The dilemma pulled me back to myself, a day at a time.
It had been easy, in the wake of the Colonel’s death, to fall away from the world.
I hadn’t precisely gone catatonic, but I’d definitely entered something resembling a fugue state. I’d been play acting at being myself, role playing the person that would get me through any situation without having to think. It had been easy to act mildly disapproving to the Fist, curt and unbending with the reserve and pass my days in profound numbness.
Irene and Joe had known that my straits were more dire than they appeared, of course, but after an early intervention had prompted me to shut them down they’d wisely refrained from addressing me directly. Their caution was warranted. In the state of mind that I’d been in, I might have killed them, just like I’d killed the Colonel.
It would have taken a conscious thought to say that I’d resigned myself to this, so I hadn’t technically done so, but I regarded the future with no more concern than I did the present. I shambled through life, responding to my colleagues with a half hearted simulacra of the woman they’d come to know, to Prevailer’s scorn with downcast eyes and a shameful submission. Even the news that we’d be returning to Redo, seat of our infamy, didn’t truly stir the waters of my soul.
It wasn’t merely the absence of the Colonel that undid me. Truth be told, he’d never spoken all that much. Our bond hadn’t been in the day to day. It wasn’t even what he represented. It had been a long time since I’d honestly considered my mission to be carried out under the military’s auspices. It had become a personal quest decades ago.
No, what had struck me down was the simple, relentless passage of time. The Colonel died…and the sun still came up. I still grew older. Prevailer still reigned, and the Union had been revealed as unworthy of the hope that I’d long placed in it.
When Tom had died, for a brief second, I’d felt something other than sorrow. It had been relief. It felt traitorous to admit, but some part of me envied him, finally at rest. His tour was ended, his service complete. I lingered on.
In that relentless passage of days I could see my future. Shades that I’d come to know and cherish would fall in Prevailer’s service, only to be replaced by a never ending sea of those that I must save. My heart would mend, only to break again as another family was stolen away by a world gone coarse with cruelty. I would grow older and older, needing to steal the strength of ever more of my reserve merely to maintain my existence. Nothing would change until the end.
And the end would be pitiful. Someday some Fidel or other would ram a spike through my chest, drain my reserve and condemn us to the grave we’d cheated so long. It wouldn’t be Remover, or Prevailer, just some idiot New World savage, unable to even understand what they were destroying.
As the days had crawled by I’d struggled with that vision, wrenched my mind about in anguish trying to deny the obvious truth, that when I looked forward at that lonely grave I felt only longing.
The first crack in the ice came when I restored the people of Redo to their loved ones, if only partially. It was still part of my routine, of course, or I couldn’t have managed it, but it was the best part. Even before we struck out for Dover, the opportunity to help people, to let them see their spouses and family members again every day, had done me a bit of good.
It couldn’t break the grip of my despair on its own, of course. The demons which tormented me had their answers for such moments of bliss. They pointed out that this was just a stopgap measure. That one day She would drag me off to commit atrocities on some far corner of the globe and the people here would be doubly bereft. They reminded me of similar experiences in the past, and the heartache when I’d had to leave communities that had become dependent on me. These arguments stuck like arrows in my mind.
But even this dull ache was better than the numbness. Bleak thoughts of the future were nonetheless thoughts. Sorrow and regret were still emotions. In the days before Dover my fugue was already starting to crack.
The deathblow to my despair was struck when Andy had revealed his nature, his story and his function. The haze that had gripped me had grown out of an eternal sameness. It couldn’t survive novelty, the tantalizing possibility that the end of my quest could be within reach. By the time Preventer and I had interrogated Andy in that basement I was almost wholly myself again.
I devoted the days after to questioning Andy’s followers, seeking, with the Jury’s aid, to confirm his story.
Transmitter had originally been gifted with the power to hijack the sensory input of anyone that she touched, slaving their perceptions to her own. Working with Andy, she’d lowered the band that her gift affected to vision and sound, and gained the ability to observe their location even as she showed them hers.
Beamer, the cyclops guy, had a gift which allowed him to shoot a projectile out of his eye. It was apparently a burning plasma, some kind of tear. Inferior to a gun, for most intents and purposes. Andy had moved his eyes, which used to be on his hands, onto his face. Apparently the reason that Beamer’d asked for one giant eye in the center rather than the normal configuration was that the added size of his eye allowed him to see while launching a tear.
Rememberer was the other bodyguard, on account of her possession of second degree Ultra Strength. Her primary ability was an absolutely perfect memory. Her gift let her rewind her past to any point, and experience it again in real time. The only flaw in this arrangement was that she could only keep about a week of it in her mind, before it dropped away again.
Apparently something about her gift interfered with the transmission of memories from brain to soul. Andy had been able to sacrifice a day or so of the total time that she could keep on hand and in exchange given her the ability to store selected instants into her long term memories.
Shover had a minor telekinetic ability. She could cause weak impacts to objects along any vector, but only one object at once. She’d asked Andy what he could do with her power, but apparently she hadn’t liked any of the options. When I spoke with her she seemed to think that he’d been holding out on her.
Jumper could launch herself into the air along any vector that she could imagine. Andy had limited the range on her ability drastically, but given her a promise that her gift would take care of landing. Apparently before his intervention that hadn’t been guaranteed. Despite losing a lot of distance it was still a gift that could take her several miles, though, which made the ability to absorb the impact very impressive.
Fryer could raise the temperature of anything he touched, basically just set things on fire. Andy had switched his gift from being constantly on along the surface of his hands to working anywhere on his body, and only when he willed it.
None of these gave me exactly what I was looking for, but they were all encouraging. Most importantly, the stories were all consistent.
I asked them questions about each other, questions about their powers before and after Andy’s intervention and questions about the outcome of his work on the others. Their answers all passed the Jury’s sniff test, aside from some minor shiftiness that I’d learned to disregard.
Either they were a group of exceptionally well coached spies, or Andy’s ability was the genuine article. My own belief was that they weren’t trying to fool me. I wouldn’t have put money on ANY nation being able to prepare a half dozen agents to fool the Jury on a complicated topic like this, much less the Pantheon. Far simpler if the reason that they sounded sincere was that they were.
At last, after decades of searching, I’d arrived at a turning point in my long path.
If Andy could alter my gift, then perhaps my passenger’s salvation had arrived. Several of the Dover Ultras’ stories described almost precisely what I needed. Wholesale alteration of a gift, bending it to a related purpose.
I was just about ready to speak with Andy about scheduling a session to work on my gift when Irene raised the obvious question, what did I actually want him to do?
It was a more complicated question than it sounded.
My first impulse had always been that the main problem with my gift was the limit on the number of people that I could manifest. If that could be removed, then I could simply manifest the entire reserve, and never draw them back in. They could lead normal lives, so long as they avoided any strong impact.
But imagining that scenario now, with it quite possibly being something that could actually happen, I was painfully aware of the limits of what it would bring about. Yes, the grave would be denied, for a time. My reserve could walk the world again, or at least the padded sections of it. But I’d be a helpless old woman in their absence, and when I died they’d very likely cease to exist as well.
Thinking about the shade’s fragility raised its own temptations. A few of my veterans had longstanding complaints about the impossibility of carrying out combat in the forms that I manifested. It was easy to see their point. A fall down a hill was death. A stumble on a tree root, death. A hundred and one things that a human soldier would disregard could end my shades.
What if THAT was the aspect of my gift that I asked Andy to work on? Improving the durability of my shades, such that they could live entirely human lives, not fearing to be popped. My manifestations would at that point be literal extra lives, bringing back the departed into the human condition, rather than leaving them stranded in fragile husks.
This would drastically improve the quality of life in my reserve. Time spent in the real world would be actually worth living again, not overshadowed by the constant fear that a sudden impact could spell their end. But, ultimately, it wouldn’t progress my mission any closer to its conclusion. The reserve would still rest within me, and perish when I did.
Joe had broached another possibility, one that I hadn’t even been thinking of. What if Andy could ease the requirement to link humans to my reserve, allow me to catch people without skin contact and agreement. If my gift could work by vision then I could save whole crowds at once. Conceivably given the cooperation of relevant authorities, I could give the portion of humanity which lived in urban surroundings a second chance.
Delusions of grandeur, to be sure, but the mere possibility of such things had never been so real before.
I broached the subject with the reserve itself, of course. I had no wish to imitate Her tyranny, even within my own mind. Their response was predictably scattered.
The majority, however, aligned behind the most obvious possibility. They would like me to be able to manifest more, far more. It made sense. More manifestation capability was more hours of life for them. Most people, if sentenced to a lifetime sharing my senses, would grasp at such an opportunity with instinctive fervor.
There was actually another possibility, that I didn’t let myself consider too deeply. What if Andy could alter my gift such that it worked on Ultras. If so, would my existence become, like Linker’s, an asset that nation’s had to take note of?
I wasn’t sure if the prospect was thrilling, or terrifying.
But, at the very least, it wasn’t boring. I was feeling entirely myself again by the time I got Andy alone, buttonholing him into the same run down basement where Preventer and I had first breached his mysteries.
He showed no sign that anything significant had happened. He was still a grinning idol, a Cheshire cat without the Wonderland. It was as though the past four days hadn’t even occurred.
“Just you this time, Jane?” he asked, making a show of looking around.
“Preventer isn’t hiding behind the rubble, if that’s what you are asking. I’d like to talk to you in private.”
“I bet I can guess what you want to ask me,” he said. “You’d like me to modify your gift.”
“Actually, I’m wondering how you came to be in Redo.” I deadpanned.
In truth, I’d been about to ask him pretty much word for word what he’d guessed. Just, something about the way he’d said it, combined with the perpetual smile, made me want to burst his bubble.
I needn’t have bothered. His smile didn’t waver even a little.
“As you’ve probably already guessed, I was looking to encounter you. I have seen all of the other Fists, over the years, and the rumors about you guys kind of resembled those that I heard about Sixth Fist, back in the day.”
“Rumors of rebellion?” I asked.
“Just so.” He gave a satisfied nod. “My sources indicated that Peggy might have relaxed even Her famously lax loyalty standards this time, in search of greater power. It seemed like you might need my services.”
“Sure, I can buy that. Hear of a new Fist, go to meet them, makes sense. But why Redo?”
He paused a few seconds, scratching his chin.
“Call it…a test, if you will. If a new Fist really WAS formed, and my sources weren’t just speculating, then I decided to head to the scene of their first battle, and put what aid I could muster behind the humans drawn into your squabbling.”
Ah, a morality test then.
“If you were worth knowing, then sooner or later you’d be back here, striving to put right what you had wrecked. I was willing to wait as long as it took you to return.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
I couldn’t imagine First or Third Fist doing anything like what we were doing with the Dover refugees. If they’d been tasked with building a city back up they’d have just gone village hunting, driving herds of people into wherever She wanted them.
“Does that satisfy your curiosity?” he asked.
I gave him a broad grin of my own. Creepy smiles aside, I liked Andy. Meeting someone who remembered America was nice, or course, but it was more than that. There was a bedrock decency too him, or at least it felt that way. Fundamentally, I saw him as being on the side of the angels.
“It does indeed.” I responded. “Now…I’d like to talk to you about modifying my gift.”