Everyone in the city—except for Adam, who had never been exposed to Elizabeth’s song—had a power now. Almost five hundred million men, women and children were now endowed with superhuman abilities.
That included Doctor Isaac Clarke.
“It’s amazing!” he shrieked for the umpteenth time. “I can mold flesh like clay! Just like the toy maker is supposed to be able to, but literally, in my hands!”
I rubbed my forehead. “Yes, I know. But it’s still not as precise and useful as the actual toy maker. What we need to do is more tests, so we can figure of the exact limits of your ability, and how that might be used to—Clarke, what are you doing?”
He was passing his hand back and forth over his arm, the wrinkles smoothing out slowly. Then, as he grinned like a kid in a candy shop, the wrinkles started to come back. “Look! I’ve already mastered my own skin!”
“Yes,” I deadpanned. “I can see that. Your flesh-molding abilities now rival a couple Botox injections. Can we get to the matter at hand?”
The old-looking man nodded with what appeared to be genuine seriousness. “You’re right, of course.” He checked a pad. “Now, Adam’s blanket wasn’t anything too expensive, so replacing it wouldn’t be too difficult, but I think he deserves a bit of an upgrade—”
My headache was getting worse. “What are you talking about?”
Clarke frowned at me. “Mister Anders’ blanket. Lily shredded it when they fought in the dorms. Did you even read the after-action report MC wrote up?”
I counted to ten before answering.
“Yes,” I said with what little patience I could muster. “But I meant we needed to test your ability.” I turned to the nearby toy box, with a sedated dumpster dog inside. The device came with a powerful scanner that rivaled some MRI’s in detail, and surpassed most of them in speed. “Let’s start with something simple.” I turned back to Clarke. “Change the color of its—Clarke!”
He was playing with his wrinkles again. He jumped like a kid with his hand in a cookie jar when I caught him. “What?”
I sighed. “Screw this. Butler actually needs my help. Just try and remember to turn on the recorder if you start modifying the dog, okay?” I stomped out of the lab before he had a chance to say something stupid again.
Finding Butler’s office took longer than I would have liked to admit; I didn’t have reason to go there much. But the guards at NHQ were friendly and knew me well, so after a few rather embarrassing wrong turns, I arrived outside the solid steel door of his office.
I knocked once.
“Come in,” his gruff voice called. I turned the handle and stepped inside with trepidation.
The office was exactly as I remembered it from last time I had been here, a week or month or so ago. Simple, with the bare essentials. Just a strong desk, a good computer, and some chairs, without even a window to break up the monotonous gray walls. The desk had a few pictures of Lily at various ages, as well as one of Mary Christina, but otherwise the room was conspicuously devoid of personality.
It was a lot like Butler in that way: Cold, pragmatic, but with a few hints of a heart if you paid attention. Exactly as I remembered it.
Except for one difference.
Butler was pacing in front of his desk, reading a pad.
And he didn’t have his cane.
Artemis Butler had always had a very strong presence, despite his many physical disabilities. He was tall, broad, and strong, even though his bones were brittle and weak. He couldn’t stay standing for long, but when he made the effort, he could easily loom over nearly anyone, even giant warlords. But everyone knew about his weaknesses, knew why he leaned so heavily on his cane. In a physical fight, most children could beat him.
Not any more.
In that after-action report MC compiled, she theorized that the powers everyone received were based on conscious or subconscious desires. Some were harder to puzzle out than others—Akane’s speed eventually made sense when you realized she just wanted her sword to be useful, but what would a petite soccer player want with the ability to control earth and stone?
But others made perfect sense at a glance. Derek wanted to protect people, he got shields. Robyn Joan wanted freedom, she got levitation. I wanted to know when people around me were lying, and that’s exactly what I got.
Artemis Butler wanted to have a body as strong as his soul.
And that’s exactly what he got.
I still wasn’t clear on what precisely his ability was. It seemed to be like what the biters had. Some slow morphing ability that required a lot of time and effort to make any changes, but little to no energy to keep it going once it was done. In fact, I had a theory that it might be the same as Doctor Clarke’s ability, just limited to internal changes only, rather than extending to being able to change others.
The point was that after dozens of surgeries, countless different types of medication, and weekly sessions in the toy box for a decade and a half, Butler had finally conquered the diseases he was born with. Diseases that the doctors had told his mother would keep him from ever living past age three.
It would take more than multiple terminal diseases to kill Artemis Butler.
He smiled slightly when he noticed me. “Laura, a pleasure to see you. Isaac finally drove you off?”
“Yes, sir,” I said carefully. “I thought I could do better here.”
He sighed. “Yes, well, I do hope so, though I honestly don’t think you’ll have much more luck than I did.”
“Why don’t you summarize the situation for me?” I asked as I scooted into a chair in front of his desk. I was hoping the move would force him to sit in his own chair out of courtesy; I was a little freaked out, seeing him walking around so blithely, and I felt a strange need to have him sitting down, as if his miraculous recovery could fail at any moment.
If he noticed the gesture, he didn’t say anything, and it didn’t work. He remained standing.
“To start with, Adam did minimal damage in his fight through the city.” He tapped the pad. “About a hundred deaths over two days, mostly from fall damage, gunshot wounds, and complications due to leaving those untreated. The city actually had a much lower death rate than normal, since no one was fighting each other.”
I winced. “That’s a little sad.”
“Well, it’s no secret that mind control keeps people safe,” he said flippantly. “That doesn’t make it a viable option.”
“Fair enough. What about infrastructure damage?”
“Basically nonexistent. Broken windows, a few firebombed cars here and there…” He frowned at the screen. “Hm. Well, the total cost seems large, but we’re a large city. The damage was almost entirely superficial, even though there was a lot of it. We can be fully repaired in under a week.”
“Which means it will probably actually take a year or so,” I said with a sigh.
The massive man smiled. “Perhaps. But the rebuilding is already underway. I think you’re underestimating how much people want to fix what they did during the event.”
I nodded, latching onto the subject. “Right, the people. Everyone has a power now. Has there been any attempt at a census?”
“Right now, we have the ‘sarians just asking people what there power is any time they need to see ID, such as when they hand out relief supplies. If the person answers, a note is made. If they don’t, there’s no fuss.”
“We’re going to need something more organized, and fast.”
“I agree, but I already asked the Servants to help, and they refused, citing privacy concerns. Though they did agree to do an internal census—that should be on my desk by tomorrow—they don’t want to force anyone else.”
I touched my necklace, thinking. “Some of the cultures will do the same, but I doubt all. The orcs will happily hand over their data, as will most of the hellion legions, but they might want money for it. The Draculas will definitely do the internal census, but it’s fifty-fifty if they offer the info.”
Butler waved his free hand. “We don’t need to go through a list of every culture.”
“Right, right,” I agreed with a nod. “For now, we just need to keep in mind that they’ll fall into three categories:” I ticked them off on my fingers. “Those who will do their own internal census and give them to Necessarius for free—or for cheap enough there’s no difference. Those who will do their own internal census and refuse to give them to Necessarius, and those who won’t do a census at all.”
“Most of the cultures are going to fall into the second group,” he noted. “Only minor pseudocultures without any internal structure are going to fail to even try to make a list of everyone in their command with powers.” He stopped, then shrugged, as if admitting a point to himself. “And the Nosferatu and daevas, I suppose.”
“And the Satanists,” I noted. They were big on personal freedom and anarchy. That had backfired a bit, in that it meant they had no one in a position of power to keep the Beast from taking control of the culture, but he was a true believer in the cause. He was just more violent than most people felt comfortable with.
Butler sighed. “I just said we’re not going to list off every culture.”
“Okay, sorry. Let’s try a different tact. The biggest change we have to worry about right now is…” I thought for a moment. “I have no idea what it is.”
The master of Necessarius shook his head and placed the pad on his desk. “We simply do not have enough information yet. We need to to wait a few more days to see what happens.”
I winced. “You mean we have to wait until something goes wrong.”
“Most likely, yes.”
I closed my eyes. “Because it is necessary.”
“Because it is necessary,” he agreed quietly.
Behind the Scenes (scene 228)
I realize this is a bit on the short side, but there’s not too much to say. Most of it needs to be shown more directly.