Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

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The Number Man swept one finger over the touchscreen display.  Two point six billion dollars here, a hundred thousand dollars there.

Money was the blood of civilized society, its currents running through everything and everyone.  Where money was insufficient, things withered.  People starved, sickened and died, constructions eroded, even ideas perished.  Where funds were plentiful, the same things blossomed with new life.

And money was, in the end, little more than the product of collective imagination.  A slip of paper or a coin had no value beyond that of the material it was fashioned of.  It only took on a life of its own when people as a whole collectively agreed that certain papers and coins were worth something.

Only then did people bleed and die for it.  For a fantasy, a faith given form in hard, concrete numbers.

Then again, much of society was built on a series of shared delusions.  Clothing was little more than scraps of particular materials with particular geometries, but people clung to the idea of fashion.  Style.  Good and bad fashion was another belief system, one which all members of a culture were indoctrinated into.  Breaking certain conventions didn’t only challenge the aesthetic sensibilities of others, but it challenged their sense of self.  It reminded them, subconsciously, of the very pretendings they clung to.

Only those with power could stand against society’s tides, flaunt the collective’s ‘safe’ aesthetic.  When one had enough power, others couldn’t rise against them and safely say something calculated to reduce their own dissonance and remind the offending party of the unspoken rules.

When one had enough power to take a life with a twitch of a finger, a thought, they earned the right to wear skin-tight clothing and call themselves Hero, or Legend.  To wear a mask and name themselves something inane like ‘the Cockatoo’ and still take themselves seriously.

He armored himself in normalcy.  He wore only a button-up shirt and thin-rimmed glasses, his blond hair cut into a short style that was easy to maintain.  To anyone on the street, he wouldn’t appear to be anything but a bookish middle-aged man.

He hadn’t always been this bland.

The Number Man stepped away from the screen.  His office was plain, white tile with white walls. The rear of it was a floor-to-ceiling window, looking out on a foreign landscape, a place far from Earth.  Still an Earth, but not the one he’d been born to, not even the one he was in at this very moment.  The Doormaker maintained a portal to that foreign landscape, just behind the Number Man’s office and changed it on request.  Today, it was a mountaintop view of a wilderness with a crimson foliage and gray branches, the sky perpetually overcast.

One of a number of Earths where humans had never been.

The Number Man had gone to some lengths to spruce up this place.  He’d never liked the eternal white of this complex, so he’d adorned his walls with other images.  To his right, there was a large print of the Golden Mean, the Phi decimal as a fractal image in gold against black paper, with mathematical notation surrounding it.

Opposite it, Dali’s Crucifixion, Corpus Hypercubus.  The painting was blown up to one-and-a-half times the size.  Jesus crucified on a fourth dimensional cross.

No chairs.  He’d worked out the dangers of sitting against the convenience and decided it wasn’t worth falling into that trap.  When he did enter his office, he walked, paced, tapped his foot while pondering deeper problems, stood and stared out the window at whatever landscape he had outside his window in a given week.

He crossed his room and touched a screen.  It lit up, filled with data fed to his computers from a doorway to Earth Bet.  The pulse of society, right under his thumb.

The Elite, a villain group expanding a subtle control over the western seaboard of America, putting pressure on rogues to bring them under their thumb as performers, thinkers, designers and innovators.  He could see the numbers, extrapolate from the data to gauge their rate of growth.  They were developing too slowly to be useful, not developing fast enough to outpace the predicted end of the world.  They’d reach Brockton Bay in about a year.  There would be time to decide if countermeasures were needed in the meantime.

Gesellschaft, a nationalistic organization half a planet away from the Elite, was moving large funds in anticipation of a small war.  Money was being laundered through cover operations and businesses, almost impossible to track, unless one was able to take in the bigger picture, to see the intent, the beginnings and endings of it.  They were investing in transportation, and their fundings seemed to decline at the same time some notable arms dealers in Southern Europe found themselves richer by an equal amount.  The Number Man flicked his way past a series of windows detailing the transaction amounts.  Arms dealers who specialized in nuclear materials.  This was pointing towards terrorism, and not on a small scale.  Troubling, but the system would address them.  The major hero group in Germany, the Meisters, would attend to the problem.  It didn’t warrant an expenditure of Cauldron’s full resources, not when things were already on shaky ground.

Still, it wouldn’t do to have a disaster at this crucial juncture.  The Protectorate was required for just a little longer.  If they were going to make it through this, there couldn’t be any substantial distractions.

Gesellschaft hadn’t elected to seek out the Number Man and make use of his services, as so many supervillains around the world did.  He had no compunctions, as a consequence, about interfering with them.  He tapped into a series of bank accounts he hadn’t touched in some time, then scheduled a large number of transfers to the personal Gesellschaft accounts.  Ten or twenty thousand Euros at a time.

Where funds weren’t likely to be held for moderation, he scheduled more transfers and disputed the charges.  The transfer amounts were large enough to raise flags, to draw attention to the accounts in question.  The banks were on the lookout for suspicious activity, and a total of five hundred thousand Euros appearing in six checking accounts with typical balances of under a thousand Euros would be suspicious enough to merit a serious look.

That was only to slow them down.  They would want to investigate, to be careful and find out where the money came from.  Later, if the situation was resolved and they somehow managed to hold on to the money, they would want to know where the money disappeared to, as he reclaimed it with a severe interest rate.  They would suspect interference, would wonder if this outside agent had connected their civilian identities to their personas within Gesellschaft.

Which he had.

The transfers took him less than thirty seconds to arrange, and it would occupy them for one or two days.

Freezing the larger business accounts would take only a little more time.  One or two minutes.  The meetings with the arms dealers had fit a vague schedule.  The arms dealers always took a different route, but they traveled enough that they needed to buy gas at one point on the way.  There was always a large transfer of funds.

He laid a trap, calculated to start falling into place when the gas was bought in the time window.  The main accounts that the Gesellschaft used to manage their funds would be frozen by the time the meeting was underway.  They’d likely find themselves at the meeting, the product delivered, but with no funds to pay for it.

He swept his fingertips along the window, dismissing the task.  Who else?  Where were the priorities?

The C.U.I. had bought a parahuman.  Not so unusual.  Higher rates, as of late, but then, the C.U.I. faced a slight chance of an Endbringer attack in coming weeks.  They would want to bolster their forces, add parahumans to their peculiar team.

Tattletale had been actively separating herself from the Number Man, issuing new accounts to the Undersiders and her organization.  Not so surprising.  Eidolon had outed him, announcing the Number Man as a Cauldron-involved cape to a crowd.

Irritating.  At least it had been manageable.  He didn’t exactly have a great deal of traction with the hero community.  Tattletale was one loss, and he was hands-off with the Undersiders, regardless.

The King’s Men were in debt.  Easy enough to manage an anonymous donation, keep them afloat for another two months.

Child’s play, all of it.  The money, with its imaginary value, it was something he breathed.  Setting up the tools to manipulate it had taken a little time, but that was it.  Numbers were the fundament of the universe, as much a fabrication as money in some ways, more real than anything else in others.

He understood numbers, and through them, he understood everything.

A soft beep marked the arrival of somebody at his door.  He turned.  “Enter.”

There was only one person it could logically be.  The Doctor only sent her personal bodyguard and right-hand woman to him, the others didn’t have access to this building.

Except it wasn’t a person.  The door swung open, but there was nobody on the other side.

“You can’t handle it yourself?” he asked.

No reply, of course.

He broke into a quick stride, hurrying through the door.  “Contessa is busy, I take it?”

Again, no reply.

He reached an intersection and felt his hair stir imperceptibly, little more than what one might excuse as the exhaust from an air conditioning vent thirty feet away.  He took that as his cue to change direction.

He knew where he was going, now.  He was relieved that it wasn’t the worst case scenario, if one could call it that.  A mercenary calling herself Faultline had been leading a team that was opening portals for exorbitant amounts, traveling the world.  It was a matter of time before someone contacted her to ask her to open a portal to here, or her own curiosity about Cauldron happened to lead her down that same road.

If and when that happened, the young woman and her team… perhaps organization was more fitting now that their numbers had grown, would get a visit from Contessa.  They would be removed from consideration, the portal would be sealed, and Cauldron would be safe again.

In the meantime, they’d let things carry on like they were.  Faultline would make contacts, she’d find like-minded individuals, and through her, Cauldron would uncover enemies, to be eliminated in one fell swoop.

At the very least, right here and right now, the threat wasn’t an invader.  Given the layout of the complex, and the fact that whole wings of the structure were on separate continents, linked only by the Doormaker, there were only a few possibilities for why an invader would be here.  Not that it really mattered, it would be near impossible for someone to find their way here, now.

No, this was a threat from within.

Double doors unlocked and slid open.  The Number Man wrinkled his nose as he entered the basement areas of the building.

When the Simurgh had attacked Madison, she’d copied Haywire’s technology to open a gate to a building much like this one.  A research facility.  The portal had dumped the buildings, soil, plant life and all the residents into the city on Earth Bet, costing Cauldron a horrific amount.  Even a stockpile of formulae had been lost.

Perhaps most frustrating was the knowledge, the near certainty, that they’d been near a breakthrough.  She’d sensed, somehow, had known, and had dashed it to pieces with the ease that a person might tear down a painstakingly made sandcastle.

They’d rebuilt, and this facility was somewhat different.  More reinforced, connected to the surrounding terrain.

Silly, to think she’d do the same thing twice, but they’d felt it necessary, after feeling the losses of that last attack.

The architecture here wasn’t white, and he was somewhat relieved at that.  The tile was dark gray, lit by fluorescent bulbs and the light from windows at the end of the hallway.  At regular intervals down the hallway, there were cells.  Only some had windows to keep the occupants within.  Others had only three walls and a white line that marked the division between the cell and the hallway.

In each cell was an occupant.  Large metal plates engraved with numbers helped track who they were, matched to the numbers hidden in the right ‘arm’ of the tattoo that each subject received; a series of white dots that looked like nothing more than areas where the tattoo hadn’t taken.

The cells on the right were new test subjects, lost and angry.  He didn’t hesitate as he walked past them.  The angry words they spat in alien languages were nothing to him.  Their glares and hatred less than that.

Their powers were only a small consideration.  It was a rare parahuman that didn’t try to move beyond the boundary of their cell.  There was no forcefield to stop them.  They inevitably ignored the warnings and gestures from those in neighboring cells, stepping free, or they used their power, teleporting free or lashing out at one of the staff.  The Doctor, the Number Man, Contessa.

They learned after the first time.

Several staff members were housed in the cells to the Number Man’s left.  Those cells didn’t open directly into the hallway.  There were short paths that led around to the back of the room.  It helped mask the noise, gave them some privacy.  The cells were bigger too.

Zero-twenty-three, with a placard beneath.  ‘Doormaker’.

Two-six-five.  No name.  The Number Man knew him well enough, regardless.  He’d been too young a subject when he’d taken the formula, his brain too malleable for the required changes, too slow to form natural immunities and defenses.  Not a problem with regular trigger events, as it was.  The boy’s eyes had burned out of his sockets as he’d tried to process the vast amount of information he was capable of perceiving.  Even now as he was reaching his late teens, the boy’s mind had never developed beyond the mental age of eight, and his eyes remained like twin ashtrays.

A partner to the Doormaker, capable of granting clairvoyance, seeing whole other worlds at once.  It left most subjects incapacitated for a week after use, and it overrode any other perception powers.

No use to the Number Man, but essential for Cauldron in vetting universes and finding individuals.  Most individuals.  There were some, like the Dealer, and triple-seven, who’d escaped.

Two-nine-three.  Incapable of talking, barely able to move.  Limbless, obese.  Another key member of the staff.

No sign of interference.  The odds of the threat being an assassin dropped.

He quickened his pace, reaching the stairwell at the end of the corridor.

Second floor basement.  He stepped out of the stairwell and progressed down the main hallway.  There were rows of cells to either side of him.  Two thousand and forty-eight parahumans, each with a number, both on the wall of their cell and in their tattoo.

“You need to narrow it down,” the Number Man said.  “Help me find the trouble.”

His voice resulted in an outcry, the people in the cells nearest him realizing he was there, shouting, swearing, insulting him in twenty-nine different languages.

He ignored the shouting, instead extending his right hand.  “Is it this floor?  Yes…”

He extended his left hand, “Or no?”

The faintest brush of air touched his left hand, so faint he might not have felt it while he was walking.

He turned back for the staircase, made his way down.

The third floor basement.  Here, the special case studies could be found.  Seven-seven-seven had been one.  They got a name, more space, some quiet.

He paused.  Again, a brush against his left hand.

“Damn,” he said, meaning it.

It was on the fourth floor.

He took the stairs two at a time, moving with an uncharacteristic haste.  He also spoke, more to himself than his companion.  “There are others who are supposed to attend to these matters.  Which suggests the escapee is smart, is strong enough to deal with them, or… as is more typical for the denizens of the fourth floor, interesting.”

Smart, he could deal with.  Strong, he could deal with, barring certain exceptions.  Interesting escapees, well.  There’d be degrees of unpleasantness.

He was still hurrying down the stairs as he reached the bottom.  Two doors, both heavy, stainless steel top to bottom, capable of withstanding a small bomb blast.  Only the Doctor entered the rightmost door.  The Number Man turned his attention to the door on the left, and entered his access codes, pressed his hand against the disguised plate to the right.

As security measures went, it wasn’t impossible to crack, not when one considered the breadth of parahuman abilities, but if anyone who got this far decided to pass through this door, they deserved what they got.

The deviations, the ones who didn’t take to the formula, tended to fall into certain categories.  There were those who had some minor physical or mental changes; they were little different from the most extreme deviations that appeared in typical trigger cases.  Such deviations occurred a mere eighth of a percent of the time.  They weren’t what he was thinking of.

The formula wasn’t exact.  Though they learned more every day, there were still unknowns regarding powers.  Whatever connection the agents formed with individuals before or during a trigger event, it didn’t manifest as strongly through the formula.  When the subject was stressed, their body engaged by that distress, the connection grew weaker.

In typical cases, the agent seemed to momentarily reach out to search the entire world, many worlds for reference material, to seize on the subject’s conception of a ‘bird’ or conception of ‘movement’, to build up an understanding of things that didn’t exist in the agent’s realm of experience.

And in cases of a deviation scenario, the agent noted the physical stress and searched the subject’s frame of reference for something, anything that might reinforce what it saw as a damaged host.

For many -for ninety-three percent of the unfortunates who were so afflicted- the agent drew from plant and animal life, from physical objects, materials and designs in the subject’s immediate vicinity.

But seven percent of the extreme deviant cases didn’t find something physical, and there was little to nothing to rein things in.

Such cases were not, as a general rule, released into the wild.  It would be counterproductive.  They were briefly studied, then disposed of.  The Number Man’s office was in this building because he was but one line of defense against escapees and threats, even in this department.

He paused, concentrating.

As though it were penciled in the air, in thread-thin, elaborate notation, he could see the geometry and the numbers unfolding across the world around him, through the air.

He withdrew a pen from his pocket, spun it around one finger.  The notation billowed around it, and through it, he could see the movement of the pen, the plotted trajectory, the velocity and rotation of it.  The numbers clicked into place with a speed that made the rest of him, his very perceptions, seem like slow motion.

Here and there, there were incongruities.  Painting an entirely different picture.  His companion was here, near him.  Bending the most fundamental rules.  The Custodian.

In another scenario, she would have been kept here and disposed of once we’d found a way to dissect her.

“I know you want to help,” he commented.  He wasn’t even entirely sure if he was being heard.  “You see it as your responsibility.  But it’s best you stay behind.”

That said, he pushed the door open.

If the cells on the third basement floor were twice as large as the ones on the second floor, these were larger still.  Each was isolated, standalone in the vast, dark basement.  The space allowed countermeasures to be maintained in each space.

And here, experiment number three-zero-one-six was out of his cell.  The Number Man knew of this one.  He’d paid particular attention, once he’d heard about the peculiarities, heard about the power.

The man was only half-dressed, his upper body bare, his beard a shaggy growth, his hair long and greasy.  Showers were provided, where patients were able to make use of them, but the solitude wore on them, and few partook with any regularity.

But the part of the man was unusual was what wasn’t there.

One leg of his uniform flapped in the wake of a wind turbine used to keep two-nine-nine-zero contained.  There was no right leg beneath the pelvis, but his right foot was there nonetheless, set firmly on the ground.  He stood as if his weight rested on it.

Other parts of him had been carved away when he’d had his trigger event.  An area of his stomach, around one eye, his entire left arm.  Where they had been severed, there was only a gray plane, featureless, without shading or definition.

But the Number Man could see it.  Could see it in the physics of the way the pants leg moved, just slightly out of tune with the way it should have been flapping.  There was something there, a disturbance.

The test subject had destroyed one wind turbine, was facing the occupant, who was hidden in shadow.

“We escape,” three-zero-one-six said, his voice a rasp, heavily accented.  “Together.  I stop the spirit, you take-“

He stopped, turned to face the Number Man.  The pair was separated by an expanse of a hundred feet, in an open area with a high ceiling, only the lighting around each standalone cell allowed them to see one another.

No conversation, no pleading.  Three-zero-one-six struck before he could be attacked, leaning back and then swinging, using the left arm that wasn’t there.

The Number Man was already moving, the mathematical notation filling his field of vision, singing in his ears, running along his skin.  He could taste it, virtually swam in a clear, precise, organized outline of the world around him.

His weight shifted as he found his center of balance.  He kicked out to push himself to the left.

Three-zero-one-six manifested the strike as though his arm were exponentially larger, the attack repeated in almost infinite variations through the space in front of him, as though he were leveraging every possible version of himself that could have been here, in this basement, drawing them together in one coordinated strike.

Concrete and steel were obliterated, and the blow carved divots into floor and ceiling both, disintegrated layers of stainless steel that sat behind and beneath the concrete of floor and wall.

The Number Man was airborne.  He’d measured the trajectory of the first hit as it carved through the ceiling, letting it slide past him by a mere one and three-quarter feet.  He angled and oriented his body to absorb the rush of wind and dust, used it to carry himself just a little further, a little higher.  His shoes squeaked as they found traction.

He chanced one glance backwards.  The attack had left a hole in the wall, the shape matching the impression that one might have made with an outstretched hand, fingers grasping, except it was fifty-two point seven six times the man’s handspan.

More notation, more numbers to work with.  He could extrapolate, get an estimation of his opponent’s weapon.  He’d need a point of reference…

He hesitated, as though he were catching his balance, glanced briefly at the nearest cell, while keeping the test subject in his peripheral vision.

Another attack, baited so it would fall in a particular direction, not striking anything vital to Cauldron’s operations.  If this test subject got the idea of repeatedly striking in a downward direction, or striking up, then it opened up a whole mess of problems.  There were test subjects on upper floors, and below… well… it was best to leave everything below to the Doctor.

He evaded the attack as he had the first, but allowed it to fall closer.  Even without looking back, he knew he had the numbers right.  The attack with the left arm was the same size each time.  The strike passed within an inch of the Number Man.

Probability, time, he thought.  He was expending less energy on evading the attacks, now.  He focused instead on the possible attacks, the range of motion.  The notation that sprung forth put him in mind of the Vitruvian Man, expanded to encompass every possible strike that might occur.

Not seeing the future, but rather the possible consequences that might unfold.

Now the Number Man was free to evade even before the attacks occurred.  As a tennis player might move to cover the open court as the opponent’s racket was drawn back in anticipation of a strike, he was bolting for the safe zone, the area where incoming attacks weren’t as likely to fall, where his opponent would have to take time to adjust his orientation to effectively strike.

Which would be a fatal mistake on his opponent’s part.

No.  Test subject three-zero-one-six didn’t use his left arm.  He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.

The Number Man ducked under the strike, throwing himself forward, rolling, found his feet in the same motion.  The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.

The distance between himself and his foe was now a mere fifty-seven feet and eight inches.

Two more strikes, sweeping attacks with a fist that could gouge floor and ceiling both at the same time, and each time, the Number Man slipped by unscathed, closing the distance at the same time.

He could see the fear on the man’s face.

Deimos, the Number Man thought.  It was an old thought, a familiar thought in the same way someone might find their mother’s cooking familiar, and it wasn’t his voice he heard it in.

Another strike, this one coming dangerously close to two-nine-nine-zero’s cell, followed by another strike in the reverse direction.

Phobos, the Number Man thought.  First terror, then mindless panic.

The attacks were more frantic now, but that was to be expected.  The Number Man had conserved his strength, had the stamina to move more quickly.

Twice, his opponent tried to feint, to change directions mid-strike.  He caught on quickly enough to take advantage, closing the distance to thirty feet and seven inches away, then twenty feet, two inches.

Subject three-zero-one-six had two options.  One was to be clever, to claw at the ground between them and create a divide, a moat.

The other was to strike.

The Number Man forced the decision.  He calculated his movements, let one foot skid on the dusty ground, sprawled, rolling with his own momentum.

He could hear the rasp as it tore through a section of ceiling, the attack incoming, saw the probable strike zones unfolding before his eyes.  Rolled until he had his feet under him, then sprung.

The attack missed by as narrow a margin as he’d permitted for the others.

He straightened, studied the confusion and fear on his opponent’s face.  Every action on his part was measured, performed for effect.  To dust his clothes off, walking forward at a measured, unhurried pace.

To not even flinch as his opponent drew his hand back.  He was still able to dodge.  Barely.

“Stop,” he said.  “There’s no point.”

The test subject backed away a step instead.  He tensed, readying to kick out with that nonexistent leg of his.

“You’ll miss,” the Number Man said.  “And I’ll close in and strike you, using my pen and my hand.  I can see the stress points of your body, clear as day.  I can shatter your skull like a glass, and it would be an exceptionally painful way to die.”

Slowly, he saw the fight go out of the test subject.

“Why?”

“Return to your cell, and we can talk.”

“I can’t.  I’m going mad,” the test subject sounded almost morose, defeated.

“There’s only one alternative, three-zero-one-six.”

“My name is Reyner!”

“You lost that name when you came here.”

“Why!?”

“Reyner died.  Maybe it was war, maybe it was plague.  But we sent our people to collect you before you passed.  Some of the collectors were like me, others more like you, made to think the way we needed them to think.”

The test subject’s eyes widened.  “You’re mad.”

“Reyner died.  This… it’s a purgatory.”

“I do not know the word.”

Not in his lexicon?

“Purgatory?  A limbo.  A place between,” the Number man said.  He advanced, and the test subject retreated.

“Between what?”

“Hell and paradise.  The mortal coil and the world beyond.  This is a neutral ground.”

“Neutral?  Can you even understand what you’re doing to us?  I… I’m a child’s toy, pieces missing.”

The Number Man studied three-zero-one-six.  He couldn’t imagine any toy like that.  Another cultural distinction, hailing to the man’s universe?

“I understand a great deal about what we’re doing to you.  I could explain the experiments, the effects on your body, as we understand them, inform you-“

Morally.”

“Ah,” the Number Man replied.  “Morals.”

Another delusion perpetuated by society.  Useful, valuable, much like commerce, but still a delusion.  It only served its purpose so long as it was more constructive than not adhering to those beliefs, but people often lost sight of the fact, made it out to be something it wasn’t.

He’d suddenly lost a great deal of interest in this conversation.

“I have a family.  A wife and children.”

“I told you.  You died when you came here.  You left them some time ago.”

“I… no.”

“Yes.  But what you’re doing here, helping us, it’s going to make a difference.  It will help save your wife and kids.  When you die, we will autopsy you.  We will use what we learn to find stronger powers.  Those powers will expand our influence and help us against the true threats.”

“Threats?  To my family?”

“Yes.  To everyone.”

“You’ll save them?”

“We’ll try.”

Three-zero-one-six slumped, “I can’t go back to my cell.”

“I could kill you, if you wished.”

“If I’m going to die, I’ll die fighting.’

“You’ll only make it violent, painful.  It will be drawn out.”

He could see the man’s expression shifting, the dawning realization that there was no way out.

“Did… was there a chance I could have won?”

“Yes.  Luck.  A little more cleverness.  If you were in better shape, perhaps.”  My power is better at range.  Better still as I get further away, attack from other angles, in more subtle ways.

“Then I could have escaped?  A chance I might have returned home?”

“No.  There was never a chance you might escape.”

The door slid open.  He made his way to the chair, a  laptop tucked under one arm.

The Doctor was present.  She looked weary, but her hair was immaculate, pinned into a bun.  She stared out the window at this world’s landscape, so different from his own view.

“That’s two escape attempts in two weeks.  We had three in the last four years before that, only one successful,” he said.

“I’m aware.”

“We’ll need to change our approach.”

She turned around.  “How?”

“We need Contessa closer to home.”

“She’s required for damage control.  Too many capes who were present for the Echidna incident think they can destroy us by spreading the word about Cauldron.”

“Perhaps we stop performing damage control.  Let the pieces finish falling where they will.”

“We’d fall further behind in our agenda.”

“Undoubtedly.  But as it stands, it’s only a matter of time before we’re destroyed from within.  Our operation is too big and too delicate to manage like this.”

The Doctor frowned.  “It would mean less voluntary subjects.”

“Very likely.”

The Doctor frowned.  “And we’re behind schedule, even if we ignore that.  I’d hoped to use Shatterbird or Siberian.”

“Unlikely anything would have come of it.”

“But if it had?”

The Number Man had no reply to that.  He set his laptop on the desk and booted it up.  If they had been able to leverage either of them to defeat an Endbringer, or to find why they had wound up so powerful, compared to the typical parahuman…

“It seems we may have just lost Brockton Bay.”

The Number Man’s eyebrows rose, though his expression remained placid, his gaze fixed on the computer.

“Skitter turned herself in.”

With that, he did look up, meeting her gaze.  He saw the truth in her statement and closed his eyes.  Mourning one more lost possibility.

They’d lost Coil, had lost Hero, and the Triumvirate had dissolved.  They were in the process of losing the Protectorate.  Everything they’d put together, falling apart over time.

“Is it settled?”  He asked.

“No,” the Doctor said.  “But she turned herself in, and as far as I’m aware, there is no mischief at work.”

“Then it’s not necessarily over.”

“We can’t interfere.”

“I’m aware.”

“We have to take more risks,” the Doctor said.  “If we’re going to recover from these last few setbacks.”

“What risks?”

“If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the ‘balance’ concoction.”

“Creating more deviations.”

“Far more,” the Doctor said.  “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the doses.”

“We’d lose up to twenty-three percent of our potential client base.”

“We lower the price.  It’s almost trivial at this point.  The only reason we set a price in the first place was to wean out anyone who wasn’t fully committed.  We’ve supplemented virtually every other part of our operations with parahuman powers.”

“That only returns us to the issue of how we control our interests.  We can’t have deviations running around, or we’ll bring disaster down on our own heads.”

“I was thinking we use you in the field, Number Man.”

The Number Man leaned back in his chair.  “Me.”

“You’d perform.  You have performed in the past.”

“I suppose,” he mused.  He rubbed his chin.  He needed to shave.  “A long time ago.”

“I know you wanted to get away from that business, but-“

He shook his head.  “No.  This is bigger than things I want.  If I can participate in this, I can get my hands dirty.  We’ll be looking for the Slaughterhouse Nine, I take it?”

“No.  The heroes are already looking, I’m not sure what we could contribute.  There are other matters to consider, and we’re giving up a great deal of control behind the scenes by having you in the field, rather than working elsewhere.”

“I take it this is another risk we’re taking?”

“Yes.  Increasing the volatility of the formulas, deploying you while we reserve Contessa for the more severe situations, allowing the public to discover more of Cauldron’s role in things…”

“Hopefully not too much,” he said.

The Doctor shook her head.  “Not too much.  When will you be prepared to relieve her?”

“A day or two.  Let me get prepared.”  He stood.  “I left the data on the laptop.  Funding, the movements of key groups.”

“Thank you.”

He left the room.  His power alerted him about the Custodian’s presence as he entered the hallway.  The sum of a million infinitesimal details.

It also informed him of the seam in the hallway, marking the nearly invisible Doormaker portal.  He stepped from the Doctor’s headquarters to the hallway leading to his own office.

Doormaker had changed the landscape beyond his window.  An Earth of black magma and brilliant sunsets in the middle of the day, apparently.

He moved his Dali picture, sliding it to one side, and stepped into the doorway beyond.

Barring incidents like earlier in the day, it had been a long time since he had exercised his power in any serious way.

The costume, neatly folded on a shelf at the end of the closet, seemed so very small as he unfolded it.

Even the smell, it brought back memories.

1987

The pair of them were breathing heavily.

They exchanged glances.  Two faces, spattered with flecks of blood.

Jacob carefully stepped around the expanding pool of blood.  He crouched by the body, then grinned.

The other face wasn’t smiling at all.  It was grim, a stark opposite, just as their hair colors were nearly opposites.

We’re nearly opposites in more than hair color.

“He can die after all,” Jacob mused.

“Yes.”

“Wasn’t all that,” Jacob mused.  He looked almost disappointed.

“Maybe not.”

“Bastard!”  Jacob kicked the body.  “Prick!”

I’m worried he’ll get up all of a sudden, even with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.

Jacob stretched, and wet blood ran down his arm as he raised it over his head.  He still held the murder weapon.  One of the murder weapons.  It had been a shared effort.

“This doesn’t end it.  They’ll come after us.”

“We could lie,” Jacob said.  “Tell them he used mind control.”

“They won’t believe us.”

“Then we run with it.  Everyone will have an idea who we are, after this, we can make a name for ourselves.”

“We have names.”

“A reputation.  Don’t tell me you don’t feel like there is something bigger, something better.  You call yourself Harbinger.  That’s all about the things to come.”

“His name for me, not mine,” Harbinger said.

“But the idea…  There’s something bigger than this, something at the end of the road,” Jacob said.

“I don’t see the point.”

“But you feel it, don’t you?  The rush?”

“Yes,” Harbinger said.

“Forget the stupid names and spandex.  Tell me your heart isn’t pounding, that you’ve never felt more alive than this.”

Harbinger shook his head.

“We can live this.  Together.  Every waking second…”

“Jacob.”

“Jack,” Jacob said.  He kicked King’s body again.  “Fuck it.  He always called me Jacob, practically purring.  His little killer in training.  As if I could match up to his Gray Boy.  I want to be more than that.  Get out from under his shadow.”

“Okay… Jack.”

“If it’s a farce, a joke, let’s run with it.  We take simple names, dumb names, and we make people quake in their shoes at the sound.  Jack… Slash.”

“I’m… no.  I won’t.”

Jack wheeled on him, knife in hand.

“You want to fight?” Jack asked.  The smile had dropped from his face.

The look in his eyes… hungry.

“No.  That’s just it.  I don’t want to keep doing this.”

“You said it yourself.  You feel the rush, like you’re on the cusp of something greater.”

“I do feel it, but I think I can get there by walking a different road,” Harbinger said.

He could see the disappointment on Jack’s face.  See the way Jack’s knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on the blade.  His power blossomed around the boy, showing possible attack vectors.  Too many.  Harbinger wasn’t sure he’d survive.

He might have to throw himself in the way of the attack and kill his friend before a more serious attack could be delivered.

Or…

“I’ll play, though,” he said.

“Play?”

“Make a name for myself.”

Jack smiled.

Present

The Number Man set the costume down.  He picked up the knife.  The same one he’d used to stab King in the back, buying Jack time to open the man’s stomach.

He wouldn’t wear a costume.  Wouldn’t do anything particularly fancy.  He’d even keep this name.  A measure of respect to an old friend.  Something to challenge convention.

Jack was his other number, his inverse.  The Number Man was working to save lives, and he killed as a matter of kindness.  Jack considered killing a matter of fact, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

The Number Man still considered the man a friend, as much as he knew that friendship was one of those ephemeral constructs.  One of the delusions people subjected themselves to, to make the world make sense.

Or maybe Jack was family.  They’d started out on the same path, after all.

Did Jack know that there was another parallel?  That the numbers and the research with Cauldron were illustrating something else entirely?

The Number Man had been gifted with powers of perception.  To see the underpinnings of the world.  In a roundabout way, he used his power for killing, for destruction.  Jack had been gifted with a power that was good only for killing, but the Number Man harbored a suspicion that Jack was more than that.

Research within Cauldron had included tinkers, drawing many conclusions about how tinkers operated.  Some were well vested in mechanical details, drawing a great deal from it to fabricate their work.  Others had little idea about the technical aspects of what they created, relying more on instinct and creativity, relying more on their agents to draw up an idea of how their work would function.  It was quite possible that other capes were doing the same thing.

There was no way Jack should have made it this far on luck and instinct alone.  Not dealing with the monsters he interacted with on a daily basis.  The idea had started as a theory, but had taken on a life of its own: was it possible that Jack was drawing on the same agent that granted him his powers?  Wittingly or unwittingly?

Did he have a second set of eyes watching out for him?  Sharpening his instincts?  Giving him a sense of imminent danger or his vulnerable targets?

And more to the point: why?

Was Jack, perhaps, in particular sync with his agent in mindset?

And if he was, did that suggest something about their motives?

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227 thoughts on “Interlude 21 (Donation Bonus #1)

  1. For those who’ve been visting the IRC channel, Mibbit no longer works. You’ll have to find a client to access it.

    Doing interludes for today and next Tues, I think. Just to get a break from the grind and explore other perspectives. And in the same vein of taking a break, no bonus chapter next Thursday, unless I’m feeling brave and full of vim and vigor. Back to regular programming (and cliffhanger resolution) next Saturday.

    Thanks for reading, and if you feel so inclined, please do vote on Topwebfiction, and rate/review on Webfictionguide.

    Not to mention that Worm has a Muse’s Success page that hasn’t received much love. Just putting it out there. I think it gives ratings more weight if you actually sign up/log in.

    • There’s an IRC channel? Which server?

      And, goodness, Wildbow. Just enough info to tickle, not enough to fondle. EEyow.

      • Darklordpotter’s chat. If you just click on their IRC Chat, it’s automatically Mibbit and they permaban you for being a “tolling faggot” which shows they can’t even spell their insults right.

        • The chain of connection is as such: You connect to Mibbit. Mibbit connects to the IRC. Multiple people can join to Mibbit, but they all connect to the IRC through that single connection. If one person is banned, they all are. In this case, someone was trolling the main chat and was using the mibbit client to just keep returning, until an Op k-lined Mibbit to shut down the troll.

          This has an unfortunate side effect in that now it makes them seem like trolls until the mibbit link is either changed or the ban is rescinded, true, but it isn’t a directed insult to you/all users connecting through Mibbit, just the troll at the hands of an Op with perhaps less tact than desired.

          As has been noted in the previous chapter’s comments and here, you and anyone else who found Mibbit suddenly blocked are more than welcome to rejoin via a proper, non-mibbit client, and there are instructions on their forums detailing what is required to connect (it’s couched in terms of mIRC, but the basics are the same). If you choose not to rejoin, that’s okay too. Just letting you know the option is there- And connecting to #parahumans directly would probably help avoid the main channel with its… topics.

            • Other clients don’t all share one IP address, so you can ban one user of irssi without banning all of them. Duh.

              • IP bans are a terrible way to go, anyway. Lots of ISPs rotate users through their available IP addresses. So if you block an IP, the offending user will just disconnect then reconnect to get a new one and some other poor schmuck will find themself blocked for no reason.

          • Your typical troll doesn’t keep coming back repeatedly around individual bans in a short window of time without there being the expectation of a wider ban than a single user to remove him or her in a more permanent manner. That’s a very dedicated troll there for more deleterious harassment. Blame the client-server network format that Mibbit operates under that sets up such a situation to be possible, blame (more) the troll, and blame (less) the Op who dealt with the problem that unfortunately affected innocents much like an IP block ban would.

      • I won’t confirm or deny, but if you really think you’ve figured out how things are going to go, the pieces are falling into place and you don’t want to speculate aloud for fear of spoiling to others, you could email me at ([the name I use to comment]pig@gmail[dotcom]).

        Put ‘Endgame speculation’ in the subject line, and if you prove right, I’ll verify your genius when the time comes. :p

        • The butler did it, of course.

          Alternatively, you could always speculate out loud since so many wild theories get thrown around, most wind up wrong and aren’t believed. Like this one, for instance: Regent killed Taylor’s mom.

            • Well, that still leaves the possibility to change the course if your plot is discovered, since you neither deny nor confirm it.
              But I don’t think you’re that kind of person, so we’re lucky :)

            • My money is still on either the Endbringers or the giant multidimensional entities being the Big Bad. The Endbringers at least seem killable even with their ability to completely tell reality to fuck off. While the MDEs stand to be a bigger issue what with blowing up planets in their spare time apparently I honestly don’t have a clue how any power we’ve yet seen could even put a dent in them which leave me to want to discount them but I just can’t yet.

              Cauldron is so goddamn murky that I can’t see them as the final villain at all. Bad guys? Yes. Evil death god at the end of the universe? Not so much.

  2. ” People starved, sickened and died, constructions eroded, even ideas .”
    Second full paragraph.
    Maybe we could keep all of the grammar checks here, as I saw suggested elsewhere?

      • First mention of Gesellschaft is “Geschellschaft, a nationalistic organization”. One “ch” too many.
        “[...] a total of five hundred thousand Euros appearing in six checking accounts with typical balances of under a thousand dollars would be suspicious enough [...]” You should probably only use one currency here.

        • Actually, there are multi-currency accounts that combine multiple accounts of differing currencies under a single account. They’re popular for multi-national businesses and for those that travel or otherwise conduct a lot of transactions in multiple currencies without directly representing a company in these cases, such as a well-to-do businessman or businesswoman who spends most of his time travelling the world to different locations- perhaps a chief inspector for multiple sites’ health safety, or somesuch- A comptroller would also likely have something of the sort. Here’s a site that better describes multi-currency accounting for you to look through, if you want. http://www.isla-offshore.com/offshore-banking/multi-currency-bank-account/

      • “Test subject three-zeor-one-six didn’t use his left arm. He kicked out with the one leg that had only the foot attached.”

        zeor – zero

        DId I manage to spot a type before anyone else?? Woo!

        Good chapter Wildbow, The last Arc has been great, really enjoyed it. Have a nice break! (Though I don’t think not doing one bonus chapter really counts…)

        Oh, and I finally got paypal working so I’ll drop in a little donation :)

      • Is it worth having a bug tracker or something for typos? I noticed a few reported typos that hadn’t been addressed yet, but I’m not surprised given the chaos that is the comment thread.

      • Fifth paragraph, last sentence: prentensions suggested as substitute for pretendings.

        The discussion of dilution could use some clarification – sentences use formula or powers more than once to refer to different things:

        Original:
        “If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture with the balance formula.”

        “More deviations.”

        “Far more,” the Doctor said. “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the powers.””

        Suggestion:
        “If we’re to decipher the formula, find the strongest effects, we can’t keep tempering the mixture. [No change, just a deletion that doesn't impede understanding] (If you need to be able to discuss the ‘balance formula’ and the ‘powers formula’ separately, suggest substituting ‘inhibitor’ or ‘anticatalyst’ for the former)

        “More deviations.”

        “Far more,” the Doctor said. “But we found the strongest powers before we were diluting the [formula].” (found powers before diluting powers is awkward)

    • “Only one person it could be. The Doctor only sent her personal bodyguard and right-hand woman to him, the others didn’t have access to this building.”
      1) Weird phrasing. “It could only be one person. The Doctor…” recommended.
      2) lack of coordinating conjunction between two independant clauses; it should have a semicolon instead of comma. “…right-hand woman to him; the others…”

      “his brain too malleable for stuff…” For information? Stuff seems like a placeholder that wasn’t altered. Stuff seems out of place.

      “Even now, his eye sockets were like twin ashtrays, the boy’s mind had never matured beyond the age of eight, ten years after the fact.” Two independant clauses without coordinating conjunction. recommend addition of ‘either’ for narrative smoothness. “Even now, his eye sockets were like twin ashtrays; the boy’s mind had never matured beyond the age of eight either, ten years after the fact.”

      “I’m worried he’ll get up, even now, with his guts hanging out and half his blood on the ground.” Formatting. Should be all italics?

    • Typos:

      ⁃ couldn’t safely say something calculated to reduce dissonance while reminding the offending party of the unspoken rules, (context implies induce to better fitting)
      ⁃ Geschellschaft
      ⁃ The major hero group in Germany, the Richter, (Richter plural is Richter, but still seems odd culturally. There are other connotations to a judge in English than in German.)
      ⁃ The main accounts that Gesellschaft used to manage their funds (the Gesellschaft)
      ⁃ beneath the concrete. of floor and wall. (missing capitalization)

      • “When one had enough power, others couldn’t rise against them, couldn’t safely say something calculated to reduce dissonance while reminding the offending party of the unspoken rules, be it fashion, money, ideology or something even more abstract.”

        Reduce is implied in context because it is indicative of, well, reducing conflict (dissonance) with their perception. It’s like… say you have this one uncle who drinks a lot and gets racist and a bit abusive, but no one speaks up about his drinking problem because if they did they’d get yelled at and maybe beaten (not a scenario from IRL, but one that is easy to imagine). It’s the same sort of thing there- he holds power over those involved, and thus his racism and abuse is tolerated- Others can’t rise against him within the context.

        “The major hero group in Germany, the Richter…” is perfectly fine. English has plenty of irregular pluralizations, so it’s not out of place. Off the top of my head, here’s a few examples: goose/geese, moose/moose, mouse/mice, bison/bison, sheep/sheep, salmon/salmon, deer/deer, various -craft (air, water, space, hover, etc), head (one head of lettuce, two head of lettuce, one head of cattle, twenty head of cattle, etc) one species/two species etc.

        “⁃ The main accounts that Gesellschaft used to manage their funds (the Gesellschaft)” This one’s a bit weird, but it’s actually correct in that a group can be referred to as a cohesive unit (one individual group) or as the collection of individuals that it consists of. To put it to perspective: “The Gesellschaft play at being villains.” vs. “Gesellschaft plays at being villains.” Both read correctly, because it’s a proper noun and proper nouns don’t need a determinator. You could also use the argument that Gesellschaft is a collective proper noun, much like the name ” Gamma Troop”. “The Gamma Troop play at being villains.” “Gamma Troop play at being villains.” This all said? For readabilities’ sake, and for those who are less into the semantics of grammar, simply adding the ‘the’ would make it flow better. it’s not a typo, though! ^_~

    • “Where they had been severed, there was only a gray plain, featureless, without shading or definition.”

      Plane, presumably? Plain is a flat area in geography, plane is the geometric surface.

    • I think Gesellschaft and Richter need pronouns: “die Gesellschaft”, “die Richter”. Like you have “the Fallen” instead of “Fallen”. Although “die” might confuse people when interpreting it in english.

      Plus, somehow it feels wrong for german superheroes to call themselves “die Richter” (“the Judges”), at least if they have a status similar to the Protectorate. Richter is to “crusaderish” to make for good PR, especially in Germany where everything martial is in dange of being regarded as being neo-nazi.

      Don’t know if this second paragraph makes any sense, just my feeling.
      Anyhow, the degree of nitpicking I’m forced to turn to speaks for the overall quality of the story I think :).

      Greetings from Simurgh-Ground-Zero (Switzerland).

      • I wholeheartedly agree with the Richter issue, but not with the article one. It doesn’t need to be included in the writing if it is detrimental to the narrative. While “Die Gesellschaft” is correct, and even mixing like “What’s Die Gesellschaft up to now?” can make sense grammatically, kind of, insofar as mash-up of languages in a single sentence can make sense, they’re not strictly necessary and might be confusing. Especially if you decline the words according to grammatical case (Die/Der/Der/Die Gesellschaft or Die/Der/Den/Die Richter/-n respectively) or not, which can be confusing for the uninitiated reader if done correctly and jar the bilingual reader if done badly.

        The Richter issue, well, my point is, Richter can mean both Judge as well as Executioner. I think most can see the latter having very unfortunate historical implications in Germany. Unless the group belongs to a certain political spectrum I don’t see them naming them that way.

        • Right, I concur. I guess a compromise would be best for the articles: Simply use “the”. Isn’t that also done with terms like “the Luftwaffe”?

          As with the term Richter: Exactly, that’s what I meant, but you put it better :).

    • I have the same theory about that. I don’t care what Contessa’s power is, there is no way an organization that big, that affects that many people, would go unnoticed for over 3 decades without having serious help from the Smurf who controls destinies. The fact that she could find their dimensional testing warehouse means that some of their employees were in contact with her at some point. They are really delusional/self centered if they haven’t at least thought of the possiblity that the smurf would want them to exist for all the new possiblities that would create for fucking over the world. Echidna wouldn’t have happened, Greyboy/the 9 wouldn’t have happened, and the a competent/stronger PRT might exist.

    • Simurgh doesn’t work with precogs. They’ve got precogs. That and The Number Man seems to be somewhat like a limited Laplace’s Demon, so Simurgh should have a tough time manipulating him.

      • Really? Because it really seem that she is doing a splendid job there. She destroys his facility, and he immediately think “this was an act of desperation from her”, even when everyone KNOWS that Simurgh’s attacks are always multi-faceted.

        Seriously, the guy seems like a standard “yup, i am totally not working for her” dumb pawn.

      • however, laplace’s demon is a fallacy indicative to prediction of events. assuming that separate states don’t exist and the universe is simply an equation in the process of calculating itself. It assumes nothing of separate quantum states that branch. his power must have a defined threshold where it simply doesn’t work or becomes white noise.

        • Every power has it’s limits, and I am reminded of Accord’s interlude where he calculated quite a bit except he missed quite alot about the Undersiders being friends. Which is similar to his whole viewpoint on morals. If he truly could calculate everything he’d be as bad the Smurf or go insane.

    • Number Man can’t be a pawn of the Simurgh. He’s never been exposed to her. You have to be within the radius of her song to be turned into a doomsday pawn.

      • Never been exposed that we are aware of*. He could have been in Lausanne, Switzerland when she first appeared, for all we know.

        • This is true, but that seems like the sort of important information that would have come up during his reminiscences in this chapter. And I doubt Cauldron would let him work for them if he’d been exposed like that, or at least not without their precogs undoing whatever the Simurgh had set up.

      • It’s even better, since I had way back when i first started reading the sneaking suspicion that Annette is still alive, but was abducted or otherwise faked her death; This came about from the description of Contessa in Alexandria’s interlude matching all too well with the description of Taylor at the same rough age. Like mother, like daughter, and all that. Now we have confirmation that they want Contessa closer to home- What if they already needed to call her in to fully active duty before? What if that was when Annette “died”?

        It’s all speculation, in the end…. But I will continue looking for that possibility, and we might end up seeing it bear fruit.

        • yeah im gonna scribble this down in my possiable reveals journal , it makes sense enough to me …the pieces fall nicely into place on it . I think we will both be quite happy if it pans out :)

        • Taylor’s dad spent some time yelling at his wife’s body for being stupid enough to text and drive. That makes it seem less likely to me that she was whisked away by Cauldron, but anything is possible. It would be an interesting twist.

          • We have seen multiple capes that can create clones in one way or another. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cauldron couldn’t cook up a physiological clone from tissue samples, either- Blasto, for example. Besides, it was a car crash- usually those are messy enough that they’re likely to be closed casket affairs, if anything- And you can berate a closed casket as well as anything else. Identifying the corpse visually isn’t an absolute requirement if it can be identified in other manners, and I think Danny would have at that moment been too focussed on Taylor- he seems like a good man like that.

        • I doubt it, given that their powers don’t seem to be very related as is the case with cape families like in the examples of Cherist, Kaiser and Laserdream.

  3. Thi was like a early christmas gift for me , I love the normal story don’t get me wrong but I also want to see the behind the scenes stuff , the nuts and bolts of wildbows world as it were so im very , very,very happy at the moment and will likely need to read this chapter more than a few times to digest everything in it ….wooohooo awesome !

  4. Great chapter, and Cauldron is delusional/completely without empathy to others and some new nightmare fuel for the page. Limbless and obese, made to think the way we need you to think, dissection, over 2 thousand prisoners, they’re creating eldritch abominations, and there are about to be an explosion of new case 53’s. We learned so much. They are in a different dimension, they claim to be trying to save lives by committing crimes against humanity. They do seem to by trying to stop the Endbringers though. Grey boy and Jack have become even more mysterious. Now we know why jack gets away again and again. Now I wonder about the timeline. Scion was first, then cauldron, then the Endbringers. But where does the formula come from? What is their ultimate goal? In lighter news, Faultline is an organization now with all the new case 53’s. If contessa is so powerful, why haven’t they used her against the Endbringers? The Elite are now canon and we might see them take on the Undersiders in a year. So any guesses when we will see Harbringer and the Cockatoo in action?

    • over two thousand CURRENT prisoners. And they kill them quickly enough to research their powers as the years pass.

      • Not all of them. Seven percent of the extreme deviant cases are killed. They all are basically given a lobotomy to wipe their memories, with a few brainwashed for security/torture of those that make trouble, before being released in the world. Though many of the current ones probably don’t look like the rest of the case 53’s due to the “balancing agent”. But I was seriously underestimating the number of case 53’s. They have been doing this some 30 odd years, and if they do this to over 2,000 people every year thats over 60,000 case 53’s. No wonder Faultline has an organization. Even a small percentage of that is going to add up.

        • This does answer my question about why only the Triumvirate seems to have powers several tiers above their peers. And it turns out my theory was correct: higher the risk of Deviation, more powerful the ability. *cheers*

          • Does Alexandria even realize that she is probably the only one in a long line of kids who the Doctor visited before she struck gold with her? I would love for her to come across a case 53 her age who took the same formula but wasn’t so lucky.

        • “According to Shamrock, three in five of us don’t even survive. One in five Subjects are retained and brainwashed so they can protect the business and enforce the contracts.” MANY more die than you think.

    • If you work under the theory that Endbringers are what Echidna was turning out to be (rampant Passengers) then I don’t think either are trying to save shit.

    • This is a wild stab in the dark, but my current theory is that the Endbringers are essentially just Passengers without a ride. They are whatever the hell the things that give parahumans their powers that have somehow manifested in the world without needing a human host. The only evidence I have for this is the fact that 1. Powers are almost inevitably put to militaristic purposes, fitting with the destructive nature of the Endbringers. and 2. The one time we’ve seen a Passenger attempting to manifest in the world, Echidna, looked and behaved awfully like an Endbringer plus as of the last chapter Skitter’s passenger’s violent tendencies would also be in keeping with this theory. The big question is what the heck is Scion?

      • Perhaps he’s the dimensionally displaced sole survivor of his Earth.

        My latest idea that’s about to be proven wrong about the Endbringers is that they might somehow be passengers that were triggered right when a person was dying and took their forms from whatever vengeful or destructive forms came about in the person’s death throes. Like if someone who believed in angels died and brought Simurgh into the world at the same time.

        I suppose it also explains why they’d be so hard to kill. Aside from being pure passenger, a dying person is likely to really want to live, whether that means regeneration or increased durability or whatever.

    • This was a great chapter although it did make me feel like rooting for the Endbringers. I don’t think that there is one right answer as what the Passenger or agents want from humanity. To call them parasitic may not be too far from the truth, although the boundary between symbiote and parasite is not a hard one. Something in the interaction with humanity is driving the passengers to confederate with humans. Something that Cauldron is gaming for it’s benefit at the expense of the passengers. Perhaps the Endbringers are a defense mechanism to shut Cauldron down even at the cost of the loss of all human hosts? Clearly even Scion has some antipathy towards Legend, and the only cause I can see is that Legend is a Cauldron hero. Perhaps the best way to prevent the Endbringers is to shut down Cauldron?

      Seems from the Number man’s response that Taylor is on the right track in regards to Dinah’s directive. What it means to her immediate future almost has to lead to the Birdcage: letting Taylor to join the PRT seems very unlikely and no other prison would hold her. If they trust her motives then they are way too naive. I think that the plot has been leading to this. Even if there are only a small number of bugs in the Birdcage Amny can turn that into an army. if Amy can replicate the toxin that Bonesaw used to inactivate the passenger’s brain region… A swarm of wasp like creatures with that as the toxin in their stingers would be a game changer.

  5. Well, the chapter implies there are relationship tinkers, and jack is one. Who else do we know who is amazingly good at holding groups of people together…

    • I don’t know about that. I thought it implied that Jack has a similar power to the number man. He can find and follow the probabilities that allow him to make the perfect choices to avoid getting beaten, and cause the most damage. I and others have said that it is highly unrealistic for Jack/the 9 to do what he does for years and never getting beaten/killed. Villain sue really fits, but his having a power similar to the number man would explain why he keeps coming out ahead despite all the heroes, police, army surely at some point, and random chance that could impede him.

  6. Everyone’s talking about sleep, but here I am on the opposite side of the globe…

    Anyway, seems like we still know very little.
    -Number Man knows Jack and is the opposite of him in a sense, and is shown to be somewhat moral. Does Jack know about Number Man’s position, or more about Cauldron?

    -Cauldron runs like the time police, taking people who were supposed to die or who have “officially” died, but instead of them having to fight crime across the spans of time and space, they are test subjects?

    -Cauldron knows (or at least is banking on) that the PRT will collapse soon, possibly really soon. Does Skitter factor into this equation?

    -How does Cauldron’s plan for Brockton Bay fit into this, and why does it necessarily rely on Skitter? For that matter, they don’t seem to be aware of any of Skitter’s plan or intentions of her surrender. This, to me at least could indicate 2 things:
    -Cauldron seriously doesn’t know what’s going on, and/ or are just accepting this at face value
    -Cauldron has an idea of what’s happening (assumably the Number Man or someone else at Cauldron can know through their power), but will result in Skitter’s prolonged absence, thus “losing” the city

    • Might be stretching it when I said Number Man might be somewhat moral. I think a better word would have been merciful?

      • No, I think its similar to Accord’s little philosophy. Morals don’t really matter, its simple numbers. The more people who live is simply better, so it doesn’t matter what he does as long as that happens. He can justify doing anything because it all adds up in his head.

        • Yes, but taking morals out of the consideration of doing things for the “greater good” can lead to some interesting scenarios. I’m sure Godwin’s Law can come up with one, for instance. Or even the mass starvation under Stalin. Japanese Internment. The Red Scare. Manifest Destiny. The Spanish Inquisition. Boy, was that one ever unexpected.

          That’s just a few. Really, a whole lot of people doing really bad things and ignoring morality because something is for a good greater than human morality. Like refusing to endorse condom use in countries facing AIDs epidemics and instead paying an assload more money for drugs that manage the symptoms but do nothing for the spread of it.

          That’s funny, because the Numbers Man has this delusion that he’s better because he can see the big picture. That he’s not like these other people all following their own incorrect path because they have this experience in life that tells them this is the big picture. And yet he’s just as caught up as them because he’s focused on what he thinks is the big picture.

          • I wonder if all high numbered thinkers have such screwed up thoughts. Makes me worry what Tattletale will start thinking about without Taylor. She doesn’t have a new goal yet. I’d be worried if she starts saying for the greater good.

          • Personally I think the higher your thinker level- the actual, not PRT anti-PR factor inflated level- the closer to blue and orange morality you are. Sort of like the Geniuses in White Wolf’s series of World of Darkness games.

  7. So Noelle was one those deviations. Her issues with her body led to confusion with the passenger, who wasn’t particularly happy anyway.

    Numbers Man is still very beatable though, in a number of different ways. He couldn’t take out Weld with just a pen, for example. Baseline human strength, stamina, and speed.

    Also, it seems that Taylor’s decision to hush up things has led to Cauldron having Contessa murder people in a coverup. So that’s pleasant. Keep on with that delusion you’re saving the world, eh Numbers Man?

    Yeah, at this rate the remaining Undersiders are screwed. You have nuclear Germans coming after them and those Elite bastards trying to form their own Legion of Doom and coming after them. All those show up there and you have to know the Slaughterhouse will open up shop there again.

    I wonder what happens if a person has a trigger event while dying and does not survive? Would such a passenger come along all on their own, fitting some incredibly destructive form conjured up in the person’s death throes?

    Also, the funeral for my “Slaughterhouse 9 working with Cauldron” theory will be held whenever I throw the cardboard box into the oven.

    • Yet it’s possible The Numbers Man could pull a “Karnak” (Inhumans) on Weld, by being able to see and strike just the right point to shatter his body.

      • Calculating bone density, musculature, range of movement, resistance of any clothing or armor in the way, weak points in the armor based on movement and shifting of weight. Reminds me some of my buddy The Good Doctor with his x-ray vision.

        • He may not be able to just go poke and suddenly weld falls to pieces, but he could probably build up a resonance frequency to just the right point where the stress fractures would tear him apart internally. He just needs to disable Weld for a period so he can be captured, after all; Even then, doing that enough times would result in Weld being unable to pull himself together, especially if you spread the pieces around.

          • We’re talking structural damage, fractures that aren’t just surface deep but strike to the core, and eventually breakng pieces of his body off completely. As seen above, TNM can output some tremendous pressure in a fight. Weld wouldn’t be able to keep up.

  8. Have we mentioned what Greyboy’s power is?

    Also Jack is scared of greyboy so it must be pretty terrifying

      • Well if Harbringer is right about Jack having a similar power, than it took two extremely powerful precogs to kill him. Now that I think about it, I think we can safely say that he is the number 2 precog in the world. With Dinah 3rd, and the Smurf number 1.

        • He’s explicitly NOT a precog. He says when he’s dodging the invisible hand that he can’t predict the future, only calculate the possible outcomes. Given that his model gets better with time, his calculations are almost certainly based on observed/observable data, not data supplied by his passenger. Functionally, they’re similar, but I have no doubt that the difference will become significant.

          • Dinah predicts the futures. Tt takes in visual cues and processes them through her power to figure out how they think. Number Man just observes all the observationable minutae- ALL of them- and processes it all at once. So while he doesn’t know WHY you’re throwing that punch the way you’re doing it specifically, he knows exactly how you’re throwing it and how to dodge it- assuming his physical capacity is enough to do so. Also, Packbat, you should come to the IRC! We have long exhaustive discussions on some topics that having you around would be awesome for!

          • @Rika: I was thinking “extrapolates from available data” plus “calculates percentages”.

            …and I’ll think about it, but I’ve never been much for IRC, or instant messaging in general. With forums and comment threads you can respond at whatever rhythm you feel like on a given day — dashing off some replies in seconds, fretting over others for minutes, sculpting still others over the course of hours — and IRC you pretty much have to be continuously on the ball or you’ll just not be contributing.

            Plus I log on at all times of day and night with very little consistency. I don’t think IRC rewards that.

            (Incidentally, does anyone else find themselves trying to reword their comments so that the buggy word-wrap doesn’t hide lines in the edit box?)

          • The thing is (when Zombie isn’t being a butt) we refine our ideas and arguments by bouncing them off each other. This allowsmore refined arguments in short order to result in more functional arguments to post (see my post regarding Circus for example). Certainly slow conversations have their place, but being able to interact immediately without having load delay is good in its own way.

        • My guess is Contessa is number 2. She took out Faultline’s crew by avoiding all their attacks and arranging it so that they were all in the way to be hit by each so that leads me to think precog and if the Doctor thinks the woman can take down the Triumvirate all at once that makes me think she’s super good with her skills.

  9. The passengers are aggressive. Don’t know why they are, but they are. Skitter’s power wanting her to attack, the deviations like Noelle and Holey Moley up there, the general tendency for powers to be used to destructive ends, the way people like Jack and Numbers Man feel a rush using their powers to fight and kill.

    Also, we got to see that Eidolon’s thinking was exactly opposite of what he needed to think about. The more stress, the less well his powers work. Which brings on even more stress and so on. Interesting that it’s an inversion of triggered power circumstances like that.

    And the way the passenger chooses things. Taylor had no friends, no army to back her up, so the passenger found her an army. An army that licks her clean after sex.

    • Well every power is suited to combat in some form. That has to be a big clue about the passengers/agents. Though I would prefer the term parasites.

      • Quickly, we have to protect the stargate! It’s that portal to other worlds that the rest of Earth would kill for. It’s defended and used by the black guy on the team who is stoic and a little bit at odds with society, and the know-it-all blonde girl, and the guy who snarks and makes jokes all the time without showing a lot of real concern.

        I can’t figure out which Undersider is Daniel Jackson though.

        • The voice of reason/morality, who reads/knows all the non science information, and has such bad luck? It’s obviously Taylor herself. She’s also the only one to wear glasses.

      • Every mind altering parasite in reality tries to get it’s host killed in order to continue the parasite’s life cycle (ant gets mind parasites, purposely gets eaten by bird, bird shits parasite eggs, ants get infected from the bird shit, repeat).
        I figure that these super power granting parasites purposely make their hosts more violent because they can only infect hosts that are under a great deal of stress both mentally and physically. Increased violence in the human population means an increase in potential hosts.
        Basically if they want to save the world, they are going to have to figure out how to kill or otherwise manage these parasites. Which in retrospect… is kinda what Cauldron is trying to do I suppose.

        • The thing is those same mind altering parasites while they try to get it’s host killed in order to perpetuate, don’t do so at a rate that reduces the population of their host to an unmanagable degree. they need them to live so they can continue the cycle, and thus why every ant infected won’t necessarily offer itself up as a snack. Too many and the birds have a growth boom, and then there’s fewer ants, which upsets the balance back to more ants and fewer birds, back and forth in an unstable wobbly hula hoop that eventually falls flat and still.

        • This is a scary thought. It seems to fit what we know of the Passengers too. Violent impulses? Check. Uses humans as hosts? Check. Possible offshoot of the Giant Multidimensional Entities that blow up planets for fun? Maybe check? Great now you leave me superworried that not only are we going to have to fight the MDEs but we are going to have to kill off all the superpowers because the Passengers are going to use them to cause the end of the world.

  10. I feel like some major revelation is about to snap into place in my brain, but it hasn’t yet.
    One theory that’s slowly coalescing though: Cauldron plans/planned on using Brocton Bay to demonstrate to the world the viability of a cape-controlled city.
    As it currently stands, humanity has yet to tolerate allowing the powered to have the appearance of control. Normals must be seen to be in charge — of the government; of law enforcement agencies, such as the PRT; and of the decision-making.
    Battles between heroes and villains are considered by normals almost to be entertainment, aside from such appearances of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Endbringers.
    The Bay is thus meant to show that capes can successfully control and manage a city even better than standard human bureaucracy. But because of several constraints, mostly tied to the intolerance of allowing the powered to assume leadership roles, heroes can’t be seen to be taking control of a city. Thus it falls to the villains to do it.
    Success in Brocton Bay then paves the way for heroes (secretly backed by Cauldron) to assume public control of government bodies with more acceptance from the masses.

    Just a theory.

    • Interesting theory! After all there are different types of people in the world, why not choose the best powered cape to look over you, and then they have noblesse oblige to protect you because you bring him or her further societal power and influence?

      • this is a very old thought experiment in political science, it is also reflected partially in some third world countries run but warlords. The idea that literal power is followed by inferred and assigned power as a basis for a feudal/class-type government. “Wizards Throne” type idea. only the most powerful in magic have a chance to call the shot while the rest are merely subjects. one could argue this is done already through military and/or mercantile wealth, but i believe the theory calls for something that trumps those (ie magic/super-powers) in extreme.

      • Nowadays, we like to think, at least in terms of appearances, that we aren’t ruled by the strongest, or by the one with the military support, or by the guy with the money. Like how Rome never had any more kings after becoming a republic. Just several emperors later on which was TOTALLY a different matter entirely. Just like how the U.S. is a representative democracy where the will of 90% of the population can be rejected in Congress just like that.

        At the end of the day, people like knowing that if push came to shove, they could vote out, or throw out, or assassinate someone who went dictatorial. A few people like the thought so much they even apply it to people who clearly aren’t dictators, but that’s something else. Any way, this is easier to think because the person, no matter the money and the suits, is still just a man. He’s not “better” than them, even if he’s rich, highly educated, and could have you fired by calling up an old buddy.

        A super man in charge though, that threatens the whole illusion. That’s a little too close to home.

  11. Wildbow I want to kiss your brainface right now. Srsly. So srsly. And symbiosis as far as giving in to the passenger would make sense for how the more dangerous parahumans are so much more effective than others. Also also
    We need Number Man/Harbinger art. And posters. And whatever else we can get this deity of a man.

  12. Unexpected interlude perspective but I loved it. I really like the way Wildbow writes thinkers. You can clearly see how their powers have warped their mindset and the similarities between the three main thinkers (Accord, Number Man, Tattletale).

    In fact, the beginning of the update reminded me a little of some of Tattletale’s more cynical views.

    • I said something similar up above. Yay, wild mass guessing. I think the best way to know would be to take the powers out of the equation and look at them as people. Would they be any different? Accord would probably still be an anal retentive ass but his need for pefection/desire to get rid of chaos might not be as profound. Considering Harbringer, I’m never calling him the number man again after this chapter, knew and was friends with Jack he might still kill people. Either as an assassin, a solider, or just a serial killer who can justify to himself as he did here. Lisa is interesting in that I think her power completely changed how she would have turned out. So I think its a bit of a mixed bag with Thinkers.

  13. Based on the similarity in names, King and Contessa are related? And…King was the original founder/leader of Cauldron?

      • You have to wonder what could possibly so bad or unexpected down there that it would need to be kept secret.

        At this point nobody involved with Cauldron would walk away from Omelas if they discovered the whole operation was powered by forsaken child.

        Maybe they have a giant Endbringer nailed to a cross down there ala Evangelion?

        • huh. I’ve been having that thought for a while now but it kept slipping my mind: The Endbringers are an awful lot like the Angels from Evangelion — except, you know, for the part where no one’s been able to kill one yet.

    • Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait. If King is a first generation, and Contessa a second generation… And Contessa turns out to be Annette… Skitter is third generation?!

        • Actually, it wouldn’t explain a lot, if not be counter-explanatory. The later the generation, the supposedly easier is the individual to trigger.
          If Skitter was a third generation I think she would have triggered way earlier than bearing the locker for hours before snapping. The same reasoning makes me seriously doubt he being a second generation as well.

          • Which would lend credence to the concept that Skitter has alrady triggered once before (Maybe she triggered initially when Annette first died? Seemed to be the first noteworthy point of reference in her life, it was pretty peachy keen otherwise, no real negatives. Lack of sportiness woul have meant not much conflict as well, like Glory Girl), and recieved her second trigger in the locker- After all, look what had to happen to Grue to get HIS second trigger. Being flayed alive and having his nerve endings grown onto the walls all around him didn’t trigger him, it was that combined with the loss of those he loved; his sister, Taylor, every who were parts of his -real- family, especially after the hope that he would have had when they showed up only to fall to despair.

            • Double trigger events are certainly a possibility, but a trigger event without powers? Because that is what you’re implying with that Annette statement.

              And maybe I am wrong, but the way I understand it a power bestows some basic knowledge or awareness of the power itself onto the subject. Skitter didn’t run around a year grieving and ignoring her power. Whatever that first power would be.

          • It could have been a trigger event without an observable power, that didn’t make itself immediately obvious because it was reliant on the other half of her power awakening, for example. Or simply she didn’t meet the criteria for activating it to begin with. Possibilities, but not likely, I know.

    • Seems he was more the original member of the Slaughterhouse. Notice that group in the interlude has Jack as the pet killer of King, who wants him to be like Grey Boy. And how they wonder if people will understand that they didn’t want to do all of that, like the Slaughterhouse’s permanent kill order.

  14. So the Numbers Man was a member of the slaughterhouse nine. More importantly Jack wasn’t always the leader of that group King was before him.

    From an earlier interlude:

    “Nice Guy, Murder Rat, Hatchet Face. We’ve gone through a lot of members,” she said, while depositing each sample in a plastic case. ”Screamer, Harbinger, King.”

    I wonder if that means that there will be clones of the Numbers Man turning up soon too.

    On the things the numbers man revealed a few stood out to me. Faultline has apparently been replicating the portal repeatedly which should lower the value of the one in Brockton Bay unless there was another factor that Tattletale kept silent about. Doormaker could close these portals easily. Could he close the Brockton Bay one despite the fact that Tattletale told everyone that it couldn’t be closed? If Cauldron had that thought of power why not simply sabotage the portal in Brockton Bay catastrophically to discourage people like Faultline from opening more…

    The Elite I think are version of something that was mentioned before in the comments about an earlier outline, maybe we will see more of them and not just as throw away reference.

    For some reason Cauldron seems to think that their plans for Brockton Bay depend on Skitter and that she couldn’t be replaced by Tattletale or Accrod or Grue. Perhaps they need more than just a villain run city. A charismatic cape in charge?

    And what exactly where they hoping to use Shatterbird or the Siberian for?

    Between whatever Skitter’s plan is, what Dinah saw and What Jack is planning I think that Cauldron’s plans will experience a severe setback soon.

    • The doctor says they wanted to find out just why Shatterbird and Siberian got so much power than everyone else to drink the formula and to use them against the Endbringers. Siberian’s power could probably have helped immensely against Behemoth and Leviathan.

      • Ha…thanks for pointing Siberian out.

        “In typical cases, the agent seemed to momentarily reach out to search the entire world, many worlds for reference material, to seize on the subject’s conception of a ‘bird’ or conception of ‘movement’, to build up an understanding of things that didn’t exist in the agent’s realm of experience.

        And in cases of a deviation scenario, the agent noted the physical stress and searched the subject’s frame of reference for something, anything that might reinforce what it saw as a damaged host.”

        Manton’s damage was that he was missing his daughter, so it gave him the closest approximation.

  15. So – Jack is in tune with his Passenger and he manages to direct a group of most psychotic an dangerous Capes in the world. Skitter has a strong Passenger and she always seems to come on top against overwhelming odds. It makes sense that some greater power has been lending a subtle hand. I wonder if it’s a matter of luck in Passenger lottery or an issue of compatibility.

    While Jack embraces violent impulses, Skitter has being taking a road, which seems to run contrary to Passenger’s purpose, at Dinah’s urging.

  16. Okay, so, speculation on the nature of the Cauldron formula; judging by the impending Slaughterhouse 9000 courtesy of Blasto there has to be some kind of physiological link between powers and parahuman biology, otherwise his clones would jus be baseline humans. However we know that the source of powers is from a parallel-universal link to the agents/passengers/parasites, so the link is unlikely to be genetic. Speculation; during the trigger event the passenger is able to alter the hosts’ biochemistry, creating a chemical marker that makes them easier to “ride” or acts as a beacon allowing these higher-dimensional entities to keep track of them, like a multiversal pushpin in a hypercuboid map. And I couldn’t possibly have been more Grant Morrison just then. Cauldron has somehow figured out how to isolate and synthesise whaterver biochemical markers the passengers use for this purpose – those are the formulas that Cauldron uses to grant powers.

    • The Corona Pollenta or w/e it’s called remains dormant until awakened by a trigger. Some people that have it have immature ones, others lack it entirely- thus people that -can’t- trigger.

    • It might be for self-protection.

      If there is one pan-dimensional group out there, there might be others. In fact in an endless multiverse there is about guaranteed to be other more ruthless more dangerous groups out there. It would be smart not to leave too many traces of your existence under these assumptions.

  17. Jack considered killing a matter of fact thing in life, and any life he spared was only for his own twisted ends.

    I don’t think there should be a ‘thing’ there.

  18. Can’t help but think that Jack’s real power is over “bonds”, more or less. He just doesn’t realize that his ability to cut things at a distance is the same as his ability to see how a group of people fits together, used to destroy instead of to create.

    If he ever figures this out, that would be a very bad thing.

    In general, it seems to me that talking about capes with multiple powers or multiple classifications is a red herring. Each cape has precisely one power; it’s just that some are better at taking advantage of theirs than others.

    As for the rest of the update, I’ll try to think of more to comment on later. I can’t help but notice, however, that the Doctor is having Harbinger assume direct control over field operations.

    • Each cape has precisely one power; it’s just that some are better at taking advantage of theirs than others.

      That’s not quite true. The likes of Circus, Triumph, Shamrock and some of the earlier Butchers would suggest otherwise. I picked those because their powers are distinctly multiple and distinctly separate as opposed to the likes of Battery or Prism.

      • Circus had a hammerspace power that s/he could pull stuff out of. Aside from that, I don’t remember any other power?

        As for Triumph, “Described as having the ability to emit shockwaves from his mouth, punching holes through concrete, rending steel or simply throwing opponents across a room. Tertiary benefits of his power have rendered him rather strong, with an optimized physique.” I don’t see a secondary power beyond typical sub-powers (like any super speeder’s subpower to negate friction on their body so they don’t just catalyze fusion when they move, for example) there.

        Shamrock “…has a particular combination of microtelekinesis and clairvoyance/precognition that allows her to affect small changes to create wider effects, essentially altering events in her vicinity.” things like being able to affect coin flip predictions, or being able to walk through a hail of bullets without getting hit- Fortune from Metal Gear Solid 2, basically.

        As for the Butchers… Density control gives super strength, flight, and super toughness if used variably. So could self-telekinesis. So could cellular restructuring. So could molecular bond manipulation.

        No power works the same way twice has been stated definitively by Wildbow- even if they’re a common end result. It is almost entirely dependant on the users’ creativity to really make it shine. See: One Piece and their various Devil Fruits for a good example. Luffy has a rather weak Paramecian, the Gomu Gomu fruit- Yet look where he is, because he learns to use his powers effectively.

        • Circus has perfect balance and spatial sense that allows him/her to walk across extremely unstable footing and toss knives with enviable accuracy. Plus a limited pyrokinesis and the very literally-used hammerspace. Quite the grab-bag.

          • So s/he has powers that mimic acrobats, knife throwers, stage magicians…
            Hir power is being a super circus performer.

          • Acrobatics and spacial sense come with being a cat burglar/circus performer. You train for it. Watch the Cirque Du Soleil, tell me it doesn’t look magical what they do- but it’s all hard work. The pyrokinesis that we were exposed to was the use of flame that already exists and was a torch used to flamethrower- Misdirection like Skitter turning into a swarmhost during the confrontation at Bitch’s hideout. hammerspace some flammable fluid, ammerspace it into your cheeks, spit it out. His/Her power could simply be a dimensional storage locker that can be accessed by any space within or on the body.

            (This came up shortly after the post was made by Wildbow in the IRC, didn’t bother to CP the discussion results here as well until now, sorry)

        • Acrobatics and spacial sense come with being a cat burglar/circus performer. You train for it. Watch the Cirque Du Soleil, tell me it doesn’t look magical what they do- but it’s all hard work.

          Pretty sure it was Tattletale telling us what Circus’ powers were, if I remember correctly. As for training, the circus, much like movie stuntwork, is, within certain margins of risk, a controlled setting. Actual combat is not. There’s a reason real life special forces soldiers don’t go with the head shot every time.

          By comparison, Coil was relying on Circus to land perfectly-aimed non-lethal-yet-injurious attacks with throwing knives during his little Kansas City Shuffle in Monarch 16.8. That is not the kind of thing a mundane can be absolutely guaranteed to accomplish, no matter how well trained.

          So s/he has powers that mimic acrobats, knife throwers, stage magicians…
          Hir power is being a super circus performer.

          You just got that joke? It’s right there in the name :D This is as bad as my figuring out what “natch” meant last month after years and years of seeing it in books and movies.

          • The reason armed troops and special forces don’t aim for the head every time is because it’s easy to miss, because of deviation when leaving the barrel combined with movement on either side on top of stress from a combat situation. Certain specific types might be trained to do so, because they deal preeminently with those who are wearing body armor or otherwise have their toso covered (See hostage situations, I doubt the sniper is going to aim through the torso of the hostage just to hit the victim…)

            However, in the case of Coil and Circus: “…Circus lobbed a throwing knife into the air, so that it arced. She didn’t have eyes on the director, but the knife nonetheless went high, catching the light as it reached the peak of its flight near the high ceiling of the auditorium. It plunged down to strike its target…”
            “The bitch is too fat. Thinking I didn’t hit anything vital,” Circus said.

            As noted here (physics of knife-throwing, specifically- http://bigthink.com/users/davidadamovich ) the typical knives used for throwing stunts do weigh in at a hefty amount, around a pound, and gravity would impart a fair amount of force if the auditorium had a sufficiently high ceiling, but unless it hit something close to the surface like a blood vessel, that’s not going to do much damage- As we see with Piggot being injured but not life-threateningly.

            However, you might argue what about the multiple knife throws? They aren’t something that’s possible! Things such as, “[The Mayor] had a knife sticking out of the middle of his torso, another in his shoulder, and yet another in his leg.”
            “…Circus turned to follow, flicking her wrist hard over her shoulder. Three knives traveled through the air, their paths eerily in sync as they nearly touched the ceiling, converging together…”

            Given what we can see here ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji1nBmcKuoo the video is worth watching in full, but the important part is about 4:30 in) it is completely possible to, with a wrist action, throw multiple knives relatively accurately to a single location. If you can hit a specific location with a handful of knives, you certainly can hit a target in three spread out locations.

  19. Okay,

    1. Manages a group of diverse individuals with deep psychological issues.
    2. Uses smarts to win over opponents with stronger powers.
    3. Obsesses over reputation

    Jack & Skitter, not so different. If Skitter goes to Birdcage and recruits Panacea, Undersiders would even have their counterpart to Bonesaw.

  20. Interesting… a quick search for ‘3016’ on Google turns up a PubChem article on Diazepam, also known to the general public as “Valium”… I do wonder what that might signify, if anything.

  21. It struck me this morning that there’s an awful lot of biblical imagery woven through Worm’s narrative.

    The Endbringers names and the impending apocalypse, ‘Zion’, Scion’s golden appearance makes me think of Lucifer, the ‘light-bringer’. The passengers/agents/what-have-you being a kind of guardian-angel. Except they’re all about combat and aggression — so maybe guardian demon would be a more appropriate description.

    Dunno if this is just useful mythic resonance that Wildbow is using, or something more significant. Either way, it feels skillfully done, to me.

    • That reminds me… I was thinking about evil names for Skitter when she was eaten by Echidna, and the one that came to my mind was Apollya, after the angel Abaddon who plagues humanity with a swarm of locust in the Apocalypse of St. Ioannes of Patmos.

      • Er, I believe you mean Revelation 9:1-11 specifically, yes? Just to clarify. the saint less classically known as St. John? Inquiring for those of us who aren’t Christian but may know a little of the mythos.

  22. Like the professor said, every power has a combat use. Silly me. The first bit with the account manipulation was exactly what I expected from The Number Man. The last bit… yipe, not so much. That was more like my guess at what Contessa had.

  23. After re-reading this i have a question, does this mean Jackie boy came from an alternate universe? I feel sorry for that infant who triggered if being 8 made the portal guy a burned out shell. The Custodian, I think, has the ability to clean up ‘messes’. Like as in something goes terribly wrong and he passively fixes it. I’m probably wrong but that’s my two cents.

    For a future update I would LOVE to see an arc like the Migration one, but focusing on Number Man and Jackie, maybe Contessa and Doctor Mother as well. This interlude answered a few questions but raised so many more.

  24. Wasn’t able to read until now, sadly. This whole Number Man thing is going a bit over my head, to tell the truth. Trying to connect the dogs of how his power works, but it’s a little hard to see, I have to say. It was interesting to see another way for a thinker to fight, though. And to get some more info on how this whole world switching thing happens was nice. I’m getting the feeling that they didn’t entirely invent the serum, if they don’t totally understand it. Um…maybe they found it, and alter it by mixing in chemicals, or were given it, or someone as a power to produce it. Anyway, interesting chapter, looking forward to next update and really to next Saturday. Thanks.

  25. Had a fun thought for a Wormverse power while thinking about Myrddin, he did pocket dimensions but what about wormholes? If the cape in question could control the size of the holes and velocity of things moving through them you could get all kinds of nifty tricks, like suction of air spit out as blasts or light as laser beams, compression of offensive materials, etc. If it worked on people even without harming them, teleportation, and delaying their emergence out the other side to keep them out of the fight. Scrying windows too. Even if it only worked in line of sight…I’d have a lot of fun with a power like that.

    What is the category of that power? I’m thinking maybe Mover/Blaster.

      • Hmmm…could be, but he has way more range than I was thinking of and despite the fact all powers can be weaponized we’ve never sen him do anything like I was talking about (though that doesn’t deny the possibility).

        Actually speaking of weaponized powers, Othala seems to me to be the exception in that she weaponizes others but apparently can’t grant herself anything. Thoughts?

          • Whoo, comments from the author!

            Anyway, I figured that might be the case. Just seems kind of weird to me since I feel like a lot more powers are much more directly applicable. Or at least don’t rely on an ally to act on in order to contribute to a conflict.

  26. ” Scion has a penis. He is not circumcised. He is well endowed enough that late night tv hosts weren’t making fun of him.”

    Direct from the IRC. Enjoy, everyone. Metallic skin, plus the way the light must have bounced off it when he first met that cruise ship? Wonder if that was the last place that was reachable for the man grasping for anything to touch on Scion at the last.

    • ^That’s a quote from Wildbow. Had Wildbow’s name and everything when i typed it up, but it was in chevrons, like the usual IRC tag. Thus why it’s missing and there’s a space before Scion.

  27. You know what would be a pretty combat useless but still interesting power?

    Assessing the morality of people. It couldn’t be on a simple sliding scale, obviously, since there is more to morals than good and bad, or even altruism and egoism.

    I guess in most cases, regardless of whom you’re looking at, you’d see people who think they are doing right, or doing wrong/bad as a means to do right. Or what they perceive as right.

      • I don’t see the problem — the ability to sense the moral instincts of a person could easily combine with observing their behavior to get a pretty complete portrait of what kind of a person they are: what they want, and what they want to want.

        At which point, you start pulling their strings.

  28. Quickly (I say three days later), to the Fanfiction tab! There must be a creation of an AU whcih flips the undersiders and the Nine. Come and see the rise of Jack Slash, not-so-average wannabe hero of Brockten Bay. Post comments shipping him and the same gender thinker on the villain team he winds up on. Shudder in horror as Skitter, leader of the nine comes in a nd kills absolutely everything.
    hmmmm…
    This may be harder to write than I thought. Help?

  29. Holy carp. Jack and Numbers, former teammates and friends, indicating a closer link between Cauldron and the Nine than had been suggested previously. I can’t help but wonder just how deep the relationship between them runs…and how much bitterness is between them.

    Watch me wax poetic as I give roughly the same general idea of comments as I did to the previous chapter.

  30. I don’t quite understand Number Man, does he have superspeed or were the attacks of Ray quite slow and without a good AoE?

    Heh, given that Cauldron only takes those who die they are moral from a consequentialist perspective.

    • And adding to that, what the heck does he do against those who DO have high speed or wide area attacks or invulnerability? Say, Skitter or Glory Girl or Legend?

  31. “The major hero group in Germany, the Meisters, would attend to the problem. It didn’t warrant an expenditure of Cauldron’s full resources, not when things were already on shaky ground.”

    Huh. Really? The individual EU countries have their own hero groups? Some of the countries in the EU are way smaller than Canada, but the USA and Canada banded together?

    I cannot understand why the EU would do this, combining the capes into one force is so good in so many ways. You promote unity, you further promote a single language for communication (Capes gotta be able to speak to each other), you get to leverage pressure by putting heroes in cities you want, if there’s a big media event with say Germany and France having diplomatic troubles, you send in some German capes who team up. The merchandising potential is way way bigger if they all work together.

    For example, the USA and Canada had 100+ capes attend the Leviathan attack, assuming that’s everyone that means that Germany would have 30 capes. France and the UK would have closer to 20. Like, wtf, name a single benefit that the EU would have by letting the capes be under the national government, name a single benefit Cauldron would get from having to pay for the top dog in 28 different places. Not only that why would any of the governments be happy about the EU being divided when facing cape threats from the USA and China and India whose numbers will dwarf individual EU nations.

    Can someone explain this? It would be like Texas and California not being part of the PRT but having their own group?

    How the hell would they deal with the Slaughterhouse Nine, or Endbringer’s? What happens if Noelle had been in France because there was a French Coil equivalent? How are you going to make capes from Lithuania fight in Catalan if they’re not part of a single cohesive entity?

  32. The kick demolished whole tracts of flooring, tearing into the bottom of the stairwell.
    Wait, his right foot is there. Is this whole thing his power and he just happened to use his missing arm, or was this supposed to be some sort of knee strike?

  33. Dang Wildbow this was an awesome interlude. Really liked the # man’s views on society. Makes sense why he and Jack would be pals. Waiting for all the balls to drop now.

  34. After months of awesome entertainment i got from reading this. I can finally contribute:

    “But the part of the man was unusual was what wasn’t there.”
    There is a word missing, to form “that/which was unusual”.

    Taking the chance to say thank you, Wildbow. This story is absolutely awesome and i’m enjoying it far more than some bestselling author books which i have read in the past. Keep up the good work. I’m really looking forward to start with “Pact”.

  35. It’s interesting to get an inside look at Cauldron and the Numbers Man is intriguing. I was willing to put him at Well Intentioned Extremist but then he had to remember working with Jack Slash and I lost a lot of respect/leeway for him. Bet you wish you killed him now don’t you? I want to know about the rest of those guys who have such weird reactions.

    I was originally going to comment on how the Passengers actually seemed almost nice with wanting to reinforce the puny little broken humans but then I read some of the higher comments and started thinking of them as parasites subtly forcing us to fight as some method of perpetuating themselves and can’t bring myself to think good thoughts about these things. Especially in light of Taylor’s comment last chapter of her Passenger wanting to fight while she wanted to stand down.

    I like how the Number Man doesn’t count Taylor out of the action yet. He is probably the second truly smart man we have encountered in this setting! The first was Citrine who was savvy enough to realize she’d lose the battle.

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