Author's Note: Two part update so go back and read chapter 13 if you missed it. Unless you read the note at the top of that and go 'Nevermind'.
“Please, have a seat Miss Leander,” Professor Grimes tells me gently. Samantha Grimes is a stately woman, in her sixties if I were to guess. First or second generation empowered, and on the higher side of the age curve even then. I can scarcely imagine the change she’s seen in her lifetime.
“I haven’t heard that name in a long time, Professor,” I tell her. “Is there a reason you don’t use my chosen name?” Her mind is a tranquil white noise. Her mental block is not as complete a silence as whatever was done to Blue, but it is effective enough. Hiding her emotions is far from her main power, but it is interesting to see she can bend it that way.
“Because you were born Pyrrha Leander, and I find it often helps to humanize you lot if you’re reminded of your roots. In the same way, I hope that you will call me Samantha, at least during our sessions,” Samantha tells me. I find it telling that she says you lot. Samantha is not an executioner. She has never been an executioner. I know that many of my classmates would not be here if they could not train under Samantha Grimes, that the program itself may not exist without her, yet to my knowledge she has never had to personally kill anyone.
Do her abilities really allow her to understand what we’re going through? Do they really help qualify her to be our primary therapist? I guess I will find out. We’re not given a choice.
“Why did you change your name to Valkyrie?” she asks. An ice breaker. Many therapists would sit in silence, waiting for me to start speaking. Maybe in future sessions that could happen, but today she doesn’t have time for that shit. So she’s starting with something innocuous to try and keep me from shutting down.
“You know that,” I say. It’s a fact. She knows what my powers are; it’s not a hard connection to make. And besides that, I’m sure Doctor Goodfall handed over all his notes on our sessions.
“I can guess,” Samantha says. “Many who join us use code names or nicknames. Some do what you did and change their name legally. But you didn’t do it when you came here; you did it right after you gained your abilities. You were adamant. Your guardians jumped through quite a few hoops to make it happen while you were still a child. The records of your real name are sealed to the public. Why? I would like to hear it from you, not your records.”
Samantha wears an expression of deep concern; her voice is oozing with kindness and sincerity. But this is a shitty ice breaker. I wonder if her ability to detect lies would work on me.
It would be a mistake to test her. Being thrown out of the program on the second day because I want to hide would be pretty pathetic.
“When I was little,” I begin hesitantly, trying to think of how to explain what I was feeling as a child. “I knew a lot of heroes picked names based on their powers. But mine scared people, the few who knew my real abilities. So I knew, if I wanted a proper hero name, that people would need to forget what it really meant.” I stop a moment to drink some of the water she’d set in front of me. She waits patiently for me to continue. “I wanted people to think it was just my name, that my powers weren’t tied to it after all. Then, when everyone looked up to me, when I’d saved a lot of people’s lives, I could tell them what my power really was and they would understand. And they wouldn’t be afraid.”
“Any thoughts on why they’re afraid?” Samantha asks. I flash to my fist going through the fake Gabriel, uncontrolled hate flowing through me. I think of the pain the small body was wracked with before it gurgled out a final breath.
“Because they should be,” I breathe out. “Because the power people think I have, the one I’m famous for, really comes from a monster living inside me. I stole the shadow of his soul and it screams to be let out. And if I become an executioner I’ll take more. I’ll become stronger, but…” I trail off, unable to vocalize my fear. I look at the floor. I know I need to continue, I need to push through, to talk through this.
I need to, but I don’t know how to, and I’m terrified by the thought. I know this isn’t just a therapy session; this is an evaluation. Most of my classmates have had them. Broader classification category Red Risk Rating populace members are required to have regular mental health evaluations in the Consolidated Empire. I wonder how many of them also know that our lives depend on the outcome, have always depended on the outcome.
“But you might lose control?” ventured Samantha. I nod, ashamed. “Is that what happened today?”
I consider the question seriously. I’ve been trying to decide that for the better part of the day, and think I’ve come to a conclusion.
“No,” I say. “Not this time. I couldn’t…I couldn’t kill the child. It was Gabriel. The boy was identical, to someone I cared about very much. I couldn’t kill him, but I knew the Barber’s shadow could, so I… let it loose. Just for a moment.”
Samantha sighs and I wonder if what I told her wasn’t acceptable. “Professor Kiru-coy went too far. She should never have used a familiar face, at least not on the first lesson. How are you feeling now?”
I bite off a bitter response. I don’t need my abilities to know she’s been asked a rhetorical ‘How the hell do you think?’ plenty often.
“In control,” I say carefully. “I don’t think I ever really lost it, but… I definitely have it right now.” I stare at her again, not sure how to breach the topic. I decide diving in would be best. “I’m also confused. I don’t understand what happened. Mental illusions shouldn’t be able to penetrate my armor. Yours can’t, without my permission. But shapeshifting and duplication don’t make any sense either. And Gabriel… I just don’t understand. The children felt real.”
“They were,” Samantha said seriously. My heart skips a beat. “After a fashion. Professor Kiru-coy can bend reality. For a moment, those children existed. They had no pasts from our perspective, they had no futures in our world. The few spared by those who failed were erased by Kiru-coy the moment your class exited the room. But for a moment, they were as real as either of us. Their bodies, their emotions, their memories and their dreams. That was the point.”
The room is spinning as I come to grips with what she just told me. I take slow, deep breaths, trying to process the information. “Real?” I ask weakly. “Then we really…”
“Killed them,” Samantha answers me resolutely. “Have you ever had a dream that was so realistic that the people in it were real to you?”
The question feels out of left field, but I nod.
“And have you ever woken from one of those dreams, only to feel that in the waking you killed the people of your dream?”
I remember all the times I have dreamed of my parents doing mundane things. All the dreams of Gabriel after he died. I remember how often I woke up and started crying because it felt like I’d killed them all over.
I nod again.
“When I create mental illusions, my characters have emotions, they have dreams, histories, they are in many ways just as real as anyone. But no matter how realistic my illusions, no matter how real they are to me, how little difference there is between them and Professor Kiru-coy’s creations, too many members of previous classes of executioners did not feel like they’d really killed anyone. Same as with the virtual reality simulations. There are several A.I. now powerful enough to make cognizant sub-routines, basically as alive as we are, but killing them failed to fully prepare our students. I’ve never understood it. They should have the same physical sensations, the same scenarios but often even more thorough in presentation. Yet coming out of the simulation, whether mental or virtual, put a psychological barrier between them and the actions they’d taken. Since switching to training with Professor Kiru-coy’s constructs we’ve reduced lethal Executioner hesitation during crisis by 73%.”
“But all that really means is you’re forcing us to better confront the monsters you plan to make us into,” I say. “It might make us more effective, but how are we supposed to live with this?”
“One day at a time,” Samantha tells me, taking my hand. “Many of you will struggle with the things being asked of you. None of you are sociopaths. We’re not trying to make you into such.”
“Just murderers, right?”
“In some countries,” Samantha concedes. “Most abide by the Rules of Engagement now. The Consolidated Empire continues to annex many of the stragglers to avoid an Apocalypse class occurring outside of our express jurisdiction. The Untouchables have all agreed not to interfere with that course of action.”
“Great, so then we’ll be able to legally kill kids everywhere, is that it? I still don’t, I know the stakes, but I just…. I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Do you?” Samantha asks quietly. I look up at her, confused. “Do you really know the stakes? Before I got my powers, there were nearly seven billion people on this planet. These days, round down and we’re at two. We’re getting better at precautionary measures, better at early detection, better at rapid response. The Butler alone grows faster and more powerful. On top of that, people no longer starve, they rarely die of sickness, and even non-power related accidents are rare. Yet despite all our advancements, soon enough we won’t need rounding down to be at two billion. Over two thirds of humanity’s peak population will have perished. The number of people gaining abilities is increasing, the proportion with high offensive abilities is increasing, the proportion of people who cannot immediately control their powers is increasing. And all it would take is one screw up of sufficient power to end our species. If we’re lucky, maybe some folks would survive in Hope’s Bastion.”
When she puts it that way, I feel a little bit like an ass for having problems killing a kid. And I’m very aware of how fucked up that is.
Samantha softens again.
“The training is hard,” she says. “Because you have to do terrible things without an immediate payoff. No one can wake up tomorrow being sure that what they did the day before will save lives. The guilt may not decrease. But most of you will get faster. Your bodies will react quicker, bit by bit. And when that day comes that the world needs you, you won’t hesitate. You won’t sit around hoping someone else will come do it for you. And you’re not alone. We’ll be here to help you, to talk to you. Every day if need be.”
I nod, knowing it’s true. Executioners are barely allowed to drink. They can’t medicate, can’t take other drugs. But they have as much therapy available as a person can stand. Much of it is mandatory, regular evaluations to make sure we shouldn’t be benched, kicked out, or killed. But even if we get a green light on all that, they want to keep us as mentally well as possible. We can talk, as much as any of us want to. The thing is just… I’m not sure she’s the one I want to talk to. And as I think about that, I recall the main reason I want to stay here. The reason I have to stay here.
“I’ll get it together,” I promise her, looking her squarely in the eye. “I’ll be ok.”
And I mean it. Because she’s right that I’m not alone. I have more than just the Barber’s shade to help me.