55 Processing Time
I took some time to pack things away and make sure the duplicates were set for the start of their duration. Part of it was the typical desire to avoid dealing with things, and the combination of an upcoming therapy session with the latest combination of blessing and Unnatural Skill was more than enough cause for old behaviors to come to the surface.
Despite my desire to drag my feet I had too many people supporting me for there to be any possibility of actually missing or even being late for the session. They tolerated my self-distractions to a generally reasonable point, but put their foot down when it was clear I was trying to avoid things.
The sad thing was I knew I needed this session. Honestly, I probably would have needed it even if I had nothing but calm for the past week. Weirdly the sheer amount of crap that had happened since my last meeting with Dr. Campbell left me kind of numb to the idea of talking about it. It was like I had gone so far into outrageous things than I had somehow circled around to a level of indifference.
That wasn't even getting into the truly outlandish elements of my situation. And I meant truly outlandish. Some of these issues were hard to even describe properly. I had no idea what the proper way to 'address' them would be.
I guess that's why I needed therapy. I did feel kind of horrible about how much I had to deal with here. I hated dumping 'normal' problems on Dr. Campbell, even though I knew that was what he was there for. Really, there was no level of professional commitment that would justify the amount of crap associated with my powers and situation.
But that was really just me trying to talk myself out of the session. It wasn't hard to do. There were more than enough things to worry about, including the potential of a Protectorate ambush waiting for me at his office. I didn't think that would happen, but there was no way to be sure. That was the worst part. Uncertainty.
Well, it wasn't like I had any other choice. My options were basically either to push through or bail and give up hope of any external support in dealing with this mess. I wanted to do that more than was healthy. I hated dragging anyone into my problems and I legitimately felt bad about what was coming. But that wouldn't change anything. After all, this wasn't just about me.
I wasn't the only one dealing with my problems anymore. I couldn't just seal myself away and convince myself that no matter how bad it got, at least I wasn't causing trouble for anyone else. I literally had regular copies brought into existence with full knowledge of my mental situation. Not dealing with my problems meant I was basically dumping them onto my duplicates for the duration of their very limited existence.
And it wasn't just the alternate versions of myself. I had responsibilities now. I had a commitment to Garment, obligations to Fleet, Survey, and the Matrix, and a responsibility for the alterations that had been forced upon Tetra. Those were just my domestic responsibilities. I also had the impact of my actions to consider. Apeiron was a global presence now. Anything I did would have far reaching consequences, so I could not just fold under the pressure of long-standing issues. If I didn't get ahead of things they were going to catch up to me at what would probably be the worst time imaginable.
It was almost funny. I needed to look after my mental health, not out of any profound insight or revelation, but because I could not afford to break down or end up having to deal with an emotional mess right now. I had fundamental powers that relied on my mindset to function. Really, the pressure of having to maintain functionality should have been paralyzing, but somehow it was having the opposite effect. Just the knowledge that I wasn't just doing this for myself made it a lot easier to bear.
Easier, not easy. I still had to basically be chased out of the workshop, though with a cavalcade of good natured, if uncompromising, support. I still used my concealment cloak to sneak out and circle around through the neighborhood, but I wouldn't be roof running my way to Dr. Campbell's office. Driving the familiar route had a sense of normalcy associated with it and helped me get my head on straight for what would be coming. Really there wasn't much I could do but hope for the best, or at least hope to avoid the worst.
I was at least assured that the very worst had been avoided based on the distinct lack of any ambush forces waiting for me in the parking lot. The last time I had seen this place it was in the pitch blackness of the blackout caused by the ABB's initial attacks, with me desperately trying to prepare for the coming fight with whatever I had on hand plus access to my Workshop through the door to a nearby utility room.
That was one safety net I wouldn't have this time. I had left my Workshop door open back in the back of Garment's studio. The tradeoff of not being able to access it anywhere was countered by the advantages of having a persistent link to my workshops systems. Additionally, deployment time in the event of an emergency was much shorter than it had been a week ago. In the event that something did happen while I was out, my duplicates or even just Fleet or Survey's drones could probably reach me in less than a minute, no matter where I was in the city.
Not that I was really anticipating anything like that happening. Probably. Hopefully. God, it was hard enough to keep my brain from running off to nightmare scenarios when I was just dealing with normal therapy, not whatever this was supposed to count as.
I forced myself not to dwell on things as I parked my car and made my way to the front entrance. For some reason the prospect ahead of me seemed more daunting than the combined threats to the city that I was currently juggling. That was probably because I at least had an idea of how to handle those threats, even if the idea was limited to 'wait until I'm strong enough to be able to handle it'. This wasn't something I could rely on the growing power of the Forge to be able to manage. This was something that was caused by the growing power of the Forge. This was actually sitting down and trying to address all the effects that this power and this lifestyle was having on me instead of just burying my head in my workshop and hoping it would go away.
Really, it was the same strategy I had used before, only replacing my workshop with my apartment, or my room at home before that. As far as I had come, there were still issues and behaviors that were sticking around, that hadn't just been overwritten with the slew of new memories, skills, and experiences that were constantly being downloaded into my head. On one hand that was unfortunate, a sign that problems persisted beyond any easy solution. On the other, maybe it was a good sign, an indication that despite all the power I had gained I was still the same person. I was still me. My sense of self was maintained, even if that meant my old issues came with it.
As I made my way across the parking lot I felt the Forge miss a connection as the Alchemy constellation swung by. As agitated as I was I barely noticed the miss on my way up the steps to the front door, then through the building to the familiar sight of Dr. Campbell's waiting room.
I nodded to the receptionist and took a seat to stew in my thoughts. She nodded back then briefly looked again. When I glanced back at the reception desk she quickly shifted back to her work, but there was no mistaking things, not with the slight smile she had.
That is, there was no mistaking things now. A day ago, the brief back and forth would have gone completely over my head, but a day ago I hadn't been blessed by the goddess of love and beauty. I was currently conservatively dressed and under the effect of an illusion spell that covered the more outlandish aspects of my appearance, but as I had noted on the power's arrival, a divine blessing didn't care about that kind of thing. It seemed the goddess of beauty had standards on a level where part of the effect leaked through illusions.
I had just been checked out. It wasn't an especially leering glance, but with the blessing of beauty I had a better understanding of the concept, which apparently included an inherent awareness of when someone was appreciating beauty. Even if it was my beauty.
God, it felt weird to think like that. My own opinion of my appearance had always ranged from negative to neutral at best. The best I'd even really managed was a thought of 'not bad'. Maybe there was a fleeting hope that at times I had put myself together sufficiently to at least count as presentable in a mildly positive way. Now all of that nebulous thinking was out the window. A goddess, or whatever functional mechanism was actually behind that power, had blessed me with beauty, both in my works and appearance. The understanding of the concept was so ingrained in me that I couldn't deny it any more than I could the nature of the flames in my hearth or the symbolic meaning behind the bow.
Vanity, modesty, or bashfulness didn't factor into it. I knew I looked good. Basically, it was forced self-esteem, or at least some kind of automatic correction on self-image. Thinking about myself in that sense was jarring in the extreme, but I knew it was the truth. What's more, I could tell when someone noticed it. Thankfully the receptionist wasn't dwelling on it. That had just been a passing acknowledgement, not any direct interest, but the fact that I could recognize it, and what's more couldn't help but recognize it, was something I wasn't particularly looking forward to. It wasn't any kind of mental intrusion, but being able to read the behavior and intentions of people that well and that consistently had implications, even if it was only in this one area.
I was… I wouldn't say happy, but at least content in how I had approached relationships in the aftermath of everything with Sabah. I had figured it was probably for the best for me to stay out of things and keep my head down. Honestly, in the early days following my breakdown I hadn't exactly been swimming in romantic possibilities. Frankly the following two years hadn't been much better. It was easy to just cut that possibility out of my life and at least have the satisfaction that I wouldn't screw up like that again.
Then Khepeiron had happened and I got a front row seat to how bad of a strategy that actually could be. Only now that couldn't happen again. Once again, I had gotten social skills and all it had taken was divine intervention. Said social skills were limited to the knowledge of when someone was checking me out and the nature of the appreciation of beauty, but it was still miles more than I had before. Given what it had come with, the changes to my appearance and the unsurprising results, I didn't know what I should expect from this.
I was interrupted from my thoughts by the office door opening and the familiar form of Dr. Campbell walking out. I had a million concerns about how this could play out, all the ways things could go horribly wrong and crash and burn before my eyes. But, in the usual tradition of therapy, the nightmare I'd built up in my mind proved to be completely overblown.
Dr. Campbell looked normal. Maybe a little stressed, but not the wreck that I had been worried about meeting. I had been wrestling with images of a version of my therapist that would be sleepless, disheveled, and ready to tell me off for the devastation my actions had caused. Looking at the good-natured expression I remembered that those kinds of expectations were more associated with my own family than anything to do with this place.
"Joe, I'm glad you could make it. Please, come in and sit down." He said calmly and led me into the familiar setting of his office. Once again, whatever chaos I'd been worried about was completely absent. The place looked, smelled, even felt the same as I remembered. I can't really explain what that meant to me, but having it as a point of stability, a touchstone that was unchanged despite everything that had happened, it suddenly made the entire prospect of this session much easier to bear.
I settled into my usual seat across from Dr. Campbell and suddenly found myself at a complete loss. Basically, the lack of any immediate accusations, disasters, ambushes, or other nightmare situations had left nothing in its place. Trying to figure out how to deal with this had been difficult enough last week when all I had to worry about were alien robot memories and a sudden burst of training in space age military service.
Fortunately, I wasn't the one relied upon to drive these sessions. It wasn't the first time I had shown up with no idea of what I was supposed to do or how I could handle the disaster of my life. Alright, it was a bit different from those earlier times when I had just been trying to keep up with exercises and trying to pick apart the mess that was my personal history, but it was still the same kind of thing I had dealt with before.
I took a deep breath and settled back into my seat. Dr. Campbell took a moment to collect himself before turning to me. There was a brief glance that I could identify as him acknowledging my appearance. The effect of the blessing, particularly under the illusion, wasn't enough to make me look different, but I did look better. Dr. Campbell had commented on that last time, and that was without the benefit of anything more than some new clothes and a haircut. He identified it as an improvement, but from what I could discern that was as far as it went.
"It's good to see you again Joe. I'm glad you made it through the week alright." There was no judgement or accusation in the man's tone and I couldn't help but be grateful for that. "I'm glad to see you again, particularly after the way our last session ended."
I blinked. He wasn't opening with any questions or comments about my cape life, but I didn't know if that was because he legally couldn't ask, or was just giving me space to approach the subject the way I wanted to. Frankly, I was alright dancing around that mess, at least for a while.
"I'm sorry about that." I had to pause and remind myself that 'sorry' could be an expression of sympathy without accepting responsibility for a situation. I did regret having to leave that session earlier, but I wasn't framing it as something I had brought on.
Well, mostly not. There was still the chain of events that traced its way back to my actions. The undeniable idea that if I had held back, or been more reserved, or managed the aftermath better then everything could have been avoided. The trail of dominos. Logically I couldn't be faulted for not seeing them, but recognizing when they began to fall was another matter.
It was natural for me to want to take all the blame myself, but I knew there was enough to go around. I had sufficient frustration built up for the actions of everyone involved, from the Undersiders to the Protectorate and PRT to the actions of New Wave, to the city as a whole. The entire thing had been a cascade of failure.
Maybe someone who was better with people, more willing to reach out and be proactive would have been able to step in and stop things from blowing up. Then again, maybe if I hadn't bailed on my conversation with Panacea when I did I would have been put through a wall by Glory Girl, then spend the rest of the events in a Protectorate holding cell. With the tangled mess of causes leading to the city's current state it was hard to pin down any one action I could have taken, beyond the general feeling that I should have done better.
All this was playing out in front of Dr. Campbell, who clearly recognized what I was grappling with. I doubted he was able to piece together the exact details as most of the early incidents had either been covered up or severely overshadowed by later events, but he knew me well enough to recognize when I was struggling to sort out my thoughts.
I let out a breath. "Um, the incident? That night, and everything that's happened over the last week. It's been… hard. I mean, I know it's been hard for a lot of people." I swallowed and did my best not to get caught in a spiral of blame and guilt. "But, yeah. I've been having a hard time, but I made it through." That felt like more of an accomplishment that the simple phrase conveyed.
"That's good to hear." Dr. Campbell said sincerely. "Is there anything you'd like to talk about?"
There was a slightly uncertain edge to his voice, and frankly I couldn't blame him. I sank back into my chair as I pondered the last week. Last three weeks, really. Actually, it wasn't like things were that much better before my trigger either. Smaller, less destructive sure, but not really better.
There was also the problem of what I could talk about, what I felt comfortable talking about, any legal requirements that Dr. Campbell would be under regarding what I told him, whether he followed the regulations or not, and even if it was safe to discuss some of this stuff outside of the protections of my Workshop.
Circling back, there was one point I could definitely talk about. Something I needed to work through, and something I regrettably had to admit was of significant importance.
"My sister called." I said in an even voice. I could see Dr. Campbell tense slightly. More than that, I could feel his reaction through the Dragon's Pulse. He was concerned. Well, he knew what something like that would mean for me, only now the consequences were a lot more severe. I took a breath and pushed on.
"After the… event with my parents and Natalia, I tried to cut things off." That had been a hard decision. I'd basically been leaning fully on my passenger for support and reassurance. Without that and the prospect, the certain potential of being a superhero, I don't think I could have brought myself to do it.
"I blocked their numbers on my phone, but I forgot about Alena. I mean, I never thought to. She never calls. I hadn't seen her since Christmas, and we barely spoke when she was home. We barely speak at all. I never thought she would be the one to reach out."
"You've said you get along better with her. Is that still the case?" Dr. Campbell asked.
I took another breath as the Magic constellation passed by. "I don't know if it's really us getting along. When we were kids we used to fight all the time. It was much worse than with Natalia." Actually, Natalia had been caught in the middle most of the time. I did feel bad about that, but not enough to make up for how things were between us now.
"It wasn't like I ever made up with her, we just kind of reached a point in our lives where we could avoid each other." Honestly, it hadn't happened until we were well into high school and kind of diverged enough that we barely had anything to do with each other. "I guess without being forced together for everything, things just kind of died off. Like, there was never any serious resentment, just whatever situation we were stuck in." I explained. I had gone over the broad strokes of this before, but refreshing, restating things helped in a situation like this.
"What did she call about?" He asked.
I shifted slightly in my seat. "Mom asked her to call. It was on Monday night, but I guess it's surprising it took that long for it to happen."
Really, even getting a two-week grace period where they were probably convinced I was going to burn myself out and come back and apologize on my own was remarkable. Actually, I'm not sure how long it took them to try to contact me rather than waiting for me to come around. I could dig into the phone records easily enough, but I didn't really care. It wasn't worth even the fleeting effort it would take to get the data.
"Monday night was after the incident with the ABB and the Protectorate press conference?" Dr. Campbell asked. It was more dancing around the topic. Possibly he was putting it out to see if I wanted to discuss it.
I mean, I did. Frankly I needed to talk about the insanity of my cape life, the implications of my powers, what the Forge was doing to my mind, body, and personal history, and a thousand other implications that I had no idea how to address and had no one I could discuss them with. My only options were my duplicates and in that case I both felt terrible at the prospect of dumping my concerns on them during their limited existence, and even then it wouldn't have any real results. I would just be talking to myself, and a temporary version of myself at that.
I put the implied offer aside and focused on the topic at hand. "I was out during the press conference." Obviously. "I watched a recording of it when I got home." Which was a whole other pile of trauma thanks to both the reveal of March and the exposure of the holes in my passenger's knowledge of the future. Just what that could mean….
I forced myself to drop that line of thinking, at least for the moment. "Alena called afterwards." I said. "She was angry at me for blocking the rest of the family. I think Mom was leaning on her pretty hard, or maybe just venting to her." I guessed. It was clearly the first time she had called me, so I had to wonder how long she'd been dealing with Mom before she agreed to see if I had blocked her as well.
Oh, it just hit me that she was probably expecting to have her call bounced at which point she could call Mom back and tell her there was nothing she could do. No wonder she was in a bad mood. By forgetting to block her I had made her the sole point of contact for my family to reach me. It kind of flew in the face of the policy of peaceful avoidance that had built up between us.
"What is it?" Dr. Campbell asked, and I realized at least a portion of that must have played out on my face.
I sighed. "I just realized she probably didn't expect me to pick up." In that case she had been better prepared for the call than I probably would have. Or she had been dealing with a lot of complaints from Mom. "I was so focused on the call that I didn't think about the circumstances around it, what Alena was dealing with from our Mom."
"Is that something that bothers you?" He asked. I let out a sigh in response.
"I mean, sort of? Even after that night, it was really hard to break things off. Honestly, I've been trying not to think about the situation at home. Mostly by keeping busy." I shook my head. "When Alena called, that all came crashing down. It was like I'd never gotten away, like I could never get away. I could try to cut them out, or put physical distance between us, but that's not enough. Like it will never be enough."
"Trying to cut ties with people you're invested in will always be a difficult process." Dr. Campbell explained. "What you did was a very good first step. Any later difficulties don't diminish that accomplishment."
I nodded and sank further down into my chair. "It used to be that I couldn't see a future without my family. They were always just… there. Like, the best I could hope for would be maybe talking them around, making them more aware of how things were affecting me." I let out a single dry laugh. "The pipe dream of getting them to admit to how bad things were, to maybe taking some responsibility for their part in it." I shook my head. "It was never going to work. Well, not never, but it was so much effort for any progress. Just getting my mother to accept that all this wasn't because of a breakup…" I let out a sigh.
"You've talked about how hard that was." Dr. Campbell said and I gave a shallow nod.
"After that, once she finally accepted that, I really thought things were going to get better. Like, if she could accept that it wasn't just a breakup then she'd be able to see other causes. It didn't work out like that, it just sent her trying to find something else that was wrong, some other reason for my problems." The whole mess that led to the change in my medication flashed through my mind.
I took a breath and pulled myself up, leaning forward slightly as I spoke. "It used to be that I couldn't see a future without my family. Now, it's hard to see a future with them." I swallowed. This was skirting around the topic of my cape life. I still didn't want to dive into it fully, not just yet. Fortunately, Dr. Campbell didn't ask for any clarification on that topic, instead just indicating his understanding and allowing me to continue.
"When Alena called, I didn't know how to handle it. It was just like, I had managed to stop thinking about things, but that didn't actually address anything. One call and it all came flooding back." I sighed. "I hate how much it affects me. Like, no matter how far I've come I still have all this crap in my past to deal with and it's not going away."
I paused for a moment to take a breath. Talking about things like this, admitting how bad they were, it was something that would have felt unnerving in any other situation. Even here and now, it still seemed like a stupid thing to be complaining about. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders, problems ranging from Endbringers to the introduction of advanced technology to the persistent mess that was this city, and on top of all of that I had to deal with a pile of family problems because I couldn't just walk away and stop letting it bother me.
"What did your sister say when she called you?" Dr. Campbell asked, prodding the discussion forward.
"About what I expected." I said honestly. "She had gotten whatever version of events had been constructed by my family. The idea that I just threw a fit and stormed off." I took a breath while I reviewed the conversation in my mind. "It was basically a mix of old issues with anything they could tie to current events." Because of course even Alena couldn't miss a chance to dredge up things from years ago.
"I quit my job." I said, to no surprise from Dr. Campbell. In any other situation there might be some concerns voiced about my financial situation or stability, or a talk about the reasons for me leaving were, but it was clear why I had done it, as it was also clear that a part time near-minimum wage paycheck wasn't going to be a deciding factor for me. "My Mom found out about it. Either my boss misrepresented things, or my family built up their own narrative, but the story was that I had gotten fired." Always thinking the worst. "I tried to correct things, but it didn't really matter."
I took a breath before continuing. "My sister wanted me to move back home." Dr. Campbell raised an eyebrow but didn't otherwise comment. "I mean, I know it was pretty much just to get Mom off her back, but it's that kind of stuff that makes this so hard. If they were just bad then I wouldn't care. I could feel fine about cutting things off, but that's not it. As far as they're concerned they're trying to keep me safe, get me out of the city and look after me until I… I don't know. Until I get my life together. In any other case, any other situation it would be a good thing. It seems like a good thing, and I can't help but feel bad about it."
"Their behavior doesn't create an obligation from you." Dr. Campbell reminded me.
"I know. I know we've gone over this, and I hate that it isn't sticking."
"It takes time to change the way you react to situations. Being able to recognize them is an important first step." He continued.
I shook my head. "That's the thing. It doesn't feel like I have time for any of this." I quickly looked up at him. "I mean, I know it's important, and that I need to focus on it, it's just that there's so much that I have to deal with." I once again sidestepped any discussion of my cape life. "The fact that I can get caught up in something like this, that just a couple conversations with my sister can hit me this hard, it makes me feel like I have no control over things."
"Joe, I for one am proud of the way you've been handling yourself." Dr. Campbell assured me. "Even before the… event, the effort you put into your recovery was commendable." That got a light smile out of me. Really, it was the first time I had any sense of actually making progress in therapy, of finding real issues rather than just muddling along managing however I was feeling that week. Of course, I threw myself into it. "Even with exceptional circumstances, you can't expect problems like that to just go away. The important thing is to focus on the progress you have made, and how well you are handling things now."
I nodded. "That call, it wasn't great. But yeah, I made it through. I didn't get completely wiped out afterwards either." I sighed. "She called again, on Thursday night." That got a surprised and concerned look from Dr. Campbell. "I wasn't really in a state to answer, and I was busy with other things. It was just texts back and forth for a while. I finally called her this afternoon."
"How did that go?" He asked neutrally.
"About the same." I admitted as the Forge missed a connection to the Knowledge constellation. "Probably a bit worse. I could tell she was under a lot of stress. I felt bad for her, but that just made dealing with her that much worse." I shook my head. "She completely dismissed everything. Like nothing I said about the situation mattered, or could even be trusted. It's how they always treated things. I can't believe I used to think it was normal."
Dr. Campbell nodded. "It can take a long time to recognize things about your own situation, particularly when they involve people you are reliant on."
"Yeah." I took a breath. "I guess, growing up, it was just easier to trust that they knew what they were doing. I mean, it wasn't like I could argue with my mother over anything, so even if it didn't make sense, I guess it was better to believe there was some reason for it, some kind of logic behind everything." I found myself sinking back. "Really, the only alternative was that the people who basically controlled everything for me had no idea what they were doing and didn't understand the consequences of their actions."
"That's a common way of internalizing control. People can assign meaning to random events to their own actions. Basically, it's easier to assume there is a logic to the situation and blame themselves for any problems, since it allows the hope of moderating a chaotic environment." Dr. Campbell explained.
"Yeah, even if that means attributing insane amounts of control and competency to whoever is in charge." I blinked. "Kind of like if you have an unfolding disaster, it's easier to assume the whole thing is being driven by some insanely powerful mastermind, rather than just falling apart at the seams in a situation nobody can control."
There was a beat as Dr. Campbell processed what I said. "Yes, that's a good example. Even if that person would be beyond their control, it could be easier for them to attribute problems to them than acknowledge existing realities of the situation." There was another pause as a knowing look entered his eyes. "For instance, a great deal of the recent events have been implied to have been directed by Apeiron, to the point of assuming an excessive level of management of the situation. For many people, this would have been preferable to an entirely chaotic situation, as it implies there is some level of order present."
I nodded. My childhood and a civic warzone apparently brought out similar psychological coping mechanisms. Well, the same class, at least. I wasn't going to categorize my life on the same level as the current disaster, but at least I had the power of runes ensuring I never fully dismissed the reality of that situation.
I took a breath and turned my mind back to the previous topic before I could get caught up in the borderline unsolvable mess that was the situation with my cape identity.
"Alena asked if I was coming to Easter dinner." I said. "Actually, she assumed I would be coming, but just 'reminded' me about it. Like the only reason I could ever have for missing it would be if I forgot."
"What did you tell her?" He asked.
"That I couldn't go." I explained. "Literally couldn't go. It wasn't just the situation in the city. I mean, that should have been enough." I took a breath to calm myself down.
Manual breathing was a good way to collect my thoughts. It was one of the strategies I'd picked up over the course of my work with Dr. Campbell. Not the most revolutionary thing in the world, but a lot of times just a break of a second or two from whatever you were dealing with could make a world of a difference. I took the time to center myself before I dug into what was really bothering me.
"It… I think the worst thing about it was the fact that she just assumed I would be going. Like, everything that happened, all of the last month, it was just a tantrum to them. There was never any consideration that this was serious. It's not even about them understanding why I was cutting them off; they didn't even think I was cutting them off. I think I might have been able to handle it better if they were actually mad. Like, actually upset, not this kind of patronizing disappointment. They don't even respect my ability to make decisions enough to act like I know what I'm doing. It's like in their heads I'm not even going against them, I'm just confused or inconsiderate and will come around the moment they remind me what I'm supposed to do."
The rant left me feeling drained, but in a good way. I could feel my pulse race, probably the fastest my heartrate had gone since the surgery that had rebuilt my heart. Slowly, I forced myself to relax, easing back from the edge of my seat and unclenching my fists.
Dr. Campbell was watching me closely. He was slightly more guarded than I had seen him before, but just the fact that he was willing to meet with me after everything that had happened over the last week was a testament to his professionalism and the trust we had built up. He let me calm down before he spoke.
"Did you discuss any of that with your sister?" He asked.
"No." I sighed. "She didn't take it well. Talked about how I was leaving Mom and Dad alone for the holiday."
"She's not coming either?" Dr. Campbell asked. It was mostly confirmation, but it helped to drive the reality of the situation home.
"She's not." I said. "Obviously too much of a trip to come down from Chicago, and Natalia's in the same situation." I shook my head. The argument would obviously be that a short bus trip for me couldn't be equated to major travel for them, but that didn't change the fact that they weren't exactly keen to rush home.
I shook my head as I went over the conversation again. "It actually ended about as well as I could hope for." I paused. "Well, like I said, if it had ended in screaming or insults or threats or anything like that then this would be a lot easier."
"How did the call end?" Dr. Campbell asked.
"She told me that everyone was worried and that they cared about me, and she asked me to stay safe." I sighed. "That's the thing, I believe they really do care about me, and it's really hard to hate them because of that." I paused as I realized what I said, wrestled with my instincts to take it back, then let it stand. "It makes it really, really hard. There's so much bad, so much disregard and insults and this just oppressive weight that it feels like I'll never be able to get away from, but it never really feels malicious. And that makes it worse."
"Something doesn't need to be malicious to be harmful." He said. I wasn't sure if it was intended, but that rang particularly true. The entire situation with Sabah was evidence of that. The fact that there were any parallels to the situation with my own family was sickening. I had gone into that… It was never really a relationship. At best I was an acquaintance. Anyway, I had gone into whatever that was with the best intentions, but that didn't matter, not in the face of the effect it had.
Yeah, the parallel between the situations hurt. The idea that I was just trying to help, to be supportive, and to be nice was hitting all kinds of uncomfortable notes. I didn't think they were completely equivalent situations. I had never treated Sabah anywhere close to the way my family treated me, but looking back I should have recognized what was actually going on.
Well, 'should have' was wishful thinking. Given the state I was in back then, there wasn't much hope of being able to discern the exact dynamics in play. As bad as I felt about the situation and how it played out, beating myself up for not using social skills that I didn't have was pointless. The policy I had taken regarding relationships afterwards was entirely based on the fallout from that mess.
"How have you been managing otherwise?" Dr. Campbell asked.
"All things considered, not bad, I guess." I said with a cracked smile. Sure, not bad aside from the resurgence of all my family problems at the worst possible time coupled with what honestly seemed like every possible problem a cape could be saddled with.
No, that wasn't fair. If I was honest with myself I was doing better. I was doing better than I had been during the worst parts of my pre-trigger depression better than during the early part of my cape career. A lot of the early mistakes I'd made were apparent to me now in a way that they hadn't been at the time. What's more I knew I could handle them, not just recognize them but actually be able to address them before they blew up in my face. I was doing a lot better and I knew the reason for it.
"Seriously, not bad." I continued. "A lot better than I've been, and I think I'm actually making progress." Dr. Campbell gave me an encouraging look and I continued. "I think a big part is, um, I'm not dealing with things entirely on my own. At least, not like I used to. I've got some friends helping me. It makes a big difference."
"That's excellent Joe. I'd like to hear more about that." He sounded encouraging, but there was a cautious edge to his voice. It took me a couple of seconds to figure out where that was coming from.
"Uh, these aren't 'work' friends." I tried to be as subtle as I could while still getting my point across. "Um, I mean, they're kind of involved in the industry, but not people who are active in the field."
It was about as blatant as I could get without putting up a sign saying 'I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THE UNDERSIDERS'. Fortunately, Dr. Campbell put the pieces together himself.
"Well, that's very good to hear." He said in a calmer voice. "I want to say I'm not here to pass judgement on any of your associations, but some situations are likely to be more volatile than others. I'm glad you have a source of support outside that situation."
"Yeah, volatile." We had kind of accidently circled around to cape stuff and I wondered if there was even any point in being evasive about it. We both knew what was going on, but looking at it another way, it did let me talk about how the situation was affecting me without getting bogged down in the details of it, and all the implications that came with that. "Um, I just want to say, there'd be a reason for any continued volatile associations like that. It's not something I'd just seek out."
The assurance seemed to do some good. "I was sure there would be, but we don't need to get into that today. Now, can you tell me about your new friends?"
"Right." I said, then suddenly realized the borderline impossible task of describing the social network of my workshop in any kind of reasonable terminology without explicitly getting into the nature of my cape work. Dr. Campbell must have recognized my faltering because he followed up his question.
"Is one of them the fashion designer you mentioned last week?" Dr. Campbell asked with a knowing look. "The one with communication problems? You did mention they were involved in the industry."
I looked at the patient but knowing expression on Dr. Campbell's face and wondered just how much he had put together. More than that, I wondered how easily that kind of thing could have been put together. Really, if a fashion designer cape hadn't premiered on the same night as Apeiron's public debut operating from what Dr. Campbell knew was my neighborhood would he have been able to figure it out?
Was there even a point in denying it here? It felt like I should, just out of respect for Garment. Well, that and because if Garment knew that Dr. Campbell knew about her she would probably send me with a gift basket of outfits for my next session. I struggled with the issue of how to handle the situation as the Forge just missed a connection to a large mote from the Magitech constellation.
"I'm not sure I should talk about people who might have their own active projects at the moment. I mean, I don't know if it really matters, but I want to be careful, just in case, even if it's only out of courtesy." I explained.
"I understand." He backed off instantly with no pressure or implied expectation. "But it's good that you have people you can trust."
"Yeah, it is." I agreed. And it was true. As weird as the collection of people who inhabited my workshop were, and as many problems as there were when it came to indulging Garment, raising three developing artificial intelligences, assisting a parasitic alien in its transition to self-sufficiency, dealing with the arcane and archaic requirements of the Laboratorium's collection of skulls and machine spirits, and just Aisha in general, trust wasn't an issue. Not even when it came to Aisha, which was still a weird thought. Actually, that reminded me of something significant.
"They know about my family." I explained. "Not everything, but from the call and the general situation they at least know about what's going on."
It was a big deal for me, and Dr. Campbell knew that. Picking apart the situation with my family had been the painful work of a lot of sessions. It wasn't the kind of thing that was easy to share with someone, even if I had someone close enough to do so. Anyone who might qualify was too close to my family. Family friends, and as such prone to take my family's view of things. It didn't take more than a few shared anecdotes from my mother's perspective to paint me with exactly the same brush my family used. For most of my family's social circle I was the possibly well-meaning but definitely mistake prone child of a family that was just doing their best to deal with me.
I never really had a chance to break away from that perspective. At best I could avoid discussing it, leave it behind and pretend it didn't exist. That worked well enough in college, but there was always a sense that it would catch up with me. That the way my family saw me was right and I was deceiving everyone around me. When things did fall apart, when I lost the only source of decent advice I had at that school, when things blew up with Sabah, when my classes started slipping and everything crumbled around me, it seemed like it was as good as confirmation. Like there was nothing I could ever do to get away from that.
Until I started seeing Dr. Campbell I couldn't even see that anything was wrong, other than wrong with me. Even after that, it took effort to hold onto that perspective, to try to avoid slipping back into toxic thought patterns. I didn't really have an anchor point outside of therapy to help me hold onto things. It was easy to backslide and end up caught in horrible mindsets where it felt like the whole process was just me trying to convince myself I was better than I actually was, that I was just denying all the things wrong with me to try to make myself feel better.
That didn't happen anymore. I mean, it could still happen, but I couldn't get stuck in it. The duplicates wouldn't put up with it, to say nothing of Garment and the A.I.s. Additionally, I kind of felt like I needed to set a good example for Tetra. It was her interaction with the world, and the same kind of mindset that made me isolate myself to avoid making anyone else have to deal with my issues was making me hold myself together, at least on a surface level, to keep Tetra from having her early existence defined by my own hang-ups.
After all, she got more than enough of that from Survey. I really wondered if they didn't realize I could perceive the arguments that had through the Workshop's infrared data links. It was kind of cute the way they argued behind everyone's back, and generally I was able to step in if things looked like they were getting out of hand.
Dr. Campbell nodded. "That's good to hear." He said. "What made you decide to tell them about your situation?"
I froze suddenly as I remembered it wasn't so much a decision as a chaotic mess surrounding the first call that made any hope of concealing things a lost cause. It seemed like it diminished the accomplishment slightly. This wasn't the result of some breakthrough or some personal decision to come out of my shell and trust someone. I had been as desperate and closed off as ever. The only thing was the choice had been taken out of my hands.
Sure, it didn't blow up the way I always expected it to. There wasn't anyone who mocked me over how badly it was affecting me or decided to take my family's side. Definitely not that last one. I'm pretty sure they were more strongly against my family than I was. Aisha had made her opinion clear, Garment maintained as much decorum as possible while still coming down firmly in my favor, and I'm pretty sure Survey had been cyberstalking Alena's every move since the end of the first call as some kind of spite based defensive measure.
Aisha being supportive on this was weird. It was the last thing I would have expected from her, but that just seemed to mean I wasn't giving her enough credit. There was also the bitter feeling of getting sympathy for my own situation coming from someone like Aisha. I knew she didn't like the way people danced around whatever happened with her mother, but with something that serious you couldn't help it. Aisha was coming from a place with 'real' problems, not the collection of insults and general disrespect that had worn me down. The fact that I was affected so strongly by something that seemed so trivial, it made me feel weak, useless.
Or it had. At any earlier point I could have gotten swept up in that line of thinking. Diminish every action of my family down to its most inconsequential level, then take the impact it had on me as some kind of character flaw, evidence of personal weakness or worse, a tendency to over inflate minor issues out of some kind of selfishness. That was before my latest power. Before the Well of Urd.
Suffering fueled runecraft. The god Odin achieved that by spending nine days impaled by his spear while hanging from Yggdrasil. My own proficiency was nowhere near the level of a god, but it was there. I had enough suffering to perform the elementary aspects of runecraft, and I knew where it had come from.
The power, completely as a side effect, had allowed me to recognize suffering. I could look at a part of my life and answer my natural inclination to ask 'Was it really that bad?' with a simple 'Yes'. The circumstances of the situation, where the responsibility lay, or any other mitigating factor was secondary to that singular point. The suffering was real. I could hold on to that. Really, it was at a state where I couldn't ignore it. I really can't emphasize enough how important that was to me.
I sighed and looked up at Dr. Campbell. "They kind of found out on their own." I admitted. "It was after the first call with Alena. I didn't have as much privacy as I thought, and they kind of found out about things."
"What happened afterwards?" He asked carefully.
I leaned back. "Everyone was really supportive and encouraging." A slight smile appeared on my face. "Also, they really didn't like Alena." I snorted. "Probably a good thing it wasn't Natalia calling." I caught a brief flicker of concern on Dr. Campbell's face and remembered that I was effectively talking about the opinions of unknown capes, a demographic not generally known for their stability.
"How do they feel about the situation?" He asked in the same measured tone.
"They aren't going to do anything." I quickly assured him. Normally that would go without saying, but this wasn't a normal situation. It had been easy to fall back into the normal beats of therapy to the point where I could forget the extenuating circumstances and the situation we were carefully talking around. While that was probably helpful in terms of the therapy itself, it could easily lead to statements that would be concerning without wider context. "They just don't like the way they treat me, or how it affects me."
Dr. Campbell nodded. He didn't show any visible reaction, but I could feel a release in tension through the Dragon's Pulse. Honestly I was both pleased and impressed at how that expanded sense was impacting the session. I was half convinced it was going to reveal a pile of near panic and distrust under the façade of my usual therapy, making the entire endeavor pointless. Instead, it just gave me the occasional hint to the significance of some of Dr. Campbell's concerns.
That was probably the biggest relief out of everything. Dr. Campbell trusted me. Even after everything that had happened the previous week he wasn't angry or afraid or putting on a show to try to keep the dangerous cape from going off. He was concerned, but it consistently came across as concerned for me, not about me.
I took a breath and continued. "It's weird hearing that kind of stuff about my family, my sister. Earlier, it was always like I didn't have any reason to feel that way, that any dislike of them was just evidence of some problem with myself." He nodded at the familiar ground we had gone over in multiple sessions. "Afterwards, I guess I was upset about the situation, but it was hard to personally assign it to them." I shook my head. "I mean, despite everything, my family was still there. They tried, I guess. My parents worked to put me and my sisters through college, and to get us ready for that. After my breakdown they still at least tried to support me. It's all that kind of stuff mixed in that makes it hard to stay angry at them."
"But you're seeing a different perspective from your friends?" Dr. Campbell asked.
"Yeah." I agreed. "I guess it's kind of refreshing. Or vindicating. Seeing someone else look at the situation and see it as wrong or unfair, it makes a difference. Even if it feels like I shouldn't feel that way, knowing that reaction exists, it's significant."
"I understand." Dr. Campbell stated. "And I'm glad you were able to find a supportive community. Points of contact are important for everyone, but particularly for someone in a situation like yours." There was an amused look in his eyes. "I must say, this isn't how I would have expected things to progress, but it is an encouraging sign."
I smiled as I thought about the situation. "Honestly, I didn't really expect this to happen. It just kind of grew over the last two weeks. Like, with everything going on it seems like the kind of thing I wouldn't have time for." That was part of my old mindset. Any social interaction was the absolute last priority after every other concern. If there was no competing interest then maybe, after everything else was taken care of, and if it didn't inconvenience anyone, then perhaps I could fit it in. Maybe. Possibly. But probably not.
Really, it was no wonder that had dropped off so sharply. If you can never make it to events people are going to stop inviting you, and I wasn't exactly a social butterfly to begin with. Then you're coming in with less social experience, constantly worried about screwing something up which just makes any interaction uncomfortable for you and everyone else. Take a childhood of that situation gradually building to near irreparable levels, then dive straight into college social interaction and it's basically a disaster in the making. I was able to handle study groups and related things with my class, but outside of that I was hopeless. And when you're bad at something it's only natural to try to avoid it, which just makes the problem worse.
But this was different. It wasn't just a frivolous social contact, something that could be brushed aside in favor of whatever was deemed more important at the time. I had responsibilities. Responsibilities I had committed to upon my trigger. I was determined to look after any sentient creature I had a hand in bringing into the world. It was a fundamental commitment of mine, something to separate me from the version that could have been if I didn't get the Forge.
Funnily enough, it was the kind of responsibility that my family would be certain I would screw up. A disaster in the making, something that would need outside intervention as soon as possible. Frankly, I was still afraid of messing everything up, but unlike the kind of fear I was used to dealing with it wasn't paralyzing. Contrary to every coping strategy I had developed in my life, this wasn't something I could avoid and ignore while hoping it resolved itself. I needed to be hands-on. Even if I didn't make the perfect decision I couldn't leave everyone to fend for themselves. Just the memory of Garment after her PHO ban, Survey struggling with unsolvable problems, of Tetra's desperate isolation as she developed awareness cemented the importance.
"I'm glad you were able to make time for it." Dr. Campbell said. "It's clearly important to you."
I nodded. "I think it made a big difference when dealing with my sister."
"How so?" He asked.
I considered how to explain it. "It's like, arguing with my family always seemed like a lost cause. Not that it was pointless, but it wasn't something I could win. Like, even if I had a good reason for whatever I was doing or wanted to do they could just reframe it or dismiss it and turn it around to their side. They could always frame things so whatever I wanted was the wrong choice, so my only option was to either do what they wanted, or accept another black mark on my character." I reflected on my conversations with Alena and how that kind of strategy was painfully obvious.
"But it's not like that anymore?" Dr. Campbell asked.
I shook my head. "They can dismiss everything from me, but if there's another person in the situation it gets complicated. They're trying to discredit someone they know nothing about, and it doesn't work. Or at least they can't manage it like they can with me." I smiled. "Just having other people to account for means the negotiations get a lot harder. They can't influence me the way they're used to being able to."
Dr. Campbell nodded. "Isolation is one of the most basic methods used to maintain control. Having a supportive social network is important to prevent that kind of thing."
A thought struck me like a lightning bolt and I suddenly shot upright in my seat. The webs of concerns that had been tangling around my mind from the moment I'd learned about Somer's Rock burned away in a flash of inspiration. All my worries about manipulation, about the behavior of the gangs and thinkers and competing factions came into focus. They were all centered on the fact that I was a lone player, that I was isolated. One person they had to focus on, to talk around and hold to any statements or commitments. Arriving on my own they could dogpile me with rhetoric and try to rope me into some commitment or obligation. No matter how firm I stood I was an easy target in that situation because I was isolated.
But what if I wasn't isolated? What if I wasn't the only factor that needed to be accounted for? What if I couldn't be ganged up on, pressed, and pressured? What if there were other factors that needed to be accounted for?
What if Apeiron wasn't alone?
"Joe? Are you alright?" Dr. Campbell asked. I blinked and quickly brought myself back to the present.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry, I just thought of something." Dr. Campbell gave me a questioning look, but didn't press further. For once I had zoned out and it hadn't been over new power. Not a 'strategy trance', just the normal wandering of my thoughts.
"I understand you must have a lot on your mind." He said. "Thank you again for coming tonight. It's reassuring that you're able to make time for this."
"Honestly, it was probably overdue." I admitted. "Uh, we haven't talked about it, and I'm not really sure how to talk about that kind of stuff, but this week…" I let out a long breath. "Even without my family stuff, it's just so much to deal with. I wouldn't even know where to start." I let a wry smile come to my face. "Everything else I'm dealing with and I spend the session complaining about my family."
Dr. Campbell was understanding of the situation. "You don't need to be concerned about how you spend your time here. The situation was clearly something that was bothering you, and I believe working through it was important."
I sighed. "Thank you. It's just, with everything that's been happening, everything that's going to happen, it's frustrating that all this old stuff is still holding me back." I saw a flicker of concern when I mentioned things that were going to happen, but that was all. I suppose that it would be natural to be concerned about what lay ahead of Apeiron, particularly with the recent impact of A Thing About Names bringing my title to the mind of everyone who knew the name Apeiron.
"I know it's stupid to think that things would suddenly get better, or that old stuff wouldn't matter anymore. Honestly, I'm probably managing better than a lot of people would this close to an event like mine. It's just, it doesn't feel like I can afford to focus on old issues, but I know I have to." I sank back into my seat. "It's just frustrating."
Dr. Campbell nodded. "That's completely understandable. You had a very serious event and have taken on a great deal since then. That said, the focus you are giving to your mental health is commendable. It always has been, but I'm pleased to see you maintain that level of commitment."
I smiled a little awkwardly at the compliment, then felt my smile turn brittle. The Forge was making a connection. Not a minor connection. One of the major motes was slowly being wrenched out of its constellation by the strength of the reach I had amassed. With a titanic tearing sensation, the Crafting constellation spun away, leaving a massive conflagration of energy to descend upon me.
What makes someone a hero?
The first time I had touched power of this level the true nature of the world was revealed to me. The textures of reality and the presence of the other side, the aspect of the universe beyond time or death, where the impossible was mundane. The place where I had been taken, taught, and granted the ability to make items beyond the limits of mortal craft.
But there were more textures to reality than just the reverse side of the world. More realms beyond human perception or understanding, places where impossible concepts were bound and held beyond the reach of time. As the weight of the power pressed down on me that was where I found myself.
But not just there. Like when I had been taken to the reverse side of the world, this place was beyond time, but it stood beyond time in a different way than that shimmering perfect isle had. It was space beyond eternity, rather than eternity beyond space. Time had been meaningless during my training, with one instant being interchangeable with the life of the universe. Here, it was meaningless to think of time. Time didn't extend forever in this place, this place extended forever through time.
I was in an akashic record, an account of all historical achievement where the greatest examples of humanity were recorded. Where they were saved, beyond and through the reach of time.
I was there, in the records of paramount achievement, in the place above all others, the throne of the heroes of Earth, but I wasn't just there. That place, or this place, depending on how tense could even work under these situations, was eternal. It wasn't a sequential set of recordings. Anything written into it was present throughout all of history. Records of heroes existed at the same time they were being written.
I was in the Throne of Heroes. I was also sitting in Dr. Campbell's office, discussing the previous week. But I was also on the reverse side of the world, learning to craft divine objects from the true fey. And I was in a thousand other places, and none of them.
It was too much to grasp in its entirety. I don't think a living human mind can fully grasp the experience. The record, the portion of me that sat inside the Throne, it wasn't limited to me. It was beyond that, a kind of composite or compilation of ideas. Through the cascade of images there was a through thread, a kind of path I could follow.
My own life was there, with its troubles and mundane existence spinning off to high concept insanity at the arrival of the Forge. And there was the reverse side of the world, the experience of learning the true art of creation from beings beyond description. But there was more. Experiences that were less than memories, merely the context of granted skills suddenly consolidating together into cohesive moments in time.
I was working in an immense and beautiful castle of gleaming white stone, making and repairing equipment for knights of skill and legend. I was practicing magecraft in the basement of an ancient house, unraveling the art transmutation. I was studying alchemy in a form that was both familiar and strange, learning the flow of energy and the mechanics of shifting matter.
All of these moments held shadows of earlier powers, gifts I had received from the Celestial Forge, but they had been torn from ambiguity and dragged into stark focus. And they weren't alone. Thousands, millions of similar moments flashed before my eyes. Moments of simple work in support of something great. The forging of a shield, or patching of a set of armor. Damage from great battles with forces beyond description made right by someone whose name would never be recorded. People who would never be sung of in the sagas that their work made possible.
Some of the great tools of heroes were forged by the gods. Some were made by smiths or craftsmen who took their place in legend. Some were conjured by wizards or transmuted directly by beings of supernatural might. But the rest? They were made. Made by human hands with human effort. Effort that directed skills assembled through generations to one brief moment of nameless greatness where a sword, a spear, a shield would be passed off to a hero in need. The work would go on and pass into legend. The smith would continue their trade, applying their skill to the trials of life, leveraging their arts to keep civilization moving, to give the hero a place to return to when all was done.
Some heroic items have their origin spelled out in legend and song. For others they are nameless tools until taken up for a great task. But no matter how humble the origin of an item, it stands as the work of human skill. Someone forged the sword, tied the sandals, wove the cloak, or bound the book that would pass into legend. Those items may have gained fame with their heroes, but they didn't originate from them. Burning through history, the work of the crafter made the legends possible.
And people remembered. They didn't know the smith's name, or the manner in which a great shield was forged. It may not even have been great until someone of worth took it up for a great task, but with the item's legend came the legend of the one who made it.
That was what flowed into me now. That was my place in the Throne of Heroes. Not through a single great deed, but a thousand tiny acts, works of ingenuity and progress, or just works that allowed the world to keep moving. Through the sum of human history, the saga of the craftsman was worthy of its place amongst the heroes.
But it was a turbulent existence. There was no single legend to bind it together. Instead of having my own story, bits and pieces from a thousand other heroes were cobbled together into a barely functional whole. The crafter was necessary, but not defined. He stood as a background character in the tales of other heroes, a support character, someone who facilitated the tale, rather than directed it.
Without the unity of cause and action there would be no cohesion. The entire assembly would collapse across a thousand stories and cultures. But that didn't happen. Beyond the chaos there was a single purpose. We made things. I made things. It was enough.
Enough to be called forth from the Throne of Heroes. Enough to manifest into a stable saint graph, granting me a spiritual core. Enough to exist as a Heroic Spirit.
Class name Crafter. Really, I was barely more than a wraith. A scattered legend held loosely around whatever aspects of my own powers had connected with this particular source. As a Heroic Spirit I was among the weakest existences possible, but that didn't change the fact that I was a Heroic Spirit. I had been summoned from the Throne and I was a hero.
Or at least I used to be. The exact mechanism of what was happening here was beyond confusing. I had been a Heroic Spirit, summoned forth from the Throne of Heroes and manifested in the modern world. Not a particularly strong or cohesive one, barely more than a wraith, but still functional. But I wasn't that anymore.
Well, I was and I wasn't. In whatever had transitioned me from that spiritual manifestation to what I was now some things had been lost and others had been gained. I wasn't a spirit anymore. Because of that I wasn't immune to non-magical attacks and I couldn't dematerialize. I could still sense spirits, but only other Heroic Spirits, not spiritual beings in general. On the plus side, I had a living body, meaning I didn't have to worry about dissipating without the benefit of a contract and I could recover mana on my own.
And that was a lot of mana. Well, it was a lot from a relative stance. My nature as a Heroic Spirit came with understanding of my own abilities and parameters, in exactly the same way that things were quantified on Web of Magic. I still had mixed feelings about an ability this foundational and world altering being traced to a children's cartoon, but at this point I didn't have anything I could do about that. The 'infinite monkeys' idea was about the best I was going to get without some fundamental insight into the workings of my power, so I just had to make do.
I also needed to deal with the inherent differences in terms that made any reliance on information from the show highly suspect. Most of it was fairly minor, but my power seemed to insist on defining summoned Heroic Spirits as 'Servants' and their summoners as 'Masters', terms that to my knowledge had never been used on Web of Magic. It wasn't a major point, but the emphasis on the term 'Servant' was a little jarring to deal with. A Crafter class 'Servant', not 'Spirit', with a 'Master' instead of a 'Summoner'.
Possibly the only upside to that connection was some context for my own abilities compared to what else had been depicted. While the E rank I had received in Strength, Agility, Endurance, Mana, and Luck was absolutely pathetic by the standards of the other Heroic Spirits depicted on that show, it was still a titanic boost to my own abilities. E rank equated to ten times peak human ability in every one of those areas.
For some parameters that was fairly obvious, while for something like Luck there was really no way to directly quantify it. The strength boost of ten-time peak human level was both easy to understand and frankly fairly minor by my current standards. Endurance was also less significant, even with the increase to durability that it granted. The important thing was agility.
Agility, at least in the context of a Heroic Spirit, represented both reaction and movement speed. Thanks to the upgrades from my rebuilt body, I was already capable of moving at immense speeds, but directing that speed was still a challenge. I didn't have a form of superspeed where time slowed down, I was only able to move much faster when reacting. The perception and reaction speeds were still a limiting factor, and one that even E rank agility greatly chipped away at.
Human reaction speed is about 250 milliseconds. Of that about 200 milliseconds is your brain processing the reaction with the remaining 50 milliseconds representing the time it takes for your body to begin moving. With my physical improvements I had scaled down that 50-millisecond delay to almost nothing, leaving the processing time as the deciding factor.
There were some ways to work around that, particularly involving Aura's danger sense or using advanced martial arts to develop reflexes that required less delay, but those were just work-arounds compared to the flat improvement presented by this ability. Processing time to respond to stimuli was cut down to a tenth, meaning on average it took twenty milliseconds to react.
Twenty milliseconds as base, modified by training, danger sense, Aura enhancement, and the constant improvement of the life fibers incorporated into my body. With no other enhancements I would have been able to dodge a handgun round at twenty feet. With all of my enhancements I could basically dance between automatic fire.
Then there was mana. My own mana reserves had been fairly generous, having come from circuits of excellent quality. I could also supplement them with both chi and mana from other sources, but that was not as essential as it used to be. E rank mana took my previous reserve, at least the portion of it that was due to my magic circuits, and added ten times that amount. It was a staggering amount of mana for a Magus, even if it was paltry by the standards of Heroic Spirits.
I was also a much better magus than I had been. The abilities I had gained came with specifically quantified skills, all conveniently ranked by Web of Magic's rating system. I had the Territory Creation skill, which allowed the creation of dedicated spaces where magecraft was strengthened, mana could be stored, and spells could be performed more efficiently. Unfortunately, at E rank the skill was barely able to accomplish anything, taking considerable effort to set up even the most basic of workshops.
In terms of casting skill in particular I had received the Magecraft skill at rank C. It wasn't enough to give me any earth-shaking magical abilities, but it did grant a comprehensive understanding of modern magecraft. Compared to my previous specializations it was incredibly broad while still being at a functional level. Essentially, base proficiency with all trades, master of none save the arts I had previously mastered.
But this was a major power, the type that changed everything. As impressive as the extraordinary origin, the enhanced reflexes, the boost to mana, and the magical skills were, they weren't the kind of thing that cemented this power as a major force. That was entirely contained in the final two aspects.
First, the final skill. I had also been granted the Item Construction skill, an innate ability to produce magical items, and one practically essential given the nature of my origin as a Heroic Spirit. The important thing was the rating. With this power I had been granted Item Construction A+++. That was literally the highest rank possible before the EX designation had to be used to describe abilities beyond conventional behavior. It was as strong as the skill could get before it basically stopped being Item Construction and started being something else.
Earlier that day I had managed to cobble together a mystic code meant to protect Taylor by reinforcing her costume. I had designed and built it with the understanding of reinforcement magic and energy transfer I received from my Thaumaturgical Focus powers. I had been moderately proud of it at the time. I now realized what a sloppy, amateurish attempt that had been.
For that amount of work, with that amount of materials, and that amount of time I could now craft the kind of item that would serve as the foundation for legends. I could do it with nothing more than the skills of this power, the crafting abilities of Crafter, Heroic Spirit of creation, the builder, the protector, the one who supports and reinforces.
My parameters may have been terrible, my supporting skill might have been middling, but I was absolutely top tier in terms of creation. But skill with craft would not save you in a pitched battle. A hero didn't hide in his workshop and tinker away, hoping to avoid conflict. In fact, I could barely have a workshop. No, Heroic Spirits were summoned to fight, and despite my parameters, despite my skills, despite everything, I could function on the battlefield.
Because for my final ability I had received a Noble Phantasm.
Aisha was going to go nuts. There was really no way around this. She would have absolutely loved this just from the connections to Web of Magic, but this, actually having a Noble Phantasm, she was never going to let that go. I would absolutely not hear the end of it.
"Joe?" I was pulled out of my thoughts by Dr. Campbell's concerned voice. I looked up as the Vehicles constellation missed a connection. "Are you alright?"
I blinked away the fugue of concepts I had been wrestling with. That was a 'Strategy Trance' or whatever the current popular theory was. With something of that scale there was really no way of avoiding it. From the look on Dr. Campbell's face he had clearly placed it, not just the event, but the impact it had on me.
"Uh, yeah." I said, shaking my head. "It's just, that was a bad one."
The concern Dr. Campbell was displaying rose by several degrees to the point where I could clearly detect it through the Dragon's Pulse. He gave me a serious look before he began to speak.
"Joe, I'm not going to pretend I fully understand your situation, and I don't want to push you to share anything you're uncomfortable with, but if you want to talk about this, or if there is any way I can help, please let me know." It was a more direct appeal than I had anticipated, and frankly he was right. I did need help with this, despite the scale of 'this' being so large I could barely fathom where to begin. Still, that was what I was here for.
Old concerns began to resurface as I considered how to proceed. Despite everything, the concern was still there, still burning away in the face of all logic. I had been irrationally concerned before I came to this session. I had been irrationally concerned as we worked through issues that I had already covered. I had been irrationally concerned about everything, because concerns weren't always rational. Realistically, if Dr. Campbell had come this far he wasn't going to freak out or flip on me over a discussion of my cape situation.
Despite the logic I couldn't just dismiss the concerns. The reaction was there, the concern would persist. I could recognize that it wasn't helpful and push through, but that didn't just make it magically disappear.
I took a breath to steady myself, then reached into the inside pocket of my jacket for a small object.
"What's that?" Dr. Campbell asked as I set it down on a side table. The item was about half the size of a clock radio, with an elegantly designed casing and clearly visible speakers. As I turned it on a soothing background sound washed over the office.
"It's a white noise machine." I explained as the calming sound filled the space like a physical presence. With the level of craftsmanship behind the device, the calming effect was more than just perfunctory. It had a discernible impact that I could already feel. I could tell Dr. Campbell noticed it as well.
"I see." He said. "It's very soothing." He gave me a questioning look. "Did you make it?"
Well, it was as good a time as ever to dive in. "Yes. In addition to the background noise, it also blocks surveillance attempts, including parahuman abilities."
"Ah." Dr. Campbell said, looking at the tiny Super Science appliance. "So, you'll be more comfortable talking openly with that device? Now that we won't be overheard?"
I nodded. "It's rated up to the Simurgh, so anything we say here should be safe."
Dr. Campbell began to nod, then froze. He blinked, looked at the device, then blinked again. "I'm sorry, did you say-"
"Yes, the Simurgh." I could practically feel the weight leave my chest as I was finally able to talk about the winged bitch in a setting outside my workshop. "The waveform has a n-dimensional profile, so it extends both forward and backward in time as well as disrupting attempts at remote viewing due to parahuman abilities thanks to a combination of high-level physics applications and cross-universal interference."
"Right." He said, then looked at the comparatively tiny device again. "Right. It's just, it's very small."
"I have a barrier setup in my workshop, but I put it up way back on Sunday night." I listened to the calming tones issuing forth from the object. "I've gotten a lot better at this kind of work since then."
"Of course." He said more calmly that he clearly felt. I watched as he seemed to cycle through gears, processing the new circumstances relatively quickly before settling back into his chair and turning towards me with the kind of calm demeanor that could have been found at any of our sessions.
"Now, I'm glad you have an environment where you're comfortable speaking freely." His eyes jumped to the device again, then flicked back to me. "I apologize for not being able to provide one, but given the circumstances…"
"I understand." I said. "This is kind of hard for me to deal with as well. I'm just glad you're willing to do this."
"I'm happy to be able to help." He said encouragingly. "Now, would you like to talk about what just happened, or maybe your situation in general?"
I pondered how to approach this. Trust was a big deal, and with how everything had played out so far I could say I did trust Dr. Campbell, but there were risks here. Sharing this information was dangerous. I could mitigate that, but really I had to decide if I wanted to bring him into this.
No, he had decided he wanted to be brought into this. Really, the broad details of my power or situation weren't going to prove an exploitable weakness, not now. Maybe a week ago they could have been, but currently, particularly with my latest power, no. I could talk about this without worrying about it undermining me later.
Well, might as well start at the beginning.
"That night, with my parents and sister? You've probably put this together, but yeah, that was when I triggered." His expression showed absolutely no surprise. I smiled at that and continued. "The way I triggered, um, I've gotten a lot of insight into how powers and triggers work." Thankfully there weren't any interruptions to ask about the 'power tinker' theory. "To trigger as a tinker, you need to be dealing with a problem you can't solve. Something that builds up over weeks or months." Or more than a year, in extreme cases like mine. I could tell Dr. Campbell understood what I was talking about. "That night, it was kind of the last straw, the point where everything came crashing down. The medication made things worse, but I'm not sure if without it I wouldn't have triggered, or would have just had a different kind of trigger."
"A different kind of trigger?" He asked.
I nodded as the Time constellation missed a connection. "My trigger, it wasn't normal." I didn't want to get into my passenger, original powers, or the potential consequences of that, not right now. I was fairly sure that was a session in itself. Probably an entire treatment program if I'm being honest. "Instead of getting my power at once I've been getting abilities spread out, piecemeal."
"Was that what just happened?"
"Yeah." I said with a sigh. "It took more than a week for it to happen the first time. I've been getting small abilities that build on each other, little power that add up, at least that's how it used to happen."
"You're not getting powers anymore?" Dr. Campbell asked with a confused expression. I had to hold back a laugh at the phrasing of the question.
"No, I'm not getting 'little' powers anymore." I explained and watched as his eyebrows rose. "Some are stronger than others, and the weaker ones have become less common. The big ones are usually really serious."
"Oh." He said, leaning back. "If you don't mind me asking, you just got a power?" I nodded. "And it was serious?"
"Very." I admitted. "I've only gotten four or five on that level." Depending on whether Divine Child counted when paired with Fate Finds You Interesting. "Any one of them could be considered a top tier power, and I've got all of them, plus all my other powers."
"I see." He said calmly. "That must be very hard to deal with."
I sank back in my seat. That was it. No comments about the power lottery, no remarks about how lucky I was, or how I should be grateful. Just an acknowledgement that yes, having a constant flow of powers is a stressful situation. I was grateful for that.
"It is." I replied. "I know how everyone would feel about something like that, how it's insane to complain about it, and everything else. I'm glad I have these powers. I don't want them to go away or slow down, but it is hard, and the fact that it seems insane to even acknowledge that makes it harder."
Dr. Campbell nodded and allowed me to continue. I took a breath before pressing on.
"Um, this is kind of hard to describe, and I don't really want to get caught up in it, but the way I get new powers is kind of all over the place." I shook my head. "Sometimes it's normal, or as normal as suddenly getting technical skills can be, but a lot of the time it's significantly worse."
"How is it worse?" Dr. Campbell asked with concern.
I struggled with how I could possibly describe what I was going through. Eventually I just decided to dive in and hope for the best. "There's really no good way to put this. I'm pretty sure the way my power works, like what it's actually doing in a lot of cases, probably counts as a mental illness."
"How do you mean?" He asked.
I sighed. "Okay, with some powers I'm actually getting memories. Like actual memories of things that didn't happen, or probably didn't happen."
I raised a hand to my forehead and let out a breath. "There are some multiversal implications to some of my powers. I'm pretty sure I've been accessing other universes." It suddenly occurred to me that I had just admitted to one of the biggest red flags in terms of parahuman behavior. I quickly looked up, but was only met with a reassuring look. Once I was sure I hadn't just triggered something that required an emergency response I pushed forward with my bumbling explanation.
"The other universe thing? It's not like it should be. I mean, not within the model everyone uses from Professor Haywire's work. Normally if someone thinks the world is functioning in a different manner from how everyone else sees it, that's not a good sign."
For some reason that actually got a smile from Dr. Campbell. "I think there are quite a few people who are reevaluating how the world works at the moment. You're hardly alone in that respect."
It was reassuring, but also dragged up other issues. Ones I really didn't want to get into, which meant I should probably talk about them.
"The situation in the city?" I said. "Everything, from the Undersiders to the fight with Lung? I hate how it turned out. Looking back, I know I could have done better. There were things I should have seen coming, problems I could have fixed if I just got to them in time, and it all makes me feel useless."
I sank back in my chair. Here I was, Apeiron, the Enigmatic Artificer. Most powerful cape in the country, one of the strongest parahumans on the planet, whining to his therapist about feeling useless. And also engaging in self-pity over the fact that he was whining to his therapist. And also trying to be aware of what he was doing, like that somehow mitigated the situation to any extent.
"Given everything you were dealing with, and the scale of the problems that emerged, I think you did a commendable job." Dr. Campbell said. "It's important to recognize where improvement is possible, but it's also important to acknowledge the reality of the situation you were in."
I nodded at Dr. Campbell's comment. It was similar to what we had talked about before. The fact that I could recognize things that I had missed earlier and how that made me feel about previous events. So often it seemed like there was a simple solution to what always seemed to be insurmountable problems at the time, but that only applied if you discarded the situation I was in at the time.
There might have been an easy solution, but if I didn't have the skills to recognize it, or wasn't able to handle the action then it didn't make sense to treat missing that possibility as some kind of unforgivable mistake on my part. Acknowledge it and move on. That might be easier said than done, but it was important. This was about building skills to help me in the future, not ruminating on the mistakes of the past.
"I have to admit there were some aspects that I didn't completely understand." He added. "Particularly your early work, but particularly given your later actions I assumed you had reasons for your choices."
He was asking about my deal with the Undersiders without asking about my deal with the Undersiders. It made sense. That villainous association was the primary black mark on my hero career, the one that most of the rest of my problems had sprung forth from. The way it happened was basically one of those situations I had just been thinking about. A problem based on my understanding, skills, and mindset at the time. One I would have handled differently, but only if I had more insight, stability, or support than I did at the time.
I found myself wanting to assure Dr. Campbell, but this was serious. Any acknowledgement of Taylor's significance could put her at risk. On the same note, I could speak in general terms, and frankly I really needed to vent about the implications of my 'thinker power'.
"One of the powers I have, part of what I got from my trigger, is a thinker power." I explained. "It is sort of precognitive. Sort of, but not perfect, and only about major stuff." Dr. Campbell nodded. I wondered if he could have possibly gotten access to the dreaded transcript of my conversation with Panacea, or if he had just heard rumors of my abilities. He had been fairly well informed, so he must have been following my public actions closely. That was both reassuring and slightly embarrassing.
"Early on I was kind of relying on it. Using it for advice and to help me deal with situations." I hung my head, remembering how much of a dependency that had been. A lot of times I'd barely been thinking for myself. It wasn't until the aftermath of the bank that it really hit home what a bad idea that could be.
I shook off those thoughts and continued. "It let me know about things that were coming. It wasn't that clear, but on big things, and for judging the scale of a problem it's generally reliable." I swallowed. "I found out something from my power. It was important, and I tried to do what I could to make sure things turned out alright." My voice turned bitter. "That led to a lot of the problems. Kind of all the problems, really." I dropped my head again. "It's like everything traces back to that. And the crazy thing is I know it's still important, so I'm kind of stuck trying to make sure things turn out alright while also making sure things don't get worse."
Dr. Campbell gave me a sympathetic smile. "I can understand what you meant." I gave him a confused look. "Predictions of future disaster would be handled very differently without a parahuman ability involved."
"Yeah." I said dryly. "It seems like there's tons of that stuff." I let out a breath. "I've been trying to manage it as well as I can, but there's just so much."
"Has your social group been able to help?" He asked. No question about the nature of the social group, but it was reassuring that he still valued the concept to the same degree.
"To some extent." I said. "They have their own things they're dealing with." I considered the mindsets present in Garment, Fleet, Survey, Tetra, the Matrix, and my duplicates. "Uh, they help. They definitely help, and they know when something's bothering me, which is a big thing. It's just, the rate at which everything is coming makes it hard to stay ahead of things. Frankly, it feels like I can barely keep up most of the time."
Dr. Campbell nodded in understanding. "The precise nature of this problem is, um, not something easily addressed. That said, it's encouraging to see that you're actively managing things, and have people you can trust to support you."
"Thanks." I said, half collapsing back into my seat. "Really, what I explained is barely half of it. Um, you saw the broadcast? From Thursday?"
Dr. Campbell nodded and I could pick up waves of tension in his posture. "Yes, I did. That was a fairly severe event. Would you like to discuss it?"
"No. I mean, not now. And I don't really want to talk about that." Which meant I probably should, at least in broad terms. I sighed and sank further into my seat. "That fight, it was a mess. I tried to manage it as well as I could, but things were falling apart everywhere." I clenched my fist and then forced it to relax. "It was like every mistake, everything I'd ignored or mismanaged had come up at the same time." I shook my head. "Like it was some kind of punishment for not being better, or more proactive, or for not being able to manage things myself. I was just trying to do the best I could, but it was like everything was getting away from me."
"Joe, that battle, what you did on Thursday, it was the kind of thing that would have pressed entire teams of heroes to the limit. Really, it did press entire teams of heroes to the limit. There is serious consideration being made to retroactively declare the event an S-class threat. It's unreasonable to expect any one person to be able to manage that by themselves, no matter how powerful they are."
"But that's the thing." I countered. "The power I have, it's not reasonable. It was never reasonable, not even at the start, not with the way that it develops. If anyone could have been expected to do something, it was me."
"You did." Dr. Campbell assured me. "I still want to talk about the events of Thursday, particularly the injuries you sustained and the way the conflict ended. It's not good to leave those unaddressed, but that's besides the main point. What you did made a tremendous difference in the city. I have seen the assessments of how bad things could have gone, and I assume you're aware of that as well?"
I nodded as the Size constellation passed by. "Yeah, I am." Survey had picked over the entire conflict while I was recovering. I'd seen the potential outcomes. What could have happened if the ABB had their way, or if the combined bomb effects had been allowed to spread. The scenarios were grim. In some cases, it wasn't even limited to the city, instead spreading well past Brockton Bay.
That was a weird thing to consider. With the way I compartmentalized things in my head, Captain's Hill might as well have been another country, not a suburb right outside of town. Plenty of possible scenarios had the damage spreading to Captain's Hill. What I had done on Thursday had saved my parents, protected my family home. I hadn't even considered it at the time, and my family would probably never know, but it was the truth. I hadn't just protected Brockton; I had protected the neighborhood I had grown up in. That gave the events a different feel.
I took a breath and sat up. "Okay, I get that. And yeah, we can talk about that later, and how I'm handling things." I swallowed. He was talking about both the aftermath of a near death experience and the aftermath of killing someone. And he was right. Neither of those were the kind of thing I should just brush off.
Well, I probably could. Between my assorted skills and memories, I had the training, experience, and ability to manage something like that. It was why I'd been functional in the moment and been able to deal with the aftermath so well. But relying on that, on memories possibly from other universes, as a means of coping, I could tell it was a losing strategy.
I considered everything that had happened since my session last Saturday. And everything that was ahead of me. And I considered the odds of actually making it a week without some major disruption that threw out any possible plans.
"Um, about talking later. A week, with everything going on, it might be a bit much to hope for that." I sank back in my chair. "Frankly, I probably should have reached out earlier." I looked up at Dr. Campbell. "I know you're doing this off the books, and I don't know what you're schedule's like, but-"
"Joe, I'm sure we can fit something in." He assured me. "I would also feel a lot better if we could meet sooner. If it's alright with you I'll leave this time open for next Saturday, but I'll be happy to fit you in earlier in the week."
"Right. Great. I mean, thank you, Dr. Campbell." I replied.
"Was there something else you wanted to talk about regarding the broadcast?" He asked. I gave a tired nod in reply.
"The transformation." I said. I could tell Dr. Campbell was restraining himself, but there was a definite reaction there. "That was part of what I was talking about."
He nodded in understanding. "I assume that was the result of some new power and not some kind of biological experiment?" He asked.
"Yeah. Honestly, I'm not sure what people are assuming, but the idea that I could suddenly get a power like that probably isn't one of their top guesses." I sighed. "That kind of thing happens a lot." Dr. Campbell gave me a concerned look and I quickly clarified. "Not that thing specifically, but generally, it can happen. It's not all memories and skills and that kind of thing. A lot of my powers affect my body." I flexed an arm and then relaxed it. "The one I just got increased my strength, reflexes, and endurance, and none of those have anything to do with the main part of that power."
Dr. Campbell nodded slowly while looking at my arm. "And this happens often? Are you having any difficulty adjusting to the changes?"
"Some." I admitted. "There aren't really any problems with the changes in terms of compatibility or anything, and typically whatever it is comes with the knowledge of how to manage it. It's just the severity of some of them." I shook my head. "There was one that changed my genetics so much I had to figure out if I was still completely related to my parents."
"Really?" Dr. Campbell asked in a display of raw curiosity that was quickly restrained. "I suppose that must have been quite a shock."
"It was a bit less extreme than it appeared at first." I said, though considering I was talking about mapping out the genealogy of my divine parentage it probably counted as 'extreme' despite the fact that I hadn't lost any genetics in the event. Actually, did any of these count as anything but 'extreme'? Even my most recent power, with its 'comparably' minor effect on my physical abilities was the result of the merger of a spiritual version of myself, compiled from parts of a life I'd never lived and supplemented with fragmented legends from the span of human history before being manifested in the waking world and then precipitated into my current form. 'Extreme' might be a bit of an understatement.
I leaned forward and raised my hands. "The point is, it's happening, and combined with… with what I had to do to treat my injuries from Thursday, it's built up. Probably further than I should be comfortable with."
"Further than you should be?" Dr. Campbell asked, focusing on my phrasing.
"Further than I probably should be." I paused. I really didn't want to get into the souls and Prismatic Laboratory. If what I was already dealing with sounded crazy, then going on about impossible colors and contacts in hell wouldn't do me any favors. I shifted my thoughts back to the main topic.
"There are other parahumans who have difficulty dealing with alterations due to their powers." Dr. Campbell explained. "Typically, it's related to the emergence of their abilities, but in the case of some individuals with a changer designation it is possible for a feeling of persistent dysphoria to result from power use."
The way he recounted that, and the phrasing he used I found myself wondering just how much research had he done in preparation for this meeting? Honestly, it was kind of flattering, but I also felt bad, the same kind of bad related to my first thoughts about this. The idea that I was dumping my problems on someone else, rather than dealing with them myself.
It wasn't a good way of thinking, and at least here and now I could dismiss it easily enough, but it was infuriating that it was still there, that I couldn't just turn it off.
The Vehicles constellation missed a connection as I took another breath. "It's nothing that bad. I don't feel uncomfortable in my body, or have any difficulty with the changes. It's more about the changes themselves." I sighed and sank back. "I am really grateful for this power, but the randomness of it is the kind of thing that can wear on me, even if it's generally giving good things."
"And you don't have any influence over how the powers arrive, or what they are?" He asked.
"No." I said. "I don't get the Eidolon thing. Totally random, but I get to keep them." An uncomfortable thought occurred to me. "That's more than I've told anyone else about how my powers work."
Dr. Campbell glanced over at the white noise machine. "I'm glad you were comfortable sharing that with me."
That made the reality of the situation sting. "Dr. Campbell, that machine, it will keep this conversation concealed, even from powers who can look into the past or future." There was an impressed look on his face as I continued. "But it's only covering this session, and only direct observation. There are other powers, other ways people could put things together. It's not likely, but they might be able to trace me back to you."
I saw him tense and it was honestly hard to watch. Slowly, he relaxed, but it was a more forced action than I had seen earlier. "Thank you for the warning, but I made a commitment when I arranged this session. If I didn't feel safe I assure you, I would have called it off."
I had less confidence in his assessment of the risks than he did. Slowly, I took a breath and considered things. I wanted him to be safe, but I had limited ways of accomplishing that. I also didn't know what the procedure was, or official policy, or any professional risks he was taking in continuing to meet with me.
"If I could make something that would keep you safe, would you be alright with that?" I asked, casually offering an item of supreme power to ensure my therapy schedule didn't get interrupted.
"If you think there's a significant risk I would be happy to help you mitigate any potential threat." He said diplomatically. "Though I would prefer to limit any obvious connection. The technology you make is spectacular, but it is fairly distinct." He looked at the white noise machine. At a glance it might be able to pass for a high-end compact speaker system, but enough of my style had bled through that it clearly stood out as a paragon of design. The kind of thing that would headline a designer collection, some artist's take on modern living, not an appliance you'd pick up at the mall.
"What if it wasn't technology?" I asked.
"I don't quite understand." He said. "Are you talking about something like a bullet proof vest?"
"No." I cringed as I realized what I was going to have to explain. One of those topics I'd happily been able to avoid. Well, that was a lost cause now. It was just a game of 'how far can I go without having to say the word 'magic'.
Wait, there was actually an incredibly easy out.
"Dauntless." I blurted out.
"Dauntless?" Dr. Campbell asked.
Okay, it wasn't perfect, but he was the best example of effectively enchanted items as a display of parahuman ability. It would effectively let me explain what I was trying to do without having to get into mysticism.
"The way Dauntless's power works is in a kind of complex energy pattern attached to items. I can do something similar. But different." I added quickly as I saw his expression. "Not glowing white, and it doesn't take months of buildup, but I can do similar things. I can make normal items that have abilities attached to them."
Dr. Campbell nodded in understanding. "You're suggesting some kind of discrete item that would be able to protect me in the event the worst happens." He wagered. I nodded in confirmation. "Joe, that's very generous, but I don't think I can accept."
"What? Why not?" I asked sharply.
"With everything you are dealing with I don't want you to feel obligated to devote time of resources towards me." He explained. "I appreciate your concern, but I don't believe there is sufficient risk to warrant a shifting of your focus."
I sank back into my chair, practically collapsing into myself. "God…" I muttered.
"Joe?" Dr. Campbell asked. "Is something wrong?"
"Yes." I murmured without looking at him. "Yes, apparently I've done a terrible job of explaining things."
Dr. Campbell shifted uncomfortably. "Joe, if you think there is a serious risk-"
"Not the risk." I clarified, looking up. "Dr. Campbell, I was very powerful when I walked in here. I… I don't like talking about myself like this, but I was probably one of the strongest capes on the planet."
Dr. Campbell latched onto my meaning. "When you say 'was'…?"
"I was one of the strongest capes on the planet, and then I got that power." I explained. "That incredibly strong power. One of the strongest powers I've ever gotten. That strong power." I leaned forward. "I can spare the resources to make something to keep you safe."
Dr. Campbell leaned back in his seat. "Joe, if you're this adamant about it, of course I'm happy to accept any help you want to give. I was just saying, with everything you are dealing with I don't want you to go through any trouble."
"Trouble." I echoed his word and smiled. "Alright. How about only what I can make in the next ten seconds?"
He blinked. "Ten seconds?"
"Well, seven now." I said with a widening grin.
"Uh, yes? Of course." He said quickly.
With a rush of exhilaration, I raised a hand. Was this just an excuse to show off? To use my latest power? To demonstrate how far my power had come? Or was this actually a sincere attempt to ensure Dr. Campbell didn't end up in danger solely for associating with me?
Or was it all of those? Did the reason really matter anymore than the act? Maybe this was the right place for questions like that, but it wasn't the time. With a force of will I called out and summoned my Noble Phantasm.
I might have lost most of the spirit qualities of being a Heroic Spirit, and honestly the 'Heroic' side was a bit nebulous for me, but there was one aspect I had held on to. I still had a Noble Phantasm, the crystallization of my legend, such as it was. An item of power further bolstered by the strength of history and myth. I might not be able to enter spirit form, but I could call forth my Noble Phantasm from the intangible state it was held in.
The hammer that manifested in my hand wasn't my entire Noble Phantasm, just a portion of it. The glimmering tool was seemingly composed of thousands of motes of crystalline light assembled into the familiar shape of a smith's hammer. The weight, balance, and design of the tool was intensely familiar. After all, I was the one who made it.
Eons ago, or perhaps no time at all, I had worked. I had trained, studied, and built repeatedly until I finally achieved the level of perfection that no mortal could accomplish. I didn't truly understand the process I had learned, but I knew what I had built. I was holding part of it right now. For endless cycles of practice and improvement on the reverse side of the world, laboring beyond time on that perfect isle, I had built the item that was to be my Noble Phantasm.
The hammer wasn't just a hammer, it could be anything. I didn't spend a timeless existence making a single tool. Infinite iterations produced infinite possibilities. The nature of the work wasn't even truly defined, instead existing as potential. If the tool could be produced with an unlimited amount of time under the tutelage of beings of unfathomable knowledge and power then it was part of my Noble Phantasm.
But that wasn't the end of it. An infinite array of tools forged from starlight in what was almost certainly Avalon, or some version of it, was a powerful asset, but it wasn't an item of legend. My Noble Phantasm was much more than a celestial Swiss Army knife, which was a point I made and I brought the hammer down to strike the air in front of me, with Dr. Campbell's eyes tracking it the whole way.
From his perspective there was a flicker, a ripple in the air that seemed to suck itself in towards where the hammer of starlight had improbably struck against empty air, leaving a tiny slip of gold. A tie clip of intricate and immaculate design. From all appearances I had summoned an item, fully formed. The reality of the situation was completely different.
As a fundamental rule, Heroic Spirits existed to fight. It was the reason they existed within the Throne of Heroes. It was why they were summoned to the living world. A spirit could specialize in support, or defense, or any number of other areas, but they had to be able to function in combat.
A spirit with E rank parameters across the board would never be able to function in combat. A skill like Item Construction A+++ sounded impressive, but that skill required time and resources, leaving the spirit and their summoner vulnerable. Territory Creation could help mitigate that vulnerability by allowing the spirit to fortify a location until they can properly arm themselves with mystic codes, but at E rank that skill would not be able to accomplish much.
That only left the Noble Phantasm. The last chance, the final possibility for some way to contribute to combat, some way to fight. My Noble Phantasm was only C rank, but for my purposes that was enough.
It was classified as an Anti-Unit (Self) Noble Phantasm, taking the form of the tools and equipment I had built while training under the fey. The divine construct acted as a focus, an item capable of high-thaumaturgy, generating an effect half way between a bounded field and a reality marble. It wasn't actually a reality marble. A reality marble couldn't sustain itself long enough for the Noble Phantasm to function, which depending on your perspective could either be an instantaneous or an eternity.
My Noble Phantasm's name was Works of Timeless Eternity: Mystic Forge. Despite the grand terminology it existed for the single purpose, allowing the Item Construction skill to be used in combat. The bounded field generated focused on a specific item, covering just enough to allow work to progress.
It was the work I had undertaken in my training under the fey, brought into the physical world. Within the effect, it would be wrong to say time had stopped. Time, as a concept, was suspended. As such time only progressed for the object in question and, to a much lesser extent, for the craftsman using the Noble Phantasm. Interaction was limited, but it allowed me to complete the most challenging of projects, effectively instantly.
Just like with the components of my Noble Phantasm, materials could be summoned through a combination of temporal effects and Spatial Transportation. The effect was impressive in the magecraft behind it, but operated solely to call forth crafting materials and components from my own reserves. The highest level of thaumaturgy used to ensure I didn't need to run out to pick up supplies.
When the hammer came down my Noble Phantasm activated. For this scale of use I didn't need to call out its true name, just a pulse of mana was enough to cover the manifestation of the bounded field. The world dropped away, taking the concept of time with it as I was surrounded by the work of a thousand lifetimes, every item that could possibly be required for this or any other kind of work was at my disposal, all crafted by my own hand and marked with the fairy letters of divinity.
The hammer shifted, being replaced with jeweler's tools also constructed of captured starlight. On a workbench formed from the edge of night following the setting sun. Slivers of mythic metal clinked against the impossible surface, summoned from reserves in my workshop, spirited through time and space to reach within the timeless field. A flame sparked from the warmth of a perfect summer day melted the slivers, sending them flowing into molds carved from the form of distant mountains, then drawn through with channels made from the scent of a spring breeze.
The Forge, and all its components had been built on the reverse side of the world, in a texture of reality that couldn't exist. It had been built from the fabric of the land around it, cast into perfection through eternal effort and carrying the impossible nature of that majestic place with it, allowing this work, in this moment, stretched for eternity.
When the work was complete, when the simple but elegant tie clip was finished, the field dropped and time reasserted itself. The nature of timelessness faded away, bringing back concepts of frustration, boredom, exhaustion, and all the other things that hadn't existed during my work. Inside the field was the pure crafting of a timeless realm, the truest expression of what I had learned at the feet of the greatest of fey.
Through that I was able to work with care and patience. Patience was effectively meaningless in an area where time temporarily didn't truly exist. The mystic code I had produced would have been the work of days of constant labor, months for anyone without my speed of crafting, but it had been completed in an instant.
I handed the tie clip to Dr. Campbell. "I just made this. That effect, it kind of pauses things so I can finish work." He gently took the clip and felt the weight of it, running his fingertips over the delicate engraved texture.
"What does it do?" He asked, not taking his eyes off of it.
The actual magecraft at work was incredibly subtle and complex, but I could sum it up in broad strokes. "It diverts attention. Basically, if someone or something would come after you with hostile intent, it will shield you from it, but not in an overt way. It makes it harder to target you, or even make the connection. As long as you aren't involved in a situation it will be very difficult to bring you into it." The diversion was not quite a conceptual effect, but it was close. Someone spraying bullets into a crowd would be incredibly unlikely to hit the person wearing that clip, and I think he was pretty much safe from IRS audits for the rest of his life.
"That's… very impressive." He spoke slowly and his hands moved to fix the clip in place. "I don't quite understand how it works, but I appreciate what you've done. He glanced up as the tools in my hands faded back into spirit form. "And I think I have a better idea of what you were talking about now."
I nodded as the Forge missed a connection to the Magitech constellation. That use of my Noble Phantasm had taken a chunk of my mana to complete, and was fairly minor by the standards of that ability. The mana cost scaled with the size of the item and the complexity of the crafting. Unfortunately, that 'timeless' effect meant I couldn't use the bounded field to recover mana, meaning the use was somewhat limited. That said, it did have another application. A special effect, and the real trump card of my Noble Phantasm.
The component tools of my Noble Phantasm were of limited use as weapons, only having the damage potential of a very low ranked anti-unit Noble Phantasm. They could still be used to fight, but the real secret came with the activation of the Noble Phantasm's true power. If activated in response to an attack the bounded field could partially encompass the attacking effect, providing a tremendous amount of information. The result was an increase of my Mana parameter and Item Construction skill by one rank for the purpose of creating a countermeasure to the attack.
Countercraft was ruinously costly, both in terms of mana expenditure, as the rank up effect only lasted for the duration of the field, and in terms of the materials required to build a countermeasure to the types of weapons a Heroic Spirit would be likely to face. Still, it served its purpose in bringing Item Creation out of the workshop and into combat.
That was the power I had now. It wasn't unlimited, but I could effectively build anything, anywhere. Certain unique effects, like my volcano and Skyforge couldn't be duplicated, but materials prepared by them could be called. By all respects an increase in crafting speed shouldn't have been that impressive for me, but the versatility and capacity of the effect more than made up for it.
"I'm glad you like it." I said. It felt a bit awkward, you didn't really give gifts to your therapist, and if that was uncomfortable then there was really no metric for 'divine item of mystic power designed to shield you from any harm that our association might bring down upon you'. "And I'm-"
I cut myself off as an alert reached me. I had been ignoring the chatter of the Workshop through the session, and my duplicates had been sure to give me my space, but this was something significant enough to push through.
We had just hit 48 hours from the moment March and Oni-lee had ambushed me. It was the fabled restoration point, the point at which my costume would restore itself and hopefully recall the Dust that had been spread through the city.
That had happened, mostly. The active effects had all suddenly vanished, though damage that had been inflicted was still present, obviously. There was some evidence of residual effects in a few of the dust trails, but I didn't have detailed enough readings to break down the exact cause. And at the moment I had bigger problems.
The bigger problem actually happened slightly before the costume restored itself and the Dust trails vanished. That was because the motoroid had been struck slightly before my own ambush. As such, it was restored slightly ahead of that as well.
I didn't know what was going to happen to the motoroid. Given the apparent complete destruction I didn't have particularly high hopes. From the look of things, 'what' might have been the wrong question to be asking.
"Um, I'm sorry Dr. Campbell, I need to deal with something." I quickly stated, getting to my feet.
"Of course. I hope it's nothing serious?" He said, standing as well.
"More unusual than serious." At least I hoped. "Um, can we set something up for a few days from now? Like, maybe Tuesday?" Given what I had to deal with now, and then Somer's Rock, and then whatever mess followed Somer's Rock I had no doubt there'd be enough to talk about. If by some miracle things were calm I might be able to get through everything I had to leave out of this session.
"That would be fine. I think I have a slot open at the same time, but I'll text you to confirm. Now, please, don't let me keep you."
"Thank you." I said on my way out of the office. "And sorry for cutting things short."
"Um, you forgot your…" He indicated to the white noise machine, which was still softly playing its soothing sound.
"You can keep it." I called back, shifting my attention to the new crisis in the workshop. Opening up my neural link I extended my connection to try to get a grip on the situation
'Now Fleet, tell me. Where exactly did the motoroid repair itself?"
Jumpchain abilities this chapter:
Class Jumper (Fate Servant Supplement) 50:
The Anomalous class. Possibly a hero of another world or many worlds. There is no common denominator to this class. It is the most unpredictable of the classes. They gain no base stats (Strength, Endurance, Agility, Mana, and Luck) above the E Rank base level (E x10 the human peak.). They gain a discount on one stat of their choice. They gain one Skill of their choice as their Class Skill (Territory Creation). Jumper also can pick Personalised Class Name for free. You get one C rank Skill (Magecraft) free and receive an E rank for free in any Class Skill you have according to your bought Class. You receive one C rank Noble Phantasm for free.
Territory Creation E - This skill allows the servant to build a special terrain that is advantageous to oneself as a magus. A Territory allows the creator to cast stronger spells at a reduced cost, with the effects increasing as the rank does
Magecraft C - Knowledge about modern Thaumaturgy
Noble Phantasm C - Works of Timeless Eternity: Mystic Forge, Anti-Unit (self)
Item Construction A+++ (Fate Servant Supplement) 550:
Item Construction is a Caster-class Skill. It is the Skill to manufacture magical items, from implements of war to items for daily use. Also, this Skill requires time to gather components and manufacture items.