Gestation 1.5

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You don’t properly appreciate what superhuman strength means until you see someone leap from the sidewalk to the second floor of a building on the far side of the street.  He didn’t make it all the way to the roof, but he came to a point maybe three quarters of the way up.  I wasn’t sure just how Lung kept from falling, but I could only guess that he just buried his fingertips into the building’s exterior.

I heard scraping and crunching as he ascended, and looked to my only escape route.  I didn’t harbor any delusions as far as my ability to get down the fire escape before Lung came over the top of the roof and deduced where I’d run off to.  Worse, at that point he could probably just beat me to the street level by jumping off the roof, or even just shoot fire at me through the gaps in the metal while I was halfway down.  The irony of the fire escape being anything but didn’t escape me.

I wished I could fly.  My school offered the choice between Chemistry, Biology and Physics, with Basic Science for the underachievers.  I hadn’t picked Physics, but I was still pretty sure that no matter how many I could gather together, jumping off the roof with a swarm of flying insects gripping me would be just as ineffective as the 9 year old superhero wannabes you heard about in the news, jumping off ledges with umbrellas and bedsheets.

For the time being, I was stuck where I was.

Reaching inside the convex armor that covered my spine, I ran my fingers over the things I had buckled in there.  The EpiPens were meant to treat anaphylactic shock from allergic reactions to bee stings and the like, and likely wouldn’t do a thing to Lung, even if I could get close enough and find a point to inject.  Worst case scenario, the injections would supercharge his power by prompting a surge of whatever hormones or endorphins fueled his power.  Not useful, dangerous at best.  I had a pouch of chalk dust that was meant for climbers and gymnasts, I had seen it in the sports store when I was buying the lenses for my mask.  I had gloves and didn’t think I needed the dryness and extra traction, but I had gotten the idea that it could be useful to throw at an invisible enemy, and bought it on a whim.  In retrospect, it had been kind of a dumb purchase, since my power let me find foes like that with my bugs.  As a tool against Lung… I wasn’t sure if it would explode like regular dust could when exposed to flame, but fire didn’t hurt him anyways.  Scratch that option.

I tugged the little canister of pepper spray free from my armor.  It was a black tube, three inches long, not much thicker around than a pen, with a trigger and a safety switch.  It had been a gift from my dad, after I had started to go on my morning jogs for training.  He had warned me to vary my route, and had given me the pepper spray for protection, along with a chain to clip it to my belt loop so it couldn’t be taken and used against me by an attacker.  In costume, I had opted not to keep the chain for the sake of moving quietly.  Using my thumb, I flicked the safety off and positioned the tube so I was ready to fire.  I crouched to make myself a smaller target, and waited for him to show himself.

Lung’s hands, still on fire, were the first thing to show up, gripping the edge of the roof hard enough to bend the material that covered the roof’s raised lip.  His hands were quickly followed by his head and torso as he hauled himself up.  He looked like he was made of overlapping knives or spades, smouldering yellow-orange with the low temperature flame.  There was no skin to be seen, and he was easily seven or eight feet tall, judging by the length of his arms and torso.  His shoulders alone were three feet across at the very least.  Even the one eye that he had open looked metallic, a glowing, almond shaped pool of liquid-hot metal.

I aimed for the open eye, but the spray fired off at a sharp angle, just glancing off his shoulder.  Where the spray grazed him, it ignited into a short lived fireball.

I swore under my breath and fumbled with the device.  While he brought his leg over the edge, I adjusted my angle and shot again.  This time – with a small tweak of my aim mid-shot – I hit him in the face.  The ignited spray rolled off of him, but the contents still did the trick.  He screamed, letting go of the roof with one hand, clutching the side of his face where his good eye was.

It had been vain to hope that he would slip and fall.  I just counted myself lucky that however metallic his face looked, there were still parts of it vulnerable to the spray.

Lung hauled himself over the edge of the roof.  I had him hurting… I just couldn’t do anything about it.  My bugs were officially useless, there was nothing left in my utility sheath, and I would hurt myself more than I hurt Lung if I attacked him.  Making a mental note to pick myself up a concealable knife or baton if I managed to live through this, I bolted for the fire escape.

“Muh… Motherfucker!”  Lung screamed.  With my back turned, there was no way to see it, but the roof was briefly illuminated before the wave of flame hit me from behind.  Knocked off balance, I skidded on the gravel and hit the raised lip of the roof, just by the fire escape.  Frantically, I patted myself down.  My costume wasn’t on fire, but my hair – I hurriedly ran my hands over it to make sure it hadn’t been ignited.

Small mercies, I thought, that there was no tar used on the roof.  I could just imagine the flames igniting the rooftop, and just how little I’d be able to do if it happened.

Lung stood, slowly, still covering part of his face with his hand.  He walked with a slight limp as he approached me.  Blindly, he lashed out with a broad wave of flame that rolled over half the roof.  I covered my head with my hands and brought my knees to my chest as the hot air and flame rushed over me.  My costume seemed to take the brunt of it, but it was still hot enough I had to bite my lip to stop from making a sound.

Lung stopped advancing, slowly turning his head from one side to another.

“Cock.  Sucker,” he growled in his heavily accented voice, his cussing interrupted by his panting for breath, “Move.  Give me something to aim for.”

I held my breath and stayed as still as possible.  What could I do?  I still had the pepper spray in my hand, but even if I got him again, I was running the risk that he would lash out and bake me alive before I could move.  If I moved first, he would hear me and I would get knocked around by another blast of flame, probably before I could get to my feet.

Lung moved his hand from his face.  He blinked a few times, then looked around, then blinked a few more times.  It was a matter of seconds before he could see well enough to make me out from the shadows.  Wasn’t pepper spray supposed to put someone down for thirty minutes?  How was this monster not an A-Lister?

He suddenly moved, flames wreathing his hands, and I screwed my eyes shut.

When I heard the crackling whoosh of the flame and wasn’t burned alive, I opened my eyes again.  Lung was firing streams of flame, aiming for the edge of the roof of the adjacent building, a three story apartment.  I looked to see what he was aiming at, but couldn’t make anything out in the gloom or in the brief second of light Lung’s flames afforded.

With no warning, a massive shape landed atop Lung with an impact I could swear people heard at the other end of the street.  The size of a van, the ‘massive object’ was animal rather than vehicle, resembling a cross between a lizard and a tiger, with tangles of muscle and bone where it ought to have skin, scales or fur.  Lung was now on his knees, holding one of the beast’s sizable claws away from his face with his own clawed hand.

Lung used his free hand to strike the creature across the snout.  Even though he was smaller than the beast, the impact made it rear back.  It took a few short steps back in reaction, and then rhino-charged him off the edge of the roof.  They hit the street with an audible crash.

I stood, aware I was shaking like a leaf.  I was so unsteady on my feet, from the mixed relief and fear, that I almost fell over again as two more impacts shook the roof.  Two more creatures, similar to the first in texture, but slightly different in size and shape, had arrived on the rooftop.  These two each had a pair of riders.  I watched as the people slid off the backs of the animals.  There were two girls, a guy, and a fourth I identified as male only because of the height.  The tall one approached me, while the others hurried to the edge of the roof to watch Lung and the creature duke it out.

“You really saved us a lot of trouble,” he told me.  His voice was deep, masculine, but muffled by the helmet he wore.  He was dressed entirely in black, a costume I realized was basically motorcycle leathers and a motorcycle helmet.  The only thing that made me think it was a costume was the visor of his helmet.  The full-face visor was sculpted to look like a stylized skull, and was as black as the rest of his costume, with only the faint highlights of reflected light on the surface to give a sense of what it was.  It was one of those costumes that people put together out of what they can scrounge up, and it wasn’t half bad if you didn’t look too close.  He reached out a hand towards me, and I leaned away, wary.

I didn’t know what to say, so I stuck to my policy of not saying anything that could get me into a worse situation.

Withdrawing his hand, the man in black jerked his thumb over one shoulder, “When we got word Lung was aiming to come after us tonight, we were pretty freaked.  We were arguing strategy for the better part of the day.  We eventually decided, fuck it, we’d meet him halfway.  Wing it.  Not my usual way of doing things, but yeah.”

Behind him, one of the girls whistled sharply and pointed down at the street.  The two monsters the group had been riding on bounded across the roof and leaped down to the street to join the fight.

The guy in black kept talking, “Wouldn’t you know, his flunky Lee is there with a half dozen guys, but Lung and the rest of his gang are nowhere to be found,” he laughed, a surprisingly normal sound for someone wearing a mask with a skull on it.

“Lee’s no slouch in a fight, but there’s a reason he’s not leader of the ABB.  He got spooked without his boss there and ran.  I guess you’re responsible for that?”  Skull-mask waited for a response from me.  When I didn’t offer one, he ventured towards the edge of the roof and looked down, then spoke without turning to look at me, “Lung is getting creamed.  The fuck you do to him?”

“Pepper spray, wasp and bee stings, fire ants and spider bites,” the second of the girls said, answering the question for me.  She was dressed in a skintight outfit that combined black with a pale shade of blue or purple – I couldn’t tell in the dark – and her dark blond hair was long and windblown.  The girl grinned as she added, “He’s not holding up too well.  Gonna feel a helluvalot worse tomorrow.”

The man in black suddenly turned to look at me, “Introductions.  That’s Tattletale.  I’m Grue.  The girl with the dogs-” he pointed to the other girl, the one who had whistled and directed the monsters.  She wasn’t in costume unless I counted a plaid skirt, army boots, a torn-up sleeveless T-shirt and a hard plastic, dollar-store rottweiler mask as a costume. “-We call her Bitch, her preference, but in the interests of being P.G., the good guys and media decided to call her Hellhound instead.  Last and certainly least, we have Regent.”

I finally caught up with what he was saying.  Those monsters were dogs?

“Fuck you, Grue,” Regent retorted, with a chuckle and a tone of voice that made it clear he wasn’t really that offended.  He was wearing a white mask, not quite as decorative or made up as the ones I associated with the carnivals in Venice, but similar.  He’d placed a silver coronet around his short black curls, and wore a ruffled white shirt with skintight leggings tucked into knee-high boots.  The outfit was very renaissance faire.  He had a build that made me think more of a dancer than a bodybuilder.

Introductions done, Grue looked at me for several long moments.  After a few seconds, he asked me, “Hey, you okay?  You hurt?”

“The reason she’s not introducing herself isn’t because she’s hurt,” Tattletale told him, as she continued to lean over the edge of the roof and watch whatever was going on at the street level, “It’s because she’s shy.”

Tattletale turned around and it looked like she was going to say something else, but she stopped, turning her head.  The smile she’d been wearing faded, “Heads up.  We’ve gotta scram.”

Bitch nodded in response and whistled, one short whistle followed by two long ones.  After a brief pause, the building was suddenly rattled by impacts.  In just moments, the three creatures of hers leaped from the alleys to either side of the building and onto the roof.

Grue turned towards me.  I was still standing on the opposite end of the roof, by the fire escape. “Hey, want a ride?”

I looked at the creatures – dogs?  They were bloodied, snarling creatures out of a nightmare.  I shook my head.  He shrugged.

“Hey,” Tattletale said to me, seating herself just behind Bitch, “What’s your name?”

I stared at her.  My voice caught in my throat before I was able to get the words out, “I don’t… I haven’t picked one yet.”

“Well, Bug, a cape is gonna show up in less than a minute.  You did us a solid by dealing with Lung, so take my advice.  Someone from the Protectorate shows up, finds two bad guys duking it out, they’re not going to let one walk away.  You should get out of here,”  She said.  She flashed me a smile.  She had one of those vulpine grins that turned up at the corners.  Behind her simple black domino style mask, her eyes were glittering with mischief.  If she had red hair, she would have made me think of a fox.  She kind of did, anyways.

With that, they leaped over my head, one of the three beasts hitting or stepping on the fire escape on the way down, eliciting a screech of metal on metal.

When I realized what had just happened, I could have cried.  It was easy enough to pin down Regent, Tattletale and Bitch as teenagers.  It wasn’t much of an intuitive leap to guess that Grue had been one too.  The ‘children’ Lung had mentioned, the ones I had gone to so much effort to save tonight, were bad guys.  Not only that, but they had mistaken me for one, too.

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44 thoughts on “Gestation 1.5

  1. I don’t know if they think she is a bad guy, but she did save their butts from getting toasted so she isn’t bad to them. Good or bad is only a matter of perspective mostly, but being dressed as she is and having a cape show up might not be a good thing.

  2. “Renaissance Fair” with capitals and “faire” is French for “to do”.

    Liking this so far but would have preferred to see things from the start of the powers instead of this later stage.

    Comment more later: using cell phone in hospital. We just had twins and I can’t sleep.

    • You know, my favorite parts of superhero stories were always the origin moments. Odd that Worm wound up not starting with them.

      But when I was doing my first few drafts of the story, trying to figure out how to put it together, starting with the origin just made for a slow & stilted story in the long run. I think this works better as a whole.

      Congrats on the twins.

      • *rereading the story, again, because it’s that awesome*

        You know, it hadn’t occurred to me how often superhero stories start with the origin of the character’s powers … and how easily that conflicts with the old rule of thumb that a story should start as close to the action as possible. Starting where you did established everything we needed to know — who Taylor was, what her powers were, what her plans were, what equipment she had — much more quickly, getting us to her first outing, and her first fight, almost right away.

        I’ve not read a lot of stories because they spent too much time laying down mythology or backstory or whatever before giving the protagonist or protagonists a chance to shine. I’m glad you didn’t make that mistake.

        • Thanks for saying so.

          I’m thinking that, in a serious rewrite, I might actually want to move things up just a bit further (To around the mid-portion of the next arc) to get past the angst and slowish start that’s apparently turning a lot of people off.

          That’d require serious restructuring though, to include all the essential details.

          • It’s an interesting thought — I have to admit that I have a hard time visualizing revisions that substantive, though.

            I like the present starting point, though. It kills an awful lot of birds with very few stones — the single incident in the bathroom establishes that Taylor is the victim of a long-term bullying campaign, that she has quite a temper, that she suppresses and redirects that temper rather than fight back at school, that she has and gains comfort from her superpower … I’m not sure Skitter’s character arc would be as compelling if you didn’t start by establishing where she’s coming from.

            It’s not like it’s dry prose, either — pretty much every paragraph either advances the plot or advances Taylor’s characterization in addition to delivering the background information we need.

            • Agreed. The setup was very nice; I’m starting writing a Worm fanfic and know for a fact that I can’t write as good of an opening.

              • If that’s the fanfic I think it is…looking back, I’m glad I didn’t go anywhere with it. It was the kind of concept that I’d waste all my time developing and it wasn’t really interesting enough to worry about. I like my current fanfic much better.
                Although openings are still tricky.

          • Reading the reviews from early on, because I’m pretty curious to see the exact point reviews jumped. Anyway, I Packbat ninjaed me on that, because I think you needed to start the story this late, where the action is. Your general style is to never really tell, but show us about things that have been mentioned for a while unless there’s absolutely no way around that. It fits in with the story and frames it. And honestly, I’ve always liked how teen-angst this story is in the beginning. It really sets up for…well, what’s happening right now…by cackling and throwing my expectations out the window. I think the tvtropes page puts it well. It’s strange to think of this edited, and I hope you keep this copy somewhere accessible when it’s published, cause I really like it.

            • Again, I agree. It seems like it would be kinda sad to reread Worm, and see how things seem just slightly off…especially if wildbow removed some of the aspects that packbat mentioned above.

          • Not sure how you’d restructure it, but it’s worth thinking about. Had this recommended to me four times before I got past the start – had this erroneously figured as that particular cross between woe-is-me and I’m-so-special which is already far too common. You have a genuinely hard task in leading readers to distinguish between ‘wallow in my angst!’ and ‘your primary and unreliable viewpoint is a teenager, and so sometimes thinks (or fails to think) accordingly.’

            With later context, I’m confident in the latter interpretation… but I drew the incorrect conclusion the first time through, and didn’t disturb it on the second or third times I glanced at it until the fourth recommendation made me resolve to give it an hour and see why I’d gotten four different independent recommendations.

            In medias res opening is an option – very different flow, and flashbacks are hard to handle well. Frame story with Armsmaster interrogating at the end? More plausible now that Defiant looks like a lasting relationship and offers chance to shift perception of what’s going on in frame conversation as context supplied by flashbacks updates assumptions. Life flashing before her eyes as mortal peril threatens? Lying to her father at the end of the night? (sacrifices Danny’s strong theme of separation, non-involvement, near-absence).

            Straight-up shifting the sequence (Lung happens first, bullying later) loses the last straw snapping from the bullying, highlights the fact that she hasn’t just murdered everyone involved, does interesting things to perhaps raises the question why she doesn’t take up Armsmaster’s offer of the Wards with a free transfer to Arcadia (though she’d rejected that possibility before he made it, and those reasons would still stand.)

            If you’re really revising Arcs 1-4, and not just Arc 1, you’ve got a staggering range of options.

            Typo note: P.G. -> PG or possibly P.C., depending; PG did indeed start as an abbreviation for Parental Guidance, but current (and what I can see of past) usage omits the periods.

          • don’t! Taylor being socially awkward at the start and overcoming her social anxiety is one of the better parts of Worm for me. That gradual growth was very noticeable and important and it’s what sold me into the story to begin-with. It’s even the reason I’m re-reading it now, it struck a chord with me.

  3. Thanks — it’s been busy and tiring but awesome.

    As for the story — the story is “slow” already. That’s one of the best things about it — as a reader, you get to follow Taylor’s interior emotional life, see school and home and superheroics, and it’s as much about character as it is powers.

    “Slowing” it a little further to show more of her emotional life (re: her mom, her friends, her dad, her power development) would “show” more of her character and the interesting things about her, isntead of being “told” them second-hand after the event. Showing in writing is more engaging to a reader, and makes experiences more intensely felt. The events you do show are full of emotional poignancy, so having more of that depth hardly seems a detraction.

    However, skimming over those parts to get to the action comes across more “stilted” because when we do hear about it, it’s as exposition instead of scenes. I’d rather see the scenes than hear about them after the fact. Especially when what I get to see already is well-written — the skimming detracts from your overall quality.

  4. It’s interesting looking back and seeing how Taylor changed, and also what stayed the same- Taylor’s bravery, her quick thinking under stress, her creativity and adaptability are in evidence here as much as they are later on.

    On the proposed revision, assuming that’s still being considered- I don’t think it would be the best idea. The start helps set up Taylor as a person, and we get to see her in three guises very rapidly, in school as a victim of bullying, privately at home, and on the streets in her guise as a cape. The differences and interplay between these three guises stays key to her for virtually the next 8 chapters, they’re key to what makes the story work IMHO. If we started later on, I think this would be in danger of being lost.

    I also worry it would be harder to see Taylor’s essentially good and rather complex nature if our first look at her was [at the point you suggested). First impressions matter far more than we often like to admit. We see her first as a victim who stops herself from reaching for a weapon against her abusers due to her morals. Next we see her as someone who is driven by the idea of being a hero, who uses that idea as a release from the awful reality of their existence. Then we see her risking her life, on her first night on the job, vastly outgunned, in order to save others. Only finally do we see her start to [redacted – spoilers – Wildbow].

    A revision which cut out all the stuff before would give a very different first impression of Taylor. Yes there are ways to mention it in retrospect, but it won’t feel quite the same. If your intent would be to make her seem less decent, and less complex, then that of course is your prerogative- but I don’t quite get the impression it is? As for pacing- it’s already rather fast paced. I mean seriously, we have what, two chapters setting her up, and then you’ve already got her on the street and getting herself into a fight! On what planet is that slow or overly angsty? If people don’t feel that’s fast paced enough, then frankly I’m not sure reading is the best hobby for them.

    Certain people will always find something to turn them off, or try to second guess a story early on, or hate a certain “type” of story. Some people just don’t like characters who are victimised, or are teenagers, or who feel angst, or any number of other things, and you can’t hope to please them all. When I started reading, I thought the story would be a little more teen and angst focussed than it turned out to be. I was surprised, but I wouldn’t even say it was a pleasant surprise, just an exhilarating one, because before the fight started, I’d already thought “Wow, this guy can really write!”. Those people lacking the attention span to give a story two parts before they’ve (wrongly) pigeonholed it? Not the people you should be writing for, and often not the kind of people who tend to buy ebooks when they can get something for free.

    Write for people who like good writing, not those who whine about certain character traits, or can’t handle the tiniest amount of build-up.

    • Damnit, half of the middle of the comment is in italics now, I’d only wanted the “far” in “First impressions matter far more than we like to think.” and the “two” in “two chapters setting her up”, to be in italics.

      If there’s anyway to fix that then I’d be eternally grateful, if not then it will just annoy me to no end.

    • Three things:

      1. You put into words very clearly why I like the way this story starts. Yes, there are improvements that can be made, but I see no reason to make a radical change anywhere. (I always tell people to read the first arc — through the Interlude — and deciding whether to continue based on that.)

      2. I think you could as easily say “next 7 arcs” as “next 8 chapters”.

      3. Might be good to add a spoiler warning next time.

        • Thanks for both fixing the inadvertent spoiler for me, I’ll try hard to make sure it doesn’t happen again, I’m a rather forgetful guy. And also thanks for fixing the thing with the italics, that annoyed me far more than it should have, you’re the best! : )

        • This is more of a judgement call, I believe, but the proper noun after “I also worry it would be harder to see Taylor’s essentially good and rather complex nature if our first look at her was with” hasn’t appeared in the story so far — that could constitute a spoiler of a kind. It’s not entirely fatal to the argument, either — Admiral Skippy’s point about first impressions could be made by alluding to a counterfactual hypothetical rewrite* that started the story with Taylor’s attack on Lung and the ABB in 1.4. The pleasure she feels inflicting pain upon them would look a lot creepier if that was how we were introduced to her.

          * …assuming the idea of a counterfactual hypothetical makes sense…

      • Yes, when I wrote “next 8 chapters” I actually meant “next 8 arcs”, I didn’t havd an intuitive handle on the arc/chapter terminology, this I why I need to remember to proofread more.

        Completely forgot the spoilers, sorry about that.

  5. I just started this story, referred here by the HPMOR subreddit.

    I tend to avoid superhero stories, but I really enjoy the postmodern depictions, like Soon I Will Be Invincible or Playing for Keeps.

    As an arachnophiliac, it really annoys me whenever I see spider silk burn in a game or book. Spider silk *melts* when exposed to heat, it doesn’t combust!

  6. “Worst case scenario, the injections would supercharge his power by prompting a surge of whatever hormones or endorphins fueled his power.”

    The second mention of “his power” makes the phrasing a bit awkward.

  7. I love the insight into her interiority, and the way she thinks through situations so intently, going through all the options. It’s such a joy to read. Truly giddy that it turned out the “kids” were villains – great tweak to that trope. GREAT STUFF! Cannot wait to read on.

  8. I’m a first time reader, came here from:
    This is probably going to eat the rest of my day, especially because I insist on reading all the comments. To me, they’re what makes the experience of a web serial so much deeper and more rewarding than an e-book. So thanks for keeping them spoiler free!

    The only other superhero fiction I’ve read is _Playing For Keeps_ and the _Union Dues_ series of stories originally on _Escape Pod_, so some of this is probably newer to me than it should be. But yes, from my perspective, I would like more back story and origin…why are there people with these powers running around? What are these organizations…governments or corporations or NGOs or what? Why does Taylor get the power to control bugs and just…deal with it? It seems like it should be more shocking or have more of a life impact. I mean, do her parents even know? What on earth are they doing while she’s creating costumes and sneaking out to fight evil? This feels like a pulp science fiction novel, where everyone is just expected to be OK with hyperspace, and nobody ever needs to explain where or how or why. But in this case, it’s superpowers, not hyperspace. Thankfully, the writing is action packed enough that I’m neatly distracted from these questions while I’m actually reading.

    • I thought it took a while to explain the laws of the universe, too, but by the end it’s all laid out and most of the loose ends are tied up. That was actually one of the things that fueled my initial archive binge: the need to know /why/ things were the way they were in this universe. I mean, you can tell from the beginning that some thought has been put into the worldbuilding. I think it actually comes off really well to start with characterization and action rather than an enormous infodump.

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