German – Austrian border – Tuesday, the 19th of June 2012. 09:04 AM.
A large contingent of Roman war chariots skirted the base of the hill at breakneck speed, crushing the hopelessly outmaneuvered Alemanni soldiers beneath their large spiked wheels. Men and horses alike cried out in pain as they succumbed to grisly ends. Near the shore of the muddy river, Roman and Alemanni infantry fought over a patch of blood-soaked earth, so close together that they could only be told apart by the shape of their helmets. Javelins soared through the air and felled the panicked stragglers who broke through the lines to escape the chaos. The gloomy, overcast sky made it hard to make out the details of the battle; the rank morning air was thick with the smoke of the Alemanni fort that burned atop the hill.
Penance stood silently among the warring soldiers, unwavering even as a Roman short sword sliced through the air in front of him. He was only a visitor here. He knew that his body was safe in the year 2012, basking in the sun of a cloudless sky while his mind’s eye peeked through the temporary time window that the Historian’s power had opened for him.
But even though he knew that his presence on the battlefield was a trick of the mind, he didn’t feel calm, and the stench of blood and smoke sickened him. He didn’t want to see this and never had. The two years that had passed since he acquired the Historian’s power felt like centuries to him, and hardly a day passed without new flashbacks of mankind’s sins and failures. The screams of the sick and dying accompanied him even in his dreams.
He couldn’t look away, though. It was his duty to watch and learn, to gain a deeper understanding of mankind than any other mortal ever had. This was his duty and his burden as the ultimate Judge.
If he made the effort to focus on a particular year or event, he could conjure up different kinds of visions – sometimes he saw seasons of peace and celebration, but visions of plagues and disasters always overpowered those other events. Penance understood the reason why. Wars had a bigger impact on history than anything else, and they changed more lives and stirred more emotions than festivals or religious ceremonies did. The Historian’s power focused on the biggest game changers.
I understand why you withdrew into the Canadian woods, Penance often told his friend who now occupied a part of his mind. The woods were peaceful, filled with small stories of small tribes. But your withdrawal was still irresponsible. It’s our duty to watch. To listen. To know and understand, so we can guide others to do better in the future.
Naturally, there was no response. Roy – the Historian – stopped responding to him a long time ago. Penance couldn’t remember when exactly his friend had gone mad. Everyone who joined Penance on his journey lost their minds eventually, though some lasted longer than others, and a select few occasionally commented on his thoughts and actions. What they had to say didn’t always make sense, but it was nice to feel their presence and know that he wasn’t carrying the burden of his responsibility alone.
His need for companionship had forced him to become better at preserving the individual personalities of those he joined with him. Those fully immersed in his world of thought lost their sanity within days, sometimes hours, and then proceeded to scream or ramble gibberish until he locked them away where he could no longer hear them.
Right that moment, none of the souls who occupied his mind were willing to experience this particular vision alongside him. He had to watch it alone.
Skip ahead in time, he commanded his power. What happened after the end of the battle?
The scene in his mind’s eye blurred and shifted. Day turned to night before leading to a new blood-red dawn. The battlefield had gone silent, and the only movement was a pack of wild dogs who tore the corpses apart with their bloodied muzzles.
Farther ahead, Penance commanded. What he hoped to see was a glimpse of humanity, something to restore his faith in people. He had watched countless wars before this one. The era and locations changed, but the battle scenes often concluded with images of heartfelt regret and anguish, heroics and selfless deeds that were never noted in the history books.
As expected, a small group of Alemanni women searched the battlefield for their husbands and sons, crying and tearing at their hair and clothing. A pair of pagan priests performed rites for the dead. However, the mourners were soon hunted down by a dozen Roman cavalry riders who stabbed the priests with spears and carried two of the youngest women off on horseback.
Penance dismissed the vision, closing his mind’s eye in disgust. This location – a lush, green countryside near the German-Austrian border – was no different from the places whose he had explored before; in some ways, it was worse. No matter where he went, the Historian’s power showed him darkest chapters in the history of men. He had to admit to himself that he was getting tired of seeking reasons why humanity should continue to exist.
Back when he first stepped out of the Canadian woods, he had wanted to figure out how the world worked and see where it had gone wrong. He meant to learn what – or who – gave rulers the power to send hundreds of thousands to their deaths, and why no one opposed them until it was too late. Having never had any formal education, Penance wanted to understand how a madman like Hitler managed to brainwash millions of people and why the global powers made no serious attempts to solve world hunger.
When Penance escaped the basement where he’d been locked up for more than a decade and punished for everyone else’s sins, he was afraid of the world, but he was also full of hope and questions. Now that he had found the answers, he didn’t like them.
People were greedy, selfish and rotten to the core. Most of them didn’t deserve to be saved.
But you can’t give up on them, a young female voice chimed at the back of his mind. She had joined with him fairly recently and was still sane, for the most part. It’s your role to unite them and make them understand where they went wrong. To show them a better way.
Penance hugged his knees and squinted at the sky. What if there is no better way? He responded through his thoughts, which were shared and understood by all of his companions regardless of their native language. I shared my knowledge with the people of San Francisco. I brought down the False King who terrorized them, and the heroes thanked me by attacking me. The wounds he suffered during the battle were of no consequence. His body recovered within hours; what bothered him was his failure to make contact with Eden.
They attacked you because you brought pain to those people, the girl replied. They were screaming. Your mind is overwhelming agony to them.
Looking at the scar tissue that covered nearly every inch of his body, Penance set his jaw in a stubborn line. They will never understand how much the world suffers if they don’t experience it for themselves. I was holding back.
But you went too far, the girl scolded him. You don’t know how much pain they can endure before they break. You’ve grown so accustomed to it that it doesn’t bother you anymore.
Sensing that she was most likely right, he said nothing. San Francisco had been an experiment of sorts; his way of saying hello to the world. The experiment had failed. Instead of acknowledging him as the chosen force of justice that he was, the world declared him a villain, and the self-proclaimed ‘heroes’ Radiant had united attempted to kill him. Yes, Penance’s aura was painful – Penance had learned from an early age that true enlightenment was always accompanied by agony – but he had only intended for the city-dwelling sinners to understand their wrongdoings. Breaking their minds was an unfortunate accident.
Even worse, despite years of travel and research, he wasn’t one step closer to joining with Eden. Every time he tracked her down with the Counselor’s detective abilities, she evaded him. Once he realized that one of her companions – the Irish boy – was preventing him from finding her by severing all the connections leading to her, he had to use other methods. His search for clues led him to her foster parents, but the two of them were as clueless regarding their daughter’s whereabouts as everyone else was.
Once Penance’s thoughts went to the Baumann couple, the noisy girl in his head continued her criticism of him. You shouldn’t have joined with her parents. She’ll always hate you for that.
It was the only way, he shot back. They didn’t answer my questions.
Stop scaring people, and maybe they’ll start talking to you. There was a pause. Do you even know how to talk to people who aren’t trapped inside your head?
I’ve done it before. I talked to the Guide. The false angel.
The girl’s tone now carried a trace of sarcasm. Back in San Francisco? Yeah, right. Look how that turned out.
Having run out of arguments to throw at her, he kept silent as he mulled over the implications of what she’d said. Eventually, he reached a conclusion that surprised him. Perhaps I should choose one person to approach. Someone with influence and wisdom. Someone who understands who I am and what I need to do.
If you want to make friends, the girl replied, then you need to stop absorbing everyone you meet. And maybe you could try to be a bit more open-minded and a little less hostile. You don’t have to force your mind on them to make them understand; try diplomacy for once.
Friends. Penance prodded the word, unsure how he felt about it. Having been exposed to a constant stream of televised shows and newscasts in the basement where he grew up, he was familiar with the concepts of friendship and diplomacy, but he lacked the personal experience to grasp them on an emotional level. There was a time when he considered Roy a friend, and that had been part of the reason why Penance joined with him – to take Roy along on his journey even though the man had said he wouldn’t come. But the joining destroyed their friendship. After they became one, Roy’s personality eroded away and nothing was ever the same again.
I’ll find someone who helps me reach out to the world, Penance promised himself. Someone who understands who I am and what I need to do. Someone who will spread my message and make the sinners listen.
Having reached the conclusion that he needed allies, Penance returned to doing what he did best – studying the world and other Chosen. His research of powerful organizations and influential figures soon led him to a mysterious group that seemed to be directly or indirectly involved in almost every major event of the past two weeks: the Conglomerate. Its leader, Gentleman, was without doubt a very influential figure who had a finger in every pie.
Ever since he added Technomage to his pool of followers, Penance was extremely proficient with information technology, and internet access points were easy to come by. He couldn’t design artificial intelligences or build robotic minions, but he could navigate the internet and its treasure trove of hidden information with ease. There were only one or two people in the world who could have denied him access to the systems he was interested in. It took him three hours to find a backdoor into one of the Conglomerate’s servers and scour the villain group’s network for information about Gentleman.
What Penance picked up from there discouraged him at first. The hidden files painted a rather negative picture of the Conglomerate leader. The man had clearly committed far more sins than good deeds, showed no sign of remorse, and was afflicted with a severe case of megalomania to boot.
Penance was about to sever the connection and turn away from Gentleman in disgust when he discovered a series of audio files that had been copied from the personal logs of someone named “Lark”. The files had been deleted, but their name – “the truth about The Pulse” – intrigued Penance enough that he made the effort to restore them.
The audio logs didn’t disappoint. They recounted Gentleman’s memories regarding The Pulse, and when Penance heard the man speak about the all-powerful entities who had whispered from the darkness and blessed him with power, he knew that Gentleman was no ordinary villain. The man remembered. His memories were twisted and sketchy, but, unlike most everyone else, he had retained fragments of knowledge from the day the world should have ended, but didn’t.
So, there is someone else who remembers. Penance’s initial condemnation of the man was quickly overpowered by curiosity. Was there a reason why Gentleman had retained some of his memories? Could it be the man was meant to play a special role in the days to come, just like Penance? Perhaps the two of them were destined to meet. And if Penance succeeded in showing the villain the error of his ways and molded him into a better person, then the task of remaking the rest of the world wouldn’t be so daunting. Someone with Gentleman’s influence and resources would no doubt prove be a valuable ally.
Besides, the man had been in contact with Eden. Even if he refused to cooperate, there was a good chance that the Conglomerate headquarters contained previously inaccessible information about her whereabouts.
With that decision made, Penance compiled an anonymous message and sent it directly to the villain’s private mail server: We were both called by the voices from the darkness. You remember, don’t you? Let’s talk. Even though he had never used e-mail before, he easily tapped into the resources of a Taiwanese no-name company to set up a small mailing server and a mailbox for himself. They were linked to a timer and would cease to exist within twenty-four hours. Penance didn’t expect to need a mailing address once contact with Gentleman had been established.
Gentleman responded in less than an hour. As expected, the message was curt. Challenging me to a game, are you? Do you realize who I am?
You are the Faceless Schemer, Penance replied. The man who laughed in God’s face at the end of the world. I was watching you then. I am watching you now.
Gentleman’s next reply did not come until several hours later. As he waited, Penance detected a flurry of activity from the Conglomerate servers. A huge number of inquiries were being made in a short amount of time. Having nothing else to do, he idly tracked a few of them to confirm his recent online activity was the target of the Conglomerate’s interest. He made no attempt to conceal his tracks or block the Conglomerate Technician’s snoop bots.
His patience paid off. Gentleman’s next message contained a formal invitation along with detailed directions to an abandoned building in the Czech Republic, less than two hundred miles from Penance’s current location. When he arrived there, he could barely hide his excitement. Something told him that this meeting was the most significant thing he had done since he escaped the cultist basement and immersed himself in the outside world. His research was finally done. The time had come to take responsibility and act, to unite and lead all of the Chosen who couldn’t remember what they were meant to do.
Be careful, the girl whispered from the back of his mind. Gentleman can’t be trusted. Make sure you don’t fall into a trap.
I can’t be trapped anymore, Penance assured her. I have an immortal mind and body. I’m stronger than anyone else. It was this realization that had allowed him to finally overcome his fear of civilized areas.
The girl said nothing, but he sensed her discomfort as he broke through the floor of the building he had been directed to, emerging inside. A lone surveillance camera awaited him.
“I’m here,” the chorus of Penance’s voices announced.
“Welcome.” Gentleman’s voice blared cheerfully from the direction of the camera. “What an unexpected honor to find you on the doorstep to my home. I hope you understand that I need to take some precautions before I allow you enter. You do have a rather fearsome reputation, I must say.”
“I expected as much. What precautions?”
“Oh, nothing out of the ordinary. My old friend Data was a little paranoid, you see. He installed power suppressing technology throughout our base. I want to trust you, but my friends and other guests are fearful of your, ah, mind-altering abilities.”
Penance gazed up at the camera in consideration. He had taken on a healthy young man’s appearance for the occasion, and he wore a dark gray suit and shiny black shoes to complement his aura of authority. It wasn’t in his interest to appear threatening, and he certainly didn’t plan on unleashing his array of powers on the Conglomerate base. Still, given the frantic news headlines that appeared after San Francisco, he couldn’t fault his would-be host for being cautious.
“I only want to talk. No powers,” he told the camera, remembering the girl’s advice.
“Very well. My transportation expert will let you in.”
Seconds later Penance’s surroundings were reduced to a blur, and he found himself inside a well-lit chamber with silvery metal walls and floor. Apart from a pair of padded leather armchairs that faced each other at the center of the room, there was no furniture. A row of ceiling mounted halogen lamps provided a warm, golden-yellow illumination, the lights reflected manifold by the shimmering metal surfaces.
Gentleman sat on one of the chairs, his fingertips joined together in anticipation. He was an unremarkable young man with brown hair and a slender build who didn’t live up to the pictures Penance had seen of him. But when the villain spotted his visitor, his lips pulled into a smile that lit up his bland face with an air of languid haughtiness. It was the kind of smile that could make a pawn into a king and change a room’s atmosphere in a heartbeat.
The man’s arrogance stoked Penance’s anger. But since he was here to talk rather than enforce his role as the ultimate Judge, he suppressed the urge to put Gentleman in his place and offered a nod of acknowledgement instead.
He sensed the faint hum of the power suppressing technology that was active in the room. The smooth, unadorned metal walls didn’t give the location of the tech away, but there was a vibration in the air that made him nauseous. He tried to change the shape of his left pinkie and discovered that he couldn’t. The voices of his companions were reduced to static in his head. Given the fact that none of the people-place connections between Penance had examined with the Counselor’s powers led to the Conglomerate’s fortress, he had to assume that the base was a blind spot for Empaths and Visionaries.
“So we finally meet,” Gentleman declared in a solemn manner. “Would you believe me if I told you that I’ve spent years looking for you?”
Penance sat stiffly on the vacant leather armchair facing the villain. “Why?” All of his voices asked the question, but only a few of them did so in English. The power suppression field was affecting them as well.
Gentleman’s head tilted at the many-voiced chorus. He licked his lips before speaking. “The presence in the darkness… the one that chose me. Was it you?”
Taken aback by the question, Penance didn’t know what to say. As he studied the other man’s eager, hungry expression, he realized that the villain was mistaking him for God. He saw the opportunity that was right in front of him: to deceive Gentleman and use his twisted beliefs to secure him as a loyal ally. The man was clearly looking for a higher power that would guide him and endorse his schemes. However, lying for personal gain was sinful, and Penance couldn’t justify betraying his role as the ultimate moral compass.
So, he told Gentleman the truth. They spoke for about an hour, and the villain proved to be an avid listener whose many questions were well thought out and respectful of Penance’s superiority. He showed a particular interest in The Pulse, the end of the world, and the relations between chosen roles, given role names, and power surges. He also asked about the Sleepwalker and why that particular individual hadn’t surged yet.
“Who would need to die to make it happen, I wonder?” Gentleman put a finger to his lips.
When Penance told him the answer, those lips twisted into a wry, humorless grin. “I see. I had a hunch. Well, it does explain a few things.”
Eventually, the conversation turned to Penance’s own role. He explained that he was the Judge, chosen to decide the fate of mankind because he was among those who had suffered the most and that he needed help in order to reach out to the billions of people out there. He had no intention of punishing the ignorant. They had to understand their wrongdoings and be given a chance to repent.
But Gentleman lost interest in the conversation at that point. “This is where our interests differ,” he declared as he rose from his seat. “You are no more divine than I am, my delusional friend. The unfortunate truth is that two directors is one too many.”
Before Penance could respond, he heard a crackling sound which was followed by a bright flash and then nothingness. When he regained his senses, he found himself locked into the glass belly of a monstrous machine, hooked up to a multitude of wires and hoses that connected his head and body to the mass of metal rods and tubes surrounding him. The voices in his head were still separated from him by a nauseating buzz. When he realized that his veins were being filled with some kind of liquid and that he couldn’t move, his heart filled with an emotion he hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
The man in a lab coat who stood on the other side of the glass sphere was studying him with a cold, analytical gaze. “The boss claims anyone can be broken. I’m not sure I agree, but I’m eager to find out.”
Penance suppressed a bitter laugh. Pain is nothing to me, he might have said if he could speak. But they had no interest in flaying his body. Instead, they dug in and scourged his mind. He wasn’t immune to the mental anguish of reliving the worst of these memories over and over again. The carefree days of being a small boy, ignorant to the horrors of the world. The smiling sister who rubbed the marks on his hands and told him he was special. The belated realization that his mother had sold him off to strangers, long after he had already gotten into that strange woman’s car. The first days in the basement, when he was still young enough to scream for his mother until his throat was raw, refusing to believe that she would never come. The bitter tears he shed when the pain of abandonment and betrayal began to poison his mind. What he endured before he learned to welcome the pain, before he understood that he had to bleed to wash the world of its sins. Those memories intermingled with the visions he had seen through Roy’s power: the suffering of millions throughout the ages.
The mental torture destroyed his last shreds of hope for the salvation of mankind.
He couldn’t tell how long the barrage of visions lasted, but it seemed like an eternity to him. When he was finally allowed to wake up from the endless nightmare, he was lying on a cold floor while a gentleman’s voice spoke to him. He didn’t understand the words at first. Had there been any strength left in his body, he might have choked the stranger with his bare hands. But he still couldn’t move, so he was forced to lie still and listen until he understood.
There is a mutiny in the works.
I believe in you.
Please absolve me of my sins.
I will do anything in my power to support you.
Together, we will remake the world.