“I miss fire drawing,” Matteo said. “Paper and ink is fine, of course, but there’s something special about making a living, burning picture, right in the air. I’ve always seen normal drawing as practice for that, more than anything else.”
“I get that,” Nick said. “Plus, there’s that left-something-at-home feeling, when the meta turns you off.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what it feels like.”
“It’s creepy enough when it starts. Must suck to feel it all day.”
“I am getting used to it.”
“Do they let you have paper, at least?”
“Yes, thankfully. I can’t get used to the stuff you make, though. How do you make it so smooth?”
Nick laughed. “I have no idea. Isn’t smooth better?”
“I suppose, technically. But it has no character. Every sheet is the same. It used to be, if there was a dent or lump somewhere, that could be frustrating at first, but figuring out how to work around it – that’s what art is really made of. Not being free, but figuring out your way around limitations. This paper is so damn cooperative and I want to crumple it up and throw it at the wall.”
“So, you Strongmen aren’t all equally strong. Is that natural to the power, or is it about practice?”
“I think it’s mostly practice.”
“If you don’t use it, you’re just a normal strong person. My sister never liked sports. She sings and plays piano. Never lifted a weight in her life, and she couldn’t, I dunno, break a rock or pull up a tree or something. But if a mundane challenged her to arm wrestle, she’d win every time. No sweat.”
“I see. And you can break rocks because you practice breaking rocks?”
“Not even that. I mean, some people work out that way, but they don’t get stronger than the rest of us. Sometimes they’re even pretty pathetic. You know, compared to the rest of us. I just work out the same way a mundane would, but it has a different effect on me. It’s like, there’s my body, and then there’s something behind it. Some extra juice that wants to be tapped into, and it’ll break the world in half for you. But it has to go through your body. If you don’t know your body, it’s like that power is trying to tunnel through a clogged up pipe.”
“Oh! That’s not as different from fireworking as I expected. It feels the same. That ability to talk to the fire is there, and it won’t get stronger or weaker with practice. But if you don’t understand exactly how you want to use it, then it might not cooperate so well.”
Wednesday. Not the next Wednesday, but a Wednesday
Mr. Eliot shuffled his gaze and his papers. “I’m sorry to say our appeals for a stay of execution have been declined. The decisions are mostly down to the military and the state of New York, and they’ve decided to present a unified front. So, unless the president decides to step in… I’m terribly sorry.”
“That’s all right. I really didn’t have much hope.”
Mr. Eliot cleared his throat. “The rules for executions of Empowereds are somewhat different. I’d like to take a moment to explain the procedure to you.”
“You’d like to?”
“Well, not like so much as legally required to.”
“Each power has a designated method of execution, so the abilities of the condemned cannot be used to escape.”
“They don’t just have a meta follow you to the hanging?”
“Electric chair, nowadays. But no, there’s concern for the trauma that a meta might experience, suppressing a fellow Empowered’s ability during the moment of their death. Um, the first Pyrokinetic to be executed with a chair used his powers to burn through the electric wires and restraints, the moment his powers were restored. His eventual method of execution became the new standard, and, well-” Mr. Eliot cleared his throat three times. “You’ll be placed in an iron box, sealed except for a single hose, attached to a tank of water. Once the meta is clear, the box will be flooded.”
“I see. Well, nice to know there’s a plan.”
“It’s called what now?” Nick said.
“The Bhagavad Gita. You’ve honestly never heard of it?”
“I’ve heard you say it three times, and I still have no idea what you’re saying.”
“Americans don’t read it anymore? What about the Ramayana? The Upanishads? Any of the Mahabharata or the Vedas at all?”
Nick shrugged helplessly.
“Really? The transcendentalists were obsessed with them. They brought cartloads of copies into Arcadia.”
“Well, I guess they didn’t leave any for the rest of us.”
“My god. I sincerely apologize on my ancestors’ behalf, because you’ve been grossly deprived.”
“Right. And of all those words I don’t remember, the one that’s your favorite book is-?”
“The Bhagavad Gita. You’d love it. Very martial and honorable.”
“Well, if you tell me how to spell it, I’ll try to find it.”
When Nick arrived for his visit, Matteo looked embarrassed. It was a new expression for him.
“I ruined my paper,” he said.
“How did you manage that?”
“Well, I’ve made my own paper before, naturally.”
“Just a normal Arcadian hobby, I guess.”
“Oh no, it’s a fiddly mess, and if you’re not a teacher or a bookbinder, it’s considered a horrible waste of time that only a useless daydreamer would attempt.”
“So right up your alley, then.”
“Exactly. Anyway, I’m getting used to this smooth paper, which is upsetting. I don’t think anything is quite so depressing as finding something insipidly boring, but getting used to it’s presence anyway. Let me adjust to sorrow, horror, rage and sickness. Anything but boredom. So I think to myself, ‘listen, I might not have to best tools, but I have water, I have fabric, and if I shred this up I’ll have the makings of pulp. So why not make some sheets of real, proper paper?”
“Take it that didn’t work out so well?”
Matteo shook his head. “And like an idiot I kept trying even though it wasn’t working. So now I have no paper.”
“Can’t you just ask them for some more?”
“I suppose. I don’t know if they’d waste that money on someone who frankly won’t be around much longer.”
“First,” Nick reached out and smacked Matteo on the head. “I told you not to talk like that. Second, why the fuck not? Paper’s cheap.”
“Paper is… cheap?”
“Well. No wonder it’s all terrible now.”
“Couldn’t find that Bhagavad Gita, but,” Nick tossed The Wizard of Oz on the table. “You won’t have read this one. Came out after Arcadia shut the world out.”
Matteo picked it up and thumbed through the pages. “Good?”
“It looks well read. Is this your personal copy?”
“Yeah, but you can keep it. It’s easy to find another.”
Ouida Nelson was impressed with the president’s evasion. She had known this plan was risky, but she hadn’t thought he could run the clock out this long without enraging his base. To make sure of it, she had started the first petition herself. You could never trust grassroots activists. One day they would make their case with silver tongues and deliver it straight to the appropriate authorities. The next they would dither around, squabbling about word choices that didn’t matter and harassing people who could do nothing. She had started their snowball for them, and it was growing nicely as it sped for its target.
But of course it did need time to grow, and she could only accelerate it so much once it had started. The president was speaking well on the issue. Publicly listening to all sides and implicitly promising to pardon Matteo Garibaldi without saying as much directly. Making his opposition’s stubbornness seem like the real obstacle. Provided he did eventually sign the pardon, these delays would not hurt him. Not the way he was framing them.
He knew. He knew that Matteo Garibaldi made a better martyr than a representative. If he issued the pardon at the last minute, and perhaps there was some tragic delay on the road, this could even turn into backlash against his opposition. She had entirely underestimated the president.
Oh well. She had warned Judge Harris that this was the riskier option. She hoped the president stayed in political life long enough for her to either work for him, or for his opponent. That would be a challenge worth waiting for.