Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #3)

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“Holding court?”  Cinderhands asked.

“We’ve waited long enough,” Marquis answered.  “Word’s out, demand’s high, and it’s hitting people harder because they’ve been thinking about it.  The time is right, if you’re ready, Amelia?”

Amelia stared down at her hands.  “I don’t want to.”

“Life is full of things we don’t want to do.  I won’t force you, but I think you and I would be very well served if you stepped up to the task.  It will be harder to protect you if you don’t.”

Amelia frowned.  “You mean you’d throw me to the wolves.”

“No.  No.  If you truly decided that you couldn’t, if the situation forced an ultimatum, I would give up the power I have as the leader of Block W if I had to.”

“I can’t tell if you mean it.”

Marquis took his time rolling and lighting a cigarette, then kneeled before her.  He spoke with it bobbing in his lips, “My girl.  I’m not a good man.  I have rules I follow, but that doesn’t make me good.  At best, it’s one virtue among many I’ve failed to acquire.  I’m rough around the edges, whatever I might play at, and that’s plain enough to see to anyone who pays attention.  I grew up in hard circumstances, and it’s taken me a long time to work past that and earn the respect I get.  And I would give that up if you needed it.”

“You don’t know me.”

“You’re family, Amelia.”  He stood, pulled the cigarette from between his lips and kissed her on the forehead.  He didn’t miss how she pulled away in alarm and surprise.  “Whatever else, that’s the most important thing in the end.”

He let the words sit with her, turning away.  Lung stood by the door, arms folded, and Marquis smiled lightly at the man.  He’ll see this admission as weakness, but the right display of confidence will leave him wondering if it’s a lie, a ploy.

Lung, much like all of the other prisoners, was wearing the gray cotton clothing that was supplied regularly through the drops, alongside the other essentials.  He’d torn off the sleeves of the shirt, showing off muscular arms that were emblazoned with tattoos down to the fingertips.  The light brown of his eyes was surrounded by an expanse of bloodshot red instead of whites.  Other than his muscular physique, they were the only thing that set him apart from any ordinary man who one might see on the streets.

Lung was a killer, a wild animal who played at being a man.  Marquis had picked up enough details to know Lung’s story.  He’d broken the rules, broken the code, because he’d thought he had the power to get away with it.  But it had been a power he couldn’t quantify, a blend of raw military strength, reputation and circumstantial power.

Just as there were athletes who studied their sport, trained their technique and honed their bodies with specific goals in mind, there were others who drew from natural talent and instinct.  Lung had built his gang by conquering others one by one, going by his gut to identify those who would stand in his way and then violently removing them from his path.  His instinct and a tenacious power gave him his success on the street level, where he seized control of the local drug trade, of soldiers, but they hadn’t fared so well in the scope of a greater war.

And so it was that Lung found himself here.  Among the fallen, so to speak.

He turned his attention to Amelia.  His daughter.  She sat on the edge of the bed, slouching forward.  Her clothes weren’t torn or modified, and her sweatshirt was a fraction too big for her – she was staying in his cell block, and the clothes were meant for men.  For the time being, she was being left alone.  He’d asked the men of his cell block to look after her, and because of this, she was afforded a certain respect.  People got out of her way, not because they knew anything about her, but because they knew him.

It was precarious and unconventional.  A girl in the men’s cell blocks.  It wasn’t new, exactly, some had taken wives, had girlfriends or paid girls to serve them as prostitutes.  But Amelia was someone with no confidence, no presence, giving every sign that she was a victim rather than a warrior.

This wouldn’t last.  The men in the Birdcage were still men in the end, and they were men who’d found their way here because they had defied the system.  Some, like Lung, had broken the unspoken codes, others had challenged authority and lost, while others still had simply broken the rules too many times.  It was a matter of time before they lost patience with Amelia after devoting so much time and effort to protecting someone who didn’t have anything to offer.  Or they would challenge Marquis; any number of maneuvers ranging from overt mutiny to subtle sabotage.

“Are you holding court, then?” Cinderhands asked, once again.  The man had a shock of red hair that was shaved on the sides, and holes in his nose and ears that pointed to old piercings, only some of which had been replaced by rings and bars hand-crafted from scraps of metal here in the ‘cage.  His hands and arms were a burned black up to the elbows, more like a used log gone cold in the fireplace than flesh.

“I’ll hold court.  Amelia can sit in.”

“You sure?” Cinderhands asked.

Marquis turned to stare at the young man, drawing in a lungful of smoke from his cigarette, “You’ve never questioned my decisions before.”

“Your decisions haven’t raised any questions before.”

“Watch yourself,” Marquis said.

Cinderhands narrowed his eyes and pursed his lips, but he nodded slightly in acquiescence.

“Go pass on word, let the other block leaders know.  I’ll hold audience for one hour, starting one hour after the next shipment arrives, ending at lights out.  First come, first serve.  They can come themselves or send a representative.  We won’t challenge their passage, but no more than two from a block.  Stay by the cell block gates and keep an eye out for trouble.”

“I’ll need some guards if you want me to do anything about that trouble,” Cinderhands said.

“Then find them.  Or tell me you can’t, and I’ll find someone else to handle the job,” Marquis let his annoyance seep into his voice.

Cinderhands stalked off.

How long before they confronted him?  There was a difference between being someone strong enough to be left alone and being leader of a cell block.  Lung was the former, he was the latter.

That said, his real worry was that they would attack him indirectly, standing by while Amelia was hurt, or failing to back him up at a crucial moment.

In fact, he was giving serious thought to the idea of provoking a mutiny among his people.  A solid and undeniable victory would remind people of why he was leader of Cell Block W and help to root out any of the more conniving individuals who were plotting a more subtle form of attack.  That is, if they were impatient enough to capitalize on the ensuing chaos.

Actually being defeated, it wasn’t really a consideration.  He’d only lost a fight on one occasion, and those had been extenuating circumstances.

In any event, instigating a mutiny would only serve as a stopgap measure.  This was a problem he needed to address at the root.  Amelia.

He glanced her way.  She hadn’t moved, and she was still staring at her hands.

She wasn’t the first of her kind that he’d seen.  A hollow shell.  Tabula rasa.  A blank slate. She wasn’t sleeping at night, not easily, and she had frequent nightmares.

He’d seen others, had had two appear in his cell block, delivered by their tinker overseer.  Except he wasn’t a nurturer.  He had no experience on that front.  He’d done what he could to see if he could wake them up from the neuroses that gripped them, and then he’d bartered them away to other cell blocks when he hadn’t seen improvement over one or two weeks.  People who were damaged on this fundamental level tended to go one of four ways.  They recovered, which was rare; someone filled the empty vessel with an ideology; they were used as a resource, cared for so their talents could be exploited; or they were spent, burned up of whatever they had to offer, be it making things or violence.

He wished he’d tried his hand at fixing the two who Dragon had delivered to his block.  Maybe he’d have a better idea of how to deal with Amelia if he had.

“We have twenty minutes until they start arriving.  Go shower, Amelia.  Make sure your hair is dry when you return, and don’t wear a sweatshirt.  They envelop you, make you look like you’re hiding.  A short-sleeved shirt will do.”

She stood and headed out the door, her slippered feet slapping as she walked.

He could have escorted her, but he didn’t.  It would be better in the short-term, but more damaging to their image in the end. Instead, he ventured out of his daughter’s cell, standing at the head of the railing for the raised area that overlooked his cell block.

There were thirty people in Block W, including himself and Amelia.  Those thirty people shared five televisions with no remotes, two weight benches, one open area for general exercise and sports, and a seating area with tables and benches.  The cells themselves were arranged in a horseshoe shape, encompassing the area, with two gently sloping ramps meeting at the furthest cell, his own.  Beneath his cell was a corridor that led to the supply delivery area and the showers.

Tidy in appearance to the point of caricature, Spruce stood guard by the televisions, helping ensure that Block W remained the only block with a full set of working sets.  He would ensure everyone had a turn to choose the channel.  Whimper was overseeing the auction.  Everyone had already received their share of the cigarettes, which served as currency for bidding over the more in demand items of the supply drop.  There were less new blankets than there were people in the block, for example, and each drop only included maybe three or four books; always one classic and two from the recent bestseller’s lists.  Good reads and books with raunchy scenes could be resold to other prisoners for a decent amount, and they would exchange hands until they were too worn to keep.

From his vantage point at the railing, Marquis could see most of the way into virtually every cell in the block.  Only the cells at the very end were at the wrong angle, and he’d stationed his lieutenants there.  His lieutenants and Lung.

Not every block worked the same way, though the layout and the scheduled drops were the same for each.  The advantage of Marquis’ arrangement was that it kept his people relatively happy and it kept them in their place.  The lieutenants and Marquis himself got first pick of any of the items from the supplies, but nobody truly went wanting, so they generally agreed with minimal complaint.

He watched Amelia make her way to the point on the ramp where the railing terminated, step down to the corridor below that led to the showers .  He could see the glances that were directed her way, some almost animal, hungry.  Others, almost more alarming to that part of himself that he associated with fatherhood, were cold, measured and calculating.  More than a few sets of eyes belatedly turned his way after looking at his daughter, as if gauging whether he was noticing that they’d noticed.

By way of response, he called on his power, generating twin spikes of bone that crossed the end of the corridor in an ‘x’.  Amelia passed through the gap, crouching slightly, and he filled the remainder of the space with branching lengths of bone.

Even the littlest things were a hassle, now.

He snapped the bone, keeping his expression blank in the face of the mind-shattering pain that resulted.  It faded quickly, and he let the remainder of the bone fall to the floor, joining countless other shards and fragments around the mouth of his cell.  It invoked a mental picture of a lion’s den.

This was a gamble.  Amelia could be the excuse his enemies or more ambitious underlings needed to mount an attack.  At worst, he’d die and she would… well, she’d be a resource that was burned up, exhausted of anything and everything she had to offer.  If he was able to buy enough time, verify that she was beyond saving, then he could return her to the women’s cell blocks, cut his losses and take the resulting hit to his reputation as the only real cost of trying.

He didn’t want to take either of those options.  He had so few memories with her, from when she’d been a toddler, but they’d stayed with him.  He remembered the sparkle in her eye as she saw the princess costume he’d had tailor-made for her.  He recalled the look of consternation on her face as she’d sat at his dining room table while she practiced writing her letters.   That frustration had become awe as he’d showed her what she could accomplish once she mastered the art, penning out florid letters in cursive with a fountain pen.

More than once, as he prepared tea to share with Lung during one of their long discussions, he’d thought of the mock tea party he’d had with his daughter.

Those moments seemed farther away now than they had in the days before he’d been reunited with her.  He would never recapture them, he knew, but maybe he could find other, new memories to share with her.  A deep conversation, a father’s pride at her accomplishments.

Before that was possible, he had to resolve this situation.  Fixing her was too lofty a goal.  Cementing his own power base would do as a short-term goal.  He would need to show his people and the other cell blocks that there was a reason why he’d invested this much attention and effort into his daughter.  To do that, he would have to decipher the puzzle of her psyche, figure out a way to coax her into demonstrating her power.

He was running out of time, judging by how his followers were acting.

“You will be disappointed if you expect my help, Marquis,” Lung’s low, heavily accented voice came from behind him.

“I know.  You’re your own man.”

“I had more respect for you before this.”

Before my daughter.

“You and everyone else here.  It’s a shame.  I’d hoped I’d amassed enough credit that you and the rest of them could trust me to see this through to a successful conclusion.”

“Mmm,” Lung rumbled.  “Do you trust that you’ll see this through to a successful end?”

Marquis didn’t trust himself to lie convincingly, so he only smiled.

“You do have a plan?” Lung asked.

“You’ll see,” Marquis replied.  “Will you be attending the meeting?”

“I am not one of your lieutenants.”

“But you’ve earned yourself a reputation in a short span of time.  That’s commendable.”

“No flattery.  Get to the point.”

“It helps us both if you’re there.”

“You look more powerful if you have the mad dog on a leash,” Lung growled.

“Some may see it that way.  I won’t deny it.  But in my perspective, you’re dangerous, and people will notice if I’m unconcerned about having you loose in my block.”

“You’re insulting me.  Saying you look down on me.”

“No.  I’m stating the facts.  Yes, in a straight fight, maybe you could give me a run for my money.  Maybe not.  But I have my underlings, and that leaves me fully confident I’d win.”

“You might not have those underlings for much longer if this continues.”

“I notice you’re not disagreeing.”

Lung offered a noncommittal grunt in response.

“If you stay,” Marquis said, resting his elbows on the railing, “You can meet the other cell block leaders, get a head start on figuring them out for when you’ve murdered me and taken over W Block.”

“You don’t sound concerned.”

“Someone’s going to try, Lung.  Someone’s going to succeed.  Might be in two years, might be in five years, or ten-”

“Or today,” Lung cut in.

Marquis waved him off.  “Not today.  But it’s a fact that it’ll happen someday.  I’d rather it was you, when that day comes.”

Lung’s eyebrows rose in a rare expression of surprise.  “Why?”

Marquis stood, stretching, and tossed his stub of a cigarette to the corridor below.

“You can’t imagine I’d be a kind or generous leader.”

Marquis laughed.  “No.  But wouldn’t you rather be murdered by a rabid wild beast who happens to share your living space, than to have a onetime ally stab you in the back?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lung replied.  “You’ll be dead either way.”

Marquis gave the man a slap on the shoulder.  Lung tensed, more because of surprise at the abrupt, familiar gesture than anything else.  Marquis sighed.  “There are times I envy you.”

He turned to head down the ramp, descending into the crowded area where supplies were being sorted.

Whimper showed him the books.  A murder investigation novel, a young adult story featuring some romance with a ghost, a book with a bird mask on the cover and a Dickens novel.  Marquis selected the last.

He seated himself on a bench where he had a view of both the corridor and the cell block entrance.  While others cleared out of the area, Marquis glanced up at Lung, who still watched from the railing above.

He turned his attention to the book, pretending to read while thinking over the situation.

He glanced toward the door of bones in time to see the shadow of Amelia’s approach.  Controlling his own ‘dead’ bones was harder, but he’d been standing at the ready to demolish the barrier, and pulled it down before she got there.

“You took some time,” he said.

Amelia hugged her arms to her body.  “I sat down to think and lost track of time.”

“We’re worriers, my girl.  It’s an asset when applied in the right amount.  Is your hair dry?”

Amelia touched her hair but didn’t venture a reply.  He reached out to touch her hair, and again, he saw her flinch.  “Good enough.  Have a seat.  The latest, what was it, a novel from this ‘Fade’ series?  It was there for auction.  I could send someone to track it down if you’re interested.”

She shook her head.

“Not interested in reading, or not interested in reading that?”

“Both.  Mostly the second part.”

“At least you have taste.  Well, the meeting begins in one or two minutes.  I would like you to attend, of course.  Best if you don’t speak unless directly asked a question, and say less rather than more.  It’s a tactic I employ myself, leaves you less room to say the wrong thing.”

“They’re going to ask me to use my power.  I can’t.”

“I understand.  Yes, they probably will want a demonstration.  I only know what Lung’s told me, which isn’t much, and what you’ve said, which is even less.  That in mind, I still think that a demonstration would do a great deal to secure our position.”

“I can’t,” her voice was small.

Then we may well die, my daughter.

“We’ll cope some other way, then,” he said.  “In the meantime, to convey the right image, it’s best if you make eye contact and speak clearly.  Sit.”


He stood, then seated himself on the table, his feet on the bench beside Amelia.

He gave the signal to Spruce and Whimper, and they stepped away from the entrance to Cell Block W.

All in all, there were twelve cell blocks with leaders.  That meant that there were eleven leaders with eleven lieutenants arriving.  Acidbath, Galvanate, Teacher, Lab Rat and Gavel were leaders of the cell blocks on the men’s side of the prison.  Lustrum, Black Kaze, Glaistig Uaine, String Theory, Crane and Ingenue were the female leaders.  There were other cell blocks, but twelve was generally agreed on as a good number.  It left room for discussion without too much chaos, and it left enough cell blocks leaderless that they had elbow room to do business elsewhere.

“This is the healer?” Gavel asked.

“Amelia, yes.”

“My people say you’re taunting them, Marquis, having this girl staying in the men’s wing without a lover.”

“Not my intention, I assure you.  I would guess some people are only looking for something to complain about.”  Marquis looked pointedly at Gavel as he replied.

“Don’t waste my time with this male posturing,” Lustrum cut in.  “I have women to look after.  I delivered your daughter to you because you promised repayment and because she asked.  I wouldn’t mind seeing that payment.”

“It was implied that I would pay you back in coming weeks or months, not in a week.”

“And if I ask a month or two from now, will you postpone the payment yet again?”

“I don’t expect I will, but maybe you could clarify the payment you’re looking for?”

“She’s a healer.  Some healing would serve.”

Damn, Marquis thought.  She had to ask.

“Amelia isn’t healing anyone right now,” Marquis said.

“Ambiguous,” Crane’s voice was sonorous, smooth, “Is that because she can’t or because you’re ransoming her ability?”

Marquis only smiled.

“You explicitly let us know you were open for a meeting,” Teacher said.  He didn’t look like a cape in the least.  He was fat, for one thing, and he was ugly, with a red face and balding pate.  “Don’t be coy.”

“Coy?  No, let’s say we’re simply weighing our options and getting a lay of the land.  Healing’s rare.  More than one person picked up on the fact that her codename meant ‘universal cure’.”

Teacher smiled, smug.

“But there’s a great deal of demand, and you’ll have to forgive me for being a doting father, but I won’t exhaust my daughter’s mental or physical resources to parcel out her healing.  We’ll hear terms, we’ll discuss the offers and counteroffers over the next several days or weeks, and then we’ll let you know our decision.”

“You are holding her power for ransom,” Lustrum spoke.

A power she isn’t willing to use, one that I don’t know the particulars of.  Worse, it’s tied to a deeper trauma that somehow involves the loss of a sister, and that’s not something that can be addressed in a matter of weeks.

“I suppose I am,” he replied.

Glaistig Uaine shifted position, and Marquis wasn’t the only one to give her his full attention.  What he could see of her beneath the blackened tatters of her prison-sweats-turned-shroud suggested she was barely a teenager, but that was more due to her power than anything.  She’d been one of the first prisoners of the Birdcage, and he suspected she would be one well after he’d died.  Not that her megalomanical delusion was true.  Rather, it was the fact that nobody dared to pick a fight with her.

When Glaistig Uaine spoke, her voice was eerie, a broken ensemble of a dozen people speaking in sync.  “Beware, Marquis.  You will pay a thousandfold times for your arrogance when the armies of the faerie rouse and gather for the last war.

“Rest assured, Glaistig Uaine, you’re scary enough on your own,” Marquis replied, smiling,  “I don’t need a whole army of your kind chasing me down.”

There will be no chasing, for they are already in position to strike you down the moment they wake, three hundred years hence.  You’re nothing more than the dream of the faerie.  I can see it, so vivacious, so creative in its movements, even in slumber.  I think it might have been an artist.  I want it for my collection.

He was glad Amelia didn’t challenge the ‘three hundred years’ thing and the notion that they would still be alive then.  The ‘faerie’ didn’t react kindly to such.

“You’ve said as much before, noble Faerie,” he said, “Rest assured, you can have me when I’m dead.  In the meantime, I will keep your warning well in mind.”

Your daughter, too.  Your faerie is kin to the one that sleeps inside the girl.  I have no doubt this Amelia is a healer, but that’s only a facet of her true strength.  I have decided I will not bargain with you, Marquis.

Marquis used his hands to prop himself up as he leaned back.  “A shame, but understandable.  You don’t need healing, and your people are a secondary concern.”

I will collect them as they fall.  But you are mistaken, Marquis.  I am not expressing disinterest in her talents.  I am saying that I will only deal with her as an equal.

In years of using his power, of breaking his own bones and feeling the pain each time, Marquis had made himself a master at hiding his emotions beneath a mask.  Even so, he only barely managed to contain his surprise.

“Very well,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and deftly retrieved a cigarette.  He took his time lighting it.  “We’ll be in touch, then.”

Agreed.”  Glaistig Uaine replied.  She extended a hand to Amelia, and Marquis tensed.

Do I stop her?

Every rational part of his psyche told him that the leader of cell block C had no quarrel with his daughter, that she was in no danger.  Every other part of him was telling him to stop her.

Amelia took Glaistig Uaine’s hand in her own, then hesitated.  After a moment, she curtseyed.

I taught her to do that more than a decade ago.

Glaistig Uaine returned the curtsey, then turned to leave.

The gathered cell block leaders watched as the self-professed faerie left.

There were capes who were deluded enough to think that their powers were actually magic.  There were capes who were neurotic in a way that didn’t shut them down or leave them unable to function.  Glaistig Uaine was one who fit both categories, and she was powerful enough to make people listen to her.  He’d never thought he could benefit from it.

Her lunacy actually plays out in my favor, Marquis thought to himself, even as his heart pounded in his chest.  He’d planned to let the tension ratchet up until Amelia was forced to use her power to rescue him.  Applying pressure, after a fashion, without being the one to force it.  He didn’t like it, but he needed her to break out of this state she was in, she needed to break out of it for her own sake, and he was willing to risk everything to see it happen.

“It seems that cell block C will be cooperating with us,” Marquis said.  Then he smiled.

“Glaistig Uaine might see things, but she isn’t usually wrong,” Galvanate said.  “She says the kid has power?  Fine.  Our issues are the usual.  The dentist in cell block T charges a small fortune, and we’ve got some toothaches.  Can you heal that?”

Amelia was still staring off towards the entrance to Marquis’ cell block.

“Amelia,” Marquis prodded her.

“What?”  She stirred.

“Could you heal a toothache?”

“Theoretically,” she said.

Good, Marquis thought.  Vague, but true.

“You’re cutting into my lieutenant’s business,” Teacher said.  “I won’t take that well.”

“Competition is the best thing in the long run,” Marquis replied.  “But maybe we can extend you a discount for your troubles?”

“Um,” Amelia spoke up.  All eyes turned her way.  “A silly question, but if my dad says it’s okay, maybe we can offer a deal, in exchange for an answer?”

Marquis suppressed the urge to frown.  “I think we could.”

“I know the answer’s no, but nobody really talks about it outside, so I’m not sure why… but with everyone we’ve got in here, why can’t we break out?”

Marquis sighed.  It was a newbie mistake, to dwell on the idea of escaping, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to counsel her.  It was good that she was more animated, expressing interest in something other than regret, but this wasn’t helping their image and it wasn’t good to let people know her full capabilities just yet.

“It’s a hollowed out mountain,” Lab Rat said.  “Vacuum, containment foam-“

“No,” Teacher cut him off.  “You want the real answer, healer?  It’ll cost.”

Amelia nodded.  Marquis suppressed yet another urge to cringe.

“Measuring devices are scarce down here, so we don’t have the full picture, but there’s a solid running theory on why we can’t just teleport out or fly through the vacuum and punch our way through the side of the mountain.”

“Do tell,” Marquis said.  It doesn’t matter in the end, but this is the first I’ve heard of it.

“Size warping technology.  The device might be no bigger than a football, and that’s hidden somewhere in the middle of the rocky mountains.  The warping apparatus would be bigger, but there’s nothing saying it’s anywhere close to the actual prison.  Reason we can’t break out is because we’re in a prison no bigger than your fist.  And if all of this is only this small,” Teacher held up a fist, then tapped it against the nearest table, “How far are you going to have to dig or teleport to get through a surface this thick?  Or through something as thick as that wall over there?  Or a hundred feet of lead with gallons of containment foam on the outside?”

“Okay,” Amelia said.  “I understand.  Thank you.”

That could have gone worse, Marquis thought.  It’s depressing, but it could be worse.

Teacher shrugged.  “Thank me with healing for my cell block.”

“A discount,” Marquis said.

Teacher nodded.  “A discount is possible.  What are you wanting?”

With that, the discussion was underway once more, and Marquis set about subtly setting the other cell block leaders against one another, controlling the conversation while making no promises.

This, he could handle.  He felt a quiet relief replace his fear.

“Faeries,” Amelia muttered.  They were venturing toward the communal dining area.

“Not real,” Marquis answered her.  “She sees things we can’t, the auroras that surround those with powers.  She’s named them as something else.”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “I saw her physiology when I touched her.  I couldn’t see what she sees, but I see how she’s carrying them inside her, drawing an energy from them.  And there were three more, just beside her, and she was using that energy to feed them… but they weren’t active?”

“She collects souls of dead and dying parahumans,” Marquis replied.  “Or the souls of any living soul that gets on her bad side.  But they’re not souls, really.  Teacher says they’re psychic images, photocopies of a single individual’s personality, memories and powers.  She can have a handful active and doing what she wants walking around at any given time.”

“They’re not faeries.  Or souls, or psychic images.  Our powers aren’t part of our bodies, exactly.  I would be able to alter them or take them away if they were.  What I saw when I touched glass-“

“Glaistig Uaine.”

“Her.  I feel like I just got clued into a missing piece of the puzzle.  They’re sentient.  Maybe they’re sleeping, like she said.  But they’re not dumb, and I think I’m getting an idea of what happens when they wake up.”

“Is it something we can use?”

“Not here.  Not in the Birdcage.”

“What a shame.”

“God,” Amelia muttered.  “Why did I ask to come here?  If I’d realized sooner-“

“Why did you ask to come here?”

The words hit her like a physical blow.  She hugged her arms close to her body, and her hair fell down around her face.  “My sister.  I used my power on her.  Unmade her.”

“I’m sorry.  A result of sibling rivalry?  A fight?”

“Love,” Amelia’s voice was small.  Her shoulders hunched forward.  He took her by the hand and led her to an alcove, where far fewer people would be able to see her if she cried.

“Alas, love.  The cruelest emotion of them all.  I’m sorry.”

Marquis considered hugging her, but he didn’t.  Part of it was the way she’d shied at his touch before.  He would let her approach him in her own way.  Another part of it, a small part of it, was the notion that Glaistig Uaine seemed to consider the girl to be at her level.

It was a long time before she spoke.  “You said, before, that family was the most important thing.”

“Something like that.”

“I… would you understand if I said I didn’t consider you family?  I- I’m glad you’re here, I’m glad to talk to you, but Victoria was my family.”

“I understand, yes.”  Expertise let him mask the pain her words caused him.  I abandoned you to them because I was too proud to stop being the Marquis of Brockton Bay.  I should understand that you grew more attached to them than to me, yet I can’t.

“I feel like I have to do something.  This feels important.  If I could explain, tell someone who understands…”

“There’s no escape, I’m afraid.”

“And,” Amelia blinked tears out of her eyes, “Already, I feel like I’m betraying Victoria, that I’m already forgetting her.  For just a few minutes, thinking about what I just found out from that girl, I stopped thinking about Victoria.  It’s my fault she isn’t there anymore, that there’s only that thing I created.  If I stop thinking about her, if I stop hurting, then I feel like I’m wronging her.”

“I suspect the pain won’t stop or heal as quickly as you’re thinking it will.  It hasn’t been that long, after all.”

“Except… if it stops at all?  If I ever forget, then I’ve subtracted something from the big picture.  It’s not that she was perfect, but…”

“But you need to maintain the memory.  Come.”

He gripped her hand and pulled her behind him.  She was too busy wiping tears from her eyes and snot from her upper lip to protest.

Still, he was glad that her face was mostly clear by the time they reached their destination.  A tinker sat at the corner of the dining area with tools strewn around him.  Makeshift devices crafted from the raw materials of their surroundings.

“How much for a tattoo?” Marquis asked, “For her?”

Amelia stared at him.

“Five books and five fags,” the tinker replied.

“Old books or new?”


Marquis turned to his daughter.  “If you decide to get it, I would advise a symbol rather than a face.  He won’t get the description exactly right, and the image will distort your mental picture.”

“I couldn’t remember her face as it was when it counted, anyways,” Amelia said, a dark look crossing her face.

“You’ll have the memory of your sister in physical form, so you can never forget as long as you live.  And when you’re done, we’ll take you back to your cell.  You can talk to the empty room, say what you need to say, and Dragon’s surveillance will catch it.”

“It’s like praying,” Amelia said.

“Except there’s a chance someone will listen and act on it,” Marquis replied.

Amelia nodded and sat down on the bench, then she began explaining what she wanted to the tattoo artist.

The house program that monitored the Birdcage followed the girl as she parted from her father and entered her cell in Cell Block W.

When she spoke, she addressed Dragon.  The program began transcribing the message as it did every word said within the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

Tracking programs then began reviewing the message.  Flags were raised as key words came up with some frequency, descriptions were run against a corpus of records in parahuman studies and more flags were tripped.

Sixty-two miles above the surface of the Earth, the Simurgh changed the course of her flight.

Following protocol for when Dragon was deployed on a mission, the system routed the message to one of Dragon’s satellite systems.  The resulting message was scrambled by the dense signature of the Endbringer en route to Dragon.

Receiving the garbled transmission from the satellite, a subsystem of the Dragon A.I. proceeded to sort it.  A scan of the message by a further subroutine saw it classified as non-pertinent, and a snarl in the code from Defiant’s improvised adjustments to her programming saw the message skip past several additional safeties and subroutines.  The message was compartmentalized alongside other notes and data that included flares of atmospheric radiation and stray signals from the planet below; background noise at best.

Considering its job done, the house program archived the transcription among fifteen years of conversation and notes from the Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.

The Simurgh flew on.

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

105 thoughts on “Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #3)

  1. Sort of scrambled to get this one done after a car trip that was supposed to get me home by 4 wound up taking until 10pm. Copied over from a handwritten journal, so please forgive any dumb errors.

    • “Size warping technology. The device might be no bigger than a football, and that’s hidden somewhere in the middle of the rocky mountains. The warping apparatus would be bigger, but there’s nothing saying it’s anywhere close to the actual prison.”
      – rocky mountains should be capitalised.
      – Also, the warping device is smaller than the warping apparatus? Aren’t they the same thing?

      • I actually wouldn’t go quite so far as to say she is the greatest threat to mankind. Without the other two to actually kill the humans and capes on a large scale I bet the Simurgh wouldn’t be able to fight long enough to drive people crazy. All three of the endbringers provide a vital service to the cause of the destruction of humanity. Simurgh is the coolest imo, but without the other two it is probably boned.

  2. So Glaistig collects the symbiotic spirit-things that give people powers? Interesting, although how she uses them confuses me. Is she like Eidolon and summons them up or is she like Larfleeze from Green Lantern, summoning spectral copies of them to do her bidding?

    And the Simurgh, no idea what she’s up to but it looks she has plans for the Birdcage or Panacea. That or theirs a conclusion she doesn’t Dragon to discover.

  3. My favorite kind of interlude where the setting gets expanded. I like the new villains, it makes you wonder what their story is and how they were captured. Teacher sounds like he has a power similar to Tattletale, and I can just picture Glaistig ruling over a city like a queen until someone stopped her. We also finally see a hint of Simurgh.

  4. Hmmm, just in case Wildbow sends the Undersiders to the birdcage I am picturing how they would fare in that environment. Skitter and Bitch would be in trouble without access to their minions, but Taylor does have a way of surprising people. Just imagining the other inmates reactions to the fact that Taylor beat Lung TWICE. Tattletale would be very useful to work with, so I think she would be fine. Regent’s power would probably scare people, so I can see him getting respect for his power or being killed due to the fear of being taken over. Grue and Imp would probably take over a cell block due to the nature of their powers. Imagine a cellblock always dark with somone who has copied all of their powers and an invisible assassin cutting out throats. Panacea would be very glad to have Taylor to talk with at least. Before the inevitable and epic jail break of course.

      • I get it! Since the Birdcage is the size of a small fist and if the Manton Effect on the size warper does not affect the range of her powers at that size, Skitter could just get the entire mountain’s bug population to dig them out; once out of range of the size warper(s) the Birdcage should grow back to normal size, cauzing an Endbringer level of damage to the surrounding area with only the most capable capes surviving the fallout.

    • They would be pretty much gauranteed to gather together for mutual protection. If Taylor couldn’t convince Amy to turn a few people into bugs and dogs for her and Bitch then they would be useless powerwise, but could provide tactical help and limited muscle respectively. With Grue’s new powers and hopefully a willingness to murder they would be able to set themselves up just fine in one of the empty cell blocks.

  5. The implications of the ending are terrifying. And while I’m absolutely on tenterhooks regarding Taylor, this was great.

    The thought of the Birdcage being tiny is interesting. It could just as easily be in another dimension, too. One made of antimatter.

    “block W” should be capitalized?
    “Other than his muscular physique, it was the only thing that set him apart from any ordinary man who one might see on the streets.” The only things, if you count the tattoos?
    ““I suspect the pain won’t stop or heal as quickly as you’re thinking it will, it hasn’t been that long, after all.” Maybe a dash, period, or ellipsis instead of a comma after ‘thinking it will’?

  6. Well, that was just cruel.

    But aside from that whole unheard prayer thing being necessary for the story, one has to wonder what sort of technology Dragon is using for communication. No handshakes, no acknowledgment of receipt, not even numbered messages that would tell her if she missed one. This just seems very, very wrong.

    The minaturization thing, is a new twist. Dragon has her own City of Kandor in a bottle it seems, but the existence of such technology (in contrast to the pseudo size-changing power of the neo-nazi amazon twins) opens up a whole lot of new possibilties for our main heroine. Hank Pym eat your heart out! Can you imagine what Skitter could do if she could shrink down to the size of a bug or grow bugs to human size?

        • Which means, essentially, that Simurgh is capable of bypassing both checksums and Dragon’s crazy-level encryption. Which implies that Simurgh has enough brainpower to either break Dragon’s encryption method (unlikely) or brute-force her message.

          And she can’t just disrupt the message in mid-air, she has to change it, bit for bit, into something else. A man-in-the-middle attack.

          A creature with such intelligence would have long destroyed the world by now. Either Simurgh is holding back, or its brain, like the best chess AIs, has incredible speed, but very little optimisation. It can force its way through algorithms, but has less of a handle on more nuanced problems.

          • Okay, I’ve read further into the story, and I understand Simurgh better. I won’t spoil anything, but feel free to ignore most of the stuff I wrote above.

      • On the one hand, Simmurrgh’s powers likely involve air manipulation or some such which would lend itself potently to manipulating electronic communication (she probably does a lot of this kind of thing) however I still agree with Loki.

        Dragon would be aware of the possibility of stuff like this from Tinkers, I find it hard to buy that she has absolutely no redundancies.

    • Necessary for the story? Sure. Not in a huge way, but…
      1) Panacea/Amy/Amelia’s faith (not necessarily her religion, but faith in a personality sense) may well be a part of her character arc.
      2) I haven’t really held back much of anything in other departments- Worm doesn’t have overt descriptions of sex or rape, and I’ve explained why elsewhere, but it touches on other topics.
      3) The views of the characters are not those of the author. I don’t harbor neo-nazi beliefs, don’t think it’s funny to put bombs in people, I don’t rationalize drug trade, kidnap little girls, gleefully eviscerate people and surgically alter the remains, play metaphorical games of musical chairs with superpowered lunatics, level cities or any of that.

      • I wasn’t really all that hung up about the religion, thing. The part with the very sloppy security struck me as far more heretic. (Probably because I do stuff along these lines for aliving and could see a number of ways to ensure message integrity that could not be defeated with anything short of the sort of superpowers that would easily allow the attacker to take over Dragon herself.)

        • Ok. I know it’s not perfect, as I’m exhausted & busy, but I’ve rewritten the ending slightly. New last line & further explanation as to what happened.

          If there’s still issue with the end result (and I can see where there might be) I’ll just have to put a pin in it & keep it in mind as something to fix for the final draft.

          Had I had time, I would have written it like I wrote the initial section of Dragon’s interlude, miming a system’s routines. I think it would have sold better.

        • That is the scary part- it is possible that Dragon, or at least the system dragon put in place to run the birdcage, is at a deep level compromised. Remember- beating the Simurgh off in direct confrontation isn’t the hard part.

    • Hate to burst your bubble, but you know what’ll happen if Skitter took a normal bug and used tech to make them man-sized or bigger?

      Taylor would end up with a useless pile of bleeding chitin that can barely breathe. Worm is more grounded in reality than most other superhero stories so that means you can’t suerpsize bugs without them falling prey to the Square-Cube Law and that the fact that a bug’s respiratory system sucks when the air isn’t 90% oxygen.

      And before you say Atlas, he was custom made by Panacea and biologically has probably nothing in common with a normal bug other than appearance and brain power.

      • With a second breakthrough I could easily see her making giant bugs and such. The wormverse is grounded in reality, but its physical laws are quite clearly not inviolate.

      • Well If you can shrink down humans and have them survive that, you can also enlarge insects. A tiny human would not work any better than agiant insect in reality. The hint that there are ‘space-warping’ effects at play here might be enough to ‘explain’ both.

      • Oh, that’s just evil/brilliant.

        Though it could perhaps have been used to “reform” then by altering their minds.

        So either Dragon doesn’t want the world knowing she has mind control tech, or her limitations stop her using it as anything other than a “security measure”. Or she already has, creating the supposedly-unspoken rules of capes.

        It also makes a free Dragon even more powerful. The world is just lucky she seems to have strong morals.

    • If the message is important enough then intercepting it isn’t petty at all. Simurgh is clearly the subtle one of the three, you don’t have to destroy a city or kill a bunch of people to perpetuate the destruction of humanity.

    • Remember, there’s only a word of difference between “Nuke the Russians!” and “Don’t nuke the Russians!”

      In fact, it took some Soviets holding off on their duty to save the world a few times when something interfered and made it look we had launched against them. Thanks to multiverse theory, that means there could be Earths out there where none of us here are alive.

      This interlude is all about subtlety. Love, power, manipulation, reputation, perception, faeries, and Simurgh’s actions there.

      Ah, love. Marquis’ statement about better an enemy than a one-time ally is a good connection to that too. Friends and loved ones are always so much more harmful to you. I’ve had a story I’ve wanted to throw together for a little bit that deals with such a harming. I just don’t have an ending for it, unfortunately. Doesn’t help that there was no resolution.

      And most of the time I’m just not subtle. Or am I? *dun dun duuuun!*

    • I’m going to have to suspect that the Simurgh just did more damage than Leviathan managed. If it was important enough to rattle through to Amy in THIS state of mind, it’s something of world-shaking importance. And we know roughly what it was about, given what sparked it. It may well have been the key to understanding the powers, the Endbringers, this whole mess.

      And now the only way to get that information out there in a timely fashion is to hope that Dragon fancies an archive-binge over a game of ten-by-ten, or to break the birdcage. Dun dun dun!

      • Again, we return to the topic of how we tally up the damage the Endbringers do.

        Did Leviathan’s attack lead to Panacea’s ultimate situation? Or the casualties the Slaughterhouse Nine tallied? All the damage that flowed from that?

        If you account for every person Panacea would have healed if she’d dealt with her issues in the end, do you consider them to be losses, to be damage?

        • Well we know several cities are gone, millions dead, people are probably starting to fight over drinking water due to Leviathan, and there is probably also a energy crises due to Behemoth attacking oil fields. I wonder if parts of the middle east, and Africa even exist if the Endbringers are drawn to violence. Simurgh can read minds, maybe even predict the future if she knew how damaging intercepting the “prayer” could be. She also drove Mannequin insane, which destroyed his efforts to create new tech to help the world. So she may potentially have done the most damage if she can predict the future. She can specifically attack certain people to make the world a worse place, and that isn’t even bringing into account what she can do as a Telepath. Can she only read minds, or drive a city insane similar to Bonesaw’s miasma?

          • In other words: The Simurgh envisions a dystopia the likes of which we can never comprehend, and the other two envision a lifeless rock floating around Sol.
            That, or they all want everyone to die, and The Simurgh is the mezzer of the three. He/she/it is attempting to crush humanity’s ability to escape, or effectively combat the Endbringers. After all, if Mannnequin had pulled off his Mars and or moon base, you could bet that unless the Endbringers learn how to achieve escape velocity, humanity would be out of reach.

          • Simurgh didn’t drive Mannequin insane, she drove Alan Gramme insane in order to create Mannequin, another inhuman tool for her war against humanity.

        • Hm…

          Honestly, we need more information on Simurgh to understand what the Endbringers are doing. Right now we hardly know if they’re even sentient or organized, based on their behavior. My strong suspicion is that they are, but it still is not certain. It might not even be the same for all three.

          Anyway, their strategy, if they have one, seems to be that Behemoth is the killer of heroes and Leviathan cuts out parts of human civilization. Simurgh’s role is hard to quantify, but appears to be in the process of poisoning individual humans to turn against the wider species.

          The Endbringers are, well, mysterious. They appear to be organized and military, but their goal doesn’t exactly seem to make sense. Wiping out humanity implies that humanity is a threat or holding onto something they value. If the Endbringers are a race it seems that both of these answers are unlikely. Of course they could be weapons or champions of a less individually powerful species of faction. But if this faction has Endbringers on their side, why would they want to exterminate rather than trade or conquer?

          If I had to theorize, the answer might be that the Endbringers are supposed to prevent humanity from becoming a threat due to mass production of superpowers. However, that implies that Endbringers are vastly harder to produce than parahumans, or that (para)humans are an existential threat to the Endbringer’s patrons for some other reason.

          Of course, banality of evil is always possible. Some alternate world may just find the Endbringer solution to be the cheapest way of wiping out humanity so they can access Wormverse’s mineral wealth or something. That’s possible, but it seems unlikely that a civilization that can cross universes would find this the safest and most cost effective way of exploiting Earth. Insanity, entertainment, childish misunderstanding, or misfired weapon systems are also possible and probably shouldn’t be dismissed.

  7. Great chapter, glad to see Panacea is at least showing an interest in escape even if she is still rather wallowing somewhat. Man, those super-dicks really did a number on her.

  8. Alright, boys and girls, it’s time for tieshaunn’s wild theory time!

    First, did anyone notice that Glaistig Uaine’s claim of them being around ‘300 years hence’ might not be impossible? after all, panacea can de-age someone – only 20 years at a time, but still, repeat use and such. true, she cannot use her power on herself, but she could devise a way to do so indirectly (create a virus or bacterium that infects and de-ages her) or she could die and Glaistig Uaine could revive her as a slave.

    but now, let’s get to the main part of my wtt. first, read these passages from the text again:

    “You’re nothing more than the dream of the faerie. I can see it, so vivacious, so creative in its movements, even in slumber. I think it might have been an artist. I want it for my collection.”
    – Glaistig Uaine

    “Your daughter, too. Your faerie is kin to the one that sleeps inside the girl.” – Glaistig Uaine

    “They’re sentient. Maybe they’re sleeping, like she said. But they’re not dumb, and I think I’m getting an idea of what happens when they wake up.” – Panacea

    alright, notice how both Glaistig and Panacea describe the passangers as being sentient and in slumber. we can assume that Glaistig’s “faeries” are the passangers that Bonesaw talked about. Amy all but confirms this. Now let’s dwelve deeper into this.

    Glaistig talks about Marquis’ passanger like it used to be an artist – a person. The operative term here being “used to”. You may have read my theory on Scion, back in the comments for Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2). What if he is the only physical survivor of another universe – but there are more, being “redistributed”. what if the passangers that grant powers used to be humans, but died and now have their souls redistributed? it would explain glaistig’s comments and panacea’s theory that they are sentient, but sleeping. trigger events, then, could be times when they wake up due to the emotional stress of their host and somehow giving power to them (perhaps their own – these could be the ‘souls’ of former parahumans).
    “what happens when they wake up” might refer to first and second trigger events, and how they grant new/improved powers.
    what else? ah, yes. the second citation from glaistig uaine. apparently, panacea’s passanger is related to her father’s. and we know from the discussion between piggot and legend during piggot’s first interlude that the running theory is that the high chance of the children of one or two parahumans to manifest is not genetic but due to constant exposure to parahumans during a formative age. what if there are whole “families” of passangers? If they used to be human, that would only be logical. so by being around children at the right age, and having an emotional connection, a passanger would attract his/her children/other family members to attach themselves/be attached by the twin entities to them.
    otherwise, it is possible that a passanger could duplicate/mate with itself/mate with another passanger to create a new one that would be attached to the child. that would explain why children often have similiar powers to their parents and also the ease of their triggering – their passangers are easier to wake, because they are younger – though I don’t know WHY that would influence their resistance to waking.

    That’s it for today, folks! Tune in next time to Tieshaunn’s Wild Theory Time!

    PS: to all readers of my Brennus-story, sorry for the extreme delay. There WILL be a new chapter within the next few hours – certainly before the 28th!

    • just noticed that I’ve been writing “passanger” instead of “passenger”. oops.

      also, just had my nightmare-thought for the week: Glaistig Uaine as a member of the S9. Brr.

    • As far as crackpot theories go this does seem to make sense. Considering the evidence. After all, odd split helix thingies are mentioned earlier, and alternate realities exist.
      I give it a 8/10 tinfoil hats. It makes sense, but it just doesn’t sit quite right.

    • Or there could be some sort of war going on. Kind of like the Shadows and Vorlons of Babylon 5. One side provides the passengers in some manner (possibly sleeping remnants of the race given a new home by caretakers?) while the other does their best to destroy the first race (either Endbringers are members of this second race or are tools of them).

      Or the caretaker things are actually space sadists who get off on trauma, literally. They use it to reproduce and implant the resulting baby in a human, causing problems with the human’s interface with the universe in the process. Due to such interference, a human with power’s genetics are altered it make it easier for their children to become a host as well. Unknown what the Endbringer role in it is, but possibly predators. Which is why Simurg interfered. Didn’t want anything compromising their food supply.

      Or this is all a test for humanity. If it passes and is able to come together enough to defeat the Endbringers, then they deserve the power to become a part of the greater universe by leaving the planet in some way. The powers are sent as a small gift that points them in the right direction. But the humans can’t know they are being tested.

    • Hm…

      Not saying you’re wrong, but not sure how it fits with the visions we have seen of the Passengers. They’re definitely described as fragments of a collapsing godlike entity that exists in multiple spacial dimensions. If your theory is right, then they are not humans. At closest they are posthuman creatures who started out as humans and became the godlike entity before splitting off again for their own reasons. At least one of the visions IIRC implied that there are a lot more than one of the dying godlike entities as well.

      Honestly, Scion and the Twin Entities don’t fit together that well IMO. I don’t think they have a unified origin. Scion seems far closer to humanity than the Twin Entities. He may have carried the infection from another world, but anything shaped like a human seems unlikely to be related to the Passengers. Ideally we’d have Tattletale meet Scion or a Scion PoV interlude if we wanted the whole story.

    • Interesting ideas.

      I’ve come across Worm moderately recently, and I’ve been posting about it over in the Other Media section of the [url=] foums[/url].

      In particular my last few posts in [url= thread[/url] touch on some of the same points you bring up, if anyone cares to check them out.

  9. uh oh, looks like shit is gonna go down in the birdcage. and just as panacea was taking the first steps of what may have been … still might be some serious character growth. thanks, i enjoyed this chappie.

  10. I’m kind of surprised there has been no other mention of Amy’s missing fingertips. Maybe it just wasn’t germane to the story, but it seems like it would be a big deal. It sure felt like a big deal to me at the time. Or maybe Amy has manufactured organic artificial replacements that interface perfectly with her existing nervous system. She certainly started down that path, with the bacterial covering she made for those wounds during the action immediately after Siberian bit them off.


  11. Great addition, love the villains, that Skitter never would have brought up, as by the time she got into the business they would already have been arrested.

    Have to admit though, as much as I liked this interlude, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The cliffhanger with Skitter, is just killing me with the wait, and I couldn’t properly enjoy this interlude since I am so hopped up on waiting to see what happens next.

    Good job Wildbow, brilliant piece of work you have here.

  12. More hints that the Simurgh is an Infokinetic (i.e. information manipulator) like I believe Leviathan to be a Momentakinetic (i.e. movement/momentum manipulator) and we know Behemoth is a Dynakinetic (i.e. force/energy manipulator).
    It would explain how the Simurgh appears to be a telepath where no telepaths exist, how it could key on a single conversation out of a vast area and behind the best defenses Dragon can erect from over sixty miles away and how its mere presence could alter a passing electromagnetic signal… in exactly the way that was needed for it to be disregarded without it being entirely lost or changed in a way that would cause a discrepancy between the Birdcage’s recorders and the archives, which a casual look would have easily caught. The degree of information awareness and influence in both humans and machines that implies is staggering.

    It also shows IMHO that the association of the Endbringers primarily with the traditional Earth/Water/Air triad is incomplete. Leviathan for example wouldn’t so much control water per se as he would redirect the water’s momentum; being a liquid, water is always in motion and is also one “object” Leviathan can influence all at once by touching – so it is the most expedient means of using his power. And water has an incredible amount of momentum and kinetic energy to redirect – the Gulf Stream for example is a hundreds-of-miles-wide, thousands-of-miles-long, more-than-a-mile-thick river of water. Redirecting that momentum and focusing it on, say, Washington, you could probably sink the entire state, shattering coast and plains and hills and mountains at once. Other than using it on himself that is – using his power to redirect his own momentum far more rapidly and precisely than any kind pf physical muscles could do would explain his speed (he’s faster than any speedster heroes, right?)

  13. My theory is that the Twins are parasites who need a human host body to grow. They mate for life, so to speak, then give someone powers to help them survive. The passengers will eventually “hatch” and possibly end the world. The whole parasite/reproduction cycle angle would explain the eggs we saw in the Dallon interlude.

    Perhaps the Endbringers serve to help this maturation process along by keeping humans from discovering the truth, keeping Earth’s population in what we would see as the “modern age,” which would serve to help maintain Earth as a breeding ground, and also causing more trigger events, thereby providing more opportunity for the Twin entities to breed (viz. the Simurgh’s actions against Alan Gramme, the incident at Japan, the Endbringers being drawn to conflict, the Simurgh’s actions in this interlude, and the general damage the Endbringers have wrought).

    This might also explain why a trigger event is more likely to happen when there are more parahumans around: when the Twins are trolling the multiverse looking for warm bodies, the presence of passengers in host bodies signal that the world/reality is hospitable for growth. They look for parahumans the way parents in America look for neighborhoods and suburbs with good schools.

    Scion, on the other hand, is the lone individual who fights against the trigger-causing circumstances (forest fires, avalanches, Endbringer attacks) that allows the Twins to breed. This is why he also fights Endbringers, and was disgusted by Eidolon: the latter individual unwittingly hastened his own destruction and that of humanity by getting powers from Cauldron. Maybe there’s a Scion character in every reality, and he’s part of a whole race of anti-Twins.

  14. You know, I would be willing to bet that there is a fourth endbringer. My reasoning is that two of the three we’ve seen/heard of so far clearly have an association with an element (the classical four- air, fire, earth, and water) and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that smiurgh is Air. This leaves only earth, of the four. Probably dormant at the center of the earth, or something.

    • Behemoth is theorized to hibernate at or near the earth’s core (mentioned in the briefing prior to Leviathan’s attack), and has powers associated with both earth and fire.

      • And it could be argued that the Simurgh exhibits both air and the ether.

        The Endbringers work as a set. They alternate attacking humanity through different methods, they map nicely to three of the classical Elements (Behemoth is earth here, I think), three modes of travel. It looks very much like there is a design–unified design–behind them. And it looks very much like they are designed by a human agent, or at the very least by an agent familiar with human culture.

        • Yes, and until this interlude everything we’d seen of them was consistent with them being controlled, or just directed, by some random parahuman Master who was living a mundane life while stomping a city every few months.

          I was half expecting an interlude where it would turn out some random civilian was either one or three endbringers, and would be having a pleasant conversation while “fixing” some trouble spot with Behemoth.

          Of course, this theory has no intrinsic link to the whole Entities thing: I thought of it in the Leviathan fight when he(?) seemed to know who he was fighting, as a human with access to news and an interest in capes would.

          My theory COULD still be right, but it lacks ties to the other plots, and the Simurgh reacting ‘out of cycle’ here is more evidence against it.

  15. no no no no no!
    The incredibly retarded idea of putting Amelia in the Birdcage shows it’s cost.

    I’ve a feeling this will be really really bad.
    I’m also now terrified of the Simurgh. It can’t be as powerful predictively and mentally (scrambling a message while hiding it is scrambled is OBSCENELY difficult with modern anti-hostile error correction, this implies a level of information processing that would make Simurgh a Singularity level threat) as this interlude indicates or the world is exactly as doomed as Simurgh wants it to be.
    So I’m guessing Simurgh has specific anti-encryption capabilities combined with the precognition to indicate key events that need altering. Still obscenely dangerous but not a Singularity-type (which are generally bad for narratives).

  16. Oh god, I’m starting to have an idea of how Jack Slash triggered the end of the world. He talked to Panacea. And then… …

  17. Well crap. Stupid Simurgh ruining our chance for quicker answers to the underlying mysteries of the Wormverse! I’m a little confused about the part with Defiant’s snarl noticing the message skipping safeguards. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Did his code work make it more likely that this message is going to get noticed eventually despite the tampering by the Simurgh or less likely for it to be noticed?

    It’s a little scary too that the Simurgh feels the need to alter this information that managed to get through to a shell shocked Amy…potential answers aside it drew the notice of a friggin Endbringer. She seriously needs to talk this out to anyone and everyone in there so that something gets noticed. And Glaistig is scary. If she can collect Passengers or something in addition to being batshit insane…*shudder*.

    Okay so the space warping tech is a good idea of their part but even with that it can’t be everything. All it would take to bypass that would be a teleporter with the ability to teleport wherever he can remember and you bypass that little inconvenience. I’m pretty sure somebody like that was mentioned earlier in the story…I think.

    • The three-hundred-year thing, the way she talks like she’s outside time, talking about “faeries” in a way that might mean “passengers”… and she was the one who raised Bakuda after she died, wasn’t she?
      I think she’s got an unusually direct line to the baby-virus-gods…

  18. As a networking student, I can say with certainty that the last bit with the transmission of the message feels unrealistic. When data is transmitted over Layer 4 (basically over routers and the Internet), it is in one of two protocols- User Datagram Protocol (UDP) or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). The former is basically a continuous flow of data where speed is prioritized over accuracy and file size. It is mainly used in streaming video or teleconferencing. The latter is used when accuracy and error checking is vital- such as for video game downloads, or the transmission of vitally fucking important data like what was being sent between the Birdcage and Dragon’s sub-AI. In it, the packets the data are sent in have a checksum that validates the specific values of the data. If they don’t match up, the packet is dropped, and a message is sent back saying the packet was dropped. If there is no confirmation of whether the packet was dropped or transmitted sent back to the host transmitting the data, it tries again. Connection remains established between the two end devices until the client computer has verified that all the packets match up to their respective checksums and that the file size is correct

    tl;dr There is no way that an oversight such as this would be permitted to occur in RL with ordinary systems, let alone something designed by /Dragon herself/. At best, Simurgh would distract Dragon enough for her to investigate it later, but she would be aware something was wrong and make a mental note to investigate it in her downtime, and the sub-AI would definitely have recorded this event in an error log.

    • Breaking TCP’s checksums isn’t that difficult when you’re literally in the middle of the transmission, as the Simurgh is here. All she has to do is change the checksums in transit, too. Basic man-in-the-middle attack. Or, better, corrupt the data in such a way that the corrupted data happens to produce the same checksums as the original. (This is mathematically difficult, but I don’t think it’s too spoily to say that I wouldn’t put it past the Simurgh.)

      More frightening is that Dragon’s probably not relying just on TCP’s primitive built-in checks to secure and ensure the integrity of her data transmissions, which means that the Simurgh just completely owned Dragon’s presumably-strong encryption and authentication protocols and launched that man-in-the-middle attack as a casual course correction.

      • Even more frightening: if the Simurgh has the ability to modify Dragon’s transmissions, she could have just completely blocked the data she was attacking, or replaced it with gibberish or something actually unremarkable like a repeat of an earlier part of the transmission. The fact that she only changed it enough for Dragon’s sorting algorithm to mark it as low-priority indicates something about her endgame here.

        She doesn’t just want Dragon to not have this information, and therefore make some wrong decision somewhere down the line- she wants Dragon to not be aware she has the information until she understands its significance and looks for it, so that after she makes that wrong decision, she can find out that she had the opportunity to make the right one instead, and kick herself that much harder over it.

  19. >He watched Amelia make her way to the point on the ramp where the railing terminated, step down to the corridor below that led to the showers .

    Space before full stop.

  20. Glad to get a glimpse of how Amelia is doing. Also glad to hear her admit how dumb it was for her to WANT to go to the birdcage. Those were terrible guardians for letting that happen, I wish Dragon could’ve at least pushed for a trial for her. That kid does not deserve to be there.

  21. I was desperately hoping Lustrum would be a one-time mention.

    “[Teacher] didn’t look like a cape in the least. He was fat, for one thing, and he was ugly, with a red face and balding pate.” How is being fat relevant to being parahuman?

    • Concerning the fat thing, I took it as just being one of the generalizations about capes in this world. We haven’t really been exposed to many at all that take a backseat once they get powers. Most, whether they be heroes, villains or Cauldron rejects all end up running around their town in one capacity or another. Whether that be protecting it or destroying or stealing or simply loving their newfound power we haven’t really seen very many who are content to sit down and not be fit enough to go for a good long run.

      I don’t think being thin is part and parcel to the powerset, but being in shape is to me just part of the implied overall cape culture. At least in America/Canada.

        • I still don’t see that being extremely relevant. Not all fat people can be “fixed” by running around town fighting crime like you say, some people are naturally fat that couldn’t be changed short of starvation to the point of near-death. It has nothing to do with “taking a backseat” or “being content to not be fit”. It seems absurd to imply that you WOULDN’T see many different body types among capes other than a supermodel physique.

          • Okay you are seriously putting words in my mouth with that comment. There is a major difference between being “fat” and being “in shape”. Teacher was not described as a sumo wrestler-body type or a linebacker-body type or even the in-shape-but-plus-size-body type. He was described as fat. Fat is overweight in an unhealthy manner. Fat as in “not fit”. Fat as in “not in shape”. THAT is what my comment was referring to. Those types get in better shape by doing their cape antics. Never once did I use or imply that fat people could be “fixed” by caping. I implied they’d get healthier and into better shape. There is a huge difference and I really don’t appreciate you putting words into my mouth like that.

            I’m sure there are many different body types. (Many different types have already been described actually.) But again there is a huge difference between a plus size larger person who is perfectly in shape and an obese person who can only run fifteen feet before collapsing. A cape life does not generally breed the latter yet by commenting on Teacher’s weight he was implied to be closer to that end of the spectrum making him very unusual and warranting the comment to begin with.

            • Your comment is very confusing. You make it clear up front that you’re aware of the distinction between overweight and fitness levels. But then you make comments like “Fat as in ‘not in shape'” which suggest the two are mutually exclusive. If your intent was to clarify your position, I don’t think it has worked.

              Incidentally, I tend to agree that in a superhero setting like the Wormverse which focusses more on the real-world implications of its premise, I would expect to see a more realistic diversity of body shapes (at least outside the Protectorate and Wards who presumably have fitness requirements for their members). If anything I’d expect higher rates of triggering in the overweight and unfit since they tend to be more persecuted.

              It’s possible the birdcage is just disproportionately full of super-crims who couldn’t run fast enough because they were out of shape, but I doubt it. It’s primarily a battle of powers. There’s lots of people who could be highly effective without requiring high fitness levels. Half the Undersiders have abilities that would let them sit back and/or commit crimes at a leisurely pace.

              Look at characters like Legend – he can fly and fire lasers. He needs fitness for exactly what? Glory girl has strength and toughness automagically. Why would she need to work out? (Random aside: What *does* Superman do to maintain that physique? Benchpress planets every morning?).

              Sure, it’s probably suboptimal. But human nature being what it is, do you really think most people gifted with phenomenal power are gonna go “welp, better work out so as to maximise the benefits”? Or do you think they’re gonna let their powers do the work?

              • I do actually consider the two as mutually exclusive. I’ve been in the Navy for years and there are many people I work with who have larger body types but can bench press hundreds of pounds and outrun half the crew yet they are considered overweight by the standards; I don’t consider them “fat”. I use “fat” as someone who’s extreme body mass is merely one aspect of their aversion to staying healthy and physically capable. (Granted this probably doesn’t actually help to clarify my position at all…)

                I’d actually dispute that half the Undersiders can sit back and do things slow. Taylor has to stay at least somewhat mobile since her range is limited to only several blocks generally. If her targets also move and she can’t keep up she’s screwed. Tattletale specializes in pissing people off meaning she has to be able to dodge when they come at her. If she was willing to be mission control though then yeah I agree she could probably sit at a computer and be rather sedentary. Grue has the same limits as Taylor of having to stay mobile to keep in range. Regent could probably be one of the leisurely members when doing his puppet thing but even then we don’t know his full range limit.

                I fully grant you Legend and Superman probably have little need beyond personal preference and setting a good example to stay in shape. Glory Girl though…well Victoria strikes me as the type of person to be super vain and obsess about her good looks even if she could just emotioncontrol someone into liking her without that boost.

                Yes there could be many powers that don’t flat out require high fitness but in a world with Endbringers and near constant fighting not having good fitness is a recipe for disaster. As Taylor proves time and again, powers are not the end all be all. Being creative and resourceful is just as important and your options get much more limited if you get winded after running half a block.

              • So you’re deliberately using the word “fat” wrong. Got it.

                The Undersiders I was thinking of were Regent, Grue and Bitch, though Taylor probably counts too if she has something to help with her mobility. (I don’t remember Grue’s range but he could easily blanket a bank in darkness while he cleans the place out.

                GG probably would remain thin for vanity reasons (though thin isn’t the same thing as fit) but that’s personal choice, not because she needs to to be competitive, which is what we were talking about.

                Endbringers are essentially a force of nature. You might as well say “people need to stay in good shape in case there’s an earthquake”.

                Your options are more limited if you get winded running a block but as you say, creativity and resourcefulness can carry you a long way.

                My point is not that it doesn’t benefit a Cape to be in shape. Most capes would benefit from it. My point is that, in a realistic world many capes would be out of shape *anyway*. Being in shape is of massive benefit to people in the real world too. Many people still aren’t for various reasons.

              • If you want to go with that sure.

                Grue’s darkness thing can blanket a lot sure but he still has to take the people inside it out by personally. Bitch can give her dogs some juice but she really has to stay close to keep giving them orders and it’s been shown that staying on the dogs themselves is a demanding task. Regent I’ll give you as above.

                True but the point still stands. Vanity is a part of cape life and while we were mainly focusing on competitive the larger cape life also is relevant.

                That’s really not a good comparison for the Endbringers. Normal people don’t fight earthquakes on a semi-regular basis. If you are a cape, odds are you are fighting an Endbringer every few months. Yeah they are forces of nature but they are forces of nature with a cycle and an inevitability.

                My point is similar to yours actually we’re just reaching different conclusions. My concept of this world is that as an active cape it’s not only in someone’s best interest but it is directly proportional to their long term survival to be physically fit. It’s realistic in that world. As Shadow Stalker would put it, it’s Darwin’s Law, Survival of the Fittest. Can nonactive capes perform well? Sure but they are the exception not the rule (Teacher). I agree that a lot of triggers probably happened with overweight people but I think that as they started getting into the cape lifestyle they would’ve started shedding the pounds in 9 out of 10 cases simply due to the daily grind of cape life. I think it was even commented on that something like that happened to few of the people in this story.

              • A force of nature is a pretty good analogy for Endbringers. They drop in on your town unannounced and if you’re directly in their path, you’re probably screwed no matter how fit you are. Fitness helps about as much as it would vs a Tornado – which is to say, it might make a small difference in the edge cases.

                Remember that fighting Endbringers is a voluntary thing. If you don’t think you’ve got a chance of surviving it, you probably won’t do it. But if you do, see point A above.

                You could even make a counter-argument that there should be *more* out-of-shape capes since the fit, confident ones are likelier to take their chances against an Endbringer and come off second-best.

                I don’t actually think Cape life is the daily grind you seem to think it is. The Undersiders made the point that life had been fairly quiet until the point Taylor joined them and life got hectic for them because they waged a war of aggression against the PRT then had the exceptional misfortune to have an Endbringer drop on that city (something that happens to one city in the world every few years) which in turn attracted the S9. Most capes would go lifetimes without encounters of that magnitude (which is, of course, why Wildbow pointed the camera at Taylor and Co. :)). I’m not sure how far through this actually is so I don’t want to drop too many names ‘cos spoilers, but look at the typical background adventures of many characters in this and you see that things were actually comparatively laid back for most of fun them. At the time we started this narrative, even the Wards seemed like they were just having fun out there with minimal serious consequences. And this was in one of America’s most cape-heavy cities.

                Life and death superfights seem to have been a rare thing overall. Taylor’s just lucky.🙂

              • Actually, you are using it wrong. You’re insisting that the word “fat” directly correlates with unhealthiness, but ‘fat’ is an all purpose term for people who have a lot of body fat. There’s no need to sugar-coat it with terms like “plus-size” or “large”. Fatness is a natural attribute most people’s bodies that cannot be exercised away, but your argument comes off to me as implying that healthy fat people are an anomaly, such as in “9 out of 10 people would shed their pounds”; in fact saying that they would be ‘fixed’ by running around fighting crime, like I said originally.

                Not only that, but to evoke natural selection? I -know- you didn’t mean it that way, but that boils down to saying it’s par for the course for fat people to suffer and die. “It’s a cruel world, deal with it” and all that. This stuff is the kind of insidious thinking that causes fatphobia in the first place.

  22. “I’m pulling your pins next.”

    “Crawl up your asshole and leave you some tapeworms.“

    “I’m behind you.”

    “I can have centipedes crawl beneath your eyelids. Chew your eyes out at the root.”

    “Ever wonder if a mosquito could pass on the H.I.V. virus?”



  23. If any of the Birdcage prisoners do try to rape Amelia they’ll be lucky to get away dead: her trauma over her power doesn’t seem to be quite extreme enough to prevent her using it instinctively.

    Then of course there’s Marquis…

    Glaistig Uaine might have something to say too, who knows.

    Arguably, the fact that the Simurgh intercepted the message is hopeful: the Wormverse is coordinating against global threats better than we are (admittedly, their ones are more blatant and we’ve only seen a little of the response), and that’s with all the most important communications being subtly altered by a presumably-malevolent being. Just think what they could do if someone kills the Simurgh (a trained Dinah versus Simurgh would be intriguing, a prediction-fight like the climax of Sherlock Holmes: a Game of Shadows, but on a global or multiversal scale, if the comments’ guesses of Simurgh’s powers are largely right).

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