Interlude 18æ: Breaking Quarantine

Source material: Worm, Interlude 18 (Donation Bonus #4)

Blogged: December 21-26, 2020


Happy winter solstice! Yuletide is upon us, and hopefully this marks the turning of the sun as it returns to our world without a trace of Ragnarök in sight.

Granted, the sun not turning back and the world falling to Ragnarök would be so on brand for 2020, but I really feel things started turning around in November. It even matches a song I like, as I had been hoping for:

September blue, thy sorrows be forgotten
October auburn, let this season pass
Nove-e-ember gray, re-estore with thy rain
December white, thy beauty ever last

Now please excuse me as I go knocking on every piece of wood in my house.

Anyway, we’re not here to celebrate the turning of the sun towards light, we’re here to read an Interlude of Worm! Which I am even 98% certain is in the correct Arc, unless some serious shenanigans have taken place.

Interlude 18æ. Because when I saw the first one was labeled 18x in the URL, I reasonably concluded “oh I guess there are three in this Arc, I might as well follow suit instead of labeling them as 18a, 18b, 18c like I usually would”. But I guess this is why the title of Interlude 18x was changed to the good old “(Donation Bonus #1)” label in the first place. Fortunately my native Norwegian has three more letters after z that I can use.

As usual, I don’t have much in terms of clues to what will actually happen in an Interlude, but I can list some suspects for POV status.

Prime: Noelle, any Traveler other than Krouse, Eidolon.
Secondary: Almost anyone else present for the Grand Skittering.
Tertiary: Someone involved with Cauldron.

Usually, though, the actual answer lands somewhere in the fourth and broadest category: Curveball.

So let’s jump in and find out!


Dr. Jeremy Foster was woken by the sound of a distant gunshot.  He sat straight up in bed.

Curveball it is.

The name sounds vaguely familiar, but blog search shows that all previous mentions of the word “foster” have been in the context of foster care, except for one instance of Jack Slash stating that limitations foster creativity.

Guess it’s just familiar because it’s a good and doctorous name.

Another gunshot.

He reached over to his bedside table and found the remote.  A press of a button illuminated his bedroom.  He opened the drawer to grab the handheld radio and pressed the button.  “Report.”

Hm. What kind of doctor has radio communication with people who’d report to him about gunshots? A forensic specialist would be called in by the cops after the fact, so I don’t think it’s that.

Maybe he’s a former scholar who became a cop?

It’s also reasonable to guess that the PRT is involved here somehow.

Silence.

“Captain Adams, report.”

Maybe they’re on a ship or something and he’s the crew doctor?

It wasn’t Captain Adams who responded.  It was a woman.  “Stay put, doctor.  We’ll be with you in a moment.

Well, clearly she knows who he is, but this seems ominous.

That said, it could still be someone on his side of whatever the heck is happening.

He was out of bed in a flash.  Remote in hand, he turned off the light and opened his bedroom door.

There were two figures in the hallway, cloaked in shadow, one large and broad, the other narrow.  The smaller one saw him and broke into a run.

Good morning.

Cursed thought: The big one is Uncle Grandpa.

He slammed the bedroom door and locked it in the same motion.  There was a crash as the figure threw himself against the door.  If the door were the usual wood chip and cheap cardboard, it might have broken, but Jeremy valued quality, even with the things one normally didn’t see.  His doors were solid wood.

This seems like a character trait we’ll probably be coming back to throughout the Interlude.

If this is a military base or something like that, it seems like Bones over here has some clout, being able to customize his doors and call for reports.

The doorknob rattled as the doctor crossed his bedroom.  He reached for the underside of one shelf on his bookcase, pulled a pin, and then pulled the bookcase away from the wall.

Secret passages???

Doctor Foster, who in the world are you?

The remote fit into a depression on the stainless steel door that sat behind the bookcase.  He made sure it was positioned correctly, then hit a button.  There was a click, and the door popped open a crack.  He had to use both hands to slide the door open.

The doorknob rattled again, then there was a heavier collision.  The bigger man had gotten close.

So is this some kind of saferoom for exactly this sort of situation?

Safely inside, Jeremy pulled the bookcase tight against the wall, felt it click into place, and then shut the metal door of his panic room.

Monitors flickered on, showing his estate in shades of black and green.  At any given time, he had seven armed men patrolling the grounds and an eighth keeping an eye on the security cameras.

Ahh. He’s not at a military base, he’s just enough of a bigshot to have a solidly guarded estate.

And clearly he’s got reason to value security.

He could count seven fallen, including the man in the security office.   They lay prone on the ground, or slumped over the nearest surface.  One struggled weakly.

He picked up the phone.  There wasn’t a dial tone.

The other movie trope relating to dial tones, where it’s used to indicate the person at the other end has hung up, is apparently very much a California thing in the U.S.

So, pal, are you too classy for one of those newfangled mobile phones?

The cell phone, then.  He opened a drawer and picked up the cell.  No service.  There was only static.  They had something to block it.

Alright, yeah, that’s to be expected I suppose.

There was no such thing as ‘security’.  However much one invested in safes, in armed guards, in panic rooms and high stone walls, it only served to escalate a perpetual contest with the people who would try to circumvent those measures.  Raising the stakes.

You know who this all reminds me of for some reason? The Dragonslayers. But this doesn’t really seem to fit them.

Helpless, Jeremy watched the invaders making their way through his house.  He was already mentally calculating the potential losses.  Pieces of artwork worth tens of thousands, valuables not secured in the safes…

Honestly I get the distinct impression they’re really just after you. Why, I have no idea, but it seems like you’re of interest to someone.

Of course, some of that conclusion comes from this being a story where a random art robbery unconnected to anything else doesn’t seem right for an Interlude. So as far as Jeremy knows, this is a reasonable assumption.

Also what makes you think the stuff in the safes is safe? They’ve cut you off enough that it seems they hardly have any time pressure, and if they have skilled safe-crackers, they can use them.

The Magnes painting at the landing between the second and third floor, overlooking the ground floor foyer.  Jeremy winced at the realization.  He’d only picked it up two months ago.  The two million dollar price tag might have given him pause, but it was insured.  He’d bought all the furniture for foyer to complement the work, and now he’d have to find another painting to take its place and buy new furniture to match.

Do you ever have people over who might appreciate all this effort, or is it all just for yourself?

Also, is this Magnes intended to be a real painter? I found a guy called Ron Magnes who does vibrant pop art, but his prices seem to sit around $37-118 a piece in our world.

I also found a painting titled Magnes that seems to go at $122k-180k on auctions. Another painting by the same artist (Georges Mathieu) goes for $1.8M.

Except they were walking by the painting as though it weren’t even there.

A part of him felt offended that they hadn’t even stopped to admire it.  Philistines.

Beautiful.

No.  There was a very good chance they were coming for him.

Yeah. But why? Did you piss someone off?

One by one, they entered his bedroom.  It was a blind spot of sorts.  He’d wanted his privacy, so the only ways to turn on the security camera in the corner of the room would be to unlock or open the balcony doors, break the glass or input a particular code.

Seems reasonable enough. Annoying if something happens in the room while the camera was off and you need evidence, but reasonable.

He stepped over to the computer, typed in the code.  Simonfoster19931996.

Take that, Hemingway.

Leviathan first appeared in 1996, but I doubt it’s related. I don’t think this three year old kid was in Oslo at the time and Levvy killed just the kid and not his dad. Unless maybe he was there with his mom?

The screen flickered to life, but it wasn’t his bedroom in the picture.  A field with four walls approximately where his bedroom walls had been, the six invaders waiting very patiently in the middle as walls stripped away to become tendrils, tendrils became vines and vines twisted together into treelike forms.

Yeah, there we go. This has Doormaker written all over it, upgrading Foster to Tertiary class.

Now to see whether he knows what’s going on. Maybe he used to be a Cauldron scientist?

The window went quickly.  The ‘field’ of knee-length grass rippled as the wind caught it.

The bookcase was slower to degrade.  Books were rendered into leaves, shelves into vines.  He watched the image on the camera with an increasing sense of dread, glanced at the door.

If it’s not Doormaker, this seems like a power akin to Labyrinth’s. Or maybe it is Labyrinth. We don’t know anything about these invaders except one is big and broad (Gregor?), one is smaller and thinner (Newter?) and at least one is female (Faultline?).

I’m down for a check-in on Faultline’s Crew if that’s what we’re getting. They’re pretty cool, and one of the biggest losses of the Undertravelers driving people out of Brockton Bay.

The screen went black.

“No, no, no, no,” he said.

There goes the camera.

A crack appeared in the door.  Floor to ceiling.

A crack? Or a fault?

He grabbed the handgun from the counter, double checked it was loaded.

Another crack crossed the door, horizontal, nearly six feet above the ground.

I guess these cracks are due to the deterioration effect Labyrinth? is bringing into the adjacent room. Faultline’s work would be too clean to reasonably describe as “cracks” without further elaboration on their cleanness.

He disabled the safety.

With the third crack, the door fell into the panic room, slamming against the ground.  He fired into the opening of the doorway, and the acoustics of the metal-walled room made the shot far, far louder than it had any right to be.

There was nobody standing in the doorway.

I shot. And I missed. So I shot again. And I missed.

He looked around.  The layout of the room wasn’t set up for a firefight.  Especially not a firefight that involved parahumans.  He crouched, kept the gun pointed toward the door.

If I’m right about who these people are, you might have a more literal firefight than you bargained for.

They didn’t make a move. The floor of the panic room was being finely etched with markings that overlapped and wove into one another.  Where lines drew to a taper, points were curling up, strands slowly rising, dividing into finer growths and flaring at the top with the vague cat-tail like ends of wild grass.  He could see the clean-cut edges of the door curling, twisting into tendrils.  Some had teardrop shaped bulges on the end.

By now I’m pretty certain this is Labyrinth’s work, not Doormaker’s.

“Elle,” he called out.  “Labyrinth?”

Aw fuck. He knows her. This is not a job.

This is revenge, isn’t it.

All together, the bulges on the tendrils unfurled into tiny, metallic flowers, framing the doorway.

Man, if she puts him in the Bad Place…

“She’s having one of her bad days, doctor,” the woman who had been on the other side of the radio called back.  “She’s not feeling very talkative as a result.  If you have something to say, say it to me.  I go by Faultline.”

Yeah I can imagine it would be one of her bad days if they’re dealing directly with someone responsible for her treatment at the asylum.

Faultline pressed her back to the ‘wall’.  Not that it was really a ‘wall’.  Labyrinth’s power was slowly working on the metal, gradually twisting it into gnarled textures and branches. Shamrock was beside her, clad in a costume of skintight black leather with a green clover on the chest, her red hair spilling over her shoulders, a combat shotgun directed at the ground.  Gregor and Spitfire were on the other side of the door, holding similar positions.

Is this a perspective switch to the true focus of the Interlude? Seems like it.

Newter sat with Labyrinth on the bed, his tail circled around the girl’s waist, keeping her from wandering.  The bed was barely recognizable, nearly consumed by waist-high strands of hardwood-textured grass.

Gotta love the visuals that happen when Labyrinth is around.

Also, can I just say, Shamrock? Yeah, that’s what I wanted to say. Just, Shamrock.

A cool summer breeze blew in through the opening that had once been the window, scattering dandelion seeds and leaves throughout the room’s interior.

“I don’t know what she told you,” the Doctor called out.  “I always treated her professionally, to the best of my ability.”

Professionally, sure, maybe so. But does that equal ethically? Empathically?

It should. But I don’t trust that it does.

“We’re not here for revenge on her behalf, Doctor,” Faultline responded.  “We’re looking for information.”

Hm? Do you have reason to believe he knows stuff about Cauldron?

“I’m not working with the Asylum anymore.  It’s been over a year.”

“I know,” she replied.

“Protocols have changed.  I can’t get you past security or anything like that.”

Reasonable assumptions, for what they might want.

“The Asylum doesn’t really interest me,” Faultline said.  “Not why we’re here.”

“Then why?”

“Because we’ve been trying to track down people who can give us answers, and you stood out.  Spending a little too much money.”

…Cauldron salary?

“I’m a good doctor, that’s all!”

“Doesn’t account for it.  Comparing you to your coworkers at the asylum back then, you were spending too much money.  Just enough that I think someone was bankrolling you.”

“Your sources are wrong!”

Great comeback, man, excellent deception, well played, they’ll surely leave you alone now.

“Don’t think so.  I think someone was paying you to keep tabs on certain individuals within the asylum.  Was it Cauldron?”

She shut her eyes, listened.  She couldn’t make out any telltale gasps or movement.

Somehow that’s even more telling.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The other possibility is that you were working for a foreign government.  A spy.  Or, to be more specific, you were working as a spy for several foreign agencies.”

Because any single government agency doesn’t pay that well?

“Look at my neighbors!  We do the same kind of work, we live at the same level!”

“Your neighbors are in debt, or they’re riding on the capital from smart investments.  You aren’t.  Just the opposite.  Your investments are nil, yet you somehow have enough money sitting in the bank that you can coast into retirement.”

“No,” the Doctor said.

“Nuh-uh!”

“The difference between you and the other people on my list is that you were stupid about it.  Showing too much of the money.  If it wasn’t me who noticed, it’d be one of the people paying you.”

“Nobody paid me!  Your sources are wrong!  I am in debt!  Hundreds of thousands!”

Ah yes, hundreds of thousands that you could easily pay down by selling that one painting.

“Let’s cut past the lies and bullshit, Doctor Foster.  I’m offering you a deal.  You and I both know that you won’t be able to maintain this lifestyle if your employers realize you were discovered.  Depending on who they are, they might even take offense.  Either they terminate their relationship with you or they terminate you.”

Cauldron has suggested they’re pretty hard on leaks, yeah.

More of the house around them was blowing away, dandelion seeds in the wind.  The wall surrounding the window was gone, and the roof was well on its way to the same state.

Try to make sure bits of it don’t start falling down on people, will you?

“I don’t- you’re wrong.  These people you’re talking about, they don’t exist.  I don’t know them.”

“Okay,” Faultline said.  “Now, I’d have to double-check whether the person paying for the mission is willing to torture or kill you for the information we want…”

This is a good line, because we the audience know that this is personal. We can see that Faultline is bluffing here; this is for them, there is no questgiver. And so it doesn’t reflect too badly on her moral character. But Foster doesn’t know that, doesn’t know Faultline herself, but might know they’re mercenaries since he knew Elle’s cape name, so this becomes a pretty effective threat.

She hesitated, glanced at Gregor.  He shook his head.

Or…?

“…And he isn’t.  Isn’t that good news?”

Does she consider Gregor the questgiver here, or was he just advising her on what he thought she should say?

“God.  I’m just- I’m a doctor!  I work with politicians, sometimes with big name parahumans.  The- the president’s friends come to me!  But I’m only a doctor!  I’m not a spy!”

There’s another doctor around who works with politicians (Alexandria counts) and big name parahumans. Do you know her?

“Then you have nothing to worry about,” Faultline said, “if we leave and we spread the word that we thought you were involved.  If it’s an unfounded rumor, then nothing happens.  Maybe your reputation takes a little hit, but a powerful man like you will bounce back, won’t he?”

Aaand check.

“Please-”

“But if you’re lying, if you are involved, the people who paid you to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut will be upset.  I don’t think you’ll be able to escape them by hopping on a plane to some remote country.”

That’s when Doormaker actually might get involved.

She let the words hang in the air.

“I… if I told you, I would be in just as bad a situation.  Hypothetically.”

Unless they kept their mouths shut. Which, y’know, he absolutely shouldn’t trust them to. That’d just be further leverage.

“Hypothetically,” she said, “I suppose you’d have to decide whether it was better to trust us and our professional, circumspect demeanor and the possibility that we’d let the details slip or whether you wanted to suffer the inevitable consequences if we started talking.”

But yeah, this.

Though there’s an element of bluff even in this, because if they started talking, they’d make themselves targets too. But perhaps they already are, anyway.

There was another pause.  She waited patiently.

“I was supposed to find out just how much the United States knew about what was going on.  Like you said, keeping my eyes open.  Twice, putting a special thumbdrive into one of the main computers.  That was for the United Kingdom.

These auto-downloading thumbdrives are pretty handy for stealing info.

I sent regular reports to another group.  I think they were the C.U.  I didn’t do anything specific for them.  Just describing new inmates, recent hirings and firings, changes in policy.”

The who?

And if he didn’t know for sure who one of his employers were, they may very well have been Cauldron after all.

The C.U.l  China.  It was good to be right.  “Did you download anything onto the drives, or-”

So, uh. Is that supposed to be a lowercase L in the acronym? You can’t tell easily on the Worm site, but the font in my editor distinguishes I and l pretty well. ltaIcs especially.

Also I kind of figured the C.U. might be a country that doesn’t exist in our world, on account of the alternate history and implied collapse of many governments, but finding it in China… it would be so on brand if China was one of the countries that broke apart because of the whole parahuman thing.

“It was good to be right.” — Has Cauldron been known to pose as this government before?

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I was supposed to plug them in, then wait.  After, I took them out and destroyed them.”

Alright, so more likely injecting viruses/spyware. Or maybe these special thumbdrives had the ability to transmit the data.

“Very possible it was putting a backdoor into place, giving your employer remote access,” Faultline said.

“Why does this matter?”

“That’s our business, not yours.  Did they ever show particular attention to an individual?”

Probably not to Labyrinth, since he doesn’t see the relevance.

“Some attention for the more powerful ones.  Nothing ever came of it.  I gave them more details, they paid me, that was it.  The patients stayed in the asylum’s custody.”

“If you had to, how would you get in touch with them?”

“Email.  Sometimes phone.  They changed handlers.  Been a while.”

This is where I’d start talking about Chariot if that theory hadn’t already been debunked.

Unless he was working for both of them.

“When did they last contact you?”

“Two years ago?  About?”

“Why?”

“Wisconsin.  The Simurgh attack.  There was an open call for civilian volunteers.  My contact from the U.K. left me a message.  Asked me to volunteer my medical expertise, see who was filtering out.”

Ah, yeah, that tracks. Cauldron noticed some of their lab ending up there, perhaps even the lack of a case that was supposed to be in that lab.

…from the U.K. contact. Maybe both of the governments were Cauldron, just to throw him off.

“Did he have a handle?”

“Christof.”

Her heart leaped.  “Spell it.”

“C-H-R-I-S-T-O-F.”

A rare smile spread across Faultline’s face.  Finally, after weeks of looking, they’d found a connection between two clues.  Christof was a familiar name.

Booyeah!

She glanced at the others, and Newter gave her a little ‘fist pump’ gesture, smiling.

“How much did he pay you?”

“He didn’t.  I refused the deal.”

Every clue points to a greater picture, how they operate and where the priorities are.  In a situation where every piece of information was valuable and every avenue of collecting that information crucial, there was a lot to be said for identifying where the major players weren’t looking for clues.

That’s pretty good advice. Especially in a world like this one.

It suggested they already knew, they already had agents in play.

Sometimes. It can also mean they overlooked something through human error.

If they’d let him go so easily, there might have been others.  But it suggested they were interested in what had happened in Madison.

Frankly I was surprised they didn’t more actively chase the Travelers. But perhaps they did manipulate them into approaching Brockton Bay?

Which meant her crew had reason to be interested.

Yes. Yes, go track down the Travelers. It’s a little late, but it should be good.

“Keep talking,” she said.  “Let’s talk about some of the other jobs.”

If we’re lucky this might even lead them right back to Brockton Bay.

“Hate the heat,” Faultline said.  “I never thought I’d miss Brockton Bay, but the weather was usually nice.  Damn sun’s not even up and I’m sweltering.”

Spitfire: “Rude.”

So where the heck are we now? I figured they might go to Wisconsin, but this sounds more like the south.

“It might be easier to bear if you wore something more… summery,” Newter commented, eyeing her short-sleeved dress shirt and the black slacks that were tucked into cowboy boots.  She glared at him, and he smirked in response.

I love Faultline’s ridiculous fashion sense.

She’d have to put him in check or he’d be intolerable for the rest of the day.  “Maybe I need to get the bullwhip?  Or did you forget the drills?”

Is this what you call putting him in check?

Newter groaned aloud.  “You’re on that again.”

“On the wall.  Go.”

Ah, referring to old mistakes. Yeah, that might shut him up. 😛

Newter leaped across the hotel room and stuck to the wall, one hand planted above his head so he could stay more or less upright, his tail curling around his lower foot.  “Pain in the ass.  You know I’ll have to scrub the hotel walls after to get rid of the footprints before we go.”

Pfft. Some supermercenaries, washing after their heists.

“Deal,” Faultline said.  “The practice could make the difference between you dodging a bullet and you moving too slow to avoid it.”

Oh, that kind of drills.

Spitfire and Elle stepped out of the bathroom, Spitfire with a towel in hands, drying Elle’s hair.

“How are we doing?” Faulltine asked.

Elle didn’t respond.  She chewed slightly on her lip, and her eyes looked right through Faulltine as she glanced around the room.

Not great, it seems. She’s even twisting the letters around her now — do you notice that, Faulltine?

“I think we’re about a three,” Spitfire said.  “She brushed her teeth after I put the brush in her hands.  Why don’t you sit down on the couch, Elle, and I’ll brush your hair?”

“I’ll do that,” Faultline said.  “Get me a brush and then go finish getting ready.”

It’s so nice how this team takes care of each other like this.

“Yes, ma’am,” Spitfire said.  She glanced at Newter, and Faultline suspected she saw an eye roll there.  Spitfire led Elle by hand in the direction of the couch, let go as Elle got close enough to Faultline.  Faultline led the girl to the couch, then sat on the back of the couch with her feet planted to either side of the girl.

Though there’s clearly a little resistance to Faultline’s “focus on the mission” attitude.

She caught the brush that Spitfire threw across the room and set to brushing Elle’s white-blond hair.  “This is badly tangled.  Were you sleeping in a tree again?”

…heh. The lighter troubles of a girl who can manifest her dream worlds.

I say lighter because this is absolutely less “heh”-worthy when she has nightmares.

Elle nodded slightly.

“I’ll try to be gentle.  Let me know if I’m tugging too hard.”

Elle nodded again.

Faultline caught a whiff of hot sand, salt, and humid air.

Beach world?

“Don’t make water, okay, Elle?”  Faultline said.  “It’s not that we’re paying the deposit for the room, but it’s a matter of principle.  We’re professionals.  We don’t leave messes.”

“We want a refund. We got up into the room and there was a massive water leak!”

“What? But we had the plumbing checked just last week…”

“Plumbing?”

The ocean smell faded away by the time Faultline had stroked the brush five more times.

“Thank you,” Faultline said.

The ‘Labyrinth’ power would typically clean itself up.  When they’d left Dr. Foster’s estate, much of it had been turned to leaves, grass and flowers with electric blue petals.  As the effect faded, the building would be restored.

A rare case of helpfulness from a power. I suppose Labyrinth deserves that much after all the other ways it’s distinctly unhelpful.

What Elle’s power didn’t clean up was the aftermath the changes themselves wrought.  If a stone pillar toppled onto a car, the pillar might disappear, but the car would remain crushed.  A fire quenched by water would remain out, even as the moisture faded.

That makes sense. It’s not Miraculous Ladybug.

Gregor and Shamrock entered from the hotel room’s front door, holding hands.  Both were in their combat gear, with some adjustments made to adjust for the heat.  Shamrock wore black yoga pants and a green sleeveless t-shirt with her clover-leaf symbol on the front in black, her mask dangling from her right front pocket, her shotgun dangling from her free hand.

Woah woah woah. Body horror and gore? Why not. A permanude tiger woman into vore and bondage? Sure. Teenagers fading to black at the end of a chapter? Totally acceptable. But holding hands?? That’s way too lewd!

So is that meant to imply that Gregor finally found someone who liked him for who he was rather than what he was? Because if so, that’s so nice to hear.

And one could certainly do worse than Shamrock. Look, I like badass redhead girls, okay?

Gregor wore a fishnet shirt over bare skin, thick canvas pants and a snailshell-spiral mask strapped to his face, with holes worked into the gaps for his eyes.  The dark vague shadows of his organs were visible through the flesh of his broad stomach.

Actually, does anyone on this team besides Shamrock have a sense of fashion? I mean, of course Gregor and Newter have some special needs to account for, but still.

Also I talk as though I have a sense of fashion.

“I’m sorry the rest of us aren’t ready to go.  Slow start,” Faultline confessed.

“It happens,” Gregor said, in his accented voice.  “And I know it is almost always Spitfire, Newter or Elle at fault.  Not to say I would fault Elle.  But you should not apologize for any of them.  Only yourself.”

Is… Gregor sassing her? For blaming the others?

“Frankly, bro,” Newter said, “I’m surprised you’re even capable of moving.  It’s not like you slept a wink, know what I mean?”

Oh yeah, they’ve definitely been holding hands all night.

Gregor lobbed a glob of goo at Newter, who leaped to the ceiling, cackling.  The slime bubbled away to nothingness.

“lobbed a glob of goo” is a fun phrase to say.

“I took the role of leader,” Faultline said. “It’s my job to kick people’s asses and get them moving when we have a job coming up.”

She does have a point there.


It’s midnight, I’m finding myself distractable, and I’m a little less than halfway through, so that seems a good break point.


[Session 2]

Happy day of the boxer shorts! Let’s get back to the faulty line.

“And I’m the client,” Gregor said.  He’d taken a seat in an armchair, and Shamrock sat in his lap.  Almost as an afterthought, he folded his arms around the young woman.  “I could ask that you and the team are more casual with this job.  Our destination is going to be there whether we leave before dawn or at sunset.”

I suppose this is totally fair. If Faultline insists on playing her “role”, so can Gregor.

(What is it with Gregs and rocks, anyway?)

Faultline shook her head.  “I’d rather treat this as I would any job.  If nothing else, keeping everyone on the straight and narrow means they won’t get sloppy on our next serious job.”

Reasonable.

Though it does kind of imply this job isn’t serious. Are you sure that’s what you want to tell your client?

“Very well,” Gregor said.  “Then I’d like to leave within thirty minutes.”

“We’ll make it ten,” Faultline said.  “Pack everything up.  Spitfire can help Elle get her stuff on.  Elle makes us an exit from the balcony so we aren’t walking through the hotel in costume.”

Imagine the reactions though.

She stood from the back of the couch, and nearly collided with a statue that had emerged from the wall above and around her.  A woman, back arched, hands outstretched to either side of Faultline.

“Stay”?

Faultline was a believer in doing things right.  Image came secondary to effect, and doing the job right was better for image than having the best costume.

I like that attitude.

Her own costume blended several functions.  A bulletproof vest, lightweight, with a stylized exterior, formed the most expensive single component of the outfit.  She tied her hair back into a crude bun, then gingerly drew the ‘ponytail’ from the side of the suitcase.  Unfolding the surrounding cover, Faultline slowly and carefully used her fingers to comb the fake hair onto a semblance of order.

Oooh, fake hair, that’s clever. “Oh, she couldn’t possibly be Faultline. Faultline has a pony tail, and this girl’s hair is too short.”

The bristly hair extension masked a thin, flexible rod in the core, with painted spikes protruding at various angles.  It was all too common for an enemy to reach for the ponytail in an attempt to get her.

So you a) discourage that with spikes, and ideally b) make the ponytail loose enough that it falls off rather than holding you back if they grab on anyway.

Their hands would be impaled on the waiting spikes, if they weren’t invulnerable, and the hair extension would come free, giving her a chance to escape.

Excellent. That way it acts as both identity protection and a decoy vulnerability.

Belts with various tools and weapons were strapped to her upper arms, forearms and thighs, held in place with suspenders.  Knives, lockpicks, various pre-prepared hypodermic needles, climbing tools, sticks of chalk, a mirror, a magnifying glass, iron wire and more were on hand if she needed them.  She ran her finger over the belts to ensure that each pocket was full.

It’s like Skitter if Skitter didn’t put any points into her costume’s style stat.

She checked her semiautomatic, then slid it into the holster at her left hip.  A flare gun went into the holster at the right.  Flowing sleeves that would mask the belts and their contents were buckled on next, followed by a dress with a side pocket that would let her access the gun in a pinch.  The buckles meant that anyone pulling on the fabric would pull it free rather than get hold of her.

Faultline is a min-maxer. She’s taken charisma as a dump stat to maximize functionality.

Skitter, too, is rather pragmatic and put a fair bit of thought into her equipment, but it pales in comparison to this and leaves room for her sense of style, dramatics… and presentation.

And that is why Skitter is a supervillain — despite her anti-hero motivations and morals — while Faultline is merely a superpowered mercenary with disregard for the law.

It was amusing, just how much of a contrast Labyrinth’s costume was.   The robe was easy enough to wear that she could put it on over her clothes.  It was green with a ‘maze’ drawn on the fabric.  There were no safety measures, only minimal supplies and gear.

The way labyrinths are — somehow — associated with complexity just makes this even better.

Faultline donned her mask, more a welder’s mask with a stylized crack to see through than anything else, then led the other two girls back into the main area of their hotel room.

The welder aesthetic is so beautifully at odds with her power, too.

Maybe I should have included Faultline in this:

[Discord]

Banshee:
all welders are necessary, especially when they’re unnecessary

The Adder:
Reconsider

[Image: Someone off-panel calling out to a man in a welder outfit: “Hey, Dogwelder!”]

Banshee:
I don’t understand
Does he weld dogs

The Adder:
Yes. That’s what’s in the bag

Banshee:
Horror

Nynaeve al’Meara for Pope [me]:
From one name, three Worm characters form strong opinions of very different kinds about this guy.

Mid-Twenties Woman [Sharks]:
Bitch, Bonesaw, and?..

Banshee:
Bonesaw- same hat
Weld- no thanks
Bitch- that bitch

Nynaeve al’Meara for Pope [me]:
Weld: “An affront to the good name of welding.”
Bitch: *incoherently frothing at the mouth with pure rage*
Bonesaw: “Ooh, that sounds fun!”

Mid-Twenties Woman [Sharks]:
yeah that sounds about right

Background Nerd:
Bonesaw: How? Weld: Why? Bitch: …WHAT!?

[Image: Information on Dogwelder from the DC wiki, with “alignment: good” highlighted.]

Newter had changed, but he didn’t need much.  He had handwraps and footwraps that left his fingers and toes free, basketball shorts and a messenger bag slung over one shoulder.  He was the first one to exit the apartment, disappearing out the window, then poked his head back in long enough to give a thumbs up.

Is it okay if I picture him doing this from the top of the window?

You can’t stop me, but is it okay?

Elle opened the window into a proper exit, complete with a staircase leading to the road behind the hotel.  Faultline paused to look at the looming stone wall, only a few blocks away.  Three hundred feet tall, it was all smooth stone.  Parahuman made, no doubt.  The barrier encircled the area the Simurgh had attacked, containing everything within.

Oh, so we are in Madison. Just on a hot day.

Every house and building within three hundred feet of the wall itself had been bulldozed.  She couldn’t help but feel conspicuous as they crossed the open area.  It was dark, there weren’t any spotlights, but she couldn’t help but be paranoid.

Understandable. You are out in the open.

Also, sheesh, imagine if this were the entire point of bringing the Travelers to this world. If the Simurgh sent them there and gave them the vials specifically so that Cauldron would take an interest, causing Faultline’s Crew to take an interest, and then using Faultline’s Crew to accomplish later goals…

It’s probably both, honestly.

“Cell phones are dead,” Shamrock commented.

Naturally. Can’t have the quarantined people causing things to happen by phoning people outside the quarantine, and can’t confiscate their devices out of the quarantine zone.

Faultline nodded grimly.  Of course there wouldn’t be any transmissions into or out of this area.  No messages of any sort would be permitted.  Not even water entered or left the quarantine area, let alone communications or goods.  Anyone still inside was left to fend for themselves with whatever resources they could gather.

It reminds me a bit of the Gone series, though naturally without the series’ premise element of the adults disappearing.

So the outsiders aren’t even providing any food or drink for the quarantine zone. Welp. Somehow I don’t expect we’re about to see a thriving self-sufficient community in here.

She’d checked and double checked the measures authorities were taking, ensuring that the area wasn’t being watched for intruders.  There weren’t any people on the wall, and the only surveillance was busy keeping an eye out for anyone who might be trying to make it over the top of the wall.

What if someone waved semaphore flags over the wall, or blinked in morse code, and the guard on duty happened to know how to read that…

Going through the wall?  Anyone digging through would be caught by the daily drone sweeps, and anyone trying something faster would make too much noise.

…unless you can make an opening be there. Enter Labyrinth.

Besides, they certainly didn’t expect anyone to be trying to get in.

Faultline touched the wall.  She felt her power magnifying around her fingertip on contact.

Or we can use Faultline. That’s fine, if a bit more permanent.

She just had to will it, and her power would dance around the contact point, leaving a hole a third of an inch across.  If she really pushed for it, it would extend several feet inside the object.

That’s… a little small to crawl through. Are you using it to get access to points further in?

Her power worked better with multiple points of contact.  She touched with her other fingertip, and felt the power soar between the two, running through the surface like a current.

She let it surge outward, and a fissure appeared.

Nice.

Faultline and Tecton should meet sometime.

She tapped one toe against the wall, and power surged from either fingertip to the point of her toe, drawing a triangle.  Moving closer to the wall until she was almost hugging it, she moved her other toe against the surface.  Four points of contact, six lines.

It looks ridiculous but it’s functional. In other words, it’s the most Faultline way she could possibly do this.

Then she pushed, literally and in the sense of using her power.  The power surged into the object, the lines widening and she swiftly backed away as the resulting debris settled.

What if she’d spread her fingers out? Five points of contact at each of the top corners? I feel like that would have ground the edges and middle up a bit more and possibly made it even more effective by reducing resistance against the literal push.

Maybe that’s too much for her power, though.

Once the dust had more or less cleared, she could make out a tunnel, roughly door shaped.  Her power had destroyed enough of the material that there was barely any debris on the ground.

This hole into and out of a Simurgh quarantine zone can only lead to good things.

…are the Echidna-esque monsters still roaming this place?

“Labyrinth,” Faultline said, “Shore it up?  Make a nice hallway?  Taller and wider than this, please.”

I suppose she needed something to work with.

Labyrinth nodded.  It took only twenty or thirty seconds before there was a noticeable effect.  By the time they were halfway down the tunnel, there were alcoves with statues in them and torches burning in sconces.

Nice.

Walking through the tunnel was claustrophobic.  Faultline could handle that, but she could see Shamrock clinging to Gregor.  It made his progress through the narrow tunnel that much slower.

Huh. She never struck me as the clingy type before, but then again, we don’t actually know her very well.

How fragile civilization is, Faultline mused, as she emerged on the other side.  Newter clambered up the side of the nearest building for a vantage point.

You know, that thought should be a red flag when you’re breaking into a place designed to contain the effects of someone trying to break civilization.

Anyway, welcome to the Madi Zone.

Some of it was the Simurgh’s doing, no doubt, but the thing that made her catch her breath was the degree to which things had degraded.  Windows were broken, plants crawled over the surroundings, a building had collapsed a little further down the street.  Stone was cracked, windows shattered, metal rusted.  The buildings, the cars that still sat in the middle of the street, they looked as though they had been left abandoned for a decade, though it was closer to a year and a half in reality.

To be fair, anyone still around to take care of those things likely has bigger concerns and few resources to use for it.

It didn’t take much.  Animals found their way inside, fires started and spread, and weather damaged the structures.  Once the spaces were partially breached, the wind, sun, rain and temperature were free to wear on the interiors, and everything accelerated.

Hm, yes. Once the spaces are partially breached. Thinking of the outside of that fuck-off huge wall as a “space”, remind me again what you did by entering here?

The Simurgh quarantine is horrible for those caught in it, and certainly could’ve been handled better by authorities (sounds familiar), but it is very much a necessity, and let’s just say that this year has not increased my patience for frivolous breaches of quarantine.

That damage, in turn, paved the way for other things to take root.  Mold could get into materials and surfaces.  Plants could take root, winding roots into cracks, widening them.  Ice did much the same in the winter months.

Still, it was so much, so fast.

She couldn’t help but think about what Coil had said about the world ending in two years.

There’s even a hell of a stretchy case, but still a case, to be made for the idea that killing Jack before he left Brockton Bay might have somehow contributed to Faultline’s Crew staying in Brockton Bay and not doing this.

However it happened, if it happened, how long would it be before nature had destroyed every trace of humanity, after mankind was gone?

This does assume that the planet survives.

Anyway, I’d give it a couple hundred million years to get rid of all trace, but most of it would probably be hard to spot unless specifically looking for it after, what, maybe fifty thousand?

In any case, the question is making me want to watch Life After People, a series from back when the History Channel wasn’t all about the ups and downs and family dramas of the pawning business.

“Pretty,” Labyrinth said, as she emerged from the tunnel.  Her head craned as she looked around.

Uhh…

…right, she did like this kind of thing, didn’t she. Ruins long abandoned by humankind.

Faultline and Spitfire gave the girl a look of surprise.  It wasn’t like her to talk on a bad day.

“You think so?” Faultline asked.

Labyrinth didn’t venture a response.

Seems that’s all she wanted to say.

“Guess you like different architecture, huh?”

Still no response.  Faultline rubbed the girl’s hooded head, as she might with a dog.

Affection is fine and good, but don’t dehumanize her.

Gregor and Shamrock were the last ones to exit the tunnel.

“All good?” Faultline asked.

“A little much,” Shamrock said.  “Knowing how tall the wall is, how much pressure’s bearing down over our heads… I’m a little claustrophobic at the best of times, and that’s worse than the best times.”

Honestly, that’s totally fair.

“We have some time before we need to pass through again,” Faultline said, “Maybe Labyrinth can make it wider, shore it up more so you’re more comfortable, for the future.”

Shamrock nodded.  “I hope so.  Thank you.”

And Faultline, being a good leader, looks to ways to make things easier on her instead of shaming her for the phobia.

Faultline is… an understated kind of good character. She’s a bit like Grue and Weld in that regard, I suppose — she’s not all that flashy, she’s down-to-earth, pragmatic and goal-focused, and cares for her crew, making her a character I distinctly appreciate as a person even if she lacks the flair of many of my favorite characters.

“We’re looking for any signs of life,” Faultline said.  “Avoid confrontation if you don’t have backup.  We patrol this area in a pinwheel formation.  We have four people patrolling, each in a different cardinal direction.  Head three blocks out, turn clockwise, travel two more blocks, then zig-zag your way back to the center.  One person always waits with Labyrinth in the middle, so we have a fortified spot to fall back to.  We take turns staying with her, so nobody walks too long.”

Something a bit like this? Not bad.

There were nods from each of her subordinates.

“Flare if there’s any trouble or any find.  Everyone has their guns?”

Everyone did.

Does Spitfire really need one, though?

“Gregor and Shamrock babysit during the first patrol, don’t need anyone to backtrack, obviously.  Move out.”

It took only a second for Newter, Spitfire and Faultline to choose their individual directions.  Gregor and Shamrock stayed behind.

Faultline: “And no funny business! I swear, aside from Labyrinth, this crew is full of horny bastards.”
Labyrinth, staring off into space with a slight red tinge to her cheeks: “…no exceptions…”

Better to give Shamrock a chance to calm down, Faultline thought.  Her boot heels made noise as she walked.

Doctor Foster had been asked to keep an eye on those being released from the city’s quarantine.  Each individual got a tattoo of a bird on one hand or on one arm, marking them as someone affected by the Simurgh.

Unless they manage to acquire powerup potions and escape.

It had been a short-lived policy, covering only two of the Simurgh’s visits to America in the span of four years.  Shortly after the second event, the idea was abandoned.  The idea, that people could take extra caution around anyone with a tattoo of a white bird, only generated prejudice.

Sounds like she’s coming to America suspiciously frequently.

The affected individuals couldn’t find work, they were beaten and they had their lives threatened.

The outcry had meant it was hard to spread the word about what the tattoos were intended for, and the problem was further exacerbated when some people had started getting the tattoos as a matter of protest.

So basically it caused as much chaos as it was supposed to prevent.

In some poll a year back, something like six out of ten people had been unable to say why the tattoos existed.

Good job, United States education system and media. Good job.

But it wasn’t likely that the tattoos were why the Doctor had been asked to oversee this situation.

Well, no. Neither Doctor.

No.  The person who had assigned the Doctor the job, Christof, most definitely wasn’t working for the United Kingdom.  Christof was, according to data they’d picked up on a job a week ago, supposedly working for Cauldron.

Look, I know this is rich coming from me, but if the reader hadn’t pieced that together by now, they weren’t paying attention.

I wonder if we’ve met Christof by another name.

Which meant Cauldron wanted someone expendable that could keep an eye on things.

Faultline noted a message scrawled onto a wall: ‘three thorn babys seen here may twenty. killed two one lived’.

Nice work, scrawler person?

Just below that line, there was another message, drawn in pink chalk that had streaked where moisture had run across it: ‘thanks’.

Even in the Madi Zone, gratitude still exists.

Faultline walked on.  Where doors were obviously open or unlocked, barriers hacked down, she peeked inside.  There weren’t any signs of people having resided anywhere nearby.

Her patrol carried her back to Labyrinth, Gregor and Shamrock, and the statue-topped gazebo that Labyrinth had put together in the meantime.  Newter had returned and was looking out from a nearby perch.

What do thy newt eyes see?

“No luck?” Shamrock asked.

“Signs of life, not too long ago, but no people.”

Gregor put down the backpack he carried and handed Faultline a water bottle.

Newter scaled his way down the side of the building nearly as fast as if he’d fallen, arriving a few seconds before Spitfire returned.

“Anything?”  Faultline asked.

I picture Newter moving a bit like Randall from Monsters Inc.

“Ominous graffiti, not much else.”

“Those… spine babies, was it?”

“No,” Spitfire said.  “I couldn’t read it all.  Very broken English.  But it said something about a Devourer.”

As time goes on, the monsters are named.

But… the broken English. I’m not sure the messages were from the original locals.

“Let’s move.  We move up six blocks, then do another patrol,” Faultline said.  She thought about the Devourer, and the fact that the number one priority of the people in this place seemed to be warning about the local threats.  “And, until we’re out of here, we walk with our weapons at the ready, flare guns in hand.”

Good call.

They moved up to the next location, moving deeper into the city.  Faultline was pleased that she didn’t have to order her team to hold formation.  They were practiced enough that they did it naturally.  Newter scouted out front, Gregor took the rear.  Shamrock took the right flank, shotgun at the ready, and Spitfire took the left.  Faultline moved in the center with Labyrinth.

Solid tactics. Scout up front, ranged tank in the back, lighter ranged fighters flanking, all protecting the melee fighter and the glass cannon shaker.

She called the group to a stop when they had traveled far enough.  When they paused to look at her, she gestured for them to move out, staying with Labyrinth.

“Sorry to drag you around like this,” she said.  “Do you feel thirsty?”

I’ve been kind of getting the impression that of the Crew, Faultline is one of those who feel more awkward about taking care of Labyrinth. She cares and wants to get it right, but it’s not something that plays to her strengths.

Labyrinth shook her head.

“I know new places don’t help you feel more lucid,” Faultline said.  “And it’s more than just today.  We’ve been going from city to city, doing a series of jobs to try to dig up more info.  I wanted to say thank you.”

That said, she’s well aware of different how things affect Labyrinth and attempts to adjust for that and show her understanding and appreciation.

Labyrinth only stared around her, looking at the buildings.

“Maybe you want to stay here?” Faultline asked.

Is… that a serious offer? I don’t expect Elle to take it, given her view of the Crew back in 11c, but it’s an interesting proposition to make.

Labyrinth shook her head once more.

“Well, I’m glad.”

A flare detonated overhead.  Faultline whipped her head around.  Newter.

Uh oh, what’s up? Trouble or find?

Should probably have agreed that a find would be a slightly different signal.

She bolted in the direction he’d gone, holding Labyrinth’s hand, pulling the girl after her.

When she saw Newter, she stopped, let herself breathe.

Civilians.  Five of them.  They were wielding improvised weapons.  A makeshift bow and arrow, spears.  Nothing that posed a serious threat to Newter.

Ah — of course it’s one of the clearly inhuman C53s that finds them.

“These are my friends,” Newter said.  He was holding his hands and tail up in the air.  “More will be coming shortly.  We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

“Why are you here?  You’re insane, coming to a place like this.  You know what the Simurgh does.”

Oh, good, looks like they’ve moved past the “is he a new kind of monster” stage already, and into regular human suspicion of quarantine breakers.

“We do,” Faultline said.  “But we have a friend, she’s got a bit of precognitive talent.  Enough that it should clear us of any schemes the Simurgh is pulling.”

That… seems like a stretch. Sure, Shamrock has a tiny bit of clairvoyance, but I doubt it’s enough. The interference between two precogs doesn’t strike me as a black and white “either they can or they can’t” situation.

Eyes went wide.

“We’re looking for answers,” Faultline said.  “Information, either about or from the monsters who came through that portal the Simurgh made.  Give us something to work with, we’ll show you how to leave.”

You just don’t care about the quarantine, huh? Or do you believe yourself regarding Shamrock exempting you and your actions?

They got the chance to leave. Many of the people here may have deliberately chosen this life, knowing full well what the Simurgh might use them for if they left. But some of those may have begun to regret that choice.

“Assuming we want to,” one man said.

Why wouldn’t you?  Faultline wondered.  She chose to be diplomatic and keep her mouth shut.  “Assuming you want to.  I’m sure we could come to another deal.”

I don’t know, maybe because they don’t want to be responsible for spreading cov– I mean the Simurgh’s influence?

“Why do you want to talk to the monsters?” the woman with the bow asked.  She had improvised urban camouflage paint over her face.

Faultline gestured in Newter’s direction, was aware of Gregor and Shamrock arriving.  She turned her head to see Spitfire coming around the corner.  She gestured at her teammates, “These guys are my friends, and they’re my employees.  We want answers about why this happened to them.  Once we have those answers, we decide where we go from there.  If nothing else, it’s valuable info.”

At least they’re being honest about their reasons.

“You’re on their side?” a man with a spear asked.

For fuck’s sake.

“Yes,” Faultline said.  “But I could be on yours too.”

The woman with the bow stepped away from her comrades.  Her weapon pointed in their general direction.  “You have a way out?”

“Yes.”

“And you just let us go?  There’s no catch?”

The catch is you gotta wear a face mask and stay 2 meters away from people.

“I… how do I know I can trust you?”

“You are one of us,” Gregor said.

The woman froze.

“Maddie?” a man asked.

One of them?

Does she have the mark?

“How did you know?” Maddie asked.

“I know this feeling, of being lost.  Of being very alone and not knowing who can be trusted,” Gregor said.

“How can I believe you?”

“Because we’ve been where you’ve been.  These two don’t remember, they had their memories taken,” Shamrock said, “But I didn’t.  I remember what it was like in there.  And I get why you’re afraid.”

So did she end up with a power from it?

Also, pre-existing Simurgh quarantine zones would be the perfect places for Cauldron to deposit any Case 53s they didn’t want running about in the public eye.

“You were in there?”  Maddie asked, her eyes going wide.

Shamrock nodded.  “One moment, I was going to bed in my temple-school.  In another, I was in a cell.  A cot, a metal sink, a metal toilet.

Temple-school? Where are you from, exactly? Are temple-schools a thing in Ireland?

And there goes the supposition that Cauldron only takes people from situations where they’d be about to die anyway, like Newter.

Three concrete walls, a concrete floor and ceiling, and a window of thick plexiglass with a drawer.  You might know the kind of cell I’m describing.

“They drugged me, then they waited until I started showing signs that something happened to me.  It took them a while to figure out, because my power was subtle.  When they had an idea of what I could do, they gave me a coin.  I had to flip it when the doctor came.  If it came up heads, I got to eat, I got fresh clothes, a shower.  If it didn’t, I got nothing.  I realized I was supposed to control it.  Decide the result of the toss.  When I got good at it, they gave me two coins, and both had to come up heads.”

It’s kind of funny how after all that with Coil, we have a character who actually can do this by means other than save scumming.

“How long were you there?” Maddie asked.

“I don’t know.  But by the time I saw the chance to escape, I had to roll twelve dice and each one had to come up with a six.

Damn, that’s some serious fine telekinudging work.

The chance of getting that by pure luck without interference sits nicely at 1 : 2 176 782 336.

And if it didn’t, if I got more than a few wrong, they found ways to punish me.”

Gregor put his hands on Shamrock’s shoulders.

It takes considerable strength to talk about this so frankly, and it’s nice to see Gregor lending her some of his as well.

“They made me use my power.  I… I think I was one of the people they used to punish the ones who failed their tests,” Maddie said.

So you may have interacted before?

“Christ,” one of the men said.  “And the freak has been with us for a week?”

Shut it, you.

Maddie turned to glare at him.

“If it means anything,” Shamrock said, “I forgive you.  You didn’t decide to punish anyone.  We did what they made us do.”

Maddie flinched as though she’d been struck.

At the implication that there was something to forgive?

“Come with us,” Faultline said.  “You don’t have to stay with us, but we want to hear what you have to say.”

“I’m a predator,” Maddie said.  “Not because I want to be.  You don’t want me to be near you.”

Interesting. She doesn’t seem to have shared this warning with the group of civilians.

“You were around them for at least a little while,” Faultline said.  “You can be around us for a few hours.”

Unless of course it only takes effect when around parahumans? Maybe she feeds on powers, or something.

Maddie glanced around, then nodded.  “When… when they tested you, did they give you a name?”

“They gave me a number at first,” Shamrock said.  “I couldn’t use my real name or they’d punish me.  When I passed a year of testing, they let me pick a codename.  I picked Shamrock.”

I suppose they were hoping to make Shamrock one of their in-house agents.

Bold to stick to that name after escaping.

“I wouldn’t pick,” Maddie said.  “So they gave me one.  Matryoshka.  I… I don’t deserve my old name.  So call me by that one.”

Well, that’s familiar.

How many people has she absorbed since we last saw her?

“Layered doll,” Faultline said.  Matryoshka nodded.  “Let’s go.  We’ll leave the quarantine area, get you some proper food while we talk.  If need be, we’ll come back and see if we can find more people.  If you wanted to guide us for a return trip, maybe direct us to others, I could pay you.  Get you on your feet in the outside world.”

I somehow feel like Matryoshka wouldn’t have much trouble getting access to someone’s resources outside.

Matroyshka smiled a little at that.

This can only end well.

It took a little while to verify that everything was in order at the hotel.  Nobody had noticed their exit and there weren’t any law enforcement officers stationed nearby.

Did anyone besides Matryoshka come along?

They entered the hotel room much the way they’d left, with a makeshift ladder leading to the balcony, and quickly settled in.  Matryoshka gorged herself on the groceries Faultline had bought shortly after they’d arrived.  She stared wide-eyed at the television.  It was the first time she’d ever seen one.  It led to her excitedly describing her world between mouthfuls of food.

Oooh! That’s confirmation! Cauldron is stealing people from multiple worlds!

Which really helps explain why Egesa seemed to speak Old English.

Faultline visited the bathroom, then stopped as a square of white caught her eye.

You’re not supposed to see the section divider.

(It’s white on the Worm site.)

Also are we seriously not getting to hear Matryoshka’s descriptions of her homeworld?

A note?

She opened the door to verify it wasn’t attached to anything, then pulled it into the room with the toe of her boot.  Closing the door, she unfolded it with her toe to verify that it didn’t have any powder inside.

Hmm.

Only a message: ‘Front desk.  Message from Brockton Bay.  ASAP.’

Who’s sending Faultline messages about messages from Brockton Bay??

Brockton Bay?  Faultline frowned.  That would be Coil.  He was the only one with the resources to get ahold of her group.

I… guess? I don’t really know where this falls on the timeline.

It could also very easily be Cauldron, well aware of the Crew’s activities.

She was loath to leave Madison while they were having some success pulling in more information on Cauldron’s operations, but… Coil did pay well.

Honestly, I’m just glad because if they go back to Brockton Bay, we get more Faultline’s Crew.

Well enough to warrant a phone call.

She headed down to the lobby in civilian clothes, with Shamrock as backup.

Oddly enough, there was a wait at the front desk.  A young woman, dark-haired, wearing a suit and fedora, with luggage on wheels.

Well, hello there. If you’re who I think you are, I’m surprised to see you coming in person.

Arriving at four in the morning?

The woman smiled and tipped her hat at Faultline as she headed to the elevator.  Faultline watched her with a touch of suspicion.  She didn’t relax when the elevator doors closed.  She watched the floor number for the elevator tick upward until it stopped at ‘four’.  Two floors above the rooms her team was in.

You’re being watched very closely.

“What is it?”  Shamrock asked.

“Gut feeling.”

“About the woman?”

“Just… felt wrong.  Do you mind going upstairs?  Check on the others?  Maybe tell them to be on guard, and get all the nonessentials packed up.  Might be paranoid, but I’m thinking we should change hotels.  Good enough chance we were seen, worth doing anyways.”

Not likely it will actually help, but a good idea nonetheless.

In the interest of being explicit about my thoughts, I think that was Contessa. If she’s out and about, you know it’s important.

Shamrock nodded and headed for the staircase.

“You had a message for me?”  Faultline asked the woman at the front desk.  “Room 202.”

“Yes.  A phone number.”

Faultline nodded.  She took the piece of paper with the number, then stepped outside to call it on her cell.

I suspect this will not lead where she thinks.

The person on the other end of the phone picked up on the first ring.

“Yes?” Faultline spoke into the phone

“This is Tattletale,” the voice came through.

…but I also wasn’t expecting that.

Faultline is so surprised she dropped her punctuation.

I suppose now that Tattles has access to Coil’s resources and is leading a bunch of mercenary soldiers, she’d be down to get the Crew on their side.

“Fuck me.” Faultline groaned.  “How the hell did you find us?”

“Long story.”

More importantly, when? Is this during the night before the Noelle situation?

I suppose it makes a lot of sense, actually. Tattletale does know the Crew cares about Cauldron, and right now they need all the info about Cauldron they can get.

“Don’t want to hire you for a job.  In fact, bringing your guys into the current situation would be a fucking bad idea.  Pretty much all of you are… well, let’s say it’d do more harm than good.”

Ehhh. They’re not as bad as the Travelers.

“You’re wasting my time, Tattletale.”

“It’s been a long night.  Cut me some slack.  I want to borrow Labyrinth.  I don’t care how many of the rest of you come.  Non-combat situation, use her powers.”

What?

Why Labyrinth and how non-combat?

Faultline paused.  “Why do you want her?”

“Because I have a group of people here with very little to lose and nothing left to hope for, and I need them on our side.

…is she hoping to convert the Travelers?

I think Labyrinth can give them what they want.”

I… honestly don’t think she can.

“Labyrinth’s powerful, but I can’t imagine any situation where she’d be able to give anyone what they wanted.  Her power’s temporary.  The kind of stuff you could do with her power… there’s easier ways.  Other people you could go to.”

“I think,” Tattletale said, and she managed to sound condescending, “That I understand her power better than you do.”

So… is Tattletale suggesting that Labyrinth’s power could be used to create an actual path between two worlds?

Faultline considered hanging up.

Honestly, fair.

She sighed, then raised the phone back to her ear.  “You wouldn’t be baiting me if you didn’t think you could get away with it.  Cut to the chase.  What are you offering?”

They may not like each other, but they know each other.

“Three point four million.”

Faultline blinked.  Her surprise at the sum was tempered only by irritation that Tattletale had managed to get her hands on that kind of money.  “Double it.”

Hah! Calling and raising.

“Done,” Tattletale said.

A little too fast.  I’d think she was lying, but that’s not why she was so fast.  She expected me to make a counteroffer.  Probably decided the first amount with that in mind.

Well yes. That’s rule #1 of haggling.

Faultline grit her teeth in annoyance.  “I want it in advance.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sounding far too pleased with herself.  “And done.”

Six point eight million and Tattles still makes it feel like she came out on top.

To be fair, considering what they’re dealing with, she very well may have.

A little too fast, again.  She had that set up, damn her.  “You have my account information?”

Of course.

“Coil did.  Don’t worry about it.”

Faultline hung up in irritation.  She considered taking the money and refusing the job, but she -and Tattletale- knew her reputation as a mercenary was too important.

Do that and you’ll only ever get tiny jobs from people who don’t pay attention.

Should have refused.

She made a beeline for her hotel room.  She’d need to check the account information, then move funds to an account Tattletale didn’t know about.

…considering her early MO, a wise choice.

A glance at the display above the elevator showed that it hadn’t moved.  Faster to take the stairs to the next floor than to wait.

Ominous. Especially with both Contessa? and Matryoshka up there.

Her heart skipped a beat when she heard the screaming.  Faultline flew up the stairs to the door, pushed her way into the second floor, and raced down the hallway to the hotel rooms.

There was blood on the door as she pushed it open.

Yup, there we go. Which one of them did it? I’m thinking Contessa. She’s been implied to be powerful but needed a showcase.

How to even take this sort of thing in?  How to describe it?

Her team had been destroyed.

Welp.

Gregor was in the kitchen, on his back.  His chest heaved, and he’d covered much of his upper body in a foaming slime.  What she could make of his face was contorted in pain, scalded a tomato red that was already blistering.

One of Newter’s arms, one of his legs and his tail had each been broken in multiple places.  The remains of the coffee table, the flatscreen television and one door of the television stand lay around him, where he’d sprawled into them.

At least they don’t all seem to be dead. Was she only after Matryoshka?

Matryoshka had unfolded into a mess of ribbons, but knives from the belt Faultline had removed to go down to the lobby had her pinned to the wall in six different places.

Or Labyrinth, maybe? Did they know what Tattles was going for?

Labyrinth was the one screaming, steady, almost rhythmically, with little emotion to it.  From the lack of affect, Faultline might have assumed she was in shock, but it was simply the fugue from her power.  A small mercy – two thin cuts marked her face, and one hand was impaled to the armrest of the couch by another of the small knives.

Ow.

Shamrock was busy giving Spitfire a tracheotomy.  A fedora filled with slime was plastered to the younger girl’s face, and she was struggling weakly.  Shamrock’s own face was covered in blood from nose to chin, and her efforts to administer the tracheotomy were limited as the fingers of one hand were bent at awkward angles.

Meanwhile, Faultline:

So where’s the fedora countess herself?

“The woman in the suit,” Faultline said, dropping to Spitfire’s side.  She noted the slime.  Gregor’s.  And Gregor had been burned with Spitfire’s breath?  “Power thief?”

That… would explain why she might think herself a match for anyone, especially when teams are involved, but usually in one on one power copying scenarios, the original wielder has the advantage. This applies even if the copied power doesn’t get limited by the lack of a passenger for that power. But if it also disables the power in the original wielder (like how Grue’s limited version saps a bit of the original wielder’s strength, except all of it), she’s a hard counter to literally any parahuman that isn’t immune to powers.

Shamrock let Faultline take over, positioning the clear plastic tube that was sticking into the hole in Spitfire’s throat.  She had to spit blood out of her mouth before speaking, “No.  I don’t know.  She came in here and took us apart in twenty seconds.  We didn’t touch her.”

Spitfire coughed, then started breathing at a more normal rate.  She gave Faultline two pats on the wrist, calmer.  A signal of thanks?

Name/power irony strikes again: After this, Spitfire may sound hoarse, like her throat is burning.

“Super speed?  Super strength?”  Faultline asked.

“No.  Don’t think,” Shamrock spat blood onto the floor.  She tried to stand and failed, put one hand to her leg.  “Nothing I could see.”

“A thinker power.  Precognition?  No, that wouldn’t work with your power.  Fuck!”  Faultline scrambled to her feet, hurried to Labyrinth’s side. “Hey, Elle, calm down.  It’s okay, it’s over.  Stop screaming.”

Doesn’t she still have a knife through her hand? I don’t think you get to tell someone to stop screaming while they have a knife through their hand.

Labyrinth shut her mouth, whimpered.  The cuts to the face were thin.  They’d heal with little to no scarring.  The hand-

Faultline stopped.  There was a piece of paper beneath the hand.

Another message?

She helped Labyrinth raise her hand where it was impaled, leaving the knife in place.

The bloodstained piece of paper had a message on the underside.

Final warning.
-c

Looks like they’re getting sick of your inquisitive nature.


End of Interlude 18æ

This chapter hits a little differently in 2020, huh?

Half-jokes about quarantine aside, though, this was fun. Faultline’s Crew is one of my lowkey favorite groups, and I was sad to see them leave earlier. But the Tattletale has called, and now it seems they’re making at least a brief visit back in good old Brockton Bay, possibly even getting the Travelers home while they’re at it!

It’s also cool to see Contessa in action, even if the mystery of her power is upheld by us not quite seeing it directly.

Getting Matryoshka out of the Madi Zone is an interesting move… which is probably going to cause trouble one way or another. I know the “precog vs precog” thing is in effect, but I doubt that’s as absolute of a protection as Faultline seems to believe. Especially when it’s “I know in detail how every timeline goes depending on the dominoes I tip over” vs “I have some idea of how best to nudge objects telekinetically to create desirable outcomes”. It’s like expecting a fly to win a tug-of-war with a bear.

Next up: Let’s end 2020 by escaping the belly of the beast. See you soon for that, and happy National Whiners’ Day!

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