Interlude 18y: Ugly Duckling

Source material: Worm, Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus 2)

Blogged: August 25 – September 2, 2020


Yeah… I had a feeling I should turn the page before typing up an intro to Queen 18.5. It’s Interlude time again!

Given the Arc title mixed with what we got in 18x (which, by the way, I knew to call 18x because of the URL), I’m thinking we might be following a theme of “people with power”, even if those powerful people don’t always look it.

I’m a little torn on whether or not Eidolon’s appearance last chapter makes him a good (currently relevant; last Triumvirate member who hasn’t had an Interlude) or bad (currently in a position for the main storyline to reveal stuff about him in a more organic way, which it already started doing last chapter; currently involved directly in main storyline events) candidate for that, though. Probably bad.

We might take a look inside the workings of the higher PRT?

Or it could be something completely different. Interludes are hard to speculate on.

Let’s jump in and find out!


“Water torture,” Justin said.  “It’s what the C.I.A. uses.”

Immediately picturing Justin Tolkiberry from El Goonish Shive. He’d be suggesting this as a troll, though, if at all.

“No, please.”

Justin shook his head.  “What good is begging going to do?  There’s hardly a point to torture if you want it.”

That… is a valid point.

The lesson here is that if someone threatens torture, pretend to have an overpowering masochism fetish.

“The victim can aspirate water during water torture,” Dorothy commented, as though she were commenting on paint shades.  “But I could have been doing it wrong.”

While I’m on a roll with imagining webcomic characters that really don’t fit into this scene based on these names, I might as well picture this one as Dorothy from Dumbing of Age.

So these two clearly have a little bit of experience with torture. Not much, though.

Now who the fuck are they, who are they torturing and why?

(See, this is what I was talking about last time, in my Face blog, about Wildbow being really good at beginnings, at making the reader ask questions and anticipate the answers.)

“Burning, then.  Start on the back, chest and stomach, work our way to the extremities.  They say a burn hurts worse than any other pain, inch for inch,” Justin said.  “By the time we work our way to the face, the armpits, or the soles of the feet…”

If you think a burn hurts worse than any other pain, you haven’t met Pinkie Pie.

“Oh god.”

“Scarring,” Geoff said, looking up from his newspaper.  “Chance of infection.  He’d be facing as much risk as he would with the water torture.  It might even be harder to treat.  Harder to explain if we had to go to a doctor.”

So how much of this is a bluff?

I don’t know any webcomic characters named Geoff, but it’s a rule that Justin’s coworkers have names beginning with G or J so I assume Geoff works at Salty Cracker Comics.

“Razors?”  Justin suggested.

“Razors could work,” Dorothy said.  “I’m good with a razor.”

“Hear that?” Justin asked.  “She’s good with a razor.”

“Please.  There has to be another way.”

Well, clearly they want you to pick the other way. That’s the whole point.

“There are a number of other ways,” Dorothy said.  “Tearing out your teeth, fingernails and toenails is one.  Castration, force feeding, breaking bones, rats, flaying…”

I like Dorothy’s imagination.

(most of these things happen in Cupcakes)

“I meant besides torture.”

“Psychological methods,” Justin suggested.

…wait a minute.

The victim seems to be trying to help them achieve what they’re trying to do, but isn’t giving information. Are they all in this together, trying to force a trigger event?

I’m increasingly getting the sense that these are a bunch of dumb teens who barely know what they’re doing.

“Isolation,” Dorothy offered.  “Sensory deprivation, intoxicants.  Would you like cream in your coffee, Geoff?”

Although Geoff at least sounds a little older, and Dorothy’s serving him coffee, so maybe not teens.

Probably still people who barely know what they’re doing though.

“No thank you, dear.”

“The bacon is done.  Why don’t you two come and eat?”  Dorothy offered.

I really love the dissonance Wildbow’s using in this scene. It’s there right from the first line, with the suggestion of waterboarding contrasted with a completely ordinary name like Justin. And then Dorothy and Geoff come into the picture and it just gets more and more hilariously domestic.

Justin sighed. “Come, Theo.”

Ohhh.

Yeah, that tracks. He needs to trigger as soon as possible, so they’re working on ways to make that happen.

I don’t think they’ll succeed, even with Theo being a second-generation potential parahuman. Cauldron, you looking for new customers?

The boy gave them wary looks as he stood from the armchair and crossed the length of their hotel room.  Dorothy had laid out a veritable feast: bacon, eggs, english muffins, toast, french toast, a bowl of strawberries, a bowl of blueberries, and a bowl of fruit salad.

Traumatic poisoning?

There was orange juice and pots of both coffee and tea.  She was just setting down a plate of bacon, leaving barely enough room for anyone’s plates.

It would have been too much for eight people to eat, but she didn’t seem to realize that.

So what’s the relation here? Are Dorothy and Geoff his aunt and uncle or something, and Justin his cousin?

She smiled as Justin ushered Theo to the table and sat down.  Her clothes were more fit for a job interview than for a fugitive, with a knee-length dress, heels, earrings and makeup.  Geoff, like his wife, was too well dressed for the occasion, wearing a button-up shirt beneath a tan blazer, his hair oiled and combed back neatly.

A fugitive? I suppose they were in the Empire 88 before it collapsed?

They can’t act, Justin thought.  They follow their routines like bad actors following a script.  A housewife preparing a meal for her family, the husband at the table.

…they’re not fuckin’ Night and Fog are they

Actually, that tracks. Night in the role of a Stepford smiler housewife sounds perfect. Monster the moment you’re not looking.

(I think they got first names back in Buzz but even if I remembered what they were, they wouldn’t be using their real names here.)

He’d known that the pair started every day with the same routine, like clockwork.  Wake, don bathrobe, and collect a newspaper.  Geoff would step into the shower as Dorothy stepped out, and she would be done grooming by the time he was through.  Once they were both dressed, they’d head to the kitchen, and Geoff would read the paper while Dorothy cooked.

“He’d known”? That suggests this is a first good look at the situation, despite this knowledge. Who are you, Justin?

But always, the details would be off.  Things any ordinary person would take for granted were forgotten or exaggerated.  Dorothy inevitably prepared too much, because it was harder for her to consider how hungry everyone was and adjust accordingly.  Only two days ago, Justin had noted that Geoff would take a few minutes to read the front page of the paper, turn the page, and stop.

Okay, he’s been here a little longer, it’s just that he’s slowly noticing more things.

And yeah, Dorothy is Night. Prepares too much because her monster form requires more food.

Geoff, if you’re going to pretend to read the newspaper but forget to turn the page, at least do it in the middle. Staring at the front page is way more conspicuous than staring at the middle.

Now he couldn’t help but notice.  It was the same thing every day.  For the twenty or thirty minutes it took Dorothy to put everything together and set it on the table, Geoff would stare at the second and third pages of the newspaper.

Better.

Justin had asked about the headlines and the articles.  Geoff never remembered, because he wasn’t reading.  He could read, but he didn’t. He spent nearly forty minutes in total, every day, like clockwork, doing little more than staring into space, pretending to read.

You could say his memory of the newspaper is…

…foggy.

Put the paper away, it’s time to eat, Justin thought.  Yes dear.  Mmm.  Smells delicious.

“Put the paper away, it’s time to eat,” Dorothy said.  She was holding the coffee pot, stepped behind Geoff, putting a hand on his shoulder, and bent down to kiss him on the top of his head.  Automatic, without affection.

Somehow I think I know what the next line will be.

“Yes, dear.  ” Geoff said, smiling up at his wife.  “Mmm.  Smells delicious.”

Jesus fuck, they scare me, Justin thought.  But he plastered a fake smile of his own onto his face, grabbed one of the oven-warmed plates and served himself.  Theo did much the same at the other side of the table, minus the smile.

Well. At least they seem to have the script down.

Kayden emerged from one of the bedrooms, her hair still tangled from sleep, wearing a bathrobe.  Mousy, shorter than average, looking exceedingly human, she was Dorothy Schmidt’s antithesis.

Schmidt, right, that was their surname. I vaguely remembered it as Smith, forgot the German spin.

Kayden always did seem the most human of all the Empire’s bastards, largely thanks to Interlude 3 1/2.

“Aster slept well last night,” Justin commented.  “Didn’t hear her crying.”

Good, as long as that’s why she’s not crying.

“She slept through the night.  We just have to maintain a routine as we keep moving,” Kayden said.

“We were just discussing ways to force Theo’s trigger event.”

“It’ll come on its own,” she said.  “We have two years.”

Not really, though. You have two years for him to trigger and become competent enough with his power, whatever it may be, to take on Jack. Granted, Taylor could do that after just a few months, but there’s no guarantee Theo’s power will be as useful.

At least Theo’s power, if obtained through a natural trigger rather than some crazy Cauldron experiment, is likely to be related to ferrokinesis, which is a hard counter to Jack’s power in a number of ways. Even if he has knives that can’t be broken by the power because they’re of the wrong material, if the power is like Kaiser’s, it can be used to make armor.

“One year and eleven months,” Theo said.

Kayden glanced at him but didn’t respond.

Theo is less inclined to think of two years as “no rush”.

“It should have happened already,” Justin pointed out.  “It’s easier for children with inherited powers, and Theo’s the son of Kaiser, who’s the son of Allfather.  Third generation.”

Oh yeah, he’s third! Hm. That might explain the big old why of my Theo-ry — the question of why Theo would be different in a way that lends itself to Cauldron’s plans. Makes him that “right individual” the Doctor needed.

There are only a few third-gen parahumans out there, is the impression I’ve gotten, and most of them would have no reason to become customers of Cauldron. Theo is an outlier, as a third-gen who needs to get powers quickly.

Mix whatever biological situation the third-gens have going for them with Cauldron’s chemicals, and we might have exactly what the Doctor needs.

“Maybe I didn’t get powers,” Theo said, not looking up from his plate.

“Or maybe you’ve lived a sheltered enough life that you haven’t had a reason to trigger,” Justin retorted.

What would organically trigger him…

“I don’t want to get tortured.  Physically or psychologically.  There has to be another way.”

“Torture?” Kayden asked.

“It’s one line of thought,” Justin said, trying to mask his annoyance.  He’d purposefully brought it up while Kayden was out of the room.  “We were trying to think of methods that wouldn’t leave him unable to fight Jack when the time came.”

Heh. Good call trying to keep that idea from Kayden.

And yeah, would be a shame if his trigger event also left him in a wheelchair or something, without the power giving him a helping foot like it in a roundabout way does for Genesis.

…actually ferrokinesis plus a wheelchair could be pretty sick.

Justin frowned, “Every day we wait is a day we don’t have for training his abilities, and he’ll need all of the training he can get.”

“Because I have to fight the Slaughterhouse Nine and Jack Slash.  And he’ll kill a thousand people if I don’t,” Theo said.  “Me and Aster too.”

For anyone who forgot.

I might have if I hadn’t gone and based one of my major long-term theories on it.

Justin glanced at the boy, saw the white-knuckle grip he had on his knife and fork, looked at Kayden, who had french toast speared on her fork but wasn’t raising it to her mouth.  She stared off into space as the maple syrup slowly dripped down to the plate below.

This whole thing, and all the pressure it comes with, is really fucking with his mind. Classic Jack.

Wait, did Kayden not realize Aster was on the line?

She doesn’t know what to do any more than we do.

Okay, no, it’s just the reminder sent her mind into space.

“You come from a good pedigree,” Justin commented.  “Kaiser was strong enough to rule over the better part of Brockton Bay, as Allfather did before him.”

I can’t believe the word pedigree is being used and it’s not about Bitch.

“Which doesn’t do us any good if I don’t get powers,” Theo mumbled.

“If worst comes to worst,” Kayden said, “We fight the Slaughterhouse Nine.  Night, Fog, Crusader and I.  Okay?”

Ohh, Justin is Crusader? Yeah, no, I would have never gotten that on my own.

(Jack would absolutely see this as a failure and start claiming the penalty.)

Justin frowned, but he didn’t speak.

Theo voiced half the doubts that Justin was keeping silent, “You didn’t fight them last time.  I’m not saying you were wrong to leave, but-”

He’s right and he should say it.

“But we didn’t fight them then.  You’re right,” Kayden said.  “I’d hoped the others would stop them.  The heroes, the Undersiders, Hookwolf…”

Well, the heroes and Undersiders got damn close. Hookwolf got even closer, in a different sense.

“And they didn’t,” Justin said.  “Which means we have to assume Jack’s going to follow through.  That gives us a time limit.  Theo needs powers, he needs training, we need to find the Nine, and we need to stop them.  What if we went to the Gesellschaft?”

Is that like the Guild but for Nazis?

Kayden glanced at the other two who were sitting at the table.  Dorothy and Geoff.  Neither of the two had reacted to the name of the organization that had created them.  Or, at least, they hadn’t reacted outwardly.

!!

Like Cauldron but for Nazis? Or just another front of Cauldron?

Or are we dealing with a Black Widow situation here? An organization that trains supersoldiers and forces trigger events?


Dinnertime, and I think that’s going to mark the end of today’s session too. I’m very intrigued by what’s in store tomorrow though!


[Session 2]

“tomorrow” is a loose term that sometimes means five days, but we’re back!

Let’s see, where was I… ah yes, die Gesellschaft.

So while I was double checking that I got the gender of that noun right (I hadn’t), I found there’s a meaning of Gesellschaft in English that I didn’t know about:

[Wiktionary]

1. (sociology) a hypothetical mode of society, made up of self-serving individuals linked by impersonal ties; as opposed to Gemeinschaft

I can’t help but wonder if Wildbow perhaps drew some inspiration from this meaning rather than the general “society, community, company” meanings it has in German. (That last one is why my first thought was “the Guild, but in German”.)

“self-serving individuals linked by impersonal ties” certainly sounds like Night and Fog, despite their supposed marriage.

“I’m more concerned that they’d help the Slaughterhouse Nine if it meant killing a thousand Americans,” she said.  “And I’m not sure I want Theo to recieve the kind of power they offer.”

Okay, so die Gesellschaft is intensely anti-American.

I don’t think they have anything to do with Cauldron, at least not officially (they might have their origins in Cauldron capes or something), but this line of thought leads handily in the direction of Cauldron, with the one hurdle that no one present seems to know about Cauldron. For the Theo-ry to play out in its current state, we need Theo to end up there, and considering a different organization that may be able to provide powers through alternate means is a step in the right direction.

“If we contacted them through Krieg…”  Justin trailed off.

“What?” Kayden asked.  She let her knife and fork drop to her plate with a loud clatter.  “You think they’d give us assistance with no strings attached?  That we could call in a favor with Krieg and they’d give Theo powers, without the follow-up attention?”

The sort of attention that turns people into *gestures at Night and Fog* that?

“No.  No, I suppose not.”

“They turn people into weapons,” Kayden said.  “Then they decide where those weapons are best positioned, for the cause.  There’s two good reasons why they wouldn’t have given fresh orders to Night and Fog since the Empire collapsed.  Either they can’t get in touch with us-”

That’s a Wheel of Time mood.

Kinda makes me hope there’s no Night or Fog Interlude, in a weird way. Because Wheel of Time makes a point of being extremely sparse with POVs for characters who are supposed to be turned into weapons.

Also it seems Night and Fog were still unter Beachtung von der Gesellschaft when the Empire 88 was around. So it’s more like die Gesellschaft loaned them to the Empire than the two of them escaping entirely.

“I somehow doubt that.”

“Or Night and Fog are forgotten.  Presumed dead or ignored,” Kayden finished.  “In which case we don’t want to remind them that we’re still around.”

Interesting.

It’s also worth noting what happened just before the collapse of the E88. Night and Fog’s personal info was leaked. Maybe that had something to do with it too.

“I somehow doubt that, as well,” Justin said.  “They have to know we’re alive.”

“Then what?  Why leave these two in my care?”

“Because it serves their agenda,” Justin answered.  He finished off his plate, spooned some blueberries onto the side, and poured himself some orange juice.

Every day Night and Fog spend really poorly playing house here deals 2d10 psychic damage directly to America.

“What agenda?”

“The Empire fell.  The Chosen fell.  Only Kayden Anders and her Pure remain.  If they hope to retain any foothold in the Americas, it’ll be through you.”

He has a point.

“I don’t want to give them a foothold in the Americas.”

“By the sole fact that you exist, you’re giving it to them.  Your reputation, your success, it gives the Gesellschaft the opportunity to say, their cause is being furthered in the West.  Even if your goals and theirs are only aligned in abstract.  So they leave Night and Fog in your care, because it keeps you dangerous, it helps ensure your success, and maybe because it gives them a way to strike at you if they decide you’re a danger to the cause.”

Hm, yeah, that tracks. So what exactly is their cause, aside from anti-American sentiment (which doesn’t seem to be their main focus if Night and Fog are among a very low number of agents in the West)? Are they all Nazis, or do they just make some to help them do something else?

Kayden glanced at Dorothy, studying Night’s civilian appearance.

“More coffee?” Dorothy asked, smiling.

Surely she heard what Justin was saying. But she seems committed to the role.

“God, yes,” Kayden muttered.  She held out her cup for a refill.

“What about you?” Theo asked.

Justin turned to look at the boy.  “Who?  Me?”

Yeah, you. You want more coffee?

(None of them drink their coffee black, except maybe Theo.)

“Where do you stand, with the cause?”  Theo asked.  Justin didn’t miss the inflection at the end.

“I’m a simple man,” Justin said, smiling.  “I like steak and potatoes.  I like a good fight, a serious game of baseball or football.  American football.  I like a good woman’s company-”

Kayden cleared her throat.  When Justin met her eyes, she was glaring at him.  Not jealousy, more of a mother bear protecting her cub.

Pfft.

Justin smiled a little, more with one side of his mouth than the other.  “-And I believe that they are fucking things up, out there.  And the rest of the world’s letting them.”

Yeah, the Nazism is thick in this room.

Kinda sounds like Theo doesn’t approve, which I appreciate if it’s true. You don’t have to follow in your father’s footsteps of hatred and manipulation, Theo. You can live your own life and then maybe turn into a giant worm or something. Or let one into this world, something like that.

“People with differences,” Justin said.  “Faggots, gimps, mongoloids.  Kaiser gotthat.  I talked to him one on one, and he had the right ideas.  He got that America is ours, that they’re polluting it over time, letting these people in.  But he was too focused on the big picture, and he was working with the Gesellschaft, which was way too big picture for my tastes.  Still, birds of a feather.  I worked under him because I wasn’t about to find others elsewhere, and I didn’t feel like going it alone.  Then he introduced me to Purity.”

Look, I’m going to kind of breeze through bits like this.

I do appreciate its presence, as much as I hate it, though. Because it’s far too easy sometimes to let these characters sweep you away with how they’re regular people so you forget that every single one of them (except maybe Theo) is a piece of human trash. And that’s a good thing, writingwise, because this really is how a lot of these people work, and how a lot of them get away with being bastards like this openly. Illustrating that is important, so people know that just because someone likes steak, potatoes and sports, that doesn’t mean they can’t also be really toxic and dangerous people.

But there needs to be a balance, to push that point and make sure it doesn’t fall the other way into “hey, these people are cool actually”, and that’s why we’re suddenly being blasted with a concentrated dose of “hey, don’t forget, Justin is also pretty awful” in this paragraph.

There could probably be more of this, honestly, but Wildbow’s always been the kind of writer who emphasizes realism, and real Nazis presumably don’t go “hey so how about killing them blacks” to each other every two minutes.

…it’s kind of ironic, really, that Justin is defining the outgroup as “people with differences” when he himself is a parahuman.

Theo glanced at his onetime stepmother.

“And I think we’re more in sync, Kayden and I,” Justin said.  “If Kaiser was the visionary, the guy on top, the guy with the dream, working to achieve something over decades, then Purity’s the detective working the streets.  And that’s the kind of simple thinking I can get behind.”

That does fit the M.O. we saw in Interlude 3 1/2.

“So you don’t support the Gesellschaft?”  Theo asked.

“I can’t support what I don’t understand,” Justin said.  “And what I do understand is that we need to give you your trigger event before it’s too late.  Because Jack and his gang of psychopaths are the sort of freaks I can’t stand, and I’ll be fucked if we let him beat you on this count.  They don’t get to beat us, and you’re one of us.”

He’s

He’s lumped them into the outgroup

Because of their psychopathy

We have Nazis going after the Slaughterhouse Nine not just because it’s personal

But in Justin’s case also as targets of his Nazism

Aaaaargh

I kind of love it?

Theo drew in a deep breath, as if he was going to say something, and then heaved it out as a sigh, slow and heavy.

That’s a mood right now.

“Whether you like it or not,” Justin added, just under his breath.

Yeah, Justin sees it.

…remember Hookwolf’s Interlude, when I was bugged by Hookwolf implicitly equating Nazis and “Aryans” because the Nazis would consider me an Aryan and thus he was dragging me down with him? Yeah, I think that’s pretty much Theo’s mindset here, except worse because there’s a familial relation involved. He’s being dragged down with these other bastards, whether he likes it or not, and because of his familial relation (it was conspicuously-in-retrospect just brought up that Kayden is his ex-stepmother) and his need for their help in triggering and dealing with Jack, he doesn’t feel like he has much of a choice in the matter.

At a normal volume, Justin said, “You’re vetoing the torture, where we’d be trying to get him to a trigger state in a safe, controlled environment.  We need another game plan.”

Kayden sighed.  “For now?  We’ll let Dorothy clean up.  Have you two done your morning sparring?”

Between Theo and Justin? Does that involve Justin using his power, turning the sparring in his favor and potentially forcing Theo to trigger?

Justin shook his head.

“Give Theo some training while I shower, then you two can wash up.  Get dressed to go out.  I have one idea regarding Theo’s trigger event.”

(To be clear, I did not mean to imply sparring would be useless if it didn’t give him his power. Being able to fight with his body too is quite valuable.)

What do you have in mind, Kayden?

Justin stood with a plate in hand, but Dorothy was already walking around the table, her heels clicking on the tile.  She took the plate from him, smiling.

“Come on, then,” Justin urged the boy.  “Let’s see how much of it’s sinking in.”

“Not much,” Theo said.

That’s better than nothing!

“Probably not,” Justin replied.  He reached for his power and stepped out of his body, a spiritual mitosis.  A ghostly image of himself, wearing the same clothes, crossed the ‘living room’ of the space the hotel had given them.  He created two more replicas of himself, one walking until its legs were sticking through the couch.

I wonder, if they had been Cauldron clients, would this power and Oni Lee’s perhaps have been able to come from the same sample?

“spiritual mitosis” is a fun way to put it.

“Four against one?”  Theo asked.

“You think the Nine are going to play fair?  Now, do you remember priority one?”

Yeah, no, Jack and Bonesaw may play… relatively fair but whoever else they fill their ranks with probably won’t.

“Self defense.”

“Protection comes first, always.  The core of any martial art or self defense.  Perception’s second.  Know what’s going on, because it’ll help you protect yourself, and it’ll help you identify the right moment to strike.  Arms up.  Let’s see your stance.”

Ḙ̷͐V̴̨̯͌̅E̴̯̅̎Ŕ̸͔ͅY̵̜̽͘T̷̙̂̐H̷̫̙̃I̶̜̅N̶͓̆G̴͕̓ ̷̫̚B̶̩̔E̸̬̔G̵̝̤̒İ̸ͅN̶̻̑̓S̴͇̣̐̚ ̸͚̑̓W̴̯̿I̶̖͂́T̷͉͆H̵͚͑͝ ̴̩̰̌̕Ẏ̵̳͈̓O̶͍͒̇U̸̙̭̓̈́R̴̡̫̔̕ ̴̝̉̿Ş̴̀͜T̸̗̩̋͘Ặ̵N̶͖̉͘C̵̹̞̀Ë̵̮́

Theo raised his arms in the ready position, positioned his feet further apart.

KEEP YOUR STANCE WIDE
KEEP YOUR– STANCE WIDE
AS YOU’RE MOVING FORWARD
WIDE STANCE IS THE KEY

Justin looked the boy over.  He’d lost a little weight, though he wouldn’t look much skinnier if he kept exercising like he was.  He’d put on muscle, and look just as bulky, at least for a while.

But that stance…

RIGHT FOOT
LEFT FOOT
NOW GO EVEN WIDER
AND AS YOU’RE MOVING BACKWARDS
KEEP YOUR STANCE WIDE

Justin suppressed a sigh.  Those one thousand people are fucked.

I guess you could say the consequences of failure here would be

w i d e – r e a c h i n g

(Look, Wide Stance is a masterpiece of a shitpost made by a friend of mine and I’m just overjoyed to find an excuse to share it.)

Moving on to Kayden’s idea?


[Session 3]

“Harvard,” Justin said.

What? Are we trying to trigger Theo with the stresses of higher education?

“This way,” Kayden said.  She had Aster in a harness, the baby’s head resting against her chest.

“You know your way around Harvard?  Color me impressed.”

Maybe that’s how Kayden triggered. “Oh man, wish I could erase all my homework in a beam of light.”

“I looked it up online.  This way.  I’d rather not spend too much time in public.”

Justin noted the crowd of older teenagers and twenty-somethings.  It was summer, but the school wasn’t empty.  With the warmth of summer, the students were wearing shorts and short sleeves, as well as short dresses.  Justin smiled at a group of girls as they passed by.  One of them looked over her shoulder at him, gave him a glance that roved from head to toe and back up again.

“Justin,” Kayden said, raising her voice.

“Coming,” he said.  Damn.

Good.

They made their way across the campus.  Dorothy and Geoff had stayed behind, leaving Kayden, Justin and Theo to carry out the errand with Aster in tow.

They reached a tower, built to match the other buildings of the campus.  Justin held the door for Kayden and Theo, pausing to note the lettering across the entrance: ‘Dept. Parahuman Studies’.

Interesting. Are they here to study, or to find someone who might be able to help?

Fitting.  Kayden’s plan was clear, now.

They entered the elevator, and Kayden checked a slip of paper, hit the button for the ninth floor.  She tucked it into a pocket behind Aster’s back, then kissed her sleeping daughter on the forehead as the doors closed.

Aster is the most valid character here. Mostly on walkover.

“We should get in and out fast,” Justin commented.

Kayden pursed her lips.

“Always have to consider that someone made us, and that they’re calling the authorities.”

Someone… made you? What? Is that an expression for noticing you?

“I know,” she said.

“Fuck Coil,” Justin snarled.

Uh, okay? Mood, though.

Kayden glared at him, and her eyes and hair both glowed with a trace of light.  Some free strands of hair lifted as the light touched them, as if they were buoyant, or as if Kayden was underwater and slowly sinking.  “Watch your language around Aster.”

Sorry, Kayden, but it’s nowhere near as endearing coming from you as it is coming from Bonesaw.

Points for the light show though.

“She doesn’t understand.”

“But she will, one day.  Get in the habit now.”

Swears and the ways the taboo on them is handled are such an interesting linguistic topic. It’s so weird how we treat them as though they’re harmful for kids to even hear. Heck, Aster won’t even understand what “fuck” means until after she’s actually heard it and learned that it’s a word she’s not supposed to know for some reason. It literally cannot harm her until it’s too late.

That said, as a kid, I was usually the one calling for my parents not to swear rather than the other way around. As a teen I made the decision to actively work to make myself comfortable with swearing, and since I mostly did that online I swear waaay more in English than in Norwegian… despite the dialects from my region of Norway being infamously vulgar.

I also may have fucked up and overcorrected the everloving fuck out of that shit.

Justin sighed.  “Will do.  We going in hard or soft?”

“You could rephrase that.  But this is a soft entry.”

They departed the elevator as it reached the ninth floor.  Kayden double checked the slip of paper, and they began the process of figuring out where the room was.  It wasn’t intuitive, as the rooms didn’t seem to be numbered sequentially.

They stopped at one door that was labeled ‘914’, with a nameplate below reading ‘Dr. Wysocki’.

914… why does that number feel so familiar?

Oh! It might just be because I saw a tweet from Toby Fox earlier today, involving the release date of Undertale, 9/15.

Non-sequentially numbered rooms are the worst.

“What the hell kind of name is Wysocki?  Polack?”

Maybe. Or maybe a pseudonym, for some reason or other. But honestly the Nazis bugging a Polish scientist feels oddly appropriate.

“He’s one of the top researchers on Parahumans,” Kayden said.  “The best in the Massachusetts area.”

Yeah, so… it really didn’t seem to take long for the Pure to get to Harvard from where they’ve been hanging out. Which is very likely close to Brockton Bay. That makes two groups that have been hanging around Massachusetts after being recently ejected from Brockton Bay.

Harvard is in Cambridge, a suburb of Boston, which we know is a city that exists separately in Worm but doesn’t seem to be far from Brockton Bay, and which is not far from the real city simply called Brockton.

Brockton is in turn next to a city (Bridgewater, MA) that shares a name with one (Bridgewater, NJ) that I named a town (Bridlewater, northeastern Equestria) in one of my fics after, but that’s a little off-topic.

My point is, I do think there’s a significant amount of evidence to suggest that Brockton Bay is in Massachusetts, and for lack of evidence for or against closer pinpointing, I find it reasonable to imagine that either Brockton Bay is located roughly where Plymouth should be (Plymouth-Kingston is notable for having a coastline similar to Brockton Bay, complete with a place for the PRT HQ to be built), or it’s where Brockton should be and the coastline is slightly different.

“You’re the boss, and it’s your call,” Justin said, shrugging.  “Just saying I pointed it out in advance.”

“What difference is it going to make?” Theo asked.  “Doesn’t make any difference to his ability to do his job.”

I’m so sorry you have to deal with this shit, Theo.

“So cute,” Justin said.  He gave Theo a pat on the cheek, and the boy pushed his hand away in irritation.

Yeah, fuck you too, Justin.

A young man, no older than twenty-five, hopped out of his swivel chair, pulling earbuds from his ears.  “Ah.  Hi?”

“We had a few questions,” Kayden said.

I’m sure the age doesn’t inspire any more trust in his competence from Justin.

“I’ve never had a student bring their family before.”

“We’re not students,” Kayden said.  She strode into the room, and Justin gave Theo a push on the shoulder to prod him forward.  When everyone was inside, he closed the door and stood with his back to it.

“Huh.  I thought I recognized you, would have been from class,” the man said.

Yeah, uh, might’ve been from national news.

“We’re not students,” Justin echoed Kayden’s words.  His tone didn’t have the intimidating effect he’d hoped for.  The young man’s forehead was wrinkled in concerns of a different sort.

Starting to sink in what these people might be?

“You’re not here for the office hours?  Figures.  I sit around for three hours twice a week, five straight weeks, someone finally shows and they aren’t a student.”

Ahahaha

“You’re Wysocki?” Justin asked.

“No,” the young man gave him a funny look.  “You’re really not students.  I’m the T.A.  Filling in while he’s at an event.  Peter Gosley.”

Ohh, okay. So much for talking to the best in the field. Though they could come back later… not sure anyone around here could stop them, short of calling in the Cambridge/Boston heroes.

He extended a hand, but nobody accepted it.

“Fuck,” Justin said.  “This is a waste of time.”

“If you have questions…” Peter trailed off, letting his hand drop.

Kayden starts glowing again, not because of frustration at missing Wysocki, but because Justin swore.

“Trigger events,” Theo said, his voice quiet.

Peter’s eyes fell on the boy, widening slightly.  “You have powers?  You just got them?”

No, see, that’s kind of the problem.

“I need them,” Theo answered.

Peter gave them a funny look.  “I… I’m not sure I understand.”

“Tell us what you know about trigger events, and perhaps we’ll explain,” Kayden said.

“No promises.”

“I… that’s a broad field.  What do you want to know?”

“How to have one,” Theo said.

“Trust me, there isn’t a single government out there that isn’t trying to pull it off.  None have had much success with the various methods they’ve tried.  Not to the point that anyone else has been able to copy their methodology.  If anyone was succeeding, it’d be off the radar.  Maybe the Protectorate.”

Go talk to the Ascended, maybe. Oh wait, they’re busy being chased south by Eris.

“What methods have they tried?” Justin asked.  “The governments.”

“Anything?  Everything.  Drug induced panic attacks.  Kidnappings.  Torture.  Some with willing participants, some even with participants in the dark.  The Queensland Trials-“

The what?

“Stop,” Kayden said.  Peter stopped.  “Participants in the dark?  And nothing worked?”

“It sometimes worked, a lot of stuff sometimes worked.  The problem is, the act of getting a trigger event tends to throw a controlled situation into disarray.  A government or organization pours hundreds of man hours and half a million dollars into identifying people who might be parahumans, by whatever metric they’re using, tracking them, covertly acquiring them, and inducing the parahuman state… and it’d work one in two hundred times.  Half of those times, they’d wind up with a parahuman in an agitated state and things would fall apart.  So a lot of the successes end up being failures of a diffferent sort.”

Yeeeah, all of that tracks. Especially if you’re like me and have a great deal of skepticism towards the concept of the Potential, spurred on by what little knowledge we have of the Dandelions.

“But they haven’t found a consistent way of getting people to trigger?” Kayden asked.

“No.  Fact is, it’s harder when you’re trying to provoke a trigger event.  Even if the participant doesn’t know you’re trying it.”

Which suggests the Dandelions have some awareness of that intent, or that the trigger event isn’t needed.

I have a theory that many if not all powers are specialized forms of something the Dandelions can do in some form or other, which notably includes precognition. We’ve already seen an apparent precognition in them, with them agreeing to meet again in a specific location seemingly to bestow powers there again. (That is, if they’re even aware of that as a side effect of what they’re doing, but if they’re not pretty much all my theories about them have to be reworked.)

One extension of this theory would be that the Dandelions know to some extent which humans need to be empowered for cause and effect to take its course and leave humanity capable deal with the future threat (which I believe is why they’re bestowing powers in the first place). Basically, playing Simurgh but for… not good, strictly, but for defensive purposes instead of destructive.

“Why?”  Kayden asked.

Peter shrugged.  “There’s theories.  There’s the specific trigger theory, which suggest that each individual demands a particular kind of trigger event, so any attempts to force it are essentially attempting the wrong form of trigger.  There’s the specific circumstance theory, which is different, because it suggests that it’s not just a particular type of trigger that’s demanded, but the specific time or event.”

Judging by the Dandelions seemingly planning out their next meeting, there may be some truth to the specific circumstance theory.

Though of course that’s the last thing Theo wants to hear.

“You’re saying it’s predestined,” Justin said.

Some scholars say it’s predestined.  I don’t.  Um.  Other theories… there’s intelligent intervention.”

The Dandelions may operate with raw ideas, but they are clearly sapient in all senses that matter.

“Phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin said.

“There’s no need for rudeness,” Peter said.  He adjusted his glasses and frowned at Justin.

Frankly, objecting to the term intelligent intervention is an intervention that isn’t particularly intelligent.

“Please phrase it in American fucking English,” Justin clarified.

Pfft. Okay, that got me.

“It means there’s someone or something that’s deciding who gets powers and when.  There’s subtheories… Aesthetic analogue, where they’re saying the powers tend to relate to the trigger event somehow, so obviously someone’s doing it on purpose.  Uh.  Intelligent powers, where they say the powers are sentient and they’re making the call on their own.  Ties into other areas of study, and it’s a favorite of mine.  There’s the-“

I think there might be some middle ground between aesthetic analogue and intelligent powers. I’ve always been the type to adhere to aesthetic analogue, especially since I learned of the Dandelions, but we know from Bonesaw how trigger events look like the intelligent powers theory in practice. So why not both? Maybe the Dandelions don’t have full control over what powers are granted? Though that does mess with my favorite theory for why powers can be rather weird answers to the problems faced in the trigger event. The idea that the Dandelions don’t truly understand humanity and think that, for instance, giving Taylor the ability to sense and control lots of new arthropod friends at a wide range is a good answer to confinement and loneliness.

“This isn’t helping us,” Justin cut in.

“Quiet.  Everything helps,” Kayden said.

Definitely siding with Kayden here, and not just because I as the reader love hearing more about how the scientists view these things.

“We’re short on time.”

Peter gave him a funny look.  “Look, I’m not fully understanding what you’re getting at.  It’s great that people are interested in this stuff, but this notion you have that, because your son wants powers, you’re somehow going to give him a trigger event?  That’s a little freaky, it’s not really possible.  And, uh, it’s borderline abuse, if not actual abuse.”

What do you say if Theo makes it clear that he’s more determined than anyone else in the room?

“It’s a complicated situation,” Kayden said.  “What else can you tell us about trigger events?  Beyond theories?”

“The manner of trigger event seems to impact the powers.  That’s frosh level stuff.  Physical pain, physical danger; physical powers.  Mental pain, mental crisis?  Mentally-driven powers.”

We knew that much.

Justin frowned.  And being the brother of a dying, half-blind, deaf retard of a girl who got all the attention?  All of the gifts, the money?  Being made to get surgery for her sake, give up years of my lifespan so she might live?  Getting caught pulling the plug, only for it to do little more than set alarms going?

Yikes, dude.

Spiritual mitosis… Were they twins?

only for it to do little more than set alarms going” — is she still alive now?

Was his power really a mental power?  He’d always considered it more physical.

It does seem more physical, but there is that whole “spiritual mitosis” description that seemed to indicate something more than the physical effect.

If Theo is predisposed to ferrokinesis, a physical trigger event might have a higher chance of success than a mental one, but from his disposition I feel like a mental one would be more likely narratively speaking.

If he had one, I mean. Still thinking he’ll need to go to Cauldron.

Peter was still talking, responding to something Kayden had said.  “Drugs tend to create conditional powers.  It’s not hard and fast, but you get situations where the power is directly linked to one’s physical, mental or emotional state.  We think it’s because the power works off a template it builds as the powers first manifest.  If someone is riding an emotional high as they trigger, their powers will always be looking for a similarly excited state to operate at peak efficiency, often an emotion or drugs.  When people were caught trying to fabricate trigger events, sometimes they were intending to use this so the subject would be more easily controlled.”

So basically, if you trigger on drugs, it’ll feed into your addictions by working best when you’re on drugs. Oof.

That middle bit tracks with what we know of Taylor’s expanded range state and similar effects.

“I wonder if lack of food and water could create similarly conditional powers,” Kayden commented.

Seems cumbersome to control. And might result in powers focused around manifesting things.

“I’m… are you talking about starving him?”  Peter’s eyes were wide now.

“Not at all.  I’m… speculating.”

Kayden’s with me in the liveblogger lounge.

Justin could follow her train of thought.  He’d heard the story through the Empire’s grapevine, once.  A sixteen year old girl, driving for the first time, down a side road, getting in an accident where her car rolled off the road, out of sight of anyone passing by.  Trapped… starving, dying of thirst.

Oh, is this Kayden’s trigger? I suppose her needing to recharge with light could be considered a condition.

Just be careful. This sort of situation may eventually lead to losing your head.

Getting powers that fed off and required other resources.  Light.

Yeah, that tracks.

He glanced at her, and she offered him a curt nod.  Without speaking, they’d come to a mutual agreement that this ‘Peter’ knew what he was talking about.

“What’s the impact of being the child of a parahuman?” she asked.

Second generation seems to have some interesting effects. Victoria triggered during a game of basketball, I imagine in a moment where she needed to fly to land a shot and draw the awe of those around her.

“Um.  I love that you’re interested, and yeah, I wasn’t really doing anything, but maybe if you have this many questions, you should take a class?”

“He’s the son of a parahuman,” Kayden said, pointing at Theo.

Peter, just roll with it. Probably safer.

Cat’s out of the bag now.

“No kidding?  Wow.  Who?”

“Doesn’t matter.”? Or will they alert him to just who he’s dealing with?

“Kaiser,” Kayden said.

Peter’s eyes widened as he looked at Theo.  Then something seemed to click, and he looked up at Kayden and Justin with a note of alarm in his expression.

Yup, there it goes.

“Yeah,” Justin said.  “Smart man, and you’re only figuring it out now?”

“I saw the stuff on the news.  Thought I recognized you.  Purity and…”

“Crusader.  So maybe now you understand we’re serious.  And how we’re not interested in taking a class,” Justin said.

Yeeeah.

“If he’s Kaiser’s son, and Kaiser’s Allfather’s son… he’s third generation.”

“And he doesn’t have powers,” Kayden said.  “It’s crucial that we fix that.”

“I… I don’t really know.  It’s supposed to be ten times easier to get powers if you’re second generation.  But we don’t have research on third generations yet.  It’s only pretty recently that we had the first third-generation cape on record.

Yeah, I remember there was specific mention of one of those up in Canada. Legend’s Interlude, I think?

The baby in Toronto.”

Yeah, that one.

“Didn’t hear about that,” Kayden said.  She frowned.  “A baby?”

Ohhh, right, Aster is also third-gen!

Peter’s eyes fell on Aster.  “Oh.  Wow.  Is she third generation too?”

“Pay attention,” Justin said.

“The… yeah.  Each successive generation seems to produce younger capes, by lowering the barrier to entry, the severity of the requisite trigger event.”

Babies with powers are not much better than those dogs with powers discussed in Buzz. It’s hard enough to take care of babies as it is without them being able to teleport, or fly, or level the neighborhood with beams of molten iron.

“So why haven’t I triggered?”  Theo asked.

“I don’t know.  There’s a lot we don’t know.   Maybe… maybe you don’t have powers.”

That would certainly be a cruel irony.

“I have to.”

“It’s a question of luck.”

“You don’t understand.  If I don’t get powers, a lot of people will die.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

Not surprising considering they’ve made no attempt to help you follow.

“It doesn’t matter,” Justin said.  “Give us all the information you have.  Every way you’ve heard about people trying to trigger, and how well they worked.”

“That’s a six month lecture series unto itself!”

Ahaha

“Talk fast,” Justin said.

“Um.  There’s meditation.  Either to tap into your deeper psyche or to tear down the walls between yourself and your worst fears.  There’s theories that the powers themselves are intelligent, and they’re worked into the host’s head, before or after the trigger event.  Sometimes the meditation’s related to that, but it’s usually people trying to have a second trigger event.”

This is the kind of thing Faultline was trying to accomplish.

“That’s not relevant to the boy, is it?” Justin asked.

“The research is related!  There’s a lot of research into second trigger events because it’s a lot easier to find willing parahumans than it is to find potential parahumans.  The methods that people try tend to be similar, too.  It’s just… a lot of the time, they fail for opposite reasons.”

Opposite reasons?

“Opposite?”  Kayden asked.

“It’s not confirmed, it’s just an idea, but the idea the powers are sentient?  Well, either the second trigger event opens up communication, frees the powers to act on their own more, or if you don’t buy that stuff, it breaks down the mental barriers between the altered part of the brain that controls the powers and the part that doesn’t.  At least, that’s going by the patterns we’ve seen.  Except… well, we think sometimes the reason people can’t have a second trigger event is because they’ve already had one.  You can’t really distinguish a single trigger event from having two in quick succession.”

Sooo that would explain certain powersets that don’t quite fit for someone who’s only had one trigger event.

“Like a multiple orgasm,” Justin commented.  Kayden glared at him.

Kayden might as well just burn Aster’s ears off. Easier than stopping Justin’s mouth.

“More or less.  There’s more parallels than that, but yeah.”

“Crusader is right, this isn’t helping him,” Kayden said.

“What kind of trigger events did Kaiser and Allfather have?”

Whatever happened to Kaiser, I’m sure it was ironic.

What if neither of them had trigger events and that’s why it’s not working for Theo? Maybe Cauldron capes’ kids aren’t given the same benefits as other second/third generation capes?

Kayden and Justin exchanged glances.

“No idea,” Kayden said, frowning.

Peter frowned.  “That would have helped.  At least we know they both had similar powers.  Allfather could conjure iron weapons from the air immediately around himself, send them flying.  Kaiser could call metal out of any solid surface.  Both are the kind of powers you’d see from almost purely mental trauma.  If the trend continues…”

Huh. Those are mental powers?

Also, Allfather’s power reminds me of Brandish. Probably doesn’t mean much, but it’s there.

He trailed off, leaving the sentence hanging.  Theo would probably require mental trauma to trigger.

“Hard to imagine Kaiser having mental trauma.  He seemed so confident,” Kayden said.

Overcompensating? Dude was definitely a little fucky in the head, even if he played it off as confidence.

“His dad was Allfather.  Not so hard to imagine,” Justin replied, absently.  He thought of the college girls and stepped over to the window, curious if he’d be able to make out any from this high up.  He froze.

What? Are there heroes outside?

“Kayden,” he said.

“What?”

“Cops.  And containment vans.”

Close enough. So someone’s alerted the PRT to their presence. I hope it’s the girl who looked over Justin. (I think we’d have some indication that Peter did something if he’d managed to covertly press an alarm button.)

“Someone made us?”  Kayden asked.

“And saw us enter the building,” Justin finished.  “They’re surrounding us on the ground.”

Shit!”  Kayden swore.

If it were just Kayden and Aster, it’d be less of a problem, but with Theo and Justin here, they’re kind of grounded.

Aster whimpered, then started crying.

Aw. Kayden, you shouldn’t swear around Aster! What are you, a monster?

Didn’t you tell me to watch my language in front of Aster?  Justin thought.

Heh. Justin and I are on the same page here.

Imagine it this got Aster to trigger.

Theo was sitting in a swivel chair, hands clasped in his lap, his eyes watching Kayden, waiting for her cue.

Justin noted the tension of Theo’s grip, the way he seemed to retreat into himself.  The fat little boy who was nothing like Kaiser.  Maybe he hadn’t inherited powers at all because he wasn’t his father’s son.  If his mother had cheated on Kaiser, gave birth to this pudgy blob, it would explain why he didn’t have powers.

I mean that’s a valid theo-ry too.

It would mean he wasn’t a second generation cape, let alone a third.

“Hmm.”  Justin watched more PRT vans arrive.  They were spreading out, clearly anticipating Kayden’s artillery-level attacks, and they had the damn foam-bead nets they used for dealing with fliers.  “Theo, who’s your mom?”

Does Theo actually know?

“Heith.”

…that’s a name?

Justin sighed.  Heith was Fenja and Menja’s cousin and guardian, Kaiser’s first wife, killed in a turf war with the Teeth, back in the old days of Brockton Bay. She has powers after all.

So at minimum he is second gen, unless some adoption shenanigans happened.

Somehow, all of this would be easier if he could believe that Theo was illegitimate.

I don’t think this sentence has anything at all to do with the issue of trigger events.

“Crusader,” Kayden said, “Can you stall them?  We have more questions.”

He nodded, shut his eyes, and drew on his power.

They’re physical when they attack, right? So they can go through things but also hit them?

It was as simple as stepping forward while staying in the same place.  A ghostly phantom appeared, followed by another, and another.  One headed for the elevator shaft, while the other headed for the stairwell.  He directed the remainder to sink through the floor.

Yep. Simple. I do that all the time.

“What else can you tell us?  Something we can use,” Kayden said.

“If the authorities are here, I don’t know if I should say.”

Don’t be difficult, Peter. You’ve got a group of supervillains under pressure around you.

“You should,” Justin said.  “Because we’ll hurt you if you don’t.”

“Don’t,” Theo said.

What would win out? The fact that threats of violence are not a good way to get accurate information, or Peter’s sense of scientific integrity keeping him from spreading misinformation?

Justin gave the boy his best dispassionate look.

“He’s been helpful,” Theo said.

“He hasn’t solved your problem,” Justin said.  He was dimly aware of his other selves engaging with the enemy as they moved into the building.

Classic absolutist thinking. Because something doesn’t fully solve a problem, it’s worthless.

Justin would make an awful scientist.

One fought them in the stairwell, immune to any strike or bullet, yet fully capable of pushing a man down the stairs, into the people behind him, fully capable of strangling a man.

Peter shifted positions nervously.  His voice rose in pitch as he spoke, “I don’t know what you want.  I can’t give you an answer because there aren’t any!

None that don’t take six months of lectures to convey, and even then they might not be enough.

Think,” Justin suggested.

“You expect me to do in five minutes what the best scholars in the world haven’t figured out in thirty years?”

…oh, the delicious irony if this pressure had made Peter trigger…

“Well put,” Justin said.  More clones were still splitting off, breaking away from himself to sink through the floor.  Some had moved beyond the building to attack the men who were manning the turrets on top of the van.  With luck, he and Kayden would be free to fly to safety with the children.

Wait, I forget, can Crusader fly on his own?

“This… this is insane!  What am I supposed to tell you?  I’ve outlined some of the best theories we have!”

“If it helps,” Justin said, leaning towards Peter, “I’m going to kill you if I don’t leave here satisfied.  Think about that.”

Honestly I would love it if Peter did trigger here, though that would probably hamper the Theo storyline so it’s not terribly likely.

“Kayden,” Theo said, “You’re not going to let him, are you?”

“Crusader,” Kayden said.  “Is that really necessary?”

Theo is pretty great in his own lowkey way.

“I can’t even think straight under this pressure!” Peter cried.

“I imagine you feel very similar to someone about to have a trigger event,” Justin said.  “Maybe that will inspire something or fill in the blanks for some half-baked idea you had once.”

yeah he does doesn’t he

“I don’t… There’s isolation.”

“An isolation chamber?” Justin asked.

Oh yeah, I could see that working. Though it might not be effective on Theo.

Peter shook his head.  “No.  More basic.  It’s a common trend.  People who have trigger events, they don’t usually have a good support system.  Their family, their friends, they tend to fail them, or be the cause of the problem.

Okay now that’s almost a bit on the nose, ahaha

The family being the cause of the problem, for Theo… yeah. Yeah.

I… I wrote a paper a while back about how Masters tend to have loneliness as part of their trigger events, and how maybe that was why Masters tend to be villains.

Interesting! That does track with just about every Master we know.

Because you need support and social pressure to be more of a good guy.  My professor then, the guy who I work for now, Dr. Wysocki, he tore me to pieces.  Too many other parahumans have it as part of their history.  Isolation.  It wasn’t enough to suggest a correlation.  He said you could call it a common theme for nearly all of the trigger events out there.”

That’s a fair point.

Justin was in the middle of creating another ethereal copy of himself when he stopped.  It snapped back into place.  He thought back to something earlier in the day.

Hmm?

“Kayden, let’s go.”

Does he think they might be able to trigger Theo by playing up their Nazi shit and making Theo feel even worse about being the odd one out in such a group?

“What?”

“I’ve got our answer.  Let’s go.”

This structure makes it feel like whatever he just came up with is going to work, though that would prevent the Cauldron contact I’ve been predicting.

“Are you sure?”

Justin nodded.

“To the roof?” she asked.

“As fast as you can move with the baby.”

Kayden rose into the air, her hair and eyes lighting up.

Time to nyoom.

At least they have the decency not to crash through Wysocki’s window.

“Come on, Theo,” Justin said, “I’ll carry you.”

He spawned a ghostly replica as Kayden left the office.  Theo hesitated as the replica got closer.

Would the replica be the one carrying him?

“What’s wrong?” Justin asked.

“What he just said…  You’re going to leave me.  Isolate me.”

And Kayden’s left the room, so Justin can get away with it.

“Yeah,” Justin said.  His ghost-self lunged, and Theo threw himself back with such force that he fell over in the chair.  The ghost was on him in a second, pinning him down to the floor with one hand around his throat.

Okay, maybe this isn’t going to work, but it’s still a turning point because it means Theo’s going to be on his own and potentially in PRT custody.

“Don’t.  You heard what he said.  If you force it, it won’t happen,” Theo protested, his voice barely above a wheeze with the hold the ghost had on his neck.

“I’m willing to take that chance.  In the worst case scenario, you’re their problem, not ours.  The heroes can look after you and figure out what to do with you.”

Justin’s clearly sick of Theo’s shit.

“Justin!  Crusader!”  Theo managed a strangled scream, but Justin was already in the doorway, not even pausing or hesitating at his words.  “It won’t work if you try to make it happen!”

Justin left Theo behind, stepped into the stairwell, noting a gap between the stairs that was big enough to fly between.  He created a clone and left it overlapping his body, using its flight to lift himself into the air.

Ahh, right — he can’t fly directly, but he can lift himself with his clones. Neat.

Kayden hadn’t flown for safety yet.  She was waiting on the rooftop, Aster writhing in the harness, screaming bitterly.

“Fly,” he said.

Mama bird flies the nest, leaving the ugly duckling to fend for himself.

“Where’s Theo?”

“Would you believe me if I said he was coming?”

“Look, surely you’ve figured me out by now.”

He could see her expression shift in time with the realization.  “You didn’t.”

“I did.  And you won’t go back for him.”

“Like hell I won’t.  He saved Aster when Jack was going to kill her, he might have saved me in the process.  I owe him-“

Yes. Yes, you do.

“-And we’re paying him back by leaving him.”

“No.  No, we aren’t.”

“He’s one of our own, kind of.  I get that.  But… he was never going to help the cause.”

Fuck “the cause” in so many ways.

“The cause,” Kayden spat the word.

“Purifying the world, cutting out the rot, becoming a symbol of better things.  It’s not him.”

He’s the purest on of the lot of you.

Meanwhile I just realized that Purity and her obsessive motherly protectiveness of Aster is a reflection of the 14 Words.

“He’s my stepson.”

“And isn’t that the problem?  Remember this morning, at breakfast?  He was worried he wouldn’t get powers.  That he wouldn’t be able to stop Jack.  And how did you respond?  You reassured him.  You told him we’d fight the Nine if he couldn’t.”

Are you accusing her of coddling a weakling?

Kayden only glared, eyes shining with painful brightness.

“When you said that, part of me, I thought we didn’t fight the Nine then, how could we two years from now?  Theo said it outright.  He’s sharper than he looks sometimes.  Sharper than he acts.  But here’s the thing, at the same time, a part of me felt like I’d realized something, and it took me until now to get it sorted in my head.”

Theo’s a sharp kid who’s had to hide how sharp and compassionate he is on account of living with bastards like you.

“What?”

“You’re reassuring him, when that’s the last thing we want.  When there’s a crisis, he looks to you.  The most basic requirement for a trigger event is you get to a point where you can’t go anywhere.  Pushed to your limit and then pushed further.  He can’t get there so long as we’re there as a safety net.  As a support system.”

I hate that he has a point.

“So we’re supposed to abandon him?”

“We just did,” Crusader said.  “The authorities are just getting to the ninth floor now, my clones are letting ’em by.  By the time we got there, they’d have him secured, and they’d be ready to spray us with that foam.”

“You could use your power, disable them without any risk.”

Sure. But he doesn’t want to.

“I could.  But I won’t.”

Kayden flared with light, and for a second, he thought she was going to shoot him.

The blast of solid light didn’t come.

Justin is a bastard but he’s a bastard with a good, if cruel, excuse.

Justin sighed, “He’ll be hurt, he’ll be pissed, and he’ll be alone.  They’ll quiz him on us, get every detail they can, and if I know him at all, it’ll tear him up, because he might not like us, but we’re the closest thing he’s got to family…”

Kayden glanced toward the door.

…and if we’re lucky, that’s what it takes.

“…And that’s the best thing we can do for him right now,” he finished.

“I never was the mom he needed,” Kayden said.

That’s true. That was true even before Jack.

“Well, it’s too late now.”

She walked over to the roof’s edge, peered down.  “Any net launchers?”

“Nobody to aim them now.  Everyone’s fighting my doubles.”

There’s no catching mama bird.

She glanced back toward the door, absently cooed for Aster to stop crying.

There was a flash of light.  By the time it cleared away, she was merely a glinting speck in the distance.

He glanced at the door, then flew after her.

Up to you and you alone now, boy, he thought.

Good luck, Theo.


End of Interlude 18y

For a chapter populated almost entirely by horrible people, this was fun. The opening in particular was hilariously written, we got a very good snapshot of the situation around Theo’s journey these days, and lots of juicy trigger event science to chew on. Justin, like Kayden, strikes an interesting balance between affable and bastard, but ultimately comes down more on the bastard side in the end, and Dorothy and Geoff overacting in their domestic roles was excellent.

Speaking of them, there’s some interesting stuff about another sinister organization that I imagine will become a little more relevant later. Maybe. Die Gesellschaft seems a lot more actively malicious than Cauldron is, and significantly weaker.

Next chapter, reactions to the message from Noelle and plans for how to deal with her and her demand for the Undersiders, if there’s time for that in-universe.

See you soon!

One thought on “Interlude 18y: Ugly Duckling

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