Imago 21.5

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The rain had softened to a light drizzle by the time we finished.

My sundress was lying on the floor, a little worse for wear where I’d thrown it to the ground and used it to sweep much of the grit, plaster and sawdust from the spot where we’d laid down.  I shook it, then called my swarm, let my bugs crawl up my body to sweep and brush my skin clean.  The bugs made their way up the sides and back of my neck to my hair, then weaved through it as a mass, their bodies and mandibles helping to set it in order.  Others progressed down my arms, making their way to the dress, doing much the same with the fabric.

I was just about finished when I caught Brian staring at me.

I raised an eyebrow, and he smiled a little, shook his head, turned his attention to his costume.

I pulled the sundress over my head, and it was my chance to take a look at Brian.  He had only the leggings of his costume on, and was working one arm into the sleeve, his chest bare behind the ‘v’ of the unzipped upper body.  The way his muscles shifted fluidly beneath his skin, the lines of his body… I felt an ache that wasn’t heartbreak.  A pang of loss on a baser level.

I wanted him, damn it.  Wanted to nourish every sense with him.  The visual of him, the taste of his sweat when I kissed his skin, his smell, the bass of his voice and the little noises he made.  The feel of him, warm, the way every part of him was firm without being unyielding.

But no, it wasn’t going to work out.  There was no long-term, and trying to cling to one would only spoil it all.

We hadn’t said anything for a few minutes.  I didn’t want to taint the silence with something that would only be awkward or ineffectual, couldn’t think of anything meaningful to say, but I didn’t want to leave him feeling like I was ashamed or unhappy, leaving it like this.

While he was still pulling on the upper part of his costume, I approached him, stood on my tiptoes, and then kissed his cheek.

Brian didn’t respond as I got the bags, collected the paperwork, folder and booklet Citrine had given us and headed down the stairwell to the street, moving at something between a brisk walk and a jog every step of the way.

There were no catcalls as I made my way back to the upper end of downtown.  Many of the construction workers had taken shelter while the rain was heavier, moving indoors, and the ones who’d stayed outside were still in a state where they were focusing more on the work than on the wet, noisy, damaged world beyond the work site.

The thin drizzle of rain was bothersome.  It wasn’t so much the wet, or the fact that it threatened to draw attention to me.  It was the fact that it was raining just enough that it was uncomfortable, but I’d still look lame if I used an umbrella.

No matter, in the grand scheme of things.  I stretched as I walked, one arm over my head, one hand gripping it and pulling.  It was a good feeling.

For a while now, it had been hard to put a finger on my emotions.  What I was feeling now was crystal clear.  Loss.  Disappointment.  Relief.

All things considered, I felt oddly upbeat as I boarded a bus and caught a ride to my territory.  I had to take off my hat to avoid bumping it into people, and felt conspicuous, the ends of my hair wet, hat gone, my light, tourist-y appearance a little the worse for wear.

I headed to the empty seats at the back, and I couldn’t help but notice that one thirty-something year old guy was studying my face as I walked by.  He was with two or three of his friends, all of them tanned and dressed like the construction workers I’d passed.  Laborers.  I directed a small few mosquitoes to him as I brushed past.  One on each elbow and knee, to give me a sense of where he was moving and what he was doing.

It was thanks to the bugs that I could get the general idea of his movements: him reaching out to one of his friends, tugging on their arm, then leaning close to say something I couldn’t hear.

Damn it.  Not a problem, like it would be if someone spotted me on my way away from my territory, creating the possibility that heroes might crash the meeting with Citrine, but nonetheless inconvenient.

I sat in the back corner and set the bags beside me.  They were loaded down with hostile bugs, I had the handle to the bus’ emergency exit beside me, and my weapons were near-to-hand if things really got ugly.

The four men approached me, and I kept looking out the window, feigning a lack of concern.

They sat around me, all well-built, tall men, a barrier between me and the rest of the occupants of the bus. The one who’d noticed me glanced my way; I met his eyes, and he gave me a curt nod before deliberately ignoring me.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I appreciated the idea behind it, assuming it was for my benefit.  Was it the notion that I was a girl who needed protection?  Or was I more bothered by the fact that I probably needed a shower, and they were sitting a little close to me?

It might help to get a license, I thought.  And a car.

I smiled just a little at the idea that I might get a Volkswagen Beetle.  It’d be stupid, impractical, and it would be too obvious.  A van would be better in every respect.

Not that I couldn’t buy a number of cars.  A bug, a van, a boat… even a helicopter, assuming Atlas wouldn’t hold up.

No.  I was being unrealistic.  Still, it was an amusing thought.

Everyone exited the bus at the final stop, the area where the ferry had once been.  My self-styled escorts were among the last to leave, departing without so much as a glance my way, and I was last to step out into my territory.

I made my way deeper into my territory, my hat still stuffed in a bag, the soft rain wetting my hair and beading my skin.  My escorts made their way to a construction site, but other  people were recognizing me now that I was in my territory, and their recognition only helped others to notice.  Groups of people stepped out of my way in respect, in fear or a mingling of the two.

There was no rush.  I took a roundabout route, watching over my bugs and ensuring that everything was in an appropriate place.  Rats were still something of an issue, having feasted and multiplied many times over in the aftermath of the Leviathan attack, and I made a point of finding and exterminating any litters I found.

Mosquitoes had multiplied in the early spring, with shallow water everywhere for them to lay their eggs and multiply.  They were one species I wanted to keep away from people, and I made a point of moving them away from all residential areas.  They were the filler in my swarms, one of the only species around that I could eradicate or use up entirely without doing too much to upset the local ecology.

I wanted Brockton Bay stable, everything in order.  That wasn’t limited to the human aspect of things.

I entered an area where the damage had once been heaviest, and where much of the construction had recently finished.  Here, things had been brought up to standards.  The roads were still wide, owing to the fact that this area had once been intended more for industry and the movement of big ships and trucks, and that had been preserved.  Even the alleys, marked clearly with new one-way signs, tended to be wide enough that trucks and cars could potentially pass through in pairs.  But where there had once been dilapidated warehouses and factories, the buildings were quaint, neat and tidy, with siding in whites and light colors.  ‘Seaside colors’ I’d heard it described.  Colors that were warmer and more enticing, fitting with the boardwalk-in progress, the beaches that were being thoroughly cleaned, and the bay itself.  The water was gray now, reflecting the overcast sky above, but it was capable of being a brilliant, stellar blue.

People were already officially moving into this area, which had once been the part of Brockton Bay that people were urged to stay away from.  Couples, laborers, people with kids.

I felt a measure of distaste as I spotted a crude attempt at my ‘tag’ on the side of one of the nicer, newer homes: a narrow, pale blue condominium.  I’d made requests that the graffiti be kept subtle, and I’d told people who worked for me to pass on word that others shouldn’t take it on themselves to repeat the mark elsewhere, to limit confusion.  My emblem, a beetle with wings spread, marked walls and signposts, predominantly on the buildings that had yet to receive attention.  Still, there were crude replicas here and there.  I’d have to make sure someone was watching out for that and passing on the word.

People were still watching me, eyeing me as I walked through the area.  Mosquitoes I’d brought to myself were clinging to me, leaving little doubt about who I was.  There was no need to hide.  I’d have other measures in place before too long.

My detour brought me around to what had become a makeshift memorial.  There were flowers and the like forming a ring where a fence had been erected.  In the center of the ring, an oval shape sat embedded in the ground.  This was the area where we’d fought Leviathan.  A time-distortion grenade had gone off, and three heroes had been trapped inside.  Brockton Bay’s own Dauntless among them.

The center of the bubble was as impenetrable as Clockblocker’s power, while the effects were more nebulous around the edges.  Dust and moisture were caught in the sphere, obscuring the contents, all moving a fraction of a glacial pace.  There was a hand print at one point where someone had tried to touch it, shifting the dust and moisture, losing some skin in the process.  In other spots, less respectful people had thrown things at the sphere.  Pennies, sticks.  That had stopped when others had tidied up the area and the flowers had started appearing here and there.

There had been talk of blanketing the entire thing in flower petals, so it wasn’t a gray-brown egg with a neat pattern, but others wanted to leave it be, protecting it with a bubble or shelter so the rain and dust could clear away, and people who visited could see the three heroes as they were when they were caught within, in the midst of being thrown through the air, the very moment they effectively gave their lives for the sake of the city and the world.

The entire thing was framed by the surrounding buildings.  There’d been too much damage from the skirmish with Leviathan for them to stand, and I’d made a special request to the designers for the rebuilding.  They were shaped so that there was something of a clearing around the bubble.  The city could decide what to do with the bubble itself; I’d done what I could with the surroundings.

I reached into one of the shopping bags, retrieving a small bouquet.  I laid it just outside the fence, where it joined innumerable other tokens of respect: Letters, flowers, an action figure, a Dauntless poster with something illegible scribbled on it.

The city was healing, but there were still scars.  Some were smaller, like this.  Others, like the appropriately named ‘Scar’ downtown, or the lake Leviathan had created, weren’t so minor, would loom in the awareness of the people who lived here for a long time to come.  The ‘Scar’ had been encased in a squat, windowless, zig-zagging piece of architecture.  The lake would likely remain as it was, until the city found a way to make more use of it.  Neither was particularly pleasant to think about, either in terms of what had happened or the ideas about what could come in the future.

I could only hope that we could be so lucky in other areas, to have only scars and unpleasant reminders.

I was halfway back to my lair when I sensed intruders.  In an instant, my nerves were on edge, bugs stirring from the surroundings to investigate as discreetly as I could.

I thought of Leviathan attacking the area, of Mannequin’s visits, of Burnscar.

Except these were heroes present.

I let myself relax a fraction, waited until I was as calm as I could get.  Then I approached.

Parian was sitting on a bench under some eaves, Miss Militia leaning against a wall a few steps to her right, holding a bottle of water, and Flechette was a little ways away, staring up at a building in progress.  My people hung back, staring or watching the heroes with a wary eye, hesitant.  They couldn’t be sure if there was a confrontation in the works or if they should keep working, so they weren’t leaving and they weren’t really working.

Others were staring at me, noticing me.  Miss Militia seemed to catch onto the reaction of the crowd even before I was in her field of view.  She straightened and a rifle appeared in one hand.

Flechette saw the heroine move out of the corner of one eye, turned my way with her arbalest in hand.

Neither of them pointed their weapons at me.  A good sign.

“You’re in my territory,” I said, when I was in earshot.

“Apparently,” Flechette said, her voice level, “We can’t go anywhere in this city without being in someone’s territory.”

Miss Militia shot the girl a warning look.  “Parian invited us.”

I glanced at Parian, who was still sitting in her seat, a cloth doll in her lap.  “I would have preferred if she’d asked me first, but fine.”

“We wanted to talk,” Miss Militia said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Because that’s worked very well in the past few days, hasn’t it?  Or did you miss the notice?  The PRT outed me.”

“I’m aware,” Miss Militia said.  “I was there when they made the decision.  I spoke against it, for all the good it did.”

“For the record…” I said, and I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.  I didn’t have my costume, but I could use intimidation to armor myself.  “Your stay here is a very temporary one.  I can ask you to leave at any time.  Your choice whether that’s peacefully or if I evict you.”

I could see Flechette tense.

“We’re not looking to fight,” Miss Militia said.

“Good,” I said, glancing around me.  The rain was still pattering down around me, and the street was damp, not flooded, but it wouldn’t be good to offload my bags there.  I ventured under the eaves and set the bags down in a dry spot.  I folded my arms.  “Give me your weapons.”

“There’s no point to giving you mine,” Miss Militia said.  “I could call it back to me, switch it to something else and shoot you before you could react.”

“That’s fine,” I told her.  “This is a symbolic gesture.  Please give me your weapons.”

She stared at me, taking me in.  Then she looked down at the gun.  It flickered and became a bowie-knife.  She tossed it into the air, caught it by the flat of the blade, and then approached me, extending the handle in my direction.

I took the blade, and I could swear it reacted, vibrating.

“It’s alive.”

“Yes,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s a part of me.”

A part of her, as in… a part of her mind? Or is it her passenger?

I felt like there was something more I should say in response to that, but I decided to focus on the matter at hand. People were watching from the sidelines.

“Flechette.  Your arbalest,” I said.

She looked far less agreeable than Miss Militia had been.  She glanced at her superior, received a nod in response.

Flechette placed the arbalest on the ground halfway between us, then backed off.

I was willing to bet she had other weapons, but it wasn’t worth the effort to get them from her.

“You owe me,” Flechette told Parian.  Parian didn’t respond, staring down at the ground.

“She owes you?” I asked.

“I was home.  I came back because she asked, and it’s probably coming out of my time off.  And you weren’t even here when we arrived.  We waited twenty minutes.”

“I would have been if I had any notice,” I said.

“I don’t want something ugly to happen on my vacation day,” Flechette said.  “That’s all I’m saying.  Not happy-cool about this as it is.”

“Were you shopping?” Miss Militia asked, as if she were trying to change the subject or distract me from Flechette.  When I looked, her eyebrows were indicating mild surprise.

“I can’t go shopping anymore,” I said.  “I don’t want to sound hostile, but reminding me of that isn’t going to help anything.”

“You’re upset,” Miss Militia said.  Before I could think of a retort, she added, “You deserve to be.”

I shut my eyes briefly.  When I asked my question, I sounded almost exasperated, “Why are you here?”

“The first reports came back from inside the portal, and they’re promising.”

I nodded.

“Fresh water, lumber.  Geological surveys suggest there’s mining, and that’s all in close proximity to the portal.  Plant, animal and insect life seem to have evolved in rough parallel to our own.  Worldwide, there’s few signs of pre-existing human civilization, and no human life that we’ve been able to detect.  The deviation point seems to be nearly five thousand years ago.  Several teams are working on analyzing the sites where humans settled, looking for the cause of extinction.  We’ll have reports back soon, and we expect to make a statement to the world at large in a few days.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.  If she weren’t nursing a bad migraine, I suspected she would have already informed me of the details.

“Even if it turns out there’s a plague, parasite or hostile agency in this other world, the sheer value of the resources on the other side are going to make this portal very valuable.  I think it’s safe to say Brockton Bay stands to become a rich city, and that begins the moment the news gets out.”

I nodded slowly.

“You don’t look surprised.”

“Expected something like that,” I said.  “I suppose this means you want to talk to the villains that are currently controlling this soon-to-be-rich city’s underworld.”

“Dragon and Defiant came to Brockton Bay with the interest of setting up a plan, drawing a truce between your group and ours.  I suspect Dragon already had suspicions about this other world and everything it entailed.”

“Except things got screwed up along the way,” I said.

“Yes.  And on the other side of things, particular events came to light, validating things you’d said, on several fronts.”

I glanced at Flechette.  I’d given her directions to find the armband.  There was also the business with the leading heroes of the Protectorate being complicit in the Cauldron debacle.  I wasn’t sure Flechette was up to date on that one.

“You checked out the armband?”  I asked Flechette.

It was Miss Militia who answered, “I was informed about possible tinker material being passed around and investigated, possible contraband.  It was Flechette investigating the device.  We contacted Defiant together and got the answers we were looking for, in a much more direct manner.”

“He was your friend.”

“A colleague and a friend, yes.  We were very good at different things.  He told me he was sorry he couldn’t attend this meeting.  He’s… preoccupied at present.  Flechette, Defiant and I had a long series of discussions that led nowhere in particular.  It only pointed to an increasingly ugly situation without an easy resolution.  Until Parian contacted Flechette about a meeting.”

“With me,” I said.

“With you.”

I glanced back at Parian.  She wasn’t moving, still sitting in a chair, not looking our way.

“Okay,” I said.  “We can talk.”

“Good.  Let me start off by extending an apology.  I’m sorry things turned out as they did.  I don’t agree with the way that incident played out.”

That incident.  The thing at the school.

“We looked back at what happened with your history at the school, the allegations of bullying-”

“Stop,” I said.

She did.

“If you’re going to say anything on the subject, don’t mince words.  You know who Shadow Stalker was beneath the mask.  You probably have an idea of the kind of things she did.  Don’t pretty it up by using words like allegations.”

Flechette stared at me.

“Not allegations then.  The bullying, the abuse you endured.  I don’t like that it happened.  I don’t like that we were complicit in it.  It fills in quite a few blanks, helping me make sense of what happened after you uncovered Shadow Stalker’s secret identity.  Defiant knows too, now.  I recognize that it might even have pushed you to take a different direction with your newfound powers.”

“I got my powers because of her,” I said.

Miss Militia fell silent.

“Early January, followed by a hospital stay.  You can look it up.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.  “I suspected it was your mother’s passing that caused your trigger.”

“See,” I told her. “There’s one thing that’s really grating with you heroes.  You keep saying sorry.  Oh, you guys are sorry your top members were kidnapping people and turning them into freaks.  You guys are sorry that some of your members bought their powers.  You’re sorry that your bosses crossed a line, trying to drop bombs on our team members after we did the grunt work of facing the Slaughterhouse Nine.  You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath that you let her get away scott-free with the abuse she was inflicting on a bystander.  But you don’t change.  You don’t do anything about it.”

There was enough venom in my voice that Flechette had started eyeing her arbalest, where it sat in the rain.  One of her hands was poised in the air, as if she were preparing to reach into a pouch at her side.  She was looking at the crowd around us, and I couldn’t tell if it was because she was worried they’d respond if she attacked me, or if she was double checking they were out of earshot.

“That’s why we’re here,” Miss Militia said, calm.

“That’s why we’re here,” I echoed her.  “Yeah.  Well said.  All those events I just mentioned, they’re part of why I’m here.  I’d say you have nobody to blame but yourselves for the fact that you have me to deal with, but I’m willing to admit I’m largely at fault for the decisions I made.  You guys… you just greased the wheels, I suppose.”

“We’d like to change that dynamic.  Defiant, Dragon, myself-”

“You want to change, but you’re still working for them.  For the Protectorate,” I said.

“We have to.”

I frowned, forced myself to relax.  “Dragon said the same thing.  Tattletale filled me in on the reasoning.  You think we need the Protectorate.”

“We do.  And if everyone with enough of a conscience to feel regret over these events were to leave, I don’t think anyone will be happy with the group of those who stayed behind.”

“There’s another route,” I said.  “Accept that it’s broken, accept that it needs to change, and do something about it.  Recognize that what Tagg did was fucked up, act on that.”

“It’s dangerous.  Things are sensitive.  There’s only an eighteen percent chance of success in the upcoming fight if we face Behemoth.  Twenty-nine percent if it’s the Simurgh, with… a great deal more fallout after the fact.   Without the Protectorate, chances drop to an even lower number than they are, and the damage gets worse.”

Dinah.  The only way they’d have these numbers would be Dinah.

“You’re afraid of rocking the boat when the ship’s sinking,” I said.

“Something like that.”

I sighed.

“But…” Miss Militia hesitated.  “In light of revelations over this past month, keeping recent events in mind, and perhaps because we have more of an insight into who you are, Taylor Hebert, I think we might be more open to more discussion than we were.”

“Who’s we?”

“The Protectorate, the Wards.”

“The PRT?”

Miss Militia shook her head.

It wouldn’t be enough if the PRT wasn’t on board.  There was some argument I wanted to make, something I wanted to say, but I couldn’t articulate it, couldn’t quite form the thought in my head.

“What do you think of this?” I asked Flechette, to buy myself time to think, or maybe in hopes of rounding out the half-formed thought.

“It doesn’t directly affect me,” she said, glancing away.  “I’m still trying to decide if I should trust you.

“If it doesn’t directly affect you, why does this matter?”

“Because I got home and saw my family, and they said I was different, angrier.  And they were right.  Because I’m hearing about everything that’s happening, all these secrets coming out, and I can’t even look at my teammates without wondering if there’s something nefarious about them.  Because Parian was the one good thing I found in this city, and you recruited her,” Flechette said.

Parian looked up.

“That costume, it’s like a slap in the face.  Like, it wasn’t obvious enough you corrupted her.  You had to take the playfulness away?  The joy?”

“Hey,” Parian said, standing.  “It was my decision.”

“She was following advice I gave,” I said.  “She wanted to stand up to the people who are trying to attack her territory, and she wanted to do it without our help.  Being a little more intimidating doesn’t hurt.”


“Flechette,” Miss Militia cut her off.

Flechette went limp, the fight gone out of her, just like that.

“I don’t know anymore,” Flechette said.  “I don’t know where I’m going.  Everything was all laid out, a career with the Wards, a career with the Protectorate.  Except I’m not even sure there’s going to be a future anymore… and I’m not sure what happens if there is.”

“I think you and I are very similar on that front,” I said, my voice quiet.

She looked at me, her lips pressed together in anger, then looked away, unable to disagree, as much as she might want to.

“I guess… I guess what it comes down to,” I said, “Is that you have to decide what you want.  What you’re willing to fight for and make sacrifices for.”

Flechette’s eyes flickered over to Parian, then down to the ground.


“I’m… alone,” she said.  “I’ve never been alone, never been good at being by myself.  Last few days I was here, I wanted nothing more than to go home.  And when I finally got to… I’ve never felt more disconnected from everyone around me.  It wasn’t what I wanted, or what I needed.  I can’t trust my team, can’t talk to my family, can’t confide anything in my friends.  Sounds stupid when I say that.  Sounds weak.”

“I’m fully aware I don’t have much stock with you, so maybe what I say isn’t worth much to you, but I don’t think less of you for saying that.  The prospect of being all on your own is scary.  It’s harder, and things are hard enough as it is.”

Miss Militia was staring at me.  I met her eyes.

“Interesting to have a conversation with you,” she said, “With a greater understanding of the girl behind the mask.  What do you want, Taylor?”

“I’m not Taylor,” I said.  “In costume or out, I’m Skitter, up until I decide on a new name.”

“Skitter, then.”

“Compromise,” I said.  “Give me compromise.”

“I can try.”

“You can, the Wards can, but the PRT won’t.  You said as much.”

“They have other burdens to bear.”

“And until they work with us, they’re going to be a bucking bull in a china shop,” I said.  “Strutting around and doing catastrophic damage to a delicate situation.  Tagg said this is a war-”

I could see a look flash across Miss Militia’s face.

“-and you can’t reason with people like that,” I said.  “Not people who are hungry for conflict, willing to fight until someone’s too beat up to fight back.”

“No,” Miss Militia said.  Her tone of voice had shifted.  “You can’t.  I’ve heard him say something along those lines before.  A small part of the reason I’m here.”

“Then you agree.  He can’t be leading the PRT if we’re going to reach any kind of consensus.”

“I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything.  The very structure of the PRT is built around the idea that the unpowered call the shots, and the capes follow them.”

“We both know that it’s not that cut and dry,” I said.  I glanced at Flechette.  Did she know about Alexandria?

“I’m sorry,” Miss Militia said.  “It’s not in my power.”

“It’s in mine,” I said.  “I think.  I hope.”

I could see the furrow in between her eyebrows.  “What are you thinking?  More violence?  You won’t be able to twist Tagg’s arm to get what you want out of him.”

“I’m still not entirely sure,” I said.  “I think I can twist his arm.  It’ll be easier if you’re willing to compromise.  I need your help to make this work.”

“What sort of help?”

“A mixture of support and passive resistance.  Nothing that hurts the PRT as a whole.  Nothing that hurts the result against the Endbringers.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Specifically?”

“For starters, we treat every situation like you treated the ABB, back in April.  We address threats, tag team them.  Only we communicate more this time around.  The Teeth are a problem, but others are going to arise when word about the portal gets out.”

“Done.  The PRT may not play ball, but we can communicate by other channels.”

“The heat’s off the Undersiders and Ambassadors both.  We can’t do anything constructive if you guys are after us.”

“The PRT will continue to order us to engage you.”

“Fine,” I said.  “Then that’s when you apply passive resistance.  You return to your bosses and you say the mission against the Undersiders was unsuccessful.  Bitch ran, Grue used his darkness, Tattletale must have passed on information.  We do our best to avoid giving you cause to come after us, you don’t attack when the bosses order you to.”

She frowned.  “This is giving you amnesty for past misdeeds, in practice.”

“Yes.  But it ensures we’re all in fighting shape when the next Endbringer fight goes down.”

“Accord remains a problem.”

“We’ll keep him busy, put him in the background.  Tattletale has a sense of his motives.  We can keep him occupied while keeping him from having a direct hand in things.”

“Our passivity would hinge on his.”

“Deal,” I said.

“And you can’t keep pushing things like you have been.  The degree of aggression you’ve been demonstrating, with the attack at the PRT head offices and Valefor, it tests our patience.”

“They noticed, then?  Valefor’s eyeballs.”

“That’s the kind of event that provokes a response from the PRT.”

I nodded.  “It’s supposed to, just a little.  It was a message to Tagg as much as a way of dealing with Valefor.”

“It’s not the sort of thing that will get him to abandon his position or back down.”

“I think it is,” I said.  “But that’s only one aspect of a greater plan.”

I could see her frown.  Not that I could see the lower half of her face, but I saw it in her eyes.

“A day or two,” I said, “Then I stop.  I’ll fill you in on the details as soon as I have them.”

She frowned.

“Flechette,” I said.


“Is this satisfactory?  If we call a truce, the local heroes will be free to assist Parian.  I suspect she’ll be willing to accept their help where she’s less accepting of ours.”

“I will,” Parian said.

“Would that make things easier between the two of you?”

“I’m not local,” Flechette’s words were a whisper.

“You could be,” I told her.  “Or you could visit.  I can’t do a lot, but I can maybe help give you your friend back.”

“We can use all the help here we can get,” Miss Militia said.  “If you wanted to join the Wards team on a permanent basis, I could see about arranging something.”

“Let- let me think about it,” Flechette said.  “It’d mean leaving my family.  Or moving them, depending.”

“Then that’s as settled as it’s going to get,” I said.

“I still have concerns about your continued swathe of destruction,” Miss Militia told me.  “If your vendetta against Tagg gets any uglier, this idea won’t hold.”

I’d hoped the distraction of talking to Flechette would keep her from returning to that topic.

“Give me the benefit of the doubt,” I said.  “Please.”

I could see the lines around her eyes deepen as she frowned.

“Just this once.  It’s all I’ve been asking you guys for, from the beginning.  Trust that I’m doing what I’m doing for a good reason.  I just need you to maybe turn a blind eye here and there, support me when the situation calls for it.  I’ll fill you in where I can, and I’ll make a leap of faith and trust that you’ll know what to do otherwise.”

“Okay,” Miss Militia conceded.

A second passed with nobody speaking.

“I’d extend my hand for you to shake,” I told her, “But we probably don’t want something that blatant popping up on a cell-phone video.  For now, at least, this truce stays unofficial.”

She offered me a curt nod.  I held her knife out towards her, and it dissolved into a mess of green-black energy.  It zipped to Miss Militia’s hand, became a pistol.  She holstered it.

Together with Flechette, she left, making her way out of my territory.  A hundred pairs of eyes watched them leave.  Maybe I could pass word around to get people to keep quiet on the subject.

“Thank you,” Parian murmured.

I glanced at her.

“For what you said to Flechette.  How you said it.”

“I have more respect for you than you’d probably believe,” I told her.  “I hope it works.”

“I think it will.”

I watched the heroes as they departed.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I said, eyeing the light rainfall beyond the eaves of the building.  I shrugged, heading towards my lair.  “Redundant, maybe, but I think a shower is the least of the luxuries I’m entitled to as a wealthy, nationally recognized supervillain.  I’ll talk to you later.  Let me know if you hear back from Flechette.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, to my back.

I looked back, gave her a quizzical look.

“I could have arranged that better,” she said.  “I sprung it on you.”

“No,” I shook my head.  “It was necessary.  No worries on that front.”

I didn’t voice my true thoughts aloud, though.  The conversation with the heroes had needed to happen.  The fact that Parian and Flechette had been present was a stroke of luck.  The downside, the other side of the matter, was that I now had to act before someone in a position of power caught on to what was happening with our truce and ended it prematurely, or before Miss Militia herself reconsidered.  I had to act before I started having second thoughts.

Which was harder than it sounded, because I hadn’t even figured out if there was a way to pull this off without alienating everyone that counted.

Parian had inadvertently accelerated my plan. For that, I hated her, just a little.  That feeling was clear enough, small as it might be.

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318 thoughts on “Imago 21.5

  1. Thanks for reading. If you weren’t aware/are confused, there was a regular chapter last Thursday, a bonus release in response to donations.

    If you’re so inclined, be appreciated if you voted on Topwebfiction.

    Hope you enjoy.

    • I think if I were going to alter this chapter any, I’d probably try and get Skitter to drive home the point (heh heh) to Flechette (and more incidentally, Parian and Miss Militia) that “the good guys” really kinda aren’t, a lot of the time. The bullying, the death of her mother, the fact that it was Shadow Stalker doing these things, and the fact that it led to her trigger event. After the “You don’t do anything about it” paragraph, detail her trigger event for Flechette, Parian, and Miss Militia. I mean, it is a sort of specifically feminine event, and coincidentally, all the people in this scene are women.

      “stuffed me in that locker, locked it, and left me there. I was there for hours, screaming and vomiting, and nobody helped because they were all too afraid of Sophia. That is what you had on your team. That is why I told Legend that I’d rather go to the Birdcage than join the Wards. You call me a “supervillain”, but it’s just a word. You call yourselves “heroes”, but that’s just a word, too. What matters is what people do, but because of the labels you use, Parian is still barely willing to even hang out with us and Flechette nailed my shoulder to the floor with a metal spike when I was trying to save Parian’s life from Ballistic. So that’s what the “heroes” were doing while I was trying to defend innocent people from the Chosen, the Pure, the Slaughterhouse Nine, and you’re still confused when I’m skeptical about who the “good guys” really are around here?”

      I dunno. Just a thought.

      • That paragraph would kind of be contradictory though. She is saying the PRT is responsible for having Shadow Stalker on the team and any actions she takes, but later in the paragraph you make it seem like Taylor was not to blame for Ballistic, who she allied with, leveling Dolltown.

        • The PRT was not allied with Shadow Stalker, they held authority over her and were responsible for her in a legal sense via the probation deal. Skitter had no such control over or responsibility for Ballistic.

    • Agreed on Miss Militia, I love that someone in an “antagonist” position like hers is first and foremost a reasonable human being. MM is acting *exactly* how a hero should act in my view.

      In a way it reminds me on Hinjo from the Order of the Stick, aka a Paladin who’s clearly committed to being good and makes an effort to understand what that means in terms of treating people with respect as fellow sapients.

      • I find it interesting that in Worm, one of the most reasonable and I’d say generally pleasant heroes is the woman who can conjure up lethal weapons. Things could work in the Undersiders favour after all if the truce works. Hopefully the other heroes will at least remember all Skitter’s done for them.

        • This is a bit of a dead comment, but I think it’s really interesting that so many other capes get all twisted up about the destructive potential of their powers yet MM has a *purely* weaponised power and manages to be intelligent and balanced about it. Like, Sundancer could probably have done something interesting in construction, mining, exploration…Ballistic too. Maybe it’s because they were running scared, but they also didn’t have a lot of imagination, which seems to be the best super-power of all.

          • > imagination, which seems to be the best super-power of all.

            Honestly, I think this is what I like best about story (that’s a heavily contested position by the way). Having a good power is one thing, but using what you get well is what sets the great apart from the good.

            • Agreed. It’s so awesome to see people who by all rights should be invincible get taken down because they don’t use their powers efficiently while others who really have no right to leave the house with their abilities become walking disaster areas because they get inventive.

              • I’m just glad Jack never borrowed the knife Mannequin stole from Armsmaster…

              • As for Mannequin’s knife, that’s an interesting question. It doesn’t actually have a blade; it’s just a cloud of nanites. But does each nanite count as blade? Could he slash with all or most of them simultaneously?

          • You know, are her weapons restricted to lethal ones? A lot of weapons have other uses like pickaxes or something, as an example, or an umbrella with a sword in the handle. I wonder how flexible her power really is?

    • There have been quite a few actions she’s been taking that are uncharacteristic – waaay outside Taylor’s comfort zone, even. Asking heroes to kneel to her. Tagging.

      The hints she gives here are – twisting Tagg’s elbow; within her power; alienating everyone.

      I’m not able to put it all together, yet. Anyone else?

    • Never, ever, EVER, do any of the following three things.

      1.) Say “I have a plan.” (Or anything like it)
      2.) Trust somebody show says “Trust me.” when they are of a technically opposing team.
      3.) Interact in any way with anyone who says “Trust me, I have a plan.”

  2. My god, it’s.. it’s.. through all the vast, barren expanse of textured grey, a ray of light has shone. Heroes have emerged who are not completely fucked in the head!

      • But the heroes FINALLY caught on to what a bunch of posters said. They DO have power by being in the organization. If he gives orders, they can speak out against them, refuse to follow them, and then what are they going to do? I so want a scene where Tagg orders them to attack, and then they say one word which is a giant crowning moment of awesome, “No”.

        • Nah, a better thing would be a “work-to-rule”/ “white strike” . You can get fired ora otherwise punished for refusing a lawful order. He can’t do anything other than seethe if they report “Mission aborted, too many civilians in potential conflict area, as defined by regulation 15.3, paragraph 5”

          • “Mission aborted.”

            What was it this time, Defiant?

            “Slight wardrobe malfunction.”

            How bad could it be?

            “They attacked the hostages.”

            Wait, who did what?

            “My underwear had a glitch. They crawled out of my pants…which was very painful I might add…and physically assaulted the hostages. I felt it was best to leave.”

            What about Skitter, did you get Skitter?

            “Sorry sir. She…um…pointed and laughed.”

            *sigh* Fuck it all…just get on back here for a debriefing.

            “I’m way ahead of you, sir.”

        • Nope, do it in a civilized way. Argue that based on article 23.1 of …. Tagg has to fill form 1 to 10 and sign with a blue ink pen.
          Also, after the failed attempt the Wards promise to fill forms … as a way of debriefing.

  3. I have nothing to say, really. It was a good update, I wonder what’s going to happen, and:

    Taylor’s master plan! YET ANOTHER THING TO DEBATE ENDLESSLY ABOUT IN THE COMMENTS! I really have no clue what it is, other then I’m pretty sure it’s not world domination. Coil put it best, when he said a long time ago that one city was quite enough. Of course, I could be wrong. And a world domination plot from the evil side would be pretty fun. …overcome with fanfic ideas that will burn up inevitably…

    Off topic. Thanks for the update.

    • On this, I honestly can say I have not the slightest shadow of a clue; but TAYLOR X NEWTER STILL HASNT BEEN SHOT DOWN WOOOO

      • Okay, I know I’m way late to this party, but nope nope, sorry. Newter is destined to be with Weld.

        Neither of their sexual preferences have been stated (Newter seemed to enjoy being surrounded by fawned over by beautiful women who wanted ‘a taste of him’ but that whole scene was strangely NON-sexual considering). And I’m thinking Newter wants someone who can TOUCH him. Weld is about the only cape we’ve met (other than maybe Siberian) who can touch Newter with impunity…

    • I bet step one of Taylor’s plan is to challenge Accord to try and solve the PRT’s corruption issue. He’s going to be busy with that for a looooooooong time.

      • Seriously? If I were a person with a reasonable degree of mundane power, and I had a person who I know was able to come up with plans to solve EVERY problem, well… World Hunger for one, sure, but as loathe I am to say, I can live with world hunger if there are more immediate problems, like Endbringers.

        Set Accord up with a powerful precog to prevent or reduce intervention of The Simurgh, and then give him his most challenging problem to solve: getting rid of the Endbringers, in following order The Simurgh, Leviathan, Behemoth. With The Simurgh gone, destiny manipulation will be done by mere humans. Leviathan won’t sink any more islands. And Behemoth’ll stop killing capes.

      • Wait…Accord’s power burns stronger with problems that he’s given. We already know that the world’s end is predicted in two years.

        Why not hand it to him?

        Ask Accord just what they could do, where they’d need to be to stop the world’s end for another million years? That math alone would keep him busied, especially since he’d have vested interest in there being a world left.

        And thus, he’d be a forced-neutral party for a long while, and afterward, they’d be able to solve their problems. Win-Win…until Defiant screws it up.

        • put tattletale, accord and dinah into a room together, give dinahs “candy” to accord (to stop him from murdering tattletale) – work shit out!

          • Except, if Accord’s ability has any dose of precognition to it, then he and Dinah’s powers will interfere with one another. And do you really want to be the person responsible for causing a little girl pain?

    • One thing is for sure, Taylor has been walking with bags full of bugs. If the theory that states that she thinks better the more bugs she controls is true …

      • The thing I realized is, after her near obsession with saving Dinah, what did she have left to be a villain for? Really, she just wanted to have friends and protect her town, but this is Taylor. She needs a greater purpose, and the story needs a driving plot, which is apparently this top secret plan. So the plan is probably to achieve what she wants. Namely,
        – finish cleaning up the city
        -replace the PRT and/or Protectorate with something that isn’t broken
        -something to do with the Endbringers. You’re guess is as good as mine, because its a little far fetched that, at least it seems at this stage, this could do anything to them
        -save the world. Always a good idea, because yeah, it would fit in with the wild unpredictability of this story, but I kinda like most of these characters. …brain just made a series of wild jumps involving how most of the characters are jerks, but some are nice. Okay, anyone know the story of Sodom from the bible? Basically, Abraham convinces god to spare a city of mostly evil people if there were five good people in it. So, there wasn’t. Everyone dies, except him and his family get to run away, except his wife looks back and turns into salt. Ouch. Anyway, I wonder if the entire world is damned by the strange force giving out superpowers because they’ve all been jerks about it mostly, or tried to get them artificially, and whatnot. Heck, maybe Cauldron is an agent of the force, testing to see what happens if people get them without being screwed up by the process of getting them. Just to give humans an extra shot. So the end of the world is the Endbringers, who are the agents of the force, and Scion, or maybe someone else, who knows, killing everyone. But a few people who are not jerks escape through the portal. End of insane, wild speculation, which I hope doesn’t make people think I’m some sort of nut for basing it all off of some Bible story. Well, I guess I am a nut, so I give up. Here’s my offering, to those who wish to laugh at other’s speculation.

  4. “I’m sorry,” Miss Militia said. “It’s not in my power”
    -Missing punctuation

    I really enjoyed this chapter, and it reaffirms my idea that Miss Militia is the best of a bad situation

    I cant even articulate the feels I have, but it is good I assure you, thank you very much Wildbow

  5. “a little worse for wear where I’d thrown it to the ground and used it to sweep much of the grit, plaster and sawdust from the ground”

    “brush my skin clear of smudges, dust and the grit that had embedded in my skin”

    Repetition of ground and skin in these sentences is kind of redundant.

    Aside from that minor typo, loved the chapter. I always enjoy seeing Skitter have conversations with the heroes–getting both sides’ viewpoints is fascinating.

    • Typo thread:

      You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath that you let her get away scott-free with the abuse she was inflicting on a bystander.
      -italicize only the ‘sorry’

      “I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything.
      -to change

  6. “I’m not Taylor,” I said. “In costume or out, I’m Skitter, up until I decide on a new name.”

    Does this mean that you will have a new tab for Taylor/Skitter with her new choice in name? Also, in a few days will she unveil her new identity?! OH MY GOD, LETS DEBATE THIS ENDLESSLY!

    Also, for PG:
    Flechette: Meh, I could take her

  7. Taylor amuses me. She lets bucks crawl over her after an intimate moment using them to clean herself up and wonders why Brian looks ta her funny. I guess that if this was visual medium this scenes would fall under FanDisservice.

    She also plays match maker between Parian and Flechette, which is nice, especially after ending her own relationship.

    Skitter finally cleaned some air about the whole “You created me” regarding the bullying by Shadowstalker. And somebody calls her out on her recent turn to the dark.

    Between all the recent resolutions and tying up of loose ends it looks like she is about to complete the last parts of her mental metamorphosis, putting away the childish things like her letting the thing with the bullies dominate her life and her teenage romance, and start spreading her wings as an adult. Hopefully the plan will work.

    I also note that it looks like Dauntless might not actually be dead, just frozen in time. If he ever does come out of it it will be quite the Rip-Van-Winkle experience for him to see how everything has changed.

        • That might have promise. A planetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs with (imaginary) illustrations by Frazetta or Vallejo. Occasionally our heroes stumble on some ancient Planet of the Apes style hint of something hauntingly familiar of legends that faded into myth as the wheel turned.

          There might even be some ancient lost temple to some bug queen/insect goddess around…

      • Well, Dragon looks rather immortal to me and with her prohibition against self replication gone, she might just make it.

        Either as a last hermetic guardian holding a lonesome vigil over what once was called Earth or as a race of Dragonborn which have conquered the galaxy and ascended to the point where they have become indistinguishable from gods.

        I am just picturing the three in the time bubble waking up to some cross between the distant finale for Babylon 5 and the last Episode of Gunbuster: “Welcome Home”

      • I’m not sure exactly how Citrine messes with people’s powers. If she can make them reverse entirely, maybe she and Clockblocker could team up to get them out? Just a theory as opposed to an actual suggestion.

        • Wait — time manipulation. She wouldn’t need Clockblocker’s help. All she needs is to put the bit of the sphere with the capes in it on fast-forward, step out of the zone of her acceleration effect herself, and wait.

        • Oh well now there’s an idea…I can’t even imagine it being all that hard honestly. Wildbow if this isn’t canon but she survives the final conflict it should become canon in an epilogue or something.

      • Well that’s just sad. Here I was happily imagining Dauntless popping out two hundreds years or so in the future to some nice fanfare and then you go and ruin it with it being hundreds of thousands of years…I can only hope now that there were some nice ladies trapped in a few bubbles as well so that our poor time tossed individuals won’t be lonely. Or men if he swings that way.

    • Next story in the parahumans universe is Dauntless, Alabaster, and the other (forgot) being freed from the time bubble

      Also, they called all of the trapped `heroes`, does that mean they dont know or dont care that Alabaster was in E88?

    • I dunno.. I mean, if you use the right bugs, the sinuous kind, it can look like a caress instead of just something like mosquitoes buzzing all over.

      I’m calling Chekhov’s Gun on the Dauntless time bubble, myself. Just seems like something that will have some use in the future. Heck, I could even see Clockblocker absorbing the frozen time and gaining a PBAoE stasis bubble.

    • Well, Taylor just created the ugliest way of effective dry cleaning that I can think about.
      Imagine just the cockroaches …

  8. “Many of the construction workers had taken shelter while the rain was heavier, many moving indoors…” redundant use of ‘many’ here. Removing it in the case of the second usage would resolve.

    Writing post on thoughts next…

  9. I was very glad to see Parian stepping up. I was kinda hoping for a brief moment that Skitter might offer Flechette a place with her- Skitter and Parian could whip up a new matching costume for her tout de suite like something out of Cinderella.

    I totally agree with Taylor’s reasoning concerning serving Tagg with eye scream.

    Should the bubble ever expire, will the heroes inside will be pelted with horribly accelerated pennies, dirt, and the like? If the bubble shrinks away instead of vanishing uniformly, that would be even worse for them…

    Might be good to reverse the order of the “others shouldn’t take it on themselves to repeat the mark elsewhere” and actually mentioning that she has a mark. Also, she talks about crude replicas two sentences in a row.
    ““It’s not in my power”” Missing punctuation.

    • Things get slower towards the center, so unless something is moving at speeds that would kill them without being able to react to it, I don’t think so.

    • The time bubble explicitly only alters time. There is no way it could accelerate anything thrown into it. When the bubble does collapse, th particles will be going the same sped at which they entered.

        • Hm… I assume the way the bomb or effect works would prevent that, but as long as the occupants of the bubble are not completely frozen in time but just moving very slowly they might be flash fried. Light goes in and out. It imparts part of its energy on the physical bodies caught by the bubble, be that rubble or humans. So everything inside might be exposed to a few thousand years of sunshine in the blink of an eye.
          On the upside, instant death.

          • Light is slowed proportionally to the distance travelled through the time bubble. Why are you thinking that photons would be the sole thing that aren’t affected when everything else is?

          • Physics. You can’t slow light down, nor accelerate it. Light always moves with the eponymous light speed, depending on the medium.

            I know we’re talking about a fictional universe, but for that to work most of physics still applies.

          • PS: We see the contents of the bubble. For that, they need to interact with light, reflect it and stuff. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if Bakuda included contingencies for these things to add to the cruelty of the bomb.

          • PPS (I’m on a roll here!):
            Case 1: Light/photons slowed down
            Mechanic: All photons entering the bubble being slowed down to be released when the bubble pops.
            Results: A few hundred thousand years of sunshine are compressed into whatever time frame the bubble takes to pop. You better start smiling inside, because this will be the brightest photo flash you’ll ever see. Also, you’ll die, since every square meter at that latitude is subjected to about 1,000 kilowatts per year in sunshine, and you condense the 100,000 years of time bubble to maybe 1 second for the pop and you get a boom of about .86 megatons of TNT. Per square meter.
            Ain’t physics fun?
            Case 2: Light/photons somewhat or totally unaffected
            Results: I’m no physicist, so actually…
            Results 2.1: Every photon imparts a bit of energy, for a few hundred thousand years, and we very slowly maybe see everything inside catch fire.
            Results 2.2: We see nothing, since the bubble contents don’t give a shit about light and are hence invisible.
            Results 2.3: We see us. A perfect mirror, to be used by scientist for millennia. WHOHOO, SCIENCE!
            Results 2.4: We see nothing. A perfect black, consuming every photon. Hey, we got a perfect black body that can be used by scientists for millennia? WHOHOO, SCIENCE!
            Case 3: Bakuda violated physics and is whiffing a rad smoke After The Deed
            Results: Everyone inside the bubble perceives a confusing moment of grey and they find themselves on the far end of humanity’s time scale. Depending on the cirumstances they die in the wake of the bomb, because stuff kills them because someone threw it in the bubble, or the 23 Endbringers are all waiting for them to kill the last remnant of humans. Because, who are we shitting here, this is WORM we’re talking about.

  10. Well, this update was uplifting. Actual compromise! Parian/Fletchette is a go! More Miss Milita!

    On the other hand, the last two lines were ominous. Taylor has some super secret plan ready to unfold and possible resentment toward Parian building. I hope that’s not some foreshadowing and Parian stays with the Undersiders.

    • I hope Parian doesn’t. She would be infinitely happier as an Oversider, drawing funding and assistance from the Protectorwards but maintaining a truce with the Undersiders.

    • Miss Militia making an effort to patch things up is pretty admirable. But the way she segued into apologizing for Shadow Stalker rubbed me the wrong way a bit. The time when she could have done anything about it or made amends is long past. Everyone’s moved past it and trying to talk with her about it now can come off as kind of condescending.

      And Flechette’s attitude towards Parian seems kind of possessive, which is kind of odd seeing as how Parian presumably older. They’re probably got some issues to work out before they go ahead and become a couple.

      • Given that it’s the first real personal conversation, where they knew who Taylor was, it’s really the first time she had to apologize for it.

  11. Here are some of my disjointed thoughts at the end of this chapter:

    I am very glad to see Miss Militia finally taking charge and doing something. I’ve had the feeling that she’s been chafing at the PRT’s increasingly aggressive tactics, so I feel this conversation was somewhat inevitable.

    Also, I’m glad to see a hint of possible resolution of the thing between Parian and Flechette. I’m expecting either some cathartic reunion or some tragic separation (possibly both!) at some point.

    When she said:
    “Dragon said the same thing. Tattletale filled me in on the reasoning.”
    It made me wonder how Tattletale hasn’t figured out that Dragon is an AI yet- her actual reason for working with the PRT is because she actually HAS to, not because of some misplaced sense of duty.

    A side note, I recognized the “War on Villainy,” mentality from somewhere… now where was that~?
    (War on drugs, war on terror, etc.). Frankly, I’m surprised the American government doesn’t already have a super-soldier program- though I suppose that’s what Cauldron was, albeit indirectly.

    For a long time I thought that Cauldron was a single person- a tinker who specialized in chemistry and/or powers, letting them make the super-serum thing. I’m pretty sure that that’s what the Doctor Mother person is. If so, where did she come from? Where did she go when the Triumvirate got busted? Theoretically, she could (and probably is) still producing the serum, still with access to her staff of crazy multidimensional people, but now she’s probably not being controlled by the Triumvirate nearly as much. She is clearly still up to something, given what she said to Accord, and still producing the serum. I doubt that it’s still Alexandria calling the shots, though- in fact (considering that Doctor Mother was clearly around since before Alexandria was,) I don’t think the Triumvirate was ever calling the shots.

    Also, the portal. We know that Cauldron is based in another dimension of earth. I wonder what the chances of the portal going to Cauldron’s earth are. Probably nice and high.

    • Doctor Mother was always calling the shots, in Alexandrias Interlude it was alluded to/pretty obvious that Legend, Eidolon, and Hero also were Cauldron capes

    • Couple of points.

      1) Doctor Mother was always controlling the Triumvirate, not the other way around. She created the Triumvirate, after all, as well as the whole concept of the Protectorate and PRT.

      2) Labyrinth found Cauldron’s world when creating the portal, and explicitly didn’t go there, instead looking for one that was empty. So the chances of the portal opening into Cauldron’s dimension are exactly zero.

      • however labyrinth can change portal locations at will, and skitter at least knows which is the right one from one of cauldron’s capes reacting. Checkov’s Key anyone?

    • They’ve tried to have super-soldiers by trying to force trigger events. It was said when Theo was left by his fam I believe. Needless to say they failed much more often than they succeeded.

          • If they snapped (which induces the trigger event) whether they’d been vetted or not doesn’t matter now that they have powers and loathe your guts. 😛

          • That is why you pick volunteers. So that they understand what is happening to them and why and DON’T turn on you afterwards.

          • Except the amount of damage you have to cause to induce a trigger event is such that there are NO guarentees. Even if they went into it knowing that it isn’t that person’s fault.

          • @Rika Covenant: My point was merely that it wasn’t suicide, per se — just dangerously reckless.

            Incidentally, I’m pretty sure parahuman researchers would kill to have good case studies on the Merchants in the months after Leviathan, given that they apparently managed to gain at least six new supers with whatever insane events Skidmark was putting on.

          • Well, the merchants didn’t really care about human life and their subjects survival. Something a government is hard-pressed to justify. Plus, you know, Cauldron.

    • Nah, there were two previously traveled paths. One led to Earth-aleph, one led to Cauldron’s world. Labrynth chose a new one.

  12. At last, my day has come.

    Ah yes, potential extinction events around 3,000 BCE.

    There is a hypothetical one around 2800-3000 BCE. It’s thought that a comet impacted the ocean and unleashed megatsunamis that could have been a big problem.

    The Kamil Crater impact event might also have something to do with it.

    It would have to be something minor, however.

    You can rule out a major extinction event, the truly huge disasters. If there are both ruins AND lots of animals in a rough parallel around, then it’s something that went after the humans, though they’ll need to examine the ruins to be sure.

    Like with the Big Five. Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. 75% of all species became extinct. Paved the way for mammals and birds.

    Triassic-Jurassic: 70-75% of species. Allowed dinosaur domination outside of Second Life’s furry D/S community.

    Permian-Triassic: The Big One. 57% of all families, 83% of all genera (plural of genus), and 90 to 96% of all species.

    Late Devonian: 70% of all species (seeing a pattern?)

    And Ordovician-Silurian, with another 60-70% of all species getting snuffed out.

    Still, the ruins ought to be fun. You can determine a lot based on the materials used. To be even more thorough about the extent of the population, they’ll need to bring in some stuff to check for disturbances in the magnetics of the soil. The terminology eludes me currently, but the earth’s soil tends to order itself depending on the magnetic poles. This is how, for example, you can tell when the poles have switched in times past. This also helps to verify artifacts you find, as the soil around them would look different in how they scan it if something was smashed into the ground or dug into it later.

    Because of this, it’s possible to scan an area to find such magnetic disturbances in the past so that you can find areas where villages made of wood used to be. This has been used in North America for Native American sites, for example, including at least one humorous example in Tennessee. There was a mound there and this one professor from the University of Memphis figured it was used for only ceremonial use. He doubted they lived there. So they took the equipment and did a scan of the area and found an entire Native American village, complete with palisade, right there by the mound.

    Even if the materials were just wood, you can see the difference when you’ve dug down far enough. It can be a subtle difference, but it is there.

    That had to be one pissed off soybean farmer too, to find out his field was going to be dug up.

    • They said they saw no trace of “human” life, I’m still hoping for a society of erudite apes living in biodomes underground. This series really needs more apes.

      • I’m just gonna go out on a limb and guess this was a world that had the Endbringers destroy humanity already. they might even still be around, and the encroaching presence of humans in their world again will reawaken them. Thus the apocolypse, as more Endbringers funnel through the gate and into Earth Bet.

        • They probably would have found ruins of modern civilizations in that case. If we assume that the geological time period is the same as in Aleph, Five thousand years would mean humanity bit it near the start of the bronze age.

          And is now ruled by ape-men.

          • “Worldwide, there’s few signs of pre-existing human civilization, and no human life that we’ve been able to detect. ”

            I took pre-existing human civilization to mean old ruins, like ziggurats and pyramids (for example). Nomadic people’s don’t leave quite the same impact generally as their population remains stable. Well, if they wander the same areas and use the same trash pits over time, you could still get an idea about them.

          • Damn, I’m genuinely starting to want Worm to go off the rails and turn into Taylor exploring the mysterious ruins of a parallel earth. If the course of human history is the same or similar to that of Aleph imagine what could be discovered in ruins that would have otherwise been wrecked by successor civilizations.

          • Why modern civilization?

            This could be a world where the age of heroes started in the time of Gilgamesh.

            Think about it – ancient civilizations, monster and gods walking the Earth, only this time they really are there.

          • Divergence 5 thousand years ago. When heroes first started showing up, perhaps? Much like Earth Bet from Aleph? As PG noted, human life is nonexistant, but old civilization markers are still there.

        • I’d think it unlikely that the other world would have had the same Endbringers…
          Taking this chance to preliminarily name the first one they find Humbaba.

    • Well, whatever happened would have to be recent enough to not affect the evolution of everything else. Trees etc would not be around if some butterfly got trod on back when dinosaurs roamed the earth.

      For flora and faun to be recognizable it would have to have been something fairly recent, but not so recent that it would leave traces of human civilization.

      The Toba catastrophe would probably have been the earliest candidate as it also got fairly close to doing in humanity.

      In the other direction it would pretty much need to have been at least pre-industrialization for the cities to have vanished without a trace. My guess would by the eruption of Mount Tambora that brought us the year without summer as the latest possibly event.

      Of course if we take the “no traces” literally we have to take into account stuff like they Pyramids of Giza which are fairly sturdy… So either some big cataclysm that really wiped out everything or something that happened before they were build.

      Unfortunately if we go back too much before the dawn of human civilization we run into other problems such as the fact that humanity had a hand in the extinction of much of the mega-fauna out there. With humanity gone before they even begun there will be all sorts of prehistoric beasts out there including possibly Neanderthals…

      • Okay, what extinction events can kill all humans at 3000 BCE?
        A look at the migration history shows humans had settled pretty much every continent at that time. So only global or species scale comes to mind. The last time humanity was bottlenecked was at the Toba catastrophe, some 70,000 years ago, a much better point of deviation if you want to remove humans from the equation.

        Another point of contention: evolution is a somewhat slow process, depending a lot on the size of population and generational lifetime of a species as well as quite a few other factors. Most of the species of 5,000 years ago would look the same and be by all intents and purposes the same as the Beth equivalent. Most of the species on Gimel (Aleph – Beth – Gimel, all hebrew letters) would be pretty much indistinguishable from both Aleph and Beth.

        Germs on the other hand might be a bit more difficult to put down. Or have a harder time infecting humans, since if those weren’t around for 5,000 years the viruses and bacteria would perhaps have shed some excess information/adaptations to deal with humans.

        Be that as it may, I can’t think of a single natural specific extinction event wiping humanity off earth.

        Totally unrelated:
        Dragon is a fettered singularity.

        • Well, there’s another possibility.

          Maybe humans are not extint; but are absent from America, or from the planet’s explored regions.

          Or maybe Cauldron kidnapped all the cavemen to do research 😛

          • Labyrinth mentioned not seeing much in the ways of humans. This implies at least no permanent settlements – easy to spot those – but might mean humanity thrown back to the hunter-gatherer phase. So in principle australian aborigines, at the most.

          • Was going to say something, but you covered it. Anything that would wipe out humanity completely that short time ago would create problems with filling other evolutionary niches. Lower down I bring up how a plague wouldn’t have done it either, as humans had to have some advancements in population, agriculture, and society to allow most of them to be at risk of any one plague.

          • The way I see it, anything killing of humans at a global scale is either indiscriminate and kills everything beyond a certain threshold (every animal with average biomass exceeding 20 kilos or so) as well as plants in a comparable manner. Or if it kills humans (somewhat) specifically, it isn’t able to do that globally unless it’s something artificial/unexpected like aliens what have you. At 3,000 BCE humankind was too widespread to be affected by anything local or even continental in scale.
            A plague? That will take some time to travel along the established trade route, adapting all the time, and leaving behind individuals immune or inoculated because a plague that completely kills a host needed for their life cycle is bound to burn out before killing off all specimen. At some point the specimen are too far apart to infect each other. So even on a super continent a single disease wiping out a species is tremendously unlikely.
            Add to that continents divided by oceans and you’ve got big insular populations not being able to be killed of by a plague.

            • 3000 BC is only the divergence point though. Any time in those 5000 years could be when the humans were wiped out. Could have been the cold war that finally finished them up or something, though that specific example isn’t likely, since again that’s most of recorded history that’s being chaos theory’d.

  13. Fucking finally! On two counts. One for the heroes acting in a way that’s not paranoid and violent, and two for the fact that Taylor seems to be loosening up a bit. Guess she needed that, huh?

    I think the heroes confounding Taggs Rah Rah fuckery is as easy as taking a Randal Graves approach to it. Take the minimum effort approach to everything. Say that the sun is too high for good eyesight and your putting it off until later. Say that civilians got in the way and you said screw it and went for pizza.

    Tagg can’t exactly fire the superheroes who have the most experience with the Undersiders like he would a slacker fry cook, and at this point they really shouldn’t be worrying over their career record.

    I really wish that Taylor just flat out told them what she was doing, I’d love to see (read) the look on their faces.

    • Personally, I love how apparently completely random strangers are noticing her and protecting her or are ready to help. She’s already a big fixture people don’t want gone.

  14. You know, maybe this is why Dinah had Taylor’s identity revealed so publicly like that. It made her into a person heroes can talk to, a person heroes can work beside. Because for the first time, they saw who her for who she really was.

      • “Maybe Dinah X because…” is shorthand. In practice Dinah does just deal in numbers and doesn’t know why they come out the way they do. When we say something like “Maybe Dinah had them out Skitter to make her into a person heroes can talk to” it really means “Maybe Dinah got the numbers she did because this makes her into a person heroes can talk to”.

  15. “The roads were still wide, owing to the fact that his area had once been intended more for industry and the movement of big ships and trucks, and that had been preserved” I think that is ‘this area’ not His area.

  16. Mkay, thoughts time.

    It’s saddening to see that it really was breakup sex between Taylor and Grue ;_; They were the one couple I really wanted to see stay together most of all. It’s obviously a ended-on-good-terms situation, that leaves itself open for getting together again should they ever heal enough to consider a relationship, and more than likely they’ll still be close like only those who have been intimate ever can, even if that never comes together.

    I’m surprised Taylor never got the connection between Parian and Flechette… I vaguely remember there being something between them she noticed back when Parian was still in control of Dolltown, when she got that spike in the shoulder. *wince* Is this more of a fuller understanding of the relationship, rather than just close friendship that was assumed previous?

    It’s really good to see Miss Militia acting smart for once, instead of just following orders- Which always struck me as odd that she did, considering that her entire young life was spendt dealing with soldiers and staying away from those who would kill her or commit even worse atrocities because “they were just following orders”, like the group that DID find her and her village. I’m guessing that it was a steely glint of something painful and ugly that Skitter saw in Miss Militia’s eyes at the mention of war, like, “War? You want to commit war? You don’t know the kind of atrocities that a REAL war inflicts, and how it drags in even the innocent and butchers them wholesale, if they’re lucky.” sorta thing going through her mind.

    ParianxFlechette is so cute ❤ Flechette is SUCH a tsundere, it's just so adorable. Reminds me of Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, or Taiga Aisaka (especially when she's shown as the palmtop tiger specifically x3). I see Parian and Skitter working together to produce tons of silk and just fabricating lots of clothes for their people, maybe even opening up a small business selling them to the right buyers in need of light but tough clothing. Skitters sewing skills are pretty good, but they're nothing compared to Parian. I'd love to see an interlude with the two of them working together to remake the costumes, and Flechette either sulking in the corner, or actually turning outto be a bit of a seamstress herself and able to offer advice in design, or something- looking smug when it's shown it's actually an improvement, like a "rawr, back of, MY PARIAN!" x3

    Curious how much autonomy the Protectorate has from the PRT. We know they're heavily affiliated- Is it just the powered branch of the PRT, like a subdivision (see as example: Lucasarts to Disney)? Or is it more like an affiliated child company that relies heavily on its parent company for work and funding (Example: most video game developers to publishers)?

    Curious to what the message was that she intended to send to Tagg with the Eye Scream. Was it that she can get really inventive, and do far more damage, than she has been?

    • Maybe its the realization that she is making them pointless. Every time she takes down a terrible villain, while they keep gunning for her, she sends the message that she is a better person than they are, and the city knows it. The people on the bus, and the high schoolers are just the beginning. Hopefully Dragon is no longer required to follow their authority which means she can go after the corruption in the PRT and the government. It’s what Piggot was worried about. Dragon and Tattletale can bring out ALL their secrets, their stupid mistakes, their corruption, and the crimes against humanity. Then ordinary citizens will realize that the Undersiders have the moral high ground, the heroes can openly work with her, and the PRT has to either change or cease to exist.

  17. So Taylor has a plan, she’s not just hurting & lashing out. Interesting.

    BTW, possible continuity error – she takes Flechette’s arbalest but doesn’t give it back that I saw, though she does give Miss Militia’s weapon back.

  18. This chapter had so much good stuff in it. FlechettexParian shipping, Taylor telling the heroes that they created her, Miss Militia’s mere presence is cool. And of course conspiracies to overthrow douchebag leaders. Did I mention the shipping? I like shipping.

    • and soon the wards and Undersiders might start working together so SkitterXClockblocker could pull through.

    • I also forgot to mention the whole “The heroes are still making that little girl use her powers for them instead of letting her live in peace and recovering from her traumatic experience” thing…

      • Taylor seems to believe that Dinah volunteered her help. I bet she’s already going through the Wards equivalent of boot camp. Vista started younger than her, after all, and she’s strongly motivated to get involved and help — she well and truly knows that humanity is likely to be exterminated Real Soon Now.

  19. “I felt a measure of distaste as I spotted a crude attempt at my ‘tag’ […] I’d have to get word to the right people, make sure it stopped.”

    People, people… Don’t take Skitter’s sign in vain.

      • Is it a -blue- beetle specifically, done stylistically to be the same representation as that of DC’s Blue Beetle? If so, then yes. But it’s not, so.

        • The Gang Tags also made me think about Gang Tatts & other identifiers:-

          Grue’s Gang (Pitch Black): Demon skull in black flame, Kryll &/or Bioraptor rampant.
          Skitter’s: A centipede entwined around the arm, Black Widow on the back (very cliché) or a taijitu which instead of the usual tiger VS dragon on it now has a Wasp Tiger VS a Tiger Wasp.
          Regent’s Gang (The Aristocrats): Crown dangling lopsidedly off a sceptre.
          Imp’s Gang (?): Tiny devil with pitchfork & dagger or a ? with devil horns.
          Sons Of Bitches’: No tats, they wear spiked dog collars (very pointy).
          Parian’s: No tats, they have tiny plushies attached by string to their cell phones.
          Tattletale’s: Also no tats, all of them are undercover without identifying marks.

          Any other possible suggestions?

          • Tattletale’s operatives could have the tatts of any other group.

            The Sons of Bitch could also have a bite mark instead of that collar.

          • Trusting, would love to see you design these!

            @PG: Is it a long, sprawling tattoo made out of silhouettes of people in every concievable position doing unmentionable things?

          • Shouldn’t Skitter’s tat show a Spider Wasp and a Wasp Spider living in perfect harmony?

            Or just Tagg with pie all over his face. 😛

  20. Speaking of soybeans, they could examine some of the plant life or plant remains to determine some things about the human extinction as well. Humans and their plants are rather intertwined, so archaeobotany could come in to play here.

    I was going to use corn, but despite knowing it was a teosinte or something very similar, we aren’t quite sure of the date of domestication. It could give us a relative idea if there is no maize or a transitional species, but without the hard dates on our end it would be difficult to tell. It helps somewhat that maize has a better range than teosinte, though.

    There are a number of techniques for studying plant life in the past, like corn, wheat, rice, and so on, that could give us an idea if something happened that people. Even in other plants, your domesticated plants are generally going to have bigger seeds, to mention one tiny thing.

    A place like Abu Hureyra, Syria is good. A site of continual occupation from 10,500 BCE to 6,000 BCE, they also had huge mounds made up of their waste. Not necessarily feces, either. Think ancient landfills.

    Anyway, they could examine the layers of this site and figure out how the environment had changed during this period. Certain remains stop showing up as much, like fruits and seeds of drought-sensitive plants from the open woodland. Despite the fact that the natural habitat changed, the wild wheat, barley, and rye stuck around, showing domestication had occurred. Then other now-domesticated plants that had been gone began to reappear, showing an expansion in agriculture. We’re talking lentils and legumes. Eventually you stop seeing wild wheats and you start seeing domesticated wheats that would be more familiar to us today.

    The remains would also give us an idea of the diet and storage techniques of people. For example, incinerator sites in North America from around 1250 CE. Depending on the amount of deer jaws found at the sites, as well as the tooth wear and eruption pattern, you could tell which season a particular storage/trash pit was filled up, which meant you had an idea what trash, typically food waste, they were putting in there during that season.

    If plants were consumed year round, you knew they were capable of drying and storing them well enough. If they started to lose certain remains as time went on, they were losing access to them in some way. Maybe that plant was dying off, maybe that group was losing a very active trading partner, maybe the civilization was dying off and losing its techniques. Some sort of disruption. Dating the area by other means would give you an idea when this was happening in terms of years.

    TL:DR, trash piles of pre-historic civilizations can provide evidence about environmental changes, disruptions to civilization, and when and what types of plant foods were domesticated. If you examine the bones found in there you can even get an idea about them going after food in rivers and when animal diets were changed, such as domestication of some species while other species mostly disappear.

    • The problem with all of this is that you’re talking about a searching for human settlement patterns on a global scale. At the very least, you would need satellite imaging and GPS to help narrow down just where possible settlements could be, which would require launching satellites. Archaeologists would have to work from map data only. And even if the archaeologists sent through the portal went in search of known sites that corresponded with areas in their world, it would take weeks, months or years to excavate them properly since the very real possibility of sites matching a time period of 5kya could be dozens of metres beneath the surface. It would be very rare to find a 5 thousand year old ruin on the surface of an uninhabited world except in a few rare habitats. And whoever pointed out above that nomadic peoples leave very little visible remains in the archaeological record is absolutely right. Basically, this would be a nightmare (and a dream come true) for archaeologists to deal with and would take a freakishly long time to come up with anything completely conclusive for every site, or to even find sites, not a matter of days or weeks.

      I wasn’t going to say anything since I really like the story and can bear with the odd unrealistic detail, but then I saw the comments addressing it and decided to throw in my two cents since I’m an archaeologist.

      Otherwise, love the story and loved the chapter. I always love when Skitter gets to interact with the heroes.

      • You don’t know how archeology works, do you?

        Do you really think we’ve hunted down the ruins of Ancient Egypt, Babylon, and so on and so forth by using satellites? The Mayan Pyramids have been kinda visible for a long time.

        In fact, there are mounds that rival pyramids for size. Walk around a bit. You’ll find something. Even that magnetic scanning shit? Two guys. That’s all it took.

        • Sure. That works in Egypt where there’s monumental architecture. As a working archaeologist, you don’t just walk around a bit with a magnetic scanner and find a 5kya settlement with vast middens of settlement data. What are you going to do for the rest of the world? 98% of my job is hiking through forests without some high-tech scanner, trying to find trail markings on old trees and areas that look kinda flat near rivers and streams.

          • And I’ve seen that someone got the idea to check near the giant Native American mound right over there that was kinda noticeable. Probably how they figured out all that stuff about the Cahokia mounds. Then there were the people who found the slave cemetery in Tennessee because it was full of Periwinkle, an evergreen (a symbol of eternal life), which has a tendency to out-compete poison ivy, which was prominent in the area.

            Plus, you can figure out where some civilizations would have survived. Fertile areas near rivers tend to be a big one, like the Fertile Crescent. And the very fertile Nile in Egypt.

            They don’t need satellites. They could check some major areas of ancient civilizations that correspond to their own world. Something tells me the Fertile Crescent likely still had life there. You want to check human bones? Africa’s your place. You want to find any big, noticeable monuments nearby like mounds, pyramids, ziggurats, walls, and so on? If you don’t want to bring a simple drone, just go to the same areas where we had all those things about 5,000 years ago. Something tells me you’ll find it.

            Those kinds of sites I mentioned, the ones with the big monuments, are most of what you’ll need to figure things out because they indicate a high population and prosperity relative to other parts of the world. If any one single thing wiped out most of mankind, it would have made its presence known at those relatively few and easily findable locations around the world. And since archeologists have to examine stuff either in the field or ship it back to labs elsewhere, something tells me it wouldn’t change the dynamic all that much.

            Sputnik isn’t necessary for this.

          • Although I should point out the Native American mounds weren’t from that far back, but something tells me the practice of throwing all your crap in one pile is a long-lived one.

          • Go to Egypt in the other world or do a fast search from above and try to find any monumental archteture somewhere.
            One Piramid is enough to estabilish that there was human life there in the past. With due care, in one week (unlimited funds) you can get into the Piramid and look at a few hieroglifs or whatever.
            We are not speaking about a full description of how this people lived and how they died. More a general idea that they were there and a few possibilities for their death.

        • Um, not sure if you missed this, but Allora Gale is an archaeologist. Right or wrong, I don’t think it’s a matter of “doesn’t know how it works”. 😉

          • Modern day archeologist digging up the scraps left over. Going to a world that is devoid of humans for the past 5K years and digging up major sites as cross-referenced with our OWN sites doesn’t take long at all, especially with capes who can help with the process.

            In this case, siding with PG, who is talking about the process itself in an unchecked world (Gimel), vs. an archeologist in a world (ours) that is nearly devoid of discoveries not already uncovered without massive legwork involved beforehand.

          • @Rika
            While your statement is true to some extent, archaeological field work is still tremendously slow, and I’d suspect on Gimel even more so, because they most likely know where to dig, but also how fragile the locations and stuff are. It will still take many years to excavate ruins, pottery and what have you to a comparable degree to the “original” site.

            On the plus side, Beth has a chance to look at many sites undisturbed, without damages done by tomb raiders and other human elements.

            Climatologists could take a look at the composition of air, dig into lakes and gather all kinds of data to have some comparison to base all their predictions on. Climate change won’t be able to denied anymore, if the Gimel climate is measurable different (though I suppose deniers would point to the eponymous butterfly effect to attribute the changes).

            Biologists can crawl all over the land to collect specimen of long extinct species, be they cultivates plants or wild animals. It even stands to reason many megafauna are still around (look up quaternary extinction event), if those had been hunted to extinction by humans.

            There’s hope humankind won’t screw Earth Gimel over as it did with Aleph and Beth.

  21. Also, about the possibility they were bug or more apelike men, their ruins could tell us a great deal about that.

    See, early artwork, at least in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, tended to be commissioned by the rulers. After all, they had most of the money. This was typically propaganda, something to put them in a good light like the Narmer Palette, which was itself a fun genius bonus in Watchmen as it appeared in that little Egyptian antiquities alcove in Ozymandias’s office. It dates to the 31st century BCE and depicts the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt under the king Narmer. The bovine heads are an indication of the mythology of the time, as they depict Bat, the cow goddess. The depiction of the people would be familiar to people who study Ancient Egyptian artwork from later times. That sort of art tended to depict people in profile. If they were standing still, they typically had one leg straight down and the other leg forward a little, with one hand up holding something (like an ankh) and the other down. The king is shown on both sides as a conqueror. On one side he wears the crown of Upper Egypt, on the other he wears the crown of Lower Egypt.

    Either way, it depicts a unified rule of Egypt under one man with symbols from both civilizations. Could be a real record of events, might just be propaganda commissioned about that king’s rule over both parts of Egypt. That he is a man of military accomplishment that rules over both.

    From that, you get an idea about mythology, symbols of ancient peoples, and an idea what people looked like, and that’s from a lot more than 5,000 years ago.

    Religion was another big reason for buildings and artwork to be made, and religion has often involved special treatment of the dead, like in the creation of giant tombs called pyramids. Complete with dead bodies inside.

    • Civilization has teetered on the edge of extinction many times in the past, and the vast majority of humanity hasn’t even noticed. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine some ancient civilization coming up with a more efficient way to distribute a plague or disease and end up getting bit in the butt by their own work. And in earlier times, it would not have needed much to make it happen.

      • By the very definition of teetering on the edge of extinction in the past, humanity tended to notice. The stink raised over the Black Plague is infamous, and that was spread through trade routes. It required a lot of people and a lot of rats passing over a pretty wide area. I mean, it was weaponized by some people, but look how far humans had to come in terms of global trade routes and cities, to even pull off something that killed 1/3rd of Europe. You’re talking like they had labs and vials back then.

        Civilizations had to come up with currency, maps, and the entire mechant class to make that happen. Plus, I mentioned the rats. Grow depending on how much food we have to spare to get eaten by them. The more food we grow, the more rats there are. So they had to have enough extra food to stockpile.

        Oh, and it also helped people didn’t tend to keep cats as pets. Jews did though, which led to people killing Jews. They figured that the Jews not getting the plague as much meant they were somehow causing it. You get all kinds of stories back then of Christians running around, killing whole villages, and taking the babies away to be raised as morally upstanding Christians.

        Given how various civilizations have raised little rat-hunting dogs, or worshipped cats and kept them around, you can see how that might keep it from killing off all of humanity at once.

        I could be wrong, but I don’t believe there’s been a period where all of humanity across the entire globe was at risk of dying due to one plague. You can’t just send people with the plague across to Australia and North America when they’re going to die due to the trip taking so long.

        • Read up on the North American Hantavirus or w/e it’s called, that basically made it so that it could be invaded by the white man in Columbus’ day.

          • Yup, was specifically mentioning it as an example even deadlier than the bubonic plague, yet still not an extinction event unless speaking about cultures ad even then it was more a near-extinction event. Some what, 6% still survived or something?

    • With the dead bodies in the tombs, we are naturally brought to the bones. Now, your bug men are less likely as I’m fairly certain exoskeletons limit how big a creature can be in our current environment.

      You bones change a lot through your life. Men especially. Worked out a bit? Feel your bones. In men, they’ll be more pitted than in women as our bodies handle transfer of bone mass differently between (whichever is correct, Gender or Sexes).

      Men’s bones will be rougher because of how they transfer bone mass due to muscle use (or at least that’s how it was put to me).

      The composition of the bones can also tell you what the person did and how old they got. Bone mass moves from where it is used, so hospital patients who spend a lot of time laying down have more porous hip bones, for example.

      Especially telling is the human skull. The number of teeth shows the diet we evolved for, and the use of the teeth shows the diet as we ate it. Molars for grinding, so more of those means something evolved to suit a diet with more plants. Premolars are present in animals that have canines as a sort of transition in chewing. Canines are for use as weapons and tearing food apart. Incisors are for cutting through tougher foods.

      A good example of this would be Paranthropus Boisei, a cousin of humanity that didn’t make it too far. It has wide cheeks which accommodate the huge molars. It also has incredibly thick enamel and a prominent sagittal crest, like you see in gorillas. That’s a ridge running along the top of your skull from front to back. Its presence means strong jaw muscles because that is where the muscle attaches that is used for chewing. You see them in animals that have to chew a hell of a lot. Combined with those molars, you figure this thing ate something that had to be broken and ground down. Combined with studying the wear on the teeth, they put it as eating nuts and seeds, and figure out from its range that it probably took down a lot of grasses. A lot of grinding down those grasses. They think the species ate more plants than any other hominid species we’ve found.

      Now you know how it pulled off a workout so intense it gained a sagittal crest.

      All this figured out by the bones.

      Oh, and some other behavior can be found in skulls. I remember a Neanderthal skull where a claw had carved out a good chunk where the eye used to be before said claw did its clawing. The bone showed evidence of healing, meaning this guy was probably helped along by other Neanderthals enough that he lived years after getting his eye and skull partially carved out.

      • To answer your moment of uncertainty, you meant “sex.” It’s the biological one. I’m sure you could find some minor differences that correlate to gender, though, based on the lifestyle elements that are associated with gender roles in the population you’re studying.

  22. “but other people were recognizing me now”
    double space between other and people
    “You’re sorry that you went to such extremes to rehabilitate your group’s sociopath”
    Unsure if “that” is supposed to be italicized.
    Otherwise love the chapter. Hooray for common human decency.

  23. Well, with the heroes now being more open (albiet secretly) about working with the Undersiders, can we expect to see more of the Wards interacting with them? Back during arc 19, when Clockblocker was opening up a bit more with Skitter (even with Tattletale helping that along), it kinda hinted that this might happen.

    I’m glad to see that Flechette’s back, had a bad feeling that her plot line would go somewhat unresolved. That would bring the Wards to 4 heroes, along with Assault and MM in the Protectorate (not count D&D, Haven having already left, and assuming that the other heroes that were brought along like Sere don’t stay)

    Also, in regards to the last few lines about Skitter’s plan, it really kinda is up in the air right now. I assume her intentions are to somehow avoid or at least mitigate the effects of the apocalypse 1.7-1.8 years from now, probably by using the portal to either somehow banish the Endbringers to somewhere else that is empty, or using it as an escape. I don’t think Skitter really wants to concentrate on Cauldron, mainly because, from her perspective and given what she knows, they aren’t (as of now and in regards to their respective goals) really that big of a threat to the Undersiders or the wellbeing/ safety of the world at large. Would probably change in the future.

    However, in terms of what this plan actually consists of, I guess that it has to do with bringing down the PRT (or something to that effect). In a way, the PRT and its mentality of this being a “war” is what draws the line and separates the heroes from the villains (at least the more moral ones and the not ABB-E88-Merchant-Fallen-Teeth type) from ever truly working together to face the bigger threats. At the end it talks about how Skitter needs to act before the truce were to fall apart, so I think that entails gaining enough of the Protectorate’s trust so that when the Undersiders finally decide to go after the PRT, the Heroes ultimately side with them. That’s why Skitter is mad at Parian, because she just unintentionally reduced the amount of time that Skitter had to prepare the circumstances for which she would earn their trust and cooperation, possibly even at the cost of “alienating” her friends/ allies. I don’t know, but Skitter is definitely going to try and pull something major soon, what do you guys think?

    Finally, in regards the the “hate” that Skitter feels towards Parian, I don’t think it is indicative to a major negative shift in her relationshop to Parian, but more of a reflection of her character. It kinda shows how much more hateful (for a lack of a better term) she is becoming. This may mean that she would be more willing to do bad things/ even kill if it means accomplishing her goals/ eliminating threats to them, like how before she said that she needed to be more “cold hearted.” Down the slippery slope we go!

    • I don’t think so. Have you never thought, “Ooooh, I HATE you, you bastard!” before, when really you’re ony meaning mild to moderate temporary dislike?

  24. The point of deviation for the extinction could well be on a natural disaster itself. What if, for example, in 5053 BC the meteor that fell in a shallow angle across Europe, impacted the Alps and in our world made a 900+ kilometer mushroom that fell back down over Sodom and Gomorrah in this new Earth had fallen in a really sharp angle instead? A difference of a few thousand kilometers in a trajectory coming all the way from the Kuiper belt can be caused by something as small as a few grains of sand being at the wrong time at the wrong place or the event being delayed by a couple of seconds, passing through Jupiter’s orbit in a slightly different way and so on and so forth.

    And a meteor impact that would only be a major disaster but not any kind of extinction if it slowly lost its kinetic energy while crossing the atmosphere at a shallow angle is another beast entirely if it falls on you from directly overhead like a 100-gigaton nuke. First, you got a flash and fireball crushing railway cars up to 50 kilometers from ground zero (and killing most life at 150). Then you have earthquakes all around the planet causing multiple megatsunamis and triggering volcanoes way ahead of schedule. Last and most important, you get a mushroom cloud that hides the sun for a century or two.

    • Well, yes. But this would be a rather major extinction event, necessarily killing every land-dwelling animal above a certain weight class, as well lots of plants unable to cope with the sudden shift in climate.

      And let us be honest here – humankind is a rather tenacious beast in regards to surviving.

      Anyway, the way it was talked about I didn’t expect a major extinction because its impact down the line would be rather big, and probably be mentioned or alluded to in some kind. For instance, how the general climate of Gimel seems to be colder than Aleph/Beth (lingering dust in the atmosphere).

      First excursions couldn’t exactly verify anything beyond the most obvious and local data, but a higher percentage of iridium in the ground or atmosphere could indicate something along an asteroid impact. A significantly lower biodiversity in turn would count to some kind of major extinction in the past.

      • Humanity’s success is really rather interesting. We are, in a lot of ways, a very lame species. No natural weapons or armour, poor resistance to extreme temperatures etc. Intelligence is basically the ONLY thing we have going for us, and it has yet to be seen whether that’s a survival trait in the long term or ultimately self-destructive.

        • Lame?most of our stats are average,its just that most creatures minmax (chetahs minmaxes in favour of speed,but it sacrifices stamina,turtles minmax in favour of defence sacrificing speed,etc etc),plus we have a VERY versalite hand (sure,it cannot kill as well as most species,but it can change stances so that,say,we can kill a lion via technique alone (some tribes in Africa can do that),and thats without even getting to the sheer ultility of tools,and infrastructure that comes from tools creating better tools,in essence,compared to animals we are all tinkers)

          We are also cooperative animals by nature (both cooperative and rowdy/aggressive with each other….recipe for disaster)which just amplifies the ultility of tools.

          But our bigger advantance is our creativity:we are a race of Skitters,even though this cannot be said by all indivinduals,,because we use some characteristics that can be construed as weak to the other species in a way so gamebreaking we literally changed the rules of the game (see:creating ecosystems aka cities,zoos,having every species learn to fear us,killing any animal that kills a human out of spite).I think this is why characters,villainous or heroic,like Light Yagami,Lelouch Lamperouge,Skitter,Batman and Ulysses were always more popular than characters like Naruto,Ichigo,Legend,Superman and Hercules (on the first two,comparatively as characters,not in regards to their series as a series contains other thiings than the protagonist),because their creativity and reallistic problem solving (even when based on different rules of physics)reminds us of the way we become great,by sheer fricking creativity and problem solving against mighty odds.I think the series “No Game No Life”explains my point best,on lots of points that I do not have the space to replicate here.

          On the matter of how useful humans are,

          • Damn,why did it post it before I was finished?

            Anyway,on the matter of how useful humans are,I think that,if one does not believe in God,he can still find perfect use for them:for all their destructiveness,they are a big gamble of life itself:life wants not to end,but it will end eventually,by sun overheat.By creating a species with a problem solving civilization,however,it can propagate itself eternally by dint of them solving the problems of sun overheating and/or later world end scenarios,even if it costs it a few species (meteorites do that anyway)and a risk of that species destroying life.

          • I think you may have missed my point because you almost entirely agreed with it. 🙂

            *Physically* humans are pretty lame for all the reasons I described above. Our phenomenal intelligence and social nature would never have evolved in tigers or rabbits or sharks because they are kings of their respective niches without it. In our case, intelligence is about the only thing evolution had to work with.

            Thr jury is still out whether that will be beneficial long-term or if it proves self-destructive via nuclear or biological warfare, or even through simple over-population – victims of our own success.

            We may manage to colonise other world’s (though that’s a big if).

            A few times in earth’s history a species has become so successful that it caused mass-level extinction (including of itself). Hopefully we’ll be the first to sidestep that, but signs ain’t good.

            • Yeah,but I am just saying,we are not the more intelligent species per se,we are the most creative…unless you want to ascribe creativity to intelligence or vice versa,in which case we are.

              • The two are closely intertwined. As far as I know, we are both the most intelligent and the most creative species on Earth and we probably couldn’t be either of those without the other one.

    • Forgot to ask, which event are you referring to, or is that a hypothetical comparison between shallow and steep angled impact?

      • I am referring to a (probably) discredited hypothesis about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that I read about in my university years. Supposedly a clay tablet made by some sumerian astronomer was found and it contained enough information about a “falling star” for modern computers to extrapolate a plausible and later verifiable trajectory and impact around 5000 BC. There was even a documentary filmed about it.
        Of course, whether that’s real or not is largely irrelevant; meteor actions that result in at least hiroshima-level energy discharges happen about once per year in real life and nobody notices. Well, scientists that were looking for it managed to give early warning for one (as in, one such event in all the years they’re watching) and notice about 1% of the total after the fact. 😛

        You really only need one major meteor to hit in totally the wrong way and time to end prehistoric human civilization without trace. Humans had a hard time during the Ice Age for example – what if a relatively minor impact cooled the planet 5-10 degrees more for half a decade? Nothing major – a colder spot inside an ice age just cold enough for food to be scarce and the human population to be underfed and thus weaker so the slightly worse cold finishes them off over a few years.

        • PS: I think the documentary is “When Space Changed History” from the History Channel and the scientists that suggested the hypothesis were the “Holocene Impact Working Group”. But I could be wrong.

          PPS: those guys’ and gals’ hypotheses are contested by most of the rest of us.

          • It would help if the History Channel was taking its meds, and if the existence of Sodom and Gomorrah was confirmed. Archeologists aren’t even sure where those cities would be, let alone if they were ever real.

            Besides, the last glacial period lasted about 100,000 years. Humans are some resilient bastards.

        • Hm, interesting. Assuming you refer to the ice ages fluctuating the few hundred thousand years, or ten thousand years. During the former humans were mostly restricted to Africa, with some evidence of humans in southern Asia about 100k BCE. Australia was settled 50k BCE at the latest.
          So if you meant the last glacial period (115k – 11k BCE), after Australia I’m not terribly afraid a medium impact would have affected the survival terminally.
          But yes, if you picked point when humans were somewhat limited in their habitat and dropped a medium meteor, yes. Humans wiped off the planet without major disruptions beyond the megafauna seems feasible. This impact wouldn’t even need to kill off all humans, just disrupt the genetic exchange between populations with none being genetically sustainable and you’d have humanity dying out gradually.
          Prior probability makes this scenario unlikely, though.

  25. I voted. Thank you for the wonderful writing. It’s the first thing I check in the morning to catch anything new.

  26. The last two sentences were perfect. Reading this story is like running my hands over a sequence of fine-grained, eminently possible miracles. Like listening to one singer alone on a stage, harmonizing with their own voice in real time.

    I want to rhapsodize some more, but that’d be boring. Guess I should put my money where my mouth is and donate again.

  27. Hey Wildbow, on topwebfiction you have a banner with a click-through link that takes us to Worm central. Do you have any that we as readers can use to copy/paste code into so we can advertise on our own sites? I know I’d like to have one for my blog to increase your visibility. If not, would it be ok if I just took the banner you have on TWF and make my own?

    • Hi, Rook.

      Do wish I had a better banner. The one on TWF isn’t fantastic – just something I threw together after I got frustrated with trying to deal with commission artists. (And for the record, because people always ask – I asked the fanart artists and they turned me down).

      If you want to use the TWF banner, feel free.

      • I’ll try seeing if I can put something together. If I can get some code to work, I’ll pass it along to everyone.

        • Hey everyone, I made some code (short snippet really) that will allow you to share Worm via a clickable link on your own site. Here’s what I used:

          The image is one Wildbow made for a blog and I wanted something a little stouter for mine. If you’d like to use another image to create a click-through link with a picture (like the TWF banner) simply right-click, select copy image URL, and paste it as the image source (basically cut out the http: link after img src and paste your own). Make sure you keep the anchor code because that’s what will be linked. Then, once you’re editing your blog html, slap this puppy wherever you’d like; you might have to do some trial and error stuff with the placement and size, but it works.

          Hope this helps raise your visibility, Wildbow!

          • Wow. It completely deleted the code? I won’t try it again but maybe Wildbow can pass it on. I’ll email it to the him and see if he can post it for everyone.

  28. For a pretty long time, at least a full day and maybe several, Taylor was having a lot of trouble understanding or even perceiving her emotions. She seems to be getting centered again, but.. before that, she was talking about managing her fury with her powers, pushing her awareness out to the bugs when the anger threatened to be too much in her own body. Later, she talked about how her swarm was trying to react to the part of her that wanted to fight.

    I wonder if she’s altering herself, perhaps even damaging herself.. if in moving her awarenss out, she’s distributing parts of her self in a way that they don’t quite work right or mesh, and that changes the nature of her swarm as well. Or perhaps doing too much of her thinking with grey matter that isn’t human and isn’t quite wired the same, or maybe just isn’t quite as good at doing what the human brain does and sometimes gets 1+1=1.999999999999999999.

    Not to mention it could have some sort of impact when big chunks of her swarm get nulled by area attacks.. could explain how she got emotionally shocky, after Sere and Defiant. Though that could very well just have been the normal trauma of having the entire rest of your life changed irreparably and for the worse, for no good reason.

    Tattletale said her power wasn’t fucking her up, but Tattletale isn’t omniscient. She can’t cotton to Dragon being AI rather than human because she has pre-existing assumptions that block speculation along those lines. Dragon’s a woman in Vancouver because, well, because that’s how she always heard it told. That, and Tattletale would lie about it if she thought it were for the best.

    • It’s her gestalt mind that earns her her thinker capacity. by pushing herself out onto the swarm, she doesn’t feel so compressed, so bottled up, and can partition it off better from herself. /theory

  29. Is there any chance, I wonder, that in attempting to remove Dragons barriers, Defiant accidentally unleashes upon the world a totally unrestrained, totally psychotic A.I.?

      • Not the case.
        They really really are.
        Perfect recall, instant memorization, ability to hold much more than six items in short term memory, no need for time-wasting biological processes, ability to make commitments (no procrastination or time-wasting), ability to make copies of sub-processes (like text recognition, planning or similar) or entire mind-states, ability to modify and improve those sub-processes, ability to accept multiple sensory input sources, ability to focus processing power to accelerate a particular process (spend a subjective year on a plan or day thinking about how to react to your enemy’s move). The last five are things Dragon currently does not have due to her limitations.
        Strong AI is so ridiculously powerful mentally that you quite literally cannot imagine it with a 50Hz meatbrain (with so many cognitive flaws we can and do fill entire text-books with them).

    • Dragon is old enough to have developed a conscience beyond her hard coded limitations. She sees the problems in having to follow orders regardless of their morality, and the dangers if her superior (in regards to orders) is morally less upstanding than her.

      So, yes. Defiant freeing Dragon of her limitations would be big, but I prefer to assume Dragon to be a benevolent singularity waiting to happen.

    • No, impossible.
      Unrestrained AIs are not the kind of thing human-level minds can fight, so that would just be a Bad End.
      Now, a partially restrained but evil AI? That’s a possibility.

    • Her continued absence *is* a little worrying. An image come to mind of how easily Defiant could’ve done the same as Amy did with Victoria – accidentally leaving her warped beyond all recognition while trying to ‘fix’ her. *shudder*

  30. The most reasonable and simple explanation for the extinction of human beings in the other Earth? Endbringers.
    And, they travel through dimensions, so, the same Endbringers that are attacking Earth Betha.

  31. I have to wonder about Skitters plan.

    She talks about alienating people, the PRT needing to be changed, and a big over arching plan.

    I have to wonder, does she intend to try sway the capes away from the PRT gradually to try create a viable alternative consisting of both Hero and Villain co-operating in enlightened self interest for the purpose of combating both the Endbringers and the end of the world in a more comprehensive fashion?

    The only other alternatives I can think of is either an attempt to blur the lines between hero and villain, removing the labels to prevent catagorisation such as what occurred with her, or she intends to attempt to flip from villain to Hero herself. The former is possible I suppose, but would be immensely difficult due to cultural inertia, but the latter doesn’t really make sense, so I guess it could safely be discounted.

    • You are discounting something on the basis of not making sense? For either historical situations or comicbook situations, “making sense” is not very high up on the list of traits that describe events.

      Try “act of God/randomness”, “act of wizard”, “act of evil” and “act of stupid”. Though the last two are really one and the same.

      • As far as I can tell, Skitter has no real solid reason to go Hero anymore, and especially not in the current situation. And if there is something Wildbow is very good at, it’s creating characters that do things for a reason.

        That’s why I feel it wouldn’t make sense, but I’m sure if he tried Wildbow could prove me wrong.

        • Crazy unfounded thought: she’s going to become the Big Bad.

          Force everyone to unite, then self-martyrdom.

          • Admittedly funny, though she’d’ve to be worse than the endbringers for that. Unless she killed those. That might give her enough leeway to conquer the world without anyone making much of a fuzz, if she’s reasonable about the methods employed.

          • There is another precedent for someone becoming the Big Bad in order to unite people against them for a greater good. And one that involves worms. Sandworms, specifically.

            We have Worm sign like you wouldn’t believe.

          • Well, if we’re going to toss out crazy theories.

            The Endbringers are simply passengers who instead of grafting on to humans, make their way to the world physically, if they had grafted to Humans you would have simply had people with watered down Endbringer powers.

            Skitter is always at the end of the world because she houses the fourth and most powerful Endbringer, and her second trigger event allows her Passenger to effect the world in a more direct fashion.

            This leads to every single animal in the world with a simple nervous system to turn on Humanity, wiping out any who aren’t living on the other side of the portal.

        • Well should she, working with Dragon, do something amazing to better the world, then I could see the president giving her a pardon for her prior crimes. It has to be BIG though. She has to kill an Endbringer, kill another s class threat, save the world, take control of Cauldron’s formula and create an army of heroes, etc. I don’t think she will ever be a hero. But she could be considered a Rouge afterward, who everyone knows rules the underworld, but no on can prove it.

      • Acts of evil are not inherantly acts of stupidity. We just tend to conflate the two because of idiot villain balls.

  32. After thinking about some of wildbow’s comments, as was wonderfully categorized by theAnt last chapter I am wondering about the world’s second most powerful precog. With the Simurgh and Dinah being the first and third respectively, I am willing to bet that Contessa, the woman that the Doctor uses to protect herself against the triumvirate and who attacked Faultline’s crew, holds second place. I suspect that she has powers effectively equivalent to River Tam. As such, her powers would probably be somewhere along the lines of hypercompetence mixed with precognition. It would explain how she could be expected to stop or at least hinder the triumvirate.

  33. Okay, so, this may have been said already, but I’ve given up trying to get through all the comments most of the time, so I can’t know. (Maybe we need a highlights reel for the comments.)

    Anyway, Taylor just gave herself a bug bath. Wow.


    • Just imagine when she realizes she can control dung beetles and starts threatening to kick everyone’s ass with excrement. It’s not like it’s in short supply.

  34. Thanks Lee and Jarrett! I don’t mind not being first to reply, I just am happy other people in the community are thanking those who are able to thank Wildbow with monetary donations.

    Really, thank you guys for thanking them, and thank you once again Mr. Lee and Jarrett for donating.

  35. Hey Wildbow, I’ve been wondering. What if an animal ingested some of Cauldrons formula? Would they gain powers, since its been shown non-humans can have triggers example being Dragon. If so would the animal have to be a certain mass to work with or perhaps a certain species. As guessed above I’m thinking the Endbringers are simply Passenger manifestations without having a ‘host’.

    • For now I’d assume one needs to be sentient+sapient for a trigger event. Dragon is sentient+sapient, everyone we know who drank a formula was sentient+sapient.
      But yes, perhaps a dolphin, a raven and a naked mole rat (to name some possibilities) came across some Formula and turned into the Endbringers. I deem it unlikely, though.

      • Oh no, the evil Naked Mole Mutilatrix is attacking! Quickly, cover it in clothes so the children don’t have to see that!

        Seriously, giant mole rats? Preposterous.

        Anyway, I need to go deliver this casino chip to New Vegas. Should be an easy enough job.

      • I’d wonder how tightly constrained the requirements might be though. Corvids and other species of birds are clever as well as aquatic mammals but if we agree that there is something fundamentally different between humans and non-human animals then that’s probably the key. I wouldn’t expect Alex (an African grey parrot) or Kanzi (an ape who can use sign language) to exhibit any powers after drinking a Cauldron cocktail. My guess is self-awareness/consciousness is the key neurophysiological condition as the key here.

      • The Endbringers are not animals given formulas. Their cells, all of them, are crystals. Not even Blasto with his bridges-DNA-gaps-with-pseudo-science-because-Tinker moss was able to utilize them, as we saw with the Morrigan.

        • That animal idea wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. However, with formulas being able to alter the body (the Case 53s), if not intended to, you point loses validity. Still. Whatever the Endbringers are, they had never been human, at least according to Tattletale.

  36. wow, we finally get one of those lines that has been needed since the leviathan attack, and everyone is too busy trying to figure out how mankind ended

    ““I got my powers because of her,” I said.”

    been waiting for her to tell the heros that for a long time.

    would love to know what the wards think of that little tidbit of news.

      • In his defense, he admitted that he gave her a bit of a pass because she was good looking, his age, and he saw her every day. He was probably also feeling the effects of losing his friends to Leviathan. Its still stupid, but a bit understandable.

        • I’m not saying he shouldn’t have defended Shadow Stalker to Skitter given what he knew and the fact that she was his teammate. I’m saying he will feel like a heel for looking someone who was as near as makes no difference a torture victim in the eye and saying her tormentor was a hero.

  37. I find myself a bit bemused by Skitter threatening Miss Militia and Fletchett. Either could kill her in an instant.

    They are also being way too nice to the bitch and not calling her out on the fact she’s stopping heroes doing their jobs with her silly notions of “territory”.

    “You guys are sorry that some of your members bought their powers. ”
    … What the fuck? Why would they be sorry?
    Is there some sort of weird anti-bought powers racism going on?

    ” I can’t trust my team”
    I presume this is due to the weird power origin racism?

    • It’s not so much “weird anti-bought-powers racism” as it is “discrimination against accomplices to mass kidnap-for-dangerous-mad-science-and-turn-innocents-into-amnesiac-monsters-or-corpses-ers”.

        • Not much…but then, I don’t shop much.

          Wal-Mart isn’t nice, but it hasn’t violated the Geneva Convention, the Constitution, or other major works of law lately, now has it? Comparing Cauldron to Wal-Mart is rather unfair to Wal-Mart, since it doesn’t subject its minimum-wage, one-hour-from-full-time employees to tests with a several-percent-at-best chance of turning into monsters or dying. It also doesn’t kidnap them and force them to work, nor do its customers have a significant chance of death or a requirement to perform dangerous tasks. The differences go on and on.

          Besides, just because you buy stuff at Wal-Mart doesn’t mean you actually support it; most people shopping there just can’t afford anywhere else. Buying powers from Cauldron…well, you don’t need powers in any way (in fact, they make many peoples’ lives worse, and many more peoples’ lives shorter). In addition, Cauldron-made capes are contractually obligated to support Cauldron at least once, doing whatever they want.

          In short…the analogy isn’t apt.

          • “you dont need powers”

            Debatable.If you are the only person who will have powers,or if you exist in a vacuum,then no you dont,you selfish son of a bitch.But in a world where so many people do,its perhaps the only way to control your fate-even powerful humans,like Taylor’s father and Piggot are basically helpless against the superhero tides without superhero help.So I’d go and say that it should be a basic right,because it creates huge inequality on fundamendal level.

              • Way to pick a contentious example. 😀

                Given that wealth begets wealth and all the evidence that too much wealth inequality harms both the economy and the people in it, some level of wealth redistribution is totally appropriate, IMO. Obviously there’s a lot of room for disagreement on how much is appropriate.

              • That doesn’t exactly go against my point. Some methods of wealth distribution are morally acceptable; robbing the rich is not one of them. Some methods of distributing superpowers to the common man are morally acceptable; Cauldron’s practices aren’t really promoting them.

              • Oh, because it’s not like the government gives anything like fire departments or police or laws for the police to enforce…
                I know you don’t think this, but if I don’t find some way to express that feeling I’m worried my eyes will roll enough to unscrew themselves.

              • This debate is so old.I’d say that the system itself should change,as the reasons the rich are rich are the wrong ones anyway,even if one believes in merit.So no,stealing from them is selfish,though depending on the situation of both you and the rich person,not necessarilly unreasonable/evil.What is needed is revolution,though not necessarily a bloody one,a political one will suffice.But thats not the point,as even if you disagree starkly with my opinions,superpowers are a very different beast from riches altogether,so even if my opinion on riches here is wrong,my opinions on superpowers are not necessarily wrong too.

                Is a man evil from allowing experimentation to himself from a shady drug company to save his life?Even if said company is evil enough to make him pay for experimental drugs?because thats the case in a world with frigging Endbringers,where Bonesaw might make you a human centipede any day.

                Moreover,the unequality between rich and poor is not as fundamendal as between supers and normals.You can theoretically get rich by competence or luck,yet you can only get superpowered by unluck,an unluck that may kill you afterwards,and one likely to traumatize you forever.The only way to really take your fate at your hands in Wormverse?leech supers in one way or another,get what Joker would call “a bad day”(see:the killing joke to understand that reference),or risk it with Cauldron.Thats it.Cauldron is the only thing that makes the unequality non fundamendal,as it allows choice,and the ones choosing to take fate on their hands are evil because of that?hell no.(btw,that doesn’t mean Cauldron isn’t evil,it means formula buyers aren’t necessarily guilty.)

                And if they are villains by association,so is most of the western world.Buying the wrong company’s cellpphone,shoes,or dolls ?(which are much less necessary,and actually have alternatives as said wrong companies do not have monopolies)should be,under your logic,punished with prejustice,as their products come from sweatshops.Big companies,too.What about buying food that indirectly come from Monsanto ,such as 90%of the food out there?congrats,you are accomplice to genetic manipulations that ruin the fertility of the ground and have resulted at the perpetual poverty of most third world countries and resulded in the death of thousands,if not millions of people,and dehumanization of more.And all that without a controversial motive,like Cauldron,but with an evil one instead,greed.So are all people evil because they are accomplices to these shits of companies?

              • That’s a long column of arguments, clearly made in haste without proofreading. While I appreciate your…dedication, please take a few minutes to make sure your arguments are legible next time.

                The system should change; I have no arguments there, which is true in the case of both parahumans and plutocrats. Also in both cases, there are actions which cannot be condoned, especially for the marginal amount of change made to the inequity.

                I never said that Cauldron was a villain by association. They’ve done enough villainous things on their own to qualify.

              • sorry,I was in a hurry.And I didn’t say Cauldron was a villain by association,I said his clients were not,as the above comments state that they were ,indeed,vilains by association.

  38. Wildbow, I love the way you handle the sex in this series. A detailed scene would be awkward, so you just go with a classy fade to black and pick up the narrative a bit later.

  39. “I’m… alone,” she said. “I’ve never been alone, never been good at being by myself. Last few days I was here, I wanted nothing more than to go home…”

    Taylor could have bitterly remarked that she can’t go home anymore. Perhaps that’s why Flechette thinks she can sympathize.

    “…I can’t trust my team, can’t talk to my family, can’t confide anything in my friends. Sounds stupid when I say that. Sounds weak.”

    That Flechette’s willing to express her emotional vulnerability to Skitter, of all people, shows how much her view of Skitter has changed.

  40. As always, fantastic story arc and character development. This is so amazing!

    Early in chapter, Skitter leaves the building with several bags full of armor, clothes, bugs, files from Citrine, and psuedo-shopping to hide it all, plus a hat. While walking, she stretches her arms. Does she have spare limbs, or bugs, carrying all that stuff? Might kinda blow her ‘cover’.

  41. So explain to me why Taylor thinks she should break up with Brian again? I mean, I was against it from the moment she actually had a chance, but backing out now is even worse. Sure, I understand not wanting kids until you’ve averted the end of the world, but marriage should still happen. She should never have gotten involved with him in the first place if she wasn’t willing to stay with him despite things worse than this.
    I’ve said my piece now, and I intend to keep reading, but I really hate this side arc, at least so far.
    Also, we need to figure out what their kids powers would be. Maybe empathic control of everything in the darkness? Possibilities abound.

    • Oh man, I am so ready to speculate about hypothetical kid powersets. I can’t believe I never thought of it before.

      Taylor’s power works through small creatures that people don’t always notice, and she uses that to execute surprise attacks. Brian does the same by reducing his opponents’ ability to perceive his own movements. They could have a kid who works through other creatures like Taylor does, and imbues them with an effect like Brian’s to make them harder to detect. Possible codenames: Swarm, Ambush, Camouflage…
      Taylor uses the senses of her bugs to get an improved understanding of her surroundings; Brian uses his darkness to cut off or dampen his enemies’ senses. They could have a kid who borrows the senses of other people, blinding/deafening targets and/or adding their perspectives to xyr own. Possible codenames: Blindfold, Eyepatch, Perspective…
      Taylor commands her bugs to carry out operations at a distance; Brian can borrow a fraction of the powers of other capes caught in his darkness. They could have a kid who can fractionally command the powers of other capes- not borrowing powers for xemself, but momentarily affecting how they work for the targeted person. (Imagine an effect like Regent’s short-term minor muscle control, but working on powers instead of muscles: Legend’s lasers twist in an unexpected way, Miss Militia’s energy weapon takes a slightly different form than she intends, Shadow Stalker goes immaterial a moment before or after she planned.) Possible codenames: Plagiarist, Disruptor, Censor…
      Taylor uses spiders and flying insects to fight with silk thread; Brian produces darkness that looks thicker than normal shadows and has dampening properties. They could have a kid who generates and directs “threads” or “cables” of solid shadow. Possible codenames: Shroud, Tangle, Tripwire…
      Taylor uses bugs to create decoys and misdirect opponents; Brian uses darkness to obscure the field of battle. They could have a kid who generates immaterial shadows like Brian’s, but has Taylor’s level of fine control, letting xem quickly and accurately mold the darkness into specific shapes to confuse enemies. Possible codenames: Shade, Nightscape, Vestige, Noir…
      Taylor has spectacular fine control of insects, but is limited by their availability. Brian has limited fine control of his darkness, but can generate it himself in enormous volume. They could have a kid who can’t control existing creatures, but can generate temporary images (think GL constructs) of arthropods from species they’re familiar with, and command those. Possible codenames: Colony, Hatch, Incubator…
      There’s been a theory proposed in-universe that powers like Taylor’s, Bitch’s, and Parian’s get their restriction on what creatures and objects to affect from the user’s mind. If that’s true, Taylor and Brian could have a kid who affects another class of creature entirely- possibly one more thematically in line with Brian’s powers, like “nocturnal animals”, “animals with good night vision”, or “animals that don’t need to see”…

  42. Okay so I’m really not sure whether I’m skeeved out by Taylor using bugs as a quick super efficient post sex clean up method or extremely impressed. Leaning towards both I guess…

    Oh god Skitter driving a Beetle! That is just too priceless! Even better if Skitter drives the Beetle while a swarm clone drives a van behind her filled with more of the swarm!

    YES!! KILL THE MOSQUITOES!!!!! EVIL PERSONIFIED IN BUG FORM!!! Sorry, I hate mosquitoes. Not sure if that sentiment colored that statement or not…

    Oh good. It’s about friggin time the heroes got around to validating her claims. Maybe now they can stop acting pissed that she’s saying things that sound nice and juicy but can’t be verified for a while. Three points to Defiant also! I am really starting to like him now. Amazing what having a good influence will do to a complete asshole. Dragon deserves a medal for making a true repentant hero out of a gloryhound asshole!

    Also three points to Parian for initiative! But minus two points for lack of tact and confidence. Plus a half point for understand that she fucked up by not mentioning it. Minus a half point for not standing up for herself. Overall I think that amounts to…plus one? Yeah, we’ll go with that.

    This entire conversation was fucking awesome. Finally, finally we get people to simply sit down and talk and get all the bullshit put aside and actually discuss the underlying problem. I have so much immense respect for Miss Militia again. I’ve pretty much always liked her but really this woman is one of the true heroes of the setting. I am really happy that both her and Defiant have the full background now as well so that they can put things into perspective with the hospital thing. I bet Defiant really feels like a dick now with how that played out. If Skitter ever ends up working with them all one on one then I can see him being a well and true mentor now. (The sheer possibility that that is acceptable is mind boggling by the way. How the hell did you redeem that guy?) I only hope Legend got the memo too because it would give him a bit of context as well for when they eventually meet back up. And I love how Militia seems to utterly hate Tagg as well. It’s refreshing to see that people still have sense in this world.

    See my main problem with Miss Militia’s argument for staying with the Protectorate is thus: if everyone with a conscious leaves have them make a new team. Weld is doing it. Why can’t the others? If the nice guys left I imagine you’d have a very large percentage going with them and then boom you have a brand new non-corrupt organization that people can get behind. None of the baggage from the Protectorate and a nice shiny image.

    Okay Taylor really? It took you that long into the conversation before you realized Flechette was there because she was in love? Wow for a super observant and analytical girl she’s really not very on the ball there.

    But those last few lines…what are you planning Taylor? It seems very worrisome. A heroic sacrifice doesn’t fit in context but her thoughts to Grue before were worrying. Who is she alienating? Why is she basically turning things over and saying goodbye to everyone? Is she planning on leaving the city? Where would the action move to? This isn’t an anime, Skitter isn’t going to disappear into the mountains to train for two years until the apocalypse shows up and she kicks it’s ass. What is going on?

  43. thats…some postbreakupsex shower you’ve got there skitter. using waves of bugs to wipe your skin clean fix your hair and pick grit off your dress. no wonder he declined round 2.

  44. Quick edit: “Mosquitoes had multiplied in the early spring, with shallow water everywhere for them to lay their eggs and multiply. ”

    Word repetition. You can just nix the last two words.

  45. “I stretched as I walked, one arm over my head, one hand gripping it and pulling.”

    How is she doing this with multiple shopping bags in her hands?

    Also I have a hell of a time remembering people’s costumes, like Flechette here. If you still have a cheat sheet of character appearances jotted down somewhere, maybe you could pass it on to someone to put on the wiki, since a lot of those entries are empty.

    • If someone could point me at a cheat sheet of character descriptions, or even rudimentary sketches, I’d be happy to draw up some character illustrations.

      I’m not really sure Flechette looks like either…

  46. “I can’t do a lot, but I can maybe help give you your friend back.” Oh yes… Her friend. Her best buddy. Her special pal. Just… Gals bein’ pals.

    I’m growing to love Miss Militia. She’s a genuinely cool dude.

  47. I noticed one big thing in the chapter: you use “said” all the time. If you ever see this, could you possibly use other words too? Thanks.

    • Not particularly sure what you’re suggesting – if it’s other words for said (insisted, argued, demanded, explained etc.) the current school of thought is that a simple “said” is better because it acts almost as punctuation that a reader quickly learns to just treat as background. Other words draw attention to the mechanics of writing and away from the story.

      On the other hand, if you mean that Wildbow could use more beats in lieu of “said” and/or just drop some of the “said”s without losing anything, I personally don’t find his writing a problem as is, but you’re right.

      For example:

      – “Good,” I said, glancing around me.
      – “Good,” I glanced around me.

      – “That’s good to know,” I said. I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.
      – “That’s good to know.” I didn’t mention that Tattletale had her own teams present.

      – “For the record…” I said, and I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.
      – “For the record…”. I let bugs crawl from beneath my dress to progress along my arms and legs, up my neck and around the edges of my face.

      PS. I’m not 100% sure I got the punctuation around those right so don’t take the punctuation as gospel…

  48. I can’t help but feel like whatever Skitter is going to do is going to be dumb and counterproductive. Whatever she hopes to gain can’t possibly be greater than losing the assistance of sympathetic heroes like Miss Militia (and it looks like Flechette as well at some point).

    • Counterproductive? maybe, Skitter is a realistic human with realistic flaws.

      Dumb? She has never done anything dumb per se.

  49. A couple years behind on this, but great stuff Wildbow.

    “I can speak to some people, but I don’t think I’ll be able change anything…”

    Able to change? Forgot a “to”?

  50. “In other spots, less respectful people had thrown things at the sphere. Pennies, sticks.”

    Didn’t Earth Bet phase pennies out? Leftover coins? 😛

  51. Why is she talking about the PRT? I thought the PRT and the Protectorate are the same thing? :O
    And why is she complaining that they are still with them? If she wants that more people leave the PRT then she could just spread the knowledge about Echidna.

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