Transcript : 3

P: How did this happen?

A: Someone shot him in the head
S: The Knights fucked up, useless daggers.

P: One at a time.

A: You told everyone to come running to my rescue if there was trouble.  They did.

S: I would have stopped this if I was here.

P: I don’t mean that shit.  So they shot him down.  Whatever.  I mean, why isn’t he back yet?  Snitcher was supposed to be in a Link.

A: I doubt he ever actually created such a thing.

P: The fuck you mean?

S: That fat shit didn’t have the balls to-

P: Shut up.

A: You crippled him, raped him and subjected him to torture.  Why would he use his power to prolong such an existence?

P: I used Torturer on him though.

A: Torturer guarantees that the person in question will go to any lengths to avoid returning.  Usually, that means obeying your orders.  But in any circumstances where you’d learn that he didn’t Link himself, he’d be dead.

*Breaking noise*

P: <Scream>

P: This isn’t how things are supposed to go!

*Sniffling noises*

P: This wasn’t the deal.  I get everything I want, forever, right?  Well I want Snitcher, and he fucking got away!

A: I’ll get word to the Company.  They can have you a replacement, shouldn’t take too long.

P: What’s the fucking use?  The new guy will just chicken out too.  People are so fucking useless.  I should just fucking-

A: This isn’t a big deal.  The Links are still in place.  The Fists are still here, all your friends,  I’m still here.  Just…calm down a sec, alright?  I’ll…

S: We can’t let them get away with this!

Silence, approx 10 seconds.

A: Exactly.  Let’s go kill whoever’s behind this.  That’ll cheer you up.

P: I don’t feel like it.  I’m suh, so fucking annoyed, and daggers aren’t any fun to fight.

S: Don’t be like that, Boss.  We can throw guys at other guys.  You love that.

A: We can fix this.  I’ll go talk to Answerer, get their location and how long the Company is going to take to get your new Snitcher.  I’ll make you some chocolates.

<Door closes>

S: See?  He’s going to fix everything.

P: Nuh,

S: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-

P: I’m nuh, I’m not mad at you.  We’ll kill those daggers, do Adder’s stuff.  But that’s not where this ends.  I won’t let it be where this ends.  We’re gonna, hold on a sec.

S:I can do that.  I can hold on as long as you-

P: Whoever is listening in on this, you better turn off whatever you are using, because this next bit is private.  I’m going to ask Answerer if anyone heard this next part, and then where you are, and what your fucking families will do to get me to let them die.  It will be-

 

Preventer 4:3

We stared at him for a moment in sullen disbelief.

I had occasionally dreamed that, one day, if I became a skilled enough scientist, I might stumble upon an explanation for the Third Defiance.  I always figured that these were ludicrous dreams, the delusions of a mind given to misleading itself.  The Third Defiance had an aura about it that invited not technical inquiry, but rather religious devotion.

On one day, a day much like any other, the heads had fallen off of the Regime.  Literally.  Every Regime official that anyone could find was decapitated in the span of an instant.  People talking to them simply saw their heads slide free of their shoulders, accompanied by a hissing torrent of blood.

No innocent was harmed.  No one in the Regime was able to fight back, including many of their foremost combatants.  As far as anyone had been able to tell, they had just fallen over dead.

Even the soul crushing end of this fantasy couldn’t deaden the story.  Even though jubilant throngs had converged on the Lair only to find Prevailer alive and well the tale had been passed down.  Even the fact that some of the worst of the worst had been saved by Linker’s power didn’t quell the narrative.  Every child grew up hearing about the day that the tyrant’s armies had been struck down as though by the vengeful God She mocked.

“That was you?” I blurted out, at last.

Andy shook his head, with a seeming reluctance.

“That was a misguided young man that I assisted.  He had undergone the Process, you see, and the side effects were…not bearable.”

The smile that crept across his face was utterly at odds with what he was saying.  By this point, however, I’d grown almost entirely accustomed to Andy’s endless succession of creepy grins.  It was just a fact about him, like Indulger’s bulk or Haunter’s age.  It would be more surprising if he managed to keep his face steady for more than a minute.

“Side effects?” asked Haunter.  “Does your ability to modify the Ultra powers that we’ve been given extend so far as to moderate the side effects of the Process in men?”

I was nodding along as Andy’s head bobbed up and down.  That was the obvious reason, given what we knew of Dr. Chen’s hilariously naïve philosophy, that he would endow an artificial being with power over the gifts that his Process bestowed.

“Yes, that’s actually what I spend most of my time on.  It is a large part of the reason why the Pantheon Ultras that I was leading when you arrived venerated me to the extent of placing me in a position of leadership.  I tweaked their gifts in order to improve their lives, and soothed a number of the side effects that had been bothering them.

I had to object.

“One of your protégé’s is a cyclops.”

“To be sure,” Andy said, “But before I worked on him his eyes were located in the palm of each hand.  He couldn’t grip anything without risking blindness.  He’ll be the first to tell you that my modifications were to his lasting benefit.”

I wanted to continue this line of questioning, but Haunter spoke up before I could.

“Andy, you said that you brought about the Third Defiance by helping a young man.  Can you elaborate on that?  I’m sure you can imagine that we have a surpassing curiosity regarding that matter.”

I fought down a surge of mingled irritation and gratitude.  Everything Andy was saying opened up more questions, and he seemed to have few limits on what he would disclose.  I wanted to ask everything at once.  But Jane was probably right that the truth behind the Third Defiance was the single most crucial thing that Andy had hinted at, thus far.

“The general facts of the case are well known, I believe.  Duncan was a troubled young Ultra, afflicted by a variety of Ultra speed that had specialized itself around his thought processes, rather than his physical form.”

“So, he thought faster, but didn’t move faster?” I asked.

“He moved a little faster…”

Andy trailed off for a second, seemingly lost in thought, or maybe arranging whatever internal equivalent to a person’s memories the good doctor had fitted him with.

“You sped someone up unit they could kill the Regime at a stroke?”

I put the question to him baldly.  If he could manufacture Ultras simila to the man who brought about the Third Defiance, then Andy was a being of tremendous consequence.

At that, Andy shook his head.

“He already had the speed, it was just focused on his consciousness rather than his form.  I couldn’t make just anyone go that fast.  It would have to be someone with an enormous gift for speed, which was presently being channeled into other avenues.”

“Why did he attack the Regime?” asked Haunter.  “This Duncan guy.  Was he trying to overthrow Her, or become Her?”

It was always easy to forget how far Jane’s worldview and mine stood apart.  I could try and emphasize with her, feign acceptance of the antiquated worldview that shackled her mind, but there was always going to be this gap.

For Jane, the world’s apex had been 40 years ago.  She lived her life in its shadow, mourning a long lost Golden Age.  If it wasn’t for the responsibility that she’d assumed to the people in her reserve Haunter would have ended her own life long ago.

Mine was a more forward thinking way of looking at things.  I saw little point in dwelling on the past, and when my unconscious could be induced to cooperate I strove not to ruminate upon prior successes or failures.  The useful time to consider was the future, and how the present could be used to shape it.  I had little use for what was already set in stone.

As a result, Haunter’s curiosity took her down different paths from my own.  I didn’t particularly care about Duncan’s motives.  He’d failed, he’d died.  He didn’t matter.

“I was never able to discover that,” said Andy.  “Weeks went by for him in the time between sentences.  It was almost impossible to communicate with him.  Once I’d fixed his body up to accommodate his gift, he simply vanished.”

“He didn’t thank you?” I asked.  Even for me, that seemed cold.  I’d never heard of such an extreme example of time dilation, but even slight mismatches between mind speed and body had provoked Ultras to suicide.

“He scratched ‘Thanks’ into a chair.  He was gone before we could even do final testing on him.  The Third Defiance took place less than two weeks after that.”

Andy grimaced, as though at a bad taste.

“I’ve often wondered if he might not have been successful, if he had only displayed the patience necessary to endure a day or two of our calibrations.  How many lives could he have saved, starting with his own, if he’d spent a little bit longer developing his gift, exploring its intricacies?”

That set me back a bit.

My own path to rebellion had been carefully plotted out, a simple response to my calculation that basically every possible end to my life was at Prevailer’s hands.  I had considered the matter, shelved it and thought about it anew, over and over.  I spent hours sitting nearly motionless, considering every possible action that I could take.  I’d tried to plan for every step of the way that led to the Link, and I still regarded the success of my scheme with an undeniable glow of pride.

This guy had apparently just thrown up his hands and gone for the crown, after all of a week or so of the intoxication of his improved powers.  He’d nearly pulled it off, too.

Deep within me, the obvious question was stirring.  Slasher’s example aside, Andy’s actions were nearly screaming at us to allow him to tune up our own gifts.  But I knew myself too well.

If the possibility that my gift could be improved were dangled before me, my rationality would suffer.  I had set my mind against considering it.  Only if Andy’s benevolence and competence could be guaranteed, and I didn’t presently know of any such assurance that would convince me, would I allow my own gift to be manipulated.  I had resolved to protect my invincibility, rather than risk a catastrophic and irreparable error.

“How do you live with yourself?”

Haunter’s questions, as always, followed a different line.

“It is an interesting question.  I feel little guilt about the outcome of the Third Defiance.  Certainly nothing like the intensity of my memories for the Second.  It would be easy to chalk this up to a deficiency in my character, perhaps something caused by the unorthodox circumstances of my birth.”

Andy didn’t sound like he particularly cared, either way.  His tone was one of idle speculation.

“But the more likely explanation is that my execution at Prevailer’s hands had something to do with it.  I’ve often lamented that I-“

“Your what?!” I interrupted him.

We were jumping all over the place in this interrogation, but this certainly had to be explored.

“I’m sorry, I got off topic.  Earlier, when I mentioned that I had been behind the Third Defiance, and then She had snatched me up?  I intended to follow up on that by describing the manner of my execution.”

“So…you are beyond death entirely then?  It isn’t merely aging that can’t kill you, even She is unable to do you harm?”

I could track Haunter’s concerns easily enough.  Even amid the storm of revelations that Andy was providing, she remained fixated on the idea that he, or a form like his, could somehow provide a safe harbor for her throng of passengers.

He looked at her quizzically for a moment, then realization dawned in his eyes.  It was one of the more fully human expressions that I’d seen so far.

“Ah, no.  Sadly.  Rather the opposite.  My gift is useless in battle.  It requires hours of prolonged contact, and the willing acquiescence of the soul that I am aiding.  Soon after She had captured me Her minions exposed me to Torturer, and I expired.”

This time we didn’t even ask for clarification, just went on.

“I awoke again some time later, in a shipping container out on the coast.  I’d been there for some time, kept healthy by a mechanism set up to drip a regular dose of the chemicals which sustain my form.”

“So, you merely passed out due to Torturer’s proximity, and then they moved you to a remote location?  Why?” I asked.

“No, although I thought so for a long time.  Ultimately, my examinations of the machine that had been sustaining me convinced me that it was beyond Adder and Her other minion’s ability to build.  It had clearly been constructed in the time of my creator.”

“So, this super machine…it snatched you back when you were in danger, and kept you alive while you recovered?”

I was shooting in the dark, here.  Haunter’s shades had probably already guessed what was going on, but she didn’t look motivated to interrupt.

“Perhaps it would assist your speculation if I were to reveal the detail which made me realize what was happening.”

As he said this, Andy smiled one of his trademark Cheshire cat grins, and pulled a bit at his collar, exposing a small tattoo of the number two.

I almost gasped aloud, getting it in an instant.

“Yes, it’s just as you think.  Prevailer executed me, pushed me into Torturer’s immediate proximity and my soul fled away.  But Dr. Chen didn’t only make one artificial form.”

“How many?” Haunter whispered.

“I have no way of knowing.  Perhaps only two.  Or perhaps dozens.  The contraption which had maintained this form, comatose, during the entirety of my existence had no particular traces by which I could find any others.  It drew power from a few small batteries.  It refined the chemicals I need from the air and a small sample of exotic components that had been preloaded into a scooper.  There could be one in the next room over for all I know.”

He gestured vaguely in the direction of a ruined archway towards the back of the basement, as though the idea that anything had survived intact in Redo merited serious consideration.

“But you are still you, even though this is your second body?” asked Haunter.

Once again, Andy shook his head.

“It’s hard to know how to answer that question.  I believe that I am.  I have memories from before I woke up in the container.  But they are…shallow.  I recall sight, but not the sensations that that sight awoke in me.  I remember sounds, but not what they called to mind.  This shallowness is the reason that I alluded to, when I was speculating about why I regret the Second Defiance’s failure so much more than the Third, despite my greater personal responsibility for the latter.”

“So this numbness or whatever, it doesn’t extend back all the way to your creation?” I asked, not getting exactly how all of this was supposed to have worked.

Andy gave me a look that was the gesture equivalent of a condescending pat on the head.

“Exactly!  It goes back only a little ways.  I’ve developed a theory to explain it.  I believe that memories are originally stored in the body, and only later transferred to the soul.  My short term memories were damaged when my body was destroyed, and the soul reproduced them afterwards from logical inferences.  I do not trust them, entirely.”

I didn’t particularly care about the exotic ins and outs of Essence Theory, so I mostly tuned out Haunter as she speculated with him.  For obvious reasons, she had an exceptional knowledge of what parts of a mind came from the soul as opposed to the brain, and a deep and abiding interest in the same.

While they geeked out, I pondered the practical import of Andy’s words.

Say for a second, that he was telling the truth.  The evidence was still thin, but he’d said some things that I could verify.  I could question the Pantheon refugees, forcefully.  If they maintained that he’d modified their gifts, and I could assure myself that they were telling the truth, then his power, at least, was real.

If his recollections of the old world were genuine enough to pass Haunter and her Jury’s questioning, then his age was also the real thing.  He might very well be telling the entire truth.

Given for a moment that he was, simply as  a stipulation, how might I make use of him?

The obvious answer was to alter our gifts.

As a Fist, we had a lot of raw power.  Indulger’s abilities had an incredible range and specificity of effect.  Condemner’s power had no known limit.  I was the most Ultra Tough individual I had ever read about.

If we could be tuned for efficiency, it wasn’t out of the question that we could take down Her.

But that path had a lot of risks.  Lots of people had believed that they could take down Her, over the years.  Apparently some of them had even had Andy’s backup.  All had ended up in Her Tally.

No, the thing that made sense was to use Andy to cement my nascent alliance with the Pantheon.  Prevailer was afraid of Zeus and his Inner Circle anyway, ever since they destroyed the previous Fourth Fist.  If they had a meta gift like Andy’s at their disposal She would be done for.

And I wouldn’t have to take any risk at all.

Life in Haunter’s Reserve

Joey:  No no no.  You are thinking of it like there’s another dimension where we go to.  It’s nothing like that.

Nirav:  So tell me what it’s like.

Joey:  Ok, I’ll try and be as straightforward as possible, no metaphors or anything.

Nirav: Shoot.

Joey:  So, when you are in the reserve, you see out of Jane’s eyes, feel what she feels.  That’s it.  There isn’t some other place where we all hang out, we are just thousands of people all seeing, hearing, feeling the same thing.

Nirav: Trippy.  All of you?

Joey:  Yeah.

Nirav:  Can you do anything, or is it just the Haunter Show 24/7.

Joey:  You can move her body, if she lets you.  Like, if she wants to play piano, she’ll ask Irene or me who the best piano players are, put one of them in the driver’s seat.  She can take it back at any time, but you get to move as long as she doesn’t object.

Nirav:  That doesn’t happen a lot?

Joey:  No, most of what we get to do is just speak in the rotation.

Nirav:  The rotation?

Joey:  Yeah.  See, when a shade ‘thinks’ really loudly, Jane and the rest of us hear’s it.  It sounds like the voice of the person making the thought.

Nirav: That must be chaotic

Joey:  You’d think, but it’s the furthest thing from it.  Everyone knows that Jane will have to mute us all if it gets to be too much of a racket, so there is a rotation.  Everyone takes their 30 seconds and then it passes to the next person.

Nirav:  How long does that take to go through?

Joey:  Little under a week.

Nirav:  Wow, you only get to communicate for 30 seconds a week?

Joey:  Well, there’s also times like this, when she manifests us.  Being manifested is a lot like being alive.  We have our bodies back, or these facsimiles of them anyway, and we can go around and do what we like.  We treasure these little excursions.

Nirav:  What happens if someone speaks out of order?

Joey:  Jane can mute a shade, which means we don’t hear its thoughts anymore.  She can also expel one of us, in the worst case scenario.

Nirav:  You mean kill one of you?

Joey: Yeah.  It doesn’t happen often though.  People who get muted go out of their way to never experience that again.

Nirav:  That’s pretty harsh.

Joey:  Like I said, it doesn’t happen that often.

Nirav:  Still…

Joey:  I don’t like to dwell on it.  Got any other questions?

Nirav:  Yeah, why do some of you shades have shade objects, and others don’t?  And like, what affects what clothes you are manifested with?

Joey:  It’s a self image thing.  You have all of the objects that are part of your essential image of yourself.  Clothes are the same way.  The image that shows up when Jane projects you is wearing whatever you think of yourself as wearing, when you die.

Nirav:  So do people actually look like they looked when they died, or like they think they looked?

Joey:  I don’t know, actually.  Never really looked into that.

Nirav:  Oh crap,  I gotta go.  Good talking to you man.

Preventer 4:2

It was a few days before Haunter and I had a chance to corner Andy and get his story out of him.

We intended to get to the matter sooner, but integrating the micro communities back together into our newly repaired Redo was a lot more trouble than it had looked like.

I’d made a specialty of managing people back in the Lair, and so I had some idea of the difficulties that we would run into, but even so I was aghast at the sheer logistics of the process.  Everyone needed something.

People’s old homes were no longer available, and Indulger had been heedless in his gift’s application.  Buildings that had been home to certain families were now twined together, forcing the prior residents to share or move.  Buildings that had been once been dangerous ruins had been reshaped into desirable locations, and people squabbled over who would get what.  Everywhere there was a need for adult supervision.

Honestly, I enjoyed it.  I applied simple principles of logic and proportionality to hand down my judgements, and with Indulger’s gift available on request I was able to satisfy both parties most of the time.  The housing issues were time consuming, but not ultimately difficult.

Haunter had a similar time of it.  Everyone wanted their fallen friends and families to manifest as often as possible.  Jane had to balance the people of Redo’s desire for union with her passengers with her longer term shade’s desires to be mobile and independent for brief periods of time, and then pit both against her need to retain a portion of her capacity in order to defend herself.

She seemed to come down primarily on the side of making the humans happy.  I’d never seen her manifest so many shades so constantly as she’d done over the past few days.  It sometimes seemed like every third or fourth resident was one of Haunter’s ghostly creations.

Most pressing of all the issues that confronted us was that of sustenance.

The people of Dover and the other burbs had been having trouble finding sustenance even before we showed up and concentrated them all in one spot.  Now that they covered less area there was less game and scavenged foods to be found.

Not that they had any terrific foraging abilities to begin with.  Redo had always been a city that relied upon its Company Facility for its sustenance.  Until it was back in place things would be a little difficult.

We discussed whether or not there was a way for us to demand that a new Facility be moved here.  It seemed like as a Fist we should stand above them in the Regime’s hierarchy, but none of us had any actual idea how we’d go about that.  We decided to wait for a while and see whether one of them just showed up.

In the meantime, in order to attempt to keep our newly returned refugees from starving, we all combined our talents.

I had read up on subsistence farming a long time ago.  I’d been concerned that the Regime’s dependence on the Company Facilities could one day hamper my plans.  It had been something to do.  I was able to describe, in a general way, how farming should be done.

Dale turned the earth over, pushing the sand and dust of the American southwest aside and dragging rich, fertile ground from somewhere.  I wasn’t certain, actually, whether he was stealing it from another area or whether his gift extended to changing the ground’s state.

Haunter turned out to keep a batch of preserved seeds and such in a container in the back of the bus.  I was dubious as to whether they could possibly still be fertile after all this time, but she assured me that a number of her older ghosts were farmers, and their expert opinion was that it was doable.

We set the folk of Redo, those interested in contributing to the town’s food supply anyway, to farming.  Nirav joked that he’d seen this kind of thing before, but I didn’t exactly understand the reference.

It still probably wouldn’t have worked, if it wasn’t for Andy and his Ultras.  One of them had an ability that was effectively a green thumb, coaxing explosive growth out of Haunter’s withered offerings.  She’d gone by Earth Mother in the Pantheon, but accepted her demotion to ‘Grower’ with good grace.

In the aftermath of our farming efforts Haunter and I finally got our one on one with Andy.  We pulled him aside into a deserted storefront just as everyone was breaking up and heading back to their residences.  We could feel the rest of the Fist through the link, but Haunter and I both wanted this to be private.

“How can I help you?” he asked.

Even now, after a long day grubbing around in the dirt, Andy didn’t show any signs of strain.  It wasn’t that he looked aloof, or cold, like an android from an old science fiction piece.  Andy’s inhumanity manifested itself differently.  It revealed itself in seamless transitions where a person would hesitate, in slightly inappropriate facial expressions.  Not an uncanny valley situation, but the certain knowledge that what was looking at you was nothing like you.

“It’s time for you to tell your story,” I said.

Haunter didn’t add anything.  We both wanted this.

Andy seemed to sense that.  He paused for a moment or two, as though marshalling what passed for his thoughts, and then told us his tale in a long monologue.

“As I informed you, I am an artificial being.  I was created by Dr. Chen, built to examine the nature of the Process.  It was his hope, I believe, that by studying how a soul came to be attracted to an artifact such as my body he would gain more general insights into the means by which souls bound themselves to corporeal objects.”

He stopped again.  I was reminded of a datapad buffering before execution.

“This was back before the Takeover.  Peggy was in the Ultra Corps, an open secret.  Dr. Chen’s pacifism didn’t exactly agree with this occupation for his surrogate daughter, of course, but he never pressed the issue.  I think that on some level he understood that she only yearned for the form of authority, but would never accept commands that she didn’t agree with.”

I didn’t point out that he was saying Her name wrong.  I didn’t want to interrupt.

“The point of me was in my own Ultra power-“

He noticed our startled jerks, and nodded gravely.

“Yes, I underwent the Process, as did the models before me.  I believe that I was the first to survive, and hence earn a name.”

“Who administered your project?” asked Haunter, her voice low.

“Dr. Chen, of course, but primarily Copyer.”

I started.  The mysterious force behind the Company Men.  This was priceless info.

“Can you tell me about Copyer?” I asked.

“You know him nowadays as the Company Men,” he responded.  “His gift allows him to replicate things.  The Regime uses it, along with Adder’s ability to temporarily create matter, to overcome issues in its supply system.”

“I’ve spoken to Company Men,” objected Haunter.  “They are soulless, empty.  They obey without compunction, and have no agency of their own.”

Andy nodded.

“This was long ago, however, back when far fewer copies exist.  Copyer didn’t understand what he was doing to himself, that his soul would ultimately spread itself too thin to have a will, trying to animate so many forms.”

Copyer was the Company Men, and he’d lost his volition by spreading himself too widely.  It made sense.  Everyone knew that they handled the Company Facilities, and the logistics of those only worked out if you assumed matter creation was at work.

“So…you are a replica?” I asked.

He nodded.

“The first, and only, version of me to survive the Process.  They had been striving to get a gift that allowed for meta-powers, and they succeeded.”

“Wait!” Haunter interjected.  “They can control what gifts people get?”

Andy shook his head.

“Not exactly.  If the Process is like dialing a phone number then they can basically set the area code.”

“I don’t know what that means.” I informed him.

Haunter was nodding, naturally.  No doubt area codes had been some random old world thing or other.

“They get to pick the neighborhood, but now what house.”

I looked over at Haunter, trying to see whether she was buying this.  She had an odd look on her face, not one that I could read.  I was reminded of our time in Dover, of her approaching something relevant to her perpetual quest to house her passengers.

“I’ve never heard of this.” I said.

Andy’s smile grew across his face, smug as usual.

“Copyer can’t exactly talk about it anymore, and Prevailer doesn’t see a need to point it out.  I’m sure that some officials in the Pantheon and Union have figured it out, but they presumably see no reason to panic their populations with this information.”

“So they can control, roughly, what power people will end up with.  Are there any other axes on which they can exert influence over the Process?” asked Haunter.

“Yes.  They can make it greater or lower variance.”

I wasn’t quite sure how that applied to what we were talking about, and he clearly read that from my face.

“I mean, to return to the classic Kite metaphor of the Process, they can control how many times the line is reeled in.  More means that the powers will be stronger, but the percentage that dies is much greater.  Less means weaker powers, more survivors.”

I gaped at him, stunned for a moment.  If there was way to get Ultras without killing so many people then…

“Is it fair to guess that the present ratio is set to kill as many people as possible without potentially creating someone stronger than Her?” asked Haunter, in an endlessly weary voice.

Andy’s face fell, and he inclined his head in the affirmative.

We all sat a moment in silence.  Prevailer was so lazy about pursuing Her omnicidal aims that it was easy to dismiss them entirely.  The reminder that the Process was mostly a means of extermination was a bit of a gut punch.

“I’m sorry, we got off on a tanget here, Andy.  You were telling us that Copyer and Dr. Chen created you, way back in the day?” I prompted.

“Yes, thank you.  I’m sorry for provoking such a maudlin moment.  Let me get on with the story.”

Another of those characteristic pauses, perhaps he was rehearsing in his head what he was about to say.

“In any event, the meta ability that they’d been searching for was successfully given to me.  My gift allows me to fine tune the gifts of others.”

After so many shocks this one didn’t even really register.  Why WOULDN’T Andy be able to do something that no one even knew could be done?

“I was put to work adjusting the gifts of the Ultra Corps, introduced as a therapist and given a false identity.  I was never made entirely aware of the details.  Right up until the Takeover that was my job, just a technician in the Corps’ endless war against hostile Ultras.”

He seemed wistful now, or perhaps regretful.

“I broke with Peggy when she launched her coup.  I went into hiding, tried to distance myself from everyone that knew about me.  It seemed to work for a while.”

I was burning to ask him what he meant by ‘adjusting gifts’ but I didn’t want to sidetrack him again.  There wasn’t any time pressure that I knew of, and my gift shielded me from fatigue.  I could interrogate Andy all night.

“I tried to stay gone.  When Peggy didn’t track me down I figured that she’d forgotten about me, or presumed me dead.  I just joined a set of squatters in an obscure block in a small city, lived as quietly as I could.  Whenever the Regime came stomping through town I just burrowed in a little deeper.”

“I take it that something happened to change this?” I asked.

“Yes.  The Second Defiance.”

He said the words with a sort of pride that made me think of him as human after all.  He sort of growled them.  It was an animating passion that had been lacking in his generally sarcastic façade.

“How to describe it…  I honestly don’t think it’s possible.  If you didn’t live through it, you can’t even imagine it.”

I had, of course.  I’d been alive back then, but still a baby during that time.

“What was so different about this, I mean from the Ultra Corps struggles that you’d been cleaning up after earlier in your story.”

As soon as I asked, I realized that I was exposing my ignorance.  Haunter gave me a look of pity mixed with something I couldn’t define, and Andy kind of flinched.

“It was…It was kind of a storybook war.  Or a comic book, really.  You’d really have to have been there.”

Haunter spoke up.

“Picture it.  The best of the world, the remaining armies of the civilized nations, on one side.  On the other, a thug and a tyrant.  A foe from the ancient past, a modern day Pharaoh, ruling through threats and delusions of divinity.”

“Yes, exactly!” said Andy.  “And we had Ultras, too.  This wasn’t a sucker punch like the First Defiance.  This time we were going to use all of our intellect on the problem, to concentrate the proficiency of the world’s finest minds and the courage of the world’s most dauntless soldiers.  This time was going to be different.”

It had certainly been that.  I’d read about the Second Defiance.  There was a lot written on the subject.  It had been the death knell of the old world, perhaps even more than the fall of America.  After the Second Defiance the world had assumed the shape that it had remained in up to this day.

“So, you helped the Allies in the Second Defiance?  You stepped out of the shadows?”

Haunter didn’t really sound curious.  I found myself wondering what she’d been up to during the Second Defiance.

“Indeed.  I did what I could.  For all the good it did, I gave of myself more during that time than I have before or since.  To no avail.”

I’d known that She would reenter this story at some point, and from the way his face fell I guessed we’d arrived there.

“Did She snatch you up after the war?”

Andy shook his head, his smile returning.

“No, no.  She didn’t really do much recruiting in the wake of the Second Defiance.  Too busy with Snitcher, her newest toy.  You could get away with a lot then, and I’d never been on the front lines.  I just took off my uniform and slunk back into hiding.”

Haunter started to say something, but he interrupted her.

“No, I wasn’t snatched until She figured out that I’d been the one behind the Third Defiance.”

 

…Get Stitches

Incident Report

2:00 am

KEM operatives gain access to the Lair by climbing through a section of the wall which had been damaged earlier in the day.

2:05 am

KEM operatives encounter Knights, but are not recognized as outsiders.

2:22 am

KEM operatives enter non target building, search abandoned structure from top to bottom.

3:09 am

KEM operatives capture, interrogate and execute a Knight, obtaining a detailed map of the area, along with up to date knowledge of their target’s location.

3:32 am

KEM operatives split into two sub groups, due to dissension over appropriate target.

345: am

KEM splinter group A infiltrates Adder’s living unit, killing a number of other residents.  Adder confronts and destroys them.

355: am

Security forces abandon the central area in their haste to arrive on the scene at Adder’s residence, attracted by the explosions and gunfire of that battle.

4:02 am

KEM splinter group B enters the central area (devoid of guards due to earlier distraction), proceeds to Snitcher’s living quarters and terminates him.

4:21 am

Knight forces encounter KEM splinter group B as they are exfiltrating, but mistake them for fellow guards and do not engage.

4:44 am

KEM splinter group B escapes the Lair, and exits the surveillance zone.

Preventer 4:1

I had so many questions, but one of them predominated.

“AI is not possible!” erupted from my lips.

Andy tilted his head to the side, even as the others in my group glanced at me.

I stilled the impulse to flap my hands.  I hadn’t meant to be so loud, but I’d reacted in an instant.  I fought down my insecurity and owned the outburst, keeping my focus on Andy’s placid visage.

Once again he broke into a smile as he responded.  Andy did that an awful lot.

“You are correct, of course, Preventer.  No one has ever been able to generate cognition from within our universe.  Union scientists refer to this as the Chen Barrier, and take its impossibility alternately as a challenge and a tragedy.  My creator never intended for the idea to serve as such, however.”

I frowned, not seeing where he was going.

When no one said anything he seemed to realize that elaboration was called for.

“I represent not a flouting of the Barrier, but an end run around it.  If you can’t create cognition within the world, then you don’t, see?”

“So…. you are an artificial humanoid, you think, but you are not an artificial intelligence?  I’m not sure I see what you are trying to say.”

Haunter had an expression on her face that I hadn’t seen in a while.  It meant that one of her passengers had understood something that none of the rest of us had.  I caught her eyes and shook my head slightly, willing her to understand that this was too important for guesswork.

I wanted to believe, of course.  No one who even called themselves a scientist could deny the allure of any new information about the phenomenon that had overthrown the world.  Even if Andy was a fraud in some respects, so long as he had actually known Dr. Chen I could never allow him to get away.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I began to think about cells and locks, restraints to hold an Ultra.

“Look at it this way.  Say you are an inhabitant of the ancient world.  You want to invent a flying machine, how can you go about it?”

“The Wright Brothers answered this question well enough, I think.”

I kept my voice steady as I responded.  I put my hands behind my back, mirroring Andy’s posture.  This was an old debating trick.  Opportunities to expand my knowledge were all too rare, of late.  It would be remiss to allow this one to pass by without enjoying it to the fullest.

“Of course, but imagine if their planes kept smashing into the ground.  Imagine if something, let us call it the Andy Barrier, prevented planes from taking off.”

“Then no one could fly?” asked Indulger, seemingly bewildered at the entire line of discussion.

“They couldn’t fly in PLANES” responded Nirav, before I could say much the same.

His cleverness was a large part of why I liked Nirav.  He’d been dealt an unimaginably crummy hand, and yet he was always on the ball, always watching for the main chance.  I could never be that way, but it was the sort of thing that I liked to surround myself with.

“Are there birds, in this hypothetical question?” I asked.

Even before Andy responded I could see from Haunter’s expression that I’d hit the hinge of the discussion.

“Indeed,” responded the man who called himself Dr. Chen’s masterpiece.  “The birds of this world appear to defy the Andy barrier just as they defy gravity.”

Birds didn’t defy gravity, of course, which made the whole thing clear.

“You build a bird, then.  Just put together an exact replica of what makes up a bird, and whatever lets them fly will let your creation fly.”

My hands ceased their trembling, assuaged by a mystery resolved.

“Precisely!” he said.  Andy’s voice had the sort of ‘head pat’ congratulations that my best self resented, and my worst self craved.

“Or, in Dr. Chen’s case, you can’t build a thinking machine, but if you construct a person…then whatever lets people think should let the construct do the same.”

He simply nodded in response to my summation.

“Oh, so you are like Frankenstein!” said Indulger.

“His monster, sure.”

“Do you age?” asked Jane.

I was taken aback by how forcefully she said it.  Ever since the Colonel had died there had been a rawness to Jane, a wound.  But something about her voice in this moment made it seem as though that trauma had found its voice.  If a wound could move like lips, and a voice emerge, then I fancy it would have the tone that Haunter used.

“Not as you do, no.” said Andy, still smiling.  “I wear down, over time.  Think of it less like a person growing older, and more like a vehicle that requires periodic maintenance.”

I started to say something, but Haunter cut me off with a flick of her hand.

“So, as long as you continue your ‘maintenance’ you will endure?”

That intensity was still there, strong in her voice.

I fought back the urge to speak up.  I’d trained myself not to let people talk over me.  Made it almost a reflex to immediately and instinctively stand up for myself if anyone made a short joke, or laughed at my hands or tried to browbeat me into silence.

But this was different.  Jane wasn’t shutting me down because she didn’t think I was worth it, she was shutting me out of the conversation, because she had narrowed the world down to just the two of them.  It wasn’t about bullying me.

“Unless someone drops a truck on me.”

Strangely enough, Andy’s grin faltered here.  It made the joke fall a little flat.

Haunter subsided, making a sort of ‘take care of it’ gesture to Nirav and Fisher.

“Fascinating,” I said.

That brought the smile back.  Real person or not, everyone likes the idea that someone else is interested in their story.  It had been one of the first commonalities that my research had unlocked, way back in the day.  Everyone liked to be listened to.

“If it is true,” said Fisher.

I looked over at her, trying to gauge her body language.  Fisher was always so hard to read, but her monster form often betrayed her emotions in a way that her seduction form didn’t.

Right now the beast was bristling, leaning slightly forward and snapping at the air.  Fisher was on edge, aggrieved.  I wasn’t sure what exactly had set her off, but I suddenly realized that Haunter wasn’t the only one in our group on the verge of an inner abyss.

“Babe…” said Nirav, trying to placate her.

Fisher didn’t even look at him.

“This is all a nice story, but don’t you guys think that there are a few problems with it?”

“Problems?” asked Andy.

She rode over his response.

“Why does this artificial being look exactly like a person?  Why wouldn’t Dr. Chen make a bunch of them?  Where has it been since his death?  Why is it in Redo?  How have we never heard of it?”

Andy raised his hands in a gesture of surrender, cutting off the flow of questions.

“That’s a lot to answer, to be sure, but I’m not trying to convince anyone.  If you guys just want to think of me as some random person, that’s fine by me.”

I shook my head slowly back and forth in confusion.

“Wait, if you aren’t trying to convince us of your story then why did you ask to meet with us at all?  What are you after in this conversation?”

“ I just wanted to speak with you, that’s all.  I wanted to get an idea how who I was handing the folk of Dover over to.”

He stopped, chuckling.

“Dover over… I like the stound of that.”

It was an oddly childish interjection for someone who was normally very articulate.  I filed the moment away for later consideration, even as I met Haunter’s gaze.

In every person’s life, or at least most people’s, there are moments when you are seized with an inexplicable certainty.  This was one such moment for me.  Looking into Jane’s weary, haunted gaze I could tell that I was gazing upon a kindred spirit.

We shared an unspoken, desperate communion, which if put to words would have taken the form of a shouted “DON”T LET HIM GO”.

“No need to be so hasty, Andy” said Haunter.  “We don’t mind Pantheon leftovers hanging around.  You can be Bosses, Company Facility wardens, that kind of things.”

Andy cocked an eyebrow, and the cyclops beside him nodded slowly.

“Very generous of you, my new friends.  I had understood your desire to be a simple reintegration of the citizenry of Laredo.  Are you certain that my followers and I have a place within your vision?”

I fielded this one.

“We took on two hundred of you when we took the city,” I said.  “I don’t think a dozen or so are going to cause any problems.”

As soon as I said that I knew that I’d done something dumb.  Fisher’s eyes grew wide and staring, Nirav hung his head.

And around us, the milling crowd shrank away.

People hadn’t known that we had been the ones behind the attack.  We weren’t going to tell them.  I felt a familiar rush of shame and self loathing.

I’d even been the one to insist on it!  I’d gotten Jane to tell all of her shades, as a condition for being allowed to participate in the reunion scene, not to discuss our role in the affair.  I’d had persuasive reasons, won the argument.

Only to ruin it now, to fail in front of everyone.  My hands twisted and writhed, flapping back and forth.

“Too true, too true,” said Andy.  “None of us are Fist-class Ultras.  We would be no match for you in any contest of might.  I wasn’t attempting to insinuate that you might be afraid of us, however.”

I stilled my inner turmoil, reminded myself that I was invincible.  I locked away the thought process that wanted to endlessly dwell on my failures and focused on the present.

“Then what is your concern?” I asked.

Andy looked out over the people of his tiny little burb, clustered in knots around the respawned specters that haunter had brought forth.

“Would your master look kindly on you allowing the enemies of your nation to remain within ground that you have claimed in her name?”

Before I could respond he corrected himself.

“Excuse me, Her name?”

I shook my head.

“Prevailer doesn’t care about the weak.  We can kill them or rule them, as we see fit.”

“She defines weak as pretty much everyone, so don’t feel bad that you qualify,” Indulger interjected.

“Whether we chase you off or put you to work is all one in Her eyes.  Her only concern is that we don’t run from you, let you push us around.”

Andy frowned at that.

“I never get used to such madness.  You have been sent to change the name of this place.  To ensure that Her writ is law.  You will battle against those sent by Zeus for much the same purpose.  And neither ruler has any interest in that which is claimed, nor any care for the people trampled underfoot.”

I shrugged.

Worrying about Her was like worrying about gravity.  Yes, She was capricious and unfair.  What else was new?

“Can you introduce me to the Ultras that will be coming to live with us?” asked Indulger.  “I’ve got to make sure that I make them good places to stay and stuff.”

Andy responded to him, and I pulled Haunter away as the rest of them began to delve into the minutia of the integration.  I’d get a summary later, for now we had to talk.

Haunter’s shades kept everyone back, not a difficult task.  The Sigils would probably have done that by themselves.

“What do you make of this?” she muttered.

“Hard to tell.  Andy’s story is preposterous, but it is hard to see what advantage it would give him to sell us on it.  Investigation will probably reveal more.  For now I’m withholding judgement.”

Haunter didn’t seem to register what I’d said.

“I mean, what if it is true?  Imagine if we could replicate the process?”

“Jane, the whole earth has been trying to duplicate Chen’s Process for decades, with far more information than we could possibly get out of this guy, and it hasn’t gone anywhere.  If the way that the doc made him is anything like the Process, it is going to be some kind of magic that won’t benefit anyone else.  And that’s presuming that he is telling the truth, which is still in doubt.”

Haunter looked right at me.

“I think that he is telling the truth, or at least the Jury does.”

She must have seen my quizzical expression.

“A group of my shades that are extremely good judges of character and the like.  They watch from behind my eyes and let me know their thoughts on everyone I meet.  From the first time we saw this guy, this thing, they’ve been saying that there was something wrong with him, with it.”

It was so easy to forget about all the parts of her power.  Haunter had expelled so many shades to interact with the people of Dover that I’d just sort of been envisioning her as empty.  But she’d been gathering people for a very long time.  This wouldn’t even scratch the surface of her reservoir.

“Alright, so something is wrong with its facial features.  Fine.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we can take the whole ‘I am a secret creation of a historical figure who has all of the information that you desperately want’ line at face value.”

Jane nodded.

“If it is telling the truth, though.  And we can make another one, then I can finally save all of my passengers.”

She actually had tears welling up in her eyes.  I felt uncomfortable witnessing this.  Old people are ugly when they cry.

“You are eliding a lot of details, but sure.  I can appreciate that for your particular purposes a human form that does not age would be crucial.”

I tended to get more clinical as other people got more emotional.  I’d resolved to work on it before, but nothing had ever come of it.

“Then you’ll help me get to the bottom of this?”

I nodded, slowly.

“You and I have been at odds ever since the formation of this Fist, but I think that on this matter there is no division.  We’ll get the whole story out of Andy, and see where that leads us.”

Haunter looked over at the rest of the group where they were enthusiastically welcoming Andy’s Pantheon washouts to the Regime.

“I think we already know where it is going to lead us, though.”

That was certainly true.

“Let’s hope She doesn’t see us coming.”