Interlude 4.C

Wilbur Bright looked up as the armband buzzed softly.  Wordlessly he stood from the table and began to walk towards the door.

“Wilbur,” Smithson called out after him.

His only response was to hold up his arm, showing the armband.  Due to the particularities of his powers, he only removed it when he was bathing or replacing the batteries, and when the series of pins began to buzz against his forearm, he had to respond, no matter the time of day or night.

“Alright,” she called as he stepped through the door.  “But you’re going to have to make up this class!”

Sensitivity training, what a fucking joke.  Some Warden had pissed off a community to the point where they had cancelled their contract with the Wardens, and now the brass was all up in arms.  They had everybody in some sort of bullshit training or another on how to deal with locals or something.  It was stupid, a waste of everyone’s time, and a waste of resources.

Different from the Protectorate days his left foot — they were supposed to be the people keeping peace out there, making sure that the law was kept in check by other parahumans.  Not borderline mercenaries or whatever fancy title they wanted to call it this week.  Sheriffs out there, fighting the good fight, not kissing ass to make sure that a city kept their contract, kept the flow of money and goods coming.

Never mind the fact that half of the fucking communities out there couldn’t agree on what the law was, let alone what role the Wardens should play in it.  If they even wanted Wardens setting foot inside of their precious hovels.  Oh, sure, they didn’t want the Wardens living in their cities, trying to help them, but the moment that there was some problem that they couldn’t face on their own, you could damn well believe that they’d come crying about how they needed help, and they needed it right this moment.

People needed to make up their minds.  There was nothing wrong with needing help, either from the Wardens or the Dragon’s Teeth.  There was nothing wrong with them wanting to live their lives the way that they wanted to, not unless it became someone else’s problem.  Folks had that right, and he could respect that.

But it wasn’t like the Wardens were bleeding them dry or anything.  It took money and resources to feed people, and for every person they saw in the field, there was one or two more here in New York trying to support them somehow.  Even training new recruits cost money and food.

So, yes, they asked a tax from the communities that they posted people in.  All too often, folks would act offended.  Didn’t they pay their police forces?  Did they really really expect the Wardens to work for free?  Where did they expect that money, that food to come from?  Some Tinker device that produced it out of thin air?

Wilbur sighed, shaking his head slowly.  It didn’t help matters that he was one of the people that got called in when shit really hit the fan.  It usually meant that there were bodies, and that for some reason postcogs weren’t being helpful.  That usually meant someone with a power or a Tinker device to help cover up whatever they’d done.

Which was when people like himself got called into it.

“Livinn’ the dream,” he whispered bitterly to himself.

Some dream it was.  He’d wanted to be a Warden, a cop.  He’d gotten that much.  What nobody had told him was that it would mean that his spare time would be spent eating noodles for one in an apartment smaller than most yokels’ homes, trying desperately not to remember whatever ugly thing he’d had to experience in his last case.

Not that he could blame anyone for not noticing him; his name was rather apt.  Dark eyes that bugged out, a mouth that extended too far from his face, stringy hair no matter what he did to it.  He was just glad that most kids hadn’t known who Wilbur was when he was a kid.  They’d had enough ways to make fun of him.

He spent a moment at his desk to get the case that held his gear, pushing everything out of him.  Finding his center — his therapist had been helping with that.  Going into a case carrying nothing but bitterness and anger helped absolutely nobody.  Peace, he imagined, was like a candle flickering in the darkness.  It wasn’t reliable, and it could go out, but it illuminated the darkness.

Once he was fairly well centered, he hit the button on his armband.  Within seconds, a doorway appeared.  That kind of surprised him.  Not the doorway — the armbands contained a tracker that would allow either Valkyrie or a Tinker teleporter to get a lock on him.  No, it was the fact that Valkyrie herself was on the other side of the portal.

Every few months, she’d bugger off to do some undercover work.  She’d change her face, her appearance, and leave her Einherjar behind, and do some deep cover stuff for a while.  Sometimes a week, sometimes a couple of months.  It was a way for her to operate without everyone pointing at her, draw attention to her, and keep her from being able to do her job.

As Wilbur stepped through the portal, he wondered if it was actually possible for her to hide who she was.  Her very presence seemed to tingle around him.  But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be professional to her.

“What are we looking at?”  Other than the place where he’d stepped out was outside and quite a sight warmer than New York Bet.  There was actually green grass on the ground.

Valkyrie’s sharp, angular face was taunt with concentration as she took a breath.  That wasn’t good.  The portal disappeared behind him, and he spared a quick glance over his shoulder.  The barest glimpse of the walls of New Fairfax made Wilbur’s head snap back to look at Valkyrie.

So much for his center of calm.  “How many died?” he asked, less successful in keeping the sigh out of his voice than he would have liked.  Four full cells of Wardens were posted in the city, a grand total of twenty men and women dedicated to keeping the delicate peace.  If he was here, then one of those Wardens were dead.

It wouldn’t be the first time it had happened.  The mayor was crafty and kept the peace pretty well, all things considered, but the place was a powder keg.  If they were so intent on their passengers dying with them, why couldn’t they just commit suicide like a sane person?

“All of them.”  Valkyrie’s voice was pained, forced out of her throat.  “The entire city.”

That made Wilbur snap to look at her.  Normally she was a little more… wordy in her responses, and the tone…  Slowly, he turned around again to look at the city walls, this time actually seeing what was there.

And the bubble around it all.  Holy hell.

“Did you collect the dead?” he asked in a whisper.  At the very least, her ability to collect the powers and shadows of the dead would come in handy in the future.

“No.  I couldn’t.”

That was a… very unusual response.  He looked back to her, his face folding into a deep frown.  “Couldn’t?  Like, couldn’t couldn’t, or won’t couldn’t?”

“Couldn’t couldn’t,” another voice barked.

He turned to the source, recognizing her instantly.  He’d met her enough times.  “Slutty McSlutslut.”

“Horseface,” Gina said, setting a box onto the ground next to him.  Really, once you realized that her insults weren’t said to be mean, and that she was always going to be irritated, she wasn’t that bad to work with.  “The Chinaman’s helping maintain that bubble.  She’s doing everything in her power to keep from reclaiming one of her Einherjar, so it’d be nice if you could get your head out of your ass on this one.”

Wilbur looked over to where Gina had come from, where a monitoring station was being set up.  It took him a moment to note the dead man.  Valkyrie’s Einherjar were people whom she either felt deserved to be brought back to life, or who were too useful to keep to herself.

The cost, though, was that she couldn’t use as much of her power.  She couldn’t summon as many ghosts, or the most powerful ones.  Each Einherjar took a little bit of power from her.  Less than if she summoned them herself, but it was still a drain.  She could reclaim that power, stop that drain by reclaiming the spirit she’d used for the Einherjar, but she usually only did that in the most dire of circumstances.

He recognized that particular one as a Trump who could boost the powers of others.  With her copy of Gray Boy, she’d projected a stable time loop over the entire city, no doubt thanks to the Trump.

Once upon a time, she’d been Glaistig Uaine, the Fairy Queen.  One of the most feared parahumans, who would kill you and steal your powers if she took an interest in them.  She’d been convinced to fight Scion alongside the most powerful parahumans at that time.  Afterwards, they’d somehow convinced her to change from the Fairy Queen to the keeper of the dead, Valkyrie.

And now here she was, giving him a chance to do some investigation.  He shouldn’t keep her waiting.

Modesty was no longer an option — if folks couldn’t handle seeing him in his boxers, they could open up a bottle of grow the fuck up.  He began to strip quickly.  “Who all is on ops?”

“Me,” Gina growled as she got the aerosol can out of the box.  “Batty, Erickson, and Kumasaka are also helping.”  Neither one of them liked Kumasaka, but whatever.  “Standard camera rig, as far as you’re concerned.  Pins or cuff pressure?”

“Cuff pressure.”  The unsharpened pins that had buzzed against his flesh earlier were good for most situations, but this called for something more than them.  “Walk me through everything.”

Wilbur was only in his boxers now, so he held his breath and closed his eyes.  Gina began to dutifully spray him down.  “Nobody was answering any calls and reported it to the Wardens.  We tried to contact the office, then sent a full combat team out.  They returned in minutes to give us the news.  Word went immediately to the top, Valkyrie was the next one here.  By the time the rest of us made it, she’d already confirmed that everyone was dead and she couldn’t reclaim them.”

Once he was sprayed down, Wilbur got into his gear and started slipping on his outfit.  It wasn’t much, little more than shorts and a light shirt, but it helped.  Gina was already grabbing the webbing from the case to help him into it.  He waved her off and started himself, so she took the opportunity to grab the cameras from her box and begin attaching them to the webbing.

“How long?”

“I’m told they probably all died somewhere around five in the morning.  Very quick, very immediate.  Decapitated.”  Which meant a lot of blood.  Just peachy.  “What are you thinking?”

“If everyone’s dead, I’ll go hearing and temperature.  Touch will be iffy at times.  Be my ears for me?”

She attached the last camera and nodded to him.  “Right.  Get the fuck to work.”  With that, she turned and began to walk away.

Rumor had it that Gina had once been a rather pleasant gal, before she’d triggered.  The best guess was that her passenger was damaged somehow, or possibly insane.  Either way, it had eventually driven her to be more than a little abusive.

He wasn’t sure what her power was exactly, only that she was a Thinker and she had her fingers in as many pies as she could manage.  As abrasive as she might be, though, she was dedicated — her insults were coming infrequently, and he was damn glad that she was backing him up on this.

Wilbur sighed softly as he turned and began to walk towards the open gates of the city.  Halfway there, the bubble that surrounded the city dropped, which was fine by him.  Valkyrie probably needed the rest anyway.

The first few times he’d worked with her, Wilbur had been in awe of Valkyrie.  There was a little fear as well, but that was to be expected.  He would be a fool not to feel an edge of fear.  Now, though, she was just a very powerful and mildly worrisome coworker who was very intent on seeing the job done.

He moved to just inside the solid light gates and held still.  Already he could make out the aroma of gore and feces.  Everyone seemed to have some romantic notion that people’s bodies completely stopped when they died.  That muscles didn’t relax, and their waste didn’t come out.  God, he wished that was the truth.

He’d just gotten his armband set up, connected to the cameras and transmitting, the microphones constantly on, and the speakers turned up, when the world changed.  He couldn’t even really see the change, but he could feel it around him, in him.  It was off, very vaguely nauseating.

She’d used the boosted Gray Boy’s power on the city.  He was in a time loop now.  She’d probably set it pretty wide, but he hoped it could last for hours, for days.  He’d need all the time he could get in here.  That said, he wished that she’d given him some warning so he could have prepared himself, gotten his body into a more neutral stance.

But that was a concern for another time.  He had work to do.

Wilbur focused inward, calling on his power.  He wasn’t sure how it worked for most parahumans, but for him it was a simple act of concentration.  Like when you see something in the distance and try to strain your eyes to work out what exactly it is.  Only his became easier once the ball started rolling.

The smell of gore became overpowering, and things in the distance came into sharp focus.  He kept it up, though, and the ball kept rolling.  The sense of the pleasantly warm air on his skin dulled, and things began to become even more potent.  Colors began to heighten, and new colors began to blossom.  Colors that there were no words for, no way for him to describe to anyone else.

Smells began to become distinct and individual.  He began to differentiate between the blood smells carried in the air.  His sense of pain dulled to nothing, and his senses began to explode into a whole new world.

Metals in the air.  Directions of where each source of blood came from.  Trillions of new colors, ones that made a normally pleasant city to look at into something ugly, as if made by a child.  Things that looked smooth before became rough, with odd angles.  The paved road showed footprints, ones that stretched back for days, but he could differentiate them easily.  And yet he pushed on, dulling his hearing.

Twenty years ago, he might have gone by the name Bloodhound.  But he’d been a little kid when Gold Morning happened.  Today, he was just Wilbur.

“Cuff check.”  His armband squeezed his arm.  Good.  “Alright, I can confirm that it happened between four and five in the morning.  Faint traces of metal.  Some oddities, but I’ll get into those later.”

He looked over to the switch for the gates, and then down.  “Someone armored here, after the slaughter.  Very little trace from the armor itself, almost no oxidization, not hitting any markers of polish or anything to prevent it, either.”  His eyes fell to the glaringly obvious boot print.  “There’s traces of detergent in each place he stepped.  Detergent, urates, I…  Everything in urine, concentrated down pretty heavily.  Salts from sweating.  Only in the boot prints.  Very trace, though.”

Wilbur looked back up, detecting another scent.  “I can track them, but there’s something else that I want to check.  A different smell.  Confirm?”

He wasn’t sure any more when he’d begun to cut off his hearing, but as he began to walk, he couldn’t hear his footsteps.  He also couldn’t hear when the armband squeezed his arm twice for yes.  It didn’t matter.  Right now, he needed the sensory input of vision and smell more than anything.

“They had a party last night.  A social gathering.  Maybe…  Maybe a quarter in attendance.”  That was odd — from the previous times he’d been here, he knew that at least half the people of the city would attend a social.  It often lead to a fight, which lead to the Wardens having to step in.

“I’m not getting much variance in the times of death for most of these people.  Maybe…  Maybe five minutes?  Ten at most?  I’m not sure.  Any unusual sounds or magnetic oddities?”  His armband squeezed three times.  Good.  He didn’t want to stumble into something as he headed for his initial goal.

Despite his professionalism, he felt horribly uncomfortable.  He wasn’t used to working around a place so devoid of life, without the usual telltale traces of people hovering nearby, waiting on him to do his thing.  It was his first time within one of these bubbles, too, which only made it worse.

Two thousand, six hundred and fifty-seven people dead.  All but seven of them were local.  He could tell by how deeply entrenched the local scents were.  He had to have a Thinker component to his power, it was the only way that he could be able to differentiate all the sights and smells.

Wilbur’s armband squeezed once and he stopped in his tracks.  He could have turned his hearing on a bit again, asked them what they wanted, but he knew.  He turned to the house with the busted open door and the cuff squeezed twice.  He suppressed a sigh as he walked towards it.

To them it might seem silly for him to duck as he entered the open door.  He couldn’t even describe the reason why, though.  What he’d seen in the upper half of the doorway was something that he’d never be able to feel if his powers weren’t active, would never even know had existed.  However, with how horribly ugly it was, misshapen in ways that no solid object could be and painted with more colors that could ever exist in nature, he had to avoid it.

Signs of domestic abuse flooded his senses.  His nose and eyes painted pictures that were far too easy to put together.  The faint traces of tears on the floor, the color pattern of where a person had fallen after being hit.  The blood and sexual fluids.  Wilbur felt a pang of guilt for the poor bastard, and hoped he was in a better place.  But that wasn’t why he was here.

“The armor-clad individual broke their way in here,” he said as he walked towards the bedroom.  “Aimless movements.  Male.  Odd biological scents about him that I can’t put my finger on.  Changer, perhaps.”

He moved to a door, moving his hand over where the handle had been, then mimed pushing it open.  “Stood here for maybe thirty seconds, unmoving.  Continuing on.”

He already knew the final destination, but he traced the individual’s path through the home.  Slowly, he made his way into the bedroom.  Abuser and victim were in the bed — he didn’t even need his senses to tell which was which.  One person sprawled out, the other huddled in a ball with their back towards the other, as if afraid to be touched.

Both of them were headless.

“The individual stood here for the better part of two minutes before making their way back out.  After coming in here, their pace becomes a little more even.”  He turned to look at the strangely-colored invisible footprints in the hallway.  “A march.  They’re marching slowly.  Heel presses into the ground at the same time as the toes.  It’s an odd march, though.  It looks like they almost lose their balance with each step.”

He wasn’t sure what that meant.  He wished that he could get a solid scent of the person.

“I’m also getting a strange scent in this room.  Metal, but only trace amounts.  An alloy of some sort, but I can’t identify what.  Bleach.  Salt… no, saline.  Plastic.  No, not quite plastic, but close to it.  Similar.  Fresh-ish.  Two years old maybe, but diffused with the saline.  I’m not sure how to describe it.  Mixed with the saline somehow.  I’m not sure.  Traces of biological fluids, too.”

He closed his eyes, allowing his vision to fade for the moment.  “Traces of cerebrospinal fluid not belonging to the residents.  Not local, either.  Another weird polymer.  No clue.  I couldn’t identify it through the other plastic-saline smell.”

He opened his eyes to a blurry, monochrome world.  Quickly, though, color and clarity returned with a vengeance.  “I’ll examine it later.  I need to move on.”

He was glad to be out of the house.  He was glad to no longer be able to smell and see how their lives had played out over the past month.  He stopped, though, to lower himself to the ground, onto the grass.

“Get Mitchell out here, have him decomp the grass.  We’ve got a full footprint from the individual.  Nice and clear.”  He held out his hands to frame it until the armband squeezed once.  He then slowly looked up to the house, then around, letting the camera get all the markers to help lead them to this spot.  When he felt the pressure on his arm again, he got up and continued on.

The boot had been weird.  It was like, on a molecular level, it was designed to have maximum friction without any actual stickiness.  Enough so the wearer could have the absolute maximum traction when the foot was put down, but so that it wouldn’t have problems being lifted again.

Or maybe it was designed to stick, but only when weight or pressure was actively being applied.  That made a strange amount of sense.  “Armor is Tinker-made, most likely with an environmental suite.  Other than the bodily fluids that are being released in trace amounts with each step, I’m not getting much scent off of him.

“Probably an advanced life support array.  Still, I’m getting enough testosterone that I’m comfortable saying that it’s either male or someone going through hormonal replacement therapy.  For sake of ease, I’ll refer to the armored survivor as male.”

It never hurt to clarify these things.

Slowly, though, he made his way through town, looking at everything as he walked.  Not for his benefit, though.  They were recording everything, either for future analysis or for the next poor set of investigators who had to come in here.  He felt a pang of sympathy for whomever it was.

After ten minutes of walking through this strange, alien landscape, he finally saw his destination: a large windowless shed.  Even he was amazed that he was able to pick out the scents necessary to find it, not with how much blood was already floating around on the wind.  Still, the sight of it made him frown.

The exterior would leave anyone thinking that it was a normal shed, save for the strange Tinker tech access panel.  Just beyond the siding, however, was a layer of Tinker materials and ceramics.  Gauging by the colors, he’d be willing to bet that the entire shed was very nearly hermetically sealed.  Not quite good enough, though, to keep his nose from picking up the occupant.

Before Wilbur began explaining, though, he needed more information.  He slowly lowered himself to the ground and began the process of bracing himself.  Some aspects of his power were tricky, to say the least.  Especially once he started removing some of the most necessary senses.

Balance was the one that really kicked him, making his stomach lurch for a brief moment.  It was like being weightless, but somehow less pleasant.  But with that, his eyes and nose were opened to even stranger worlds.  He almost believed that he could see through the dimensional barriers like this.  Physical items took on strange, alien shapes, and individual scents overwhelmed him.  The decay of atoms was almost visible to him somehow.  Not quite, but he could get a sense of it so easily.

But the two senses together allowed him to effectively see through the walls and what he needed to.  It only took a moment before he relaxed, redistributing his senses again.  He was pretty sure his arms would hurt as soon as he felt pain, but that was for later.

“Alright.  We’ve-”

His armband squeezed once.  The alert.  With a frown, he adjusted enough so that he could hear.  “Yeah?”

“You were gnawing on your tongue,” Batty said in a muffled tone.

Right.  Wilbur swallowed a little before trying again.  “We’ve got someone here for Valkyrie.  Female, late twenties to early thirties.  Skull’s mostly intact, so she should be able to claim them.  Otherwise, she was killed by blunt force trauma yesterday somewhere between three and six AM.  Lots of struggling, but not enough.

“I’m guessing that they bound her, gagged her, then took turns wailing on her.  Two males, three females.  One of the females urinated on her post-mortem.  No sign of sexual assault, though.  Exercise extreme caution while claiming the body — there’s a lot of Tinker devices in there, and the walls are trapped.”

“Anything else you can tell us about the victim?” Kumasaka asked.

Wilbur frowned a little.  “Traveler, but I can’t tell you from where.  Not local.  I can’t even begin to guess beyond that, not with what I’ve got available to me.  I-”

He was inhaling, sanding fully upright, all of his senses back to baseline.  Wilbur blinked, surprised by the sudden change.  Was he under attack?  Was…?

Understanding sunk in as he remembered where he was.  Gray Boy’s time loop bubble had reset, putting Wilbur back at the gates of the city.  Right.  What had he been saying?

“I, uh, I got some palladium, gallium and other metals off of her.  She’d been in a lot of close proximity, maybe even handling them with her bare hands, maybe within the last week.  She’s well-fed, though.  Strange body odors I can’t place.  We’ll have to do a workup the old fashioned way.”  He paused a moment.  “Tell me you have that location secured.”

“Location’s locked,” Gina snarled.  “What’s your next objective?”

Pushing him to get to work.  Just like her.  “Armored individual.  From what I can tell, he broke into a couple homes, including the mayor’s.  His armor’s tricky, though.  Not much scent to it, I really have to push my nose to get anything before the detergent.”

“Alright.”  She sounded put off by that, but she was following his lead rather than yelling at him.  “After that, though, get off your goddamn arse and go to the Warden’s office.  We need to see if we can pull any information from its security net, but I want you to poke around before the computer dipshits fuck up your trace.”

Or not.  Such a charming young lady.

“On it.  Going deaf again.”

He began the process of getting the ball rolling again, waiting until his sense of smell and sight were up to par.  The detergent was too faint to not steal from another sense to pick up, and he would never track the footprints without stealing.  He could boost his senses only so much without dulling another.  Fortunately, it turned out, the human body had far more than five senses.

Once more thrust into the alien world, Wilbur began the process of tracking his mysterious man.  It was easy like this, but time consuming.  The man had done that odd march after the last house, but the further back that Wilbur went from the gates, the more that those footprints were cautious.  Heel to toe, occasionally with a bit of a twist to indicate that the man was looking around.  Sometimes at a corpse, sometimes at nothing.

Threats?  More victims?  Wilbur wasn’t the type to rule out the idea that the man he was stalking through time wasn’t the killer.  At heart, he was a cop, like his father, like his father’s father.  It was his job to collect information, evidence, and let that evidence lead him to the perp.

There was the possibility that the man had been passed over, not killed.  Somehow overlooked.  Had woken up bright and early and found himself the sole survivor.  Or maybe he’d done it himself remotely, and then found that he needed to clean himself up somehow.  Wilbur wasn’t sure, and he wasn’t about to start making snap decisions now.  Not with so many unknowns hanging in the air.

Wilbur made a note to see if he could trail the scent outside of the city.

Three houses broken into, one the mayor’s.  The second house, the man had made an effort to tuck the corpse into bed.  Under the sheet, the victim looked like they’d been cold when they’d died.  Interesting.

Finally, though, Wilbur found himself standing outside of the building that was the headquarters of the Wardens.  “Alright, it doesn’t look like he went inside, but he definitely came here.”  He peered inside of the glass window, frowning.  “I’m not sure what he saw here.  Smells like people my have messed with the scene.  Probably the crew we sent when the city went dark.”

The armband’s cuffs squeezed once.  “Is this going to be a request to go inside and investigate?”  Two squeezes.  “Yeah, might as well while I’m here.  Erikson, you’re up.”

Wilbur stepped inside, frowning.  He could smell where a five-man team had teleported in using the portal screen in the back.  Could smell the ozone it had produced when it had activated, screwing with the other scents, muddling them a bit.  Making his job harder.

There was a corpse that had been sitting at a desk, half laying on top of it from when the body had lost its head, covering the desk in blood.  Someone had moved the body, laying it down.  He moved behind the desk, standing near the chair.

“Gina.  If the corpse was sitting here, could I have seen it from where I looked inside?”  Two squeezes.  “Right.  He saw the corpse and moved on.”  The question was, had the man come here to report all of this, or to check his handiwork?

Not Wilbur’s domain.  Motive was the specialty of others.  His job was to collect the information that would give them the ability to know that motive.  That didn’t stop the dread from rising as he moved to the stairs leading into the basement.

The basement itself was well-equipped.  Tinker weapons were locked up, containment foam at easy access.  The most important thing, however, was the monitor array.  Every inch of public space in the city was carefully monitored.  All of the local Wardens took turns manning the bay, watching monitors, waiting for alarms.  At the slightest hint of trouble, they’d jump into action.

The monitors were all off, people sitting in front of them, no doubt watching when they’d died.  Wilbur opened his mouth to speak, but his arm felt the single squeeze.  Once again, he redistributed so he could hear.  “Go ahead.”

“The site’s a wash,” Erickson groused.  “Turn to your eight.”

He did so, and could see clearly through a door.  A door that should have remained locked at all times, save for maintenance.  The server room, where all the data was collected, and all the records were kept, was empty.  Not a single computer was inside.

Fucking brilliant.  He moved to the doorway and blinded himself to sniff, then shut his smell off so he could see.

“I’m not getting anything.  No ozone, no body presence, nothing.  I can’t tell you a thing about how they ripped this stuff out.”  Even if they’d hosed themselves down in the odor neutralization spray, he still would have picked up on that oddity.  Instead, there was nothing.

“Alright,” Erikson said quietly.  “Go ahead and keep tracking, then.”

Wilbur didn’t mind that in the slightest.  Too many people had been milling about the office, contaminating the crime scene.  Apparently, they hadn’t made note of the missing computers.  That would have saved everybody some trouble.

Instead, he went back outside, following the footsteps.  They were infinitely more cautious now, actively scanning the environment with every step.  There was something odd about them.  Wilbur wished that the armor hadn’t contained most of the man’s smells.  He could pull something off it it, then.

Shortly, though, he found himself walking into the hotel.  Now there was a scent of the man.  Again, something odd.  Changer.  It had to be.  The smell was all over the place, but it was only one person’s smell.  The armor had an opening that the man had closed as he left the hotel.

He walked to the front desk, looking at the corpse behind it.  “We have one of the five killers of the woman in the shed.  Not the urinator.”  Not that it made much difference, but it was always good to clarify.

Stepping around the desk, Wilbur found the computer still booted up, but the user logged out.  The armband squeezed once, but he ignored it.  Erikson could wait.  Instead, he focused on what the man had been doing when he’d stepped around the desk.

Cash drawer was closed, the man hadn’t interacted with anything.  Strange.  Wilbur shook his head before heading upstairs.  At the end of the hall, the suite, he knew he’d found his destination.

“This was his room,” he said, tapping on the door.  He looked around a bit.  “Most of the non-locals were staying here, including the one that can be collected, save for one.  I’ve got faint traces of that one, but that’s it.”

Wilbur turned back to the door and tried the handle.  Of course it was locked.  With a sigh, he braced himself and kicked.  The hit opened the door easily, splintering the frame around the latch.  By the look of it, it was designed to break easily and be replaced.

With how many fights broke out in the city, it probably made more sense to do it that way.  Cheaper in the long run.

Ah, yes.  The stench of the man was strong in here.  Wilbur stepped inside, letting his nose and eyes guide him.

“The man was drinking last night.  Didn’t sleep very long, at most four hours.  Just long enough to sober up.  The detergent I smelled…  Yeah, after waking up he cleaned something.  Hard to say what for sure, but I’m guessing the armor.  He’d been wearing it a lot, and it’d picked up a bit of stench on the inside.  I can smell a lot of odor from it.

“Lots of trace of other people on him.  He was in close proximity to a lot of people while drinking.”

He moved to the nightstand where there was a book.  The cover was strange in this vision, so he backed off on his eyes a bit to read it.  Logan’s Run.  “The outsider that wasn’t staying here gave the book to him.  I’m not getting a definite on where it’s from.  Probably printed pre-Gold.  Lots of industrial scents on it, though.  Hard to say.”

He looked around the room and frowned.  There was a lot here, but nothing really good.  The man’s scent was heavy, giving him a wealth of information.  Might as well hand it off.  “The man’s scent is mixed heavily.  Maybe a Stranger type Changer.  Shapeshifter.  It’s like there’s multiple scents mixed together to form one cohesive one.  But it’s also uniform, like it’s all one body.  I’m not sure what to make of it.

“He spent at least a couple of weeks in that armor, but I’m not getting the kinds of scents that come from being in something hard and encasing.  You know, rot and chafing.  He was dehydrated when he checked in, though.  Probably hadn’t eaten in a while, gauging by the smells in the bathroom.

“He also did some physical activity in here.  I’m seeing hand prints here, and a head print between them.  Handstand push-ups.  Some of the footprints suggest that he was doing martial arts, too.

“By the bed, I’d guess…  Six foot one, give or take.  Weight… hard to say.  One seventies to one eighties, maybe even one nineties.  Muscular.  Looks like…  Looks like a sprinter who hit the gym a lot to work on his upper body.  Martial artist type, you know?  Faster than power.  I can’t say for sure, he moves around a lot in his sleep.

“I’m seeing hairs on the pillow, but I’ll leave someone else to analyze that.”  The closest to a color that he could describe was turquoise, but that was only because of his vision.  Even then, the hair wasn’t that color all the way through.  That was just the color he saw the most of.

“Heading back down.”  Best not to get Erikson’s panties in a bunch.

He knew what the woman wanted, so he moved quickly back to the front desk, in front of the computer.  He spent a moment staring at the keyboard before speaking.

“Heaviest used letters are the first two on the keyboard.  A, S.  After that, it goes E, C, V, H, N, J, L.  Heaviest numbers are one and two, four is almost as much, and light on the six.”  He paused.  “Sorry, zero is used as heavily as one and two.”

He re-balanced his senses so that he could hear again and waited.  It took almost two minutes before Kumasaka spoke up.  “If nobody else is going to figure it out, the answer is obviously that the user name is ‘sachs042012,’ and the password is ‘Valjean24601.’  Really, now.”

Wilbur bit back a comment before typing all that in.  He had to admit there was a tinge of disappointment as the login worked, calling up a new screen.  Erikson took over.

“Alright, um.  Okay, press Control, Alt and F6, then F8.  That should call up the active rooms and their accounts for the week.”

Wilbur frowned a little.  How counter-intuitive.  Still, he followed the directions, calling up a list of text.  They’d had quite a few rooms earlier in the week, but it had died down considerably.  He didn’t even have time to begin reading the names before Gina groaned.

“Goddamn it, Fuckface.”

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9 thoughts on “Interlude 4.C

  1. Thank you for reading this interlude, and this arc.

    Arc 4 is complete. Arc 5 begins next week.

    I enjoy using powers in ways that they aren’t meant to be used. it amuses me to no small end, like using Grey Boy to encapsulate the city. I’m probably 70% sure that it can’t actually be used that way, even with that certain Einherjar boosting it, but sometimes you fudge for the sake of the story. It creates an interesting situation, and it also give Valkyrie some use outside of “I fight all the things.”

    Wilbur, I kind of like. It’s nice to see the frustrations of him, the fact that he knows every time that he gets called to a crime scene he’s going to need to visit his therapist, but he goes anyway without any real complaints or angsting about it. It’s his job, and he’s going to do it.

    It’s his power that fascinated me the most. He’s one of those top down characters, where I developed the power first, and then the person to fit it. I don’t normally like doing that, but I wanted to come up with something that still felt Worm, while also being different from the norm. His power is insanely versatile, and gives him a strange edge in combat.

    Being a living mass spectrometer is interesting. Fascinating, even. I really enjoyed it, though I wished that I could give more descriptions of the colors, or the fractal shapes that he saw the more that he pushed his eyes. I tried reading The Color of Space for inspiration, but it didn’t really work.

    How do you describe things that are technically beyond human comprehension as we know it? How do you describe a color or a shape that the human eye is incapable of seeing? An interesting problem.

    And here you thought that the shrimp mentioned in Emsada’s interlude wasn’t going to come back. That it was going to be a passing reference. David was wrong, though. Seeing so many colors doesn’t automatically make you a murder beast. Though if the shard ever decides to force Wilbur to see those colors forever, well, his sanity might not stay intact.

    Now to figure out what the name of the next arc is going to be. You have no idea how difficult that is. I’d rather write the arc than name it.

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  2. Poor Wilbur, nobody really appreciates the police until shit happens. Sarah would absolutely regret having to push Jordan away. I got really strong vibe of Slaughterhouse 2.0 here.

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  3. I don’t know why I didn’t think about this during the last chapter, but I was suddenly struck by how much this feels like a visit by Black Kaze. Whole city decapitated by what looked like a very sharp sword, all within minutes of each other. I can’t remember if BK was alive after Golden Morning or not, but even if she wasn’t her shard could give something similar to the next host.

    And now I feel like an ass for suspecting the traveling sales girl. Turns out what happened to her was a vicious beating and postmortem humiliation. That really sucks. And it is incredibly believable considering what a rough impression she made and how pissed so many people were about it.

    As always, a very well written and enjoyable chapter.

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    • I very easily could have made Serafina a completely guilty party. I really could, and it had been awfully tempting when I first introduced her. In fact, until I sat down to write this chapter, I hadn’t thought about showing anything about her.

      This is why I say that I don’t so much of have an outline as I do have landmarks when writing. Her fate was sealed as a spur of the moment thing, and I ran with it. It made sense, and I felt like it added something to the scene. I’m glad it left an impression with the readers, too!

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  4. I’m certainly favouring the Black Kaze (or at least someone else with her shard/a bud of her shard) theory at this point. Explains the decapitations, explains how over 2,000 get decapitated in under 10 minutes. Would be pretty easy for BK to take all the heads as she went. Doesn’t explain where all the heads went. Missing computers/files from the Wardens building are likely with the heads (wherever that happens to be).

    Method is pretty straightforward if I remember how BK’s power worked correctly. BK’s power let her essentially teleport and have an instance of herself at every possible point in between start and finish. so she TP’s across the city several times stealing heads by having one instance chop it off and the next grab it immediately. Stealing computers and files is done in a similar fashion: stand on one side, teleport to a point on the other side and grab the stuff she passes. Motive is that BK is bat-shit crazy and felt like murdering some people.

    As for where it all went, I guess BK could have teleported it all out to the middle of nowhere, but that seems really tedious. She could be working with someone with either longer range teleportation, a pocket dimension, or some form of inter-dimensional travel.

    None of this explains why Jordan was left untouched though. If it was BK, she would have killed Jordan along with everyone else because she could. If it’s someone with her shard/a bud, they might not be as psychotic, so they might have some purpose for leaving Jordan. Hard to tell what’s up with someone we don’t know.

    Best theory for why Jordan was untouched is that Teacher somehow pulled it off with tons of bullshit tinker tech and thinker powers to aim it all. In the Dragon Teeth interlude where we see Jordan heading out for his walkabout, it’s mentioned that a lot of people, including Teacher, are likely to be interested in acquiring him in some manner. So, Teacher murders everyone in the city to keep the Wardens busy and to say “don’t fuck with me on this one” but leaves Jordan because Teacher wants him alive.

    If it’s all Teacher’s fault, then Miss Insta-Sober from the party was likely one of his agents and she probably keyed Jordan’s teleporter for wherever Teacher wants to pick him up.

    Tin foil hat theories:

    Combine previous theories. Teacher got a hold of Black Kaze or someone with her shard/a bud and used them to murder everyone and program Jordan’s teleporter.

    Alternately, Ziz/Contessa did it. Reasons for this vary greatly. Ziz might have felt like fucking with people again. Ziz might have foreseen that this would push Jordan into solving/preventing the next huge crisis. If Contessa did it, it was likely to be to stop some huge threat later on. In either case, it was likely by proxy by manipulating random events to cause this. The Simurgh could have potentially done it herself with bullshit-level TK and a whole bunch of tinker tech blades. Ziz could have easily grabbed all the heads and the stuff from the Wardens without leaving any sort of physical o biological trace of her presence because of Endbringer bullshit.

    Regardless, this thoroughly denies the possibility of hallucinations and similar mental shenanigans since it’s apparently affecting everyone (including Valkyrie who has a Bullshit 12 rating). Someone mentioned that this has a Slaughterhouse 9 feel to it, but I disagree. Decapitating a town full of parahumans is definitely within their capabilities, but the whole thing only took 5 or 10 minutes which is way too fast for the Slaughterhouse. They would have dragged things out and had more “fun” with it. The Siberian 2.0 could likely accomplish this if it weren’t for the lack of signs of forced entry and general collateral damage. Slaughterhouse are a possibilty, but this doesn’t really fit their MO.

    As for writing: I feel like Gina should have put together that the armored male was Jordan before seeing the guest list. She seems to know him well enough to know that he’s got a suit of tinker tech armor that could filter things like Wilbur described. She knows that he went off to wander around Earth Bet for a year since she was working with the Dragon’s Teeth when he said goodbye to everyone. She knows that he trains to a crazy extent. She could reasonably be expected to know that he doesn’t sleep all that well usually. His recent fame would explain the social and his being untriggered in a parahumans-only city would cause tension explaining the reduced attendance. Very few people fit all of those criteria and Gina has some unspecified (afaik) thinker power to help put this all together. That said, she might be somewhat in denial as humans are weird like that sometimes.

    Pacing on this chapter was good. It provides a nice look at just how serious shit was here and provides lots of interesting info that Jordan would be unlikely/unable to get (e.g. Warden’s files missing, five people beat up the travelling merchant and desecrated her corpse before everyone else was slaughtered.

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    • Hey, you caught up! Congratulations!

      I can’t say much to your comment, but I can comment on Gina. Did she suspect that there might be something involving Jordan? Suspect is too strong of a word in this case, more of a sinking feeling that she kept to herself. Jordan was on her mind after a certain point, before even the hotel came up, but there were lots of other possibilities. Other known people who might fit the profile that was being constructed.

      Her own personality also hampers her. I can’t say too much on that part, but I can safely say that she never would have expected this for a wide variety of reasons.

      I try and write everything with larger reasons as to why it happens than “the plot says so.” Her reactions here relate back to her own personality and personal issues. There are clues if you look closely enough at her previous behavior and what she’s said, both about herself and Jordan. I’d imagine it would be easier if you knew her power, but both she and myself are keeping that one close for the time being.

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      • Sure it feels nice to know that you have everything mapped out, also in the Argamemmon fight, did you have to roll dice to decide the outcome, or was everything planned?

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        • “Mapped out” is a bad term. I prefer to think of my writing style as using landmarks. I have scenes that I’d really like to write, but the stuff in between is a complete mystery to me. I find out what happens when I sit down to write that particular chapter.

          Let’s use the Agamemnon fight for example. I had the idea of Agamemnon well in advance. I’d developed its powers and capabilities, where it came from, how it worked, etc. I also had the idea of Sarah using her power at full blast, and her armor overheating because of it. That idea was born out of me figuring out the details of how her power worked. Lastly, I had the idea of Jordan going to the hospital for some vague reason.

          When I sat down to start writing the Agamemnon chapters, the ideas fit together. I knew that I could move the plot forward with the fight, but I wasn’t sure how. So I was constantly asking myself what ideas I wanted to include in it. Sarah not limiting herself was a natural fit.

          However, them missing the mission briefing was something that flowed naturally, and made sense given how the Wardens have been operating. When the Warden spoke up against him, it was something natural. I asked myself why she did, and I saw a great opportunity to back up the idea that many people who survived Gold Morning had some degree of PTSD. It made sense for someone to balk at him, a relative nobody taking charge, and I knew I could explain her actions in-depth later. Maybe in a interlude that handled the fight from her perspective.

          As soon as I wrote Rick, I knew that I wanted him to appear again some day, which he did in New Fairfax. I knew this because from the very first sentence he said, I had figured out his power, the details as to how it worked, his history, and where the conflicts in his life were.

          I’d held the broken teleporter in reserve for quite some time, aware of it but not really sure how I was going to use it. That pretty much wrote itself — the idea of Jordan being shredded when it activated was a potent one that appeared in my head, so I ran with it. That lead to Jordan staring down Agamemnon, which is a powerful image to those who saw it on the outside.

          But that calm stare was excellent for me as an author, as it had consequences for the character that I could play with later. Some of those consequences have been felt already, even if the reader may not recognize it. Some haven’t.

          Writing that scene gave me future landmarks that I really wanted to write, which lead to me combining a few for the use in New Fairfax. Everything happened for well thought-out reasons, but it wasn’t exactly planned. Everything has ripples, and I’m constantly spending time asking myself what else is going on in the setting, even if the reader hasn’t met the players involved with those actions yet, which can have ripples on Jordan. I have scores of characters that are waiting to be met, who might not ever be met.

          So in the end, yes, I have a plan, I know where I’m going. The next arc is leading to a landmark that I know for absolute sure that I’m going to visit. I have a lot of landmarks that I might be able to use along the way, but I might not. At the same time, I know that the mandatory landmark might change quite a bit when I get there, due to what happens in the events leading up to it.

          I have four more of these quasi-mandatory landmarks in my head beyond the one in the next arc. Two of them are far enough away that they might not end up appearing, or they might be warped to the point that they might not be recognizable from the ideas that I have now.

          I write by making the setting secure in my head, populating it, then looking for places to put ideas that I’ve come up with. Writing between those ideas is a mystery that shapes the ideas into new forms, and I can wind up as surprised and excited as the reader over what happens.

          I’m still not explaining this quite right, but I think I’ve rambled on enough.

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