Infrared – 19.8

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Why had we let him stay?   Leaving him in a fight without all of his teammates at his side.

He’d had to stay.  If he’d been dragged with us and something had happened to his old teammates, he would have been devastated.  The end result might have been the same.

Fuck.

“Byron,” my voice cracked a bit, emotion getting to it more than I’d meant it to.  Lessons from mom, age thirteen.  No crisis was improved by getting emotional.  A shitty thing to hear as a hormonal teen, and a mess of doubt and second guessing now that I was older and not so sure of the lessons that had been imparted on me.

I was still hugging Sveta, and hugged her tighter, as a compromise to myself in the face of that line of thought.  It helped.

“I want to be here,” he said.  “Tristan would want me to keep fighting, and do what I can to protect good people.”

I wanted to ask if he was okay, which he clearly wouldn’t be, or if there was anything I could do, which I couldn’t.

“Do you want to refocus, then?  On…”  I swept my arm out to show the walls. “…this?”

“I think I’d appreciate the distraction,” he said.  “I’ll warn you, I might hit a point later where I freak out a lot.  I haven’t even begun to think of how I’m going to break this to my dad, or, fuck, my mom, I-”

“Distraction?” Rain prompted him.

“Please,” he said.  He pulled off his helmet, apparently to improve his field of view, and I could see the emotion in his eyes.  “This is Contessa?”

Kenzie shifted position, striding over to Byron.  He jumped as she grabbed his wrist, the eyehook breaking alignment with her arm, the projection fuzzing out and showing artifacts around the point it stuck through.  She tugged, with zero strength behind the tug.

“Scared me,” Byron said.  “I thought it was actually you.”

“Come,” she said.  “Over here.  I want to try stuff.  Test, so I can make sure.”

“Kenzie…” Byron said.  I saw his expression change twice, while he looked down at her masked face.  “I’m pretty sure.  My power even changed, again.  Even when Tristan… his power has always taken a while to change.”

“Come on!” she exclaimed, sounding eerily amused.  Her voice echoed off the walls of this crevice, which extended thirty feet up.  “Let me try.”

He obliged, walking over while she failed to exert any strength at all.

“Did you get healing?” I asked.

The scenes on the walls changed to people drinking vials.  Some were in hospital rooms.  Others looked ill.

Sveta broke the hug.  I watched her wipe at the corner of one eye with a fingernail.  The tears were clear.

In a way, small as it was, I felt worlds better, noting that tiny detail.  No tears of ichor, running down her face like bad mascara.  I was already doubting myself, but that, at least, was a small victory.  This was one unadulterated win, for someone important to me.

Sad to see her cry, but… the fact I could see her cry like she wanted to…

“From Chris,” he said. “It’s not total, but… I fucked up, because I was too slow, I couldn’t risk doing that again.  I- I’ll get into it later.”

“Okay,” I said, glancing back at Chris, who was studying images of Contessa walking down hospital hallways.  He looked at me through the corner of his eye, without moving his head, then returned his attention to the walls.

“Stay there, try not to move much,” Kenzie said.  “I need to change settings.”

Byron looked down at her with sad eyes.  He took a breath, and I thought he was about to break some hard news on her.  Then he looked up to ask us, “Is there a weak point?  Weakness?”

The images shifted.  Contessa, holding down someone who was mutating, Contessa’s hand at their throat.  She batted aside reaching hands and claws.  Kenzie was changing settings on the box she’d been using to get sound, so we mercifully didn’t have to hear the screaming from the person on the table.

On another wall, I could see Contessa on the beach, wearing civilian clothes, a loose fitting top and knee-length skirt, her hair tied at a point nearer her shoulderblades than her head, swinging in the wind, her feet in the water.

“When we talk about a subject, it resonates,” I noted.  “When Rain, Kenzie and I were traveling, the kinds of things stored in one area were related to that area.  Here, the data relates to Contessa.  If we figured something out as a starting point, we could branch out from there, get more information elsewhere.  But… this is responsive, a bit different.  In some ways, it’s like Tattletale’s part of the dreamscape.”

Sveta reached out, and her arm was slow to extend, unfurling.  She placed a hand against an outcropping of crystal at the edge of the island.  “A scared little boy named Dimitri, who fell.”

Existing scenes dropped away.  There was only darkness in the walls, swirling like some kind of faint smoke moved within.

“Strike one,” Chris said, from his seat.

“A little girl named Nadia.  My sister.”

Again, darkness.

“Strike two.”

“…Patient six-two-four-five-six-B,” she said.

The scene shifted.  Contessa, and a very early Sveta, distressed, lashing out with tendrils, far shorter than they’d ended up growing to be.  A door opened up in space, and Sveta was placed in confinement.

“Patient six-two-four-five-six-B, earlier,” Sveta said, facing the wall.

“How did you know your number?” Rain asked.

“Micro-dots, hidden in the tattoos,” Sveta said, touching her cheekbone, where the tattoo stood out.  “One of the Irregulars had it discovered while they were in the PRT, trying to figure out if the tattoos were applied in a specific way.”

It was the scene I’d seen as she’d walked across this little island, but at a different point in the timeline.  Contessa laying an injured child of ambiguous gender on a table.  The child’s tunic was folded down, exposing a mess of lines that extended from waist to shoulder, all inflamed and festering.  Flesh had come away in ribbons, and that flesh had died, curled up or sticking out dry and stiff.

“Some cases changed over time,” Five clarified.  “Mantellum was one.  Cauldron found it useful to have a way of tracking subjects.”

Sveta brushed a hand along the child’s face, and I could see the resemblance.  A younger her.  Especially around the eyes.

“Patient six-two-four-five-six-B, location discovered,” she said.

The image shifted, showing a computer screen in a large office.  A map.

Number Five spoke up, “Part of the process of collecting people included seeing if any people from particular earths or cultures were more receptive.  We couldn’t use Contessa to figure it out.  That map there on the wall would be Earth Tau-He.”

“What’s that rooted in?” Chris asked.  “The receptiveness?”

“There was a correlation between mental state, mental fitness, and the results the vials got,” Number Five said.  “The theory was that there might be cultures that are better at focusing, or have particular mental traits that lend themselves to better outcomes.”

“And?” Chris asked.

“Not in a statistically significant way.  Cauldron kept it up even after the numbers came in.  It drew less notice to take five people from a thousand worlds than to take them all from one world.  If we’re talking about Contessa… it reduced the labor for her.  She needed food, rest, sleep, showers, or she’d have to lean on her power for more minute details, and doing that made it harder to run background processes, and long simulations.”

“It’s not instant?” Sveta asked.  “We studied her and we were sure it was instant.”

“It’s instant but it’s harder,” Five told her.  “If she didn’t take care of herself and became weaker, then the power would break things down into a series of derivative steps.”

“Hypothetically, if she was fighting someone like Alexandria,” I said, “And she had the flu, hadn’t slept… she’d drop a few percentage points in execution, but she’d have a fifty step process instead of a fifteen step process?”

“She wouldn’t drop by any percentage points,” Sveta said.  “If she’s fighting, she’s at one hundred percent.  She would beat Alexandria.”

“But there would be fifty steps, or a hundred,” Five said.  “To be more precise about foot placement, breathing, and every other detail that contributed to a specific end result.  More so with simulations.”

“Explain that,” Chris said.

“If she doesn’t or can’t know something, then she can ask herself what the best path is, assuming known variables.  Factor in a need to account for new information, adjust and re-run the simulation regularly, and the small steps become necessary elements of the set.”

“If things get hard, what happens?” Sveta asked.

“She gets more run down.”

“That’s circular,” I said.

“The principal element is still there,” Five said.  “The person.”

Around us, the scenes changed, from Contessa in various confrontations to the image, again, of her standing in a doorway, looking at Doctor Mother as the woman slept.

“What’s the worst case scenario?  Why is this a weak point?” I asked.

“That she asks the wrong questions, or hears the wrong things,” Five said.

“Define wrong,” Sveta said.

“Something that takes her off of the course she was on.  Relative wrong, not moral wrong,” Five said, looking at her.  “Sending one of my brothers to contact Citrine and the Number Man, not anticipating that her friend might be killed as a consequence, when there would have been other ways to distract Teacher.”

Sveta nodded.

“She has to ask questions to guard against strangers, masters, thinkers, and attacks against all corners.  If she gets worn down, there is also a risk she forgets, or she gets ill.”

“Did that happen?” Sveta asked.

“Early on.”

She nodded.

“Do these weaknesses apply now?” Chris asked.

“Probably not,” Five said.

“The human component is gone,” Byron said.

“Buried,” I noted.  “Fume Hood still has something in there.  Rain…”

Rain looked over at me.  Most of his attention was on Byron and Kenzie.

I’d trailed off, waiting to get his attention before I continued.  Now I watched, looked at Kenzie being very still.

Byron reached down to put a hand out, like he was going to place it on her head.  His hand passed through, and the image of her fritzed as the camera was pushed out of position.

She’d been checking, testing… and now she wasn’t there to pilot the camera or manage the eyehook.  I could connect the dots.

“Take care of her, Chicken Tenders,” I said.  My voice bounced off the walls.

This was too heavy for an eleven year old.  Tristan and everything else.

“You were saying?” Rain asked, glancing at Byron before facing me.  “Fume Hood and me?”

Keeping us on topic, keeping Byron’s focus off of Tristan.

“You got a message through to her.  To… the person, not the power.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“But she doesn’t get tired, she doesn’t get weak, not anymore.  She’s not in control,” Chris said.

“You’re right,” Five said.

“Wrong track then,” Chris said.

“Not necessarily,” Sveta said.  “People beat Scion by using his personality against him.”

“Do you think that Titan won’t anticipate it?” Chris asked.  “Where do you think we are?  What do you think we’re doing?  She sees the future, she sees us!  Wake up!”

“Chill the fuck out, Chris,” I said, more snappish than I intended.

“If it worked like that, she would already be five steps ahead of us.  Right?” Chris asked, turning to Number Five.

“The probability is high,” Number Five said.

“She may be five steps ahead of us no matter what,” I said.  “Do you have suggestions on another route?”

“I had a few ideas about other routes,” he said.  “Leaving Earth behind.  Transcending humanity.  Tapping into the same spaces the Titans come from, for similar effects.  Then your side fucked it all up, with your old buddy Fume Hood cracking.  You’ve got your sister locked up and getting therapy for her crazy when we need crazy.”

I tensed, ready to get angry.

“This isn’t helping anything,” Rain said, leaving Byron behind and standing between Chris and I.  “Do you have ideas, Victoria?”

“I was asking him for ideas because he’s shooting us down whenever we try anything, and he’s not suggesting anything.”

“Because you’re being idiots.  The problem we’re facing is centered around someone who’s always five steps ahead of us.”

“Stop,” Rain took a step to the side, to block me from being able to see Chris and vice-versa.  “We need to stay focused.  What’s your instinct, Victoria?”

I folded my arms, looking around us.

I did have ideas, half-formed in my head, but I couldn’t figure out any neat and tidy ways to fit them together.

“Just so it’s not me putting you on the spot,” Rain said.  “Are there ways to change the dynamic?  When Gilpatrick came to the dream room, he and the others got connected up.  I detached them, they all got powers.  Except for the two infiltrators.”

I winced, hearing that.

“What if we rigged the system?  We’re fighting with a thousand, two thousand capes in decent fighting shape, able to stand against these monsters on the battlefield, rotating in and out?  Is there a way to give every unpowered person out there powers?”

“That’d be a hell of a thing,” Byron said, quiet.

“I’m spitballing,” Rain said.  “Kenz?”

Kenzie’s hologram was still.  There was no response.

“A-F-K,” Chris said.

“I don’t know what that means,” Rain responded.  “Would it make a difference?”

“It might make things worse,” I said.  I glanced at Byron.

“How?” Chris prodded.

“I don’t- it’d be tricky to get into it.”

“Don’t hold back on my account,” Byron said.  “Imagining Rain’s plan in action got my heart pounding.  It’d be… really messed up, for a lot of reasons, but it would be firepower and reinforcements.”

“And it plays into the dynamic we’ve been leaning into pretty heavily,” I said.  “We’re to the Titans as civilians are to us.  Bringing civilians in… it would possibly shift the balance.  We should be able to enforce rules of conduct.  But it means adapting and we’re several steps behind.  But it’s too risky.”

“Why?” Rain asked, again.

“Because every time one of us breaks down… they get one more Titan, and we move another step, leap, or bound toward the agents winning.  Adding millions of new, vulnerable capes to the pool is asking for a huge increase to the number of Titans.”

Some people nodded at that.

“Now who’s shutting down ideas?” Chris asked.

“What about trying everyone into a cluster?” Rain asked.  He had the second idea already at hand.  “We’ve dealt with a few clusters now.  Goddess, my cluster.  We’ve seen how power gets redistributed, how bonds are established.  Bleedthrough, kiss, kill.  And bonds are what keep us from becoming Titan.”

“Tristan had bonds,” Byron said, staring down at the ground.  “I don’t think that’s it.”

“Either way,” I said.  “It’s a workable idea.  I have no idea what the long term ramifications would be, but… it’s worth keeping in mind.”

“Great idea,” Chris said, his tone sarcastic.  “When the entire army of parahumans goes off the deep end and starts trying to eat each other in the midst of a thousand-person orgy, the Titans will be so freaked out they’ll stop what they’re doing and start planning the fastest route off this planet.”

“It wouldn’t come to that,” Rain said.  “Bleedthrough and kiss-kill are overstated.  It wouldn’t happen in five minutes.”

“It’s more intense in large clusters,” Chris said.

“What?”

“I studied up on some things when I was on the team,” Chris said, his voice low and quiet.  He looked away, scanning the walls, where only a few images flickered.  “But you’re welcome to try.  Just don’t include me while you’re at it.  It wouldn’t be five minutes, but it wouldn’t be five years, either.”

“Hell,” Rain muttered.  “Really glad I disconnected Gilpatrick and the rest of that group from the dream room.”

“I like the directions you’re thinking, Rain,” I said.  “I’m not sure how doable it is, but… I like it.”

“I’m drawing on experience, mostly.  Thinking about the Fallen, and what my cluster did.”

“It’s good,” I said, again.  “I don’t have any broad strategies in mind.  I’m thinking about other things.  Big picture- not the cape, the dynamic.  I feel like there’s a way to topple them, or make them stop and pay attention to us.”

“Blowing up the shardstuff did something to get their attention,” Sveta said.  “But it hurt us.”

She rubbed at her arm.

I nodded.  “It’s something I’m keeping pinned up on the bulletin board in my mind.  Stepping back, though… way, way back… what if we don’t look at the person that is Contessa?”

“The Titan?” Sveta asked.

“I’m talking about the past,” I said.

The images on the wall changed to Contessa, wearing clothes from another Earth.

“Is there any insight about this?” I asked, and I lifted a foot, stomping on the black crystal.  The echo was loud and eerie, reverberating off the walls.  “Why is this crystal black and not red?”

The scene on the wall changed.

It was something I’d heard about but hadn’t seen.  Not seen and remembered.  People had made attempts at illustrating it, but it did nothing to convey the effect of actually seeing it.

A creature that moved like Cradle’s agent had, slithering in and out of space, parts of it distorting and seeming to exist apart from the broader entity, until it slithered further in our world.  Like a great snake crossed with a whale, crossed with an optical illusion, writ in black crystal, and shedding a constant trail of dust behind it.  It was only visible as it passed by a sun, and the edges of it caught the light of that sun.

“Hi there,” I said, my heart pounding.  “You weren’t in the pictures people drew.”

“There’s more?” Chris asked, rising from his seat.  “What the shit?”

“Can we go back?” I asked.  I made it declarative.  “Go back.  Uh… earlier in this thing’s history.”

“It’s a life cycle,” Five said.

“Previous life in the cycle,” I said.

The image changed.

What I saw was chaos.  A dense world, where everything was moving and alive.  There were things that resembled spiders, there were things that looked like slugs.  Some were small, some were as big as buildings.

And they were using what looked like built in spears to puncture one another, fluids pouring out.

“I’ve seen some of that before,” Number Five said.

“What the hell kind of messed up case fifty-three porn are you watching?  At your age?” Chris asked.

Sveta unfurled her arm, reaching toward Chris with tendrils.  Alarmed, he backed away several steps, until he was at the edge of the island.

“Was it a case fifty-three?” Sveta asked, quiet.

“No.  A cape,” Number Five said.  “Traumatic insemination.  Traumatic egg-laying.  It looks like natural trait across this species.”

“They’re different species,” Chris said.  “A planet where every species can breed with every species.  It looks like a good number are intelligent.”

“In what way does it look that way?” Rain asked.  “Christ.”

“They’re communicating,” Chris said, with quiet confidence.

“What is the species of this life cycle fighting, near the end?  Ten rotations around their sun prior to the world ending,” I asked.

It was a similar scene.

But they were fighting something that looked like a conch shell, with holes running through it.  Tentacles flowed out and through the massed ‘warriors’, that I would have likened to animal predators on our earth.  Spider-like, wolf-like, cat-like, but streamlined down, sleek, without the key traits I would point to in a spider, wolf, or cat.  Incredibly varied, from one to the next.

“Endbringer equivalent or Titan equivalent?” Byron asked.

“Looks like,” I said.  “Show us the end.  Last significant fight of that particular life cycle.”

The scene changed, and it was chaos.  The world was cracked open, and the cracks glowed.  The massed things were interconnected, webbed together, so that one mob of creatures fighting were extensions of one another.  Some or all had powers.

“Previous cycle,” I said.  “Tenth-to-last rotation of their planet around their sun, a fight.”

The world was shrouded in constant downpour, and the things that moved through it were low to the ground, with skin coverings or something that hung off of them like drenched cloaks or ponchos, masking all features.  I saw glows here and there as they drew on powers.

A great beast lurched through the rain, pursuing those glows.  In the process, it scattered what I’d thought was uneven ground, and was actually a horde of the slithering life, piled atop one another.

They swarmed up the great thing.

“It’s entirely different from what we’re doing,” Sveta said.  “We all fight one another.  They’re ganging up against… Endbringers?”

“I don’t see how we can use this,” Chris said.

“This cycle, final fight,” I said.

Again, they were interconnected, tied into one another, the slithering things more like a net than a pile of poncho-wearing snakes that were barely visible in the rain.

“Is that their equivalent of clusters?” Rain asked.  “Is the idea supposed to be that we all form a cluster, and we can’t pull ourselves free?”

The question elicited an image of Contessa, dealing with a case seventy case fifty-three, two young men, both existing as a tangle of cords, knotty branches, or bones, it was hard to tell in the lighting, all bound up together.

I saw Byron look away, his expression changing.  Sveta did much the same.

“I would be wary about drawing correlations,” Number Five said.

“Show us the point in time this thing…” I stomped on the black crystal, “…encountered the thing that destroyed much of the world back in June of two thousand and thirteen.”

We watched as two creatures, similar to the slithering black thing, things that had been depicted in the portraits and paintings that people had tried to draw from memory, slithered through space.  They were larger than some moons and planets.

The ‘view’ followed the black thing, and the background of stars pulsed with images, abstract and vast.

“There, did you see?” Number Five asked.

“I didn’t,” I said, not taking my eyes off of things.

“One of those pulses- it was the Andromeda Galaxy.  You can look at the stars and see which way the third one is on.”

“Maybe you can,” Chris said.

“He’s going to the Andromeda galaxy.  Passing through.  I wonder why.  A rendezvous with others of his kind?” Number Five asked.

“You’re asking us like we know,” Chris said, frowning.

“If you’re scared it will come back, you don’t need to be.  That thing’s not coming back for a long, long time, at its current course.”

“I’m not scared,” Chris said.  “I’m wary.  Scared is the result of stupidity.  Wary is the result of knowing the situation.”

“You can certainly put that wariness to rest,” the Number Boy said.

“Nothing is certain,” Chris said.

“I am.”

Chris frowned at the boy, who pushed his glasses up his nose, smiling slightly.

The pair continued to flow in and out of reality, swimming through space like a fish slipping in and out of air at the water’s surface.  They met with the black thing, which mashed itself into one of the two.

For lack of a better way of putting it, I would have said they limped away from the interaction, black bleeding into red and vice-versa.

“That wasn’t far from Earth, relatively speaking” Number Five said.

“Keep going,” I told the scene, worried it would end.

The ‘view’ stayed with the red one that had absorbed some of the black.

Followed it to Earth, and it was obvious from the motion of planets that the scene was being sped up.

We watched as it tumbled into a rough crash landing on a barren version of our Earth.  Everything went black.

“She’s not a part of the rest of us?” I asked.

“There were a few like that, that stood out,” Number Five said.  “None were viable.”

“Is it something we can use?” Sveta asked.

I shook my head.

It was something, but I wasn’t sure if it was the fatal flaw or weakness we were hoping for.

“Are there any life cycles that nearly failed?” Sveta asked.

Images came up.

A clearer, sudden movement to my right drew my attention.  I looked to the projection.

A distorted, unclear Imp appeared next to Byron.  Her voice fuzzed.

“Can you use a phone?” I asked.

“Whwhzzeeet?”

Use a phone,” I repeated myself.

“Huzzhzt, btzzt, bzzzwah?  Hz kkykkt hzzzy zyhoo.”

I picked up and held a phone.  I watched as the camera swerved unsteadily, trying to move closer to me and bumping into Byron instead.

“I know the Undersiders don’t have a tinker,” I said, “But you really shouldn’t touch a tinker’s stuff.  They’ll get irritated every time, even nice ones like Kenzie.”

“I can second that,” Chris added.

I walked up, grabbed the camera to steady it.  I held the phone up in front of the camera, keeping the camera pointed at it.

Imp nodded a few times, horned head bobbing, before it disintegrated into a blur of distortion, eye yawning open until it bled into her torso.

“Thzzhanks, kid,” Imp said, her voice clarifying, looking to one side.  She looked back to me.  “Oh, I thought you were giving me the finger.”

“What do you need?” I asked.

“Lookout is having a lie down,” Imp said.  “Decadent and Syndicate are looking after her.  She apparently hasn’t slept in a while.”

“Thank you.”

“She was asking about the tech she left with you guys.”

“We can handle it,” I said.

“Actually, Chicken Little said he’d make sure it was handled.  Being a little man.  I was thinking we might try to kill two birds with one stone…”

I heard Aiden’s voice in the background.

“…and if you happened to be able to confirm it was safe, I could send Chicken your way, to pick up the gear.  He’ll get instructions on how to handle it.  And while he’s there, he can test something for Tattletale and I.”

I thought about asking, but then I thought back to how I owed Tattletale one.

“How is he getting here?”

“Company of mercenaries and minor capes,” Imp said.  “We’ll requisition a portal.  If it’s for Peep’s tech, and she’s the one who has a say when it comes to the portal tech…”

“Peep?” I asked.

“Lookout.  Oops.  That was my inside voice becoming my outside voice.  I think she should go by Peep if she’s on a team called the Chicken Tenders.”

I shook my head.  “Where do I meet him?”

“He’ll find you.  That’s ezhhzyer.”

I made a face, shaking my head.  The place was so vast, and I could fly, but…

I didn’t want this to interrupt the ongoing investigation.

“Okay.  Have him keep an ear out.  If I can’t find him, I’ll make some noise.”

“Gzzzt hzzt,” Imp said, saluting.  Her hand bled into her head.

The image disappeared.

“I guarantee you, whatever she was fiddling with, thinking she was doing an okay job, is going to take six hours to get working right again,” Chris said.

“Probably,” Rain said.  “My arms aren’t even great, and seeing people try to use them is like watching someone using workshop tools without the proper equipment.  I wince every few seconds.”

I leaped over to the wall, grabbing an outcropping of crystal.  My bandaged hand didn’t give me a good grip, and I slipped.  I used my feet to propel myself back.

On a second try, I managed to get a grip.  I could use flight to make it easier, but climbing was better than the inch-by-inch flying that I could manage down here.

The higher I got, the easier it became.

I floated up, above the crack, and onto the plain.  Once I was high enough, I put both feet on the ground, and jumped, to give myself momentum, while my flight kept me going.

Out of the invisible tar that slowed me down, and up to a height where I could just barely see any people, but I could maximize how much of the environment I could see.  It didn’t help that things were dark.

I flew for minutes, in expanding circles.  I had a false call, when I spotted blobs of something solid on the crystal, descended, and found only rubble from high above.

A crow cawed, and I found it in the gloom.

It flapped noisily, then turned around, then flew in a specific direction.

I chased it, traveling around a cliff, until I saw the people.  Six mercenaries, one cape, and a boy wearing a white and red costume and white mask.  A massive bird was keeping him company.

He waved as I approached.

My boots skidded on ice and grit as I landed.

“Thank you for coming,” Chicken Little said, deferential, and almost meek.

“How is she?”

“She’s… not responding much,” Chicken Little said.  He touched his mask, like he was trying to see right through the eyeholes.  “She wants me to get her tech.  It didn’t sound like you heard everything Imp said.”

“Most of the middle stuff, not the start or very end,” I said.  “Where did you come through the portal?”

He pointed up at the crack in reality above.

“You came down?”

He nodded.  “Over there, actually.  It was kind of crazy, but I wanted to help Lookout.  Then was chasing some connections Imp told me to look after.”

I thought about Chicken Little’s place in the Undersiders, and felt a bit of trepidation.  “And?”

“I couldn’t find Imp,” he said.  “Tattletale and Imp are worried that if Imp gets killed or badly injured, everyone will forget her, and won’t be able to help her.  If we could find where her power comes from, maybe we could set up a reminder or something?”

Okay.

That was a hell of a lot better than my other suspicion.

“And?”

“And that’s it,” he said, quiet.  “It’d be nice to make Tattletale’s headaches go away.  That was my idea.  I told Imp and she told me to go for it if I could.”

“Nothing else?  No one else?”

“No,” he said.

I was pretty sure he was sincere.  Whoever he hung around, I didn’t get the impression he was a liar.

“It’s why we came this way, which slowed us down.  And then we got distracted, which slowed us down more.  I’m glad my crow found you,” he said.

I nodded.

Looking for answers, even to the little things, wasn’t a bad thing.  It was why I didn’t begrudge Sveta searching.  Even the fact that she was looking into her past gave us clues, like the level of detail we could dig for.

“What areas did you see or pass through?” I asked him.

“I… don’t really know,” he said.  “It didn’t make a lot of sense.  Was I supposed to be looking for some sign or something?”

“This place has a logic.  We’re looking for things that might be important.”

“Oh,” he said.  “I found something, I guess.”

He pointed.

“Can I pick you up?” I asked.  “Fly you over?”

He nodded.  “Don’t fly too high.”

I grabbed him around the ribs.  Then I flew.

We flew for a minute before he moved, pointing.

I set him down.

All around us, images took shape.  I saw a lot of faces I didn’t recognize.  Groups, crowds…

And then a dip, almost a crater, but diamond-shaped.

As Chicken Little approached it, I could see the scene unfold.

Chicken Little, much smaller and younger, sitting in a tiny kitchen in a narrow house.

And with him was a girl with a tumble of black hair, wearing a tank top and pyjama bottoms.  Round spectacles.

I recognized her from videos.  The cafeteria.  Announcements on behalf of the Protectorate.

Little Aiden sat on a stool, and Taylor Hebert, Skitter, Khepri, gave him a mug of what might have been hot chocolate, before sitting beside him, rubbing his back.

Seeing her spooked me… but I wasn’t getting the impression this was any sort of key to bringing her back.  This wasn’t what the Undersiders were gunning for.

No, just… important, but important to Aiden for other reasons.

He walked through the other side, looking at reflections, and left the crater empty as he climbed over the lip.

I approached the crater, and let my feet slide on the steep edge.

It was my mother, holding a swaddled baby.  Her eyes full of warmth and exhaustion.

It was my uncle Neil, playing with an infant me.  He sat cross legged, pushing me over, knocking me off balance, and messing with me.  Sparring, on the most basic level.

And Dean.  Beautiful, sweet Dean, walking beside me.

I watched the scenes change, rotating.

Is this you?

There was only one thing connecting those people to me.

Fragile one?

Only one sentiment.

I blinked rapidly, and then wiped away tears.

One place, that all of these feelings and connections had come from, at least at these points in time.

Something ‘clicked’.

I was so stupid, fighting it all this time, being so guarded.  It had saved me, but I’d still kept walls up.  Thinking that was where it started and stopped.

I unfurled my forcefield.

It stopped at my skin.

I pushed it out further, then pulled it in again.

I love you too, I thought.

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50 thoughts on “Infrared – 19.8”

  1. ““Are there any life cycles that nearly failed?” Sveta asked.

    Images came up.

    A clearer, sudden movement to my right drew my attention. I looked to the projection.”

    Nice distraction there, Titan Fortuna.

  2. I love reading about other cycles and alien worlds in this series. From the molluscoids to the aliens we saw in this chapter to even the shards themselves. It’s a bit uncommon to see aliens in fiction that aren’t just similar to humans and earth creatures, but are well and truly ALIEN in biology and behaviour.

  3. D’aaawwww, Fragile gives full body hugs!

    (Also, this is gonna make Victoria a lot more unstoppable in combat if she’s gonna be able to vary Fragile’s size from now on)

    It’s also interesting how where Victoria sees Carol, she also sees Neal, not Mark. (Oh, and that Aidan sees Taylor, of course)

    Mr Bow, why must you torture us so with these mysteries?

    P.S. Contessa with her hair down was an interesting sight. Thank you.

  4. There are a lot of exciting things in this chapter but actually Victoria/Fragile is the best thing. 🙂

  5. Xenofiction and the philosophical connections between Human and Shard are two of my favorite things in ward. This Chapter gave me a large, wonderful supply of the first and a sentence worth of the second that carried every bit as much weight.

    *applauds*

  6. Typo Thread:

    “Byron,” my > “Byron.” My
    she wanted to (missing words or punctuation)
    shoulderblades than her hair (wrong word. head?)
    said, “And > said, “and
    “Stop,” > “Stop.”
    the third one is on (maybe on > going)

    Poncho snakes rule

  7. -“I love you too, I thought. ” Guys, guys, one of my ships Victoria+ Fragile One Chan is CANON now. I’m so happy I want to scream.

    -Chris is a beacon of HOPE and OPTIMISM. He is also useful (no sarcasm this time). Hearing him talking like an asshole all the time, people around him become more ambitios and resourceful. At least he is good at something else besides healing 🙂 .

    -Taylor cameo is always welcomed 🙂 .

    -The good Number Lad is a sweetheart. I know that he is all serious and stuff but I find him strangely cute when he is so nice and helpful and he confronted Chris while smiling. Gosh, Sveta+Number Five ship should SAIL.

    1. Sveta and five is BEST SHIP seconded.

      Also my heart breaks for Kenzie,laughing and smiling and clinging to the hope that Tristan is still alive MY BABY IS HURTING

      1. I feel so sorry for poor Kenzie. I just want this poor little girl to be happy, she’s doesn’t deserve to always see her friends dying, to have her life put in danger almost all the time and to endure pain that would make an normal adult uncontrollably scream and cry. She deserves a normal, happy and healthy childhood :(.
        If I lived in that world and survived to the Titan-apocalypse I’d adopt her. Despite all her odd and creepy habits, she’s still a child that I would love to adopt and take care of her.

  8. Huh….
    I think I just realized why Chris was all up with the healing suddenly.

    Like… he had stuff before, but I gotta wonder- has he got MORE healing powers after scanning a bunch of Panacea?

  9. I have to admit I haven’t understood the last few lines. How does Victoria come to the conclusion that…her shard has been generating love all along?…

    1. Mostly intuition, I think. Or intuition-adjacent, as she’d say. The dangerous part where the shard makes the human behave as they want, turned around.
      I bet Victoria’s aura has new flavours as well.

  10. So very close to asking the right question.
    The right question, of course, is “What about the life cycles that did fail?”

      1. Zion/Eden cycles was never interrupted, at least we can assume it from “The cycle has been disrupted. Worse, it is terminated. … The entity comes to experience a deep, profound sadness, for the very first time.”
        But Abaddon could have experience in failed cycles. He obviously did not fit description “The entities have altered themselves so that each half of a pairing serves part of a role.” So he can have plan B if cycle goes horribly mind-bogglingly wrong. 🙂

  11. Vic triggered because she was ashamed, not living up to the hopes of the people she loved. She just wanted respect and love and to be held and protected, and so her shard, it’s love. It’s in awe of her, it takes the hit for her, it carries her aloft. After it rejoined, it was “wow”, love at first sight.

    And she was so happy to have it for a start, loved being a superhero, and then hated what she’d become after the nine, the wretch reminding her of her sister, so she pushed it away all the time, hurt, and it too was hurt and lashed out, love spurned, rejected, but stuck in love.

    And now it could talk to her, show her the only things it ever knows, love. Protection, support, awe. Brilliant.

  12. Life cycles that DID fail?… I guess they failed and are therefore not possibly part of this being or it would not be here.

    So Victoria has figured out what creates the initial connection in the brain that awaits a trigger… at least for second and subsequent generation capes. Scion choose candidates and connected his shards to them but the budding process relies on a caring, parental or mentor sort of connection, because it wants the parent shard/shards to stay close and see the buds shard to maturity and for further and easier information transfer. In Worm, Scion even notes it as a pity Taylor’s shard had budded but not stuck around to help pass on data.

    The trigger breakthrough to activate a cape’s shard is a significant (almost always negative) emotion but there’s a method to the initial budding connections they’ve finally tapped into. Nurturing.

    Yes good distraction by Fortuna Titan to cover its weakness BUT it wants them down there for something and may have chosen a victory path that isn’t simply an attempt to kickstart a haphazard lifecycle end but maybe something else the lonely shard and Contessa want together.

    And I cannot help but wonder if it has something to do with what Victoria just discovered or that image of Contessa standing uncertainly at Dr Mother’s door.

  13. hang on, rain recently said that vickys new aura induced attraction in him… but he seemed kind of uncertain. could it have been love he was feeling? that or the fragile one has simply learned to love its wonderful host and im overthinking this. i love that the slowburn reconciliation arc we got from this story wasnt amy and victoria, but victoria and her shard

    1. If Vicky can choose the field’s size now, what are the odds she can also choose which emotion to blast around ? And maybe also trade some extra strength for extra durability, so on and so forth.
      She might lose some of her flight to rebalance this out, but that’s probably worth it.

      1. Possibly, but Rain called it “interest” and “attraction”.

        This change happened after the crystal landscape was damaged and Victoria has noted that there seems to be reduced finesse to their powers and increased rawness of power or underlying ability.

        Part of Victoria’s emotion at the time she triggered was a desire for attention. Her old aura did that bit with further nuance of awe from her allies/admirers and fear from her enemies or those wary of her. Now it appears to have lost that nuance and retained a raw ability to demand attention. But it’s certainly possible that with a better control, Victoria could put nuance back into those emotions and actually choose the type of attention she got or even direct it elsewhere.

  14. @Noelemahc
    Aiden’s shard budded from Taylor’s, so presumably this area shows the connection to parent shards (well, their hosts). IIRC Waste-chan pulled from Carol’s, Neil’s, and Dean’s shards for her powers, so that would neatly explain why they show up but Mark doesn’t.

  15. Um, what if Vicky actually fell for amy because her shard felt the lvoe present and acted on it on her behalf?

    Or, that Amy was shattered out of existence after being ‘Jack slashed’ and the thing that beleives itself to be Amy is actually the Panacea shard evolving weirldly?

    an if Vicky does figure out the parental connection further, then she;s smnart enough that she should realise that Aiden’s power stems from Khepri’s and that could well alter her dynamic with the Undersiders.

    1. From Glow-worm, Victoria kinda respects Khepri for the results she obtained, even if she wishes they could have been reached differently. She’s also in good enough terms with Lisa to talk about it at length, plus she totally ships Kenzie with Aiden and won’t worsen things for them.

  16. Damn this final part, it’s a really awesome moment but it comes so damn soon after Tristan’s demise that I can’t imagine how good it would have felt on its own.
    Damn you, mood whiplash.

  17. @ShawnMorgan

    Victoria figured that connection out a long time ago. When sharing a car with Snuff, Tattletale, Chicken Little and Lookout. Aiden nearly mentioned Taylor and then changed the subject. It made her shiver. I think this was before the Cradle arc.

  18. This was a really big picture chapter but two things stuck out to me:
    1. 5 and Chris poking at each other
    2. Tinkers getting pissy about their tech

  19. @grinvader: I didn’t say the emotional connection/action for budding shards was “positive”, I said “Caring, Parental or Mentor” finally settling on the overall term of “Nurturing”.

    In Heartbreaker’s case it was a twisted case of nurturing but he didn’t simply throw his children away once they were born so he could maintain sexual relations with their mothers. He wanted kids with the women, he wanted the kids to grow and develop powers and to succeed… but still as his subordinates.

    1. I’m not aware of any of Heartbreakers women developing powers, despite many of them being quite young and being put through some terrible ordeals by him. But he wasn’t known to be nurturing towards them, simply discarding them once they no longer met his desires or served his needs.

  20. Remember back in Waste’s interlude, all that talk about needing a good label for her and Victoria? Well, just so happens they’re hanging out right now with one of the best namers of their time, and they do owe him a favor for showing them this spot…

  21. “Nothing else? No one else?”

    “No,” he said.

    I was pretty sure he was sincere. Whoever he hung around, I didn’t get the impression he was a liar.

    Damn, for a second there I really entertained the idea that Little might also covered some tracks about Taylor’s ultimate fate.

  22. @Tenthblessed: Contessa knows Taylor’s ultimate fate, so if the ask or think it on her crystal I imagine they’ll see the image of her double-tapping Skitter and maybe the aftermath, presumably healing her, finding her dad and shipping them to Earth Alph.

    Chicken Little might even consider her after seeing her just now if he goes there… although I have the impression Contessa’s shard responds mostly, or only, to verbal directions rather than thoughts in the moment.

  23. Random thought: the revelation in this chapter says lots about how toxic the interpersonal relationships of New Wave were. That Amy wasn’t loved by Carol and Mark wasn’t a surprise, but now we know that Mark didn’t really love Victoria, either. I guess that he was too wound up in his depression to muster the emotions to be there for them?

    Then there’s Manpower, who apparently didn’t count as loving his own children, but did love Victoria? I’m sort of afraid about what that says about his parenting style – was he an abusive disciplinarian to his own kids, but a cool uncle to Victoria?

    1. Pizzasgood pretty much has it but yeah, it shows the shard budding ancestry. The common theme is nurturing IMHO and there are some pretty twisted forms of nurturing if you think about Heartbreaker, but Scion noted in Interlude 26 of worm that if the parent and bud stayed close to each other they could continue to exchange information. A feeling of nurturing to initiate the creation of the corona pollentia from a parent shard/s is advantageous for choosing hosts likely to not only remain close to the parent shard but also be protected and supported by the parent host in the child host’s development.

      There could be many reasons that, for instance, Mark didn’t contribute to Victoria’s “Fragile One”. His shard may have not developed enough to fragment for instance, or not fragmented during one of the occasions he had nurturing feelings for Victoria. There may also have been restrictions or limitations, particularly from Scion who was alive at the time, on a single bud collecting too much power or ability which might explain why Amy received no more input after her father’s shard fragmented a considerable amount of power into her.

      1. AAAAAND I’ve just realised the reverse of the parental nurturing… The budding process wants the child shards to be “WARDS” of the parent hosts.

  24. > but now we know that Mark didn’t really love Victoria, either.

    Untrue. You’re misunderstanding what that part of the shardscape is about. It has nothing to do with love. All three people in Victoria’s visions loved her, but Taylor didn’t love Aiden. She barely knew him. All she had was a strong sense of responsibility and a position of authority. Meanwhile, it didn’t bother to show Char, Forrest, Lisa, or Darlene, all of whom have much better claims to loving him than Taylor ever did.

    The common thread among the visions is shard ancestry. Aiden’s shard came from Taylor’s. Victoria’s shard came from Carol’s, Neil’s, and Dean’s. It’s likely that there’s an emotional filter being applied to select which scenes to show, biasing them toward moments of affection, but the deeper limitation here is that it only shows people whose shards budded to form the subject’s shard. Thus no Mark, because Mark didn’t contribute to Victoria’s shard. Same goes for Crystal.

    The reason Victoria starts talking about love is because seeing these scenes made her realize that her shard came from people who loved her, and their love got encoded into the shard itself.

  25. Another interesting point to note, which has been somewhat obscured by the budding process revelation, is the differing lifecycle of Abaddon.

    While Scion and Eden’s lifecycle saw their own shards primarily pitted against each other, it appears that Abaddon preferred them to be united against a common foe in the form of endbringers. Its even possible that Endbringers aren’t part of Scion and Eden’s lifecycle at all but that Eidolon’s shard from Eden had the knowledge and memory of Endbringers and capability to make them encoded into it from the meeting with Abaddon. Certainly, Eden planned for Endbringers if we’re to believe the creatures in the simulation she ran had Endbringers in it, but that was after meeting Abaddon and gaining that knowledge.

    I wonder if this clustering was part of Scion and Eden’s lifecycle. I seem to recall mention that Eden’s role was to collect and cluster the shards at the end and this wasn’t something Scion was capable of, but it sounds like a much more physical and direct unification as opposed to what Scion and Eden might do. It also feels like Eden would have created numerous clusters of shards while Abaddon had it’s shards create a single, unified cluster.

  26. It’s the Crater of Budding.

    If you see a sunken diamond in a crystalline field
    You have found your way to the
    Bud Spot!
    Bud Spot, yaaaheeeeaaah

    I’m headin’ ‘cross a crystal landscape
    Lookin’ for the shard getaway
    Headed for the shard getaway
    I got me some data, it’s getting pretty ripe
    And we’re headin’ on down to the Bud Spot
    I’m becoming a space whale, I’m feeling quite bloated
    So network up and take the data I’ve loaded!

    The Bud Spot is a little old place where
    We can make some new shards
    Bud Spot, baby (Make Bud Spot babies)
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot!
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot!
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Bud-babies, that’s what we want)
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Bud-babies, that’s what we want)

    Sign says (hey!) “Stay away, capes!”
    ‘Cause shards play at the Bu-u-ud Spot
    Well, it’s set down deep in a glowing crystal field
    Just a cozy little dip and I gotta shed a chip
    Splinter on the mattress
    Splinter in the kitchen
    Splinter on the ball court
    Splinter in the kitchen

    The Bud Spot is a little old place where
    We can make some new shards
    Bud Spot, baby (Bud Spot babies)
    Bud Spot! That’s where we rock!
    Bud Spot! That’s where we rock!

    Pingin’ and a-peelin’
    Sproutin’ and a-splittin’
    This shard that we’re emittin’
    Is as sweet as a kitten!
    The Shardscape shimmers!
    Yeah, the Shardscape shimmers!
    The Shardscape shimmers when everybody’s
    Pingin’ around and around and around and around!
    Everybody’s splittin’, everybody fission, baby
    Shards linin’ up above just to offload
    Everybody’s splittin’, everybody fission, baby
    Funky diamond spot!
    Funky diamond spot!

    Slide down the crater, it’s as deep as a pond
    And we’re about to bump fronds!
    I’m growing a bud, it feels quite beta
    So connect and share your conflict data!

    The Bud Spot is a little old place where
    We can make some new shards
    Bud Spot, baby (Make Bud Spot babies)
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot!
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot!
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Bud-babies, that’s what we want, yeah)
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Bud-babies, that’s what we want)

    Ping, ping, ping, off your shard, baby
    (There’s not enough signal, baby)
    Ping, ping, ping, off your shard, baby
    (I can’t reach you)
    Ping, ping, ping, off your shard, baby
    (Transmit a bit louder, shiny!)
    Ping, ping, ping, off your shard, baby
    (I can’t reach you!)
    Ping, ping, ping, off your shard, baby (Transmit a bit louder!)
    Ping, ping, ping, off your shard, baby
    Ping! Ping! (Off my shard, baby!)
    Ping! Ping! (Off my shard!)
    Ping! Ping! (Off my shard, baby!)
    Ping! Ping!
    (You’re what?!)
    Dead shard, Thinker

    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot!
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Bud-babies, that’s what we want, yeah)
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Bud-babies, that’s what we want)
    Bud Spot! Baby, Bud Spot! (Pingin’ and a-peelin’, sproutin’ and a-splittin’ at the Bud Spot)

    ———–
    (To the tune of “Love Shack” by the B-52s.)

  27. Another thing about Victoria’s ‘I love you too’ is that the relationship to her shard & forcefield is a metaphor for her relationship to herself and her trauma (which is part of her, naturally).
    She starts the story afraid of it, unable to control it, unwilling to show people. It lashes out at people – it is NOT an accident that it seriously hurt Carol, one the architects of her suffering – and (I think, haven’t checked recently) the control issues get worse when she’s near Amy or Amy is mentioned.
    But as she moves on and begins to heal, it changes. Revealing it to her friends, accepting its nature, she gains control of it, and it begins to change back from the shape she used to be.
    The recent talk about acceptance is the catalyst for this final change, where she not only regains her own shape, but become stronger for it.
    Like becoming comfortable in her own (second, magical) skin again.

    So ‘I love you’ is as much here talking to herself, as her gaining an understanding of any alien budding process.

    Does that sound cheesy to you? Oh, it is! But yeah, that was kind of unavoidable.
    I fear that Love is going to Save The Day in this story…blame (read: credit) WiffleBat.

  28. “They’re different species,” Chris said. “A planet where every species can breed with every species. ”
    My inner biologist weeps. Putting aside how that fucks with any decent definition of species, this universal interfertility would basically ruin evolution. Reproductive barriers are the only reason we have multiple distinct species of bacteria, let alone microorganisms which work together as multi-celled organisms. Or hell, even eukaryotes. Not to mention that the idea of a half-spider half-slug or whatever having compatible enough genetic information that the zygote ends up in a halfway-viable state is…questionable.
    You’d basically need technological intervention or outright magic to make this sort of setup work on anything more complex than prokaryotes. (And that’s only if you’re fine with a homogeneous population of prokaryotes.)

  29. > You’d basically need technological intervention or outright magic to make this sort of setup work on anything more complex than prokaryotes.

    We don’t know the backstory of these things; it’s entirely possible that they are the result of technological intervention. A predecessor civilization could have engineered this ecosystem and designed everything to be compatible and modular.

  30. @GreatWyrmGold: I thought it was more like the xenomorphs in the *Aliens* franchise, where they ‘breed’ by basically parasitising each other and using some of their host’s DNA (or whatever they use instead; it might be RNA, or sulphur-based, or even something totally different) to complete their own genome. Plus, if that’s the Worm homeworld, they already have extradimensional abilities that we can’t understand.

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