Part 6

The only lead I had left was a slim one, but it was one that if it fit into place would put a big piece of the puzzle together for me.

The problem was, you just didn’t walk in on Elliot Lothair, CEO of the Lothair Corporation, and start hitting him up for answers. Not even a Slayer could get away with that. The world doesn’t work that way.

So I went to Shaugnessy and pled my case. Maybe he could get me an audience with the king of techno-magic. I didn’t expect much. Whatever pretense of justice he pretended to serve, Shaugnessy was at his core a political animal. He did what was expedient, what would keep him in his job, what would earn him his retirement pension.

I was more than a little shocked when he came through for me. Of course, he had no reason to suspect Elliot Lothair of anything. He had no reason to believe I did, either. After all, I had just asked if I could talk to the Great Man about the theoretical limitations of the Fushima-Broeder tests, which were a Lothair Corporation product, after all.

Yes, I lied. I’ve gotten very good at it.

I arrived at the Lothair Tower in late afternoon two days after I killed the vampire in front of the Hand of Light mission. I was to be the guest of Elliot Lothair himself. From the way people acted, you’d think God Himself had granted me an audience.

It’s an interesting architectural truism that as communication technology advanced and the need for a centralized workforce diminished, the costly and extravagant skyscraper gradually fell by the wayside. Oh, the old ones are still there, but with the exception of such bloated public boondoggles as the Giuliani Tower, no new ones were being built.

One of the exceptions is the Lothair Tower, rising from the ashes of the old World Trade Center Plaza. It’s a mile high and houses everything from corporate offices to a hotel and three first class restaurants to luxury condominiums for the super rich. It also has its own private power grid, so the air conditioners never go off in Lothair Tower. I could get used to that.

They say it’s earthquake proof. I still don’t want to be in it or near it when the geological fault running through this city decides to slip again.

Nevertheless, despite all my ingrained cynicism it really is something else to look out across creation from Lothair’s luxurious penthouse boardroom a mile up above the earth. Makes you never want to live at street level again.

“Do you like our view?” came a clipped, efficiently cordial voice from behind me.

I turned away from the vast expanse of polarized poly-glass. Elliot Lothair stood framed in the cavernous doorway of the boardroom, the two massive, polished rosewood doors splayed wide.

He was a curious looking man, rather like an odd cross between a vole and a hawk, I thought. Very thin, the skin of his face stretched like dried parchment over the angular skull, alert bright eyes looking out from deep within dark sockets and through thick glasses.

The glasses were an odd note. Corrective surgery or even complete eye replacement were easily available, and certainly the cost was no factor to Elliot Lothair. So why the glasses? For a guy like Brother John, it was part of his whole anti-technology shtick. But for Lothair? Maybe it was an affectation, or perhaps a phobia about surgery and doctors. Whatever the explanation, I was certain it said something about the psychology of the man.

I shook myself out of my musings and answered his question.

“Yeah, it beats the view form my apartment. The flashing ‘Rooms Cheap’ sign across the street lost its charm on the third night.”

Lothair smiled. It was a disturbing, death’s head of an expression.

“A ready, quick wit. Confidence in unknown surroundings. A casual demeanor hiding a cold eye for detail. You are a fascinating subject, Ms. Summers.”

“Figured all that out about me already, huh?” I asked.

“Like you, my stock in trade is assessing people and situations quickly and accurately,” he said.

“And how do you size up the situation at the moment?”

“I see a lot of small minds frightened by something they don’t understand. That is always very dangerous.”

“And you with your superior intellect do understand what all this is about, of course.”

Again, the smile. “Of course. It’s about change, Ms. Summers. Change is inevitable. Those who don’t understand that and master it will go the way of the Tyrannosaur.”

“You don’t sound as if this is much concern to you, this whole ensoulment matter. I’d have thought it would be bad for business, all these vampires getting souls, slipping their wards and compulsions — their expensive, Lothair Corporation-crafted wards and compulsions.”

Lothair’s narrow shoulders rose in a slight shrug. “If I curse the receding tide for stranding me on the rocks, is it the tide’s stupidity or mine? I am a survivor. I will adapt to the new environment and flourish. I do not fear change. I view it as an opportunity.”

“An opportunity for what?”

“An opportunity to improve, to do better, to become something more than what I am. It is akin to natural selection. We do not adapt of our own accord. We require outside forces to drive that evolution.”

“You know what’s behind these ensoulments.” I said it as a fact. Sometimes you can shake something loose if you come off like you know something.

“I know that it won’t be stopped by you. You can’t You are too much a part of it all. You’ve always been too much a part of things, in your world and now in this one. Like it or not, very often you are why things happen.”

“You’re awfully confident that you know me,” I said.

One thin lip quirked into the smile of a man who knows he has you in checkmate in two more moves.

“I know more about you than you think. I have traced the chain of multiplying consequences that led you here. I’ve marveled at how such a simple thing as a night of youthful passion in your world was magnified at every turn into even greater missteps and unanticipated consequences until you finally ended up here in this world. And even here the chain continued to wend its way through ever more elaborate geometries until at last we come here to this place at this time. Yes, it all looks so unpredictable, so random, but that’s where you’re wrong. There is an underlying sense to it all, if you have the vision to perceive it.”

“Why don’t you explain it to me, then.”

“Don’t you see? You are the accidental demiurge who fashions the world not in the light of universal truths, but in the darkness of happenstance and ignorance. You come to this world, and in searching for a way back to yours, you take the D.H. Group and you forge with it this world of techno-magic and Slayer units. The chain of events that led to the current state of the world was begun partly by you. You need look no further than that.”

“I don’t need the history lesson. I lived it, and it doesn’t tell me anything about these ensoulments,” I said. “You’re behind them, aren’t you?”

“You think I have dominion over the souls of others? You give me a great deal of credit. Am I God?”

“Do you think you are? That’s the real question.”

“No. But I am a creator. As are you. As is everyone else, whether they lead lives large or small. We have all created this world to one degree or another. We are, then, all gods in our own way, are we not?”

“Gods or demons,” I said.

“Of course you would make that distinction. But change in and of itself is not a moral construct. It simply is. It is we who impose a moral template on it.”

“You’re being obtuse for the fun of it, Lothair. Just tell me straight. Are you behind these ensoulments?”

“Both of us are. Perhaps you missed my point. You’re as responsible for this as I.”

“All right. If I’m not going to get a ‘who’ out of you, why don’t we try for a ‘why’. What’s the upside here? Who gains?” I asked.

“Hypothetically speaking, Ms. Summers, it is the human species who in the end stands to gain most. You’ve fought demons for decades. You have only been able to do that because you are a genetic anomaly, homo-superior if you will. But in a contest between demon and homo-sapiens, who wins?”

“Almost always the demon.”

The sun angled through the window and caught the thick lenses of his glasses, turning them momentarily into two pools of flame.

“Exactly. Natural selection, left to its own devices, is a harsh mistress that will surely spell the doom of our species. We are an evolutionary dead end. Whether we perish from the Zaire Ebola Flu, or from antibiotic resistant infections, or from pollution, or from demons and the undead, in the end it doesn’t matter. This race is in its final hours. But if evolution were to be guided along a course more conducive to our survival …”

He let it trail, letting me finish the thought for myself. The forced evolution of the human race. That was what he was getting at. It was hard to deny the logic.

“If we were all to become vampires, but vampires with souls …” I said.

He nodded, satisfied with my powers of deduction.

The thing was, Lothair was almost certainly right. Man had tamed the magical and demonic with technology. I and the D.H. Group before me had seen to that. But I saw the cracks beginning to form in the dam that kept all that dark power in check. One day, that power would come through in an unstoppable wave. The Slayers wouldn’t be able to stop it. Technology might hold for a little while, but it too would be swept beneath the surge. Even I would be drowned in those floodwaters.

But to create a new race? A race of immortals, no less? How was creating a world of Angels and Cordelias any different from the extinction of humanity? For all that they had human souls, this world’s Cordelia and Angel were not really human.

“That’s not guiding human evolution, that’s stopping it dead in its tracks,” I said. “Where do we go when all that’s left of us is a race of sterile immortals? There goes your much-vaunted change right out the window.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Nothing is immortal, Ms. Summers. It all depends on your time scale. To a fruit fly, we must surely seem immortal. But to a star, we are but a passing instant.”

“Even if I buy your argument, which I don’t, there’s still no way you could pull it off. Performing ensoulment rites is difficult and time-intensive. You could never ensoul enough vampires to see your vision through to the end.”

“That is no longer required. You and the D.H. Group and my own corporation have changed the rules of magic.”

“Something’s missing here,” I said.

“Yes?” he asked. He knew what it was. He was just waiting for me to fill in the blanks.

“The vampires. You have to turn everyone into vampires, but you have to retain their souls …”

He nodded.

“Wait a second. Gianni Nose, Dietr Maas, the others — they were just ensoulment experiments. But that was months ago. That turned out to be a dead end, didn’t it? You found out you could never ensoul enough vampires fast enough to see your plan through.”

Again, the nod.

“Suppose it were possible to reduce vampirism to its purely genetic and magical components, if we were to engineer out the whole soul transference unpleasantness?” he prodded.

It became clear with startling suddenness. “A vampire pathogen. A metaphyscial virus that lets you go from human to vampire-with-a-soul without any nastiness in between. But how? I’ve never heard of anything that could do that.”

“Except …”

Then I undersood. “Except for maybe a metaphysical variant of the Morphology-7 genetic pathogen from my world. That was what you meant when you said I was as much the cause of this as you.”

“Bravo. Excellent. You are very bright indeed, Buffy.”

“It’s monstrous.”

“Really? More monstrous than a woman who plans to murder her own daughter?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about you, Ms. Summers,” he said sharply, the chess master abruptly changing his line of attack, trying to pull me off my game plan. He picked up a data pad that was lying on the conference table and brought something up on the display.

“Quite a reading list you have. Let’s see, what sorts of titles have you been putting on that debit card of yours? ‘The Mathematics of Temporal Mechanics’, ‘Advanced Considerations in Special and General Relativity’, ‘Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics’, ‘Quantum Field Theory in Curved Spacetime and Black Hole Thermodynamics’ — need I go on?”

“Your point, other than that any pretense of privacy rights is six feet under?” I asked.

“Don’t play games, Summers. You plan to return to your world, and what’s more, you plan on going back in time. My guess is that you want to return just after you left, to pick up your life right where you left off as if the intervening seventy five years never happened. Am I right?”

“And if you are, what business is it of yours?”

“None at all. But I wonder if you have ever properly thought your plan through? I’ve thought mine through to its logical conclusions, but I suspect you cannot say the same.”

“I just want to go back home to where I belong. To be with my family. To be me again. I want my life back,” I said.

“But at what cost? Your daughter and husband were left behind seventy five years ago, Ms. Summers. They already lived the whole rest of their lives without you. If you go back, if you change that history, then you destroy everything they became, everything they were. You replace them with copies of themselves, living entirely different lives, taking different paths, making different choices. Do you have the right to undo everything they became without you?”

I started to answer and realized I had no answer. The question had never occurred to me. All that had ever mattered to me was to get back. I’d never considered that in so doing I would be killing everything Elisa and Angel became in my absence. I would be erasing everything they accomplished without me. Did I have a right to do that?

Something broke inside me, and I felt a wall I had nurtured and counted on begin to crumble like sand sculpture before an encroaching tide. Before it could fail entirely, I left Lothair and his commercial cathedral behind.

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