Patreon Bonus: Face 1

Source material: Wildbow’s Samples: Face, chapter 1

Blogged: August 12-16, 2020


It’s time to face the facts: Wildbow is a multi-face-eted writer. So we’re gonna read Face!

What do I know?

  • Not the genre, that’s for sure. I don’t expect it to be superhero stuff, or urban fantasy.
  • In Worm, it appears as a book with a bird mask on the cover. I can’t help but picture a plague mask, especially given current events. But for all I know this story could be about someone turning into a bird or something.
  • Two chapters are available as samples on Wildbow’s blog.
  • The first line. Look, I opened the link expecting the page to be formatted more like Worm’s and had to do some finagling to get it to only show the top of the text.

That’s pretty much it, so I guess there’s nothing else to do but jump into this face first!


A sharp, audible crack sounded as a flawless face struck the concrete railing.

So, right off the bat we have either a)

  • violence
  • a presumably urban modern setting, and
  • a character who either thinks highly of themself or finds another’s face irritatingly perfect

or, b)

  • this story is about a giant sculpted (bird?) face falling out of the sky.

I flinched.

“Marl…”  I tried on a warning voice.

Hm. Marl… short for Marlin? Is Marlin human? I have no clue what genre we’re dealing with here so for all I know Marl could be a demigod who likes throwing down faces near our protagonist.

Perhaps more likely either the owner of the face, the one who made it strike the railing, or both.

Another crack.  The heavily made-up face hung down, limp, straight blond hair slipping from one shoulder to obscure my view.

Hm. Definitely sounds to me like this Marl person isn’t one we’re supposed to be rooting for.

Mafia fiction?

“You do not get to call me Marl.  My parents called me Marl, and I hated it then.”

Noted. Marleficent it is.

“Okay,” I said, “That’s fair.  That’s fine.  I’m going to ask you to please stop doing that, before you damage the doll.”

Ahh, that’s why it was described as flawless. Because it wasn’t a human face. Hopefully.

(If there’s one thing I don’t expect from a Wildbow work it’s flawless humans, though a flawless appearance coming from a power disguising a deeply flawed personality is something I could see him do. I suppose we had something similar with Accord.)

Or damage it further.

Marlene only glared at me.

Marlin, Marlene… close enough.

She was good at looking angry.  At twelve, she was young enough that I could see where her parents might have felt odd about taking her to a beautician, but old enough that her thicker eyebrows drew notice.

This is why it’s so hard to predict anything at this stage of a story, especially when you don’t know the genre. Every sentence can completely change the impression you have of the scene, and in the first scene, that equals the story as a whole.

For instance, over the last three sentences, the Marleficent in my head switched genders and dropped at least half her age, if not two thirds.

They made the glower all the more pronounced.

I could bet she saw a haircutter and not a hair stylist, judging by the state of her hair, blond hair going brown, the cut more utilitarian than pretty.

Our POV character does seem to expect that they’d be able to pay for a hair stylist if they wanted to.

Also, just realized… “My parents called me Marl,” past tense. Did they stop on account of no longer being alive to do so? Or maybe she ran away? Though in either case it would probably be recent, since POV-person still expects hair to be indicative of what the parents did.

Her clothing seemed like a desperate grasp at femininity from a girl who had little idea what she was doing.  Leggings and a short skirt, a black top with a flowery collar and a denim coat I wouldn’t have recommended.

It’s fun when a character description arguably says as much or more about the POV character as/than about the character being described. Between the hair stylist comment and this clothing description, POV-person seems to care about fashion and be relatively higher class. I could not see Taylor describing a character’s outfit quite like this — she might’ve talked about the outfit not working, but with less of an implication that she thinks she’d do much better and certainly with no judgement of haircutters.

Well, not my place to say, not really.

Hm, okay. So maybe not quite as fashionminded as they like to think they are?

She held the doll by the ankles, and extended her arm, touching the foot-thick concrete railing that separated the walkway from the three-story drop to the city street.  A series of apartment doors faced the railing and the gap where it looked out on the city.  Tall buildings, many of them old buildings, as well as periodic advertisements that flickered over flat spaces, covering the sprawling graffiti at the street level.

Feels like my impression of New York.

She knew she was getting to me.  She knew I was keenly aware of the damp on the wall where the melting snow and rain had left the concrete damp, that I was eyeing the texture of the concrete, where it was rougher in spots.

Personally, I would attempt to avoid using “damp” twice in one sentence like that (perhaps use “spot on the wall” and then change “in spots” to something else?), but this is just a sample. Even Worm is still considered a draft, and I don’t expect this to have undergone as much editing and polish as a Worm chapter would.

So if I do nitpick on some grammar or sentence structure, that’s the proofreader part of me coming out. I know there’s a chance Wildbow might read this, so I feel a duty to point out little things like that, in hopes of helping in case this ever gets picked up as more of a full story. I don’t mean anything bad by it and I certainly don’t hold picked nits like this against the overall quality.

Even a single scuff mark-

“Your mother gave you that doll,” I said, as gently as I could.

Wildbow is very good at beginnings. He knows exactly how to make the reader ask some interesting questions right from the get-go and keep them hooked for the answers.

How did these two characters end up here together? Did Marleficent’s parents recently die and the POV character is taking care of her until a more permanent solution can be found? Is the doll the only thing she has left of them, and her beating of it against the railing an expression of her complicated feelings?

What’s the significance of the damp on the wall? Is it a form of perfectionism that reflects that the POV character doesn’t want any stains on their memory of Marleficent’s parents, if they knew them (this might be why they knew to call her Marl, but not that Marleficent didn’t like it)? Even a single scuff mark on the doll would be a disrespect to her parents…

“Do not talk about my mother.”  I could see the pain on her face.  It caught me a little off guard.  A normal twelve year old hadn’t had her heart broken, been faced with reality to the point she’d built up some emotional callus, or learned how to hide those feelings.

Oof, definitely some hard feelings.

Also, Marleficent continues to not use contractions. Trying to appear more serious? Using careful language to try to control her emotions (I’ve seen that reason for going contractionless before, in a character from El Goonish Shive)?

I needed to study up on what normal twelve year olds were like.  I’d never been one.

Heh.

“Marlene,” Leo said, in a small voice.  His hand gripped the edge of his sister’s jacket, and she used her free hand to pull her younger brother into a half-hug.

Oh, hello. Another one!

They seem to be getting along for now, but I could see some conflict rising between these two later.

How much younger is he?

He was a wisp of a kid, tiny even bundled up in a winter jacket, with a perpetually worried expression.  I wasn’t sure if that was his regular face or if it was just the circumstances of our meeting, and everything that had followed.

Everything that had followed? My standing theory would have what came before it be way more important, so…?

…or everything the meeting had followed? No, that’d probably use “it”.

I’d have to learn about normal eight year olds, too.

Good way to establish the difference.

Also, these lines imply the POV character expects to be taking care of these two for some time.

“Can we not get off to a bad start?”  I asked, putting a little bit of effort into masking my fatigue.  Too many hours spent tending to affairs, traveling, and dealing with these two.  “I get that you’re angry.  I get that you’re upset.  It’s allowed.  But if you break that doll, you’re going to look back on it a few months or years from now and you’ll hate yourself for it.”

Will she? Who can tell. Probably best not to take that chance.

“It’s fucking ugly,” she said.  She turned it around to look at it, her face twisting with a kind of revulsion, and I could see a mark across the forehead.  I kept my expression placid.  The peculiarities of the style and the craftsmanship had left it with fairly… distinct features, including a flattened nose and eyes that didn’t fit the face.  It looked more like a troll doll than a little girl.

Maybe it’ll be acknowledged in the next line, but for now I like how the POV character seems to have no reaction to the twelve-year-old dropping an F-bomb.

(Under these circumstances, let her.)

“It looked more like a troll doll than a little girl” feels like foreshadowing somehow. Marleficent troll transformation in the night?

“It really is,” I agreed.  “It’s hideous.  But it’s a hideous doll that would probably go for four thousand or more.  It’s an exceptional gift for your mother to give you, and even if you don’t want to keep it, you could sell it to buy a used car when-”

Yeah, uh, I don’t think this logic is going to work on a twelve-year-old.

You know what I’m vaguely reminded of? The Golden Compass, with the posh Marisa Coulter taking in a girl more used to climbing university rooftops. Except our POV character doesn’t appear to be a shit human being whose only redeeming feature is “cares obsessively about her daughter”. …wait a minute is Purity Mrs. Coulter?

She let her arm drop.  The doll’s head banged against her leg with enough force that I could hear it.

Four thousand doll-ars, by the way… jeez. Sounds like Marleficent’s parents really would be able to give her the full hair stylist / beautician treatment.

“Fine,” I said.  “If it makes you feel better, go for it.”

Stop, drop
And drag me into place
And lock the fire escapes
I’ll break your pretty face
(Yeah, yeah)

Marlene was doing it to needle me.  The sooner we got inside, the sooner she would be distracted.  I turned around, grabbed the handles of two wheeled suitcases and hurried to the end of the walkway.

I’m interested to see how the inside of this building is decorated. Its resident certainly doesn’t seem to be imPOVerished, but I’m getting vibes that they’re also not quite as affluent as they’d perhaps like to act like they are (but Marleficent and Leo’s parents might have been).

The two kids pulled two more suitcases, but Marlene was holding it with one hand, and it kept bumping into Leo’s, slowing the pair down.

The door lock winked into existence as I approached the door.  My eye traced a lopsided hourglass figure across the dots, my gaze leaving a brief trail of light behind it.  The keypad disappeared and the door popped open.

Okay woah. Genre… sci-fi drama? I mean, I could see the eye-controlled keypad being a thing for rich people in not too long, but “winked into existence”?

A man’s home is his castle.  Depending on where he lives, however, sometimes a man has to settle for an apartment.

So… rich enough for better but nothing better was available here?

“Welcome home, I guess,” I said.

Marlene dropped the handle of her suitcase, very deliberately bumping my arm as she walked past me, into the apartment.  She threw the doll to one side.

yeet

Not boxes ’round these parts, eh? I wonder if that extends to the rest of Wildbow’s newer works.

A couple days ago I ported my MLP fics over to the new site Offprint*, but since the site is in a very alpha state, it doesn’t have break lines yet, so I went back to the sequence I used before I knew how to use break lines on Ao3 and FiMfic:

~ * ~

(*: Offprint was launched four days ago (Aug/8/20) as of this writing, currently in closed alpha. It’s intended for all fandoms as well as original fiction, and I’ve personally ensured Parahumans would be on the list from the start — in fact I know there’s already at least one Worm fic there, though naturally I can’t vouch for quality. I’ll let you all know and talk more about the site when registrations open up publicly for the beta.)

▲ (Ascent):  He has kids?

[Open Pesterlog]

So this sounds like someone’s watching the POV character. Interesting.

☼ (Sunny):  Kids are a problem.

Whoever these people are, they don’t seem to mean the POV character well.

Ascent, Sunny… I swear if these mysterious chat? people watching the POV character’s life are astrology-themed…

▲ (Ascent):  They’re a complication.

♥ (Heart): He’s complicated.  We knew that going in.

Breaking from the potential astrology pattern by adding a card suit. I’m. Not sure that helps.

Why is Povvy complicated?

▲ (Ascent): We need to do something about this.

♥ (Heart): That’s my call, not yours.  We should wait, assess the situation, then we decide how to approach it.

So Heart’s in charge. But it also kind of sounds like they’re working for someone in turn.

☼ (Sunny):  Agreed.

▲ (Ascent):  Fine.

♥ (Heart):  I’ve gotta say, he’s a hell of a good looking guy in person.

Heh. A shame then, if your mission is to assassinate him or something like that.

▲ (Ascent): Don’t be weird, Heart.

Pfft.

“Your door is different,” Leo observed.  “All the other ones were the same, but yours is flat.”

Hm. Lab door? Is Povvy a mad scientist/tinker? That’d jive with the fancy keypad.

“Benefits of being a long-term resident,” I said, not looking back.  My eyes were on the boxes that were stacked along one side of the hallway.

Oh, the front door, not like… his “bedroom” door.

They were divided by delivery service, each with a piece of paper taped to it.  Stuff coming in I needed to look at, stuff going out.  I glanced back at the kid.  “I get to change stuff up a bit.”

So how much other sci-fi stuff is in this apartment?

“Oh,” he said.  His expression told me it wasn’t the answer he’d wanted.  Or maybe it wasn’t an answer at all, to his perception.

“Leave it open.  We can use some fresh air in here, and it isn’t too cold out.”

There seems to be more out there that wants in through that door than just the wind.

He nodded, then pushed his oversized lenses up his nose.

I pulled off my shoes and sat them on the rack beside the other outdoor pairs, then made my way to the bedroom, bringing one of the suitcases I’d been dragging behind me.  The room was spartan, but there was a bunk bed and sets of drawers, lamps and a single alarm clock.  “I had friends come by and set up the room for you two.  I owe someone a drink.”

PIVOT! PIVOT!

One room for two of us?” Marlene asked.  “We had separate rooms back home.”

Too bad.

“You have one here,” I said.  I sighed a little.  “Can we just take it easy?  We’ll just roll with the situation for tonight, I’ll order some food you guys like, we’ll get you unpacked and comfortable, and I can answer any questions you guys have while we eat.”

Yes please.

Like, for instance, “what’s your name”. Povvy sounds stupid.

Don’t you agree, Marleficent?

“What if I have questions now?” Marlene asked.  “What’s with the boxes?  Why do you have more shoes than my entire family put together?  You dress like a sissy.  Are you a fag?  Why the fuck do we have to go with a fag instead of Uncle Peter?  What’s with all the shit in the living room?”

Aaand my respect for Marleficent / her parents just dropped.

The shoes are obviously because he’s Sonic the Hedgehog and burns a pair every time he goes running, sheesh, Marleficent, keep up.

“If you’d give me a chance to answer-”

“Answer this, because it’s the only question I want an answer to,” Marlene said.  “What the fuck?”

Help I’m getting character opinion whiplash

This is a great line.

Translated: make this world make sense for me again.

Poor thing’s lashing out because she’s scared.

“In order,” I said, and I made my tone firm.  “You can ask questions now, the boxes are for my work, I like shoes, because they look good and we spent most of our days wearing them, Uncle Peter has his hands full, I rather like women, and the stuff in the living room is, again, my work.  I would appreciate it if you left it alone, I’ll get it out of the way soon and you guys can hang out there.”

You’re missing one. Unfortunately, “make this world make sense for me again” is a tough one. It seems when you try, people don’t typically accept “that the fuck” as an answer.

“So, what, we’re supposed to just stay in this room, until you get around to it?”

…I guess? Don’t think it’ll be that straightforward for Povvy, though.

“Please.  Look,” I said.  I extended my hand, thumb and first two fingers each at right angles to one another, in the direction of the bedroom.  The room briefly filled with barely visible white and black static.

Oooh! He’s got the power of figuring out which way a magnetically induced current goes!

I pointed at each of the kids, then selected from the array of words that filled the empty space around them.  I changed permissions.  “You can decorate it.”

[partial xkcd panel]

Bank robber’s boss, over the phone: Shit, we’re dealing with a sysadmin.

Wait, was that technology or a power?

“Decorate our prison, you mean.  That’s fucked,” Marlene said.  She stalked off in the direction of the living room.

She’s a real pottymouth, this one.

I followed her.  “Marlene.”

Okay, there was a bit more in the living room than I’d remembered leaving behind.  Four couches, two coffee tables, bookshelves and an entertainment system were all spread out in the open space.

Jeez. Four?

The entertainment system sounds like something the friends might have added. Doesn’t seem like Povvy’s style, even with his acknowledgment that he needs to learn how kids work.

Two more armchairs and a loveseat were arranged somewhat haphazardly in two corners, a computer desk in a third.  Every flat surface, the seating area and the floor included, had boxes piled on them.   Two dozen or so in total, all open.  The contents were laid out, meticulously placed within the confines of the box lids, along with individual parts and whatever materials I had been using at the time.

Back in the days of Buzz, I made jokes about putting together furniture resulting in trigger events. That’s this guy. He struggled to put together some IKEA thing with a Scandinavian name he couldn’t pronounce, the Dandelions went “hey, let’s help with that”, and ever since he’s been doing nothing but making fancy sci-fi furniture to fill his apartment with or sell.

More generally he’d be a home improvement tinker, I suppose, what with the door and the “permissions” on the bedroom.

A pair of dollhouses on one coffee table, along with the varnish I’d been using on one and the paint for another.  A picture frame leaned against the side of the table, having been touched up just a fix by the nearby bottle of varnish and brushes.  Beer bottles, too, left over from the friends who’d set up the bunk bed and other furniture.  More boxes sat on the couch nearest that table, the lids housing the furniture and dolls that went with the respective houses.

Dollhouses. So he’s definitely been trying to prepare some of that kind of thing himself. I guess the entertainment system was him too, then. (That makes more sense anyway.)

Something tells me Marleficent doesn’t feel like putting her doll in there, though.

Teapots, more picture frames, candlesticks, jewelry boxes, and more than a few wooden and tin toys sprawled through the rest of that general area.

Twenty watches, six mantel clocks, three cuckoo clocks and the disassembled head of a tower clock sat on the other end of the room, and the ones that worked ticked and tocked in near-unison.  The ones that didn’t work had been dismantled, the individual components carefully removed and set out within the safe confines of box lids.

A bunch of them are hooked up to make breakfast for him and his dog in the morning, and they’re all precisely 25 minutes late.

She spun around, gesturing around her.  “What.  The.  Fuck.”

“Can we at least tone down on the swearing?”

No.

“Fuck you,” Marlene said.  “What are you going to do?  Ground me?  Spank me?  Yell at me?  Hit me?  You aren’t my dad!  You aren’t my mom!  You’re some fucking thirty year old knob who thinks they can look good wearing a vest and fucking parts his hair and owns fifty fucking pairs of shoes and paints dollhouses!  It’s weird!  You’re weird!I don’t fucking know you!  I don’t know you and I’m supposed to live with you!?”

Hey, Marlene, have you ever heard of a book triskaidecology called A Series of Unfortunate Events? Trust me. This could be a lot worse.

…and frankly Povvy as described so far would probably fit right in among the better guardians in that series. Which wouldn’t bode well for his survival chances if Daniel Handler were writing this.

Her voice pitched with emotion towards the end.  She had tears in her eyes, and I felt sympathetic tears welling in my own.

It feels like it’s starting to sink in that things won’t ever be able to go back to the way they were. She has to live with Povvy because there’s no going back to living with her parents.

“For now,” I said.  “Maybe until Uncle Peter is ready.”

Valid.

And I’m twenty-five, not thirty.

I can just imagine myself having to deal with something like this three years from now and… nope. No thanks.

“Fuck you!”  She screamed.  She turned around and shoved a dollhouse to the floor.

I felt guilty, thinking of it before I thought of her feelings, but I couldn’t help but see the profit margin on that particular piece shrink dramatically.

So those weren’t intended for her, they were for sale. Toymaker, then? That tracks with the other toys around that part of the room.

She kicked it.

I mentally revised my previous estimate to selling at a loss.

Heh.

What could I do?  She was right.  She was right to feel disjointed and weirded out.  More to the point, I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to discipline her.  There was no bond, no attachment, nothing I could leverage.  There was nothing I could threaten to take away because she’d already lost it all.

There’s no bond… yet.

Well, everything except her little brother, and I wasn’t willing to force her to separate from him.

Yeah, that’d be a little far.

I most definitely couldn’t grab her, hauling her off to her bedroom.  If I left one bruise, I had no doubt she’d go straight to the nearest authority figure, and then things would be messed up on a number of levels.

Ouch.

In her rampage, she’d hurled the box of dollhouse accessories across the floor.  As I made my appeal, she threw a music box, hard.  Okay.  Not so painful as the dollhouse.

Imagine Vista, Dinah and Bonesaw reading this fourth twelve-year-old compared to how they act.

(Yes, I know Vista reached 13 by the time of Sentinel. Not a huge difference.)

“-can you think about Leo?”

She smashed a wooden train.  That one was something of a loss.  I’d spent nearly three hours at one point, trying to fix the internal mechanism without taking the outer shell apart.

Oof.

“Leo’s in the next room, and he needs you to hold it together.  Support him?  He’s going to get stressed out, seeing you st-”

“Fucking shut up!”  Her voice hit the highest pitch yet, to the point I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I hadn’t overheard teenage girls screaming for some teen idol in a mall appearance.

Ahaha

Now those are some frequencies

She stalked across the room, apparently after the one place where she could do the most damage.

“Marlene!”  I raised my voice.

The computer desk?

Television.  Go for the nice big sixty inch television.

Ahahaha

I can’t help but imagine her struggling to find the strength to even topple it.

She went after the clocks and watches.

I watched as the meticulously laid out watches and watch parts sailed into the air.  Dials, springs, levers, wheels and hammers were cast out across the room, landing among the other items, beside books on the bookshelves, on and between cushions and in the carpet.  One even landed in her hair.

This has to be the most cartoonish scene I’ve scene in a Wildbow work yet. 😛 It still has Wildbow’s characteristic tone, but it’s got some of that energy, with Povvy just standing here helplessly as this little child runs around breaking everything.

I suppressed a groan, placing my hands in the pockets of my slacks, because it was better than anything else I might do with them.  Not that I would throttle her, but… I wanted to throttle her, in that moment.

Mood.

Then I smiled a little.  “Alright, then.  You need to vent?  Vent.  Go nuts.  I needed to tidy up anyways, and maybe that’s-”

Uh-oh. Stepping close to her actual root feelings and giving her permission to do her rebellious acts? You might have just found the keys to snapping her out of this.

“Shut up!”

She threw a box lid at me, and I batted it aside.

That means a box is open. Anything interesting in there beyond toy parts?

I turned and left the living room.  Something crunched, and I did myself the favor of not looking back to see what that something was.

“Well, suit yourself.”

So how’s Leo taking this?

I stopped in to check on Leo.

“Hey, little man.”

He looked up at me.  He seemed just a little scared.  The room had monsters littering it, digitally painted.

I lowered myself to his level.  “Better art than I could manage at your age.  I was always more of an actor.”

“I know,” he said.  “They didn’t have lenses when you were my age, did they?”

As in glasses? Didn’t sound like the lenses referred to earlier were contacts, unless you wanna ruin his eyes further.

Marlene did something that started a cascade of destruction.  Maybe knocking books off the bookshelf and onto the boxes below.

Kids, am I right? Let’s hope she doesn’t knock the bookshelves onto herself.

I winced a little.  “They didn’t.  Smart phones were about as far as it went.”

Okay. Lenses in the sense used here are a sci-fi thing, this is definitely set in the future rather than Povvy being some sort of tinker-like home improvement tech wiz, and… I take it the art was painted in much the same way the keypad worked?

“Yeah,” he said.  He pushed his glasses up his nose again.  “Is… that okay?”

“Marlene?”

Pfft.

“Are we going to get in trouble?”

“You?  You’ve been good.  Marlene… well, way I figure it, you guys have a free pass for the time being.  She’s angry at this situation, and she’s frustrated, and it’s probably been building up for a while now.  I guess I’m the most obvious available target, someone she can go after without any fear of repercussion, and I guess it’s an awful lot of anger.  It’s a lousy situation, and I figure you’re free to do and say whatever you need to do or say, to deal with it.  Fair?”

Sounds fair to me.

So what happened to the parents, anyway? I’ve been operating on the assumption of a fire or something similar on account of how the kids didn’t seem to have much of anything left, but there were a lot of other options available even before it was cemented that this is sci-fi.

I doubt Ascent, Sunny and Heart had anything directly to do with it. I think that would have resulted in them knowing about the kids. However, it’s certainly possible that whoever they’re being paid by did.

“Um.”

I waited for him to expand on the thought.  When he didn’t, I prompted him, “Um?”

Um.

“If I’m not going to get in trouble…”

Oh please let this lead up to the timid eight-year-old cursing up a storm like his sister.

“For a little while,” I stressed.  I did my utmost to keep my expression calm as Marlene continued her rampage elsewhere.

“Can I say something?”

“Sure.”

FFFFUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!!

“…”

“That felt good.”

“Sure, Leo.”

His eyes dropped down to his lap, where an image of a three-eyed monster stood in his hands, looking around.  “I don’t like it here.”

“Okay,” I said, though I was a little hurt.  “That’s allowed.”

It’s to be expected, really.

“I-”

“Wes!”  A shout from outside.

Wes? Do we finally have a name for Povvy?

I told myself I’d limit my bitching about the POV character’s name, but jeez this comes late in the chapter. One of the flaws of first-person writing, I suppose. I’ve always been more of a third-person-limited kind of guy in my own writings.

Not Marlene.  A little too abrasive.

“Do me a favor and sit tight, Leo.”

He nodded.

So it’s someone who could sound like Marlene?

I meant to mention earlier that we don’t actually have explicit confirmation that whatever left the parents out of commission here involved them dying, but even if they are still alive, I wouldn’t expect the mother to show up like this. But then, we also have some indication that Marlene might have some especially hard feelings towards her mother, which would make her a little extra relevant…

I’m not willing to go all in on “this is Marlene and Leo’s mom for some reason” with the extremely circumstantial evidence I have, but it is an unconventional yet real possibility.

I stood and hurried out to the front door of the apartment.

“Hey, tit-for-brains.”  The girl standing outside my door was tall, her hair cut into a boyish style.  Her long sleeves were rolled up, and her arms had blobs of paint on them.  House paint, not canvas paint, judging at a glance.  She held a package in her arms.

She knows his name and addresses him extremely informally, but this description doesn’t particularly sound like he knows her. Perhaps just a stylistic thing, though.

“Hi Roxanne.”

She shoved the box into my hands.  “I told you, no packages left on the walkway.  You bring them inside, or the delivery guy takes them away.  I’m not burning to death because you blocked the fire escape.”

Y’know, when I quoted that first verse of I Don’t Know How But They Found Me’s “Choke”, and quietly thought about how the song as a whole might turn out to be relevant, I didn’t expect the bit about (b)locked fire escapes to actually come up directly.

“No burning to death.  Gotcha.  Sorry.  I thought I timed everything so nothing would arrive while I was gone.”

There a muffled series of thuds.  Had the kid already tipped over everything she could tip over?  Working on the remains?

“Hey, Marlene, we just got some more stuff for you to destroy!”

“Your fault or hers?”

“Hm?”

“The ongoing disaster at your place.  Or did it stop?”

More importantly, who’s “her”?

Perhaps the kids’ mom. Wes has to be connected to the family somehow.

“It stopped,” I said.  Just in time for Marlene to start up again.  Well, I was still technically right.

“Uh-huhh. Right.”

“Need me to step in?  I can get away with knocking a bitch out.”  She smiled, wry.

She’s probably not quite the kind of bitch you’re expecting.

“Wouldn’t be a fair fight,” I said, smiling.

Something crashed.

I smiled wider.

Again, this feels significantly more cartoonish than I’m used to from Wildbow. I like it.

With my smile, Roxanne’s face fell.  “You’re doing it again, Wes.”

“Doing what?”

“Faking.  Acting.  Bottling it all in.”

He does seem good at that. Like an irritation sponge. Soaks up everything you throw at him until you really wring him.

“Naw.”

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.  When she spoke, her voice was quiet.  “This one really got to you, huh?”

This one…? Does what happened to the kids’ parents happen often?

“This one’s a little different.”

“Oh?”  Roxanne glanced at the empty hallway.  “Now, is she going to murder me if I get a little jealous and try to reassert my claim?”

Oh, right, Roxanne is still under the impression it’s a lover.

She smiled.

“You could take her.  Should you?  Probably not.”

I like how Wes isn’t even trying to correct it, even though he can clearly see the misunderstanding.

She placed her wrists against my shoulders.  A moment later, her fingers folded behind my neck.  I couldn’t reciprocate, as I held the package.

Hmm. Kind of a dick move if still under the impression he’s got a romantic interest in there.

“Now is probably not the best time.  Not that I’m not tempted.”

Are you, though? You clearly get along, but you could very easily have cleared up that misunderstanding. I have to suspect you might be deliberately letting Roxanne believe what she does.

“Later?  You’ve been gone for a week.”

“Later either.”

Then again, I don’t know their relationship. This might just be their form of teasing.

“Pooh.  Chris needs some paperwork done.”

Naming a character Chris immediately after using “Pooh” like that?

“Chris can get real.”

She didn’t respond, but I could see her eyes travel over my shoulder.  Towards the apartment interior.

Her hands shifted position to surround my throat.

To quote Leo… Um.

Is Wes involved in some shady shit already? “Paperwork”?

“They’re family,” I said, when I realized why.  Someone had peeked down the length of the hallway, and revealed themselves.

The grip on my throat tightened.  “You don’t have family.”

He does now.

“I do now,” I said.  She wasn’t really strangling me.

Eyy.

“You got fucking married on me, Wes?”

Uh, maybe rewind a little.

“No marriage.  Their… our parents died.”

Hmm?

I can’t tell if that pronoun change is a lie or a reveal.

I mean, it’s absolutely possible (I know from personal experience — my sister was 25-26 when I was 12), but it doesn’t jive with “You don’t have family.” But then, the kids didn’t know him. So I guess if he really is their older brother, maybe he got estranged from the family long ago, which would be why Roxanne didn’t know about them?

“You’re right.  I don’t.  I wasn’t always Wesley.  I used to go by a different name.  I was in a few movies as a kid, dad pushed it too far, made me and everyone I worked with miserable.  Someone offered me a way out, and I disappeared.  I guess… I just reappeared.”

Huh. So who found him to send the kids to? Or did he hear about his parents’ death and get in touch for that reason?

She stared at me.  “Jesus.  You’re completely insane.”

“Not completely.”

Just a li’l bit complicated.

[partial El Goonish Shive panel]

Tedd: I’m complicated. Can we focus?

“Okay, let me put this into terms your atrophied brain can handle.  You cannot take these kids.  You have to give them back.”

They make things complicated, for Ascent, Sunny, Heart and (if she’s not Heart to begin with) Roxanne, and whoever they work for. I’m not sure if Roxanne and the others work for the same people, but there’s definitely some shady shit going on here.

“There’s nowhere for them to go.  Here or foster care.”

Here isn’t viable, Wes.  For a number of reasons.  Sidestepping the biggest ones, when’s the last time you stuck with a project for more than two months?”

Ouch. Just brutally call me out, why don’tcha?

Him. Call him out. What did I say?

“I’ve been working on the refurbishing for nearly six years.”

Yeeeah that tracks. It’s how it works: Either you drop it like it’s hot, or you get so perfectionistic about it that it never ends. Either way it never gets finished.

In clearer terms, these two lines have dropped a huge ADD headcanon/theory in my lap.

“That’s a wad of little projects, you douche canoe, and it’s not the point.  Look, name one relationship you’ve maintained for three months.”

“You?”

Does that count?

“I’m your neighbor.  And we go months without talking.  Someone you aren’t stuck with.”

I raised my finger to stop her, held it there for a second, and then dropped it.  “Point.”

So uh do internet relationships count

(Yes they do, if you don’t think they count, you’re just plain wrong.)

“There’s your whole… thing, here.”  She gestured at my head.

ADD?

“My thing?”

“Oh, like how you’re entirely willing to trust complete strangers, blithely walking through life like you expect everything to be handed to you.  At times you verge on… whatever the opposite of paranoia is.”

So. It’s settled, then. Wes is by far the most relatable character Wildbow has thrown at me yet. From his trouble with Marleficent to this, he’s a giant walking mood.

“Pronoia.  But things are handed over to me.  Very frequently.  It isn’t pronoia if the world’s your oyster.  Catch is, you have to be open to these things before it’s possible.  A long series of leaps of faith.  You believe enough, and other people do too.”

Page of Hope…?

“But you need a solid steel security door?”  she retorted.

I shrugged one shoulder.  “We live in Toronto, I have nice things.  There’s a fine line between confident and being stupid.”

Can’t have shit in Detroit, but in Toronto a steel door works fine.

“You’re incapable of seeing how fucked you are in the head.”

“I see it, I have a handle on it.  It’s all under control.”

Sometimes ignorance would be bliss, but at the same time learning about ADD being a thing was one of the better things that ever happened to me. Because this way, I could know there was a reason.

She backed away, folding her arms.  “Fuck me.  You’re really doing this.  You’re making me do this.”

“You don’t have to do anything.”

Ironically for someone who relates to the pronoia thing, I may have been too paranoid about Roxanne since the “choking”. Wait fuck we’re back to Choke again

She looked genuinely distressed for the first time.  “Shit, Wes.  Do you believe everything you’re saying?”

“Sure.  Like I said, confidence.  Gotta have a little faith.  Marlene will come around, the kid’s wounds will heal, we’ll figure it out.”

Seems like there’s a genuine risk of Roxanne doing something like calling CPS on him.

“There’s no take-backs on this one.  Fuck.  Have you even thought about how your other work factors in?”

*narrows eyes*

“The refurbishing?  I just realized I could rent the next apartment over, so the kids have two rooms and I have some workshop space.”

“I’m talking about the the reason you’re able to afford the next apartment over.”

Proofreader note: “the the reason”

Oh.  The other other jobs.  Like Chris and his paperwork.  Less than legal things.

Yeeah. Shady shit.

“You’ve got a good thing going.  Don’t fuck it up like this.  There’s no reason for it.”

“There’s them.  The kids.  Family.”

“It’s all going to come crashing down, Wes.  When it happens, it’s going to happen fast, it’s going to be ugly, and those kids are going to be worse off than before.”

This is a story, so of course she’s right. This isn’t even foreshadowing, it’s just straight up spelling out what the story is about.

I don’t know how much of that kicks off in the next chapter, but as it stands, I’d absolutely be down for a light-sci-fi romp about Wildbow’s most relatable character trying to take care of these kids while his less legal work associates and any enemies they might have come a-knocking.

Also… Roxanne is totally Heart, isn’t she? She came here to get more info and maybe talk him out of it, so the children wouldn’t complicate things?

“Have faith?  If not in life, then in me?”  I moved the box under one arm, then reached out.

Is there even anything he was actually supposed to receive in that box?

She shied away from my hand.  I let it drop.

“You’re a good friend and coworker.  With benefits, even,” she said.  “But I can’t get on board with this.  Not with kids.  You’re flying too close to the sun here, Icarus.”

Oh, my tiefling Icarus would be horrible with kids.

“And you’re getting more sophisticated in the insults.  You’re serious,” I said.  I sighed.

“You’re still at a point where you can walk away,” she said.

And throw the kids’ lives into even more chaos and uncertainty. Though just for a moment, and very little compared to the shitstorm ahead.

“No.”

“Send them back, trust that things will work out, and pack it all up.  Move.  Because one of these cards you’ve played is going to slip, and the whole house is going to fold.”

Is the issue that he’s been playing the field with multiple illicit employers? Considering “other other jobs”, plural.

“They’re family, Rox.”

She stared at me.  “Fuck.  Fuck.”

“Roxanne,” I said.

“I gotta think on this one.  I’ll be in touch.”

Oof. Heart or not, she really does seem to care.

“I’m good.  You know I’m good.  I haven’t been caught yet.”

“What if you get caught now?  The only things at stake up to now have been money and you.  But now there’s two kids.”

I shook my head.

“Later, Wes,” she said.

I will say this: Overall, I agree with Roxanne. It’s not a good idea to mix illegal affairs with this kind of responsibility.

“Later,” I said.

I’m not sure whether the /amp view I’m in shows the comments section, but I have reason to believe it doesn’t, which would mean I’m about halfway through. So this seems like a good stopping point for tonight. I’m quite enjoying this so far. 🙂


[Session 2]

Alright, let’s face the rest of this!

♥ (Heart):  Okay, gut feeling?  Kids are here to stay.  Can’t remove them from the equation at this point without fucking him up.  Nosy neighbor has got to go.

Hmmm. A few interesting implications here:

First: Heart and co., whatever they want with Wesley, don’t want to fuck him up. So they might want some form of cooperation with him? Covertly, of course. Or they might need his skills intact and unfucked with, even if they don’t expect him to use them for their purposes willingly.

Second: Heart is either not Roxanne, or she just sicced her team on herself to keep her cover, which makes little sense except as an A-tier pro chessmaster move. Neither Heart nor Roxanne strike me as the type to do that. So going with Heart is not Roxanne for now.

This means that Roxanne is now entangled in what’s going on here, as a target for the chat trio. So when this goes tits-up, she’ll be right there, front row, involved in the fallout.

Third: Heart and co.’s surveillance of Wesley’s front door extends to audio.

▲ (Ascent):  Agreed.

☼ (Sunny):  We need him isolated.  Priority one.  Kids are controllable.

Are they, though? Very few story villains making that assumption upfront are proven right.

Wesley, for one, might question this statement, given what’s happening in his living room.

(Hey, remember how I brought up A Series of Unfortunate Events? Ironically, Sunny here shares a name with a baby/toddler in that series who should not be underestimated.)

▲ (Ascent):  They’re leverage.  Expendable.

♥ (Heart): I don’t think we should go there.  Gut feeling, and we agreed this was my department.

Would be fitting for someone codenamed Heart to operate on gut feelings, emotions and morals.

Extending that thought, we get what, Sunny is an optimist and Ascent is ambitious within their organization?

Heart makes the calls here, but “my department” implies that varies depending on the situation. What constitutes Heart’s department?

▲ (Ascent):  Your call, hon.  We eliminate the neighbor, at least.  Consensus?

♥ (Heart):  Agreed.

☼ (Sunny):  Yeah.

Roxanne, trouble’s a-knocking.

◘  (Box):  Consensus.

Huh. So that’s where the section box went.

Although that’s not actually the same box icon. The ones separating sections in Worm are solid. Maybe this is, like, a cousin. Or the section box is just using a slightly different-looking box as its icon to hide its identity.

I stepped out of my room, buttoning up another shirt.  A thin trickle of blood welled from under one fingernail, where I’d stabbed myself reaching between couch cushions.  A thin wheel, and I had no idea which pocketwatch it went with.  

Couch cushions, the true villains of this story.

I now had a thousand puzzle pieces from innumerable different puzzles, all exceptionally similar.  Some pieces matched, but the vintage and make had to be put with the right watch.  I might well be at it for months, figuring it out.

Oof. She really did a number on this place.

(Villains bust in, see the living room, and go “wait, someone got here before us?”)

“You dress like that all the time?” Marlene asked.  “I thought you dressed like that for the funeral and forgot to pack regular clothes.”

She was standing outside the other bathroom, the one that now belonged to the two kids and any guests I had over.

Hehe. Wesley certainly seems to have some unusual fashion choices. At least from Marleficent’s perspective.

A button up shirt and narrow-leg dress pants were unusual?

I mean, that sounds like it works, but I’m no expert on fashion. Neither today’s nor that of Next Sunday A.D.

Despite that, I did just make myself a Minecraft skin that looks way sharper than my old one:

The “kick me” note taped on the back of the fancy suit is the height of fashion, I’m sure.

“I dress like this all the time,” I said.  “Go to sleep.  If we’re lucky, every day is going to suck less than the day that came before.  Maybe a very little, but less.  Sleep is your friend, because it takes you further down that road.”

moood

“And you?” she asked.

“Me?”

“You don’t even care, do you?  You don’t feel bad, you don’t miss them, you didn’t cry.”

People don’t always show how much they care on the outside.

But yeah, it sounds like Wesley’s relationship with his parents was pretty much frozen cold.

“I feel bad that you feel upset.  Really,” I said.  Complete and total honesty.

“But you don’t care.”

“No.  I don’t have any fond memories of those days.”

Oof.

At least the parents may have learned from what happened with Wesley and treated the younger kids better… there are those things pointing towards Marleficent having less than favorable thoughts towards her parents, but to some extent that may be because of the irrational “how dare they leave us like this” thoughts that can come in a situation like this one.

Then again, this is Wildbow.

She frowned.  She wasn’t swearing and demolishing my place, which meant maybe the venting had helped.

An apology would be nice, but I could wait a few weeks, months or years for that.

Patience is a virtue Wesley seems to have a fair bit of. I like that. I like to think I’m pretty patient, so it’s one of the things that makes him feel even more relatable.

“Dad changed,” she said.  “He regretted what happened, that you felt like you had to run away.”

So that means a) their dad had a pretty good idea he’d run away purposefully, and b) the kids did actually hear about Wesley before the funeral, or Marleficent has pieced together what happened.

“I believe you,” I said.  “But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have any fond memories of them.  I forgive him, as much as it matters, but that’s where it stops.  I can’t bring myself to feel bad about it.  I’m sorry.”

These things can be hard, and emotions don’t play by logic.

She stared at me for a few long seconds, then turned her back to me, walking away.

I guess she’s done with the conversation then. Not sure Wesley is, though.

A moment later, her bedroom door slammed shut.

Maybe being entirely honest was a mistake.

It does make it a little harder for Marleficent to relate to you.

I’d cleaned up a third of the mess, roughly.  I’d left my conversation with Roxanne to look after Marlene, once she’d burnt all of her energy.  I’d hoped I could be a shoulder for her to cry on or a listening ear, but she hadn’t been willing to reach out.

Definitely gonna take a little more time. You’re already making progress, though.

Or put another way, you’ve cleaned up a third of the mess.

The kids had their pizza for dinner, with Leo briefly breaking into silent tears that had taken me far too long to notice.  He had wanted homecooked food instead.  I’d suggested that I could call their aunt to get a recipe, which had only given Marlene some bait for another fight, insisting that no matter how closely I followed the recipe, it wouldn’t match the one she was used to.  She said it would be worse than not having homecooked meals at all, because it would be an insult.

Ooof. Yeah, hard to get homecooked meals when the cook is… unavailable.

She might have been right, but it had been one exhausting moment in another exhausting day.

I was dealing with two kids who weren’t interested in pizza.

Ahahaha

When someone woke up shivering, drenched in sweat, that was a sign that something was terribly wrong, on a physical level, and that person was liable to find out they had cancer at their next doctor’s appointment.  Two key elements in their makeup not jibing.  When kids didn’t want pizza, that was a mental and emotional equivalent of the same.

How did he just make it funnier and sad with the same damn sentences?

I wasn’t sure what to do, besides give it time and work on forming a bond over time.

Again, the editor in me does not like this sort of word repetition when not used purposefully. This one’s easily solved, though. Just drop the “over time”; it’s redundant anyway.

One day, one step at a time.  Figure them out, help them, make them more comfortable here.

I had work to do, and no energy to do it.

Ain’t that an eternal mood.

Compromise.  I collected some of the boxes from the front hall.

Hm? Are you going to give them some stuff to occupy their minds?

Once I assessed what needed to be done, then figure out how to pace my work over the next few days and weeks.

Keep it simple.

Missing an auxiliary in that first line, I think.

So he’s trying to pace his work so he’ll have more spoons for dealing with the kids. Makes sense.

Keeping things simple may not be as easy once Heart and co. strike.

A Toby mug with a face on it, a fisherman, some scuff marks, a number of chips on the handle.  A doll needing restuffing, with an eyelid that didn’t close anymore.  Easy fixes.  A cane with a secret compartment.  I knew a few people who might buy it for the novelty value alone, and a handful of people who would buy it for practical use.  It didn’t screw together properly.  A problem with the threading.

So he does repairs too, nice.

I worked my way through the boxes.  It was interesting work, requiring just a little bit of knowledge in every discipline.  Old things had an honesty to them, their stories plain enough to anyone who wanted to look.  Yet people were willing to throw them away.

I wonder if this ties into his fashion sense. Marleficent finds his dress unusual, but it seems normal enough for our times, so maybe that’s exactly it — normal for our times, i.e. when Wesley was a kid.

What I’m saying is that to Marleficent and Leo, Wesley is one of these old things. And if they don’t throw him away, they might even learn his story.

I came to the last box.  I’d put it off, if only to give myself a reason to work through to the end before hitting the hay.  I debated calling Roxanne first.  Same principle.  

Procrastination is a powerful thing.

I was pretty sure I would be done for the day once I got through the last box.

No.  Too tired, and dealing with Roxanne was bound to be tiring.  Maybe even a little heart-wrenching, depending on the decision she came to.  I opted to open the box.

Roxanne may not be Heart, but she may be analogous to them… And here we have a box, analogous to the section box. Outside, the sun might shine, and they ascended the stairs to the apartment at the beginning.

It wasn’t one of mine.

This is the one Roxanne brought, isn’t it?

A mask, matte white, oval, with what looked like screwholes at the one, eleven, three and nine o’clock positions.  No mouth, no nose, no raises or bumps.  Only a gentle convex, with two eyeholes.

So it kind of looks like we’ve found our titular Face. The doll ruse was a distaction.

Does this mask grant any abilities? More cartoonish than Worm or not, I doubt Wildbow would go straight up The Mask on us, but this item has big magic item vibes.

Or perhaps supertechnology. We’re in a slight sci-fi setting, after all, one where people already wear tech on their faces to interact with their world.

Clarke, of course, notes that the distinction there is a superficial one.

A mount?  For hanging something else on a wall?

It wasn’t old, either.  It was new.

I kind of like the way Wildbow is using shorter paragraphs to reflect the scattered but methodical thoughts running through Wesley’s mind as he contemplates things in this section.

I set it down on the table and rubbed my face.  I’d taken out the lenses, leaving my apartment free of the little cosmetic touches I’d given it.

Taken out the lenses… so they come in both contact and eyeglass forms? Because Leo’s were definitely not described as contact lenses.

Images on the walls no longer displayed, gilt vine patterns on the coffee table no longer crawled along the surface in slow motion.  Everything was very dull and static, which matched my current mental state.

Yeah, that! That mental state, that’s what’s being underlined with the paragraph lengths whenever he’s thinking rather than describing things in this section.

“Wesley Vogel.”

He wasn’t always Wesley. Stands to reason he wasn’t always Vogel. Did he pick the name himself after running away, to reflect how he was free as a bird?

I raised my head.

My television was on.  The screen had a tiny crack in it, but the crack didn’t obscure the image.  A heart, on the screen, black against white.

Oooh, hello.

My computer was on, too, in the corner.  Rather, the monitor was on.  The computer itself was rarely shut down.  An arrow, pointing up.

Looks like the whole gang’s here! I swear if there’s actually a screen with ◘ on it in the box…

I had to look for the third.  My music player, on the bookshelf.  A sun with rays extended.

He had to look for the third… does that mean he knew there’d be a third, or that all the screens said his name?

That raised any number of questions.  If I was seeing things, it wasn’t the lenses.

“Or should I call you Soren Ellis?”  The heart on the television screen pulsed in time with the words.  The voice was masked, digitized.

Nice name.

And kind of fun because it means Roxanne brought up the wrong one of a duo of my OCs. Icarus Blackthorn had an NPC in his backstory named Soren Cunningswrought.

(Also Eris’ surname is Kellis, but that’s less relevant.)

So Heart and co. did know enough about Wesley’s backstory to bring up his birth name, but not enough to have context for the kids until he talked to Roxanne.

Or they were able to track down his birth name between hearing that and talking to him.

This guy knows?

“I prefer Wesley,” I said.  Act calm, smile.  Look confident, even when you aren’t sure who these guys are and how they’re pulling this off.

Good call.

Cool as a cucumber.

Pulling it off, however…

“We’re going by Heart, Ascent, and Sunny.”

So where’s Box? Is Box even a real person?

Are they human? It’s a question that’s been on my mind a bit, but there’s been nothing to support bringing it up.

Three.

“Right now, we’re your best friends in the world.  I need you to understand that, whatever happens next,” Heart said.

Uh huh. Roxanne might not be as happy with them.

Let’s see how bad his pronoia is.

“I know how this goes.  Establish a rapport.  Once you’ve done that, you need to create a deadline, rush me.”

There was a pause, then laughter.  The speakers… the sun was pulsing in time with the laughter.

I know who they are.

They’re YouTube music remixers.

“He’s got you there, Heart,” Sunny said.  The voice was digitized, but the pitch was different enough to make it distinct.

“I’ve been around the block a few times,” I said.  I tried to watch all three screens at once, but couldn’t.  “I’ve dealt with some unsavory people.”

Translation: “Why should I trust you?”

“You are an unsavory person,” the arrow spoke.  What had the heart called it?  Ascent?

Rude.

“Now you’re insulting me,” I said.  “This isn’t a good start, guys.  You’re new to this.”

“No,” Ascent said.

“He’s kind of right,” Sunny pointed out.

“Quiet.”

Oh my cod they are so bad at this.

They’ve got style, but beyond that it falls apart.

“Wesley,” the heart told me.  “We need you on board here.  Put on the mask, and we’ll explain.”

Yeah, that mask is hella suspicious.

And Roxanne is back to being suspect, as its delivery person. She really might have targeted herself to shake suspicion from the others about her identity. But there’s also plausible deniability, as she said she found the box outside, where the trio might have placed it for Wes to find.

I stood and stretched.  It wasn’t like the machines could hurt me.  It was good if I showed I was comfortable in my own skin.

“I remain thoroughly unconvinced,” I said.  “Hold up for a minute.  I’m going to get something to drink.

Heh. Loving the casualness.

(Missing quotation mark.)

“This is important,” the Heart said, but I was already leaving.  “Wesley.”

Take control of the situation.

He’s being so frustrating and I love it.

They were flustered.  Even with masked voices and no expressions to go by, I could tell I’d set them back a little.

A little more and I could turn things around.  Maybe even figure out how they got access to my belongings.

After he spent most of the chapter dealing with the kids, this is us seeing Wesley in one of his relative comfort zones, even if he’s dealing with a weird new method of approach.

The microwave bleeped.  A sun.  Images appeared on the displays of the stove and refrigerator.  Heart and arrow.

Pfft. Hi there.

We’ve got Sunny on the thing that heats things quickly, Heart on the thing associated with properly homecooked food, and Ascent on, uh, the thing that keeps its cool.

And before, it was Sunny on the thing that makes the happy sounds, Heart on the casual heart of the living room where families may gather together, and Ascent on the thing often used for work and career management.

The fridge started talking to me.  “Your life is at stake.”

I do think there’s much more to this than just another job, but watching the symbols try to convince Wesley of that is pretty fun.

I opened the fridge door, fetching a beer.

Ahahahaha now that’s a power move

“Alright, you say my life is at stake. We can discuss that after I open up your face and fetch my drink, ‘kay?”

Maybe not the best idea, to dull my brain, with these guys here, but I was tired, and I wasn’t about to face down another crisis without a creature comfort.

Fair.

“If you don’t listen, you could die in the next few hours.”

“I could die anyways,” I said.  “Any number of things could happen.”

Take the power away from them.  So far, all they had were words and vague threats.  If I stripped those things of their meaning, then the advantage was mine.

“The kids-” Ascent started talking.

Oy. Heart said not to go there.

“No,” Heart said.

With those incremental advantages, as my self-imposed adversaries got more flustered, I got information.

Like the fact that Heart appears to be in charge.

One was willing to go after the kids, the other wasn’t.

Was the hesitation because of compassion?

Well, they did end up codenamed Heart.

“The kids,” Ascent went on, “Could theoretically be in danger.  Their lives could be at risk.”

Or was the hesitation because Heart suspected they would be playing their cards too early?

Also possible. Heart showed no such compassion to Roxanne, regardless of whether they could be Roxanne.

Because they were.  Another advantage to me.

“Listen, Wesley.  Put on the mask,” Heart said.  “Work with us on this, and we’ll fix everything.”

They’d like him to put his face… on.

I take it what the actual issue here is is hard or undesirable to explain without him putting on the mask. Because it really seems like explaining more would help them convince him.

“I have everything I could want,” I said.  Beer in hand, I left the kitchen.

They were waiting for me in the living room.  Heart said, “Your legal situation, we have access to every single document relating to you.  We can smooth things over, ensure it’s even sailing from here on out.”

Useful, especially given Roxanne’s concerns.

Hard to imagine, but it was hard to imagine they could bypass the building security as well as my own.  I wasn’t tech savvy, I preferred old things, but I could manage, and I had enough money to hire smart men and women to put protection in place.

Any not-yet-sufficiently established sci-fi setting is indistinguishable from tech-savviness. See, Clarke, I can do it too!

Were one of these people one of those smart men and women?

This sentence is clunky, but in a fun way, so I don’t think it needs changing.

“If you have that kind of power, I find it hard to believe you need me.  Or if you do need me, it can’t be for anything good.  I’ll pass.”

“We could destroy you too,” Ascent said.  “Pass documents to the right people.”

I’m not surprised to see Ascent playing bad cop.

I turned around, facing the computer screen.  “Do it.  You have the ability to do that?  You have what you say you have?  Do it.”

“I’m not sure you comprehend exactly what I’m threatening here.”

“I understand.  However, I also understand that if you do have the ability to follow through, to utterly destroy my life, then I’d be your puppet for the rest of my life if I acknowledged it, and I really am fond of free will.  If you don’t, then I’m calling your bluff.  Your move, arrowhead.”

Arrowhead as an insult is ludicrously specific to this situation, I love it.

Reminds me of this one time I had some pegasi use “stickhead” against a unicorn (trust me, that was not the stupidest insult they came up with — that would be calling Enterprise “Don’t-er-flies”), except Wesley isn’t a six-year-old bully.

I waited.

“We’ll start small.  Start with the kids, regarding-”

I dropped to my stomach by the bookshelves.  I reached behind, and found the power bar.  I clicked it to ‘off’.

“Oh shut up already.”

By the time I stood up, the ‘sun’ had migrated to the computer monitor.

Heart was speaking from the cracked television, “You’re making a mistake.  Depending on how things go tonight-”

So does that mean Sunny and Ascent are now on the same screen?

I unplugged the TV with no small measure of satisfaction.

The computer…

Might not be a good idea to unplug that? Wesley seems like he might have a number of unsaved files open.

“We can take everything from you,” Ascent said.

“Then stop talking and do it.”

I unplugged the computer.

Then I grabbed the mask, opened the balcony window, and hurled it out into the street.

Yeeah, guys, this didn’t quite work out.

I guess they could still move back to the kitchen and shout for him from there? At the risk of waking the kids.

▲ (Ascent):  Fuck.

Yeah, that’s pretty much the mood, isn’t it?

☼ (Sunny):  Hahahahahahahahahaha

At least someone’s having fun!

▲ (Ascent):  Fuck.  Damn it, Heart.

♥ (Heart):  Me?

▲ (Ascent): You picked him.

Interesting. So whatever is going on, it’s not specific to Wesley.

♥ (Heart): You guys agreed to the pick.  I am not taking the blame for this.

☼ (Sunny): Hahahaha.

▲ (Ascent): You could have helped, Sun.

☼ (Sunny):  You guys were doing so well, though!  I’m more a behind the scenes guy.

At risk of talking too much about my own stuff, Sunny’s laughter here reminds me of one of my changeling OCs, Labrum. I established him early as enjoying the unpredictable whether good or bad, and ever since, whenever things go wrong in unexpected ways, he laughs.

♥ (Heart):  We’re running out of time.  I wanted to keep some in reserve, in case someone else tried to pull something, but…

▲ (Ascent):  It’s not a good situation.  What do you think?

♥ (Heart):  Drag him kicking and screaming.

How, precisely?

Maybe this is where Box comes in.

☼ (Sunny):  Probably have to.  Pretty temporary solution.  We only get to make three plays, and we’ve already made one for the neighbor.

Hm. Sounds like a game of some kind.

So what’s the status on Roxanne?

♥ (Heart): We figure it out tomorrow.

▲ (Ascent):  Alright.  Force him to come along.  Consensus?

♥ (Heart): Damn it.  Yes.

☼ (Sunny):  Not really off to a good start, are we?  Yes.

◘  (Box):  Consensus.

I kind of feel like Box might just be all of them, in some form or other?

…a box with a hole in it, and three different shapes…

And Wesley is a toymaker.

I woke up to see six men striding into my bedroom.  They didn’t make a sound.

Good morning, fellas!

Their boots were silent.  No eyeholes in their masks.  Only black, head to toe, complete with vests and leather gloves.

Robots? If the group we’ve been dealing with is toybox themed, these would be their action figures / dolls…

I reached for my drawer, hauling it open.

It was empty.  I’d moved the gun because the kids were moving in.

Whoops. Unfortunate timing to be a responsible guardian.

Firm hands seized my arm, and an elbow forced me back down onto the bed.

Strong.  Stronger than me.

One of them for each of my limbs, pressing them down against the mattress so hard I thought something might dislocate.  A hand went over my mouth.

This doesn’t seem very Safe, Sane and Consensual.

Not that I was going to scream, if I could help it.  Bringing the kids into this wouldn’t help.

True. They’d just complicate matters. At least if Wesley were to be kidnapped and never come back without them getting involved, Roxanne would proba– oh wait, right, the sorting box said they’d dealt with her. Hm.

That left two.  One held the mask, and a black medicine bag.

Gonna force that thing on his face and then blindbag him, I suppose. If he puts the mask on, will it get stuck?

The other took hold of my head, climbing onto the bed and pressing down on my collarbone and shoulders with one shin and virtually all of his body weight.

He took the mask and set it in place.  I could smell something medicinal, thick and cloying to the point that I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  Gorge rose in my throat as spit flooded into my mouth, and my consciousness swam.

I think that’s probably a yes.

But I wasn’t knocked out right away.  If it was meant to, it had faded in effect.  I did slip away, but not before I heard a power tool start up with a shrill whine and felt something poke me in the forehead, just above the hairline.

…in perhaps a more manual way than I expected.

So what, did they expect him to do this part himself?

Someone was screaming.  A frantic kind of scream that kept trying to restart all over again, even as he didn’t have the breath.  His voice was hoarse, as if it had been going on for a little while.

Leo? Or did we switch perspectives?

I sat up, tried to look around.

If we’re keeping up Wildbow’s previous behavior with alternate POVs, probably not a switch.

My vision wouldn’t focus.  Double vision, the opposite of being cross-eyed.

Uh. Is that the opposite? I thought double vision could be a symptom of cross-eyedness.

Presumably the mask is fucking with his vision, but he did also just wake up after surgery.

I could make out a jail cell.  With a metal cot, a thin mattress and pillow, and a toilet.  Lit by a skylight.  There were iron-bar doors at two opposite sides.

Outside… darkness.

Wait, it’s lit by a skylight, but it’s also dark outside?

I was disoriented, my breath hot against my face.  I tried to climb to my feet, and nearly fell, cracking my face against the toilet.

Depending on our friends’ motivations and goals, cracking your face against the toilet might actually be a good thing for once. But it’s not going to be that easy to get rid off this mask.

Pausing to catch my breath, I looked down.

I was dressed, and not in pyjamas.  Slacks, outdoor shoes, no belt, a dress shirt and vest, with a gold pocket watch in the vest pocket.  I couldn’t make out the colors in the dim.  I removed the pocket watch and hit the button to open it, but it didn’t cooperate.  Decorative.

Thought: Maybe the mask allows perfect mimicry of any given face and the symbols needed essentially an actor? Although if that were the case, they should have kidnapped an actual actor.

Which bothered me more than it should have.  Being dressed by other people, by the men who had assaulted me.

Face feels a lot lighter than Worm, but there are still moments with these disturbingly real implications.

The screaming continued.

“I can make out another one.”  A woman said.

Hm? Another, distinct scream?

Is the woman a victim of the same thing, in the next cell over? Ooh, or Roxanne?

“Hello!” I called out.  I lurched over to the bars, gripping them to catch myself.  “Hello!”

“Ah, he’s a-“

“Shh.  Don’t be an idiot.  You think we’re separated like this because we’re buddy buddy?  Don’t tell him anything he doesn’t need to know.”

Paranoia, or actual knowledge of the situation? Who can tell?

I squinted, but that only made the vision problem worse.

Instead, I used my hands to shield my eyes from the skylight above.  There were people.  People wearing masks, standing a distance away.  They were blurry blotches.

Okay, definitely light coming from the skylight. Did he mean the space outside the cells but still interior to the building was dark?

I moved my face closer, and there was a hard impact.

I was wearing the mask.  My hands moved to my face.

This kind of thing is why people can go looking for their glasses without realizing they’re wearing them.

Not the same mask.  Or they had added to it.  There was a protrusion in the middle, conical.

A bit like a beak?

I tried to pull it off, and I couldn’t.  I fumbled for straps.

The lights came on.  Each one was accompanied by the sound of a large breaker being thrown.  Spotlights spilled light into cells, one by one, traveling clockwise around the circle.  I shielded my eyes.

Time for a dramatic reveal? I do notice the scrollbar approaching the end.

Cells, arranged in a circle, so one set of doors formed a loose ring where the lights didn’t reach.

I couldn’t make the inhabitants out.  The angle of the cell I was in and the fact that some weren’t standing by the door meant most were out of my view.

Maybe the chapter will end on the note that the kids actually did wind up pulled into this?

Maybe Heart is taking care of them, to Ascent’s chagrin.

The light came on in my cell, and it was so bright it hurt.

The last of the lights came on.  Still, the man in the other cell screamed, urgent, frantic.  By contrast, I was utterly still.

This guy’s really not having a good day.

A woman, dressed in a black tank top and yoga pants, with running shoes, wearing a gray wolf’s mask.  The eyes were black circles.  If I’d seen it in a cartoon Leo was watching, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Roxanne?

A girl, in a rabbit mask, complete with ears that arced over her head.  She was wearing yoga pants and a sports bra, her arms covering her chest.

Okay, not yet, if she’s here.

So what, these people raided a yoga club? Or did they play dress-up with these new dolls too?

The same vague, minimalistic cartoon look was apparent, with the round, unblinking eyes.

Now, to be fair let’s face it, rabbits in particular really have those.

A man, a rat mask, wearing a leather jacket.

A kid, not much older than Marlene, probably a boy, wearing a black sweatshirt, jeans, and a mask of a… lizard?  Snake?

Komodo dragon?

And then, finally, the cell where the man was screaming.  A shirtless old man.  His mask had too many eyes.  A spider.  He thrashed, occasionally kicking his legs.

Oh. Oh boy, if the masks really do fuck with your vision, this guy is having to deal with newfound vision eightfold. No wonder he’s screaming.

My hands moved up to my face.  The distorted vision… I touched the slight convex bulges where my ‘eyes’ were.

Are you a raptor or prey? The double vision might suggest the latter.

I was looking through the eyes of my mask, set further apart than my own eyes were.

If that were true, then was he seeing through eight eyes at once?  Was that even possible?

Don’t see why not. The harder part is getting the brain to process it.

It was the sort of thing that would require surgery.  The thought made me recall a memory, the whine of the power tool.

No, really, what would have happened if they got him to voluntarily put on the mask?

My hands traveled back up to the mask.  I tried to wedge them underneath the hard surface, but the places where I could were limited.

But there…  Below my temples, spearing into the very rightmost and leftmost edges of my cheekbones, metal rods.

Yep. Roxanne was right — the cards slipped, and now you’re screwed.

Screws?

The ringing echo of the last breaker sang through the area, taking far too long to go completely away.

Time to shed some light on whoever is in charge here?

Twelve in total.

Thirteen.  The final light came on, filling the center of the circle.  A computer, with screens facing each of us.

Box: Welcome, to The Weakest Link!

Day 0 Over.

Well, that’s quite promising for Wesley’s ability to get out of here within a reasonable timeframe. /s

Night 0 begin.

429/432

An Introduction.

Twelve cunning beasts prey on one another.

…so this is The Weakest Link

Each with talents, natural and given.

So presumably this means the masks grant more than just fucky vision.

Bloody festivity at night.  Rest during the daylight hours?

Yet the nights also start counting from 0.

Is Wesley’s mask of a nocturnal bird, by any chance?

Which one deserves to live?

The Weakest Link intro was a joke!

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Oh wait that’s the social media links.


End of Face 1

I’m hooked. The plot is kicking off into strange Doctor Who Weakest Link-esque places I really didn’t expect and don’t know how I feel about yet, but mostly I’m loving the characters. And frankly, characters are often a lot more important to me than plot.

Wesley is incredibly relatable (but by far not by being an everyman character meant for everyone to relate to; he’s a lot more interesting than that), Marlene is fun in her own brattish way, Leo is there, and Roxanne has just the right balance of sass, flirtiness, responsibility and sense I’ve come to love in characters whose names start with Rox. Heart, Ascent and Sunny are also very promising and I had a blast with the interactions between everyone.

The second chapter, I imagine, either goes into some detail about the rules of the game Wesley has gotten dragged into, or deals with the kids’ side of things and perhaps with Roxanne’s status. Perhaps two or all three of those things.

But that’s a story for another month. See you soon for some more Worm!

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