Skein [Worm Altpower/AU]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Spiny, Oct 1, 2016.

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  1. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    I wrote a bunch of snips about a really out-there M/S/Th power that I wanted to do more with, so I'm starting this. We'll see where it goes.

    I.
    Taylor had never thought she'd be the type to watch the news.

    She still wasn't, really— and what she was doing was only 'watching' in the very loosest sense of the word— but it still felt odd. Her sitting at her desk, headphones in, staring at a severe-looking bearded man with skin the color of burnt sugar as he rattled off the day's highlights—it was daythere, about ten in the morning— for somewhere thousands of miles away. Occasionally they'd show a picture or video clip, the man gesticulating to a popup onscreen for emphasis, making sure to hammer home the importance of this person or that quote and so on, and so on, and on...

    But Taylor didn't really know about that, nor did she care. She wasn't watching the news. She was stealing the words.

    Newscasts, she'd learned, were one of the best ways to build her rapidly-expanding collection. What better place to get a language from than anchors who were literally paid to be pleasant and accessible? They weren't perfect, of course: those anchor-words were the lexical equivalent of celery. They had substance, but no taste, no flavor, drained dry for easier and more efficient consumption. Taylor knew she wasn't going to pick up on any of the dialectic quirks or colloquial accents from the news alone, so she'd learn to supplement her diet: she'd watch candid videos, podcasts, poetry, music, anything and everything she could.

    But tonight, she watched the news.

    The man on screen was pointing at the floating image of some important dignitary, seeming just as unenthused as when he'd been talking about... whatever he'd been talking about before. Not that it mattered. She was here for one thing, and one thing only.

    Taylor closed her eyes, taking a breath in through her nose as the anchor's voice flowed in through her headphones, surrounding her. She felt the sentences form up like little self-constructing bridges, phrases and syllables linking themselves together by context and association. She knew most of them by now, could feel what they were supposed to represent—but every so often, she'd get a treat. An odd turn of phrase, some unfamiliar grammar, or even, if she was incredibly lucky, a new word. Then it was off to the races, her scalp tingling as all her carefully-constructed hierarchies rubberbanded themselves around her head, scrambling to contextualize the new piece of data, comparing and cross-referencing and drawing hundreds of false chains until,until, it would snap into place, and she'd scramble to catch up with the rest of the sentence, giddy and mentally breathless. She'd placed seventy-one new nodes so far tonight, not to mention the uncountable amount of tiny readjustments to her web of understanding. Not a record, of course—those usually happened in the first few days of starting something new—but not bad, either. She was hoping to break a hundred by the end of tonight.

    Not for the first time, she felt a twang of pity for the poor saps grinding quizzes on Duolingo. Her way was so much better.

    The anchor continued, switching from the diplomat to some kind of incident that had happened in a nearby neighborhood, and Taylor felt her heart jump as the camera flipped from the sterile news background to a live shot of a dusty street, stark blue sky overhead. A more rumpled-looking man was standing there, talking into a microphone, and the tingles hit in full force as she heard his voice, his accent: they were new. The words were almost the same, vaguely familiar, but his prosody and pronunciation and everything else was so utterly different from the newscaster, even she could just barely keep up. Taylor shivered in her chair, interweaving the new information as fast as she could get it, and by the time the interview was over, she felt utterly drained in the best possible way. It was actually hard to tell how many new nodes she'd added to her Web—that was how fast they'd come—but it was easily over fifty, and she could already feel a mild headache coming on as the anchor and his fancy background appeared again. It would pass, she knew, and she could probably go for another hour or so before hitting saturation. She sure as hell felt like she could.

    The screen had changed, Taylor realized with a frown. Red script on a blue background, with hymnlike music in the background. Her reading was painfully underdeveloped compared to her speaking, but she'd seen this one before: the break for midday prayer. Back in Brockton Bay, seven hours earlier, that meant...

    Taylor groaned softly, closing the tab as the PC's clock confirmed the inevitable: 4:58 AM. If this had been the first night she'd burned like this, lost in her Web, she wouldn't have cared. But it wasn't. It wasn't even the first this week, and today was technically Wednesday. A full day off was out of the question; even missing her morning classes would raise some eyebrows. Dad's eyebrows. But now, away from the constant stream of glittering brain-sparking input, she could the exhaustion setting in, right down to her core. Another day with two hours of sleep was Not Going To Happen. Full stop.

    Taylor pushed her chair away from the monitor with a heavy sigh, trying not to look at the shards of early daylight coming through her blinds. I missed the bus. Dad was already at work. I had to get a city bus to a stop close by and walk. The excuse played out in her head, crystal-clear, as did the office lady's disapproving tongue-clicking. A rueful smile pulled at her lips as she collapsed onto her bed, pulling the covers to her neck.

    Taylor rolled over, turning away from the window, and dreamed of jet trails, thick and fluffy-white, looping and crisscrossing an endless blue sky.

    The morning had been terrible, but Taylor had expected that. A few granola bars and a nauseating amount of coffee had kicked her up from 'zombie' to 'functional', but she could still feel that deep-set sense of tiredness, crawling around behind her brain and weighing down her body. She knew the feeling well; the only thing that really helped it was sleep. But it was fine. She'd nap after class. Or during class. Or both.

    The bus Taylor stepped onto was surprisingly empty—then again, 9:30 was a weird time to go to work. The driver gave her a look as she fumbled with the bills and slouched off to her seat, but didn't say anything. She thanked him silently, settling down against the ugly-patterned seat and pulling her headphones from her bag. Small blessings.

    Sleeping wasn't an option, not with the dull roar of the engine and the hissing pop of pistons, so Taylor shut her eyes, pressing Play on her MP3. Her headphones crackled to life, picking up where she'd left off: the middle of something brooding and choral, in— Russian? No, Ukranian. The song itself wasn't really to her taste, but the lyrics were something else entirely, soaking into her brain like tiny undulating sparks. Music was starkly different from everything else Taylor had tried: it was wonderfully overwhelming, a face-punching shotgun blast of thousands of years of linguistic history, with double meanings and metaphors and intricate little aberrations scattered across the verses like tiny bits of gold. Most of it was terrible for actually learning words, but you didn't eat candy for the vitamins and minerals.

    As the trip continued, the bus slowly filled with people. Taylor turned down her music, hoping to catch some juicy shred of conversation— not in the gossipy way, god, she didn't care about that— but the closest she got was a surly-looking twenty-something arguing on his blackberry. His voice was short and clipped, with a couple repressed consonants, but she'd heard that before, and his vocabulary was boring enough that she lost interest fast.

    Five songs and zero interesting conversations later, she stepped off the bus near Winslow High. 'Near', in this case, meant about half a mile, but Taylor didn't actually mind the walk, weary as she was. It gave her more time for music.

    The next half-hour played out exactly like she'd imagined— she had to stop herself from clicking her tongue along with the office lady as the green late slip slid across the desk. 10:02, it said, in loopy red pen that somehow managed to look disapproving. Just in time for Spanish. She smiled a little, angling her head so Office Lady couldn't see. Spanish had been one of the first she'd learned. And today was... Wednesday, right? They had a presentation. Some group thing. That'd be fun—oh. Wait. Her 'group' was a pair. Her and Greg. Less fun. But the Trio weren't in the class either, so it evened back out to positive. That's what she told herself, at least.

    Taylor slid into her seat at 10:08, three minutes after the bell. Senorita Rosin nodded at her, barely even glancing at the incriminating green paper. She was youngish for a teacher, blonde-haired and fresh-faced, and seemed to genuinely care about her subject despite being whiter than a gallon of milk. Someone more jaded would say she just hadn't been teaching for long enough, but Taylor liked her all the same.

    "Buenos días!" she called out, her smile not even twitching at the much-less enthusiastic echo from the class. "You guys can have five minutes to prep before we start presentations, okay? And just so everyone's clear: the grading scale is vocab, grammar, and pronunciation in that order. Good luck! But you guys don't need it, right?" After a few weak laughs from some of the nicer kids, she retreated to her desk, and the room filled with a low buzz of conversation, most of which had nothing to do with Spanish prep. Taylor closed her eyes and laid her head on her desk, not really listening. For once, sleep took priority.

    "Hi Taylor, are you okay?" Words. Fast, animated, half-breathless. Greg Words. She stifled a groan. "Taylor? We should prep for the presentation, okay? I don't want to lose points. My dad says if I can get all As this semester he'll get me a bike, so—"

    "Sure," Taylor mumbled, cutting him off without lifting her head. "Okay, Greg." It wasn't like he was going to shut up either way. And a refresher wasn't actually a bad idea— if only so she could remember what they were suppose to be presenting. Something about the history of Brockton Bay?

    "Okay." She could picture his head-bobbing nod. "How about I read the English vocab, and then you say the Spanish word? And then you can do the same for me if we have time, I guess, but I know the whole unit already. So you don't need to."

    "Sure." Taylor exhaled, slowly levering her head halfway off the desk. Greg nodded again, bounce-bounce-bounce, and seemed to take that as his cue to start.

    "Okay." He peered down at the textbook. "Number one: now."

    "Ahora," she murmured, clamping down on a yawn. She could still feel the words bristling in her head, forming chains of meaning and association, but she was so tired they seemed to drift until her usual tidy web was more like alphabet soup.

    "Yes. Number two: soon," Greg enunciated, nodding to himself again. There weren't any numbers before the vocabulary lists.

    "Pronto."

    "Yes. Number three: recently." Greg's voice had somehow slipped from a strained rush to a comforting drone— or maybe she was just that tired. Either way, she could feel herself slipping.

    "Taylor? Taylor are you okay? What's number three? The word is 'recently.' If you don't know, I can tell you. I know the whole unit already."

    So tired. What was the word? Recently? She'd learned time, right? From the news reports.

    "مؤخر," Taylor replied absently, before almost clamping a hand over her mouth.

    Fuck.

    "I-I mean, uh. Recientemente."

    Greg frowned, staring at her like she'd just cursed his mother. "Yes. What was that other word, though? Can you say it again? It didn't sound like Spanish. Do you know another language or something? I—"

    "Time's up, estudiantes!" Senorita Rosin clapped her hands together, and the buzz faded to a low murmur as Taylor silently thanked whatever deities she could think of. "So! Any volunteers? Or do I have to start pointing fingers?"

    Greg's hand had shot up before she'd finished the sentence. Of course. Rosin smiled. "Greg, you're with... Taylor?" Bounce-bounce-bounce. "Greg and Taylor it is!"

    The room seemed to warp slightly as Taylor stood up, but that was probably just the blood rushing to her head. She slowly made her way to the front of her room, turning to stare at the back wall, over the heads of the class. "¡Buena suerte!" Senorita Rosin said, smiling at her. "Eight minutes starts... now!"

    Greg stepped forward stiffly, flick-flick-flicking his notecards, and gave an awkward-sounding cough before launching into a breathless introduction to the history of immigration in Brockton Bay. His Spanish was, Taylor noted with a hint of surprise, actually pretty good—in a vacuum, at least. Theterms were right, stringing themselves together logically, correctly, and he was definitely fast enough to sound authentic, but his accent was—well, it was a hyperactive East Coast kid doing his best to sound Latino. Even half-awake, Taylor could still pick out the little bits of Wrong: an unstressed syllable here, a dropped diphthong there. They grated on her Web like sandpaper, her jaw tightening slightly every time he slipped. At least he was blitzing through it. The less she had to hear, the better.

    Finally, after what felt like a teeth-grinding eternity, Greg wound to a stop, like a toy running out of battery. He gestured to Taylor, taking an exaggerated step back to give her the 'stage', and her eyes flicked to the clock: five and a half minutes left. Jesus. He really had burned through it. What had his last point been? Something about recent history. Right. That was her part. Twenty-five years ago to modern day. Easy peasy.

    She cleared her throat, her Web sparkling to life inside her mind, and began to speak.

    The words came out freely, beautifully, each one falling into the next with effortless precision. She glided between sentences and topics, doing her best to recall hazy dates and figures—she had studied, but that had been a few days and a couple near-sleepless nights ago. There were a few twinges of uncertainty too, niggling bits of concern, but she dismissed them, forging forward with as much confidence as she could muster. Just nerves. Her grammar was perfect, her vocab was rich, her accent was native. For once—perhaps the first in her life—Taylor Hebert felt like she couldn't possibly lose.

    The rest of the five and a half minutes flickered by, with her throwing every factoid she could into a vaguely-coherent summary of the various ethnic communities of Brockton Bay and wrapping up with about thirty seconds to spare. Taylor stepped back, smiling slightly breathless, and even took a stupid little half-bow. Bravery through sleep deprivation. Who would've guessed?

    For a few seconds after she finished, nobody spoke, until the silence was shattered by Senorita Rosin's enthusiastic applause. "Well done, Greg and Taylor!" she said, a little too loudly. "¡Fantástico!" Slowly, most of the class joined in, until Taylor was staring at the ground, red-faced but smiling all the same. As she half-collapsed back in her chair, Greg caught her eye, his face a mask of confusion. He opened his mouth to say something, but was—thank god—once again interrupted by Senorita Rosin. Even as Taylor laid her head back on her desk, she could feel his stare boring into her neck, making her insides wiggle with unease. She hadn't overdone it, had she? There was no way. And even if she had, who in their right mind was going to guess 'parahuman language powers' as the reason?

    Greg was just being Greg, she decided, adjusting her head to a more comfortable position on her arms. This victory was hers. She'd fucking earned it. As much as someone like her could, at least.

    Taylor spent the rest of Spanish half-asleep, with only the other students' halting attempts to match her performance and occasional bursts of mechanical applause keeping her from dozing off entirely. Eventually, things began to wrap up: she could hear the rustling of papers, the scraping of chairs. Her head rose from the desk, slowly and reluctantly, and she blinked a few times, letting the room come back into focus behind her glasses. "No homework tonight," Senorita Rosin was saying, smiling as the bell chimed. "But we're going to start on the subjunctive tomorrow, so if you wanna be an overachiever you can read up on that tonight. See you guys later!" She walked back over to her desk and settled down, tapping a stack of papers against the bottom and clearing her throat. "Oh. Taylor, could you stay here for a minute?"

    Taylor's heart dropped to somewhere around her knees. She nodded robotically, leaning back in her chair—Greg was still staring at her as he left, jesus christ—until the last of the students had filtered out. A few of them threw glances her way on their way out, some curious, some vindictive, none reassuring. She slumped down, staring at the fake beige grain of her desk as Senorita Rosin took a seat beside her.

    "You're not in trouble," she said gently, tapping Taylor's shoulder. She didn't move, her stomach twisting at the touch. "At least, I don't think you are? I'm pretty sure you didn't cheat, but... honestly, Taylor, I'm just confused." Rosin shook her head, her lips twitching upwards. "Where did you learn to speak Castilian Spanish?"
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2016
    Weero, irilis, Shulta and 28 others like this.
  2. ScreamingMorgasm

    ScreamingMorgasm Getting out there.

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    Seat, I think. Interesting though, well done. Do you speak many languages yourself?
     
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  3. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    I'm making an ongoing effort to learn. Mostly, I'm just really really interested in etymology/linguistics in general.
     
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  4. The Halfa Wannabe

    The Halfa Wannabe Halfa is now Dark Lord of the House Elves

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    Interesting I'm guessing the stranger is perfect dialect but no clue with the master yet.
     
  5. Gindjurra

    Gindjurra Getting sticky.

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    A linguistic-based Master power? The possibilities are quite broad. Anything from being able to fast talk people at the low end to people believing anything she says to them in their native language in the mid range, to being able to rewrite people's personal stories at the high end.
     
  6. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    II.
    Things really could've gone a lot worse.

    The rest of the conversation after her presentation hadn't been great. Taylor had pulled some awkward explanations about her dad really liking Spanish documentaries and traveling the country when she was a baby, but Senorita Rosin hadn't seemed convinced—not that she could blame her. They were pretty crappy excuses. She was saved by the stream of students filtering in for next period's class, and managed to get off with an Excused Tardy slip for her next class and a resigned "we'll continue this tomorrow, okay?"

    Rosin was nice enough. She wouldn't press too hard—not enough to force Taylor to drop the class, at least. She could use a nice, easy A. The rest of her classes weren't so forgiving.

    Speaking of which...

    Taylor sighed softly as she slipped in the door for World Issues. At least it wasn't closed—exhausted as she was, she wasn't sure she could handle the solid wall of stares she'd get opening it up and creeping in late. She'd gotten more than enough of that already.

    Mr. Gladly's eyes flicked up as she walked in, meeting hers, and Taylor held up the tardy slip like it was an impenetrable shield. He nodded, clearing his throat as he launched back into whatever lecture she'd interrupted, and she slouched over to her seat, scanning for threats.

    There was her chair, empty and untouched. Her desk, the same. That wasn't exactly uncommon, but still worth noting. As she sat down, she glanced back, behind and to the left. Mason, Leo, Alice, then empty…

    Empty. Madison was absent.

    Taylor settled back in her seat, letting out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She fervently hoped the blonde-haired girl was actually gone, and not just in the bathroom or something. How insane would that be? First Spanish, now this—she'd have to try coming to school half-delirious more often. Maybe she'd even try to catch today's lesson.

    Madison's friends in Gladly's class were still there, sure, but she'd always been the instigator, the ringleader. Taylor knew they wouldn't really bother with her unless she made herself a target. She had no intention of doing that.

    Scooting forward a bit, she propped her head up on her arms and did her best to focus on whatever Mr. Gladly was saying. He seemed just as smiley and animated as usual, but coming in midlecture and being stupidly tired meant Taylor could only catch fragments. Something about… trade agreements? Foreign versus domestic policy. Lovely. When were they going to get to capes?

    Taylor stifled a yawn, doing her best to focus on Mr. Gladly's words. Parse, process, catalog, repeat. Anything to keep her attentive and awake; anything to avoid one of his 'joking' callouts for falling asleep in class. Once she was singled out, it wouldn't matter if Madison was absent. She'd have a target on her back. So paying attention wasn't an option, mind-numbing foreign policy lecture or not. At least he didn't have a monotone.

    "So, this continued all the way up until about the mid-70s, when…"

    The words faded in and out, like a bad radio signal. Taylor tried to bite her cheek harder, but it seemed like there were pretty steep diminishing returns. Now her mouth hurt, and she still wasn't any more awake. She sighed quietly.

    "…and for a while, things went as planned. The U.S. imposed several steep tariffs on…"

    Words, she thought, dragging her head up from its position on her clasped hands. Focus on the words. Phrases, syllables, phonemes. The means, not the meaning.

    Mr. Gladly had an interesting voice, like he was tuning into two separate channels at the same time. The pitch and rhythm would fluctuate as he went on, charging with vocalization and energy—and then he'd blink or clear his throat or interrupt himself, and snap back to Teacher Voice for a few more sentences before it all started over again. It was cyclical, dizzying, engrossing. Taylor felt herself leaning forward at her desk, out of interest instead of exhaustion. How the hell had she been bored?

    "…aaaaand that is something we're going to get to next class, so I'm not really going to go into too much depth—well, not yet, anyway!" SNAP. There it was again. Taylor felt a tiny thrill of satisfaction; she'd predicted it in her head, almost perfectly down to the syllable. "But can anyone tell me what the biggest result of this mini-explosion of expansion and free trade was? Anyone?"

    Mr. Gladly paused, looking around the room. A few grudging hands went up, and he nodded animatedly, a grin splitting his boyish face. "Jacob?"

    "Uh…" Another voice, lower and less energetic. "Globalization, right?" The syllables seem to stretch, almost slur. Nothing interesting there. Taylor tuned it out, focusing her attention up front.

    "Yes!" Mr. Gladly said, clapping his hands together loud enough to make Taylor jump. "You got it, globalization." SNAP. "And what is globalization, Mr. Burroughs?" Back to the teacher voice. She knew all the words, but she cataloged them anyway, layering them over her own nodes and listening to the tiny changes in pronunciation and diction. She felt like a microscope, an instrument, lasering in.

    What→is→globalization→→Mister→Burroughs? Each one a cluster, a pattern, an interlocking sequence, flaring in her mind like tiny points of light. She leaned in further, drawing them in.

    "Uh… when countries start trading with each other more?"

    Something flickered.

    Taylor very nearly gasped as she—heard? saw? felt?— something change. Right there, the millisecond after Jacob had spoken. Something near Mr. Gladly—though near wasn't the right word, it wasn't something she could really physically place—something had come alive.

    She straightened up further in her seat as he asked another question—something about exports? She didn't know, didn't care—and felt the same twinge as another student spoke up. There it was, right on the edge of her awareness. It was tied to Gladly somehow, inextricably linked, flaring whenever someone spoke up… but what was it?

    "All right. Thanks for bearing with me, folks! Since today's lesson was mostly you listening to me yammering, I'll let you out a little early. See you guys tomorrow!"

    A couple students whooped, even as Taylor bit down on a frustrated sigh. She'd been so close. Just a few more words, a few more seconds of back-and-forth, and she would've had it. Whatever the hell 'it' was.

    Mr. Gladly was still at his desk, surrounded, as usual, by a small throng of Winslow High's budding socialites. Taylor briefly considered heading over herself, or at least sticking around to eavesdrop, but a quick glance at some of the faces killed that idea where it stood. Julia, Annabelle, Courtney. Madisons-in-training. Even without Madison Prime, they weren't anyone she wanted to be around.

    With one last resentful look at Mr. Gladly's desk, Taylor pushed herself out of her seat and out the door, joining the fast-growing throng of students headed down to the cafeteria. Lunch wasn't something she usually looked forward to, but she was counting on the sugary juice in her bag to wake her up. And besides: the Trio was temporarily down a member, and she'd even managed to avoid most of the usual snide remarks and 'accidental' shoves. She'd still be eating in the bathroom—no sense in pushing her luck—but still.

    She'd take what she could get.




    What she could get turned out to be an incredibly average rest of the day. 'Average' meaning only a couple trips in P.E., a few too-loud whispers about how awful she looked, and getting cornered after Algebra for some side-splitting one-liners about how she should be deported to Mexico. Word of her little stunt in Spanish had gotten around fast, but Taylor had expected that. She'd acted out, spoken up, made herself a target. This was what happened.

    The bullying stung—it always did, always— but it was a dull, throbbing ache, something she could deal with. Even Emma and Sophia seemed like they were sort of going through the motions, though that could've just been the sleep deprivation talking. Taylor didn't really care either way. From the second she'd left World Studies, she'd felt eerily focused, the memory of what she'd almostmanaged to find blotting out everything else. She'd paid rapt attention in her other classes—not to what they were actually teaching, of course—and had managed to catch a few more of those tantalizing mental ripples… but that had been it. The interactions were too short, too fragmented, too one-sided. Taylor knew that was the problem, somehow, though she couldn't really explain why. She was so close, on the teetering edge of figuring out this bizarre new facet of her power… but she needed conversations, not Q&A, and every time she'd tried to listen in on her fellow students, something had popped up to distract her.

    But school was over now, finally, and all that stood between Taylor and the sweet embrace of her bed was the half-hour busride home. She slid her way through the congested mass of students around Winslow High's front door, ignoring the hip-checks and tugs at her backpack… and stopped, stepping off to the side and leaning against the wall as the sluggish river of bodies flowed by her.

    Sure, she could doze through the ride home, take a hot shower, and pass out… or she could push her already-stretched-out brain a little further and try to figure out what the hell was going on.

    Taylor stood there and deliberated for all of two seconds before she started walking towards the corner, away from Winslow High. She could cross the sidewalk, catch a city bus downtown, and… eavesdrop enough to have a revelation, hopefully.

    There had been worse plans, she thought, slipping her headphones over her ears as the grumbling roar of the buses faded away. Maybe she'd find a coffee shop or something. Chase away the brain fog a little—

    Taylor yelped, barely correcting a graceless faceplant on the sidewalk as her toe caught a raised chunk of concrete. She caught herself with her hands, feeling her cheeks flush, and shoved herself back to her feet. Come on, Taylor, she thought, scowling at the ground. You're tired, not drunk.

    Yeah. Coffee sounded very, very good.




    "Hi!" The barista, a curly-haired brunette with horn-rimmed glasses, flashed Taylor a plastered-on smile. "What can I get you?" Every syllable seemed to roll into the next, an oncoming rush of not-quite-real enthusiasm. Taylor couldn't really blame her for that.

    "Um," she replied eloquently, staring up at the menu. Cappuccino, mocha, macchiato… The words were familiar—Italian had been the fourth language she'd learned—but she knew American coffee was its own beast. One the reasons she preferred tea, but caffeine-thirsting beggars couldn't be choosers. "I… don't drink much coffee. Something sweet, with a lot of caffeine?" she said, giving the brunette a weak smile of her own.

    The barista seemed to take pity on her. "Sure! Uhhhh… you could maybe do, like, a white chocolate mocha, those are pretty sweet, and then I could put some energy shots in?"

    Taylor nodded. "How many can you put in?"

    The woman's smile seem to fray around the edges. "'Scuse me?" Break before the first syllable. Confused. Rising inflection. Interrogative. Taylor felt another twinge of Something, and had to repress a shiver.

    "There's a limit, right? Caffeine poisoning, or whatever," she rambled. "How many can you put in before that?"

    "Ummmm, I mean…" the woman's eyebrows knit together. "Each pump is, like, three quarters of a cup of coffee? But it's like, concentrated, so you probably shouldn't do more than, like, three."

    Taylor nodded. "Okay." She fumbled with her pockets, pulling out her wallet and holding out a ten. "White chocolate mocha with three shots."

    "All right! Should be ready in like two minutes," the woman said, reattaching her smile as she rung her up. Taylor nodded and retreated to the back wall, taking deep breaths of the roast-infused air to keep from dozing off. She'd somehow managed to pass out on the city bus for about fifteen minutes, but had woken up even sleepier than she'd started.

    "White chocolate mocha with shots?" a dark-skinned man called, sliding a steaming cardboard cup across the back counter. Taylor nodded, more to herself than anyone else, and gingerly took the drink over to a nearby booth, nestled in the corner. It was the perfect vantage point—every table was visible, and she was as far away as she could be from the cacophony of equipment behind the counter. Now all she had to do was wait.

    The first twenty minutes passed sluggishly, with Taylor burning her tongue twice as she tried to sip her caffeine-infused monstrosity. A few more customers filtered in: a middle-aged man, girl around Taylor's age, a woman and her son—but none of them stuck around except the man, who pulled up a small two-person table by himself and began to read the newspaper. She watched him for a while, for lack of anything better to do, and was just starting to regret heading downtown at all when the coffee shop's door chimed again. Two sunglasses-wearing twentysomething women entered, laughing and talking animatedly, and Taylor felt her heart jump as they went up to order. Don't leave, she thought fervently, taking another cautious sip of her drink and actually managing to choke some down. Don't leave, don't leave…

    Five minutes later, her prayers were answered: the duo grabbed their drinks (some kind of fruity iced tea and a whipped-cream topped monstrosity that looked more like dessert than coffee) before settling down at a table a few feet from Taylor's booth. "God, I should not be getting this," the owner of the whipped-cream-thing said, shaking her head. Definitely not, Taylor agreed.

    Her friend laughed. "Come on. You have to treat yourself a little." The first one said something back, but Taylor had already tuned out the actual conversation. She let the words flow towards her, snapping them up eagerly, trying to hit that same surreal state of zen-like focus she'd had watching Mr. Gladly.

    It took a few minutes—the hissing bursts of steam from behind the counter and Top 40 Hits piped in from the ceiling didn't help—but eventually, she started to feel the twinges again, niggling at the edges of her mind. She felt a slow wave of prickles crawl up her scalp, making her shiver slightly in her seat, but that could've just been the caffeine. Her hands were shaking too, she realized, holding one up closer to her glasses. That was definitely the caffeine.

    "So I was telling another friend of mine—you know Erica? The girl I used to work at the boutique with? I was telling her, yeah—I was telling her about my new job, and… "

    I→was→telling→her→ I→used→to→work→

    Subject and predicate. Noun and verb. A and B. Taylor sipped her coffee, tuning her attention to the elusive little ripples of meaning. There was a rhythm to this, a pattern, beyond the raw cadence of their voices. She felt the twinges again, flaring around them, every time one spoke…

    No. Not every time. There were smaller and larger ones, and the largest ones happened when one talked just after another. Taylor's eyes widened, and one of her hands gripped the scratched wooden table. This was it.

    "Ohh, that's great! I really hope it works out."

    Really→hope→it→works→out. FLARE-pulse-pulse-pulse-pulse.

    "Yeah, I do too, honestly…" FLARE-pulse-pulse-pulse-pulse.

    "Do you think she'd be a good fit for it?"

    Taylor squeezed the table tighter. Her entire head was full of pins and needles now, like her brain was a limb that she'd just recently shaken back to life. Her breaths were coming in low, shaky pants. She was so close, so fucking close…

    "Yeah! I mean, she seems really outgoing…"

    Outgoing→ Friendly | Social | Fun

    Taylor's breath caught. There it was, on the last few syllables: the flaring, pulsating Something. She could see it—not with her eyes, but in her mind— a scintillating, shimmering chain of meaning and association, tying words to other words, concepts to other concepts. It stretched itself before her, even as the women continued to talk, more and more chains snapping into 'view' as she pulled relations, connections, understanding out of thin air—but it wasn't thin air, she realized giddily, eyes wide. The crisscrossing chains belonged to the women, snaking around each like strands of gossamer. A web. A Web. Just like hers—

    Taylor blinked, and the world changed.

    It was like throwing the curtains open on a shining summer day—from darkness to radiance, shining, blazing with light. Hundreds-thousands-millions of connections sprung into focus, an unending torrent of ever-shifting links. Taylor's head was spinning, barely able to keep up with the tsunami of information; even those intoxicating first moments of learning a language were a flickering candle compared to this. An entire vocabulary lay before her, in all its lambent glory, hers to explore. And it wasn't the only one.

    Her mind raced as she turned her 'lens' around the coffee shop, stopping each time she hit one of those glowing strands, tracing it up along their Web and flicking through their words. The curly-haired barista, the guy who'd given her her coffee, the newspaper man, adjusting his glasses… they all had their own intricate tangles of words, woven together in wonderful, logical chaos. Now that she knew what to look for, finding them was… easy. Effortless. Natural. They'd been there all along, but now her eyes were open. She understood. She saw.

    Taylor stood up abruptly, grabbing her coffee in one hand and her backpack in the other. The duo, she realized dimly, still dazed, had stopped talking. One of them was looking in her direction, lips pursed in a frown, and Taylor felt a dull stab of apprehension. Had they… had they felt it too? That didn't make sense, she knew, not even a little bit, unless one of them was a parahuman herself but what the hell were the odds of that—

    "Do you need something?"

    Taylor blinked. "Huh?"

    "I said," the woman sneered, staring down at her through the lenses of her Ray-Bans, "do you need something? You've been staring at us for the last ten minutes."

    Do→you→need→something? The nodes lit up, one by one, and Taylor had already begun to trace the glowing subshoots of association across the woman's mind before she realized what the question was.

    Oh. Oh. Oh god.

    "U-uhh," Taylor stammered, her dazed, blissful expression dropping in an instant. "No! No, oh my god, I'm so sorry, I, I just…" She swallowed, both for dramatic effect and to buy herself more time for an excuse. "M-my sister died a year ago, and you—" She swallowed again, letting her voice shake a little bit. "Y-you remind me of her. I'm really really sorry, I didn't mean to be weird…"

    The woman's face cycled rapidly through a variety of expressions—annoyance, confusion, and shock were just a few— before finally settling on "bemused pity". "…ohhh honey… I'm sorry, that's such a horrible thing to have happen, I didn't know… " But Taylor was already moving, pulling her backpack straps tight against her shoulders and pushing out into the warm afternoon air. Voices teemed around her like insects, tightly-packed bundles of accent and essence, each one tied to a gorgeous, sparkling Web of their own. It was amazing, breathtaking, incredible… beyond words, Taylor realized, shaking her head in wonder. Funny how that worked.

    She felt something press own her foot, and a fair-haired businessman-looking type turned to her apologetically. "Sorry about that," he said, looking sheepish.

    Sorry→ I'm | You | Sad | Help | Elaine | Marriage… Taylor danced her way across the subshoots, following them down, watching the nodes light up like fireflies. She turned to the man andbeamed, shaking her head slowly. "Don't be."

    He gave her an odd look and walked off, muttering under his breath. She didn't care. Even the fatigue didn't feel as bad, like a weight had been lifted from her limbs—though the now-half-empty cup of coffee was probably responsible for most of that. But sleep could wait. Homework could wait. Everything could wait.

    Taylor looked around the street with her mind's eye, drinking in the uncountable incandescent fibrils of the Webs around her, and smiled.

    She had a world to explore.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2016
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  7. The Halfa Wannabe

    The Halfa Wannabe Halfa is now Dark Lord of the House Elves

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    huh. Looks like there's some Lisa in there.
     
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  8. Christopher Tate

    Christopher Tate Getting some practice in, huh?

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    I Don't get this story at all?
     
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  9. DieKatzchen

    DieKatzchen Know what you're doing yet?

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    What a weird coffee shop. Energy shots? From a pump? Why not just espresso shots?
     
  10. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    I've been to a place that calls them that, actually. As far as I could tell, they were basically the same thing, but maybe a bit more caffeine.
     
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  11. wargonzola

    wargonzola Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    Sounds like the kind of energy shots they have at fancy juice bars where I live. Red bull for the $10 beverage set. The part that struck me as odd was that it was being sold at a coffee shop. Mostly espresso and cold brew around here. USA?
     
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  12. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    Yeah.
     
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  13. wargonzola

    wargonzola Your first time is always over so quickly, isn't it?

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    I'm... really surprised a regional difference like this seems so strange to me. I'm just over the line into Canada, so if it's anything like the kombucha craze I guess we'll start getting the caffeine pumps in coffee shops in 2018 or so.
     
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  14. DieKatzchen

    DieKatzchen Know what you're doing yet?

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    That's awful. We've already got people trying to use their free drink to buy 30 shots of espresso. I'm sorry sir, I can't in good conscience give that to you, I'm pretty sure you would go into cardiac arrest, and it wouldn't even taste good. By the time the last two were pulling, the first two would taste like shit. Straight espresso has a shelf life measured in seconds.
     
  15. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    III.
    Taylor yawned languidly, stretching out her legs until they hung over the end of her bed. She felt... good. Surprisingly good. A little groggy, but not dead on her feet like she'd been yesterday... that had been yesterday, right? She rolled over, glancing at the clock: 6:51 AM. Jesus christ. She'd gotten home, drawn her curtains tight, collapsed into bed and slept for almost thirteen hours straight. Hadn't even bothered changing out of her school clothes. She needed a shower.

    Pushing herself out of bed, Taylor winced as her stomach gave a weird-sounding warble. The last thing she'd eaten was a hot dog she'd gotten at around 4:30 the day before. Breakfast, she realized,sounded even better than a shower—but if she went fast she'd have time for both.

    The hot water felt good as it flowed across her skin, clearing her head and filling her lungs with steam. As she washed her hair, her mind went back to yesterday: the flickers, the search, the bolt of understanding. The aftermath, as she'd drifted around the city like a kid in a toy store, sampling every Web she could. That had been an experience. Most people, she'd quickly realized, were actually pretty complex—just not in the smug Philosophy-101-college-student they thought they were. She'd watched the chains light up, seen their Webs twist and shift to accommodate new
    information, new nodes bursting to life. So much was going on, just under the surface... and they had no idea. It was all subconscious, sequestered away between folds of brain tissue, so they had to make due with image macros about still waters running deep instead.

    She wasn't bitter. Really. She was too excited to be bitter. It was just funny.

    Taylor turned off the water, toweling herself dry and throwing on some clothes before heading out into the hallway. Her hair was still half-soaked, trailing down the back of her shirt like a dark, soggy curtain, but she'd gone to school looking a lot worse. Like yesterday, for example.

    Noises filtered up from downstairs—cabinets opening and shutting, the coffee machine grinding. Dad would be heading out soon, just like every other day. As if in spite of her all revelations, nothing had really changed. A sudden stab of irrational fear went through her. Had yesterday been a fluke? Some kind of exhaustion-induced Nirvana? It was stupid—powers didn't work like that, she was pretty sure— but she couldn't shake the feeling. Taylor double-timed it down the stairs, flashing Dad a smile as she made entered the kitchen. "'Morning."

    He smiled back, turning around from the coffee machine. "Hey, kiddo. You feeling better?"

    Taylor blinked, not really hearing the response. "Hm? I mean, uh, yeah." She focused, trying to get to the same headspace she'd hit yesterday, and...

    Yeah→ Yes | Sure | Uh-huh

    A softly-glowing twine of words flickered through Danny Hebert's Web, and soon Taylor had the whole thing splayed before her. She sighed with silent relief, sliding across the intricately nested subshoots, following them down... and then paused, a frown creasing her lips as the Web faded away, shining strands dissolving into the reality of the kitchen. Random strangers on the street were one thing, but looking into her dad like this—and that's what it was, really, looking in, at their innermost associations and trains of thought—it felt voyeuristic on a level she wasn't really comfortable with. She couldn't imagine he would be too happy with her poking around his head either, even if she could only see the words...

    "You sure?" Dad's voice was teasing, but there was concern there, too, that slight slivered edge she'd come to know all too well. Taylor realized she'd been staring at him wordlessly for at least ten seconds—she really had to get better at that— and immediately busied herself grabbing a pan and some eggs, trying not to look too guilty. "You usually aren't in bed earlier than I am. Especially not three hours earlier. You sure you aren't coming down with something?"

    "Nah," Taylor said sheepishly, shaking her head as she cracked the eggs, straight into the pan. "Just tired. Long day. Lots of homework." She had to force herself not to pull open the Web again, just to watch the nodes light up, to see what he thought, see if he believed her...
    No, she thought firmly, jiggling the pan as she watched the egg whites twist and pop. She'd put the heat on too high; now the edges would be all crispy. Oh well.

    There had to be limits. Lines she wouldn't cross. It was probably a good idea to get those out of the way now.

    Dad nodded, slowly, eyeing her up and down. It wasn't subtle, but it wasn't trying to be. He was concerned, caring, looking out for her. Just didn't quite want to bring it up. Taylor didn't need a Web to know that.
    "All right," he said finally, as if shaken from a stupor. "Have a good one, kiddo."

    "I will," she replied, looking up from the eggs with a smile. For the first time in a while, she meant it. Dad smiled back, some of the uneasy edge melting from his face, and walked out of the kitchen. She heard the familiar two-step rhythm of the front door opening, closing, locking, and then she was alone. Taylor had never really had a problem with solitude—she wouldn't have lasted a week at Winslow if she did—but this was different. Being alone, without any Webs... it already felt strange, almost eerie. Silence had been comforting once, a soft, nonjudgemental blanket to wrap herself inside. Now it was just bleak.

    Taylor shook the feeling off, scoffing at herself as she tipped the pan onto a plate. Barely a day and she was already taking her power for granted. She'd survived a year and a half of isolation already; it wasn't like this was anything new.

    The eggs were crispy, as she'd predicted, and a bit overdone near the middle. Not her best work, but she wolfed them down anyway, stomach-gnawing hunger making each bite a little chunk of heaven. No more almost-all-nighters for a while, that was for sure. She had better things to do with herself now, anyway. More interesting things.

    The rest of breakfast didn't take long. Taylor stood up from the table, tugging her backpack straps tight as she headed for the door... and paused at the threshold, brows arching. There was something running through her body, something just barely familiar: a low, fluttery, softly thrumming kind of joy. How long had it been since she was excited to go to school?

    She shook her head in wonder, stepping outside and slipping on her headphones. Maybe she'd take the city bus again. She could use some conversation.




    "¡Buenos días, estudiantes! Before we get into the lesson, I wanted to hand back your presentation grades. Overall, you guys did a really great job... so just keep that up, okay?" Senorita Rosin hummed softly as she flitted between the desks, passing out half-sheets covered in red ink. Taylor shrunk in her seat a bit as she got hers, picking it up and forcing herself to look: 41 out of 40, with a little red smiley face. Rosin really had taken pity on her. Folding the sheet carefully, she slipped it in her pocket, before a movement to the right caught her eye— Greg was kneeling on his chair and staring down at his slip intently, frowning. From her vantage point, Taylor could just barely make out the angular red handwriting: 38 out of 40. No smiley face.

    She sat up a little straighter.

    "If you've got any questions about your grade, feel free to ask me after class! But for now..." As Senorita Rosin launched into an explanation of the subjunctive, Taylor teased her Web open. Her eyes widened slightly—it was so much thicker than what she'd seen so far, all the little shoots layered on top of each other, running parallel one moment and diverging the next. Of course. Different languages had different structures, different links, and Rosin was fluent enough that the English and Spanish could both have meaning. She teased the strands apart, isolating and indexing, drinking in the subtle changes in association. And this was only two! Taylor couldn't imagine what her Web looked like now—though that wasn't for lack of trying. It was like seeing your own nose without a mirror: sort of possible, and you obviously knew it was there, but the image you'd get would be blurry at best and probably give you a headache.

    "...which brings me to another question. Is the subjunctive a tense? Like past, present, or future? Anyone wanna take a guess?" Rosin looked around the room, her optimistic smile not dropping a millimeter as nobody raised their hands. Taylor was pretty sure she actually knew that one—it wasn't a tense, it was a mood—but she was too immersed in the sparkling Web to care. "Anyone? Do I need to start pointing?" Rosin wiggled her pointer back and forth threateningly. "Ah. Gracias, Alex."

    "No," the sandy-haired boy said, shaking his head. "It's not." Taylor let her focus stray for a moment, watching the interplay between his Web and Rosin's as they lit up, hundreds of signal flares going back and forth and back again. It wasn't a perfect ratio—there was subtlety, nuance, moment-to-moment changes and delays between each spoken word and its corresponding node—but the picture was there, indistinct yet readable, a perfect cross-section of human thought. And it had been there, all this time. How had she only seen it yesterday?

    "Right! Do you know..." A few words into Senorita Rosin's reply, Taylor dropped Alex's Web entirely, turning her attention back to those beautifully interwoven strands of language. She concentrated on the blonde woman, widening her lens further, further, until the individual nodes blurred together and coalesced into rough clusters of related ideas, and the entire Web flickered into focus, drifting through her headspace. The view itself was nothing new—she'd seen the same thing yesterday, walking through downtown—but Rosin's was dense enough to be gorgeous in its own right. She watched it for a while, marveling at the way certain sections flared and sparked, until a sudden thought struck her. Right now, she could only feel generalized concepts, not fine details. But what about...
    Taylor shifted in her seat, stared into the air just above Rosin's head. Taylor, she thought, the first thing that popped into her head. Taylor Hebert.

    The Web shifted.

    It was slow, almost imperceptible, but she could feel it: certain nodes fading out, others becoming brighter, clearer, sharper. It wasn't the Web changing, she realized, brow furrowing. It was her perspective. She was isolating the threads, picking out the ones she wanted, pulling them forward until they gradually, gradually came into focus. But this was nothing like what she'd done before, pirouetting between the chains as fast as they lit up, bouncing from subshoot to subshoot—it was sluggish, heavy, enough to make her head pound. She tolerated it for another thirty seconds or so, grasping at the indistinct, murky links, before she gave up, exhaling heavily and releasing her mental death grip. The Web snapped back to how it was, and Taylor was left slouched in her seat, rubbing at her temples. Tracing specific nodes—or at least, ones that weren't actively being used—was apparently beyond her. It made sense, she thought grudgingly, flicking a piece of lint off her desk. As much sense as powers could make, at least. She could see connections, structures, and implications, but she wasn't Google.

    "One especially important thing to remember about the subjunctive is..." Senorita Rosin kept talking, chains firing like pistons, one-two-three. Taylor switched between them idly, letting the associations guide her across the Web as she continued to rub away her headache.

    One→ Two | Uno | Million | Is...

    Especially→ Really | Very | Especialmente | Special | Especial...

    Important→ Importante | Big | Serious | Suit...

    Thing→ Stuff | Mine | Thingy...

    Wait.

    Taylor pulled back from the chains, the pain in her temples momentarily forgotten in a burst of impulse and excitement. She couldn't find words directly, sure. But what if she didn't have to?

    Taylor, she pushed again, not concentrating nearly as hard as last time. A slight twinge went through her head, but with it came a near-imperceptible tug, pulling her lens a certain way... and instead of zeroing in, she used it like a compass, tracing her way further, bouncing through the nodes as fast as she could parse them.

    Thingy→Thing→Mine→Yours→Your→Time→Schedule→Class→Homework→Today→Now→Teach→Students→Taylor.

    She stopped short, letting out another slow, quiet breath and staring down at her desk. Her headache was definitely worse now, but she'd done it, in all of thirty seconds. Her node hovered in her mind's eye, faintly illuminated, a cluster of twenty-one neatly focused subshoots branching away like roots. Taylor followed them eagerly, unable to contain herself: Quiet | Smart | Fluent | Secrets. That one made her pause, a brief stab of guilt rising in her chest, but she forced it down almost as quickly. It wasn't lying, really—well, okay, it was, but it was lying for self-preservation. That was better, right?

    Pushing the thought out of her mind, Taylor let her attention wander, poking at the Webs of her classmates. Alex, Aidan, Jessie, Hannah... Greg? Greg. Morbidly curious, she latched onto one of his brighter nodes (space) and began the same process she'd used on Rosin: 'pushing' her name in fits and starts, using the dips and swells of internal relevance to guide her. Now that she'd done it once, it didn't take nearly as long, and a few moments later she felt her node come into focus. Thirty-eight subshoots. That was a lot. How the hell...

    Taylor→ Nice | Glasses | Cute | Pretty—

    She snapped the Web shut.

    "And that about wraps up what I wanted to cover today," Senorita Rosin said, smiling at the class. Taylor stared down at her desk, half-listening, half trying fervently to forget what she'd just seen. "I've got a worksheet for the subjunctive here, which you guys can work on for the rest of class. It's not too bad, but if you don't finish now, it's homework! So chop chop." She grabbed a stack of papers of her desk and started passing them out, to a chorus of sighs and a few protesting groans. "Psh, it's not that bad."

    Taylor was more than grateful for the distraction. She spent the rest of class finishing the worksheet (four minutes) and looking through Webs (a lot longer). Now that she wasn't bound to recent topics of conversation, there was an almost illicit thrill to it, like she was sneaking peeks in someone's diary. But it was a victimless crime, and besides—most of what she learned was either useless, confusing (how the hell did someone get a chain between 'apartment' and 'bumper?') or things she already knew (Jennifer Cranley had Taylor's name linked to a variety of hard drugs, and never missed an opportunity to loudly bring it up whenever the Trio was in earshot).

    Just as she was considering opening Greg's Web again (staying far, far away from anything remotely mentioning herself), the bell rang. She stood up gratefully, tucking her finished worksheet into her bag—she'd turn it in tomorrow like everyone else, without standing out—and walked quickly out the door. The faster she got to World Studies, the less time Madison would have to pull something. Her being absent one day was lucky enough; Taylor wasn't counting on lightning striking twice.
     
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  16. DieKatzchen

    DieKatzchen Know what you're doing yet?

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    I'm waiting for the M/S part of the power to kick in.
     
  17. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    You'll be a fan of next chapter.
     
  18. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    So it's kind of like mind reading, but the opposite of the normal variety where you get impressions and images. This is all words and links. Sort of like Seven Degrees of Separation, only with word associations.

    I'm enjoying this.
     
  19. Spiny

    Spiny Making the rounds.

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    IV.
    World Studies was going surprisingly well. The unit on trade was pretty lecture-heavy, which meant Taylor spent most of her time at her desk, picking through Mr. Gladly's head as he tried his very best to make economic sanctions interesting. Madison was there, her usual smirking self, but the worst that had happened so far were a few snide comments and some graffiti on her desk. Said graffiti was more entertaining than anything, too: 'sucio puta' in scribbled Sharpie. Points for creativity, at least.

    Taylor tapped her pen lightly against her desk, slipping lazily through Mr. Gladly's various nodes. It was kind of funny: the scribble was something that would've bothered her once, would've made that horribly familiar burning pit in her stomach tear open again, seething with helpless rage. That was still there, in some dark locked-up place inside her, but now it was sharpened, clear, honed to a fine and vindictive point. She had a power, a power that was beautiful and amazing and maybe a little scary, and no amount of insults could take that away. If they wanted to come at her with words and snide remarks, hit her weak spots, her insecurities... she'd win that arms race every time. Well, probably. There was a pretty big difference between seeing the links and seeing the context around them, but that would come with practice. She hoped.

    Something snapped against the back of Taylor's neck, making her jerk slightly in her seat. There were some snickers from the back—boys who were trying to catch Madison's favor. She knew better than to look, but at least manage to reach her hand up and fish the rubber band out of her collar. So much for creativity. And speaking of Madison—

    "Taylor? You think you know?" Mr. Gladly's voice was playful, in that horrible 'I know you weren't really paying attention, were you?' kind of way.

    Taylor's eyes snapped towards the front of the room, locking with his. Know what? What had— oh. Her hand. Fuck. She had no idea what the question was, and Gladly wasn't the type to let her get away with an 'I don't know'. Not without some of his trademark 'playful' ribbing. "Uh..." She frowned, trying to buy time, and dove into his web, tracing back along the still-glowing nodes as fast as she could.

    Know←you←think←you←←Taylor... No. Further. She leapt from one chain to the next, chasing the strands of light, as the seconds seem to stretch as she filled the space with desperate thoughts. There, just before it:

    Hyperinflation←of←causes←the←of←some←are←what...

    Okay. Okay. She had the question. "Hyperinflation is usually caused by..." She bit her lip, pretending to think, and cast a wide net across the classroom, ricocheting between every Web she could. Someone had to know the answer—

    Inflation→ Germany | Gold | Units... Gladly's was no help, not at the speed she was going. She shunted it to the side, pulling in another one as fast as she could.
    Inflation→ Money | Economy | Grow... No.
    Inflation→ Balloon | More| Money... No.
    Inflation→ Grow | Hot | Pictures | Sexy— Taylor stifled a disgusted groan.
    Inflation→ Shock | Overprint | Supply... There. Margot, the pinched-face girl who sat near the back—she had something.

    "Shocks," Taylor blurted out, scrambling across the nodes. "Uh... like, supply shocks." The term sounded right, even if she didn't know what it meant. "And overprinting... money."

    Mr. Gladly's eyebrows arched, the surprise visible in his face, and she felt a surge of spiteful satisfaction. Her head was throbbing, but it was worth it. "Two for two! I would say supply shocks are more of a side cause, but you hit one of the big ones. You ever hear people ask 'well why doesn't the government just print more money?'" He was talking to the class now, not to her, and Taylor exhaled, letting her elbows rest on her desk. The entire exchange—Webhopping included—had taken five, maybe six seconds, but she felt drained, like she'd been learning languages for a few hours. She massaged her temples again, trying not to focus on it. The brain was a muscle, right? She'd heard that somewhere. You just had to train it.

    Half an hour of lecturing and a few more rubber bands later, the bell rang, making Taylor start in her seat. She'd been trying to scan Madison's Web without actually staring at her, 'feeling' her way through the nodes instead of seeing. It was possible, she knew that, but getting anything more than a few surface links had demanded her undivided attention, and the most interesting thing she'd managed to find was a few chains between 'scared' and 'sushi'. Not exactly the deep cuts she'd been looking for.

    Stuffing the papers on her desk into her bag—when had she gotten those?—Taylor stood up quickly, slinging the strap over one shoulder. "Don't forget!" Mr. Gladly said from behind her. "Study up for tomorrow! The textbook, study guide, and your notes should have everything you need, but if you have any questions, shoot me an email or come in before class tomorrow and we'll work it out."

    A quiz? Ugh. Taylor hadn't taken notes for the last two or three days, but she wasn't too worried. Gladly's exams were always softballs at best, and—

    "Did you see her, with her mouth just hanging open? How stupid can you get?" A shrill laugh sounded to her right, and Taylor's heart sank. She quickened her pace, but it was too late. They had her pincered: Madison and Sophia on one side, Emma on the other, falling in step almost shoulder-to-shoulder. Running wasn't an option, not anymore: Sophia would trip her, or they'd just find her later and double down. She was trapped. Again.

    "Aw, don't be mean, Emma," Madison said, sugar and razors. "She can't help it. They should just put her in special ed already, so she won't embarrass herself."

    "She'd embarrass them," Emma replied, smirking. "Look at her! No wait, don't." Another chorus of giggles.

    "What a retard."

    "She's so out of it, oh my God!"

    "Why does she even go here?"

    Taylor kept walking, posture rigid, eyes front. Her hands were at her sides, clenched loosely into not-quite-fists as she tried to filter out the words. She shouldn't have been bothered by them— they were repeats, stock insults, the same ideas regurgitated a little differently each time—but they needled her, each one fanning the little hateful flame ballooning in her chest. The central office wasn't too far away; she could detour that way and hopefully lose them. The Trio were persistent, but they weren't going to follow her into earshot of the principle's office. She just had to focus. Just had to endure.

    "Look at her! I bet she can't even..." The insult faded out, fracturing into its composites. Taylor inhaled, focusing on them, tracing the words along Emma's Web as she walked.

    Look→at→her→→I→bet→she... She. Herself. The girl who used to be Emma's best friend. Taylor.

    She pushed the thought further, staring at linoleum and stumbling slightly as someone—Sophia?— jammed a leg into the back of her knee. The nodes she skimmed were freshly-lit, still shining and clear, a glowing pathway through Emma's psyche. With every push of her name, she'd ricochet between the words, links flashing by, dancing along the vague surface of the Web, faster, faster...

    And then it was there, suspended in her mind's eye. One hundred forty-six subshoots, twisting, coiling...

    Taylor → Hate|Bitch|Weak|Slut|Pathetic|Cry||Friend|Mom|Laugh|Play|Miss|Hate|Die|End...

    She almost stopped dead, barely noticing the twinge of pain as Sophia stepped on her foot. The node was swollen, grotesque, links spiraling out anywhere, everywhere, almost more than she could count. Some of the subshoots—laugh, friend, play— they were twisted, no, shredded, pulled apart and half-torn away, hanging on by tiny dangling threads of memory. After all the beauty of the Webs she'd seen, the interlocking nested patterns, the perfectly-arranged connections... this was horrible, nauseating, like a gaping wound that hadn't healed.

    What the fuck had happened?

    "Oh my God, look at her face!"

    "Is she gonna puke?"

    Taylor blinked, tearing herself away from the disgusting node and catching back up to reality. She was walking—no, standing—in the front hallway of Winslow, twenty feet from the office, staring straight at Emma. She and Madison had stepped back slightly, flickers of apprehension on their faces, and Sophia was... behind her? Yeah. This was her chance.

    She gulped theatrically, puffing out her cheeks a bit, and the Trio recoiled, staring at her with a mixture of confusion and disgust. Madison opened her mouth, another insult already on her lips, but Taylor was moving. She pushed off, half-tripped, stumbled her way through Sophia's intercepting foot—not this time, bitch—and half-jogged the rest of the way to the office, Madison and Emma's mocking laughter trailing behind her. Office Lady glanced up, eyebrows raising behind her thick glasses. "Yes?"
    Well, as long as she was here...

    Taylor slowly sunk into one of the fabric-covered chairs, trying not to look like she'd sort-of run there. "Uh..." Sick? No. They'd make her go to the nurse's office, call her dad... "Family emergency," she said quietly, doing her best to put on a glum face. After what she'd seen in Emma's Web, it wasn't too hard. "My dad texted me. He's going to pick me up soon."

    Office Lady nodded, even as her Web shifted, the node for 'bullshit' sparking to life. Taylor almost cracked a smile. "I'm sorry to hear that," she said flatly, her jowly face drawing up in something close to sympathy before she went back to her computer monitor. "Sign out when you leave."
    Taylor sat there for about ten minutes, staring at the carpet and poking at Office Lady's Web, before digging out her phone and tapping away at a nonexistent text. She stood, scribbling her name on the sign-out sheet, and walked out, fighting the urge to look over her shoulder. The parking lot was deserted—it was the middle of the day, after all—but she still couldn't help feeling nervous. Just keep walking.

    Out the door, take a left, around the corner, across the street. The route was familiar now, and it didn't take long before Taylor was leaning against the sign for the bus stop. She still had her lunch, she realized, rubbing at her leg where Sophia had kneed it. Maybe she'd eat it at that coffee shop.






    The bus was crowded and noisy, a rich buffet of accents and crisscrossing conversations. Taylor should have been giddy, taking in as much as she could, but she couldn't focus. The memory of Emma's Web was stuck, lodged in her mind like her brain was choking on it. The same question bubbled up, over and over, rephrased a thousand different ways: what had happened? Webs, as far as Taylor knew, didn't just decide to rip themselves apart. There had to be a reason. A catalyst. Something that shook Emma so badly her links were torn beyond repair... but what? And why the fuck was she still hanging onto things like 'friend', even after a year and a half of treating her worse than dirt?

    She spent the rest of the ride downtown thinking, equal parts seething and confused. The questions turned themselves over in her head, carving in deeper and deeper, until the chime of the bus arriving at her stop forced her to push past them. Stepping out the doors, she exhaled, savoring the teeming mass of nodes around her, an endless swarm of fireflies. Each one was slightly different, in shape, size, and feel, but they were just similar enough that Taylor was starting to know where to look. People were here, objects there, sentimental connections curved like that...there was a system to it. A messy, organic, constantly-evolving system, but it was there. The thought alone gave her a brief, warm surge of satisfaction— enough to blot out thoughts of Emma, at least for the time being. Good, she thought, the warmth turning slightly sour. Fuck her. There'd be time to think it later. Right now, she'd come out here to practice.

    Taylor opened her lens, she skimming across the nearby Webs as she walked into downtown proper. Every time she wanted more than a surface impression, she'd feel the urge to turn her head and look, but she fought it back, keeping her eyes fixed straight ahead. The nodes shone her mind, growing crisper the more she focused, until she had a rough picture of every Web she passed without so much as a glance at its owner. They were surprisingly diverse: a small, compact one here, a wide, sprawling one there. Most were tightly linked, but a few seemed frailer, frayed along the edges. Some had a pleasant, subtle glow, while others...

    Bus→Driver→Tired⦚⦚Driver→Overworked→Union→Anti⦚⦚Union→Pro→Meeting→Late→Raise⦚⦚Late→Fired→Week⦚⦚Fired→Month⦚⦚Fired→Tomorrow—

    Her breath caught.

    Others were flashing-burning-exploding with light, nodes firing lightning-strike-bright, lashing out a hundred connections and tearing away a hundred more until each word was a a Web unto itself, constantly shifting, writhing, changing, subshoots crackling outwards almost faster than she could track but just as she'd get a bead they'd fall away, get replaced, over and over until one of the glowing chains resolved, a final frenetic chord, and the whole thing would restart-restart-restart like a swirling bubble of beautiful efficient violent terrifying chaos and okay, okay, what the fuck.

    She took a deep, shuddering inhale, pulling herself away from the maelstrom. It was—Taylor yanked her lens away as wide as it could go, until all the Webs around her condensed to pinpricks—yeah. It was the only one. A lone Tesla coil in a sea of lightbulbs. And she'd thought Emma's had looked odd.

    She craned her neck to the left, letting her power pull her towards the origin, and frowned. The Web's owner was... a girl about her age, indistinct in the crowd, getting on the 29 bus half a block ahead of her. Ponytailed blonde hair, freckles, long skirt and a dark blouse. She looked like she belonged at Winslow High, smirking, hanging onto Emma's every word—

    Taylor swallowed down the stab of resentment and picked up her pace, slowly focusing in on the Web. Now that she wasn't trying to pick out the nodes, she could feel the rhythm in it, the way the subshoots that survived cascaded into place, snap-snap-snap. Sometimes they'd flex, twist, and swap across a line of words, so fast she could barely pick it up. Swapping nodes! That was new. Who was this girl? Some kind of genius? Insane? A parahuman? She was going to find out.

    The 29 was just pulling away as Taylor jogged up to it, and for a heart-rending moment she thought it wouldn't stop— but with a reluctant screech of brakes, it did, the doors opening to reveal a very disgruntled-looking driver. "Thanks," she said breathlessly, hopping up the stairs and taking out some bills. The man just shook his head in exasperation as she paid and collapsed into a seat, trying her absolute hardest not to stare at the back of the girl's neck. Where did the 29 even go? She had... no idea, she realized, sighing inwardly. Whatever. She had her phone and some money. It wasn't like she'd be stranded.

    As the bus started to move, Taylor carefully reopened the blonde girl's Web, watching it flicker and pulse. The storm had died down a little, but every few seconds she'd get tingles down her spine as another breakneck burst of new chains snapped into existence. It felt right, somehow, a deep, visceral joy that swelled across her whole body. The way it changed... it was amazing to watch, but it also niggled at her, an enticing itch she couldn't quite scratch. Now that she'd seen it, she wanted more. More than just watching. She wanted...

    Hm.

    Taylor's brow creased as she shifted blonde girl's web to the side, and opened up another: the sharp-faced woman sitting across the row, her nose buried in a book. Red, she pushed, the most innocuous thing she could think of. Then, a moment later: Blue.

    Red→ Rose | Blood | Ruby | Grapefruit...

    Blue→ Bell | Sky | Cardigan | Jay...

    She held the nodes side-by-side, then pulled away, both Webs suspended in her mind. Trace the connections, she thought. Over and over, an artist with a pen. Visualize the line, then will it into being.

    One of the blonde's chains whiplashed backwards again, the nodes flying across the Web to bond with something else, something new, and Taylor felt a tug of apprehension in her gut. It would be easy, she knew. She just had to push, then pull, in just the right way, just like she'd seen... but what if it went wrong? What if she tore the node out, somehow, or fucked with the connections? What if she gave this lady an aneurysm and she died on the spot? That didn't seem too likely, but the fear was still there, gnawing at her. Frustrating. Paralyzing.

    Snap-snap-snap, went the blonde girl's Web. She made it look so easy, so effortless. Probably didn't even know she was doing it, and it wasn't hurting her, right?

    Snap-snap-snap. So fast. So pretty. Mesmerizing.

    Snap-snap-snap. All she had to do was tug and pull, just like that—

    Taylor hissed out a breath and pushed, mimicking what she saw, teasing Red and Blue away from each other before pushing them forward, guiding the words out of their nodes and carefully funneling them somewhere else, closer and closer, until...

    Snap-snap-snap. It wasn't the blonde girl this time.

    Red→ Bell | Sky | Cardigan | Jay...

    Blue→ Rose | Blood | Ruby | Grapefruit...

    She leaned back in her seat, staring at the woman apprehensively. She seemed fine. Hadn't even looked up from her book. But Taylor's sabotage remained, floating in her Web, clear as day. Red was blue, blue was red. It had been that easy. With a sudden rush of guilt, she pulled the nodes back apart, forcing them into their original configuration.

    The woman still hadn't looked up.

    Okay. So she could swap nodes, and leave the associations of the original word intact. That was... weird. And kind of useful. And terrifying. If she was only figuring this out now, what the hell else was locked up in her head? Could she change nodes, too? Break them? Grow new subshoots? Place new words entirely? Taylor's mind was racing, hundreds of possibilities spiraling outwards as she bit her lip in thought. So many questions.

    "Hanson Boulevard," came the crackly announcement, the bus slowing to a stop. Taylor glanced out the window, curious, and her eyes widened at what she saw: warehouses, old streetlights, cracked pavement. The Docks? Shit. She really hadn't thought this through.

    Her confusion only mounted as she watched blonde girl get up, heading for the bus's back exit. Taylor tensed in her seat, unsure whether to follow. She'd come all this way already, and it was, what, not-quite-late-afternoon, sure, but— this girl seemed absolutely confident. What if she was a gang member? A drug runner? What if she'd already marked herself just by coming out here? So many questions—

    And only one way to find out.

    With a quiet sigh, she stood up, hopping off the bus and onto a patch of dirty tarmac. The blonde girl was already walking, heading south down the sidewalk at a brisk pace— but a few seconds after Taylor moved to follow, she stopped, turned, and stared straight at her, lips parted in a wide, self-satisfied grin.

    "Hi. I'm Lisa. Nice to meet you."
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2016
    irilis, Shulta, mewombat and 23 others like this.
  20. RikkuEcRud

    RikkuEcRud Getting sticky.

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    Interesting. My immediate thought on a web that was constantly shifting was ADD or some other focus issue, but I suppose Tattletale's power would do something similar as far as control of your thoughts goes.
     
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  21. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    I'm intrigued. Lisa usually needs something to go on.
     
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  22. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Ooh, does this mean that Taylor can go into Emma's Web and rebuild the links that give her a strong connection to Taylor as a friend? And push Sophia into 'fuck you' territory?
     
  23. ShadowStepper1300

    ShadowStepper1300 Not too sore, are you?

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    She was probably doing some introspection at the time, and thus noticed when her thoughts were changing.
     
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  24. ScreamingMorgasm

    ScreamingMorgasm Getting out there.

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    Brakes.

    Also, 'sucio puta' was supposed to be wrong, yeah? Kids that don't get Spanish grammar?

    Interesting, so she can subvert loyalties with no effort whatsoever, reshape relationships... This could dive straight into the NSFW section with little effort, although I'm guessing from the tags that that isn't what you intend?
     
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  25. RikkuEcRud

    RikkuEcRud Getting sticky.

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    I just assumed that Taylor wasn't exactly the stealthiest tail.

    Pretty sure she experimented on some random other passenger and not Lisa.
     
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  26. RoninSword

    RoninSword Sky God

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    She experimented on some random person. The reason Lisa found out is very simple. She likely noticed someone get off the bus at the same time as her and either decided, or accidentally, used her power on her. This would tell her that she is being followed.

    That is quite a scary master power tbh. Completely change what someone associates with a specific word/idea/concept.
     
  27. Ack

    Ack (Verified Ratbag) (Unverified Great Old One)

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    Coil:
    "Employee" =/= "Person I should feel good about betraying."
    "Minors with powers" =/= "People I should consider abducting and/or drugging".

    Actually, it took a little effort. But yeah. With time, she could totally screw with someone's worldview, and they'd have no idea what happened.
     
  28. The Halfa Wannabe

    The Halfa Wannabe Halfa is now Dark Lord of the House Elves

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    I'm just wondering if sge can edit herself in there. Like walking into the PRT and edit herself into being a perfectly normal person to be sitting in on a protectorate meeting.
     
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  29. ScreamingMorgasm

    ScreamingMorgasm Getting out there.

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    She'd probably have to do it to everyone, as well as anyone watching the cameras, Dragon, etc...
     
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  30. Galeiam

    Galeiam Optimistically Asexual.

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    Huh...all she has to do is change a node on a Web Nexus.

    And instantly she Valefor's anyone who has ever spoken to anyone else in that Nexus.

    Thats pretty fucking terrifying.


    Because at this point its obvious she can alter word associations with a bit of effort.
     
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