Sundown – 17.3

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“Where the hell do I even start?” Kid Win asked.  “I never was much of a teacher.  There used to be those school events every couple of months where the top students and most improved students would each get one-on-one hang outs with the Protectorate or the Wards for the day, I dunno how much attention you paid to that stuff.”

“Little superhero obsessed Victoria?  A lot.  There was actually an issue when I won the one year.  I was supposed to partner with Challenger but people thought the girl with superhero parents didn’t need the experience.”

Kid Win snorted.  “What happened?  I don’t even remember Challenger.”

“I gave up my spot.  Then I went home and crieeed.”

“Oh no,” he said.

“In my defense, I was eight or nine.”

“I remember wondering what kind of experience Armsmaster gave the kids,” Kid Win said.  “He was always kind of… grumpy.”

“Start out with a ride on the bikes the Protectorate had, including riding on the forcefield bridge out to the island HQ.  Visit the workshop with what I have to imagine was a gruff ‘don’t touch anything I don’t say to‘, trying out a bunch of tinkertech gadgets.  Then patrol, with another member of the team pre-clearing the route, maybe a crisis point if the kid was old enough and the situation minor enough.  Almost always the same formula and routine, but he was good at executing that.”

“Huh.”

“I think they were very selective with who they sent his way.  Kids they thought he could get to.  Serious kids.”

“I have no idea what selection process they used for me.  Probably that Clock would be a bad influence, Aegis and Shadow Stalker were jocks, I think.  Gallant was more sensitive-”

I looked off to the side.

“-Which I’m not.”

“It’s fine.  You were saying?”

Kid Win looked at Vista, who had settled down and sat on a box enclosing a bush of what looked like holly, talking to Dennis.  He dropped his eyes back to the ground.

His eyes were strange, and the way he held himself now, he didn’t embrace the strange.  There was a focus to him that I didn’t remember him having, but a new weakness too, because he wouldn’t meet my eyes and seemed to keep looking down or away, maybe because he was embarrassed of how he looked.  I saw some red-tinted sunglasses in one of his coat breast pockets, but he didn’t wear them here.  How much did he change if he had them on?  Would he more or less look into my eyes?

He answered me, “I think they picked the kids for Vista’s sake, instead of picking Vista for the kid’s sake.  And I got the leftovers.  A lot of the weird kids.”

I smiled.  “The fact you figured out there was a sorting system means you were capable of seeing what the ‘weird kids’ needed.”

“I dunno,” Kid Win told me.  “I wasn’t very good at it.  I had the impression Piggot or Armsmaster or Miss Militia wanted to cultivate something in me, for leadership or whatever, but then the leadership changed around, or the city changed, and expectations changed with.  Nobody ever had the chance to follow through.  Now Valkyrie’s asked me to do this thing, and I don’t know how.”

“Well, you’re kind of touching on it,” I said.  The wind had changed direction, so I pulled up the hood of the plush black sweater, where the material of the hood felt like it was an inch and a half thick.  “So you remember all that stuff.”

“I think because it’s superhero-adjacent.”

“But you don’t consider yourself very… you?”

He shook his head.

“I want to know who and what we’re up against.  I want to know who and what I’m working with.  If you’re… closer to the agents?  Is that a sore point or touchy subject?”

“More for Clock than it is for me,” Kid Win said.

“Let me know if I get insensitive,” I told him.  “What filters through?  What doesn’t?  What matters?”

“Give me a starting point.”

“Day to day.”

“Day to day activities?  I remember daydreaming about tinker stuff in class, the stress of not doing well in my classes.  Actual time at school is a haze, but here and there I had some good ideas or epiphanies and I can remember those.  I can relate back to the school stuff that I used to inspire tinker work.”

“So you don’t remember, say, Math class?”

“The old me didn’t think of math class as anything except a constant feeling like I was struggling to tread water with weights tied to my ankles.”

“But you remember that feeling.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Is it mostly negative?” I asked.  “What about good memories?”

“Hazy recollections of returning to the base after a fight we did okay in.  Camaraderie.  Being promoted.  Legend complimenting me.  That one’s sharper.”

“Are those all when you were around more parahumans?  Stronger parahumans?”

“If you’re trying to gauge by that… Vista kind of skews the results.  She was one of the strongest Wards and she was around a lot of the time.”

I nodded.  “Fair.  Good point.”

“And no.  Some of the hazy good memory is around family.  We did this one, um, it was a crisis point.  No powers involved, but they sent me, Gallant, and Battery to talk to this woman who had been attacked, we were supposed to make sure she was okay, show our faces, give support and make sure no powers were involved.  Not pretty but a bit of a softball for two teenage guys and an experienced hero, right?”

“Sure.”

“It wasn’t a softball.  She was psychotic, vulnerable, broken.  People with mental illnesses get preyed on more than they prey on others, and she said a whole bunch of stuff.  Got to Gallant, feeling what she felt.  Got to me, hearing the things she said, wrestling with what I was wrestling with at the time.  Really scary, really sad.”

“This is a happy memory?” I asked.  I could remember Gallant bringing that scene up back then.  I hadn’t known Kid Win had been there.  “That sounds horrible, I’m sorry, Chris.”

“Yeah, so, I was pretty shaken.  Battery ended our night early, said she’d do the paperwork.  I called home for a ride, and I didn’t sound okay.  I was feeling rock-bottom worthless, scared, and felt a bit like there was no future.  I couldn’t shake the idea that ending up where she was right then would be far more likely than being okay or living a normal life.”

I nodded.  “An unexpected hit, straight to a weak spot, at the worst time.”

“Yup.  So my dad picked me up, I freak out a bit in the car on the drive home.  We get back to the house and… we talk.  Maybe for the first time in my life, my dad was a support, talked to me a like an adult when I started the conversation feeling like such a kid.  We talked until it was ridiculously late, I vented about some of the stuff that was getting to me, school stuff.  He offered me a beer and I said no, and he accepted that.  That’s just the kind of guy he was, the beer thing.  He took off work the next day, I took off school.  We slept in, went out for lunch at a pub and played pool, we went to an arcade and he showed me his pinball skills.  Then I went to the HQ for my evening shift.”

I was a little bit surprised by the strength of my emotional reaction to the little story, especially the late night talk he described.  I blinked a few times in rapid succession.  “That stuck, huh?”

“Gets a little hazy toward the middle of that day off.  What’s your line of thinking?”

“Is it negativity-adjacent?” I asked.  “What stays, what goes?  Why?  What can we pull out, what can we focus on?  How does it connect to what we already know of powers?  They fluctuate, when we’re in certain mental states, can we use new knowledge to control that fluctuation?”

Kid Win nodded, but I could see the slight changes in his expression, tiny creases, small tensions.

I went on, “I ask because last night, I found a new connection to my power.  One I want to hold on to.  And if I need to, I want to be able to intuit and deal with other powers, including any situations resembling last night, or… could be it matters for what the thinkers say is coming today.”

“Ah,” Kid Win replied.

Off to the side, not quite in earshot, Dennis said something, and Vista had a giggle fit.

“That okay?” I asked Kid Win.

“I don’t feel as much like an experiment under the microscope if you’re using it for yourself.”

“Using a good part of it for myself.  Using more of it to just figure out how this all works.  Last night, I was in the midst of it all.  Earlier in this conversation, I used the term… what was it?  Negativity-adjacent?”

“Sure?  Think so.”

“I’m thinking a lot about what’s next to what, how it all maps together.  I had glimpses last night and I’m still digesting that.  I don’t know if it’s like looking at a lot of fine art or listening to a lot of music and getting an intuitive sense of things… but I leaned pretty heavily into intuition when I became…”

I trailed off, not quite sure about the words I was grasping for.

“The greater connection to your power?” he guessed.

“More like I became Victoria-adjacent.  Twice.  I was horribly burned, I found a different facet of me inside that vast program of alien biology, and then I was fine.  I threw myself off of a cliff, and I just about died on landing, except I shifted to another facet of me.”

“You might be more experienced with this stuff than I am,” Kid Win said.

“Might be,” I said.  “But Valkyrie’s been training you guys in this?  Talking to you about it?”

“Having us meditate, having us pay close attention to our powers and what they’re telling us.  Easier for some than others.”

“I don’t know how long you’ve been back, but I’ve been more or less wrestling with this for the last… four hours, it seems.  I’m pretty sure you’ve had more time to digest it.”

Dennis and Vista had stopped chatting and gravitated closer.  I was aware they were listening now.

“You said you became Victoria-adjacent.”

“Which isn’t even the right way of putting it.  It’s like if Victoria lives at three-four-three tower crescent avenue, and Glory Girl lives at three-four-two, and Antares lives at three-four-five, and there are connections tying one to the other.  I’m still me, but the center of who I am is living at a different address.”

“Antares went to that place you describe,” Kid Win said.  “You said you changed twice, using the language of that place.”

“Language?”

“How would you put it?”

“Physics, superpositioning, reflections, facets.”

“I’m so glad I missed the first half of this conversation,” Dennis commented.

“Shhh,” Vista shushed him.

Kid Win barely seemed to notice them, as he thought about what I’d said.  “Sure.  Works.  Question is… is the Victoria who went in the same Victoria who left?”

I had to think about it, considering who I was, and the various aspects of that place.  Did I feel different?

Yes, but not because of that.

“Up until I entered that room, I didn’t have control, and a huge aspect of this world… felt massive, untouchable, out of reach.  I saw a broken trigger where a man described being a small figure at the mouth of a volcano.  You can’t beat the volcano.  It swallows you up and you have no chance.  And sometimes, it’s the next person’s volcano.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t visit you,” Vista said.  “After…”

I shook my head.

“You have control now?” Dennis asked me.

“I think so,” I answered.  I thought about it some more.  “Yeah.  Part of what motivated me to go there last night-”

“Interrupting,” Kid Win said, rushing the word, holding up a hand.

I paused.

“Whatever you say to us is going to be repeated to Valkyrie,” he said.  “Full disclosure.”

“Valkyrie might be ticked you said that,” Dennis pointed out.  In the moment, he seemed more the somber, almost morose Dennis I’d known.

“Let her,” Kid Win answered.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I wanted to ask her questions.  Now I’m asking you, and if you’re her proxy… same end result.”

“I don’t want to betray your friendship with us, or the people we used to be,” Kid Win told me.

I nodded, taking that in.  How much of my openness was that?  How much was I willing to tell Valkyrie?  I wanted to think I’d be open, trust that she might be the most accessible parahuman to me who knew this world, but would I change what I said in the face of the small changes in expression?  The particular word choice?

“You’re a good guy, Christopher,” Vista said.

“Mm.  I don’t think I am, but thanks.”

“Why don’t you think you are?” Vista asked.  “You’ve been a hero as long as I’ve known you, you’re here and you’re being friendly even though it means potentially upsetting the boss.  The only dick move you’ve pulled was dying on me.”

“We couldn’t help it,” Dennis said, automatically.

Vista snorted.

“I’m not saying I’m not good,” Kid Win said.  “I’m saying… I’m not sure I’m a guy.  Human.  Humans have childhood memories.  One experience layered onto another, with things emerging from that.”

“What are you now?” Vista asked, quiet.

“An end result.  A fabrication.  The only lasting impressions from the past are the essential ones that made me into me.”

I thought about that.

The wind picked up.  I turned my head so the hood would protect me where it was colder.  Vista hunkered down a bit, and Dennis took a step to the side, so the breadth of his upper body blocked the wind for her.

“I feel the same way, I think?” I ventured, not sure of what I was saying as I said it.  “I feel like the bad days left their disproportionately deep marks in me and who I am today.  Too many days of the past few years are a haze.  I’m not going to say it compares, but I don’t think we’re that far apart.”

“I was talking about my dad earlier,” Kid Win told me.  “That one good day.  I’m supposed to meet him later, you know, but I don’t have all of the memories of him.  I don’t remember his face.  I don’t remember his voice.  Whatever part of me he was trying to support or hold onto that day?  I don’t think it’s there.”

“You can salvage it,” Dennis said.  “All the data’s there, except…”

“Sorted differently,” I said.  “Something else’s filing system.  Something else’s priorities.”

“Yeah.”  Eyes in a tinted red metal glanced downward, pupils a gold light that emanated from the inside the orb, the tracery of etchings around the pupil bearing a similar effect.

“I’m sorry, Christopher,” I said.  “I hope it works out ok and that he’s understanding, and that it’s mostly painless.  If nothing else, I can’t imagine he won’t be happy to have you back.”

“A part of me,” Kid Win said.  “And I don’t hope it’s painless.  Painless means I’m not human enough to care.”

I saw Dennis nod a bit.

“Point conceded,” I said.  “Sorry about comparing us.  That’s… pretty damn heavy.”

“I’m not looking for concessions,” Kid Win said.  “I don’t want to make this a competition.  I think we’ve all had to deal with ‘heavy’.

“Dying and coming back,” Dennis said.  “Dealing with everyone else dying.  And…”

He stopped as he looked at me.

“Family stuff.”

“Family stuff.  Yeah,” he said, wrinkling his nose, snorting a bit.

It was meant as a deflection, a little joking acknowledgment, but it felt like a profoundly sad moment, because it wasn’t how the Dennis I knew would have responded.  I resisted the urge to look at Vista to see how she’d taken it.  She’d talked to him long enough to pick up on it, and she’d known him far better than I had.

“That family stuff?” I spoke up, “it get into that control I was talking about.  Having the tools.  Having the knowledge to tackle all of this.  My entire family consists of control freaks and people who have no control, who get swept up in life and powers and everything else.”

“Ugh,” Vista made a sound.  “I can guess your mom’s the control freak.  Your dad’s swept up.”

“Amy’s swept up.  Crystal’s swept up,” I said.  “Distinction being that they’re not totally helpless.  They do have choices.  Crystal made good choices.  My dad’s making pretty neutral ones, or non-choices.  And for the record, I’d say my Uncle Mike is a control freak, strict lines and rules, family disappoints, betrays, or seems problematic?  He cuts contact.”

“That’s present tense.  He’s still around?” Vista asked.

“Alive, retired from cape life.  Yeah.”

“Cool.”

“Given the choice of control versus derailment, I want the control.  I will fight for the control.  Because it feels like it’s a choice between being greedy for that control and having none at all.  Not just for me, not just for my family.  So… I want to move on to asking questions about getting that control, as far as this whole thing goes.”

I saw Kid Win and Dennis exchange glances.

“Is this control motivation why you went where you did last night?” Vista asked.

I shrugged.

“Does it mean you’re going back?” Vista asked, quieter.

“If the Wardens allow it.  If I go back, it’ll be on terms that help the Wardens and help this city… and I think we have to be ready to handle that stuff.”

“That stance won’t win you any brownie points with the Warden leadership,” Dennis said.

“No,” I replied.  I glanced at Vista, who looked noncommittal, but serious.

“But it’ll work for Valkyrie, probably.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I was tense, even hearing the answer I’d been kind of hoping to get to.

If Breakthrough continued on this course, we wouldn’t be entirely alone.

Vista abruptly turned, walking away.

There wasn’t any snow, but there was a lot of wind.  We were on the ‘third floor’ of the base, but considering the scale of the building, each ‘floor’ had areas with ceilings high enough that buildings could be fit within.

Vista walked up to the edge of the balcony, which had guardrails for the vehicles that might travel up and down it in different circumstances.

“Do you know why she-” I started.

The boys didn’t know.  Clear enough on their faces.

“I’ll be back,” I told them.

I walked over to where Missy was, head ducked down so less of her neck was exposed to the cold, wearing her patched jacket, a sweater so dark a blue it was nearly black, that looked like it was cut to show off her shoulders, and rugged, forest green pants with boots.  A stark contrast to the light, airy look she had as ‘Vista’.  She leaned against the railing facing me, watching as I made my approach.  The wind blew wavy blond-brown hair across her face, and she didn’t push it out of the way, instead bringing her hand up to her ear, covering it.

“This okay?” I asked.  “Me coming over?  Little V?”

“Sure.  Big V.”  Her expression cracked slightly.  A faint smile.

I made my way over, leaning against the same railing she did.

“You walked away all of a sudden, I wasn’t sure, I’m still not sure if you want space,” I said.

“You coming over is better than the alternative,” Vista said.

“What’s the alternative?” I asked.

“You staying over there.”

“Okay…” I said.

“Dennis is weird,” she said.

“A bit.  They’re both different.”

“But Dennis in particular.  Christopher is, he says he doesn’t remember everything.  He looked at me when I first walked up and it was like, he was looking at me and trying to remember the particulars, and maybe he failed, because he looked embarrassed when he saw I saw him looking.  He doesn’t remember his dad.  He’s quieter, more introspective.  But he’s… he feels like someone who could fill in the gaps and become the Christopher I knew.”

“Yeah.  I get that.  Could be the tinker power is always running, so it picked up a good grounding from a lot of different places and times.”

“Dennis is weird.  The inner voice that he had, that looked at this fucked up world of ours and laughed at it and called attention to it, that started everything by questioning the situations we were in, being skeptical of people until they proved themselves, that’s his outer voice now.  And his old outer voice, that was cynical and frustrated because he asked those questions, he challenged, and he adapted, he got hurt and tired and heartbroken… that’s the inner voice now.  Like there’s something dejected but stubborn at the core of it all, and that’s where the jokey quips and skepticism come from now.”

I remembered what she’d said about Christopher.  What she wasn’t elaborating on with Dennis.

“Makes you feel like he might not make his way back to being the Dennis you knew?”

Vista shrugged.  “Feels like it.  But who knows?  Maybe they’re talking among themselves and Dennis is telling Chris how little Missy is different.  That I’m bitter, I’m pricklier, I’m more arrogant, I don’t know.”

“People change.  I think that happens.  But from where I stand, first of all, I think you’re great.  I can’t imagine them badmouthing you.  You’re too cool for that.”

“Pshh.”

“I don’t know a single person that doesn’t like you.  Rachel Lindt likes you.”

“But I’m different.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I inhaled.  “We all are.”

“Sucks.”

“In its way.  But I’m optimistic, when it comes to Dennis.  I’ve seen the way things are laid out, how things are set up, the information stores they have, the way they store every detail of our lives, sorting it…”

“Creepy.”

“Yeah.  But comprehensive in the midst of that creepiness.  The individual pieces are all still there.  Give him time to sort it out.”

Vista was very still, staring at a point in the wall above the boys.  I might’ve thought she was using her powers, but we were supposed to avoid powers in this building, which was a bit different from Breakthrough being under a general restriction.  That, and there was no reason for her to use them.

She didn’t seem very reassured, or even like she was listening.

I waited, because I couldn’t think of a way to speak up or approach her that wouldn’t make me sound uncannily like my mom.

There was a nervous energy to how the boys interacted.  Kid Win stretched, and couldn’t stand in one place for long.  Dennis talked.  Both avoided looking our way.

We’re facing the end of the city, possibly with greater ramifications.  We’re ill-equipped.  They know it.  They’re bearing that burden.

“I’ve worked damn hard.”

I looked in Vista’s direction.

“I meditated, practiced with my power, pushed it to the limit.  I did everything the power testers said could make you stronger or more in tune with your ability.  It wasn’t just power either.  I hit the gym three times a week.  I go out for walks.  The bosses need a volunteer?  I put my hand up.”

“Burns you out,” I said.

“I don’t burn out,” Vista said. “I got into this early, you know.  It’s part of how I think, it’s part of how I move.  I wake up in the morning and I’m up.  Force of habit since I was ten.  Girls my age went to dance class or soccer, or they slept in and grumbled.  I was finding things to do because home sucked, so I’d train, I’d read up on stuff.  Then I was doing it because I had a crush on this guy I knew was too old for me and I wanted to impress him.  Then I was doubling down on it because I had teammates, and I didn’t want to be treated like a kid.  Then I tripled down on it.”

“Could you stop if you had to?” I asked.  “Or is it that ingrained by now?”

“Ingrained.  As much a part of me as those mountains on the horizon are a part of this place.  Do you know why I was working that hard, toward the end?”

“To make up for the ones who were gone.  To ensure you wouldn’t lose more.”

Vista sighed.  “I’ve treated you to this rant before, huh?”

“Less of a rant, more of an idle thought.  But you mentioned it, asked me questions.”

“I still lost the people.  Now I’m here.  I almost let myself think the added power and physical training would count for something.  And now you’re talking about a completely different playing field.”

I shook my head.  “No, Missy.  That training matters.  The connection to your agent is something you’ve developed, and it one hundred percent applies.  The physical training is your connection to you.”

“You feel far away, big V.  Like you’re more with them than you’re with me, and you were getting more distant by the second.”

Ah.

So that was it.

“Come with?” I offered.  “I meant what I said.  If this stuff ends up mattering, that work you’ve done will put you head, shoulders, and tail above the rest.”

“Can’t.  Made myself too essential to too many people.”

“It’s not necessarily one or the other.”

“It might be.  Vic, they were talking about reporting to their bosses.  I’ve got to report to mine.  What do I even say?  That you seem eager to dive into this?  That I don’t know if you’ll ignore orders?”

“The truth.  That I think this is pretty darn important.  I have questions I want to ask those guys and I want to piece together some of the puzzle.”

“Important?  Do you mean essential?  Important feels like too weak a word, and if it’s essential, it implies you’re willing to break the rules to go do what you did last night, again.  And if you keep that up, one of the handful of people who I knew before Gold Morning and like might disappear.  I might feel like I’m obligated as a Warden to report it, and I really don’t want to do that as a friend.”

She stared down at the ground, lips pressed together, and I was reminded of the girl who’d disappeared around the time Dean had introduced me to his team as his girlfriend.  To get a handle on her emotions where nobody would see.

And then she’d marched back, expression controlled, and looked me in the eye.  Right now she couldn’t bring herself to look at me, but she had that exact same fierceness combined with the apparent resentment at having to be fierce.

Even then, she’d been working so damn hard to work at becoming a stronger, better person.  Now… if it weren’t for a neutered media apparatus, or if we were back in twenty-thirteen without the end of the world on the horizon, I could believe she’d be one of those capes who could alter the state of conversation in a room, just by being there.

And I was disappointing her.

“Not essential.  Inevitable,” I told her, quiet.

She looked up at me, gaze level.

“I don’t need to break rules because I think this is coming no matter what we do.  It’s happening no matter what we do.  So I don’t need to rush to it.  It’s coming.”

“A breaking down of the walls?  They’re coming through to us, is what the leadership says.”

“A breaking down of everything,” I told her.  “They are us, at least in part.  They’re rooted throughout the city.  There isn’t anything that isn’t touched by them.  They’re here.  We need to figure out how to deal with them.”

Vista heaved out a sigh.

“Do you think I’m wrong?” I asked her.

“No.  I wish I could.  You should go talk to them.  Get the answers you wanted.”

“Come with.  You don’t have to betray your bosses and mentors to come and listen.  And you can tell them everything we’ve talked about.”

I only realized after saying it that Vista might have wanted to hang back for the same reason she’d stepped away after Gallant had introduced me to the Wards.

It was too late to take back my offer.

“I need a promise,” she said.  “Don’t leave.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Don’t get so far away or disconnect so much in this… whole complicated mess that I don’t see you again.”

“I’ve got people to look after,” I told her.  “Jessica Yamada asked me to look after them.  I’m still working on that.  I have no plans to go anywhere.”

“You stay Victoria Dallon.  You don’t dive so deep into the waters that you emerge out the other side and the inside parts of you are out, and the outside parts of you are in.”

“Dennis is going to be okay, Missy.  I really believe it.”

She gave me a glare of a look, a warning.

“I promise.  At the end of this all, you can call me Big V, and I’ll call you little V.”

She didn’t look convinced.

“It’s part of what I’m after.  I mentioned the volcano.  I want to work around it, use it, without losing myself to it.  Everything I’m doing right now is to avoid losing to this… phenomenal force we’re up against.  I want control of myself and of things in my reach.  I don’t want to be Mark or even Crystal, though I think Crystal might be a little less disorganized and lost after today.  We’ll see.”

“Will we, though?” Vista asked.

“I don’t want to be Amy,” I said.  “I don’t want to be Amy’s monster, either.”

“In the report- I only glanced over it.  They said you destroyed Teacher’s crystal, and it was dangerous?”

“I’m pretty sure it was safe.  The entire thing was reckless.”

“Then aren’t you contradicting yourself?” Vista asked, hostile now.

“Not doing anything felt more reckless.  If Teacher had won, and he was about to, we might have lost control of everything.  Forever.”

Vista nodded.  She cracked her knuckles.

I watched her.

Saw her nod.

“We good?” I asked, again.

“We’re good.  Ninety nine percent of everything else is kind of balls.”

Vista smiled at me, but behind that smile was that faint, vaguely resentful expression.  A smile for me, resentment for ‘everything else’.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Hold onto that one percent that isn’t, then.”

“I was,” she muttered.  “Until you barged into my room way fucking earlier than I expected.”

I smiled, she looked up at me and smiled a bit too.  Not quite so resentful.

I was a bit jealous, that she had something that could alleviate the pressure, distract, and give her a ‘release valve’, as Clockblocker had put it.

The boys were sitting on the same planter box when we rejoined them.  Kid Win had a tool in his hand, and was working on something that he’d perched on his knee.  He looked up and smiled.  “All good?”

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “Some background stuff.”

“Where were we?” Kid Win asked.

“What stays, what goes, communication,” I said.  “Valkyrie said she talked to you before bringing you back to life.”

“I barely remember,” Dennis said.  “I remember the conversation, vaguely.  She asked for details about who I was, and I had the impression she saw, but she asked too, and it mattered that I told the truth.”

“Did anything else communicate with you?” I asked.  “Teacher had control over agents, in there.  I’m not sure if he’s in a state to report on what he was doing, now.”

“We talked to one another.  Our agents did, too.  It’d be like… being sent as a messenger.  Bringing over a share of myself, my memories.”

“Like flashes of lightning?” I asked.

“Yeah.  That works.  Some were more talkative than others.  There’d be stuff like Kid Win- his agent would reach out to me to verify details or see them from another side.  Everything forming a giant web.”

“When someone triggered, it’d reach out to everything,” Kid Win said.

“Good, okay,” I said.

“My head’s spinning and I’m not seeing where this is going,” Vista admitted.

“I want to open lines of communication,” I said.  “I kind of did, last night.  I called for help, and the Wr- my agent answered.”

“And you said you have more control,” Kid Win said.

“I want that for everyone,” I said.  “Everyone on our side.  Can you tell me anything that would help?  Ways to close the communication gap, so we can reach out?”

The boys exchanged looks.

“What?” I asked.

“Equipping you with some more general information and filling in the blanks is one thing,” Kid Win said, quiet.  He fixed those red eyes with glowing gold pupils on me, where he’d previously held a posture like he didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes.  “Giving you that kind of information would be… a lot.”

“If that was even a thing,” Dennis cut in.

I didn’t believe him.  There was something.

“What can you tell me?” I asked.

“I’m supposed to tell you that you need anchors,” Clockblocker said.  “You need things to hold onto.  Things from your past.  Your family.  Yourself.”

“Fuck that,” Vista said.

“The others are striving for control,” Kid Win said.  “Teacher’s lost his thrall horde and they apparently took him prisoner, but the tools are out there.  It’s a question of the arrangements he made.  Your sister-”

I winced.

Kid Win blithely continued, “She’s up to something, with Lab Rat.  It looks like a play for control.  We haven’t been briefed on the situation, but leadership looked worried.”

I didn’t want to think about it.  On so many fucking levels, I didn’t want to think about it.

“Valkyrie is on the side of humanity,” Dennis said.

I hated to ask, but, “How sure are we?  I know you’re biased, but…”

Kid Win answered me.  “She had access to monsters like Bakuda and Eidolon.  She hasn’t called them out, hasn’t given them bodies.”

“Only heroes.  Only the people fighting for the right causes,” Vista picked up on the sentiment.

I nodded to myself.

Kid Win pulled his phone out of his pocket.  He showed me.  A list of letter and symbol codes, each with three lights marked beside them.  Green lights most of the way down.  A few yellows.  Mostly consistent.  A number of lights had black circles in the middle.

Amy was orange.

“Is this tinker data, because I can’t-”

“It’s not,” Vista said.  She showed me her phone.  The same display.  “Contessa, Dinah Alcott, and other thinkers are updating with their best guesses about threat levels.”

“Green is good, I hope.”

“Green is good.  Green is saying the threat level is negligible.  Icons suggest if a team is currently handling or suppressing them.  Can you see the distinction between green and lime?”

I had to tilt the phone to view the shades in more nuance, given the ambient light.  “Sort of.”

“Suppressed or temporarily handled.  It’s working,” Vista said.  “What the Wardens are doing is working.”

Kid Win explained, “Smaller threats like Little Midas and the Machine Army are out there and not handled, but they’re yellow. Your sister is the one big threat we haven’t fully dealt with, and the danger she poses is getting worse over time.”

“Holy shit,” Vista said.  She glanced at me.  “When?”

“Last half hour,” Kid Win said.

I was tense.

What the fuck, Amy?

“They might want you to help,” Kid Win told me, his voice quiet.  “If they can trust you.”

I stared down at the phone.

When so many things seemed okay or manageable, when I finally felt like I had control, I might have to deal with the one person who could so easily make me feel like I’d never have control again?

The notion made me feel vaguely nauseous.

“They sent refugees to her,” I said.

Kid Win nodded.  “And something happened in the last half hour that destroyed all trust we had in her.  Classified, apparently.”

I was silent, digesting, interpreting.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I almost jumped clean out of my skin.

I pulled it free.  Vista peeked.

Narwhal.

“That would be it,” Vista said.  “Speak of the devil.”

The devil is right, I thought.  This would be about Amy.

I took a few steps away before pressing the phone to my ear.

We need their trust if we’re going to handle this whole thing.

If Breakthrough is to get together, if we’ll have the resources we need, and if Valkyrie’s flock is willing to divulge the tools or communication methods Clock and Win hinted at.

Just needed her trust.

“Hello?”

“What part of do not associate with other members of your team do you not understand, Antares?”

Narwhal was… pretty notoriously hard-nosed.  This was apparently that.  I could see Vista wincing, because she could hear the tone, even though she couldn’t hear the words.

“You’ll have to refresh my memory.”

“Capricorn.  You and he were in the same place, I hear?  He told me one story, I don’t think I believe him.  I’m hoping you’ll be more convincing.”

I shut my eyes.  What was I even supposed to say?

I caught your subordinate sleeping mostly in the nude with my teammate?

“I thought this would be about Amy Dallon,” I said, trying to deflect.

“In a way it is.  Capricorn just lied to me, I think.  I could dig out the truth myself, but that takes time and there are bigger things at stake today.  Tell me, can we trust you?”

I opened my mouth, then shut it.

This felt like a trap.  Or a trick.  Or a prank… no.  Not a prank.

But it felt aggressive and I felt off-balance, and I hated being off balance.

“No?” I ventured, even though I wasn’t sure why.  I just felt like ‘yes’ was the wrong answer, and a delay would be worse than either.

“No?” Narwhal asked.  I saw Vista flinch a bit at the tone again.

The thoughts connected.  Tristan, Amy, trust.  I knew what Tristan had told her and what she was getting at.

“Master-stranger protocols.  I warned my team.”

“He didn’t lie about that, at least.  Would you be willing to come upstairs, help us with the situation?  We’ll work on your master-stranger issue while figuring out how to handle the situation.”

That- it sounded okay?

“I think so,” I said.

“Your mother will be here.  We’ll invite your old and current therapists in to vet you.”

Oh.  Oh fucking great.  That was three people and about ten associated, individual conversations I didn’t want to have, waiting upstairs.

“Will do,” I said, though the wind had gone out of my sails, and my voice felt like it lacked any strength.

“Bring Vista, if you’re still near her.  We’ll want everyone ready.  The Thinkers think this situation will go critical tonight.  We want to be ready when it does.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said, hanging up as she finished.

Leaving me with what felt like a ringing in my ear, not from her volume, but the sheer stress that I’d taken from that phone.

Fuck.

The thought lingered, as I tried to gather my composure.  Vista touched my arm.

“Stuff’s happening.  They want you too,” I told her.

“Got it.”

We said our brief farewell to the boys.  Something in Vista seemed lighter, walking away from the reunion, as heavy as everything else felt.

What are you doing, Amy?

And why the hell does it feel, deep in my gut, like this isn’t the thing we should all be worried about?  Are we overlooking something or someone in that long row of green and lime-green lights?

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84 thoughts on “Sundown – 17.3”

  1. “And why the hell does it feel, deep in my gut, like this isn’t the thing we should all be worried about? Are we overlooking something or someone in that long row of green and lime-green lights?”

    Because Wretch-chan is trying to tell you something, Vicky.

    1. Agree, all that talk about inter-shard interaction and communication makes me feel like Victoria might have a minor level of thinker power which expresses itself in gut feelings and instinct… Waste-chan/Wretch-chan is also made up of not only Scion shard waste but Eden shard waste so she might be better at seeing or communicating across all of the landscape… Here they were just talking about negative feelings putting them closer to the shard and she’s just switched hard to the negative between Amy, the reminder of her MS protocol, Mother and therapists all waiting for her.

      If I had to guess what they’re missing… Simurgh, Sitting on Chronos Titan’s shoulder… Big blind spot for the Thinkers and they just raised Eidolon’s name in this chapter.

  2. I want control of myself and of things in my reach.

    Jeez… I gotta say, these last few chapters felt like watching Sauron on the rise. Victoria’s becoming something increasingly scary in all the most subtle ways.

  3. “You’re a good guy, Christopher,” Vista said.

    -I vote for Good Guy to be Kid Win’s new cape name. Who’s with me?

    “I was talking about my dad earlier,” Kid Win told me. “That one good day. I’m supposed to meet him later, you know, but I don’t have all of the memories of him. I don’t remember his face. I don’t remember his voice. Whatever part of me he was trying to support or hold onto that day? I don’t think it’s there.”

    -Now I’m not so eager anymore to see Brian and Aisha meeting if Brian can’t remember Aisha as well. I don’t want to see Brian struggling to remember her (hate this pun right now) and Aisha SUFFERING for losing her brother for the second time (as a collective of memories and emotions not as a body) :(.

    “I don’t know a single person that doesn’t like you. Rachel Lindt likes you.”

    -March didn’t like her and she paid such a delicious price. I think that should be forbidden for anyone to not like Vista. Either like her or pay the price for not liking her :).

    “Only heroes. Only the people fighting for the right causes,” Vista picked up on the sentiment.

    -Valkyrie doesn’t see Eidolon as a hero fighting for the right causes. Why? Because he was Cauldron or because he created Endbringers? But, it wasn’t exactly his his fault for creating Endbringers. Or maybe Valkyrie never agreed with Cauldron’s methods and she sees Eidolon as a damaged hero?

    -I’m worried for Victoria’a behavior but I’m more worried for the Rise of Red Queen possible Apocalypse. Amy is walking slowly on the path of disaster.

    1. Surely Brian would remember Aisha, both of his trigger events were about her specifically.
      But on the other hand, I think he stands a good chance of being even more messed up than Dennis, given how traumatized he was by his second trigger…

      1. Well, considering that Aisha’s trigger and power are all about staying out of sight and out of mind, I’m sure that Brian will remember her only if she allows him to. Seriously though, considering what was said about Chris’ memories being “negativity-adjacent” I wonder less about if Brian will remember certain people, and more about what he will remember exactly. For example will the two things he will remember about Taylor be the time when she ended up with her head opened with a circular saw (especially since a few other people, including Aisha, almost shared the same fate then), and when she decided to leave the Undersiders for comforts of a PRT holding cell. Will at least what Taylor did with him instead of saying goodbye be sufficiently “negativity-adjacent” for him to remember?

        One thing is sure – if the members of the flock remember the bad times best, then Brian (un)fortunately should have a lot of moments from his past life he should be able to remember with crystal clarity.

    2. Re: Valkyrie – Most Cauldron capes started with a dead hub to begin with, aside from most of the victims on Fortuna’s Earth (whom we never met elsewhere). That likely prevented easy access to the data storage dimension, and bringing a shard back might just be the worst thing to do if you cared about its host.
      Maybe Valkyrie decided to only embody Scion shards as a result.

  4. Hang in there Vicky, you’ve been through worse than a dressing-down from Narwhal. Okay, having your mom and Jessica there too won’t be fun, but these conversations need to happen.
    If I read this right, they want to vet Vicky to make sure she’s not compromised from her contact with Amy in the prison? I’m not sure why Capricorn would have lied to Narwhal though.

  5. Actually with Brian… Aisha might be the single clearest thing in his mind.

    So much of his identity and motivations centered around protecting and keeping her safe that it should actually be one of the primary sorting mechanisms for him… even beyond any other personal details.

    Messed up Grue will remember Imp… and almost nothing that doesnt relate to her.

  6. I just hope you’re right, guys, about Brian remembering Aisha. The last thing I wanted is to see her suffer because her brother can’t remember her.
    It will be also delicious ironic if he can remember only Aisha and nobody else.

  7. Why didn’t Victoria just go “Valkyrie sent me to meet Vista and Capricorn was there” when Narwhal was dressing her down? No need to mention the sleeping together bit.

    1. Because she didn’t want to explain what Vista and Tristan were up to that had them so distracted for Vista to let that interaction take place. Victoria deflects to talking about Amy and when Narwhal mentions it relates to Amy, she thinks Capricorn just lied to her and asks if Victoria can be trusted.

      Victoria senses something in that which goes beyond the interaction with Capricorn and remembers back to her MS protocol which is apparently what Capricorn remembered and told Narwhal about. Possibly because they were talking to him about getting Victoria in to deal with Amy and he thought it important if they were going to rely on her that she could have something set in place that would trigger.

      It does make you wonder though… That’s a hell of an intuition about what this was about and here they were just talking about inter-shard communication and sharing of memories from different perspectives… Is Victoria already starting to get some communication going which is presenting in gut feelings and instinct?

  8. This is a biiiig chapter. I mean it’s full of events and facts and truths which can only be described as big.

    “monsters like Bakuda and Eidolon”
    Ahahahahaha too true!

    1. Considering Eidolon was regarded a hero, this suggests that the knowledge he was responsible for the Endbringers is a bit more common. I guess the whole lot of them going dormant when he died was pretty obvious and some non-leadership capes were present when the Undersiders were working on the theory and shouting to her about it.

  9. Typo thread:
    say to‘ (backwards apostrophe)
    Probably that Clock (sounds a bit weird)
    more or less look > look more or less
    me a like > me like
    you describe > you described
    from the inside the orb > from the inside of the orb
    with ‘heavy’. > with ‘heavy’.”
    it get into > it gets into
    “Ugh,” Vista > “Ugh.” Vista
    rules, family > rules. Family
    if we’ll have > if we’re to have

    1. > There was actually an issue when I won the one year.

      Scratch “the”?

      > woman who had been attacked, we were supposed to

      Perhaps “woman who had been attacked. We were supposed to “?

  10. Another question. Why Valkyrie considered Bakuda and Eidolon the only monsters? She have Tinker 15 and Gray Boy shards too and they’re pretty monstrous, Gray Boy more than Eidolon. Why not include them in the monsters gallery?

    1. Well… It’s Kid Win and/or Clockblocker mentioning the monsters and they just raised those two as examples because they’re probably the two they’re more aware of. The others wouldn’t know about the Tinker 12+ and Gray Boy is an old one she took before going to the Birdcage so it might not be someone she even could bring back with the memory degradation.

  11. Clockblocker is back fromtelepirting dead because Valkyrie regenerated him. I therefore suggest, “Timelord as his new name. There you go WritingBoss… All yours…

    …Let’s just hope Miss doesn’t turn evil if he dies take it.

  12. “Contessa, Dinah Alcott, and other thinkers”

    Let’s see: Dinah doesn’t trust Contessa and Contessa won’t so much give you threat levels as give you the threat levels that will make you do whatever she wants. I feel like they might be getting played.

    “What are you doing, Amy?

    And why the hell does it feel, deep in my gut, like this isn’t the thing we should all be worried about? Are we overlooking something or someone in that long row of green and lime-green lights?”

    Some guesses:
    1) She isn’t the Smurf sitting on Kronos’s shoulder?
    2) She’s making Endbringers for deterrence purposes only and the reason her threat level increased is because the Wardens became more likely to panic and release the Endbringers on themselves.
    3) Contessa and Dinah are probably running a precog war and you’re being used as pawns.
    4) DOT was able to sneak a piece of the machine army into Gimel and they aren’t actually handled.
    5) All the actual threats are in blind spots? Seriously your thinkers almost let Teacher win.

    1. They’ve also been hinting at Earth Cheit as a threat for quite a bit and we haven’t seen what they’re up to. The Order was willing to screw with portals and time disturbances even more than Teacher and in completely reckless ways. Their goal is to reduce the population after all.

      Sleeper was also mentioned earlier as an issue they were dealing with, but I don’t get the impression he is a blind spot to thinkers. Then there’s whatever these extra two broken triggers the authorities hadn’t discovered yet are.

      1. A number of lights had black circles in the middle.

        I wonder if the black circles represent potential threats hidden in blind spots. They would be the ones that the heroes should worry about first. Plus the ones that are not even on that list. For example were the broken triggers that also were Contessa’s blind spots and some of which the government didn’t even know during arc 15 listed?

        1. That was my guess about the black circles in the middle, that they’re Thinker blind spots so essentially are probably updated by electronic and manual surveillance and maybe what Dinah said about seeing the things that go wrong around the blind spots.

          1. I’m afraid that if multiple potential threats are hidden or potentially in range of a blind spot, that blind spot may make all of them “go red” (or whatever color Wardens’ system uses for active, completely out-of-control threats) at the same time, when the heroes are least prepared to handle a multi-front war.

            Moreover I suspect that there may be much more blind spots out there than the heroes are taking into account. For example since Teacher managed to turn himself into one, I suspect that messing with things on the dreamscape may create blind spots on demand. The fact that the exact nature of the expected disaster remains unknown makes me thing that certain natural processes currently happening there may also generate blind spots. I also suspect that any sealed worlds like Aleph, and everything in them may be blind spots. Otherwise in the epilogue of Worm Dinah would know that Taylor was still alive, and even if she tried to hide this fact from the Undersiders, Tattletale would probably figure it out during the toast. The problem is that sealed worlds may probably be divided into two groups – the ones that the Wardens don’t even suspect are out there, and the ones that have been known to be sealed for so long, that most of the time nobody even remembers to consider as a potential source of if interference.

            Another thought – if a single blind spots may activate multiple threats at once, then perhaps the heroes shouldn’t look at the black circles individually, and try to figure out which of them could get out of control, but see if there is something they have in common (for example it they are all in the roughly in the same geographical area, on the same Earth or close to portals) and consider how this common element may be connected to a single unknown threat.

            1. Some more possibilities of threats the Wardens may not expect, and not included on their list:
              1. One of the Wardens or their close allies – perhaps the problem will be started by someone they trust so much they didn’t even consider worrying about.
              2. The list may lack certain groups of unpowered people, or even any unpowered people at all – perhaps the real problem are some of them.
              3. The shards – maybe one of them will get out of control. Love Lost’s is especially worrying right now, since her night is coming, and the dream-room may be permanently broken.
              4. One of the members of the mall cluster whom the Wardens consider to be safely under their control may do something naughty in the dreamscape next night.
              5. The dead – from some creatures who died in the previous cycle, to someone like Snag or Goddess, or one of the people who may be dead, though we haven’t seen their bodies – like Cradle or March.
              6. Shard’s copy of a mind of a parahuman who is still alive, but no longer connected to their agent – like one of the people whose powers were taken away by Cauldron, Jotun (likely disconnected by March), or March (possibly disconnected by Foil)?
              7. Note that several possibilities I’ve mentioned above have something to do with various clusters – Rain’s, Foil’s, Goddess’, and Jotun’s. Maybe the problem are not individuals but connected groups of people and/or their shards – permanent (like clusters) or temporary (like the ones created by tinkertech like Kenzie’s cube or powers like Darlene’s)?

            2. One more possibility. Amy and Chris are not the problem, but Wardens reaction to what they did could be. If what Vista said about how different potential threats are handled, and what Defiant did with Victoria’s group are any indication, then Wardens reaction to Amy and Chris could take a form of an ultimatum. Something along the lines – stand down and allow yourself to be taken into custody, or we will have to consider you an enemy and go after you.

              The problem is that the new clone Endbringer-like super soldiers supported by Red Queen and her parahuman criminals and whatever other assets Shin decides to spare may be able to successfully repel any attack like that. In fact I’m not certain if all parahuman assets left in Citrine’s government disposal can defeat Shin’s. Moreover since the city has been evacuated, and as such no longer needs supplies from Shin, Amy may accept an open war between Citrine, Wardens and everyone who supports them and Shin since such war would no longer threaten to cause millions of people to die of starvation. In other words Wardens may no longer have the means to force Amy to comply with anything they say, and may cause a disaster if they try.

            3. And if the real threat is that the Wardens may try to push Amy too far, and start a war, then perhaps Victoria should put a lid on her personal feelings about Amy, remember how she was inclined to deal with conflicts earlier in the story, and de-escalate the situation. The question is – can she put herself in the right frame of mind to do it right now?

            4. I’ve just thought about one more possible group that may cause problems, and that Wardens may not have considered – former Teacher’s thralls. Not people like Overseer, Ingenue, or the Fallen – they are known problems, and would be monitored, but more anonymous folks – like the ones who worked in the decagon we saw in Overseer’s interlude. Even without their Teacher-given powers some of them may have dangerous knowledge, and it is possible that some of them didn’t come to work for Teacher just because of the money he offered, and didn’t stay just because they were enthralled. Maybe some did it because they thought that whatever Teacher did would let them accomplish more ambitious (and possibly more sinister) goals? Maybe now that they are free they are actually more dangerous to the heroes, the city, or humanity in general than they were as thralls? Moreover it is not impossible that some of them had powers that were not granted by Teacher, and as such – will not go away now that his hold over them has been broken.

              I imagine that if one of such people has a power that makes them a blind spot, the heroes may be in for a very nasty surprise.

  13. I wonder if Kid Win has some sort of a minor Thinker power with his eyes now. Something he can read in people and he simply looks away to not intrude or so he feels like he’s interacting more as a real person.

    Arguably, Tinkers who can adjust their senses in situations, give themselves a minor thinker power, sort of how Foil’s power came across as blaster when she used projectiles. If something tinker like ended up as part of his eyes in the recreation, he could have it permanently… Alternatively, maybe the body he merged with had eye problems and Bonesaw fixed it with bionic eyes.

  14. Just curious what those threat colors actually mean.
    Bad things, but how is the bad deducted?

    Could be global warming on Earth Nun, or glaciation on Earth Shin, and there would be blinking yellow lights not getting managed, because everyone looks for a parahuman vector.

    Could be things that aren’t human like: goblins, nanomachines, mutants(plants, animals, fungi and others), rogue or evil AIs, plagues of various kinds, mindcontroled Endbringers or clones of them, Tinkertech creations of various potency.

    And then there’re all the broken triggers and group triggers and clusters Case 53 and 70, various Birdcage survivors, who should have been put down after GM but were let free.

    Because every new world has to start with 600 more S-class criminals, right?
    Amnesty is the first resort of populist governments, and 99 of those criminals always return to crime. It surely provides hope for humanity.
    Sigh. Sometimes WB is trying to make things worse.

  15. Is Victoria already being affected by memory shenanigans from what Amy and Chris are doing?

    Twice in this chapter, she refers to something that happened just a couple paragraphs ago as if it were a more distant memory that she cannot quite grasp.

    “Earlier in this conversation, I used the term… what was it? Negativity-adjacent?”

    “I remembered what she’d said about Christopher.”

    1. Vista: “He doesn’t remember his dad. He’s quieter, more introspective. But he’s… he feels like someone who could fill in the gaps and become the Christopher I knew.”

      Victoria Internal: I remembered what she’d said about Christopher. What she wasn’t elaborating on with Dennis.
      Victoria: “Makes you feel like he might not make his way back to being the Dennis you knew?”
      ***

      Vista has the above line about Kid Win/Christopher then a paragraph where she’s more concerned about Clockblocker/Dennis and immediately following that Victoria compares the two paragraphs and realises what Vista isn’t elaborating on with Dennis is that he might not get back to being the Dennis she knew, unlike Christopher.

      I did, however, notice the “negativity-adjacent” comment though and think much the same thing. It didn’t feel quite right that she noted she said it earlier in the conversation when it was within the same page and only a few lines of dialogue away. Possibly more of an author thing though. Take out the line about “earlier in the conversation” and it think it works as a humanisation of the dialogue.

    2. Maybe what is happening to Victoria has nothing to do with Amy and Chris, and everything to do with the fact that her mind and memories were re-uploaded into her body after her visit to the dream space from a place that uses “something else’s filing system”?

      Or maybe it is not a memory problem at all, but a question of rapidly changing state of mind? Remember how during the fight with Deathchester Victoria had a perfect control over her forcefield, until she suddenly didn’t? Perhaps it is something similar – Vicky constantly flips back and forth between being and not being “in tune” with her shard, and in the first state she gets all these “intuition-adjacent” insights, while at the second one her mind is so distant from such thoughts, that she needs to actually remember having thought them a moment ago?

      In other words – maybe Victoria’s enhanced connection to her shard isn’t a constant, ongoing state, but something that comes and goes depending on some not yet identified factor – a factor that Victoria has been trying to identify for a while now, especially since she realized that her forcefield had no problem handling multiple guns at once at the final stage of the fight with Teacher not because she managed to somehow impose her will on her power, but the other way around – because she did what her shard wanted her to do.

      1. Perhaps it would be best to say that our protagonist flips between being Victoria and a Victoria-adjacent-Wretch-adjacent being, and while she is just a Victoria she on some level feels disconnected from all these insightful words V-a-W-a being has to the point where she sees a reason to point out that they indeed came out of her own mouth earlier in the conversation, because when she is just a Victoria she surely doesn’t have the part of V-a-W-a’s mind that came out with these insights?

  16. Forgot to say, it seems like “adjacent” is one of Victoria’s favourite words. Or at least favourite-adjacent.

  17. Anyone feel Victoria’s italic internal monologue/thoughts have become more significant? She has plenty of internal monologue and thoughts but then some are italicised, usually when she’s mentally talking to herself. I think the first thing she said was “Hi me” in the mirror and there have been a number of internal thought words directed at the Wretch, but now it feels like the thoughts are more frequent and not so often directed specifically at the Wretch or even consciously at herself all that much.

    Hard to put my finger on it but it just feels like a shift in the usage.

  18. Two thoughts about Valkyrie and her take on what Victoria’s doing:

    “Is this control motivation why you went where you did last night?” Vista asked.

    I shrugged.

    “Does it mean you’re going back?” Vista asked, quieter.

    “If the Wardens allow it. If I go back, it’ll be on terms that help the Wardens and help this city… and I think we have to be ready to handle that stuff.”

    “That stance won’t win you any brownie points with the Warden leadership,” Dennis said.

    “No,” I replied. I glanced at Vista, who looked noncommittal, but serious.

    “But it’ll work for Valkyrie, probably.”

    Should we be worried that “the Warden leadership” and Valkyrie seem to disagree about how to judge Victoria’s desire for control and her idea how to get it?

    “What can you tell me?” I asked.

    “I’m supposed to tell you that you need anchors,” Clockblocker said. “You need things to hold onto. Things from your past. Your family. Yourself.”

    Well, that wasn’t ominous at all… Perhaps the Wardens fear that Victoria may become the next Khepri and want to prevent it, while Valkyrie simply wants Victoria to do it the right way?

    1. Even if it reaches this point, I’m going to trust Victoria’s shard not to mangle everything like Admin did. I base this hope on Wretchie being a second-gen bud of both worms who struggled to find purpose her whole existence, instead of one of the strongest, most refined system of the Warrior.
      Victoria might go Tyrant (least of all reasons because it would be something to behold), but it hopefully won’t destroy her humanity.

      1. Yeah, my thoughts are that the 2nd and subsequent generation shards have a lot less of their own… Personality or previous memories from past cycles. I’m sure they have SOME but the idea being that they’re more likely to be influenced by their host than to influence their host. I like to think the merge of two entity’s shards is also helpful where she will get both Scion’s immediacy and Eden’s more expansive thinking, so it puts her shard more to the centre than either extreme.

        Her early career was more in line with Scion and maybe the shard’s tyrant aspect where she was prone to rash decisions and delivering damage but now she’s forced herself more toward Eden’s longer term considerations while still maintaining a healthy degree of grounding in the present.

        Despite the Tyrant aspect she’s also shown a good degree of handing the reigns over to others and following their lead while being willing to take control and the lead when she needs. Taylor sort of gave herself up to the “volcano”, sacrificing herself and saying “use me” while Victoria is talking about working with it but not sacrificing herself or her “self”.

  19. Miscellaneous thought, but–the threat level system must really suck to work with, for colorblind capes. Not that accessibility is probably top priority, after the end of the world, but dang!

    1. Considering that the data Chris showed Victoria on her phone isn’t even tinker-y, I’m sure that modifying the way it is displayed to make it readable by color blind people (changing color scheme, swapping color-coded lights for something like a selection of differently shaped icons, numbers, names of colors actually spelled out in plain text, etc.) shouldn’t be a problem. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one such solution was already implemented as an option in the program Chris used to display the list.

  20. I frowned in confusion as I flew over the screaming, panicked refugees who’d sought shelter in Shin. I’d come this way for a reason, something to do with what Dennis had told me on Valkyrie’s behalf, but what was it? So many memories had been lost between the facets, the probable concussions and concussion-adjacent injuries, and the sheer stress of the last twelve hours, but this one… it was almost there, on the tip of my tongue. Something moved in my peripheral vision, and I glanced over to notice the harpoons bobbing in one of the Wretch’s hands. “That’s right,” I said as my thoughts fell into place. “Thanks!” Mind now focused and plan clear once more, I redoubled my speed, wincing as turbulence that wasn’t purely wind jostled my growing collection of injuries.

    There, up ahead: a brown haired girl riding on the shoulder of what Chicken Little would probably name Mrs. Footsie if he were present. Thank god for small mercies. The foot-like toes multiplied as I approached, and the effect soon spread to create additional legs and torsos. Uncomfortable reminders. I ignored them and stayed focused, having the Wretch pass me a harpoon so I could fasten a cable to it. That done, I passed it back and we took aim at Amy.

    Mrs. Footsie seemed to realize something was happening and paused in her dismantling of a car. Amy turned to scan the sky, but she was looking the wrong way. We threw, and I smiled grimly as the harpoon whistled through the air and Amy’s abdomen. Tuning out her screams, I tugged on the line to make sure the barbs were set, then attached the cable to my belt and rose higher to drag her away from her pet monster. The tinker sedatives were already kicking in, leaving Amy dangling numbly below me as a fleshy, pathetic weight. Excellent. I angled toward where Carol was fighting a pair of Shin’s enslaved villains, and I had the Wretch hand me another harpoon to prep. Valkyrie wanted me to use my family as anchors, and I was happy to oblige.

    1. Now, now, Victoria. Nobody attaches anchors to harpoons. It is just not done, so… I guess that you are doing here is turning your family members not into anchors, but at most some anchor-adjacent thingies?

      1. It’s a chain or rope (rode?) with a weight on the end. What more do you want to call it an anchor? It’s even very likely a “deadweight” so that makes it great permanent anchorage.

        The E.S. Antares is very securely moored to the seabed of Victoria

  21. Does Ciara practice what she preaches? What are her anchors? Ok, that one may not be too difficult to figure out. But what were her anchors during earlier phases of her life? Before she was imprinsoned? In the ‘Cage? During Gold Morning? How well did her anchors work for her? How far gone would she be by now without them?

    1. One more observation about Ciara’s “anchor” idea. Remember how she put it in chapter 30.2 of Worm?

      “You will need a tether, an anchor. It can be an idea, a physical thing, a place, a person, a goal. Right now, it will not seem so important, but it will. When all is said and done, you will either be dead, and this thing will be a comfort to you in your last moments, or you will be powerful, and it will be all you have left. Decide what you will hold on to.”

      Note that she argued for a single, big anchor, that wouldn’t necessarily need to be a physical place or a person, but could also be something abstract – like an idea.

      Compare it to what Clockblocker said in this chapter about multiple smaller anchors. This is the approach that Taylor chose at the end. Assuming that Dennis passed Valkyrie’s advice accurately, does it mean that Valkyrie managed to somehow learn (and if so – how and when?) what Taylor’s choice of anchors was and adapted it, or did she come up with the same idea independently?

      1. For some reason I always figured Ciara’s anchor was the idea of a father figure or childhood. She attached to Scion as a father/parent figure who was seemingly cosmically flawless… Until he wasn’t

        Of course that would be gone now so I’d suspect that Jessica’s work has likely helped her to find new attachments and steadily reel herself back into Ciara.

        To be fair as well, her advice did kind of work for Taylor but Taylor had already received Amy’s adjustment to her shard connection and was steadily descending into Khepri… Sometimes I wonder how much the connection to the Oracle cape was also causing issues because I remember mention that connecting with that cape made you feel detached and it feels like Taylor’s talk with Fortuna/Contessa had much more of her memory intact as she recalled regrets and things, but it could also have been Contessa’s power in work by asking in some way that helped trigger memories correctly.

        1. One thing I wonder is if at some point Contessa simply told Valkyrie at least some things Taylor said at the end of chapter 30.7 of Worm (or if Valkyrie managed to learn what was said then through some other means – for example through some thinker power she had access to). I imagine that Valkyrie could, just like Contessa, know that Taylor was still alive and keep this fact a secret.

          1. And if Valkyrie knows that Taylor is alive and for some reason decided to share this secret, then I think she would more likely tell it to Grue than anyone else. Perhaps we should keep a close eye on his behavior and behavior of any Undersiders he had a chance to talk to? See if they seem a little too happy after meeting him, or seem to behave stranger than usually whenever Taylor is mentioned or alluded to?

  22. Great chapter 👍.

    I notice Victoria’s baaasically finally given her passenger a name, even if she caught herself before saying it aloud. Also, I’m just noticing now, but we’re toward the tail end of a transition. When she refers to The Wretch, she’s not referring to forcefield holding the shape of her former body, but over the course of the story so far, she came to use the name to refer to the personification/projected personality of the forcefield, which has now basically become Victoria’s name for the agent itself. On the one hand, this should mean that Victoria has an easier time coming to terms with her past, but I think by approaching her passenger in the way, she might mistakenly be partly mingling the past-trauma wretch with alien-shard Wretch. I suppose on the other hand the agent was present for that entire period, so it’s not wholly inaccurate but her perspective of those events and the agent’s role might be very different from the agent’s.

    1. Actually I don’t think so. I think that Victoria used the name Wretch for her agent, not a forcefield or the body she had in the hospital for a while now. It is just that Victoria’s shard wants her to find a name that would describe them both, and “Wretch” is just not that, because Victoria doesn’t think about herself as the Wretch. Even when she used the term to describe her body, she probably didn’t think about it as “herself”, but as some “thing” she was trapped in. Or at least this is how she probably thinks right now, since she has problem with accepting even her current body as an integral part of herself.

      Not to mention that as far as I remember whenever Victoria has been thinking about that body she had for two years before GM, she always called it “wretch”, with a lower-case ‘W’, so in this context the word was probably never supposed to be a proper name – as opposed to “Wretch” the shard.

      1. Here’s an example of how in chapter 14.9 Victoria almost used the lower-case “wretch” to describe her body, and how she distanced herself from it saying that it was a something that was not Victoria:

        You said you loved me but well before you made me into the w- into that mess that had to go to the hospital, you made me into something that wasn’t Victoria, for your own selfish wants.

        That said perhaps it is not such a clear distinction. Here’s a quote from chapter 14.5 when Victoria called if not herself, then at least her body “the Wretch” with a capital ‘W’:

        I looked. I fixed my gaze on Amy, and I studied, pulling from memories of four years ago. Memories of two years ago, when she’d come to Victoria the Wretch, stole away all emotions, false and otherwise, and made her offers. Gave me her warnings.

        After searching several last arcs for the word “Wretch” I also have to admit that apparently Victoria has fully switched from calling her forcefield to calling her agent the “Wretch”, but some hints that it was happening appeared here and there earlier. For example sometimes in arc 15 Victoria appeared to treat “Wretch” as a person separate from herself by directly asking Wretch a question in chapter 15.3:

        Do you have to be such a big fucking target, Wretch?

        And using ‘her’, instead of ‘my’ or ‘its’ to describe Wretch’s reach in chapter 15.7:

        She crashed into me, drove me back, and pushed me toward Rain, where the Wretch would have him in her reach.

        Or considering berating the Wretch in chapter 16.4:

        In another time and circumstance, I would have berated the Wretch.

        Finally the first time when there is no doubt that Victoria called her agent, and not her forcefield or her body the Wretch appears to be not in this chapter (or at the end of the previous one, when she also clearly did so), but near the end of the dream in chapter 16.12:

        Why was Teacher afraid to let me in here? Why had he backed down, at the end of the raid on his base?

        Because I’d been in tune with the Wretch.

        Come, I thought.

        And it would make perfect sense that this shift from Wretch-the-forcefield to Wretch-the-agent was completed then, wouldn’t it?

        1. And of course on some level Victoria has been calling her shard the “Wretch” pretty much through entire Ward. Possibly even longer. After all she realized very early on that her forcefield appeared to “have a mind of its own”, and since she apparently already knew about the existence of shards even before Ward started, she must have understood just whose mind it was. I think that she wouldn’t even give her forcefield a proper name, if she didn’t know that it was generated by some alien intelligent being.

          1. I’m thinking she might also be bringing the wretch into her own identity. I mean, she essentially was the Wretch for two years in the hospital… Possibly who is living at three-four-four tower crescent avenue.

  23. > Valkyrie doesn’t see Eidolon as a hero fighting for the right causes. Why? Because he was Cauldron or because he created Endbringers? But, it wasn’t exactly his his fault for creating Endbringers.

    It kind of was. It was a direct consequence of him having certain character traits which led to him needing worthy opponents. Not a fault which could be held against him in a court, but definitely a point against him getting resurrected.

    > Considering Eidolon was regarded a hero, this suggests that the knowledge he was responsible for the Endbringers is a bit more common.

    It may be common knowledge among Valkyrie’s flock.

    > Sleeper was also mentioned earlier as an issue they were dealing with, but I don’t get the impression he is a blind spot to thinkers.

    He is. It was mentioned in passing when, IIRC, popping time bubbles was discussed, and it was said that its results were a blind spot for thinkers similar to Eidolon, Sleeper and other stuff on a similarly ridiculous power level.
    That being said, I doubt that he’s the threat Victoria thought about. It would be weird, narratively, if he suddenly jumps into the foreground out of nowhere. I hope he’ll become relevant eventually, but I think he needs more buildup than there was.

    > Jeez… I gotta say, these last few chapters felt like watching Sauron on the rise. Victoria’s becoming something increasingly scary in all the most subtle ways.

    Well, they are fighting monsters of a kind they can’t hope to defeat without becoming monsters themselves (power-wise, not in a moral sense). In another kind of story, the heroes would win because of their amazing powers of Love, Humanity, and Family Values – but Wildbow is not lame, therefore their only hope is to have an aspiring monster in their ranks.

    1. >> Considering Eidolon was regarded a hero, this suggests that the knowledge he was responsible for the Endbringers is a bit more common.

      > It may be common knowledge among Valkyrie’s flock.

      I doubt that Kid Win had in mind something that only Valkyrie and the flock knew. Remember that he was talking to Victoria, and expected her to understand his point. And she apparently did, considering that she didn’t comment about equaling Bakuda and Eidolon as monsters. It doesn’t have to be about the Endbringers though. I think it is more likely that Eidolon’s role in the Cauldron (including such things as if not actively participating in, then at least allowing C53s creation and everything that was done to them later to happen) is a common knowledge now, and considering that a certain C53 happens to be Victoria’s best friend, I don’t doubt that this fact alone is enough to make Eidolon a monster in Vicky’s eyes.

  24. “Hey, uh, Wardens? I really don’t think Amy’s the threat you should be focused on right now. Never mind that we’re all worried she tampered with my mind and all your best thinkers insist she’s the biggest threat. My inexplicable gut feeling is definitely what we should trust!”

    Of course, she’s probably right. How long is Kenzie going to last separated from her friends, team, and tech before she snaps and takes over the worlds, photoshopping everybody into one big artificial cluster?

  25. What are you doing, Amy?
    And why the hell does it feel, deep in my gut, like this isn’t the thing we should all be worried about? Are we overlooking something or someone in that long row of green and lime-green lights?

    Well there are Three Blasphemies, the Sleeper, the Machine Army, Ingenue and her flying monkeygoat, the unknown two broken triggers, Friends of Humanity supporting Dinah Alcott, Teacher thrall Contessa, grieving Citrine and Number Lads, Simurgh Bomb Tattletale, Kenzie winning all her stupid prizes, Multiversal Titan Kronos, Simurgh and her seventeen siblings.
    Nah, they aren’t important. The evil, unrepentant, rapist monster that deserves to suffer and die, and the Nathaniel Essex wannabe are the only thing that matters.

    1. Let’s not forget that two chapters ago Defiant mentioned five thousand people who just got un-Teachered, and that most if not all of them are probably still somewhere in the Cauldron complex – a place they probably still know far better than the heroes and unpowered refugees who ended up there do. Not to mention that many of them know weaknesses of various hero teams thanks to the surveillance work that was done in preparation for character assassination attacks, and the battle that followed.

      While I have no doubt that most of them are decent enough folks who at the moment want nothing mere than being re-united with their families, some of them may be not that nice. If you add the fact that Teacher never had anything against enthralling capes, so some of these former thralls are bound to have powers the Wardens and co. may not know about, and I worry that while everyone is worried about external threats like Red Queen’s new army, the complex may be hit from within.

      1. They did mention that there are parts of the complex which are still cordoned off as unsafe. Beyond that, Teacher could have had Valefor setup numerous sets of failsafe instructions for The Taught to follow under all sorts of conditions. We saw that Colt was still influenced by Valefore after he died.

  26. @Alfaryn

    Re: #former Teacher’s thralls with powers of their own that make them a blind spot. And a nasty surprise.

    Well, just like @Goldarmy suggested above…

    Teacher thrall Contessa FTL!

    1. What I want to know about former Teacher’s thralls is if (and on what terms) Breakthrough will end up confronting the people who worked in the decagon dedicated to monitoring them. Remember in Overseer interlude it was mentioned that one of them – CM Thrift – “had powers, but he rarely used them”.

      Another thing I wonder about is whether Legend reported back shortly after the thralls were released from Teacher’s control, and if not – why?

  27. 1. > “Does it mean you’re going back?” Vista asked, quieter.
    “If the Wardens allow it. If I go back, it’ll be on terms that help the Wardens and help this city… and I think we have to be ready to handle that stuff.”
    “That stance won’t win you any brownie points with the Warden leadership,” Dennis said.
    … Important feels like too weak a word, and if it’s essential, it implies you’re willing to break the rules to go do what you did last night, again. …
    I really don’t get it… What Warden leadership, Vista and Dennis doesn’t like in Victoria’s position?
    She said “on terms that help the Wardens and help this city”.

    2. > last night, I found a new connection to my power
    What it was? This: “I lifted my hand, and it moved nearby limbs. I turned my hand over, and it mimed me.” ? Or something during dreamscape?

    3. > Ninety nine percent of everything else is kind of balls.
    Could someone please explain this phrase? For non-native readers like me…

    4. > It’s like if Victoria lives at three-four-three tower crescent avenue, and Glory Girl lives at three-four-two, and Antares lives at three-four-five,
    Looks like Furcate’s codes.

    5. > Smaller threats like Little Midas and the Machine Army
    That does describe The Situation if unstoppable Machine Army is considered smaller threat! 🙂

    1. 1. > Defiant certainly wasn’t keen on Breakthrough messing in the shard space before. He said himself that he’s not sure he’d trust even Dragon with that much power and responsibility. It feels like the Wardens are more keen for the space to simply not be messed with than any idea of finding someone to mess with it responsibly.

      2. > Possibly both. She could call on her shard avatar in the dreamspace but she is also better at working with and manipulating her forcefield to do her bidding as well (lifting the clothing from the hangar). Something she’s been trying to achieve for quite a while.

      3. > Everything else is “balls” – Crazy or Stupid

      5. > The Machine Army is Unstoppable but ultimately slow and generally considered contained as far as it only existing in Earth Bet and provided they can prevent it from figuring a way out of Earth Bet.

      1. 2. > It was before they went into Shard space but I think I recall Victoria also mentioning that she seemed capable of sensing the places where the ice was thinner and possibly a degree of emotional turbulence in others.

        Dean had the ability to sense emotions in others and Victoria inherited some ability from him in her Aura but it’s possible she has a very weak Thinker ability that’s only just beginning to develop now or which she hasn’t been able to notice in the past, much like Jack Slash never noticed his own Thinker power.

      2. 1. “Defiant certainly wasn’t keen on Breakthrough messing in the shard space before.”
        Yes, but Victoria said “*If* the Wardens allow it. *If* I go back…”, so Wardens could prohibit it completely or just for Victoria or for Breakthrough.
        I do not understand how this position with *conditional* intent could be bad. They expect Victoria to say “No-no-no! Never again! I would not enter dreamscape whatsoever”?

        3. + Pizzasgood
        Thank you.

  28. > 3. > Ninety nine percent of everything else is kind of balls.
    > Could someone please explain this phrase? For non-native readers like me…

    In this usage, “kind of balls” is equivalent to “crappy” or “bad.” The balls in question are testicles, so it has a slight crassness on par with “ass” and “dick.”

  29. Why would Contessa be Teacher’s thrall? Even if she was before (unlikely) – now she definitely isn’t, like everyone else.

    1. Master/Stranger Protocols aren’t the title of steamy romance novels. The only reassurance that Contess isn’t mastered is the Word of Contessa.

  30. “[…]We’ll work on your master-stranger issue while figuring out how to handle the situation.”

    Any guesses about how the Narwhal wants to do it (or have it done) exactly?

  31. One more thing to worry about – since it took Byron merely about a week to get out of the hospital, I’m almost certain that Contessa didn’t mean Capricorn’s situation when she predicted two Breakthrough members being “taken out of the equation”, and one undergoing a torment for “quite some time”.

    So which Breakthrough member(s) do you think is/are most likely to suffer this/these fate(s)? Rain, who said that he was afraid to go back to the dream-room now that the walls there are gone? Victoria, who might be too reckless wit this “becoming attuned to her shard and exploring the dreamscape” idea for her own good? Or maybe one or two of the others? If so – which ones?

    1. Maybe Kenzie, who has been doing some reckless things with her power, and on top of it may still have some of her tech phased through her head, and no way to properly maintain it now that she is not allowed to tinker?

      Not that I think it is very likely. I doubt that D&D would make a mistake of letting Kenzie keep all this things inside her head right now.

      1. Yeah, I suspect all her tech is adequately confiscated but I do worry that they may have found something she created or was working on which creates cause for concern or even crosses one of those privacy boundaries Lookout has trouble navigating… I wonder if Chris/Labrat left any of his tech at the centre Kenzie is now in… Its now like she wouldn’t have the technology to scan and discover anywhere he might have stashed stuff…

        Really, she could simply be suffering from Swansong’s loss more than we or others have been able to decipher… and there’s the comment about Victoria normally being safe…

    2. There’s also possible interference from blind spots or Dinah (unlikely on that last front since Contessa is supposed to be immune from interference from other Thinkers but Dinah is a special case as a fragment of Scion’s own path to victory).

      The team went right into the shard space with Byron in the Capricorn reserve space so that feels like a pretty likely blind spot situation. Otherwise Byron’s ordeal might have been longer.

      Other possibility is that either Contessa simply told them what they needed to hear. I once thought that they were still in the path that led to eventually capturing Teacher and one of them would die on the way to that happening, but Teacher is captured now… Beyond that, maybe the path had Sveta dying because she killed Saint and Dobrynja didn’t hold back from shooting or she stayed in the mech as it fell.

      1. > Beyond that, maybe the path had Sveta dying because she killed Saint and Dobrynja didn’t hold back from shooting or she stayed in the mech as it fell.

        Assuming that Contessa really gave her rescuers an honest choice, and that she didn’t lie that her power gave her paths to outcomes they would be most happy with, I doubt that path C was originally meant to lead to Sveta’s death. It would make the entire Breakthrough, and likely several of the other voters very unhappy after all. I think it may be more likely that Contessa’s power predicted both Sveta’s protest over what sounded like an order to kill Saint, and Contessa’s own hesitation about the exact interpretation of the path after she disabled her power, which in turn lead to the outcome where both Sveta and Saint survived.

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