Interlude 16b: Brain Picking

Source material: Worm, Interlude 16 (Donation Bonus #2)

Blogged: June 1, 2019

Told you it’d be a good time for an Interlude!

So, who are we following today?

You’re probably tired of me suggesting the Travelers every Interlude, but this time Trickster is definitely my prime suspect, what with the setup in the previous chapter. It all just depends on whether or not Wildbow knew he had a donation Interlude coming up when he wrote 16.6. I’m inclined to assume he did.

If we are following him, we’re finally about to learn more about the Travelers and their deals with Coil, and Trickster may be in for a nasty half-surprise. Especially if Genesis is right about it being a bad idea to bother Coil right now.

Otherwise, we’re kind of running out of pre-existing characters who would be relevant to get an Interlude from right now, at least on a local basis. There are some, sure, but yeah… I’m gonna put basically all of them in the “maybe” column and Trickster in the “probably”. (An Interlude from a new character is always an option, of course, but impossible to predict.)

I suppose Genesis is also an option if we want to see the Trickster-Coil confrontation with a twist. She could come along with a tiny body or something, just to observe. I don’t find it terribly likely, but I feel we know Trickster better than we do Genesis and seeing something like that from her perspective would go some way towards leveling that out.

So yeah, let’s get whatever this is underway!

Heavy footsteps carried him through a crowd of people who were having the worst days of their lives.


I’m immediately reminded of my own OCs. Whatever is going on here, it sounds like the sort of situation the Ascended would set up.

But no… Are we dealing with the Simurgh today?

Incidentally, “heavy footsteps” made me think of Weld, but I highly doubt this is him.

So, uh, is the POV character in any way responsible for this crowd’s misery? He seems detached, doesn’t seem to consider himself part of that crowd of people having the worst day of their lives.

There were doctors and nurses who might never be able to return to the careers they had worked so long to achieve. He saw new parents, almost all in their twenties and thirties, huddled close and openly weeping or staring into space with puffy red eyes.  There were family members trying to give them support, not knowing how.

Sounds like someone or something destroyed a hospital?

Except destroying a single hospital wouldn’t cause the staff not to be able to return to their careers? I mean, it’d be a significant setback, perhaps leave them out of a workplace for a while, but that doesn’t seem strong enough to warrant this description.

Not that the extended family would be suffering any less.  Police officers and detectives were trying to gather statements, well aware that the families wouldn’t know anything pertinent.  Some were standing by, notepads in hand, unwilling or unable to proceed with their witnesses.

I think we can rule out the Simurgh, probably. What’s going on here seems too targeted and unsustained for an Endbringer, and the police wouldn’t need statements to figure out what happened. Unless the Simurgh is way sneakier than her siblings? Something seems to be going on with some of the victims’ minds here.

Also, I suppose maybe the career-ending thing might be because they were injured in ways that would end their careers, á là Doctor Strange?

It’s possible that we’re looking at a terrorist attack or something of that nature.

He’d known this feeling, once.  To be the bystander, watching the aftermath, agonized as much by the inability to help, the lack of knowledge about what he should do as by the tragedy itself.

This seems like a character I’ll be comparing and contrasting to Taylor down the line.

I’m guessing that incident was this guy’s trigger event if he had one?

To have it happen again and again.  He banished the memories before they could take hold.  It was easier to distract himself and think about the work.  If there was no work to be done, he would let himself slip into that other state of mind, seeing the world coming apart, ways things could fit together.

Hmmm. That sounds suspiciously like a Thinker power, though for all I know right now, it could very well just be a psychological thing.

It could also be a Tinker power, or somewhere in the gray area between those classifications. Visualizing how to put things together from parts of the world…

Wait, is our POV character McGyver?

But right now, he would focus on the job.

The job is very clearly not trying to help like the police are.

He glanced at the window.  Four or five hours ago, these same parents might have been standing outside the window, watching their new babies sleeping.

Outside… the same window??

Now there was only a sheet taped up to block the view, marked for what it was by a yellow ‘x’ of police tape.

I see… so the POV guy can see the window, meaning he’s either inside the building, the window has left the building, or the building no longer has a clearly defined inside and outside.

Was the disaster here on a smaller scale than I thought, localized within the maternity ward rather than destroying the building?


Did a baby get powers somehow? It wouldn’t surprise me if that could happen with third-generation parahumans.

Keep walking.  Something nagged at him as he set his right foot down, like a pebble in his boot, except not.  He reached out, as if he were trying to move a finger, but the artificial nerves were hooked into his suit, and the impulse didn’t go anywhere in his body.

Artificial nerves! Defiant? Hell yes.

He felt the air shift as the openings in his mask sealed shut.  He sent out another command and the microphone came online.

Talking to Dragon, I assume.

So if this is Defiant, then whatever happened here was probably caused by the Slaughterhouse Nine.

When he spoke, only his ears and the microphone heard his voice.  “Note to self.  Prosthetics in right leg feel alien.  I should check the treads on my old boots, see if one of my legs was longer than the other, maybe try to dig up recordings of myself to match my new gait to my old one.  Should time adjustments to coincide with next procedure.”

Ah, note to self. Fair enough.

This does sound like how he’d talk sometimes when he was Armsmaster.

Note made, he shut off the microphone, opened the vents.  He saw two women embracing one another, eyes red, staring at him as he passed through the last of the gathered crowd.

Yeeah, he’s kind of an eye-catching figure. Always was, but especially now.

They were hoping for the impossible, willing it.  But bringing their child back wasn’t in his hands.  The best he could manage would be revenge.  Or justice.  The line between the two got pretty damned thin at times like this.

…you know what, yeah, that’s fair.

Revenge is simply justice with a bias.

The local sheriff was waiting for him as he approached the waiting room.

“Defiant?” the sheriff asked.  She looked small, mid-sixties, gray-haired.

In other words, she looks like a sheriff.

He suspected she was someone who had gleaned some experience in Boston or Brockton Bay and then ‘retired’ out to a smaller town in the middle of nowhere.  She wouldn’t have expected to face a situation like this in her retirement, nobody would, but she was holding herself together in a way that suggested she had some experience to fall back on.


This also implies we’re still in Massachusetts, or not far from it.

She’d lost officers, and the town was small enough that people she knew would have been among the casualties, but she was all business, her chin set, her small dark eyes hard with determination.

I like her.

He liked her right away.

Yeah, I was thinking of saying that I’d probably ship Defiant with her, if not for Dragon. She seems a lot like him, and I’m not at all surprised to find him liking these traits.

“Yes ma’am,”  He shifted his spear to his left hand, extended his right hand to shake hers.

“Miranda Goering.  Sheriff.  No need for that kind of formality here.”  She sounded like she said something similar on a routine basis.

I guess this ain’t a formal place.

She frowned.  “I… would have a hard time expressing just how much I appreciate your being here.”

Calm and collected, but not cold. Excellent.

How was he supposed to respond to that?  He couldn’t think of a response.


She was studying him.  Her eyes settled on his weapon, the fourteen foot long spear. “How on Earth do you carry that spear indoors?”

That is a very good question.

I suppose he was always good at making things fit where they shouldn’t.

“It folds, and it can contract to be half the length,” he said.

Okay, so this implies the spear is not currently contracted and they are outside. The window has been confusing me on that front.

Except… he was meeting the sheriff as he headed for the waiting room, which suggests they’re indoors.

One or more of my assumptions must be wrong, but I’m not sure which one(s). I guess I’ll just take it they’re indoors for now.

“I see,” she said. She shook her head, as if stirring herself from idle thoughts.  Back to the nightmare.  “Do you want to start in the nursery?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I can guess what happened, and I doubt there’ll be anything I can use there.  Show me the other scenes.”

If this is indeed the Nine’s fault, my money is on Bonesaw messing with the kids.

Wordlessly, she turned and led him to the stairwell.  He noted the gouges on the walls.  Two or three inches deep, with blood spatters following each.  Plastic had been taped down over each individual mark and spatter.  Evidence cards were stuck next to each. He could guess the culprit.  Jack.

Alright, fair.

Did they each pick a spot to attack separately?

Another impulse sent to his hardware, and his spear broke down into three loosely connected sections as they made their way down to the next floor.  A practiced motion let him catch the weapon under his arm.

The benefits of integrated tech!

“You have any local parahumans?”

I would guess they have at least a couple, though we do know Brockton Bay’s concentration is ridiculously high even for a city, and rural areas generally have lower concentrations than the city norm.

“Three.  Nothing notable.  Edict and Licit, a low-rated master and a low-rated shaker.  We also have one villainess who occasionally tries to make it in one of the big cities and then retreats back home when she can’t cut it.

Pfft, sounds like fun. Maybe she’ll come visit Brockton Bay sometime.

Does Edict set rules that everyone nearby can’t break? Though I feel like that’d give a middling rating at worst.

Calls herself Damsel of Distress.”


Wait, that name sounds familiar. Didn’t she participate against Leviathan in Extermination? I might be thinking of Harsh Mistress.

Or was DoD in the Birdcage…?

*blog search*

Nope, hasn’t been mentioned before.

He reconnected his spear as they passed through the door.  “I know her.  Mover and shaker.  Storms of unevenly altered gravity, time and space.  Edict and Licit keep her in check?”

That sounds like a really fun power.

“They manage with our help.  Why do you ask?”

“The Slaughterhouse Nine are recruiting.  Their numbers are down, and they’ll be looking for a quantity of new members more than they’re looking for quality.

Ooh… I get the sense that a quitter like DoD wouldn’t last long among the Nine, but it’s still an interesting idea.

At least until they’re stable enough that they can afford to be picky.  Once they can, they’ll replace the weakest recruits with better ones.  I don’t want them to get that far.”

Of course, the replacing wouldn’t be fun for the weaker recruits.

“I understand.  But would they want her?  Damsel of Distress?  Her lack of control over her power holds her back.  I won’t say she isn’t a problem, but she’s never been a priority threat to anyone.”

The Nine thrive in chaos, and that’s exactly what a power like that brings.

“She’s a heavy hitter.  They can give her control, or they can use that lack of control.  Let’s not forget that they might be looking at Edict and Licit.  I’ll need you to send me their files as well, please.”

If Edict is anything like I suggested, Jack would love to have them along.

“Of course.”

He didn’t really need the files.  The PRT had provided access to everything except the highest level secured files.  He suspected that Dragon would be able to gain access to those if the need arose.

Yeah… are there any files even Dragon can’t access? Handwritten ones?

 Still, asking the sheriff had let him gauge whether she was really as cooperative as she seemed, and her level of connection to the hometown heroes.  There had been no resistance, which was reassuring.

Makes sense.

Armsmaster/Defiant always did seem to like getting reads on people and enemies. He tried to do that with Taylor, and it was a huge part of his approach to fighting Leviathan… Though Legend has a better version of this trait.

She led the way to the area at the front of the ground floor.  They stopped at the perimeter of the scene.  He could see the path that Hookwolf had traveled, the bodies and body parts that littered the area, each covered by sheets or squares of cloth.  There was little to be done about the blood.  Every officer present was from out of town, and everyone was staying to the edges of the area.  There was more evidence than there was ground to tread on.

Yeeah, that’s Hookwolf, alright.

I’m still vaguely proud of how I totally called Hookwolf becoming one of the Nine before he was even nominated.

Defiant examined the area.  “They hit the nursery first, Jack and Siberian moving elsewhere in the building.  Your officers got the call, but didn’t have enough details to know what they were getting into.  They came in through the emergency room here, and Hookwolf was waiting for them.  Am I correct?”

Damn, nice robosleuthing.

“Yes,” Sheriff Goering said, staring down at the sheet in front of her.  Her composure was slipping, emotion seeping into her posture and expression, softening that hardness.

Again, he wasn’t sure what to say.  He needed her in control, but any reassurance threatened to make things worse.  He didn’t want to upset her, but everything about this was upsetting.

Showing empathy constructively is hard, guys.

There was no denying that.  She would regret it if she broke down in tears here, and it would waste his time when he needed to be in pursuit.

There’s definitely an air of detached pragmatism here, though.

Tell her it’s not her fault,” Dragon spoke in his ear.

Y’know, when a robot is giving you advice on how to be empathetic, you may have made some missteps.

“It’s not your fault,” he told the sheriff.  “They planned it this way.  I would guess they controlled the information that was reported to your station to keep you in the dark, then would have had Hookwolf sitting in the lobby in his human state, indistinguishable from anyone else that was waiting for a turn.”

Makes sense. This is exactly the sort of play Jack would love.

“That fits what we know,” she replied.  She looked up at him.

“They have years of practice in this, and this is what they’re doing, ninety-nine percent of the time.  Hit isolated areas, terrorize.  Sometimes it gets reported in the media, because it’s sensationalist, and sometimes it goes unreported-”

Jack prefers when it does get reported, I’m sure.

Back on track.  Cut the digression.

“-There was nothing you could have done differently, knowing what you did,” he finished, feeling like he was leaving his explanation incomplete.

I don’t know how to feel about how relatable Defiant’s perspective here is.

If it were him on the other side of things, he’d want the full picture, but he would take Dragon’s advice.

Good choice.

“You’re right.  But that doesn’t make it much easier.”

“No,” he agreed.  “I don’t expect it would.”

Sometimes there’s just nothing you can say to make it easier.

The lens of his right eye clicked through multiple frequencies and resolutions, until the scene stood out in high detail.  The blood shone ultraviolet, and even particles of dust were highlighted.  The entire area stood out with fingerprints, footprints and frost-like patterns where air currents had layered dust over walls and windows.

Cyborg eyes are neat.

He began to pick his way through the scene, setting his feet down only where there wasn’t any evidence to be damaged.

“You’re hunting them?” she asked him.

I’d probably have more to say about this part of the Interlude if Triumph’s hadn’t already established the hunting-the-Nine thing.


“Will you do me a favor?”

Oooh, are we getting back on the topic of revenge versus justice?

“If I can.”

“Talk to me?  Give me some assurance that some good will come of this?  That you’ll be able to track them down, because of what happened here, and that you’ll be able to stop them?”

Oh. No, not right now.

This honestly seems like the harder outcome for Defiant.

He stared at the landscape around him, all white, gray and the brown-red of drying blood.  It was washed out, stark.  The magazines and brochures had been covered by arterial spray and clothing was hidden beneath sheets.

Give it to her straight,” Dragon urged him.

Where is Dragon’s “body” right now, anyway? Out looking for the suspects?

“He was waiting here,” he pointed to a chair.  “The blood and the way the bodies fell, Hookwolf wasn’t holding anything back from the moment he made his move.  A walking chainsaw massacre.  I’m trying to look at how it played out, so I can read something into how they’re operating and where their priorities are.”

So I watched a playthrough of Detroit: Become Human recently. There’s a character in that, named Connor, whose job is basically this – he’s an android designed to help police by analyzing crime scenes with his robotic brain and come to conclusions like this.

Sometimes he licks the evidence.

“How?” Goering asked.

He saved the settings of the lens and then switched to a radiograph-ultrasound reading.  The world was cast in monochrome, now, and he could see the vague shapes of the bodies under the sheets, light and dark painting a picture of densities rather than light.  He closed his mask so the sheriff wouldn’t overhear and spoke into the microphone, “Count the skulls.”

The… skulls… fuck, let’s hope Bonesaw didn’t do anything with any of the victims.

Twenty two.”

“Twenty two bodies,” he spoke aloud, “In the waiting area alone.  It seems like too many for a town this size, this time of night.”


Are some of them decoys planted by Bonesaw?

“We’re the only real hospital for this part of the county.  We get people from neighboring towns flying in by ambulance or helicopter.”

Still seems like a lot, doesn’t it?

“I see.  Even so, it’s more than I would have guessed.  I suspect there was some announcement across the hospital, as the attacks started.  The way people were clustered here, they were probably ordered to stay put and stay calm.  Your officers enter and Hookwolf attacks.  There’s hesitation from the bystanders.  People are caught between perfectly rational self-preservation and the authority of the hospital staff who didn’t have the full picture.”


Don’t assign blame,” Dragon whispered.  “The Slaughterhouse Nine are the ones in the wrong here.

I don’t think Defiant really considered how what he just said would come across.

Kinda funny how a broken man who replaced some of his parts with tech, plus an advanced artificial intelligence whispering in his ear, add up to a somewhat functional human being.

“He lunges across the waiting area to the doors, cutting off retreat and tearing through anyone in his way.  This is new to him.  He’s used to fighting people who resist, people with powers and law enforcement officers with the technology to fight him.  This gives me the impression of a fox in the henhouse.  The crowd turns to flee for the hallways, and he cuts them off there, herds them towards the center of the room, finishes them off.”

Fun times.

He could see the pain on the Sheriff’s face, but she was holding up.  “And that’s useful?”

Defiant nodded.  “Hookwolf was largely content doing what he was doing in Brockton Bay.  He viewed himself as a warrior, a general, and there was a degree of honor in what he did.  He wasn’t honorable, but he followed a code.

So this tells you that he’s changed or been changed by the Nine.

Also, this description of Hookwolf makes him sound a little like Marquis.

The person who nominated him for the group, Shatterbird, is no longer a member.  So why did he join?  Our working assumption was that there were threats on some level, extortion.  But he’s shifting focus too quickly.  Adopting a new mindset.  It’s possible Jack Slash convinced him in another way.”

Yep. Or rather, Bonesaw did.

Or he’s under their control,” Dragon said, communicating over their personal channel.

“…Or he’s being coerced,” Defiant said, for the sheriff’s benefit.  “An implant, something that’s turned him into a puppet.”


He looked over his shoulder at the Sheriff, but she wasn’t venturing a response.

Back to the job.  He pointed with his spear, where Hookwolf had been seated, then traced the path the villain had taken.  Front door, then one hallway, then the other.  A loose ‘z’.  People had clustered around the middle of the room, and he’d leaped into the midst of them to finish them off.

Just zooming right through everyone…

Defiant’s eyes shifted to the front desk.  There was blood spatter there, but it was the furthest point from the path Hookwolf have traveled.  It would have been his last destination before he moved elsewhere.


Defiant used the lens setting to watch for blood spatter and footprints as he made his way behind the desk.

There were more bodies.  One was propped up against the wall, and the stains that were soaking through the sheet were more brown than red.  He’d had his lower abdomen opened.

Did they leave a message?

The last to die.

With his spear’s point, Defiant lifted the sheet away from the man’s head.  Young, head shaved, a tan collared shirt with a star on the shoulder and a kevlar vest.  His arms and hands were mangled beyond repair.  Defiant studied the area, noting the presence of footprints, then replaced the sheet.

One of the officers, it seems.

His progress out of the area was slow, and not entirely because he was trying to preserve evidence.  He needed to think, to draw the entire picture together and confirm what he was saying before he addressed the sheriff.

“Find anything?” she asked.

“Your deputy went down fighting,” he said.  “Tooth and nail.”

A valiant effort, though unfortunately futile.

Her jaw clenched, and he could see her eyes glisten.  She stared hard at the wall.

“He couldn’t have won.  Not against Hookwolf.  But I think he gave us what we needed.”


“Did he?”

“The aftermath of the fight suggests Hookwolf was in control of his actions.  What’s more, I think Jack Slash is grooming him.  The general and the cutthroat, playing off one another, educating each other in their respective disciplines, so to speak.

So we can expect Jack to be better at warrior tactics next time we see him? Cool.

Jack’s going to want to keep this interplay going, maintain Hookwolf’s interest and keep him from getting restless.  What’s the nearest town?”


There exists a Prescott Peninsula in rural Massachusetts, near the towns of New Salem, Shutesbury and Pelham, by Quabbin Reservoir.

“Second nearest?”


And there’s a road on the peninsula called the Prescott-Enfield Road.

“Thank you,” he said.  “I’m going to talk to my partner, join her in paying a visit to Damsel of Distress if she hasn’t already wrapped that up, then we’ll be leaving.  With luck, we’ll be right on their heels.”

Oh, so that’s what she’s doing.

“Execute the motherfuckers.”

Ah, there we go.

This is what I was expecting her to say earlier.

“I’ll damn well try.”

And that’s a very good answer.

He extended a hand, and she shook it.  He turned to leave, sending nervous impulses to the computer system in his suit, drawing up a map of the hospital and overlaying it with the image he was seeing on his visor.

I really like the nerve connection thing and it’s so wild that technology similar to this actually exists.

He made his way to the exit and briskly walked toward the field where he’d parked the Uther suit.

Talk to me, Colin?  What’s the thought process?

Execute the motherfuckers.

“Hookwolf gutted the deputy and then stood by while he died a slow, painful death.  Footprints on the other side of the room are probably Jack’s, if you look through the feed.  His back would have been to the filing cabinet.”

So the idea is that Jack was guiding him on how to do it in the most entertaining way?

I see it.  Hookwolf doesn’t have a reason to inflict a slow, painful death if he’s just a puppet under Bonesaw’s control.

He would if he was a puppet under Jack’s control, though.

“That’s my line of thinking.  From the looks of it, he was standing there longer than Jack.  If Jack moved upstairs, which matches with the gouges in the stairwell, then he was leaving Hookwolf there to watch the man die over the course of minutes.  The deputy was someone strong, ferocious, a warrior, which is how Hookwolf identified himself.  This wasn’t just killing, but rejoicing in the cruelty of it, the feeling of superiority over the fallen.  I think what Jack was trying to instill in Hookwolf, challenging him to alter his code and be something darker.”

…yep, that’s Jack Slash.

I don’t like it when you try to get into their heads like that.

Maybe because he’s too good at it?

“We have to be proactive.  Predict.  Get ahead of them, so we can stop them before they attack the next hospital, the next neighborhood or school.  That means figuring out what they’re thinking.”

Defiant is right.

I know.  I just don’t like it.  Not with the way Mannequin approached you.

“Mannequin’s dead.”

But the implications he brought aren’t.

And he approached you for a reason.

He signaled for the Uther’s cabin to open, then made his way inside.  It was half the size of a commercial plane, outfitted with basic living quarters, and outfitted with long-range weaponry.

Damn, that’s pretty big. No chance of approaching the Nine unnoticed in that thing.

Though if it’s got living quarters, it seems more akin to Eris’ camping van in practice. As in, it’s largely a mode of transportation that can catch up with the Nine… though with Dragon behind it, I doubt those long-range weapons are all it can do.

The moment he was inside, the systems kicked into life, the pilot’s chair turning to be in position for him to sit, monitors lighting up.  He had only to think, and the images changed, the cursor flying across the screen with a thought to click on icons.

Remotely connected to the robobrain, nice.

It’s interesting that he still uses a cursor. Why not have the interface interpret from his nerves the kinds of things the cursor is used to pick out? Is that degree of interconnectivity above their ability to fine-tune the nerve connections?

Bonesaw could probably help you with that. You should ask her.

“…You’re not responding.

Defiant.exe is not responding. If you close the program, you may lose information.

> Close the program
> Wait for the program to respond

“Sorry.  Still getting used to this setup.  I feel like a baby, still figuring out how to move my arms and legs.”

That has nothing to do with you not responding and you know it.

I hope it’s a little more intuitive than that if you’re airborne.

“Exaggeration for effect.  I’m like a toddler, then.  I can walk, but I could fall if I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing during the more complicated bits.”


He settled into the pilot’s seat, and his senses opened up with vague ‘tactile’ responses from the Uther.  He felt it lift into the air.  Monitors in front of him let him note Dragon’s location.

The Uther has essentially become part of his body and that’s really cool. Not every story can claim to have a character whose body is part plane-sized mech.

You didn’t respond to my question, Colin.  I was asking if you think I need to keep a closer eye on you.

Judging by the fact that that question didn’t come through the narration, I suppose Defiant managed to miss it?

I don’t think so,” he replied.  “I don’t know how you could be closer.  But it helps, having you there.  I appreciated the tips with the sheriff.  I would have fucked that up.”

It really did seem to help a lot.

It’s not a problem.

“Any notice on Damsel?”

Seems like we’re too late.  They got her.

Well shit. Also nice.

Unless it’s that they got her in the sense of they killed her.

His heart sank.  “Got her in the sense that she’s dead, or got her in the literal sense?”

The latter.

“Fuck!”  One more to contend with.  He remembered who he was talking to.  “Sorry.”

Does Dragon have objections to swearing?

(The awkward explanation would be that Defiant, after learning the truth about Dragon, sees her as a child. No thanks. Fortunately very unlikely.)

I swore when I found out.  Don’t worry.  I’m thinking Enfield.  You?

Jack might pick that to mess with the pursuit, if he knows about it? Trying to make them waste time in Prescott.

“We’re on the same page.  It’s close enough, but not so close it’s the next place we’d look.”  He shifted the Uther into motion and plotted a course for the Nine’s next likely destination.


He could see Dragon doing the same with her own suit.

They wouldn’t be able to do this for long.  They were only able to track the Nine like this because their quarry was unaware.  It would only get harder, with Jack obfuscating the group’s movements, with traps and misdirection, a contest of second guessing, trying to think more steps ahead.

Ahh, I see – Jack isn’t currently aware of them, to their knowledge, but he’s inclined to pick the second nearest town just in case.

He thought aloud, “We should have fought them sooner.  In Brockton Bay.”

I’m guessing you weren’t ready enough yet?

We weren’t ready, on a lot of levels.  You hadn’t recuperated, and I didn’t have anything that worked as standalone firepower.  Better to wait, confront them with six suits at once.

Yeah, that seems fair.

He opened his mouth to respond, then stopped.

Damn,” she said, “I was hoping you weren’t paying enough attention.


Something about the six suits? Or the standalone firepower line?

“I’m always going to listen when you talk.  What happened to the other three suits?”

Ohh, right.

Melusine is out of commission until I can build some replacement limbs.  Azazel and the Astaroth-Nidhug were melted down.

That’s not the important end of this answer, Dragon.

Is she trying to hide that it was the Undertravelers? Though that wouldn’t make any sense, he’d put that together in a heartbeat.

He frowned.  “The Undersiders?”

And the Travelers.  I pulled the remaining suits out of the city.  Can’t excuse the losses.  Not with bigger fish to fry.”

“That’s… irritating.”

What part?  That they get to keep doing what they’re doing?  Or that I didn’t mention it?


But probably mostly the former.

“I’m still officially a prisoner.  I’m just a prisoner on a manhunt, now.  If you want to control what info I get, I’ll live.”

Seems fair to me.

I can’t tell if you mean that.

“I can’t either.  But right this minute, I’m more focused on the fact that the Undersiders and Travelers could hold their own against the full flight of seven.  If they can get that far, couldn’t the Slaughterhouse Nine be able to defeat the suits as well?  And us with them?”

Fuck, that is a fair point.

Though at this point I’d argue that the Undertravelers are more powerful than the Nine overall (though Siberian is a huge plus to the Nine), so that’s a factor.

It’s the A.I.  Substandard.  They followed directions without an issue, but they aren’t creative.  The A.I. can’t think outside the box, they don’t plan or get creative.  They just do the tasks they were assigned: sequester, fight, detain.

Sub which standard, exactly? Is the standard you?

“It’s your work.  I know you’re capable of designing outside of the box.”

She is, but she’s not her father.

I’m working with my hands tied, Colin.  There’s too many redundancies in my code, the rules against me making A.I.?  They’re still there.  You gave me some detours, some workarounds, ways to get around them, but I’m still stumbling over them.

Ahh. So he has managed to change some things, but hasn’t gotten deep enough to root it out completely.

He tapped his fingers on his armrest, thinking.  “I’ll see what I can do.”


“I don’t want to spoil your code.  This isn’t my field of study.  It’s not even something I’ve dabbled in.  As a rule, anything I do to change it is going to make things less elegant.”

On top of everything, the original creator was a Tinker with it as his specialty, so yeah, lower quality is to be expected.

So be very careful. You really don’t want to break Dragon.

In that one department.

“And I’m legitimately afraid I’ll do permanent damage if something runs out of control.”

I think Bonesaw might be better for this job, at least if you add some age and experience to her.

No, I’m serious.

I’m not saying she’s better at making AI (though she has experience with making robots following her command), but the change-making in question here are to an AI as surgery is to a human. She might be better prepared for the deft touch needed to make it happen without fucking everything up by connecting things wrong.

I have backups.  Weekly.”

Well, that’s reassuring, at least. Most humans don’t have that when they go to surgery.

…I wonder if Prism could do something like that.

“Which means we’d have to bring you up to speed on the mission here.  I’m saying it’s dangerous.  I like the you of right now more than the you of a week ago.”

Hm. Fair enough. Maybe wait a little?

That sounds almost romantic.


He smiled a little.

Saw that.

They’re cute.

He smiled wider.  “You’re bordering on the obsessive now.”

I can dial it back.  How are the prostheses?

“Holding up.  Eye’s working great.”

Eye like it.

I saw,” she replied.

He smirked.

She sounded legitimately embarrassed as she said, “Whoops.


Little too close, maybe?

“Don’t worry.  I knew you were watching.  It’s fine, good to have an extra set of eyes on the scene.  Um.  The other parts are fine.  I made a note to fix my leg.  I think it’s a little too perfect.  Feels uncanny.  But I suppose you heard that.”

Probably, yeah.

I don’t listen in on any personal notes, just like I won’t pry into any journals you keep or personal mail.  The deal we struck with the PRT was that I would make sure you followed the rules.  That’s what I’ll do.  But your thoughts are your own.

So I guess when he turned on the microphone to make a note, she basically went “oh, not supposed to listen to this” and covered her metaphorical ears. Fair enough!


You don’t sound overly concerned either way.”

I mean, he’s already pretty much let you into his brain, hasn’t he? When you’re this close, privacy is kind of forfeit.

“I’m not, really.”

You let me know if you do start feeling uncomfortable.

“I can do that.  Listen, there’s no use in me getting deep into your code when we’re going to get there in a matter of minutes.  I’m going to look at my knees in the meantime, then maybe I’ll refresh myself on your code if I have time before we land.”

I’m just gonna sit here and appreciate the line “I’m going to look at my knees in the meantime” and how silly it’d sound without the context that he’s a self-modifying cyborg.

I mean, there are reasons regular people would say they were going to look at their knees, but this is too casual for most of those reasons.


He glanced at one monitor, and windows opened to show images of the leg.  He was able to draw the crude shapes that represented individual devices even when he wasn’t looking at the screen.  A triangle here, a circle there.  Another window opened up with a line connecting it to the triangle, and he drew an identical triangle, began filling it with more shapes.  By the time he had a fourth subwindow open, he was drawing from previous notes to copy over other schematics of older work, seeing where things could go.

Just try not to stick any circles in square-shaped holes.

Oh wait, that’s his specialty.

Everything could fit together.  The waste energy of one system could help power another.  Even on a molecular level, there were ways to harness the ambient radiation that was emitted by everything in the known universe.

Dayum, now we’re thinking with small stuff.

Some was infinitesimally small, but it was usable.  That energy could be heterodyned, or redirected into loops long enough that they were near-infinite.  Hyperefficient, dense energy generation that could benefit from being hooked up to more devices.  It was the fundamental basis of his work: efficiency.

Maybe his specialty is more general than we’ve been led to believe. He’s been noticably good at spatial efficiency, but maybe his specialty is really just efficiency overall?

Which suited him well.  Efficiency, intensity, focus were all the same thing in a sense, and they were his strengths.  The flip side was that they weren’t strengths when they were applied to relationships.  Or to human relationships.

I’d say this was relatable, but literally none of those things are strengths of mine in any sense.

(Focus can go either way, but hyperfocus usually ends up happening with things I shouldn’t be focusing on, making even that more of a weakness.)

It seemed to be working for him with Dragon so far.  Someone else might have bucked at the closeness of their partnership, the intimacy of it, her unending presence and watching eye.  He understood that she thought faster, that she didn’t sleep, didn’t stop.  She was fond of him and she was programmed to emulate people.  Maybe she came across as intense at times, but that was simply a poor translation, normal behavior overclocked and given no chance to pause.

This sounds nice, though.

He would watch for any problems just as she was keeping an eye out for the part of him that had drawn Mannequin’s attention.

Just… try not to focus too much on that side of things? Or you risk getting so caught up in paranoia over flaws that you lose sight of the good things.

For now, his own obsessiveness, arrogance, and goal-oriented mindset would keep him focused on the Nine, push other concerns to the periphery of his attention.  He could adjust to any of Dragon’s peculiarities in the meantime.  He could even enjoy them.

I don’t like the smell of denial that wafts from that last sentence.

At least he’s self-aware about the arrogance?

His lips quirked with another smile.  She was amusing.

Depending on what he means by this, it could be cute, or it could be another red flag.

“Okay.  I’m done for now.  Want to look it over while I get into the code?”

Sure.  You have eight minutes before you should get your stuff together.

By stuff, does she mean his knee? 😛

He’d had to make a program just to get a handle on the code.  It wasn’t working with a fixed structure, but was instead a torrential waterfall of data, a river of lightning, a trillion eels weaving through one another in a singular mass.

Yeah, I didn’t expect a tinker AI to use Java.

Deciphering it required that he think in an entirely different way.  To actually change it was something else entirely.  The rules Dragon was obligated to follow were a fundamental part of her self, and everything she remembered filtered through that.

Another reason Bonesaw might be better for this: It wouldn’t surprise me if the code structure is similar to a human brain in some sense.

He isolated a part of the program and set it to run in a loop so he could study what it was doing.

So he’s simulating a part of Dragon’s brain. Neat.

Defiant: “Look, Dragon. This is your brain.”
Defiant: *sets eggCracked = 1*
Defiant: “This is your brain on drugs.”

Your design doesn’t work,” Dragon informed him.

Can he not go on adventures because there were too many arrows in his knee schematic?

“Does too.”

You inserted the nanomachine thorn generator into your leg, but your power source vents straight into your calf.  You’d gradually roast your flesh from your bones.


“I’m inserting more of the same into my calf.  Daisy chain.”

Shatter the flesh and reinforce the bone
Embrace this carbon mesh, this power’s all my own!

More self-alterations?  Colin-

“We’ve been over this.”

Dragon doesn’t like it?

I was going to suggest we take some time tonight, play another round of ten by ten.  At the rate you’re going, there won’t be a point.”

Ten by ten?

*googles and tries a flash game based on it*

Nice and relaxing logic puzzle with Tetris-like elements. I’m guessing multiplayer would have the players taking turns to put down the pieces and losing if they couldn’t find a place to put them?

“You’re exaggerating.”

Not by much.

He could have responded, but he held back, stayed quiet.  No use starting a fight now, not when they might be fighting the Nine shortly.

Yeah, let’s stay cool.

Ten by ten.  The ‘game’ involved some interplay between him and her android self, physical contact, and rating the sensitivity of the contact on two scales of ten.

Oh. A whole other kind of ten by ten.

…well, at least the mistaken assumption that it was a real board game led me to a nice little game.

It had started out as a means of calibrating the various sensations her ‘body’ experienced and ensuring his own prostheses weren’t causing any damage to his nervous system, but things had progressed to inevitable, intentional conclusions.

Obviously. What he just described was clearly one of the most robotic ways I’ve ever seen a human describe physical intimacy.

Even if Dragon didn’t choose to include certain organs.

Not the obvious conclusion.  There was more to be done in refining her body and expanding her capabilities before they could take things that far.

Ah, okay.

Would he be more machine than she was by the time they got there?

Would you have any regrets?

On the other side of the coin, he had to wonder: could he afford to hold back?  They were engaged in a battle of attrition against the Nine.  In the grand scheme of things, there were also the Endbringers to consider.  He’d gone too far in Brockton Bay, but the fundamental principle was right.  They had to be stopped, if it was even possible, and he wouldn’t complain if it was him who did the deed.

If someone else showed up with a weapon that could take out the Endbringers and the intent to use it for that purpose, would you let them do it in peace, or would you try to manipulate things so it’d be your hand on the trigger, at the risk of jeopardizing everything? Would you be willing to set aside that desire to succeed to ensure success in general?

I think he would. Colin has earned some benefit of the doubt at this point, and he does acknowledge what he did in Extermination as going too far. (Gee, you don’t say?)

If it was a question of going all out, holding nothing back, showing no compunctions and finally stopping the abominations, well, he’d do it all over again.  He wouldn’t trust the nano-thorns to the same extent; they apparently couldn’t cut through the entirety of an Endbringer, but he’d do the same thing again.

Aaand he’s throwing it in the trash.

But there is a case to be made for his point. This is a classic reverse trolley problem, where he’s arguing that if it stands between letting the trolley run down millions of people and blowing up the trolley and all its passengers, he’d gladly push the button on the bomb’s remote himself.

And he’d feel the same regret he did now.

And how much is that, exactly?

(The problem last time was that the bomb wasn’t big enough to stop the trolley, it just killed a few of the passengers for no gain.)

You’ve gone quiet.


I suppose that’s the downside to this closeness. Constant pressure to keep up the conversation.

Three minutes before you take the thinking cap off and we get battle ready.

I wonder if we’ll get to see the battle? There’s still a decent chunk left of the chapter, more than I’d expect three minutes of downtime to take.

“That’s fine.  I’m thinking in circles anyways.  In the interest of being useful, I’m trying to isolate your ‘higher brain’ code from the rest.

Giving her a conscious and a subconscious?

You want to take a minute, maybe turn your attention to my leg’s prosthesis again?”

On it.”

It just occurred to me why something seemed off about the spelling of prosthesis (though it is correct): The Norwegian word for “prosthesis” is “protese”, so in my mind, that first S in the English word looks out of place. And now I’m wondering where it went in Norwegian.

He began to select the outliers from the two distinct strains of code.

“Think about nothing in particular,” he told her.

Is she capable of that?

Harder than it sounds.

“Think white.  Or stare off into space.”

He could see the code shift.  He began to gradually narrow down the outliers.

Nothing too pertinent.  It would help him to keep any changes from damaging the most essential parts of her, but nothing too useful.

Well, you tried.

Conversationally, he asked her, “The Undersiders are still holding the territory they did, then?”

They kidnapped the Director long enough to get her to order the A.I. to stand down, got away from one altercation, then used some combination of Tattletale’s power and the Director’s knowledge to figure out that they could slow me down by knocking out cell towers.

Well, not so much the Director’s knowledge, but close enough.

As far as I know, they’re in a better position than they were.


Damnation is always a fun swear.

How are you feeling about that?  The Undersiders?

“Psychoanalyzing me?  I’m itching to stop them.  If you asked me what I’d change, I don’t know that I could name a thing I’d do different.  I’d do everything over again, but do it better.”

You wouldn’t get caught.

Those regrets you mentioned are looking rather tiny.

I suppose that’s on-brand.

“There’s that,” he said, sighing.  “And maybe I was too harsh in my judgement of Skitter.  I was angry at her, I was tired, maybe that led me to label her with some malice she didn’t have.  In retrospect, yes, she made the decisions she did, but she had reasons for doing what she did.”

…huh. I didn’t expect him to admit this much.

The interesting thing is I’ve had pretty much the same read on Skitter’s judgment of Armsmaster.

In the same way you did.


“I wouldn’t put it like that.”

I would.

Dragon didn’t respond.  He swore under his breath, knew she could hear it.

“They took down our Azazel?” he asked, aiming to change the subject.


With surprising ease, even.

“Fuck,” he muttered.  It would have been useful to have, here.

Do you have any more of those grappling hooks?

So are they about to get their asses handed to them by the Nine, ostensibly on account of the Undertravelers taking down the suits they needed?

He could see a blip in the code, well beyond the outliers he’d marked out.

That’s Dragon being turned on by swearing.

“What were you just thinking?”

Flight plan, battle strategy, and fixes to the Azazel hardware.  I have the black box data.

Tinker stuff… does she have a power in a sense? Probably not.

“Think back through each of those things.”

We’re going to be at our destination in less than a minute.


There was a long pause, then again, the flare of data being altered well outside of the boundaries he’d noted.  He opened up the full stream in the view window, spreading it across every screen in front of him.

And here they told us no one could read minds…

“Keep going,” he told her.  The cursor flew between the seven screens, marking out areas in color to see where code was changing most radically.  It was like the work he did with his own power, the smallest elements impacting everything else.

Like his own power…

Yes, do think of this in terms of your power, I think that’ll help.

He leaned back in his seat.

What is it?

“Either Andrew Richter was far better at designing A.I. than I suspected, or there’s something else at play.  You have any notes on your code from a few years ago?”

Wait, is he genuinely suspecting she does have a power?

We just reached Enfield, Colin.

Time’s up.

“I’m only barely wrapping my head around this code as is.  I’m worried that I’ll lose track and this will all be gibberish to me if I look away.  Notes on your code?”

How far back?

“Let’s say in intervals of four years.”

Loading them onto the Uther’s system.  This isn’t like you, Colin.  Getting distracted?  Making the Slaughterhouse Nine a lower priority?

Don’t mind him, he’s just having a breakthrough.

“Four years ago, I think it’s the same.  Hard to find flares like that and not think I’m cherry picking data.”

Colin.  I admit I’m a little unnerved.  Way you’re talking, it sounds like Richter put some safeguard in place and I could fall apart any second.

That would be unfortunate.

“It’s not that.  Can you load up the earliest archive of data you have?”

I’ll have to clear away one of the other files.

“Do it.  They’re useless.  They’re the same thing as the most recent set.”

He watched as the flow of data appeared.  It was odd how he could look at it and she almost felt younger, like a musician might read music and hear it in his head.  Only here, it was like looking at a video image of a girlfriend as a child.

Hah, nice!

And… more constrained.  Certainly more advanced than anything else in existence on the planet, but things flowed.  A led to B led to C.  He sped through volumes of the data to hunt for a flare, glanced at the time markers.  A year ahead.  Two years.

So you’re telling me her mind has evolved from an advanced but fairly basic AI to something more on par with or superior to a human’s?

And the Dandelions might’ve taken a part in it?

No, he couldn’t afford to pore through Dragon’s entire lifetime.  He closed the image, leaned forward and stared at the screen, the recent image of Dragon’s code, caught in a three second loop in the midst of her plotting her design.

What is it?

“You’re a tinker.”

This isn’t a revelation, Colin.


“Yer a wizard, Harry.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”

“No.  I mean, not just as far as the classification applies to you.  You’re a parahuman.  I don’t have time to hunt for it now, but at some point between now and a few years after your creation, you had a trigger event.”

Which has some very interesting implications about the Dandelions, their perception of what a human being is, and their ability to affect non-biological brains.

To them, Dragon’s brain was human enough to gain a passenger.

How can I be a parahuman if I’m not human to begin with?

“I don’t know.”

I’m not even close to human.  I might be trying to emulate one, but a sea cucumber’s closer to being a human than I am.  That doesn’t make sense.

To be fair, it’s almost surprising that the Dandelions seemingly understand that sea cucumbers aren’t human, what with how alien they are to our understanding and how alien we must be to theirs.

That is, assuming they do deliberately seek out human beings. But no other creatures have been established to be capable of getting powers, so either they’re doing that or giving powers to non-humans is failing.

(I don’t think that’s the origin of the Endbringers. There are too few of them for that.)

“I don’t know either.”

What does this mean?

Yet again, I don’t know.  But it’s now my turn to remind you that we’ve got to carry on with our mission, see if we can’t track down our targets.  The four A.I. suits are close?”

Right, let’s get on this.

They’ll be here within the minute.

“Good.  But this thing with the data and your nature, it’s important.  A clue.  I’m only mortal, I might not come out of this alive-”

Don’t say that.

It is, unfortunately, a fact of the situation.

“But it’s true.  I want to leave nothing to chance.  So I’m going to leave a note, just in case the worst happens and we both die somehow.  Instructions.”

Oh fuck. He just all but sealed his fate, narratively.

To look at the code.

“To look at the code.  The fact that you haven’t noticed this yourself suggests there may be a mental block in place.”

I mean, complete overview of her own code aside, how does one not notice having a trigger event?

…okay, yeah, I suppose she wouldn’t realize that event could have made her an actual parahuman, given her nature.

I don’t have a mind to put any mental block inside.  I’m data.

Well, you apparently have enough of a mind to put a passenger in, so…

Wait, does that mean there’s a part of her code that is analogous to the Corona pollentia?

“And the same limitations still apply.  Just in case, we’re going to make sure someone can look over the code if we don’t make it back.  Whatever happens, someone’s going to page through your memory, get our first hard data on a trigger event.  Ideal world, it’ll be us.  You can’t remember it happening?”

Ooh, hard data on trigger events, that sounds good. That’s what’s been letting Bonesaw get such an intimate understanding of them.

…damn it, Bonesaw really would be helpful to these two on so many levels, if they could get her to cooperate.


“Well, we’ll see just how well that data was erased.  Or if it even was erased.  Could be a block keeping you from accessing a very real memory.  With luck, maybe a bit of a loophole like the one I created around your ability to create child A.I., we can unlock that memory, decrypt it or find a snapshot of it as it’s in progress.”

Sounds good. Though she… might not want to remember.

To what ends?

It was a good question.  It took him a moment to conceptualize it into a complete thought.

“…Since the day I got my powers, I’ve seen myself as a soldier in a greater war.  Good against evil, order against chaos, mankind against the likes of the Slaughterhouse Nine and the Endbringers.  It’s a war on every front.  And sometimes that’s called for ugly choices.

He’s making me think of someone else who would’ve pressed the button to blow up the trolley. Moiraine from the Wheel of Time series, who puts the fate of the world above all individual lives, including her own. She spent 20 years searching for the fated savior of the world in hopes of guiding him to victory against the Shadow, whatever the cost.

When we talked about unlocking the restrictions in your code, breaking down the barriers Andrew Richter was so careful to put in place, we talked about the idea that you and I could work together, give our side the upper hand in sheer firepower.  And I think we can with a little more time, a little more work.  With this?  This snapshot, this recording of a trigger event in progress?  Maybe we can get the upper hand in knowledge, too.”

…is he suggesting they research trigger events in the hopes of reproducing them, to create more heroes to pit up against the big threats?

Someone should really introduce Defiant to Cauldron before he goes and cracks some more eggs for his omelettes.

I know what you’re thinking.  Reproducing trigger events, deciphering or even controlling the source of powers.  This is the type of radical thinking I’m supposed to rein in while I’m working with you.

Yeeah, it really is.

Controlling the Dandelions seems a bit above Colin’s paygrade, but it’s absolutely a goal I could see him working towards.

“Are you saying I’m wrong?  That we shouldn’t investigate?”

No.  We should.  I’m worried about the can of worms this opens up, but we should.

If nothing else, it ought to be good for science.

“Nothing’s illegal if it’s for science!

“I don’t see why you’re so reluctant.”  He was already typing up the note to check the code, marking out the dates and times to investigate, the things to look out for.  It was painfully abstract, but the right tinker or the right genius could find it.  He opened the channels to deposit the files on the primary PRT server.

His computer froze.

I’m guessing that’s Dragon’s intervention.


Do you trust me?

“Yes,” he said.

The speakers produced the sound of a sigh.  “We won’t put the note on anything the PRT can get at.

Ahh. So it’ll be there, but they won’t get in trouble for it.

…Guild time, then?

“Why?” he asked.

That,” she said, “Is a long story, and it’s where I’m asking you to trust me and leave this for later discussion.  Our priority right this moment is the Slaughterhouse Nine.

A long story? Interesting. Something about previous efforts to look at her code? Oh, or is it about keeping her secret?

I doubt we’ll stop them outright, but we’ll try.  Six powered suits in all.  I can’t disobey the directive, and you can’t let yourself lose track of the mission, or you’ll never get back on it.  I’ll explain this after.

Alright, fine.

Assuming there’ll be an “after”.

I’m noticing the scroll bar is very close to the end, so I don’t think we’re getting anything from the fight itself. Unless the fight just amounts to Dragon and Colin talking until Siberian crashes through the side of the Uther and right through him.

“You said you couldn’t put the files on anything the PRT can get at?”

I’m almost certain they already know whatever we stand to find out.  I suppose it’s unavoidable, given how close we are on so many levels, but you’re getting drawn into another fight, with an enemy that may be on the same level as the Nine or even the Endbringers.


An enemy I can’t afford to fight face to face.”

So is it the PRT she’s talking about, or…

Does she know about Cauldron?


I’m obligated to follow the laws of the land.  To obey the local government, no matter who they are.  When we’re done here, whether we stop the Nine outright, see them escape yet again or lose the fight, you should ask me about Cauldron.


End of Interlude 16b

So Defiant is changed enough to justify Colin having a second Interlude, unless this is Wildbow fully dropping that rule that I’ve been assuming to be in effect until now, but he’s not that different inside. Neat.

This was nice. Colin and Dragon are an interesting couple, and it was cool to see some of Defiant’s enhancements in action from his perspective. We also got an update on the Nine and what they’re up to, and a revelation that helps clear up whether we can consider Dragon a true Tinker and also sets up an intriguing further plotline for them to pursue if they ever do finish off the Nine.

And the tease of Dragon’s knowledge and apparently antagonistic view of Cauldron feels like reinforcement of Cauldron’s ever-growing importance in the story, which I think is going to slip out of the Interludes and come more to the forefront in regular chapters fairly soon, now that Coil is likely the next big thing for the Undersiders to deal with on a local basis. After all, we need a next step after they’ve taken him down. But “fairly soon” is relative – Cauldron might still take multiple Arcs from here to become more of a direct issue for the Undersiders, and even then they might try to take the Undersiders down from the shadows for a while first.

Or, hell, maybe they’ll try to manipulate the Undersiders into doing whatever Coil might fail to do for them.

Either way, I think we have some good stuff to look forward to.

See you way sooner than that, though!

One thought on “Interlude 16b: Brain Picking

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