“You know I hate it when you people do that.”
Theodore Roosevelt’s voice was rough as the man himself sat nursing a drink in one of the many rooms of the White House. He spoke without bothering to turn toward the man who had just appeared behind him. “It’s creepy as hell. I’d threaten to shoot the next one of you who did it, but I don’t think it’d do much good. The threat or the shooting.”
With an apologetic smile, the handsome man with curly dark hair stepped around the desk and into his sightline. “Sorry. Force of habit. Also, I don’t think your people would much like me coming in the normal way.”
Sitting back in his seat, Roosevelt considered the man for a moment before giving a slight sigh as he leaned forward and slid the bottle across the desk. “Have a seat, Mr. Atherby. And whatever bad news you’ve come to give me, you keep your trap shut about it until we have a drink together. Unless it’s the type of news that won’t keep for a few minutes.”
Just before the bottle would have slid off the edge of the desk, Joshua Atherby raised a hand to catch it with one finger. “It’ll keep,” he allowed before sitting to pour himself a drink, as ordered.
Taking a sip of it, he regarded the other man. “You’ve worn a lot of different hats in your day, Mr. President. Rancher, writer, politician, police commissioner, navy secretary, soldier, governor, then vice president and now president. You’ve done more things with your life than a lot of people I know who, well, let’s just say they’ve had longer to work with.”
“Speaking of which,” Roosevelt put in then, “how many of your Heretic people actually know that I know about them? Just a simple, ordinary, mundane old man.”
Joshua snorted. “First, every single word aside from man is wrong in that sentence. You’re not simple, ordinary, mundane, or old. You’re not even old by normal standards. Aren’t you the youngest guy to ever become president? What are you, forty?”
“Forty-two,” Roosevelt corrected. “And I aim to at least double that digit.”
Regarding him for a moment, Joshua quietly pointed out, “We could do more than double it, you know. People with our abilities tend to live longer if we don’t die tragically. And you don’t seem like the type who would go out easy.”
The other man gave a slow shake of his head. “Am I going to have to tell you no every time we talk, Joshua? It’s just like I said every other time you bring it up. I want to be human. I want to live in the real world, be with the real people.” Belatedly, he corrected himself. “Not that your people aren’t real, but…”
Joshua shook his head. “I understand, you don’t have to explain. You want to be with the regular population. And you’re doing a good job of it so far.” He sighed then. “But I won’t say that I’m not disappointed. You could do good with us too. As for who knows about you, that depends. With my people, there’s a few. It’s kind of gotten around. But with Crossroads or the Garden folks, I’d say just a couple. They don’t exactly want to advertise that we took the Bystander Effect away from the guy who is now President of the United States. Especially when that man doesn’t want anything to do with our society.”
“You,” Roosevelt corrected him. “You took it away. Right there in that Cuban jungle. You woke me up to the things both us and the Spaniards were fighting and dying to instead of each other. You took the blindfold off my damn eyes, and none of this shit has been the same since. You know, I’m pretty sure we’ve got a few of those Alter people right here in Congress. And damned if a couple of them aren’t the ones I like.”
“Don’t let Crossroads hear you say that,” Joshua muttered under his breath.
Roosevelt took another deep gulp from his drink. “The point is, you showed me the monsters. The monsters that are still down there in the jungle. And everywhere else.” He paused briefly before meeting the other man’s gaze. “Speaking of, have your people had a chance to look into… this particular hat I’m wearing right now?”
Clearly having anticipated the question, Joshua gave a single nod. “We did, and there’s nothing there. Your predecessor was killed by Leon Czolgosz, a completely normal human being. He has no ties that we can find to anything to do with our world. Just a man.”
“Well, I wish I could say that makes me feel better,” Roosevelt grunted, “but part of me thinks I would’ve liked it better if there was some kind of conspiracy with your types. Anyway, there’s still plenty of your monsters running around. Like the ones in Desoto. They’ve been there for years now. We’ve got thousands dying there, and every goddamn day I sit around waiting for one of you people to show up and say that you’ve got it under control, that you’ve dealt with them. But something tells me that’s not why you’re here right now. Is it?” The last two words were hard, his tone one of anger born of frustration. He was a man of action, and this was a situation he could take no actual action in.
Not that that had stopped him during his time down in Cuba, and then in Desoto itself. He and his Rough Riders had done as much damage to those monsters as a bunch of humans armed with rifles that had been secretly magically enhanced by Joshua‘s people could do.
But it was never enough. After he had been hit by some kind of Fomorian plague, the Heretics who helped save his life had insisted that he needed to be away from the battlefield or it would get worse. So he had been forced to go back to New York, where he did his best to avoid going insane by staying busy. Staying busy and, of course, getting regular reports from Joshua Atherby and his people. Regular reports which had blossomed into something of a friendship.
Joshua sighed. “Yes and no. The Fomorians… they’re never going to give up. They’re not the type to surrender, or call something a lost cause. They’re just going to keep throwing things at us until we break. The people you’ve been sending in, they’ve been helpful. And we’ve been trying to get them everything we can. But… but it’s not enough. Gaia, the baroness you met, she’s even started waking them up, letting normal people know the truth so they can get the hell out of the state. Some of them stay and fight anyway. But they still die. There’s so many people dying down there, it’s…” he trailed off, staring at his empty glass for a moment before cursing quietly. “It’s bad.”
“People grow from bad things,” Roosevelt informed him. “They grow from hardship and from hard work. Getting out there, fighting and killing those ugly bastards, it’s pain that brings out the real strength. Pain that brings growth. But you know what, I think we’ve grown just about enough as far as those beasts are concerned.”
“That’s why I’m here,” Joshua replied. “Because this has gone on long enough. We have a solution. But you’re not going to like it. Well, there is one part of it you might like.
“I won’t be popping up behind you anymore.“
“I bet a Bystander-Kin student brought them in and just left them on the shelf.”
The words came from Columbus Porter, who sat in the library across from Tristan Moon. Between them lay an assortment of comic books. An assortment which, upon finding them buried deep on one of the library shelves, had driven both boys through nine different kinds of shock and awe. It was a collection that would have made any collector feel faint. Or possibly driven them to the hospital.
The first seven issues of X-Men, the first three issues of Avengers. Six scattered issues from the first forty of Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth, Forever People number one, several issues of Tales of Suspense and of Tales to Astonish, including the first appearances of Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk. Original copies all.
An amazing collection to begin with, but each and every issue had also been magically protected against wear and tear, leaving it completely pristine aside from the single signature that decorated each book. The signature belonging to one Jack Kirby.
“Are you kidding?” Tristan demand of them while gesturing to the collection. “First of all, no student, Bystander or otherwise, is going to leave something like this here if it belongs to them. None. It’s not going to happen. Besides, Vanessa says that they clear the shelves every year to watch for any magical tricks or pranks. There’s no way it would’ve been left here this long by accident.”
“No way what would have been left?” Vanessa herself asked as she approached the table and pulled out a seat beside her brother.
“Those,” Tristan announced as he gestured to the comic books.
Vanessa looked that way before nodding. “Oh, yeah. It’s the Jack Kirby collection, of course they have that.”
In unison, both boys threw up their hands while demanding, “What do you mean, of course they have that?!”
Vanessa blinked twice, looking slowly back and forth between the boys before responding, as though it should have been obvious, “You know, because he was an Adjacent.”
Both boys stared at her before Tristan asked, “A what, now?”
“Adjacent,” she repeated. “You know, it’s what they call a human who isn’t really a Heretic, but is either less affected by the Bystander Effect, or isn’t affected at all. You know, for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s because of a magic spell that they get hit with, other times it something on their bloodline, and sometimes there’s no explanation at all. There’s just some people out there who see through some of it for no reason that anyone can find. They get… glimpses through the veil. Some more than others. It drives a lot of them insane.”
Her words were quiet as she looked away for a moment, lost in her perfect, inescapable memories before she looked back again. “Jacob Kurtzberg was an Adjacent.” Belatedly, she started, “That’s—”
“Jack Kirby,” Tristan interrupted, “duh, everyone knows that. But what do you mean, he was an Adjacent? He saw through the Bystander Effect?”
“Some of it,” Vanessa confirmed. “Enough that it helped him… create. He put things that he saw or partially remembered in some of his projects. A lot of it is really distorted, like peeking through your fingers or something you’ll only remember tiny parts of, but it’s there. And he was creative enough to express it. Even if he didn’t know exactly what he was expressing.”
Curiously, Columbus asked, “What does that have to do with his comics being here, and being signed?”
Reaching out to pick up one of the books, Vanessa replied, “Some Heretics back when he was first starting out recognized some of what he was drawing and went to investigate, just in case there was a problem. One of them made friends with him and brought these comics back over the years.”
“They didn’t make him a Heretic, or tell him the truth, or anything?” Tristan asked, clearly fascinated.
Her head shook while she carefully looked through the comic in her hands. It was as pristine as the day it had been released decades earlier. “There was no real need to. The Heretic who made contact and was friends with him didn’t want to do anything to ruin his work. He wasn’t being threatened, no one was going to go after him. He was just drawing things. They just checked in on him once in a while. That’s where the books here kept coming from. Gaia made them part of the school’s collection. They’re spelled to stay here in the library.”
“I wonder why,” Columbus murmured. “I mean, I wonder why Gaia keeps them here in the library.”
It was Tristan who answered. “I think it’s because she wanted people to find them and see that not all Bystanders are completely clueless. Or just see how brilliant his work is. Maybe she wanted to give the school some kind of connection to the regular world. Or she just thought the students here would like them.”
“Probably all of that,” Vanessa agreed. “Leaving these here does a lot of things. Plus, I’m pretty sure Gaia likes the idea of sticking comic books in the library because of how much it pisses off certain people.”
“Hey,” Tristan started, “speaking of which, how come you never told me these were here? That would’ve got me in the library a lot faster.”
“I know,” Vanessa retorted, “I put a few of them near some of the books that I said you should check out. It let me know how much attention you were paying to my recommendations. So, see? If you’d listened to me sooner, you would have found out about these.”
Tristan opened his mouth while raising a hand to retort, then stopped. His hand lowered, and he grudgingly admitted, “Well played. But wait a minute, does that mean that there’s other comics that we haven’t found?”
Pursing her lips thoughtfully, Vanessa regarding the collection on the table before looking up with a smile. “Maybe. I guess you’ll just have to look through the books that I said you should and find out. And maybe some of those books have sticky notes somewhere inside them saying where other comics are.”
“I’m being tricked into learning,” Tristan muttered. “This is unfair.”
Vanessa gave an easy smile. “Now see, if I was tricking you, I would’ve said something to Columbus that would lead him to the first pile of these things, knowing that he’d get you involved and you’d let him get you into the library because you didn’t think it was coming from me.”
Starting to report, Tristan paused, before shrugging. “You know what, that’s fair. One genius bribing me into the library with work from another genius? I’ll take it.”
Columbus nodded, reaching out to put a hand on the nearest comic. Running a finger along the signature, he murmured, “I think you missed the most obvious reason Gaia lets these be here though.
“It’s because this is where all the magic books are supposed to be.”