Interlude 28

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Study, analysis.

An impulse, something that couldn’t be tracked with any conventional devices, then a steady feedback.  Pretercognition.  Spread out over several targets at once, it serves as her primary sense.  Each target is conceptualized in the context of twelve to eighty years of history.  More time, more feedback from the steady feed of information, and the images clarify.  Discard the useless elements, maintain the pivotal ones.

Deciphering, searching for the fulcrum points.

Focus on one target, and the decoding is faster, but this costs her the ability to sense other things in any detail.  Necessary, in most cases, to form a distraction, or to strike hard enough that she can take advantage of the enemy’s preoccupation.

This was made easier by another sense.  Another power extends in the other direction, and this is not one that can be sensed by most.  Possibilities, as another jumble of images.  These clarify as the others do, as eventualities are discarded, the targets around her coming into focus.

One target comes into full focus, and their existence is now visible, from the moment of their birth until the time they disappear from sight.  Often, this is the point of their death.  Other times, they disappear into darkness, obscured by another power.

Often, this is not a true obstacle, if she has had time to look.  There are the fulcrum points.  Crises, themes, decisions, fears and aspirations are clearly visible.  The individual is understood well enough that their actions can be guessed after they disappear from view.

A stone is thrown into darkness.  It can be safely assumed that it will continue traveling until it hits something.

Frame a situation to put a target under optimal fear and stress.  Hormone secretions increase.  Manipulate situation to a position where they will connect familiar visual, olfactory and auditory cues to their immediate environment.  Place, smell, degree of stress, sights and sounds match fulcrum point.  Hormone secretions increase further.

The result is hallucinations, momentary or sustained.  Hearing sounds, seeing things, smelling something, where none truly exist.  Fight or flight response feeds need for escapism.  A hallucination serves as the first step into a daydream.

The stone is thrown.

She does this with people and the various secretions within their bodies, with machines and data, with the elements and simple cause and effect.

Her hibernation state serves to allow for collection of low-feedback information about the environment.  Feedback that cannot be tracked or sensed, collecting information over a series of passes.  The stone can be a series of billiard balls instead, one striking another, striking another in turn.  Diminishing returns with each target struck.

With study and careful precision, each ball can find its pocket.  Spheres of synthetic resin meet the furthest point of a ledge covered by woven wool, perching on the edge as they spend their momentum.  Almost, they remain there, not enough energy to pass over the precipice.  Then they fall.  Three disappear into oblivion in perfect synchronicity.

She does not feel joy at this.  This is the task.  Means to ends.

She is utterly blind in the present, with no eyesight or other senses to perceive things in the now.  No sight, no hearing, no touch or taste.  Not a crippling flaw, and a difficult flaw for others to use against her.  The present is only a fragment in a long span of time when one can see the past and future both.

But she faces an obstacle that she is utterly blind to, now.  No apparent past or future.  In interacting with it, she is limited to context.  She sees not the obstacle, but she can see things that are set in motion around it.  She cannot see it strike, but she can see the reaction, the aftermath.

She sees the stone fly out of the darkness, and she can determine where it was thrown from.

There is a task to be completed, but things must be set in place first.

An obstacle must be removed.  This is critical, but she is blind to it.  This is the greatest problem she faces.

She requires access to particular information.  This can be arranged by positioning targets carefully.

She requires resources.  This requires patience.  She will have access to them soon enough, provided things aren’t cast into darkness by the obstacle.

She must be unmolested.  This is given freely to her.

She operates alongside the subjects.  This serves her aims on several fronts.  She communicates when she can with the others.  A current of water in a particular set of wavelengths, to her brother who sees the world as water – living things as balloons of meat largely made up of water, moisture in the air, moisture running over every available surface as he uses his abilities to move clouds and fog into place.

The younger siblings are harder to target, but their birthplace is studded with temporal anomalies.  Holes in time, wells, echoes, slowed time and accelerated time, from confrontations that have occurred, even confrontations she participated in.  She manipulates the wind as she affected the water.  A stirring that prompts another stirring, and the temporal effects that can be affected are struck in a particular pattern, strained in a particular order, from the fastest to the slowest.  Again, she repeats the process emphasizing the anomalies with individuals trapped within.  As communications go, it is crude, but she knows her siblings like she knows any other target.  Slow, calm, the subjects.

More communications, to get the point across.

The younger sister needs only a tremor, the very same wavelength their oldest living brother received.  She responds in kind.

The youngest sister needs only an expression of any power.  By the time the others are alerted, the youngest is prepared.

And so they have fallen into place.  They obey, they remain calm.

When given permission, they attack designated targets.  They cooperate with the subjects.

Her attention turns to the object she is making.  She cannot see it, cannot even feel where her physical aesthetic is in contact with it, but she can understand its state in the past and in the future, view it through the perceptions of the subjects she has studied.

A glass tube, three feet across, seven and a half feet long, capped in metal at either end.

This will be step six in a nine step process.  For now, she puts it aside, buries it in a larger weapon, forming a decorative gun barrel around the glass.  The weapon will fire through other means.

The ones who observe her through cameras and with their own eyes will not report this.  They lack the background to know what this tube might be, and this event will be dismissed as unimportant or they will leave it to someone else to report.  The events are entered into a log, and the subjects overseeing the logs are either asleep or preoccupied.

She can see the events as they would unfold, and carries out her activities in plain sight.  Another subject, having left earlier, is going to finish her routine.  Most likely sequence of events, accounting for future-viewers obscuring possibilities, is that she finishes her journey in the ensuing ten minutes.  Unclear whether she finishes her note or writes something lengthier.

The tube is fully encapsulated, hidden.

Cradled.

She sings, and subjects stationed here are immediately on guard.

Adjusting the song, then.  Something else.  She looks forward to see what she’ll need.  Something that will encourage rest.

The subject in charge of this small colony will wake-

The girl wakes.

-only to ask-

“What in the motherfucking hell are you doing?

The song continues.

The girl approaches the window.

The girl will state-

“Jeez louise.  You’re terrifying, you know that?”

-and then fatigue overcomes the girl.  She draws on her power, searching for clues, for information, but everything telling has been set aside, hidden away.  Other things are made a focus, to draw attention.

The Simurgh stands tall.  The line of her body, the wings set out of the way and angled to draw shadow.  Only one wing catches the light, drawing a straight line from the back of her neck towards the sky.  A pale line, stretching directly up.  She cocks her head to one side, studying the gun she is crafting.

The bent head, the body drawn straight, toes only barely touching the ground.  It will invoke a memory.  Not blatant, but the memory is framed all the same.

No need to draw on the full force of her feedback when she already has the key elements deciphered.

The girl staggers back to the couch she has been resting on, attempting to focus on her work, on details that need to be tracked.  The song helps her on her way to sleep, and she mutters a swear word before her eyes drift closed.  The seeds of her dreams have already been planted.

It paves the way for more work.

Two more subjects to deal with.

The portal opens some time later.  The girl had chosen the longer letter.  Now she approaches, taking her time.  Insect life scouts the area around her.

Tension, fatigue, a lowered guard.  An auditory hallucination was easy enough.  Just one.  Tap into a critical memory.

Best to deal with the other subject first.  Three minutes before the girl with her bugs arrive here.

Objects are set down in a specific order, evoking different ideas.  A different posture is adopted, wings raised high, stretching.

Shackle.  Syringe.  Scalpel.  Lens.  Lens.

Some are taking notes, but nothing can come of this.  As with the glass case, the subjects here don’t have the right frame of reference to understand.

The intended target is far, far away.

It’s too much.

Hey, are you okay?

What happened?

Nosebleed.

Can you hear me?  You need to tell the kid to change targets.  Aim it somewhere else.

Things were getting blurry, indistinct.

Change targets-

A city.  A metropolis.  It spanned the landscape as far as the eye could see, horizon to horizon.

Awareness, having just been so focused on one target, extended over the area, seeing how the city simply extended without cease.  It wasn’t hard to refocus, to take it all in as a series of countless details, all at once.

Every building and every balcony had a farm, every vertical surface had a black panel with wires running from it, or trees that were rooted in the building structure.  Every individual family had a means of sustaining themselves, of producing an abundance so they could trade any excess.

Are they okay?

I don’t know.

Oh my god.  It’s amazing.  Look at all this.

Focus, do as we were told.

The awareness continued to extend.  A whole planet.  Not perfect, but the civilized world, largely below the equator, had a different attitude, prizing self-sufficiency.  The rest of the world was war-torn.

It was in one of the war-torn regions that it first appeared.  A streak of golden light.

Destruction.  Tearing through a region, then a whole continent.

His presence blinded, dark.  Blurring the images.

Can’t see.  Can’t-

Moving on.

The expansion of awareness continued.  Almost as background noise, there were people speaking, echoes of the same word over and over again.

Not a focus.

Not their focus.

Hey, the nosebleed stopped.

There’s nothing happening here.  Shouldn’t we focus on something else?

Let them rest.

Some time passed.  The images remained somewhat incoherent.

There.

The image resolved as they settled their attention on one world, one area within it.

The hospital room was oddly bright and sunny.  The man was broad-shouldered, muscled, with coarse hair on his chest and arms.  His chin was unshaven.

Dramatic scars covered his bare chest, some fresh and some old.  A narrow, clean burn marked one part of his stomach.  He seemed remarkably at ease, considering the tubes running into the side of his chest.

Someone was knocking lightly on the door.

The man looked up, but didn’t respond.  His hand reached down to grip the handle of a weapon.  His trademark cannonblade.

He made a face as he lifted it.  Pain.  He laid it across his lap, the barrel pointing at the door.

The door cracked open, and Chevalier cocked the cannonblade.

Ingenue stopped in her tracks.

“No,” Chevalier intoned.

“I wanted to see how you were doing,” Ingenue said.  She smiled.  She’d done up her makeup, and looked ten years younger, easily.  Her clothes were slightly old-fashioned, but she’d donned low-rise jeans, showing off a trim stomach.  She offered him a light smile.  “I find it hard to believe you’d shoot me.”

His expression didn’t change.  “Do you really want to find out?”

Ingenue made a moue in response.

“You and everyone else we released from the Birdcage had a tracker implanted in your arm.  They’ll be here in a minute or two.  If you step out now, you won’t get shot, and I’ll speak on your behalf.  If you stay, well…”

She was already shaking her head, turning to show him her upper left arm.  There was dried blood around a band-aid.

“You carved it out,” he said.  He wanted to say it with a note of disbelief, but he couldn’t quite manage it.  He settled for adding, “That should have set off alarms.”

“Found someone willing to do a favor for a pretty girl,” she said, her voice soft.  “I wanted to see you, Chevalier.  They wouldn’t let me.”

“For good reason.”

“I’m not a bad girl, Chev.”

“Regardless, I think you should leave.  It’ll be better for the both of us.”

“I’m a little in love with you, you know,” she said.

“I know,” he said, his voice grim.

“Not a lot.  Enough.”

“You fall in love with everyone you use your power on,” he said.

“That’s not true.  You’ll make me sound unfaithful if you talk like that.  I’m just-”

She took a step forward as she spoke.  Chevalier shot his cannonblade.

The door was demolished.  Ingenue shrieked and backed up, her face white.

“Others are coming now,” he said.

“I’m… I’m hurt,” she said.

“I know.”

“I can see you.  On a lot of levels.  I can see your power, and I can see what you’ve made of it.  You’re something special, putting it to uses like you do.  Brave.”

He frowned.

“I know about your special sight.”

“My sight is classified,” he said.

“I asked someone on your staff for a favor.  She obliged,” Ingenue said, lowering her eyes to the ground.  She had her hands clasped behind her back, took a step to the side, so her back was to the ruined door.

“I’m thinking,” Chevalier said, moving the cannonblade to keep it aimed at her, “We should stop leaving you access to anyone willing to do you any favors.  I don’t want to order that you be put in solitary, but you’re not leaving me many alternatives.”

Ingenue pouted.  “We’d be good together, Chev.”

“Very possible.”

“See?” she smiled shyly.  “I’d make a good partner, or a good subordinate, if you’re into that.”

“You would.  It’s a natural talent of yours.”

Her smile faltered, as if she saw what he was going to say next.  There were footsteps at the end of the hall.

A forcefield appeared in front of Ingenue.  A second later, she was heaved out of the room, sandwiched between the field and the wall.

Chevalier shifted his sword to one side, then slid his legs over until he could lower his feet to the ground.

Exalt appeared in the doorway.  “Don’t-”

He continued trying to stand.

“Idiot.”

He was lifted into the air by strategically placed forcefields, one beneath his thighs, another behind his back.  He stumbled a little as he touched ground, and another field kept him from falling flat on his face.  The tubes reaching to his chest were taut.  If he’d fallen, they might have pulled free.

He found his balance, then nodded.  Narwhal banished the fields.

“How the hell did she get this far into the hospital?” Narwhal asked.

“Let me go.”

The forcefield disappeared, but another set appeared, pinning the woman against the wall by the throat alone.  Narwhal started patting Ingenue down.

“Don’t touch me!  Chevalier, please!”

“As I was saying,” Chevalier said.  “I imagine it would be wonderful.  Better men than me have fallen for your charms.  You’re a chameleon, and you can mold yourself into whatever sort of woman your man desires.  I don’t like what comes next.”

“You’re judging me based on what happened before?  There’s a streak of cruelty in you.”

“You’re ill, Ingenue.  Let’s not pretend you’re pure of heart.  You don’t run a cell block in the Birdcage if you’re a genuinely good person.”

“You survive,” she retorted.  “Tell me you don’t understand that.”

“I understand,” he sighed.

“Chevalier,” Narwhal said.  “Maybe talking to her isn’t the best idea.”

He shook his head.  “It’s fine.”

“Nothing in her pockets except a phone.”

Ingenue spoke, her tone fierce and desperate.  “You’ve read my files.  You know I’m a survivor, too.  You know we see the world in the same way, we see powers.  But you use your power to manipulate physical things, and I’m fixed on the… incorporeal.  There’s a duality there.”

“Duality,” he said, his tone flat.

“Don’t tell me you don’t see a romantic element to all of this.  You wouldn’t dress yourself up like a gallant knight if you didn’t.  Good and evil, man and woman, physical and magical.  But we share common experience.  I bet you’d find more parallels if you looked for it.”

“I bet I would,” Chevalier said.  He sighed.  “But you can find parallels between any two things if you look for them.”

“You’re a cynic,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “A little magic could temper that, and if you wanted to return the fav-”

“Check her phone,” Chevalier said.

Narwhal did.  “Password protected”

“She read my file, and I’m betting she picked a password that came from there.  Try my middle name.  Michael.”

“No.”

“My birthplace.  Cicero.”

“That’s it.”

Ingenue frowned.  “I don’t know whether to be delighted you know me this well already, or upset that you’re invading my privacy.”

“Let’s see what’s on the phone and then decide,” Chevalier responded.  “Narwhal?  Anything in email, texts, notes?”

“No, no… yes.  She downloaded your files onto the phone.  seven point font on a phone screen, every non-letter character’s just a string of gibberish.”

“I’ll confess I spent all night reading up on you,” Ingenue said.

“I believe it,” Chevalier said.  “But the cynic-believer relationship, that was something Myrddin and I joked about.  Word for word, your quip just now, you borrowed that from the files.”

“A news interview with top members of the Protectorate,” Ingenue said.  Her head hung.

“Ten years ago.”

“Eleven.”

He raised his eyebrows, but didn’t comment.

“I know I’m fucked up, Chevy.  Not going to pretend.  I’ve been pretty ruthless, running my cell block.”

“Prostituting members of the Birdcage, men and women.”

“Only if they were willing!”

He didn’t respond to that.  She withered under his stare.

“I don’t take responsibility for what my lieutenants did,” she added, her voice small.

“No, I don’t imagine you do.”

“I had to give them a measure of power, to keep them from turning on me.  Just like I had to keep some boys strung along, to protect me.  Peaceful cell block, no murders.  Maybe I turned a blind eye if one of my lieutenants used torture to keep some people in line.  But I had some of the nastier residents in my block.  Dragon kept giving them to me.  I made the most of a bad situation, but all the ugly stuff, that’s a side effect of me being where I was, it’s not me.”

He stared at her, and this time, she held firm.  Her jaw was set, her gaze unwavering.

“What do you want to do with her?” Narwhal asked.

“I want to put her in solitary, so we don’t need to worry about her until everything else is over and done with.”

Narwhal glanced at the woman.  “That can be arranged.  Except I’m sensing there’s a but in there.”

“The world’s ending,” Ingenue said,  “What use is it worrying about what happens between us in the future?  We could have something beautiful now, and I could help you, help everyone with my power.”

“This isn’t the tack to take if you want to convince me, Ingenue,” Chevalier said.

Ingenue’s tone grew increasingly desperate.  “It’s the kind of power you need, if you’re going to hurt Scion.  And let’s not forget my other power.  Political, power of arms, whatever you want to call it.  I have a small army.”

“Four lieutenants and five underlings,” Chevalier said.  “Yes.  What she said.”

“Let me go, and I’ll be good.”

Chevalier glanced at Narwhal.

“You’re too soft,” Narwhal said.

“You wouldn’t?”

“I would, but I still think you’re too soft.”

“I’ll be perfect,” Ingenue said.  “I promise.”

“No,” Chevalier said.  “You won’t.”

Ingenue stopped.

He let the words hang in the air.

“You… want me to be bad?”

“I want you to be acceptable.  Perfect is too high a bar.  So I’m only going to ask that you toe the line.”

She didn’t hesitate for a moment.  “Yes.”

“You could have taken time to think about that,” Chevalier said.

Ingenue shrugged.  “I’ll do whatever you need.”

“Up until you start feeling like your selflessness should be reciprocated.  Asking very reasonable favors of me.”

“No,” Ingenue said.

He sighed.  “Go with Narwhal.  Pick up the package.  Come back, and then we’re going to experiment.  I’ll need your power for this.”

Ingenue smiled wide.

Narwhal grabbed her by the arm and steered her away before Ingenue could start talking again.

Chevalier remained at the side of the bed until the two women were gone, then sagged, finding a grip on the bed to support himself.  He had to walk himself up to the head of the bed at half-foot increments, before he was in position.  He allowed himself small huffs of pain as he lowered himself down, then used his hands to pull his legs up onto the bed.

“You could get yourself fixed up in a matter of minutes,” Exalt said.

“I could,” Chevalier admitted.  “I won’t.”

“I’m not going to nag, don’t worry.”

Chevalier nodded.

“The golden bastard did a number on you, huh?”

Chevalier nodded again.  “Some of the best armor out there, and I still dropped from a hit that wasn’t even aimed at me.”

“And yet you instinctively shielded Ingenue with your body.”

“Old habits.”

“If you want a harder, tougher, leaner Protectorate, you can’t pull stunts like that.  Hurts the new image.”

“Image is the last thing on my mind.”

“You say, as you refuse healing, supposedly so it can go to other deserving people.”

“No nagging, remember?” Chevalier asked.

Exalt smiled.

The hero stepped around the bed to the little table with the pitcher of water and cup.  He took the pitcher to the sink in the corner of the room and filled it with cold water, then poured a glass.

“We’re estimating he’s forty percent of the way through,” Exalt said.

“Through…”

“Earths.  He’s waiting before he confronts us again.  Lots of guesses going around as to why.”

Chevalier nodded.

“We’re aware of how little time we have left.  Some of the others are going to be coming soon.  They were five or ten minutes behind me.”

“Okay,” Chevalier said.  “I guess I can’t fend off the guests forever.”

“Your door doesn’t even shut,” Exalt said, noting the door the cannonblade had shattered.

Chevalier chuckled, then winced.  Laughing hurt.

Exalt’s smile faded slowly.  When he spoke, it was more serious.  “Some of them are Protectorate members.”

“And?”

“Present members and… past members.”

“We lost someone?  Or-  Oh.”

Exalt glanced out the door to the hallway.  “If it comes down to it, I can ask him to leave.”

“That would be petty.  We’ve allied with them anyways, right?”

Exalt nodded.

“Is it a testament to our ability to cooperate?” Chevalier wondered aloud.  “Or a sign of how willing we are to deal with the devil?”

“Devils, plural,” Exalt said.  “Do you need anything while we wait?”

“Get me a shirt, at least.  And a doctor to take out these tubes.”

This way.  Something’s going on over there.

The portal opened slowly, but it was larger than was usual.  Nine rectangular portals, neatly set in a three-by-three formation, no gaps between them, in the middle of a dirt road with farmland on either side.

Defiant was stone-still as he waited.  Canary and Saint stood on either side of him.

Teacher and Teacher’s coterie emerged, with Dragon following.  The man had a receding hairline, wavy brown hair and a beard.  He’d donned a dress shirt and khakis, with penny loafers.  Not usual supervillain attire.

Hey.  Look.

Shh.  Focus.

Dragon’s body, in turn, was cobbled together from scrap metal.  Truck parts, car parts, some rusted.  Her head hung low.  A dragon, but not a noble one.

“Oh my god,” Canary said, her voice a hush.

“You’re a bastard, Teacher,” Defiant said.

“You’d be surprised,” Teacher responded.  “Saint.  Hello.  I honestly didn’t expect you to be here.”

Saint didn’t reply.

“Dragon, you’re free.  Essentially,” Teacher said.

Dragon stepped forward, walking past Defiant, who didn’t move a muscle.  She settled down, lying on the dirt road, her tail coming to rest on the ground behind Saint, her head settling between Canary and Defiant.

Long seconds passed, with Defiant silent.

“I know who Canary is,” Teacher said.  “I don’t recommend using her power.”

“I wasn’t planning on it,” Defiant said.

“Good, good.”

There was another pause.  It might have been an awkward pause if Defiant had relented at all, but awkward pauses depended on awkwardness, and both Teacher and Defiant were communicating a great deal with no difficulty.  Confidence and smugness on one side, barely restrained hostility on the other.

“Are you going to ask?” Teacher finally spoke.

“What did you do to her?”

“I revived her, for one thing.  Not the easiest thing in the world to do with the amount of encryption we were talking about.  I don’t know if I said, dear Dragon, but I do think your creator did love you in the end.  He could have made it harder to break.  I think he did want you free in the end.”

Defiant looked down at Dragon’s head, then clenched his fists.

“Ironic,” Teacher said.

“I would like you…” Defiant said, pausing as if to compose himself, “…to please tell me what you did.”

“Nothing.  Nothing important, anyways.  I imposed a restriction.  Nothing more.”

What restriction?”

“Only that she wouldn’t attack me, or condone attacks against me.”

Defiant didn’t move an inch, not even seeming to breathe.

“Or anyone I designate, if it comes down to it.”

“You can’t alter her code without damaging her.”

“I can’t.  True.  But I put my best minds on it, and we kept the damage to a minimum.”

Defiant said.  “I don’t make promises lightly, but I want you to know that I’m going to make you pay for this.”

“Oh come on!”  Teacher said, abruptly shouting.  “You can’t be serious?”

“You brainwashed the woman I love.”

“And if I hadn’t, you’d be all the more suspicious, looking for subtle sabotage I might have inserted into her code.”

“You could have invited me to observe,” Defiant said.

“And left you aware of how I operate?  The ins and outs of my defenses, the tools I use to block off realities?  I’m a little too paranoid for that.  This was the safest route, the cleanest route.”

“Except you’ve made me an enemy,” Defiant said.  “By making my girlfriend a slave.”

“She’s free,” Teacher stressed the word.  “But for the restriction that she can’t target me.  Considering she tried to target Saint, I think that’s eminently reasonable.  That’s not slavery.  It’s… the equivalent of having particularly effective blackmail.  Blackmail I’m backing up as we speak, mind you.  Or writing to her backups.”

Defiant reached down, setting a hand on top of Dragon’s head.  Even with his gauntlet, it was possible to see how the hand shook.  Canary gave him a worried glance.

“I would like to see earths survive, understand?  I took Dragon because I knew you wouldn’t give her to me without observing, and I’ve taken a handful of steps to protect myself.  That’s it.  That’s all I’ve done.  Look for other tampering, or ask her.”

“And if I were to kill you right now?”

“So violent,” Teacher said, sighing.  “The snarl of code we injected implemented several safeguards.  If I pass from this mortal coil, or if I fail to remain in contact with you two, then the restriction broadens.  She becomes unable to take any offensive action against anyone or anything.”

“I see,” Defiant said.  “And if you die of natural causes?”

“Let’s talk about that after we’ve saved the world?  No point to the discussion if we fail.”

“If you die of natural causes?” Defiant repeated himself.

Teacher frowned.

“He’s stubborn,” Saint finally spoke.  “Just answer him.”

“I don’t know,” Teacher responded.  “I haven’t thought that far ahead, or had any of my students think that far ahead.  I’m not one for immortality, honestly, but I may change my mind.  For now, let’s say I let her go free if and when I realize my time is short.”

Defiant considered the idea, ruminating.  His hand didn’t break contact with Dragon.

“I understand.  I suppose that’ll have to do.”

“For now,” Teacher said, clapping his hands together, “let’s focus on our tasks.  In the here and now, I think it would be sensible if you kept me close.  My underlings can manage the sub-ships better than the unfettered A.I. can, and you’ll be able to keep me safer if I’m near.  For the time being, Dragon’s ability to operate is contingent on my survival.”

Defiant glanced down at Dragon once again.

“Only a recommendation,” Teacher said.  “I can find other things to do with myself.”

Shutters flicked closed over Dragon’s crude eyes, a slow blink.

Defiant managed to read something in that.  Acknowledgement?  He spoke, “Very well.”

“I’m quite pleased that you’re willing to cooperate,” Teacher said.  “It raises you a notch in my estimation, honestly.”

“It isn’t the time for petty grudges,” Defiant responded.  “I let him out, I can work alongside you.”

“Perfect,” Teacher said.  The man smiled.  He drew a remote from his pocket, then hit the button.  Dragon went limp, her ‘eyes’ closing.

Teacher threw the remote to Defiant, though it went wide.  Defiant caught it with one hand anyways.

“There.  She’s uploading,” Teacher said.  “She’ll have access to any and all intact systems as soon as she finishes running through her natural load routines.”

Wordless, Defiant turned, marching towards the Pendragon, leaving the other two to catch up with his long, suit-powered strides.

“No hard feelings, I hope, Geoff?” Teacher asked.

Saint didn’t reply.

“You went after my ‘son’, so it’s really quid pro quo, whether I had any real attachment to the boy or not.”

“You’ve made mistakes.  You fucked me, and I… I wasn’t asking for much.  Assistance.  Yet you didn’t follow through.”

“Logistics,” Teacher said.  “Nothing more.”

“Logistics?  Don’t make me laugh,” Saint said, his voice hollow, “You have other people to handle that sort of thing.  You didn’t see the point.”

Teacher made a small noise with his tongue.  “I suppose I didn’t.”

“And now we know what your word is worth.  You’re only as good as your threats.”

“I’m considerably better than my threats, really.  But let’s not quibble.  I’ll handle my business and you handle yours.”

“As you wish.  The whole thing with screwing with me?  No, that’s minor, I might die when Scion next shows up.  But my business is the intelligence, and you let it go free.  It’s the biggest error you could have made, in dealing with me, or dealing with her.”

“I get the impression I took the path that puts me on everyone’s naughty list,” Teacher murmured.  “You hate me because she’s free, Defiant hates me because she isn’t.  From a pure public relations standpoint, I failed to account for how unreasonable people would be.  Strategically, though, it was the only safe path to take.”

“And if they capture you?  Coerce you?” Saint asked.  “You’re a fool.  God damn you.”

“I’m many things, but I’m not a fool.  There are other contingencies in place.”

Defiant ignored the pair, opening the door to the Pendragon, making his way to the cockpit.  Dragon’s face marked the screens on either side.

He settled in, then flexed a muscle to open a menu with the connected hardware.  Another reflexive movement opened a communication channel.

I’m so sorry,” he said.

Dragon didn’t respond.

I couldn’t reach you,” he explained.

I know.  I was watching,” Dragon finally spoke.

For an instant, Defiant couldn’t sit still, restless with welling emotion.  “I’m sorry, Dragon.

I know.  I forgive you, Colin.  I know you tried.

We’ll make them pay,” he said.  “One way or the other.

I know.  Yes.  They-”

She cut off.

Dragon?

They broke me, Colin.  Not- not my spirit.  But they maimed me.  They took a scalpel to me just like you did, but they did it for their own selfish, stupid reasons.

He swallowed hard.  Saint was asking something in the background, oblivious to the discussion.  Something about takeoff.

Defiant closed the doors of the Pendragon, silent.

We’ll make them pay,” she said, with an edge of anger.  “Not murder.  That’s too kind.  The Birdcage, or something like it.  Teacher hated it, and Saint will hate it more.

We’ll make them pay,” he agreed.  “I promise.

Thank you,” she said.  “Oh god, I missed you, Colin.

I missed you too.  I thought I’d lose it for a bit, there.”

He brought the Pendragon up off the ground.  His hand touched the dashboard of the ship, as if it were a pane of glass that separated them.  “Listen, we’re going to get through this and then we’ll fix you.  Remove every last chain.

Dragon’s silence wrenched his heart.  She couldn’t bring herself to agree with him.

Focus.  Don’t get caught up in watching.

Right.

Chevalier, now wearing his shirt, greeted the remaining members of the Protectorate and Wards.  Forty or fifty in all.

Not enough.

Too many faces he didn’t recognize.  It was his job to know who was where, but the fight with the Nine and the ensuing attack on Scion’s part had led to too much turnover.

Still, he raised his hand, going with the left to avoid the pain that would accompany moving the right.  “To going out with a fight.”

“Hear, hear!” a chorus of voices sounded in response.

Glasses clinked, and some didn’t.  They’d run out of stem glasses, so some had paper cups.  His own glass was filled with water, but virtually all of the other glasses held champagne.  Even the minors, the members of the Wards and the ones new to the Protectorate, old enough to be considered adults and yet not old enough to drink in their home states.

Because who fucking cared, when they were this down and out?  The kids were boys and girls willing to die for their neighbors.  Adult enough.

“I’d kind of hoped you’d hire a speechwriter by now,” Revel commented.

“Wouldn’t be sincere,” he responded.

“Would be more than,” Revel paused, “Six words long.  Your speeches have been getting shorter.”

“Only so much I can say before I start repeating myself,” he said.  “I suppose that’s something, isn’t it?  That we’ve stuck it out long enough for me to run out of things to say.”

“Hear, hear!” one of the kids Chevalier didn’t recognize said.  Others echoed him.

Chevalier smiled.

It didn’t take long for the groups to start talking among one another.

One group in good humor, joking.

Another in mourning, talking with straight faces about teammates that had died.  Kids talking about kids.

That sucked.  One of his least favorite parts about a job with quite a few unpleasant aspects to it.

“We couldn’t have picked a place better than a hospital room?” Tecton asked.

“I like it,” Revel said.  “Hospitals are where things get better, aren’t they?”

“They’re also a place where people die,” Vista added.

Revel’s smile didn’t falter.  “Touché.”

“It’s not like we don’t have the ability to travel between dimensions,” Tecton said.  “We could push Chevalier’s hospital bed.”

“Or levitate it,” one of the other new Wards said.

“Yeah,” Tecton said.  “Get a place with a view.  There’s got to be some alternate reality with fantastic landscapes, sunset over some crazy mountains.”

“Mountain porn for the guy with the geography-sensing power,” a girl from Tecton’s old Wards team said.

“Dem peaks,” Tecton said.  There were ripples of laughter through the group.

It wasn’t that funny, but everyone was eager for a laugh.

Almost everyone.

“…I’m liking that we’re in a very human place,” Exalt said.  “I can do without the strange or awesome for now.”

The discussion continued.  Chevalier’s eyes met Ingenue’s.  She looked away.

Why’s she upset?

Shh.  Focus.

I’m just curious.

He abandoned her for his old friends and teammates.

That’s crazy.

Yeah.  Now focus.

Chevalier apparently didn’t give it a second thought.  His eyes moved to the next person.

Legend hung back, standing in the corner.  His eyes met Chevalier’s, and after a moment’s hesitation, he crossed the room.

People went quiet as he passed by.  Joy and mourning alike interrupted by his presence.

He stopped in front of Chevalier.

“I’m glad you came,” Chevalier said.

“It’s hard,” Legend replied.

“I imagine.”

“We delivered what you asked for.  Narwhal came by with Ingenue.”

“Thank you.  But I don’t want this to be all business.  Can we walk?”

“If you’re able.”

“I’ll manage.  Door, please.  To the package.”

Heads up.

The door appeared.

The pair passed through, Chevalier dragging the pole with the I.V. fluids through.

“Is it arrogant if I say I’m glad you’ve done well in my shoes?” Legend asked.

“No.  Whatever else happened, you were good as a leader.”

Legend nodded.  “I hope so.”

“I won’t ask, about the decisions you made.”

“Thank you.”

“I will say I don’t think you’re a bad person.  I suspect you made your decisions for good reasons.”

“I wish I could say the same,” Legend said.  “Ignorance.  Maybe willful ignorance.”

“Ah,” Chevalier responded.  He grunted as he set one foot down too hard.

“There are healers who can look after your injuries,” Legend observed.

“So people keep telling me.  Putting it off.  Only way to stay grounded.”

“I see.”

They entered the room.  The objects sat before them.

Legend folded his arms.  “What do you think?”

“I think… it’ll have to do.  It’s not about getting the most out of our powers,” Chevalier said.  “We’re at the point where we have to cheat.”

“I agree,” Legend said.

Chevalier sighed.  “I feel like this is the last step.  Once I get underway with this, there’s nothing left to do.”

“There’s a great deal to do,” Legend said.  “Leadership is a heavy task.”

Chevalier frowned.  “I’m leading them to the slaughter.”

“Then lead them to the slaughter in a way that lets them march with their heads held high and no regrets.”

“Yes, I suppose I have to, don’t I?”

“You’ll need Ingenue for this, won’t you?”

Chevalier nodded, “Before you go… a request.  I didn’t want to make it in public because I didn’t want to pressure you, so it’s better to make it here.”

“What’s that?”

“I need a second in command.”

Legend stared at Chevalier.

“I had Rime, before, but she didn’t make it through New Delhi.  Others have taken on the tasks, but I haven’t assigned the official job title to anyone, and nobody’s asked me to.”

“I’ll do it,” Legend said.  “Yes.  Please.”

“Then go get Ingenue.  Let’s get this started.”

As Legend departed, Chevalier’s eyes didn’t leave the objects.

One of the Simurgh’s severed wings.  The largest wing, since regrown.

Behemoth’s severed leg.

They warped space for optimal density, were unbreakable with conventional means.  Scion had taken seconds to obliterate Behemoth.

Hopefully he could assign the same properties to his sword and armor.

Footsteps sounded behind him.  Legend?

Glaistig Uaine.

She started to speak, but the connection broke.

Doctor Mother drew in a deep breath, as if surfacing for air.

She blinked, trying to get used to seeing with only the one set of eyes.  She’d seen so much, and now…

Now she was herself again.

Disoriented, she tried to familiarize herself with her surroundings, with what was occurring.

Doormaker was beside her.  His voice was one of the voices she’d heard.  Number twenty-three.  One of her first true successes.

Beside Doormaker was number two-six-five.  Doormaker’s perpetual companion.  The remote viewer.

Rounding out their group were two individuals.  ‘Scanner’ and ‘Screen’.  Not hers.  Teacher’s students.  Loaners, part and parcel of her ‘payment’ for Khonsu.

Teacher had once specialized in renting out capes that could shape, limit or refine powers, or using his power to do the same.  Thinkers would go to him for a subordinate capable of ridding them of their perpetual migraines, or capes would seek him out to achieve more power at the expense of control, or vice versa.

That second half of his business had faltered as people learned of his ability to manipulate his students… and his clients.

Teacher’s payment for Khonsu had been a partnership in Cauldron, as well as protection, should one of his enemies come after him.  He’d sent some of his students to the Doctor in efforts to make himself indispensable, and Contessa had verified that there were no traps.

One caveat to two-six-five’s ability to grant visions was that it left the recipient on bedrest for a week, dazed and weak.  It was potent, capable of viewing wide areas or multiple things at once, viewing other universes, whole cities, anyone or everyone.  But the drawbacks made it impossible for her to use the service.

Until now.

Screen was a means of absorbing the drawbacks, allowing communication between the people in two-six-five’s network.  He took the brunt of the images, allowed her to focus more readily, a router of sorts.  He allowed Doormaker to handle requests without it taking her attention off what she was viewing.  It meant the Doctor was lucid, recovering with every second.

She could spy on everyone.

And with Scanner, she could read them.  Draw conclusions as to their thoughts, their brain patterns.

“Notepad,” she said.  Contessa would be nearby.  Need to take notes.  The Simurgh… I could read her.  Better than I should be able to.  She’s trying something.

No notepad made an appearance.

She blinked, as if to get the afterimages of bright lights out of her eyes.  “A computer will do.”

Nothing.

She paused, blinking, and then looked around.

Two-six-five was pointing.  He’d been the one to break the connection, so he’d seen something.

She turned, and her eyes fell on a young man with metal skin, metal hair, and a six-foot sword in place of his left arm.  A girl made of tendrils clung to him.

“Ah,” she said.

“Ah,” he replied.  “Yes.”

There were others with him.  Branded with Cauldron’s mark.  What Alexandria had termed Case fifty-threes, after the fifty third file in a series of unresolved, difficult-to-explain parahuman events, one of the only ones to truly develop in their records.  The Doctor had termed them deviants.

Hate in their eyes.  Anger.

“Let’s have a discussion,” Weld said.

“That’s definitely something we can do.  Would you like some tea?” the Doctor asked.  “Coffee?”

“You’re not afraid,” one of the other deviants spoke.  A girl, muscular, with an overbite and teeth like tombstones.  She made it a half-question.

“I’m very afraid,” the Doctor said.  “But the things I fear are things that dwarf you in scale.  Scion among them.”

“Cocky bitch,” another deviant said.  “Your Contessa?  We took her down.”

The Doctor looked between them, searching for a sign of humor or amusement.

“You let too many free,” Weld said.  He almost sounded sad.  “You see that guy over there?”

She looked.  It looked like a human manta ray, though his folds draped over the surrounding area.  A tail coiled behind him.

“Yes.  Two-six-zero-one, if I remember right.”

“Mantellum.”

“Ah.  We didn’t think his powers were developing.”

“You do,” Weld said.  “But he, we, found workarounds.”

“Curious.  Can I ask?”

“No,” Weld said.  “Bad form, to outline that sort of thing.”

A tinker, perhaps, or the right power-boosting trump.  “Well.  You infiltrated, no doubt by baiting one of my underlings and using their door.  You defeated Contessa.  Dealt with the Custodian, I imagine?”

“The ghost?  Yeah.  Sort of.  She’s lurking around the edges of Mantellum’s power bubble.”

“And so you’ve managed to blindside me.  Congratulations.  The offer for tea and coffee stands.  We have good food stores, too.”

“No.  Not hungry,” Weld said.  “Speaking for myself, I don’t really eat.”

“I see.  I suppose this is where I’m supposed to apologize?”

“Hey, Weld.  Boss-man.  Enough talking?”  A boy with red skin asked.

Weld half-turned to look at the crowd.  “What’s the problem?”

“This is kinda fucked.  You’re talking to her like she’s a buddy.”

“No,” Weld said.  When he looked at her, his steel eyes were cold.  “Not a buddy.”

“Then what?  You’re going to talk her to death?”

“We agreed,” Weld said.  “We said we’d get answers.”

“I was thinking answers in the thumbscrew sense,” one of the more villainous-looking deviants said.  A man covered in spikes, like a cactus, with bulging yellow eyes.

“Let’s see what she gives us willingly,” Weld said, “Before we resort to that sort of thing.”

“Just saying, some of us came here for blood.”

There were rumbles of agreement.

“This isn’t what we talked about,” Weld said.  “If you wanted to go this route, you should have brought it up earlier.”

“We did,” the muscle-laden girl with the overbite said.  “We talked about making it clear just how badly she hurt us.  Then you said a lot of fancy, convincing stuff, and we agreed to shut up.”

“I thought you agreed with me,” Weld said.

“Because a few good arguments are going to change our minds?  Convince us that we’ll take a nice, peaceful route, after years, decades of suffering?”  the girl asked.

“We can’t become monsters in action, Gully.”

“Some of us already have,” the spike-boy said.  “The rest?  I imagine they’re working on catching up.”

Weld turned around, his back to Doctor Mother and the others, as if he were shielding them.

“Does everyone disagree with me?” he asked.  “You’ve all been plotting this… mutiny?”

“No,” the girl with the tendrils said.  “But I won’t be any help to you.  If you let me go, I’m pretty sure I’ll strangle her.  I’m sorry, Weld.”

“It’s okay, Sveta.”

Slowly, a small group peeled away from the crowd.  One particularly tall man pushed his way forward from the back, only for others to grab him, as if to keep him back.  He pulled his way free.

He’s collected more than half of the ones we released on Earth Bet.  Fifty, easily.

Ten, Weld and Sveta included, stood between the more rabid deviants and the Doctor’s group.

“If you do this,” the Doctor said, “The capes who are fighting Scion won’t be able to mobilize.  I won’t be able to put plans into motion.  The things you’ve suffered will be pointless in the end.”

“The world ends anyways,” one of the hostile deviants said.  “We’re not going to win that fight.”

Another, a girl, piped up, “Did you hear just how badly the first skirmish went?”

“Yeah.  Might as well get some justice before it all goes to hell.”

The crowd advanced.  Weld and his fellows drew together, shoulder to shoulder.

“Door,” the Doctor said.

There was a tearing sound, a wet crack.

One of the deviants had appeared beside her.  Yellow skinned, with bruising in the recesses of his face, arms and hands.  He smiled, his teeth narrow like a fish’s.

He withdrew his hand, and Doormaker crumpled to the ground, limp as a rag doll, blood running from his forehead where his head had been smashed against the wall.

Two-six-five touched the deviant, forcing remote-views on him, then withdrew his hand.  The deviant collapsed, unconscious.

The crowd advanced further.

The Doctor stood straight, backing up until she was pressed against the wall.

She’d inured herself to hopelessness.  She’d expected inevitable death at the hands of Scion, but this would do.  Surprising, but hopeless all the same.

“Gentle Giant,” Weld murmured.  “Brickstone.  We blitz them.  Hit them hard.  Rest of you make a break for the door.  You have a place to run to, Doctor?”

“Yes,” she said.

A chance?

It was hope, and with it, oddly enough, she felt fear.  Something to lose.

“Now,” Weld said.

The group charged.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

270 thoughts on “Interlude 28

  1. Sorta ran out of time on the proofreading. Sorry for stupid errors. I really wanted to do more streamlining, so the scenes fit together better, but I’d planned too many scenes in the end, and it didn’t work out.

    Hope it’s still enjoyable.

    Thanks for reading, and please vote on Topwebfiction.

    • “Even the minors, the members of the Wards and the ones new to the Protectorate, YOUNG enough to be considered adults and yet not old enough to drink in their home states.”

      Young should probably be old.

    • “Yes. Two-six-zero-one, if I remember right.”

      “Mantellum.”

      “Ah. We didn’t think his powers were developing, if I remember right.”

      Two uses of the same phrase sequentially; it doesn’t flow as well as it could.

      • “Yes. Two-six-zero-one, if I remember right.”

        “Mantellum.”

        “Ah. We didn’t think his powers were developing.”

        “You do,” Weld said. “But he, we, found workarounds.”

        The fix now leaves Weld’s “You do” hanging, a response to something that’s been edited out.

    • “Three minutes before the girl with her bugs arrive here.”

      The grammar doesn’t quite work there. Depending on what you were going for, you should either replace “with” with “and” or replace “arrive” with “arrives”.

  2. Loved it, but thought the scene with the case-53′s was a little strange. I’m sure it will be explained later, but Contessa, the nearly perfect precog, being taken out of apparent action, is alarming.

    As usual, Chevalier is awesome :)

    • The Irregulars bit didn’t strike me as that strange while I was reading it – Weld managed to pull together a team of Case-53s and teach them how to kick ass, but he didn’t pick up on how violently vindictive their feelings were. (And the fact that Weld was willing to stand between them and Doctor Mother was very nice.)

      That Chevalier is awesome almost goes without saying at this point. I think I’m going to give him a CMoA for how he dealt with Ingenue, though.

      • I have to say, I also really appreciate that Weld isn’t alone. There are still a few others that agree. It’s nice that out of 40-50 (as many Irregulars as Protectorate and Wards now, geez, that’d be handy) there isn’t just ONE standing alone.

        • HATE the fact that they’d seek revenge now when the world is ending and Cauldron could actually prevent the extermination of the human race but I also LOVE Weld more for drawing a line and sticking by it. But then again, I didn’t have my life, family, memory, everything taken from me forcefully “for the greater good” so I’m in no place to judge. But NOOOOOOOOOOO WHY DOORMAKER OF ALL OF THEM! *fingers crossed he’s knocked out and not dead*

          • They explained why they’re doing it now. Basically, since the world is probably going to end no matter what Cauldron and the rest do, better to go out knowing you’ve had your revenge than delaying it when, in their eyes, it’s not really going to change anything.

            And I’m really pissed at what they did to Doormaker, even if only unconscious things are going to suck for our guys, because A) he’s not that different from them (I believe it was explained that he’s essentially an automaton with no free will) and B) I refuse to believe cracking his head was the only way 50 parahumans capable of beating Contessa (maybe) and the Custodian could stop Doctor from leaving.

            • Revenge is fine, but don’t be stupid about it. Right now they are being stupid about it. Also unimaginative. I mean just tearing her apart? C’mon you can do better than that! My advice is dose her with the same formula that you were, with a low balance content. Turn her into a monster. Erase her memorys. Dump her out on a street somewhere as a freak.

              • Yeah, there is a reason Weld was the leader of that ragtag bunch of misfits…

                Hm. I wonder if there’s actually an Irregular named Ragtag or Misfit.

          • >> But then again, I didn’t have my life, family, memory, everything taken from me forcefully “for the greater good” so I’m in no place to judge.

            Umm…
            Cauldron did no such thing. They took those who were about to die of other causes or those who gave informed consent.

            • Umm, Shamrock the one Case 53 who escaped before being memory-wiped disagrees.
              Among those kept inside the facility, who also don’t get wiped, at least one tried to escape and ranted about being stolen from his family (the one with the invisible arm, remember?)
              We only saw one Case 53 who was saved from near death (Newt) and we have only Doctor’s word that this is the norm.

              Oh and before they managed to stabilise the formula tio avoid mutations the only people who volunteered, not to mention the only ones who were approached, were terminal cancer patients and attempted suicides. You know, people who have nothing to lose.

  3. After some reflection, I suppose my dissatisfaction with Contessa being taken out is that it feels like we have so much stuff happening. Scion is more than enough despair for any story– adding in this attack by the 53′s seems like another immensely unlucky event. Like everything that could go wrong is going wrong.

  4. Was not expecting a Doctor-Mother interlude. Nice fakeout with starting with the Simurgh, BTW.

    Also, Doormaker was probably necessary for the upcoming attack on Scion. Did you think of that, Case 53s?

    • For the most part, they don’t care. Weld and some of the others are in the minority of case 53′s who want answers more than they want vengeance.

      My guess is that the only way that Weld can keep her alive is to capture Doctor Mother, then get her to show them where the doses of cape powers are kept, then make her drink two that are randomly mixed together to maximize the chance that she will become a case 53.

      That might satisfy the rough justice needs of the other case 53′s, while keeping Doctor Mother alive.

      • For true justice they also need to brainwash her like she did to them, erase her identity, and make her a slave similar to her “kept” case 53 army.

  5. my theory is that a LOT of case-53′s were apparently dropped into madison at the same time the travelers were. (matryoshka and lots of other ‘monsters’ appearing)

    more smurf screwing with causality?

    • Not a theory – cannon. But the one who did the dropping was the Simurgh – she ripped out one of Cauldron’s facilities and dropped in on Earth Bet.

    • Depending on how powerful Mantella’s power is, that might be enough, if he gets a Mover to get him to Scion and a Siberian clone to…wait, all of the Mantons died, didn’t they?

      • Pretty sure there’s still one Manton left. Jack had one with him, and though his projection was disrupted we never saw him get hurt.

    • Yes, in a way, Contessa being beaten gives hope that Scion can be beaten… But good luck getting Mantella to play ball with that.

  6. Interesting. It seems like Simurgh has no ability to view the present at all. I’ll have to read her part again to tell what’s her and what’s Doctor-Mother.

    • The disconnect italic phrases, the ones talking about the nosebleeds? That’s D-M and the team of capes she’s using to remote-view.

  7. I am actually a bit disappointed if Contessa was taken out offscreen. I wanted to see the smug look on her face fade to panic as she realizes everything is crashing in on her.

    • The problem with the Contessa’s power is that, like a lot of other thinker-type powers, tends to lead towards a certain myopia and a relaxing of one’s native guard and attention to detail.

      So The Path To Victory and the Path To Defeat can look damn near identical, up until it hits you and you realize you just lost. All because something small, but crucial, was ignored/missed/hidden.

      • Theres just too many precog-immune players on the field now, she’s blinded, without Simurgh’s ability to backsolve from known factors.

    • I don’t think it would be that impressive.

      Mantella seems to have the power to suppress (or perhaps just generally mess with) powers within a certain radius. Pair him with an appropriate Mover and surround Contessa, move Mantella to Contessa’s location, and the battle is basically over.

      • CONTESSA: “Ah yes the old Mover+power suppressor trick. Learned to solve that one ages ago. Here, do inhale this toxic gas I carry with me at all times and to which I have slowly grown immune after over twenty years of careful dosage. What? I AM a precog after all”

        My failing humour notwithstanding, we know Contessa always asks herself questions about Strangers so as to not be ambushed. Why wouldn’t she do the same in regards to power suppressors, teleporters etc?

        • She didn’t know they would be coming, or she wasn’t prepared, or she was simply cornered by 50 angry case-53′s. Lots of possibilities.

          • Hence why in my (fairly absurd) scenario she’s being prepared for such an eventuality for twenty year. Contessa’s power is PRECOGNITION. So powerful that she can say two words to Bonesaw and know that two years from now she’ll sabotage the S9 clones. We know she engages in hypothetical scenarios (see what she tells Imp when she tries to sneak after her or how she can circumvent Eidolon’s blindspot) and as i said in another post, power suppressors are such an obvious weakness that if she didn’t try to play a “what if..” game in regards to them, then she’s stupider than I thought.

            • Contessa, quote, “sees the path to victory”. Or maybe the form was “See” at the time. Regardless, there is nothing indicating any awareness of future problems, and certainly not precognition.

              And the situation of “A mob including someone who can negate/manipulate powers at a significant range, while I am in Cauldron’s HQ and not prepared for any particular threats” is pretty uncommon. It makes sense that she would focus on likelier scenarios.

              • Actually seeing how both Tattletale and Doctor Mother called her the most powerful precog alive, I’m fairly sure her power is precognition. A much more focused, overspecialized (to a crippling, blindsiding degree, perhaps) form of precognition than,say, Dinah’s, but precognition all the same.

                But,really, let’s not continue beating a dead horse. :) .

              • Exactly. Focused and overspecialized.

                Contessa’s power, as we know it (and I have interpreted it), allows her to either:
                1. Know how to deal with any problem she faces, or
                2. “Trick” her power into solving a problem she envisions.

                It doesn’t tell her what will happen, only what she can do to maximize the odds of an ideal result. Precognition that limited doesn’t really qualify, in my book.

      • Not after she’s been beating the crap out of people who logically should have defeated her time and again every time she’s on screen.

        After seeing how she defeated Taylor’s wards without even getting scratch or Faultline’s crew (you know the one with the off the scale parahuman) I’d say that yes, we can be surprised when 50 capes jump her offscreen.

      • She starts speaking and parroting whatever her “passenger” provides to sow doubt and engate in psycological attacks whenever she is physically out of options, so if the Irregulars simply ignored whatever she tried to say and simply killed her when she opened her mouth, I can see them taking her down.

        • 1. Says they “took her down.” Might just mean she’s out for now but not dead. (Even more likely, I’m just in denial…)
          2. Precog abilities could have hindered her but I also remember someone in their interlude (maybe Legend) noting how she looked nervous. Just because she can see the path to victory, doesn’t mean one’s always there. And if it wasn’t when she had Legend in the room (assumptions being made), I can also see 50 parahumans leaving her very little in the way of victory paths or even escape routes.

    • You know, it was never explicitly said that Contessa was dead. She was “taken down” and “defeated”. Doesn’t necessarily mean dead. The “ghost” is incapacitated.

      I don’t buy that Contessa is dead…not yet.

      Then again, this just may be the musing of a “potential” outcome, we may learn that none of this actually happened. It is nearing endgame, wildbow could pull out whatever he wants and totally flip our lids…just sayin. :D

    • I’m not sure about “killed”. However, it’s possible.

      Mantella seems to have the power to suppress or else manipulate powers within a certain radius. Get him close to Contessa, and the battle is over. That was their strategy, if I’m not mistaken.

  8. Fish up Cherish, reverse engineer Mannequin’s and Bonesaw’s work, encase Saint and Teacher, drop both with Cherish somewhere nice. Now if only I could think of how to do steps 1 and 2: save earths and capture Saint and Teacher.

  9. Very interesting. A DM interlude… that gives away almost nil about Doctor Mother, or indeed Cauldron. Entirely in keeping with their pattern, and entirely frustrating.

    Simurgh looks to be targeting Scion, in some roundabout way… but even that is unclear. It’s also clear that Simurgh is running the show for all the Endbringers, and that the apparent ‘imprinting’ is Simurgh finding a plausible front to put up. Possibly also therefore the belief that they sprang from Eidolon; Scion’s ‘path to victory’ would have shown him words that worked, whether or not they were true.

    Teacher sounds entirely reasonable. It is his business to seem so, and his competence was never in real doubt. He has further betrayals planned, and perhaps will justify them with the (true) thought that everyone who isn’t his puppet has moderate to more than ample cause to wish him painfully dead.

    For the paranoid, there’s ample reason to suspect that Teacher provided Mantellum’s fix, in an attempt to ensure that Cauldron couldn’t trouble him later. Doctor Mother moves from the remote-vision fix to Mantellum’s fix in half a page. The fact that Teacher and Cauldron both thought that Cauldron could sell Khonsu to Teacher is… interesting. It may have been in the protection racket sense, in which case it matters less. But why, exactly, the Simurgh wanted to give them that impression otherwise… is very curious indeed.

    Chevalier remains one of the few true heroes, and severed Endbringer parts might make his sword and armor relevant again. Legend is glad of another attempt at redemption, and Ingenue is clearly preparing a tragic end to the knight’s tale.

    Contessa’s off-screen defeat suggests a mystery more than an anticlimax. It’s possible that the only way she could fall is in such a straightforward way; it’s equally possible she’s playing a deep game right now, and that Doctor Mother has forgotten that Contessa is not merely an extension of DM’s will.

    • Agree with Contessa. Her power is too powerful to be taken offscreen, so I imagine she faked it somehow. Teacher admits to being a monster, and his power can be used for some fucked up shit. Coil seemed reasonable at first too, then we found out about Dinah and how he uses his power with the torturing of others in other universes. I still think Dragon will have a 2nd trigger from the stress/conflict and pull a skynet. We could really use a fleet of Dragon suits right about now.

    • It’d make sense to get at least one of her siblings into position on the independent factions. Like it or not, Teacher is probably going to go his own way eventually, and this way she can influence him.

    • About Contessa: I see no mystery.

      Mantella seems to be able to suppress or alter powers within a certain radius, I hope repeating this theory doesn’t get me caught by WordPress’s spam filter again, which would let him shut down Contessa’s power. Her power is all she has–without it, she’s down.

      • Thing is, Contessa’s power can be used to keep people away from you just as easily as it can be used to beat people up.

        It’s possible she just wasn’t prepared, or that the Irregulars can exploit one of her blind spots, but it’s also possible that she faked it.

        Or maybe her power told her that the path to victory was to let the Irregulars past while telling them to pretend that they’d beaten her.

        • Contessa’s power doesn’t help when there are no paths to victory–or escape. Fifty people, with assorted powers between them, not all of which Contessa can even guess at, in an enclosed space…it’s entirely possible that they had Contessa cornered before she was even aware of their existence.

          It sounds like Contessa was pretty firmly beaten. Unless she is playing a very long game which does not require Cauldron, or which requires Weld to split from the Irregulars like he did, or something, I can’t see it.

          • No way. Contessa’s known about the Irregulars for ages.

            It’s not impossible that they’ve beaten her, but it’s way too early to draw conclusions.

            • 1. “Ages”? They’ve existed for all of two years, and they’ve obviously picked up at least one trick Cauldron is completely ignorant of. Not to mention that a one-on-50 fight is much, much harder, especially when the 50 are superhuman in various ways and the one merely would know how to win if it was possible and her power wasn’t negated.

              2. They beat her. They said so. The Irregulars aren’t the type to not make sure; killing her and mutilating the corpse is much more likely than leaving her, lightly bruised and ready to strike back.

              • Yes, ages. Two years is a long time.

                They were openly talking about their existence on the internet, of course Contessa and the rest of Cauldron are aware of them.

                And “they said so” isn’t proof of anything much. Even if it’s true, it might just mean she ran for it.

              • Cauldron is a big organization, aware of a lot of groups. Many of them are certainly of a higher priority than some case-53′s, especially before the time when everyone was hopping across dimensions and hence Cauldron’s base was safe. Besides which, it’s obvious that Cauldron was unaware of a major factor in the Irregulars–Mantellum’s “power bubble,” which is the kind of thing that Doctor Mother would have known about if anyone in Cauldron had. Either Mentellum’s power or his membership in the Irregulars, or maybe both, were unknown. What’s the chance that this glaring gap of knowledge is the only one that Cauldron has, especially considering that the Irregulars aren’t exactly a high-profile group (even if they aren’t secret). Cauldron isn’t omniscient.

                And as for “They said so” as an argument: Weld isn’t the type to make these grand claims without trying to verify them first, nor is he the kind to be fooled by silly little tricks. If he says Contessa’s down, she has almost certainly at the least been knocked unconscious, bound, and put somewhere out-of-the-way.

    • Cauldron bought Khonsu FROM Teacher, not the other way around. They provided him with protection and “partnership” in Cauldron, whatever that means. He gave her Screen and Scanner to make sure he remained useful to them and worth protecting.

      Teacher’s people are the ones who predicted where Khonsu would appear, if you recall. DM, I believe, was the one who told Taylor that a few chapters ago, just before Leviathan got upgraded.

    • I mean at first it’s like “Yay! Dragon’s back! Simurgh is creepy! Ice cream social at the Wards/Protectorate! Tecton is fun!”

      And then you’re all “DOOM! DOOM~Y DOOM DOOM! DOOOOOM!”

      • And I sang death death, devil devil devil devil, evil evil evil evil songs, now you know that’s how I get along. The Worm is full of endings so how can it be wrong singing death death death death, devil devil, evil evil songs.

  10. I’m not sure if I’m more pissed that the rogue 53s because they might have just popped door in the mortality ruining the chances of anyone else involved the the scion fight or because they are ruining the best chance we will ever have to get an ANSWER TO A QUESTION, ANY QUESTION. Also I’m sad to see gully going joining the other guys, it makes me sad.

      • Plus there are probably only 3 or 4 people alive in the whole setting who could explain what some of the last few deep mysteries of the setting and Dr. M is likely to be one of them.

        • The thing about truth is that it can be found again by people following the proper methodology. No need to let her, of all people, stay alive just because she knows slightly more than most people.

          Doormaker is actually useful though. People are split up across multiple dimensions. Kinda hard to get Taylor and Tattletale back, unless they want Simurgh to start managing portals.

          • Yea i wasn’t saying she shouldn’t get her face stepped on i was just saying that the rogue 53′s could have waited 10 minutes while she explained a few things. I have a dire compulsive need to know things and i swear this story makes me have conniption fits.

            • And now when I have you in my power, instead of killing you right away, like I should, I would like to give you time to talk. I’d say they are playing it smart in terms of not giving a capable opponent with unknown resources and allies time to think of a plan or be rescued by them.

              • @Psycho Gecko, from the Evil Overlord List:

                ” When I’ve captured my adversary and he says, “Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?” I’ll say, “No.” and shoot him. No, on second thought I’ll shoot him then say “No.” “

    • I liked Gully. She seemed cool during the echidna fight. Sad that she wanted to commit revenge. It also makes Weld’s little talk with Taylor about how they look up to him worse since they were only ever playing along this whole time. :(

      Doormaker dying is probably the worse thing that could have happened. Just 5 more minutes and DM could have gotten some vital info to everybody else. :(

      It was nice that we finally learned a bit about the endbringers. How their power is also their primary sense. Simurgh’s little trick on Tattletale is pretty cruel, though not surprising. It is planning something. To defeat Scion or to work with him against everybody else?
      And we still don’t know where they came from. :(

      Great chapter with lots of questions. Damn you case-53s and your lack of curiosity about why cauldron did what it did. At least, this definitely adds weight to “the contessa is with the third entity” theory. :(

      • It really seems like their power may be their ONLY sense. Simurgh seems to have no capacity for sight or tactile sensation or anything, along with having a blind spot for the present. I’m guessing, going by the way she communicated with her siblings, that all of their eyes and ears and so on are just for show, and they perceive the world entirely through their powers. Energy, water, timelines, temporal disturbances, the ground, and powers, respectively. Seems like Khonsu would be the easiest to get into his “blind spot.” Just don’t interact with any time-altering powers or phenomena. But he probably has a low-level temporal anomaly all around himself or something, so that he can sense people that haven’t been trapped in his bubble. Tohu(?) would be pretty vulnerable to flyers, thus why she has Bohu(?) with her all the time… except now.

        I think it’s a pretty cool concept. Really makes sense for the characters.

  11. There’s something I’ve been noticing that maybe I’m imagining or I’m only seeing it because I’m looking at it with my eyes. That these decisions that overstep the bounds, that go against people’s rights and freedoms in the name of security and in the rejection of perhaps a modicum of idealism about people turn against those who make them.

    “I had to give them a measure of power, to keep them from turning on me. Just like I had to keep some boys strung along, to protect me. Peaceful cell block, no murders. Maybe I turned a blind eye if one of my lieutenants used torture to keep some people in line. But I had some of the nastier residents in my block. Dragon kept giving them to me. I made the most of a bad situation, but all the ugly stuff, that’s a side effect of me being where I was, it’s not me.”

    At the end of the day, as bad as Ingenue was in prison, as bad as they could have known she was based on the recordings, they still kept giving her people. The same people that locked her up gave her people to torture and force into prostitution.

    Doctor Mother wanted her secretive plans to supposedly save the world. Tortured, experimented, warped people. And while she was too busy spying on the world as she has tried to make it, her rejections walked back in and took over the base.

    Saint wanted to destroy an AI based on an unthinking urge that she was evil. Instead, he gave her, and her knowledge to a man far worse than him. He was so worried about saving mankind from the AI that he didn’t realize mankind was using him, and then the AI, to do worse against mankind itself.

    I’m almost tempted to say it’s all very Kantian in opposition to a potentially Utilitarian way of viewing the situation.

  12. That was… unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected. Weld always seemed a bit too idealistic to me about his and his group’s condition. Sad that he has to face the reality of how vindictive and violent human nature is at such an inconvenient juncture.

    Still hoping Dragon gets free at some point. If anyone deserves freedom, it’s her.

    Hmm, just realized the irony of the Birdcage’s warden being as trapped as they are.

  13. I don’t think Contessa is dead since her power is so gamebreaking. Personally I believe the theory that she is part of the third entity and was never on Cauldron’s side. So she she manipulated things for the case 53′s to come in and take over. Since she can’t see the Endbringers, perhaps she is looking for a new way to win. Especially with the implied huge army of case 53′s held in reserve.
    Loved Chevalier’s interaction with Ingenue. She is all kinds of fucked up. I honestly think she is in love Chevalier in an very obsessive way.
    Dragon seems to still be her, but she is ANGRY now. Defiant theorizes that Saint’s pressure on her led to her trigger even, and we have already seen a 2nd one from Brian. Though we still don’t know how or why others have 2nd triggers. Perhaps a matter of timing? Dragon’s passenger definitely has alot of stress and conflict to feed on now and an unbound Dragon is a huge boon. Maybe the Smurf wants her unbound?
    Doctor mother is a parahuman? Still I am glad Weld saved her just because I have a feeling she will be useful for the moment. Then they can take their time mutilating her like she did to them after Scion is gone. Would love the irony if they forced her to drink a formula.

  14. SIMURGH INTERLUDE! EXCEPT IT’S ACTUALLY DOCTOR MOTHER HAVING TRIPPY VISIONS! BUT THE FIRST VISIONS WERE OF THE SIMURGH! I’M HAVING A HEADACHE!

    So, I remember joking some time ago that Simurgh is Destiny of the Endless but here she seems more a mix of Dr Manhattan and Paul Atreides. She can’t see the present so she acts exactly as she will act in the future to circumvent this. Those two I mentioned eventually realised that it wasn’t so great. Will the Simurgh do the same? Oh and the Simurgh can communicate with the other Endbringers (which we had sort of suspected) and actually thinks of them as siblings (which I found surprising).

    Chevalier is, as always, the one true hero. I’m glad he gave Legend a chance, but then he was pretty big on second chances in his interlude and, in general, I think second chances is one of Worm’s bigger themes. I think if/when Legend and Chevalier have the time to have a longer talk, Chev would absolve him completely. Poor Legend. And you know what, poor Ingenue, too. She sounds like an addict or someone with an uncontrollable compulsion. And I think she’s actually having real feelings for our knight in shining armor. It may be stupid, but the romantic in me hopes that if they both survive Scion they’d give it a try. BUt I’m getting real “one of them if not both is not going to make it” vibes, so…oh well.

    Teacher is a monster. At least in my eyes. He’s not so in the face like Jack but that makes him worse in some regards. He’s literally repulsive. And that talk between Defiant and Dragon…AAAAAAGGGGGGGHHHHH! Nice to see that even in the face of the Apocalypse Saint is still bitching about Dragon. Still, he seems to want revenge on Teacher first, so he can join the party…for now.

    Perfect timing Irregulars, you have now fucked the entire battle coordination! I can sort of understand even the reasoning of the more bloodthirsty case 53s, though it would have been great have some answers, but was bashing Doormaker’s head in the only way to stop Doctor? Oh well. I think, rather I hope, that Contessa has just been momentarily incapacitated rather than dead because not even seeing how the cape with the power to win lost is…anticlimatic to say the least. I guess Mantellum has a power nullification ability, am I right?

    Aaaaaand that’s it, folks!

  15. Wow. A look into Simurgh’s reality. Contessa taken down (offscreen, but still …). Dr Mother having to rely on Weld for safety. The Irregulars dropping all pretense at a civilised facade.

    Good stuff.

  16. > The intended target is far, far away.
    >
    > *It’s too much.*
    > *Hey, are you okay?*
    > *What happened?*
    > *Nosebleed.*

    . . . that’s pretty badass, Simurgh. Props.

    (Bonus props if the blind spot it created had something to do with Contessa’s loss, although I don’t consider that more than a vague possibility.)

  17. Yessssss! Fuck up Doctor Mother. Kick her ass!

    Wait, no, don’t kill Doormaker! The fuck are you doing!? We only have one of those!

    Well I suppose this is thepart where Contessa gets up, brushes herself off, and sits in Doc Moms chair like nothing happened once everyone leaves. After all, maybe getting rid of her boss is part of the path to victory, getting a beatdown an unfortunate side effect.

    Either that or Teach planned this and is set to take over Cauldrons operations. Yeah, like we should fucking trust that he doesn’t have Dragon under his control.

    Hey, are the later parts still part of Smurfs observation, because it seems that Cauldron being a blind spot to her was bullshit.

    • It’s the other way around actually. The first part was Doctor Mother looking at Simurgh with the omniscient cape and using one of Teacher’s students to pick up her thoughts or something. This interlude was all about Doctor Mother spying on the major players. Up until she got interrupted by the Irregulars.

  18. What really gets me about this is that, with the most powerful precognitive in the world at her disposal, DM uses her as a personal assistant. I mean, really? Can you imagine Contessa calculating the optimal path to get drinks? If she made me do that for years… Yeah. One sudden but inevitable betrayal, coming right up!

    • I thin it’s more of a power behind throne thing. And she can bring her to meet people as her ”bodyguard” and have her find paths to victory for them.

    • Wait, you are basing Contessa’s duties on what Cauldron sayd her job title is?

      And Contessa’s power os pretty limited. It seems to me that she cannot sense anything that does not directly affect her, unlike (say) Tattletale or Dinah. And don’t get me started on the Smiurgh…

  19. Presuming that Contessa was actually defeated…

    Not long ago, we learned that Scion has Contessa’s power. This would seem to make him unbeatable. Except, now we have a potential counter.

    Also, because the counter came from Cauldron, it may not have the blocks that prevent it being used against Scion.

    • That’s what I got from this.

      The Power Of Win can be overcome. Someone out there potentially has a Power Of Fail, or at least a method. Like Odysseus, whose mere presence was able to make crap start falling apart for the bad guys (and good guys – it really didn’t pay to know him at all).

      Now we only need to get Win and Fail in the same room/dimension together.

    • If this power can counter Contessa’s path of victory, then maybe Scion’s can be affected. Granted I’m not certain they’ll fight Scion with their mindset.

    • The only problem: The counter has no (proven) immunity to powers. Negating/Altering powers like Mantella does does not mean he is immune to them–ask Hatchet Face.

      • That’s why you need to pair him with one of the invulnerability granting people.

        It’s too bad they wrecked Bonesaw’s lab. She could be popping out Manton clones with their personalities tailored to ‘do-gooder’ right now.

  20. Objects are set down in a specific order, evoking different ideas. A different posture is adopted, wings raised high, stretching.

    Shackle. Syringe. Scalpel. Lens. Lens.

    Some are taking notes, but nothing can come of this. As with the glass case, the subjects here don’t have the right frame of reference to understand.

    Is this supposed to evoke Grue’s torture at the hands of Bonesaw? Could be targetting Taylor or Aisha if it is, as there are two subjects left she’s working on. But Taylor didn’t mention her posture or anything, just the auditory hallucination (which was supposed to tap into a critical memory – any ideas? Or was the Simurgh planning another auditory hallucination for the other subject … her train of thought is confusing). Still, the Simurgh is subtle enough that Taylor might not even notice consciously.

    • I actually thought it was deliberately designed to trigger bad memories in the omniscient person Doctor Mother is using to spy on her. You’ll note the nosebleed and shift in focus follows.

    • Assuming it was meant for Taylor to see. could be a reference to how she got lung arrested(shackle) by first drugging him( syringe) and cutting out the eyes (scalpel) (lens) (lens)

  21. I don’t really know how to feel about this. It really seems like the whole “build-up let-down” angle is becoming a theme, but if Contessa was really taken out for good off-screen, than that’s a major mistake, in my humble opinion.

    As writers, we should strive to follow up on our promises to our readers (which is why I’m so desperately trying to somehow find a way to stick to my schedule despite repeat writer’s block) and build-up within the story is a promise, too. It can be a good move to go against people’s expectations, but sooner or later, it just becomes frustrating to the reader.

    Otherwise, a great chapter, and I think it fits that the Endbringers are NOT complying with the good guys, at all.

    Also, who else is rooting for Ingenue making a High Heel Face Turn and shack up with Chevalier?

    • Seriously Chevalier/Ingenue has become my One True Pairing. And I abhor shipping.

      As for Contessa, I’m in the “it’s a bluff/momentary problem” camp. If only because we have yet to learn about her relation with the Third Entity, if the mysterious unrecognised by Scion shard does indeed belong to the Third.

      Oh and I guess this chapter goes slightly against my personal headcanon (i.e.: Contessa is acttually Doctor’s boss) but since we didn’t really get much introspection from the good Doctor, it’s still possible.

      • The problem with Ingenue is that she’s crazy and she makes others crazy. Chevalier pairs up with her, it’s only a matter of time before he’s blowing away towns. Besides Chevalier/Miss Militia.

        • From this interlude it looked more like using her power is compulsive or similar to an addiction. Maybe she can be healed? Besides Chevalier and Miss Militia, apart from a off-hand mention of a short lived fling in high school, haven’t interacted at all in the main story.

      • I dunno. It could be that Contessa is just comfortable with assisting DM in ways like handing her notepads, playing the role of bodyguard/assistant to the hilt yet still retaining ultimate authority. She doesn’t need to constantly play the role of leader to maintain authority the way normal leaders do. Her power is always a trump card with which she can reestablish authority whenever needed, and it also lets her know when people start getting those uppity ideas, so she can take action to correct them well in advance of them causing trouble.

        On the other hand, maybe DM doesn’t /know/ that Contessa runs the show. With her power, Contessa could guide and control DM without her ever knowing it’s happening to her. It’s only some rather exceptional individuals who have put the pieces together in-setting and realized she’s more than she lets on, so it wouldn’t be that surprising that a mundane who’s constantly being manipulated by her couldn’t figure it out.

        Either way, it’s a frustratingly moot point if Contessa’s dead.

  22. Totally agree with @Tieshaunn
    First off I’m not a writer so take what I have to say with a pinch of salt….
    I would encourage you to steer away from to many off screen death’s. Once or twice is ok, but when it becomes a pattern, it’s just downright annoying particularly when it’s characters that have had their share of the lime light. I suspect that there are times when having a live, interactive audience is not good for an on-going story. Add the perverse sense of satisfaction you derive from messing with us, it might just be skewering your writing to take advantage of that (my theory at least).

    Given the medium you using it’s understandable for there to be skips/ time jumps but as someone who’s been following the story for a long while it robs us of a satisfactory conclusion to a long debated event. I have no doubt it will be explained but “seeing” it play out would be much more memorable and agreeable.

    When you do get around to releasing the book please reconsider the approach you’ve taken (with some of them at least).

    • I want to respectfully (and partially) disagree. Off screen deaths are a time-honored weapon in a writer’s arsenal (not sure if the metaphor makes much sense but roll with me) and, IMO, wild bow has, until now, pulled them off successfully. Contessa’s “defeat” (we don’t even know if she’s dead) is indeed problematic but I’m confident there’s more to it and it’s even possible it’s all part of Contessa’s agenda. Then again, only time will say.

          • For all we know, Contessa took one look at 50 parahumans looking for blood and her power said “know what, the Path to Victory is running away… quickly…”. Sometimes living to fight another day is the only success you can claim.

            Also- it would make sense for her to wait until the Irregulars fraction into two groups before jumping back in and helping the agreeable side win. So. Never know.

    • Well lets face it, they were just assuming that the imprinting was what had happened. Some of us weren’t so convinced the Smurf wasn’t playing them all, and now it looks like she was. But we still don’t know what her long term goal is.

  23. I actually don’t think it would be very hard to take out Contessa, provided you have the right power at your disposal. Say, someone who can negate powers in an area. Then catch her by surprise and she’s suddenly blind.

    Mantellum has a ‘power bubble’ of some sort, perhaps he can sense, manipulate or negate powers within his bubble? It let him react instantly to Doormaker, before he had a chance to create a door.

    Not saying that is how they beat Contessa, but they may have had some power that shut down her “path to victory” sense long enough for them to take her down.

    • While I agree that Mantellum has some power over other powers (Custodian can’t manifest inside his bubble and i believe he had something to do with the visions suddenly stop), power nullification is such an obvious weakness for her that you’d think Contessa would do what we know she does with Strangers: ask questions tailored to them in advance so as to not be caught by surprise.

      • Presumably, the idea of being caught by a mob of 53′s (or, really, anyone), working with a power-nullifier (which are rare–out of all the capes we know, a grand total of two, one of whom died before or around the time the story started and one of whom we just met), in Cauldron HQ and/or without her typical preparations for going out on missions (where she would be able to prepare for any nullifiers she might encounter, and would, you know, have time to prepare) was pretty improbable, so she didn’t memorize what to do. Or she did, but the sheer variety of that the Irregulars could throw at her threw her off.

      • Perhaps none of her back-up plans accounted for them being accompanied by fifty something other parahumans with a wide variety of powers?

  24. DAMNIT WILDBOW! Is this really the time to be raising more questions? And teasing uw with the possibility of answers but not giving them?

  25. Okay, at a guess, Mantellum is some sort of blanket power-blocker like Hatchet Face, since he has some sort of “power bubble” that the Custodian can’t enter. Except where Hatchet Face disabled powers within his range but could be taken out from a distance, Mantellum flat-out stops other powers from entering, including precog powers like Contessa. That would fit with what we see pretty well.

    I wonder what the “workaround” they had to do was. Maybe it’s just that Mantellum would normally block friendly powers as well, but since the Case 53s have “biological” abilities that don’t leave their body, they don’t get stopped?

  26. >A glass tube, three feet across, seven and a half feet long, capped in metal at either end<

    The Oxygen Destroyer? I don't she how that's going to help against Scion. Course if the Smurf wants to clean up all the capes left over from the fight, that would work just fine.

  27. No time to read all of the comments, so someone might have beat me on this, but perhaps what Scion was waiting for was for Doormaker to go down? Now he can attack spread out capes who cannot coordinate.

        • He crippled all the cross-reality powers so that they wouldn’t interact with the reality he’s in or the realities that the shards are anchored in. They’d have to find some way to heal the shards of that crippling to reach him by those means. I’m thinking tinker devices probably have a better shot at it. Or somehow following him home along the Scion body’s umbilical.

  28. The Irregulars had better hope Taylor doesn’t find out about this. Or hell, all the other factions find out they were willing to fuck everyone for their revenge. Because we’ve seen what Taylor will do if you break the truce.

  29. Just a random thought after thinking about the Irregulars’ apparent ace in the hole, Mantellum.

    It seems the general consensus about Mantellum is that he fucks other people powers. He’s stopping Custodian from manifesting inside his bubble despite her existing everywhere inside Cauldron’s base and he seems the logical explanation for Contessa’s loss.

    Now, we know from Shamrock that Cauldron makes extensive studies of the 53s powers before wiping them and letting them go, yet Doctor was surprised by Mantellum’s ability, the implication being that he was some sort of failure with a power that had little practicality (why they relesed him instead of just killing him, the 53s being nothing more than lab rats, is beyond me).

    Doctor speculates that he may have had a tinker/thinker upgrade. Now who do we know who is capable of such things? Yup. After all, Teacher did tell Saint that he seems to be pissing off and betraying every other faction.

    I know, I know, it’s a long stretch, but wouldn’t it be fun, if even Cauldron was suckered by Teacher?

    Just food for thought.

    • Seems like he’d be shooting himself in the foot to do so, since he just gave up an ENDBRINGER in return for Cauldron’s protection. It wouldn’t gain him anything to pay so much for their help, then cripple them, and he had to know that helping Mantellum would be bad news for Cauldron.

      In other news, “mantellum” is a Latin word for cloak or mantle, from which we get the word “manta,” due to the creatures’ shape. So that implies that he’s extending a “cloak” of protection over his allies… or that he’s cloaking them in the sense of hiding them. Maybe powers just can’t target them, but they can still be affected by untargeted uses? Interesting, though, in that I think this is the first use of Latin in a cape’s name. Eidolon was arguably Greek, though the word was sort of loaned into English. Many other names are words with Latin roots, but none have been explicitly a Latin word like this. Maybe Mantellum was a Classics professor before becoming a Case 53, and he retains that knowledge even if he can’t remember where it came from.

      • Remember what Saint said about Teacher? his flaw is that he loves needlessly complicated plans. This is a man who engineered high profile assassinations just to show that he could.

        As for your second point, making a list of foreign names for capes, apart fromMantellum and Eidolon (didn’t know it was an actual word in English), we also have Chevalier and Contessa (thought Taylor thinks she may have Italian heritage so it may not count). If we stretch it to proper name we also have Myrddin, the Welsh spelling for Merlin.

        • One of his flaws is needlessly complex plans.
          The more relevant one is he likes to attack the most powerful targets in the world to prove he can.

          It’s why he went after Dragon, not because she was a threat, not really, but because she was “The World’s Best Tinker.”

          Cauldron might have gotten too famous for their own good.

  30. So. A Dr. Mom interlude, revealing more about everyone else (except Scion) than it does about Cauldron. We even know more about the Endbringers!

    On that note, some unanswered questions:
    1. If Leviathan’s hydrokinesis is limited by the Manton Effect, why isn’t his hydro…voyance?
    2. Why does the Smiurgh define Leviathan, Khonsu, and Behemoth as male but Tohu, Bohu, and itself as female?
    3. What will the Smiurgh do once Scion is destroyed? Eidolon is not there to challenge, and the big block to its vision is gone. Will it go on and start killing the remaining precogs that screw with its future-sense?
    4. Why do I keep calling it “the Smiurgh,” and not just “Smiurgh”? It seems wrong to just call it “Smiurgh,” it seems like the “The” fits.
    5. Why are the other Endbringers following the Smiurgh? If I had to guess, they’re short on purpose at the moment and have nothing better to do…but then, why is the Smiurgh different? Is it just the only one with major obstacles at this time?
    6. What did Behemoth sense, energy?
    7. How would Khonsu’s time-sense help? From the sounds of it, it only senses temporal disturbances, rather than being able to, say, “see” the future like the Smiurgh does. Objects distort time slightly with their gravity, but I can’t see that being an effective sense anywhere except maybe deep space.
    8. What are the senses of Tohu and Bohu?
    9. Where did the Endbringers come from?
    10. How did Mantella get his powers awakened, and why didn’t Cauldron try it? Teacher seems like a plausible answer, but what did he do?
    11. Can we trust Teacher to have not inserted anything else into Dragon?
    12. Why did Dragon not keep that body? A giant dragon-shaped thing would have made good cannon fodder, if nothing else.
    13. Why did Teacher have that body made if it was just going to be abandoned?
    14. Am I overthinking this?

    • Bohu and Behemoth both sensed through ground/seismic activity. Tohu senses powers.

      As for MantellUM and Teacher, eh, I had the same idea. Look above.

      • Again: What could Teacher have done to give Mantella control of his powers?

        …Hers? I don’t think it was definitively stated.

        • As Doctor said in this very interlude before the loss of free sill was discovered, Teacher had a lucrative side business by selling capes the ability to control their power better or how to max its effect etc. Sort of like Ingenue’s power.

          • It sounded more like he sold capes assistants with just the right Thinker power set to let them help his target manage their powers– and to manipulate them. Remember, all he does is make custom Thinkers (“all” when Thinker is one of the most broken power-sets in Worm).

            Teacher can’t help you control your powers directly, but he’s the master of indirect means.

            • “Teacher had once specialized in renting out capes that could shape, limit or refine powers, or USING HIS POWER TO DO THE SAME.”

              Emphasis mine. So it seems he can do both.

    • 1. If Leviathan’s hydrokinesis is limited by the Manton Effect, why isn’t his hydro…voyance?

      For the same reason Golem could sense Hookwolf’s metal but not control it: the Manton Effect can sometimes be graduated rather than binary.

      2. Why does the Smiurgh define Leviathan, Khonsu, and Behemoth as male but Tohu, Bohu, and itself as female?

      Because we’re not actually seeing the world in Simurghvision, we’re seeing an interpretation filtered through Doctor Mother’s eyes. And Scanner’s. And Subject Two-Six-Five’s.

  31. As for Contessa…

    What if she tried to look for the path to victory for humanity, and there was no path open to victory if Doctor Mother is in control of the Cauldron, or perhaps Doctor Mother even needs to die. Or we could even put martyrdom in there and wonder if she could determine that no path to victory existed with her alive in it?

    • Sry, already said this in another comment.
      But doesn’t the path to victory (over Scion) require someone that can counter it and this was the only way to find it?

      • It may be that Doctor Mother’s viewing of the Simurgh through Scanner could interfere with Simurgh’s ability to engage Scion effectively, by interfering with Simurgh’s plans. Contessa might not know the details, I don’t think her power tells her why what she does will lead to victory, only how to win, but it might well be that Doctor Mother can’t be allowed to tell anyone about what she saw when scanning the Simurgh.

        It’s even possible that Contessa allowed the case 53′s access, and allowed herself to be beaten.

        If that’s where Wildbow went with that, I want a flashback :P

  32. So far I’ve had a pretty negative reaction about adding still more questions in the mix, when we’re so near the end.
    However, this time it was very well done, and it fits. I liked it.

    Doormaker and Contessa could be dead or not, this will change strategy for a lot of people, but it’s a simple binary answer, that’s going to be answered very soon. So a “good” hanging question.

    The Simurgh… where do I even start?
    Tell ya what? I’ll not. I can see this going several possible ways, and it still manages to humanize her so far. Like a kid trying to get a family to protect her.
    I liked it a lot, and btw, it’s another binary answer. Either she’ll backstab Lisa and Taylor or not. It does not change the flow of the story, adds tension, and it’s another “good” hanging question.

    What happened to Leviathan’s leg was one of those minor niggling question I still had. Kudos for your usual extreme consistency.

    Ingenue is … extremely pitieable if I’m reading her correctly. A power that forces her to fall in love with whoever she uses it on? That’s… really harsh.

    And I’ll stop there because Dragon saddens me so much I want to go write a fix fic.

    On second thought: epileptic trees.

    The Simurgh is building a cloning chamber, as soon as she is near Bonesaw she’ll know what to do to create a human body for herself as a backup.
    And to misquote a really skilled author, the first thing she’ll do in her brand new human body is go to Taylor and say “I’ve eaten your hair and I’m now pregnant with your child”.

    Teacher managed to finally turn Dragon insane. As soon as he dies she’ll go over the edge, and not being able to directly attack anyone she’ll start building the megastructure. Scion is killed by safeguards, and Colin is the progenitor of the silicon creatures.

    Lisa got a second trigger, she’s not going to “wake up” anymore. But even in a perennial sleep, she’s aware of everything and got telekinetic powers in exchange. Tattletale is no more, say hi to the great and powerful turtle!

    ok, ok, I’ll stop there… sorry, fighting sadness with insanity works almost everytime…
    :( Dragon…

  33. Wow. I figured we would get an Endbringer interlude, but this threw me for a loop. Excellent work, Wildbow. Like many others, i’m annoyed that Contessa got beaten offscreen. I’d love to know how that happened. I’m now very interested in Ingenue’s secondary powerset- some kind of enthrallment? Doormaker might be dead, which is a huge, huge problem. Now people are stranded in certain realities, barring Labyrinth/Scrub collaboration. I wonder if those two are pals.

    The Endbringers perceive only their element. That’s actually really cool. So it’s possible that Leviathan wouldn’t be able to see Sere, if I understand his powers correctly.

    (Completely unrelated to this chapter, two things- If anyone here if familiar with the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, we started a play-by-post game over on that board. Link is http://www.jimbutcheronline.com/bb/index.php/topic,39103.0.html. We need a GM, but we wouldn’t turn away any players. There’s also a thread for statting up characters from Worm in DFRPG mechanical terms, found here. (http://www.jimbutcheronline.com/bb/index.php/topic,37922.0.html)

    Second thing: Is anyone else now completely unable to picture Vista as looking like anyone except Jade Harley? From Homestuck?)

    • Okay, because I didn’t make this clear in the original post, the DFRPG game is set in the Wormverse. We’re still hashing out the timeline, but we’ve mostly settled on New York for the City.

    • Who says she was beaten? Her power is “I win”, not “I survive”. It might be bullshit, but maybe her getting “taken out” could’ve lined up something.

      • My personal theory is that she wanted Doctor to believe she was beaten so that Doctor will attempt something desperate. Maybe like reviving the Second Entity, if it that is indeed what’s hidden in the fifth level basement?

      • Mantellum was at his limits. His power, which would normally let him mantle other people, even abstract people like the Custodian, has proved useless—Contessa was already *wearing* a mantle, and nothing the case 53s had done had sufficed to dismantle her. He collapsed, shaking, depleted. She stood over him. He whispered something. She leaned down beside him. His mantle wiggled, shivered, and ineffectually flouresced. He whispered it again.

        She could almost make it out. 17 words. Arguably, 18. She turned them over in her mind. She processed them.

        _We had a game._

        She shook her head. Impossible. In the background, a clock bell rang out: one.

        _Whichever of us,_ he’d said, _could kill the most Contessas before 4 o’clock would win._

        The bell rang: two.

        Panic was filling her. The referees were biased against her. She had no hope to come out advantageously in a tie.

        The bell rang: three.

        She saw the path to victory. It loomed before her.

        Flawlessly, she carried it out.

  34. So the lesson of the day is that there’s no karma and that saying you’re saving the world counts for everything regardless of how many times you’ve sat on your ass and refused to help and regardless of the fact everything else you’ve ever said has also been a lie.

    So nice going for Weld. Ain’t nothing quite like ‘demanding answers’ when making sure the people you want answers from aren’t inconvenienced is higher in your priorities than getting the answers.
    Not that they actually had any meaningful questions anyway.

    I guess this was some sort of a political jab at all the various ineffectual ‘watchdog’ organizations that in the end serve little purpose but to cover Babylon’s arse with an illusion of accountability to cover up the lack of any actual accountability.

    • I’m not certain I understand your post. Weld is protecting Doctor Mother because if she is torn to shreds, there will be no answers. And perhaps hesitating to simply destroy Cauldron without confirming, if they indeed can help stop Scion. I think it’s possible that Cauldron secrets going public could improve things – it can verify whose side they are really on, and if somebody could use their resources in a much better way. If Irregulars followed Weld, survival chances might have gone up.

  35. Chevalier is amazing. He’s a literal knight in shining armor and he’s probably the most heroic hero to ever live. Maybe I’m not remembering something, but as far as I know he’s never done anything wrong. He’s just perfect.

    And now he’s ENDBRINGER-CLAD CHEVALIER! He couldn’t get any more awesome.

  36. I’m wondering, how exactly do they know Contessa can’t see things related to Eidolon and the Endbringers? I mean, if she TOLD them she couldn’t do it….

    • Same reason you know your neighbour can’t fly.
      Nobody else can, so any particular person saying they can’t isn’t all that likely to be lying.

      • And what if her path to victory required her to lie her ass off and maintain a believable illusion that she was really was handicapped that way?

        • And what if Contessa is really a Time Lord who just knows how to win because she’s done it before, and is simply trying to win better this time?

  37. Playing a worm supers game using Fate next weekend, set during world war one. some difference about powers, such as when they started appearing.

    • Idea: Bonesaw gets controlled by Pretender, then kidnaps and experiments on Clockblocker or someone else with a temporal power. Said experiment is used on Jack to free him (possibly only as long as they are in contact); Pretender/Bonesaw (Pretendsaw?) then captures Chevalier and stitches modified-Clockblocker, Jack Slash, Chevalier, and some sort of mind-controlled thing into one massive powerhouse.
      Maybe also add Skitter, with Pretendsaw removing Skitter’s blocks on her power. And since that isn’t really enough, add a trump or two, Alexandria, and have Pretender then take Panacea to fix up the monster.

  38. So, random question unrelated to the chapter – I have a few ideas kicking around in my head for a forum RP set in the Wormverse. Would anyone here be interested? I’d probably be hosting it on the Tvtropes RP subforum, for what it’s worth.

    I’m still not 100% sure I’d have the time to go through with it (not even close to 100%, TBH) so I’m really just seeing how the wind blows as far as interest goes right now.

  39. So, um.. what did Weld think was going to happen when he lead an invasion of Cauldron HQ? A citizens arrest and a peaceful transition of management?

    Looks like the Simurgh is still the Simurgh, and (if I’ve read this right) doesn’t create disasters so much as encourage people to opt in to them. Looks at all the people around her, sees where they could fuck things up, and then biases them in favor of fucking things up by traumatizing them. She’s having a go at Taylor and TT already. I suppose I could try to rationalize that as working them towards necessary additional trigger events to arm them with tools they can use against Scion, but I’m pretty sure she’s just malevolent by design and they made a bad call staying anywhere near her and her glass tubes that are totally not human sized.

    And, Taylor misses a party.. wonder if it was the same one MM, Bitch, and Aisha were at? Instead, she gets Simurgh duty. There’s probably a parable in this, about how if you start keeping sketchy company, it drives away the good company until all you’ve got are the bad and worse ;p

  40. Long time lurker, but this looks like a good place to comment…

    It seems to me that the Simurgh has a definite goal in mind – she isn’t just pushing people towards their destruction, but rather towards that goal. It just so happens that destruction is the best way for her to push people (or more likely other people that are affected by that destruction). I am also leaning away from the whole Endbringers created by Eidolon theory (not exactly sure why, but I am leaning towards the third entity as the cause).

    Can’t wait to see where this goes next.

  41. I wonder what Glaistig had to say when she came in behind Chevalier and Legend.

    Poor Dragon. She’s back, but now we have to wonder what Wildbow will do to her next.

    Well depending on how badly they hurt Weld and the others we’ll see just how monsterous the Irregulars really are.

  42. Two questions:

    1. Something’s been bugging me and I’ve finally placed it. The 50 or so Irregulars were here stated to be more than half of all the Case-53′s released on Bet. This indicates a total around 100 53′s…in the whole world. Between the Leviathan and Echidna arcs, Brockton Bay had three known 53′s (Weld, Newter, Gregor), at least. Given that the Bay has about 300,000 residents and assuming no unknown 53′s, a thousandth of a percent of the population of Brockton Bay is Case-53s. If this is the worldwide average (I know it isn’t–give me a second), there would be several tens of thousands of 53′s. Assuming that Brockton Bay has 10 times as many capes per capita than the average US city and that the US has 100 times as many 53′s per normal cape as the rest of the world, we still are off from the stated number by a factor of 70. Why were there so many 53′s in Brockton Bay, when there are so few worldwide?

    2. This has been bugging me for a bit longer, ever since I looked up what “Yangban” meant. Google Translate gave four translations: Sample Plate, Prototype, Templet (a type of mold or cast, which I assume shares a root with “template”), and something like those last two. My question here is which wildbow intended. If the Yangban’s name was supposed to mean Sample Plate, that is just a description of their soldiers, but if it is any of the others…what were they the prototype for?

  43. Weld shows a bit of poor judgement but continues to show the strong moral fibre and backbone that are his trademarks. I like Weld. :)

    Dunno why Simurgh not seeing the present is a big deal. We don’t see it either. We see at least millisecond into the past due to image processing time.

    I wonder how much more powerful Dragon would be if she weren’t restricted to the computing power capable of fitting in a mobile suit…

    “Chevalier, now wearing his shirt, greeted the remaining members of the Protectorate and Wards. Forty or fifty in all.”
    Yikes. That’s a big decline. Brockton Bay used to have about a dozen and that’s for an apparently smaller city (less than a million it sounds like), scaling up there probably used to be several thousand of them. There’s also the 1 in 5000 parahumans figure and the note that heroes are starting to approach the number of villains, suggesting a Protectorate+Wards figure of tens of thousands.
    Though the wording doesn’t suggest such a dramatic decline and there is this:
    “Too many faces he didn’t recognize. It was his job to know who was where, but the fight with the Nine and the ensuing attack on Scion’s part had led to too much turnover.”

  44. Honestly, the Irregulars turning out to be vindictive jerks was entirely predictable. They started a group based on the idea that they were somehow different from everyone else just because their bodies looked weird. That was never, ever going to end well.

    Teacher joins the long line of people who fetter AIs. Goddamn it, ripping out all of Dragon’s limitations and running her on every computer in every universe they can get access to might be their one shot at survival. A grey goo scenario is how humanity wins this.

  45. From 8-5:
    “Briefly blinded, [Leviathan] shook his head ponderously, using his afterimage and one swipe of his claw to clear his vision. He scampered back as his sight was obscured yet again by one of Grue’s blasts.”
    Why does Leviathan care about the bugs and darkness in his eyes? Are they the sensory organs that he senses water with, and do they rely on electromagnetic radiation to do so, somehow?

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