Reversible Error

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Other recognizable characters are likewise not ours, but presented with respect and affection.

Part V

“Oh, my,” Chu said. “This will not only require careful consideration, but quite a bit of new organisation as well, and may substantially readjust our overall mission.”

“Mission?” Willow repeated, almost vaguely, her eyes focused as if on something far distant. “Well, yeah, I guess I can see … Oh. Oh, boy.”

Xander sighed. “Okay, you guys have picked up on something. Probably those of us on the slow bus could work it out eventually, but how ’bout you save time and just give us a rundown?”

“It’s actually fairly obvious, if you’ve been dealing with these matters for as long as we have.” Chu spoke almost apologetically. “Until now, we’ve been faced with three broad areas of responsibility: those Slayers currently in our organisation, those we have contacted but who have declined to join us, and those we’ve not yet located. Now, however —”

“Now, it’s opened out,” Willow filled in. “We’re going to have to handle … Goddess! at least seven areas of focus now.” She began counting them off. “Slayers working with us now. Slayers we monitor and support, but let live their lives on their own. New arrivals, either First Wave or after that, who we just haven’t found yet. And in each of those groups, there will be some — and it won’t be many, and we won’t want to do it, but it’s there for us now so we’ll have to take responsibility — some who just shouldn’t be Slayers, so we’ll be choosing whether or not to … dis-empower them … so, that gives us three more categories. And finally, what Giles said: former Potentials who didn’t get the call, and we have to decide if we want to offer them another chance.”

“And at least one other sub-group,” Chu interjected gently. “We may also find that there are some who … who would ask to relinquish their enhanced status, in favor of a less demanding, less complicated, less dangerous life.”

From the expressions of those around him, it was clear that no one else had considered that, and Giles couldn’t help wondering how many other potential pitfalls they might even now be overlooking.

*                *               *

– June 2011 –

Though she had left the land of her fathers, she had not walked away from her heritage. Though the two best and strongest men she had ever known had been kuffar, unbelievers (and far too many of her own kinsmen were casually dismissive of the feelings and selves of their women), she had not forsaken her beliefs. And so when, within the space of a month, Michael Franks — father of her husband, juddi of her daughter — had died, and the man from England had sought her out and presented her with unsettling news and an even more disturbing offer, her first response had been to withdraw and pray.

Those who had known Leyla Shakarji would have sneered at the thought of her offering prayer: brazen harlot who had rutted with one of the ajamiy invaders, borne a mongrel child of that blasphemous union, dishonored her family and deserted her home to live among the Crusaders. (Perhaps worse, taken up weapons like a man and killed men in battle … but then, those she killed had likewise been kuffar, so very probably that would have been shrugged away as of no consequence.) She knew her own heart, however, knew that she had shared her body with Liam O’Neill in a total giving of self: not simple lust, but from a love more precious to her than life — indeed, death would have been preferable to denying that love — and could not believe, despite her family’s shame, that God would not cherish her child just as fiercely as she did. And so she prayed, prostrating herself in an inner room and crying out for aid, for understanding, for the discernment to know the proper course and the strength to choose it.

Because she knew: her greatest sin had been committed before her eyes had ever beheld Liam O’Neill, when God’s messenger — in the form of a woman, stern and terrible as an afreet — had offered her the chance to be champion as well as servant, warrior as well as woman, and the panic-stricken young Leyla had fled from that vision. And now, the same choice was being offered to an older Leyla, one more hardened and knowing … and one who had so much more to lose.

Perhaps it was as well that she had turned away from that first challenge. Given what she knew then, she would surely have thought her new power meant she was supposed to fight the American invaders, and she was convinced now that it would have been a dreadful mistake. For one thing, if God had wished Saddam’s reign to continue, Saddam would still be ruling from Baghdad; for another, the explanations of the English messenger made it seem that this power was to be set against the enemies of men, rather than to aid one group of men in war against another, and something inside Leyla told her that this was as it should be. At best, her misunderstanding would have led her into a horrible error; at worst, it would have struck a mortal wound to her very soul.

She wanted to discuss this with her mother; Shada Shakarji was harsh, rigidly opinionated, authoritarian and unsympathetic … but also ruthlessly pragmatic, deeply versed in the ways of the world and the ways of power. She wanted to talk with Leroy Jethro Gibbs, for Michael Franks had respected no man more. She wanted, needed to call on the judgment of anyone besides herself —

— but she had once turned away from God’s call, and now the call was come again, and Leyla Shakarji had spent too much of her life already in abdicating to others the responsibility for her choices.

She was no longer a child; now, she had a child. Once petrified at the very thought of any kind of physical conflict, she had shouldered a rifle and killed the men who threatened that child. She was a mother, and a mother’s duty to the babe of her womb superseded any other duty …

… except the duty demanded by God.

In the depths of her heart, Leyla wailed, but she would not ignore the truth she could see. If she joined this war, she faced a prospect worse than her own death: that of leaving her daughter motherless as well as fatherless. She would cut off her own hands rather than harm that beautiful little girl … but harm could arrive from neglect as well as from abuse, and if she knew of monsters skulking in the shadows of the world, and abjured the ability to fight those monsters, what was that but neglect? She could try to protect her daughter by hiding from this war, or she could try to protect her daughter by taking up a sword and fighting in it.

Perhaps she might have convinced herself that the second path, though more overtly courageous, was no more inherently virtuous than the first. Only, God had offered the sword to her twice now. That was … a rather broad hint, at the very least.

The very word Islam means ‘submission’. Faced with the purity and beneficence and rightness of God, the only honorable response — the only rational response — is to submit. Leyla Shakarji had been reviled for turning away from God, and she had reassured herself that, while she might follow an understanding of faith different from that dictated by the patriarchs, she was still a faithful and obedient servant. Now, it was time to behave as such.

She rose, and washed her face with a cool cloth, and through the broad window of the Mexican beach house she looked out at the incoming waves rippling over the sand at the water’s edge. Thinking of what she would say to her mother, and what arrangements she must insist upon with these ‘Watchers’ for the care and support of her daughter, and of the dark and violent world she was about to enter.

[Leyla Shakarji (NCIS) is the property of Donald P. Bellisario, Belisarius Productions, and Paramount Television.]

*                *               *

– April 2006 –

The interview did not go at all as Hester Ffolkes had anticipated.

It started out smoothly enough. They had a location on their candidate, and were quickly able to add a face and name. This allowed a bit of preliminary investigation, to establish basic facts and give them some initial operating parameters. Charlotte Young was just past thirty — not one of the oldest of the new group being approached, but far from being among the youngest — with no living family, and worked as a researcher for a metropolitan news organization. There were no indications of a serious man in her life, or even any relatively steady casual ones, but even so the odds of her choosing to join their organisation were fairly small: with her life already essentially in order, she would probably not be eager to change it so radically.

Hester and the Slayer accompanying her, a seventeen-year-old Irish girl named Mairead, elected to make contact with Ms Young as she was leaving work in the early evening. She normally passed through the park on her way to the bus stop, and that was an open, unthreatening venue for initial contact. From there, they might or might not be able to persuade her to give the matter serious consideration, but it would at least be an introduction.

Except that, on the moment of seeing the two of them, the woman stopped, surveyed them with a searching glance, and then changed course, moving to sit at one of the picnic tables. “Have a seat,” she said to Hester. “You’re here to make me an offer. I appreciate it, but I’m not interested. All the same, we have a lot to talk about.”

Hester sighed. “Ma’am, I’m not —”

“Not selling insurance, I know. You’re here representing the …” Ms Young stopped, furrowed her brow slightly. “The … Reformed? yes, Reformed Council of Watchers. Never heard of them before, but I’d love to learn more. I’ve been hoping for someone like you for a long time.”

Hester felt her skin prickle: Ms Young was unquestionably reading her mind. But … Slayers were never enchanters, the two were utterly incompatible, which surely meant it was equally impossible for Potentials, even ex-Potentials. She sat down across the table from the other woman, very conscious of (and glad for) Mairead standing a few feet away. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” she said carefully.

Young’s smile transformed her face; already attractive, she was abruptly beautiful. “Yes, this puts the shoe on the other foot, doesn’t it? Usually you’re the one bringing strange news to someone, and then having to make your case. Don’t worry, I’m not a threat — at least, I really don’t want to be — and I’ll explain myself so we can get to specifics.

“First, my name isn’t actually Charlotte Young. I’ve stayed under the radar long enough, filtered through enough other identities, that I finally let myself have a name a little like my own. I was born Charlene McGee, but my parents called me Charlie, and that’s what I answer to now.

“Second, yes, I’m picking up your thoughts, but it’s not magic. Back at the very end of the Sixties, a really nasty government agency — it’s been wiped away since, and practically all of that was me — tried an experimental hallucinogenic drug on a bunch of college students. It gave several of them low-grade psychic abilities, and it scrambled their genes. They’re all dead now, but before that, two of them got married and had me. And mind-reading? that’s the smallest and most harmless thing I can do.

“Third, as I said, I’m not interested in being a Slayer. I’ll want to learn more before I make an absolute answer, but I’ve skimmed enough already to be fairly sure it’s a really bad idea. I will be going back to England with you, though, because it looks like you have some people I need to meet.”

Hester studied Ms Young (Charlie?) as she labored to bring her chaotic thoughts into order. Pointless to try and conceal anything from a telepath, of whatever provenance, but still, self-control was better than panic. “Why?” she asked at last.

Charlie smiled again, but this time it was sad. “Your Watchers group works to detect and prevent things that might threaten the world, am I understanding this right? Well, for a while some very knowledgeable people thought I might be that kind of threat … and they weren’t entirely wrong.”

“If you mean no harm,” Hester said slowly, while her mind continued to race, “then I fail to see how you could pose a … a dire, imminent danger.” And if you did mean such harm, you’d hardly be so forthcoming, would you —?

Charlie nodded at the words, while her eyes betrayed a deeper awareness. “Your people deal with demons. So tell me, what’s the deadliest thing you, personally, have ever encountered?”

That would be Faith, actually, but the question seemed to point toward a slightly different context. “Suvolte,” Hester answered. “I only saw it for a second or two … Non-breeder, fortunately, but it was lairing at the Avonmouth docks. We were alerted by three, ah, indicative deaths over a ten-day period. We’ve no way of knowing how many others there might have been before we located it and put it down.”

“I see.” Charlie’s gaze caught Hester’s, caught and held. “On a single day in October of 1982, I killed nearly fifty men — they cut the casualties to twenty in the ‘official’ reports, but I remember — boiled a small lake dry, and blew a sizeable building halfway into the next county. I was eight years old at the time.” Her eyes fell, and her expression went distant. “Before that, the men who were studying me said they expected I’d get stronger as I got older. One man — I never met him, but three years ago I got a quick look at a redacted report on him — speculated that I might, when I hit adolescence, be able to crack the whole planet like a china plate.” She looked up again. “He was right. They were all right. So the deadliest creature you’ve ever seen? she’s sitting in front of you.”

Next to Hester, Mairead shifted into what was not quite a combat stance, and Charlie lifted one hand, palm out. “Don’t. Seriously, don’t. You’re not actually planning to attack, I’m definitely not, but we could escalate off each other. I can stop you telekinetically if you try anything extreme … but if you really are as fast as you seem to believe, you could startle me into an instinctive reaction. Trust me, neither one of us would like that at all.”

The woman’s words were alarming, but her manner was not. Hester made a tiny stand down gesture toward Mairead; then, drawing a steady breath, she asked, “What is it you want to do, then?”

“It’s what I don’t want that’s important.” Charlie shook her head. “I don’t want to crack the planet open. I don’t want to turn the sun nova. I could do those things, but I don’t want to. Several times a year, I think seriously about suicide. Not out of despair, I’ve managed to make a pretty good life for myself, but just to make sure there’s no chance I ever actually destroy the world. Of course, there’s the problem of what my dying mind might do in that last instant, but I think if I set it up so I was breathing pure nitrogen, triggered by some kind of random relay so I didn’t know when it would happen … just fade away and wink out without ever realizing it …”

She stopped, laughed. “But now you’ve given me an alternative. These magic-users of yours, I really want to meet them. People who might be able to set in … dampers, controls, warning systems, maybe even some kind of emergency shutoff. If they can do that, I’d like to get it done as quickly as possible. Don’t you think that’s a good idea?”

“I do,” Hester replied. “I very much do. In fact, I’m prepared to move without further delay.”

“Happy to hear that,” Charlie said, standing up. “I have a passport — well, three passports, in different names — it’ll take me about half an hour to get them from my apartment, so if you can have your people arrange a flight for us right away —”

Hester held up one hand, and with the other she opened her briefcase and extracted the sleek satellite phone. “Actually, if you’re agreeable, I believe I can manage something quite a bit faster than that.”

The Council field trainers had repeatedly emphasized that teleportation was power-intensive and not to be requested casually, and even more that the Red Witch did not respond happily to frivolous demands on her capabilities. Hester Ffolkes suspected, however, that Willow Rosenberg would definitely accept this request … and more, that she would be glad of the chance.

[Charlene McGee (Firestarter) is the property of Stephen King.]

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