William’s shoes rubbed his feet raw as he ran, the seams like tiny saws against flesh, the crisp edges of the material at the ankle and tendon more like the blade of an axe, waiting for flesh to come to it, rather than the other way around. The ground by the fences was dirt that had been packed down to be as hard as any concrete, and even if his shoes weren’t shredding his feet, he would still be suppressing a wince with each footfall.
He couldn’t show weakness. Stepping onto the grass, it would cost him too much. Stopping? Resting? It would be an excuse that too many people would use against him.
Not just the people here, either. There were a dozen people in the yard, no doubt taken painstakingly from a list, to keep them away from bad influences and their old gangs, to avoid power interactions, and keep it all simple. It wasn’t just them that he had to concern himself with. The buildings throughout the prison complex were spaced out, but plenty of them had a view of the yard and the surrounding area. Man and woman, divided by a short wall and a wider gap than usual, could look over at the yard from their individual buildings.
People could only watch so much television, and there were plenty of strategists and long-term thinkers who watched the yard to evaluate, study, assess.
He knew he wasn’t a big guy. He was fit, decently attractive, with his mop of blond hair that was halfway between curly and wavy being his primary selling point. He’d been told since he was in middle school that he had a natural glower, and now for the first time, he found himself grateful for it.
This was a stage, and by running, he performed. To stop or take the easier path of running on grass would see an easy dozen people judging him. They would switch over their assessment of him from ‘villain’ to ‘victim’, and then they would victimize him.
His own assessment of himself would change. He’d dealt with worse. Caving to hardship now would… it would be a new low point on the graph of his successes and failures, part of a set of points that suggested he was on a decline, that more lowest points were to come.
“Slow down, Gambol!” a guard hollered, very close to William.
William could hear Gambol well before Gambol drew close. Feet tromped on the dirt and grass, more of a gallop than a run.
“Slow the fuck down!” the guard’s voice reached the point of rawness on the lowest syllables. He hefted his assault rifle, and William staggered to a stop, dropping to his knees on grass, hands up and touching the back of his head.
Gambol stopped, taking the wide path around William. He was a changer, and his arms and legs were a good six feet long each, each mutated to have a lifeform at each end – like a headless dog or ape with its own limbs that served as Gambol’s digits. His knees were effectively backward and the weight distribution and center of balance were screwed up enough that he had to do a push-up motion to get his upper body up enough that he could stand up, for lack of a better way of putting it. His exaggerated ‘hands’ went behind his head-two ‘thumb’ limbs touching, other limbs radiating out.
“Too fucking fast, asswipe,” the guard said.
“I have a note from my doctor.” Gambol’s normal way of talking was like other people’s telling-a-joke voice. Not the kind of thing that went over well with the guards.
“Walk or sit.”
“I really have a note. Can I reach for it? I’ll show you.”
“No. Walk or sit, Gambol.”
Gambol moved his arm. William, about four paces away, winced in anticipation of a possible gunshot. Instead, he heard the radio buzz as the guard signaled the others.
Paper rustled, and Gambol reached out with his long arm, pressing a piece of paper to the double-layer wire fence. “See? I need to exercise these limbs, or my body cannibalizes itself. I’m supposed to go all out.”
“You’re going to trample someone.”
“I won’t. I’m better than that. I’m doing warm up laps right now, but once I get going, I’ll just go over them.”
Other guards were approaching. William couldn’t get his ankle in a position where the hard back of the shoe wasn’t biting into the raw flesh around the tendon. His face settled in a glower, his eyes on the ground, while he waited for this to be cleared up. At least he wasn’t running for now.
The guards talked, the loud one with his gun still raised giving the note a dubious look.
Another guard said, “If the doc says it, we have to let it go.”
“I could die if I don’t run as fast as I can,” Gambol added.
The comment was unnecessary, the smug tone doubly so. William remained silent, tense. He knew Gambol was a weird guy, too prone to pushing limits and boundaries. The guy got away with it too, like with this doctor’s note.
The guy had befriended Coalbelcher, William knew. That might have explained the doctor’s note and the arrogance. Fucking whatever, it was still a bad idea to play with fire here. The guards looked ready to shoot someone.
William kept his eyes down.
The guard lowered his gun. Gambol took that as his okay to go. He stretched in front of the guard before running off, a loping, awkward motion that still covered a shocking amount of ground.
“You can go, William,” a guard ordered.
William found his way to his feet. “When do we get better shoes?”
“Shoes are expensive. Those will be fine once you break them in.”
Breaking them in. That wouldn’t be before it was too cold to wear them outside. It would, however, be a possibility after winter. It hit him just how long he might be here. His expression twisted into a scowl as the pain resumed, each stab matched to a footfall.
Gambol approached from behind, already prepared to lap him. He stepped over to the grass, while Gambol leaped- hitting the fence full-bodied, limbs finding purchase on the multiple layers of chain link, hauling him forward.
The guy was moving fast enough he was putting his mutated extremities against the fence to brace himself as he rounded corners. Mutated musculature around the spine flexed as the body absorbed the shock.
William focused on running. He was lapped several times by Gambol, who was moving faster than before, still periodically leaning hard into the fence as he turned a corner.
The guard that had been calling for Gambol to stop was standing with his arms folded. He was talking with another prisoner- up until William drew closer. The conversation aborted.
A convict friend had told William about how things went in jail- what was true, what wasn’t, what to watch out for.
Silence was dangerous. Something was about to happen.
Gambol approached- on his fifth lap, while William was just wrapping up his first since the earlier incident with Gambol. He leaped up to the fence, gripping the bar at the top with the complicated arrangements of three separate limbs for a more solid grip. He went over William’s head, leaped down to the path, scuffing and breaking up the packed dirt, and then broke up more dirt by sprinting from his landing position.
William had to jog over the broken piles of dirt. He used it as an excuse to kick some chunks of dirt back into their holes, stepping on one to help it find its fit.
“Keep moving, William!”
He jogged on, glancing around to check where the guards were. The prisoner that the one guard had been talking to- paying attention to Gambol.
It happened almost forty seconds later. Behind William, Gambol leaped to the fence to grab something and go over the heads of a group of others, and the fence distorted. It was a flicker, a separation of the wire from its diamond-shaped links to a webwork of segments of wire, each sharp at both ends. It was so quick and momentary that Gambol and most who weren’t paying attention wouldn’t have seen it.
A slash of crimson. Gambol had cut his hand. He tumbled through the group he had been meaning to jump over, with some glancing hits and a violent fall.
He’d been moving fast, and the fall was consequently violent- the kind that could snap necks or break limbs.
William jogged over, while the guards called for backup or ran to the gate where they could enter the yard. Other prisoners were backing off. Staying out of it.
“What the fuck was that?” Gambol’s voice wasn’t jokey anymore. He was writhing on the spot, back twisting, limbs curling and twitching. The words came through grit teeth.
“Don’t move,” William said.
“Can’t not,” Gambol muttered.
William reached out, placing his hand on Gambol’s shoulder.
I hate my power, hate it so much.
He sensed the wound to Gambol’s back and he sensed it, feeling it in detail and in entirety, so real that he might as well have been the one to destroy his back in a freak fall.
He explored that sensation and found a catalogue of similar scenes. He could see other Gambols, including ones without powers, arranged so that some were close, others far away, and there was a pattern to them that distorted the perspective. Where they had powers, they stood in the shadow of great monoliths that were simultaneously existing in the plural and the singular, the images too indistinct to make out, too great in scale to ignore.
He could see himself, blurrier, hard to track. He could transfer things from the other to himself and vice versa. Even ailments or complaints as minor as feeling too hot or too cold could be moved. On the other end of the scale, he had brought someone back from a point so close to the brink of death that he wasn’t sure he hadn’t brought them back from death itself.
A lower back injury was easy, in the grand scheme of things.
He picked out versions of himself, distributing the load. He took on the lower back injury, the injuries that would be bruises from the fall. Some of these alternate Williams would feel a share of the injury, possibly even a totality of the injury.
He set about taking on Gambol’s injuries, bearing them himself, distributing the load among his fellow selves while using his own wellness as a template to contrast with and highlight the damage. The pain hit him sharp, and the strength went out of his legs, seemingly concentrated in a trio or quartet of lower-back muscles, which started crumpling into themselves, or that was how it felt.
“Step away from the prisoner!” a guard bellowed. “No contact!”
“I have first aid training and field experience! If we don’t stop him from moving, he might do permanent damage to himself!”
“I can’t!” was his answer. He met Gambol’s eyes. “If I let go, he might never walk again!”
“You will not be asked again!”
It wasn’t the jerk guard from before that was making a point of this. It was a new face, female, stern, and rigid, who was acting like a wall, getting in his way.
He avoided looking at her, his attention on Gambol and the aftermath of the violence. He looked past Gambol and at the arrangement of other Gambols, who had made their own decisions and faced their own consequences.
He was already taking on a lot. The pain in his back was intense, no doubt permanent. Part of the reason he said he couldn’t back off was that he wasn’t sure he could walk.
The cut on the hand transferred to his own body, a dotted line drawn across his palm, raw and painful. The dots were where other Williams had taken some of the burden onto their own shoulders. Unwitting and unwilling.
There had been a time when he had felt bad about it.
“Step away!” A new voice. They’d said he wouldn’t be asked again. The woman was talking into her radio.
“Can’t!” he shouted. “But I’m not hurting anyone! I’m safe!”
“Our decision, not yours!”
It wasn’t that he didn’t respect that kind of thinking. Stubbornness was strength, in its way. He’d seen it among the Crowley Fallen, especially. Weak opposition could be broken surprisingly easy with enough stubbornness.
Gambol, oddly enough, was a good representation of that kind of confidence. The issue was that like the Mathers Fallen, he’d stirred up things that could have been left alone. Gambol had crossed the guards, made them look and feel dumb, and their resentment had hit a limit. The Mathers group had attracted too much attention in too short a span of time.
Had either been subtler in that, they might have provoked the enemy while making that enemy look unreasonable if they went on the offensive.
William winced as the pain set in, worse than before, and winced because he was pissed off that the recklessness of others landed on his shoulders. The Mathers’ failure was why he was here. Gambol’s idiocy had brought them to this crossroads.
Well, he’d had an idea of what he was getting into.
“Why?” Gambol asked.
Why? Because he was thinking longer-term.
“Put in a good word for me with Coalbelcher,” he said.
Gambol smiled. “I can do that.”
Simple, easy to process. A favor given for a favor granted.
He pushed some of the ankle pain out, then worked on more of the stomach and back pains. Feeling how they naturally grouped, the musculature at the core of the body overcompensating for the damage to the back. Focusing on one damaged vertebrae, he could trace it down to legs he was just now realizing were oddly numb.
That numbness made it hard to adjust his seat and lean toward the deceased.
“Last chance! Don’t be stupid, William!”
He chose to be stupid.
Instead of stopping, he talked to Gambol. “This fix is fragile. If either one of us gets too hurt, the injuries will go back to the source. Use this opportunity to take care-”
A bullet shattered his work like so much glass, on its way to demolishing his ribcage and casting him out of consciousness.
A thousand images of himself, viewed in a thousand different realities. Each self had made its own decisions, faced its own consequences, and found its own unique perspectives. One thing was near unanimous, however, and that was that when those versions of William Giles had their power, it was this power, and they fucking hated it.
Sunlight streamed in through the window of the hospital room. It was on-site for the prison, the room flooded with an orange light, more because of the texture and color of the curtain than because of the time of day. Armed guards stood on either side of the wall, guns ready, but they were paying more attention to the television than to him. A nurse was going about her business, adjusting his IV bag, which had another bag connected to it.
He tried and failed to move, and the act made his back hurt. He groaned. His feet felt awful, too. And as he took in a deep breath- his ribs. They’d broken. He reached for the wound, to try to feel it and see if there was a trace of the bullet’s passage, and restraints clinked taut instead.
“The hell?” he asked. He immediately regretted the question. Asking made his throat hurt.
“Oh, you’re awake. Good morning, William.”
“You had surgery. You were intubated, that’s why your throat hurts. I’ll page the doctor, and he’ll be along shortly to explain what happened.”
He started to move and winced again. His feet had been bandaged where the shoes had cut them up. He felt strange about that.
“I’ll get you some pain medication soon,” the nurse said, looking up at the television.
What was so important? A show? ‘Hard Boil.’ The kind the other Fallen liked.
He recognized some of the people on the stage. There was the blonde from the Fallen assault, he forgot the name, but she was standing in front of her seat, speaking with conviction. The one with white hair, Damsel, he remembered her. There was Capricorn, another goat by theme. And some black kid.
“…There it is. Powers and where they come from. Millions are watching and millions are on the same page as us. Scion? Something set him off, I don’t know the particulars, but he wanted to wipe us out, parahuman and human both. We fought like hell and I lost family members in that fighting. He was everything that was wrong with parahumans, and we beat him-“
Oh. It was important.
And, it seemed, it was a clip from a show being played by another show. From the ‘beat him’, it cut straight to an interview.
Mayday from the raid on the Mathers camp was on stage, talking to smiling hosts. Where the show in the clip was severe, stark in lighting, this one was warmer, less shouty.
“It’s true, and I’m grateful that Breakthrough opened the door for this conversation to happen, this morning.”
“Talk to us. Can you tell us what happened that day, from your perspective?”
“I can tell you that I’ve worked with twenty-six people with powers over the years, who I would have called my teammates. Some were with me for most of my career, up until that day. Others were… fleeting. But they still were teammates. Sixteen died that day. We fought to occupy him, distract him from attacking whole cities or sinking landmasses. Every last one of us was fighting him, and it still looked like he was going to win.”
“But you won,” a man breathed the words.
“We won, absolutely, but that victory isn’t what I hold close to my heart. Let me say this, as a veteran of Endbringer fights, fights against monsters, and someone who fought in the endless war on gangs, it’s not that we won, it’s that we gave our all and we came together when it didn’t look like winning was possible.”
“Skipping some things there, Mayday,” William said. He laughed a bit, and the resulting pain in his ribs almost blinded him with its suddenness and intensity. Worse, it made him gasp, which in itself made the ribs explode with pain once more, and the whole-body reaction made the pain of his back reawaken.
The nurse approached, watching over him while he found his way to a pained stasis, unable and unwilling to move without something dissolving into agony.
“Skipping?” a guard asked.
“We fought each other, around then. Different opinions on how to do things. There was infighting, bitterness, old rivalries. Can I get some of that pain medication, now that you’re not watching as much?”
“You’ll have to wait,” the nurse said. “It’s not the tee-vee. Supplies are limited and you’re being rationed one dose every eight hours.”
He did have options. He had a mental template of his uninjured self. With focus, he could round off the edges, hold things off, or take the almost-healed and push it away. It was the holding that he wanted to use here. If his power was to take the ailments of others and then give them to others, then ‘holding’ something was to take it and not shelve it within his own body, with that body feeling the worst of it. He’d hold it in his hand, apart, away, and ready for another target, leaning on the template of self to keep everything in rough place.
Ready for another target – the nurse was being careful, and he was pretty sure using his power on her would get him shot in a more final way. No. And besides, he would feel shitty for making her deal with all of this.
Things got a bit easier as he focused on holding things off. There was a drawback to this, where dropping what he was holding meant it would take hold with a splash. The effects would be worse if held off and accidentally dropped or if he was disturbed enough by outside factors.
“You don’t seem to have a very positive view of this stuff,” the guard said, indicating the television.
“I had a lot of teammates over the years. I lost a few too many of them. I saved a few of their lives, before, and… it was for nothing. I helped save towns and those towns are gone now. When everything went to shit, it all went to shit. No use prettying it up. Can you change the channel?”
The nurse picked up the remote from the small rolling table that would later let him eat in bed. She changed the channel.
Another hero, from another team, talking to people. “No.”
Another show, a children’s cartoon. “No.”
A third segment where heroes were talking to the media.
“Turn it off,” he said.
She changed back to the original channel. “Say please next time, and I might.”
“It’s all pretty words.”
The nurse looked a little upset as she walked around his bed. She approached the IV bag, adjusting something.
It made itself felt over the next twenty seconds. His head lolled back to the pillow.
His power afforded him a greater sense of the shape of things. For a long time, it had been masked or protected somehow, his thoughts steered away from understanding it all. Since the golden calf had been slaughtered, the protections were peeling away. From noises he’d heard while with the Fallen, he wasn’t the only one.
It was a scary thing, to see what they were working with.
The shape of their reality, for one thing. As the golden man had made his descent, he had sorted out the universe, taking something infinitely branching and viewing it through a lens. The Bet reality, which had been William’s before he’d left it for Gimel, was the point at the peak of the lens, the most ‘forward’, for lack of a better word. In the eighties, the golden man had arrived. Bet had cleaved off from Aleph.
‘Bet’ was, within the umbrella of the lens, a collection of realities, all of the derivative realities flowing from that point of cleaving, with the more far-flung being further away from ‘his’, harder to reach and see. Accessible, despite common opinion, but only for power interactions, not for actual travel. The golden man had been careful to limit that. Careful enough that even after his death and the ruin of his insane designs, that separation was inviolable.
When William used his power, he made use of the ‘lens’ and its construction. Earth Bet was a pool of William Gileses thirty years deep.
As a side effect, it made him just a little bit better at noticing other dimensional manipulation. A shockwave through existence, almost upsetting his hold he had on the broken ribs.
This was the point he could have said something, warning the guards. He could have helped the nurse.
But he’d given his all and tried his hardest to help for so very long, and what? Lives he’d saved had been ended in Endbringer fights and on Gold Morning. Towns he’d helped rescue had been leveled.
He’d joined the Fallen because all that selflessness and communication had amounted to nothing but whole universes of ruin- great golden beams that had cut through the lens, through the Earth Bet he knew and into the seemingly infinite Earths that were included in that package, that were used for predictions and simulations, for templates and data. It was too vast to comprehend, so people didn’t bother comprehending. Nothing meaningful had changed since that point.
The guards on either side of the door slouched, then, backs to the wall, they slid down to the floor, collapsing unconscious. The nurse turned to look, alarmed, then looked at him, as if he was somehow responsible. A moment later, that thought dismissed, her eyes searched the room, anxious.
“Free me,” William said. “It’s your best chance.”
She dove for the gun that the unconscious guard held, instead. She got her hands on the weapon, and then slouched, collapsing on top of the guard.
William’s heart pounded in his chest. He was tied down, helpless, and what came next was either his salvation or his doom.
Three people entered the room, the first one doing so with caution, ducking his head in, glancing around, and then letting himself in, his attention on all corners and crevices. The man seemed to look past William as if he wasn’t even there.
No mask, nothing fancy. A t-shirt and black pants. The white t-shirt had a symbol on the left sleeve, with faint lines that extended over the rest of the shirt. The hairstyle was short, a utilitarian buzz cut.
The girl that followed was almost identical, down to the buzz cut, but her skin was light brown and she had a scratch through her eyebrow.
The man who followed was forty-five to fifty years old, but it was hard to judge with the clothing and look. He wore a black blazer over a black turtleneck sweater. His head was shaved, his beard grown out, and he wore glasses with circular frames, tinted. If he was trying to look cool, it was dampened by the fact that his cheeks were ruddy-blotchy with red where the beard didn’t cover them.
“William,” the man said. He smiled.
“I thought that if someone came after me, it would be someone I knew.”
“No, we haven’t crossed paths, but you’ve seen my plans at work, and I know I’ve noticed you. When you got people’s attention in the yard yesterday, I decided to move up my timetable.”
“Reaching out, recruitment. Giving you what you need so I can get what I need.”
“I’ve heard that a few times over the years.”
“I know about your tentative relationship with Tattletale. I know you tied yourself to the Fallen- that’s fine, so did I.”
“Let him loose, would you, Key?”
The girl with the buzz-cut started forward. She stopped when she reached the bed.
“Get the keys for the cuffs from the guard’s pockets,” the man said, like he was speaking to a child. To William, he said, “She was unruly, but essential to my long term plans. The influence I need to exert to keep her in line doesn’t leave room for much autonomy or intelligence.”
“And you are Scapegoat, onetime Ward, onetime Protectorate. Later you were the Black Goat in the paperwork and clandestine conversations between high-ranking Fallen.”
“Yeah.” William was wary, not taking his eyes off the man as his cuffs were undone. He winced, then coughed violently.
The man waited until William finished coughing.
“I want you with me. Right now, we’re all at the team-picking stage, and I like you. I want you in my corner before people pay attention to your incident with Gambol the Vandal.”
Gambol’s full title. “I have other allegiances.”
“The Fallen. Tattletale, to a far lesser degree.”
“You’re still here, William. Have they done anything for you? Provided connections, conveniences, smoothed over any wrinkles, given you a way out?”
William was silent, his efforts momentarily focused on sitting up in bed without another coughing fit. Once he was sitting up, he removed his intravenous drip.
“They haven’t,” Teacher said. “Tattletale is trying to save her area of the city after a portal cleaved it in two. The Fallen will focus on their own first. The family, then friends, and then recruiting new elements. It could be six months before they remember the capable young man that was left in prison.”
William worked his way to a standing position, and the weight of his upper body on his back and ribs made him want to fall to his knees.
He’d dealt with pain before. Pain was transient.
With careful steps, he approached the unconscious guard, one eye always on Teacher.
“No,” Teacher said. “Leave him be.”
“If you leave me like this, I won’t be any good to anyone.”
“I want to help you, William, and I want you to want to help me. Let’s stop problem solving each problem that comes up, giving each an imperfect solution until the imperfections pile up. Let’s resolve.”
It sounded like the evangelists from the Fallen, but with different terminology. ‘Resolve’, not ‘believe’.
He looked up at the security camera.
“Don’t worry about that. Nobody is watching the cameras, and a glitch will ensure the recordings don’t keep. These three won’t remember anything. We’ll go for a walk as soon as you’re able.”
“How will I be able?”
“Do you know who I am and what I can do?”
“No. I’ve heard some but…” But this man had never seemed important, however frequently he’d come up.
“I grant abilities. Mental abilities, tinker powers, and thinker powers. The powers are minor. The abilities are… powers, but so close to our own capabilities that they blend in. The ability to understand a language, to do math.”
“My powers come at a cost to the person who takes them. They lose free will and independence. They’re brainwashed, for lack of a better term.”
William looked at the pair who had accompanied Teacher.
“It traps me, William. It limits my ability to gain the trust of others or flex my abilities to their fullest. Volunteers help, but finding those means putting my neck out for others to axe. I think you’re the key, and I’m prepared to reward you handsomely if you can provide what I need.”
“Suspicious as fuck,” William said. He walked over to the security guard, and with one arm on the wall, he eased himself down until he could grip one of the guns.
“I’ve studied you. I got access to the old PRT files, while their previous custodian was in my custody. I read your files and I have some idea of how you work. You can ‘hold’ your conditions, can’t you? You can concentrate to keep them at bay, reverting to a template of yourself.”
“Sure,” William ventured. “I’d say more, but I don’t like that you looked at my files. That’s personal.”
“William, trust me. If I’m correct, we’ll both think this was more than worth that breach of privacy.”
“I’ll think it because I’m brainwashed, probably.”
“Why would I invite Key in here, if it wasn’t to let you know the full impact of my power? If I wanted to brainwash you, I would hide that sort of thing from you. I would have taken another route, like entering this room while you were drugged from your surgery, and getting my permission then.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Nobody does, William, but if you’ll extend me the smallest measure of trust, I’ll reward you. I want you to let me fix your head.”
“Better than. Put your hand out, like you were going to shake mine, please. I’ll explain before doing anything… good. I’m going to put my hand out, the back of my hand touching the back of yours. Neither of us can easily grab the hand of the other without stepping in closer or opening ourselves up to having our arms twisted back. If you don’t like it, you can pull your hand away. If you try anything, I can do the same.”
Hand still outstretched, William considered his options.
He made his contact with Teacher, the back of his hand touching the back of Teacher’s. He felt the connection.
Teacher was on the far end of a lens, like anyone else was when William used his power. The fishbowl perspective let him sort through the various incarnations of the one human being.
And then there was the monolith. Teacher’s was much different from Gambol. Gambol’s had been blunter, more singular of purpose, and Teacher’s was so segmented as to look crippled and broken. It was clearer, and it moved, scraping at the empty space between itself and William as though it could somehow claw its way to him.
Before he could voice anything on the subject, he felt teacher’s power work, like a shot of cold water extending from the front of his brain to the back. With that water, he felt a kind of steadiness.
Teacher had asked about ‘holding’ effects.
The back pain. The ribs. The feet.
All ‘held’, suspended in a place between being used on someone else and being shelved, placed on his own body for later use. Three at once, and it was easy. A sufficient impact or distraction
Slowly, he arranged it all, the effect flickering around his body, and then he held it at bay.
He was well again. He felt a kind of amazement, tempered by just how fragile it all felt. He was horrifically injured, and with, what, a small tune-up, he could effortlessly maintain that concentration and keep everything suppressed?
He had little doubt it would get harder if there was more to hold at bay, but… he could see the danger and addictiveness of Teacher’s influence, now. He’d heard some tales, but this was worrying.
“Come, let’s move quickly,” Teacher said. “We’ll want you back here before you’re missed.”
“What?” William asked. “Where? And I’m leaving? I’m coming back?”
“You’ll have your way out. You leaving is temporary for now, but you’ll be a free man soon enough. Let’s talk on the way. I don’t want to risk being overheard when I talk about the big picture.”
William hesitated, then followed.
Leaving the medical room, they entered a hallway. At one end, a portal was open, the edges ragged and crackling.
“I’m still refining transportation, but this works. We’ll need to take three trips to get where we want to be.”
“I can’t leave,” William said. He shook his ankle. The bomb was still attached.
“It’s fine. I’ve handled it, trust me.”
“I wouldn’t come this far and give you this much of my time if I thought there was a possibility you’d lose your leg. Come. There’s not a lot of time.”
He walked toward the portal, following Teacher. The two white-shirts followed behind, eerily quiet.
“My deal is as follows, William. Give me the next five to ten minutes of your time, and I’ll make you one of the most dangerous and influential parahumans of our time. Believe it or not, you already have the tools to do it. In exchange, you’ll go back to the prison and pretend nothing is amiss. You’ll lie if they ask why you’re well and say you used your power on a mouse.”
“What if they test me or don’t believe me?”
“If you really want it, I can help tune your mindset. Some limitations can be tripped.”
“Giving you more control over me.”
Teacher chuckled. “Give me those five to ten minutes, and I promise you, you won’t be thinking like that.”
“That’s still worrying.”
“I won’t use my power on you again, not without permission. As I said, we don’t need to go any further.”
Through the portal, a smell of burnt ozone in the air, they were on a rocky clifftop. Rain pattered down around them.
Another device was rigged. Ten people with white shirts or white clothes were working on it. An archway with power from a chain of six generators feeding into it.
“Goddess is on Earth Gimel. I have her pinned, and she’s desperate. She will make a move for the prison soon, because she needs and wants subordinates, and it’s the best place to find them. You’ll be my trap for her.”
“What do I get out of this?”
“Power. A power that works. Position, with a place to belong. A world of your own, if you want it. Endless wealth. Name it, or name several.”
Teacher’s men were arming themselves with ray guns.
“That kind of generosity makes me suspicious.”
“Tell me, William. Did you trigger with other parahumans nearby? Did they have a role in things?”
“In most circles, it’s rude to ask about triggers.”
“I did. The PRT called those with powers having to do with powers Trumps. The nullifiers, the people who choose their own powers, the power granters. I’m a granter.”
“Sure. I was a Ward, for the record. Briefly Protectorate.”
“And you know the kinds of events that lead to certain triggers. A need to get away leads to movers. Physical injury leads to brutes. The involvement of powers leads to the complicated trump classification. I think you’re a trump.”
“You’ve read my files. You already know.”
The gate that was hooked up to generators was being powered. Electricity crackled, arcing inside the gateway until it looked like the ‘door’ of the arch was a solid pane of crackling energy.
“This gets us past defenses,” Teacher said. “And it carries us laterally, not just to the same point in space in a different reality. Follow.”
Then he strode forward, into the electricity. William could see him flinch at the touch of electricity, the burning of clothes.
Not perfect. Worse, if that broke his concentration, augmented as it was…
Better that it happen now than later.
He marched forward, his strides long. His hands pushed his sweat-damp hair out of his eyes and against his scalp.
Lightning kissed him, and then licked across his arm, up to his sleeve. The arm burned, and the sleeve was set on fire. Another shock made his body go stiff, and he felt one of the things slip out of his hold. His back.
He staggered through what felt like a very long tunnel, collapsing to his knees. Teacher’s minions were fanning out along the length of a hallway very similar to the one they had just left.
“What is this?” he asked.
Teacher pressed his finger to his lips.
William did what he could to suppress the back pain. Harder, now that it had been reapplied.
Together, they walked down a corridor. They reached a door where two guards already slumped down against the ground.
One of Teacher’s minions hurried to the electric keypad, attaching something to it, then dialing.
The door cracked open.
“Good, we’re clear,” Teacher said. “We can talk normally.”
One room, with a comprehensive medical array. A young man lay on the table, bandages heavy around his lower face, a machine managing his feeding, hydration, and breathing. A catheter tube extended from beneath the blanket.
“Valefor. You’re playing with fire, Teacher.”
“I’m harnessing it. This is where our discussion comes full circle, William. Everyone else is recruiting. They’re picking their teams, and you’re my first pick. This is how we cheat the game.”
“You’ll use him to recruit?”
“Not just him,” Teacher said. He smiled at William. “I want you to give him something. You’re not limited to physical maladies, are you? You can take mental illnesses, stresses, poisonings, parasites, take them into yourself, and then transfer them. And, I think, you can move other things.”
“He’s an ally.”
“He’s a complete and utter monster that even the other Fallen detest and fear. I need you to work on him for me.”
“Work?” William asked. He frowned. “You want me to give him… the influence you gained over me?”
Teacher smiled. “You take and you give injuries, ailments, and other maladies. This slavishness and loss of autonomy is a malady. Part two of this process is to give it to him. I want him under my thumb.”
“What’s part one?”
“He put a compulsion on himself, using his own hypnosis. We’ll give that to someone inconsequential. We can’t have his loyalties divided.”
“It doesn’t stop with him, does it?” William asked.
“You are so immensely powerful, William, but you were always limited by the fact you had to endure whatever it was you intended to heal or inflict. I can suppress that. In exchange, you can turn anyone into a pawn for me. We’ll turn the most dangerous monsters into docile servants, and the world will be better for it.”
William approached the bed. He felt for and found Teacher’s influence. It was hard to look directly at, because he could feel the pressure of the thing on the other side, trying to do its work.
Reaching out, he touched Valefor’s forehead.
He’d barely noticed the influence while it was in effect, but he noticed its absence. A weight was off his shoulders.
“We’ll give him his jaw back,” Teacher said. “And we’ll give him his eyes. He’ll be able to use both.”
“After, you mean? You’ll want more influence first.”
“Of course,” Teacher said. “We’ll be careful, even with someone already accustomed to servitude.”
William paced around the room, deep in thought.
“You’re interested. Will you leave the Fallen and join me?”
“Are they mutually exclusive? You helped them before.”
“Not mutually exclusive, but not wholly inclusive either. Some are too dangerous to leave alone. Others, like the new branch, are already firmly in my camp. Our camp.”
“Goddess recruited her own healer and is trying to find a way forward that isn’t picking a war with a whole reality. The heroes are banding together. Mortari is focusing on running the city and following their precious plans, but I don’t think that’s where it stops for them. They’re up to something else. The humans who have come through the end of the world with hate in their hearts are taking marching orders from the same young precognitive who predicted the end of the world two years in advance. Well, one order with some advice. We don’t know her aim yet, but she’ll be high up on our list. I want a Contessa of my own.”
“I don’t know who that is.”
“She would be the person who saved the world once, and predicted this end of the world thirty-one years before it happened.”
Teacher smiled. “You sound interested in this. More knowledge comes with the role.”
“Give me a moment. Something to follow-up on,” Teacher said, walking around the table that Valefor was on.
William didn’t answer right away. This wouldn’t be easy. Major players. He’d been at a low point, contemplating how to read the graph that was his life. This-
He felt inside himself, to check that all was well. Those like Teacher and Valefor were dangerous influences, liable to work their way in and take someone over. He could check that he was free of trace influences by way of the same power that let him seize his own diseases and cuts and bruises and transfer them elsewhere.
He was aware of all of the faces of alternate William Gileses. The successes, the failures, the broken, the fearful, the triumphant. He couldn’t really see their faces or make out details, any more than he could know the nuance of grains of sand on a beach… but he knew how diverse they were.
It was in recognizing just how many different ways he could have turned out that he could shrug off the role and the identity, that William Giles who had sulked and kept his head down, trying to look tough while he waited for his family and church to find their feet and bail him out. That was gone, transferred away like any disease or cut.
He could become something else.
Teacher put away his phone. The man raised a wiry eyebrow at William.
“Let’s do this.”
“Let’s. To start with, we’re going to have to adjust slightly. I was just informed that while the security team at the prison wasn’t observing us… someone else was using those cameras.”
“Not a problem,” Teacher said, smiling.