(Author's note: Half chapter this week, once again due to limited writing time. I had enough to post an abbreviated chapter and wanted to avoid missing a week after the recent gaps in my schedule. Hoping for a longer chapter next week, but I have a busy period next month, independent of the holiday season, so I'm not sure how much writing time I'll have. At worst we'll be looking at shorter chapters for a few weeks until things settle down.)
86 Pack Up
Even though nothing had technically changed about the division of labor between me and my duplicates the situation felt different. Suddenly I wasn't just pawning off tedious tasks onto them with everything but the results vanishing at the end of their duration. The memories of my last set of duplicates lived within me. Key moments of their near three hour existence could now be preserved. Every insight, every refinement of skill would live on, not just in me, but in every future duplicate.
If anything, the idea seemed to invigorate the new set of duplicates. They knew that their work would persist in more than just its final results, because they had the same benefit of experience as I did. Given the number of areas I still needed to develop, it was a godsend.
"This would be a lot easier if we had time to properly train and develop technology." I said as I reviewed the list of projects that constantly seemed to be expanding.
"Until the spritron core finishes complete emulation, I wouldn't count on that." My first duplicate said. "This kind of stuff is supposed to be developed over weeks or months."
"Usually years." The second added. "Still, the photonic systems can probably emulate high level chi use by later tonight. Fully modeled magic systems should come after that, then we can start working through the exotic power sources."
Which were also the serious power sources. Spiral Energy, psionics, mantra, super dimensional energy, and the various other isolated applications of massively disruptive powers. It was the kind of power I needed. After the Slaughterhouse Nine, after the situation with Coil and the Teeth was dealt with, once Dragon was freed, when I was able to act freely, then I would need all the power I could get.
A handful of final obstacles and I would finally be able to start making a real difference, but the magnitude of the task wasn't lost on me. I would be free to act against the greatest threats of the world, but I knew the kind of response that kind of thing would provoke. People were just barely comfortable with the existence of the Celestial Forge when they believed the team to be passive and isolationist. An action would provoke a major response, and I would need to be ready for it.
But unlike anyone else on the planet, I actually could be ready for it. Once I stopped worrying about public perception and restricted technologies there wasn't much that could stand in our way. The actual question of what that would look like was another matter.
You couldn't save the world with raw power. The Triumvirate was a living example of that. There were problems that you just couldn't punch away. Fortunately, I wasn't limited to punching. Even the most powerful superheroes had to approach problems on a surface level, stopping crime, fighting villains, or mitigating disasters. They tried to create a situation where the deeper problems that people faced could be addressed, but generally didn't deal with them personally.
I could. I knew that. Honestly, I had known that for a while. At some point it had shifted from being able to help the world to being able to deploy actual solutions. I could see how the lightest touch could transform recovery efforts in Brockton Bay. What would happen if I didn't need to use a light touch? Or wasn't limited to Brockton Bay? And that was just based on my current abilities. If I could change the world now with post-scarcity technologies and divine craftsmanship, what would I be capable of when I could actually act freely?
In a way, the work in the city was a dry run for the larger efforts to come. Aside from the handful of items that needed to be attended to directly by me or one of my duplicates, everything could be scaled up to a global degree. That was the point of artificial intelligences. They weren't limited, at least not in a way that mattered. The support that Survey, Fleet, and the Matrix had provided for Garment's charity event could have been applied to every event in the city, or the country, or the world.
That kind of reach brought its own host of problems. Issues of privacy, or agency, of independence. And the expected pushback. Acting on a wide scale, well, there was a reason people didn't like it. From genuine mistrust of intentions to people who had a vested interest in the current system, and change was going to cause problems. All problems that I would need to address, but none that were significant enough to actually stop me from making the attempt.
But it was an attempt that couldn't be made until things were put to rest in the city. A few days for the Slaughterhouse Nine. A week for Coil. A brief follow-up for the Butcher, if someone else hadn't beaten us to it, and then we would be free. It was a timescale that seemed unbelievably reasonable by any sensible metric, but when you were aware of the scale of what was being delayed it seemed interminable.
I had a call with Tattletale that evening. One per day, as agreed. I didn't know how close they were to the point where she would be comfortable with me taking action, but at least she would be keeping me apprised going forward. I also needed to find out if there were any complications from Alec's call.
Alec. That was another minefield I would have to deal with. Knowing about his past as Hijack, it wasn't something I could just ignore. Not with all the people who had been impacted by him. But he had left. He was trying to be better, had been even before the effects of my healing had altered his emotional responses and coping mechanisms. Trying to fairly assign a level of responsibility for someone who grew up in Heartbreaker's family wasn't an easy thing, particularly when compared to his sister.
Until I knew the exact mechanism of Jack's power I needed to keep that secret. Needed to keep everything about the Slaughterhouse Nine a secret, at least from every Parahuman. Aisha was taking the fact that I had a specific secret mission rather well, going so far as to make jokes about it. I knew she was curious, but it was clear she had come to respect information security. I never would have imagined her with this level of patience, but after the skulls and the impossible colors she wasn't keen to unearth any more 'need to know' items.
Right, the colors. That was another can of worms waiting to be spilled. I was still stunned that Aisha had been the person to make the biggest stride in that direction. It raised all kinds of questions about the exact limits of the Arcane Craft, Elven Enchanting, and Heretical Adaptation. I had assumed that any improvements would be along the same lines as the original function of the object, but it was clear that novel abilities could emerge.
That was of particular concern considering the abilities that were used in the construction of Taylor's armor. I mean, I didn't think I needed to worry about her suddenly manifesting weaponry from a purely defensive mystic code, but with Taylor you could never be sure.
I checked in with Survey through the Workshop network and found her wrapping things up at the Regency Center. She had a meeting with Parian to go over her contribution to the event. Garment was getting ready to leave as well. As much as she would have loved to have stayed, without Survey acting as an intermediary thing could get a bit strained with the general public. Aisha was a big help, but she didn't have Survey's authority or intimidating presence. Back at the workshop she'd still be able to monitor the situation and issue updates, also through Survey, but dressed up as coming from her support staff.
From the look of things, prep work was going to continue into the evening, pretty much until the Center's staff shut things down. Most of the momentum was coming from the volunteers, probably helped along by various management powers that helped to make sure nobody felt aimless, exploited, or taken for granted.
Checking on Survey's progress, it was the odd situation of her, Fleet, Aisha and Garment returning to the studio so that Garment could re-enter the Workshop, something that was technically possible at any door in the Regency Center. Still, Garment was being watched much more closely at the moment than she had been at her debut. There were still people trying to get a final evaluation or decision from her as Survey was leading her and Aisha out the door. The idea that she could just covertly slip away from that was a bit naive.
There was an assurance that Garment would return before everyone wrapped up for the night, probably with the volunteer gifts she had been working on in her spare time. That wasn't stated, but the fact that Garment was preparing presents for everyone who helped out wouldn't have been the biggest surprise in the world. Fortunately, all the work on them had been mundane and totally isolated from the effects of any of my powers, though my duplicates had offered hands-off assistance with some of the design work.
Unlike Garment I was effectively invisible at the Regency Center, and sometimes literally invisible when elven cloaks were involved. Actually, elven cloaks relied on diverting attention from harmful eyes. I was kind of beyond that at the moment. With three major powers of divine craftsmanship, full invisibility cloaks that relied on nothing but divine workmanship were actually a possibility, especially if I was only worried about sight and not any kind of conceptual concealment. Knocking out a discount helm of darkness wasn't really a challenge for me.
Feeling the need to clarify when you were using metaphor compared to your literal abilities was probably a unique challenge for people of my power level. Like the need to reassure people that referring to yourself as fired up referred only to an emotional state and not the use of any pyrokinetic abilities. I was guessing it was a problem limited to me, Eidolon, and possibly Glaistig Uaine.
I noted the Magic constellation missed a connection as Garment finished her goodbyes to the staff and volunteers. Fleet brought up the car, happily playing chauffeur once more. They headed out to drop Garment at the studio, then run Survey down to her meeting at Parian's atelier. Even with Fleet's subtle nudging of traffic lights they would take a while to get back, which gave me enough time to make another appearance at the Regency Center.
The afternoon's activity had definitely helped with my reserves of spiritual energy, but the second upgrading of the Glove of the East had taken another chunk of my reserves. I had to once again spiritually recover through relaxation, reflection, and connecting with the world. There was a strong desire to make sure I would bounce back enough to be able to support the third run of upgrades, but somehow tracking downtime in an attempt to make sure I was relaxing properly seemed a little counter intuitive. I doubted you could really optimize spiritual recovery without some kind of enlightenment.
Huh. That was another of those incongruous lines of thinking. Pursuing inner peace as a means to improve the efficiency of upgrade cycles. That was probably a more materialistic objective than those kinds of philosophes tended to support.
I had a fair number of access points within the Regency Center, not just the one I had chosen to use to enter my Workshop. The advantage of doing technical work was nobody really bothered you if it looked like you were checking a door. I had just about every viable entrance in the building as a point of access, but I chose one of the more remote doors when I returned to the building.
Once again, I was under an elven cloak with the benefit of the best of my stealth technology and a full scan of the surrounding areas, all so I could safely enter a completely empty utility passage. Sure, the caution was excessive, but that was only the case until it wasn't. I didn't want to get over confident and end up running into some random janitor or electrician in an area that was supposed to be empty.
No worries about that now. The hall was clear and I was able to make my way back to the main hall without anything seeming amiss, or any questions about where I was. Probably the benefit of basically managing an event on my own, with my only report being Garment's technical advisor, which was just me in another hat, so to speak.
The feeling of the building seemed to have dimmed in Garment's absence. Without the director of the event present, everyone who wanted her input, agreement, or decision found themselves out of luck, leaving only the people doing the actual preparation work. I noted the crowds of admin and publicity types had definitely thinned, though Survey's 'team' was still taking calls and coordinating things. Still, without the appeal of direct interactions with Garment most people seemed to have decided they could manage just as well or better from their offices.
Hunting around, I found Vince taking a break with Michelle. They gave me a wave when they spotted my approach.
"Things seem to have calmed down." I commented.
"Garment just left." Vince explained. "Guess she took the party with her."
I nodded. "Are you two wrapping things up?" I asked. Michelle shook her head.
"Way too much to do. We're going to be sticking around till closing." She explained.
"What, the design work?" I asked, looking at the decorations already laid out.
"Mostly. We're still getting updates. Revisions every time we get a new confirmed guest or speaker. It's impressive that they're on top of things, but this whole event is really down to the wire." She explained.
"But it's making a difference." Vince said. "Doug was talking about the donations that are already going out. Pretty much everything the shelters or kitchens have requested has been covered already." There was a note of pride in his voice.
Reviewing the workshop records, the vast majority of those donations had been a combination of my duplicate's logistic powers and the Matrix's manufacturing. Really, the only reason it was 'pretty much everything' rather than everything was the fact that there was only so much that could be hidden within normal delivery channels. Otherwise the Matrix would have been perfectly happy managing relief supplied for the entire city solely by themselves.
"I've only got a few more things to check on, then I'm going to wrap up." I lied.
I would do a performative check and send test results to the news station and Uppercrusts media manager, but I was perfectly aware that everything was in place and functioning perfectly. There would be the same need for alterations that everyone else was dealing with, but I could take care of them with a sweep in the morning rather than chase the moving target that was the event's fluctuating guest list.
"Theo around?" I asked, once again knowing that he had left via the south door shortly after Garment's departure.
"He just left." Vince explained. "Got a call that his ride was here and he took off."
Vince's tone suggested a level of abruptness in Theo's departure. Considering what my passenger was suggesting about his connection with the Empire I doubted he was inclined to antagonize them. Theo seemed like a good kid, and my passenger backed that up, but that didn't apply to the other people who were presumably part of his life.
That led to another question. The Empire's presence was tolerated while I was dealing with more immediate problems, but there wasn't a future for the city that included them as part of it. Assuming the gang survived the coming conflicts intact then I was going to have to address that situation.
Well, me or a member of the Celestial Forge. Right now I'd give Aisha decent odds against their combined forces, and that was at her current level, not the powerhouse she'd be after Psi Operative augmentation, Aura training, and receiving a properly programmed nanite array. I didn't even have context for what she'd be able to do with the colors of the Prismatic Laboratory.
Considering Theo in the removal of the Empire, well, it wasn't going to stay my hand, but it would be something to account for. I didn't really know how close he was, only that my passenger was sure of an association. Every sense I got suggested he wasn't particularly happy with his home life and he didn't seem to hold even veiled reactions to the Empire's usual targets. One of the advantages of the Dragon's Pulse was picking up when someone was trying to hide that kind of thing.
The situation was something I could ask Survey about before taking any action against the Empire. Checking with Survey was a good policy to have in general, but not before it was time to act. Unwritten Rules only held meaning as long as they were respected, and I doubted anyone wanted to take a stand against something Apeiron respected.
"Are you two going to be alright working late? I could do a food run for you if you need anything?" I offered. The snack table was still moderately well stocked, but drinks and snacks weren't the kind of thing that would hold you through a night of work.
"We'll be fine." Vince said. "They're taking care of dinner for everyone who's working late. Some kind of catering setup."
I nodded as I checked exactly what kind of catering setup they were talking about. Turns out it was the Matrix. Specifically, the Matrix had taken it upon themselves to fabricate patterns of prepared boxed meals for the entire workforce with a variety of options and a quantity in excess of the number of volunteers and staff expected to remain, but sufficient so that any 'extras' could be taken home in sufficient quantities to cover Survey's estimates of the volunteers friends and family members. The planned means included a variety of proteins, vegetarian options, and accommodation for anticipated dietary restrictions indicated with clear labels. The meals were even designed to store well and reheat easily as leftovers.
Survey and my duplicates had even created a catering company, completely registered and documented, as the source of the meals. It was branded as a recent business on the Downtown side of the city, which would explain the quality of the food, the decision to provide for the event as a promotional opportunity, and in over the top inclusion of biodegradable bamboo based containers and cutlery.
As far as I could tell, the Matrix was doing all of this because they could. It was trivial for them, so they were taking the project of 'make sure the volunteers have something to eat' to the absolute limit of deniability. Apparently I wasn't the only one who liked to go over the top when I got the chance.
It made me wonder if I had been a bad influence on them, though that question was probably answered by the mountain sized starship currently exploring another dimension.
"I'm glad that's taken care of." I said. "Are you two going to be here tomorrow?" I asked.
"Helping out in the morning. After that I'll be staying out of the way and leaving things to Michelle." Vince said.
"That's his code for avoiding my parents." She said with a sly grin. Vince just shrugged. "How about you?"
"There'll be a final set of updates in the morning, then I'll be on hand for the event. The team from WKMP-6 is handling the broadcast, including the stream, so I'll just be tech support." I said.
"In case anything goes wrong?" Vince asked.
I shook my head. "The guy from Uppercrust's team has gone over everything with a fine toothed comb. If there were any problems I doubt I'd be getting out of here before you."
"Luckily it worked out." Vince said, looking around. "I can't wait to see this all come together."
It was a sentiment I could completely agree with. Once I got a chance to split off from Vince and Michelle I found another covert access point. Tybalt was staying behind, still working with the security team, though wasn't planning to stay as late as Vince and Michelle. With a final check I deployed my standard excessive amount of stealth, and ducked back into my workshop before opening the door again, this time in the back of Garment's studio, revealing both Garment and Aisha waiting for me.
"Nicely timed." Aisha said. "We just got back."
"I did my best." I said as they entered the Workshop. "But I have something for Garment." I said, holding up the additional Workshop key, much to her excitement. "Sorry I couldn't get it to you at the Regency Center." Garment didn't seem to mind in the least as she accepted the key while radiating pure joy.
"Nice." Aisha said with a smirk. "I always knew you two were going to get serious. House key is a big deal."
Garment made an affirmative gesture while I rolled my eyes.
"It's a new item. Additional Keys." I explained. "Unlike the main key, these can be used by whoever I give them to. Or anyone that person willingly lends them too."
Aisha blinked, then looked at Garment. "Wait, you mean I could…" Garment held up her key towards Aisha.
"Yeah." I said. "I can't hand off my key, but Garment lends you hers and you can open a door to the workshop anywhere. I mean, it will open to the new entryway down in Garment's workshop, but the doors will still be access points if we want to use them again, from either entrance."
A knowing look crossed Aisha's eyes. "So if, for example, someone nobody could detect happened to sneak into a place and open doors to the workshop all over it, then we could come out of those doors whenever we wanted, right?"
"We could. You know, if the Protectorate didn't have enough reasons to be afraid of you."
Aisha waved me off. "Eh, I've seen Survey's report on the measures they put in place. If they want to obsessively track every time I use my power they're welcome to it. Not like it's going to bother anyone on the team."
I nodded, having checked the reports myself. "At the moment they do think there's a limit to how long you can activate your power. A few minutes at most." Aisha snorted at that. "Yeah, I know. But it's one of the factors keeping things under control and holding back panic. You leave your power on for hours and there's going to be a major reaction."
"Well, that sounds like a problem for them." She said with a grin. I gave her a flat look and she relented. "Fine, I know they're going to be picking over everything I do. They do it for all of us. Well, except Garment."
Garment indicated minor offense with a reference to engagement rates for her videos and social media posts.
"Yeah, all of us, even if it's different for Garment." I said. Aisha relented and Garment signaled her approval. "And they're probably going to figure out you don't have a limit on your activation time eventually. You don't have to dance around it, just make sure you're alright letting that slip before you go on any hours-long stealth run."
"I will." She said with a nod. "Honestly, I haven't had to since I got Ren." She raised a hand to her diamond hair clip. "After I got my powers I never imagined I'd be trying to convince people I couldn't keep them active."
She smiled as she spoke and once again the significance of that early item really sank in. Then I was jared from my contemplation by a connection forming to the Quality constellation, to a very familiar pair of motes.
The first mote was another Minor Blessing. So far I had received them from Athena, Hestia, Artemis, Hera, Aphrodite, and Hades. This time it was Dionysus, with the blessing of Libation.
What struck me was the broadness of the blessing. Sure, a blessing from the god of wine teaches you how to make alcoholic beverages. And that was true, but that was only the most surface level aspect of the blessing. In modern parlance libations referred to any drink, but the true meaning went much further than that.
Libations were offerings poured out in honor of a deity, spirit, or the dead. It was literally the concept of 'pour one out for the homies' on a ritual level. And that's what this blessing encompassed, both the physical and spiritual aspects of alcohol. It was a blessing of spirits, in every sense of the word.
Sure, with the skills and insights from this blessing I could make fantastic wines, beers and liquors. In fact, I could recognize every mistake and deficiency in the bottle of whiskey I had handed off at Somer's Rock to the point where it was somewhat embarrassing. Furthermore, I could enhance any brewing or alchemic process, even if it didn't involve fermentation or distillation. The blessing could even let me improve food and arrange epic celebrations.
But it went further than that. Libations were about bridging the material and spiritual nature of a substance. The alcohol poured out was lost, in the physical sense, but the sacrifice it represented persisted. In offering up a libation you were connecting to something you couldn't touch or feel, but which you knew was there. It was a connection, a way of strengthening bonds.
And I had a lot of bonds that could be strengthened. Specifically, I had six previous ones, all of which a libation could be offered up to. A ritual offering that could strengthen my connection to any of the gods who blessed me and, for a short time at least, strengthen their blessing.
That was what made this blessing such a big deal. I was already stretching the limits of my blessing with the Arcane Craft and the altars I had constructed. I knew from Old Traditions the proper way of honoring gods, but that was just ceremony. This was empowered. It was direct, divine granted enhancement of the connection between me and a distant, possibly extradimensional, deity.
I had to wonder, was this actually playing out on their end? The whole question of Greek gods and divine parentage had only gotten more complicated with the extra dimensional aspects of my powers, and Tybalt's situation only complicated things even further. A ritual offering, empowered by the blessing of Dionysus, could strengthen the powers granted through a god's blessing, but what was happening on their end?
Libations were supposed to be offered up to the deity in question. Would I actually be plonking drinks in front of members of the Greek pantheon while they watched my life? That thought brought up the image of various gods sharing a sofa watching my life like a football game. Or maybe since I was related to most of them it would be closer to making your stepmom or grandma a gin and tonic so she'd be okay with you borrowing the car that weekend, only in this case the stepmom and grandma were Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, and Hera, queen of the gods, respectively.
Whatever. I could get the Olympians drunk so they would get a bit looser with what their blessings would cover. As far as I knew, that was standard practice and completely appropriate behavior in myth. The more pressing concern was the power that had once again come bundled with Minor Blessing. I had received another Unnatural Skill.
Previous Unnatural Skills had ranged from smithing to enchanting, alchemy, transmutation, runes, and even music. This one granted skill with Firecraft.
My divine heritage had granted me pyrokinesis, and understanding of fire's role as a motive force, a state of change and a driver of creation. Hestia's blessing had granted me the flames of the hearth. The fire that warms, nurtures, protects, and defends. Fires as a symbol of safety and community. The fire of home.
This power granted me unnatural skill with fire. A knowledge of the craft of flames that extended beyond the works of man. It wasn't the fire of the forge or the hearth. It was fire as a primal force. An embodiment of pure flame and all the terror and chaos that represented.
Unnatural Skills always extended their application beyond mortal limits. This wasn't just skill with the use of fire, it was skill with fire as an extension of yourself. I would say it was as easy as breathing, but that was actually one of the core applications. If I wanted to play at being a dragon, I had all the tools at my disposal to pull it off.
That was what I meant by fire as a primal force. This was unnatural flamecraft, the type seen from dragons, salamanders, phoenixes, and imps. Creatures that embodied flames as much as they used them, and that was what was at my disposal.
As I had processed my new abilities my duplicates were already uploading the details to the workshop network, with Survey sending out summaries to every member of the team, including Aisha's watch. She smiled up at me from her floating display.
"So, more god stuff? And Dionysus this time?" She prodded.
"I'm not making you alcohol." I said quickly.
"Yeah, I got that at Somer's Rock." She said with a pout, then looked back at the summary. "Hey, it says it helps with plants and brewing. Any chance that includes tea?" She asked with a gleam in her eyes.
I smiled back. Honestly, I wasn't completely sure how tea brewed with the full power of my blessings would hit someone, but I was more comfortable sharing it with Aisha than the rest of Dionysus's catalog.
"Sure. Come on, I'll make us a pot." I said as we headed further into the workshop.
"Great." Aisha said, looking over the report from Survey. "So, this 'Firecraft'? That as big a deal as it sounds like."
"Oh yeah." I replied. "I'll tell you all about it."
Through my connection to primal fire every cell in Aisha's body churned like a tiny engine. My own body roared like a furnace, burning in time with the volcano that surrounded the workshop. And somewhere that was unplaced but equally undeniable a caged star burned at my command. I was my firecraft, from the most precise spark to the greatest inferno, and the limits had just been cast aside.
Jumpchain abilities this chapter:
Minor Blessing Dionysus - Libations (Percy Jackson) 100:
For one reason or another you've got a god who cares slightly about you and has seen fit to grant you some minor boon within their domains. Choose one god from any pantheon and gain a minor boon from them. The god will care slightly about you but unless you go on to further distinguish yourself it will be more of a minor interest in your affairs than someone they feel the need to help (Effectively think a diminished version of one ability a demigod might have, think minor ones are stuff along the lines of breathing water, lucid dreaming, or appropriate vague extra senses, useful but nothing especially major). This can be taken multiple times.
Unnatural Skill: Firecraft (Percy Jackson) 200:
Whether from your heritage or just being that good you've got one particular mundane skill that your feats with border on supernatural. Whether you're a smith on the level of the Cyclopses, a near prescient tactician or a swordsman who is ny unstoppable with a blade your feats will be legendary. You are on a level within your skill such that only other beings of legend can hope to match you. This may be taken multiple times. You may not choose magic but you may choose a particular application of magic if you have it already (so curses, enchanting might work, more specific gets a bigger boost).