As Nirav and Fisher slipped away, I put my full attention on Preventer.
This was an important moment. Dealing with Preventer would take every ounce of my concentration.
No one I’d ever met had ever been so crucial to my mission’s future. Her monomaniacal selfishness and pathological disregard for others had rendered her an unprecedented threat, while her invincibility and inclusion in the Link meant that I had no way of addressing said threat.
It was a problem to tax the Jury.
Ordinarily, if the situation demanded it, I could call my reserve for what amounted to a free pass through any social situation. Sufficient human attention could render legible the inaudible cues that pass between people, could chart a path through murky situations. I’d done it on a number of occasions, with Preventer even.
But this was different. Prior observations weren’t any use now. She was visibly distraught with grief and rage, far from the icy manipulator I was familiar with. Thui’s death, and perhaps the wound that Prevailer had dealt her, had unhinged her, left me dealing with a very different kind of danger from the one that typically accompanied conversations with my teammate.
“I didn’t fucking tell the fucking Pantheon shit!” she spat.
I was about eighty percent sure that she was lying. The timing on Andy’s disappearance was just too apt, her execution of Condemner just a little bit out of character. My mental model of what had gone down was something like ‘Preventer threatens Condemner to get him to hand over Andy to the Pantheon, then kills him to shut him up.’
That didn’t explain everything, and I didn’t have any particular proof, but it felt right.
“All right,” I said. “I believe you. Sorry.”
I didn’t, of course. I thought she’d probably done it, but the fundamental problem of Preventer was that winning an argument with her was useless. Even if I could prove, somehow, that my suspicions were justified…what would it do? We’d still be Linked, and she’d still be invincible.
It was better to let her win this one, bring it up from time to time if I wanted to rile her up but generally back down on it. Confrontation wouldn’t get me anywhere.
She halted a second, wrong footed by my capitulation.
“You wouldn’t gain anything from betraying Andy, we’ve already crossed the line against Her. We are comrades in this.”
I was mostly focusing her attention on what she HAD gained from betraying Andy, trying to work her back into the scheming state of mind that the Jury was most familiar with.
“Why did you kill Thui?”
As I figured, she wasn’t about to let that drop.
The Jury hashed out the best thing to tell her. The truth was actually on the table. I was still trying to sort through what it meant, but having Preventer helping out would certainly not hurt.
“I didn’t kill your boyfriend,” I said. “It was Karen who cut him in half.”
Preventer’s face went flat, all the expression slapped from it.
“Who said he was my boyfriend?” she asked.
I shrugged, with an elaborate carelessness that I didn’t remotely feel.
“Just a figure of speech, geez.”
He definitely was, though. The Jury might miss out on a few things, from time to time, but they were pretty much infallible in terms of figuring out relationships.
The reserve was, on some level, like a big audience watching a tv show of my sensory input, and shipping the people I met was one of their primary entertainments. They were basically never wrong about who was fucking who.
“Why did you throw him into Remover’s beam?” she asked.
Truthfully, It had been a panicked moment. I had been desperately afraid that we were about to throw down with First Fist, and I’d reacted without thinking it through too much. I still wasn’t sure exactly what had gone wrong.
“You know it was a trap, right?” I asked.
That shut her down for a moment. She stared at me, brow furrowing as she tried to work through what I meant.
“I mean, why would Remover wait to kill Thui until we show up? If they are just collecting skulls to put on walls or whatever, why not just take care of it long before we arrive? What are the odds we get there just as they are ready to do it?”
“I know that!” she answered. “They wanted to kill him in front of me, where I could see it. Fucking sadists.”
I shook my head.
“Maybe that was a bit of it, but mostly that whole setup was about arranging one important test, while conserving a fall back method in case it doesn’t turn out how they want.”
She didn’t say anything for a moment. I wasn’t sure if she’d already thought this through or not. I pressed on regardless.
“Imagine that they don’t bother with Thui. They just walk up on us at some point and Remover hits you with a beam, right out of the blue. What then?”
She reached up and toyed with her lip, holding the torn sections together as though they might suddenly become whole.
“Well, one of two things,” she said. “Either I’m killed or Remover’s beam does nothing.”
I snapped my fingers.
“Exactly. A coin flip, no way to know beforehand. Is your invulnerability or Remover’s disintegration stronger? Everyone finds out at the same time.”
“Sure,” she said. “But what does this have to do with Thui?”
I was pretty sure that she knew, but she was making me say it out loud.
“Well, obviously they are fine if Remover kills you. They fight the rest of us, 5 on 4, and let Her know that we were traitors or whatever. But what if nothing happens? What if the she can’t remove you?”
“They are in a heap of trouble.”
“Exactly,” I said. “They just attacked another Fist, and they can’t kill you. We can kill them, but they can’t destroy our Link as long as you stick around. They would be pretty fucked. Thui is about giving them insurance in this case.”
“Insurance?” she asked.
“He’s an out. A way for them to get you to test yourself against the beam, and have plausible deniability in the case that it doesn’t fall their way. They just run off, then go to Her and say it was just a big misunderstanding. They didn’t know we cared about that Dagger, etc.”
“Haunter, I’m not a fool” she said. “Just tell me if you caught him with your gift or not.”
The moment of truth.
“I…yes. Kind of. It’s hard to say.”
I saw the danger signs. Her nostrils flared. Her hands twitched, rose up slightly. I forced myself to ignore them, to stay as still and calm as I would be when talking to someone who wasn’t a maniac.
“Hard to say?” she asked.
“As you’ve deduced, my gift caught his soul. I was trying to short circuit their trap, to give them no excuse to turn Remover’s beams on you, make them back down. I had to get him out of the situation, so I used my gift on him and then…killed him.”
“I’d like to see him,” she said.
That was actually progress, in a way. There had been a time when Preventer was a skeptic about whether or not my shades were actually people, and this moment would be something I could point to in the future if she ever fell back on that line.
“It…I don’t have him.” I said.
Her face screwed up into a scowl.
“What do you mean?”
“I am linked to him, but as far as I can tell, he is still alive. My gift will collect his soul if, or rather when, he passes away.”
Her head turned, almost involuntarily, towards the front lawn, where Thui lay in two pieces, bisected neatly by Remover’s power.
“When he passes away?” she asked.
“Somehow he is still alive. I don’t know. All I know is his soul hasn’t hit my reserve yet. He is still alive and active in the world, somehow.”
“Copyer,” she said.
Of course that was it. I felt foolish for having missed it before.
“Remover must have had the Company Men, Copyer, use their gift on Thui. Then they took one of him out here to fuck with us, and kept the other stowed away.”
“That makes sense…do you think the one Remover killed was the Copy or the original?”
She asked that in a very offhand, casual manner, but I wasn’t fooled. She wanted, very badly, for Thui to still be alive somewhere.
“I’m not sure it works that way. I think when Copyer’s power is done there are two originals. That is, I don’t think there is any kind of difference between the two.”
“So, the Thui who is out there is the real one?” she asked. “Or exactly equivalent anyway?”
I thought about it for a moment.
“My gift doesn’t have his soul, so that soul is presumably still out there, driving around his body same as it always has. From what Andy told us, Copyer’s power…”
I trailed off, stung by realization.
“What?” she asked.
“Copyer’s power. It doesn’t copy the soul, it just copies the bodies.”
She didn’t get it.
“So, that is what is going on with the Company Men. There is only one soul driving the whole set of em. We know they never decide anything on their own. There isn’t enough energy, or attention or whatever souls use, left over to decide anything. The Copying process leaves you apathetic and paralyzed, because your soul is having to drive more bodies than it is used to.”
Preventer just looked at me.
“Look, Thui didn’t do anything much during that confrontation, right? You might have expected he’d be going crazy, but he was basically passive. I bet he had just half as much willpower as normal, and the one that they have stashed away was the same.”
“Oh, I get it,” she said. “You are saying that, precisely BECAUSE this one died the other is the real Thui again?”
I was, basically.
“Hopefully. My gift hasn’t gathered any portions of him, or anything like that. I think the part that was driving this version probably went back to the other.”
Preventer’s face broke into a surprisingly sweet grin. I noted it only absently, my mind still focusing on the implications of what I’d just figured out.
“The Chens.” I said.
Preventer’s grin grew broader, taking on its typical smug air again.
“Of course,” she said. “She uses them for everything, they are Her brain trust. They are how She maintains control of the Process, and She maintains control of them with Copyer’s gift.”
I nodded, that was pretty much I’d been thinking.
“But if what we are theorizing now is true, Copyer’s gift has a weakness, a way of escaping its grip. If all but one of the Chen’s die, then that last one will be the real Dr. Chen again, with his full will intact.”
It was a heady thought. The notorious pacifist, brought face to face with the consequences of his actions. How could he fail to regret them, to use his knowledge to attempt to make things right? The man who created Her, could he make something even stronger?
“Even more interesting, imagine if Copyer could be brought back to awareness again?” Preventer asked. “Her original accomplice, and the man upon whose bones this whole thing was built. You think he’d be happy that she enslaved him? And Copyer, importantly, is not a pacifist.”
If he could just Copy her, just once or twice, the threat of Prevailer would be ended. We could order the copies into the sun or whatever.
Preventer’s smile faded away after a bit, as we both contemplated whether these dreams could ever be brought to pass.
“I’m…not seeing a way to do this.” I admitted. “If we kill Chens or Company Men they will just make more of em. As long as they have a few of each they can just respawn the whole arrangement. There’s a reason that no one has ever managed to meaningfully hurt The Company.”
“But a Fist has never tried before. I think this is more doable than you are giving it credit for.”
She seemed to have entirely forgotten about Thui now, but I wasn’t fooled. The Jury pointed out microexpressions and such, made me aware that the tension from earlier hadn’t left her. It had just been subsumed into this new idea.
“I’m not sure how that helps us.” I said. “Not dying unless we all go is all well and good in a fight, but the problem of the Company isn’t winning a fight with it, it is that it is spread out, and She will respond to any damage to it.”
“Will She?” asked Preventer.
It took a sec to realize what she was getting at.
“Snitcher is dead.” I murmured.
“Exactly, so the only way that She knows what is going on with the Company is if she walks over and looks. Otherwise She is dependent on their reports.”
“Reports…” I murmured. “Reports can be falsified.”
“Yep, and with Indulger around She won’t exactly be paying careful attention to outlying Company Facilities.”
This could actually work.
“We can leak this, get the Pantheon and Union to take action against the Facilities, intercept the responses so She doesn’t spawn new ones.”
Preventer shook her head.
“I don’t like it, precisely. Too messy. They would be tempted to hold them instead of destroying them, and they’d have to buy into our pitch in a big way to risk interrupting the Process. That’s not the way.”
Good objections, I thought for a second about it, trying to find the way around them.
“So, the Union and Pantheon each can’t afford to destroy the Facilities, because doing so leaves them at one another’s mercy and pisses off Her. If we tell them that we are working on it from the inside…nothing changes. They can’t believe us, and they can’t trust each other.”
It was frustrating to get so close, only to see nothing change.
Preventer was shaking her head, still.
“You aren’t thinking twisted enough. We are on the inside, remember? We can do a lot more than they can.”
I wasn’t following.
“What do you…?”
Preventer reached out, grabbed my hand in two of hers.
“Will, Haunter, will is the key. They don’t have any. They take orders without question. Prevailer says Go Here. Prevailer says Build a New facility. Prevailer says We Need More Chens, and so on.”
I saw the solution in a flash.
“We don’t need the Union OR the Pantheon for this. All we need is for Her to tell the Company Men to take our orders. Then we isolate one Chen and one Copyer from the rest of them…”
Preventer’s grin curdled into a look of frightening malevolence.
“Prevailer says kill yourself.”