Interlude 8

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Coil held firmly to the philosophy that one couldn’t be too paranoid.  Every moment of every day was a delicate balancing act, anticipating any number of unseen threats from every possible angle, whether he was speaking with his subordinates or simply rising to meet the day.

In one reality, he was safely ensconced in his underground base, costumed, with no less than twenty armed soldiers between himself and the multiple sets of heavy metal doors.   He had spent his night reading, following the news and checking his stocks.  His location was known only to those who worked for him, individuals paid well enough that even if they did have reason to attack him, their ‘coworkers’ would have incentive to stop them.

Second reality:  He was waking up in an ordinary, slightly rundown home in the southwest end of the city.  He prepared and ate his breakfast, then stepped outside in his bathrobe to pick up the paper and the mail, pausing to wave to the neighbors as they led their two girls out of the house.  The flooding hadn’t affected their neighborhood as much as others, but the schools weren’t yet up and running, so the mother and father would be taking their girls to work with them for a short while.

He headed back inside, showered, then dressed in a button-up shirt, khakis and a silk tie.  He got in his four-year old prius and headed into the city.  What was normally a ten minute drive took him three-quarters of an hour, as he was forced to detour around destroyed roads, fallen buildings, and reconstruction work, move with the other drivers in a perpetual traffic jam from the moment that he left the little cul-de-sac where his house was.  To all appearances, he was an ordinary man leaving for work.  His identity, fabricated, was complete, a real job at a real company, records going back ten years in health, taxes, dentistry, house payments and more.

The soldier that met him was known to the other soldiers as Creep.  No captain would have the man in their squad, his predilections made him unemployable in the public sector, and the fact that Coil was the sole person who could and would provide him with the ‘payment’ he craved makes Creep as loyal as men can get.

Everyone had a hook, a vice or something they needed on a primal, desperate level.  Sometimes that need needed to be created, or nurtured, so it could later be hand fed.  Those people who were driven by such things, carried that craving for something especially close to the surface, were among Coil’s favorite people, coming in a very close second to people who were useful.  Those who were both useful and desperate for something Coil could provide?

Well, they were the Travelers, Creeps and Grues of the world.

Wealth would have to suffice for anyone and everyone else.

Creep remained the one individual that had the opportunity to discover Coil with the mask off, so it was worth buying his loyalty.  The man waited in the front seat of the white van, eyes forward, until he heard the three knocks on the back door of the vehicle.  He pressed a button, opening the door to allow Coil to enter.

Once inside the back of the van, hidden from Creep’s view by a barrier between the seats, Coil removed his clothes, folding them neatly.  He donned his costume, his second skin.  A zipper was hidden in the image of the long white snake that weaved up around the body of the costume to the head.  He drew it together around himself, tucked the metal tab of the zipper into a flap at his ankle. The fabric of the costume allowed him to see and breathe through it, but was an opaque black-gray to outside observers in all but the brightest light.

He was spending less and less time in his civilian identity, these days, to the point that he was pondering dropping it altogether.  He could be Coil full-time, when the base was fully set up.  For now, though, so long as he needed a bed, and a place to get away from the noise of construction, the ruse was necessary.  He seated himself in the one chair at the back of the vehicle.

To outside observers, Creep was an ordinary laborer driving an electrician’s van to the construction site.  Coil’s underground base had fallen just beyond the scope of the massive lake in the middle of downtown.  Had the crater extended another forty or fifty feet, it might have done more than crack the interior walls, cost Coil months of time rather than days, hundreds of thousands rather than thousands.

Creep directed the vehicle down the ramp and into the parking garage.  He stayed behind with the van as Coil departed.

Coil entered a doorway in the lowest, most secluded corner of the parking garage, entering a room with an electrical system behind a metal cage.  Opening the door to step into the cage, passing around behind the electrical box and passing through the concealed doorway there, he reached the heavy vault door that marked the entrance to his underground base.

Even after he was inside, with two employees waiting to greet him, a contingent of his squad captains standing at the ready, he remained careful.  Back in the other reality, he stood from his computer, traveled into the room beside his own.  He paused in the doorway, staring at the girl who lay on the cot.  She was dressed in white, unmoving but for the rise and fall of her ribcage, her eyes open.

“It’s morning, pet.  You know what questions I ask you.”

“It’s morning?” she asked, head rising.  “I feel like I just had dinner.  Candy?”

“No, pet.  It’s too early.  Now please answer my question.”

Petulant, she replied, “Zero point two five two percent chance there’s any problems here in the next hour.  Three point seven four four one percent chance there’s any problems before lunchtime.”

“Good girl,” he spoke.

With that, he collapsed that world where he had stayed up all night, studying the news, following international business trends, tracking the details on his troops’ most minor operations – he helped ensure the success of the major ones with his power.  The reality swiftly faded, leaving only the world where he had a full night’s sleep, ate a hearty breakfast, drove to the base with Creep.  Only the memories and knowledge remained.

Standing before his employees and soldiers, he divided realities once more, leaving only a heartbeat between the erasure of one existence and the creation of another.

He often wondered if he really was creating the realities, or if it was solely in his perception, foretelling futures to the extent that they hinged on his actions.  He’d asked his Tattletale, and she hadn’t had an answer for him.

He had hated these moments, before he’d acquired his pet and the assurances she provided.  These were the times when he was most vulnerable,  when he’d just started a fresh use of his power, his selves so close to one another.  It was sadly inevitable, unless he found a way to expand to a third world.  Though he knew the chance of danger was miniscule, that his pet could not lie to him if she had wanted to, he still made efforts to distance the two worlds as much as possible.

The first reality: “Captains, with me.  Empire Eighty-Eight is divided, and I’m going to direct you on a series of strikes to ensure we deal as much damage as possible before the two factions can merge once more.”

The other: “I wish to survey the base.  Captains, as you were.”

Two groups traveling in separate directions.  One of his selves traveled with the troops, down the metal staircase to the lower level, the other moving in the other direction, across the metal walkway, the two employees hurrying to keep up with his long strides.

He eyed the base as it was developing.  The massive quantities of crates and boxes were being unpacked, bunk beds for soldiers on call, a fully equipped medical bay, stocks and facilities for the kitchens, innumerable weapons.  It was taking shape, fine details emerging where there had been only right angles and neatly organized stacks boxes.

He owned the company that had built the underground shelters in Brockton Bay and neighboring cities.  Hiding the details on his base in construction was a matter of intercepting information at the right time and place, paying with his own money rather than the city’s, controlling what was reported and to whom.  His pet’s powers had assured him that nobody would be noticing any disparity anytime soon.

“The Travelers’ room,” it was more statement than question, but it required an answer.

A man in a sweater and small round-rimmed glasses, Mr. Pitter, spoke, “Done.  Individual rooms, furnishings, kitchen and wardrobes.  Some minor modifications are needed to make it more handicap accessible, but they could all move in today.”

“And the containment facility?” he asked, though he already knew the answer, from the interruptions while he spent the night in the facility.  He’d heard the noise of the work just hours ago, been informed that people were arriving.

“The vault door was placed just last night.  She was-” Mr. Pitter paused, “Agitated.  We had to call Trickster in to talk to her.  He’s here now.”

“I’ll speak with them.”

“Yes sir.”

He didn’t like interacting with people, especially not subordinates as important as the Travelers or Undersiders, without the ability to create or banish the reality if the discussion didn’t go his way.  Here, he was safe.  His other self was giving orders on movements, targets to attack, individuals to watch out for, informed by the night he had spent tracking the deployments and patrol patterns of the Protectorate and Wards.

He let Mr. Pitter take the lead as they headed to the Traveler’s apartments.  The man was small, unassuming, ordinary.  A registered nurse, he had an exemplary eight-year record of acting as nanny and caretaker to a pair of very ill children.  Then he had found out his wife had cheated on him, attempted to divorce her.  Deciding that wasn’t acceptable to her, the woman had set about dismantling his life, ruining his careers, friendships, familial relationships and everything else, laying accusations and planting evidence of the worst sort of crimes.  The sort of accusations and suspicions that a male nanny had to be leery of at all times.

Mr. Pitter was one of those particular people who was both useful and bought with stronger things than currency.  He would ensure the Travelers were comfortable and well stocked.  More specifically, he would take care of Dinah, ensure any and all dosages were clean and properly administered, that the girl was kept in the best of health.  All he had required was for his wife to disappear, the chaos and problems the woman had caused him discreetly sorting themselves out in the aftermath of her death.  He had gone from being a broken man to a person who was so unflinching in his duties that it had given even Coil pause.

Mr. Pitter knocked on the door, waited.  It was almost a minute before it opened.

Trickster stood in the doorway, unmasked.  His skin tone was darker in a way that left his ethnicity ambiguous, to the point where the boy could have been a darker skinned Caucasian, biracial, Middle Eastern or Eastern Indian.  His dark hair was long, hanging to his shoulders, and a hook nose coupled with a widow’s peak gave him something of a severe appearance.  His eyes, normally sharp, were bleary with sleep.

“Are you really that sadistic, Mr. Pitter?  I get dragging me here at five in the morning if Noelle needs it, but waking me up three hours later?”

The ‘nanny’ didn’t reply, instead stepping out of the way, to give Trickster a better view of Coil.  Trickster leaned out of the doorway to look his employer up and down, picked some sleep from the corner of his eye with his thumbnail.  “Damn it.  Okay.”

“Thank you,” Coil replied, “I would like to speak with your friend, downstairs.  Past experience has suggested this works best if you act as an intermediary.”

“I don’t know if that’s a great idea.”

“Indulge me.  Would you like me to wait while you wash your face?  Get dressed?”

“If we’re just going to talk to her, and if you don’t have anything else for me to do, I’ll probably go straight back to bed, after.”

“As you wish.”

Trickster pulled on a black bathrobe, cinched it around his waist, then stepped onto the metal walkway.

“Is there at least anything I can tell her?” Trickster asked.  “Anything encouraging?”

“Nothing definitive.  I had intended to introduce Tattletale from the Undersiders to this situation, ask her for her opinions.  That is, if she doesn’t already have some idea of what’s going on.  Either way, her talents might turn up some details we have missed.”

“Had intended?  I take it that she can’t, now, because of what happened at the hospital?”

“Something like that. She’s informed me that there’s currently difficulties within her group and requested that I not distract her or give her tasks until things have been settled ‘one way or the other’.  Her words.”

“That’s not really anything that’s going to give Noelle hope.”

“No.  No it isn’t.”

They headed back onto the walkway, then down the stairs.  A vault door, twenty feet across, was set into the concrete wall.  It loomed over them, three times as tall as even Coil was.

Coil stepped to the side, gestured toward the small monitor and keypad to the left of the door.

Trickster touched a button on the keypad, “Noelle?  You there?”

The monitor flickered.  A girl’s face took up most of the screen.  Her face was framed with brown hair, greasy, and she had dark circles under her eyes.  Her eyes moved as she looked at the monitor on her end, but she didn’t reply.

“Hey,” Trickster spoke.

“Hey,” her voice had a ragged quality to it, as though she had screamed herself raw.

“Coil wants to speak to you.”

There was a pause.  “Okay.”

Coil stepped forward so he shared the camera with Trickster.  “Noelle.  I’m sorry the construction work disturbed you.  We shouldn’t have been doing that so late in the night.”

“You locked me in,” Noelle accused him.

“For your safety, and ours,” Coil spoke.

“You agreed to this,” Trickster told her, “We talked about it.  You asked us to do this.”

“I know.  I-  I didn’t think it would be this claustrophobic.  Or lonely.  I swear I’m getting cabin fever and it’s only been a few hours.”

Trickster opened his mouth, then closed it.  When he finally found the words to say, he spoke, “You can call me any time.”

“Except when you’re doing a job.”

“You can talk to Oliver, then, or Mr. Pitter.”

“Oliver’s still busy talking to you guys, and Mr. Pitter creeps me out.”

Coil raised an eyebrow behind his mask, gave Mr. Pitter a glance.  The man hadn’t reacted.

Trickster diplomatically didn’t comment on Mr. Pitter’s presence nearby.  Calmly, he spoke, “We’re working on a solution.”

“You’ve been working on that for a month now!”  She began to shout, which only added to the gravelly quality of her voice, “Fix this!  Fix me!  You did this to me, Krouse!

“Noelle,” Coil spoke, controlling his voice, “Trickster is not to blame.  At the next possible opportunity, I will be inviting an employee of mine to speak with you and the rest of the Travelers.  Her power will provide hints.  I’ve also been in contact with the head of parahuman studies at Cornell.  An expert in the field.”

Her scream sounded through the intercom system, “That’s just more poking and prodding and theories!  You promised us you’d fix me!”

Punctuating her statement, there was a bone-rattling impact against the vault door.  Almost every soldier on the lower level stood or turned to face the doorway, hands on their guns.  Dust spilled out  from the joins where the concrete walls met ceiling.

Irritating.  Nothing more was going to come out of this conversation.   At least he knew the one thing he’d sought to find out: she was getting worse.  He used his power, obviating the reality with the raging girl in favor of the one where he was talking to his soldiers.

“-dersiders are otherwise occupied, so you’ll be supported indirectly by the Travelers.  Captain Heroux?  How fast can your squad be ready?”

“We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“Good,” Coil spoke.  “Be ready, I’ll have orders for you in less than an hour.”


Coil turned, leaving the captains to their assigned tasks.  He glanced at Mr. Pitter, “The Travelers’ quarters are all set up, I trust?”

“Yes.  We just installed the heavy door in the middle of the night.  Noelle was agitated enough that we had to call in Trickster to calm her down.”

“I see.”

“He’s still here, if you want to talk to him.”

“Let the boy rest.  He’ll be tired.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Ensure the girl has a double ration for this morning.”

“The costs-”

“Are my concern.  With her sleep disturbed, she is liable to be… cranky.  Let’s ensure she has little to complain about.  And Mr. Pitter?” he paused, “Speak with Duchene about the construction the second she comes in.  I want that door on the lower level reinforced.  Extend walls inward and put in a second door, if you have to.  Schedule any construction for the middle of the day, so we aren’t interrupting her sleep again, but I want it done as soon as possible.”

The man nodded, correctly interpreted the order as a dismissal, and hurried off.

That left him with the one remaining assistant following after him.  Cranston.  “Anything urgent?”

“No, sir.  The businesses you purchased are still struggling in the wake of the catastrophe, but we’ve received insurance payments-”

“Good.  We’ll discuss it later.”

“Yes, sir.”  Cranston hurried off.

Coil returned to the end of the complex furthest from the entrance, entered his quarters.  He paused at his computer to check his emails and the latest news feeds.  Nothing crucial.

He divided realities.  In one, he stayed at his computer.  In the other, he entered the room reserved for his pet.  “Good morning, pet.”

“It’s morning?” she groaned, sitting up.  “I thought I just finished dinner.  Candy?”

“You know my morning questions.”

He already knew the numbers – he noted they had barely changed, as she rattled them off – but if he always canceled out the reality where he asked her for the chance of any danger in the morning and never asked again because it would be redundant, she would never remember.  Even a mind like hers had its limits and boundaries.

“The chance my grand plan is a success, ignoring any uses of my powers?”

“Seventy two point two zero zero two one percent.”

Pleasing.  It was a number he could raise in the ensuing days and months with the use of his power.  Interestingly enough, the number was better than it had been before Leviathan attacked.

“Chance the issues with the Undersiders will be resolved?”

“Don’t understand.”

He frowned.  Another limitation.  She needed to be able to visualize the scenes.  “What is the likelihood that the Undersiders will still be serving under me, at the point in time my plan succeeds or fails?  To one decimal point?”

“Sixty five point six.  But they aren’t all the same Undersiders.”

“Oh?” he rubbed his chin, “The chance that my plan succeeds with this new group versus the old?”

“I don’t understand.  My head’s starting to hurt.”

“Just one or two more, pet.  If the group changes, is it more likely that my plan succeeds?  To one decimal point.”

“Yes.  Four point three to eleven percent, depending on who comes and who goes.”

“One more question.  What is the chance that I find a remedy to the Travelers’ circumstances?  To one decimal point?”

“Nine point five.  Candy?”

A full seven percent lower than it had been before the Endbringer attack.  Had a crucial individual died or left the city?  Or was his running theory correct?  Was there a reason Leviathan had come here, beyond the chance to attack a city already under siege?

It was hard to ignore the reality, that Leviathan, from the time he arrived, had gradually moved closer and closer to this location, where the girl had already been ensconced.  The Travelers had even picked up on that, called him, worried.

Something to ask Tattletale about, perhaps, when he introduced her and Noelle.

“It feels bad.  Wanting the candy so much, knowing I’m going to want the candy, seeing it like I do.  It builds up.”

Seven percent lower.  At what point did earning their loyalty fail to be worth the resources he was investing?

“Knowing I’ll get sick if I don’t get it, being able to see it, what it’s like, the getting sick, and as it gets closer to happening, higher percentages, it feels more real, so clear a picture it’s almost as bad as getting sick for real.  Even if there’s only a nine point two-”

“You’ll get some to tide you over in a bit, pet,” Coil interrupted her, in as reassuring a tone as he could manage.  It was impossible to conceal all of his irritation at being disturbed from his thoughts, but she was distracted enough by her own problems that she likely didn’t notice.

His plan was succeeding, though it had been delayed slightly by recent circumstances.  Potential enemies were divided or reduced in numbers, the city all the more vulnerable to being seized.  Victory was so close he could taste it.

Perhaps worthy of a celebration.  Coil maintained his own vices.  It would be unfair to expect more of himself, when he had the unique talent he did.

It had certainly been an expensive talent.  Even with his ability to game the markets in a way that clairvoyants and precognitives couldn’t detect, it had taken him years to pay it off.  A maddening, frustrating endeavor, when he had already been thinking of plans he wanted to set in motion, having to postpone them.  And he still owed a favor, even now, up to a week’s services.  He couldn’t be sure if he was powerful and secure enough to fight back if they demanded too expensive a price, or too much of his time at a point critical to his plan.

He canceled the reality where he stood at his pet’s bedside, found himself still at the computer.  Best to leave the world where his pet wasn’t so tired, in case he wanted to ask more questions that morning.

The worlds he created weren’t real.  They were little more than an especially vivid, accurate dream.  To enjoy a whole separate world, free of any consequences beyond the ones he wanted?  It would be unreasonable if he didn’t indulge in it.  Anyone would, given the chance.

These entertainments kept him centered, utterly calm.  He needed that, after the irritation of dealing with the Travelers’ girl.

He touched a button on his phone, “Mr. Pitter?  My office.”

“Yes sir,” the reply sounded.

He was on the brink of achieving his goals.  It would be a laughable tragedy, to get this close, only to have his power fail him, to accidentally choose the wrong reality, or to have his other self killed by accident or malicious intent, forcing him to live with the ramifications of these idle amusements.  For now, he wouldn’t touch his pet, nor any of his powered subordinates.  Not when he was this close.

A click of what appeared to be a part of his desktop wallpaper made his bottommost drawer pop open.

Mr. Pitter entered the room.  “Sir?”

One reality: “My pet needs her ‘candy’, a low dosage, please.”

The other: Another click of his computer mouse, remotely locking the doors.  Mr. Pitter turned, alarmed, tested the door.

For now, even with the safeguard of his other realities, he would do nothing he couldn’t explain away if he had to.  He wouldn’t entertain himself with anybody he couldn’t replace.  Mr. Pitter?  Replaceable.

No such thing as being too paranoid, after all.

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70 thoughts on “Interlude 8

      • Some website I read recommended not having multiple character names that start with the same first letter. I wonder if that may have been the cause of the confusion?

        Not that I should talk. I’m know I’ve violated that suggestion many times.

        • It’s not bad advice. In my opinion, it probably depends a lot on how similar the names are, though. Readers are probably likelier to get Ben and Ken confused than they are Alexandria and Aether…

  1. Interesting. This could be a very accomplished man with this ability. Think Jamie Maddrox, aka Multiple Man, whose multiples all went out and did all kinds of other things. They spent a lot of time learning in various fields, then all collapsed back into the one main person who had all that knowledge and skill. Coil has some of that potential, even if his power works much differently.

    We also see more cynicism here in that Creep has been made unemployable in regular society and Mr. Cothren has been chewed up and spit out by a vengeful ex so that they are forced to turn to crime. I’m not saying whatever Creep’s particular vice is is a good thing. In fact, anything that gets other criminals to universally spit on you is generaly one of the worst things ever or is snitching. Still, rehabilitation works much better than just a punishment that harms their future chances to become productive members of society. (See Norway’s prison system. Low recidivism, much higher access to tanning beds and movie theaters for criminals…hey, don’t look at me like that, they’re the ones that made it work)

    And, of course, Mr. Cothren’s wife gaming the system to be vindictive. I’ve seen that happen. In fact, a family friend, whose house I had stayed at, suffered the same with an ex who just kept taking and taking and draining him away, never stopping until the day he walked into her place of business and shotgunned her. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I suppose.

    I guess one lesson that could be dredged from that and the serial as a whole is that if normal, “polite” society gives a person no real remedy for their bad situation, they’ll turn to impolite society.

    Also, a typo with the spelling of Cothren’s name: He glanced at Mr. Cothran, “The Travelers’ quarters are all set up, I trust?”

    As for Coil’s last statement…Who ever told you there was no such thing as being too paranoid, huh? Maybe there IS! It’s the Masons, it’s always them! They just WANT you to think there’s no such thing as being too paranoid. Wait, who are you? Maybe they want ME to think there’s no such thing as being too paranoid, so they sent YOU instead, eh! Heh, you won’t get me so easily. They should have known I’d see through this…so maybe they did…yes…I see…this was all a plot to make me think there is such a thing as being too paranoid by having you say there’s no such thing as being too paranoid so I’d see through it as I obviously am capable of…but maybe they realized I’d see through that plan too…did you hear that? Wait, whose panties to I have on?!

    Whose panties?!!!!!!!!!

  2. There are a couple of typo’s still: As PG noted above, it still says Mr. Cothran near the end; ” as she ratteld them off” should say rattled; “expecially vivid” should say especially; and if you’re feeling ambitious, “cancelled” with two l’s is the British spelling (the American spelling only has one l: “canceled”).

    Depending on how you go about it, Coil probably could have amassed a vast fortune very, very quickly by borrowing money from others and leveraging the money with options. The only issue is that he would be constantly harassed for suspicion of insider trades (or the parahuman equivalent). Well, that, and single-handedly triggering the stock exchange’s automatic shut-off programs.

    Interesting how Coil’s ability allows him to circumvent the Manton Effect. I wonder if he gets off on the thought that he destroys the entire universe every time he uses his gift?

    • Oh wow, terrible me, missing those.

      Was busier yesterday, didn’t have time to really proofread, and where I usually have the laptop open to proofread while I cook/eat dinner, I wound up getting caught in a higher-maintenance meal that didn’t give me time to sit down.

      My bad, and thank you for pointing those out.

  3. And we have to wait more two days to know Taylor´s answer.
    Although knowing more about Coil was interesting, you still are being cruel, Wildbow.
    I want candy now, not Tuesday.

  4. It’s been interesting to watch the gradual revelations about Coil’s personality.

    Initially, it appeared that Coil might go what I’d call the “John Marcone” route of sociopathic good guy. Marcone in the Dresden Files is someone that we know is the head of all crime in the city, but even though he is, he’s mostly made things better in the sense that he’s reduced crime related fighting and death–even if it is in order to make it easier for him to run things.

    The key point is that even though the reader knows Marcone’s not a good guy, he’s on the hero’s side when it matters.

    Coil looked like he might be like that initially as his people were competent, and if he wanted to take the city over at least he wanted to improve it.

    That said, he’s definitely had a lot of “kick the dog” moments, starting with his kidnapping of Dinah. As of this post we know that addicting people to things is common practice for him in one way or another.

    Plus, though it isn’t shown, he clearly gets a kick out of hurting/killing/torturing people or something.

    That makes him less similar to Marcone in the Dresden Files, and more similar to Baron Harkonnen in Dune (and yes, other characters too…).

    With any luck, that means something horrible will happen to him eventually.

    Another observation:

    I found the line about it being an “expensive” power interesting, and the implication that he was still paying it off, and that other people might show up to collect at some inappropriate moment.

    It makes me wonder if there’s a connection between his power, and the powered people who have been found to have numbers on their bodies (and also if they’re being set up as future villains for when/if Coil is out of the picture).

    I guess we’ll find out.

    • Ah, but here’s my question – is it truly that bad, to murder, torture, maim, psychologically scar people, if it only really happens in your head? Or in a concurrent reality that never unfolds into long term consequences/a future?

      I’m sure all of us have idly daydreamed about kicking some irritating customer/client/bosses ass, what it would take to get away with murder, etc. Is that truly so different from what Coil does to relieve stress?

      I stress that this is a hypothetical, and should not be interpreted as my actual views. Just curious how people are interpreting it.

      • Depending on what theory of morality one buys into, it could be argued that even if Coil’s hobbies cause no actual damage, the fact he finds pleasure in them still means he’s a bad person.

        Then again it could also be said that if a person is slaughtered gruesomely and no surviving person ever learns of it, the crime is victimless as a dead person no longer exists and hence has no rights that could be violated.

      • This reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine. He’s actually a grad student in philosophy, so these can get pretty intricate. But it was about the difference between the quality of moral goodness (or badness) and the quality of praiseworthiness (or blameworthiness). And the way that difference shows up in the evaluation of deeds, thoughts, and people.

        But ultimately, I don’t have any real answer beyond the utterly pragmatic.

        If there’s going to be a homicidal or sadistic agent operating in the world, the fact that he’s capable of controlling, hiding, and limiting the effects of his proclivities does little to reassure me. There’s the worry that indulgence tends to deepen such proclivities. There’s also the worry that you generally want evil people to be incompetent.

      • But what if a person’s evil is worse only because they are incompetent?

        I mean, let’s say you take someone who isn’t exactly the smartest person around and who holds beliefs that run counter to a lot of reasonable thinking. Maybe they just are good at acting like they know what they’re doing. So you take this person and dump them in the most powerful position on earth. Access to knowledge and firepower that’s enough to destroy the world. A competent person being in that position would be much less to worry about, no matter how good the intentions of the incompetent person.

        Still, Coil gets his jollies off of actions that to most people wouldn’t be simulations. I’d say that’s a bad thing. It’s not at all like the idea that a person can roleplay rape on Second Life or a chat room because that completely is a simulation, where Coil is using his version of real life. He also recognizes that his actions, if something bad happens, could become really real if something negative occurs in the version of reality where he’s not murdering a guy.

        Besides, there’s no need to completely fear homicidal agents in the world who are capable of controlling and limiting the effects of their actions. It’s what they train them to do in the military. Commit an evil act for the greater good of a society. Though the evilness of the act of killing someone else does change depending on a few different factors. Like the difference between a woman shooting a man dead who is breaking into the room where she and her kids have holed up and a guy chasing after someone he claims looks threatening to shoot the other person in “self defense”.

        Morality is one hell of a complex discussion, so I think I’m going to stay out of any more that’s said about it unless I can fit in a fart joke. Careful, when next you awake in a dark place of burning heat, the smell of sulfur surrounding you, it might just be me with a bad pun letting one rip.

      • I thought about this for awhile because it’s an interesting philosophical topic, the nature of morality.

        Is real violence morally different from imagined violence? On a practical level, yes. We have all probably imagined violence but few of us commit crimes. No one actually got hurt.

        If anything, thinking through the desire to punch an annoyance in the nose and deciding to find a better answer makes us more moral than never imagining it to begin with: we hade to think and make a moral decision about our actions. An innocent with no notion of violence is not making moral choices, they are simply following their nature. Knowledge of options creates morality because it gives us the freedom to choose for good or ill.

        Coil in general is a criminal. Killing someone in his alternate realities seems to be in an ambiguous grey area because of the uncertainty about what would be “real”. We don’t know if the alternates he visits are different continuous realities even in his absence, but if they are it is a real murder. If the alternates exist solely for Coil I might argue it is still a crime because the people he victimizes still have feelings and lives, even if he makes that experience vanish. He as an individual is willfully committing violence on a living person.

        • First off, it’s not certain that anyone’s murdered here. (Maybe it will be later, but I’ve only read this far).
          Second, the argument with nature may be reversed. If it’s in one’s nature to kill, one will (want to) kill. You can’t blame a cat for playing with a mouse. You can call it a “monster” for having that urge, of course.
          Third, “crime” is a legal term. Laws don’t really account for alternate realities, so it doesn’t apply here.
          Fourth, crime is not necessarily a bad thing, and being a criminal is not necessarily
          (or even generally) bad. In some countries, a person could be legally beaten to death for engaging a person of different sex.

          All that, of course, assuming there are any alternate realities to start with. Otherwise, there’s nothing even to talk about.

      • Do we know for a fact that the other world doesn’t continue when Coil cancels his awareness of it? Because if there’s a non-zero chance that some universe out there is living through the consequence of Coil’s actions that’s obviously a bad, bad thing.

        Even if we know that the other universe ceases to exist, does that negate the horror inflicted in the interim? We would never think “Well, this guy’s going to die at some point anyway so any torture I inflict upon him before then is totally cool”. So why would you think it’s okay to do that to someone in another universe just because it’s going to end?

        • Most people don’t consider cessation of existence and death to be the same thing, though it’s a fair point even if it isn’t.

          I love hypotheticals like this, but there’s so many variables and unknowns here, simply because of how fantastic the situation is.

          Is Coil right in supposing that neither of his realities truly exist until he brings them to bear? Is it even meaningful to question the “degree” to which they exist?

          I’m a Christian, and normally I love taking hypotheticals like these and exploring how they would interact with theological considerations, but tonight I simply can’t handle that headache just yet.

        • Heh. Cool could operate under the name “Many Worlds”. Somewhere out there in the multiverse, there’s a growing countable infinity of versions of Coil who cancelled their power and immediately thought a variation on “fuck, I’m in the wrong one”.

      • Damn, I was really hoping that Coil would end up being one of those evil overlord chessmasters who while being a bad guy makes things better but he is becoming increasingly harder to justify accepting. It’s not so much that he kidnapped Dinah, it’s how he refers to her as ‘pet’ and doesn’t even think of her as a person. Or how he is contemplating throwing the some of his more useful subordinates, the Travelers, to the wind just because they are getting inconvenient.

        His powers are interesting indeed but I can definitely seem how it would be hard to make money off them in a very profitable and untrackable fashion.

        Concerning your hypothetical moral dilemma, I think it’s a complicated thing. To me, it comes down to who you are in the dark but it goes deeper than that. Is someone evil just because they have evil desires or are they evil when they decide to act on those desires? Take Dexter for example, the man would normally be called evil because he enjoys killing but he channels that desire to kill bad people and consciously decides to do that so a lot of people (myself included) consider him heroic for rising above what his nature drives him to and struggles to follow a moral code that he has no inherent desire to follow. Coil though is different as he isn’t channeling his desires, he’s using his power to basically enact his fantasy with no lasting consequences. I think that’s the inherent problem for me. Coil isn’t bad so much because he enacts his fantasies in an especially vivid dream but more that he feels these worlds are real to some extent and still decides to act on his urge. If the paths he follows really do spontaneously appear and disappear as he forms them then I guess it’s okay since they aren’t actually real in a sense but if he is sort of linking to a parallel world and that world continues on after then it is not morally okay to me. Since there isn’t a way to know for sure yet whether he links/creates a world which is real and continues or creates an entire branching path which immediately withers and dies, I don’t think I’d call it a morally okay decision to act out horrible fantasies. I can understand why someone would and put in the same position I can’t honestly say that I myself would be a good enough person to avoid the temptation but I can’t say without knowing the consequences for the other world, that it is acceptable.

  5. Well, I’d argue that first of all, it’s experientially (if that’s a word) more real. Coil would actually see the blood, hear the screams, whimpers, or whatever else. More to the point, if something bad happens in the other reality, he’s willing to let Pitten’s death *become* real. He’s deliberately choosing people he can afford to lose.

    Second, he’s not willing to touch irreplaceable people “for now,” when they’re useful. It allows for the possibility that when he can afford to let them die, they’re also an option.

    By contrast, if someone imagines hurting their boss, but never intends to do it, and can’t make it real, it’s not a good thing, but there’s no immediate potential to hurt anybody.

    • But am I Gecko having a dream that I am a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am Psycho Gecko?

  6. it’s a little late to be pointing this out but in 8.2 iron falcon is anounced as deceased over the headband, so is that a mistake or is bird-boy from 8.3 another hero altogether?

    • Made a teeny tiny fix in 8.2 to amend that. Not hugely important to the story, and this tweak makes for the best fix for the smallest amount of work.

  7. Belated typo notice: “prius” should be capitalized.

    Also: ” and the fact that Coil was the sole person who could and would provide him with the ‘payment’ he craved makes Creep as loyal as men can get.” I think parallelism would suggest “made” instead of “makes”.

  8. “He’d asked his Tattletale, and she hadn’t had an answer for him.”

    His Tattletale. This tiny little word choice stands out to me now, having read ahead…

    Yeesh, Coil is a creepy guy.

  9. Error in the above:

    World: Coil is in his base at morning; doesn’t ask Dinah questions
    Altworld: Coil is in the city heading to base; Asks Dinah questions

    Coil closes World

    In Altworld, which is now World:
    World: Coil speaks with Travelers; doesn’t ask Dinah questions
    Altworld: Coil speaks with Soldiers; asks Dinah questions

    Coil closes World

    The problem? Coil wakes up and asks Dinah questions twice, as a result of choosing the Altworld in both cases.

    Quick fix: Coil closes CityCoil Altworld instead of BaseCoil World.

    • Better fix: BaseCoil asks Dinah. It doesn’t make any sense for him to keep BaseCoil when CityCoil had a good night’s sleep and BaseCoil didn’t.

    • Alteration to the above:

      “In Altworld, which is now World:
      World: Coil speaks with Travelers; doesn’t ask Dinah questions
      Altworld: Coil speaks with Soldiers; asks Dinah questions”

      Should be

      In Altworld, which is now World:
      World: Coil speaks with Travelers; doesn’t ask Dinah questions
      Altworld: Coil speaks with Soldiers; doesn’t ask Dinah questions

      Coil closes World

      Followed by

      In Altworld, which is now World:
      World: Coil stays at his computer
      Altworld: Coil asks Dinah questions

      Coil closes Altworld

      You still need the fix i mentioned before, because he’d still be waking her up twice in one timeline with how you have it set up right now.

      Also, coil is now obviously very creepy (his pet; his Tattletale), egomaniacal, and obsessive. That his funtime is torturing people in Altworlds he closes displays a lack of empathy that should be frightening and obvious to Tt. I don’t understand why she’s working for him if she doesn’t have a gameplan to keep him in check by her standards. His taking of Dinah to use her power shouldn’t have been a surprise.

      • You missed the part where he split realities BEFORE he asked questions the second time. After getting the answers, he closed the reality where he asked her questions the second time, so he could ask her more questions in the future.

        As for why he didn’t do that the first time: if he does that too often, she won’t remember what the questions he always asks are, because he doesn’t always ask them.

  10. Worm is definitely one of those stories worth a second read-through. All of these little enigmatic details surrounding Coil like a veil of…bad metaphors make so much more sense now.

  11. First of all: Thank you, Wildbow! I have so far immensely enjoyed your story; enjoyed it to an extent where I’ve found myself reading from dusk to dawn and also progressively engaging in madder and madder ramblings (as my sleep deprivation increased; a state of mind that seems to be of preference for a lot of Worm’s readers). So here goes my comments:

    As I said, I really really liked the story. The world feels very much alive and layered; especially the interludes let the audience know that the world is larger than the area of (main character) interest. The balance kept between the action and the drama scenes would spark the envy of most line dancers and my experience so far tells me that most of what I’ve felt was out of place, made sense later.

    When it comes to the action scenes, I’d have to commend you on the creativity displayed by most involved. Besides that the tempo is high and I’m on the edge of my seat/bed during most of them. Two things I’d suggest to improve them before you publish:

    1. I can’t recall who mentioned this, but perhaps have a fight or two that does not seem like straight suicide from the get-go. It’d be nice to actually have a chapter where the Undersiders planned a hit that went according to plan and that wasn’t out of their power range (Like Tangle, 6.1). This scene could also be used in relation to an issue you touched upon; what you currently call book 1 is (by your own statements; I haven’t done the count) a bit on the long side. As I see it, the obvious place to divide the book in two, would be at the end of Arc 6 – but that would require quite a bit of restructuring (since two arcs are probably too little for a separate book). A solution to that would be to let us connect to a lot of the heroes that fall in Extermination during book two. That would make the devastation feel a lot worse for the audience. Besides I’d love a glimpse in to the mind of young budding hero in the Jedi Academy and not just be entangled with the Dark side all the time 😉 (on the other hand; a glimpse into the mind of Night… intriguing)

    2. I might be really bad at visualizing (scratch that, I am), but I get confused during the longer scenes; Leviathan and Bakuda in particular. In the Bakuda fight, I didn’t mind as much due to the confusion helping the experience of immersion vis-a-vis the disorientation caused by the trap. With the Leviathan it was a bit worse. Both my compass and my inner city map suffered heavy injuries and by the end of the arc they were still bleeding inner-sight disturbing streams of thoughts: “where am I? Who just died? Wait, didn’t he?… Oh, now I, – no..”.

    On the account of drama: I have skimmed through the first chapters to look for more references to what Taylor spent her time on. Due to her compartmentalizing behaviour, I wanted to know what that could be. I KNOW it is reading and preparing to be a super hero, but it never FELT that way. From following the comment section I saw that this was one of the bigger issues for a lot of readers: considering Taylor’s costumed resourcefulness, her lack of action out of costume, wait, not just lack of action, lack of ideas for action, was astounding. It wouldn’t take much for the readers to be sucked into the need to avoid dealing with school life on a physical and mental level. Right now you excel at getting us to the point where we hate/despise Taylor’s surroundings and we’re all rooting for her, thinking that her life’s unfair. Given how good you are at making us feel immersed in other sensations and situations, I’m sure you could pull us in a few feet deeper to the point where we on an emotional level feel why school life has to be put in a black box.

    As far as characters go, I’d say that Regent/Alec is the flattest of the starring cast in your first book. I.e. (and I know we have a later interlude dealing more with this) we almost never observe Rachel’s reactions to him. I love how we, after the Dinah discovery, see the Undersiders in much starker colours than we did when Taylor’s new-group infatuation was still having everything appear rosy. It’s very little I’m missing about Taylor’s dad, but perhaps a few more details on him outside his dad-persona? Little tells about how far in his grieving process; he is, for a rather long time, the only person that isn’t straight terrible towards Taylor.

    That having been said, I love how the interludes flesh out a lot of characters and how the hero/villain dichotomy gets such a beat-down. You’ve done a really good job of making your para-humans more humane than para and I applaud you for that.

    When proof-reading, I’d probably also go over some numbers – mostly in relation to the Leviathan chapter (what can/can’t hurt it) and the Wards program. During my high-school years my income was significantly higher than theirs and I didn’t exactly save lives for a living. With their claim to fame I have also had a hard time understanding why more of them are not living advertisements. They do seem to get a lot of the attention normally reserved for music stars and athletes and if anything, them getting money from ads (and attention to fame) could be effectively used to emphasize the moral grayness of their character.

    I found it startling that there’s almost no comments on how religion(s) have been affected by the arrival of parahumans. Too touchy a subject?

    OK, I can see, I’m getting off track here. Let me finish by saying that this has been one of my most enjoyable reads for a while and I admire your tight grip on characters, world building and plot structure. I look forward to reading the rest of the story!

    TLDR: Great story, liked it a lot! Minor issues with some action scenes and understanding Taylor’s school behaviour. Extra special just-for-you cookie and bonus points for variety in villain/hero make up and flow between drama and action scenes.

    PS. Great job on interesting powers!

  12. So there is something I’m not getting about my power.

    When I fork, do I perceive another branch as something separate from my own personal experience (like a memory or a daydream or a TV translation somewhere in the background)?

    If so, then the other me is probably is in exactly the same position. How do we decide which branch to pick after all? Suppose me1 went for a walk and saw a cute puppy and had an epiphany that I should become a hero, while me2 stayed at my villain base doing my regular villain business. What do I do?

    Alternatively, if it’s a combined existential experience of having two bodies in two worlds at the same time, then I’m like a two-core CPU. And since I’m capable of reading and sleeping at the same time, or maintaining two parallel conversations, each core is probably comparable with a nervous system of regular human. Does that mean that I’m Feynman-smart?

    • They share experiences, memories, etc. So everything in this Interlude is from Coil’s point of view – not Coil A and Coil B, just Coil. I don’t know why this would end with you being Feynman-smart, though – that ‘extra’ brain is busy doing stuff, after all, not to mention that powers make things … weird.

  13. Petulant, she replied, “Zero point two five two percent chance there’s any problems here in the next hour. Three point seven four four one percent chance there’s any problems before lunchtime.”

    And this is the source of “Is it lunchtime already?”. Trouble always strikes at lunchtime, because Coil collapses timelines where there is trouble before lunch.

  14. The end of ‘book one’, and this is where I have to leave. Only for a little while, I have to tick so e other things off my reading list. ‘Book two’ will commence very shortly.

    Wildbow, this is truly a splendid tale. I love it. I have far too many reasons for doing so, your characters, your world, your powers, but I’m only going to choose one.

    I came here from TVTropes, intentionally seeking a great web novel, because I wanted to start reading web novels from the best. TVTropes defines it as Gray And Grey morality.

    And I think I know what you want to say, wildbow. And I really think you’re a spectacular writer.

    The tagline is perfect. ‘Doing wrong things for the right reasons.’

    See you soon wildbow. I can’t wait for what’s ahead.

  15. >No captain would have the man in their squad, his predilections made him unemployable in the public sector, and the fact that Coil was the sole person who could and would provide him with the ‘payment’ he craved makes Creep as loyal as men can get.

    Makes, present tense? Shouldn’t this be past tense, to be congruent with the rest of the sentence, or indeed the rest of Worm?

    I really, really, really like Coil. I have sadistic tendencies myself, and I’d be doing the exact same thing in his position, although I’m too smart, or indeed too careful, to do it as-is.

    Question for those disgusted with Coil, then: are people with his vices, but lacking the ability and/or will to satisfy them without unacceptable risk, as bad?

    • Perhaps learning the discipline NOT to indulge your every whim makes you a better person. Or it makes you mess up because you don’t have the willpower not to do it “for real”.

    • There’s a difference between imagining how you want to beat someone up and actually going through the process of torturing them or whatever. Most sane, non-sociopath people are incapable of actively causing others people in a really “personal” way (i.e. being the person to stab them or whatever). There’s a reason people have to be specifically conditioned to kill others during wars, etc.

  16. That power… i just had a serious nerdgasm.

    Two paths is one thing, but retaining 100% accurate and complete memories from both regardless?

    Wow… That… wow…

  17. This is one perspective that is very interesting to read.
    Also, while I do like rooting for villains occasionally. I truly do want Coil to fail in the end. He just comes across as slithery, ya know? Well, makes sense, given his alias.

  18. People seem to think it’s still worth correcting typos, so “neatly organized stacks boxes” should probably be changed to “neatly organized stacks of boxes”

  19. So, this is like my third re-read, and I have a not-so-minor quibble with Coil’s power demonstration in 6.8, which has bugged me every time I’ve read this. (Posted here because its no longer a spoiler about how his power works).

    Coil gets to look at two futures and choose one. In 6.8, there are 6 coinflips that come up heads, between each of which he uses his power (6 uses). It is unreasonable for all 6 coinflips to contain a head in only two different outcomes.

    The separate outcomes are independent flips of the coin. Even if he delays his coin toss a little or whatever, the coin toss itself is essentially random. Nothing he does or can do let’s him materially affect the result of the flip *within its world*, he simply chooses which of two worlds afterwards.

    2 outcomes:
    2T: 25%
    1H1T: 50%
    2H: 25%

    That means 25% of the time, there won’t be a heads to choose. With 6 separate coinflips, the odds that there’ll be a head to choose in every single case is (1-P(2T))^6 = 17.8%. Not particularly good odds. Over 80% of the time at least one flip will have a choice between two tails.

    While the coinflip demonstration naively _feels_ reasonable, it’s only because we have *terrible* intuition about probability. He’d probably need about 1000 coinflips he manipulates to compare against a similar unmanipulated control to demonstrate the efficacy of his power with statistical rigor.

    • Step 1: Flip a coin for person A.
      > Results don’t matter. If Heads, that’s preferable, but if both are Tails, then go with that reality. Replace every instance of ‘heads’ below with ‘tails’ and vice versa.

      Step 2: Flip coin for Person B.
      > Reality 1, flip. If heads, move to Step 3.
      > Reality 2, prevaricate, talk about chance, fate, and destiny, delay in handing out the coin, or just double check that the person in question is ready to take the coin. Repeat step 2 (flip in one reality, prevaricate in another).

      Steps 3-5, same as step 2.

      You really only need 4 results for the 5 Undersiders because step 1 doesn’t matter. You’re not flipping in both realities, you’re flipping in one and delaying a moment in another.

      Step 6 is trickier, because Taylor flips a coin of her own, but it’s highly unlikely that she would have gone ahead and flipped while he was talking. I imagine Coil making a decision where he tells her to stop, to wait, and move slowly – he might have hired them but he doesn’t trust her not to draw a weapon.

      • Still two problems with that:

        1. waiting time for the target result (which I’m going to continue to call heads, even though i’ll grant it could be either based on teh first flip) could be long. Really long. I mean, you might expect the waiting time to only be a few attempts, but it could end up being dozens or hundreds

        2. That leads to a gambler’s ruin situation where you can’t find a reality with a head in it to the point that your delay becomes obvious and ruins your credibility. This is especially a problem on Skitter’s second coinflip, because he can’t delay her too much without it being suspicious.

        Basically, while your explanation makes it *less bad*, Coil is still depending on reasonably optimal circumstances to make a convincing demonstration.

        (I’m not about to do the math on waiting times, because it’s a lot more complicated, but my somewhat trained intuition believes that, with 5 follow-up flips, he should expect to end up prevaricating for an extended time at least once).

        There’s also a question of determining how he’s differentiating the two realities before he has information. In the case of Skitter pulling a coin, he has no way of knowing what it is or what she’ll do/want *until after* she pulls the coin. By the time he knows he’s rigging another coin flip, he also knows its not a weapon.

        (Also: mandatory skill or secondary superpower: smooth talker? Doesn’t feel like the same methodical and deliberate Coil of this interlude.)

        • Not sure if my reply got through or if it was eaten by wordpress. Feel free to delete or ignore any duplicate. Likelihood of longer waiting times decreases exponentially with waiting times. I did the math because it’s a fun “classical” convergent series. The expected value is one per coin flip. Coil should delay five times on average.

  20. Hmm I thought that Creeps would be the one that goes working for the civilian Coil.
    So, he actually does not foresee the future but just lives two realities?!
    How does he make money with that in stocks? I can see that he would be able to make money if the values change in short time. But long term I don´t see how he would make money.

  21. Don’t get me wrong, I love the calmer and more grounded moments of this story so far, but this arc really upped the ante.

    Leviathan as an idea and veritable force of nature is incredibly cool and threatening, and the whole battle against him with so many involved was masterfully written.

    I imagine either we won’t see him again or for a very long while, but his influence and the consequences of his power will be remembered. Between that, and Taylor’s pact being revealed, Tattletale knowing the whole time, Armsmaster publicly outed for letting capes die, Sophia being Shadow Stalker, Coil’s double life and so many other great things, this arc was crazy good and hard to put down.

    I have high hopes for the future from here.

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