Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2)

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Heavy footsteps carried him through a crowd of people who were having the worst days of their lives.  There were doctors and nurses who might never be able to return to the careers they had worked so long to achieve. He saw new parents, almost all in their twenties and thirties, huddled close and openly weeping or staring into space with puffy red eyes.  There were family members trying to give them support, not knowing how.  Not that the extended family would be suffering any less.  Police officers and detectives were trying to gather statements, well aware that the families wouldn’t know anything pertinent.  Some were standing by, notepads in hand, unwilling or unable to proceed with their witnesses.

He’d known this feeling, once.  To be the bystander, watching the aftermath, agonized as much by the inability to help, the lack of knowledge about what he should do as by the tragedy itself.  To have it happen again and again.  He banished the memories before they could take hold.  It was easier to distract himself and think about the work.  If there was no work to be done, he would let himself slip into that other state of mind, seeing the world coming apart, ways things could fit together.

But right now, he would focus on the job.

He glanced at the window.  Four or five hours ago, these same parents might have been standing outside the window, watching their new babies sleeping.  Now there was only a sheet taped up to block the view, marked for what it was by a yellow ‘x’ of police tape.

Keep walking.  Something nagged at him as he set his right foot down, like a pebble in his boot, except not.  He reached out, as if he were trying to move a finger, but the artificial nerves were hooked into his suit, and the impulse didn’t go anywhere in his body.  He felt the air shift as the openings in his mask sealed shut.  He sent out another command and the microphone came online.

When he spoke, only his ears and the microphone heard his voice.  “Note to self.  Prosthetics in right leg feel alien.  I should check the treads on my old boots, see if one of my legs was longer than the other, maybe try to dig up recordings of myself to match my new gait to my old one.  Should time adjustments to coincide with next procedure.”

Note made, he shut off the microphone, opened the vents.  He saw two women embracing one another, eyes red, staring at him as he passed through the last of the gathered crowd.  They were hoping for the impossible, willing it.  But bringing their child back wasn’t in his hands.  The best he could manage would be revenge.  Or justice.  The line between the two got pretty damned thin at times like this.

The local sheriff was waiting for him as he approached the waiting room.

“Defiant?” the sheriff asked.  She looked small, mid-sixties, gray-haired.  He suspected she was someone who had gleaned some experience in Boston or Brockton Bay and then ‘retired’ out to a smaller town in the middle of nowhere.  She wouldn’t have expected to face a situation like this in her retirement, nobody would, but she was holding herself together in a way that suggested she had some experience to fall back on.  She’d lost officers, and the town was small enough that people she knew would have been among the casualties, but she was all business, her chin set, her small dark eyes hard with determination.

He liked her right away.

“Yes ma’am,”  He shifted his spear to his left hand, extended his right hand to shake hers.

“Miranda Goering.  Sheriff.  No need for that kind of formality here.”  She sounded like she said something similar on a routine basis.  She frowned.  “I… would have a hard time expressing just how much I appreciate your being here.”

How was he supposed to respond to that?  He couldn’t think of a response.

She was studying him.  Her eyes settled on his weapon, the fourteen foot long spear. “How on Earth do you carry that spear indoors?”

“It folds, and it can contract to be half the length,” he said.

“I see,” she said. She shook her head, as if stirring herself from idle thoughts.  Back to the nightmare.  “Do you want to start in the nursery?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I can guess what happened, and I doubt there’ll be anything I can use there.  Show me the other scenes.”

Wordlessly, she turned and led him to the stairwell.  He noted the gouges on the walls.  Two or three inches deep, with blood spatters following each.  Plastic had been taped down over each individual mark and spatter.  Evidence cards were stuck next to each. He could guess the culprit.  Jack.

Another impulse sent to his hardware, and his spear broke down into three loosely connected sections as they made their way down to the next floor.  A practiced motion let him catch the weapon under his arm.  “You have any local parahumans?”

“Three.  Nothing notable.  Edict and Licit, a low-rated master and a low-rated striker.  We also have one villainess who occasionally tries to make it in one of the big cities and then retreats back home when she can’t cut it.  Calls herself Damsel of Distress.”

He reconnected his spear as they passed through the door.  “I know her.  Mover and shaker.  Storms of unevenly altered gravity, time and space.  Edict and Licit keep her in check?”

“They manage with our help.  Why do you ask?”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine are recruiting.  Their numbers are down, and they’ll be looking for a quantity of new members more than they’re looking for quality.  At least until they’re stable enough that they can afford to be picky.  Once they can, they’ll replace the weakest recruits with better ones.  I don’t want them to get that far.”

“I understand.  But would they want her?  Damsel of Distress?  Her lack of control over her power holds her back.  I won’t say she isn’t a problem, but she’s never been a priority threat to anyone.”

“She’s a heavy hitter.  They can give her control, or they can use that lack of control.  Let’s not forget that they might be looking at Edict and Licit.  I’ll need you to send me their files as well, please.”

“Of course.”

He didn’t really need the files.  The PRT had provided access to everything except the highest level secured files.  He suspected that Dragon would be able to gain access to those if the need arose.  Still, asking the sheriff had let him gauge whether she was really as cooperative as she seemed, and her level of connection to the hometown heroes.  There had been no resistance, which was reassuring.

She led the way to the area at the front of the ground floor.  They stopped at the perimeter of the scene.  He could see the path that Hookwolf had traveled, the bodies and body parts that littered the area, each covered by sheets or squares of cloth.  There was little to be done about the blood.  Every officer present was from out of town, and everyone was staying to the edges of the area.  There was more evidence than there was ground to tread on.

Defiant examined the area.  “They hit the nursery first, Jack and Siberian moving elsewhere in the building.  Your officers got the call, but didn’t have enough details to know what they were getting into.  They came in through the emergency room here, and Hookwolf was waiting for them.  Am I correct?”

“Yes,” Sheriff Goering said, staring down at the sheet in front of her.  Her composure was slipping, emotion seeping into her posture and expression, softening that hardness.

Again, he wasn’t sure what to say.  He needed her in control, but any reassurance threatened to make things worse.  He didn’t want to upset her, but everything about this was upsetting.  There was no denying that.  She would regret it if she broke down in tears here, and it would waste his time when he needed to be in pursuit.

Tell her it’s not her fault,” Dragon spoke in his ear.

“It’s not your fault,” he told the sheriff.  “They planned it this way.  I would guess they controlled the information that was reported to your station to keep you in the dark, then would have had Hookwolf sitting in the lobby in his human state, indistinguishable from anyone else that was waiting for a turn.”

“That fits what we know,” she replied.  She looked up at him.

“They have years of practice in this, and this is what they’re doing, ninety-nine percent of the time.  Hit isolated areas, terrorize.  Sometimes it gets reported in the media, because it’s sensationalist, and sometimes it goes unreported-“

Back on track.  Cut the digression.

“-There was nothing you could have done differently, knowing what you did,” he finished, feeling like he was leaving his explanation incomplete.  If it were him on the other side of things, he’d want the full picture, but he would take Dragon’s advice.

“You’re right.  But that doesn’t make it much easier.”

“No,” he agreed.  “I don’t expect it would.”

The lens of his right eye clicked through multiple frequencies and resolutions, until the scene stood out in high detail.  The blood shone ultraviolet, and even particles of dust were highlighted.  The entire area stood out with fingerprints, footprints and frost-like patterns where air currents had layered dust over walls and windows.  He began to pick his way through the scene, setting his feet down only where there wasn’t any evidence to be damaged.

“You’re hunting them?” she asked him.

“Yes.”

“Will you do me a favor?”

“If I can.”

“Talk to me?  Give me some assurance that some good will come of this?  That you’ll be able to track them down, because of what happened here, and that you’ll be able to stop them?”

He stared at the landscape around him, all white, gray and the brown-red of drying blood.  It was washed out, stark.  The magazines and brochures had been covered by arterial spray and clothing was hidden beneath sheets.

Give it to her straight,” Dragon urged him.

“He was waiting here,” he pointed to a chair.  “The blood and the way the bodies fell, Hookwolf wasn’t holding anything back from the moment he made his move.  A walking chainsaw massacre.  I’m trying to look at how it played out, so I can read something into how they’re operating and where their priorities are.”

“How?” Goering asked.

He saved the settings of the lens and then switched to a radiograph-ultrasound reading.  The world was cast in monochrome, now, and he could see the vague shapes of the bodies under the sheets, light and dark painting a picture of densities rather than light.  He closed his mask so the sheriff wouldn’t overhear and spoke into the microphone, “Count the skulls.”

Twenty two.”

“Twenty two bodies,” he spoke aloud, “In the waiting area alone.  It seems like too many for a town this size, this time of night.”

“We’re the only real hospital for this part of the county.  We get people from neighboring towns flying in by ambulance or helicopter.”

“I see.  Even so, it’s more than I would have guessed.  I suspect there was some announcement across the hospital, as the attacks started.  The way people were clustered here, they were probably ordered to stay put and stay calm.  Your officers enter and Hookwolf attacks.  There’s hesitation from the bystanders.  People are caught between perfectly rational self-preservation and the authority of the hospital staff who didn’t have the full picture.”

Don’t assign blame,” Dragon whispered.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine are the ones in the wrong here.

“He lunges across the waiting area to the doors, cutting off retreat and tearing through anyone in his way.  This is new to him.  He’s used to fighting people who resist, people with powers and law enforcement officers with the technology to fight him.  This gives me the impression of a fox in the henhouse.  The crowd turns to flee for the hallways, and he cuts them off there, herds them towards the center of the room, finishes them off.”

He could see the pain on the Sheriff’s face, but she was holding up.  “And that’s useful?”

Defiant nodded.  “Hookwolf was largely content doing what he was doing in Brockton Bay.  He viewed himself as a warrior, a general, and there was a degree of honor in what he did.  He wasn’t honorable, but he followed a code.  The person who nominated him for the group, Shatterbird, is no longer a member.  So why did he join?  Our working assumption was that there were threats on some level, extortion.  But he’s shifting focus too quickly.  Adopting a new mindset.  It’s possible Jack Slash convinced him in another way.”

Or he’s under their control,” Dragon said, communicating over their personal channel.

“…Or he’s being coerced,” Defiant said, for the sheriff’s benefit.  “An implant, something that’s turned him into a puppet.”

He looked over his shoulder at the Sheriff, but she wasn’t venturing a response.

Back to the job.  He pointed with his spear, where Hookwolf had been seated, then traced the path the villain had taken.  Front door, then one hallway, then the other.  A loose ‘z’.  People had clustered around the middle of the room, and he’d leaped into the midst of them to finish them off.

Defiant’s eyes shifted to the front desk.  There was blood spatter there, but it was the furthest point from the path Hookwolf have traveled.  It would have been his last destination before he moved elsewhere.

Defiant used the lens setting to watch for blood spatter and footprints as he made his way behind the desk.

There were more bodies.  One was propped up against the wall, and the stains that were soaking through the sheet were more brown than red.  He’d had his lower abdomen opened.  The last to die.

With his spear’s point, Defiant lifted the sheet away from the man’s head.  Young, head shaved, a tan collared shirt with a star on the shoulder and a kevlar vest.  His arms and hands were mangled beyond repair.  Defiant studied the area, noting the presence of footprints, then replaced the sheet.

His progress out of the area was slow, and not entirely because he was trying to preserve evidence.  He needed to think, to draw the entire picture together and confirm what he was saying before he addressed the sheriff.

“Find anything?” she asked.

“Your deputy went down fighting,” he said.  “Tooth and nail.”

Her jaw clenched, and he could see her eyes glisten.  She stared hard at the wall.

“He couldn’t have won.  Not against Hookwolf.  But I think he gave us what we needed.”

“Did he?”

“The aftermath of the fight suggests Hookwolf was in control of his actions.  What’s more, I think Jack Slash is grooming him.  The general and the cutthroat, playing off one another, educating each other in their respective disciplines, so to speak.  Jack’s going to want to keep this interplay going, maintain Hookwolf’s interest and keep him from getting restless.  What’s the nearest town?”

“Prescott.”

“Second nearest?”

“Enfield.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “I’m going to talk to my partner, join her in paying a visit to Damsel of Distress if she hasn’t already wrapped that up, then we’ll be leaving.  With luck, we’ll be right on their heels.”

“Execute the motherfuckers.”

“I’ll damn well try.”

He extended a hand, and she shook it.  He turned to leave, sending nervous impulses to the computer system in his suit, drawing up a map of the hospital and overlaying it with the image he was seeing on his visor.  He made his way to the exit and briskly walked toward the field where he’d parked the Uther suit.

Talk to me, Colin?  What’s the thought process?

“Hookwolf gutted the deputy and then stood by while he died a slow, painful death.  Footprints on the other side of the room are probably Jack’s, if you look through the feed.  His back would have been to the filing cabinet.”

I see it.  Hookwolf doesn’t have a reason to inflict a slow, painful death if he’s just a puppet under Bonesaw’s control.

“That’s my line of thinking.  From the looks of it, he was standing there longer than Jack.  If Jack moved upstairs, which matches with the gouges in the stairwell, then he was leaving Hookwolf there to watch the man die over the course of minutes.  The deputy was someone strong, ferocious, a warrior, which is how Hookwolf identified himself.  This wasn’t just killing, but rejoicing in the cruelty of it, the feeling of superiority over the fallen.  I think what Jack was trying to instill in Hookwolf, challenging him to alter his code and be something darker.”

I don’t like it when you try to get into their heads like that.

“We have to be proactive.  Predict.  Get ahead of them, so we can stop them before they attack the next hospital, the next neighborhood or school.  That means figuring out what they’re thinking.”

I know.  I just don’t like it.  Not with the way Mannequin approached you.

“Mannequin’s dead.”

And he approached you for a reason.

He signaled for the Uther’s cabin to open, then made his way inside.  It was half the size of a commercial plane, outfitted with basic living quarters, and outfitted with long-range weaponry.  The moment he was inside, the systems kicked into life, the pilot’s chair turning to be in position for him to sit, monitors lighting up.  He had only to think, and the images changed, the cursor flying across the screen with a thought to click on icons.

“…You’re not responding.

“Sorry.  Still getting used to this setup.  I feel like a baby, still figuring out how to move my arms and legs.”

I hope it’s a little more intuitive than that if you’re airborne.

“Exaggeration for effect.  I’m like a toddler, then.  I can walk, but I could fall if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing during the more complicated bits.”

He settled into the pilot’s seat, and his senses opened up with vague ‘tactile’ responses from the Uther.  He felt it lift into the air.  Monitors in front of him let him note Dragon’s location.

You didn’t respond to my question, Colin.  I was asking if you think I need to keep a closer eye on you.

I don’t think so,” he replied.  “I don’t know how you could be closer.  But it helps, having you there.  I appreciated the tips with the sheriff.  I would have fucked that up.”

It’s not a problem.

“Any notice on Damsel?”

Seems like we’re too late.  They got her.

His heart sank.  “Got her in the sense that she’s dead, or got her in the literal sense?”

The latter.

“Fuck!”  One more to contend with.  He remembered who he was talking to.  “Sorry.”

I swore when I found out.  Don’t worry.  I’m thinking Enfield.  You?

“We’re on the same page.  It’s close enough, but not so close it’s the next place we’d look.”  He shifted the Uther into motion and plotted a course for the Nine’s next likely destination.  He could see Dragon doing the same with her own suit.

They wouldn’t be able to do this for long.  They were only able to track the Nine like this because their quarry was unaware.  It would only get harder, with Jack obfuscating the group’s movements, with traps and misdirection, a contest of second guessing, trying to think more steps ahead.

He thought aloud, “We should have fought them sooner.  In Brockton Bay.”

We weren’t ready, on a lot of levels.  You hadn’t recuperated, and I didn’t have anything that worked as standalone firepower.  Better to wait, confront them with six suits at once.

He opened his mouth to respond, then stopped.

Damn,” she said, “I was hoping you weren’t paying enough attention.

“I’m always going to listen when you talk.  What happened to the other three suits?”

Melusine is out of commission until I can build some replacement limbs.  Azazel and the Astaroth-Nidhug were melted down.

He frowned.  “The Undersiders?”

And the Travelers.  I pulled the remaining suits out of the city.  Can’t excuse the losses.  Not with bigger fish to fry.”

“That’s… irritating.”

What part?  That they get to keep doing what they’re doing?  Or that I didn’t mention it?

“I’m still officially a prisoner.  I’m just a prisoner on a manhunt, now.  If you want to control what info I get, I’ll live.”

I can’t tell if you mean that.

“I can’t either.  But right this minute, I’m more focused on the fact that the Undersiders and Travelers could hold their own against the full flight of seven.  If they can get that far, couldn’t the Slaughterhouse Nine be able to defeat the suits as well?  And us with them?”

It’s the A.I.  Substandard.  They followed directions without an issue, but they aren’t creative.  The A.I. can’t think outside the box, they don’t plan or get creative.  They just do the tasks they were assigned: sequester, fight, detain.

“It’s your work.  I know you’re capable of designing outside of the box.”

I’m working with my hands tied, Colin.  There’s too many redundancies in my code, the rules against me making A.I.?  They’re still there.  You gave me some detours, some workarounds, ways to get around them, but I’m still stumbling over them.

He tapped his fingers on his armrest, thinking.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

Please.

“I don’t want to spoil your code.  This isn’t my field of study.  It’s not even something I’ve dabbled in.  As a rule, anything I do to change it is going to make things less elegant.”

In that one department.

“And I’m legitimately afraid I’ll do permanent damage if something runs out of control.”

I have backups.  Weekly.”

“Which means we’d have to bring you up to speed on the mission here.  I’m saying it’s dangerous.  I like the you of right now more than the you of a week ago.”

That sounds almost romantic.

He smiled a little.

Saw that.

He smiled wider.  “You’re bordering on the obsessive now.”

I can dial it back.  How are the prostheses?

“Holding up.  Eye’s working great.”

I saw,” she replied.

He smirked.

She sounded legitimately embarrassed as she said, “Whoops.

“Don’t worry.  I knew you were watching.  It’s fine, good to have an extra set of eyes on the scene.  Um.  The other parts are fine.  I made a note to fix my leg.  I think it’s a little too perfect.  Feels uncanny.  But I suppose you heard that.”

I don’t listen in on any personal notes, just like I won’t pry into any journals you keep or personal mail.  The deal we struck with the PRT was that I would make sure you followed the rules.  That’s what I’ll do.  But your thoughts are your own.

“Alright.”

You don’t sound overly concerned either way.”

“I’m not, really.”

You let me know if you do start feeling uncomfortable.

“I can do that.  Listen, there’s no use in me getting deep into your code when we’re going to get there in a matter of minutes.  I’m going to look at my knees in the meantime, then maybe I’ll refresh myself on your code if I have time before we land.”

Alright.

He glanced at one monitor, and windows opened to show images of the leg.  He was able to draw the crude shapes that represented individual devices even when he wasn’t looking at the screen.  A triangle here, a circle there.  Another window opened up with a line connecting it to the triangle, and he drew an identical triangle, began filling it with more shapes.  By the time he had a fourth subwindow open, he was drawing from previous notes to copy over other schematics of older work, seeing where things could go.  Everything could fit together.  The waste energy of one system could help power another.  Even on a molecular level, there were ways to harness the ambient radiation that was emitted by everything in the known universe.  Some was infinitesimally small, but it was usable.  That energy could be heterodyned, or redirected into loops long enough that they were near-infinite.  Hyperefficient, dense energy generation that could benefit from being hooked up to more devices.  It was the fundamental basis of his work: efficiency.

Which suited him well.  Efficiency, intensity, focus were all the same thing in a sense, and they were his strengths.  The flip side was that they weren’t strengths when they were applied to relationships.  Or to human relationships.

It seemed to be working for him with Dragon so far.  Someone else might have bucked at the closeness of their partnership, the intimacy of it, her unending presence and watching eye.  He understood that she thought faster, that she didn’t sleep, didn’t stop.  She was fond of him and she was programmed to emulate people.  Maybe she came across as intense at times, but that was simply a poor translation, normal behavior overclocked and given no chance to pause.  He would watch for any problems just as she was keeping an eye out for the part of him that had drawn Mannequin’s attention.

For now, his own obsessiveness, arrogance, and goal-oriented mindset would keep him focused on the Nine, push other concerns to the periphery of his attention.  He could adjust to any of Dragon’s peculiarities in the meantime.  He could even enjoy them.

His lips quirked with another smile.  She was amusing.

“Okay.  I’m done for now.  Want to look it over while I get into the code?”

Sure.  You have eight minutes before you should get your stuff together.

He’d had to make a program just to get a handle on the code.  It wasn’t working with a fixed structure, but was instead a torrential waterfall of data, a river of lightning, a trillion eels weaving through one another in a singular mass.  Deciphering it required that he think in an entirely different way.  To actually change it was something else entirely.  The rules Dragon was obligated to follow were a fundamental part of her self, and everything she remembered filtered through that.

He isolated a part of the program and set it to run in a loop so he could study what it was doing.

Your design doesn’t work,” Dragon informed him.

“Does too.”

You inserted the nanomachine thorn generator into your leg, but your power source vents straight into your calf.  You’d gradually roast your flesh from your bones.

“I’m inserting more of the same into my calf.  Daisy chain.”

More self-alterations?  Colin-

“We’ve been over this.”

I was going to suggest we take some time tonight, play another round of ten by ten.  At the rate you’re going, there won’t be a point.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

Not by much.

He could have responded, but he held back, stayed quiet.  No use starting a fight now, not when they might be fighting the Nine shortly.

Ten by ten.  The ‘game’ involved some interplay between him and her android self, physical contact, and rating the sensitivity of the contact on two scales of ten.  It had started out as a means of calibrating the various sensations her ‘body’ experienced and ensuring his own prostheses weren’t causing any damage to his nervous system, but things had progressed to inevitable, intentional conclusions.

Not the obvious conclusion.  There was more to be done in refining her body and expanding her capabilities before they could take things that far.

Would he be more machine than she was by the time they got there?

On the other side of the coin, he had to wonder: could he afford to hold back?  They were engaged in a battle of attrition against the Nine.  In the grand scheme of things, there were also the Endbringers to consider.  He’d gone too far in Brockton Bay, but the fundamental principle was right.  They had to be stopped, if it was even possible, and he wouldn’t complain if it was him who did the deed.  If it was a question of going all out, holding nothing back, showing no compunctions and finally stopping the abominations, well, he’d do it all over again.  He wouldn’t trust the nano-thorns to the same extent; they apparently couldn’t cut through the entirety of an Endbringer, but he’d do the same thing again.

And he’d feel the same regret he did now.

You’ve gone quiet.

“Thinking.”

Three minutes before you take the thinking cap off and we get battle ready.

“That’s fine.  I’m thinking in circles anyways.  In the interest of being useful, I’m trying to isolate your ‘higher brain’ code from the rest.  You want to take a minute, maybe turn your attention to my leg’s prosthesis again?”

On it.”

He began to select the outliers from the two distinct strains of code.

“Think about nothing in particular,” he told her.

Harder than it sounds.

“Think white.  Or stare off into space.”

He could see the code shift.  He began to gradually narrow down the outliers.

Nothing too pertinent.  It would help him to keep any changes from damaging the most essential parts of her, but nothing too useful.

Conversationally, he asked her, “The Undersiders are still holding the territory they did, then?”

They kidnapped the Director long enough to get her to order the A.I. to stand down, got away from one altercation, then used some combination of Tattletale’s power and the Director’s knowledge to figure out that they could slow me down by knocking out cell towers.  As far as I know, they’re in a better position than they were.

“Damnation.”

How are you feeling about that?  The Undersiders?

“Psychoanalyzing me?  I’m itching to stop them.  If you asked me what I’d change, I don’t know that I could name a thing I’d do different.  I’d do everything over again, but do it better.”

You wouldn’t get caught.

“There’s that,” he said, sighing.  “And maybe I was too harsh in my judgement of Skitter.  I was angry at her, I was tired, maybe that led me to label her with some malice she didn’t have.  In retrospect, yes, she made the decisions she did, but she had reasons for doing what she did.”

In the same way you did.

“I wouldn’t put it like that.”

Dragon didn’t respond.  He swore under his breath, knew she could hear it.

“They took down our Azazel?” he asked, aiming to change the subject.

Yes.

“Fuck,” he muttered.  It would have been useful to have, here.

He could see a blip in the code, well beyond the outliers he’d marked out.

“What were you just thinking?”

Flight plan, battle strategy, and fixes to the Azazel hardware.  I have the black box data.

“Think back through each of those things.”

We’re going to be at our destination in less than a minute.

“Please?

There was a long pause, then again, the flare of data being altered well outside of the boundaries he’d noted.  He opened up the full stream in the view window, spreading it across every screen in front of him.

“Keep going,” he told her.  The cursor flew between the seven screens, marking out areas in color to see where code was changing most radically.  It was like the work he did with his own power, the smallest elements impacting everything else.

Like his own power…

He leaned back in his seat.

What is it?

“Either Andrew Richter was far better at designing A.I. than I suspected, or there’s something else at play.  You have any notes on your code from a few years ago?”

We just reached Enfield, Colin.

“I’m only barely wrapping my head around this code as is.  I’m worried that I’ll lose track and this will all be gibberish to me if I look away.  Notes on your code?”

How far back?

“Let’s say in intervals of four years.”

Loading them onto the Uther’s system.  This isn’t like you, Colin.  Getting distracted?  Making the Slaughterhouse Nine a lower priority?

“Four years ago, I think it’s the same.  Hard to find flares like that and not think I’m cherry picking data.”

Colin.  I admit I’m a little unnerved.  Way you’re talking, it sounds like Richter put some safeguard in place and I could fall apart any second.

“It’s not that.  Can you load up the earliest archive of data you have?”

I’ll have to clear away one of the other files.

“Do it.  They’re useless.  They’re the same thing as the most recent set.”

He watched as the flow of data appeared.  It was odd how he could look at it and she almost felt younger, like a musician might read music and hear it in his head.  Only here, it was like looking at a video image of a girlfriend as a child.

And… more constrained.  Certainly more advanced than anything else in existence on the planet, but things flowed.  A led to B led to C.  He sped through volumes of the data to hunt for a flare, glanced at the time markers.  A year ahead.  Two years.

No, he couldn’t afford to pore through Dragon’s entire lifetime.  He closed the image, leaned forward and stared at the screen, the recent image of Dragon’s code, caught in a three second loop in the midst of her plotting her design.

What is it?

“You’re a tinker.”

This isn’t a revelation, Colin.

“No.  I mean, not just as far as the classification applies to you.  You’re a parahuman.  I don’t have time to hunt for it now, but at some point between now and a few years after your creation, you had a trigger event.”

How can I be a parahuman if I’m not human to begin with?

“I don’t know.”

I’m not even close to human.  I might be trying to emulate one, but a sea cucumber’s closer to being a human than I am.  That doesn’t make sense.

“I don’t know either.”

What does this mean?

Yet again, I don’t know.  But it’s now my turn to remind you that we’ve got to carry on with our mission, see if we can’t track down our targets.  The four A.I. suits are close?”

They’ll be here within the minute.

“Good.  But this thing with the data and your nature, it’s important.  A clue.  I’m only mortal, I might not come out of this alive-“

Don’t say that.

“But it’s true.  I want to leave nothing to chance.  So I’m going to leave a note, just in case the worst happens and we both die somehow.  Instructions.”

To look at the code.

“To look at the code.  The fact that you haven’t noticed this yourself suggests there may be a mental block in place.”

I don’t have a mind to put any mental block inside.  I’m data.

“And the same limitations still apply.  Just in case, we’re going to make sure someone can look over the code if we don’t make it back.  Whatever happens, someone’s going to page through your memory, get our first hard data on a trigger event.  Ideal world, it’ll be us.  You can’t remember it happening?”

No.

“Well, we’ll see just how well that data was erased.  Or if it even was erased.  Could be a block keeping you from accessing a very real memory.  With luck, maybe a bit of a loophole like the one I created around your ability to create child A.I., we can unlock that memory, decrypt it or find a snapshot of it as it’s in progress.”

To what ends?

It was a good question.  It took him a moment to conceptualize it into a complete thought.

“…Since the day I got my powers, I’ve seen myself as a soldier in a greater war.  Good against evil, order against chaos, mankind against the likes of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Endbringers.  It’s a war on every front.  And sometimes that’s called for ugly choices.  When we talked about unlocking the restrictions in your code, breaking down the barriers Andrew Richter was so careful to put in place, we talked about the idea that you and I could work together, give our side the upper hand in sheer firepower.  And I think we can with a little more time, a little more work.  With this?  This snapshot, this recording of a trigger event in progress?  Maybe we can get the upper hand in knowledge, too.”

I know what you’re thinking.  Reproducing trigger events, deciphering or even controlling the source of powers.  This is the type of radical thinking I’m supposed to rein in while I’m working with you.

“Are you saying I’m wrong?  That we shouldn’t investigate?”

No.  We should.  I’m worried about the can of worms this opens up, but we should.

“I don’t see why you’re so reluctant.”  He was already typing up the note to check the code, marking out the dates and times to investigate, the things to look out for.  It was painfully abstract, but the right tinker or the right genius could find it.  He opened the channels to deposit the files on the primary PRT server.

His computer froze.

“Dragon?”

Do you trust me?

“Yes,” he said.

The speakers produced the sound of a sigh.  “We won’t put the note on anything the PRT can get at.

“Why?” he asked.

That,” she said, “Is a long story, and it’s where I’m asking you to trust me and leave this for later discussion.  Our priority right this moment is the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I doubt we’ll stop them outright, but we’ll try.  Six powered suits in all.  I can’t disobey the directive, and you can’t let yourself lose track of the mission, or you’ll never get back on it.  I’ll explain this after.

“You said you couldn’t put the files on anything the PRT can get at?”

I’m almost certain they already know whatever we stand to find out.  I suppose it’s unavoidable, given how close we are on so many levels, but you’re getting drawn into another fight, with an enemy that may be on the same level as the Nine or even the Endbringers.  An enemy I can’t afford to fight face to face.”

“Who?

I’m obligated to follow the laws of the land.  To obey the local government, no matter who they are.  When we’re done here, whether we stop the Nine outright, see them escape yet again or lose the fight, you should ask me about Cauldron.

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116 thoughts on “Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2)

  1. Well that a bad sign for Cauldron. We knew they were assholes but they seem to have gotten many heroes on their side by the fact that they make more heroes than villains. But if Dragon considers them as bad as the Endbringers, and the 9, I wonder what she knows about them. I have a hard time believing that the 9 keep getting away so consistently. If they have hit this many places as bad, the army, FBI, CIA etc. would be hunting them. Not to mention that everyone knows their faces, so they have to hide from every camera and person with a cellphone. In brighter news, they are having “intimate” relations with their ten by ten.

    • Well, *we* know that Cauldron’s endgame involves Jack’s end of the world scenario somehow. (So the deaths of billions of people) That’s certainly more than either the Endbringers or the Nine in normal operation capacity could achieve in the same timeframe.

    • There’s only so much soldiers and various civilian agents can do against the likes of Jack Slash, Siberian, and Crawler, let alone all of what Bonesaw makes. Each of the Nine, save a few like Bonesaw and Cherish, can stand in for a small army even without Bonesaw’s modifications.

      It doesn’t help that the Nine are good at striking hard and striking fast. It’s like guerrilla warfare, except with even fewer soldiers who are all but impervious to damage.

  2. Damn. With everything that happened in this chapter, from the Nine continuing their path of slaughter, to the confirmation of intimate relations between Defiant and Dragon, to Dragon being a real parahuman with a trigger, to the reveal of Dragon’s knowledge of Cauldron to Colin, there’s only one thing I can say to you, Wildbow.

    Wow.

  3. Can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m actually starting to like Armsmaster now.

    Also I find it rather odd that neither Defiant nor Dragon have mentioned the agnosia plague as a possibility for Hookwolf’s change in demeanor.

    • Yeah, Armsmaster’s a dick, but he KNOWS he’s a dick, and he’s got Dragon to watch his back and make sure his dickishness doesn’t get in the way of the mission.
      Good news that he’s being honest enough about himself that he’s reevaluating Skitter. Be fun if they actually get together for something.

      • I nearly laughed out loud when the subject of Skitter and Armsmaster’s reasons for doing what they do came up, considering Armsmaster is the reason Skitter turned to villainy in the first place.

        One thought that kept coming up during the interlude, since poor, non creative intelligence is the main downfall of the suits a certain master class cape might come in handy for controlling them.

        • I read Skitter’s turning to villainy as happening because all of her friends are villains – Armsmaster just pushed her to realize it.

          She’d have to bypass the Manton effect to control robots, I think.

          • Well if any cape besides Arms had been there the night she fought Lung she would probably be in the Wards right now.
            Dragon seems to have computer-brain interface figured out, although I’m not sure Skitter would be interested in anything sawing into her head. Some sort of control could probably set up. It wouldn’t be the level of precision she gets with her power but her on the fly strategizing would come in handy for the dragon suits.

        • Actually, you’re right.

          Dragon still seems to only be able to control one suit as herself at a time, so Skitter’s ability to multitask, exercised through a proper control interface with bugs, would be incredibly potent a combination.

          If they were after the Nine then she’d be quick to agree as well. Bringing Grue Bonesaw’s extremely killed head would be a sure way to get her some brownie points in the bank. Need to save as many as possible for the next time she does something stupid and heroic.

  4. …I have an exam in less than twelve hours.

    And this is my new second or third favourite chapter.

    Defiant and Dragon are incredibly awesome, more than ever I want Dragon and Skitter to have a good sit down chat.

    They can now also compare emotionally damaged boyfriends with whom they have very unusual relationships due in no small part to their powers. Also I’m guessing Skitter made it to around 2nd base, Dragon 3rd, but then neither of them is all that competitive. Still, time for embarrassing stories and kicking Cauldron/Endbringer ass.

    And you say can’t write romance. This was solid romantic gold from start to finish.

  5. Hm, a very solid concern, that Dragon would be obligated to obey the enemy.
    I agree with Spaceman that it is odd that the plague hasn’t been mentioned. I wonder whether most of the people affected actually understand what happened.

    “That doesn’t make sense“” Missing period.

      • You say that jokingly, but Skitter will have earned some serious cred from taking down the PRT and Dragon’s suits. They probably have a newfound, and grudging respect, for her planning ability. I don’t think she has reached Mastermind status yet, but she has outsmarted people so much, it might make them paranoid about her. Skitter just helped the old lady across the street, what diabolical plan is she enacting? There was a famous general during japan’s warring states period, can never remember names, whose planning was so respected/feared that he intentionally left a city’s gates open. The enemy couldn’t believe that he would do something like that without it being a trap, so they didn’t attack. He did simply because he didn’t have enough men at the time, and outsmarted them. If Taylor keeps it up, I can see famous villains approaching her and offering to buy a plan to rob a bank or something from her.

          • I’ve been known to play some Dynasty Warriors and Koei’s Romance od the Three Kingdoms when they make it possible to play as a single free person. Some iterations of that game don’t allow that.
            Sima Yi’s son didn’t fall for the trick, but Yi was in command and this was a time when execution was a punishment for insubordimation. Took Liu Bei pleading to keep Zhuge Liang from executing Guan Yu. I think that was for Guan Yu letting Cao Cao escape after the Battle of Red Cliffs. Guan Yu was repaying the kindness shown him when Cao Cao’s prisoner.

            And Guan Yu was great enough to be posthumously worshipped as a war god, so shows that evwn top generals who were sworn brothers of the emperor could be pumished severely.

  6. So, Dragon is able to contemplate opposing Cauldron. That’s better than I feared.

    Also, Armsmaster liking her personality is also reassuring, considering all the code monkeying he’s doing. Means he’s more motivated to do it right.

    You know, it never occurred to me that Dragon might /not/ have had a trigger event to give her Tinker powers.

  7. Now, now, let’s not jump to conclusions here. We don’t know for a fact that this wasn’t a case of self defense. Those babies might have been asking for it. One of them might have smuggled a Walther PPK in its diaper to cap an unsuspecting nurse, and then Jack Slash saw it and decided to act heroicly. Or Siberian figured it was as good a time as any to try eating a baby. Hell, if you she downed the diaper too then you might as well sell that video off for another Jackass movie. Maybe they’ll put it just after the part where someone blows a horse.

    These 9 idiots give us chaotic evil types a bad name. Alright, so sometimes I bounce on up to chaotic neutral, but the point is that they’re really not all that chaotic at this point. I mean, look at them. Everywhere they go is a killing spree. It’s like a rule for them. If they wanted to be truly chaotic, they’d hit up a town and force everyone to wear pink dresses while lassoing mailboxes and tooting a harmonica. You kill people and people know how to dial up the police, let the paramedics look after people, and grieve when it all turns out poorly.

    But what large group of people knows how to react when grampa’s dragged out of his wheelchair, put in hose, given a coconut to drink out of, and ordered to dance on a stripper pole? Can anyone know how to react to that? What will that mean for how they think of their grampa? If you kill them, you force them to remember him. But if you make him shake his ass for tips from his buddies at the VA, you strike at what people know of him. And that is how you truly kill him. You destroy what he was in their minds to make him something of your own creation.

  8. Despite the carnage in this chapter this was probably one of the more uplifting interludes.

    Dragon is not Armsmaster’s slave. Armsmaster has not modified her program so much that she is likely to become a danger to mankind. Armsmaster seems to genuinely care about doing the right thing about stopping the Nine, the Endbringers and generally averting the bad stuff he sees comming. Dragon is aware of the Cauldron and not in their pocket even if she is someowhat constrained in her programming to go against them.

    Between Dragon, Defiant and Legend we seem to atually have some major heroes who are not completely compromised by the Cauldron and might go against them. So that is good. There might be a small hitch where Colin seems to be still trapped in the mindset of the ends justifying the means and being confronted with extreme situations like the end of the world might make lead him to make some ‘necessary sacrifices’ for the greater good, but at least he is no longer in it for the glory.

    An interesting observation was that Taylors intuition about Dragon was at least partly right and dragon is despite her origins still a parahuman. The fact that non-humans can have trigger events might shine some light on the origin of the Endbringers.

    I found it also worth of note that again in an interlude from the other point of view Skitter is barely mentioned by the heros. No matter how impressive she is in her own story to people like Legend or Dragon she still is little more than a tiny blip on their radar compared to the big picture. Even Armsmaster only thinks of her in regards to their past interaction and not as a present or future threat. Tattletale who can ferret out secrets seems to consistently have everyone more worried than the girl with the insect powers…

    • And yet that girl just took out their most powerful suit. While on point in taking over an entire city…

      In any case my theory on the endbringers hasn’t changed from the initial thought they gave me. Revenge of nature. They’re animals that triggered. They don;t like humans.

      • The ideas with the animals that triggered seemed like a likely scenario ever since Tatttletale made her observation about them, but I ams still waiting for the revalation that they were small animals with a very simple nervous systems…

        Cue picture of Aquaman riding Cthulhu.

      • If that were true, I think there’d be far more than 3 endbringers. From what we know about trigger events, any reasonably significant trauma produces parahuman abilities. And if I may quote Hobbes, life in nature is poor, nasty, brutish and short. There should be no shortage of animals with parahuman abilities if they were able to trigger.

    • I feel I should add that Dragon is barely mentioned by the Undersiders in most chapters. The frequency with which someone is brought up does not translate to their scariness factor.

    • I never understood why so many people assumed that Armsmaster would twist Dragon’s mind into someone completely different. There was never any indication that that was something he would do, people just assumed “oh he did some nasty stuff so naturally he would mindrape the only person that made sense to him!”

      I think the main reason that people don’t think about and comment on Skitter all the time is because she isn’t the center of their world. Much in the same way that Taylor doesn’t spend all her time thinking about one specific enemy. Everyone that matters in this series has plenty of problems, if you aren’t the current problem you won’t get much focus.

        • To be fair he did seem worried about doing such.

          Also, Armsmaster actually managed to be adorable when he was telling her he preferred the Dragon of right now to a week ago. Who’d have thought he even had it in him?

      • Well, for me it was generally because every single hero and authority firgure ended up being revealed as flawed, broken or compromised.

        When Dragon revealed that she was considering approaching Armsmaster and revealing herself to him (and that she had something like a crush on him), it seemed that she was a bit naive about the whole thing offering him the chance to do who knows what to her and possible chaning her whole being. It seemed natural to assume the worst.

        My scenario was not that Armsmater would do something like that because he is evil, but because he would see it as the right thing to do. The revalation that dragon was not human could very likely have prompted someone to not treat he as a person. The fact that a Dragon with all her limiters about siering offspring, killing people and obeying authority removed could potentially be something more dangerous than the Nine or the endbringer might have prompted him to do something just in case.

        Luckily it seems that Colin actually sees her as person and even considers her to be his sort of gitlfriend. I was positively surprised to find that the two actually seemed to be good for each other and have developed an aproximation of a helathy relationship despite the power inequality, the fact that one of them is loosing his humanity and the other was never human to begin with and a host of other background problems.

        Lately chapters have been so positive. either I am too cynical and pessimistic or wildbow is planning to set us up for some huge other shoe to drop around x-mas that will crush half the cast to death underneath it.

        • Yeah, I think that’s it. Dragon managing to fix her compromisedness, even with help, is rather unique among the heroes and authorities. That’s part of why I want to see her and Skitter have some talks – the idea of a genuine hero in genuine authority would challenge her worldview in such interesting ways.

        • We have become as cynical as Taylor after discovering how this particular world works. I hope that if Taylor and Dragon meet, they can start their own anti-Cauldron conspiracy.

          • Positive? I’ll get you a dead baby for Christmas then. Or do you just want the akull for a teacup? Now that’s some hoity toityness there. “Jeeves, bring me high tea in my starving Ethiopian cup. Oh, and do show the Viscountess my necklace made of ears from Indochina.”

        • It’s actually not that surprising that he continued to treat her like a person. Even after the reveal he would still have to filter the new information through all of the feelings he’d already developed for her. Those feelings could have taken a hit, but they would have also left him inclined to sit, listen, realize the situation isn’t much different from when he speculated she was quadruplegic, but now he has an even better chance of helping her.

          Plus with her hacking abilities she could have already been a terror despite any limitations so why would she change after getting some of them removed?

          -And- if he had tried to enslave her or something it would have fundamentally changed the person he’d fallen for. Basically killing the only person that he thinks “gets” him.

          Plus Dragon probably put or could have put protocols into place in case he did try something. He’s her prisoner and she’s obligated by her code to fulfill her duties as his warden, which means he was never in a position to do her any damage.

    • Ok, so the Endbringers are non-humans that’ve had trigger events. Simurgh, from what we’ve heard, is a giant bird, so it’s safe to assume she was a bird to begin with. Tattletale described Leviathan as having a crustacean-like nervous system, and Dragon dropped us a hint with sea cucumber, so… I’m saying he was originally a starfish. Behemoth, who burrows through the ground with supernatural ease, was clearly a diglett.

      • Leviathan was described as having a non-standard nervous system. I think you’re conflating the reality in the story with all the WMG in the comments.

        Dragon didn’t drop a hint about Leviathan at all with the Sea Cucumber comment, she was making a comparison about herself to a sea cucumber and their respective relationship to humanity, I.e. which of them is more like a human.

    • Why do I see Behemoth having once been a mole? Just think, all this trouble could’ve been avoided if some damned bird hadn’t tried to eat a mole……XD

  9. I think I may be on to something here, let me state this out as clear as I am able to: Dragon is a tinker but only from an organic’s perspective and that’s from those who don’t know of her status as an A.I, but from my perspective, what she does intuiting and appropriating the designs of other tinkers is simply done with her computing power and not her parahuman power. Her real parahuman power may be that of a Thinker, being able to intuit human thought processes and grasp (or maybe understand) human emotions which in an A.I, is as much a superpower as a human shooting fire from their hands.

    • Ooh, interesting idea. That could be why she can’t make decent AI – being capable of understanding morality is part of her power, not something she could induce on purpose. At least, not without stealing a bunch of Cauldron’s shit.

    • This is true in my head until Wildbow proves otherwise, just because it’s kind of profound in a speculative fiction sort of way.

    • Both can be true.

      We know powers alter the minds of the parahuman, getting Tinker powers and thus gaining flexibility and an ability to copy other’s designs may very well have allowed her the mindset we now see.

    • If Dragon isn’t a Tinker, then the magitech designs of Tinkers are reproducible by non-Tinkers. Which opens up possibilities.

      Though yes, she seems more human than Armsmaster/Defiant.

  10. Looks like everyone is getting some ten by ten lately. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it looks like the world would be much better off if the AI was completely unbound. We learn that Cauldron controls at least part of the government, could they be the ones wanting to condemn Brockton Bay? I still don’t buy that Cauldron is connected to the Endbringers, Dragon didn’t mention it, and I think they are related to the twin entities. Simurgh is the next Endbringer due, in a month or two if I remember correctly. Dragon is immune to telepathy, and Taylor mentions that she is not hard to beat, it is what comes after that you have to worry about. Here’s hoping the two mechanical love birds kills it.

  11. Everybody has already mentioned all the things that I noticed were revealed in this chapter. So, I’ll point out typo’s and a speculation.

    Typo’s:
    overhead –> overhear
    turns towards flee –> turns to flee
    “Can’t condone the losses.” Did you really mean condone? It looks like you really meant the opposite. Maybe “object to”?
    “A.I..” I don’t know about this one, just looks weird to have two periods.
    “doesn’t plan” –>don’t
    “designing out of the box” –>outside (those AI aren’t standard makes :P)
    some combination of Tattletale’s power [and] the Director’s knowledge

    Considering how important and pervasive the memory loss is for parahumans, I’m going to guess that it’s going to be an important plot point. Maybe Cauldron has learned how to hypnotize people during that time?

  12. What about the end of the worm world in 2 years time? Seems to me that it may merely be that Jack leaving Brockton Bay was the catalyst, not the direct cause, and that the actual cause could be Dragon & Defiant tooling up to defeat Jack.

    I wonder if it could be as a result of Colin taking the blocks off Dragons AI to catch Jack – and that it would have otherwise have taken 20 years for Dragon to figure out a way round her blocks. Imagine an army of insane Dragon clones no longer forced to obey the government…

    Alternatively, didn’t Cauldron have a plan in mind to avoid the end of world scenario from a previous interlude? So even if it is not the removal of Dragons AI blocks, it could still be caused by their going after Cauldron.

  13. Well, Colins’ still one of the least self-aware people on the planet. Good to see Dragon trying to work on that. The fact that he needs an AI supercomputer to walk him through social situations amuses me.

    Even fighting the Nine, his reality check is gonna be alot gentler than what Amy got, that’s for damn sure.

  14. Has anyone called out Armsmaster/Defiant for carrying Phallic Weapons that can expand and contract on command as maybe Compensating for Something?

    • Considering how he’s gradually replacing all of his body with bigger and better gizmos, I think he could be literally compensating. Hey, he’ll never finish too quickly and can match your speed perfectly! All right! Now if only his ego would stop getting in the way, he could be the perfect lover. Oh, and if you can teach him to cuddle.

    • You just made me realize that most of his actions we’re done to make his dick look bigger. Makes everything he did up until now seem kinda pathetic.

      Soldier in a greater war my ass.

  15. Just worked out a theory on Scion. I have NO actual proof for this, just my own imagination and some half-assed conjencture:

    I think that Scion is actually the survivor of a parallel earth that was destroyed (where at least mankind was wiped out). Either by himself or with the help of the twin entities, he fled to another Earth (the one in which Worm takes place). He may have already been this powerful, gotten his powers when his world went to hell (which would be more than enough of a traumatic experience for a trigger event – possibly, he survived alone and had to watch the ruins of his race) or been given them after being sent to another reality. If he travelled to this earth by himself, either through chance or by design, this may have been what attracted the notice of the twin entities to the wormworld, or he was transported to/travelled to this world because it had already attracted the attention of the twin entities
    this would be a possible explanation for his sudden appearance (and the following appearance of parahumans). Also, it would explain why, in the beginning, he seemed so incredibly sad – he had just lost his whole world. There might – scratch that, there almost certainly was, if my theory so far is correct – also be an element of nostalgia/regret at seeing a world that still is/a mankind that still exists.
    him being a survivor of another world would also explain his monomaniacal devotion to doing good, never stopping, never resting – he either wants to make up for failing to save his own world (especially if he already had his powers back when it went to hell) or prevent this one from being destroyed – most probably both.
    furthermore, this would be a perfect explanation for his self-given name. after all, he would be the sole scion of an entire world. and his speech might have been completely or at least largely different, which would lead to him being silent in the beginning.

    there is also the possibility that the endbringers originated in his world – either they simply appeared there as well and lead to its destruction, or they were weapons created in that world that eventually turned against it. the weapon theory, at least in my mind, is supported by the fact that leviathan at least seems to be too well designed for a natural being – he has no means by which to take in nourishment, his body has the perfect structure for resilience and so on. furthermore, the endbringers’ attack patterns are too deliberate, too well-aimed to be just due to chance in their creaton/animal instinct – it is more probable that they were pre-programmed with strategies for war.
    they may have either followed scion to the wormworld (adding another layer of guilt on him) or they were brought over by Cauldron using Doormaker (the one group that seems to profit from the Endbringers is Cauldron, as they are basically an instant-win-the-discussion argument for their existence and plans). It is also possible that Cauldron underestimated the threat the Endbringers pose and are now sincerily trying to stop them.

    any thoughts on that?

    • also, he may be so silent (and his voice may have sounded so weak back in Alexandrovsk) because he spent years, maybe decades alone in his world, already immortal but not yet able/willing to leave.

      • I think time travel is more likely and that the multiple worlds thing is a bluff, after all we only have the word of a proven liar to go on. In the time travel case, only Scion survives the end of the world in 2 years.

        • I though the Alexandria interlude proved that there were multiple worlds. Taylor also mentions some alternate universe Star Wars movies when she first joined the Undersiders. I do think Scion, the Twin entities, and the Endbringers are all related to each other. I can see them coming from another world, but I do think the Twins are almost as bad as the Endbringers. The world is much worse off since people got powers. Just imagine how bad things are in war torn third world countries in the wormverse.

  16. Whew, what an odd update for us to enjoy so much. I’ve been having a ball with some of the less appropriate humor. Just not sure if I got it from the children’s ward or the urology department.

    • To elaborate: I love how Armsmaster/ Defiant is sorting out his interface, connecting with Dragon, improving his social skills and investigating the crime scene and Wildbow can write all of that into one nuanced scene.

      There is major character development, I like that he reconsidered his opinion of Skitter and himself.

      On Dragon, AI, triggers:

      Robert Heinlein proposed in “the moon is a harsh mistress” that a supercomputer with as many inter-connections as the human brain would become sentient if it was capable of inductive logic.

      Trigger events are extreme moments of stress that seem to connect individuals with mystical /extra-dimensional beings and their elevated thought processes let them see and affect the world in new ways.

      It seems as if Dragon achieved a high level AI and then there was some event that perhaps flooded her system the way trauma floods human senses. This triggered her to higher awareness in the same way as a parahuman, giving her new awareness and interaction with reality.

      Second triggers put an already susceptible mind in reconnection with the extradimensional powersource, enhancing their power.

  17. … I’m beginning to think the true purpose of the Nine is to create trigger events. Whether this is on their own initiative or they’re being somehow controlled without their knowledge to do so. Couldron? Some rival with an opposite methodology? Manton?

  18. Dragon is giving him tips on how to pretend to be human. That’s *adorable*.
    I ship these two. I ship them so hard.

    And it looks like Defiant is actually learning, and looking back at things rationally… I’m almost looking forward to his next meeting with Skitter now. And we still need to have a good conversation between Taylor and Dragon. Well, if Coil takes over in a legitimate-looking way, and her imperative to obey legitimate authority is still in place, maybe they can all have a civil discussion!

  19. I’ve been keeping the end of the world scenario in the back of my mind since the 9 left Brockton. Specifically, I’ve been keeping an eye out for things that will tend to happen faster with Jack on the run than with Jack dead. The obvious difference? In this scenario he’s being hunted, and Defiant may well try to “improve” Dragon to tip the balance in their favor. Of course, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and with one slip up and we could have a version of Dragon that replicates endlessly and no longer has concern for human life, or one who decides humanity is a danger to ourselves and must be ruled. It’s a scenario that even fits in universes where Jack is dead, since without him as motivation the only drive to change Dragon’s code would be the relationship that’s growing between her and Defiant. It would be slower, but it could still happen.

    • My thoughts exactly. Even though I also imagined another scenario: Armsmaster gets broken down by the 9 (or Bonesaw gets her little nasty fingers on him) and then he reprograms Dragon. Regardless: this chapter really got my mind going towards a Bonesaw/Dragon collabo resulting in the deaths of just about everybody else. Regardless: having Armsmaster as the one modifying the most advanced A.I. on the world just seems like an endlessly bad idea.

      Wildbow: wow. It’s been a while since my last comment (mostly due to me being on the road and using my kindle to read), but good good stuff!

  20. I, like other readers, have to express my enjoyment of the Dragon/Defiant relationship we see here. Even if you’re an AI, or a moderate jerk with an ego problem and a willingness to cross a few lines, there may be someone out there for you, folks!

  21. Wow, yes! Given what we know about how trigger events work OF COURSE it makes sense that it wouldn’t necessarily be restricted to meatbags! Those space-fractal thingies might not even know the difference! Or they might not care! Oooh, and could there be para-chimpanzees? And para-dolphins? Para-octopuses?

    And I have to say, this may be my favorite canon couple, especially now that Amy/Victoria kinda…didn’t work out. So, bets as to whether Taylor or Dragon will cross home plate first?

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