35.4 Proof

I will join Hive’s attack.  There’s an assumption I need to verify.

Bruce couldn’t use the same system that he’d given to Hector.  It was a near perfect man-machine interface but its… invasive nature did long term damage to the body.  Short usage could be healed, of course, but that wasn’t a given.  Hector might be able to make new bodies but Bruce was stuck with just the one.  Well, barring a few contingencies but they weren’t a given either.  Instead, he relied on a less advanced but still sophisticated set of software that interpreted specific muscle movements as commands.

A twitch of his cheek disabled the hologram.  Rather than a simple, if somewhat blurry, Citadel uniform in white he wore something very similar to Hectors’ armor.  There were additional bulges in the chestplate, especially around the shoulders, the bracers and gloves were shaped a little differently and the helmet was a little larger.  Still, it would take a keen eye to spot the difference.

He left the police station through the front door and took a running start before lifting off gently.  His student was actually more skilled with the flight system, or perhaps simply a bit more reckless.  Again, Hector could simply make more bodies if he lost one to excess G-force or an abrupt shift in direction.  Bruce was careful to join one of the various streams of Hectors that still rose from points across the city.  They were growing thinner.

He didn’t think Hive was at the limit for number of bodies.  His habit of keeping the original sequestered meant that judging his power’s intensity was difficult but Bruce’s estimates put it higher than this.  Much higher.  There were fewer streams of Hectors than when Intervention Prime arrived in the city.  Bruce arrived at the cloud over the hospital.

He dipped lower, into the range of Skinthief’s stolen kill aura.

Still alive, visually similar to Hive.  He matched movement patterns as best he could, followed a batch of duplicates further down.  The enemy showed on thermal first, a bright white on a field of pale orange.  The Hives raised their arms and he mirrored the motion.  Bruce twitched right, avoiding the field of fire from the Hive just behind him.  The enemy lost an arm, chunks of the building around it vanishing as well.  An ally fell, missing a section from its lower back.

The arm was visibly regrowing.  Three allies burst into flame and fell.  One left, he followed it as it rose again.  Interesting but not conclusive.  Alone this time, he dove straight towards another section of the building.  The enemy was likely… yes, there.

The enemy gesture and his forcefields flared bright, diverting the heat.  Energy levels not a problem, the Great Bell’s connection device functioned perfectly.  The allies had between ten minutes and an hour of charge, depending on usage.  He was not limited.  A half blink of his right eye activated the point lasers, focused on the enemy’s eyes.

The enemy’s heat signature grew brighter, limited to the head.  It was almost a halo, the photokinetic Lodge member’s skillset.  Deactivated lasers, switched to sliver-guns.  Magnetically accelerated needles hurtled out, too quick to dodge.  The enemy rocked back then stood upright.  Posture was altered, confused.  Cumulative Strong type powersets sufficient to prevent damage but no forcefield.  The metal of his shot would have spread, deformed and covered the enemies eyes, blinded.

He dodged left, let allies take over this fight, avoiding their fire.  Enemy vanished behind him as he sought another.  One approached, flying.  Visual effect distinctive, angular wings of dark green light, covered in black runic script.  Sliver-guns to the eyes, renewing as enemy blinked to clear the metal.  Drop five feet to avoid burst of heat.

Another enemy, also flying.  No wings.  Stood on golden platform, two unknown powers, consistent with general Lodge set.  Sliver-guns, both enemies kept in rotation.  They coordinated, pursued and attempted to force him closer to building.  Third enemy keeping distance, acting as spotter.  Consistent with Hive’s training.  Three enemies in sliver-gun rotation, nearing capacity, another would allow blinking to clear eyes.

Fourth enemy approaching, no visible source of flight.  Correction, tension in clothing suggests object-oriented telekinesis, unknown source.  Goo gun used.  First and Second still in pursuit, maneuvered to avoid.  The fourth’s skin greying, eaten in by the short-lived, self organizing and replicating devices that made up the goo.  Fourth’s motion arrested, flailing.  Flailing slowing, grey receding.  Goo overcome by regeneration.  Enemy had not thought to use pyrokinesis.

Sliver-gun rotation abandoned, enemies’ vision allowed to return.  Undivided attention of four enemies, no allies in immediate area.  Still alive, further evidence of correct assumption.  One and Two gestured, shields strained but still within capacity.  Third attempted to close while Fourth withdrew, providing oversight.  Similar strategy but well coordinated, within Hive’s normal capacity.

High intensity sonics activated, better than usual effect.  Enhanced auditory capacity.  Rose to escape approaching enemy.  Enemy formed pairs, One and Two, Three and Four, touching.  Signs of distress slowed then stopped, focus returned.  Still alive.  Final test of assumption.  Hologram reactivated, own face displayed, helmet effectively invisible.

Bruce Richards fell from the sky, dead.


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27 comments on “35.4 Proof

    • Remember the final trial of Operative training? Dying is only permanent if Retcon (I think that’s his Hero name) doesn’t scan you first. I have a feeling Operative Richards is going to wake up in a few seconds with a pretty baller plan.

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      • You’re forgetting that if you get killed Retcon bring your back from the moment you where scanned… so without your memories of what happened after…

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          • Unlikely because of one of the power Skinthief stole, but I don’t remember if it’s been said yet in the story so I’ll keep quiet.

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          • Uh oh. It’s possible I may have made a mistake then because that is more-or-less what he did. Bruce wouldn’t have made a mistake like that though so I may need to make a change or two? If you can remember which power and where it was mentioned it’ll save me a lot of effort come the pre-publish rewrite/edit time.

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          • Checking back, Dawn can block light outside the visible spectrum and therefore theoretically jam radio. Brother Jonas can block more esoteric forms of communication but his power wasn’t stolen. If the communicator comes from the Great Bell it’s quite possibly immune to EM jamming.

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          • Ah, good. I was afraid I’d made a throwaway powered and then forgotten them. Dawn could, theoretically block radio or microwaves with relative ease. In life, she didn’t have a sufficient understanding of physics to pull it off but more than one of Skinthief’s other victims had/have the requisite knowledge to make it a possibility. Luckily for Bruce, you’re right that the Great Bell’s black boxes rely on a totally different method.

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    • I don’t think so; the speed with which he killed the initial reaction force makes it seem likely he doesn’t even need line of sight. I think he’s pointedly not killing Hector and killed Bruce the second he realized Bruce wasn’t Hector.

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      • It’s probably related to how Jason’s gaze would kill every Hector. There’s some kind of feedback going on that’s disrupting Hector, and it might make the death effect backlash.

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        • Most likely Jason’s power completely kills something, no half measures. Death-gaze used on Hector means, Skinthief loses one of its best powers.

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        • Yeah, I’m pretty sure that Bruce discovered that Skinthief is essentially plugged in to Hector’s power. Hector is getting uncoordinated because he has the equivalent of an extra pair of arms that he can’t control now. Skinthief is gaining skills and using tactics that Hector learned in the Citadel, but the other side of that coin is that he probably counts as Hector enough that using Jason’s power on Hector would kill both of them

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    • Do not forget Agnes. We know someone (who probably wasn’t Skinthief) killed her, and Skinthief still appears to have access to her super strength/toughness.

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  1. Concerning Skinthief:
    I believe the situation is a tiny bit different. This isn’t just one ability at work here, what we see are two peculiar powers interacting (or interfering) with each other.

    As I wrote (a few minutes ago) in a previous chapter, Skinthief seems to be what is called a “Skinwalker”. A native american mythos that literally wears the skin of its victims. We’ve also seen this in a previous POV chapter when Skinthief assumed the identiy of a woman.
    What I want to point out here is that Skinthief didn’t just steal his/her/its victim’s appearance, it literally BECAME that person. Again, pointing at the POV chapter, this is seen when Skinthief is shown to “know” everything about the victim after assuming their identiy.
    Skinthief can use the abilities of its victims because as far as the abilities are concerned, Skinthief is the original user of said abilities. Agnes had super strength/toughness, and because Skinthief IS currently Agnes, it can use Agnes’ ability. The same goes for Jason’s ability and all the other it has stolen via the patches of skins.
    From a certain point of view, Hector is one person/identity in a multitude of bodies while Skinthief is (currently) a multitude of persons/identities in a single body… where one identity has the ability to create new bodies….

    Hector appears to have something like a “core” or “soul”. Something that Jason’s ability can target in order to kill every existing Hector at once. Maybe EVERY person in this universe has that, but anyways… I assume that Skinthief’s ability works like a parasite that targets a person’s core/soul, assimilating it into Skinthief’s soul/core while retaining all of the victim’s memories and abilities.
    This means that technically, Skinthief has ASSUMED HECTOR’S IDENTITY.
    Hector isn’t loosing focus because Skinthief is stealing something like processor-capacity from Hector’s ability, he is eating that which makes Hector “Hector”.

    It is interesting to see how the two abilities interfere with each other, because as far as Hector’s ability is concerned, Skinthief is “just” another Hector, even if the mind is a totally different one from the “normal Hector”. If you want to simplify the situation, Hector caught a case of “split personality”. One personality is his normal self, the other the Skinthief who is taking over Hector’s identity.

    My theory is the following: because Skinthief is currently “becoming Hector”, he can’t kill “Hector” using Jason’s ability because that would kill every existing “Hector” at once. Using Jason’s ability would mean that Skinthief is trying to kill him/her/itself.
    Hector isn’t loosing focus, and Skinthief isn’t overtaxing Hector’s ability to create/control his duplicates. Hector’s consciousness is about to be replaced with Skinthief’s. The process is only “slow” because there is such a large amount of “Hectors”. I assume that everytime one of them dies, a piece of Hector’s “soul” dies with that Hector and gives Skinthief just a tiny bit more progress in what is the process of “becoming Hector”.
    I am curious what would theoretically happen if Hector is consumed by Skinthief. Will any new copy of Hector become a “Skinthief”, looking like the ones Brother Micah is fighting against? Or will Skinthief’s new copies become “just” a normal Hector, loosing that patchwork-skinsuit and therefore all the abilities it allows skinthief to access?

    About the “Hector” that sits in the back of the truck with Liz:
    I do not believe that that person is Skinthief. For one, Skinthief’s current appearance is that of a patchwork figure made of various bodyparts that belong to different people.
    We also have to keep in mind the scene with that precog who gave Hector that “prophecy”.
    There must be TWO empowered runnig around here, one is Skinthief and the other someone who assumes the appearance/face of specific people. Skinthief needs to wear the skin of someone to look like him, so whoever is in that truck must be someone different.

    Another thing to keep in mind is Liz’ reaction when she looked at the fake Hector (Faketor?). Looking at the situation, it doesn’t matter which Empowered is sitting in there. Even someone with an incredibly weak strength-enhancement would be able to kill all the people in the truck, but Liz reacts with an almost instinctive despair/fear after she realises who is actually wearing her boyfriend’s face.
    Looking at the previous chapter’s, I can think of only one single person that evokes such a primal reaction.

    Monster.

    @The author:
    I actually wanted to just point out what I thought about the issue with Hector’s ability, but before I noticed I wrote out such a long theory… did I guess right? xD

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    • It seems pretty clear from the POV chapter that the theft is based on the quantity of skin stolen, and to fully become someone Skinthief needs to flay them entirely while they’re alive. I don’t think Skinthief can make progress simply by duplicating or killing other Hectors, especially given that the initial cut affected every Hector. I’m pretty sure that the Hector in the truck is Skinthief using an illusion power to sneak out of the city, as are the other mysteriously reappearing dead Empowered. The Hector in the truck definitely has Hector’s power at reduced strength, splitting into multiple copies before boarding.

      Likewise, Agnes was killed with a pyrokinetic power after a pyrokine was killed with an anomalous fire-based power, and Skinthief has a Lodge pyrokinetic power. It seems most likely that the fighting at the hospital is a diversion and Skinthief copies are using Sister Dawn’s glamour or other illusion powers to sneak out.

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      • I think the issue with the “flaying entirely” has more to do with how “perfect” the assumed body will look like after Skinthief takes it over. If the skin is cut, said cut would probably be visible on the new body.
        Maybe you are right about the part with making progress through killing Hector, but Skinthief’s entire ability is to become a duplicate of the person whose skin is currently worn. In the case of a normal person, there would be just another copy of them running aound, but in Hector’s case, every copy of Hector IS Hector (meaning one single person). Hector’s power has no other but to assume that Skinthief is another Hector and include it into he Hivemind that is Hector. Before the battle, Skinthief already wore the piece of Hector’s skin and Hector didn’t have any issues with his ability and control. It is only after the battle started and dozens of Hectors died that he started to loose focus. Overkill Bruce mentioned that Hector’s limit is way higher than what is currently deployed in the city, so it can’t be the numbers that are muddying the waters here, it has to be the deaths.

        About Skinthief&the truck:
        There is one power Skinthief doesn’t have (or at least wasn’t shown to have):
        To take the face of a specific person that is currently looking at him.
        Skinthief would need to skin someone completely for that, or at least thake their face (which didn’t happen in Agnes face). And there would be absolutely no reason for Skinthief to use an illusion when killing Agnes. Why even bother with a fancy illusion that covers just the face? And even if Skinthief did, why not keep the face of the doctor? Why go out of their way to use Agnes’?
        Even if Skinthief has all kinds of stolen powers, it is not in Skinthief’s moveset to just assume someone else’s face. This just screams of another person in play here, at least IMO.
        Also, Agnes doesn’t even have to be killed by a Pyrokinetic, a mundane fire would do the job just as well. Or at least, I do not remember anything strange about the fire Agnes died in, apart from the attacker being totally fine while Agnes was suffocating.

        I would have to reread the previous chapters since I cannot remember right now which Hector did the slow-mo duplication: Was it the armored one or the jeans wearing one?

        Also, keeping the prophecy of the precog in mind, why would Skinthief wear Hector’s face, give him a warning and then ask a question?
        Another thing that kinda speaks against Skinhief being in the truck is the way Liz described, or rather didn’t describe who or what the fake Hector was. Again, the fear she described/felt was a tad excessive IMO, since the worst Skinthief could do was to kill everyone in a brutal way. None of the people inside the truck have abilities, and nobody knows about Liz’ new empowerment since it happened just minutes ago.

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      • I’ll need to edit that scene to make it clearer but Sully (the pyro) was immobilized by Steph’s (the poison victim) pleasure touch then simply burned alive. He had influence over fire/heat but no immunity when he wasn’t concentrating on it.

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        • I’d been referring to the weird, heatless fire he saw going in. I guess that was Dawn, then, I’d thought the phantom fire became real after he got grappled.

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          • Ah, that was fire under Skinthief’s control. He couldn’t feel its heat the way he could with the rest because Skinthief was using his own power to hold it in place till Sully was vulnerable. Definitely need to make that clearer then, thanks!

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