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 until 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 Her down, 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.