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.”
“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.
“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.”