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Independent 18 - Reversible Error

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Banner by Aadler

Reversible Error
(Twelve Slayer Awakenings That Did or Didn’t Happen)
by Aadler and SRoni
Copyright March 2014

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN. Other recognizable characters are likewise not mine, but presented with respect and affection. This author neither owns nor profits from the characters.

The new Council of Watchers didn’t maintain a permanent headquarters in London. The almost total obliteration of the Council’s elders, in the months leading to the Great Wave of Slayer activations, had taught the survivors a much-needed lesson in the merits of decentralization, redundant systems, layers of facilities and support personnel that overlapped and reinforced one another. The current arrangement borrowed heavily from both the military organizational structure applied in combat theaters, and the fail-safe designs in computer hardware and operating systems. Never again could the Watchers be essentially decapitated with a single bomb; lines of succession were clearly established, echelons of leadership were geographically dispersed, and Council headquarters shifted at least three times yearly on a deliberately randomized schedule.

Worthy goals all, and many of them long overdue. The upshot, however, was this: Rupert Giles had at long last made it to the Cotswold retreat.

Should have done this years ago, he thought to himself, looking out through the French doors to the shadows deepening over the sculpted landscaping of the estate grounds. A snifter of brandy was cradled in his hand, and behind him a low fire had been laid up against the expected evening damp. Everything before him, all the atmosphere around him, was redolent with centuries of acquired and cultivated tradition.

When he turned, of course, the entire tableau was instantaneously exploded … but he’d had more than a bit to do with bringing that about, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Many things had changed. Xander’s tan was so deep now that — aside from the horrendous, garish shirt and the eye-patch — he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the markets of the Punjab, and the muscles in his wrists and forearms had thickened impressively. Buffy was gradually working leather into her wardrobe, determined to wed style with durability, and she had (finally!) allowed her hair to return to its original color, a rich deep buckwheat-honey hue so dark that it could only barely be called blonde by dint of utmost charity, and somehow rendered her more stunning than ever. Willow, in her turn, had trimmed her hair in a tapered cut that left it rather shorter than Xander’s, and which made a striking contrast to the tailored, formal garb — almost a uniform — of the proper female Watcher (and Giles still hadn’t decided if she was perpetrating a deliberate parody, or innocently unaware of the effect she created). As well, there were a few new faces: Wendell Chu was once again reviewing the latest reports on the screen of his ever-present smartphone; and in the corner she had claimed as her own, Salome Beresford, wizened, silver-haired and merry, drew languid shimmer-patterns in the air with her fingertips.

Yes, much had changed. All the same, it had been so long since the four … original ‘Scoobies’ … had all been together, in the same place at the same time, that the fundamental nostalgia of the scene almost literally took his breath away.

Unsurprisingly, it was Buffy who broke his musing silence; she had both mellowed and blossomed in the nineteen months past, but the Slayer Prime still tended to be the most forceful and decisive personality in any gathering. “Okay, Giles, you’ve made us comfortable,” she announced. “You’ve done the intros, for those of us who didn’t already know each other. We’re not looking at any imminent world-endage, or you’d already be telling us about it, probably into your second page of footnotes by now. But, since you’ve pulled together all of the heavy deciders, we know this isn’t any casual meet-and-greet, so how’s about we get straight into the whatever of us being here?”

Giles gave her a lifted eyebrow and a tilted, rueful smile. “There is no pressing agenda,” he acknowledged. “In fact, when I first proposed this gathering, my primary thought was of reunion and well-deserved relaxation.” He sighed. “As I looked ahead to those matters we might discuss, however, I realised that there was indeed a particular issue that would soon call for some decisions.” He flicked a gesture to include Wendell and Salome. “And so I … expanded the guest list, for even if no choices can yet be made, this issue very much needs to be explored.”

“This isn’t about Spike again, is it?” Xander asked. It was startling to see the familiar schoolboy grin appearing in that firm-jawed, sun-bronzed face, but the easy, assured confidence in the man’s tone struck a note of even greater dissonance. “Because I’m tellin’ ya, he never, ever, stays dead.” He shook his head, and added, low and mournfully, “Ever.”

“No news on that front,” Salome assured them cheerfully, the piping little-girl voice rich, amused and conspiratorial. “I mean, he’s a sneaky bastard, so I make no promises, but the Coven is watching all the omens and monitoring any shifts or sudden peaks in the standard spectra, and we all know Willow would have sounded the alarm if her upstart line had spotted anything —” She chuckled as Willow stuck out her tongue in exaggerated retort, then went on. “I’m with Xander, the Peroxide Punker will definitely be back sooner or later … but it’ll be something original, knowing him, and we probably won’t have a clue till he appears in Trafalgar Square in front of a horde of mutant fire-breathing were-zebras.”

“Well, I’m not making any guesses,” Willow said with a shrug. “Mainly because it only delays Giles telling us.”

“Indeed,” Giles said in agreement. “Not that the colourful byplay hasn’t been every bit as entertaining as informative.” He set down his drink. “Very well, then. Wendell, how many Slayers do we have in register at present?”

“Right.” Chu began rapidly tapping keys on the smartphone’s screen interface, the custom-designed holographic spectacles giving his face a vaguely Strangelovian cast. “I think I might know where you’re going with this, sir, so: do you want the number currently living, or the total identified since the First Activation?”

“Ah.” Giles nodded. “Very perceptive, and quite correct. The latter, please, with detail.”

“Mm-hmm.” Chu tapped in a few more entries, then reported, “One thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven positively identified — not including Primus and Secundus — of whom forty-one are deceased. Additionally, there are one hundred thirteen who died before we could confirm their status, with an aggregate confidence of 85.4%, so the likelihood is that this number included ninety-six or ninety-seven actual Slayers. And —” More taps. “Fifty-one current possibilities are being investigated, with available evidence suggesting that at least twenty-nine are almost certainly Slayers, and seven more highly probable, with the remaining fourteen not yet firm enough for extrapolation.” He looked up. “In total, a probable one thousand, five hundred fifty-two, of whom roughly one thousand, four hundred sixteen are still living.”

“Got it,” Buffy said briskly. “We already knew we were slammed with a tidal wave of baby Slayers after Sunnydale did the ol’ sinkeroo, and we’ve been scrambling to play catch-up ever since. Sounds like we’re finally on top of it, thanks to world-class mystical detecting —” A nod to Willow. “— and field follow-up.” This to Xander. “Great job, guys, champagne is definitely warranted here.” She turned toward where Giles still stood. “Except, why am I thinking it’s not that simple?”

Giles shook his head. “Would that it were,” he sighed. “Would that it were.”

– December 2004 –

It was a matter of seconds. If it could have come even a few seconds sooner, less than half a minute …

Rousseau was leading; Alex was still getting used to the idea that this gaunt, driven woman was her mother, but it was beginning to feel real. She and Karl followed, staying together. Even though they had made good time through the scattered jungles of the island, Rousseau was insistent on pushing the pace. The older woman had a streak of realism, however, knew she couldn’t drive two teenagers hard and without pause for a full day and a half. Drawing up for a moment ahead of them, she said, “We stop here and drink. Two minutes.” She looked back to them. “Then we keep moving.”

Alex found a seat on the trunk of a fallen tree and raised her water bottle to take a swallow, while Rousseau moved a few more steps ahead, scanning the trees before them. Alex watched her mother unfold a crumpled piece of paper — the map Ben Linus had given them — and study it, probably thinking ahead to the next part of the journey and planning how to fortify once they arrived.

Karl sat down next to her, and looked around them, his expression troubled. “What’s wrong?” Alex asked.

“Nothing,” he said, but his eyes continued to search the jungle ahead.

“Karl,” she insisted, and at last he turned to face her.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just have a bad feeling about this. What if your dad is … playing us?”

Alex sighed inwardly. She knew he loved her; she was fairly sure by now that she didn’t love him. He had risked his life for her, though, more than once, and she would always care for him. If the time came that she had to gently let him down (and it probably would, and probably soon), she wanted to know in her heart that she had always treated him right. So she held his gaze with her own and said firmly, “Look, I don’t like taking orders from my dad any more than you do. But I know he doesn’t want me to get hurt.”

He nodded a little at that, smiled a little. “At least we’ve got something in common.”

He wasn’t the one for her, not now; she had grown older quickly after the events of the past few days, and he had fallen behind her. He wasn’t yet the man he would someday be, however, and he was still dear to her, so Alex gave him a small laugh. “I promise not to tell if you won’t.”

That was when they heard the sound: soft and sharp at the same time, not alarming but demanding notice. Then they heard it again, and water sprouted from a hole in Karl’s water bottle. They both looked at it, puzzled, not yet understanding enough to be afraid … then there was a third report, a third shot, and it caught Karl in the chest.

He toppled over, blood staining the shirt directly over his heart. Alex was crying his name, and behind her she could hear her mother calling to her. Then Rousseau was with her, pulling her away, tone harsh: “Come on. He’s gone.”

They tried to run, but a sleet of bullets was suddenly pelting the leaves and brush around them, and after only a few steps they had to take shelter behind the bole of one of the omnipresent palm trees. Alex was still crying for Karl, she felt her face taken roughly in her mother’s hands and Rousseau was speaking to her, fast and urgent —

— but Alex didn’t hear the words. She was somewhere else, seeing another face, hearing another voice. Being presented with a new and frightening choice. Frightening, and unforeseen … but not unwelcome.

Then she was back, and her mother was saying, “Are you ready?”

She didn’t understand, she was still trying to adjust, but something in her face must have looked like agreement, because Rousseau took her hand and said, “One. Two. Three —!” Then the woman was standing up, pulling Alex with her … and Alex yanked her back, hard, much harder than she had intended, the force of it smashing her mother’s shoulder against the tree and, a fraction of a second later and with a lesser impact, Rousseau’s head also impacted.

Learning experience. Learning by the second. Alex was already moving, her body carrying her low and swift through the undergrowth around her, leaving her mother stunned behind her. Instinct, new but trusted without hesitation, told her that Rousseau would need at least a minute or two to recover, and right now she was safer exactly where she was.

The men back in the trees had fired without warning, without a call for surrender, using sound suppressors to keep the noise of the shots from carrying to anyone else. They had no interest in prisoners. Suddenly, neither did Alex.

She had grown up in this jungle, knew it well. There were perils, and she had been taught how to avoid them, but she knew how to move, where to put her feet, how to keep a sense of direction by the angle of sunlight. She knew all this, and the new force within her seized that knowledge and converted it instantly into hard and efficient practice. She streaked through the dappled foliage, swift and silent as a leopard. Not fleeing. Hunting.

A man was in front of her, a big man in subdued camouflage, wearing a tactical vest and carrying a short, stubby-barreled weapon with a folding stock. He was turning to face her as Alex closed with him, and almost had the gun brought around to bear on her when she punched him in the chest with all her strength. Still learning: she felt ribs and sternum shatter beneath her fist, he folded in on himself as his body was smashed backward, and he was down and dead and she was on top of him, tearing at his belt.

Later she would chide herself for ignoring the firearm; instinct was one thing, but there were also realities to be faced. Now, however, she was still following the surging current that sizzled through her, and thinking wasn’t part of that. She got the fallen man’s knife and was away again, seeking her next quarry, senses alive and focused with lethal purpose.

There were seven of them. Only one got off a shot at her, and he was much — much — too slow.

When Alex returned, she saw that Rousseau was just beginning to stir. She helped her mother sit up, assessing the bruise on the side of the woman’s head. Lucky; if the shoulder hadn’t taken the main brunt, the skull might have been caved in against the tree, and Alex would still need to watch for concussion. Now, she knew to be more careful until she had learned the precise extent of her strength.

Now, she knew much that hadn’t been there before.

Rousseau’s eyes came into focus, and she looked around in memory and terror. “Where —?”

“They’re dead,” Alex told her. A part of her was amazed at her own calm. “All of them.”

The older woman looked around, wary, not understanding, then back at Alex. “How?” she asked.

And, meeting her mother’s gaze directly, Alex said, “It was one of the smoke monsters. I didn’t see it, I stayed down, but I heard the sounds.”

Rousseau considered that in silence, head tilted, listening for any further noises from the jungle. “It’s gone?” she said finally.

“I think so.”

Rousseau rose slowly, wincing at the pain in her shoulder, and carefully shifted the slung rifle to her uninjured side. “We should go on, then,” she said. “To the temple.” She paused. “I’m … sorry about Karl.”

“Yes,” Alex said. “Me, too.” She knew where his body lay, but she didn’t look back. There was no point. “Come on. I’ll help you.”

She had hidden the truth from her own mother, lying without hesitation or regret … and she knew she would never reveal that truth to anyone else, either.

It was bound up in the nature of power. The dead men she had left strewn through the jungle: they had killed Karl, and almost killed her and her mother, because they’d had power. Weapons, and training, and ruthlessness, and most of all, secrecy; they had struck before their targets had even known they were there. Now she, too, had power. If it had come a few seconds earlier, she might have saved Karl; a few seconds later would probably have been too late to save her and her mother.

Power … if she had learned one thing from her father, it was that hiding an advantage meant no potential enemy could develop a counter to it.

There were bad things on this island, people to be punished and people to be protected. Ben Linus — the man who had raised her as his daughter — was almost certainly one of the former. If not him, others, far too many who would dominate and terrorize and kill as they pleased unless something stopped them.

She had seen enough of that. Now, no more.

Alex Linus … Alex Rousseau … had been one of the victims. Now, she was an avenging fist. And, if those who fell to it never knew the identity of their executioner, that was fine by her.

[Alex Linus, Karl, and Danielle Rousseau (Lost) are the property of J.J. Abrams, Bad Robot Productions, and ABC Studios. (The dialogue, up to the moment Alex’s strength first manifests, is from the fourth-season episode “Meet Kevin Johnson”.)]

– August 2004 –

Cristina Moreno was not the type of person to rush into decisions. She infinitely preferred to weigh her options carefully before deciding on the right course of action. Knowing this about herself, and recognizing that her disinclination toward rash action might predispose her to hesitancy and second-guessing, she made every effort to think things out as far in advance as she possibly could, and prepare to meet any contingencies she could foresee.

Recent developments meant that some preparations could be open, while others called for privacy or even subterfuge. This meant that Cristina could persuade her roommate to study self-defense with her, and give the other girl a pendant cross to match her own and insist that wearing them together was a private form of solidarity, and make a point that two college-aged women had to be alert for any threat without letting themselves drift into paranoia … but she couldn’t be specific about which threats really concerned her, or provide Bernie with the most appropriate weapons, or even let her see the implements Cristina herself always made sure to have on hand. She did what she could, and focused an extra measure of watchfulness to fill the gaps she knew were still there, and hoped she was bolstering herself and her friend against a crisis that would never arrive.

A not unreasonable hope, but ultimately forlorn. Summer finals week, and she and Bernie were walking back to their little apartment from the library after a full day of studying. Though Cristina had taken care to limit their exposure after dark whenever possible, on that particular night they’d gotten absorbed in exam prep, and the sun was down by the time they left the library. Bernie got a call on her cell, and it was a guy she’d been hoping would call, and Cristina slowed to let her friend pull ahead on the sidewalk so as to have a bit of privacy. No more than twenty feet … but as Bernie drew level with an alley, a fast-moving figure lunged out, seized Bernie and hurled her back into the alley, and darted in after her, all in barely more time than an eye-blink.

And Cristina was dashing to follow, running full-speed while clawing at the padded outer pocket of the backpack that was never far from her reach. None of the hesitation she had worried about, no uncertainty, and — oddly — no fear except that she might be too late, too slow, too weak. As she rounded into the alley, light from a street-lamp carried just far enough for Cristina to see that the vampire (it couldn’t be anything else) had his face buried in Bernie’s neck, and that she was already going pale in shock from a combination of blood loss and an arm that looked broken.

Through her own choice, Cristina was no warrior. All the same, she had learned from her dreams. The vampire would be faster than her, so she wouldn’t try to use speed to defeat him. He was surely stronger, so Cristina wouldn’t depend on strength. Her only hope lay in determination, readiness, and preparation. The twisted, snarling demon’s-face (so familiar, though she had never truly seen such a thing before now) jerked up to fix its eyes on her, and she would have had no chance against the rush that followed if her own attack hadn’t been already in motion.

She’d snatched too frantically into the backpack pocket, one water balloon burst under her fingers, but she reached through it to grab the next, and flung it with a snap of her wrist into the path of the oncoming vampire. There was no time to try for another, she had dropped the backpack and had her hand inside her vest when the water balloon burst on the vampire’s chest, holy water spraying the creature’s upper torso and the lower part of his face. Bloody furrows ran down one cheek — from the placement, Bernie must have managed that before her arm was broken — and Cristina felt a moment’s flare of pride for her friend before adrenaline-propelled clarity settled over her.

Everything around her slowed down. She had all the time in the world to think about what to do, but her body, too, was trapped in the same slow motion. The stake she had crafted and tucked away was coming free from the sheath sewn into the inside of the vest. The vampire had faltered for a fraction of a second, screeching as holy water sizzled on exposed skin, then recovered and charged for her again. Her mind was still operating in sharpened clarity, and Cristina knew exactly what she had to do. Her arm moved with aching slowness, inching through the air, while the vampire came closer, closer, closer. The result was already set, it just wasn’t yet known: she would get the stake into position in time, or she wouldn’t, and the answer would determine which one of them died. Then the vampire was on her, the world speeding back up to normal as his body crashed into hers. Cristina felt fangs actually begin to close on her throat, and then the vampire crumbled into dust while Cristina fell backward from the impact, colliding painfully with the rough, grimy asphalt of the alley floor.

Her next actions, too, were directed by advance planning. Not a 911 call, but one to the nearest emergency trauma center, already set into her speed-dial. Disinfectant spray, large stick-on bandage to slow the blood flow. Bernie’s blood-type called in ahead of them while the paramedics transporting her were restoring her fluid volume with a saline IV. By the time they arrived at the trauma center, it was already clear that Cristina had been fast enough, prepared enough, and lucky enough to save her friend’s life … which left her ample time to reflect, while the doctors were busy with transfusions and antibiotics and vascular surgery, on what had happened and what it truly meant.

(It had also been necessary to speak to the police, since Bernie was obviously the victim of violent attack, but again Cristina’s research told her the right words to deliver: they’d been mugged, just one guy but he was probably on PCP or something because, well, there was something wrong with his face? The phrase, culled from the most helpful of the various Web sites she had consulted, had the desired effect, and the police hurriedly ended the interview and left Cristina alone in the waiting room.)

Bernie was alive, because of her.

Bernie had almost died, because of her.

Cristina Moreno was not the type of person to rush into decisions, infinitely preferring to weigh her options carefully before choosing the best possible course of action. Her life from adolescence on was proof of that. Take her decision to shoot for Princeton: five and a half years of planning had gone into that one, with Cristina ranking her top 25 schools of choice, researching them all extensively and listing the pros and cons to each. Cristina had learned, at a very early age, just how easily so-called “small” decisions could change someone’s life trajectory, and she wanted to make sure that the path she chose would lead her into becoming the person she wanted to be.

Because of this keenly developed aspect of her personality, when in May she had a … a vision, a sueño surrealista, of a girl with shifting features asking Cristina if she was ready to be strong, the only response Cristina could give was a regretful, “I can’t answer that until I know what I’m saying yes to.” The vision-girl had seemed to understand, giving Cristina a soft, sad smile that spoke volumes, but though other dreams came later, the visitor from the first never reappeared.

It had been odd, mystifying, unsettling, and all the more strange because something in Cristina knew that it wasn’t as simple as a dream, and that she really had answered a life-changing question. She had wanted to get more information before committing herself … but she knew that, by choosing to wait, she had in fact made a decision.

Being who she was, Cristina had promptly thrown herself into research, following threads of rumor and obscure publications and select Internet postings, integrating the information she found with the dreams that continued to recur, needing to find out what she’d said No to. When the dovetailing of various forms of evidence brought her to the stunned realization that vampires were real, she set about learning their weaknesses and how she, a regular human girl with no extra abilities, could go about exploiting those weaknesses. The water balloons were the first measure she had prepared: drawing crosses on the balloons, in the beginning, then following up a few days later by going to the nearest Catholic church to acquire proper holy water. (The priest there, recently transferred from a disaster-stricken California town which had figured prominently on several of the more lurid Web sites of Cristina’s discovery, had apparently recognized something in her eyes, because the two of them had quickly fallen into an unspoken agreement wherein he would bless anything Cristina brought him and ask no questions.) Other measures came later, as Cristina learned what she could while maintaining the studies and community involvement that had been part of her life’s goal since she had first become able to plan.

Of course, that left Cristina with the small problem of doing what she could to equip and protect her roommate, without ever fully explaining the truth behind it.

Until arriving at Princeton, Cristina hadn’t seen Bernice Clasky since Cristina was twelve, and the two found it quite serendipitous that, six years later, they were taking classes together on the other side of the country. Their friendship had been picked back up almost where they’d left off, and they decided to share an apartment together after Cristina survived her first semester with a roommate from hell. (Except, no, Cristina had learned that such a thing could be literally so, and Necia had been really bad but not that kind of bad.) Cristina and Bernie had discussed it before beginning their search for a place to live, and they’d decided to divide by their strengths. Bernie had more money, and her parents loved the idea of her rooming with Cristina, so she paid more of the bills. Cristina was a better cleaner (since she’d been raised by a housekeeper instead of with one), so she took on the majority of the chores and taught Bernie how to begin doing them more effectively for herself.

Just as, later, Cristina had quietly begun teaching the older girl other things, as the necessity for them became known to her. She had hoped it was enough, and assured herself that it would be … but … but …

Now that the reality of it all had crashed into her, there was one question that Cristina couldn’t escape: What would my mother think?

Flor Moreno was unquestionably, unarguably, the single most influential person in Cristina’s life. Every important decision that Cristina had made since the age of twelve had only been made after first asking herself what her mother would do. Flor was far from infallible, and Cristina probably knew that fact better than anyone else. Even so, Flor was the best person Christina knew, and if she asked herself if her mother would do something and the answer was no, chances were that Cristina probably shouldn’t do it, either. That wasn’t the final answer, since Cristina prided herself on her ability to think for herself (something, in fact, Flor had insisted she learn to do), but Cristina was still her mother’s daughter and proud to be so. In matters of judgment it might go either way, but as a moral barometer Flor always — always — took primacy.

The dream that was not a dream had been a decision. And the decision she had effectively made was not one in which she could take any pride. Cristina had wanted to know more before deciding … and now that she had that knowledge, knew what it would have meant to be La Cazadora, she wished she had simply agreed. The choice that had seemed so reasonable, so responsible, was now one Cristina fervently hoped would remain forever unknown to her mother. If Flor should discover that Cristina had elected to shirk a responsibility of this magnitude … well, the term “crushing disappointment” wouldn’t quite cover it.

That night, while Cristina waited to hear from the doctors about Bernie, she put her research ability even further to the test than she already had. After twelve hours of digging through all the Web sites she’d bookmarked in the previous three months, she managed to find a phone listing for a group that might, just possibly, be able to help her change her decision to what it should have been. At the very least, it was a place to begin; according to what she’d read about them, this was the go-to group for … “strange” matters of a particular type and flavor.

Cristina hesitated one last time, then dialed the number. As the sun outside the hospital windows began to creep up above the skyline, a voice on the other end answered, “Angel Investigations. We help the hopeless.”

[Cristina Moreno and Bernie Clasky (Spanglish) are the property of James L. Brooks, Columbia Pictures Corporation, and Gracie Films.]