It's very, very simple. You find out who's going to be the next Power. Abduct them ahead of time. Take them to a city you want levelling, lock them in a room in a building near the centre, and run. They wake up. They break out. Ten to fifty thousand individual people die over the course of what for the Power works out to subjective days. 15.8 real-time seconds later, they wake up sane and soaked with gore in the middle of a city hit so hard by the supersonic human tornado that it hasn't even had time to start collapsing. The body count doubles over the next ten minutes as the skyscrapers fall.

And with luck, once you tell it what it did, the Power commits suicide.

That's the only way to do it. With a live, unborn Line member. Because they're weapons, the superhumans, but they're not weapons of mass destruction. They're in one place, at one time. And you can't send a human into a city and tell him to kill ten thousand people. He'd have to do it personally, hand to hand, in twos and threes, hurling cars, taking heads, pulling down buildings on crowds. He'd have no choice but to look into the eyes of at least one in every ten of his victims, and, if he wasn't hopelessly deranged to begin with, he'd be driven there by the end. If he didn't simply resign. Either way, he'd be out of your control. And that is much more important.

It's more humane, in a way. Walking up to your enemy and pushing your finger through his heart and out the other side is much more costly than doing the same from fifty yards away with a gun, or from the other side of the river with a mortar, or from another hemisphere with an intercontinental ballistic missile. Psychologically, that is.

It makes you think.

Captain Moxon's Department for Special Flight Research, based in Brooksburg, Nevada, has discovered how to create small supermen. Fliers, yes, with strength commensurate, perhaps, with the Sixth Line member, wherever she may be. The only really difficult part of the process is the psychological profiling. Earthing, distilling and injecting the Power itself is so simple and it requires so little effort that it would make a rational man nauseous with terror. The mere notion keeps Ching-Yu Kuang, for one, up at night. How did they do it? When did they do it? Why doesn't it seem to affect the regular yearly Births-- or does it? How many are there now? Have they been deployed? Are they nearby? Are they watching him?

"Wrong." "Broken." "Inside-out." "Like optical illusions." What do they really look like through Arika's superhuman eyes?

Where does the Power come from?

*

Around four o'clock in the morning on the night of year eleven, day three hundred and sixty-four, Ching sleepily rolls over to drape his arm over the other person who's supposed to be in his bed and has to stop himself from rolling off the edge. There has been nobody in Ching's bed but Ching for nearly six months and he keeps doing it. There's a gap where the other half of his life is supposed to be.

The easiest thing to do would be to just give up. He could pull up his computer, type for a week and then turn everything he knows over to the Americans. He wouldn't even need to turn it over, come to that. If he went somewhere public they'd read every keystroke as it happened, from a sniper scope aimed at his laptop screen from an apartment window opposite the coffee shop. Then it'd be their problem. Assuredly, they'd screw it up and more people would die, and they'd do a worse job than Ching and his brain full of wildly reproducing Eka and his stack of illegal infolectric detector hardware, but eventually they'd focus enough rational minds on the problem to get a lid on it. Eventually.

But before that they'd spend five years or more trying and catastrophically failing to control it. Statistically, a new Power is more likely to be Born in a dense city than anywhere else on Earth. The cumulative death toll would be well into the millions.

Heroes don't go home and watch the news while someone else saves the world.

*

Ching isn't quite asleep again when a scream jolts him awake. He convulses briefly and for five dizzying seconds he can't remember where he is. Not his apartment in Brooksburg. Not the floor of the MPR in Lincolnshire. Nondescript black wooden furniture. White walls and bed linen. Cheap abstract paintings on the walls. It's a hotel, he remembers. A hotel in Rome. The screaming is coming from a few rooms away. Female. Agony, not panic or terror. It hurts to listen to. It conjures sickening mental images of what could be causing so much pain. Maybe it's childbirth. Maybe she's having a baby and wasn't ready. Maybe she's--

premature--

Ching throws the covers back and lunges for the stack of equipment on the desk under the window, a collection of homemade circuit boards in cheap metal and plastic tins connected together by flimsy and unreliable ribbon cables. He turns it all on and starts grabbing clothes while the netbook controlling it all boots. "Mitch! Get up now!"

"What the hell is going on," groans Mitch, uncurling himself from the bed at the other side of the room.

"Can you see who's screaming?"

Mitch looks around, looking through walls into nearby rooms. The hotel is difficult to make sense of through four-dimensional eyes, but through three walls and up a floor he sees dazzling superlight from a writhing shape alone in bed.

"Is that--"

"Yes, it's the wrong person, and yes, she's nearly twelve hours early," says Ching. "I can't begin to describe how much trouble we're in. We need to get in there. Can you get us up to her?" He picks up his loosely wired network of hardware in both hands and clasps them to his chest, the only real way to carry them.

"I can climb up through these walls."

"But I can't, so lead me the human route."

Mitch takes Ching by the arm. Looking at the world without doors or walls, the route up to the next floor is plain as day in front of him. They pass out of the room door without opening it, and then right, in the opposite direction from the elevators, towards the the end of the corridor, and the fire exit. Mitch drags Ching through the heavy barred door and out onto the fire escape, a metal spiral staircase running up the outside of the hotel. Thirteen steps up, they slide back into the building and then into the woman's suite on the top floor.

Ching-Yu Kuang has seen one previous Birth on closed-circuit television and one in person, so the neon blue lightning coruscating from her fingers, toes and eyes is no surprise, but he forgot to grab his sunglasses so he's forced to shield his eyes. It's even worse for Mitch, with his enhanced vision. "Get the lights," Ching shouts while he opens up his equipment on the floor beside the bed. An old memory surfaces and he adds, "And hit the fire alarm, if you can find it."

The woman is convulsing like an epileptic, her duvet and sheets all but kicked off. Ching grabs one of her arms and slips a bracelet of sensors onto her wrist. Unable to find a red button on the wall, Mitch snatches a lighter from the dresser and holds it under the smoke detector until the alarm goes off. Finally he hits the lights.

"Nothing," shouts Ching over the cacophony, watching eight columns of readings streak up his computer screen. "I've got nothing. I explained this to you, right?"

"Birth happens in four phases, we had to get to the guy before the end of the first," replies Mitch.

"Which is the point where his-- her nerve endings catch fire. Which was more than sixty seconds ago. This was my nightmare. Point of no return. We've got no time. All this preparation was for nothing. Late to the Apocalypse."

The woman rolls over and manages to catch Ching's attention with one eye. She's an exquisite forty, slim, tanned, with dark frizzy hair, and loose pink night clothes. From her perspective those sixty seconds could have taken anything up to thirty-four hours. By now she's probably close to insanity.

"Tell her everything's going to be okay," says Ching, and Mitch hesitantly repeats the phrase in Italian. It has no effect. She curls up into the foetal position and continues to scream.

"Plan B. We've got to get her to the roof."

*

|[A]|=p(·,|[A]|)+1. Pipe left bracket Alef right bracket pipe equals perception left parenthesis mid-dot comma pipe left bracket Alef right bracket pipe right parenthesis plus one. A warning which arrived in Ching's head for no reason at all, and refused to go away.

The prison cell wall/warden/guard/whatever-you-want-to-call-it refused to let Mitch out through it. Logically, if Mitch's adversary was dead, the threat it represented to the higher dimensions would have been neutralised, and the cell wall would have had no reason to continue to exist, because logically, that is the way Mitch must have structured the prison when he called it into existence during the all-but-uncontrolled crash-landing into three-plus-one-dimensional space. Mitch's appeal to the cell wall's authority was "The Enemy is dead." And its response was "No."

"|[A]|=p(·,|[A]|)+1" means that the intelligent population of this universe (Alef) is one greater than the reader currently believes. It means, There is somebody in here with us. Somebody we don't know about.

All of this coalesces in Ching's head in one second as he and Mitch Calrus climb the fire escape to the roof of the hotel, carrying the writhing, unnamed Italian woman between them, to discover that there's somebody up there already. He's short and stocky, with long, messy, grey hair. He's facing away from them, hissing orders into a bulky satellite radio in a language Ching doesn't understand but Mitch recognises as Russian. The man hears the woman's protests as they arrive and turns around. He has a huge grey beard and he's missing one arm. His eyes are a shade of grey-blue that's close to white, and his gaze contains enough pent-up rage that it hits Ching as hard as bullet, causing Ching to drop the woman's legs and stumble back against the rusty iron gantry in shock, almost falling. In his head, Jim Akker's message, delivered and understood, evaporates. It's no longer accurate, because now he knows.

When the Russian turns his gaze to Mitch, Mitch also drops the woman on the floor - Ching recovers in time to make a grab for her but isn't fast enough to catch her and there's a nasty clonk as her head collides with the concrete roof - and starts running straight for him. There are about fifteen paces separating them. Before Mitch reaches him, the Russian steps up on the edge of the roof and jumps out into the street below. Mitch stops himself at the edge, following his opponent as he tumbles and plummets out of range. Out of nowhere, there's a sonic boom that shatters every window for miles - then the falling man has disappeared from view, snatched out of the air at just over Mach 1 by a crimson blur travelling west-to-east along the street below. Mitch turns to follow the movement but, long before he has begun to react, the Power has pulled up above the level of the street lights and is hidden along with her passenger in darkness above the city, heading for the Italian interior.

"Do you know who that was?!" screams Mitch over the ringing in his ears, turning around to find Ching cradling the convulsing imminent Power in his arms as best he can. "We have to get after him! We have to kill him! Do you know how much destruction he'll bring to this world?"

"Mitch! Focus!"

"Who was that who caught him?"

"Ruling out Arika, Jason and everybody who's dead, it was probably Yulia Yefremova, the Sixth Power. She's the only other person on the planet who can break the sound barrier unassisted." Ching pulls his own satellite radio from his belt and tosses it to Mitch. "Call Arika. Now." Arika McClure was last seen in London before they took off for Italy. Were she a normal human, she would still be in bed right now. Where she is in reality is anybody's guess. She's not expecting to be summoned for hours.

While Mitch makes the calls, Ching is thinking.

Up until today, the Births happened every solar year to an accuracy of better than two seconds. There are natural processes which operate yearly, but they can't work to that accuracy. You'd need a clock. You'd need to be intelligent. He ruled out the Power being Mitch's a long time ago. But what about the adversary? There'd be two pools of untapped XG up there. One good, one bad. What if there had been an accident of some kind? What if the bad guy had been woken up trapped in a random Russian scientist's body just like Mitch woke up trapped inside... well, Mitch? What if he went on and tried to "earth" the rest of his hyperdimensional energy resources? We always knew Seven and Six were Russians...

"How much time do we have?" asks Mitch, in between signalling for Arika to pick up.

"Minutes. Remember, even once she gets here Arika's got to fly the woman offshore as far as possible before she wakes up. We've got..." Ching types some commands into the terminal on his netbook and waits for the readout to start flickering past on the screen.

"She's not answering," announces Mitch.

"Then she must have felt it building before we did. She must be already in the air. That, or she's not on call and she's just abandoning hundreds of thousands of people including us. I like to think the girl is still grounded enough in humanity to care about us..."

"You don't count her as human?"

Ching pauses for a few seconds, running the numbers in his head. "She should be here by now. If she set out when she felt it building, she would have been here before the screaming started." To the still-twitching woman he adds, "It's going to be okay. It's going to be okay."

"It's not going to be okay, Ching! How many people live in this city? In millions?"

Ching watches the clock tick. "The berserker rage lasts fifteen point eight seconds. We can mitigate the amount of destruction caused by carrying her offshore, but to get far enough away, it takes Arika sixteen times as long, because she's four generations older, right?"

"Right...?"

"That's four minutes and thirteen seconds' grace." Ching turns around the netbook revealing a green command line interpreter running a kludged timer program which spits out a new line of update every second. The four most recent lines say 2:04, 2:03, 2:02 and 2:01. "If Arika's not here by now, then she's not coming. Even if she does make it, there's no way she'll be able to get Twelve far enough out of range, and even if she does that there's no way she can escape being killed herself. You know they can sense each other. She'd be the brightest target in the sky, however far she ran."

"We've got one other option," says Mitch.

Twelve is crying. Neither of them even know the woman's name. "We can't do that," says Ching.

"All I have to do is brush the surface of her brain. It'll be absolutely instantaneous."

"And it might not even work! It might make things worse! For all we know it could release enough energy to blow up this entire planet and the Sun besides!"

"Ching, you know the mathematics! Do the mathematics! Is that likely? Is that what's really going to happen if we choke this outlet off right now?"

And Ching punches the concrete under him in frustration. "No. It would work. Probably. Probably. But we're supposed to be scientists. And--"

Mitch pulls the moaning woman out of Ching's hands and, with his help, drags her out to the middle of the rooftop where she's easiest to detect and locate from the air. He kneels next to her head and phases one hand into her head. "Arika could still get here. That'd be better than nothing. I'll wait until we've got two seconds left."

"Shouldn't we ask her?" asks Ching. They look at Twelve's livid blue eyes, flickering around in their sockets as if trying to find a way out.

"There's nothing left of this woman. She's gone," says Mitch, "and she's not coming back. Until it's too late."

"We're supposed to be heroes," whispers Ching.

The Italian woman's halo is too bright to look at now. Mitch shields one eye with his left hand but stays knelt down with his right inside her head. Ching can hardly bring himself to watch or listen. He stands up and backs off. He wishes she'd stop screaming. More than anything else he wishes there was a better way to take the pain away. "Ninety seconds," he shouts over her. "I know you're watching. Help us!"

"Wh--" begins Mitch, but he is interrupted by a thunderous POOM which violently hurls them both backwards in opposite directions. When they come to a moment later, the woman is gone, carried off towards the Mediterranean at several times the speed of sound. There are no nearby windows left to shatter.

The echo fades. After a while the ringing of the fire alarm on the lower floors cuts out too, leaving just the approaching sirens of the emergency services converging on the hotel.

Tiny fragments of lightning flicker and weave in and out of one another, in the sky out towards the sea. And then they're gone.

*

"It's the same problem," says Ching to Mitch, both huddled and shivering over coffee in a fluorescent-lit street cafe as dawn rises, hours later. "Your adversary is alive. He's always been alive. That one-armed man is his host. He's connected to this cloud of energy, but it can't all fit into this universe at once. So he found some way to earth it in sentient containers. The Powers are the fury of your adversary incarnate. Kill him, earth or isolate all of his power safely, and the crisis is over. I said I was going to stop trying to help you. But you carried on helping me, you financed this trip, for which I'm grateful. And it turns out, we've been working the same problem from opposite angles this entire time.

"Arika," he adds, turning to her, "the men you fought in Brooksburg are the same. Only I think their power is Mitch's. Diametrically opposed. That's why they look wrong to you. I don't know how it's done, but if it's been done, it can't be too hard to do. But the American Powers are weaker. Because Mitch is weaker. His original self was always the underdog. And as for why the Enemy earths a new Power every year, or why the strikes don't happen in Russia anymore, or why he doesn't earth the power in himself... I don't know. Maybe he doesn't have as much control over the process as he used to. Just enough to use it to try to kill us."

There is a long pause. Arika, Mitch and Ching all drink their coffee and avoid looking at each other.

"I'm sorry," croaks Arika, eventually.

"Jason Chilton died because of you," says Ching, even though he knows Arika could kill him in a heartbeat if she got angry. "In fact, you're lucky it was Jason who died. Because it should have been everybody else in this city. And all of that would have been your fault. You're lucky to get out of this with such a small stain on your character. Two hundred and twenty-three!"

"I was frightened," says Arika. "He-- she would have killed me. What did you want, for me to walk up and try to fight her? It'd be suicide! I'd be dead."

"If you'd moved quickly enough when you were needed there would have been no risk whatsoever. You'd have been out of range when Twelve woke up, and, by now, home safe. If you hadn't been scared. If you'd done your job."

"My job?"

"How many children do you have?"

"...Not having dependents makes me expendable? I am not a superhero."

Ching knocks back the rest of his coffee and dumps his stack of wired boxes on the table. He casts a glance over the rest of the street and the darkened buildings opposite, wondering if the Americans left the city when they discovered what was happening, or stayed behind, quietly non-interventionist. "When you've finished your drinks and you get up to leave, leave the hardware on the table. Someone'll pick it up. It's their problem now. Mitch, thanks for your help. But you can find your guy on your own. This is over. And I'm done."

 

< Jim Akker | Fine Structure | The Chaotician >

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