From Within – 16.7

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The number of people we were heading back with had necessitated a second vehicle.  Tattletale took one car, and because Syndicate was being punished, Syndicate rode with Tattletale in that car while Chicken Little rode in the other.

I wasn’t positive that this was the time to be dropping the hammer, going for the obvious sore spot, driving in any wedges, or making the kid’s mood worse, but I wasn’t positive about anything, and if something went wrong here, I could at least have the satisfaction of blaming Tattletale.

Still, it made for a much quieter car ride.  Tattletale was free to give Darlene a talking-to in the other car, while five of us were crammed into Natalie’s car, which wasn’t the most spacious on its own.

Kenzie was in the corner opposite mine, knees up against her chest, head turned away, her eyes out the window.  Candy sat sideways, and fussed with Kenzie’s hair as best as she was able.  Natalie and I had combs, but they weren’t suited for Kenzie’s hair type, and Candy was using fingernails instead.

Chicken Little, quiet and aromatic in a slightly bird, slightly dog way, sat just behind my seat.

“I was secretly hoping we could make up, and you could show me around.  Ever since you all told me about Rachel’s place, I’ve wanted to see the swimming hole-”

“It’s too cold to swim,” Chicken said.

“I know!  I know, but I wanted to see it.  I wanted to see the puppy pit, and the horseback riding, and the den where you have big sleepovers.  You guys don’t have video footage or cameras around your place and the internet doesn’t reach there, so I couldn’t really find footage to fill out my mental pictures.”

Combing with fingernails, Candy murmured, “That’s how you reach across the gaps, hm?”

“Yeah.”

“There are some kids who live in the area who join in for some swimming and den sleepovers,” Chicken Little said.  “You can’t tell them to go away because if you’re bad or rude you don’t get to participate and you’ll get kicked out, but they’re kind of outsiders and it’s really awkward.”

“You’re more an outsider than they are,” Candy said.

“You know what I mean, don’t you?  They don’t know about all the cape stuff, or they’re really snotty.  Some are okay, like Mason and Kathy, but a lot of the others are such a pain.”

“They live there.  They have more right to the swimming hole and den than any of us.  Some of them have horses of their own, and they work and do chores with the animals for the whole year to get special privileges,” Candy said.

“But- the Heartbroken always complain about them.” Aiden protested.

“The Heartbroken, in case you missed it, can be the absolute worst, Chicken.  Man, I’m so mad at them right now.”

“Ow,” Kenzie said, as Candy tugged too hard.

“Sorry.”

“Am- am I the annoying snooty outsider that’s butting my head into things at Aunt Rachel’s?” Chicken Little asked.

“Yes,” Candy said, at the same time Kenzie said, “Maybe.”

“Woah,” Chicken Little said. “I don’t know if I can even process that.  My head is exploding right now.”

He moved his arms to demonstrate, while making a little explosion sound with his mouth.

Kenzie giggled a bit.

“Mannn,” Chicken Little groaned.

A beep of the other vehicle’s horn made me twist around.  I looked back and I could see Tattletale and her driver in the armored black land rover, above the glare of their headlights in the heavy snowfall.

“Oh, whoops, sorry Tattletale,” Aiden said.  “Shit.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“When I did the explosion sound,” he mimed the sound he’d just made, while moving his hands.  “I also made the birds react.”

“React how?”

“Short, silly freak-out from all of the birds.”

The birds that weren’t capable of flying along were packed up in the other car.

The other car honked again.

“I stopped!” Aiden said.  He twisted around and looked back, calling out, “I stopped!”

I twisted around myself, to try to get a clearer view of Tattletale, Snuff, and the land rover.  It didn’t look like they were honking to warn  us about anything.

“She’s going to be mad,” Candy said, sing-song.  “We’re going to arrive at Kenzie’s old headquarters and Tattletale’s going to bend you over her knee and give you a spanking in front of everyone.”

“Again with the spanking?  Don’t be weird.”

“I’m not being weird.  I’m taking an idea I know bugs you and drilling it in there.  We’re gonna drive for another hour or more and you’ll sit there with the idea… Rain would see.”

“It’s annoying and uncomfortable.”

“I’m trying to annoy, so good.”

“Guys!” I interrupted.  “Please.  Candy, we’ve had way too much uncomfortable for one night.  Let’s be as nice to each other as we can.”

“Okay,” Candy said.  “Sorry, Chicken.”

“It’s ok.”

The car trundled along.  As we got deeper into the city, the snow on the roads got less bad.  We were at the point where the road was cleanly delineated, when some of the areas outside the city or closer to the ruins of Gimel’s Brockton Bay had barely had an indent in the snow to mark where the sidewalk dipped down to the road.

“I’m sorry,” Kenzie said.  “I don’t want to stir anything up, but I do want to say it.  I’m really sorry I hurt you guys.  I know I can be a blockhead sometimes but I think I’m really sorry enough that it’s going to carve something into that block.”

“Shh,” Candy said.  Her fingers continued to comb through Kenzie’s hair, long after the point she’d combed out the buns and had the hair just long, kinky, and parted to one side.  Kenzie had refused hugs, but accepted this.

We pulled onto a road where there was a long line of cars sitting bumper to bumper, many with things attached to the tops or backs of the cars.  All of the cars were on their way out, while the road in was mostly clear, and half of the cars that were on it were ones that were trying to pull ahead or were pulling into the incoming lane to get a view of how bad things were further down the jam.

“You were in Brockton Bay, right?” Chicken asked.

“I was.”

“Did you know Armsmaster?”

“Only a bit.  I knew him more as Defiant.  Saw him earlier today, even.”

“Cool.  I can barely remember the times before my parents died, but I had some Armsmaster stuff.  I had one of the video games, but I never got past the first level.  I read about the bad guys in the manual and I was too scared to go fight them.  I mostly just ran around as Armsmaster.”

I smiled.  “Which one?”

“Seasoned Heroes Northeast.”

One of the games that was re-released every ‘season’, with slightly different content each time, with variations for every major region.  I had never understood the appeal of a game like that, when they could have run it all online and patched it instead.  Money and lots of kids willing to pay, I supposed.

“Do you still play?” I asked.

“Nope!  I’m doing it for real,” he said.  “I’m not scared any more, and there’s no manuals for these villains.”

“Too true,” I said.

“Did you know Dauntless?”

“I ran into him on patrol here and there.  We had a jurisdiction we were supposed to stick to, and it was close to his, south end of downtown and the Towers.  We’d meet and compare notes.”

“Was he nice?”

“Yep.  It’s… kind of one of those things where I wish I’d done something different.  Back then I just wanted to patrol more, so if my dad stopped and had a twenty minute talk with Dauntless, I’d be so eager to get going again I wouldn’t be listening.  Now I kind of wish I paid more attention when the more legitimate heroes were talking.”

Especially with how things turned out for him.

“And Miss Militia?”

“Super cool.  Very serious.  She’s been a hero for a good long while now, actually.  When I was trying out for the Wards she was in charge, so I saw her more than most of them.”

“And… aunt Rachel?”

I drew in a breath, then held it, before sighing.

“I kind of like her now, and my friends like her too.”

“But how was she back then?”

“I don’t want to say stuff that gets me in trouble with the Undersiders.  I don’t like the villainy that they’re involved in, but I think we need to work together at least in the short term, so we can handle the bigger issues.”

“I won’t tell,” he said.  “If I don’t ask in a moment like right now, I don’t think anyone’s ever going to tell me.”

I looked at Natalie, then at Candy and Kenzie- Candy’s hands moving through Kenzie’s hair in a repetitive motion while Kenzie might have been asleep.

No, I could see her eyes in the window.  They reflected strangely. She was using the time to tinker or program or something.

“What do you think?” I asked Natalie.

“I think tell him.  If he swears to secrecy.  If everyone in the back seat does.”

The kids uttered their oaths and swears, overlapping.

“Back then… angrier, I guess.  Violent.  Vicious.  I saw her hurt people.  When you looked her up online, there were warnings about her that there weren’t for most villains.  Then there was a time she got worse.”

“Oh.  Huh.  That bums me out,” Chicken Little said.

“It is what it is.  Dwell on who she is now.”

“Tattletale?” he asked.

“Tattletale is… scarily similar.  She’s one of the people who hasn’t changed much, except maybe some of the sharper edges have rounded off.  Maybe.”

“Sometimes I try to talk to her or convince her of stuff, and I have these points I’m pretty sure are good ones, but she won’t budge at all.  You’d think someone with her power would be better at seeing other people’s points of view.”

“No comment,” I said.  “I don’t want to make enemies.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Imp?”

“Imp… I forget.”

“Jar!” Candy piped up.

“What?”

“Jar.  Dumb Imp joke jar.  You have to put in a fiver.”

“A fiver?”

“Yep.  It’s a rule.”

“It is,” Chicken Little echoed.

“There’s no jar here.”

“Give it to me, and I’ll put it in the jar,” Candy said, her face solemn.

“This feels like a scam.”

“No,” Candy said.

“It’s a real rule,” Kenzie said.

“I don’t have a five dollar bill.  And what currency-”

“Doesn’t matter, you gotta,” Candy said.

The kids were rebelling, and the tranquility of the drive was disturbed.  Which seemed perfectly in line with the chaos that came with Imp entering the picture in any context.

“I’ll lend you five,” Natalie said.  “Give it to Candy, and you pay me back.”

“This seems overly complicated,” I said.  But she pointed out where her wallet was, and I took the five, handing it to the back seat.

Tranquility restored.  Paid for, but restored.

“Skitter,” Chicken Little said.  “Did you know her?”

“I… some.  A few run-ins.  I’m afraid I can’t tell you much that Tattletale couldn’t.”

“Tattletale says some stuff, but she’s biased.  I barely remember her.  I spent more time around Grue than I spent around Skitter, and-”

Chicken Little stopped abruptly.  I peeked into the mirrors, side view and rear view, and saw the utterly silent exchange between Chicken Little and Candy.

Confirming what had been a lingering suspicion.  A link they didn’t want us to know about.

Between Chicken Little and Skitter, who had become Khepri, who had become public enemy number one and a legitimate class-S threat when she had taken over the minds of thousands of parahumans in the final confrontation against Scion.

“Do you miss her?” I asked.  The silent conversation was becoming one of hushed whispers, intense enough it threatened to become something I heard.  I felt like it would be complicated if I did.  Asking my question served to interrupt that escalation.

“I didn’t know her, so no,” Aiden said.  “That feels bad to say.  She did help me and a bunch of the others.”

“It’s fair, though.”

“Tattletale says that when you kill yourself, or you act so recklessly you die so you essentially killed yourself, then it kind of means people won’t care about you.”

“Is that what she did?” I asked.  Heavy topic for a car full of eleven and twelve year olds.

“Yeah.  Tattletale says the people who love and appreciate you will be hurt or angry and that hurt and anger makes it so they won’t be able to hold onto the memories in the same way.  And your enemies will forget you and move on and grow, while you just fade away.”

“She makes sense sometimes,” I said.

“I think about her once in a while.  Skitter, I mean.  Weaver.  Taylor.  I go a month without thinking about her at all and then I’ll get really curious because-”

Candy cleared her throat.

“-she was there not long after my parents died.  But I think about her less and less.  You can only ask the same questions so many times, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I think that happens with any loss, eventually.”

“But with losses like we’re talking about, when someone basically kills themselves, it happens more.”

“Except for the hurt and pain, which will stick around for those that cared, yeah.  They fade.”

“I think Tattletale probably isn’t the same person she used to be. She’s carrying a lot of that with her.”

“Hey!” Natalie said, injecting fake cheer into her voice.  “Long drive ahead, let’s talk about something happy.”

“Chicken,” Candy said.  “Is Scurvybeard in the car with Tattletale?”

“Uh… huh?”

“Can you talk through him to say something to her?  What’s the funniest thing we could say or do?”

“Whisper, really quietly, ‘underpants’, and leave everyone in the car wondering who said it,” Chicken Little said.

“Whisper ‘murder’ and keep saying it louder and louder until Tattletale flips out and makes Snuff honk the horn again,” Candy added.

“Okay, wow, not sure that’s better,” Natalie cut in.

“I could probably get into her car dashboard if I tried,” Kenzie said, perking up, before Candy pushed her back into the more relaxed position she’d been in.  “Barnaclebeak could tell a long joke or story that never has a point or punchline.  I think that would bother Tattletale more than anything, while Darlene would just be happy because Chicken’s there.”

“Don’t actually do any of this or I’m the one she’s going to come after,” I commented.  “Also, did the name change?”

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “It’s a game we play sometimes.  We imagine Chicken has a pirate parrot who he can talk through, when he can’t talk through any birds, and we think of what we’d do.  Coming up with stupid names is part of the game.”

“Gotcha.”

“Also, just so you know, I could totally put a microphone on a bird.  It’s not my specialty but it’s so close to being a regular thing someone could do I could do it.”

“Got it, Kenzie.”

Chicken piped up, “In my class, there’s a boy and girl who sit in the row in front of me.  Let’s call them, uh, Atticus and Scout.  My seatmate leaned forward and said, ‘Hey Scout, Atticus likes you’ and Atticus got real flustered.  We could have Polly Roger do something like that with Snuff and Tattletale.”

“That won’t work, I guarantee you,” Candy said.

They continued.  I snuck a peek here and there, and saw Kenzie remained where she was, curled up in one corner of the back seat, knees to her chest, apparently looking out the window, but the expression on her face was the jaded, partially-lidded one, and the light in her eyes was from images dancing on the surface, as she navigated menus and code, one ear on the conversation, periodically joining in.

But even when Candy stopped fussing with her hair, she wasn’t left entirely alone.  Candy situated herself in the middle of the back seat, feet in Kenzie’s lap, head near Chicken’s leg, chattering away.  Physical contact maintained.

And with that, at least, I at least didn’t see Kenzie’s sad smile.  This was contentment, mixed with nervousness.

The car doors slammed as the kids fished around for the things they needed, Snuff taking in the boxes of Kenzie’s stuff.  Chicken Little, Decadent, and Syndicate donned their costumes, while Lookout stood by, bundled up in winter clothing, looking a little left out.

For my part, I flew up to a vantage point where I could blow my nose, wipe my face with a wet wipe, and fix my hair, before flying back down.

“Want to put on your face, Kenz?” I asked.

“Just about everyone’s seen my face already.”

I winced.  “That’s not a good thing.  Also, we don’t know exactly who came-”

“I know.”

“Because cameras.  Right.  Do me a favor and put on a fake face?”

“Can’t.  Disassembled my hairpin.”

“Mask?”

“Didn’t bring it with me.”

I fished around for my mask, which was more for formal occasion than anything.  I handed it to her, and she rolled her eyes before pressing it into place at her eyes.  A visor without eyeholes.

“I don’t really see the point,” she said.  “But if it makes you happy.”

“Come on,” I said.  I went up the fire escape first, kicking snow off the stairs to clear the way.  Tattletale and Snuff had already gone up, as had others, but the snow was wet and the wet was freezing over, so it was a bit precarious.

Into our old headquarters.  At the cusp of Hollow Point, which was dark, evacuated.

The car had been warm-ish, but getting inside the headquarters was the first time since heading through the new Warden’s headquarters in the old Cauldron base that I’d truly warmed up.  Space heaters thrummed, as did some servers, and enough people were gathered that body heat was probably a consideration as well.

Tattletale and Snuff took a spot relatively close to where Chris had once situated himself.  Swansong and Sidepiece were present, sitting and exchanging words with Tattletale, no doubt about the villain collaborative.

I could see Darlene turn and stare at the Deathchester duo, before Candy tugged on her arm.  She resisted, but Chicken Little seized her other arm and she went along.

Sidepiece being here meant Disjoint probably had eyes on the scene, based on my understanding of his power.  That meant the rest of Deathchester would be close, to jump in if something happened.  Something to watch out for.

Tristan was back.  He’d gone back to the hospital room to let Byron rest while I’d taken Kenzie.  I could see that things were wearing on him, and heavy armor and helmet weren’t enough to mask the weariness that seemed to be taking hold of him.

He put out his hand for Kenzie to high-five as she ran over to her console, her group following her to the point in the room furthest from Tattletale and Deathchester.  She checked something on her computer, bringing up a sketched-out blueprint, and then fell to her knees by the box of stuff Snuff had brought in.

“Lookout,” Rain said.  “Stop.  Pause for fifteen seconds.”

She turned around, hands still on the box.

“Have you removed your tech?”

“I’ve got a project, it’s a big one, and we have a timetable,” Kenzie said.

“What was it you showed me a few weeks ago?  The phase map?  When we were seeing if I could phase arms I built into the body?”

“Oh.  Um.”

“Can you bring it up?”

“I could, but that’s going to take, like, minutes, and I have tinker ideas right now.”

“Kenzie,” I said.  “Faster you listen, the faster you can get to those ideas.  Rain’s got the right idea, I think.”

“Ugh!” she groaned.

Rain leaned against the table with his own stuff strewn across it.  The whiteboard had fresh notes, including a sketch of the room, color coded.  Out of all of us, he might have looked the most whole, the most there.  Four arms were folded, some of those arms needed more work or had been taken apart for parts, and he’d done something with his mask to have more around his mouth, which looked more like function than style, but… he was intact.  If he had stuff going on with Erin and family, he was toughing it out.

Kenzie brought up a projection.  An image of herself, standing a few feet to her right.  Like she had a slide projector going through slides, she brought up an alternate her, where her body was a silhouette.  Her eyes slightly glowed, and the two antennae stabbed into those eyes and out through the back of her head, each one bent in what I could describe as spider legs as long as my forearms, if the hairs on a spider’s legs were their own circuits, transistors, and smaller antennae, thick and dense.  Points along those legs glowed white, and the structures gave off their own wave of heat, which was visible in the air and more visible in the shadow the projection cast.  As Kenzie turned her head, so did the projection.

Spooky, to see her with tools stabbing out the back of her head, but-

She brought up another.  The antennae were shorter, sticking more out the top of her head.  The points that glowed were different.

Another set.  Antennae as long as my arms, but curled to stab back into the head.

And another, four antennae on this ‘slide’.

Then the final image.  All ‘slides’ together, the silhouette crowned with ten antennae emerging from its head.  Heat radiated off of it with waves that distorted the air, more intense than above any barbecue, and the individual lights blinked on and off along their mass.  Blinking being the operative words for those particular orbs.  The faint glow at her eyes overlapped to become an intense white that didn’t all line up perfectly, so it bled out, while casting its own heat shimmer.

And a few feet away, regular Kenzie, a slight smile on her face, still wearing her periwinkle blue duffel coat and winter hat, hair down as it had been arranged by Candy, a bit behind one ear, in the exact same stance.  She wore the mask I’d given her.  Eyeless, while the other figure had eight overlapping eyes, each pale and ghostly.

“I’ve got a project to get back to,” Kenzie said, in maybe the first instance of her being self conscious that I could readily recall.  She turned and the silhouette turned as well.

“No,” Rain said.  “I think you need to cut back.  Let’s go down to… half the number, to start.”

“But-”

“It’s a good idea,” Sveta said.

Sveta was wearing a top she’d bought while shopping with me.  With her new body, it fit differently.  Her arms were exposed, and those arms had holes in them, like very geometric jigsaw pieces, the muscle showing beneath.  She had drawn on her arms, covering them with sketched out artwork in pen that didn’t hold up with smudges here and there.  The cauldron mark stood out on her cheek, no makeup covering it, and she looked exceptionally tired, in a way that was as different as it could be from Tristan’s exhaustion while still sharing the same word for the condition.

“But-”

“Sweetie,” Sveta said.  “That looks like too much.  We have one tinker here who can give us an objective opinion, and he’s saying no.”

Sidepiece piped up, “I’m sitting here on the sidelines and I’d say no, if it wasn’t so gnarly.”

“I don’t care what you think,” Kenzie said.

“It’s pretty badass,” Damsel added.

Kenzie took that in, then looked at Sveta, one hand extended toward Damsel, as if that verdict was evidence in her favor.

“No, honey,” Sveta said.  “Those are the opposite of objective opinions.”

“But this is serious,” Kenzie said, one hand extended toward the screen.  “What we’re doing is big.  Isn’t it better if I do it with all the tools at my disposal?”

“Heating,” Rain held out a hand, grabbing his thumb.  “You once said that phases at a rate of ninety-nine percent or something.  If that includes heat inside your eyes and skull-”

“You’re misinterpreting me!  It’s ninety nine point nine to seven decimal places.  That’s way different from ninety nine percent.”

Still.  I’m terrible at math, but I suspect you’re running the equivalent of a constant fever.”

“If I was, it would be a very small fever.”

“Point two?  If the slightest thing happens dimensionally, a weird power interaction, Vista using her power, the portal at the station nearby cracks open by ten percent, there’s got to be a chance that this very delicate house of cards flops over.”

“Okay, but-” Kenzie said, holding up her hands.  “Counterpoint.  That’s a very small chance.  There’s a big chance that what my eyes and systems are giving me are going to be important.”

“Third,” he said, grabbing a third finger.

“If you do it like this it’s going to be forever before I can sit down and pull this together,” she said, plaintive.

“Infection, laceration.  Super small percentage of it is anchored in reality, but it’s still in there.  One is doing damage.  But that’s not just one.”

“Counterpoint?  If my eyes did pop or something, I could make really cool bionic eyes.”

She looked to one side.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He followed her gaze, much as the rest of us did.  To Ashley’s whiteboard, which hadn’t been touched or modified, except for a small drawing by Kenzie in one corner.  There was a note about black bread, for some damn reason, and something about hair, all done in small script that was just meant as a reminder for her.  “I remember her talking about the eye thing too.”

“Let me help you, let me be useful tonight, and I’ll take it out after.  I’ll go however long you want without using it again.  But I don’t want to do something this big and do it half-blind, only for something to happen to you guys!”

Fuck.  There was a chance certain members of our team had rubbed off on her.

“You’ve got me,” Darlene said.  “You’ve got Tattletale watching.”

“But I haven’t even scanned you, and Tattletale doesn’t get this like I do!”

“Lookout,” I said.  “Listen to Rain.”

“Rain probably knows what he’s talking about,” Chicken Little said.

“Don’t,” Kenzie said, and she somehow sounded hurt in a way she hadn’t when facing off against the Heartbroken.

“I’m just saying,” Chicken Little said, apologetic.

“Just take ’em out, rest your eyes?  If we can just see you didn’t hurt yourself already…” Rain said.

“What if I say no?” Kenzie asked.  “What if I refuse?  I wasn’t brought onto this team as the team baby.  The rule was I wouldn’t be left behind or given a stupid, silly job while you guys did the real heroics.  I was brought on as an equal.”

“I think we’ve more or less lived up to that,” I said.

“Kind of!  Sure, but you’re not living up to it now.”

“We call each other on our crap,” Tristan said.  “Keep each other in line.”

“That’s even less of a kind-of than the last one!”

“You go, kid,” Sidepiece chimed in.

“Shut up,” Kenzie said, wheeling around.  She sounded angry.  “I don’t like you and you’re not funny.  This isn’t your business.”

I turned.  “Deathchester, Undersiders, do you mind stepping out?  You can go into the hallway or step out onto the fire escape if you want a smoke or something.”

Sidepiece smirked, looked like she was going to say something, but then Damsel straightened, walking in front of her.

Sidepiece and Damsel went out to the fire escape.  Tattletale remained put, but sent Snuff out to the hallway.

“Staying?” I asked.

“I’m keeping an eye on things.”

“I’ve got that covered, thank you,” Lookout said.  “Just like I’d have this project covered if people would let me.”

“Why are you fighting us, Lookout?” Sveta asked.

“Because you’re fighting me!  This is what I do!  This is what I’m good at!  This-”

Candy had tried to reach for Kenzie’s hand, but Kenzie pulled away.

“-this is why I’m here!”

I felt a pang at that.  A stab of… not guilt, but sympathy.

I’d been going easy on her, letting her coast and stick to known habits, because I’d had something of a guess that this was in the works.  That she wanted to be needed.

And the shitty thing was, I agreed with her.  That the tech probably made more sense to keep than to discard, given what it enabled her to do.  I would have been okay with her keeping it on until she was done, and that wasn’t because I valued this project that highly.  It was because she was an eleven year old kid who had just lost her most important person for maybe the fifth time in her life, and she needed her security blanket, even if that security blanket was eye-penetrating alien hardware.

I flew over, and the flight aspect of that seemed to give her pause.  I put my hand on her forehead.

Warm, but not quite fever-warm.

She kept going, “Listen, I want to do this!  I want to do it with all my eyes open.  I want to help, I want to make a difference.”

“Count down from a hundred,” I said.

“That’s-” Kenzie started.  She stopped.  “Not fair.”

I kept my hand where it was.

She counted, under her breath.  She was at fifty or so when Candy reached for her hand.  This time, she didn’t pull away.  Darlene stood behind her, a hand on each of her shoulders.

She reached zero.

“Array one,” Rain said.  “Talk me through it.”

“Array one connects to systems and mainframes in the area.  Cameras, mostly.  Refracts within camera architecture, hijacks signals.  Some hosting architecture too, so I can see a feed and think about it some without it taking up all of my attention or keeping me from looking at other stuff.”

“Do you really need that for this project?”

“It lets me keep an eye on Sidepiece in case she tries to hurt any of you, even when my back is turned.  I can watch outside, and watch the horizons with the cameras I mounted outside.  It means I can work without worrying.”

“Array two, then?”

“That’s mostly a mainframe with a lot of hosting.  Alternate vision modes, zoom, analysis, scanning.  One hundred percent essential for the work I’m doing.  It lets me see inside tech and work on it without taking it apart.”

“Array three?”

“Hookup to my main database, offsite hosting, onsite hosting.”

“With hosting being the thing where you’re using it to think and watch stuff?”

“Yeah.  Thanks to scans of Chicken Little.”

“That was what was making you overheat?”

Kenzie nodded.

“Array four?”

“Miscellaneous tools.  Managing projections, eyes as cursors, drone management, not that I have a lot of drones.  Onboard computing.  I can keep tabs on all of you while you’re wearing my projection stuff.  Monitor vitals, cause, y’know, I’m doing that.”  She’d trailed off to a mumble by the time she was done with that.

“Onboard computing?  Using your brain?” Rain quizzed her.

“No, that’s array three.  This is just, y’know, like having a laptop with me, except it’s way easier to jam it in my eyeball instead of carrying it around.”

“Can we get rid of array one and array three, do you think?” Rain asked.

“But… I want to keep an eye on everything.”

“Can you trust us?” Tristan asked.  “We have your back.  You don’t need to watch all of our backs for us.”

“We have your back,” Candy said.  “Both of your teams.”

“Put on some music,” I said.  “Tune out, focus on your stuff.  If you still want to do it.”

“I do.  I have to.”

I drew in a breath, ready to say the hard truth.

“We have to,” she said.

I deflated.

“They’re going to bust a hole in the city,” Kenzie said.  “Teacher’s going to try to control it.  We need to get there first.  Head him off, see what he’s doing.  We have to see if we can’t slow down the damage.”

“We can’t do all of that tonight,” Rain said.  “Set expectations lower.  This is exploratory.  Figuring out the tools we have at our disposal.”

I waited, tense, ready to tell Kenzie this whole thing was off.  Embarrassing, with Tattletale and Deathchester here, but I could deal with a little embarrassment, if our heads weren’t on relatively straight.

Kenzie sighed, then nodded.  “Exploratory.  We see if we can get Rain in there.”

“Put on some music?” Candy asked.  “Can I show you what I’ve been listening to, while you work?”

Kenzie looked at me, then at the rest of the group.  Sveta.  Tristan.  Rain.  Natalie stood off to the side.

I snuck a glance at Tatteltale, and saw a small nod.

“Saw that,” Kenzie muttered, giving me a look.  “You had to check.”

“A bit, yeah.”

“Good to go?” she asked.

“If you remove one and three,” Rain cut in.

“Can I keep three?” Kenzie asked.  “I have my notes and stuff in there, some processes running math that I’d have to start over from scratch…”

“Yeah.  Keep two, three, and four, then.”

Things settled from there.  Kenzie extracted the lengthy antennae from her eyes using a tool to find the right frequency and dig into the orbs for a grip, then laid them out by her computer.  Then she set to work.

Damsel came back in, while Sidepiece remained outside, smoking up a storm.  Snuff checked in, then left to run an errand.

I stepped into the bathroom for a break, because I hadn’t had the chance during the road trips, then decided to run the shower.  There was a chance I wouldn’t get the opportunity, and I needed my head as fresh as I could get it.

And it gave me a chance to breathe, without looking weak or anything in front of the team.  Clear the sinuses, clear the mind.

I wanted to help Kenzie and I had no idea what to do, except to give her support.

Once I was done with the shower, I toweled off and pulled on the same clothes as before.  Clammy.

“It’s a plain of red crystal,” Damsel said.  She’d apparently been prodded to give an explanation.  “Except the crystal is alive.  The cracks are veins and the shifts in the landscape that look like tricks of the eye aren’t.  If the mountain suddenly looks like a valley, it is one.”

“How often do you see it?” I asked.

“In the first year after Gold Morning?  Twice.  Your Swansong saw it three times.  More lately.  It’s picked up.  I saw it five times in the last week.”

“I’m feeling a bit intimidated,” Rain said.

“You should.  What we have here in this world is the tip of the iceberg.  What they have there is the rest of your iceberg,” Damsel told him.

Kenzie was scanning Darlene and Chicken Little with a drone the size of a football, while the pair held hands.  She aimed the drone at a cube the size of a microwave and blipped data to it like she was shooting a bullet from a gun.  The cube changed color.

“Where to?” Rain asked.

Kenzie looked, and a projected dotted line marked the boundaries for the cube.

“Got it,” he said.

“We can try bringing others in,” Kenzie said, looking over the red cube with the scanned data from Syndicate.  “I think I can lasso people with this, transmit sensation and awareness.  It probably knocks us out.”

“I’d be careful,” Rain said.  “Remember what I said about Snaggletooth?  Cradle hired someone to invade the dreamspace and try to screw with the rotation.  They got mauled.”

Chicken Little stopped spinning around in Kenzie’s computer chair, birds moving from his shoulders to various perches nearby.  “Mauled as in…?”

“Mauled.  Taken to pieces, uh, the details are graphic.”

“I hang with Imp.  I can handle graphic,” Chicken Little said.

“Chunky bits were still dripping and settling into puddles a good five or ten minutes after it left,” Rain said.  “It’s big, scary, and it apparently beat Snaggletooth in something she specializes in.  I think I need to go in alone.  At least for the test run.”

“Aw,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah, no, seriously.  Though I won’t be completely alone.  I talked to Cradle, Love Lost, and Colt.  They know what we’re trying, they’ll be on their guard.  They say they’ll cooperate.”

“You don’t sound confident,” Tattletale said.  “No, correction.  You sound confident.  But you aren’t.”

“Never one hundred percent with that group,” he said.

“Not dumb,” Tattletale told him.

“Do you want me to say something to Love Lost?” Damsel asked.  “She liked me.”

“No.  And it would take a while to get there.  Have to get to the Warden’s base, get permission, then get access to the prison.  Slower because they’re busy and things are shuffling around.”

“Too bad.  I was hoping for a peek.”

“There’s that too, consideration-wise,” he told her.

“I’ve got frequencies for the cube,” Kenzie said.  “Once you outlined the room boundaries, I was able to look for something that fits those metrics, in the mess of data.  If I map it out…”

The cube lit up.  A projection of the room appeared in the center of our hideout, sprawling across the floor in what I had to assume was actual size, all in silvery, shimmering lines.

The image resolution clarified moment by moment, as numbers flew, jagged lines and angles resolving into shapes, then into small details.  Everything writ in silver.

A five-sided room with what looked like a crooked sundial in the middle.  Two parts of the room were cast into deep shadow.

“There it is,” Rain said.

“Not what I saw in the dream,” Ashley reported.  “Except-”

She extended one bladed finger toward a forked line.  It could have been a more organic vein, a bolt of lightning frozen in time, or a crack.

“The cracks like veins.  Right,” I said.

“I figured that was an image resolution error,” Rain murmured.

“Your brain paves over the gaps and cracks, but they’re there.  I’m not sure you can do much about them, but… yeah,” Kenzie commented, working on her keyboard not-cube.  “So if I transplant the alter-space that I set up for the Capricorn twins, can you move this cube to the center?”

“That’s not a cube,” Tristan said.

Thank you.

“It’s a cube, trust me,” Kenzie said.  “Over there?  I’d have to unplug from everything to walk it over.”

Tristan picked it up, moving the not-cube over.  Kenzie remained plugged in, with headphones jacked into her computer, wires looped over the backs of her hands.  She worked with a set of menus.

The keyboard illuminated, projecting a rough cube shape in roughly the center of the room.  The projected sundial toppled, and things throughout the room shifted.

“Wait,” Rain said.  “That’s the actual room, not just a sketch?”

“It’s the actual room,” Kenzie said.

The light from the projection flared, so bright it was hard to look at.

A figure, taller than any shelf or piece of furniture in the rooms, stepped out of the darkness and into the light, into an area riddled with concrete slabs.  It was drawn out in the same silvery outlines, and its body didn’t seem to hold a consistent shape.  Like mountains flipping to become valleys with a perspective shift, but it moved across the room in that manner.

“What the hell is that?” Rain asked.

“Tip of the iceberg, meet the rest of the iceberg,” Damsel said, her voice dry.

“I bet it’s been there every night,” Kenzie said, way too cheerful for the occasion.  “In the shadows on the other side of the glass.”

The thing touched a wall, and the bright distortion of it seemed to extend to the surface.  The camera struggled to hold integrity, then went black.

Leaving the room we were in feeling darker than it had been before the demonstration.

“Walls are down,” Tattletale said.  “And our buddy there is on high alert.  He’ll be waiting for you all on your next visit in…”

“Two hours,” Rain said.

“We can do it,” Kenzie said, too cheerful and bright.  “But let’s reconsider you going in alone?”

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55 thoughts on “From Within – 16.7”

    1. > to warn us about
      Extra space between “warn” and “us”.

      As for the “Swansong and Sidepiece”, I’m not sure if this is author’s error, or Victoria’s Freudian slip.

  1. – “Imp… I forget.” WELCOME TO THE FANDOM, VICTORIA. NOW SHE’S OFFICIALLY PART OF OUR FANDOM :).

    – “Tattletale says that when you kill yourself, or you act so recklessly you die so you essentially killed yourself, then it kind of means people won’t care about you.” -I enjoyed their discussion about Taylor but I feel a deep pang of sadness because they believe that she died and are starting to forget her (my personal belief is that she’s alive and happy with her father on Aleph). Lisa is mad because Taylor “killed herself” due to her recklessness that saved millions of lives, reminding her of her brother suicide. She was hurt by two people she loved in the same manner. Poor Lisa.

    -Ashley will never agree for Kenzie to hurt herself for the sake of others. I don’t want either but if she really want to help and be useful, then lets give this kid a chance to prove herself. I’m sure she’ll do a good job.

    -Next time: Adventure Time. With Rain & co.

    1. > – “Tattletale says that when you kill yourself, or you act so recklessly you die so you essentially killed yourself[…]

      It is very sad that Tattletale thinks Taylor is dead, but at the same time it is also completely unsurprising. Taylor all too often tended to behave as if she tried to commit a suicide by proxy – from her first fight with Lung all the way to asking Bonesaw and Panacea to mess with her head and not trying to save herself in any way when she was convinced that Contessa was about to kill her at the end of arc 30. Tattletale clearly recognized this tendency in Taylor a long time ago, was doing her best to prevent Taylor form actually killing herself, and now she is convinced that she failed – just like she failed her brother.

      I wonder if it means that Tattletale sees a similar tendency in Chicken Little? And if so – I wonder if she is right or wrong…

      1. Apropos Tattletale’s conviction that Taylor is dead – I wonder if one of the questions that Contessa is asking herself every day is “How do I make sure that nobody learns about Weaver’s survival?”, and if the paths she gets make sure that she never talks to Tattletale, especially face to face?

        On the other hand I think it would be interesting to see how Contessa will behave if such meeting does take place. Will her power guide her every word and expression to ensure that she won’t give Tattletale any clues?

      2. Taylor was always suicidal through her action. She always pushed her so far (mentally+ physically) without giving a crap about her own physical integrity and personal security. If you think deeper, her power illustrates her suicidal tendencies too: insects are “pretty suicidal”, instinctively going after the light and getting friend by lightbulbs in the process. Their natural obsession with light and their sacrifice for light illustrate Taylor obsession with pushing herself past her limits and her sacrifices for her ambitions.

        1. Sadly it probably was one of the factors that made her the right person to be everyone’s savior – she had the right attitude to become a martyr.

  2. So that’s a bit unnerving.
    The idea of sending anyone in there sounds like a really bad one given the description of what happened to Snaggletooth, but I guess we’re assuming Rain will be protected since it’s his shard?
    Or…what the hell was that figure anyway? Some kind of conglomerate of all four cluster shards? Or Rain’s particular one?
    Hmm…science demands we go in there and find out.

  3. “With hosting being the thing where you’re using it to think and watch stuff?”

    “Yeah. Thanks to scans of Chicken Little.”

    “That was what was making you overheat?”

    Kenzie nodded.

    Huh? Looks like back in chapter 163. I’ve managed to guess correctly, that Kenzie managed to give herself an enhanced multitasking ability by scanning CL’s shard…

      1. Why? Kenzie has clearly proven that it’s possible to “tinker up” at least the multitasking aspect of QA. Sure, it comes with a miniscule risk of having her brain and eyes melted, but if anyone wants a bit of Khepri’s power, they should understand that the price for it could be major damage to their central nervous systems for it, right?

  4. 1. > “When I did the explosion sound, … I also made the birds react. … Short, silly freak-out from all of the birds.”
    Just like Taylor with insects reflecting her emotions…

    2. > long line of cars sitting bumper to bumper … All of the cars were on their way out, while the road in was mostly clear
    This always strikes me to the core in disaster movies. Why don’t use (at least part of) road-in for evacuation?!

    1. Re. 2. I imagine that the road in may be reserved for emergency vehicles, as a way to circle bypass any car accidents/breakdowns/cars stuck in the snow etc. and for occasional cars that still has a reason to get into the city (like the Breaksiders did). Also note that we don’t really know how wide the roads were in the place we saw the column of cars in this chapter (especially how many lines in each direction they had), and that re-organizing the traffic to use the road in to move in the opposite direction safely could require resources (signs, workers to place them, policemen to guide the traffic, and time to put this whole system in place) that the city may simply not have at the moment – at least not enough to cover all roads and streets used for evacuation.

      1. By the way, note that there was only a single column of cars trying to get out of the city – which suggests that there probably was only one line in each direction, and as I said above, in a situation like this you probably want to keep one line as clear of traffic as possible.

        1. Good point on one line of cars.
          Still, both evacuation on one side and on two sides requires good organization. At least some people are not stupid, if they are ordered/frightened to leave the city and they fill cars to the point of “things attached to the tops”, they would not just sit in endless line of “bumper to bumper” and would try to use other side of road. Someone would need to be in the end of this line and have possibility to turn around, reach some crossroad or junction and go to opposite direction. If people did not do that, it should mean all crossroads and junctions are controlled. Or author did not consider second side of the road.
          If we need to evacuate people fast, having one side of road full and other empty is just plainly inefficient.
          > for emergency vehicles
          They should be able to use roadside.

          1. I’m not sure that the government is trying to get people out of the city as quickly as possible. They are probably intentionally slowing the process down a bit for several reasons – to avoid panic, to make sure that there are enough police, Patrol, heroes etc. available to protect the evacuees from crime (parahuman or not), to ensure that the people being evacuated will not end up having to spend more than a few hours without a shelter, and possibly several other reasons.

            Remember that it is winter, and just one night at sub-zero weather can be lethal for unprepared people. In a post-apocalyptic society many people probably do know how to deal with such conditions for a while, but you can’t assume that everybody does, and considering that the city has over 50 million occupants, even if as little as one percent of them is not ready to deal with such conditions, you could end up with civilian losses that are similar to the ones Contessa predicted in option B.

            Another thing to note is that the fact that the city is able to organize temporary tent towns for the evacuated population indicates that the government has been prepared for a general evacuation for a long time (which is unsurprising, considering that as far as we know both Citrine and the Wardens knew about the “thin ice” situation for quite a while). However even if the government was prepared doesn’t mean that all of these tents were pitched and ready to be occupied at any moment. They were probably packed up and stored somewhere, and it requires a lot of work to deliver tents for tens of millions of people to places where they will eventually be pitched, and deploying them (especially in winter). A lot of this work can probably be done by the evacuees themselves, but almost certainly not all of it, so to make sure that nobody will end up more than a few hours without a shelter (for reasons mentioned above), you can’t evacuate too many people too quickly.

            As for making the emergency vehicles use the roadside, we don’t know if these could be usable for such purposes even in summer, and even if they were it may be impossible now due to snow. Remember that in the previous chapter Victoria mentioned that “The snowstorm was about as intense as I’d seen it, this fall or last winter,” so it is probably difficult enough for the services to keep actual roads clear of the snow. Roadsides are probably covered by snow pushed out of the roads right now, and even if they aren’t considering how deep Natalie’s car sunk into snow on a road that wasn’t cleared in the previous chapter it probably wouldn’t be a bright idea to have most emergency cars that aren’t at least proper all-terrain vehicles try to drive through this snow more than absolutely necessary. In fact I was surprised that Natalie didn’t have to dig her car out of some snowdrift at least once in the previous chapter.

          2. Of course cars produced on Gimel or imported from places like Shin or Cheit (assuming Gimel.US imports cars from there) would most likely be built with harsh winters with lots of snow in mind (which could explain why Etnamobile or Natalie’s cars managed to deal with the snow we saw in previous chapters), but can we realistically assume that no ambulances or police cars used in the city were salvaged from North-Eastern US on Bet? And while it may be possible to rise suspension in at least some of them with snow in mind, it is probably not enough to ensure that none of them would stuck in a snow bad enough that Victoria had to “kick[…] aside a bit of snow so the door would open all the way and close without scooping in a heaping of snow with it” while she was letting Kenzie into Natalie’s car in last chapter.

  5. The end of that wasn’t ominous at all. Man, I hope Rain survives interfering with that. And I hope everyone else does, too. I’d suggest Damsel as going in, she hits hard enough she might be able to deal with the thing, but… She might also rupture the room and that would probably be bad. Assuming she even has any powers in there, I mean I don’t think any of Rain’s cluster has tried using their abilities in the dream. Granted, I’m pretty sure only Rain has the ability to get through the walls, if he so desired, and if he did that he’d likely find himself in a bad position.

    Wonder if Teacher ever saw the thing with his tech plugged into Rain’s room.

    1. I’d assume that Love Lost would have tried using her powers to kill Rain at some point. It either doesn’t work at all or the powers can’t pass through the walls to the other spaces. If it’s the former, everyone’s probably screwed. If it’s the latter, everyone’s still probably screwed.

  6. So, that’s what the Mall Cluster’s shard looks like, huh. That’s… surprisingly humanoid, to be honest. I wonder if that’s influence from the hand-themed Tinker Power?

    1. Honestly, I find it completely unsurprising. Fragments of the entities emulate humans all the time:
      – To ensure that the cycle went smoothly, Scion turned himself into a good enough physical approximation of a human to not only be mistaken for a parahuman for decades, but also gave himself very human-like emotions.
      – During trigger events the powers are largely determined by ideas and memories the shards find in minds of their hosts, and (to lesser extent) other humans – especially those physically close or somehow important to the hosts. In fact I think that the hand-theme was something Grasping Self picked up from humans – it was probably something that it saw as a concept which resonated with its apparently selfish nature (remember that GS is the only shard that is known so far to dislike having to share resources with other shards).
      – After, and probably also before trigger events the shards not only create imperfect copies of their hosts, but also seem to develop personality traits of their hosts – while the shards certainly influence the minds of their hosts, there seems to be a strong personality bleed-through from the hosts to their shards,
      – Even many of the concepts that both shards and Scion use(d) to think about themselves and other shards come from humans. For example the name Zion, or his thought about a certain mythological beetle rolling the orb across the sky that he had after meeting Taylor during his interlude. Similarly Victoria’s shard not only was very interested in the “labels” Vicky used to describe herself, but also thought about both itself and its host using human concepts – like waste and tyrant.
      – All Endbringers were vaguely human-like.

      Since the host species seems to affect the shards (even including the hubs) to this extent, it should be no wonder that even in such seemingly “exotic” situations some shard or shards produced something that at least outwardly resembles a human. What really bothers me here, is that this figure may be some sort of an echo of a particular human (for example one previously connected to one of the involved shards), or an echo of something that was crated to resemble a human – like an Endbringer or an entity’s hub.

  7. more typos

    them.” Aiden > them,” Aiden
    warn us (extra space)
    microphone (should this be speaker)
    Swansong and Sidepiece (most likely intentional, but just checking)
    “Heating,” > “Heating.”
    Tatteltale > Tattletale

  8. Kenzie gave me some serious Khepri vibes in this chapter. Between the spider theme and the Little Administrator copy thing, it’s a bit worrying.

    1. Here’s a spooky thought – what if these recent mentions of Khepri and her shard are a foreshadowing of what is about it happen? What of this “figure, taller than any shelf or piece of furniture in the rooms” is… Queen Administrator?

      Think about it this way:
      – it is probably on of the shards best suited to control a large number of other shards at once,
      – due to personality bleed-through from Taylor it could inherit Taylor’s desire to fight against multiverse-spanning disasters, and the portal in the dream room seems to be the right place to do it at the moment,
      – ever since Taylor lost her powers QA probably has a lot of free resources it can spare for other projects, and Rain’s cluster triggered after GM, so it might have been a part of such project from the very beginning,
      – shortly after Scion’s death Teacher tried to master Taylor, and later we saw him mess with a hole in space similar to the one in the dream room – what if he wanted to control QA through Taylor to make this job easier?

      If this crazy theory turns out to be right, I wonder if the upcoming confrontation with the tall figure will even involve a fight. Perhaps if they send people who were important to Taylor and/or QA (and there quite a few present, including one of Taylor’s anchors, QA’s bud, and a person whom even after killing Scion Taylor remembered well enough to sent Amy to) the figure will not fight, but try to somehow communicate with it’s new “guests”?

      1. The figure is from the Mall cluster, and the only Master shard in there is Nicole’s Anguished Heart. I doubt Admin snoops on them for fun and giggles.
        I probably sound like a wet blanket-carrying professional party pooper, but I don’t expect any WMG trying to bring it back in focus to go anywhere, by design – being a nostalgic cameo discussed in the setting is fine, but ending front and center would detract from the narrative when there’s so many others paths to envision.

  9. I’d be very surprised if this was the Queen Administrator rather than the Mall Cluster’s shard. Not only is it glowing bright blue just like Rain’s blades, but I think it’s demonstrated the use of that power’s full potential when it murdered the guy who intruded into the dream, and it’s possible that what it did to the camera in this chapter was also an application of that power.

    Also, none of the Mall Cluster have any powers resembling anything that the Queen Administrator does.

    1. If this is one of the Mall Cluster’s shards, which one is it? If Snaggletooth died after Snag did, I would guess it is the Lurching Intruder, but between the fact that these deaths happened in the opposite order, and the arrangement of the dream-room (which is divided into five, not four sections) my gut feeling is that it is not any of the four shards of the original Rain’s cluster (and obviously not Colt’s shard either). This means that there probably was a fifth shard involved in the Rain’s cluster multi-trigger (which for some reason seems to not give any obvious powers to the Rain’s cluster members), or the tall figure is some sort of combination of all four shards.

      I guess that the second option is possible, but my gut tells me it is the first one – there is an extra shard involved which performs a different function than just giving Rain and his clustermates their powers. QA seems like it could be a shard suited to doing just that (I think it could even establish this elaborate setup with the dream-room and a distribution of personality traits and powers via tokens), because:
      – QA is one of the most mature shards Scion ever had, and it was involved in a second trigger, which means that it could play more loosely with the rules Scion defined for shards,
      – QA is one of the “noble” shards that were necessary for proper function of the entity in other phases of the cycle than gathering information from host species, which probably means that it never could be as limited as most shards,
      – the way QA budded seems (at least in hindsight) like a deliberate attempt to give the parahumans outside the Birdcage an information about the nature of the crisis they were facing (so QA seems to have been on “humanity’s side” even then – possibly at least to some extent because of Taylor’s single-minded focus on stopping the end of the world).

      On top of all of this, the “mountains flipping to become valleys with a perspective shift” remind me of the constantly shifting surface of two of Taylor’s signature tricks – the “clones” she made of insects, and covering herself with a constantly shifting layer of bugs.

      1. @nick012000

        Don’t get me wrong – I also think that my theory that it could be QA is a long shot(and I agree that there is a ton of other possible explanations, some of which I even mentioned my response to your other post). I simply don’t think the QA theory is quite as unlikely as you seem to believe.

  10. more typos (maybe?)

    >“That won’t work, I guarantee you,”

    “I guarantee it“, Instead?

    >”Chicken Little, quiet and aromatic…”

    Probably not a typo, but what does aromatic mean in this context?

    AromaNtic, instead?

    1. Aromatic is probably the most understated way to write smelly I saw written.
      Guess fragrant wasn’t wordy enough for Victoria’s senses.

  11. I’m more and more convinced this is Ward’s closest equivalent to Venom 29.9, except instead of Taylor doubling down on her flaws to press Bonesaw and Panacea for more power… Victoria is drifting towards her diary-self in her treatment of the team and Lookout, especially.

    It’ll make for a good read, but I don’t think what’s coming will be much fun.

  12. I see a lot of myself in Kenzie. Sure, she’s a young black girl while I’m an adult white guy, but turning to tinkering as escapism is a very “me” thing to do. Feeling blind without one’s tech, yup, that too. Always gotta be working on something? Me again. Tinkering to the detriment of basic needs? Well I’ve outgrown the worst of it, but that was college-me in a nutshell. I definitely had a time in my life where I was looking for every possible piece of tech I could equip myself with to get past my innate limitations. (I miss wearing a smartwatch, but after my last one broke I haven’t been able to find something to replace it that does what I want it to do.)

  13. Do you remember how some time ago (here: https://www.parahumans.net/2019/06/08/breaking-14-7/#comment-93823 ) I suggested that Wildbow probably made a timeline error or yet-unpublished change in Worm, because timings of certain events in Teneral e.1, Teneral e.5 and Overseer’s interlude seem to not line up?

    Here’s a summary of my reasoning for the people who don’t want to read the thread linked above:
    – in e.1 Legend said “The major players are busy recovering and rebuilding, giving us six straight months of peace for the first time in twenty years,” and during the same event Valkyrie was officially announced as a new member of Wardens, and appeared for the first time in her new costume,
    – in e.5 Teacher mentioned Valkyrie in a scene in which Contessa was still free,
    – in Overseer’s interlude it was mentioned that Contessa was captured nine weeks after GM.
    I thought that Legend words in e.1 meant that his speech (and Ciara’s rebranding as a Valkyrie) had to happen six months after GM, e.5 happened after that speech, so according to Worm Contessa couldn’t be captured as early as it was stated in Ward.

    Now I’m not so sure that the above reasoning is correct. I forgot about one important factor – thinker powers. It is entirely possible that in e.1 Legend wasn’t talking about six months of peace that had already happened, but about a prediction done by some precog or precogs that post-GM was going to last six months.

  14. @Alfaryn

    post-GM prace was going to last six months. > post-GM peace was going to last six months.

    There. Now’s okay.

    Please don’t hurt me…

    1. Whoops, sorry once again.

      (Note to self – don’t post stuff like this several hours after midnight, especially on a browser that for some reason insists on using both Polish and English spellcheckers, and underlining spelling errors only when it can’t find them in both dictionaries.)

  15. Yup, everyone seemed to ignore Kenzie’s tendencies to wear lots of phased-in tech until now, and now they suddenly found an absolute best moment to mom her. Strange that they didn’t make her brush her teeth, wash her hands and clean her room before she gets her tinker toys back, while they are at it. I’m 100% with Kenzie on this one, every bit of an edge could help now. Though it might be better to wear the tech outside of the head for this occasion (but I’d trust Kenzie’s judgement if she thinks that it would be safe even in the presence of some interdimensional weirdness).

    And tomorrow’s update is going to be quite interesting…

  16. Here’s an idea about how this could turn dramatic and ugly in next couple of chapters:
    1. “Tall figure” in the dream-room turns out to not only be hostile but also perfectly capable of beating up whoever is sent to the room.
    2. Victoria gets wounded so badly that she needs a quick parahuman healing to survive.
    3. Tristan calls the one parahuman healer who happens to:
    – know about the “hole in reality” that Teacher made, and the one in the dream-room,
    – knows where Breakthrough HQ is, because she’s already been there with Goddess,
    – would do anything in her power to help Victoria.
    Remember that not long ago Tristan considered contacting this healer despite Victoria’s wishes if it turned out that it was the only way to help Byron.
    4. One Breakthrough member survives, but “endures some torment for… quite some time,” just like was foretold?…

    1. A few extra notes to explain why I think the above scenario may be not that unlikely:
      – The fact that Amy accepted Warden’s supervision means that she may be just a few portals and a short drive through a mostly deserted city away from Breakthrough HQ.
      – Point 3. above means that Tristan may already know how to contact Amy quickly, it means that that she knows how to reach the HQ, and and if Tristan explains to Amy just what Breakthrough attempted to do, Amy will know just how serious the situation is (since she’s the one who told Victoria about the “hole in reality” in the first place) and do her best to come to help Breakthrough immediately regardless of Victoria’s past wishes to stay away.
      – Between the “thin ice” situation and the fact that Amy doesn’t fully trust herself to use her power on Victoria, or people who remind her about Victoria without complications, it may be that if something really bad happened to Vicky, Amy would probably go to the HQ, do absolute minimum healing to stabilize Victoria for transport out of the city. Even after Victoria is moved to a place where Amy could afford to use her power more without risking immediate interdimensional disaster, she would probably want to heal Victoria slowly (even slower than Carol) just to make sure that she won’t make some major mistake again, which would lead straight to point 4. If Amy does make a mistake… it also leads to point 4. Hopefully this time Tattletale will manage to keep Amy from making a series of mistakes so big that it will take years to fix them.

      1. By the way how badly do you think will it bite Breakthrough in the ass that they decided to mess with the dream room without gathering all available information about the problem from Amy (because last time Victoria made sure to cut her conversation with her sister as short as possible) and the Wardens (because Breakthrough decided to act behind Wardens’ backs)?

  17. For the first time in several months, I didn’t get the usual notification email.
    Great chapter though. Especially like the visualisation of Kenzie’s gear.

  18. Considering how important the self-imposed rules were to Amy, I wonder how she would feel about the fact that the Heartboken seem to have rules for everything – from the one about never hurting Chicken Little to the one about Imp and the jar… Would Amy recognize that the Heartboken need their rules to function just as much as she does? Would she worry what could happen if they broke their rules just like she broke hers?

    It is also interesting to note that Kenzie tries to control her behavior with similar clearly defined rules just like the Heartboken do (even if she seems to be much worse at actually following her rules then the Heartboken are at following theirs). Could it be one of the reasons why she gets along so well with them?

    1. I also wonder if Natalie payed for Victoria not because she just wanted to play along with the kids, but because she recognized just how important it was to show the kids that even their seemingly silly rules shouldn’t be broken for trivial reasons. Seems fitting for someone who is both a lawyer and Kenzie’s legal guardian.

  19. Spider Kenz, Spider Kenz
    Sees through every camera lens
    Surfs the web with her eyes
    Never cold; her brain fries
    Lookout! She is the Spider Kenz

    Is she smart? Listen bud,
    She’s got an integrated hud
    How’s she pick swanky threads?
    Neural nets expand her head
    All hail, hail to the Spider Kenz

    Though your drive’s a wreck
    And what’s left is just grime,
    With her box-shaped tech
    She can snoop back in time!

    Spider Kenz, Spider Kenz
    Creepy neighborhood Spider Kenz
    Privacy she’ll ignore
    Can’t be blocked; zut alors
    To her, life shouldn’t be a secret
    Wherever there’s concealment
    You’ll find the Spider Kenz!

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