“Bullshit!” said Haunter, immediately.
Transmitter stood impassively, the static effect letting us know that the mysterious Andy had heard that, but there was no response.
“Is it, necessarily?” asked Preventer.
Haunter and Preventer’s rivalry wouldn’t ordinarily have spilled over in front of an outside party, but I think that our initial estimation of the Dover refugees as posing no threat had left us all in a more casual state of mind.
“It’s been forty-one years since the Takeover,” retorted Haunter. “Dr. Chen’s son moved to the Union, and died in an accident or something. He sure as shit wouldn’t be squatting in Redo!”
Preventer looked like she was about to make an angry retort, but she seemed to catch my slightly raised eyebrow. She subsided, as the folly of arguing before the enemy sank in.
“A man can have more than one child,” responded Andy.
This time the voice coming through Transmitter struck me as a woman’s. It hadn’t necessarily changed, just something about the intonation. The ‘hook’ on it had grown softer, so to speak.
“Bullshit,” repeated Haunter.
I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like the idea that another person might have a connection, however tenuous, to the time before the destruction of the old world might have sparked something in Jane. Her denial struck me as pro forma, as just something that she had to get out of the way.
“It is of no moment,” said Andy “whether you believe me or not. The residents of Dover have accepted my particular brand of leadership. The point that I’d like to clarify is the nature of your intentions.”
We looked to Indulger. We’d coached the big man for roughly this question.
“We are here to tell your people good news. They ran away from Redo because of a big fire and all the buildings being knocked down. But we are putting the buildings back up, and the fire is out. So they can come back.”
That…hadn’t been what we’d told him to say.
“It is not quite so simple, my large friend. More than the physical devastation, the humans who have sought my protection are fleeing from the harsh reality of dwelling in a conflict zone. Their families have been torn apart. Wives mourn husbands, husbands clutch photographs of absent children…”
“Meaningless drivel. Those who live and those who are gone, neither should concern you. Those gone are beyond pain. Those who live can take their stuff.”
I didn’t try and explain empathy to Condemner. The entire concept alternately bored and annoyed him. He seemed to feel that we were all faking it. I wasn’t sure how that squared with him understanding human feelings well enough to forge my persona.
“That is so sad,” said Indulger.
There was a moment of stillness, as the mysterious Andy didn’t feel the need to respond to that.
“Whatever the daggers’ feelings on the matter,” said Preventer “they must obey Her commands. There is no reason that this has to escalate. Give over your followers to our care, and we can avoid violence.”
It was strange, the position that we found ourselves in. None of us had any desire to harm the Ultras keeping the people in Dover, far less the refugees themselves. And yet we would do so, for only by forcibly moving them could we spare them from Her anger.
Somehow Her enemies were fighting each other. My attack on Redo, our battle with Thor’s men, even the botched negotiation with the Union. It was all carried out by a group of people that didn’t have an iota of loyalty to Peggy Martin. We were caught in a loop, doing her will to keep Her from doing worse, even as the people that we were fighting against were Her enemies too.
It had to stop. I didn’t know just exactly how, but this couldn’t keep going on.
“Tell me,” said Andy “if someone had come to you, before you gained your marvelous powers. If they had given you an equivalent order, an Ogre’s choice. Obey or die. Are there any among you who would have chosen to die?”
“Obviously not” said Preventer.
“Yes,” said Haunter, at the same moment.
Preventer’s head whipped around, caught by surprise at that.
“Then why?” purred Andy’s voice, relayed through Transmitter.
“Back when I became an Ultra, back in the day…I was signing up to fight against Her. To do my part for my country, put down the rebellion.”
I’d known that Jane was old, but still, to hear her speak of the First Defiance…
“My powers, the powers that I got from the Process…they weren’t any use against Her. My unit never blamed me. They could have. Other units had Ultras who could at least TRY and fight her. But all I could do was hook their souls tight. The Colonel…”
Jane choked back a sob.
“The Colonel ordered me to use my power on all of them, to carry them into the future. He ORDERED ME not to die.”
Jane was practically shouting now. Tears were streaming down her face. So much for not bickering in front of the enemy. Did having a breakdown count?
Despite the wry thought, I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt. A woman was revealing the truth of her soul here.
“I’m so tired. I’ve been going on so long. I have picked up more, so many more, since the time where I first picked up my unit. I carry my own niece. I carry the population of Redo. I’ve got people from four decades of wandering, and every one of them depend on me.”
Her voice gained strength during this speech, her head rose up to the level again.
“So, to answer your question. Yes. If it was just me, I would die before signing up with the woman who destroyed my nation. But it isn’t just me. I am an ark. I don’t have the luxury of doing anything but the most selfish thing. I take her orders, do her dirty work. Obey, and live.”
“It was just a question, Jeez!”
Andy’s response was flip, quick. I couldn’t tell whether what Jane had said had affected the mysterious leader of Dover in any way.
Preventer looked like she was physically restraining herself from getting into it with Haunter. But she was still composed enough to direct her energy outside of the Fist.
“In any case. The question is what YOU will do? Obey Her orders, or die?”
Preventer asked the question like the response didn’t matter in the slightest to her. But I knew Rebeccah pretty well by this point, and I knew that her scientific curiosity wouldn’t let her allow the mystery of Andy to slip away.
“Obey, of course” came the answer. “It is the only rational choice.”
Betty chuckled, and we all glanced at her.
“What? It’s funny,” she said.
I let myself chuckle too, and we all took a moment.
“Before I depart, however, I’d like to meet you in person. If that would be all right?” asked Andy.
We looked to one another. A sort of collective shrug seemed to ripple its way around the group. No one said anything.
I couldn’t think of any reason that we not to meet with Andy, so I stayed quiet.
“Sure,” said Indulger.
Tess stopped transmitting, and started walking back towards the rope that she’d climbed down on. We followed after.
“What the fuck was that?” Betty asked Haunter.
I reached out and tapped the Hook’s appendage, trying to get her to let it go. She wasn’t having it.
“Did you forget about Snitcher, you psycho? If you care so much about your shadows then why the fuck were you putting them at risk?”
“You can’t lip read static, or whatever that Ultra’s power is!’ Jane fired back. “And we all know enough not to look at each other’s mouths when we are talking!”
I flinched, yet more guilt piling on. I had completely forgotten about that rule.
“Reign it in,” said Fisher.
The Hook reached out and wrapped a tendril around my hand, giving me a squeeze of reassurance.
We climbed the wall easily enough, except for Preventer who had to use Indulger’s gift to get up there. Dover opened up beneath us.
It looked like they’d been tipped off that we were coming. A crowd of people milled about, pointedly not staring at the five Ultras who had just climbed onto their fortress. I tried to pick out the Ultras among them.
Pantheon members didn’t wear Sigils, didn’t necessarily look any different from anyone else. My gaze snapped from person to person, trying to identify the wolves among the sheep.
Here was a woman who gave us the old laser eyes, seemingly trying to bore a hole through the Hook’s form with her gaze alone. A human wouldn’t be bold enough to stare at us so fixedly. There was a man who appeared to be missing both arms. Accident victim, or a sufferer of the unfortunate side effects that afflicted men who survived the Process?
“Side effects like you…”
It was all just hunches, of course. There was no call to be so edgy. They had maybe a half dozen Ultras, none of whom were on the level of Indulger or Preventer. I was literally immortal due to the Link.
And yet I kept looking, kept snapping my head around, trying to keep them all in my sights. We had been ambushed in the Union. Taken unawares and overwhelmed without trouble. It hadn’t been their power which had done us in. It had been our own carelessness. We’d been so certain that our trust would be reciprocated that we’d made ourselves helpless in the face of treachery. It would never happen again.
Haunter appeared to share my sentiments. As soon as we got down on the other side of the fence she began to emit shades.
She must have asked them who recognized anyone in the crowd, because the shades immediately began to call out to people, who were universally shocked. Hands flew to mouths, joyous cries rang out. One woman actually fell over.
I could sympathize with their shock. Translucent images of the dead from your past appearing and calling out to you was straight up ghost story shit. But the shock passed quickly, and only the urgent pleas of her shades kept us from getting mobbed.
I noticed, however, that there were shades that kept apart from the press. Disciplined, military men who carried rifles, and stood in guard positions around us. They were easy to miss amid the crush of happy reunions, but I had no doubt that Haunter had learned the same lesson as I had, and was making sure that we’d have advanced warning if they tried anything.
Transmitter led us straight to Andy, but even if she hadn’t I’d have known that this was the person in charge. Standing between two guards with your hands behind your back kind of makes you stand out.
Andy’s guards were obvious Ultras. The one on the left was a dude who resembled the mythical Cyclops. That is, he was big and mean looking, with one enlarged eye in the middle of his face.
The woman on the other side was less obviously an Ultra, but reason dictated that if you were meeting a Fist you’d want your strongest soldiers by your side. This young butch woman had certainly been Processed, but nothing about her told me the nature of her powers.
Andy himself, or herself, was tall and good looking. He or she had long hair, Asian features and a slim enough form that I still couldn’t make up any ideas as to gender. I decided to think of him as a dude.
He was wearing a long coat, like a cowboy from one of the films in Mauler’s collection. He had a sword, of all things, at his belt.
“Hello!” he said. “Nice to meet you in person!”
The voice made me think lady again. It still had that hook to it. Something compelling, in a way that was hard to define. Tanya’s voice, when she was motivating the Righteous, had had a similar vibe.
“Same to you, Andy,” said Indulger. “Are you really Dr. Chen’s kid?”
“I’m not a kid, no.” said Andy. She broke into a smile, seemingly pleased at deflecting the question. I got the feeling that Andy smiled an awful lot.
There was also something weird about her expressions. My Ultra speed ordinarily let me see people’s microexpressions, moment by moment tells that gave me some insight into what they were thinking. Andy had none of those. She smiled until she stopped. Her face made only the motions that were part of an expression that you’d normally be conscious of.
“That’s, that’s not what I meant,” protested Indulger.
I continued to focus on Andy’s face as Dale sputtered, searching for the tiniest sign of unconscious movement. I found nothing. Either Andy had a power that gave her complete bodily agency, or she had Ultra Speed to a better level than I did, and I was just not fast enough to read her.
“I understand, my large friend. Your primary concern was not my status as a child. Rather, you wanted me to reassure you that I am, indeed, descended from Dr. Chen”
Now his voice was sharp again. I gave up and decided to think of it as a neuter being, like the Hook.
“Uh, I guess? But you kind of did that by asking the question, I think?”
Indulger was confused, and didn’t mind anyone knowing it.
Whenever I felt that we were becoming TOO suspicious, even paranoid, Indulger was there to pull us out. The only one to come out the other side of the Union mess with his good nature mostly intact. It heartened me that whatever walls we put up, Indulger would always reach across.
Andy gave a gentle chuckle, shaking its head.
“I’m sorry, I enjoy teasing.”
The cyclops gave a grunt that I took for confirmation. I looked up at it, and it winked at me, blinking its huge eye in an exaggerated fashion.
“The truth is that I am not Dr. Chen’s child.”
“But you said…” Preventer trailed off.
“I said that he was my father, and that is true. But my seed was not planted by his loins, but by his mind.”
We looked to one another. Haunter was the first to speak up.
“A robot?” She asked.
Andy shook its head, another smile spreading across its face.
“An artificial person. A human replica body built using Ultra talents, a flawless being intended to attract a flawless soul. My father planned to solve the problem of our inability to examine that which the Process brings closer by building a receptacle that would allow for further study.”
It sketched a formal bow, sweeping one hand in front of itself as though it was wearing a cape.
Indulger still didn’t seem to get it. He started to ask a question, but it cut him off.
“I am not Dr. Chen’s child.” Andy repeated. “I am his masterpiece.”