Infrared – 19.3

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TITANS RETREATING.  WILL UPDATE YOU AS SITUATION CHANGES.

One titan mobilizing, the rest retreating.  It was practically an invitation to give chase.  The problem was that we were being invited to give chase to Fortuna.  Contessa.

“Firing positions!” Aunt Sarah called out.

“Coming!” Crystal called out.  She turned in the air to look at me.  “You too!  You’re a flying laser type now!”

“I’ve got to check on my team.”

“We’ll be nearby!”

I nodded.

Immediately, as soon as they were gone, I regretted my decision.  If I’d asked them to stay, I would have asked them to make me a parking spot.  As it was, it was hard to find a spot to land when carrying a gun the size of a truck with me, not helped by the fact that my fragile alter-ego was different now.  I had to dig forcefield fingers into the housing to maintain my grip on it, and that damage made it less sound.  End result: I had to fly carefully to avoid dropping it on anyone below, and flying carefully made it harder to fly to a clearing.

Things were complicated more by the fact that our side was jittery.  I struggled to pull out a better word for it.  Intimidated as all hell, running for cover, running to the enemy.  The Titans were still working on recovering from what we’d done, and the ones who had recovered fastest seemed diminished somehow.

People were milling around below me like ants, and I just wanted to get situated so I could get my team members together.

“Coming down!” I shouted, as I saw a spot.  I flared my aura a bit, which made some people stop in their tracks.  The reaction wasn’t shock and fear like I expected.

I’d have to figure it out later.  I called out, “Heads up!”

They scrambled out of the way.  Bit of an asshole move, butting in, using my power on friendlies, but there was a real hazard that I’d lose my grip on the gun and drop it on someone.

That, and if I waited around too long, we’d fall behind.  Contessa is moving.

I landed, the gun crunching to earth a second later.  I focused most of my efforts on making sure the curved housing of the gun didn’t cause a not-so-slapstick swing of the barrel as it settled, braining people nearby.

Sorry for the abuse, gun.  You’re doing a good job.

Sveta was sitting with her back to a wall.  One of the Harbingers was next to her.

“Everything okay?” I asked her.

“Bit spooked,” she said.  “My body’s-”

I looked.  Her arms weren’t wholly there.  In the gloom, with Kenzie’s partial night vision tech, I could Strands worked to braid together, leaving gaps because they weren’t in their usual spot.

“You can’t settle it down?” I asked.

“I can, but it takes concentration.  It didn’t after Mr. Bough worked on me.  I’ve been trying to let my guard down and calm down, to see if it goes away, but…”

I could see the fear in her eyes.

“…Panicking,” she said, finishing.

I reached for her hand, and she gripped mine.  I could feel twitches.

“Did you change?” the Number Boy asked me.

“Is he legit?” I asked Sveta.

“I think so.  A friend, kind of.”

“Okay,” I said.  “My forcefield shrank three sizes,” I said.

“Interesting.”

It really wasn’t the thing capturing most of my attention right now.  Back to Sveta, “Should we contact someone, try to get you help?”

“I’ll manage,” she said.  “I wanted to stop for five minutes, see if things resolved on their own.  Or if calming down helped.”

“Where’s Tristan?”

“Hitting the Titan.  Go find him, come back?  I could use the rest of those five minutes.”

I could see other Case Fifty-Threes around, like Whippersnap and Chantilly, and I could see Weld wasn’t that far off either.  It was surprising to see Weld on the periphery of all of that, but I was pretty sure the weirdness of that situation didn’t extend to the old Irregulars being wholly cool and fair to Sveta again.

A lot of the case fifty-threes were struggling.  Weld’s skin was crawling, so to speak, textures shifting.  Chantilly had shed some lace.  Engel was flaring, bright lights dancing along her skin.  Tastes, physical sensations, and smells flooded my mind.

Fuck.  I didn’t like taking that in.

“You’re sure?” I asked, worried I might be overheard if I made it clear why I didn’t feel great leaving her behind.  Some of those people had been outright hateful in the past.

“Five has my back.”

The Harbinger nodded.

“Alright,” I said.  “Okay.  Be safe.”

“You too.  You weren’t here, but they’re saying the Stranger Titan is insanity-raying anyone who steps out of cover,” Sveta told me.  “Stay low.”

I nodded.

Crystal and Aunt Sarah were close enough that I could have flown to join them in ten seconds.  Maybe a minute if I went to get my gun and got it operational again.

“Crystal!” I called out, as I flew up, first.

She turned, looking, hand still glowing as the laser was emitted from her fingertips.

“Keep an eye out for Sveta?”

She nodded.

I flew over to get my gun, and took a few seconds to check it over and make sure it wasn’t going to fall apart on me the next time I picked it up.

Using my forcefield hands to pinch metal together, curl ragged edges, and straighten what was bent, I simultaneously figured out the new limits of my forcefield.  The reach of the arms, the number and position of them.

My forcefield had long hair.  Longer than I was used to.  Less arms, less legs.  Like it was halfway between where my old forcefield had been and where ‘the Wretch’ had been.

Just gotta get my gun in good enough shape I can shoot if I need to.  We might have to go after Titan Fortuna.  If she’s anything like her old host, she can do anything perfectly, and get the ideal outcomes.  Raises the question: what can she do about a beam that moves the speed of light, fired from the clouds?

I wasn’t being rhetorical, asking myself that.  I was genuinely concerned.

But I didn’t have any better ideas.

The metal squealed as I adjusted it.  I glanced back Sveta’s way, seeing motion and color out of the corner of my eye.  Case fifty-threes, very close to her.  Engel was among them.  Again, that fucking explosion of mixed senses, more violent than it had been in the past, yet all pleasant, all jarring when I was sweating, smelling my own sweat damp from my own body, my mouth dry, my heart hammering.

I felt the forcefield’s hair slip over a bare forcefield shoulder.

“It’s not perfect.”

“It-”  Hard to breathe right, to get sound to where I needed it, like I was sucking liquid in through a straw with a hole in it.  “Doesn’t need to be perfect.”

Her hands cupped my face, fingers stroking my cheeks, light brown eyes searching, analytical, studying.

“You fixed the acid burns.  I hate to say it, but-”

“You don’t hate to say it,” she said, eyes still looking at proportions, features, trying to measure.  Her face took up ninety percent of my vision, the dilapidated house with the flooding damage on the first floor taking up the last ten percent.  The place smelled like damp.  Freckles took up what seemed like fifty percent of the real estate on her face.  “I can feel your body, everything in it.”

“Invasive,” I said.

“You don’t feel invaded either,” she said.  “Heart rate normal.  You’re uncomfortable but not in a way that’s hurting you.  You’re breathing normally.  Serotonin, endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine are close to normal.”

“They can’t be,” I said.  “You altered my feelings for you.  I feel those feelings right now.”

“…Normal besides that.”

“That’s why I hate to say ‘thank you’.”

“You don’t hate it,” she repeated.

“Master protocols.”

“I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure it’s clever.”

“Master protocols are to handle emotional changes with logic.  Hammer past logic warping with raw emotion.  Don’t stop fighting, especially if it’s physical puppeteering.”

“You’re such a dork,” she said.

I didn’t reply.  I was aware of the physical touch, her hands on my face.  I was aware I wasn’t fighting.

I was aware I was failing some test that a younger me had been convinced I would pass.

“I-”  Still hard to talk.  The hole was bigger.  “-want to go home.”

“No you don’t.”

“I should want to go home.  I-” I felt he air go out of me.  I heaved in a breath.  “-should be telling you it’s time to get a second opinion.  You’ve compromised me.”

“Can you stop talking for three seconds?” she asked.  “I’m concentrating.”

“It’s the protocols, Amy.  I’m compromised, you’re suspect.  The rules say-”

I found the breath lacking, and for an instant I thought she’d taken my ability to speak.  I should have hated her for it.

My jaw worked, mouth moving, words absent.

The protocols were something I’d studied with Dean.  In the moment, feeling the horror, feeling the horror go, just as fast, I wanted him with me.  I wanted him to hold me and talk to me, and remind me if I was missing any of the Master Protocols.

As much or more than I wanted to be with Amy.  Which I shouldn’t have wanted.

“Shhh,” she shushed me.

The hard edges of emotions smoothed away.  Thoughts of Dean slipped away like sand between my fingers, and I had no idea if it was her doing it or if losing him in the Endbringer attack had permanently tied him to feelings of desperation and panic.

I found the ability to speak again.

“-The rules say to reach out,” I managed, quietly and diplomatically.

She shifted position, raising herself up a bit, and put forearms around my shoulders, elbows on the shoulders themselves, like she was about to hug me.  Instead, she just leaned over me, arms partially around me, and kissed me on the forehead.

Rather than break the kiss, she kept her face there, nose in my hair, and mumbled, “We could.”

“Should,” I said, pulling the sheet up to my collarbone, staring at anything and everything that wasn’t her.  I gave a moment’s consideration to following the protocols.  Fighting.

Was it logical, to throw her away from me?  How hard should I throw?  Enough to only get her away?  To break something?  To destroy her?

Logic felt far away.

“Shhh,” she said, breath hot against my forehead.  “We could.  Maybe we should.  But there’s still work to be done.”

“I’ll deal.  Heroes get hurt.”

Not something I believed, but something I felt like I would have said.

“No,” Amy said.  “No, Vicky.  Maybe before, but when I got my powers, it was to save you from being hurt.  You don’t get hurt, not in a way that lasts.  You will be a top heroine, a champion, beautiful and awe inspiring, and I will be behind you, keeping you in that fight, keeping you beautiful and perfect.”

I didn’t move.  I thought of dad, seeing him hug my mother, able bodied and well.  I’d been so pissed when she hadn’t healed him, I’d wanted that, for him to hug my mom and to be whole again, albeit without the emotion as he told her that Amy had run away.

I wanted this, what she described.

“If you want it,” Amy said.

I didn’t know what I wanted.  Want was emotion and I didn’t trust emotions.  Logically?  What was logical?  Spending the rest of my life weak?

It was logical, maybe, to reach out, get that second opinion.  And if I couldn’t do it from an emotional standpoint because I didn’t want it for me, I could at least want it for Amy, because she wasn’t doing great.  She was shaky, and she wasn’t acting like herself.  I had the excuse of being compromised, but she seemed almost drunk.

But I really wanted to be a heroine.  I really wanted to be okay.  I really wanted Amy to hug me, even if I hated that want.  Should have hated that want.

Amy’s fingernails combed through my hair, fixing it where it had fallen across my bare shoulder.

Last chance, Victoria, I thought, my eyes closing as I felt the sensation of the fingernails, my head rocking with the contact.  Her power didn’t work while she was touching hair. Throw her through the wall.  Follow the protocols.

Her hands moved away.

Amy’s fingernails combed through my hair, fixing it where it had grown out, draping another bare shoulder.  I turned my head to look at the other head she’d grown.  That breathed with the branching windpipe- that hole that had made it so hard to talk before.

I should have felt horrified.

Your real last chance, Victoria, I thought, my eyes half-lidded, watching.  My fingers dug into the sheets that covered my upper body.

The words slipped from my lips, in a tumble of logic and emotion.  Logic because I was asking her to undo that.  Emotion because I wanted what she’d been selling to me.  That future.  Being a heroine.  I’d wanted to be one all my life.

“Please fix me.”

“I thought you’d say that,” she said.  And tired as she was, shaky and not entirely herself, she managed a wink.

My hand was a claw, fingernails scratching my cheek with the force I brought it to my face, like I was about to throw up from guilt and shame alone.  Hating myself for that guilt and shame because fuck her.  Fuck no, on every level.

For long seconds, I didn’t move.

Then I resumed the work I’d paused as I sat awash in freshly unlocked memory.  Bend this bit of metal, grab this, grab that…

Heave.  Lift.  Without my flight factoring in, the weight of it drove the few points of contact that were my forcefield into the ground.  Two sets of feet, one hand.  Less than I’d once had.

Gun.  Safe and new, clean metal and violence far removed from that, unlikely to trip any mental landmines or spark any memories.  Good gun.

I flew, and with the flight, the way I was lifting shifted, and the modifications I’d made held.  I was almost glad it was all fucked up, because that fucked-up state demanded my attention, my focus.

Didn’t want to think about it.  Didn’t want to go back there, or risk another flashback.

Some doors were best left closed.

I steered clear of Engel, and looked for Tristan.  Looked for orange motes in the air.

I found red motes.  Red sparks that danced through the air and left lines behind them.  Tristan was on the offensive against Titan Ophion, who was slowest to recover.  Someone had hit the Titan rather hard.

The red lines solidified, becoming the edges of ruins, destroyed building and a bit of metal fencing, like a damaged building that didn’t have any inherent logic to it, sitting at a forty-five degree slant, a hundred feet tall.  It came in waves, the second surge of building thrusting up through the first, destroying it while extending just a bit further.  The third wave extended further still, maybe two hundred feet long, punching through the second construction with enough force to send chunks soaring into the Titan.

Stronger?

No, not quite.  The construction sagged, and then crumbled, leaving little more than ten feet standing out.  Tristan ran up and through the rubble.

Spikes began to appear from the ground.  Capes took evasive action, and Aunt Sarah was one of the capes who produced forcefields and other impediments for the spikes, flat and level to the ground so people could run on them.

That wouldn’t have been possible before.

Just what did blowing that up do, even?

I landed in a clear spot beside Tristan, the edge of the gun scraping along road that was seventy-five percent ice before finding traction in the other twenty-five percent.

Then I pulled the trigger.

The beam cut into Ophion, and it did damage, this time.  Its head was like chewed gum with spikes and metal contorting its shape, and that gum split and burned.  Less than I would have liked, but I was carving into him.  The gun shuddered, and the damage I’d fixed and pinched together was pulling further apart now.  Handholds became gouges and furrows as I repositioned hands to hold onto the weapon.

Situating myself on the ground meant the ground provided a bit of security, one extra point of contact.

Ophion produced a fence of the pencil-thin black spikes, which absorbed some of the laser.  The beam cut through them, but by the time I was through the one portion, a second row appeared.  Veiled behind the row of protrusions, he produced a single black spike next to himself.  I could only see it because of the limited night vision Kenzie’s tech provided me.

“Shit!” I heard a cape nearby call out.

“What?” someone else asked.

I was gritting my teeth, focusing too much on keeping the beam steady.  I was aware I was burning through battery.

Tristan’s red motes solidified, forming another leaning tower of abstract ruined building.  A second building emerged from within, then a third, ramming into the fence and knocking down a portion of it.

A nearby cape hurled something.  An explosion of wood and stone bowled over the fences Tristan had rammed.

“Shoot it!” the first cape I’d heard called out.

“Shoot what!?”

“He’s got something!  At the top of the spike!”

I flew forward, bringing the gun with me.  Toward the horrifying titan, toward the fallen and broken needle-like spikes that could alter a person on a fundamental level, and turn them into something grosser and bigger than a Titan.

I saw it.  At the top of that center spike, traced in the gold outline that Kenzie’s tech provided me, a nugget of something, swelling.

I aimed, and I fired at it.

Yeah, sure enough, the gun wasn’t currently equipped to handle the vibration of its internals with the damage to its externals.  Cracks split wider, claw marks opened up, and parts of it began to rattle.

My adjustments to keep hold of the weapon cost me accuracy, and I ended up trying to just take out the base of the spike, toppling it, because I could at least get the left-right aiming down while fucking up the up-down accuracy.  Hitting the very tip required both.

I tried to get to a position where I could fire without exposing my flank to any of the insanity beams from the Stranger Titan.  That took time, and the time ended up costing us.  The nugget fell.

More spikes found their way to that nugget, suspending it where it was.  The swelling intensified.

A part of someone’s body, still dripping blood.  It might have been a foot.

The foot became more, expanding, branching out, swelling, with flesh ballooning out like an explosion had gone off within it, but then tearing, revealing red meat instead of the smoke and fire residual to an actual explosion.

I focused the beam at center mass, tried to cut it away from the spikes that impaled it.

Arms reached out blindly from the mass, and one of the hands found the toppled black spikes.  Again, they seemed to multiply the growth rate.

A face, mouth yawning wide.  More arms, more flesh, breasts, a veiny tube of flesh that was attached to the mass at both ends, pulling free to reveal a tooth-encrusted cockhead.  Hair-

Bringing me to the cusp of that same flashback I’d just weathered.  I kept my aiming on center while twisting my face away so I didn’t have to look.

“On your left!” Crystal called out.

Why?  Am I really going to turn suddenly with this thing, and blast you?  It’s too heavy for that.

She appeared at my left, hand out, and produced a magenta-red beam, aiming for the same spot I was.

“Give me a platform,” I said the words through grit teeth.

A square of forcefield appeared below me.  As gently as I was able, I set the gun down.  Let the forcefield absorb some of the shuddering and keep at least the lowest side in place.

It also helped me aim on the up-down axis.

“I have to say, baby cousin, you might be overcompensating for something, hauling that thing around.”

“Don’t, please,” I said the words through grit teeth, and I worried I was drowned out by the whine of the machine and the sound of tens of thousands of pounds of meat and blood pouring out of the point where the lasers were drilling into the expanding blob of flesh.

With the golden light illuminating one side of Crystal’s face, and the red light from her hand shining through her hair as the wind stirred it, I saw her looking at me, studying me in the second or two she took away from aiming.

I could almost see the thoughts connect, as she turned her attention back to what we were shooting.  Why I’d have a problem with it.

I wanted to be through this.  To have it over and done with, to not stress about it or feel sick or hate anymore.

If someone had offered a parahuman cure for it, I might have taken it.  Whatever form that cure took.

If- if someone offered me a deal like I’d had, just after Gold Morning, to let me forget it all, I might have taken it.

I hated this, hated enduring.

Other capes added their firepower to ours.  Fire, grenade-like blasts, beams, an aerial strike from a master minion, and a buzzsaw or pinwheel that flew out and began chewing its way into the flesh.

Tristan added his contribution- another pillar of building material, slamming right into the lowest point of the flesh we were shooting.  It erupted a second time, sending chunks flying while extending its length, and then toppled.  As it fell, it tore.

And even with all of that, the flesh expanded faster than we destroyed it.

Until the toppling construction knocked a few of the pins loose.

Others took the cue, and began knocking out the needles that were feeding into the tumorous lump.  A few strikers were right under it, running through a waterfall of gore that flowed from our ongoing attacks, to take the pillars out at their base.

The creation stopped growing and started dying.

I turned my laser toward Ophion.  Again, I shot that chewed-gum tumor of a head and chest, the laser cauterizing as it cut.

He’s Fortuna’s, I thought.  He’s connected to her, he might as well be an extension of her like my arm is an extension of me.

Except not quite.

They had their individual personalities.  More than a group, less than a single entity.

It was easier to imagine them as a group and as a single entity, then to take the worst case scenario of the two, or combine the two worst case scenarios.  If he really was an independent entity working to help her… he had all of the strategy and wit of the canny Mr. Bough, who had survived for over a decade as part of Orchard, with good heroes gunning for him.

If he was indistinguishable from Titan Fortuna, an extension of her, then he was taking every action he was taking right this minute for very specific, very dangerous reasons.

He was protecting himself with more needles as he retreated, and the strikers who were clearing the way were having trouble keeping up.

I stopped shooting.  I had half of a battery left.

How much of this is Titan Fortuna’s doing?

Crystal kept shooting, but her battery was endless, for all intents and purposes.  Aunt Sarah was closer to the scene, helping people with forcefields that went up faster, bigger, and lasted longer than anything Crystal put up.

“Thanks, cousin,” I said.

“Anytime.”

“You don’t have to babysit me, but-”

“I kinda do,” she interrupted me.  Then, a second later, added, “For me, not for you.”

“It’s appreciated, in any event.  Feeling shaky.”

“My laser’s different.  It’s going to fuck up all my arts and crafts, and making food with my power.”

I lifted up the gun, then tapped it against Crystal’s forcefield, hard.  It punched through, and I started descending.

While descending, drifting in Tristan’s direction, I said, “Lookout was saying it’s all falling within the TTSE range.”

“I have no idea what that means.”

I winced, but I didn’t say anything.

Too close.

Refuge in the scholastic.  “They don’t think we suffered any changes that couldn’t have happened on their own.  With training, or mood, or meditation, or anything like that.”

I landed near Tristan.  He was breathing hard, but he was in one piece.

“How are you managing?”

“I heard you as you floated down,” Tristan said.  “The shifted powers.  I don’t like my new power.  Maybe it’ll change again.”

“Too aggressive?” I asked.

“Too… temporary,” he said.  “I’d rather build walls right now.  Especially with that Stranger.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The position we were in wasn’t great, when I considered it from the big picture.  Titan Fortuna was too far away, Ophion was limping away, so to speak, and the Stranger Titan was behind us, unable to be seen, yet capable of stealing our sanity away from us if it got a good look at us.  Possibly permanently, insofar as ‘permanent’ lasted, when most of the affected seemed to take their own lives at the next opportunity.

And the Nemean Titan was too close, hurt too, but fast, and threatening to get at our flanks.

“I’d like to get back to Sveta,” I said.  “Regroup.”

“Give me a second,” Crystal said.

She produced her forcefield, bright against the dark sky, angled so its two dimensional shape was almost invisible.

Not for us.

Turned it off, then created it again.

A purple forcefield appeared.  The square, which disappeared, then a smaller square below it.

“She’ll be a second,” Crystal said.

“I don’t remember those,” I said.

“You don’t make forcefields.”

I grunted in mild annoyance.

“Let’s go to Sveta,” she said.  “She’s mobile again, she told me to go to you.”

And I asked you to stay.  Which means she had a more compelling argument.  One you agreed with.

Do I really look that shaken?

“So weird,” she said, quiet.  “I already said my goodbyes.”

“Your mom?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” Crystal said.  “I feel shitty even trying to articulate this thought, but… it’s like it would be easier if it was anything else.  If she stayed gone, if she was back here in full, or just the human side of her.  Not better, necessarily.”

“Easier,” Tristan said.

“Yep.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed.  “An old teammate of mine’s back.  Almost all the way back, I think.  And it’s undeniably better, a bright point in a really dark time.  But it’s not easy.”

“We need a group,” Crystal said.  “What do you even call something like that?”

“Un-survivors anonymous,” Tristan said.

“That was fast.”

“I’m not just a pretty face,” he said, with a humor that didn’t reach his voice.

The others were regrouping behind us.  There were still defensive lines, but they were more like walls that people were standing guard at than they were front lines in any way.

Sveta was on her feet, standing a good distance away from a cluster of case fifty-threes.  Her coat was still damp with ice on it, and her eye glowed teal in the gloom.  I recognized most but not all of the cases standing opposite her.  Weld stood closer to that group than Sveta did.

She smiled as she saw Tristan and me.  A bit of a sad smile.

“Can we trust you?” Weld asked.

“Wow,” Sveta said, voice soft.  “Really, Weld?”

I flew over to Sveta’s side and put down my gun.  It crunched in the ice and snow.  “What’s going on?”

“They want to go after Contessa.  We know Chris, somewhat, and we interacted with Contessa so I suggested maybe we’d come.”

“Titan Fortuna,” Weld said.

“Have we confirmed that one hundred percent?” I asked.

“What?” he asked.  “That she turned into a Titan taller than any human-made building we know of?  Yeah.”

“That there’s nothing of Contessa in there.  We made this mistake with Fume Hood.  There might be a glimmer of Contessa in the middle of that Titan, trying to communicate in her own way.”

“That’s worse, if anything,” Engel said.

I winced at the sound of her voice, turning my body so the edge of my hood blocked off the worst of the light show.

“We’re going,” Weld said.  “I’m coordinating with the Wardens.  And the Wardens are saying they would like us to go with people they a-ok.”

“Breakthrough,” Sveta said.

“As a possibility.”

Sveta nodded.

“What’s your plan?” I asked.

“Stopping her,” Weld said.  “She has a few weaknesses, we were talking before we deployed here for your mission.  Some of those weaknesses may apply.  Portals, blind spots, precogs.  Her power was already so strong and unfiltered, we don’t think it’s fundamentally different.  It’s just… attached to something that is.”

“And if it is different?  The weak points paved over?” I asked.

“Then I think there might literally be no way to win,” he told me.  “The Wardens are planning to act as if there is a way, because there’s no alternative.  Ideal world, we’re getting everyone together who knows this particular enemy.  Undersiders, Breakthrough, we’ve got one Number Boy, Faultline’s Crew, who are coming with part of this group anyhow.  Legend is on his way.  You’re not obligated, of course.”

I nodded.

“We leave in five.  Titan Fortuna isn’t fast, but we’d like to get a head start so we can make any necessary preparations.”

“Thanks, Weld,” I said, glancing between him and Sveta.  That earlier hostility.

He nodded once, then turned his attention to the case fifty-threes.  Slician stood at the edge of that group, and I was left to wonder if the non-case-fifty-three girl in the terminally tight bodysuit was okay.  Did she have confidants?

Crystal flew over to Aunt Sarah, who had come back, probably to give her the down-low.

“How’s Lookout?” I asked Tristan and Sveta.  “I haven’t heard from her.”

Tristan explained, “She was pulled away to consult.  Tattletale is there too.  All the thinkers and information gatherers.  She sent us a message.  She didn’t…”

He indicated me.   I shook my head.

“Might have been that you were too busy fighting in that moment.”

Or the flashback.  I zoned out for a minute there.

The fighting was renewing.  Oberon was fighting Skadi.  They were close enough to one of the defensive lines that capes were participating.

I wanted to go and I was exhausted at the same time.

“On the down-low,” Sveta said, leaning in closer, until our heads were almost touching.  “Weld is pretending to be mad at me.”

“Pretending why?” I asked.  Tristan looked equally curious.

“Heavy stuff that happened once.  Information I didn’t pass him, before the Irregulars went bad.  It came up in the moment, he acted like it was a surprise.  To open a way to communicate with the case fifty-threes.  Get them on board, when they might have run for it otherwise.”

“This is, uh, stuff you talked about in group?” Tristan asked.

Sveta nodded.  She looked almost sick just with that gesture alone.  I couldn’t imagine actually talking it out with Weld.

I couldn’t imagine being where she was now, hearing Weld be actively hostile, when she’d been close enough to have that talk with him and stay together with him after the fact.

“How’s your control?” I asked.

She showed me her arm.  The tendrils misaligned, until she put visible concentration into it to pull things together.

“What if we put a bandage or something around it, to keep it right?”

“Bandages are a problem if I need to use my power,” she said.

I nodded.

“Are we doing this?  Giving chase?  Getting between Cryptid- Lab Rat, and Titan Fortuna?”

Tristan was already nodding.  Already planning on it.

Sveta visibly hesitated.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

I’LL BE RIGHT WITH YOU.  The golden text appeared outside the reaches of my ordinary vision.  MEETING DONE.  CRACKS ARE SET TO SPREAD SOON.  IF THEY SPREAD IN THE NEXT TWENTY MINUTES, RAIN IS IN POSITION TO MAYBE DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  HOPEFULLY!

That would be what the powwow with the other thinkers was about, then.

My power still felt shaky, my grip on the gun- fuck.  I started fixing it right away.  I wasn’t even sure if my other powers didn’t have subtle differences, either.

For all of us, Tristan, Sveta, and myself, the following minute was a quiet one, our minds in overdrive, anticipating this coming situation, trying to find a way through.

I replayed previous conversations with Contessa in my head.  The decision she’d posed for us.  The fact she’d been unwilling to make it herself.  Was there a weakness there?  A way past the Titan and to Contessa herself?

The flashback image of Amy’s face crossed my mind, alarming and disconcerting, gross, perplexing.  Somehow tied to the former thought.

The portal startled all of us as it ripped into existence.

I think we were all just a little bit surprised when we started moving toward the portal in complete synchronicity.  Because none of the others had hesitated, that was a big part of it.  But also surprise that we, ourselves, hadn’t hesitated either.

The portal was the way to our next battlefield.  It wouldn’t put us in Shin, not when Shin was probably as pissed as they’d ever been.  It wouldn’t put us near Arachne.  That made a complicated situation worse.  Not near Lab Rat, if he was engaged with the Titan.

It would put us outside.  In between Titan Fortuna and her goal.  The strongest of the Titans with our destruction as her goal.

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36 thoughts on “Infrared – 19.3”

  1. -I will never be worried for Sveta if Five have her back. She is in some very safe hands ❤️.

    -I still don’t get why Citrine and the rest of her Boys aren’t helping when she always wanted to help the humanity and their powers would have been very useful now; but maybe the death of her husband left her so shaked that she doesn’t care anymore about anything, including the end of the world. Or maybe Victoria didn’t noticed her on the battlefield yet. Its a bit of a mystery Citrine and the rest of the Lads’ absence.

    -Victoria’s memory about Amy healing her was painful to read, just like everything else involving her interactions with her rapist. This is what I call pure horror. Poor Victoria.

    -Everyone against Titan Fortuna. But I’m afraid that she is the one with the LUCK here.

  2. Hey Victoria! Weld’s right there while you’re trying to fix your gun, and his power would let him shore it up much better than you can. Ask the man for a favor, please.

    1. Ehh, it’s Tinker-made. Weld working on it might just poof the whole thing into a 12-ton can of sardines…

  3. Typo/corrections thread:
    Less arms, less legs. *Fewer, or shorter if the number is the same but the length is reduced.

    1. Use of ‘less’ pushes towards uncountable/rough amount, which feels ok when talking about Wretchie.

  4. More typos:

    could Strands worked > could see strands working
    felt he air > felt the air
    I said the words through grit teeth (repeated a little later)

  5. AMY WTF!!!!!!
    ugh i regret trying to stand up for her. that memory must have been before Jack Slash started getting into her mind, convincing her that she did nothing wrong.

    The power changes seem very very inconvenient.

    1. It’s a double-edged sword. While the refreshed powers may push some new synergies, getting used to the new stuff might cause issues at a critical moment.
      Similarly, the Titans were clearly weakened but could come out of this with unseen abilities up their sleeves.

      The list of interesting changes is endless, but I’m personally interested in Damsel’s, Chicken Little’s and Tattletale’s right now, for obvious reasons.

  6. “You don’t get hurt, not in a way that lasts.” insists Amy, right before condemning Victoria to two years of physical debility and longer lasting mental anguish.

  7. Amy isn’t a tragic figure, she isn’t mentally ill, she is an evil, unrepentant, rapist monster. She deserves to be raped, she deserves to be tortured, she deserves to die. That is all she is, and all she will ever be. Carol was right the entire time and should have shot her in the crib.

  8. – Flashbacks with Amy? Foreshadowing ho! This situation might well come to a head.
    …not exactly an amazing insight, given that they’re going to Shin in pursuit of Fortuna. But hey, if you need someone to tell you that 2+2 Wildbucks = 4 Wildbucks, then I’m your guy I guess.

    – @ Barmanrags: Pretty sure that Victoria’s flashback with Amy was just before she got turned Wretch, so yes, after Jack Slash visited the Dallons, after Victoria rejected her advances and after Vicky got nearly-killed by Crawler.
    Also…I don’t think JACK did anything to convince Amy she did nothing wrong. That’s very much her. I mean, ol’ Slashy would have just laughed and told her ‘good job’ if he’d seen the Wretch…

    – @ Goldarmy: It makes me kind of…sad? I guess…that someone can get this far into a Wildbow story and say ANY of the characters is ‘just’ a monster. (Well…the Endbringers, maybe?) Especially one that’s had as much fleshing out as Amy Dallon.
    Hell, even (some of) the Slaughterhouse 9 had depth to them!
    At the very least she’s a rapist AND wretched AND a monster AND pathetic AND awful AND tragic AND unrepentant AND mentally ill.

    – Hey, so Weld and Sveta have learned from their previous betrayal by the Irregulars.
    If he wants them to listen, he’s going to have to lie to them or they’ll ditch him and do what they want regardless.
    Still, sucks for both of them if they have to pretend to dislike each other.

    1. @Blue Horus
      Except like all other evil Wildbow antagonists she boils down to just being a monster. And no she isn’t tragic at all.

    2. Well, there were just monsters, with nothing human and tragic in them (and I’m not referring at Endbringers). Jack, Heartbreaker and Teacher are the perfect example of pure monsters, with zero humanity left in them.
      I’m not saying that Amy is like them, she still have some depth and even humanity left in her, but she’s very, very close to become one if she doesn’t try to fix herself before its too late. But she doesn’t try because she doesn’t realize that what she did was bad, she still believe herself to be “good” only because she doesn’t create overnight a plague to destroy the rest of humanity. Her tragedy is that she probably doesn’t have enough time to try to better herself.
      I feel kind of sorry for her because she’s mentally ill but I feel more sorry for the people that she hurts and keep hurting. They are the real victims.

  9. @BlueHorus
    Amy had started unravelling due to meeting with bonesaw, the contact with GloryGirl which she tried to avoid and being chased by siberian. However while in the ruin of the school bonesaw and jack slash talk to her at length. this was also seen by skitter who was trying to off Jack.

    Jack Slash has a personal or shard augmented ability to break parahuman minds. this is well documented, look no further than bonesaw, shatterbird or hookwolf. thus there could be a case where he made mind games like Amy stops reigning herself in vis a vis Victoria and bonesaw corrects the amnesia plague and leaves. Jack Slash would know exactly how Amy felt about Vicky from Cherish. all candidates were meticulously screened by cherish for mapping their emotional triggers.
    it was within realm of possibility that turning Vicky into wretch wasnt done with Amy under perfect control of herself. That Wretch resambled the earthly shape of Eden suggests that the Shaper shard had much more to do with Wretch than Amy alone. Probably why she lost confidence in her ability to restore Victoria. Once Amy touches Glaistig Uaine, she figures out the entities. this plus some confidence will have helped her restore Victoria.

    The devastating part of this flashback, for me, is that she had already started dehumanising Victoria even before Jack Slash and Bonesaw came upon her at the school.

  10. @BlueHorus

    Massive spoilers for Worm. please dont read if you arent caught up atleast till Leviathan in BB.

    Prey 14.10

    Arcadia High.

    Amelia gets a visit from Jack Slash and Bonesaw.

    Excerpt

    JS: “But you didn’t believe them, did you, Amelia? You’ve spent years telling yourself the opposite. You’re a bad person, you’re destined to be bad, by circumstance and blood. And even though you didn’t believe them, you’ll believe me when I tell you no, you aren’t a good person, but that’s okay.”

    ALD: “It’s not.”

    “You say that, but you believe me when I say it.”

    There was another pause where Panacea didn’t venture a response.

    “Isn’t it unfair? Through no fault of your own, the blood in your veins is the blood of a criminal, and that’s affected how your family looks at you. You’ve been saddled with feelings that aren’t your fault, and doomed to a life without color, enjoyment or pleasure. Don’t you deserve to follow your passions? A decade and a half of doing what others want you to do, doing what society wants you to do, haven’t you earned the right to do what you really desire, just this once?”

    “That’s not really that convincing,” Panacea spoke, but she didn’t sound assertive.

    “I know. So I’ll offer you a deal. If you indulge yourself, we’ll surrender.”

    “What?”

    “I won’t even make you do it now. Just look me in the eye, and honestly tell me you’ll do it. Drop all of the rules you’ve set yourself. I don’t care what you do after, you can wipe your sister’s memories, you can kill yourself, you can run away or come with us. And your side wins.”

    “Aren’t we winning anyways?”

    “Up for debate. I’m really quite thrilled with the current situation. Very enjoyable, and we’ve certainly made an impact.”

    “This deal is a trap. You’ll make me do it and then you’ll kill me.”

    “I could, but I won’t. Do you really have anything to lose by trying? If I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill you regardless of what you say or do. Three and a half words: ‘I’ll do it’, and we leave the city.”

  11. The flashback with Amy seems to be shortly after Amy told Jack that she would cut herself loose and do what she wanted, then took Victoria to the abandoned house where she was eventually discovered. It looks like what wibble is describing is a period of lucidity after Victoria came out of the cocoon but before she was 100% wretched.

  12. @Daniel.

    Did she talk with Jack before the encounter at arcadia high?
    jack was not with bonesaw when she invaded the dallon house.

    also i think victoria and amy were recovered at arcadia high itself, when skitter leaves Amy she had wanted to live so that she could restore victoria to her 100%. the breakdown had to be after Skitter chased after Jack and Bonesaw

  13. Jack and Bonesaw were with her and cocooned Vicky at Arcadia. While Skitter was engaged with them, Amy sent cocoon-vicky out to fight.

    Recall that Jack promised Amy that he would pull the rest of S9 out of BB, would leave her alone, as long as Amy told him that she would honestly let herself do whatever she wanted, let go of all her rules and qualms.

    In the following fight, Skitter suddenly heard a female shout some sort of statement, but she didn’t hear what the words were. Then, Jack and Bonesaw left, and the S9 left as well. Shortly after, there was a farewell message from Jack stating that they had withdrawn because of the agreement he made with Amy.

    Days after that, Carol was informed that Amy and Vicky had been found in an abandoned house, and Vicky was Wretched.

  14. @Daniel

    You are right I think!

    I just read 14:10

    When Amy wakes the cocoon Victoria after bonesaw, skitter sees her as a teenage girl in some sort of a fluid filled bag. She makes no note of extra heads. In this chapters flashback, the first extra head is seen by Victoria. Thus the flashback has to be post Arcadia confrontation, before the duo are discovered.

    In the conversation with Taylor at Arcadia high, Amy is still reluctant to work on brain tissue. Even at cost of the world ending. In today’s flashback she was rewriting Victoria’s mind continuously.
    However that may be because she knows from touch that Victoria is trying to push her away physically. Given that her strength and Forcefield are at peak and nigh uncontrollable, ( the destruction wreaked at Arcadia in pursuit of bone saw), she would have rationalised keeping her docile and submissive is neccesary for self preservation and healing of Victoria.

    I just can’t get over how she fetishises the healing. I guess that’s how Jack pushes people over the ledge.

    All it takes is one very bad day. Amy had Jack visit and talk with her on that day.

    She is irredeemable but tragic nonetheless.

  15. @ Barmanrags:
    I might well be wrong about when Amy first met Jack, and the details of what happens. After all, Worm is REALLY LONG (who knew!) and it’s hard to remember exact details.
    But I’d describe her as ‘not in her right mind’ from Bonesaw’s initial visit to her house onwards – not to mention the fact that she was unhappy with her life from the beginning of the story.

    I always saw Jack Slash’s trump power as a very specific form of Plot Armor (and kinda lame, honestly). Saying that Amy wasn’t in her right mind because one Magical Space Worm Shard messed with another – to me – robs the situation of some of its tragedy and horror.
    Especially when she can quite reasonably be described as ‘not in her right mind’ because world-(in)famous psychopaths are messing with her / threatening her family and friends.

  16. @BlueHorus.

    I read the Amy parts of the S9 arc after today’s chapter so the details were fresher in mind. It’s perfectly understandable to have fuzzy recollection on details.

    Stranger powers like August Prince and Nice Guy is a form of plot Armor. The literary interest is in the workarounds devised. Jack has something similar in that his thinker ability gives him a way to avoid damage through parahuman abilities, as seen in Theo’s interlude. His evil talking parahumans into personality breakdown power seems to be just him, probably with slight help from his shard in how his barb’s seem to sink deeper into parahumans.

    The tragedy is not invalidated due to shard shenanigans. Parahumans amplify the internal conflict drive of a person. The good becomes better, bad becomes worse. The tragedy of Amy and Victoria started long before either got powers. In a dimension where Amy and Victoria exists as fostersisters but none gets power, the issues would remain. They won’t get amplified. However all human stories function this way. The plot amplifies a conflict that is human enough for the Audience to recognise that the core of the conflict is something that happen in nonfiction actual real life.

  17. 1. > “They don’t think we suffered any changes that couldn’t have happened on their own. With training, or mood, or meditation, or anything like that.”
    But Titans were affected much more. Most of them currently “retreating”, Stranger Titan for some time lost his ability to be unseen.

    2. > But also surprise that we, ourselves, hadn’t hesitated either.
    May be effect of Master?

  18. I find Amy to be more and more horrifying. I pity her but unless she gets therapy for her illness I think someone will have to euthanise her before she Titanises or hurts someone with her rationalised abuse. I would find it appropriate if Lisa were to do the honours. She helped create the mess after all…

    1. Amy is not ill.
      And at this point it befalls to Victoria to end Amy, as befits the abused killing her abuser.
      What is appropriate for Lisa is to become a flesh garden for creating this mess.

  19. @ Barmanrags: Almost totally agree. The way powers become metaphors for (or exacerbations of) the characters’ issues is probably my favourite part of this series.

    Thing is, while Wildbow’s done a fantastic job of crafting a system that creates personalized, metaphorical superpowers, the actual rules and mechanics of the Shards are…less interesting – to me at least. YMMV, naturally.

  20. Only the third time I had to just stop reading parahumans. Once from Taylor grief, twice from Amy horror.

    Missed her unintelligible shout till the comments here. Horrific.

    Can’t reply, but I can’t hold with criticizing Jack’s other power. Jack without the power wouldn’t belong in the setting. In a world with so many magic bullets, Jack as a character demands a reason he’s still alive. Being on the winning side in a genocidal civil war, for example. Only a master-trump power offers that without placing him in a very different context.

    Prediction: Waste has settled on a charismatic dictator theme for the new aura.

  21. the single, most DAMNING counter to all of Amy’s claims of innocence/being misunderstood is something pretty simple-
    she made a mistake when treating Victoria- and she LEFT HER- a patient, her own sister, in a locked-in, neurologically-altered HELL for two years whilst she sulked in a gilded cage with her father protecting her from anything more dangerous then a split nail, and self-indulgently angsted over how tragic it was her life fell apart-whilst Victoria was screaming silently inside the prison of her own mind
    she was fully capable of healing the damage- and did some within a day when someone else ordered/made her do it-
    no matter how she tries to spin it, no matter what she claims or has deluded herself into believing, that’s a fact-
    that she violated her foster-sister’s mind, consciously or subconsciously kept amping it up (or, at BEST, shamelessly took advantage of Victoria’s altered mental state) to persuade her to agree to be treated by a clearly-off-balance healer in spite of everything she’d been taught-
    and actively REFUSED to even try to fix the damage afterwards until the literal apocalypse called-

    in short, as a few people have said, “Fuck Amy”

  22. @ greycat: Kinky! …but also dangerous. And Grinvader’s right; if Vicky’s not careful with her new partner, the situation might end…explosively.

  23. Oh, right.

    The second year of teaching Worm as a high school Literature text has begun. It had a good start, if not an obvious one.

    Updates to follow.

  24. Sounds like Amy power was really driving that time. To make Vicky invincible is the same thing (to the power) as making giants and biological weapons. Amy tough was weak as fack.

  25. If there was a Contessa inside the titan, would it make any difference? She never seemed to have much beyond loyalty and that dream of a peaceful life, and she already lost one of those. Something else had to break for her to become a titan, so what does that leave, save the Passenger?

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