I let Dale collapse into the ruins of the Ultra Fight ring and walked away into Redo.
I didn’t have a particular purpose in mind. If there had been anywhere I really wanted to be I’d have just warped there, but there wasn’t. I was just stretching my legs.
Dale had been more enthusiastic than skilled, but he’d improve in time. I was usually impatient about folks who took so long to get over being scared, but on him it was kind of cute. I’d allow it.
The night was warm and lazy. Dawn was still a couple hours off. Pleasant memories drifted through my mind as I trudged along. I stretched, languidly.
I felt a need for distraction, acted to forestall it.
I embraced Redo with my gift, took it into my soul’s eye and peered about. People were mostly asleep, some cowering. The Fist was…what?
Preventer, Haunter and Fisher had killed Condemner, or someone else had. He was in the Link, and they were lurking in a basement, still awake. They were shouting at one another.
I considered trying to make out what they were saying by lip movements, but it would kill my mood. It wasn’t really important, anyway. If they wanted to use First Fist’s anti aging trick they were welcome to do so. If this was something else I’d hear about it in due time.
I came to a stop as awareness of another person I recognized registered.
Andy, of all people. She was here.
Which was super weird, given that she’d been put too close to Torturer a long time ago, and had died of pain.
I rubbed my thumb across the palm of my other hand, focused my gift on Andy. It was definitely her all right.
She was chained in the basement of a building that was basically just a pile of rubble. No one was within hundreds of yards of her. How the fuck had that gone down? How was she even here?
I’d sensed her body with my gift, back when she died. We didn’t have any way to get stuff out of Torturer’s inner radius, so it had been in my range right up till it was eaten. The bones had been stacked in a corner with a bunch of others And yet here she was.
This needed taking care of.
I thought through a few options.
I could just smash the ground, hard enough to destroy the city. But was that any more likely to keep her dead than getting eaten by Torturer?
I could warp to her, tear her apart. My gift was stronger than anything the modern Process could produce, so normally I’d be totally confident that no gift could bring her back from it, not if I went all out. But Andy was a product of the original process, she was an Ultra of my level. There was no reason she couldn’t have a rebirthing power that was greater than my strength.
If she did, then the fact that I’d warped straight to her would make it pretty obvious that I knew she was there. She’d be at large, somewhere in the world, with knowledge that might let people know about my secret sensing gift. Bad plan.
Plus, it would involve touching her. I wasn’t really sure how long her power took to take effect, and I wasn’t eager to test it. She’d always said hours, but if it was instant I could have my gift all jacked up in the time it took to punch her head off. That’d be a stupid way to lose my war.
I pondered it, savoring the unfamiliar sensation of a puzzle that didn’t have an obvious solution.
I needed stuff other than my gifts for this. A gun and a baby ought to do the trick. I cast about with my gift, located a building that had what I needed.
A short warp, letting my old body disintegrate soundlessly, took me right outside of the door.
I gave my trademark knock, loud soft loudest.
They were asleep inside, but bolted upright when they heard that. The guy stood up, moved towards the door, then stopped. The woman just sat on the bed.
I knocked again, same pattern but with each part raised just a bit, just a little bit louder.
The man found his balls and walked over, opening the door. In the next room his lady friend was dropping into the Posture.
“Hey,” I said.
He fell into the Posture, his heart racing so badly I thought it might actually kill him.
He made an unintelligible noise, just a sort of verbal shitting that didn’t actually mean anything.
I reached down, put a hand on his face, wrenched it up so we were looking into each other’s eyes.
“Hey,” I said again.
“Y-Yes?” He said.
“You know who I am?” I asked.
This wasn’t a real question. Everybody basically knows who I am, but I wanted this guy to collect himself a bit, get the control he needed to not try and jump me or run away. Talking helped steady lots of people.
“Yes, Boss,” he said, his gaze flinching away from my face.
His girl had gotten up from the posture, and was peeking around the inner door at where we were standing. Tears were streaming down her face.
I walked into the room, pushing him aside as I did so.
“I need something from you, ok?”
He hastened to assure me that that was, indeed, very ok.
“You got a gun?”
In fact he had it on him, stuck in the crotch of his pants. It took him a second to remember that, a few seconds longer to have it out and hand it to me.
“Sweet, and there’s something else. I need somebody to witness something.”
Give him this, dude had a pair. He didn’t even look into the back room, where his gal was frantically shushing the baby. He just swallowed once, then nodded.
“You want to do it? Is that what that nod means?”
It was actually harder to confirm a brave thing than it was to do it the first time, for this guy anyway. He hesitated for a few seconds before nodding.
“I hate to waste a good worker like you, anyone else live here?”
I walked over to the door to the back room, opened it.
The women inside collapsed into the Posture. Her eyes met his, and they were probably communicating a lot of stuff that was important to them with that look.
“Oh, shit, you guys have a kid?” I asked, stepping over to the crib.
There are some moms out there, some dads, who would have lost it at this point. Just jumped me and died right there. But these were my people. They were the sons and daughters of people that I’d bossed around, that I’d taught the way of things. They understood the truth of the world, or as much of it as daggers ever got.
They could have another baby.
They stood mute as I picked him up, held him in my arms like I’d seen women do.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
Behind me, the woman spoke for the first time.
“Hector,” she said, a slight Spanish accent polluting her voice.
I shook my head.
“Now it’s Randy. That’s a much better name.”
I turned back to them, looking down at them. My people.
“Randy can be your witness. You two get to stay.”
I walked by them, ignoring their trembling, the eyes showing whites all the way around.
I turned back in the doorway, acting like I’d just been struck by a thought.
“Since babies are dumb, he won’t be talking. So I guess I can bring him back after this. If you are here when I get back, and you are smart enough not to go blabbing about what happened, all three of you get to live.”
I left them on that note.
Randy was a warm bundle in my arm, and was blessed with some innate understanding that crying out right now would be a mistake. He made soft baby noises, gnawed on a knuckle I gave him.
I had never really used my gift on a kid’s mouth before. He was super close to getting his first tooth, and the second was right behind.
“You can do it, come on.” I encouraged him as we walked. I decided, on the spur of the moment, that if he managed to get his tooth out by the time I was done I’d keep him alive.
The basement where Andy was chained wasn’t far, a couple blocks, but it was still definitely the longest stretch that I’d walked in decades. I strode into the ruin, down the stairs.
I set Randy down around a corner, wadded up a part of his clothes and put them in his mouth. He was way too little to be able to move anywhere. I put the gun next to him.
I stepped around the corner, pushed the door in.
The basement room was lit only by the moon filtering through a crack in the ceiling.
Andy rolled to her knees, rose to her feet, struggling desperately with the chains that restrained her arms. She peered wildly into the darkness, frantic to discover who had come.
I walked towards her, letting the moonlight fall across my Sigil.
Recognition dawned. She collapsed back down to her knees.
“What the fuck?” I asked, “are you doing here?”
“Hi Peggy,” she said.
I pushed the anger down, didn’t rise to my old name. Instead I took a seat on some rubble, just across the moonlit patch from her.
“Been a while since anyone called me that.” I said.
“I imagine it has, “ she said. “Maybe you should stop committing quite so many murders, and people will be more likely to call you by your Christian name.”
I gave a sour chuckle.
“How are you alive, Andy? Torturer got wicked diarrhea from eating your action figure ass. You ought to be gone.”
She chuckled, quietly.
“Too bad I know you so well, Peggy. If I didn’t, you could say that you’d let me go if I told you, or let me live or whatever. But we both know that’s not in the cards.”
“Does this have anything to do with my Fist killing each other? Are they arguing about what to do with you?”
I didn’t expect her to answer, but I was hoping her heart would kick a little or something. I’d gotten pretty good over the years at using my gift as a lie detector.
She answered my question with another question.
“When your probation officer raped you, was that when you lost your mind? You still blaming your behavior on Officer Morris? Or have you gotten around to admitting that you were shit from start to finish?”
I couldn’t control the flinch, the clenching of my fists. She probably couldn’t see, with us both in darkness.
“Struck a nerve, did I? Dead for forty years and he is still your master?”
I was on my feet before she finished, walking forward with death on my mind, but I checked myself.
“I get it, I get it, you are just trying to piss me off. I’m not stupid, Andy.”
She shook her head, the chains making a clinking noise.
“Yeah you are,” she said. But she said it without heat, recognizing that she wouldn’t be able to get me to kill her so easily.
“Wait here,” I told her, then warped out.
I didn’t go far, just around the corner to where I’d left Randy.
Andy didn’t even scream, just lay in the room like someone already dead.
I counted to a couple hundred, trying to figure out an amount of time where I could have plausibly gone to fetch a hostage. Eventually I went back in, carrying Randy on my shoulder, gun in my pants.
“Oh, fuck you Peggy. Even for you that’s fucking low.”
I turned around so Randy and Andy could lock eyes, then took my seat again.
A long time ago, I’d learned the only real lesson of the world. Punches that land on someone else don’t hurt you. It was super simple, but nobody fucking got it. Even smart people got tripped up by it. But it was super true. Your nerves were only connected to your own form.
“Andy, meet Randy. He’s a couple months old, loves eating and shitting, and will be back home if you tell me what I wanna know.”
She sighed, sounding more weary than defeated.
“Ask,” she said.
I got her story, piece by piece. How she’d just woken up in a new body, how she’d wandered around. How she’d tuned the Pantheon’s inner circle.
That actually explained a lot. Zeus and company were much meaner than they had any right to be, given the power level they’d been Processed under.
She was in this basement because Condemner had ordered her down here, then chained her up. He told her not to call out, told her that she’d be working for him now, that everyone else would think she was dead.
“What did he want?” I asked.
“Help in some kind of internal war?” She guessed. “He didn’t go into details.”
“Well, they killed him, so I guess his lies got found out. He’ll be back tomorrow though, so I’m not sure why they bothered.”
“Is it time for me to die again?” she asked.
I stepped over to her, she looked up at me.
“One last thing, before I go?”
I didn’t say anything, just started down at her.
“You are out here because Lawrence got whacked, just killing time till your new Snitcher shows up, yeah?”
I didn’t confirm, just looked at her.
“You get the dilemma, though? No way can you make another Snitcher with the Process in the current state. Take it from me, there’s no way that’s going to work.”
I hadn’t really thought about it, but that made a lot of sense.
“But if you open the Eye of Heaven back up, then who knows who gets born into the world? You might find yourself in a fair fight? And you are way too fucking cowardly to let that hap-“
I shot her in the head, let her collapse to one side on the floor.
Shit, she was right.
Snitcher wasn’t coming back, not unless I was willing to take a chance that I’d avoided taking for a long fucking time.
Randy cried out at the gunshot noise, his first loud sound of the night.
I rocked him, distractedly, and then started to trudge back to his parent’s house. He hadn’t actually managed to wear his teeth through his gum, but I decided to let him live anyway.
I set him on his parent’s doorstep, knocked in my cadence, warped back to the ring.
Dale was still sleeping in the wreckage, just where I’d left him. Somehow he kind of reminded me of Randy.
I reached down, picked him up by his head and kissed his forehead, even as he came awake in a spastic flinch.
“Bring your Fist back to Shington,” I told him. “I want you close.”
He tried to nod, couldn’t overcome the pressure of my hands.
I brought his mouth to mine, kissed him thoroughly, then warped away.
I appeared on a hill at the outskirts of town, feeling him topple over through my gift.
I’d think of something for them to do when they got back.
I started the serial warps back to Shington, pondering Andy’s words.