icomeanon6

It's "I Come Anon"

Age 26
Male
Northern Virginia
Seen 2 Weeks Ago
Posted May 26th, 2018
1,184 posts
11.8 Years
XI

The Prisoner

Joanie was alone. She stood in one of the hallways of the stone village that surrounded the Vaccine base, and struggled over what she would do next. Eventually she would have to tell the children that Ross had disappeared. What she didn’t know was whether she could tell them that he had gone insane immediately prior to that. He had tried to kill an unarmed captive over an insult, and she felt that some black magic had wanted him to. Now she suspected that she had been right about Ross from the beginning: he hadn’t been fighting a war, he had been trying to kill someone who made him angry. If that was the case, then she had to be ready to keep the children away from him in case he ever came back.

But she didn’t want any of that to be true. What if he had been honest before, but wasn’t in control of his own actions at the end? He could have been sleepwalking, or the Commander could have cast a spell on him, or any number of other preposterous excuses could have been the case. It was bad enough that he was gone, but why did he have to go like this? Why did he have to destroy the person she thought he was first?

She didn’t want to learn the answers to any of these questions, but she had to know, and so far no one had been able to help. Angemon had only provided the vaguest explanation for the shadow—something about how the sword ‘felt’ like a Virus for a moment, and how it had gone away in a direction Angemon didn’t recognize. That wasn’t enough for her. She needed something definitive, and there was only one person who might be able to give her something.

She knew there was a slim chance of any good coming from it, and that it was stupidly dangerous, but she had to talk to the Commander.

Joanie made her way back to the room where the Commander was held in chains. There were no guards—the Gotsumon wouldn’t allow any Vaccine-types that weren’t officers into their tunnels, and Angemon and Garurumon were busy elsewhere. In the thin light of the candles Joanie could see that the Commander was asleep just where they had left him. He was most likely still knocked out.

Joanie approached him. When he was still and his eyes were closed, he looked merely like a boy about her age, maybe a bit older, who had been beaten senseless. Immediately she drove that impression from her mind. She wouldn’t allow herself to feel pity for him when she needed to be strong. ‘When Christ said to visit those in prison, He didn’t mean in cases like this,’ she thought. ‘This prisoner can get mercy when we know he isn’t dangerous anymore.’

She knelt down, and was about to shake his arm when she stopped. Something was wrong. ‘Of course something’s wrong. Everything is messed up today. Just get it over with.’

“Wake up,” said Joanie, as she prodded him.

The Commander groaned, but he didn’t open his eyes. His voice was different than before. He sounded parched, as if he had had nothing to drink for weeks. Then he stirred, and slowly he opened his mouth.

“Joanie…?”

Every part of Joanie’s body seized up. His voice had been poison before, but it had done nothing to her this new voice did.

“Did we get him?…Did we win?”

She nearly screamed and had to cover her mouth. Her eyes welled up, and she clutched her side. This couldn’t be happening. It was a trick. It was a bad dream.

The prisoner started to move again, and in a fit of fear Joanie said, “Wait! Don’t…don’t move.”

The prisoner opened his mouth again, but she didn’t let him say anything. “Just hold still. There’s…there’s something in your back. That’s why it feels weird. We have to…to get it out, so just go back to sleep. If…If you move it’ll be really bad so just go back to sleep.”

Whether out of obedience or because he was truly still exhausted, the prisoner didn’t move and his eyes remained shut. Joanie forced herself to look closer at his bandaged face. The bandages were held in place with long-since dried blood, and in the dim light she tried to convince herself that the face didn’t look at all familiar. She reached out with her hand, but as soon as her fingers touched his face the wrappings turned into ash and then into nothing, as if they had been an illusion from the beginning.

The Commander’s face was Ross’s, just as the Commander’s voice was Ross’s. Even the long scar that the Commander himself had dealt earlier that day was present, but now it looked old instead of new. Joanie stood up, and had to bite on her fingers to remain silent. She had no doubt that this was a nightmare, or at least that she had to treat it like one. The Commander’s voice had been different before, everyone knew it.

She fled the room. The minutes that followed were a blur. She avoided everyone, and stayed under the cover of night as much as possible. None of them could know what she had seen. It was an illusion, so if anyone saw Ross now it would be very bad and they might think he really was the Commander. As she snuck into Angemon’s unoccupied tent and grabbed some things, it occurred to her that if the prisoner was actually the Commander they might think he was Ross, and Ross would be in danger when he came back. In either case her course of action was the same. And so it was that she came back to the room with a key and a set of mostly ruined clothes. She had left the knife behind.

She made sure not to wake Ross before unlocking the chains. She hoped that his head would still be cloudy enough that he didn’t realize what she was doing, and she prayed that what she was doing was the right thing. Ross began to stir as she tucked away the chains, and only then did she say to him, “Get up. We have to go.”

She helped Ross to his feet. Ross opened his eyes, but it seemed like he couldn’t focus them. “Wh…”

“Don’t talk. Just change into these.”

While Ross was still delirious, Joanie practically undressed him herself. She kept her eyes under control out of habit, but in truth the only thing on her mind was making him look like Ross again and getting out of there as fast as possible.

As for Ross, he seemed to be clearing up at just the right pace. He didn’t notice the chains, he didn’t ask about what clothes he had been wearing earlier, but he was still able to put on his old outfit by himself.

She led him out of the room and down the dark tunnels. He nearly stumbled several times but remained quiet. Joanie meanwhile had to decide what the next part of her plan was as they walked. No one could see him or they might ask questions, so she realized that left only one option: they had to go anywhere far away from here. They emerged from the village of tunnels, and she led him away from the tents and towards the switchback trail. When they reached the bottom of it Ross fell on his knees immediately. When Joanie tried to pull him up again he was unresponsive, and then she noticed he had fallen asleep again on the spot. She slapped his face just hard enough to rouse him again. Then for the second time that night she found herself acting as his crutch, the difference being that now it was uphill.

When they were half-way up, Ross was finally awake enough to speak. “Hey, Joanie…What’s going on?”

“Just keep walking.” She didn’t need this right now. She was at her wit’s end, and she needed to stay sharp or they wouldn’t make it far. She wracked her brain over whether she was missing anything, but she kept drawing blanks.

So they kept going, and then Ross asked, “Where are the kids? They okay?”

Joanie swallowed. “They’re safe. I’m going to take care of them later.” She could barely give a straight answer, and she had completely forgotten about the children. But of course, she thought, what she was doing only made sense for the children. They wouldn’t understand this spell someone had put on Ross, and if this was truly the Commander and he was dangerous she was getting him away from them.

Then it hit her. This person with his arms on her shoulders was a murderer. He was a cold-blooded killer, and he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds. And he was touching her and she was touching him and she wanted to scream it was so awful. They came to a torch, and she had to stop, shrug him off, and walk away a few paces.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Nothing,” she answered, in a way that made it clear it was something. “I just need to think for a second.”

She closed her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could on calming herself down. Things she had missed before were starting to fit together. If they kept going this way they would walk past some Agumon keeping guard before they reached the open. They couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back either without running into someone. The inevitability of someone finding them was too much for her, so she thought about something else.

Why was the Commander now Ross? She had guessed it was an illusion or a nightmare, but now she realized there was an explanation that she should have seen right away: the paradox. Earlier that day, when they fought the Commander, she couldn’t shoot him. She could assume that if she had shot him, then something would have prevented the situation from arising in the first place.

She could only think of one consistent possibility. The shadow from the Commander’s sword had not merely made Ross vanish, but had sent him back in time to become the Commander himself. The circumstances of how Ross was sent back in time had already been set in stone, and anything that might have prevented that occurrence was not permitted. She found words in her head to express the idea that she had already known from the PPTRs: ‘Nothing can change the past, even if the past took place in the future.’ She couldn’t shoot the Commander because then Ross’s final confrontation with him—the circumstance that sent Ross back to become the Commander—would never take place, and from a causal perspective that had already happened.

All this made Joanie feel terribly ill. On a surface level it seemed to take Ross’s free will out of the picture and potentially exonerated him, but she knew there was more to it than that. To get sparks from the stones, one had to be determined to strike the stone regardless of what happened afterward. The sparks both limited one’s free will and opened up the possibility for perhaps the purest, most forceful example of free will. She knew then that this loop in time was only possible because it was willed to happen, and willed so strongly that potential paradoxes like an arrow to the heart were prevented in spite of a third party’s free will. If Ross’s will was a part of that equation, it meant he had wanted whatever turned him into the Commander so badly that literally nothing could keep it from happening. Regardless of what magic was involved in the time travel itself, it wouldn’t have worked without Ross’s unshakeable cooperation.

It was all true. This was truly Ross, and Ross was truly a monster.

She had spent minutes working this over, and during that time Ross had been silent. When he finally spoke again, he sounded much more awake and this terrified Joanie. “Joanie, you have to clue me in here. What happened? Did we get the Commander?”

Joanie had no idea how to answer. She didn’t even know whether answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would be the lie. Before she had any idea how she was going to follow it up, she whispered, “No.”

Joanie was still looking away from Ross, so she couldn’t tell how he was taking to the news until he lost his temper and shouted, “Dammit!”

She jumped at the sound of his angry voice, and a tear started falling down her cheek. Ross couldn’t see this and kept going. “How? We had him cornered! Angemon and Garurumon were coming! We had him dead to rights! He was—”

Joanie couldn’t take any more of this. She faced him again and screamed, “Stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it!”

Ross was completely jarred from his anger, and just stared at Joanie’s crying face with his mouth agape.

“Don’t you get it? This is why you turned out like this! I told you to stop fighting but you wouldn’t listen and now you’re…you’re…”

“Joanie, I—”

He couldn’t be allowed to speak, so she shouted even louder. “Shut up! If you’d just shut up about fighting and killing you wouldn’t have…you’d…”

“But I didn’t—”

She didn’t know what he was about to say, but she couldn’t let him say it. She had to say anything to make him understand, even if she couldn’t think about what she was saying first like she had always tried to. “Yes you did! You weren’t doing it for us! It was just revenge, just killing! It was obvious! You lied and you lied to me and you didn’t listen and if you’d just stopped like I said then you wouldn’t be…you wouldn’t be a murderer!”

She said it. That last word had left her mouth, and immediately she wanted it back. She stared into Ross’s eyes, and saw nothing there. There was no objection. He wasn’t reacting at all. Painful seconds passed, and then he began to twitch and tear up. He covered his mouth as if about to throw up, and then doubled over and fell to his knees, shaking.

He was remembering. Joanie could see it. She didn’t know what to say, or if maybe she should just run away from him on the spot. He was moaning, and she barely heard the words, “No…oh god…no…”

Joanie was torn apart. If she didn’t know what Ross was, this would like a friend in terrible pain. How much did he remember? Why hadn’t he remembered any of them when he was the Commander? Had they tortured him? Was it an act? She could barely stand herself for thinking this might just be a display, but she had to be careful around this stranger who was either one of the few friends she had left or a sociopathic killer.

She couldn’t say anything else, and she couldn’t move or look away either.

Then all at once, a white light came from above that nearly blinded her. She looked up, and saw that the light was coming from Angemon’s six wings. They had been found.

Next she heard quick, heavy feet, and then Garurumon bounded into view. On his back rode Jacob, who had his sword out. Jacob slid off, and approached them with a look of utter disbelief on his face. “…What the hell?”

Joanie was a wreck, and she knew it. She wanted to tell Jacob, ‘It’s not what you think,’ or ‘It’s exactly what you think,’ or ‘Help.’ As for Ross, he apparently couldn’t even look up at any of the others.

*********

Michael was afraid. He had spent most of the last few months being afraid, so this was nothing new. Walking next to him was Tatiana, who of course seemed perfectly fine and unafraid of anything. He wondered how she couldn’t be scared right now, but that was Tat. It never meant anything to Michael when Tatiana wasn’t afraid of something because she wasn’t afraid of anything. Just as you can’t use a thermometer to gauge wind-chill temperature, you couldn’t use Tatiana to determine how scary something was. Of course, he couldn’t count on himself either to tell if something was scary for the same and opposite reason: he was afraid of everything. This included the dark tunnel they were passing through.

This tunnel led to the Holy City, which according to Jacob and Joanie was where they were going to settle for a good while. Far ahead of them, leading the way, and out of sight were Angemon and Garurumon, and with them was the Commander, their prisoner. Angemon was taking him to stand trial, which made Michael think that the war must be essentially over. Still, he couldn’t shake his sense of foreboding. He didn’t know which idea was worse: that they might still be in mortal danger from the Virus, or that when the war was over they’d start trying to go home and find that they never could.

That last thought was the scariest of all, so he tried to think about something else. He looked at the walls, which were different than how they’d been at the entrance. From the entrance the tunnel looked like a deep, gigantic cave, but now everything was cramped and looked dug out instead of natural.

“Hey, little Humans.”

The voice made Michael jump. He looked over and saw a huge mole’s head with a drill for a nose coming out of the wall. He staggered backward and into Tatiana, and luckily not into the torch she held. She pushed him back forward again and said “Watch it, Michael,” before moving him again; this time to the side so she could get a better look at the mole-thing.

“Name’s Drimogemon,” said the mole-thing. “Mind giving a message to Angemon for me?”

Michael and Tatiana said nothing. Michael knew he was too intimidated to say anything, but he wondered why Tatiana didn’t say anything either. It couldn’t be fear, of course. Meanwhile, the Drimogemon continued. “Tell him we’re not going to re-dig the tunnel any bigger unless he tells us exactly how we’ll be compensated. We want something you can only find in the Vaccine city. If he gives us something unimpressive it might be bad for his health.”

The Drimogemon laughed and spun his drill-nose. Michael shook at the sight, but then Jacob caught up to them. “Just ignore him, guys. He can’t do anything to Angemon.”

“Are you sure about that, Human? I’ve never lost to a Vaccine before.”

“You ever beaten a Vaccine who can fly? Better hope he doesn’t decide to deliver payment above ground.”

Drimogemon grumbled something and disappeared again into the rock. Michael wished he could have a way with words like that, or at least be brave enough to say anything at all.

Joanie and the younger kids brought up the rear. “Drimogemon?” asked Joanie. She still sounded tired, Michael noticed. Just another thing to be worried about.

“Yeah,” said Jacob. “No biggie. Let’s keep moving, everyone.”

“Where’s Ross?” asked Carlos.

“Yeah, did we leave him behind?” added Krissy.

It looked to Michael like Joanie was about to say something, but Jacob beat her to it. “Ross had somewhere to go this morning with Unimon. They’ll catch up with us later. Now really, everyone walk. Take point, Tat.”

Tatiana started leading the kids further down the underground path. Michael noticed that the two older kids were hanging behind, and he found himself lagging as well to stay within earshot.

“…you’re not in trouble…” he heard Jacob say to Joanie, just barely. “…don’t know how I’d have reacted to………st forget abou…”

Michael stopped listening and hustled back to the others. He shouldn’t have done that. He could hear his mom telling him why it’s wrong to eavesdrop. He didn’t know what exact words she would have used because he was still a stupid kid, but he knew her precise tone for that situation. Not harsh but very firm, and she would make him rephrase it so she knew that he understood. He missed his mom.

When he reached them, the other kids were chatting. “Why isn’t Biyomon coming with us?” asked Jamie.

Tatiana answered him. “She’s got to look after the Viximon, but Angemon said that Data-types aren’t allowed in the Holy City.”

“That’s dumb,” said Nathan. “Why’s that have to be the rule?”

“Dunno,” said Tatiana. “We should ask them to change their minds.”

Before long Jacob and Joanie were back with the group as well. And after what felt like forever, the tunnel widened and looked like a natural cave again. Ahead of them some dozens of yards stood Angemon. He held a gold staff, and all around him the air looked like it was charged with electricity. The walls at that point of the tunnel were like molten lava that somehow stayed in place.

“Move quickly, Humans,” said Angemon. “This is the weak point in the field, but it’s not safe to dawdle even while I’m here.”

Tatiana ran on through, and the younger kids reluctantly followed her. Joanie and Jacob went next, perfectly composed of course. Michael passed through last. It tingled his skin, but like everyone else he was unscathed.

Suddenly Michael realized that Angemon shouldn’t be alone. “Angemon, where’s—”

“Garurumon has him, and he’s with some agents from the Holy City whom we met up with. Don’t concern yourself over it and stay with the others.”

Michael nodded and hustled back to the rest of the crowd again. It was sort of a relief that the Commander was that far ahead of them now. Michael had still never seen his face, and that was the way he wanted it.

They kept walking for what felt like another mile, and Michael was getting tired. What he saw next though made any feeling of fatigue disappear. The natural stone pathway led to an underground road of marble. It was lined with columns that were gilded with bright gold. He marveled at the sight, and could hardly wait to see what kind of city the road led to. He didn’t have to wait for long.

After a sharp bend in the road, the tunnel ended and they emerged onto a bridge that must have been four hundred above ground. It was fortunate that there were guard rails, otherwise Michael might have darted back into the tunnel on the spot. Instead he looked forward, and saw a more magnificent structure than he could have imagined. The Holy City appeared as a massive stone rotunda surrounded by gold towers that rose almost as tall as the un-scalable cliffs and mountains that surrounded the place. There were more windows on the main city and the towers than he could count. There was no blue in the sky above them, but rather rapidly swirling clouds that glowed with their own light.

But as much as the city itself took Michael’s breath away, it paled in comparison to what he saw behind it. Rising above the tallest peak was a stone angel so large that to call it a colossus would have made it sound too small. Its bare feet seemed to be pressing into the mountain, not as though they had been carved from there but as if they had been planted firmly upon landing. Michael recognized at once that it was nearly identical to the statue they had seen upon finding Ross after the first battle. It had two wings spread wide to keep it on balance, it wore a simple cloth blindfold, and with its right arm it pointed somewhere far to the north.

“I reacted the same way when I first saw it.”

Michael was jarred back to the moment by Angemon, who had a proud smile on his face. Michael wanted to express all the wonderful thoughts he had about the city and the gigantic statue, but he didn’t know where to begin.

“The true beauty of the City is inside, though,” continued Angemon. “Let’s catch up to your friends.”

It was only then that Michael noticed that the rest of the company was far ahead. He ran after them while Angemon floated easily beside him. Soon he was with Jacob and Joanie again, who were also having trouble articulating their opinions.

How did they build it all?” asked Joanie.

All Jacob could offer as an answer was, “Man, just…man.”

As they came close to the main doorway, Michael finally found some words of substance. “It’s like what you think a cathedral or a stadium looks like when you’re too little to know they’re not actually that big, only this is for real.”

Joanie laughed. “Yeah, I can see it. That’s good, Michael.”

They passed through the open doors which towered above their heads and were adorned with intricate carvings of angels’ wings. There was only one Vaccine in the grand foyer waiting to meet them, and he was more than enough.

“Agumon!” cried many of them, but Tatiana the loudest as they mobbed the little orange dinosaur. Jacob and Joanie hung back for a moment as if they were unsure if this was their Agumon. Michael didn’t know what their problem was. He could tell right away that this was their Agumon, as could apparently all the younger kids.

“Long time no see!” said Agumon with a laugh as every kid either gave him a hug or shook his claws. Of course, it had only been a few days, even if it had felt like a very long few days.

Michael was the last to get in his hand/claw-shake, and as soon as he did Tatiana cut straight to the chase. “You’ve got to tell us everything that happened! Right now!”

Michael noticed Agumon take a quick glance at Angemon before he scratched his head. “Gee, I dunno. It’s a pretty scary story.”

This of course led to a very loud interrogation from the younger kids that kind of gave Michael a headache. He found himself stepping back a bit and looking up at the towering ceiling. It was covered with complex geometric patterns, and as much as Michael was taken by their beauty he was also frustrated at how he couldn’t tell what logic underpinned the angles and curves. It was unpredictable, but never quite random. It had flow and direction, and each little section of it looked uncannily similar to the larger picture. He wished he had a word for what it was and wondered if they would cover this kind of thing in middle school.

Before he knew it, the pattern had taken him into some other hallway and he was alone. This was exactly the sort of thing that should have scared him, seeing as it fell under the umbrella of ‘everything,’ but he was calm. The place felt like a church, and it felt good to go to church again after so long. Joanie had explained to him that God was understanding when something beyond your control kept you away from church—as long as you still wanted to go, which he did. But that never stopped him from feeling guilty about how he didn’t even know what day was Sunday anymore.

On that note, there was one key difference between this place and church on a Sunday: where the church would be crowded, this place felt nearly abandoned. He hadn’t seen any locals yet, even though he’d been walking around for somewhere between five and thirty minutes. Admittedly he had spent most of that time looking at the ceiling and he had no idea how long he had actually been by himself, but it was still weird that there was nobody around.

Michael decided it was time to head back, not that he knew which way he had entered this hall from because he had turned around a few times while staring upward. He picked a direction and walked that way until he came to a wooden door. Something compelled him to knock, and when he did the door opened on its own. Seeing this as an invitation, he passed the threshold and was enveloped with warm air. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the room’s soft candlelight.

It was a library. There were shelves and shelves of very old-looking books and a few ornate, wooden desks. At the end of the room Michael could see a balcony, and past that one of the library’s lower floors. He walked up to the railing, and when he looked up he saw that there were dozens of floors above him. Then he made the mistake of looking down.

He must have been on the hundredth floor. The drop was so far that he couldn’t see the bottom. There was a crawling sensation in his stomach: something that told him the railing was too short and that he would fall over it and then down for miles and miles after which he would land on his head and die. He stumbled back from the edge, and couldn’t calm down until he hugged the floor well away from the balcony for a minute.

When his heart slowed down and he could breathe normally, he stood up. He would be all right so long as he stayed away from the balcony. Instead he went to the nearest desk, which had a large book sitting open on it. He sat down and began to read.

It was a difficult book. It described some mathematical principles in words that he had never heard of and had to skip over. But then he came across a word, no, a name that he recognized. ‘Babbage.’

He had read it before, either in one of his classes or maybe when he was just browsing Wikipedia. He knew that Babbage had something to do with very early computers. And sure enough, the next page in the book described Babbage’s design for an ‘Analytical Engine,’ which Michael interpreted to mean ‘computer,’ and he was correct. He read other words and phrases that he could make sense of on the page, such as ‘programmable’ and ‘punch card.’ He was so enraptured, so amazed to find a book like this in the new world that he didn’t notice he had company until she said, “That’s some impressive reading.”

Michael jumped a little, as he nearly always did when someone unexpected showed up. Sitting on all fours on the far edge of the desk was a cat, though Michael knew by now that it was obviously not just a cat. “I’m Gatomon. What’s your name, Human?”

Gatomon had white fur accented with purple. It wore gloves on its front paws that had holes for the long claws that were common among the ’mons. All that was strange, but what grabbed Michael’s attention the most was the bright gold ring that hung at the end of Gatomon’s tail. It didn’t grip her tail, but just hung in place as if there were no other place it could possibly be, gravity be danged.

“I’m Michael. I’m here with…uh…”

“You’re here with the other Humans, I know. Don’t worry, I’m not here to throw you out. It’s wonderful to have someone from the Holy World to read the books. So how well can you read?”

Michael wasn’t sure how to answer. It wouldn’t mean much to say that his English teacher thought he was reading at a seventh grade level. “Uh…above average?”

“What’s average for a Human? How well do you read that book there?”

Michael was still at a loss, so he decided to simply give her a demonstration. “It says, ‘What follows is a proof that Babbage’s Analytical Engine is in fact Turing-complete, putting it in the same general category as any modern mainframe computer.’”

Gatomon’s eyes lit up. “Outstanding! And you know what all of those words mean?”

“Well…no. I don’t know what ‘Turing-complete’ means, or what exactly it means by ‘mainframe’ either. I can say them out loud, anyway.”

“Then you read better than any Adult-level I know, including me. Do all Humans read so well?”

Michael thought for a moment. He hated being technically correct but misleading. “I read a bit better than most kids my age, but most humans are older and read way better than I do. I bet Joanie could make sense of this book.”

Gatomon stood on her hind legs to get a better look at the words on the page. “Simply marvelous. I suppose it only makes sense that one of the Creators could read and understand a Creator’s writing. I’ll have to have you and this Joanie come read with Angewomon—together I’m sure you’d be able to decipher anything in the library.”

“So this book is from our world?”

Gatomon smiled and nodded. “It is, as is every book. I have it on authority from MagnaAngemon himself.”

Michael looked around at the extensive shelves, and pictured the countless floors above and below them. He couldn’t imagine this many books had been written in human history. “You said ‘every book.’ Is every book here?”

“I’d be greatly surprised, though I suspect we have at least one book on most of the secrets of the Holy World: countless examples of frightening beauty and terrible power. I’m almost glad I can scarcely read any of it.”

Michael believed her, but he couldn’t help but think there was little in the way of ‘terrible power’ in a book about mechanical computers. “What kind of terrible power?”

Gatomon made a knowing little meow. “I couldn’t tell you exactly, like I said. But terrible enough—it is written—to humble the Ultimate-levels of antiquity. So to say, terrible enough that we can’t let just anyone into this city.”

Michael swallowed. This was the closest thing to an actual reason he had heard for the existence of the gigantic storm that surrounded them above and stirred the earth into fire below.

Gatomon spoke again, still cheerfully but with a new layer of earnestness. “Do not be afraid, Michael. We will never allow those who have no reverence for the Holy World to enter the Holy City.”

*********

When they finally removed the hood from Ross’s head, he was sitting in the middle of a small, indoor amphitheater. He was in the Holy City, though this room was all he had seen of it. This was the city that he had sustained deep wounds to protect, and the city he had later sold out, thinking it was in the hands of his enemy.

He was dressed in the clothes of the same enemy. Joanie had tried to disguise him as himself, but it didn’t work. Now he was someone else again, so that the children wouldn’t accidentally see him clapped in irons. They would only see the Commander, and then Jacob or Joanie would rush them away because it was dangerous.

Sitting on elevated chairs in front of Ross were two angels, one male and one female. Like Angemon they wore helmets that covered their eyes, though theirs were far more ornate. They each had eight wings, and their armor was trimmed in regal purple. Without having to ask, Ross could intuit that they were Perfect-levels. Just as with Angemon, he could feel their invisible gaze pressing down on him, but theirs was even more pronounced.

Words were said, and Ross only half-listened to them. He got the gist, which was that MagnaAngemon and Angewomon—the he and the she respectively—were to determine whether he was guilty of treason and the murder of non-combatants. Over the long, painful hours since he had awoken—since he recovered his memories both before and after the Black Sword had devoured his mind—he had tried to settle for himself the same question of his culpability. He knew that most of the time the Commander had been a truly different person. The pure sadism, the unapologetic delight in the pain and death of others, came from a monstrous spirit that took his body captive and left him with incongruous memories. He knew that wasn’t him.

But he also knew law and philosophy. No drunk driver was ever absolved with the excuse that he wasn’t in his right mind when he decided to get behind the wheel. If he knew he would lose all control upon drinking, he took responsibility for whatever crimes he would commit the moment he decided to drink. And Ross had killed those who posed no threat to him when he was in his right mind: first a Gizamon whose imminent surrender he conveniently ignored, and later the DarkLizamon when he felt that his Gazimon wouldn’t evolve unless he called for blood. And perhaps most telling of all, he absolutely would have killed the Commander when he was an unarmed prisoner if fate hadn’t intervened. He might have done so even if he knew that in just a year or so that would be him.

As for treason, that was cut and dry. He was a de facto soldier in Angemon’s army, and had agreed to wipe the Holy City off the face of the planet.

So when they asked for his plea, Ross answered without hesitation. “Guilty.”

Ross heard murmurs of surprise and skepticism all around, so he turned his head to look. In the crowd of only a dozen or so there were some Angemon, some cat-like Vaccines he didn’t recognize, and lastly Jacob and Joanie. He couldn’t stand to see them now, so he looked back to MagnaAngemon and Angewomon right away. Jacob had appeared angry, but Joanie just seemed very sad.

When the whispers died down, MagnaAngemon spoke. “Do you mean to forfeit the rest of your trial, then? We are ready to listen to any alibis you may have.”

Ross didn’t care. More than anything else he just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. Or perhaps he wanted to be in the crowd, listening to the Commander’s mockery of a testimony in righteous disgust. But the Commander was gone now. All that he left behind for Ross was guilt and a cavity in his chest which before he had tried to hide with rage.

When it was clear Ross that wouldn’t answer, an Angemon—their Angemon—spoke up instead. “May I be allowed to speak to the prisoner, masters?”

The Perfect-levels’ heads were still, but they seemed to be consulting each other. “You may,” said Angewomon.

“Ross,” said their Angemon, “I will not dispute your plea, but it may be beneficial to yourself to still give a full explanation. There is still the matter of the obvious difference in character between how you are now and how you were only twenty-four hours ago, to say nothing of how there were somehow two of you at once. If you are worried that your reputation will be hurt by your testimony, you shouldn’t be. Remember that in our eyes you are already a traitor, a murderer, and a sadist, but I for one would rather be proven wrong. In light of your past service, I would rather hear your story.”

Ross swallowed. He longed for ignorance. If he could but say that he remembered nothing of the past year—if he could be miserable in confusion instead of miserable in clarity—he would jump at the opportunity. But that wasn’t the case, and he couldn’t pretend it was the case without dying of shame. On top of that, there was an overwhelming danger that he had brought into the world and had avoided thinking about until now. He had to tell them or it would mean certain death for everyone in the room.

So he started from the beginning of his wrongdoing. He explained what he had thought and felt while fighting for Angemon, where he had gone after he tried to kill the Commander, everything WaruPiximon had told him in the Valley of Ruin, as many details of his training that he could recall, and all the events of his final night with the High Council of Virus.

The entire room was crushed with an ominous silence. In a small voice that no one would ever associate with one who had done what he had, Ross finished by summarizing the most pressing point. “The Devidramon I forced to evolve should reach the Ultimate level in about three weeks, if WaruPiximon’s math and mine is correct. It will destroy this city with ease soon afterward.”

The Adult-levels in attendance broke into disorderly discussion.

“How could one of the Race of Creators do such a thing?”

“I won’t believe it. This pitiful wretch’s strength is nothing compared to the Ultimate-levels.”

“Would you doubt the power of a Human here, of all places?”

Raising his voice above the others, the humans’ Angemon addressed the Perfect-levels again. “Masters, we must go on the offensive and destroy this abomination while we still can!”

“Impossible,” said MagnaAngemon. “You of all must know that our forces are too few. They would never reach the Council’s stronghold in time.”

“We might if you but led us there!”

“That, too, is impossible,” said Angewomon. “If we are not here to maintain the storm, then the Holy City may be taken instead of razed while we are away. It is better that this place be reduced to ash than the books of the Holy World fall into the wrong hands. We know at least that an evolution of Devidramon will be relentless in its attack.”

Ross bit his lip. As tempting as it was to remain silent, he couldn’t do so because of one thing from his story that the Vaccine had missed but he couldn’t let go unnoticed. “There—”

He stuttered, but everyone turned their attention to him. “There’s…In my view there’s only one way to repel the attack. That’s if w…that’s if you evolve an Ultimate-level of your own.”

The pressure from MagnaAngemon’s attention increased. “Can you do this for us?”

“No…I can’t. I learned how to work with the Virus, and I’m positive it wouldn’t work with any Vaccine. I…I don’t think someone like me ever could make a Vaccine evolve.”

Ross had to clear his throat before continuing. “It’s only a guess, but I think I know who might be able to help you. In the dream I described, I think I saw something of what WaruPiximon is afraid of. I don’t have evidence for it. I know that’s crazy, but—”

“We’re listening,” said MagnaAngemon.

“WaruPiximon didn’t want me to look a child in the eye. He isn’t even a little afraid of someone like me, but that kid terrified him. I think your only shot is with a human child.”

Ross looked around. Most of the Adult-levels did not seem convinced. Ross’s claim ran counter to their basic theory of what could provoke evolution. Evolution came from a surplus of power, so on its face it made no sense to entrust the job to someone whose physical potential was lower. Building his own strength was how Ross had come to a solution, but that was also at WaruPiximon’s prompting. After having been completely, inexcusably fooled, Ross would not risk playing into the monster’s hands again. If he had a lead as to what WaruPiximon thought could be disastrous, he would follow it.

One Vaccine at least thought the same way, and this was their Angemon. He nodded and addressed the Perfect-levels again. “I am in agreement with Ross. It would be wrong-headed to assume that Ross’s technique for the Virus would work on us. Also, this could explain why the Creators sent us more of their young than of their old.”

“It is true that there are many Human Child-levels among us,” said Angewomon, “But there is still the matter of knowledge and ability. I have read nothing in the library on the subject.”

Angemon turned his head to Ross. It seemed they were thinking the same thing. “I have a request,” said Ross.

Again all eyes were on him. To Ross’s surprise there was no immediate objection. “I don’t know how to evolve a Vaccine, but I know more about evolution in general than any of the other humans, maybe anyone period right now. I’d…Please—please let me coach a human child and a Vaccine-type to achieve evolution.”

The Perfect-levels regarded him sternly. “Do you have a Human and a Vaccine in mind?” asked MagnaAngemon.

“Two of our human children I think have the aptitude for it. Their names are Tatiana and Michael. If possible I’d like both of them in case one of them fails.”

“That is reasonable,” said Angewomon.

“Then for the Vaccines I want the two strongest that they’re familiar with. Those would be Angemon here and Garurumon.”

“Angemon is out of the question,” said MagnaAngemon. “We cannot play our best soldier on a million-to-one gamble. He will stay with the regular army.”

Angemon frowned. It was obvious to Ross that he wasn’t in agreement. Whether the disagreement was with the projected odds or with the decision regardless of the odds was another question. Ross didn’t agree with the odds himself, but only by a factor of ten or a hundred. It had been presumptuous to ask for that much to begin with. And as long as he was betting against strength being the solution anyway, he decided to ask for something he knew they would accept. “Then there’s an Agumon they know well. I want him and Garurumon.”

“Hmm,” was the only answer MagnaAngemon made. Angewomon didn’t say anything either. They weren’t ready to give final agreement, and Ross knew it wasn’t because he was asking for two Vaccine-types. It was a matter of trust, and he couldn’t fault their hesitance even a little. If he had been in their place, he never would have given the Commander the freedom to move his arms. But here he was asking them to trust two soldiers, one valiant and one invaluable, to the same Commander.

“I’m so sorry,” said Ross. It wasn’t time for reasoning. He could only hope to assuage their fears that he was still a killer. “I was selfish and cruel. I’ve doomed us all, and the only thing I want is to make it right. Please.”

There was silence for the following two minutes. At length, Angewomon spoke. “For the sake of this Angemon’s confidence, we will permit the Agumon of your choosing and Garurumon to follow your teaching, if they consent.”

“However,” said MagnaAngemon. “Know that in doing this we gamble with our own, and we will only bend our laws so far. Because of your crimes, you may never step foot in the Holy City again. You have twelve hours to leave, at which time you will face penalty of death for any continued presence here.”

Between his gratitude and his shame, Ross couldn’t bring himself to say anything more. Angemon then walked over and put his hand on his shoulder. “Come with me. Your preferred clothes will be returned to you.”

Ross slowly rose to his feet. The chains made it difficult to stand and walk. He supposed he might be strong enough to break them off outright, but he found the idea repulsive now. He had only ever been strong when he was either overwhelmingly angry or under the cloud of the Black Sword. Even though he could still feel that strength in his limbs, he was afraid to ever act at all like the Commander again. So he shuffled forward. He looked behind briefly to see if Joanie and Jacob were still there. Jacob was glaring at him, and Joanie was staring at her shoes.

When they had exited the room, Angemon moved his hands over Ross’s bonds and they removed themselves. “I am still angry and disappointed with you,” said Angemon, “But I also still believe in the victory that awaits us at the end of time, and that you and your friends were sent in service of that victory.”

Angemon led him down a hallway to a small, bare room. Ross supposed it was the same one he had waited in before the trial, though he couldn’t see it then. His clothes were lying in a heap in the corner. “You know I don’t believe in any of that, right?” said Ross. He figured there was no point in hiding anything anymore. “I don’t think we’re ‘Creators,’ or that we were sent by any, or that there are any. As for the end of time, the only one I’ve met in this world who demonstrated he could probably see the future was WaruPiximon. He knew my name even though I wouldn’t arrive from our world for nearly a year, and he didn’t seem convinced that the Vaccine are going to win in the end.”

In respect for Ross’s privacy, Angemon moved the pressure of his attention off of him and towards the wall. “I can’t say anything for or against this WaruPiximon’s foresight, and you have always made it clear that you don’t see any particular design behind your presence here. Regardless, I trust you. Though you reject the Creators—whom I might add we recognize as the ultimate source of good across all worlds—and though you have never named ‘evil’ as your enemy and ‘good’ as your ally, I know now that you understand the difference, and that you will not be tricked by the empty promises of evil again.”

Ross frowned as he changed. “How’s that?” he asked. He was doing this to save the lives he had endangered, not to pick a side in a metaphysical exercise.

“Your dream.”

The words pressed against Ross’s heart, and he froze in place. Angemon continued. “The figure of the child in your dream and the pure glow in its eyes was not a coincidence. To those of us who know that we of Creation are all petty, cruel, and vindictive creatures, to gaze upon and recognize the goodness of our Creators is a terrible pain. Our eyes are best suited to darkness, and their light is like the sun at noon in the desert. This is not rhetoric or analogy. It is the truth of this world, and it manifested exactly so in your dream.”

Ross finished changing and shook his head. Angemon was beginning to sound like a charismatic, evangelical sap who would see some nonsense in a dream, make some stuff up to fill the gaps, and call it revelation.

“You doubt me,” said Angemon, “But your dream speaks closer to my experience than you would ever guess. Look here and I will show you.”

Ross looked as Angemon rose his hands to his helmet. Angemon removed it with difficulty, and what Ross saw underneath it made him swallow his tongue. The angel’s eyes were twice as large as a human’s, and they were strained so red that Ross wondered if some blood vessels had burst. They had no irises, only pupils that seemed to be burned into place. Similarly, the skin all around Angemon’s eyes was covered in fresh burns, at least where there wasn’t scar tissue.

“Those of my order have been gifted with eyes of great sensitivity to light of all kinds: the light of the sun, the light of the truth, and the light of our Creators. To us these helmets are like thin veils that barely keep us from going blind. It is an embarrassment that our Creators thought shielding us from this pain was necessary, and a greater embarrassment still that we cannot bear to go without the protection for a minute.”

Even if Ross didn’t believe the spiritual claims, he couldn’t deny the obvious, constant pain that Angemon must have suffered. He could feel the intense burn that the dream had inflicted on his own eyes just by looking at Angemon’s unprotected face. Angemon gritted his teeth and returned his helmet to its proper place.

“WaruPiximon wanted you to turn your eyes away rather than bear even a little of the pain, which I am sure is what he has done himself. That which is good hurts him, so he calls that which is good ‘evil’ and that which is comfortable ‘good’ instead. But you, like us, did not turn your eyes away. In your heart of hearts you were not fooled, and so you felt the pain and still feel it now.”

Ross remained at a loss for words. All of his arguments against spiritual claims were intellectual, and that had always been enough. He had never been confronted with a spiritual perspective that aligned with his own experience and feelings. Angemon was still wrong, but he was compellingly wrong.

“You have three choices by my count if you wish to ease this pain. You can take on WaruPiximon’s delusions, you can live in madness like the Commander, or you can change yourself to match the child in your dream. I believe you will choose rightly now that you understand our enemy.”

Ross didn’t think that Angemon’s trust was at all well-founded, but he couldn’t help but feel a little relieved about it. “Then again,” said Ross, “It won’t matter what I choose if Michael and Tatiana don’t trust me anymore. I think I’ve already lost Michael, and when they learn the truth I don’t think they’ll be able to look me in the eye again.”

“We’ll see. You may be underestimating them.”

“If you mean you think they might forgive me, I’d use the word ‘overestimating’ instead.”

Angemon frowned. Ross however decided to change the subject before they could argue about the matter. “Anyway, I have a question before I have to leave.”

“Ask anything.”

“I don’t know which direction to go. I’d rather not go back southwest because the Virus army is still around, and I don’t know what’s past the other exits.”

“The answer would depend on what you want to find wherever you want to go.”

Ross had put a little thought into this question already. “I want to go somewhere that best suits the Vaccine, so the kids can understand them completely. For the Virus I used a wasteland where it was always raining—somewhere where the earth was dead and the sky was active. That hit a chord with them.”

Angemon sighed. “Then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. This place is the home of the Vaccine, and we never truly belong anywhere else we go. I wish I could persuade my superiors to let you teach the children here, but that is beyond my station.”

Ross had suspected this would be the answer. He supposed he would pick a direction at random or just leave it up to Garurumon.

“However…” Angemon apparently had something else to say, but he trailed off.

“What?”

“…If you want them to understand us—and few of us do ourselves—then you should go north.”

Ross waited for Angemon to continue, but he didn’t. “…What’s up north?”

“There is a very old trail that leads from the northern tunnel. I’ve heard it’s barely visible in spots anymore, but you should be able to follow it.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Where does the trail go?”

Angemon didn’t answer for a good while. “…As recompense for all the trouble you’ve caused me personally, I’d rather you never ask me to speak of what’s there. All I will say is this: you cannot fully understand either the Virus or the Vaccine unless you understand them both. Go north, and you will. It shouldn’t be dangerous—almost nobody lives there now.”

Ross wasn’t happy with the explanation. “Now you’re just being cryptic. I think we’re done here.”

Angemon didn’t object. It seemed Ross was doing him a kindness by not interrogating him further. In any case, he had a direction now. If Angemon was right, then that was where they had to go. He just hoped the kids could handle whatever it was if it made Angemon like this.

*********

Joanie was still in the amphitheater where Ross’s trial had taken place. Jacob was sitting next to her, but otherwise the place was deserted. She was staring into space and still trying to process everything that had happened and was about to happen. Despite the intense emotional whiplash she was still suffering, she knew she had to be calm and collected, or at least act like it again. There were lives at stake.

“Hey,” said Jacob with deep frustration in his voice, “You know that Tatiana and Michael are going to go with him, right?”

Joanie nodded. She remembered when she had gone to find Ross and BlackAgumon after the first battle against the Commander. She hadn’t asked them to come with her; in fact she had told them to stay with the others at the Homestead. But when she was a mile away from the Homestead, there they were following her and trying not to be noticed. Michael had looked mortified when she spotted them and told them off, but Tatiana was obstinate and just sat on the ground, and Michael wouldn’t go back by himself. Joanie would have had to drag Tatiana back, and after trying to do so for five yards she gave up and let them come along.

All Ross or Angemon would have to say was ‘save everyone,’ and she knew those two would follow him. Perhaps if Garurumon and Agumon refused they might remain safe, but she didn’t think that was likely. They were soldiers, and she expected they would interpret permission to go as an order to go.

“It might be for the best,” said Joanie. “You saw what Ross can do…at the first battle, I mean. Maybe he can teach them how to save us.”

“Yeah, I saw. I’ve seen plenty of other things Ross has done, too. We can’t leave him alone with them.”

There was a palpable feeling of judgment in the way Jacob enunciated ‘Ross.’ What Joanie heard in her head was ‘That was indeed Ross I saw, but don’t ever talk about him like he isn’t an enemy.’

Joanie turned her head to look at Jacob again. The scowl that had been on his face during the trial was still there. He may have looked angry, but he was nothing like Ross was when he was angry. Jacob had never been honestly out of control in all the years Joanie had known him. Ross had always struck her as a deeply emotional person who fooled himself into thinking he was completely rational, but she often suspected that Jacob might be the real thing: someone whose decisions were one hundred percent the product of reasoning.

“They’ll have Garurumon and Agumon. They won’t be alone with him,” said Joanie.

Jacob looked her in the eye. “That won’t be enough. He could kill Agumon and the kids without breaking a sweat, and Garurumon can’t be awake all the time.”

“He wouldn’t do that. He never touched any of us till he was possessed.”

“You’re putting your trust in a psychopath.” It felt like Jacob was shoving her into a corner with his words. “Who says that whatever possessed him isn’t just dormant? For that matter, who says he wasn’t lying about how he blacked out before becoming the Commander? What if he’s faking?”

The idea was almost too awful for Joanie to bear, but fortunately for her she knew it was wrong. She had been there when Ross woke up. Nobody was that good at acting. “He wasn’t lying. I know he wasn’t.”

Jacob didn’t try to persuade her further on that point. She wondered if he actually believed it or if he was just changing tactics. “All right,” said Jacob, “But what if he just gets mad and kills them because he’s always been nuts?”

Joanie hated arguing like this. She didn’t want to fight over whether Ross was still a basket case; she wanted to decide what they were going to do about the children. “So if you don’t want them to go with Ross, do you want to tell Michael and Tatiana to say no, or just keep them away from him till he gets banished?”

“That’s not it. I think he needs to teach them. I just need to go and help Garurumon protect them from him.”

Joanie could barely believe what she was hearing. “You…You want Michael and Tatiana to be with someone you think might kill them?”

“Of course not, but it doesn’t matter what we want. What matters is that if a Virus who can blow up mountains is coming here, we have to take any help we can get to beat it, even if it means using a bastard like Ross.”

“So not only are you going to put Michael and Tatiana in danger, but you’ll take help from someone you think is the devil?”

“So what? If we can keep the devil on a leash, why not?”

Joanie didn’t know what was worse: Jacob admitting he thought a fellow human being was basically Satan, or Jacob saying he could force Satan to do something good. It was clear now they were going to take the same basic course of action, but she wouldn’t let him think that she agreed with him because that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Well, I’m coming too, but not because I think Ross would hurt us. I’m coming because he’s in shambles and he can’t manage two kids without my help.”

They stared daggers at each other. Neither would be moved. Only when they had calmed down a little did they move on to something they weren’t at such harsh odds about.

“Think the other kids will be fine without us?” asked Jacob.

“Yeah. I’ll tell Angemon to take them with him back to the camp, and I’ll tell them to stick with Biyomon. Michael and Tatiana need us more than they do, now.”

“That’s true,” said Jacob, for what she knew was a very different reason. “Then let’s go.”

They left the room. While they were navigating the hallways on their way back to the children, Jacob spoke again. “You’re making a big mistake. People like Ross don’t change. They’re born awful and they die awful.”

Joanie stopped in her tracks. “Take that back.”

Jacob looked back at her in confusion. Apparently he didn’t realize what had offended her. He didn’t take it back, but he didn’t keep at it either.

“Don’t you ever say that again,” said Joanie. She wouldn’t let him slander her deepest belief. She could deal with it when people denied the reality of the Cross and Resurrection, but not when they denied what it stood for. The truth of redemption, of universal salvation, was non-negotiable.

That, at least, was what she was counting on.
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