Source material: Worm, Scourge 19.2
Blogged: January 20, 2022
Oh no. I just caught myself writing “Scourge 1.19”. 1.19 is the next major Minecraft update so my brain is inclined to jump to it when writing numbers involving 19 and a dot… this might become an issue.
Anyway, happy 75th anniversary of school lunches in Japan!
Oh right, also the fifth anniversary of the blog as of yesterday, but hey, that’s yesterday. Today, we’re celebrating the Japanese school lunches by reading some Worm!
So, last time Coil’s headquarters got pummeled from the inside and the outside alike. The defenders of Brockton Bay have bought some time, but they’re generally in really bad shape, just powered Noelle up once she gets out of their trap, and still don’t have a clue how to end this. Plus, Taylor’s been outed as Thomas Calvert’s killer by her clone, as long as the Protectorate believes Scurry One on that count. Weld and Miss Militia at least seem to take it seriously.
It’s not the right time to take the Undersiders into arrest, though, and they can’t afford losing the support, so they might hold off on confronting the Undersiders directly about this just yet.
Well, unless Assault finds out. That might be an issue, dude’s already barely on board with working with the Undersiders as it is.
Let’s find out!
I wanted nothing more than to stop, to look after Grue and lick my wounds, but I couldn’t let the heroes come to one of their deeply misinformed conclusions at my expense. Not when they were talking about murder.
To be fair, you did commit the murder. But yeah, there were some slightly extenuating circumstances that fortunately can be summarized in three or four words.
“Calvert was Coil.”
Say those three words and you’ll at least have their attention.
Although possibly the attention of someone who thinks you’re crazy for accusing the victim of being someone who’s supposed to have been dead before the murder.
It took me two attempts to get to my feet. I didn’t like looking anything less than my best when surrounded by so many people who were judging me, and I felt pretty far from my best. My bugs formed a cloak, strategically covering me much in the way that Grue did with his darkness.
I love how Taylor doesn’t ever seem to realize how creepy this makes her look. She’s standing up to defend her innocence while making herself look ridiculously villainous.
I noticed how Miss Militia and Weld went silent as I approached. Other heads turned, but nobody moved to stop me. If anything, they edged out of my way. They didn’t clear a path, exactly, but a number of them found reasons to walk away, shift position or avoid looking at me as I moved through the perimeter they’d formed.
Gee, I wonder why.
For an instant, I felt like I was among the students at the school. Only this time, instead of drawing attention, with people approaching me and bumping into me, I was pushing them away. Instead of that incessant tolling, there was only quiet, the sound of the wind, a vehicle in the distance, and the buzzing of the insects that cloaked me.
This is an interesting notion, when compared to the depiction of the moments before her trigger event in the nightmares last chapter. Back then she was powerless and it led to others literally walking all over her. Now she’s displaying her power, and it causes people to back off. The incessant tolling of the bell is gone, because now it goes at her pace, now she decides it’s time for class. And the insects are her weapon and her friends (that she regularly sends to their deaths but let’s gloss over that part).
A part of me wondered how much of that was my reputation beyond Brockton Bay, and how much was my innate creepiness.
So she’s at least somewhat self-aware about it.
“Skitter,” Weld said, when I reached him and Miss Militia.
“Thank you for the rescue,” I said. “I can’t really sum it up in words, but… it was pretty damn heroic. I owe you.”
Nice. Let’s hope he doesn’t cash that IOU in by arresting you.
“Imp got in touch with me, with a message from Tattletale. The two of them made a pretty convincing argument. You’re okay?”
So the clone was right, on some level Imp did help him get close.
I offered a curt nod. I wasn’t, but it wouldn’t do to say so. Silence was a very effective tool, I was finding, because it spoke volumes and rarely put me into a less advantageous position.
True. Sometimes it’ll also get people uncomfortable enough to say more than they should.
The more I talked, the more I risked revealing just how exhausted and battered I was feeling.
“Catastrophic, was the word Imp used,” Weld said, “when describing just what might happen if a clone got your power without any of your restraint. Not to mention the issues posed by the psychotic Grues. Your clones could commit mass murder on the scale of hundreds, but his threaten to lose us the battle.”
Damn, yeah… each clone, barring the power-changes, would have the ability to control bugs within several blocks. Spreading them out across the city, that’s deadly enough even without the ability to route the bugs via Noelle to create superbugs. And Grue’s power… I’m not sure if the PRT has noticed the power-stealing ability, because Grue barely uses it and it’s not always obvious when he does, but even the darkness alone is a major disadvantage for the defenders. Especially when it comes with adjustments like the teleporting Grue.
“And we suspect at least one survived,” Miss Militia said.
I nodded. “There’s other capes who are just as dangerous as us. Think in terms of the damage some heroes could do. You?”
Weld of course is relatively safe. Even if he weren’t immune, he’s ultimately not that powerful. He’s a tank.
Miss Militia, however… weapons. We know she can get up to rocket launchers and grenade launchers at the very least, but who’s to say she can’t pull out something even more destructive? Can she pull out explosives without launchers? Can she pull out a nuke? Of course Miss Militia wouldn’t ever do that, but a clone very well might.
Weld looked at Miss Militia. She nodded. “If anything, this situation is very illuminating, in terms of how bad some parahumans might be in a worst case scenario. There are some powers that are tame at first glance, but utterly disastrous if left unchecked.”
“I take it I have one of the tame powers?” I asked.
If left unchecked. Or in less capable hands. Unfortunately the clones drop/twist the morals but retain the cleverness.
“No,” Miss Militia said. “I wouldn’t say that.”
There was a pause in the conversation. I wasn’t going to argue with or agree with her point, and neither she nor Weld were volunteering further information.
I mean, someone hearing about the power for the first time might think it’s tame. Someone who’s been in Brockton Bay for a while might not.
“Your team took off your armbands,” Miss Militia said.
Oh shit right, I forgot about that. They absolutely do stand liable for that.
As I recall, Miss Militia said she’d support a kill order if that happened. Oof.
At least that’s a thing for after this whole mess. This is not the time to lose necessary support. Besides, I’m sure there’s a lot of paperwork to do for the kill order.
“Yes,” I replied.
“You’re playing very loose within the scope of the rules, with the consequences I outlined.”
“That’s somewhat related to what I came here to talk to you about,” I said.
“Yeah, uh, you may have heard something that would totally justify the kill order…”
“Go on,” she said.
“The clone told you things,” I ventured. “I wanted to address them before you jumped to conclusions. Or, at least, I wanted to address one major point.”
“You were conscious?” Weld asked.
Weld spoke, “I understand if your clone was lying. Psychological warfare, creating division in the ranks. I’d be willing to believe the clone is capable of it, in light of our past experiences with you. No offense. But I still had to tell my boss.”
Yeah, that does track, ultimately. Even if it’s more Tattletale’s style, Skitter is absolutely capable of it too.
I didn’t respond right away. He was giving me a way out. I tried to get a sense of Miss Militia’s body language, using just my bugs: her arms were folded. It was a moment where I desperately wished I could see and get a better read on her.
In the long run it really might just be better to admit to murder upfront, before they figure it out on their own. But only if you can manage to convince them of the details surrounding it.
I’d always hated those parts in the TV shows and movies, where everything could be resolved with the simple truth. It was why I’d never been able to watch romantic comedies. It grated: the sitcom-esque comedic situations which would be resolved if people would only sit down, explain, and listen to one another, the tragedies which could have been prevented with a few simple words.
I didn’t want to be one of those tragedies.
“Thomas Calvert was Coil,” I said. I kept my voice low enough that only the two of them would hear; I didn’t need to provoke a riot.
She went for the four words version.
“Beg pardon?” Weld asked.
Miss Militia’s arms unfolded. She hooked her thumbs in her belt, silent.
“Thomas Calvert got powers,” I said, “The ability to create a parallel reality where he could nudge things to unfold in different ways. He used those powers to make a lot of money with no risk, hired high power mercenaries, and then hired both the Travelers and us. The Undersiders.”
That’s not a great description of his power, but I suppose it works.
Miss Militia shifted position, leaning against a wall with her arms folded. “A lot of what you say fits with what we know about Coil, but I’m not seeing where Thomas Calvert comes in.”
She already said that part.
“His power meant anyone working under him could operate with less risk. Our plans were that much more likely to work, because we got two chances any time he was able to give us his attention. With that, we took over the city. At that point, he’d exhausted the use of the ‘Coil’ persona, so he staged his own death. He staged the deaths of those reporters, rigged the whole scene and set it up so it would play out like it did. And in the end, a body double was set to die in his place. His hired woman gets elected mayor in the aftermath, Piggot loses her job, and Thomas Calvert becomes head of the PRT.”
It’s a beautiful plan, really.
“You’re giving him a hell of a lot of credit,” Miss Militia said.
“He’s spent years rigging this. If you dig, you’ll probably be able to find some traces of it. Maybe the reporters who were on the scene only started working at a certain point, after he put them in position. Maybe you can follow the money trails. But he set everything up. Think about it.”
This is gonna have to be a large scale PRT investigation if you want to prove it.
I raised one hand, counted off my points. “Through the Undersiders and Travelers, he would control all illicit activity in Brockton Bay, slowly moving on to the neighboring cities. Through his money, power and his activity as Coil, he would control local business and industry. Most of the construction companies that are rebuilding, all of the areas that are being bulldozed and rebuilt, he owned the land, he owned the businesses. He could do it all at a loss because he was able to get money in other ways. He was prepared to control the government through his puppets, and he controlled the heroes through his newly acquired position in the PRT. All in all, he was set to have an absolute grip over Brockton Bay and all of the major aspects of the city.”
Seriously. A masterpiece of planning.
“And you murdered him?” Miss Militia asked. “Your clone was telling the truth?”
You could argue self defense. Don’t think it would hold up in court, but you could argue it.
“I think,” I said, and I had to pause to get my thoughts in order, “that this dialogue of ours is going to play out far better if I don’t answer that question.”
Pleading the fifth.
And yeah, if she outright admitted it, I suppose Miss Militia would be in a position of having to do something about it.
“Because you murdered him,” Weld said.
I didn’t answer.
Maybe. Who knows. What even is murder? What is a human life? Can one ever truly end prematurely that which was always fleeting?
“I’ll have to discuss this with the higher-ups,” Miss Militia said. “The de-facto truce we’ve formed should protect you until this is all over, but I’ll make a strong recommendation that you be left alone for the time being. It might help.”
…left alone? That’s… not the direction I expected.
“I wouldn’t,” I told Miss Militia.
“Wouldn’t what? Make my recommendation?”
“I wouldn’t tell the higher-ups. We took off the armbands because Tattletale had a feeling… complicated to explain.”
Heh. The Protectorate still doesn’t seem to understand what the heck is up with Tattletale, and Skitter isn’t about to help them with that if she doesn’t have to.
“I would really like you to explain,” Miss Militia said.
The problem with explaining was that it threatened to offer insight on Tattletale’s power. Worse, it might get the Chicago Wards in trouble, and they’d been decent.
True. Tecton and Grace don’t deserve any shit for this.
Maybe changing the subject… “Tattletale had ideas that Eidolon’s motives weren’t entirely pure. And I don’t think they were. When we got closer, I overheard Eidolon talking to Noelle. He knew a few things that suggested he already knew what Coil was doing.”
See, problem here is what Weld said earlier. They already expect Skitter to be capable of saying stuff like this to turn her enemies against each other.
“Eidolon?” Weld asked.
Miss Militia put a hand on my shoulder, and ushered me away from the perimeter where the heroes were walking around and getting prepared. I was pretty sure nobody was able to hear, but I didn’t object. She leaned close and spoke an order in my ear, “Explain.”
Yeeah, you might need to elaboraborate here.
This explanation was having the opposite effect I’d intended. It threatened to get me and the others in deeper trouble.
“Do you know what Cauldron is?” I asked.
Skitter has so much to explain that she might end up sounding crazy, and yet she still has only a sliver of the full picture.
“A rumor,” Miss Militia said. “It was an idea that cropped up around the time the first major parahumans did, and occasionally a person or group will use that idea and claim some greater conspiracy or a power connection. In every case, it is investigated and thoroughly debunked.”
Oof. But at least the idea is out there.
Hey, Tattletale, did you keep any of those papers?
I frowned behind my mask. “If you don’t think Cauldron’s responsible, how do you explain the monstrous parahumans? Like Gregor the Snail or Newter?”
“Or me?” Weld asked. He was just behind us.
Oh yeah, that’s right, Weld’s a C53, this is particularly relevant to him.
“Or you,” I said. “I’ve run into too many situations that involve Cauldron to buy that it’s a series of hoaxes. The Merchants had vials that granted powers, and a suitcase detailing some contract with Cauldron. I read some of it, before Faultline’s crew absconded with the rest of it.”
You have no idea how many situations you’ve been in that involve them.
“Did you actually see someone drink and gain powers?” Miss Militia asked.
Damn, that’s right, Scrub was a natural trigger, or as natural as triggers get when deliberately setting up the conditions. Faultline’s Crew got away with the vials.
Do they still have them?
“It’s a name that’s acquired enough momentum and prestige that people will occasionally use it to their advantage. Nothing more,” Miss Militia said.
If nothing else it does explain what one of the search terms they pick up on might be.
…Assault, did Battery ever tell you anything about how she got her power?
“Then why did Eidolon say that Coil was involved with Cauldron, and that Cauldron was responsible for Noelle?” I asked.
Miss Militia pursed her lips. “I don’t know. It could be that you’re lying.”
It’s a very real possibility, unfortunately.
“If I was going to lie, I’d pick something more believable.”
“Or you’re picking something so unbelievable that it’d take ages to sort through the data. In the meantime, this situation gets resolved and we let you walk away unharmed. I have talked to my team, and I’ve seen your records. You tend to do that. Protect yourself in the present with details and arguments that would take a long time to verify.”
The dumbest part is every time she does that, she’s telling the truth.
“I’m not looking for an argument,” I said. “If you don’t believe that Calvert was Coil, then that’s fine. I just wanted to put all my cards on the table.”
Fair. She has managed to not explicitly admit to murder while doing so, too.
“Except for actually admitting to the murder,” Weld said.
“Right,” I said.
“Assuming we believed you, what are we supposed to do with this knowledge?” Miss Militia asked.
“For now?” I asked, “Nothing. Operate as you would otherwise. But keep your eyes open, with this information in mind.”
“And if we do? If we keep our eyes open, thoroughly investigate this allegation about Calvert and Coil, and we still decide to arrest you, will you agree to come peacefully into custody?”
I would imagine there’d still be consequences for killing Coil. I don’t believe there was a kill order on him.
Besides, she’s committed other crimes that would get her in some serious trouble.
I shook my head. “No. I don’t think so.”
“So it’s really selfishness that brings you here,” Miss Militia said. “You don’t expect to change the way you operate, and you expect to get away with acknowledging that you murdered a man, if not outright admitting it… but you want us to change how we handle our end of things, based on your hearsay.”
Hmm. Yes, pretty much.
“If you want to see it as self-serving, that’s your call,” I said. “Maybe that’s how you work. But I don’t have high aspirations, now. I saved Dinah. I want to protect the people in my territory, and stop the forces that might hurt them, be it the Slaughterhouse Nine, Coil or Echidna. Maybe you won’t believe me when I say so, but I’m not trying to argue in my own defense here. I won’t confirm or deny what the clone said, but nothing I’m saying here really gives me an alibi or leverage to escape this situation.”
She’s just trying to make everyone be on the same page for once.
“You’re giving us excuses to soften the impact of the crime you committed,” Miss Militia said.
And maybe a little bit of this.
“I’m not admitting to anything,” I pointed out.
“You know what I mean.”
“Maybe they are excuses, kind of. It’s one way of looking at it. Another way is that maybe now you can maybe be more wary when talking to Eidolon, or pay more attention when you start looking into Calvert’s daily life, see if anything points to Coil. He wasn’t stupid, but you don’t devote that much time and energy to something without some blurring of the lines. I don’t gain much if you do that, but you could stand to benefit.”
At least in terms of understanding and knowing what to look out for in case someone tries something similar again.
And given Coil’s apparent failure, Cauldron might actually try to set that up. Although it’s unclear what exactly they wanted him to succeed at, whether it was the takeover or something to do with Noelle.
“Maybe,” Miss Militia said.
“Are you speaking from experience?” Weld asked. “When you talk about blurring the lines between identities?”
Of course she is.
I turned toward him, remembered that he’d seen my face. “That would be telling.”
“Could be,” he answered. “It’s something I’m interested in. I never had the benefit of a secret identity.”
“Overrated, as far as I can tell,” I told him. I thought of my dad. Was he the victim of a blurring of the lines? Or just a casualty in a long series of events that had affected the whole city? Or both.
I mean, for a while there you just completely jumped across the line, leaving him alone with only the vaguest idea that the line actually existed.
“This seems like a good time to cut in,” Tattletale said. She approached from around the corner, turned her head in Miss Militia’s direction, “May I steal Skitter from you?”
Hey there. How long have you been listening?
Miss Militia waved a hand to one side, silent.
Tattletale was leading me off when Miss Militia spoke up. “I don’t know if you’re speaking the truth…”
She trailed off. I opened my mouth to speak, then shut it. Silence was safer.
“…But if you are, I appreciate it. It’s not like me, to demand evidence, to suspect everything, but I have to. My teams can’t afford for me to give anyone or anything the benefit of a doubt.”
In case it wasn’t clear yet, Miss Militia is really good. She’s like the antithesis of Armsmaster. She’s strict, but fair when it matters, with a good head on her shoulders. Armsmaster would never have heard Skitter out like this.
I suspect even if she doesn’t fully believe this, and doesn’t make it an official thing, she’ll still look into some of these claims of her own accord.
“Being in charge is hard,” I said, without turning her way.
Tattletale gestured in the direction we were going, then walked beside me as we left Weld and Miss Militia behind. Whatever warped disease Noelle had dumped into me to weaken me and leave me unable to fight back after I’d been vomited out was steadily wearing off.
Oh, good, at least it’s not a long-lasting disease.
That was only a part of the overarching problems, though, and I still felt drained. My stamina was pretty rock bottom, and the recent fight hadn’t helped. I was hungry, thirsty, and I wanted to crash for fifteen or thirty minutes.
You should’ve been in bed two Arcs ago, young missy!
Arc 20 is just ten chapters of snoring sound effects as Taylor recovers from this gauntlet.
Oddly enough, though she no doubt felt far more spry than I did, it was Tattletale who fell a half step behind me as she walked to my left, and it seemed very deliberate in how she did so.
She’s giving Taylor the leader position, since they’re in operations now. Tattletale was always more comfortable as the vizier in public.
She’d done something very similar when we’d been on the rooftop, a subtle maneuver to help portray me as the leader and as someone to be respected. Tattletale was scary in her own way, in a very different way than I was scary, but scary. That she was showing deference or whichever would suggest something, even if people didn’t consciously realize it.
She’s so good at stuff like this.
The alternative interpretation was that she’d been hurt more in the fight than she was letting on.
…also possible. She and Rachel did have to hold the fort for a while there.
“Skitter,” Tattletale said, “Meet Scapegoat.”
Hm? One of the out-of-towners?
Sounds like a name that could go with a number of interesting powers. Like, say, creating decoys, or drawing ire away from others.
My bugs passed over the young hero, and he didn’t flinch. He would be one of the Wards, unless his stature was misleading. His costume was a robe, though closer to Myrddin’s in style than Panacea’s. My bugs traced beneath the robe to detect armor that suggested the costume was intended to be worn into a fight.
Much like Myrddin, that too.
He wore a mask attached to his head by a band that felt like metal, apparently designed to flip up. Two curling horns were attached to the band, at the sides of his forehead.
This guy has to watch out for the troll under the bridge on his way to his local Fugly Bob’s.
“Scapegoat?” I asked. “A healer?”
“No,” Scapegoat said. “But I can fix you. Sort of.”
Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try
To fix you
Wait a minute.
Can “fix” but isn’t a healer.
Does he take on other people’s injuries for them?
Concept: Fix You but the lights that will guide you home are specifically the ones from the singer’s green fireballs.
And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
“What do you mean by ‘sort of’?”
“What I do is fragile. It’s not healing. You’ll stop hurting, the wounds will disappear, but it’s a delicate balance, and the duration is limited.”
So he’s more of a painkiller and bandaid hero.
“I’ll take what I can get,” I said.
“When the duration expires, unless certain conditions are met, the injuries come back. Sometimes not as bad, sometimes worse. And they’re usually slower to heal.”
So… Taylor might get stuck feeling even worse for even longer after this is all over, in return for being able to do more right now.
Fair trade I guess, but sheesh, she’s gonna have a hell of a recovery.
Will this bring back her vision?
“What’s the duration?” I asked.
“Anywhere from one hour to six hours.”
Not a whole lot but enough to help.
“And the condition?” I asked.
“Longer you go without breaking the effect, the better the chance the injuries stay gone.”
“Sit,” Tattletale said. I sat.
Scapegoat touched my hand. I felt a wave of sensations rushing over me. Being hot, being cold, vibrations, the feeling of different fabrics and skin contacting mine, all at once. The feeling of my costume against my skin became intense, sharp, even overwhelming. I jumped and pulled away.
Even without everything else, the sensation of being hot and cold at the same time is not one the brain likes, and apparently what hellfire tastes like according to someone who combined mint and chili.
“It’s okay,” Tattletale said.
I nodded, gave Scapegoat my hand once again.
Tattletale explained, “Scapegoat’s effect operates on a quantum level. He’s digging through potential realities to find unhurt versions of you, versions of you that are close enough to who you are right now that everything fits together seamlessly.”
…huh. Does that even work after a gauntlet like this? Most of the unhurt versions would probably be dead.
“Except the injuries,” I said. Sensations were rippling over me, each simultaneous, and the simple contact of my costume against my skin or the ground under my feet was so intense that it felt electric.
So if Tattletale’s falling behind really was in part because of being worse off than she looked, does that mean she refused Scapegoat’s treatment for herself? Can he only do it on one person at a time?
Tattletale nodded. “Except the injuries. For the time being, he’s patching you together with unhurt parts from the versions of Skitter from the other realities and other possibilities, and his own body serves as a bridge for that.”
“Is this safe?” I asked. I had to grit my teeth as the effect continued to intensify.
“Relax,” Scapegoat said. “More agitated you are, the weaker the effect.”
Strange behavior. Maybe it’s because she’ll be less in tune with her other selves, or the multiverse or something?
Relax. I reached out to my bugs, trying to feel what they felt, see what they saw, hear what they heard, and displace myself from my body. It was a method I’d tried many times before, almost meditative.
Turns out it’s too effective and a cockroach ends up with other-Taylor’s shoulder.
“It doesn’t take much for the effect to break,” Tattletale said. “A heavy impact, a new injury or a major shock. If that happens, all the injuries come back. Probably worse.”
A delicate balance. So she’s basically going to be a glass cannon despite having been “healed” like this. Interesting.
I’d planned to comment on how hard it was to relax and distract myself from the sensation when the meaning of Tattletale’s words struck me.
“How the hell am I supposed to fight if I can’t get hurt?”
Maybe… maybe you’re not.
Maybe Tattle just tricked you into agreeing to staying on the sidelines?
“Play safe. And stay within a hundred and fifty feet of Scapegoat.”
This power becomes less useful with every line of exposition about it.
I frowned. “I don’t think I can operate like that.”
“I can stop,” Scapegoat said. “If you’re feeling ungrateful.”
What is it with healing powers and sass?
“You’re barely functional,” Tattletale told me, ignoring him.
“A lot of it’s just the way that her puke makes you feel sick. It’s wearing off.”
Is… Taylor about to be told she’s wrong about that?
“You’re saying you’d rather keep going the way you are?” Tattletale asked. “Ribs, lungs, exhausted, battered…”
“If it means being able to fight without having my hands tied, maybe.” I said. And not feeling like this. Scapegoat’s process sucked.
Yeah, no, you’re in no condition to fight anymore, Taylor. It’s probably either go on with Scapegoat or go home and rest while everyone else tries to keep Noelle from bursting into your bedroom.
“But you can’t fight. Not in this shape.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Scapegoat said. “It’s too late to undo it.”
All at once, the sensations stopped. My entire body seemed to vibrate like a silent tuning fork might, in the absence of the sensations. My ears were ringing, and spots swelled behind my eyelids.
So it overwhelms her sensations, and then dulls them? Or maybe she’s just comparing normal to the overwhelmed state.
I opened my eyes, and I still couldn’t see. No. It was different. There wasn’t a white haze. I wiped at the lenses of my mask, and dried bile and blood flaked off, leaving them more or less clear.
I wonder if anyone’s looked at her and thought “how can she even see through those lenses”.
I blinked a few times, then took a deep breath.
I could see, and I could breathe.
“She’s fucking blind!?” Scapegoat yelped.
Ahahahahaha! I was right, wasn’t I?
His body acts as a bridge…
I looked down at Scapegoat. His costume was all white and gold,
Blue and black, got it.
his mask an alabaster goat’s head fixed to a golden band, his robe white, and the chain around his waist more gold, with a goat’s head buckle. He was on his knees on the ground, and the yelling had elicited a coughing fit.
I don’t think it’s just the yelling, Skitter.
“Could’ve sworn I mentioned it,” Tattletale said.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Oh. He takes on whatever injuries he removes from others. The eyes you’re using right now are essentially a blend of his eyes and the ones he was able to find by paging through alternate Skitters. Kind of. Hard to explain.”
I suppose this also means that his power is weakened if he gets injured.
“How the fuck am I supposed to operate like this?” Scapegoat rasped. He started coughing again.
Maybe you should have stopped when she was feeling ungrateful.
“You visit my other teammates, make sure they’re ship-shape,” Tattletale said, “Then we accompany you, and we create a situation where you can use the offensive effect of your power.”
Wait, can he put Taylor’s injuries onto someone else now?
I don’t think using it on Noelle would help, but it could be very useful against a clone. Especially if someone with a sight-range power gets cloned.
“Fuck me,” Scapegoat said.
“It’s temporary,” she said. In a lower voice, she added, “And I’m paying you well.”
It’s temporary so long as it doesn’t get him killed, at least.
A corrupt hero? Or just an enterprising one? I wondered.
I mean, the only indication he’s a hero in the first place is that he’s here and therefore presumably came with the Protectorate. He could easily be a rogue hired in by the Protectorate.
Although it’s relatively unlikely.
I was also wondering if Tattletale had the funds for this. She’d just paid off Coil’s soldiers, and as far as I knew, she was committing to keeping his enterprises going, but she wouldn’t have all of his funds, nor all of his contacts. It came perilously close to emulating Coil’s fatal mistake.
Other junior heroes were gathering around us, as Scapegoat continued coughing and wheezing. The one that caught my eye at first was a girl with a flower motif to her costume, her hair pink and styled in waves like a rose’s petals, which was impressive given how she’d probably just gotten out of bed before arriving.
Others included a boy in green with a sledgehammer, a guy with plate armor with fins at the side of the visor, a boy with a candle on his tan costume, and a pair I recognized as Grace and Wanton.
There’s Sharkboy, where’s Lavagirl?
Why does the candle icon sound familiar…?
“Problem, S.g.?” the girl asked.
“Hate my power, hate my power, hate it, hate it, hate it,” Scapegoat rasped. Wanton and Grace gave him a hand in standing. He was still making his way to his feet when Grace turned to me.
You know what, I can’t blame you, your power sucks.
“You’re blind?” she asked.
Yeah, who’d’a thought, right?
“I was,” I said.
“It happened after we parted ways?”
“No,” I said.
She gave me a funny look.
I love how Skitter’s just this… entity sometimes. To everyone else it’s super weird that she wouldn’t mention her blindness, and that she functioned so well while blind, but to her, it’s just a thing about her that they didn’t need to know, no biggie.
Although like I mentioned last chapter some of the denial about the blindness’ importance might relate back to her trigger event. Problem is it’s hard to tell what was and wasn’t accurate in the nightmare.
I kept my mouth shut, deciding to let her draw her own conclusions. She looked down at Scapegoat, and I changed the subject. “You’re okay? No lasting effects from Noelle?”
“Ship shape,” she said. I wasn’t sure she was telling the truth; Grace looked a little worse for wear.
Nobody here wants to admit how beat up they are.
Her hair looked wet, and the fluids that Noelle had been spitting out had congealed into the cracks and folds of her costume, with colors ranging from black to red to bilious yellow. I wasn’t sure how she’d looked before, but she looked tired. Was it waking up before sunrise, or had she been affected emotionally?
Who wouldn’t be affected emotionally by getting gobbled up by Noelle?
I probably didn’t look much better. At least my costume was black and gray. The muck wouldn’t stand out.
The black, maybe. Different story with bilious yellow.
I felt better, though. Enough that I felt almost euphoric. Aches and pains I’d stopped paying attention to long ago were gone. It did a lot to help me disassociate from the images and scenes I’d seen inside Noelle.
Yeah, best not to linger on those.
Also get some damn rest when this is over.
Tattletale might have been right. Maybe working with Scapegoat was necessary. If making this permanent was an option, I was willing to do what it took to preserve the effect, keeping Scapegoat close and keeping myself in one piece.
It wasn’t something I had a lot of experience in, playing safe.
Yeah, that’s Grue’s job.
“Let’s go find the others,” I said. I didn’t like how Grue was acting when I left him behind. “Grace, Wanton, are you coming with?”
“The orders we got stand until we hear different,” Grace said. “We’re supposed to accompany you.”
To be honest, I don’t remember Wanton’s power. Was he the Tinker of the group? Lessee… *checks the spine chapter*
Ohh, the telekinetic storm, now I remember!
“Good. Then let’s see about getting Bentley and putting him on the dog’s back.”
Thought for a second that “him” referred back to Bentley. Dog stack!
Tattletale shook her head. “Too many impacts, with him lumbering around like he does. Either you or he take too heavy a hit, and we’re back where we started.”
“What if we find a containment van and put him in the passenger seat?” I asked.
That sounds more practical.
“The last van didn’t fare too well,” Tattletale said.
“We’ll use containment foam to keep him safe and in one piece if we have to,” I told her. “I hope it doesn’t come to that. Let’s go.”
But, yes, it does make him a target.
I started to move to pick Scapegoat up off the ground, but Tattletale stopped me, putting one hand on my wrist.
“Treat yourself like you’re made of glass,” she said. “No heavy exertion, don’t get hurt, don’t strain yourself.”
“That’s a little extreme,” I said, but I didn’t touch Scapegoat.
It took two people to help Scapegoat to walk. Grace walked on one side of him, Tattletale on the other. When he’d taken on my injuries, had he received a more crippling variation?
No, you’re just a damn beast when it comes to pushing through.
Side effect of the power, maybe? She’s got other insectlike traits, some from the power and some just from her design as a character, so maybe there’s a bit of cockroach in her too.
I was hungry to observe and absorb every tidbit of information I’d been missing. I could see the heroes gathered, all eyes on the wreckage of the building. PRT officers were treading the perimeter, spraying volumes of containment foam onto the rubble.
You might want to look for vent locations in particular. They might be harder to find with another building on top though.
Eighty heroes, if my bugs were counting right. Maybe eight in all were in the air. It made it easy to find Eidolon. Like Grace, his costume had been tinted by the film of dried fluids. He was a few stories above the ground, and his cape flapped around him in the strong winds.
That’s actually quite a lot more heroes than I’ve been picturing.
It was hard to make capes look good. They had a way of clinging to the body, or flowing the wrong way, getting caught around an arm… it took a measure of majesty to make it work. Eidolon could pull it off.
Or a measure of air current manipulation.
Ironic, that the slang for a parahuman was ‘cape’, and so few of us wore them.
(Come on, you knew that was coming.)
I’d worn a short cape, not so long ago, barely long enough to reach the small of my back. I’d adopted it more for utility than style, to give me more concealed area to hide my bugs and for the marginal extra protection it afforded me. I didn’t have it now, and I was somewhat glad. I might have felt more self-conscious, seeing Eidolon up there. I’d wind up worrying if I really had the ability to make it look good, when I needed to focus on projecting confidence.
Knowing you, I think you would wind up using your bugs to manipulate the cape, maybe half without even realizing you were doing it.
There weren’t many villains here, and now that I could see, I was getting evidence to my previous concerns about being watched.
We reached the Undersiders, and I knelt beside Grue. Imp was beside him, and both Regent and Bitch were standing nearby. Regent gave me a nod, and I nodded back.
“Hey, Grue, do you think I could pull off wearing a cape? Grue? You awake? This is an important question.”
“Sorry to do this,” I said. I looked at the three heroes that had accompanied us, “But I’d like to have a private conversation with my teammates.”
The bugs flowed from my costume and the surroundings, forming a moving curtain that separated me from Grace, Wanton and Scapegoat. I gradually widened it, forcing them to back up.
Wanton let Grace support Scapegoat and tried to venture forward into the swarm. He snorted and backed up as bugs crawled into his nose, ears and mouth. I gave him a few seconds to experience the sensation, then removed them. He didn’t try a second time.
I mean if any of them could get through this, I would imagine it would be Wanton. Can’t crawl up your nose if your nose is a shapeless part of a telekinetic storm.
But yeah, buzz off, she said it was a private conversation.
“What’s going on?” I asked, keeping my voice low.
“He’s gone quiet,” Imp said. “Not responding much. He flinched when I tried to touch him.”
…would there be a way for tele-Grue to get the darkness into Noelle, into Grue’s costume, teleport Grue out and himself in?
“Being inside Echidna, you see things,” I said. “Variations on your trigger event, or ugly moments from your life.”
“Oh,” Imp said. “Oh.”
…which she was involved in.
Both times. Does having two trigger events make the effect worse?
I looked at Grue. He was staring off into space, with darkness gathered in thick ropes around him, to the point that I couldn’t make out how he was sitting. He did that instinctively, I’d noted. The more he withdrew into himself, suppressed his emotions, the more his darkness manifested around him.
Interesting. The more he blocks out others, the more he blocks out others.
If it was this bad, then I wasn’t sure what I could do.
I knelt beside him, and even with the darkness that wreathed him, I could sense him pulling away.
“Imp,” I said.
What happens if Imp uses her power?
“You should take him home.”
Yeah, you know what, that’s fair. He somehow manages to be in even worse of a condition to fight than Taylor, and that’s saying something. Maybe not physically, but his mental health has taken a serious beating this book.
“But… I can help.”
“I know,” I said. “You’ve helped a lot already. But he can’t stay here. Not like this. If he relived his trigger event, he’s going to need reassurance from you.”
“His other trigger event was about you,” Imp said. She sounded almost accusatory.
That’s… probably true, yeah.
“Maybe,” I said. I stared into the black lenses of her mask. “Do you want me to take him? Because I will. I’ll leave, Tattletale can lead the Undersiders, and you can stay and focus on assassinating clones.”
Imp might actually be more useful right now, yeah. Though it would take Skitter out of Scapegoat’s range. And she’d be at risk of actually resting for once, which is just blasphemous.
“Whatever you do,” I told her, “Make the call fast. If you aren’t staying, I want to get moving fast. I need to collect bugs before the fighting starts up again.”
She glanced down at Grue, then she looked at the others. Regent and Rachel were watching us carefully.
Narratively, I don’t think Taylor is going to be backing out of the battle at this point. Especially not after Wildbow introduced Scapegoat to give her the ability to keep going. From an authorial perspective it’s way more reasonable to send Imp and Grue home than Skitter and Grue.
For my part, I looked at Grue. I wanted nothing more than to walk away. I’d be okay being partially blind, waiting weeks or months to see if maybe my senses came back, if it meant holding him, helping him through this, giving him whatever support he needed so badly.
That’s sweet, though. I don’t think there’s much else that would cause Taylor to not want to play her part in the battle.
Then again, she did have that thought last chapter about calling it quits.
I could so vividly recall the vision I’d seen of Mannequin, and all the people I’d cared about struggling to get to safety. Everyone had been counting on me, and I’d been failing them. Odd, that the recollection was somehow reassuring to me in this brief moment.
I suppose on one level it’s reassuring because this is something you can do for one person you care about.
In the same moment, I turned to Imp and Imp turned to me. The black lenses of her mask met my yellow ones straight-on.
“You’re the leader,” Imp said, and that was answer enough.
Yet there are several ways it could be read. “You’re the leader, you decide.” “You’re the leader, so I’ll do what you originally said.” “You’re the leader, you can’t leave.”
I reached out and took Grue’s hand. He flinched, trying to pull away before I got a firm hold. I managed it anyways, seized his hand between mine.
“Grue,” I said. I kept my voice firm, but quiet. “It’s Skitter. Taylor. I need you to listen.”
He didn’t budge an inch. I squeezed his hand. “Listen. You’re going with Aisha, understand? I think I know the kind of thing you saw. What you experienced. But you need to remember the important part, okay? You didn’t fail. You did what you wanted to. You saved her, you saved me, and you saved yourself.”
This is good stuff.
He tugged, trying to pull his hand away, and I held fast. The darkness was swelling around him.
I like how this plays with “pulling someone back as darkness tries to swallow them” tropes (in this case, he’s creating the darkness himself, but is that really that different?) and the metaphor inherent in his power.
“There’s only one more part left. Just like you did then, you need to walk away. Leave the scene behind. It’s the best thing you can do. You turn your back, and you walk away from where all the ugliness happened. Understand? Go with Aisha. You two go home together.”
“where all the ugliness happened” is in some ways the cape scene in general. I do think it’s possible that Grue will stop being an active Undersider at some point, remaining connected to the team by his relationships to Taylor and Aisha (I don’t think she’ll leave even if he does, despite what “go home together” implies) and friendship with the rest.
I stood, and I pulled on his hand at the same time. He resisted.
“Take her home,” I said.
I really like Taylor’s angle here, of connecting the current situation to his first trigger and using what he did at the end of that story as a metaphor for what he needs to do now. It’s a fantastic way of tying it all together and showing that Taylor understands what headspace he’s in.
This time, when I pulled, he worked to climb to his feet. I took his hand and placed it firmly in Aisha’s. I watched them walk away, hand in hand, and when I couldn’t see them with my eyes, I sensed them with my power, followed the movements with the blotchy vision of my bugs.
There’s no place like home.
The bugs I’d formed into a barrier drifted in my direction and congregated on me. The younger heroes were a short distance away, and Tattletale was with them.
They were watching as reinforcements arrived.
Uh. Reinforcements against Noelle, right? Right? You don’t mean that Wanton took the bug forcefield as an attack and called in reinforcements against the Undersiders, right? That would be dumb of him for more reasons than one.
Alexandria and Legend had joined Myrddin, Chevalier and Eidolon.
I mean, it does complicate things given their involvement in Noelle’s background, but still.
The big guns. We were finally treating this like a class S threat.
Alexandria clearly didn’t want to do that, but she might have run out of excuses.
When I approached Tattletale, the other Undersiders followed me: Regent and Bitch with a litter of dogs of varying size trailing around her, chains clinking where they were attached to collars and harnesses.
Tecton was on the other side of the crowd, looking somewhat worse for wear. Grace and Wanton started making their way toward him, and I followed by necessity, because they were helping a blind Scapegoat hobble along.
Poor Scapegoat got such a rough deal. Such is the plight of the scapegoat though.
Our trip led us past the collection of major heroes, and the crowd that had gathered around them. Glancing at them, I could see Tattletale in my peripheral vision, a smile spreading across her face.
Happy about Taylor slipping into the leader role so well?
I felt a moment’s trepidation. I’d seen that kind of smile, had seen it on Emma’s face, often enough, just before she pulled something. It wasn’t directed at me, though. I reached out for Tattletale’s arm, but she was already speaking.
“Cauldron,” she said. The word just loud enough for the heroes to hear.
To an audience including the Triumvirate and a bunch of heroes who aren’t supposed to know about Cauldron.
You are painting another damn target on the Undersiders’ backs, Tattletale, even if you leave it at that. Which I don’t think you’re going to do.
Eidolon managed to feign ignorance, not even moving a muscle, and Alexandria barely moved, nothing out of the ordinary for someone who’d heard a voice calling out. Legend, though, turned our way, looking straight at Tattletale. His lips pursed a fraction, and then he looked away.
And her power would give her lots of information based on who reacts and how!
Tattletale’s grin widened a fraction. She murmured to me, “All three know.”
In which case we just added three people to our list of possible enemies.
Three damn powerful people.
Good job, Tattletale.
End of Scourge 19.2
This was a solid downtime chapter. Skitter providing Miss Militia and Weld with her perspective on Coil and Cauldron was well-handled, and the scene where she sent Grue and Imp home was fantastic. Scapegoat is the weakest of this chapter’s pillars, but it was starting to become harder and harder to justify Taylor going on without some kind of healing and Scapegoat’s power is one of the best ways to handle that, making the healing temporary and conditional, and adding the comic relief of this guy not realizing he was taking on Skitter’s blindness.
Scapegoat got seriously fucked over by the power lottery.
And then there’s Tattletale’s stunt at the end, potentially making the Undersiders targets for Cauldron beyond what their interference with Coil already might.
Another thing to consider is that we don’t know Tattletale’s trigger event, and we’ve only had minor hints at her backstory before using her power to steal on the Boardwalk. It’s not entirely impossible that some of her interest in Cauldron’s activities comes from having a power from Cauldron herself, rather than exclusively from learning about them via C53s and the documents the Merchants had.
Next up, I suppose we’re probably getting some input on the situation from Alexandria and Legend, and maybe doing a little more explicit planning? I’m sure Noelle won’t stay quiet for long, so she might pop out at some point too.
See you soon for that!