Unsurprisingly, Hector was not forced to wait in line at the convenience store. The frightened kid- well, he was probably a year or two older than Hector but it was hard not think of him as a kid anyway- the frightened young man who’d been crouching behind the counter didn’t argue, just accepted Hectors’ credit card to pay for the chocolate bars.
Cash would’ve been easier but Hector couldn’t carry it, every time he split he’d have been guilty of counterfeiting. At least with the card, all the duplicates linked up to a valid account. A valid, extremely high limit expense account that would be paid for by the Citadel. Sometimes it was good to be an Operative. Purchase in hand, Hector turned to hurry from the store and back to the ruined restaurant where Jason was speaking to the newly Empowered child.
As soon as he stepped through the doors and onto the sidewalk, he felt a hand grip tight around his left arm, just above the elbow. Reflexively, Hector stepped back, tried to jerk his arm loose at the same time as he went for his pistol. His attacker matched the motion, denying him the leverage he needed to get loose and got his own hand in place just in time to keep Hector from drawing his gun.
Hector narrowed his eyes, slightly concerned. He couldn’t split while the guy was holding him like that and there wasn’t another him near enough to help out in time. The young operative jerked his trapped arm back, twisting his body at the same time to increase the force of the motion. When his assailant moved with him again he brought his knee up, driving hard for the other man’s crotch. He wasn’t surprised when his knee was blocked by a thigh but Hector was a little shocked the accompanying head butt hadn’t worked.
The guy didn’t look dangerous, just a moderately fit man in his early twenties with dirty blond hair and a slight squint, but he’d moved just right to stop everything Hector had tried so far. It wasn’t skill, or at least Hector didn’t think so. The movements hadn’t been polished enough. More like he’d-
“Carl West.” the man said.
And that was enough. Hector had already been running a search through the Analysis database of facial records but a name cut the time on that down to a fraction. He skimmed what was available, searching for the most important bits and pieces as quickly as he could.
Hector relaxed and wasn’t surprised to find that as soon as he decided to stop attacking the other man let go. “No offense Mr. West, but there’s a moderately urgent situation I need to get back to. What is it?”
Carl nodded. “I’m sorry, I won’t delay your candy delivery any more than necessary.” He’d managed to deliver that line completely without irony. Hector was impressed. “I have a message that you need to hear.”
Hector sighed. Rather, a lot of him did. “Okay, never ignore a warning from a precog.”
“I’m not- not exactly a precog.” Hector was about to speak when Carl cut him off. “But I do work with a few. We don’t… don’t have a name or anything like that, but we all have… talents that could be important.”
Shit. Carl West may not have been a genuine precog but his weird multiple short term timeline thing made him damn close. In some ways, especially in combat, it was potentially a lot more dangerous. If he was working with the real thing, more than one of them… Could that be why he’d no-showed for his entrance interview, why he’d quit right before joining the Citadel? Someone had needed him for something else, maybe.
“When you look into your own face and receive a warning, accept it. If you do, you’ll be asked a question. Say yes. It’s more important than you could possibly guess.”
“What?” Hector asked. Was this really-? Had he really just been handed a cryptic prophecy by a mysterious stranger in the street? That was just plain ridiculous.
“That’s it. Don’t forget it but don’t worry about it for now. Just go. Deliver the chocolate before it starts to melt.”
Hector sighed and did as he was told. The psych profile he had access to indicated that West was basically a good guy so he’d just have to trust him. For now. As soon as this thing with the telekinetic toddler was taken care of he’d see what his superiors in Analysis had to say.
Melody Shift sighed. “We’re doing this wrong.” she said. “Let me explain.
“The Tyrant is a veteran of the First War. He wasn’t Empowered then, just a normal man. According to the records we have access to, he was fairly brave. He worked as a battalion messenger, traveling on foot or by bike across the front lines. It gave him a broader picture of the war than most enlisted and, by the time it was over, he became convinced that it was his nation’s lack of unity that truly cost them their victory.”
Mary didn’t say anything. This was all familiar enough but she wanted to hear where Melody was going with this.
“After the war, he left military service and returned to school. He studied architecture. It was that same insight, the desire for order, structure. The entire time, for the next years, he was haunted by a growing frustration. He saw not only his own country, but the entire world being torn apart by its failure to deal decisively with the chaos that came in the wake of the Empowered.
“One day, he woke up and found that everything had changed. All around him, people were moving with a sense of purpose, of harmony, and it was all thanks to him. He had received his Empowerment in the night and all across Europe, the population was as united as a beehive. Exactly as united as a beehive.”
Mary frowned, considering it.
“It wasn’t deliberate. His power doesn’t have an off switch or any selectivity. He called himself Union in his earliest attempts to contact the rest of the world and that truly is what he became. A union of all the people in Europe. The problem was, the guiding intellect of that united people wasn’t up to the job. He can’t direct them, not really, just give vague impressions of what he wants.
“The continent is filled with cities full of people who do nothing but work, sleep and nothing else. The country side is covered with farms where the same pattern is repeated. Every moment of every life that he controls is… is nothing but purpose. There is no personality, no individuals. Telepaths with sufficient range confirmed that, in the beginning, the thralls’ original personalities were present, just dormant. That is not the case with the ones born under the influence of his power. They’re nothing but extensions of his desire, living tools.”
“Shit.” Mary said. “That’s…”
“That’s why he eventually accepted it when the rest of the world called him Tyrant. He didn’t want that, doesn’t want it today. But he can’t let them go, can’t end it. There were Empowered in his region at first, the ones who already had their abilities when he took control. The only ones left today are the few that had sufficient regeneration to resist aging.”
“No one new.” Mary said. “The newborn thralls never develop a personality, don’t have enough emotional capacity to Empower.” Director Shift made a slight motion in agreement. “But… you said, and even the normal news has always said, that he’s being kept alive by constant attention from Healers. If they’re not being born in his territory, then where…?”
“From us.” William Power said. “Us and the other Functioning Nations.”
Mary felt the rage and sick horror growing inside of her at the thought. “Tell me they’re volunteers.” she demanded.
“Some.” Power answered, not the least bit defensive or guilty. “When we don’t have enough Healers convicted of a crime.”
“You dare! You know about the Healer’s Curse. The Citadel’s promise of safety for them is the only reason why so many Healers join and you dare send people into that!” Mary was practically screaming. This was a Healer’s worst nightmare, to be held in bondage and forced to use their gift until they burnt out, and the Citadel was part of it. That was worse than anything she’d ever considered its darker face capable of.
Melody Shift simply said “Yes.” William Power said nothing, but it was a silence that indicated agreement. “What would you have us do? If the Tyrant dies, is allowed to die, then hundreds of millions of newly freed thralls will go mad. They’ll have no other context, no personality or mental capability other than homicidal rage. Worse, some of them will Empower. Can you imagine the monsters that would be born out of that? They’d tear the world apart. We must keep him alive.”
Mary forced herself to calm down. “You mean I must.” She thought it through, considered reasons and implications. “Why wasn’t I sent after I… after my mistake?”
Director Shift shrugged. “I don’t know. That was twenty years ago, before my time as a Director. If I had to guess, I’d say that the Citadel leadership of the day had another use for you in mind or didn’t realize the long term implications. He was still in better health then, didn’t need so many Healers to keep him going and they lasted longer.”
“If I do this, if I agree, I won’t be able to come back. This isn’t even a suicide mission, just literal suicide that you hope will give you a positive outcome.”
“That’s right.” William Power told her.
“I… I’ll want some time to think about this.” she said, but she knew there was only one answer she could give in the end. The Citadel finally had a use for her again, after all this time. At least she’d be able to ensure that no other Healer had to go through that nightmare again.
Hector grinned while he and his friend watched the child, happily chewing with his mouth stuffed full of chocolate. “Did he tell you his mother’s name?”
“Yes.” Jason said. “I have already contacted her and informed her of the situation. She was less distraught than I would have expected.”
“Huh. She may have powers herself. If part of her has been expecting her son to Empower some day, then she had to have known that something like this was possible. She tell you the name of the babysitter?”
Jason nodded. “Yes, it actually is Sissy. Sissy Henderson.”
“Ugh.” Hector made a face at that. “The things some parents do to their kids.” Oh shit! He felt his eyes go wide in panic as he turned to apologize to Jason.
“Relax.” Jason said. “I have told you, I hold no grudge against you or my mother.” He returned his gaze to the kid. “In fact, this woman will face a similar dilemma. Unless you are correct and her own power is sufficient to restrain him, unlikely, I do not know how she will be able to safely raise him.”
Hector shrugged. “The kid’s strong but his power isn’t anywhere near as bad as yours was. She can probably get by with hiring a Null from the Dillon Institute to replace Sissy.”
Jason blinked as his face went blank. “You can… simply hire a Null type?”
“Well, yeah. That’s the whole point of the Institute, finding ways for Empowered to monetize their abilities. I doubt babysitting dangerous Empowered kids comes up all that often but this isn’t the first time either.”
“I… had not considered that. I don’t suppose you happen to have the number for this… Dillon Institute?”