Insinuation, Chapter One
Wherein Taylor and her father talk.
Taylor wakes up. It's 6:28, roughly when she gets up on a normal day...but this is anything but, since just a few hours ago she aided in the capture of the single most dangerous supervillain in the city. Then she came home and slept for some of those three hours, before waking up and acting as a self-described slave to routine.
Taylor and her father prepare breakfast while chatting. She mentions to him that she didn't sleep well; he suggests that she doesn't have to run today. Taylor doesn't agree. They continue chatting; some bits of exposition are dropped. Taylor's father works for the Dockworker's Association, as a union spokesperson and head of hiring; the latter has the unspoken subtitle of "when the economy picks up, we don't have any positions open right now". He mentions a man named Gerry who was one of those people who kept not being hired, and decided to seek work elsewhere...with Leet and Uber, a pair of incompetent barely-B-list villains with a video game theme.
The conversation dies a couple sentences later, and Taylor's father brings up that she came in late last night. Taylor says that she couldn't sleep, and decided to take a walk outside. She notes that, technically, this isn't a lie, and that she has had nights like that before. Her father points out that they don't live in a safe neighborhood; Taylor responds that she had the pepper spray (also the truth), but her father asks what she could do if caught off-guard, or if the other person had a knife or a firearm. The irony of Taylor's father worrying about that when she faced much worse the previous night is not lost on Taylor. Her father asks why she can't sleep; she just says that it has to do with school and not having any friends.
Taylor's father forbids her to go out at night any more and threatens to put a bell on the door; she knows he would, and promises to do so, secretly deciding to do so quieter. Taylor finishes her breakfast and leaves; her father notices that her hair is burnt and asks if she's been smoking. Taylor assures him she hasn't, and suggests it might be burned due to the stove.
Insinuation, Chapter Two
Wherein Taylor researches the villains from the prior night
Taylor worried about school, since she had missed half the day and failed to turn in a major assignment. She seriously considers skipping her first class, one of the few she likes, just to avoid risking the humiliation someone from the office coming to get her. She decides against it, and goes to her computer class. Emma, Madison, and Sophia are all absent, and their friends are in the computer-illiterate three-quarters of the class, whereas Taylor was in the advanced section learning basic programming and spreadsheets. The advanced students were usually given an assignment while Mrs. Knott supervised the more unruly, less nerdy kids. Taylor usually finished the assignment in half an hour, leaving her an hour to do other things.
Today, she got a head start on other things before worrying about the assignment. She visits Parahumans Online, which is a fansite for all superheroes, supervillains, and other "capes" (parahumans who actively use their powers for interesting things, as opposed to "rogues" who use them for business or entertainment). It's part Google News, part Wikipedia, part forum, and all focused on the superhumans who terrorize and save the Earth. Taylor's search started with the wiki.
She searched for Tattletale and got just about zip. Her article was a one-sentence stub with a blurry picture that told Taylor her costume was lavender. Next was Grue, who had more information; he'd been a small-time independent villain for three years before getting a team and moving on to bigger crimes, including corporate theft and robbing a casino. He, too, had a picture—and a clear one—but Grue himself was a blurry black silhouette surrounded by darkness. No results for Bitch (apparently, PHO keeps things PG-13-ish) Hellhound, on the other hand, had an even more extensive article than Grue. Hellhound, real name Rachel Lindt, never tried to conceal her identity. Her powers manifested at age fourteen, and were followed by the destruction of her foster home. She was homeless after that (unsurprisingly) and for the remainder of her criminal career, which began with a two-year skirmish across Maine as she evaded capture. Reports of the homeless girl stopped roughly a year prior to the present day; Taylor guesses she joined the Undersiders around this time. Taylor also discovered that she had at least two fan sites and plenty of notoriety; she also confirmed that the monsters she saw the prior night were made from dogs. Her wiki entry also warned that, quote, "Rachel Lindt has a public identity, but is known to be particularly hostile, antisocial and violent." Finally, Taylor searched for Regent, and got no article—not even a stub, nor an article under a similar name that she might have misheard.
Taylor quickly did the assignment—a calculator, which the previous two classes had equipped her to do with ease—and searched for information on Lung and the ABB. She confirmed his powers, and noted that the wiki didn't mention him being fireproof or possessing super-hearing. She considered adding those notes, before deciding that they would be removed as speculation and might start a trail of clues connecting the bug-girl at the docks to Taylor Hebert. The wiki listed him as having forty to fifty gang members across Brockton Bay, and the gang was growing. At first he was just taking over pre-existing gangs, but now he was recruiting any Asians in the area between the ages of twelve and sixty.
The wiki also gave information on his lieutenants, Oni Lee and Bakuda. The former had a red box, like Hellhound's but without the note about a public identity. Taylor noticed new edits, which clarified his power as a combination of teleportation and duplication: Oni Lee teleports away, and leaves a duplicate behind for five to ten seconds; said duplicate fights, even able to (say) detonate a grenade and act as a suicide bomber—and since there was no apparent limit on how quickly he could use his power, he could have multiple simultaneous suicide bombers. With the same grenade. And on that note, let's look at what Taylor learned about Bakuda, whose power lets her create advanced bombs. Sadly, the wiki had little that Armsmaster hadn't told her, although it did link to a video about her bomb threat at Cornell (which Taylor wisely declined to watch at school).
Scrolling down, Taylor got to a list of defeats and captures. Lung had won many fights, but not all; he suffered minor defeats at the hands of both local heroes like the Protectorate, Wards, and New Wave and more distant ones like the Guild, but it mentioned that Armsmaster had captured Lung, and that he would be held for a teleconfrence trial, likely to end in his imprisonment at a place called the Birdcage. Taylor then went to the PHO message board to see what they thought about it; someone (presumably a minion or fan of Lung) threatening violence against Armsmaster, someone else asking for more information on the fight, someone wondering if Bakuda would use a large-scale bomb threat to ransom Lung, which Taylor tried not to worry about; more experienced heroes would handle that.
Taylor then searched for anything on the message boards which might relate to her. She found two posts. One was referring to a UK villain named Pestilence, who believes that his superpowers are actually magic (and he's not the only cape to believe such). The second was in the "Connections" section of the board, which is where everything from rescuees contacting rescuers to fans organizing conventions. Many of the posts there are cryptic or vague, and this was no exception.
Owe you one. Would like to repay the favor. Meet?
Send a message,
Two pages of comments followed this message, three people thought it was important arguing with half a dozen who thought they were crazy. Taylor knew which group was right.
Insinuation, Chapter Three
Wherein Taylor's day goes downhill.
The class bell rang shortly after Taylor read her message, and she hurried through logging off and shutting the computer down. She realized she still hadn't faced the music for skipping class, and went to Mr. Gladly's World Issues class, where her normal seat had been covered in orange juice by Madison. Remember her? One of her bullies, from before Taylor (contributed to a group effort which) beat up Lung? Mr. Gladly waited a few minutes after the typical class-starts-now time and broke the class into groups, to combine what they thought about over the weekend into a presentation. Taylor hated group assignments, because unlike most people, she didn't have a group of friends that she liked working with.
Instead, she got put with two other friendless outcasts. Sparky was a drummer in a band, detached from reality to the point of almost sleepwalking through life. Greg was, like Taylor, a nerd, but where Taylor was quiet and introverted, Greg lacked a filter between his brain and his mouth, and...in Wildbow's words, "his train of thought didn't have any brakes. Or tracks. It would have been easier [for Taylor] to be in a group with just Sparky and essentially do the work by [her]self than it would be to work with Greg." Taylor got out her contribution, which included a comprehensive list of ways capes affected society, plus newspaper and magazine clippings supporting her point. This was all her group had—Greg got distracted over the weekend playing a video game, and Sparky was Sparky.
Julia, one of Madison's friends, came into class late and was sent to Taylor's group, since it had only three people. Madison and her group moved over by Julia, Greg kept trying to join their conversation (unsuccessfully, since he was a nerdy outcast), and Sparky was still Sparky. Taylor tried to involve Greg in the actual assignment by showing him her work; he read through it, complimented it, and handed it to Julia when asked. In a twist that surprised no one except Greg (I imagine even Sparky saw this one coming), Julia gave Taylor's work to Madison, and both Julia and Madison refused to acknowledge having taken anything when Taylor asked and that Taylor existed, respectively. Taylor tried to galvanize the group into putting something together, but Greg spent most of the time apologizing and trying to convince Madison and friends to return the work while Sparky...well...was Sparky. And Greg was chosen to give their group's presentation.
Greg, being Greg (and also without much to go on), botched the presentation up until Mr. Gladly told him to sit down. Madison, on the other hand, gave a well-composed presentation with Taylor's excellent information (albeit mangling a couple points). Another group was deemed the winner through sheer quantity, but Mr. Gladly complimented Madison's group. Mr. Gladly moved on to his lecture; Taylor took a page out of Sparky's book, partly from exhaustion and sleep deprivation, partly from fury, and partly to keep her power under control. The class passed, and Mr. Gladly asked to speak with Taylor.
Mr. Gladly states that he knows that Taylor's been bullied. He points to the orange juice in her seat, an incident a few weeks prior where glue was smeared on her desk and chair, and another at the beginning of the year. It isn't elaborated on, but Taylor's reaction and the fact that all of her teachers had a meeting on it indicates that it was pretty severe. Mr. Gladly correctly guesses that there was more he didn't know about. Mr. Gladly offers to take her to the principal's office so she can explain it; when asked for details, he says that the bullies she named would be brought to the office as well, and if there was proof of their wrongdoing, they would be suspended for several days; further offenses could lead to longer suspensions or expulsions. Taylor is unimpressed, pointing out that the punishment is minor, uncertain, and that regardless of if it happened or not, it would provoke retaliation. She refers to it as shooting herself in the foot, then leaves, running into Emma, Madison, Sophia, and half a dozen other girls.
Insinuation, Chapter Four
Wherein Taylor is mocked and crushed
The girls get straight to work, literally backing her into a corner while throwing a wide variety of coordinated insults of varying maturity, comprehensibility, and consistency. One even says she'd kill herself if she was Taylor, right as Mr. Gladly walks past. Taylor regrets for a moment that the group was girls, not guys. Guys would (usually) react to violence in kind, leading to Taylor getting beaten up but a decent investigation into the matter, and even if things didn't stop for good, Taylor would at least have some satisfaction. Girls, on the other hand, usually played dirtier; if Taylor punched one Emma, she would go to the principal, Taylor would come out looking like a psycho, and kids which had left Taylor alone would join Emma in her "vengeance".
When Taylor thinks the group is losing steam, Emma brings out the big guns: She suggests that Taylor will be crying herself to sleep for a week, subtly reminding her of her mother's death. It had hit Taylor hard and her father worse; he didn't even make dinner for a few days, until Emma's mother (this was back when Emma and Taylor were still friends) forced him to put his life together. A month later, Emma remarked to Taylor that she was really resilient; Taylor admitted that she's just faking it, and that she cried herself to sleep for a week. Taylor had started crying at that point; Emma had given her a kind shoulder to cry on.
Present-Taylor starts crying at this point; Present-Emma laughs at her, and her friends mock Taylor. Taylor had taken her backpack off to lean against the wall, and reached for it, only to have it pulled away by Sophia's foot. Taylor gave up, forced her way through the girls, and fled the school.
Insinuation, Chapter Five
Wherein Taylor makes a plan
Taylor obviously had no intention of lingering near the school. She couldn't go home, either; her father worked unreliable hours, so there was every chance that she would be discovered skipping school by her father. The Boardwalks were a frequent destination on her runs, and close to the Docks, where Taylor had bad memories and worse enemies. She decided to go downtown. Trying not to dwell on Emma and the other bullies, she instead thought about Tattletale, the message she left Taylor, and the Undersiders in general. They were definitely an enigma. Grue and Hellhound were marginally successful small-time villains who didn't operate in Brockton Bay before joining the Undersiders and pulling off high-profile crimes, while Regent and Tattletale were complete unknowns. It could be that one of the latter united the group, but Taylor remembered Grue teasing Regent more than treating him like a leader, and Tattletale didn't seem like a likely uniting factor. She also remembered them saying that they fought for a while over their plans—it didn't sound like they had much leadership.
Taylor considers her options for lunch—hers had been in her backpack. She briefly considered using the favor the Undersiders owed her to buy her lunch (not seriously); this got her thinking about Tattletale's offer to meet up. She realized that if she went, she could fish for information and bring it to the heroes. They'd probably see it as a betrayal...but when she came out as a hero, that was basically inevitable. She decided to head for the library, and waited for a public computer with a bit of privacy to open up. She sent an anonymous message to "Tt," saying she'd like to meet but wanted proof of identity. It was only a couple sentences, but she spent a lot of time looking it over, making sure it didn't say more or less than she wanted to. A couple minutes later, she got a response, much longer. Tt mentioned a few of the events of the prior night in a way which wouldn't look suspicious to the administrative staff or anyone reading over Taylor's shoulder, and offers to meet with her, bringing "G" and "R" along. She says Taylor doesn't "have to get gussied up if you catch my drift". She asks if meeting at three would give enough time to get to the meeting place from the library. Yes, she knows Taylor's at the library.
Taylor gave the matter a lot of thought, to the point that the screen saver turned on. She might be able to get even more information that she had wagered, with this chance to see most of the Undersiders out of costume. But revealing all of that information, when they someone who could figure out Taylor's location so easily...worrisome. But if she didn't, she'd have to return to the status quo, minus two afternoons of school. She agreed to the meeting.
Insinuation, Chapter Six
Wherein Taylor meets the villains
Taylor decided to show up in costume; it would provide protection not only for her identity, but for her skin. She removed the armor and put a loose sweatshirt and jeans over it, but still felt conspicuous. She brought her mask and an old backpack; when she reached the meeting place, she put the outer clothes into the bag and the mask on her face. She sent out some flies to scout ahead, mentioning that bugs sense things differently than people, worse when you consider the different speed they process their senses; the result was that most of their senses were almost useless to Taylor, and she mostly used them to sense things through touch, exploiting her power's inherent sense of where all the bugs are. The bugs' sight was blurry, but enough for Taylor to identify three figures; a bit of touch confirms that they aren't wearing masks. Climbing up, she identified the trio as almost certainly Tattletale, Grue, and Regent in civilian clothes.
Tattletale tells Regent to pay up. Apparently, they bet on if Taylor would show up in costume, and Tattletale won. Grue says that it's Regent's fault; it was a dumb bet, "even if it wasn't Tattle". Grue, Tattletale, and Regent introduce themselves as Brian, Lisa, and Alec; Regent says that Bitch (a.k.a. Hellhound) was Rachel, but Taylor already knew that. Grue says she's sitting this meeting out because she doesn't agree with their purpose, which Taylor takes as an ideal time to ask what that purpose is, why they came without costumes. Grue says that it's a show of trust.
Lisa hands Taylor a plastic Alexandria lunchbox (Taylor mentions that she was her favorite member of the Protectorate as a kid), filled with two thousand dollars in cash. Lisa says that it can be a gift, repayment for saving them from Lung and an incentive to "count us among your friends when you're out in costume and doing dastardly deeds"...or her first monthly payment as a member of the Undersiders. Brian clarifies that the two grand each per month is just what their "boss" pays for the group staying together—they make considerably more than that. Taylor quickly determines that Bitch didn't want her on the team, though the other three did. Apparently, this isn't the first time the Undersiders tried to recruit a new member, or the first time Bitch voted against it. They tried recruiting someone named Spitfire, but didn't even get to the job offer before Bitch scared her off; Spitfire was recruited by someone named Faultline. They also tried recruiting a villain named Circus, who declined because she works alone.
Why recruit Taylor? In Brian's words, "...there's bound to be some pushing and shoving over territory and status among the various gangs and teams. Us, Faultline's Crew, the remaining ABB, Empire Eighty-Eight, the solo villains, and any out of town teams or gangs that figure that they can worm in and grab a piece of the Bay...We haven't screwed up a job yet, but the way us three figure it, it's only a matter of time before we end up stuck in a fight we can't win." Taylor points out that she only has bugs; Lisa point out that she defeated Lung. Taylor argues that she would have died if they hadn't saved her; Lisa counters that for a solo cape fighting Lung, that's pretty good. She also drops that Lung is in the hospital.
Taylor is shocked—she thought that Lung being a big guy and a regenerator to boot, he'd be safe from all the deadly venom she pumped into his system. In case the volume wasn't enough, the doctor checking him over recognized the bug bites and stings but pronounced him fine for a few hours because the really venomous bugs don't bite more than once. Taylor says that toxins aren't supposed to even be one percent as effective against those who regenerate like Lung does, but apparently, something stopped his regeneration, or the toxins she injected were a hundred times more potent or numerous than she had realized. Lung had large-scale tissue damage, and his heart stopped a few times. Oh, and one of the major areas Ling lost tissue...well, Taylor was going for the weak spots, and her brown recluses bit the lowest weak spot available. Lung's recuperating, although it'll take six months to a year before he's fully recovered. And he's almost certainly going to want revenge.
Taylor asks how they know this, and how Tattletale knew she was in the library (which Brian apparently didn't know Lisa knew or told Taylor). Lisa says that a girl has to have her secrets; Alec says she's half the reason they haven't failed a job, with their boss being a lot of the rest. Lisa says that the rest comes on a need-to-know basis, only available to members. Taylor decides to join. In her words, "It wasn't like I was signing the deal in blood or anything."
Insinuation, Chapter Seven
Wherein Taylor visits the Undersiders' lair
There is much rejoicing. The Undersiders decide to take Taylor to their base, and note that she'd stand out in costume. She gets a little privacy to change into the sweatshirt and jeans, then feels a pang of very adolescent concern over what the Undersiders would think of her non-costumed self. "Brian and Alec were good looking guys, in very different ways. Lisa was, on the sliding scale between plain and pretty, more pretty than not. My own scale of attractiveness, by contrast, put me somewhere on a scale that ranged from 'nerd' to 'plain'." Taylor decides to tell the Undersiders her real name—it could save her if she ran into someone she happened to know while with the Undersiders.
They walked through some very, very unmaintained, poverty-stricken parts of the Docks. The Undersiders' base was once a factory, but had apparently been out of use for some time. The factory floor was abandoned, filled with the rusted remnants of the machinery. The Undersiders other than Taylor ignored that area, instead heading upstairs to a loft converted into a living area, complete with an improvised kitchen, some sorta-kinda-bedrooms, and an actually quite comprehensive and impressive entertainment system. The Undersiders confirm that it's Taylor's space as much as theirs, and offer to clear out their storage room so she has a place at the loft. Taylor tries to protest that she doesn't need one, but they say it's as much for them as her. Brian has an apartment and didn't want a room there, and it's caused problems. One problem mentioned was losing an eight hundred dollar white couch when he bled on it from wounds inflicted by one Shadow Stalker, who Alec and the others do not approve of.
Brian checks for Rachel and says that both she and her dogs are gone; he mentions that this always worries him. He starts describing the duties and rewards of being an Undersider to Taylor. The pay is good—two grand a month, ten to thirty-five grand split five ways for a typical job. He asks Taylor how on top of things she is with knowing capes, and mentions that some people (Alec) don't take it seriously and some (Lisa) act like they know it all. Lisa protests that she does, in fact, know it all thanks to her power; Taylor takes this at face value and freaks out inside, before Lisa admits that her power only tells her some of it all—it works a little like super-intuition, best with concrete stuff. She's also good with computers, partly because her power lets her guess passwords; she uses the Protectorate HQ security cameras as a combination of reality TV and educational programming. Taylor asks about the powers Brian and Alec have, but is interrupted by three dogs attacking her.
Insinuation, Chapter Eight
Wherein Taylor meets the last Undersider
Brian demands that Rachel call off her dogs; she doesn't comply. Taylor cries out in fear and pain; a second or two later, Rachel complies and the dogs retreat. Taylor notes that Brian punched Rachel hard enough to knock her to the ground and give her a bloody nose. Brian makes it clear that he didn't like having to hit her. Taylor asks why Rachel sicced her dogs on her; she doesn't respond, which angers Taylor more. She reflexively tries to justify inaction and fails, and as I put it so eloquently in Worm Lite, begins "retaliating the crap out of [Rachel]." Brian uses his darkness to break up the fight. Taylor's had enough and leaves, cut off by a large cloud of Brian's darkness. It's described as being smoke-like, but with an oily, inconsistent texture, and absorbing sounds to boot. Taylot orients herself with her bugs and heads out the door. Brian catches up before she gets far, and apologizes for both using his power on her and for Rachel's conduct. He says that if it were up to him, he'd kick Rachel out and keep Taylor, but their boss wouldn't like that. Brian asks for a second chance; Taylor allows it.
Insinuation, Chapter Nine
Wherein Taylor hangs out at the Undersiders' lair
The Undersiders know basic first aid, so they patch up Taylor's (and Rachel's) wounds. Alec compliments Taylor on how well she beat up Rachel; she doesn't appreciate it as much as he probably thinks she should. Taylor asks what Alec's power does; he demonstrates on Brian, who thankfully isn't doing anything delicate since his power is (as Lisa explains while Brian retaliates) to disrupt people's nervous systems, making their extremities twitch. Taylor confirms the others' powers (learning that Brian's darkness also stops radiation, radio waves, and the like) and learns that the Undersiders have a strict "codenames in costume, birth names out of costume" rule. Brian also says that he edited his own PHO wiki page, labeling his power as simply "darkness generation". Taylor wants to go home, but the Undersiders convince her to stick around and just call her father, who was unsurprisingly worried about her daughter. Taylor assures him that nothing's wrong, and that she's just made some friends. She claims that they seem like good people.
Interlude 2, Victoria Dallon/Glory Girl
Wherein a white supremacist is interrogated
Victoria Dallon flies through the air with the greatest of ease, due to having the superpower to fly, as well as a force field that protects her from everything from bullets being shot at her to bugs splattering against her. She does a carefully-practiced landing in front of her target, and flies after him when he runs. She accuses the man of attacking an African-American college student. Victoria threatens to break his limbs to get him to talk, telling her everything she wants to know about a group called Empire Eighty-Eight. She tries to use another of her powers—an awe-inspiring aura—to help, but it just scares him enough to make him even more stubborn. She throws him, and briefly worries that she broke something, before he gets up. She asks if he's ready to talk yet; he isn't. Insulted, she throws a dumpster at him; he goes down and doesn't get up again. Whoops.
Victoria checks his pulse before calling her sister, Amy. She takes five minutes to arrive, and isn't amused. Apparently, this has happened before (this is the sixth time Amy knows of). Luckily, Amy is a healer, but she's considering not healing this guy so Victoria has to face the consequences of her actions for once. Victoria argues that it would be going way too far, screwing with Victoria more than is needed and screwing with their family to boot; Amy counters that this kind of behavior, with or without healing, is exactly why people are afraid of independent heroes like the New Wave, points out that she (Amy) is adopted, and asks Victoria to stop trying to use her awe-aura (awra?) power on her. As the guy complains of pain and cold, Amy agrees to heal him...but this is the last time. Amy checks on the man, and gives Victoria a description of how the student he beat up is. Physically great, but Amy says she can't affect brains. Technically won't, as Victoria points out; Victoria thinks that by not trying, she's going to risk big problems if she ever has to.
With Amy's permission, Victoria begins interrogating the skinhead. He curses at her again and threatens to sue; Victoria points out that her mother is one of the best lawyers in the city. Victoria offers a deal: Either get healed and give up the desired details, or Amy doesn't help. Amy adds erectile dysfunction to the list of medical issues. That's enough to convince him to tell Victoria everything. Empire Eighty-Eight is expanding into the docks, he says, because the ABB is weak and some guy called Coil with a private army of ex-military mercenaries (it is not made clear if he is using "ex-military" in the colloquial or formal sense, but only taking soldiers who were kicked out of the army sounds pretty supervillainous) with top-of-the-line, even futuristic gear. But back to the docks, it's not just E88 that will be making a move on the docks—it's every gang, every villain, even some out-of-towners who want a shot at some of the most potentially lucrative in Brockton Bay. Either there will be war, or there will be an alliance formed among the gangs, and it's hard to say which would be worse.
Victoria asks Amy if she's done; she's handled everything that could get Victoria in trouble, but says she hasn't finished everything yet. The patient complains, and Victoria points out some of the nasty stuff Amy could do with her power, ranging from giving him various types of new injuries to changing the color of his skin. Victoria claims she isn't half as scary as Amy, and they leave. Amy makes Victoria promise to be more careful—dead is something she actually can't fix, not just won't. Victoria promises to be good, and calls emergency services. She checks with Amy on the skinhead's status; he's numb and won't get up any time soon, but otherwise fine. She also lied about the erectile dysfunction, and didn't screw with anything that way, so nothing but fear and doubt will interfere with his love life. Victoria jokingly points out that Amy said she wouldn't mess with peoples' heads. Hopefully, she won't do it again.