“Look lively, ladies, gentlemen, and genteel others, we’re firmly in yellow book territory. You’ve read procedures and protocols every night, but if you’re not feeling like you’re firm on this, you need to get your books out and refresh yourself while you’re on your A-game. Shout or put your hands up if you’re panicking, stand up if you’re panicking and your mouth and hands are busy!”
The chorus of replies came back, all positive. The decagon was a raised platform, with short walls, and each of the ten walls had a cubicle connected to it. Each cubicle had one or two employees within, most facing the decagon. One of the pillars holding up the arching ceiling emerged from the decagon, a structure for computer equipment and display monitors to hang off of.
Two people in the cell were pulling open bag and drawer, respectively, to retrieve identical booklets, both with yellow covers and yellow at the page’s edges, so the closed books had yellow at the three sides that weren’t the black spine. Three others already had the book open in some fashion, as matter of habit. They had for some time now. Another two cells were spartan, with little decoration but for a plant in one cell and a family picture in another. No notes, no books, no papers. Only the computers, displays, a magnetic board with iron shavings, and a set of bells.
One of the two that was getting their book out tried to open it to the first section, but the book naturally closed because of the rigidity of paper and the firmness of spine. She typed with one hand while struggling with the other to maintain her place in the book. A tinker lens was mounted over one corner of her face. She was young, seventeen or so, dirty blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, her clothes somewhere on the comfortable end of the sliding scale between comfortable and business casual, while not being altogether inappropriate for the space.
The Overseer looked over her shoulder, while reaching out to help press and hold the pages flat. Text was appearing on the screen without problem at the same time and rate it was being spoken. The other person in the cell who was transcribing was using a stenotype machine, while this one used a keyboard, typing on a keyboard that was normal but for a few added buttons that helped navigate the autocomplete.
Tattletale: I’m not sure if I should thank you for explaining that or be horrified, but fuck. I don’t get the impression he was a mole for them. Marquis, Lord of Loss, and the other background players of Earth N? Sure. But them? Not consciousllllllll;;;y.
“Shit,” was the muttered and horrified acknowledgement of the error. The girl had been trying to turn the page and the book had clapped shut. She’d leaned on a key as she reached out to pull the book closer.
The Overseer tapped a bell.
“No, don’t- fuck. Shit. I’m sorry.”
C.M. Miltona walked along the divide between cubicles, stepping down into the cubicle, leaving the other two C.M.’s behind in the Decagon, which had just flicked its lights over to red. The C.L.s from other cells were approaching, the first ones finding places to settle in where they wouldn’t be in the way.
“We have limited moves if they’re blacking us out, so let’s make those moves count,” C.M. Howe said, clapping his hands together.
The C.Ms came in a variety of flavors, and with the way they’d been spread across cells, they tended to fall into certain roles. Cell Manager Howe was the cheerleader, the coordinator. An omnipresent and encouraging voice that kept everyone moving at the same tempo.
“Talk to me, what’s going on?” Cell Manager Miltona asked as she entered, assessing the scene in the cell.
“Laurie is fumbling,” the Overseer said.
“I’m fine. I’m sorry. I hit a key wrong,” Laurie said, rushed, her voice overlapping the Overseer’s. But in the process of her continued attempts to open the book, type, and explain herself, she made another typo, autocompleting to the wrong word. She made a face, then hit a key combination. A red box encased the lines of text.
Semiramis: You think he disrupted my deal with Engel and Egg to keep them from connecting dots?
Tattletale: You connected dots. We are the dots. You know the how, where, and what. I know Teabag’s why.
Heads in the Decagon turned toward Laurie’s cell while Miltona ducked her head a fraction lower, unhappy. The text and the error was clearly visible on their screens. The C.L.s were there, too.
“Type. Take thirty seconds, type, find your rhythm,” Miltona said, voice calm. She got a cloth from a high shelf in the cubicle, the upended a water bottle to wet the cloth. She pressed the cold cloth to Laurie’s forehead, then moved to wet Laurie’s hair, smoothing it back and out of the way. A hand rubbed Laurie’s shoulder.
Laurie let out a breath she’d been breathing too shallowly to really process.
“Headache?” Miltona asked, after the thirty seconds had passed.
“In about five minutes the next team starts cycling in. Denton sits in, he can assist you. If you need to call off early, that’s fine.”
“No, I don’t,” Laurie said, her eye not leaving the screen. Her left eye, almost hidden by the opaque white lens and the rigging that held that lens to her head, would periodically move in a direction independent of her right eye, tracking details and numbers as they came in.
“You were getting your yellow book out. I’ve quizzed you on that on shift starts and ends, you’re as good as anyone. Aren’t you confident?”
“I’m confident,” Laurie said. “But I thought it would be nice to have.”
“First section?” Miltona asked.
The Overseer hung back, watching as Miltona opened the yellow book and used a paperweight to fix it in a permanently open position.
C.M. Miltona managed things on the individual level, looked after health and performance, assessed and kept track of each person in her cell.
“Why are you stressed? This isn’t like you,” Miltona said.
“I know you are. But why are you stressed?”
Miltona spun Denton’s chair around, sitting in it, then wheeled closer, so her armrest touched Laurie’s, her back was to the screens. Laurie continued her constant typing, eyes not leaving the screen except to glance at the propped-open yellow book.
“I don’t want to be a pig,” Laurie whispered.
“A pig? What are you even talking about?” Miltona asked.
“I know we’re not supposed to use terms or labels for them, but… the boy in cubicle three and the girl in cubicle six. When we’re in the dormitories we talk and there’s obviously a set of procedures and protocols where a worker gets… demoted.”
“We’re not going to demote you or do anything to you, Laurie. You’re our best in the cell.”
“They say if you’re a worker who has to be actively given orders and constantly managed, then you’re a dog, and that’s as low as you get before you get… stuck in the mud. And you don’t get out of the mud.”
The Overseer crossed over from Laurie’s cubicle to cubicle three.
The nametag read Donna Sledge, but the Overseer hadn’t heard any mention of the name since Donna had arrived. The woman worked without comment or flinching, her eyes on reams of code. Phones, internet, and the streams of data from other means of communication, each with their own symbology. One display was split into fifteen individual sub-sections, and Donna’s hand was on a mouse, holding the right button while sweeping over the windows. A column to the right of the screen had Donna’s notes. Where Laurie had marked one line of text in red in the last hour, the sweeping motion of the mouse was designating every bit of communication as flawed, mistaken, or undecipherable, yellow filling each of the fifteen sub-windows.
But not entirely. The code had moons, stars, hearts, and strings of numbers that the notes in the adjacent column noted as ‘coordinates’. The brackets around the coordinates were green, and the notes included a shorthand note that Donna could, if asked, pull out those coordinates. Donna’s head flicked left, her eyes falling on a line of text. She double-clicked it, typed something, and it highlighted green, text superimposed over it. ‘Handshake’.
One bigger blob of green in that a sea of yellow. Wherever that code or text appeared, it was translated as ‘handshake’, with a note beside it. One one-thousandth of the text on screen was translated in this way.
Like her last name, Donna was a blunt instrument, turned to the undecipherable and unbreakable and set to the task with stubborn persistence.
The Overseer collected a tissue from a stack of tissues on Donna’s undecorated desk. She wiped a dribble of moisture from the corner of Donna’s mouth. There was no reaction, no change in Donna. The older woman breathed at a set rate, blinked at a set rate, and even seemingly filled the catheter bag attached to her chair at a set rate. She had much less work to do with the communications blackout in effect. No phone calls to track and take notes on, no emails to file.
Of the fifteen sub-windows, six were gray and frozen. There would just be the data stream, and the one sub-window with the countdown for when Precipice entered his dream room. There would be a burst of data as they connected, a burst of data when they left. Donna had already cracked that for the most part. The window had the ‘logs’ from the last access, along with notes and numbers about the room’s distribution of power across its visitors. In lieu of the power distribution table, the fifth occupant had a stress meter, akin to a heart monitor, but frozen in time.
“You’re better than Denton,” Miltona told Laurie, reassuring. “It’s why you’re day shift. If we accepted these ranks as fact-”
“They are fact, aren’t they? Not those names, but, they are,” Laurie murmured.
“-then Denton would be the dog, and you would be above Denton. He makes more errors regularly than you’ve made this afternoon. We’re not going to make you a…”
“A pig,” Laurie whispered.
“Not for innocent mistakes.”
“It’s higher stakes. We’re yellow book. Soon we go red. If I stumble and our cell can’t manage, they might.”
“They won’t,” Miltona said, smoothing Laurie’s hair back. “I won’t let them.”
“I get shaky when I dwell on it,” Laurie whispered.
“It’s not so bad. I was one, once. It’s like sleeping, for a very long time, and when you wake up, you feel like you’ve accomplished something and you were taken care of.”
Laurie shook her head slightly.
“You don’t have to worry,” Miltona said.
Laurie nodded, still typing, always typing. The Overseer looked.
Semiramis: Take him downstairs and out. Don’t cause a stir. We won’t bring it up to the people downstairs until he’s clear.
Laurie adjusted her headset. She hit a key combination, and the line was flagged. Not a red box around the line, but a green one.
“Good,” Cell Manager Miltona said, standing. While the others were still reading the text that had been highlighted for the Decagon, she was explaining, “They’re close to the mark and the Old Man is caught. We’re losing some of our eyes.”
“Noted,” the cell’s third Cell Manager said. He went by Thrift, he had powers, but he rarely used them. “When?”
“Ten minutes from now,” Laurie said.
Thrift tapped on a keyboard. “That gives us a two-minute turnaround on keeping our target from catching him in the first place. Can we?”
The C.L.s weren’t volunteering much.
“No pawns in place,” Howe said.
“Then can we make it harder? If they investigate him they may find out we’ve been peeking through his eyes. Any pawns for that?”
More shaking heads.
“Come on, come on,” Howe said. The cheerleader. He had a background as a top seller in a pyramid scheme. “There’s a way. Bluestocking?”
One of the C.L.s spoke up, “Our focus was on the trade deal with the city.”
“Is there anyone in Blood Team?” Howe asked.
Another C.L. nodded. “Possible.”
“Wild cards. Little Midas sided with the more aggressive villains, but he’s hard to push. There’s someone downstairs we can use, too. I’ll talk to my cell and run the numbers.”
“Thank you,” Howe said. “Setting the clock. Eight minutes fifty.”
The C.L. walked along the divide between cubicles, stepped down, and jogged off. Miltona had barely settled in the Decagon when another C.M. approached from the direction the C.L. had gone.
“This started with your cell?” the C.M. asked. “You were first to go yellow.”
“Unavoidable,” Howe answered.
“You let one slip the net, and now you want my assets?”
“We all work together,” Miltona answered.
“Explain it for me first. I can see your displays. You have seven minutes.”
“They went to the Bunker, where we don’t have eyes and we can’t see. We were told to let them go, no interference, because the others wanted to see what we could get in the way of access or brute forcing their access. That’s not on us.”
“I’m not interested in your ass-covering, Howe.”
“There is no ass to cover. We’re assless. Others decided it was worth the risk, they were wrong. We didn’t get anything and we tipped them off. A target was clued in that something was wrong, went home, and immediately went to the material we planted. We pulled everyone in, best people at the desk, and by the time we were set the target was already collaborating with Tattletale from the Undersiders. We’ve been coordinating with the second team since, keeping them in the loop.”
“You shouldn’t have let the target reach Tattletale.”
“We asked, they said to let it happen. They felt trying to act would tip her off.”
“If it’s that blatant, your writers weren’t soft enough.”
“Our writers are fine. You’re trying to assign blame when there’s no need. We all knew this would happen sooner or later.”
“We expected later.”
“And it’s happening now. Can we have our pawn?”
“My pawn. What for?”
“The Old Man. He’s one of our unwitting eyes,” Cell Manager Thrift said.
“I know that. We use him too. We have the cell with the second-highest coverage, we use everything. I don’t see how I can supply a distraction, delay, or deniability in six minutes and change.”
“We need him dead.”
“You want me to sacrifice my pawn?”
“There’s no choice,” Thrift said.
“Assholes. You drop the ball and I take the hit?”
“We’re all in this together,” Miltona answered.
“On paper. But you didn’t spend weeks on assets only to have them deleted,” the C.M. from the other cell said.
The Overseer descended from the Decagon, approaching the C.M. She found one of the boards with metal shavings that faced the C.M. that stood beyond the cluster of cubicles, and she reached out.
“Work together,” she said, quiet.
Her movements were not simple ones. When she reached out, her hand was a touch a hundred times softer than that of a feather, but that hand filled the space like water from an opened sluice rushed to occupy lower ground. Her hand moved, to strike with one side of the hand, with fingertips, with nails. Her position was fluid, and her face was close to the board, her breath even less substantial than her fingers, but still something that could influence the movement of single particles.
She observed thousands of individual specks of metal dust with a hundred faces, above, around, and near.
DO IT, spelled out with the letters barely visible, light gray against darker gray.
The C.M. who had been complaining paused, then looked away, scowling. “Can’t argue that.”
“What?” Howe asked.
The target personality analysis agent in the cubicle picked up the board, turning it around for the Decagon to see.
“Thank you,” Howe said. “Thank you, Overseer.”
“Sacrificing my pawn. We’ll message you as soon as we’re signed off on this move. Stand by,” the C.M. said.
“Thank you for your assistance,” Howe said.
The Overseer was a thousand inverse statues filling a vast space, limbs entangled, hair touching shoulder and back, toes on shoulders, knees against the side of heads, all propped up against one another. Statues, except they were in constant motion, they could not be seen or represent anything, they tended rather than require tending, and they had as much substance as a solid concrete statue had air pockets. When she pulled away and up, to better see the cell and the other cells, she filled space above, building on a collective mass, while figments at the edges fell away, crumbling into nothing.
There were nineteen Decagons with a twentieth in construction, wiring and cubicles being set up. Workers and managers were lingering nearby with laptops propped on crates and boxes, already figuring out the groundwork. C.L.s from other teams were working with them, filling them in.
Those C.L.s were the most active around the space, hurrying from cell to cell, liaising, sharing information, coordinating. More cells were switching to yellow. Ready to fight on a subtler front, deflect, disturb, deny.
In cell five, which was tracking the Shepherds, a young man in cubicle three was moving his mouth back and forth, clicking. His arm rubbed against the edge of the desk, back and forth, to the point of bleeding. She saw as the droplet of blood hit the flooring. She swept over the blood, putting it in the trash receptacle, and hit the specially made bell to get the attention of the cell managers.
In cell eleven, tasked with media, a community manager was breathing heavier. He was unaware as ten of the Overseers faces moved closer, crowding in together to study, observe, track every detail. His eyes were unfocused, moving back and forth as if they were reading a single short word over and over again. A vein stood out at his temple. She hit the bell.
A flake of pastry hit the ground as a team delivered meals to cell nineteen. She swept it up.
The gears were turning. Enough people were acting exactly as they should for their role, and the roles were interconnected enough to serve. Precogs were reinforced by clairvoyants, ensuring the baseline flow of information and monitoring. Others in a cell tracked all digital media, and worked on breaching passwords and defenses.
Tinkers, thinkers, and borrowed capes were turning their powers toward more complex operations. Getting into the heads of key individuals or systems that would let them better collect information. Not baseline, but far more valuable when it worked. Others scanned and searched, deciding who the most valuable targets were, so teams or oversight could attempt breaches on an even deeper level than hacking, parasites, or mind control.
Everything moved as it should.
Cell One was home. Coordinating things and influencing things here. It was Cell One she reached out to, finding the magnetic board with iron dust spread evenly across it. She manipulated the dust to craft her message, then hit the bell.
“Good work, Overseer,” the C.M. of Cell One said. “Everyone, top attention. Surveillance, coordination, management. In order, I want network, utilities…”
She left him and his team to the task of filling in for her. She pulled back and away, passing through Cell Two, which was double-size, to see where things stood. The Bunker was a big enough blind spot they couldn’t track everything, but the Wardens were a big enough concern that every resource possible was being set to the task.
She pulled away enough that she was disconnected from the cells and cubicles. She moved through the vents, collecting dust as she went.
Home. The vast majority of it was back to its old glory. Gleaming white walls, everything in working order, a complex that could host the population of a small town. A complex that was on its way to doing just that.
The Overseer passed through a hallway undergoing renovations. Building materials were moved, slapped against the wall, then set into place. Fine wires, nails, and interlocking tiles she had worked on in past visits.
This area was being modified to be a prison. It was already occupied by people in the cells she had finished. There weren’t many rooms, and thus the people in those rooms were a select list.
The Overseer swept into the room with the first occupant. She pushed hair from forehead, and reached beneath clothes to wick away sweat and keep those clothes from sticking to skin.
She had a great fondness for the building. Her hearth and home. Her contribution. It was old and her identity was rooted in it.
Not so much a fondness for Fortuna, the woman in the first cell. She did feel a duty, however. Responsibility.
Their Fortuna, their Contessa, had wanted to try her hand at a normal life, without trusting in her power to know the exact route to take to achieve what she wanted. She had dedicated her life to the task of trying to save the world and she had failed, her burden was lifted, and nine weeks after the world ended, she had taken off her shoes, walked along a beach of white sand, stood in the water far from any civilization, and let her guard down for the first time in three decades.
That was all it took. After two days of that, with no questions to predict potential attacks, subterfuge, or other tricks, she had been captured.
Fortuna had reached for a means of defending herself, and she had found it. A loop of thought and willful paralysis that rendered her useless and deaf to the world. Even from oversight’s influence.
Fortuna hadn’t wanted this. A rushed thought, in conjunction with her being off balance, two days out of practice in using her power.
“I like your face,” the Overseer said. “I don’t love you, I don’t hate you, but your face is a home to me, Fortuna. It’s too familiar.”
Her movements around Fortuna would be felt as the slightest of breezes.
“A little under two weeks and I will see your face more regularly. They’re certain we’ll break you then. They know the date, down to the hour. Then you’ll be his.”
There was no response.
Of course there was no response. Even the most delicate of instruments couldn’t catch her voice. She spoke and nobody heard. She touched and was scarcely felt. She saw, and nobody saw her back.
Another cell. The young man who had leaked information to Engel. He had slipped his leash, panicked, and warned of the darker sides of this place. Engel had left, more aware.
She breezed into the cell.
“You,” the occupant said. He was a nobody, beyond his actions in regard to Engel. He had bought a Cauldron power, got the ability to make smoke and form phantom attackers from the smoke. He had owed a favor and oversight had called it in, before pressing him into service. The problem had been that the creations took a fragment of his mind to function, and when they gave those fragments back, those fragments were clean of any and all influence. He couldn’t be brainwashed. Not permanently. He raised his voice, accented. “Overseer.”
She cleaned up particulars. Black marks on walls. Droplets of urine where he had missed the bucket. When the other cells were more complete, the plumbing would work.
“They did this to you, and you serve them so slavishly.”
Discarded dirty clothing. Bits of food.
“This place is a Ship of Theseus. Every part of it has been replaced at least once, it feels like.”
“I saw it, right when Teacher got here. Everything in ruins. The people in charge have changed, the walls, the floors, the lights… except for the shape, none of it’s the same except in shape. What holds you here? I wouldn’t be.”
She moved the collected waste to the hallway, where it joined the other detritus and the materials from construction. She began setting tiles into place: placer, tile, tile, placer, a swipe of sealer behind the completed row. A thousand hands wiped away excess sealer, working with no concern for getting dirty because those hands would disappear seconds after they were no longer needed.
“Why? You were a person once. Who were you, that you’re okay with this? You keep people prisoner, enslave them…”
Wiring was threaded through the ceiling at the same time tiles were set in place. Further down the hall, shock-absorbing panels were set into concrete, then covered. A technology from another earth. The ‘damascus concrete’ was another such technology, from yet another earth, leaving satisfying whorl patterns that became even more polished and refined as she smoothed down the surface.
“You can leave. You can tell people. None of this is okay. Not when he’s going to win.”
“I could always leave. There was nobody who could stop me not even when the Doctor Mother and Contessa ran this facility,” she answered, knowing he couldn’t hear her gossamer echo of a whisper of a voice.
The cell’s occupant banged his hand against the bars.
“But this is no Ship of Theseus,” she told him. “I am the constant.”
He banged against the bars a few more times, before turning away to pace.
She did an hour’s worth of work in six minutes. She put up signs to warn about the concrete and the setting tiles.
“You might be the worst of the first generation members of Cauldron,” the man in the cell said. “Because they at least seemed to think what they were doing was for a greater good. But I’ve been around just long enough to see hints of personality in what you do and how. There’s something there and… you don’t even try to be a force for good.”
Good. ‘Greater good’.
“Fuck you!” the cell’s occupant screamed. “Fuck. I’m going to be smelling those fumes for hours.
He would be fine.
There were more tasks to be done. A sweep for stowaways. A brush through the power facility. Every pass through, she tried to find the secret ways a creative person might try to enter. A shaft with power lines running through it. A water pipe with insufficient pressure.
She checked the exterior as well, and did her circuit around the crater. The facility had been built around the crater, whole sections set above, and that part had been dismantled in the heat of battle, dropped on Scion. The one part of the facility that hadn’t been rebuilt. Instead, she had damaged it further, then sealed it, to ensure that if there was a speck of alien matter behind, it would be gone. It was a column of solid metal all the way down, now.
There was no place left in her creation that she could not enter. She brushed her way through the dormitories, where the night shifts were resting, and through the kitchens, where the early morning shifts were eating and talking. Those who were in no shape to talk were being patiently fed. In the dormitories, someone was sleeping poorly, chewing on fingers until they bled without waking up. She rang a bell. In the dining hall, a pair of men were getting belligerent. Bell. The anger was gone in that moment, the fight forgotten, anger replaced by fear and alarm. They would be checked over. If there was a need, they would enjoy a long sleep, followed by waking up to the feeling of accomplishment.
Her circuit took fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. When she returned to the floor where operations were being conducted, she found oversight was there, already partway through assignments.
She brushed her way past Teacher’s beard. It had grown longer. He wore a stylized suit with a long body, draping down to the mid-thigh. A different cut from a different Earth. Latin phrases were stitched into the breast pocket, lapels, and cuffs.
“Hello, my dear,” Teacher said. He motioned. “Board.”
She was at the board before it was even picked up, working on it. She worked on it more as it was carried to Teacher.
“Almost done,” he said.
She had the message written. A list of needed replacements in cells, where the people had worn down. The one where the boy had rubbed his arm to the point of creating an open wound. The fourteen year old girl who had been contentedly brainwashed and happy to work up until the thirteenth hour of her shift, when she suddenly began crying.
What broke could be replaced.
There was a line of twelve people waiting to be assigned positions. They would watch for a while, then pick up their duties, if they weren’t outright granted the knowledge of schedule and how to perform them.
“This requires commitment,” Teacher addressed the twelve. “You can walk away at any time, but we will take your memories of what you saw. I’m sure you understand. If you do agree to work, I can guarantee that it will be difficult. Twelve hours of work, eight hours of sleep, four hours of recreation, every day. There will be times there are more than twelve hours of work.”
“Every day?” a woman in the group asked. “From what I was told, I imagined it was twelve hours a day for five days a week.”
“It is not easy. Hours may relax if we continue to grow and recruit more. For this, for one year of work, you’ll earn five times what your average citizen in the city would. You get room, board, pay, healthcare, and you’re safer here than anywhere.”
“What about the zombies?” the woman asked.
“I keep seeing people that… they don’t look well.”
“A status reserved for those who fail in their duties and who break our rules. Do good work, you will not need to worry. Stick to the rules, no need for concern. Do good work while obeying the rules, and you will be amply rewarded.”
A boy spoke up, “And if we don’t, we become, uh-”
“Mindless,” the woman finished.
“The exact opposite of mindless, miss-”
“Miss Therese. The exact opposite of mindless,” Teacher said. He smiled, then addressed the group. “Decide now. I have places to be.”
There was some hesitation. To see the engine at work was daunting.
Ten agreed. The woman who had spoken up didn’t.
“Limited precognition, short range, cell thirteen,” Teacher said, touching one man’s shoulder. He moved on to the boy beside him. “Mind map of personalities, relationships, cell five.”
He went down the list. Each time he finished, the people were intercepted by William, who touched them on the shoulder before letting them go on their way.
“Writing analysis,” Teacher said. “Pattern analysis. Computer skill.”
Until only the two remained. Some of the new workers cast backward glances.
“Elijah? Will you see them out?”
“Of course.” The skinny blond boy smiled, and the smile had an uncanny edge. The fix to his jaw had been too perfect. He blinked, eyes closing over tinker-made spheres. With the faintest of machine sounds, metal whisking against metal, only audible to the Overseer because she had an ear right next to his eye, the irises switched colors from blue to yellow.
They were a part of oversight. The powerhouses, the ones who made more complex engineering possible. Fine tuning the teams, taking away the bad,
Teacher walked over to Cell One, and held the board with the magnetic dust. She wrote out particulars from her last three hours of work. Tracking those who had collapsed or broken down. Tracking the little things around the facility, her creation.
William to grant any free will. Teacher considered it a generosity, and a tool to ensure that there really were multiple perspectives on every problem, not just his own, with his thralls serving as only his hands, rather than his eyes and ears. Everyone started out with the opportunity to retain everything about themselves. From that point, it was a steep way down, but climbing was possible.
The managers that hadn’t been hand-picked for their backgrounds and skills had been selected from the best of the original batches. Those who understood how cells worked and those who had few compunctions on the subject.
“Join me?” Teacher asked. Some eyes raised, heads turned. He tapped the board with the iron dust.
I ALREADY HAD A BREAK, was her response, etched into the dust with touches in the same way someone might try to spell out words with assault rifle fire.
“It should be fine. Soon we go red. There won’t be much time to rest for a little while after that. Let’s enjoy the quiet before the storm.”
She was, she wanted to say.
She hesitated. She would do her rounds.
“Two hundred and thirty-five individuals are on the clock as we speak,” Teacher told her. “Nine individuals suspect something is amiss. Our facility here is perfectly fine.”
The Overseer could see people watching Teacher carry on the one-sided conversation.
“We’ll step up all security measures and alerts if that makes you feel better,” he told her.
She scratched out her message on the board.
He moved his head with a small jerk. “Follow me?”
She brushed past him. Past bald head, past longer beard, through clothing.
When they were alone, he said, “If we shutter all the windows and put possible measure into effect, our enemies will know when you’re here. It makes us weaker.”
She wrote her message.
“Yes. Absolutely. We can put it into effect at random. If you join me.”
“Because I think you need this, my dear. In so many ways, you need this.”
WHERE. She wrote it, but she’d seen what Teacher wore. She suspected. She felt trepidation.
“Home,” he said. “Yours, to be specific.”
“Think on it. You have until we leave. But there are assassins out there, and I would appreciate the added protection.”
She thought on it, sweeping up and down the hall, brushing past him with every pass, to let him know she was there.
Ingenue waited at the end of the long hallway. She was dressed in a short dress with long sleeves, and with the hose and cape she wore, she was as covered as she ever was. The ex-Birdcage cell block leader was pixieish, her eyes sly, her smile mysterious.
The Overseer remained closer to Teacher as he walked closer to the woman. Protective, defensive. Nobody disturbed her quite as much as Ingenue did when Ingenue was near Teacher.
Then there were the others, in updated, finer costumes. The Thomais Fallen in somewhat old fashioned clothing with a sinister spin, and The Horseman wearing ragged bandages beneath a tattered suit. The Horseman was a gift from Cheit, and a security. Their eyes on Teacher, which was an irony, considering Teacher’s many eyes and the tools he had at his disposal. Saint, Dragon’s nemesis, was there and standing proud in ornate armor, his cross-tattoo on his face colored gold.
William, Scapegoat, was catching up, drawing nearer to the Thomais Fallen. Elijah, Valefor, walked arm in arm with his mother, Madam Mathers, who wore an ethereal white gown with a shawl around her shoulders. Her health was better since coming here, since she’d been… helped, with firm boundaries. She looked closer to her actual mid-thirties than the weary young crone she’d been before.
“This will be preparations for your moment,” Teacher told the woman.
Madam Mathers curtsied, supported by her son.
The portal opened at the hallway’s end, managed by teams of tinkers. Big, dramatic, bright.
“Shall we?” Teacher asked, and he looked at nobody specific as he asked. Because the Overseer occupied nearly every place, every position, like a gas with molecules writ human size with faint human capability, he looked at her.
“We shall,” she said.
The group walked through, two of the tinkers tapping at their equipment to turn it off, so the dimensional effects wouldn’t interfere.
The Overseer passed through, and the power that had gripped her and defined her form pulled at her, stripped away her selves.
For three, four seconds, as they passed through the glowing, arching doorway, she was a meek girl again, wreathed in tatters. One of fifteen children sold in exchange for power. Sold and taken to a prison, sold and left to watch as other children went to pieces or became monsters.
And even then, somehow, seeing those horrific ends, she’d been relieved.
“Scared me,” Ingenue murmured. “Custodian?”
“Overseer,” her own voice was rough, uneven. She’d talked while doing her work around the facility to stay in a kind of practice, but it didn’t really work.
“Overseer,” Ingenue said. “You’re older than I imagined you. Do you have a name?”
“No. Not for a long time. Only the title.”
Teacher rested a hand on the Overseer’s shoulder. She laid hers over his.
They left the portal behind them, and as they did, she pulled away, casting off innumerable light-as-air duplicates, each one leaving her original self diminished, less there.
Until the original self was gone, left behind to fade into tremors in the air.
Teacher’s hand dropped as there ceased to be anything to hold.
And she rose, in her glory, in her manifold form, to fill the air above and around, to identify every person with eyes and insubstantial hands, to track weapons and search for traps.
She could see the crowds, the celebrations. There were many crowds, gathered for ceremony and festival. What might have been four large schools worth of students were singing, choiral. Drums joined with the singing. White birds were being released at set stages, so there were always some overhead.
She saw the shapes of the buildings, the way they stacked and layered upon each other, crowded, the peaks decorated while the foundations were pure utility. Though decades had passed, she knew them to be home.
“Ally, brother,” was a greeting. A man hugged Teacher, the hug becoming a two-handed handshake, as hand slid down arm to hand.
“I was told to expect something amazing. This for just a saint?”
“A saint’s day, a hundred years after their death. People needed an excuse to celebrate. The memories of our brush with the end of days was close.”
Saint kept his distance from the Fallen. With the word ‘saint’, Secondhand looked his way, and he looked away, avoiding eye contact.
Only here because of his ongoing concerns about Dragon. Because he wanted every resource.
It barely mattered. The Overseer had ten thousand hearts and though each was insubstantial, they added up to a thrum, like a hundred hummingbirds flying through the air. Her eyes drank in home, and remembered the moment the syringe had been injected. She remembered going to pieces the first time, a bloody, screaming process, and she’d reveled in it.
Reveled because it had been change, and she’d been escaping a role that was frozen, unchanging.
Everyone on the dais was being recognized as a sponsor of the play. For Earth Cheit, it was a way to elevate Teacher and the others. Though the pretense was false, the festivities were in part for them.
The Overseer watched as Madam Mathers had her moment at the front of the dais. Center of the stage, just behind a short, balcony-like fence, stairs covered in red velvet stretching down to the city street on either side of the dais. She watched as nearly every eye present looked at the woman.
With that, with one fell stroke, Teacher assumed the ability to cripple the capitol of Earth Cheit.
Elijah couldn’t even keep the smile from his face.
“You wanted me to be a housewife, and I am,” she said, to the void, her voice rising. “I maintain my home. You wanted me to be meek, never heard, and I am. You wanted me to be nothing and no one and I am!”
She liked to think the choir carried that voice higher, rather than drown it out. It didn’t matter. She had come to terms with her silent voice long ago. To accept was one of the first things she had learned.
“I am a creator of my own kingdom. I am free. I’m a woman more powerful than any of you. I’m everything you wanted yet everything you feared, and I can be both because…”
She filled the space, sweeping past people on either side of the street, people on the stairs, people on the dais.
“…I am everything everywhere.”
She moved amid the masses, searching for assassins and familiarizing herself with everyone present.
“I was bartered away for power. You’ll find now that you get what you pay for.”
The show was done, and the students were dissolving ranks. The crowd closed in, filling the street. There was food, drink, and cheering. She knew, from dim childhood memories, that it would continue into the night, and then there would be fireworks, colors matched to the saint.
She swept close to Teacher, and she touched her lips to his, while the world that had cast her away unwittingly watched. A thank you, a message. She saw his eyes move slightly, his eyebrows twitch.
“Enjoying yourself?” one of the Theocrats asked.
“I am,” Teacher said.
“I’m glad. I’ve been to Gimel. I’ve seen how thinly it is stretched. I thought you would enjoy something more… substantial.”
“The insubstantial has its appeal, but I thank you, Caleb.”
“All that we have is yours, if you’ll elevate us, give us more worlds, more fertile ground. Every soldier, every weapon, every pen, every facility.”
Teacher smiled. He took the man’s hand, shaking it firmly. “You won’t be disappointed.”
“The appearance of the Titan so close to home has people worried,” another man said.
“Rest assured,” Teacher said. “Have faith.”
“Faith,” was the answer.
Teacher had his army, now. More people than he could hope to use. He had his stranglehold.
A few hundred steps away, past that shining portal, he had the fates of everyone in Gimel. A different kind of stranglehold.
People came and went, saying their hellos, getting their introductions. It was an hour before Teacher was alone with the man he wanted to talk to. Not a face most citizens would recognize, but he had visited once when The Horseman had first arrived. A dangerous man who always wore black. Ian.
“The Horseman told us of your information gathering apparatus. Spreading false word.”
“Something like that,” Teacher said.
“You can do this?”
“You, Ian my friend, I can assure, I can do this.”
“An army. An endless supply of people to be your thralls, with no need to recruit or kidnap.”
“The army has nothing to do with it. My information gathering apparatus has nothing to do with it. I have other tools that I’ve yet to reveal.”
“The top floor of your facility.”
“The Horseman said he couldn’t go there, a phantom stopped him before he could.”
“A good thing too,” Teacher said. “I can trust you with this, and few others. If anyone knew what I had there, they would want it. Anyone, large or small, whatever world. I’m certain.”
I can trust you, he’d said. You in the plural. His eyes hadn’t focused on the man. That had been partially directed at her.
“I’ll trust you. Just tell me you’ll save my world.”
“I will. Carrying on where my predecessors left off, I suppose, saving worlds.”
“And your own? Gimel? Will you save it or leave it to fester?”
“Only to save it from itself.”
He’d been right, to invite her. To see her world leashed by an invisible chain. To give her a chance to scream to it that she’d changed, she’d played by its rules and she’d beaten it.
Saint approached, putting a hand on Teacher’s shoulder. He showed the man his phone. The Overseer barely had to look. The color of the screen said it all.
Things began in earnest now.