, and the good man didn’t die. I’m scared too. I think Natalie was kinda reflecting how a lot of us readers were feeling.

      What’s next, we find out that the Wardens did beat Teacher, even though it was hard fought, and gained valuable information?

  3. Yes! Kamil Armstrong is a fucking badass dad to his children Sveta, Weld and Ashley.

    I’m so glad that he survived this shit. Natalie only sees the bleakness, but our main man Kamil sees the good. I’m now a part of the Kamil Armstrong Protection Squad.

    Enlist today!

  4. Typo thread!
    some of which had changed the permanently

    Should be changed *them* permanently

  5. I absolutely love Armstrong, he’d fit right in with the fandom. Fascinated by powers but also able to understand that powers are more than anything a metaphor for the person underneath them. Plus, a great dad.

    1. At first, it was the orders.
      And then he kept pissing her off with questions about Fidelis and appeals to Fidelis and it’s pretty clear she’s so far removed from who she was as Fidelis that she probably doesn’t even think of herself as her, or having ever been her.

      Kind of like asking Vanilla Green Hulk about Doctor Banner’s research.

      1. A changer triggers off of identity issues. Appealing to an identity she abandoned? Holy shit that’s got to be all kinds of berzerk button for most of them.

  6. I love how virtually everything fanon made up to fill the Director Armstrong-shaped hole in Worm canon has been shattered by this chapter. A power researcher risen through the ranks. Short, rotund, black, only starting to go grey-haired. Single but a proud father to three unique young parahumans.

    Also, curious rebalancing of Crock’s karma ledger: she got a raw deal with her power, but her trigger was a result of her own sins. (In a way, very reminiscent of Lung’s even beyond the drug connection)

    Loving most everything about this chapter.

    1. It’s so glorious, I love how WB completely upended my mental image of Armstrong but at the same time made me care so much more about his fate. I don’t think I’ve ever been this tense reading a Ward chapter, it reminded me of reading the Leviathan fight for the first tine.

  7. Typo thread.

    > “I have father, mother, urm, father I carry pen for.”

    There are four spaces before this sentence.

    some of which had changed the permanently, > some of which had changed them permanently,

    “Let’s get this over with,” the Translator said. > “Let’s get this over with,” the translator said.

    her face was stretching out, long. > Her face was stretching out, long.

    Names of most power categories in the chapter are consistently capitalized, but ‘changer’ isn’t.

    > They blamed me for us getting caught, want money.

    Perhaps “wanted money”?

    1. > the Translator told Kamil.
      > The Translator’s single word followed her statement.

      ‘Translator’ shouldn’t be capitalized in either of these sentences.

    2. said, “Is > said, “is
      harder, no > harder; no
      translators shoulder > translator’s shoulder
      lies, it > lies. It
      Lousiana > Louisiana

    3. “Joke on them.”
      >Joke’s on them
      That is, unless Bet/Gimel developped a different idiom, or Armstrong thinks weird, kinda out of character.

    4. > “They were, in PRT parlance, very hard to hold onto, beause they were most likely to leave and try to go another route.”
      “because”

    5. Regarding my earlier report about inconsistent spelling of word ‘changer’ – here is the sentence in which other names of power categories appear in this chapter in case they need to be de-capitalized (and I think that they probably do, since if I remember correctly in most if not all chapters of Worm and Ward their names don’t begin with uppercase letters):

      > Movers tended to change departments often, Blasters, Strikers and Brutes tended to bear heavier weights of post-traumatic stress.

  8. That was awesome. We’ve heard about Armstrong, and maybe gotten a few lines of dialogue from him, but mostly he’d been built up by hearsay. Once I realized it was him, part of me was worried about whether he’d live up to the hype.

    He did. And he even got to live, too! And Sveta got to be the Big Damn Hero!

  9. Man, Kamil is fucking great.No wonder almost anyone he meets loves him. I’m glad Ward now has its big black papa bear to care for our loveable gang of misfits.

  10. Sveta crawled through a drain, beat the shit out of an ex-marine ex-PRT changer while keeping a Armstrong alive in a confined space, manoeuvred him around the room and out the door, then crawled back through the drain and pretended to be bathing before guards could arrive to check on her.

    I knew she was awesome but Jesus. You do not fuck with Sveta’s dad.

    1. Basically for the first time ever, Sveta’s power is acting like it always should have been if it hadn’t been a crippled messed up cauldron vial shard.

  11. I think I’ll quote the Doctor.

    “Just this once Rose… Just this once everyone lives!”

  12. Natalie wants to be a witness to Breakthrough’s story, so that she can tell it to the public once it is done. Does it mean that Ward is an apocryph written by her?

  13. Breakthrough was waiting, close to the door that led from the secured hallways around the prison into the prison proper. The group had assembled. Cryptid and Coalbelcher stood by.

    No mention of Vista or Golem. Does it mean they weren’t there, or did Armstrong just mentally classified them as temporary members of Breakthrough?

    Actually V and G weren’t mentioned in this interlude even once.

    1. Good catch. I didn’t see anything mentioning tristan/byron either, other then “tell group had assembled” I wonder if they are there too.

      1. I think that it is safe to assume that Capricorn was there. They belong to Breakthrough, and Armstrong should know it. The problem is that even in his internal monologue he didn’t mention V and G even once, and he should know that they are supposed to be there despite belonging to another team, and pay more attention to them.

  14. “Every negative thought and feeling was a building block, a tool or a lens through which he could interpret and study the people around him who struggled.”

    So this is Director Armstrong.

    Great Interlude.

      1. Maybe it was the wy Taylor would sacrifice everything for her adopted family of the Undersiders,and the wy she changed her own perspectives to better undetstand them.

  15. What’s with Chris?

    Hard to believe he was unaware of the assassination attempt in advance, after this chapter, and yet….

    He’s going out of his way to assist Breakthrough, when he doesn’t need to, all while loudly proclaiming how little they mean to him but also he’s been saving zingers to throw at him.

      1. I’m not sure Chris has love in his vocabulary.
        He’s an innately helpful person, though.
        He likes solving problems, and Breakthrough’s a problem.

        1. > “I’m not sure Chris has love in his vocabulary.”
          Therein lies the problem- he doesn’t.

          That doesn’t stop him from feeling it, and trying to push it away in fear.

  16. I absolutely love the process Armstrong goes through to analyze Crock. The differences between parahumans, the reverse engineering of her power to her trigger event, even what to say to have the best chance at getting to her. It’s all so cool!!!

  17. Yay! This is very good.

    “Croc uttered a single word”
    Ohhhhh. Croc! Wow I’m dumb for not seeing the pun before.

  18. Glad this is the end of the Shin politics storyline. This was arguably the most hamfisted plotline Wilbow’s made in Ward yet, with Shin acting so monumentally stupid to court war with Gimel, and getting away with it by having Gimel be even more stupid with their priorities and decisions.

    I know Wilbow consistently has the majority of decision makers and authority figures be obstructive and incompetent compared to the protaganist group, but there really comes a point where one has to ask ‘Why should they even live if they really are just that dumb?’

    We’ve reached that question with Gimel. Even just from an evolutionary standpoint, those who adapt survive, and Gimel’s answer as revealed in this section appears to be ‘we refuse to adapt.’ So why should a group of underage heroes be the ones to bail them from the deserved consequences?

    1. “Glad this is the end of the Shin politics storyline. This was arguably the most hamfisted plotline Wilbow’s made in Ward yet, with Shin acting so monumentally stupid to court war with Gimel, and getting away with it by having Gimel be even more stupid with their priorities and decisions.”

      Wow. Disagree.

      Was Shin stupid? They were clearly following the logical needs of local politics. Is it stupid for leaders to cater to the strongest feelings and beliefs of their people when they demand action? Quite the reverse, sometimes! Leaders who ignore that soon cease to be leaders, in any system.

      But Shin was not trying to court war; the text has been clear that this was happening *because* Gimel *can’t* afford a war. Shin has leverage now, that they may lose if they don’t use it; Gimel literally can’t wage imperialist war on Shin right now, and that would certainly be a possibility for the future if Shin doesn’t assert and maintain a strong position when it has the chance. It’s not the most wise thing ever, I agree, but it’s incorrect to say they are seeking war when the text overwhelmingly contradicts that.

      “I know Wilbow consistently has the majority of decision makers and authority figures be obstructive and incompetent compared to the protaganist group, but there really comes a point where one has to ask ‘Why should they even live if they really are just that dumb?’”

      Dude. It looks like you read an unreliable narrator’s political rants, then went and internalized her self-justifications and inability to empathize with authority figures. That’s not the reality of the setting. That’s a symptom of 1.5 million words spoken by Taylor, a girl pathologically unable to be charitable about power unless it was in her hands.

      I really ought to hear out what you “know,” but man oh man do I disagree: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

      What *I* have seen Wilbo do is consistently put the majority of decision makers and authority figures inside oppressive systems and circumstances that hamstring their ability to act freely, while also painting them as flawed reflections of the protagonists themselves. Reasonable caution, politics, communication issues, democratic morality, checks and balances… sure. Stupidity? Less so.

      If they look bad compared to the protagonist group, it’s for one of two reasons: Because the latter is free to operate *outside* of those systems, making only their own mistakes. And because the protagonists are biased and better able to see their own justifications and logic than those of others (oh, Taylor). Both was overwhelmingly the case in Worm. How many problems in these parahuman worlds start with some broken system letting people slip through the cracks despite the best efforts of ~competent people trying to do ~good? Taylor and Kenzie are a couple of the more blatant examples.

      “We’ve reached that question with Gimel. Even just from an evolutionary standpoint, those who adapt survive, and Gimel’s answer as revealed in this section appears to be ‘we refuse to adapt.’ So why should a group of underage heroes be the ones to bail them from the deserved consequences?”

      But alright, what is it that you perceive as being this dumb? Could you lay it out for us? I can see things different groups are doing wrong (IMO), but I’m not sure what you see that you have such strong feelings about. Share?

    2. My issue with Shin storyline were the stakes – supplies to Gimel. I don’t care about Gimel, people there exist in abstraction. They don’t do much in terms of story, apart from motivating heroes or making their lives difficult due to PR issues. It might be because in Worm Brockton Bay mattered, that I have unreasonable expectations.

  19. Something that occurred to me when I thought about something that was said near the end of Amy’s and Victoria’s talk in chapter 14.10.

    “No one has ever been treated as unfairly as I was! Nobody understands my pain! Even my own sister threatened to abandon me on alternate Earth with no way out of it, or to put a bullet in my head!” Amy cried.

    “Well, actually…” Taylor responded.

    1. Back in my day, we’d get double-tapped and sent to Earth Aleph without a dollar to our name. And we liked it !

      1. “Back in your day? Am I not older than you are?” asked Amy. “I’m also quite certain that I triggered a few years before you did.”

    2. *Similtainiously Canary Coughs politely in the background, giving Taylor an understanding you-first gesture*

  20. Lung is a case study in Changers? With all this focus on identity crises?

    Ohhhhh.

    The long game continuity in these works is insane. The mixed Chinese/Japanese guy who turns into a creature resembling a symbol used across East Asia. And breaks up gangs tied to Asian nations to make a pan-Asian gang. And recruits only mixed-race parahumans to join. Is a Changer. Of course he is!

    The guy’s identity issues aren’t some quirk; they’re probably the reason his shard chose him.

    1. I think that there’s is one other important Changer to consider in this story.

      Chris.

      Technically he might have only pretended to be a Changer, but:
      1. Constantly changing has been his answer to his own identity crisis caused by the fact that he doesn’t want to accept Lab Rat’s memories as his own (unlike Swansong for example who often refers to original Ashley as “herself”),
      2. Remember that Victoria worried that the “comedy” Breakthrough has been playing for the Teacher could become all too real if the team went too far with it, and people forgot that all of this is supposed to be just act? I think that something similar might have happened to Chris – he has been pretending to be a Changer for so long that he started displaying personality traits typical for “real” Changers. After all it is probably difficult to not have an identity crisis if you not only don’t accept most of your memories as your own, but also keep changing both your physical appearance and mental, including emotional, state as often and as radically as Chris does.

      1. Of course there are certain differences between Chris and “real” Changers – they trigger with changer power because of pre-existing identity crisis, Chris decided to “pretend” to be a changer because his power came with identity crisis.

        To make things more complicated actually functioning as a Changer probably only made Chris’ identity crisis worse (though we could probably argue that Crock is a good example of a “real” Changer whose identity crisis has become worse because she kept changing).

        Generally I would say that while the cause-effect relationship is a bit different in Chris’ case than in case of “real” Changers, but the final effect is more or less the same – a person whose Changer power reinforces an identity crisis, while the crisis encourages them to keep useing their power.

        1. By the way, here’s an aspect of Chris’ identity crisis that I’m not sure if anyone has pointed out yet – while Victoria is right that Chris can’t escape being human or at least “having been human”, it also seems that he has no way to escape being a monster of some kind.

          Remember that Chris’ power wants to be used, and his tinker specialization is creating monsters. This means that he either keeps turning himself into a “monster” by dosing himself with his tech, or he uses his inventions on other people, which is a straight way to become a real monster in human body that Lab Rat was. Chris may be trying to work around this problem by using Shin’s supposedly “mindless” clones, but I don’t think that it is quite the way to stop being a monster either.

        2. I disagree that Chris doesn’t count as a “real” changer. Yes, it’s Tinker driven but Chris is definitely a changer. The PRT classifications are threat assessments and from that perspective Chris is a changer. You’ve already pointed out that his identity issues are similar to those you would expect from a changer, so from a trigger perspective he meets all the criteria for a Changer.

          1. Ok, maybe “real” wasn’t the best word to use here. What I meant is that with his power he didn’t necessarily have to be a changer. It wasn’t an inherent component of his power. The original Lab Rat, who had basically the same power was hardly a changer (unless you count the fact that he wore one of his “life saving” boxes during Gold Morning).

            It does however bring an interesting point about tinkers in general. Powers seem to evolve to not only match their hosts’ needs but also keep up with changes of those hosts’ personalities – possibly because it lets powers keep the hosts mentally off-balanced enough to keep fighting even if they somehow managed to get over the trauma that caused them to trigger. Barring things like second triggers those changes usually tend to be slow and subtle however.

            Tinker powers may be an exception from the “slow and subtle” rule – since with some time, resources, proper inspiration and occasional scans or access to other tinkers’ notes a tinker may replicate a very wide variety of power-like effects. This means that on one hand they may find ways to overcome plenty of outside obstacles, but at the same time by manipulating inspirations their hosts get shards that give tinker powers may make their hosts put themselves in variety of personal hells, each tailored to precisely reflect their current mental problems.

            Perhaps this is why Cryptid uses his power so differently from Lab Rat. Lab Rat didn’t have an identity problem Cryptid has, so his shard didn’t inspire him to keep changing himself the way Cryptid does? Maybe this flexibility of tinker powers also explains why tinkers don’t seem to suffer second triggers (or at least I don’t remember such case, unless we classify Dauntless as a very unusual tinker who suffered a very unusual second trigger)? Maybe tinkers simply don’t seem to need to suffer second triggers as much as other capes do, because their powers can both solve and cause a much wider variety of problems for their hosts than other powers can?

      2. Fair point. The classifications bleed into each other and overlap, after all. Isolated tinkers get Master focuses with drones or what have you. Tinkers who were in hostile environments end up Shakers in implementation.

        The original Lab Rat was consumed with an issue of identity (although focused almost as much on his sister’s identity as on his own) and sought to stop being human. These identity issues were only compounded in Chris, who was forced to alter himself into a person whose defining impulse was wanting to stop being themselves.

        So I think it is fair to take comments about CoS and assume many of them apply to Cryptid. Explains why Kenzie’s criticism hit him so hard, for sure. There’s no doubt a lot more there one could dig into.

        Wilbo and subtext, man.

  21. Hello everyone. Today, let’s have a small, family-fun* kinematics interlude !

    Kamil was five feet, six inches tall, fifty pounds overweight,
    (…)
    He was carried bodily, held up so high that his feet dangled above the heads of prisoners who ran for cover.
    (…)
    Once free to stand tall, she tossed him. He was airborne for two heart stopping seconds before he crashed into floor and bars at roughly the same moment.

    We’ll neglect the various small details that make everything terrible to calculate, as usual. We will also assume that Crock o’Shit is simply a strong Changer, and doesn’t have any trajectory-modifying or gravity-twisting powers to her name.

    Center of mass of a standing human is about halfway up, so let’s go for a rough starting height of 6.5+5.5/2 feet (=2.82m) relative to the ground. Crock’s launch into the cell gives him an airtime of 2 seconds (holy hell what come on), then Armstrong hits the ground and the bars on the other end at the same time (I’m supposing the crash-landing means he doesn’t land on his feet unfazed, but sprawling as a ragdoll – center of mass at +0.00).
    Gravity handles the vertical part of the trip – pulling down with a constant 9.8m/s² force, the only way to start at +2.82m and end at +0.00 two seconds later is to have Crock launch Armstrong with an upwards velocity of +8.4m/s, with an apex of +6.41m. Ok, since changed!Crock can stand tall in that cell, that’s actually not completely out there. Pretty damn roomy still.
    Horizontally it’s completely dependant on how long the cell is (then we divide by two, since Armstrong takes two seconds to reach there). We can also try to guess from the tossing angle. If we go for a clean 45°, the cell is 16.8m long. Thrice as long as it’s tall, why not. Note that typical US cells are 8-by-6 (sometimes 13-by-7) feet, with a 10′ (~3m) ceiling.
    Anyway, with that path Armstrong lands with a speed of ~14m/s (+8.4 horizontally, -11.2 vertically), the equivalent of landing from a 1.43s freefall from ~10m high. On concrete and steel bars. Ow. If we go for a 180-pounds Armstrong (~82kgs), that’s a clean 8kJ impact right there. Spine shattered and all sorts of fun trauma awaits.

    *: may or may not be fun for the whole family.

    tl;dr: Wildbow, please indicate hyperbole, reconsider the 2-seconds airtime, or send Armstrong to emergency services right away.

      1. This chapter being from Director Armstrong’s point of view, I assume he’s using Bet units, which happen to coincide with ours.
        But nice try.

        1. He is a scientist considering exchange of results of parahuman studies with Shin. I imagine that he could take some time to learn such basics as units of measurement used by them.

          1. He could and may very well have, but how many people think in foreign units of measurement while their life is in danger? One tends to go back to instinct under such circumstances.

          2. …And here I assumed that everyone understood that grinvader’s calculation was an elaborate joke about what happens when you take this particular hyperbole about “two seconds” literally, and I just played along…

    1. I would assume it FELT like multiple seconds from Armstrong’s perspective. Hang time always does, especially when it’s involuntary.

    2. It’s hilarious that you took two seconds as a scientific constant. That’s not how the human brain works folks.

      The hyperbole is already right there in the text as written.

      1. Clearly not as “right there” as you make it sound, since I’m not getting any hyperbolic vibe from the word choice (hence the tl;dr).

  22. Could the facts be twisted enough to say that Amy joined the Undersiders back in arc 14 of Worm, and never officially resigned or was kicked out of the team? Could be important considering that ‘get out of jail free’ card Tattletale got from Breakthrough in chapter 10.6 of Ward…

  23. “traumatized by the academia to the point of perpetual anxiety, wide eyed and fidgety, […]”
    Jeez, Wildbow. I didn’t consent to being talked about in the story!

    “She’s going through a breakup with grit teeth and she’s keeping up her day-to-day. A body doesn’t change that.”
    But, taking a source of negativity into something that makes you proud, happy or just fucking works like it should does make life a little easier.

    I find it amusing that Crock’s story did a full circle. She triggered, after a crime she shared responsibility in was covered up. Now, she ends up imprisoned, because of a “crime” others commited was covered up.

    Way to go <3 This was a wonderful chapter. I was genuinely thinking Armstrong was going to die. He seemed like the kind that would willingly throw his life away, before pressing the button.

    1. On sveta, Armstrong’s thoughts are in response to Natalie saying sveta has come far. He is judging her thinking that Natalie is only saying that because sveta has a new body.

  24. > “They have only the faintest scent of electronics on them,” Cryptid said. “If they had anything, it’s gone now.”

    Does it mean that Ashley’s hands contain no electronics?

    1. Ashley’s hands are tinker-built, they might have all kinds of craziness going on. It needs mechanics in order to move, and we don’t know how they are powered- her own body’s electric field, maybe? Would cut down on recharging- and they probably interface with her nerves somehow so she can move the fingers and possibly feel things as well (I can’t remember if that’s been confirmed or denied), so there might be electronics there. But we also don’t know what Cryptid’s sniffing out; could be he’s smelling not copper or something, but the plastic phone casing. In which case ‘electronics’ is a cover, and Ashley’s hands use a different plastic- or no plastic at all. Might also be he’s not ‘smelling’ anything, and is using a new magenetosense to detect electric fields, in which case Ashley’s hands would be covered by the one she generates as a living person.

      1. Remember that Chris said the bit about elections to Crock, who can detect not only outright lies, but also a wide range of other deception attempts, and makes no attempt to hide it (meaning that Chris should know about that aspect of her power). Crock would know that something was up, if for example Chris couldn’t actually smell elections, and it would probably not be in his best interest if Crock caught him doing something like that.

        1. She seems to absorb negativity and “monstrousness” in general, so it’s possible that her “lie detector” power is *always* going off around Chris, making it useless against him.

          1. If Crock’s power really doesn’t let her tell when Chris is lying, then perhaps Breakthrough decided to trust Chris, explained to him Yosef’s and Crock’s plan to kill Armstrong, and Cryptid agreed to help Breakthrough prevent it from happening by telling Crock that there is no transmitter despite Breakthrough still having all sorts of electronics on them?

            It would be interesting to see that Crock didn’t realize that Chris was lying to her despite the fact that she spent plenty of time in prison with Ashleys, so she should know that they have prosthetic hands, and because of it Ashley probably should “smell” with electronics. Could it be that Crock was fooled by combination of her strong emotions at the moment and the fact that she was so dependent on her power when someone was lying to her that she didn’t realize that what Chris said most likely couldn’t be true?

          2. I guess that over-dependence on thinker powers is a thing. It wouldn’t be a first time when we saw a thinker (and Crock’s ability to detect lies should be classified as thinker aspect of her power, shouldn’t it?) make a rather stupid decision or miss obvious things when someone finds a way to neutralize or work around their power without them realizing it…

          3. Perhaps Cauldron vials likely to give thinker powers should come with words “Warning! Drinking this thing may make you dumb.” written on them?

        2. I wouldn’t put it past Chris to lie to Crock’s face, though, would you? Look at how he’s just been acting. Deliberately antagonizing the lie-detector wouldn’t be out of character.

          We don’t know for sure that C-o-S is forced to announce deception when she notices it. And she does storm off ready to murder right after Chris speaks, after all.

        1. Why would a lie detector like Crock react the way she did if Chris outright lied to her then?

          1. If anyone can beat her lie-detection, it’s the Resident-Evil tinker guy who can customize his forms for, among other things, anti-master effects.

          2. Allow me to rephrase that: Why would the violent serial murderer who experiences an uncomfortable physical sensation whenever someone lies react to an outright lie from an ally by murdering the person the ally and her enemies do not want dead?

            Hrm….

          3. > Why would the violent serial murderer who experiences an uncomfortable physical sensation whenever someone lies react to an outright lie from an ally by murdering the person the ally and her enemies do not want dead?

            Because the first priority of that murderer should be removing the transmitter to at least prevent murder she was about to commit from being recorded. Then she would be free figure out how to murder Armstrong without anyone being able to link her to it.

            Sure, she might have admitted to committing plenty of crimes during her conversation with Armstrong, but those were covered by amnesty. She also ended up in prison that Goddess destroyed for committing crimes not covered by amnesty, but adding an undeniable murder on Shin – a word that basically protected her from Gimel’s justice wouldn’t exactly be a smart thing to do.

          4. @Alfaryn

            What? No. Not at all.

            Not only is this clearly not a cold, calculating, rational killer, but the transmitter doesn’t matter in the slightest. The recording of her openly preparing to murder the guy is already out. If the guy then dies, the transmitter is irrelevant; Crock clearly did it. There’s nothing to “figure out” here. Any murder of Armstrong would be linked to her. He could literally be struck by lightning, and Crock would be implicated.

            As for “wouldn’t exactly be a smart thing to do.” Yeah? What is it about this character, with her failed drug-running, cannibalism, tattoos, repeated imprisonment, and filed teeth do you read and think “This is a person who won’t make bad decisions?”

          5. If Breakthrough had some sort of elections on them there was a chance that the only thing Armstrong’s phone “broadcasted” his conversation with Crock to would be some sort of recording device in Breakthrough’s possession, in which case Crock could still destroy all proofs of her murder attempt.

            Even though Armstrong suggested that everything that was said was instantly transmitted to Gimel for example, Crock could still try to look for recording devices, because Armstrong obviously couldn’t be certain that what he suggested was true.

          6. > If Breakthrough had some sort of elections on them

            The word you’re looking for is of course electronics, but this isn’t a criticism. This is a thank-you, because I initially misread elections as erections. If you’d used the correct word, that wouldn’t have happened and I wouldn’t have gotten some needed laughter. 🙂

          7. Whoops, I obviously meant electronics.

            Well, it is not the first time I realized that I depend on the autocomplete function of my tablet way too much when I’m trying to type something quickly. One more bad habit to break…

      2. > Ashley’s hands are tinker-built, they might have all kinds of craziness going on.

        If it is true that tinker prosthetics can be built without electronics, then we may have o problem with this entire exchange:

        “They have something. A tinkered transmitter.”

        “No they don’t,” Cryptid said.

        Crock o’Shit huffed for breath. She slurred the words, “What the hell?”

        “They have only the faintest scent of electronics on them,” Cryptid said. “If they had anything, it’s gone now.”

        Who says that a “tinkered transmitter” can’t be built without electronics, if prosthetic hands can be. And if it is the case, then shouldn’t Chris know it, even if transmitters are outside of his speciality? And if he knew it could be done, then wouldn’t Crock’s power let her immediately realize that Chris was trying to deceive her by saying that Breakthrough has no transmitter, simply because they have no electronics on them?

    2. I wouldn’t read much into it. There’s no telling where Ashley might put her hands, so they need to be sealed well to protect them from contaminants. Essentially no smell from their internal components should be escaping. Plus since she used them recently, they may have been cleansed of any odors that had made it through to the outside. Anything he somehow picks up would easily fall under the “faintest scent of electronics” he mentions.

  25. – Director Armstrong. Not someone I ever gave a lot of thought but always assumed he was white. Cool.
    – started out a scientist, huh? That explains quite a bit
    – he has joined Yamada and Quinn Calle in the rarified ranks of normals who are just so freaking awesome at their jobs
    – also has joined Chevalier and Militia in the equally rarified ranks of being borderline saint-level good peoples
    – I know Sveta looks like the MVP (and she absolutely rocked the house in the Crock takedown) but for real, Kenzie has carried the whole team on her back throughout this prison arc
    – I pity Crock, her power fucking sucks as does her luck, but fuck her anyway

    1. Agreed on all points, but who is Quinn Calle? I feel like I should remember that name

      1. Quinn Calle was a lawyer specializing in parahuman-related cases. You may remember him as the person who represented Taylor when she surrounded to PRT in arc 22 of Worm. I don’t believe he was ever mentioned in Ward, so we probably don’t even know if he survived Gold Morning.

        By the way, as a general rule I suggest looking up things like that in Worm Wiki (https://worm.fandom.com/), since it is usually faster and should give you more complete answers than asking such questions here.

  26. I had no early idea that he was black. The same thing happened with Ghru! It took forever for that to be forced to come up. This makes me laugh.

    1. With Grue it was his race being invisible behind his hotness, lol. When Taylor first described him out of costume she described his skin as “chocolate.”

      She had it bad.

  27. The comments about regular people being mere witnesses to the capes brought me back to Victoria’s comments at the end of “13” when she said that one option for dealing with all the mistrust was to stop treating the civilians like they mattered.

    Admittedly I think more and more the capes are moving away from civilians and I suspect thats a big part of what the shards want.

    For that reason alone, they probably need to bring in far more civilians. People like Armstrong who can guide and question them to prevent the kind of deviation that could lead towards a steady dictatorship rule.

  28. You know, other people are talking about imagining a white guy, but I thought Armstrong was Asian. I don’t know why. I think I might have conflated him with Aramaki from Ghost in the Shell, and maybe a little bit of Hunks from Pumpkin Scissors.

    Anyway, I’m glad we finally got to meet him, and I’m glad he survived. Now he can join Victoria’s Fashion Police squad.

    1. I’m going to come clean, I absolutely had Louis Armstrong from FMA in my mind all this time.

  29. Back in his interlude Scion noticed that Contessa’s shard was not dead, but also not one of his own. Considering that Amy’s power apparently lets her perceive connections between shards, I wonder if using her power on Contessa could let her figure out that there is a third entity around. So far I don’t know if anyone in the paraverse, except possibly Contessa herself, knows about this fact.

    1. I mean that plenty of capes probably realize that there are more entities, but probably only Contessa knows that the Thinker and the Warrior met Abaddon relatively recently, and probably even she doesn’t know that her shard is probably still connected to Abaddon, which in turn may mean that Abaddon may eventually find Earths. If I understand what Amy’s power lets her perceive, using her power on Contessa may let her discover that last bit of information.

    2. Cauldron knew; it’s where Eidolon’s power came from and what they were hoping to find more of. Number Man knows, and he may have informed Citrine. The Overseer probably knows, and Teacher may have learned it from her or from Cauldron’s notes. Valkyrie may know either through her own ability to see the bigger picture or by way of her inner Eidolon. They explained enough to Taylor in Worm 29.7 that she might also have figured it out, and Tattletale very probably figured it out upon viewing the recordings.

      1. Even if Cauldron knew that certain powers came from the third entity, they may not know that Contessa’s shard is “alive, but not Scion’s”, as he noted in his interlude. Considering what being “alive” means in shards’ language, it seems that Contessa’s shard might have been connected to something that wasn’t Scion, and with Eden being dead at that time the obvious possibly would be the third Entity.

        This hypothetical connection may have huge consequences if the third Entity can for example use it to find humanity, especially since it was noted that it used different method of interstellar travel than the Warrior and the Thinker, which in turn means that it is probably impossible to predict how and when it could arrive.

  30. Here is a thought about broken triggers – perhaps at least some of them are broken not (or not only) because of energy stored in the portals, or because connections between shards are messed up, but also because they are caused by the shards that Scion kept to himself, and which were not reprogrammed to give powers safe for humans to have. We know that broken triggers seem to be associated with some “well of power”, and Teacher also seems to be messing with this thing. Maybe this “well” is what is left of Scion (including those “not Mantoned” shards), and portals can provide energy needed to pull shards out of it, at which point they can cause people to trigger?

  31. I wonder how people, especially from from Bet, especially Bet’s Eurasia (and certain political entities, like C.U.I.) will react to Shin-Gimel deal about textile pathway/bridge? Will they be amused by this quite obvious reference to silk road?

    1. Not for sure, but it would probably yes, since it would probably be difficult for Teacher’s students to impersonate Kenzie talking to Victoria about the diary. They seemed to work mostly, if not exclusively through written texts, not fake voices.

      On the other hand at the end of Worm Teacher started working with Satyrical, who probably wouldn’t have a problem doing something like that. A copy of Dragon running under Teacher’s control would also probably be capable of pulling this trick off, but so far we haven’t seen any proof that Teacher even has one.

      By the way I wonder what happened to Satyr. Another person close to Teacher whose eventual fate I would really want to learn about is Trickster. As far as I can tell we don’t even know if he survived Gold Morning. But maybe he was one of those thralls Lab Rat “cured”, and he simply disappeared because after GM he was no longer compelled to follow Teacher? Maybe he even managed to return to Aleph before his home Earth was sealed?

      Or maybe either Satirical or Trickster is the man we saw imprisoned next to Contessa? Only why would they be imprisoned? It would indicate that they somehow:
      1. become immune to Teacher’s power, or for some reason be a person Teacher wouldn’t want to master,
      2. are important enough for Teacher to actually want to keep them,
      3. know enough about Cauldron to accuse Overseer of being the only member of the organization who didn’t think they worked “for the greater good”.

      It doesn’t feel like Trickster or Satirical would satisfy all of those conditions at once. In fact I almost feel like that mysterious prisoner could be someone like Legend or Chevalier. Legend fits especially well because he would have enough insider knowledge about Cauldron and long enough history with Overseer to easily satisfy point 3., while Chevalier could fit point 1. in my opinion, because in my opinion Ingenue could ask Teacher to not master him, and instead leave him in a cell as her way of punishing her former lover who was so afraid of being mastered by her that he decided to dump her instead.

      1. By the way I could easily imagine all Travelers (except for Noelle of course, but with an addition of Thirty-two rescued by Predition from the Yàngbǎn) living on Aleph ever since Gold Morning.

        Considering how much screen time they got back in Worm, I could even imagine Parahumans 3 book telling their post-GM story. The funny thing is that since Aleph was sealed, it wouldn’t even have to be Ward’s sequel, but for example a story happening at precisely the same time that Ward does.
        I imagine that normaly writing stories as big as Parahumans books would be a nightmare for the author because of difficulties with keeping timelines and potential iterations between the events presented in both stories lined up, in such way that no inconsistencies between the stories pop up, but since Aleph is cut off from Gimel there could be very few such factors for the author to keep track of – so far probably little more than the date when Kronos appeared (assuming he manifested on Aleph despite that Earth being sealed), and the list of capes confirmed in Ward to not be on Aleph after that world was sealed.

        1. “The portal was wiped out. Without any barrier in the way, the beam radiated forward to wipe Ash Beast, the cape with the pole, Trickster, and Othala from existence.”

          From Speck 30.5.

          I am sorry…

          1. > I am sorry…

            Don’t be. It is my own fault that I neither remembered about Trickster’s death, nor even checked the wiki before posting about him, and I’m actually grateful that you pointed out my error to me.

      2. but it would probably yes > but it would say yes

        Sorry, looks like I messed up again while editing that comment.

  32. Here is a shot-in-the-dark sort of theory, linking two people I somehow can’t forget about.

    In Teneral e.5 Teacher infiltrated the building where Ingenue was kept in company of Satirical, and an unnamed, completely “enthralled” female hero who was described as “Lost, helpless, broken” after she “watched her team die in the aftermath of the attack”. It was also noted thatin Teacher’s opinion that woman was happier being a thrall, because she was “lost” and Teacher gave her a “direction”.

    In Overseer’s interlude we saw C.M. Miltona say this about being a “pig” (as Laurie called the most severely “enthralled” students):

    “It’s not so bad. I was one, once. It’s like sleeping, for a very long time, and when you wake up, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and you were taken care of.”

    indicating that she was a thrall for a very long time, and that she didn’t mind having been one in part because it let her “accomplish” something (and wouldn’t it be something that a person who has lost their “direction” desire to be able to do?). On top of it she told Laurie that she wouldn’t let Teacher turn her into a “pig”, which, if she was telling the truth, is quite a heroic thing to do, considering that it could mean challenging Teacher’s authority.

    So maybe, just maybe, Miltona is that enthralled hero we saw in Teneral e.5 with Teacher and Satirical?

      1. What did you mean by that? A physical description of a certain character I linked with Miltona a few chapters ago, some other reference to the text, or an idiom that I apparently don’t ‘get’?

        1. Oh, I just meant “Bee Who Must Not Bee Named”. Also known as…

          Dork,

          Becky’s gagger,

          The Badass Butterfly Wielder.

          Or as Regent also put it, “Boss”.

  33. In comments section of chapter 14.12 I noted that the second attack on Teacher may be an excellent opportunity for the older Heartbroken to make a debut as heroes, both because they are probably some of the best capes for dealing with masters, and because the situation appears to be desperate enough for them to be accepted by most people involved in the upcoming attack as allies (something I imagine the Heartboken would normally have a problem with).

    Here is another group that most capes would probably not want to associate in normal situation, but could probably accept as comrades in arms in situation as bad as it probably is right now that Teacher apparently managed to beat the first wave of attackers – Valkyrie’s flock.

  34. This chapter was gorgeous. I’m not even exaggerating, using a super-relatable character as a lens to make other characters relatable was brilliant.

  35. Oh, I just meant “Bee Who Must Not Bee Named”. Also known as…

    Dork,

    Becky’s gagger,

    The Badass Butterfly Wielder.

    Or as Regent also put it, “Boss”.

  36. this is maybe the most nitpicky thing ever, but it jarred me out of reading–nitroglycerin is primarily an acute, as-needed medication, not really something that needs to be taken on a daily basis that would require a reminder, as far as i know (i also double checked w a coworker). every time i see a script for it, it says something like “take as needed if needed for chest pain” or “if you feel you’re having a heart attack.”

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