Chapter 5

Sarah, or rather, Lisa, as I'd learned she preferred, stayed with me for a long time after that, before quietly giving me a bit of space to collect myself as I came down. I felt… understood. Accepted by virtue of true empathy. She'd survived her own Trigger, and at the moment that I expected to be abandoned, she used her own experience to give me what I'd been starved of.

Would I even be capable of that? I'd never thought of the locker in terms of how I could keep it from happening to others. What kind of person was she, that she could choose instead to save me?

A very scared one, the dark voice in the back of my head told me. One that had discovered the depths of power that lay within me and knew that she needed to be as far away from me as possible when she turned on me. I'd thought I'd known Emma, and I'd seen the depths of her cruelty firsthand. I didn't know Lisa at all, beyond the knowledge that she had a dangerous Thinker ability that could expose me with ease.

I tried not to. I really did. I knew that I struggled to trust people, that I wasn't supposed to use my power as a crutch, but I had to know. I traced my unaltered string forward by a day, then another, and on and on. The Triumvirate didn't appear, I didn't find myself on the run, and Lisa proved herself trustworthy.

Because she knew I'd check. The thought gnawed at the inside of my brain, demanding my attention. She was a Thinker, and I knew how Thinkers would fight. We'd make arrangements, contingencies, we'd plan and prepare and make certain that we could strike with absolute certainty of victory. And her string would shift in my web every time she learned something new from her power. What if I couldn't shift my web in time to destroy all the ripples she'd create when she decided to betray me?

And yet, in the moment when she'd be most likely to, she didn't. It was a conscious effort from me to draw the thought out, but it was there, and it fought against my dark inner voice. As I held the reminder close to my heart, I saw my own string shift. Seeing my path shift as my thoughts crystalized, I felt myself slowly achieve a measure of peace with my decision. It's what I needed. I looked away from my web, leaving it behind. I had work to do, and my trust issues had no place in it.

Two quick models later, and I'd completed the phone calls I needed to be taken seriously with the police and fire department. It required that I downplay my abilities, as they didn't have any experience with my capabilities yet, but I'd be able to prove myself after their first calls, and I'd likely be able to start sending them predictions within the month. The police wouldn't be able to act before a crime was committed, and there were significant limits on how Thinker abilities could be used in prosecution, but I could certainly make sure that bad situations could turn out a little bit better.

I was on the verge of calling New Wave as well before I shut my phone and returned it to my pocket. I'd rather investigate them a little first, no matter how theoretically useful Carol Dallon had been when I'd ruined Blackwell's weekend in my mind. God, but it was confusing to think about these things. They cooperated with the PRT; maybe they'd get my contact information more organically, and after I'd established myself a bit better.

Were those my trust issues rearing their ugly heads again? They were heroes, and they helped people all throughout the city. Of course they could use my help. I wasn't sure why I didn't want to offer it yet, but I just…



Once I'd made my way home, Dad stayed out of my way, seeing my blank expression as I sat on the couch and started navigating my web again. I interrupted myself to share a brief conversation with him; I wasn't doing anything that needed doing now. And he'd been supporting me, no matter how strange it must have seemed.

Tonight's project was about betrayal, but enjoyably enough, not about a potential future betrayal that would demonize my family name for years to come. No, my worries about Lisa had gotten me thinking.

Emma had betrayed me, and I didn't know why. And I certainly didn't lack the resources to find out, at least not anymore. I didn't waste time following my own string backwards through time. I didn't know if my power could project past my Trigger, but I certainly didn't feel like glancing at the locker again, brief as it might be to do so. No, instead I modeled reconciliation.

It felt disgusting, to an extent. Like I was crawling back to her, belly-up, unable to move on, regardless of all the abuse she'd caused. But there it was, as clear as day, as I saw a possible future where I sat on her bed, tears on both our faces.

I didn't want to play this in reverse, but the node hadn't been difficult to find, so I didn't worry too much about losing it. I fumbled around with my strings rather blindly, considering my attention was still on the endstate, and grasped the initial intersection, turning my attention to it and allowing it to flow into my mind.

I was at Winslow, and I isolated Emma immediately with a battery of words that sent each of her followers scurrying. Nope. I was going to pretend to do this nicely, no matter how satisfying this version was to fantasize about. Still fumbling around semi-blindly, I found a mental model that required fewer strings.

I sent Madison scurrying away in tears in this one. You know what, I'd take it. Emma was rarely without a clique, and running into her with just one person backing her up was rare enough as it is. Madison had been promoted recently, in the aftermath of Sophia's transfer out of town. Good for her, finally moving up in the world. I wondered if Julia would take Madison's old job, or if a different hanger-on would fill the position. Emma was always recruiting for her crusade against me, after all.

And then, a confrontation. I took a few barbs, and I saw my eyes tear up, before I apologized for retaliating. Watching it play out, I didn't even know what I was watching. Emma was waiting for me to apologize to her? I had to restrain myself from finding another revenge fantasy to watch.

I apologized for making a haircut joke. She demanded to know how I'd known. I saw my lips move, words come pouring out, tears still rolling down my cheeks, one after the other. I had never felt so removed from a simulation.

I saw myself explain that I'd failed her. That I wasn't there when she needed me. That in some way, staying quiet all this time was my penance for letting her go through that alone. Emma would back up, demanding answers, why I'd never said anything. I said that she was strong, and if the best way for her to do that was to take it out on me, then I'd have to be strong enough to take it without complaint.

Emma's eyes would tear up, but she'd resort to anger. Her anger would die when I apologized for lashing out when I'd brought up her trauma, and she'd collapse into tears when I promised that I could be strong for her again and that I hoped she was still in touch with Sophia.

I was stunned at the sight, at least before the fury began to build inside me. That was why she'd turned on me? Because I'd been at a fucking summer camp? The nerve of that-

I closed my eyes and let the simulation drop. I needed it gone. That simulation was a travesty, and every moment I spent holding on to those strings was making me angrier. At least I knew that there was a reason, right?

That justification didn't help me come to terms with it in the slightest. No, there was more to the story. There had to be. A reason for my word choice, for the justifications I'd used, for why the haircut was so important. She'd suffered a trauma. Let's start there.

Simulation after simulation, and my fury quieted, but didn't decrease. It just grew colder, as I saw more and more instances that would demand I take responsibility for Emma's torture of me.

A mugging, and one stopped by Sophia. Emma had decided, over the course of five days, that she had to be strong, and that the only way to do so was to destroy her old, weaker self. I was the embodiment of that, and therefore, a valid target for her hate. This was making me sick.

One more model. For old times' sake. With a couple of tweaks, the PRT would open investigations into Shadow Stalker's old cases, and with another pull, one incident logged with the police would find its way to the top of the PRT's stack of files. An officer would go to the Barnes household, and I played the strings in a gentle rhythm to direct the conversation towards Emma's changed mental state. Her father, as protective as he was, would be convinced to take advantage of the PRT's offer of therapy.

It was the most frustrating model I'd had to date. When Sophia's string had entangled with Emma's, they had resonated and fed off each other in a sort of brutal codependence. I assumed it had, rather, as I hadn't had this insight at the time. Trying to stem the flow of ripples from here on out was like trying to still the surface of a pond that had been bubbling for years.

I thought about noise cancelling headphones, how they used inverse waves to muffle incoming sounds, but I discarded the metaphor quickly enough. That principle could only mask sounds at the ear by virtue of intersecting at a single point in space. Here, I was trying to play the strings of the future to create inverse waves that would expand at the same points that Emma was located, nullifying the malignant ripples she extended into the web.

As the thought crystalized, I saw a single strand appear. That might not be the right word. Come into focus, perhaps? But it seemed more like it was there all along, and I'd just chosen not to see it.

It lead directly from me to Emma, not in any physical sense, but in a mental one. Modeling its outcome, I felt myself grow cold.

If I didn't like the sound a guitar string was playing, then I could still it instead. The strand was a simple command, like a reset button. A Master effect.

I swallowed. The possibilities that lay before me revealed themselves based on how likely they were to be selected. If this possibility was revealing itself, did that mean that I was willing to use Master abilities? I'd decided that I wouldn't, right?

I was crippling myself, I felt my inner monologue whisper. An insidious thought, one that I wanted nothing to do with. If things would be better without Emma's current actions, why shouldn't I place my hand on her string, let her play her own music once again? I'd loved that music for so much of my life, until that one fucking day, when she'd turned on me.

Damn her. I wouldn't do it, but damn her for the temptation. She'd be the one to climb out of the hole she put herself into, and she should be thanking for me for tossing her a rope. No matter that I was some eight steps removed from the chain of events and she'd hopefully never find out my involvement.

Tomorrow morning, the Merchants' would, Thinker interference notwithstanding, attack at the docks. Squealer would overextend herself, and Velocity would be in the perfect position to take advantage of that fact. As my model updated, I saw a single change: two spare containment foam grenades on his belt that hadn't been there before. Just being cautious, and it wouldn't affect the outcome. I let my models drop, satisfied that I wouldn't even need to call in a prediction amendment to the PRT before I fell asleep.

I'd learned about Thinker powers from Lisa. Were there any nonthreatening Masters around, to get some situational awareness in that department? It really would be good to hear their thoughts on the subject. Maybe it would help me reconcile my issues with that aspect of my power. Or maybe it'd just lead to me being distracted by more possibility strings that I'd consider over the line.

A model started to form, almost automatically, before I dismissed it. That would be a problem for tomorrow.

I was at the library again; I'd likely have to try and get a computer at home one of these days, if I ever figured out a way to make money from my ability without feeling like a dirty cheat in the process. I was sure that I'd get there eventually, but for now, the library was enough.

I'd latched on to that idea I had last night, and was already researching notable Masters that might qualify for a useful interview. Villain, villain, villain, villain, I noted as I scrolled through PHO, already getting annoyed at what I was finding. It wasn't a very heroic power classification, I'd admit, but there was certainly a lot of good that you could do with it, right? It just took a bit of effort to spin with the PR department.

We'd talked about it in Gladly's class more than once. Do evil people get evil powers, or is the correlation somehow being misinterpreted? I really hoped that it was the second, because otherwise, I might be the worst person alive, considering my powerset.

Sure, just about any power could be used for good things or for bad things. I could Think up a way to ruin everyone's lives that I could touch, or I could Think them back into place. And Purity looked like a perfect example of a good guy power that just happened to be in the hands of a raging racist. And there were people like Oni Lee, who'd clearly made decisions that allowed them to use his power to be a one-man stream of suicide bombers.

Maybe it was just like with Tinkers. Tinkers tended to gravitate towards membership in hero teams, where they could make the most of their abilities with resources and legitimate backing, as well as the opportunity to work alongside other similarly-minded people. Maybe it was the nature of Master powers to be drawn towards villainy.

As the idea started to crystalize in my mind, I started to like it less and less. If that were the case, then there really wouldn't be much difference between heroes and villains. Just capes that sought different opportunities than others. And while the local Protectorate certainly wasn't in my good graces, they did help people. That couldn't be solely because they liked the attention.

Strangers too. That was worth considering. It's why the PRT had Master/Stranger protocols, after all. I opened another tab and started searching for heroic Strangers, when I was greeted with an uncomfortably similar result.

There was Shadow Stalker, who I was rather well acquainted with, prominently displayed in the 'Local' tab. Someone probably needed to update this page. Flicking through the complete list, I saw another wave of villains. Sure were a lot of them. Though that was already a skewed statistic, considering that something like two thirds of capes went that route. Or was it three fourths?

Master/Stranger protocols. I could probably get around those easily enough, right? A subtle enough alteration, and it would look like a purely organic decision made by my target, nothing remaining to tie them to me. I pushed the thought out of my head. No matter that I was seeking out another Master to learn from; I wasn't going to start making contingencies against the Protectorate until I actually had a reason to do so.

If. The thought came to me far too easily, an aimless drive towards conflict. And a subtle one, too, considering that I was only able to recognize it the first few times by observing my own string. Like Lisa had said, I'd been too focused on using my power against parahumans, rather than to help people, the way a hero would.

But not like a cape. When was the last time Glory Girl worked with disaster response, or cleanup at an Endbringer attack? She could save lives that way, saving people from collapsed shelters or lifting chunks of concrete too awkward or unfortunately placed for heavy equipment to deal with. And yet, the whole city had decided together that she'd deserved the title 'hero'.

I didn't like where my train of thought was taking me. Villains hurt people, and heroes kept them from doing so. Who'd Lisa hurt, then? She was a thief, and one with a Thinker ability. If that made her a villain, why had she helped me? I felt like I was chasing my own tail. Every step I took towards my goal was pulling my goal further away from my new position.

Find my starting point and proceed from there, I told myself. Just like a string model. People with Master powers tended to be villains. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like there was no place for a Master in the Protectorate's ranks. Maybe the answer was simpler than I was thinking, less insidious. Maybe that just meant that all of the Masters in the world who didn't care to be villains just stayed home. Or maybe they'd been demonized to the point that Masters had no choice but to turn to villainy.

So. Back to the top of the list, this time, without discarding the option of talking to any villains. I pulled up a third tab and pulled up the search engine, looking for news stories about notable Masters.

It was slow work, and every article I read was a reminder of how people would look at me if this aspect of my ability came out. America loved to hate Masters, it seemed. I couldn't even blame them, not really. It was terrifying, thinking that someone could reach out, take hold of my string, and choose my path for me.

A stubborn part of my mind refused to accept that Mastering was any different from my Thinker manipulation. What was the difference between causing someone to act in a certain way through a telekinetic nudge on the environment and just placing their string in a new position anyway? The effect would be the same, and their freedom of choice had been taken away the moment I'd modeled an outcome and resolved to make it so.

The Thinker I'd fought earlier that week was evidence enough of that. She'd looked bemused when I'd arrived; not shocked at being outmaneuvered, not annoyance at seeing how long I'd resisted her. Bemusement, like she'd expected the outcome to happen in a different way.

I had no misconceptions that she'd have been able to kill me before I'd be able to kill her. She could see my string, after all, or whatever her equivalent of it was. I'd needed a head start to keep ahead of her for any amount of time, and there was no way that I could have outpaced her in the moment. I took time to make decisions. She didn't. She existed outside my decision-making loop, and she'd known the outcome before it happened. Had I tried anything, the only change in outcome would be that I would have lost in a far more permanent fashion.

The difference between her and me was the same difference between me and anyone else. A difference so complete that my own choices didn't factor into the outcome. I'd played to her game just as easily as if she played my string herself. As easily as if she was a Master.

But the difference was in the name. Since she controlled circumstances, she wasn't one of them. At least she hadn't played with my brain, not directly. It stank of hypocrisy. And yet, I had the exact same biases. I'd shied away from using Master effects, even as I found other ways to cause the exact same effects.

My train of thought faded away as I discovered the perfect instructor. A reluctant Master, one being prosecuted for accidental use of a power. She was being fast-tracked through the judicial system, and she was expected to receive a Birdcage sentence. Could I stop it? Easily. Should I? I almost answered with the same speed before I forced myself to consider my actions. Possibly, I decided grudgingly. But if I intended to save her, then I'd first need to buy her time. My focus expanded as my web sprawled before me, and I found an interaction where I sat in a room with one Paige Mcabee, congratulating her on her successful appeal.

A good starting point. But 'good' likely wasn't enough to save this woman. I searched, then opened an email account and began to type furiously, holding tight to the image I had in my head. Time to be a hero again.

I usually hate when Taylor reconciles with her bullies, and I think that very few people manage to do it in a satisfying way. I also think that Emma has issues that go quite a bit deeper than most people give her credit for if she was willing to do a heel-face turn in such a short period of time. She's very easily influenced, but she certainly needs to be catered to, hence the extremely unsatisfying resolution.

I'm aware of the strong fix-fic vibes this story is starting to give off, yes, but I'm actually going to blame Taylor for that, and definitely not myself projecting when writing in the first person. She'd wanted to be a hero when all she had were bug powers, getting way in over her head on her first night out in costume because she heard something bad would happen to some strangers. Now that she can see the strings of everyone around her, she's going to involve herself in as many problems that she can, and due to the nature of the Simurgh's precognition, they've been turning out pretty well so far. I bet it's going to be smooth sailing for here on out, and Taylor can finally find time to take a nap every once in a while.

Who am I kidding, this is Worm.