Catching my breath…

I was expecting to be able to spend more time on this, but my asthma has become significantly worse over the last few weeks. I should be able to get some interludes up, but unfortunately you should probably expect my unreliable and irregular update schedule to continue. 

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Machine Daydreams (non-story post)

I have an interlude almost done, but for various reasons (read: networking), instead of finishing it this weekend like I intended to, I created a blog to follow one of my other hobbies, generative machine learning models. Check it out, if you’re interested!

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Eclipse 9.9

Sean was sitting on the ground, when I found him, knees pulled up to his chest, hands shaking. His wings were gone, and his hair had lost its brilliant glow. Shit, he looks bad.

“Sean,” I said.

He didn’t look at me. “How are you here?” He asked, his voice low and hoarse.

“I teleport, remember?” I said, gently as I could manage in the state I was in.

“No. Get out of my head.” He sounded angry, but he still didn’t move. I kept my hand on his shoulder.

“Sean, I’m here,” I said awkwardly. How do I do this? “I have a plan to get us out.” Kind of.

“Get out!” he shouted. He grabbed my arm from his shoulder and turned to look at me. “I deserve this.”

His fingers dug painfully into my wrist. His eyes flared with light. My chest tightened with panic as I remembered being frozen by Temple. My first reflex was to cover my eyes with darkness, but what I’d seen in the darkness a few minutes ago stopped me.

“I saw it,” Sean said. “I fucking saw it.” Sean’s eyes carved dark trails in my vision. “Temple was right. We can’t fight that.”

The scars on his hands stood out, red and angry. He had taken off his gloves.

“Fight what?” I asked. His eyes, though blinding, didn’t have the same effect as Temple’s

“The thing on the screen. I only got a glimpse but it saw me.” He shuddered. “It can still see me.” He sounded more scared than angry now. His grip loosened a bit. “Fuck,” he said, voice quiet. “You’re real.” the light from his eyes dimmed, but didn’t fade completely. “I sound crazy.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. “I don’t know,” I said. “It sounds a lot like what Rob Banks said. Maybe-” I can’t believe I’m saying this. “Maybe Temple’s right.”

Sean nodded, as if it made sense to him. “So this…” He gestured at the wasteland around us. “What is this?”

“It’s Locus,” I said. “His power’s out of control, stretching everything out into… this.”

Sean nodded again, and the light in his eyes dimmed to a dull red glow through his eyelids as he closed them. He let out a deep breath. “I’m too fucking tired.” He said. “You said you have a plan? Do you need me?”

“I don’t know if I could bring you even if I did,” I said. I have teleported someone else before, I remembered. My memory of the event was fuzzy. Charity, after she got shot by Myriad. I could feel my hands shaking. But I doubt I could do that again now.

“Good,” He said, and let go. Once more, I was alone. Fuck. He needs help. I sagged with exhaustion that I had struggled not to show before. I need help.

When I found Locus, I froze with horror. His skin was ashen grey, his limbs distended to half again their normal length. His fingers twisted and splayed at unnatural angles, his mouth locked open, wider than should be possible.

My stomach lurched and I retched involuntarily. I stumbled a few steps away from where he was sprawled on the ground, using my parachute cord to get more distance.

“Oh god,” I croaked. What the fuck? I thought. What happened to him? I had seen the pictures of some of the Nightmares that had appeared over the years. An image of Molar, covered with calcified growths but whose limbs twisted and bent in impossible ways flashed in my head, and others, each more horrifying than the last. Creatures I’d studied carefully before deciding I wanted to take this path. I’d known that I might have to face one of them, or something like them, one day, but I never could have imagined that it would be in the form of one of the beloved heroes I’d looked up to for so long.

He moved without warning, turning his head to look my direction. His eyes were pleading, terrified. I have to help him, resolved. I reached down to the Nullifier and hesitated. If this doesn’t work, I might lose my marks. This might be my only chance.

And after that there’s only one option.

I turned on the Nullifier.

A wave of heat radiated out from the box as it activated and I could feel my darkness fading away, retreating back into my skin, or wherever it came from, revealing the body armor beneath. Locus writhed in pain, but the effect of his twisted power didn’t abate.

The air around us seemed to shake. Blotches appeared in the sky, like holes burned in film. The parachute cord stretched and thinned, and Locus started to move away from me as the space between us expanded.

No! I turned off the Nullifier and my darkness returned, covering me and the parachute cord in an instant, but too late. Locus was gone, vanished into the distance like all the others before. The wasteland seemed somehow different now– less indifferent, more hostile. The feeling of oppressive pressure redoubled.

The remnants of my parachute cord fell to the ground, snapped under its own weight after being thinned and weakened by Locus’ power. That was from just a moment looking at the screen, I realized to my horror. Same as Sean. Same as who knows how many other people.

I didn’t know what kind of effect it would have on people without powers. None of the other people I’d encountered seemed to have had any… symptoms, for lack of a better word, but most of the people I had tagged weren’t at the screening, and those that were were probably looking at me or Guardian Angel. Or at least I hoped they were. Another pulse of pain behind my eyebrows made my head spin.

I reached out to my marks to find that they were still there. That’s good news at least. I looked into the distance. No matter where I looked, I was looking into the distance. And after what Sean said, I couldn’t help but feel like something was watching me. No, not me, but looking my direction, but I was too small to notice.

I failed, I thought. I had one chance, and I failed.

I’m going to be stuck here forever. I sat down on the ground, then fell to my back. Moving made it worse. Given the lack of landmarks, I may have actually been spinning. I stared up at where the sky should have been been and tried to wait for the pain and nausea to pass. I groaned out loud.

“Fuck,” I said, then again, “Fuck!” My mouth was dry. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

I closed my eyes for a moment and then sat up. I need to do something.

“Fuck,” I said again. My voice sounded weak even to me. “I should have just killed him,” I said without conviction. My heart seemed too slow, and too loud. Each pulse pushed me down like one more brick dropping onto my shoulders.

I need to move. I stood, fighting against my body and the better part of my mind that wanted nothing more than to lie down and not get back up. I swayed on my feet, but stated upright.

Momentum. I need momentum.

I teleported to the first person I could reach. A young boy appeared beside me, curled on the ground, whimpering. I stopped, brain stalling. No. I need to keep going. I thought. That’s the only way I can help.

Pushing my doubt aside, I continued. The next few people had feared no better. None were still standing, except one who was walking blindly forward and got out of my grip almost immediately.

After what felt like a long time, I encountered for the second time the warden from the meta-max prison.

“Shadow. I thought you had a plan,” the warden croaked. “Damn but I’m thirsty.”

“I did- do,” I said. My thoughts, sluggish as they were, jumped into high gear when I spotted the blocky blue and yellow handgun on his hip. Not a standard-issue pistol. If it comes down to it, if I can get back to Locus, that might be useful. Even as I had that thought, another idea struck me.

“Denudine,” I said.

“Huh?” he asked.

“Do you have any on you?” I said.

He has to carry denudine on him. It wouldn’t make sense otherwise.

“I do,” he said. He reached into his jacket and produced a small pistol-gripped jet injector with a glass vial of clear liquid screwed into the back.

“I need that.” I might have a chance!

He nodded and handed it over. “Good plan. You can deliver it?”

“I think so,” I lied. I have to try. If I can’t… well, I guess I’d have to hope Locus would die of thirst first. It was a sobering thought.

“Good.” He unholstered his handgun and held it out to me. “Take this too.”

I hesitated, but still took it. Just in case.

“Good luck,” he said as I let him go.

Now I just need to get back to Locus. I thought. I reached out to my marks, pushing my awareness of them as far as I could. Like other senses, I couldn’t really make it better just through force of will, but I could concentrate and maybe find something I’d missed. My other marks didn’t get erased, but the one on Locus probably was. Unless…

The moment before the cord snapped, I covered it. If I remembered what I’d seen correctly, I’d covered the whole thing with one touch. If I managed to mark him, I might be able to find him again.

I searched through my marks, looking for one that fit the description. If the cord was still tied around his leg, I should be able to feel the difference in shape of the mark.

The distances involved as I scanned through my marks were dizzying. Not something I could fully process. Each mark didn’t seem to have a fixed position, just a direction, like stars in the sky. Wait, I stopped at one that seemed to fit the description. Could that be it? I reached through the connection and pulled myself through.

Locus appeared at arms length, separated by the snapped-off length of parachute cord. I took a step towards him, but he only got farther away. No! I teleported closer, but he slid out of my grasp before I could get a grip. I teleported to him again and used my power to press the jet injector to his neck in the same instant. I pulled the trigger and with a hiss of compressed air, it delivered it’s payload.

I was not prepared for Locus’ scream. It cut through the air and split my head in two. I fell to me knees but didn’t release my grip on Locus. I grasped for the nullifier and fumbled for the switch. My hand slipped off the metal surface, and I pulled it back and scrabbled at the metal before I was able to flip it on.

The world collapsed inward with a rush of air and sound. Walls rushed towards us from all sides, slamming abruptly to a halt at the edges of the park. Clouds dropped in from above, completing the feeling of a diorama being folded up around me.

Randwulf must have been caught in it too. He’s still nearby, I thought, even as my vision dimmed. I have to find him. I heard screeching tires and a crash from somewhere nearby.

I have to… I have to… I…

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Wow…

It’s been more than a month. I’m so sorry. I did not expect this to take so long, but I’m finally back in business. Now where was I…

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Technical Difficulties

Please stand by…

Really sorry about this- As usual, I really intended to get this done, but some technical problems have prevented me from getting much (if any) work done over the last week, and probably through next week if I’m unlucky.

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Eclipse 9.8

I’m not sure how long it took us to chip through the crystal, but by the time we were almost through, I was starting to get thirsty. I’m probably better off than some, I reminded myself. The shards of quartz I pried away with the makeshift pick made from a segment of Mafic’s vines disappeared as soon as they were free. Once I had made it through to where the nullifier was on Ransom’s hip, I carefully extracted the black box from the crystal.

This is it. The original nullifier. I let go of Ransom and was alone again. My ears had started ringing at some point and weren’t getting better. In the emptiness, it seemed thunderous, deafeningly loud. I hope this works. The box had one switch, a silver on/off toggle, and no other external ports or controls.

I moved to test it, but stopped myself. I can’t risk losing my marks. From my experience, I didn’t always lose them when my powers were down, but sometimes I did. A headache started forming just behind my eyes and I let out a frustrated hiss of breath. I resumed searching through my marks, and soon enough I came across Dr. Mind. He sat on the ground, inspecting it with a careful eye.

“Shadow! It’s good to see you,” he said. “It’s good to see anyone.”

“Dr. Mind,” I greeted him. It felt odd seeing him in this context, for whatever reason.

He stood. “Well, there is some good news I suppose– it looks like don’t have a range limit. Have you spoke with any of the others?”

“It’s difficult, because I’ve lost track of which mark is who. I found Ransom though,” I said. “It wasn’t Temple at Locus’ apartment. He sent Ransom as a sort of… peace offering, I think. With this-“ I held up the nullifier with the hand that wasn’t in contact with Dr. Mind.

“Oh!” He said, eyes widening. “That is good news. Did you find Locus?”

“I marked him, but I haven’t found him yet.”

Dr. Mind nodded. “He’ll be at the center of this. I don’t know if that will work-“ he gestured to the nullifier, “-but you have to try.”

I nodded. Dr. Mind seemed lost in thought for a moment. The headache hadn’t receded in the intervening time, but stayed a dull ache in the front of my brain. I turned my head to look into the distance for a moment and my hands clenched involuntarily as the pain redoubled into a sharp stab of ice. I closed my eyes for a moment and it dulled, leaving the world spinning.

The air around me felt strange. Not like air, more like vacuum. I’d never felt a vacuum before, because I couldn’t feel air that wasn’t contiguous but there was simply nothing to feel. I knew that Dr. Mind was nearby, but I couldn’t feel his breathing or the disturbances from his movement.

“Shadow.” Dr. Mind’s voice brought me back to myself. I opened my eyes again and looked at him. “Go. Try to save him, but if you can’t…” Dr. Mind looked down, then back at me. “We all knew what we signed up for,” he muttered.

I let go of Dr. Mind and he was gone. I spoke with Lumen briefly, but realized that there was no need to tell her anything beyond Temple’s trick with Ransom. The next person I recognized caught me by surprise. The warden from the prison. He turned to me, startled, and caught my arm with his. I almost teleported away on reflex, but something struck me.

“What in holy hell is going on?” he demanded. He shifted his grip on my arm, and I used the parachute cord to make sure we stayed in contact.

“Nightmare event,” I said. Any other time, I would have found it found the irony of the situation amusing, but I found myself unable to muster a witty response. My voice sounded strange in my ears. Too dry, not natural.

“Shit. Sorry. I tend to be careful with precogs. They don’t stay locked away very long otherwise.” Oh right, the breakout. “We dosed him with Denudine as soon as we went into lockdown, but if this lasts too much longer, it’s going to wear off. If he has any time to plan, we won’t be able to stop him.”

He was right, I knew, but I couldn’t let myself worry about that now. As much harm as he’d done, he had just been a tool for Temple. The thought took me aback. Temple was trying to propose that we had a common enemy, that we could work together against Randwulf, yet his initial approach had been to conscript some budding supervillains and start tearing the city apart to find Randwulf. Between Masquerade and the Upright Man, he’d caused just as many casualties as Randwulf, though perhaps less structural damage.

What changed?

I teleported myself away from the Warden, deep in thought, and soon found Dark Archon, in his human form. “Kevin,” I said.

He turned to face me, his skin splitting to reveal the black crystal beneath.

I wonder if he’s related to Felsic. An unexpected thought. Not likely. He’s from out of town.

“Will! Get me the fuck out of here!” he said. A small shiver ran through him as he pulled himself back together, the cracks in his skin disappearing. He looked different than when I’d last seen him. Hollow and gaunt, like he’d lost a lot of weight very quickly.

He can split apart into smaller forms, I remembered. If some of him wasn’t connected to the main part when Locus… went off, they would get separated.

“I’m working on it,” I said. My voice sounded rough and tired, despite my efforts to be reassuring. “Don’t worry.” Empty platitudes, I thought. Despite, that he relaxed, or at least seemed to. “Just,” I didn’t say anything more. He looked at me, exhausted.

“Will,” he said. “I think I get it, but,” he hesitated. “I don’t think I can do this. Not right now. Not yet. I think-”

He looked away into the distance. “I think Wren was right.”

“Right about what?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what else to say. My mouth was dry.

“I tried to… lead a normal life, you know? Ignore… This. But I can’t. I fell out of a tree in fourth grade and my leg snapped off. He was the only one who knew.”

Fourth grade? That’s early. I didn’t find out until a year and a half ago. His words hurt my ears.

“Everyone hated metas back home. Hell, so did I.” He shifted a bit and glanced down, before looking back up at me. “I got blackmailed into fighting a superheroine. Myriad kidnapped my- she kidnapped Wren to get to me. And then we started working with her against Temple.” I could hear the disgust in his voice. ”We got mind-controlled by Temple and now we’re working with him against a guy who makes nightmares?” He shook his head. “How do you do it? Why? You could do anything else.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just… What I do.” There has to be a better answer than that. I have a reason, don’t I? “I never really stop to think about it.” I wanted to… What? Prove that I could be good? That I didn’t have to follow my dad’s -and grandfather’s- footsteps? “I didn’t know there were other options,” I realized. “Not… really, anyway.”

The conversation died off. “I should go,” I said without conviction. He nodded.

I released my grip. He disappeared into the distance.

For a moment, I just stood there in limbo. My head was splitting. Pounding blood in my ears. High-pitched whine coming from inside my head. “I think there’s something wrong with me,” I muttered. I wasn’t sure what I meant.

I looked down at myself and saw stars. My eyes swam, unable to focus on my own body, stygian black against uniform grey. Sparks of light appeared in my vision.

I looked up, and the sparks exploded into dull spots, like warped film.

I pulled out some shadow, covering my eyes and ears. Sound and light vanished. Even the ever-present sounds of my biology faded away. I was transported from limbo to the void, but it was a familiar void.

I relaxed. The pain faded, replaced by a pleasant numbness. All sensation slipped away, even the pressure of my feet against the ground which I could no longer see. I floated blissfully in the void, recovering from the existential pressure of Locus’ limbo.

All at once, the feeling of ease vanished. I could feel something behind me. It had been there the whole time, and I hadn’t noticed. I turned in an instant, not trusting myself to turn slowly, and I could see it. An area of the darkness, indistinguishable from the rest, but which was somehow closer.

It moved, and I could see the stars behind it.

Adrenaline clutched at me and I pulled myself out, back to the empty grey desert. Sound returned with the thundering of my racing heart.

“What,” I gasped. “What the fuck?”

Was that always there? I shuddered with horror. I rested my hand on the nullifier where I’d clipped it onto my body armor. Was it even real? I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that I had started seeing things. I could tell Locus’ power was having some kind of effect on me.

I need to end this.

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Eclipse 9.7

Silence.

I hadn’t noticed how pervasive the sounds of the city were until all at once, they were gone. Replaced by the kind of silence you only really get in space or deep underground. More like deafness than a lack of noise. The air was completely still, even where it intersected with me.

In a moment, the buildings surrounding the park vanished into the horizon, which was lit in all directions by a sickly orange glow. The sky above faded to gray, like an overcast day, but more uniform, without any breaks or variation, and the ground beneath my feet was the same.

What just happened?

“Can anyone hear me?” I said into my comm. My voice was swallowed up by the space, offering no echoes. I began to feel claustrophobic, like a huge amount of pressure was pressing down on me from all sides.

I looked around, only to see the same bleak emptiness all around me. I could hear my clothes shifting against my skin, the fluids flowing in my mouth and throat. Dizzy, I reached out to the people I’d marked to orient myself, only to be struck by a wave of nausea. They weren’t where I’d left them. They were far away, farther than any distance I’d ever experienced. More akin to the distance between stars than any terrestrial measure.

Head spinning, I picked one and pulled. My stomach lurched, the world blurred and shifted, and suddenly I was holding a woman’s arm. She whipped her head around, then let out a startled scream and pushed me away. As soon as I was no longer touching her, she accelerated away from me and vanished into the distance faster than my eyes could track.

I remembered what I’d read of the Wardens of Justice. Locus could warp distances between objects, causing bullets to simply fall to the ground before they could reach him, or trapping criminals by bringing two buildings across the street together. This is Locus, I realized to my horror. This is what the Upright Man warned us about. Whatever was on the screen triggered his powers. My hands shook. What if I had been looking at the screen when it happened?

I could hear the dull, pulsating roar of the blood in my ears.

I reached for my marks again. I need to find Legion. I couldn’t identify who each of my marks were anymore, so I picked another at random and teleported to them. As before, it didn’t feel normal, some interaction between the two powers, perhaps. The world lurched and twisted and I appeared beside someone lying on the ground in a poofy coat I didn’t recognize. They didn’t seem to notice me beyond a brief flicker of their eyes.

I stepped away, breaking contact, and Locus’ power swept them off into the distance. The next person was a man, walking aimlessly forward. I lost contact with him almost immediately and he vanished like the others. How many people have I marked? I wondered. I’d never thought it would become inconvenient having too many marks. I tried to pick up the pace. It doesn’t seem like anyone’s in immediate danger, but the longer it takes to find him, the longer these people have to spend in this… Limbo. Face after face, appearing, then disappearing once I checked them against my memory of Locus.

Soon, I was stopped by a young woman who was recording with her phone when I appeared.

“Shadow!” She said, surprised. Her voice had the same dull quality to it mine had. The total lack of echoes somehow made it harder to understand. She turned the camera on her phone towards me. “What the hell is going on?”

“’I think-” I said, then paused, unsure how to explain the situation. I’d run into enough of this type of person since I started hero work to know this footage would end up online and maybe get picked up by the news, if she was lucky. I had to be careful what I said. A part of me insisted I shouldn’t say anything, as was standard policy, but at that point my head was spinning and I needed an excuse to stop and take a break. “It’s a Nightmare-class event, sort of.”

“Oh sh-” She cut off her swear. “But we just had one.”

“That’s why I said ‘sort of.’ This is a bit different.” Is it, though? “I know how to stop it.” Do I?

I hesitated, uncertain. I let go of her before she could notice and she disappeared into the distance. I remembered what Sean had told me of the Tide of Sky event. Will I to have to kill Locus? I stood still, staring blankly into the distance. I hope not. Locus had been one of my heroes– as much as any of the Wardens of Tomorrow were. They were beloved all across the country, but nowhere so much as in their home city.

I suppose I’d forgotten who I had marked, because I was surprised when I got to Temple, still locked in a prism of quartz and steel. I appeared beside him, paracord wrapped around his exposed head, anchoring us together. I almost jumped away, but something stopped me.

“Temple,” I said. “Why do this? Why surrender here?”

He mumbled something incomprehensible, then paused and repeated himself louder. “Need to give you something.” His voice didn’t sound right. None of the crawl-in-your-ear-and-hotwire-your-spine quality it normally had.

Something’s off. He had seemed smaller earlier, but I’d assumed it was the lack of armor. But what if… averting my eyes, I reached up and pulled the bandanna off his face. No light shone from it, so I risked a glance, and saw not the blinding face of Temple, but Ransom’s, haggard and unshaven.

“Ransom?” I said. How?

“I need to give you something,” he said again.

I recognized his voice. It was Temple, without question. I thought back to what seemed like only moments ago. The van. He was talking through the radio, I realized. Temple was never even here. That left one more question.

“Give me what?”

“The original. He doesn’t need it anymore.”

“The original? I asked, then my eyes widened as I realized what he meant. “The nullifier. You have it on you?”

He nodded, as much as he was able.

I stood still, stunned. If it works on Locus, I might be able to stop this. This was what Temple was offering. An overture of peace– giving us Ransom and the original nullifier was only a part of it. More than that, he was giving us a chance to save Locus, a way out that didn’t mean killing him.

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