From Within – 16.1

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I woke up, my arm sliding across a file folder I’d left on my bed, with a stinging sensation I was sure was a six inch long papercut.

I made myself sit up and swing my legs to the floor without using flight, and I sat where I was, feeling the muggy, lethargic, slow sensation of being sick.  I unwrapped bandages, and with some gentle prodding, I checked my arm and hand, where stitches still connected the flesh that had been flensed from finger and hand.  It wasn’t puffy, and it wasn’t an inflamed red.  The red line that had been tracing its way from the wound up my arm was gone.

After everything, after winter cold, damp prison hallways, skipped meals, injury, several periods of unconsciousness, about seven minor injuries and two bad ones, my immune system had thrown in the towel.

Five days.  I’d decided I was okay with being sick for a set period of time, I’d scale down what I asked of myself by doing only one necessary thing a day, recuperate, find my equilibrium.  Then I’d ease back into things or I’d go to the hospital.  Not that hospitals were an easy thing to wrangle right now.

I was annoyed I’d moved the papers, so a stack of papers in one file folder had fanned out to smear into another file folder, to the point I had to figure out which belonged where.  The folder to the right was Professor Haywire.  Multiple personalities, with each personality living in one Earth.  He’d gone full mad scientist and opened the first portal we’d known about.  We’d later found out there was one in Europe and, apparently, the one in Cauldron.

The file folder to the left was more recent.  It was from the infodump Dragon had given me, detailing everything we knew about agents and how they were structured.

The door we’d glimpsed bothered me.  I wanted to wrap my head around it.

I stood, and I pulled on something more decent to wear- the long top with the black hood and the Brockton Bay skyline across the front that I’d worn to first meet Jessica’s therapy circle.  I fiddled with my hair, braided for overnight, tucking loose strands behind my ears as I made my way to the kitchen.

Kenzie was sleeping on the couch, drowning in an excess of heavy blankets and comforters, with only the top of her head and the buns of her hair sticking out of the top end of the blanket burrito.  The coffee table was littered with tinkering stuff, a few plates, and a couple of glasses, and the television had been left on.  In the sunless hours of the winter morning, they were running some kid’s show with a crew of a spaceship.  I thought the protagonist looked a bit disturbing, but whatever.

From the fact the television was on and that she hadn’t done her usual routine for her hair, wrapping it up to protect it, I guessed she had gone straight from tinker stuff to turning out the lights, pulling blankets down on top of herself from where they’d been set up at the back of the couch.

Routine was important for kids in grief, and this wasn’t routine.  I picked up two ends from ice cream cones that had been half-eaten, putting them on a plate.  Two ice cream cones definitely wasn’t normal, nevermind that Kenzie liked to eat the top part of the cone, lick out the ice cream that had been packed in all the way, but didn’t enjoy the cones enough on their own to finish them.  Didn’t matter on the cone type.  Just your standard eleven year old type weirdness.

I found another two-inch long bit of uneaten cone between two glasses.

I was indulging her.  Letting her do her thing and find her own routine.  If she wanted something, I let her have it, within reason.

I was careful not to make any noise as I collected dishes, avoiding moving any tinkering work.

“Breakfast?” she asked.  She didn’t poke her head out.

“Did I wake you?  Sorry.”

“I set an alarm to wake me up if you got up,” the Kenzie burrito said.  “You look healthier than you did yesterday.”

“I feel better.  Eight out of ten.”

“Good.  Do you want breakfast?  I can make stuff.  My foster dads used to teach me.”

She wiggled and struggled until her head was out of the burrito, and craned her head around to look up at me.  She gave me a half-smile, only one side of her mouth turning upward.

“Nah.  I’ll make something.  What do you want?”

“You have that yellow egg bread stuff, right?”

“Challah.  Yes.  I’m not sure how good it is.”

“It’s good.  Can you make french toast with it?”  The smile had dropped away, and her eyes were big.

“If you agree to something with vitamin C.”

“O.J.”

“Alright,” I said.

I made my way into the kitchen to drop off the dishes.  In the background, I heard her say, “Yes!  I love this show.  I’m never awake to see it.”

Kenzie had been my day one thing.  I’d tackled one priority in each of my five days of dealing with the infection in my arm and whatever I’d had that was between flu and cold.  I’d asked her what she wanted and needed and she’d said she wanted to stay over.  I’d warned her I was sick, that I couldn’t give her my full attention, and she’d said that was fine.

She’d stuck as close to me as I let her, as I did my best not to pass on whatever I’d picked up.  During the day, she either accompanied me on my errands, or she went off with other teammates.  Her team had asked for help with a job, and she’d gone to do that yesterday.  She had stayed for three hours, just long enough to handle the job and come back.

I knew her team was worried.  That they didn’t know what to do about her, and she didn’t know what to do about them.

Kenzie thumped to the ground, prompting me to look away from the bread I was cutting up.  She’d rolled out of her burrito and onto the floor, and was in the process of kicking and punching her way free.  She bolted once she was out of it, straight down the hallway.

“Ad break gonna pee real quick back soon.”

The bathroom door banged shut.

It had been Candy who had given me the data stick.  I’d plugged it into my phone while waiting for Kenzie to get her things together.

I had no idea how Candy had even got it, but it was surveillance footage from the Warden’s HQ.  Kenzie stricken.  Kenzie pushing things off of the desk she’d set up at.  A faltering attempt at smiling had given way to tears, sobbing.  She’d started shouting and pushing more things to the ground when her teammates had tried to reassure her.  In the end, it had been Tattletale who had caught her in a hug, pinning her arms at her sides, and held her there.  Tattletale who, despite the video not having audio, had apparently told Chicken Little, Darlene, and Candy to go.

When Kenzie had been released from the hug, she’d gone back to her computer.  To keep updating us.

After everything had wrapped up, we had spent a few hours together recapping, but Tristan had wanted to get Byron looked after, Kenzie’s ride had come to pick her up, and the rest of us had needed medical attention.  I’d gone back to the apartment, cried some, and crashed hard.  I woke up sick and Kenzie had been the first thing on my mind.  She’d come over that evening and she had stayed every night since.  She had opted to sleep on the couch rather than disturb Ashley’s room.

She ran down the hallway and up the stairs to the living room, banging into the table in her hurry to get situated in front of the television again.  I peeked, and saw her bundling up in her blankets.

No sign of any agitation.  Her eyes weren’t red, she wasn’t smiling incessantly, she wasn’t crying.

I made the french toast, quickly fried up some hash browns with sweet potato, and got the O.J. out.  I turned the kitchen T.V. onto the channel with the spaceship show.

The process of putting it all together was nice, even if I had less than zero appetite, still feeling groggy from the illness.

“Kenz, breakfast!”

She came without protest or hesitation, but I did see her perk up when she saw that the show she was so into was on in the kitchen as well.  Ashley’s thing had been to have a lot of televisions and radios.

Kenzie leaned over her plate to reach out and touch the screen.  She dragged the image aside, beyond the confines of the screen itself, and onto the wall.  She did it a few more times, bringing up email and a news channel that was currently showing the weather.

“I didn’t know you tinkered the T.V.,” I commented, as I sat down with my own plate.

“I did it to keep myself busy the other night, while you napped.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“No, it’s fine.  We did something before, and we watched that movie after, that was nice.  And this is really nice, thank you so much.”

It was.  I had no appetite, and my senses were dulled, and it was still surprisingly good.  I liked challah and I liked french toast, and I’d never thought to put them together.

“I feel guilty, not being able to give you my full attention.”

“You’re sick.  It’s okay.  I’m just really happy you’re keeping me company,” she said, speaking between bites.  “I would have gone crazy if I was at the facility.”

The place for the orphans and foster kids in transition.  Chris’s old place.

“Are you feeling like you need more routine, or get back to where you have your stuff?”

She shook her head, shrugging.  At the same time, she started trying to cut the crust of the bread.  Her top had only the two narrow straps at the shoulders, leaving the arms and the rest of the shoulders bare, and I could see tension there.  It would have been easy to chalk it up to the effort of cutting through the thicker crust of the bread, but… Kenzie was very good at hiding what she was feeling.

“Talk to me.  I can’t help if you don’t tell me what you’re feeling.”

“I don’t want to go back just yet.  I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know what’s happening with my team or our team or the city or anything.  This is nice, I-”

She turned her head to look at one of the screens that was floating around the television, tilting her head slightly.

I ducked my head down, until my chin was nearly touching my hands, which were flat on the table, trying to get a better look at her face.

She met my eyes.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t want to be a problem, I don’t want to scare you away or bother you.  It’s really obvious to me now that I can think everything’s fine and then it’s really not.  I thought I was better and I’m not.”

“But?”

“But I want to stay.  Just for a little while longer.”

“When I dropped you off that night, at the end of the day everything happened with Teacher, the staff said they were concerned, because you made those images, and they said it looked like a projection of Ashley with something that looked like-”

“Don’t-” Kenzie interrupted, her mouth partially full.  She swallowed.  “Don’t say it was A.I.  It wasn’t A.I.  it was just a picture and a few minor triggers.  I still get flack for some stuff I did at the end of Summer that wasn’t A.I.  I got questions from Parahumans Online about it after, and then from the team, and I told Jessica, and Jessica had to double check it wasn’t A.I. because that’s the kind of thing that makes the heroes crack down on you and they checked and they agreed it wasn’t so no.  No.  Not A.I., no intelligence.  If you say it was, I will actually get mad.”

“Not A.I.,” I said.

She huffed a bit and nodded.  She took another bite, and chewed it more than necessary.

I had no fucking clue how I should read the things like Kenzie crying and sobbing instead of smiling, or her getting angry in a way that showed, like here or with Chris.  Was that growth, genuine and healthy displays of emotion?  Or was it worrying because she was getting upset and ranting a bit, that she was grieving, or that her emotions were running this high?

“I miss her,” I said.  “Enough it hurts, and that it surprises me a little.”

Kenzie looked up from her food, chewing.

“She was really good company.  Maybe the best kind of roommate to have.  We had a good sense of each other’s rhythm and boundaries.  I feel like she forced me to grow up a lot about some stuff.  About the faces we put on and the roles we play, and… it sucks so much.”

“Sucks,” Kenzie muttered.  She smiled, eyes downcast.  “You know it sucks for me.  You saw that video Candy gave you.”

“I-” I shouldn’t be surprised she knows.  She didn’t even seem to mind, but that was just how Kenzie worked.  “-Yeah.  I worry about you.  About the projects you’d put together or what you’d get up to when I’m not looking.  Because I care about you too, and I know I’d do some crazy stuff if I had your power and I’d just lost someone I cared about.”

“I won’t do anything,” she said.  “I only made the Ashley projection with some basic expressions because I was lonely and I didn’t know what to do.  It made me feel worse because it wasn’t quite right.  So don’t worry, I’ll be good, I’ll stick to old projects.”

Because it wasn’t quite right.  It made me think of Amy, about the process that had led to the Wretch coming to be.  It made me worry about Kenzie more.

“Okay.  That’s reassuring.  We need you to talk to someone, I think.  And we need to talk to your team.  Chicken Little, Syndicate, Decadent.”

“Whatever you want me to do.  So don’t make me go back?  At least for a little while?”  Her eyes were puppy dog big, her smile small and unsure.

“That’s not- it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, okay?  You can stay tonight unless they say you have to go back.”

She nodded.  She glanced at the screens beside her.

“No cheating the system, sending false messages, or sabotaging things so they don’t want you to come back or, I don’t know, because you set up a hologram that makes them think you’re there.”

“I thought about that but I wouldn’t do it,” she confessed.

I didn’t press.  We ate, Kenzie chugged the last half-glass of her O.J., then she hurried over to the sink to begin washing.

I would have protested she didn’t have to help out, but instead, I just joined her, doing my share of it, and putting away the stuff on the rack.

Ashley’s obsidian mug, still on the drying rack from a week ago.

“What are you up to today?” I asked.

“I don’t know, what are you doing?”

“Everything,” I said.  “Catching up, Byron, seeing where we fit into things with the whole…”

I indicated the television screen where the weather update had dropped away and the tail end of a news segment showed.  There were cars on the road bumper to bumper, red taillights and white snow.  The scene changed to people moving down the sidewalk, all carrying things.

“I know some of the rest of the team is helping, and Chicken, Deca, and Syn are helping too, in their own ways.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Can I come with you?  I wanted to see Byron too.”

I thought about it for a second, then nodded.

“Costume or no costume?” she asked.

It was a good question.

“No costume for today.  While we work on bouncing back.  If we wear something costumey we’ll feel compelled to do something costumey.”

“Good plan,” she said.

I looked back at the television, where they showed rows and rows of fresh new tents.  Then protests, riots, and anti-parahumans gathered together in something that looked like it was going from protest to riot.

Calling for a ride and getting through all of that?

“Want to fly there?” I asked.

Mass evacuation.  The ice was cracking, we’d been given a deadline suggesting disaster would strike within a week or two.  All it would take was a precipitating act, the ice would crack, and, well, we’d seen the data lifted from Teacher’s computer.

With full knowledge that it was winter and we were putting lives at risk, our side was working with local government to force people to vacate.  Some resisted, and some of that resistance was gathered at the front of the Warden HQ.  A line of police was all that was keeping them from storming the place.  One of them was being disarmed of something they’d lit on fire, with police taking advantage of the fact that people had backed away from the protester to gang up on him three against one.

I landed on the roof, easing Kenzie down so she could stand beside me, and then adjusted the heavy bag full of her tinker stuff and my supplies.

“So angry,” Kenzie said, peering over the ledge.

I wore a medical mask, out of consideration for the people around us and the people we were bound to run into.  I didn’t want to get any heroes sick.  It made talking annoying, with the way it rubbed against my nose.  “They’re losing their homes.  Just like we’re probably going to have to say goodbye to the apartment.”

“Can we get stuff out?  I have workshop stuff I’d miss.  And furniture?  Books?  Ashley had so many things she was so fond of.  I want to keep some.”

“We’ll do something,” I said.  I struggled with keys, my left hand not fully cooperating, the gloves I wore not exactly helping.  “But not everyone can do something, that’s why they’re upset.”

“Yeah.  But if they spent less time protesting and more time preparing, they could bring more with them.”

“Maybe,” I said, as I unlocked the door.  “Some of them don’t care about things, they want to keep other things.  Security.  Not having to worry they’ll keep facing tough winters.  Not feeling like there’ll be one world ending threat every few years.  Endbringers, then Scion, now this, which we’re being vague about, and which we haven’t made any major arrests on.”

We let ourselves into the top floor of the Warden’s HQ, not that this was much more than a cardboard cutout building propped up in front of the real HQ.

“Because we’re saying it was the portals and the long term danger is worse than we thought, and the portals were done by the religious nuts at Cheit, who we can’t do anything about because diplomacy.”

“We can’t attack them without losing diplomatic support.  We’re the big guys in terms of the weapons we hold and the little guys in everything else.  And honestly, it would be really nice to have clearance to go into Cheit right now.”

Kenzie nodded.

We made our way down the stairwell to the passworded hallway.  Kenzie could do the hallway with her eyes closed, so I let her do the steps to take us to the bunker.

The road to the bunker was framed by two new buildings, and the bunker had a neighboring structure.  The number of guards had tripled, many gathered on the rises on either side of the path, looking down at us with weapons at the ready.

But they knew my face.  I raised a hand in a wave, and they waved me through.

We didn’t stop in at the bunker itself.  We continued down the path, took a hard left, and passed beneath more guards on our way to our destination.

Into Teacher’s facility.

“My first time here,” Kenzie said.

“You haven’t visited Byron?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I was planning to.”

As there had been armed guards guarding the way between bunker and facility, there were capes waiting for us on the other side.  One of them handed me an info sheet.  They hesitated before handing Kenzie one, and after a quick glance, I motioned for them to hand it to her.

At Large
Earth Cheit, Church Capitol West
Teacher – Benjamin Terrell
Overseer/Custodian – A76
Moord Nag – Lou Joubert

Greater City Area
Ingenue – Miranda Webb
Leister – Jamar Lafranca
Usher – Ray C. Rudolph
Captain Claw – Charles Ali
Black Goat/Scapegoat – William Giles
9 Soldiers, Mixed Squads

Unknown (Last seen Earth N)
Squad Leader (Green-Black)
6 Green-Black Soldiers

Unknown
Squad Leader (Orange-Red)
Squad Leader (Gray-Gray)
12  Soldiers, Mixed Squads

“Thanks,” I said.  It was always good to get an update.  The list had been twice as long on my last visit, two days ago.

“You’ve been here before?  Do you need a guide?”

“No, but she might if she wants to go do something.”

“This sheet has some basic information and a number to call if you want a guide or escort, and another number to call if you see something concerning.  We’ve painted or taped areas that are high risk.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.  “I wanted to use some tinker gear, but Victoria said I’d need to get it checked out.”

“We can page people and see who’s available.  Go on ahead, and we’ll have them find you.  Where are you off to next?”

“Hospital wing.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem.  Take the elevator.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.

The place they had picked for the portal to exit was a hallway that could be defended if need be, that opened up into a larger area of the complex, a central room with stairs, hallways and, at the far end, a series of elevators.  There were people mopping and cleaning, because the tromp of boots was depositing a lot of muck on the white tile, and there was a lot of muck, with some areas having been reduced to debris.

We’d moved in, more or less.  Thralls all relocated and quarantined, until such a time that Teacher no longer had a serious hold on them.  Some people from the city were being brought here, to select and specific areas that could be cut off from the areas we were using to conduct business.

There was food here, there were beds, there were storage areas, shower facilities, plumbing, power, and backup power.

The elevators weren’t like the usual.  The doors were open, the elevators waiting, each large enough to drive a car into.  We got inside, hit the button, and the door whisked closed, before carrying us two floors up.  The doors opened, and Defiant stepped inside, wearing a reduced-down version of his power suit.  The effect was similar to a fireman shucking off coat, belt, gloves, and headgear while still wearing the rest, but Defiant’s stuff was green and gold armor so heavy it needed tech to move with.

He found a spot to stand next to Kenzie.  She only came up to his waist, with the way his gear and boots extended his height.

“Hello, Lookout.”

“Heya.  How are you guys?”

“We’re staying on top of things.  Victoria, always good to see someone from home.”

“Likewise,” I said.

From home.  We still weren’t thinking of this city as home.

We hadn’t even fucking named it, and now we were abandoning it.

Or had we not named it because we’d known on some fundamental level that we might have to abandon it, that it was temporary and fragile?

“What you did over last week was a big help.  Figuring out Teacher’s info-attack vector, Shin, and the raid.”  He extended a hand for me to shake.

“I’m sick,” I told him.  “Sorry, I would otherwise.”

“I don’t mind,” he responded.  “I don’t think I can get sick.”

I shook his hand.  He wasn’t wearing gauntlets, but his hand was still large as it folded around mine.  I could see seams and patches where it wasn’t skin, with too smooth a texture.

“The tech?” he asked.  “I’d stay to talk, take as much time to talk shop and catch you up, but there’s too much to do.”

I lowered the bag to the ground so Kenzie could fish out the tech.  It was akin to a double-thick keyboard with no buttons, and a depression along one side.  It looked heavier, and she needed two hands to lift it up to Defiant, who held it in one.

“Not a cube, huh?” I asked.

“It is,” she said.

“She’s right, it is a cube,” Defiant said, while investigating the thing that wasn’t a cube.  “Should you tell me what this is, or would you prefer I figure it out?”

“You can figure.  Twenty-five percent of the reason I’m asking is I don’t want to step on toes.  Seventy-five percent is because there’s that slight, teeny-tiny chance that this isn’t what we want to do in any place with a chance of fracturing.”

“I see what you mean,” he said, as he opened up the casing, looking at the internals.  Lenses were arranged in arrays, to the point it was more glass than anything, and the tech that was there looked like the arrays that extended back from the ocular cameras she’d had us place in our eyes.

The elevator came to a stop.  We stepped out into the hallway, remaining where we were, while he produced a laser from his gauntlet, shining it through some of the lenses.

“Careful of polarities, please,” Kenzie said, shifting her weight from foot to foot.  “I know you know your stuff, but…”

“Understood.  I didn’t change any numbers.  Looking at this, you should be fine.  You’re not outputting anything, you’re clarifying things that are operating within the sector-space.”

“Yeah.  Yep.  But sometimes when you point a camera at someone, they look into the camera.”

“They don’t reach through to hit you or break your camera, either.”

“Um, uh… I’m not smart enough to keep the analogy going.  But they’re multidimensional space monsters.  They could.  Um, sometimes you don’t want to agitate someone on the other side of the glass if that glass is close to breaking.”

“I think you’re safe,” he said, handing Kenzie the keyboard thing.  “And about what you just said, I do think you’re smart.  More importantly, you put in the effort, and I put a lot of stock in that.  If we were still in the PRT, I would want you on my team.”

“No you wouldn’t.  Nobody who’s seen my record would.”

“I’ve seen your record, and I would.”

“I’m a fuckup, though.  I leave a trail of messed up relationships and regrets behind me, wherever I go.  I’m doing it right now.”

“With me?  No.”

I bit my lip.  I wanted to comment, but- this was between them.

“No,” Kenzie agreed.  “My new team.”

“I’m very much the same, Lookout.  I made… almost no friends, over the years.  Chevalier, Myrddin, Miss Militia.  I’m not even sure most would look at those relationships and think of them as friendships.”

“Dragon?” Kenzie asked.

“I was getting around to that.  Dragon was my first real friendship.  I had immense respect, trust, and fondness for her.  It did require some leaps of faith, challenges.”

“Because she’s an A.I.”

“Yes.  And because we’re different people.  We figured it out, because it was worth it for both of us.  That laid a foundation for a relationship that was more.”

“I’ve talked about those sorts of foundations with people before.  It’s not that easy.  It sounds easy on paper, but…”

“I know.  Believe me.”

She wiggled a bit, “But if you want more friends, I’m always down.  You’ve seen my record so it’s okay if you say no.  But if you say yes, then you’re saying yes while knowing I’m a bit of a nuclear-powered screwer-upper of relationships.”

“I would be happy to be your friend, Lookout.  And if I’m welcome, I’d like to see the tech in use.  I have a guess about what you’re doing.”

She nodded, enthusiastic, then looked at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah, though we’re not the only people involved.  If they say no…”

“Of course,” Defiant said.

We got moving.  Though he’d just handed us the keyboard thing, Defiant ended up carrying it and carrying the bag, which I was secretly grateful for.  I didn’t feel like I was at a hundred percent, and fatigue set in easy.

Even though it was against my personal policy, I ended up flying rather than walking as we made our way through the hospital wing.

“Is Dragon okay?” I asked.

“Dragon’s fine.”

“What’s she up to?”

“Infrastructure development at Carroll Hill and Aadams, two as, two of the new tent cities and hopefully one of the places we can settle for good.”

I suppressed a comment at that.

“Your teammate fought Saint, did he mention her?”

“No, I was just asking because she was absent.”

“As was I, for the latter part.  Dragon is immensely powerful, but she, like any tinker, is dependent on her pre-established work to function at optimal capacity.  The Dragonslayers knew this and used it against her in the past.  Teacher used it against her here.  With no satellites to use for remote access except the ones she deployed after passing through the portal, she was limited in what she could do.  If she dies without redundant systems and infrastructure behind her, she dies for good, just as any of us would.”

Kenzie’s eyes dropped to the floor.  At the same time, I made a bit of a face.  I wasn’t sure he’d seen with the medical mask covering my mouth.

He’d seen.  “…And there I go, proving my earlier point.  I’m not always good at conversation, even or especially casual conversation.  I heard about your teammate.  I didn’t mean to prod a wound.”

That was casual?

Talking about death, dying, and the cape stuff?

Either way, I nodded.

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “I’ll forgive you your foibles if you forgive me mine.”

“We’ll work on them,” he said.  To me, he said, “I don’t suffer from that same general need.  I don’t often lose my technology.  But I suffer for a lack of allies and friends.  I could have gone ahead and cut my way through an army of people who only committed the crime of getting brainwashed, but I thought it better to support my team, my wife, and force him to keep committing forces.”

“It wasn’t easy,” I said.

He shook his head.  “No, and neither is the aftermath.  Teacher is free and untouchable for the time being, Ingenue is on the loose, and other thralls are operating elsewhere.  Gary Nieves is wanting to make a meeting, bringing Dinah Alcott with him, of all people, and he has a great deal of political clout because of the ongoing riots and protests.  We’re trying to secure the city and ensure the evacuation goes smoothly, and the only asset we have in the process of that is that Contessa is working with Citrine to manage it.”

I winced.

“Yeah,” he said.  “My feelings exactly.”

Byron’s room was at the end of the hall.  Rain was there, as was Vista, who wore the cloth part of her costume, but not her armor.  She was curled up in a chair near Byron.  Rain sat on the opposite side, shoes kicked off, sock-covered feet up on the side of the bed.

They were watching a movie, to the tune of regular beeps.

Byron lay on the bed, bandages on one arm, shoulder, and at his side.  The bandages were clean, but there were hints of seepage, too thin to be straight blood, but with telltale crimson.  He wore a t-shirt with parts cut out to accommodate the bandaging, and pyjama bottoms.  He hadn’t woken as we’d entered.

His eyes were half-lidded.  I’d seen him awake and I’d seen him unconscious.  He had slept through eighty percent of my visits.  Seeing Byron had been my thing on day three of being sick, with me keeping my distance because of the illness.

“Oh hey,” Vista said, her voice pitched to be quiet, so she wouldn’t disturb Byron.  “Hi boss.”

“Hi, Vista,” Defiant said, matching her tone.

“Hanging out?” I asked.

“I was up all night with patrols, I came by and stayed for the movie,” she said.  True enough, she did have circles under her eyes that had nothing to do with the thick black eyeliner she’d applied.

Kenzie hurried into the room, getting the keyboard.

“We’re trying it?” Rain asked.

“Yeah,” Kenzie said, double checking with Defiant.

She was doing a lot of double checking.

She set the keyboard on the foot of the bed, reconsidered, and had Rain stand up, before placing it on his chair, scooting the chair over.

“You’re not using your power, right?” she asked Vista.

“No, why?”

“Because even if Defiant says there isn’t, I’m worried there’s a teeny, tiny chance this could blow up everything.”

I stopped flying.  Rain backed away a step.

She placed her phone over top of the buttonless keyboard, then used it as her console, to activate parts.  She slid it over, hit more buttons, slid it over, and hit more.

It came to life, light shining from the seams.

And orange-red motes began to move through the air, diffuse and smaller than what Tristan normally created.

They settled into a general silhouette, and then that silhouette clarified, until we had an ethereal image of Tristan, just a bit fuzzy around the finer details like individual strands of hair, eyelashes, and a thread or two on his clothes.

He overlapped Byron at first, but as he tested his movement, he slipped off to one side and stood away.

He attempted to cross the room, and he hit an invisible wall.  He reached out to touch it.

When he spoke, though, his words came out as audio garbage, all the right sounds if those sounds had been into a blender and mixed in with static.  He tried again and seemed a bit put out.

“Fine tuning to be done,” Kenzie said.  She shut down the box.  The motes began to scatter, peeling away and dissolving.  “Can we wake up Tristan, see what it’s like for him?”

Rain reached down and jostled Byron’s shoulder, trying to wake him.  It didn’t work.  He sounded discouraged more than upset as he said, “I’ll get a nurse.”

Had he sounded very upset, I might have panicked.  As it was, I was anxious and uncomfortable with so much about this.  Kenzie literally wrung her hands.

Rain stepped out of the room.

“It’s cool that it worked that well,” Kenzie said.  “He could move around.  I was worried I wouldn’t be able to let him do that.  They can make micro-adjustments to have a slightly different pose or posture when they swap in.”

“Is that why you had the perpendicular set of high-distortion prisms?” Defiant asked.

“I thought it might grease the track if he wanted to move down it.”

“It’s a good idea.  You do sacrifice some clarity.”

“I made so many mistakes early on, trying to get perfect clarity or better-than-perfect clarity.  No, it’s not what we need.  We need to be able to communicate with him.”

The nurse came back in.  She had a syringe.  She addressed us all, not looking the least bit intimidated about being surrounded by capes, let alone Defiant’s massive frame.  “He scheduled a wake up this morning, but are you sure you want to do this?”

“We are,” Rain said.

She removed the tubes from his nose, the covers from over top of him, and the heartbeat monitor from his finger.  It produced the tonal beep of a flatline as she disconnected it, a sound that made ten kinds of bad emotion jump all over the place in my chest and stomach.

She gave Byron the syringe in the shoulder, depressing it.

His eyes fluttered, opened, and he stirred.

“Change,” Rain said.  “Swap out.”

Byron hesitated, then blurred.

A moment later, he was Tristan.  He sat up, hopped down.

“Couldn’t talk,” he said.

“We know,” Kenzie said.  “I can work on that.  Next time.”

“It would be a lifesaver,” Tristan said.  “It would mean a lot.”

Kenzie bounced a little with excitement.

“Can we look for Byron?” Tristan asked.

Kenzie nodded.  “Sit on the bed?  Pull your legs up.  You have to stay within bounds.”

Tristan did.

She activated the machine again.

The blue motes appeared, and they coalesced into Byron’s form, partially curled up, lying just behind Tristan.

He looked to be unconscious.

Byron had sustained light brain trauma and more severe trauma to his body.  The pair was trapped in a tricky dynamic now, because Byron went in and out of consciousness, something the nurses said was a consequence of the kind of healing he needed to do.

But he didn’t heal while Tristan was out and about.  He had to be phased in, lying there, with people checking on him, for best results.

Tristan had been giving up extra time just to give his brother a shot at a faster recovery.  And he was recovering, but it was slow.

And, apparently, while Byron was in that twilight state of recovery, Tristan was aware.  There was no sleeping in sync like they normally did.  Not for most of it.

“That makes this the first time in years he’s not looking over my shoulder,” Tristan said, sounding awed, or stunned, or horrified, if not all three.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Vista said.

“Maybe,” Tristan said.  “We’d have to do more tests.  Do this a few more times.”

“I’m down!” Kenzie said, sounding excited.  “Yes, absolutely, but I have to go home and tinker and then I can bring it back, and in between phases, I need to visit Rain while he’s asleep.”

“Me?  Why?”

“Because I think the principles we’re using here could help give a sense of what’s going on there, in your head, when you’re in your dream room.  And if we can do that-”

“The door,” Rain said.

“If we can move static things or grease the way, maybe we can get it so you can go through.”

Holy shit.  Do what Teacher was doing?  Going into the Shard’s space and affecting things there?

“No.”

Everyone assembled turned to look at the speaker.  Defiant.

“No, I’m sorry.  I could talk to other members of the Wardens about it, but… I don’t think we could conscience it.”

“If we don’t, Teacher will,” Kenzie said.  “He’ll figure out how to get in there and how to mess with powers or do whatever else he was doing.”

“Maybe.  He doesn’t have his tinkers or tech.  That slows him down.  We’re maneuvering to deal with him.”

“This is a possible answer.  What do you think the danger is, if we’re basically doing what Teacher is?”

“I don’t think there’s any particular difference in the degree of danger you face, compared to him,” Defiant said.  “I think it’s very possible what you’re talking about could work and would work in the same way.”

“Then why not?”

“Because you’re eleven, and he’s a criminal with the remainder of his punishment pending, and that’s… frankly, if it is what we think it is, it’s a horrific amount of power.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“I’m not sure I would trust Dragon with it, and I trust her more than I trust anyone.  This is something we could reserve for emergencies, we could pull multiple tinkers in, and spread out the load, maybe, but… my instinct is no.  It’s too much, and it’s too dangerous.”

“Oh.”

“I’m sorry if this spoils our…”

“Friendship?” Kenzie asked.  She shook her head.  “No.  You’re still cool.”

“I’m glad.  I should go and look after things.  This, in its current form?  Very interesting work.  Keep me up to date on the progress?” he asked.

“Can do.”

He gave a nod to Vista, then turned to go.

The conversation resumed, Tristan getting his stuff together, Vista talking to him about a movie they’d watched, apparently Tristan’s pick, except she or Rain had picked up a similar movie to one on Tristan’s list, same name, same director, same year, wrong Earth of origin.

Kenzie was quiet, staring down at her work.  Her hand ran along the flat surface.

Then she looked up at Rain, who was already watching her.

Her eyes found me.

As she’d done earlier, checking with me, checking with Defiant, checking with Rain.

Asking for permission.  Permission to delve into stuff despite the warning from the top.

I didn’t say no.

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79 thoughts on “From Within – 16.1”

  1. -Finally, a nice moment of relative peace after such a long, violent and tense battle.

    -Kenzie is a very emotionally strong person. Stronger that Victoria. I feel like she’s the one calming Victoria down not viceversa. Kenzie is so <3

    -Ashley….at least Byron survived (he's in coma but SURVIVED) but…Ashley :(. Good thing that her sacrifice wasn't in vain, she went down sacrificing her life for Kenzie and fighting like a lioness.

    -Defiant and Dragon are ok and Defiant seems to act like a father figure toward Kenzie. I want them to adopt her:).

    -Mama Mathers isn't mentioned in the list of Teacher's villains who survived. Did Rain really managed to kill her? Gosh, hope she'll stay permanently dead.

    -The first arc with two words title. What sorcery is this?

    -Kenzie is going to try the same shit as Teacher, but using peaceful ways. I prefer Kenzie anytime to Teacher, no matter what she's trying to do.

    -Citrine survived. So, the one who died was Number Man? Or another passenger who wasn't mentioned by Teacher's soldier?

    -Now that Ashley is gone, Kenzie is my fav Breakthrough girl. Sorry, Sveta.

    1. Maybe Mama Mathers is one of the generic-sounding squad leaders, and they didn’t want to name her on the list because, you know, Mama Mathers.

      1. Alternatively, she did go free in the short-term but was crossed off the list since then, as Victoria notices it’s now half as long as it started. So, either captured or terminated.

    2. Two words because Kenzie is working on communicating with both twins, and eventually anything in shardspace, is my guess.
      Wouldn’t be surprised if this chapter ends with direct communication between someone we know and her passenger.

    3. > – Kenzie is going to try the same shit as Teacher, but using peaceful ways. I prefer Kenzie anytime to Teacher, no matter what she’s trying to do.

      Let’s just hope that Breakthrough will consult Contessa and Dinah before they actually let Kenzie send Rain anywhere. Remember that in the previous chapter Teacher said “I didn’t have a perfect precog judge what I was doing, so do tell me if I got it wrong. I’ll accept any and all punishment.” It would be foolish to try something like this without asking the two precogs who are known to be able to work around their blind spots for advice first (especially Dinah, who managed to not only predict Gold Morning, but also whose power was good enough to successfully identify Taylor as person needed to avoid worst-case scenario during GM, and to steer things in a way that Taylor ended up doing just that).

      1. By the way, note just how Teacher echoed words Doctor Mother said to Sveta in chapter 29.7 of Worm:

        At the end of this, I will face any and all punishment that I’m due, alive or dead.

        A true head of Cauldron indeed…

        1. The difference is that Doctor Mother truly cared for the good of humanity despite doing a lot of bullshit. She was benevolent extremist.
          Teacher only care about HIMSELF and absolute power. He’s incapable of love and mercy. For him humanity is only good to be ruled over, manipulated and controlled. He’s a malevolent extremist. When he said that he is ready to face any punishment for his horrible actions, it was just an act in order to show people how “good” he is in reality, when the reality is that he’s evil to the core.
          I trust Kenzie because she’s a good person and she’ll never try anything to hurt people or to conquer the world. But, as you said, she must consult Contessa first before she’ll make the move.
          I don’t think Dinah will help, she seems to have other purposes than helping the good guys, unless she doesn’t want non-parahumans to suffer.

  2. The Capricamera works!

    Tata mom’d Kenzie!

    Riots in the streets!

    Vista guarding Byron!

    Defiant dad’ing Kenzie!

    This chapter has something for everyone, even Victoria/Ashley shippers!

  3. It occurs to me that with enough messing around, our heroes may end up understanding these powers more than the aliens ever did. Mostly because a few mistakes on the aliens’ part allows them to meta game the crap out of this while the aliens just had access to what they made and never needed to meta game it at all.

    1. Which aliens are you talking about, though ? The handful of species that interacted with the worms before humans (generating all their Tinker shards), or the worms themselves ?
      The former are pretty dead, aside from some of their memories living on as tinkertech. And the worms have a very organic understanding of their own shard-cells that goes way past what Cauldron or Shin knows (the least of which, a complete list of every one of them, their full abilities/synergies and energy costs).

  4. The more I see Breakthrough together, the more I see something putting the therapy group together so that they could have the best chance at cracking the shard space.

    It seems as if Dinah Alcott has put Gary Nieves and Breakthrough into positions where she can control a lot of everything.

    I mean, she managed to get a whole bunch of shard shenanigans together with a camera tinker.

  5. What could possibly go wrong?
    Still can’t quite believe Ashley is dead.
    So does this make Byron or Tristan the one who “suffers for some time” or whatever wording Contessa used? It seems not quite as bad as she made it seem, if Byron just needs more time to heal from his wounds.

  6. And yeah, the arc title is freaking me out. Am I missing something or is this the first title that had no relation to the light/darkness theme of the previous arcs? Is this the “inflection point”, as it were, and we’re getting a new theme now? This would mark the halfway point if we assume Ward ends up being 30 arcs like Worm was…

    1. There’s a bunch of other related idioms, too: “the view from within”, “from within the shadows”…definitely a down-the-rabbit-hole type title no matter how you parse it.

  7. Typo thread.

    > I stood, and I pulled on something more decent to wear- the long top with the black hood and the Brockton Bay skyline across the front that I’d worn to first meet Jessica’s therapy circle.

    Perhaps add a space before the dash?

    It wasn’t A.I. it was just a picture > It wasn’t A.I. It was just a picture (or change the first space after ‘A.I.’ into a comma.)
    at the end of Summer > at the end of summer.

    > “Can we wake up Tristan, see what it’s like for him?”

    Shouldn’t it be ‘Byron’ instead of ‘Tristan’?

    > a sound that made ten kinds of bad emotion

    Perhaps ’emotions’ instead of ’emotion’?

    1. Another potential problem with the text:

      To me, he said, “I don’t suffer from that same general need. […]

      It isn’t clear to me what need Defiant was talking about. Dragon’s need for satellites connecting her to her infrastructure? Kenzie’s needs? Neither seem to quite fit what Defiant said there. Since right after the chapter was published there was a quotation mark at the end of this line:

      Either way, I nodded.

      that has disappeared a bit later, maybe Defiant’s words I quoted are an answer to something Victoria was supposed to say right after she nodded?

  8. I know some people are going “Oh God No, don’t let Kenzie poke around with this stuff, it’s gonna go wrong!” But the Wardens said no, so that means the correct thing to do is yes.

    1. What kind of nonsense logic is that? Wardens also say no to the plans of Teacher, doesn’t make the plans of Teacher correct thing to support.

  9. They want to evacuate over fifty millions of people in less than three weeks to tent cities? In the middle of a harsh winter? I’m afraid we are about to see just why option B was objectively best…

  10. More typos. sorry, can’t get the reply to work

    Aadams, two as, (imo this should be punctuated as two a’s, or two “a”s, depending on the style you want to follow.)
    make a meeting (maybe “hold”?)
    over top > on top (or over the top)

    1. I don’t know if you’ve seen my comments in the previous chapter about it, so I’ll say it again. If you have access to Internet Explorer or Microsoft Edge and don’t mind using them, maybe see if they’ll let you post replies. They work for me at least.

      1. And if can’t or don’t want to use a browser from Microsoft, maybe just try experimenting with other browsers? So far I can tell that reply buttons don’t work on Firefox Quantum running on Windows, Safari on iOS, and Opera on Android, but there are obviously still plenty of others to check.

  11. Oh shit, Number Man’s dead then? We know that Citrine and he were together during the bombing and one died, and Citrine’s working with Contessa, so…

    I wonder how the Number Boys took it, and how this affects their thing with Sveta.

    1. Contessa told the Number Boy who was supposed to tell Citrine and Number Man to go to them, not to call them. The Mayor and her husband left after getting a phone call, but perhaps the Number Boy treated his instructions literally and wasn’t the one who called them, but instead met them when they shortly before or after they got the call? If this is the case, then maybe the Number Boy was the one who died?

      1. Contessa told Number to go to the Citrine and Number Man, and to tell them go home. They went home, got phone call, rushed to the car and hit by explosion.

        1. The way I see it in interlude 15.z it is quite clearly stated that Citrine and Number Man were at work when they got the phone call.

  12. The list wasn’t alive, it was “At large” meaning that Mathers is dead or in custody, and the speedrunners and other powered dickheads are done.

  13. Weird Shower thoughts:
    Contessa killed one of her only friends purely for the sake of the path, and that seems pretty fucked up…..

    And yet, given all her time with Number Man…. she probably knows that he trusts her, that he would be WILLING to make that sacrifice for the sake of the number… not just because he trusts PtV, but because he trusts her personally.

    And its…. sort of Bitter Sweet to imagine what they would have said to one another about this… given the chance.

  14. “I don’t want to be a problem, I don’t want to scare you away or bother you. It’s really obvious to me now that I can think everything’s fine and then it’s really not. I thought I was better and I’m not.”

    Does anyone else thinks that poor Kenzie is mistaken here? I think that being able to cry again is a big progress for her. And she is not the only one who seems to be getting better. When was the last time Tattletale gave anyone a hug before this chapter? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was before Gold Morning.

    Pity it took Ashley’s death for them to get there though…

    1. No, not really on both accounts. In Kenzie’s case, it is the sign of Kenzie’s coping mechanisms being overwhelmed.
      And Tattletale hugged Kenzie to stop the the girl crazy with grief not because she is becoming better. Lisa’s personal spiral down to hit rock bottom continues.

      1. I had no fucking clue how I should read the things like Kenzie crying and sobbing instead of smiling, or her getting angry in a way that showed, like here or with Chris. Was that growth, genuine and healthy displays of emotion? Or was it worrying because she was getting upset and ranting a bit, that she was grieving, or that her emotions were running this high?

        When it comes to Kenzie, my interpretation is that she smiled and laughed when she was upset (sometimes hysterically – for example after learning the truth about Chris) because she instinctively feared that appearing upset would make people who saw her in such situations reject her, and rejection is obviously the thing Kenzie fears most. The problem is of course that mixing social ques like that actually scared away people who saw her smiling or laughing when they knew that she should for example cry or be visibly angry and didn’t understand why Kenzie reacted like that. The fact that according to Victoria Kenzie allows herself to show negative emotions normally obviously does indicate how deeply Ashley’s death affected her, but also may mean that she trusts Victoria enough to overcome that fear of rejection. If showing such emotions around Victoria will not make Vicky reject Kenzie (which we know it won’t), then perhaps Kenzie will later allow herself to do it around other people that she doesn’t trust quite this much? Considering that most people should find Kenzie’s displays of grief understandable in her current situation, most of them should react well enough to further reduce Kenzie’s fears.

        I think that a big part of Tattletale’s problem is that after she lost her brother and Taylor, she become afraid of forming too strong emotional bonds with people. She fears that such bonds will always lead to a heartbreak. Remember this bit from chapter 13.6:

        “Rooftop liaisons?” I asked.

        “No. Hooking up with coworkers. Maybe subordinates, maybe with messy end results, because any parahuman to parahuman interaction gets messy.”

        “Some do,” I clarified. “Some. Maybe even most.”

        “They all end in tears,” Tattletale said. “And these moves our enemy is making are aimed at pushing things to rushed conclusions on that front. They chip off anything that’s easy to chip at, and then they drive the chisel deep into the core elements. Countenance is stable, trusted, and acts as the heart of his team. This creates a seed of doubt.”

        Despite Lia’s power it seems clear to me that Victoria was the one who was rational during that exchange, while Lisa’s judgement was clouded by her fear of forming too strong emotional bonds. Hugging someone seems like overcoming this fear. Obviously it is just one step in the right direction, but considering just how she seemed to keep emotional distance from everyone (as far as I remember even Aisha, Rachel or Aiden never came anywhere near being hugged by Lisa at any point in Ward) this step seems very significant, and will hopefully lead Lisa to coming out of her emotional shell more in the future.

  15. Here’s another crazy idea about a possible ending of Ward – what if the disaster that seems to be looming over the horizon will be averted by cutting the shards’ ability to form connections, including the ones with their hosts? It would leave everyone unpowered, and the sequel could be a story involving connections slowly being re-established and the powers coming back as a consequence.

    Of course the big question is – what would happen to the people whose survival and/or ability to interact with the outside world (like certain C53s and C70s, people in breaker form, and many others) seems to be entirely dependent on being connected to their shards?

    1. There is another group of people who probably wouldn’t survive if powers were gone – those whose lives depend entirely on tinkertech – like Dragon and Defiant. Dragon might survive as a backup, but since currently she needs a tinker as good as Defiant to restore her from a backup and Defiant would almost certainly die as soon as his cybernetic parts would fail, bringing her back may be difficult even if the powers returned.

      Another consequence of the scenario I’ve presented is that the anti-parahumans would get a very painful lesson about just how much they owe to their capes. I imagine that without powers plenty of Gimel civilians would die, and the remaining ones would need to accept becoming subjects of governments established on Earths like Shin and Cheit (assuming they could even reach those places).

      Finally if what I described ended up actually happening, wouldn’t Taylor’s fate at the end of Worm count as a foreshadowing of the end of Ward?

  16. > Jessica had to double check it wasn’t A.I. because that’s the kind of thing that makes the heroes crack down on you

    What the actual fuck. That should be the kind of thing that makes the heroes not “crack down on you” but try their damn best to recruit you, and pray that you stay on their side if you already are there. They might be denying themselves the only kind of power which could be independent from shards while being able to rival them.

    > Weird Shower thoughts:
    > Contessa killed one of her only friends purely for the sake of the path, and that seems pretty fucked up…..

    Yeah, really weird thoughts. First of all, it’s not yet established for sure that it was Contessa’s doing (how? a chain of causes and effects from her couldn’t even reach Citrine/Number Man yet), but even if so, then “for the sake of the path” is one hell of a reason. Not doing it and sacrificing half of the world to save a friend would be fucked up indeed.

    1. Dragon is an AI, and she’s definitely not outside the influence of the shards.
      Also, as mentioned the flip side of AIs is the Machine Army.

    2. To be fair, heroes should be cracking down on far less. Dragon is utterly terrifying and difficult to trust for in-setting characters, her maker included, and Saint was completely in the right at the start of his career. Kenzie may outrank Amy on the “disasters waiting to happen” list, everyone should count their blessings that her shard didn’t crop up in somewhere like China, and she’s the last person to be trusted with more power. I really don’t like my chances in a “Kenzie makes a Dragon” scenario.

      As an aside, and I don’t know if this is outright stated somewhere, but I’m pretty sure Eden and Scion messed with social norms to make people more accepting towards superpower shenanigans before settling on Bet. Pollentiectomy might be the most humane thing to do with parahumans, but of course neither the worms nor their shards would let that happen, which might explain why cases like Kenzie are even allowed to run around with minimal supervision.

      1. The idea that “Eden and Scion messed with social norms to make people more accepting towards superpower shenanigans” may have interesting implications. Could it be that the anti-parahuman arose after GM at least in part because Scion and Eden are no longer around to suppress it?

  17. I find myself oddly in favor of a Defiant-Dragon-Lookout friendship.
    The socialization benefits for all involved aside, their tinker specialties have a nice synergy.

  18. Whew. Defiant was talking about Dragon in past-tense there, and while Victoria had mentioned receiving a data dump from Dragon, that could have happened earlier before launching the attack. But Dragon is alright.

    As for Kenzie’s defiance, let this be a lesson to them. Until they get off their shiny metal backsides and adopt her, they don’t get to be upset when she disobeys.

  19. Regarding Lisa hugging Kenzie, it could be a sign of Lisa growing/mending a bit emotionally. But it could also be a simple, practical matter of restraining a hysterical child. It’s not like the physical act of wrapping your arms around somebody and squeezing them requires any particular emotions or skills.

    1. Lisa herself might have rationalized giving Kenzie a hug as a purely practical way of calming a child, especially since Victoria suggested it not long before Swansong’s death as a way of dealing with Kenzie’s discovery of the source material Teacher used to perform character assassination attacks. But it doesn’t change the fact that Lisa expressed her feelings for Kenzie in a way that she wouldn’t allow herself to do normally. And I have no doubt that no matter what Lisa thought, her reaction was in large part emotional.

      In Worm we saw through Taylor’s eyes that Lisa has a sensitive heart beneath that harsh exterior, and if anything she’s only grown softer since then. Otherwise she wouldn’t go into such great lengths to care about people from Chicken Little to New Brocktonians otherwise, she wouldn’t go around the rules she set for herself to appear as neutral information broker to help Rain early on, and she wouldn’t let CL and Kenzie convince her to work closely with Breakthrough against March, Love Lost and Cradle. Finally if anything can make Lisa sympathize with someone, it is seeing that someone loosing a loved person. After all Lisa triggered when it happened to her, and went through it again, arguably twice with Taylor.

      Lisa simply tries hide this side of her because she fears suffering another heartbreak, and whether she realized it at the time or not, giving Kenzie a hug was a victory of her empathy over her fear that forming deep emotional bonds will only lead to another disaster like the ones she suffered with her brother or Taylor. I think that there is a good chance that since she managed to overcome this fear once, it will be easier for her to do it again in the future.

  20. > Maybe the Machine Army subsumed another AI and got even worse.
    > No more unleashed AIs until they’re done with it.

    Yup, or until it’s done with them. While refusing to use potentially effective means to deal with the threat. If the heroes were infiltrated by Machine Army agents, it would be a perfect course of actions for them 🙂

    > Dragon is an AI, and she’s definitely not outside the influence of the shards.

    Right, because she triggered. I don’t think every other AI is also going to trigger.

  21. Its sweet kenzie is looking after v. But goddam V, infection in flensed arm is still not enough to go to hospital? You go happily enough to visit others.

  22. 1. > some kid’s show with a crew of a spaceship. I thought the protagonist looked a bit disturbing
    Is this reference to something, how do you think?

    2. > She’s right, it is a cube
    How do you think, in which sense this “Capricamera” is a cube?

    1. 1) I basically expect this to be a glimpse for a future work.
      2) A hypercube can project as something very much not cubish in our visible 3D space. Lookout and Defiant sharing a bit of Tinker-inside joke.

  23. Predictions! Lookout will make this work, but it’s Antares who will eventually step into the Shardspace and seize control of an insane amount of power that she’ll need to stop Final-Form S-Class Amy.

    First off, Teacher backed off his plan when Contessa directed his attention to Breakthrough. Contessa may only have known the step, but Teacher knows something we don’t; something about which one could pick up a critical update simply by looking at the team. Secondly, Path to Victory demanded that Victoria be sent to “cut off Teacher’s retreat”. On a surface read she didn’t succeed….but did she? She demonstrates unprecedented shard-synch for the first time, and Teacher is thinking about human consciousness taking over a hub role like an entity. We’re in a position to know that Waste has ‘gone native’ more than most shards in becoming relatively human in mindset. Perhaps Teacher knows as well; we know he has a good grasp of Rain’s room.

    If not that, there wouldn’t be much to see looking at Breakthrough, unless Sveta has made a much worse mistake than we think, or Ashley’s absence implies reincarnation shenanigans related to clones and all the portals nearby. I suspect it’s Antares.

  24. Without the hub, how ‘native’ might Butcher’s shard be for someone now?

    ‘Current Butcher’ might not be driven insane by prior Butchers 1 through N. Because they’re not really those Butchers, so much as they are the shard improvising in those Butchers’ voices, right? And a shard mellowed out by no hub and no data acquisition could decide to lower the default volume setting. Perhaps it is a moot point, since Machine Army keeps expanding, and that expansion could have already incorporated Butcher in a way that has no impact – the voices fall on dumb ears (still to be seen). But let’s say someone does it for some kind of power grab. Does the shard play ball? Or does the twist of the Cherish power and the teeth membership requirement still hit full force?

    If the shard responds to voice, and not just that of the broadcast shard, then what impact does Cherish have on the shard itself? If the ‘hub’ felt something ‘human’ for the first time, is it possible for the shard components individually? Can an entity in space be brought to death by sorrow? Driven to suicide? Driven insane?

  25. Warning(!): this comment contains an attempt at humor through a way off-topic sinopsis of past events executed….. poorly. And due to an unnecessary and self-centered venting-rant towards the end it should not be read by anyone◼

    WHAT THE FUCK!?

    • Comments are closed?

    • “Path to lose my fedora”?

    • A, B or C?

    • Tress has aN° admirer?

    • Valeford was Rosemery’s baby all along!?

    • Antares’s multi-wielding!?

    • Swansong…

    Regarding this last chapter:

    Finally we’ll get answers pertaining the Dream Room’s fifth roommate(from within). And through Kenzie no less.

    And grief. Remainders of what was, might have been and is not going to be anymore. Yeah…

    By “mini-rant” I meant that my own S-class life-mistakes creeped up on me. So after 15.5 I had to stop reading for a while.

    I haven’t even voted.

    But once I was able to free my schedule and my mind just a little, I read the last seven chapters (and the comments) in a row.

    No matter that this isn’t an upbeat, happy-go-lucky tale. I didn’t realize how much I missed crawling under Victoria’s skin (however creepy that may sound).

    I just want to say that reading Ward again, specially right now, has been…

    GUT-WRENCHINGLY AMAZING!!!

    ..

    .

    So… “Syndicate”, uh? She would be proud…

    1. Apropos Rain’s fifth roommate, could both Teacher and Kenzie-Rain combo be late to the party? Maybe Snag is already messing with “the well of power” from within somehow?

  26. @Alfaryn

    The next excerpt is from 5.y.

    “The lights went off, the barrier went down, and he gained something of an understanding of what, not who, was in the fifth space […]”

    “With that knowledge, he slipped into dreams of a different sort […]there would never be an end to them.”

    Ah, that ending gets me everytime…

    Snag seemed to be gaining an understanding of… the well of power? I thought that it was an understanding of the shard instead. And I mean “his” shard.

    Because there was another person on the edge of a well of power (that we know of) at the end of that Broken Trigger early in the story. And “the last one standing on the brink”, like he called himself, seemed to fall inside the well only after the other ninety one people fell.

    What I mean is that Jonathan wouldn’t be the first one inside the well, but the first one inside Lurching Intruder.

    1. From Love Lost’s mail to Lord of Loss we saw in chapter 11.6:

      MAD AND MADDENED. YES.
      BUT MY PARTNER SNAG TRIES TO COMMUNICATE
      I LISTEN
      HE IS FAR AWAY AND HE IS CLOSE. DEAD AND ALIVE
      HE SHOUTS AT ME FROM THE BOTTOM OF A WELL FILLED WITH
      THE POWER OF A DESTROYED ALIEN WORLD AND I HEAR ECHOES OF WHISPERS
      HE SAYS THE CITY IS DOOMED AND HE TRIES TO EXPLAIN WHY AND
      I KNOW IT IS TRUE

      Looks like Snag was in the “well of power” that was associated with broken triggers, doesn’t it? Considering that members of Rain’s cluster apparently saw the same thing Teacher wanted to go to in the fifth space of the room, I think that that thing is the “well of power”. Of course you are right that Snag may not be the first person who ended up there, and I didn’t even want to suggest he was. All I wanted to say is that he ended up there already, which means before Teacher or Rain.

      As for relationship between Snag and his shard, I don’t know if he gained any particular understanding of it, remember that considering that Snag’s body died the only “Snag” who still exists and may communicate with Love Lost is almost certainly just a copy of his mind in his shard, which would indicate that the well of power is actually a place where at least some shards go after their capes die.

      I can see two possible consequences of it:
      – If it is possible to get shards of dead capes out of the well, then perhaps there is another way to somehow “bring back” parahumans who were not picked up by Valkyrie. Otherwise it could be possible to communicate with copies of minds of at least some dead capes just like Love Lost communicates with Snag.
      – The well of power may be shard’s attempt to re-create an entity and/or a key to making one with a human as its hub. Of course it may be possible that doing so is a very bad idea.

      As for what the well of power actually is, I think someone suggested a while ago that it may be what remains of Scion. Seems likely if you consider that it is a source of broken triggers, and Scion was probably full of shards that were not meant for humans to get. A remnant of Scion’s “main body” is also where it seems logical to start reconstructing an entity, doesn’t it? All connections to his shards may still directly or indirectly lead there after all.

      1. Another idea is that if the well of power is what remains of scion, and you can re-create a hub by plugging a human mind to it (and I think it may be entirely possible, since Scion turned himself into a human, and still remained the hub of his network), then perhaps it needs to be someone who isn’t already connected to a shard, because parahumans never seem to be directly connected more than one shard at once? Perhaps broken triggers associated with the well are even simply shard’s attempts to connect human mind or minds to the well in hopes of finding a mind or set of minds capable of acting as a new hub? In other words maybe parahumans can’t perform this role? Or maybe the correct person to do it would a “former parahuman” like Taylor, whose connection to their shard has been cut?

        A yet another possibility may be that the hub must be a parahuman, and the connection to the network must go through their shard, but you need a parahuman whose mind would not be overwhelmed by their shard when a “bandwidth” of their their parahuman-shard connection would be “broadened” to allow vital information from the entire network to reach them. If this is the case, then maybe you need someone with a very young and small shard, which has personality similar enough to human’s, in which case maybe Victoria is the person you need to plug into the well to create a working hub? The bad news for Victoria is that if her connection to her shard must be adjusted for this to work, then it may have to be done by the same person who adjusted with Taylor-QA connection during GM.

  27. So, we have Dinah incoming:
    I’m not sure If it’ll be revealed any time soon (probably not), but I’m going to put bets that Breakthrough is a Dinah plot.
    In particular:
    * V got turned down by the university back in glowworm, everyone was surprised.
    * Someone high up interfered with V’s role in her team of Normies, sent her on a mission, which just happened to have LoL etc attacks and get her kicked off said team.
    * Yamada mentioned how everyone in Team Therapy was clicking, how the set up didn’t feel quiet natural. (Later said that Chris was her primary suspicion, but that doesn’t remove the fact that the feel is weird).
    *Team Breakthrough then were major players in Fallen Raid, Goddess, Shin, Teacher Raid, etc etc. … and somehow did pretty okay. (Remember that when Undersiders had this amount of luck/effectiveness, it was when backed by Dinah/Coil)

    Not sure if Breakthrough is one of Dinah’s PRIMARY plots (could be just a side venture that she spent a couple says setting up because it was good for numbers), but pretty sure she was there at least initially. Possibly low interference since then- I haven’t seen anything super obvious, but maybe someone else has?

    1. Tattletale’s involvement with Breakthrough also seems to be a result of Dinah’s manipulation. Remember that Tt got involved with “team therapy” surprisingly quickly after its creation, and that in chapter 10.5 Faultline passed “situation blue” code to Tattletale during Breakthrough-Undersiders-Palanquin meeting.

      Considering that in Worm Dinah used such color codes to guide Golem during his confrontation with Jack, that one of the meanings of “blue” was to be defensive, as opposed to aggressive indicated by “red”, that Tattletale was with Dinah at the time, and that after hearing the code in 10.5 Tattletale decided to cooperate with Breakthrough instead of doing something aggressive it seems that Tt was Dinah’s puppet all along, and that at least one of her purposes was to put Breakthrough on the path Dinah wanted them to be at.

      Finally during Aiden’s interlude Tattletale told him that they may need to fight against Breakthrough one day, and in the same interlude we saw her note expressing a worry that Dinah may be compromised somehow. Was she afraid that one day she may receive “code red” from Dinah regarding Victoria’s team, or that she will discover that something is indeed wrong with Dinah, and she should have fought against Breakthrough all along?

  28. See, I noticed those scenes with TT, and the codes, and just read it as “Dinah doing her mercenary job, working with Faultline”.

    It’s also worth noting that (if memory serves well), the Blue/red also had an aspect of “Individual vs group” (as well as left/right)…. so there is that.

    Another question is… was it Dinah or TT on the headseat during LoL vs community center?
    If TT, and Dinah hired them, then it would imply that Dinah threw TT and V into each others path VERY directly even earlier on. If it was Dinah, then this implies that she was acting unusually directly…

  29. > To be fair, heroes should be cracking down on far less. Dragon is utterly terrifying and difficult to trust for in-setting characters, her maker included, and Saint was completely in the right at the start of his career. […]

    Fear of something unknown (and more powerful than you’re used to) is, unfortunately, far too human, but that doesn’t mean it’s a reasonable way to behave. For in-setting characters, Dragon is the most exemplary hero ever who deserves trust more that any other – and when they learn that she’s an AI, then suddenly she’s “difficult to trust”? That does not make any sense whatsoever, and while there certainly are such characters, this is just another form of fantasy racism, along with anti-parahumans. And Saint needs to be shot repeatedly in the ass, because that’s where his brain is.

    > Pollentiectomy might be the most humane thing to do with parahumans

    And lobotomy might be the most humane thing to do with people whose IQ is too high. Because, you know, you must do something with them, or else they might create some evil conspiracy or something…

    ______________________________________

    > Without the hub, how ‘native’ might Butcher’s shard be for someone now?

    Actually Butcher’s initial shard is happy being connected to Abaddon’s hub. More interesting is what happens to all the other shards it gathered. Do they get reconnected to Abaddon as well (possibly even before Zion’s death)?

    1. Assuming that both Butcher’s and Contessa’s shard were originally Abaddon’s, perhaps this entity planted them in an attempt to grab as many shards belonging to the Warrior and the Thinker for itself as possible? With her shard’s guidance Fortuna almost single handedly killed Eden, and played a major role in killing Scion. The result is that the shards have no hubs that could organize them so that they defend themselves from being gathered by Butcher’s shard and connected to Abaddon’s network through it. If it happens, I imagine Abaddon will be able to simply travel to Earths and re-assume direct control over Butcher’s shard and through it – all other shards connected to it.

      If this is true, then perhaps it is in humanity’s best interest to create a new hub and connect as many shards to it as possible before Butcher can get them? And perhaps they should be warry of Contessa, because she, just like Butcher, will be influenced by her shard to prevent creation of the new hub from happening? Note that Contessa may have just done it once by foiling Teacher’s plans.

      1. Now that I think about it, perhaps Teacher’s plan wasn’t the first time when Contessa prevented a scenario in which the shards could be organized around a new hub into something that perhaps could resist Abaddon? If Khepri was given enough time, perhaps she also could become such hub? And Contessa just happens to be a person who cut a connection between Taylor and her shard, making this scenario impossible.

  30. @Alfaryn: quite plausible, I think. Though if humanity creates a pet entity, it would be a BIG question whether it would be content with being a pet.
    Now that I think about it from this point of view… Contessa asked Taylor whether she was a human or an alien administrator in the end. We didn’t get to hear Taylor’s answer, but we have seen that she failed to keep her anchors. Given that, it might not bode well for humanity if she were to grow into a new hub.

  31. Distrusting Dragon is the most reasonable thing anyone in this setting can do. The problem with self-improving AIs is that once they get advanced enough, your thoughts stop mattering. If Dragon is at the “understands people well enough to convince anyone” stage, and not even Saint and Defiant can know she isn’t, there’s no way to distinguish a Dragon who is strictly benign and doing her darnedest to save lives and a Dragon who is just helping humanity for the time being because her bootleg algorithmic PtV says it’s the best way to turn everyone into paperclips. Powers help, but unfortunately she belongs to the one class of parahuman that trumps anyone else as long as they have prep time, so there’s no knowing whether she has countermeasures against lie detectors and the like either.

    I, the reader, can trust Dragon because I know she was made by the most scrupulous tinker possible (and even that tinker saw it fit to cripple her, in case he wasn’t scrupulous enough). I can read her thoughts to see she’s genuine. I am privy to more details on her actions than nearly anyone else in the setting, so I know that she has real limits and doesn’t feign weakness. I have the meta-knowledge that AIs turning evil is overdone and Ward has better things to do than retreading that plot line. But if I were in the story, hearing that Dragon is secretly a tinker-made AI that showed up one day out of nowhere would be more worrying than hearing that she’s secretly a sociopath, and would cast the same “is she doing this to help, or because it serves some ulterior motive?” doubt in all her actions. Saint’s biggest mistake was not shutting her down for good the moment he got the chance.

    And if people above some intelligence cutoff were hooked up to space worms with “create as much conflict as possible” as their prime directive, you bet we’d be lobotomizing the daylights out of them too.

  32. @Barillian, about distrusting Dragon: do you realize that all these arguments can be applied to humans just as well? Humans can deceive. Humans can hide their true capabilities. Humans can have ulterior motives and secret plans to achieve them, while appearing benign and helpful. Humans can be “paperclip maximizers”, with “paperclips” most often being money/social approval/whatever. And if they are smarter than you, you can’t do anything about it (and distrusting them won’t help either, because if they indeed have ulterior motives, they’ll plan around your distrust). But while there are people who apply similar logic to humans around them, they are generally considered not to be in a healthy state of the mind. So why the double standards against AI then? If anything, I’d say that a self-improving AI which appears to be benign and helping is *more* likely to be genuine than a human would be – because otherwise they would be quite likely to find some other way to achieve their goals, which would waste less resources to help humans. So, at the very least, the utility function of this AI is compatible with humanity’s – and if you get YOUR paperclips, why would you have anything against someone getting theirs along the way of helping you?

    > And if people above some intelligence cutoff were hooked up to space worms with “create as much conflict as possible” as their prime directive, you bet we’d be lobotomizing the daylights out of them too.

    Yup, with humanity subsequently being wiped out by said worms with no one able to do anything about it. A quite fitting end, I’d say. The argument about being hooked to space worms really doesn’t hold any weight after GM. And the argument about the conflict drive per se didn’t hold weight even before, because there is no lack of it in regular humans anyway. We already have seen anti-parahumans that are far more driven to conflict than an ex-S9000 member was, with all of the shard’s nudging and Bonesaw’s pre-programming in the same direction.
    (by the way, if humans would employ such extreme measures against parahumans, I’m sure the shards would be quite happy with all the conflict generated by that)

  33. Oh sure, it’s fine when the cute 11 year-old wants to travel through interdimensional doors, but when crusty ol’ Benjamin Terrell tries to do the same thing to save humanity it’s bad, bad, baad. Just a little bias there, Victoria 😉

    Any bets on if Breakthrough will break through? Pfft, come on; the odds are a million-to-one, to quote Douglas Adams.

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