"This journey has ended. Another begins."
--Babylon 5, "Sleeping in Light"
"It begins. Don't cry."
--Final Fantasy X
I'd been here before. Many, many times. When I first came here, it was terrifying. I shouldn't be able to be here--nothing should. It felt as if some force, some unthinking, malevolent thing, some uncaring being focused only on a single task, was trying to force me out--not only of its domain but of everything. That simply by being here I had violated something so basic, so fundamental, so necessary to all that was to remain inviolate that I should simply not be allowed to exist. That I, by being there, had proven that I should never have existed in the first place.
Erasure was given to me as my only option.
But I did not have to take it.
My power blazed against the void, against the oppressive force, and pushed it back. Forced it to permit my presence. Made it bend to my will, and yet still it pushed back, forced me constantly to reaffirm my right to exist, to deny its power over me.
But now... now I sat here and did not feel it. It knew me, now. Knew it could do nothing to me.
It feared me.
That was the problem.
I did not want to be feared.
And yet I was. My reputation echoed across the realms, whispered fretfully by travelers, refugees, when they thought I could not hear. They were wrong. I heard everything.
"Beware," they said. "She comes. She is powerful and merciless. She does as she pleases. She cannot be stopped, she cannot be fought. Pray you do not ever see the day when she visits. Pray you die, first. And pray she does not think to restore your life."
And then the truly brave--or supremely foolhardy--would whisper a few last words. Words that chilled me more than almost anyone or anything else.
"Beware... of Britney Atwater."
And the worst part? I enjoyed it.
October 6, 2502
They say you can't go home again, not because it's changed, but because you have.
Looking back, there'd always been a monster inside me. But while I was here, at first, it was quiescent. Never showed itself, never became apparent. Nary a hint of it unless someone did a truly deep delve into my being.
Then I went away.
That's when the monster made itself known.
It was slow, at first. Gave me a little nudge now and then. Pushed me to do things I never would've contemplated before. But once I knew it was there, knew what it wanted me to do, I could choose. In some cases, I decided, I could accept it. In others... I fought.
I fought it. I didn't always win, but I always fought.
And then I returned home, and the monster quelled. Went dormant again, but perhaps the damage was already done. I might have justified it, rationalised it, excused it, but I'd done some of what it wanted. Hadn't always fought hard enough. Let myself move just a step in its direction.
Still it abated, but it didn't go away. It was merely biding its time, waiting for the next opportunity.
And when I had to leave again, it struck.
And this time I lacked the strength to fight.
I embraced the monster, became what it wanted me to be. I reveled in it, gloried in it, empowered not only by it but by a newfound recklessness, a sense of unstoppability that I hadn't had before. Because, at some level, I was.
I barked a mirthless laugh. Jen had seen to that.
The one person I'd come back here to see, perhaps. And the one person I couldn't--shouldn't--see. The one person it would have been better for me never to have met.
Because then the monster would be dead.
I could feel the monster abate somewhat, but it was too much a part of me now to go away as it had before. It gave way to what was left of my conscience, what it had been unable to devour and crush, the tattered remnants of my morality, but it was still there, still pushing me.
I concentrated my being on a single point. I didn't make a new body for myself, not yet. I just wanted to concentrate my awareness, prepare myself to try to be some semblance of who I might once have been.
It soon became apparent to me that my old home had changed, too.
A huge young man--Jen had called his type a "gigachad," but I hated the term--chased a woman into an alley. It was pretty clear that his intent in doing so was less than entirely benevolent.
Strangely, though, I felt power radiating from both of them, though not from their own beings. It came rather from what else they had with them--the man's clothes, the woman's brooch. The brooch was a small thing, not imbued with much power, only a small ability to create. But the man...
"I bet you can't even make a pencil with that thing!" he taunted as he chased her, suddenly appearing on either side of her, closing off her escape. "I'll let you go if you can."
The woman shrank back, fear pulsing from her. She concentrated hard, directing her will at the ornament, but all that appeared was a small nub of an eraser.
"Looks like you should save up so you can afford some more Super Items," he said, advancing on her from both directions, inexorably driving her against a wall.
My monster and my morals paused for a moment, then pushed at the same time.
And whenever they agreed, I had become powerless to resist.
Had I a mouth, I would have roared. Had I eyes, they would have blazed. Had I hands, fingers, they would have crackled. I had none of those things.
But I had my power.
Whatever they had done, whatever senseless scheme the Super Goddesses had wrought this time, at least they'd had the foresight not to allow these "Super Items" to grant ultipotence equal to what they gave out personally. So it was but the work of a moment, a simple thought, for me to strip the man's clothing of its power and concentrate it in the brooch.
My monster waited for the woman to strike back, to avenge herself on her would-be assailant. My morals told me that she was a fit and proper person to exercise such command.
They were both right.
The man's second body vanished the instant I deprived him of the ability to have it. A smile crossed the woman's face as she realized what had, somehow, happened. My monster looked through my eyes and smiled back, seeing just a touch of its own cruelty reflected in her. But she was a better person than I. So all she did was give him just a taste of the fear he'd made her feel, then vanished, leaving him, panting and still backing away, to recover and leave mostly unscathed.
Without his powers, and hence without his impressive form--though he was still, I admitted, quite a prime physical specimen--but otherwise unscathed.
Alone, I gave myself a proper body. Nothing flashy. In fact, if anything, I would be remarkable for my lack of beauty, given my observations of what my world was now like.
My mind reached out, finding the first person I'd thought to speak with, and I vanished.
Castle Volkoba. Every bit as imposing as I remembered.
Even more so, now, in a sense, to me at least. My presence here had not, of course, gone unnoticed. I knew it wouldn't. But what I hadn't quite expected was that at least some of the Super Goddesses would have erected defenses specifically against me.
Not that that was any hindrance to me any more. No Super Goddess could keep me from doing as I pleased, now.
So ignoring Irina's effort to keep me out, I teleported inside, straight into her lab. "Hello, Irina," I said. "Or would you prefer to forget just how well we know each other and have me call you 'Christina' instead?"
"I never knew you," the short, curt reply came.
"Oh, come now!" I said, letting the memories of all the fun times we'd had bubble to the top of my mind where her telepathy was sure to detect them.
"I knew that Britney," Irina said, turning to face me at last. "But you? No. I don't know you at all. And I have no wish to."
"That's unfortunate," I said, advancing a few steps. "Because I'm still the same person, and I'd very much like to get reacquainted."
Irina didn't use her words to answer. A moment later I found myself flat on my ass outside her front door.
I could've gone back in, of course. She couldn't keep me out, only throw me out. But there was no point. I picked myself up and teleported away.
"You have, in theory, every right to be here, as all do," Queen-Mother M'Wela Mutegaraba said as we stood facing each other in her private office. "Prosperia is open to all who can come here, as it always has been."
"Then why do I get the sense that you'd rather I not exercise that right?" I asked.
"Because you have forfeited it," M'Wela said flatly.
I merely quirked an eyebrow.
"Prosperia is a realm of peace and plenty," she continued. "And it is not open to those who disturb that. And you... now, you disturb that."
"You can't keep me out," I said, my voice a mixture of fact, taunt and challenge.
"I can't," M'Wela agreed. "But unless you wish me to repeat Irina's little stunt, I'd suggest you not try me further."
"Good day to you too, Your Majesty," I said, my tone making the last words sound like a curse. I dropped a deep, mocking curtsey and teleported away.
"You are not welcome here," Empress Shizuka Hirose told me flatly as I stood before the Chrysanthemum Throne, flanked by a dozen Sakimori.
"Quite the honor guard for someone who's unwelcome."
"What you've done is contrary to everything Japan stands for, everything the Japanese people believe. You are not welcome here," she repeated.
"I take it that includes Elza's private little enclave?" I asked.
"Leave." Shizuka's tone was sufficient to give me my answer. I tipped my head fractionally and took a moment to enjoy the shocked and angry looks on the faces of the courtiers before disappearing.
"I love you--or, I love what you were when I met you," Ellie Kare told me gently, as we sat in her office in Nueva Caracas, where she'd once again taken her old job as chief of police. Paula Estévez had stormed out without a word when I'd teleported in.
"Now... now I see only what you've become. And that's someone I can't love." Tears welled in Ellie's eyes. "I'll always be grateful to you for bringing me here, Britney. You've given me life and hope and joy when I never thought I'd find it. But you need to find that for yourself, too." She stood up, her still-perfect dick straining against her tight uniform pants, and walked around to the door.
"Not even a goodbye fuck for old times' sake?" I asked, making no secret of where my eyes rested on her body.
"Maybe if the old Britney ever comes back."
It was the same everywhere I went. Practically every Super Goddess wanted nothing to do with me, now. Some of them I couldn't even see. I'd hoped to see Elza Sabini; maybe she'd have a little sympathy for someone who literally attended her birth. But Shizuka didn't want me there and Elza wasn't coming to me.
I visited all the ultipotents I knew about--who lived in places I wasn't told I was unwelcome, anyway--but they too had nothing to say. They couldn't just send me away, of course, but all of them simply refused even to acknowledge I was there.
So eventually I found myself with only three people left to visit.
Yomi Shirogane met me on a small, private island she'd created in the middle of the Pacific. Shizuka often used it as a vacation spot, but it wasn't part of Japan.
Before I could get a word out, though, she spoke. "I might dabble, sometimes, Britney, but you... I'm not like you. I never have been. I never will be. I know what you can sense in me. I know you all sense it in me." She barked a short laugh. "Maybe now they'll understand why Shizuka keeps me so close. If only Jennifer had done the same with you." She vanished.
With that hope of some sort of sympathy dashed, I moved on to my last hope. A desperate one, to be sure. What I'd heard about Sofia was that she placed even ultipotents like me roughly on the same level as bacteria. Possibly grains of sand.
I'll give her credit: she kept her base of operations well hidden. But that was hardly any bar to me finding it and going there. No sooner had I appeared in one of its labyrinthine tunnels, though, than I found myself being flung right back out, as I had from a number of other places. I supposed it was for the best. She probably wouldn't have had anything to say to me, anyway.
And that left me with no options at all.
I found Jennifer sitting in her gaming studio, of all places. Not streaming, just sitting there. The room was fully shielded against even other Super Goddesses, and I could tell that it had been ever since the moment I returned. But there was one person whom her wards would--unnecessarily--permit entry.
"Hello, Jen," I said as I appeared in the room, for once not needing to force my way past what should be an impermeable barrier.
"Hello, Britney," she replied. "It's been a while."
"It has," I agreed. "But I'm back now."
"You are," she agreed.
A very uncomfortable silence hung in the air.
"I..." Jennifer broke the silence hesitantly. "I know what you've done."
"All of it?" I asked.
"All of it," Jennifer said, nodding. "And... I can't say I like it."
"It's an acquired taste." I saw no use trying to excuse what I'd done.
"One I hope I never will. But..." She took a deep breath and my morals, flaring up stronger now in her presence, quailed. "I forgive you."
Both of us began to tear up.
"I forgive you," she repeated. "How could I not? It's my fault you're like this now. My fault you can do all this."
"Jen... I don't blame you. It was an accident, chance. You felt you had no options."
"I know, but... I still feel responsible. If it weren't for me, none of this would have been possible."
"I don't blame you," I repeated. "I did what I did. Not you."
My monster quailed at my next words. "And now it's time to end it."
"End it?" asked Jen.
"End it," I confirmed. "Jen... you've got to end it. End me. Stop me."
"Britney... I don't know if I can."
"It was your power that made me as I am. If anyone can fix this, it's you."
"I wasn't exactly me when the last part of it happened."
"No, but... maybe you can figure something out. Will you at least try?"
Another deep breath. "Yes. Yes, I'll try." She moved her chair over to sit next to me. "This is the first time any of us have done this, you know."
"Depowered an ultipotent or ended someone's existence?"
"Either." She put a hand on my shoulder and I felt her power reaching out toward mine. Part of me wanted to pull away, but the part of me that knew, in her presence, that this was what must be held me there.
And then I felt it, Jen's power cutting through mine, penetrating to the very core of my being. And I screamed.
The pain was beyond imagining. Everything about me felt like it was deep in a fire hotter than anything I'd ever created. I could feel Jen's power pressing on mine, seeking a place to dislodge it, rip it away, shred it to pieces, before she moved on to my very self, tried to force me out of everything that was and was not, cause me to cease to be. Punished me as I knew I deserved.
And she failed.
"Britney, I..." Tears again. "I'm so sorry. When I did this... I wasn't me. I was more than me. And I can't do it just as me."
"Then become her again," I begged. "Surely the others will understand."
"I can't," she said. "It's too dangerous. Paige only barely managed last time. If I do it again... there'll be no coming back. And I'll do worse than you ever did."
"So it's you or me."
"I'm so sorry. For everything."
I sighed, a deep, heavy exhalation. "Then lock me up. Cage me. Keep me away from everything and everyone."
"I can't hold you."
"I know. But... I promise I won't escape." I hoped Jen believed me. I'd never lied to her, never broken a promise. And this promise was too important to break, anyway.
"I'll... make you as comfortable as possible. I'll weave enough of myself into it that you'll be constantly aware of me, constantly reminded." She could sense my inner turmoil, my personal conflict, as much as I could. "I'll visit whenever you want."
"Thank you," I said quietly.
As Jen had promised, my new accommodations were indeed luxurious. A gigantic mansion, created and maintained by her power. Every amenity I could hope for, available with a thought. And Jen visited regularly, as she'd promised. Nobody else did, but then I didn't expect them to. I didn't expect I'd see any of them ever again.
One day, though, a voice I knew only by reputation interrupted my reverie. "Well, well, well. Looks like the killer developed a conscience after all."
I whirled to see a woman dressed entirely in black. A latex catsuit covered her entire body from the neck down, fitting like a second skin, molded to her curves, flowing around her titanic breasts, exposing everything but showing nothing. Power radiated from her, power that made her only one thing, and yet there was something strange about it.
"Sofia, I take it. How did you get in?"
"Maybe you're not as stupid as the rest of them. Still not all that smart, but not braindead. And as for how I got in... well, let's just say that when you've studied them long enough, you find ways around even a Super Goddess's powers."
"What do you want? Last I heard you thought people like me might as well not even exist."
She shrugged. "That was before we had something in common."
"That was before I realized that you, too, had had your life destroyed by Jennifer."
Wariness flared in me. "What do you mean, me, too?"
"I mean that you're still pretty stupid, not blaming Jennifer for everything. How pathetically noble of you."
"Jennifer didn't do this. Not by choice."
"Oh, the sweet, perfect little angel you've met would never do this, of course! But Super Empathy is just so easy to manipulate." She smiled. "Especially when you're already in her head."
"You did this?" Now I was truly confused.
"No, no!" Sofia laughed. "I didn't have anything to do with it. No, Jennifer did this." She smiled, and there was something in it that made me start to back away with an emotion I hadn't felt personally in a very long time. Fear.
"Oh, yes. She did. The real Jennifer. The one who's been forced down inside that angel's mind, beaten almost--but not quite--into submission. Do you want to know what the real Jennifer is like?" I could feel her mind reaching toward mine, could feel her invade me. She stepped toward me, forcing me against a wall. She grew two more arms, her lower pair pinning my torso, her upper hands grasping my head.
"No," I said quietly. "I don't." I looked into her eyes and saw a gleeful malice. She didn't care.
"PLEASE!" But it was too late. I never had a chance.
"Oh, God," I said, curled into a ball on the floor, rocking back and forth as I tried to assimilate my new memories, resolve the contradictions between them and my own. "Oh, God."
"And that's the real Jennifer. Jennifer Fahr, I should say. Not this Jennifer Martinette she cooked up to hide herself."
"She's just underneath there, lurking, waiting. Every bit as much a monster as you or I. Every bit as deserving to be put out of her misery."
"She still wasn't responsible for how this started."
"Your parents?" Sofia laughed again. "No, she wasn't. That was the wildest of coincidences. But a useful one. Like I said, Super Empathy is so easy to manipulate when you're already inside the person's head. It wasn't hard for her real self to manipulate her fake self into holding herself responsible."
"So she arranged to save me."
"You'd have been better off if she hadn't. Sure, a year or so of misery. But then it'd have been over."
"I almost did it anyway."
"But she stopped you. Or, at least, arranged for you to be stopped. All that Super Empathy just waiting to be twisted to her own purposes."
"And everything else? Was that also her?"
"It wasn't hard to make you care for her. Make you care about her. Just feed your ego a bit. Make you a celebrity."
"She only did that because she was so excited to see me play."
"But little Jennifer Martinette had no idea what she was doing, and so it wasn't hard for Jennifer Fahr to just reach up and out for a brief moment. It wasn't hard to make the other think it was her idea, her doing, all along."
"Well then you two bonded. Became inseparable. Like sisters. Or maybe mother and daughter. Or both. Of course, to do that, she had to get her real parents out of the way, but that also wasn't hard."
"But the next thing, that was an accident. Her libido overwhelmed her."
Sofia snorted. "She's a Super Goddess. She's got more control over herself than that! Well normally she does, anyway. But come now. Look at how ridiculous and flimsy it all was. Going from a superstar athlete to a marriage commissioner of all things? Because you brought people together? It should have looked silly even to you."
I nodded slowly. Sofia was making altogether too much sense.
"But that was exactly the position she needed. Get alone in a room with you, and sex. Force her finally to think of the two, in the same thought, when there was nothing else around. And a little nudge to push the happy couple along... a little backwash on you... and voilà. One nice, neat conversion of a sister to a sex slave. Easy as you please."
I was starting to catch on. "And so then her Super Empathy kicked in, her memories of what we had, and she resolved to make me ultipotent."
"Feeding the monster. Empowering it but also leashing it. Knowing you'd chafe against the chains, at some level."
"And when we finally admitted it..."
"That made it inevitable. Staying together wasn't helping. So you had to be apart. And that meant you going away from her."
"And when I did, I finally managed to slip the leash."
"One glorious moment. One perfect, magnificent moment when your own real self shone through." Sofia sounded almost awestruck, of all things.
"I thought she'd take away my powers for sure when I got back."
"But she didn't, did she? Just a little reminder, bubbling up from within her, of what that would mean. Or of what she thought it would mean, which is the same thing for someone like her."
"But then we were fine. Another half-century of harmony."
"Another half-century for Jennifer Fahr to plot and plan. Did it ever occur to you why you're the only ultipotent to have firsthand lived experience of a world without Super Goddesses? Even sweet Gina was born after M'Wela, you know." Sofia paused. "Well, except for the ones who were brought from the past. But you're the only one to have lived through the change."
I shook my head.
"The only one old enough to have known what it was like." Sofia smiled. "Maybe just a little resentment there about how the world had changed? Just a bit. But more importantly, the only one old enough to maybe, just maybe, have played some old video games."
"Come on, bringing back streaming of all things? How silly was that? You were right, you know. Why should anyone watch her play a game when they can do it themselves, and on better hardware?"
"She put out a compelling ad. I helped her with it."
"It would take more than just regular advertising techniques to get people to do something that silly."
"She told me she wouldn't."
"Oh, that perfect little angel Jennifer Martinette wouldn't ever use mind control, of course. Wouldn't dream of it." Sofia smiled nastily. "But you and I both know that Jennifer Fahr would. You and I both know how that feels."
I nodded reluctantly.
"So another little push while she was distracted by her excitement and, boom. One irresistible advertisement. And then once word got out about her various prizes, of course, well at that point she didn't need the mind control. And the prizes were very much Ms. Martinette's idea."
"But it was all just an excuse."
"All an excuse," Sofia agreed. "All an excuse for you to try out some cheat codes."
"She couldn't have known I'd try that God mode one."
"Known? No. But guessed? Curiosity, too, is another easy thing to manipulate."
"And, of course, once I had, then she just had to know more. See if she could stabilize it."
"Because of the fear of a Super Witch. Of course, there is no such thing. We're the closest thing to it."
"But those universes we looked at?"
Sofia shrugged. "Something from our future. Might be you, might be me. One of us will do that some day."
"Oh, you will. Because there's no going back for someone like you. Not now."
"I'll stay here. For the rest of time if I have to. Until Jen can figure out a way to end me."
"She never will. All it took was a little confusion in her mind. A little bit of being overwhelmed with power was all her true self needed to sneak through and twist you. Make you truly immortal, make your powers truly permanent, beyond the reach of anyone but... what was the name you all came up with for her? 'Reality-Jen'?" Sofia shrugged. "If Paige hadn't gotten to Jennifer when she did, Jennifer would have been lost. Not only would she have remained more powerful than the others, but her true personality would have emerged more and more, taking advantage of the confusion and chaos to creep in. And then all would have been lost."
"So then why alter me?" I asked. "From what Paige told us, she seemed very arrogant, very certain of victory."
"A backup. Just in case. Never hurts to have a Plan B. If Jennifer Fahr couldn't emerge in this reality, well, then... Britney Atwater can just do her dirty work for her."
"So the only way for me to go back, to prevent this from happening, would be..."
"Would be for Jen to make that formula again, to risk losing herself again--and this time almost certainly lose herself--just to depower you. But quite simply, you're the lesser of two evils. At least your damage can be reversed if necessary."
"I'll stay here," I repeated.
"No, you won't," Sofia contradicted calmly. "That's the final piece. Your wanderlust. You can't stay in one place. Put it all together... you're the perfect storm, Britney. The perfect tool through which Jennifer can work her will on this reality. The perfect weapon for her to unleash." She smiled. "And all it will take is one last, little betrayal. One final thing you thought you'd never do. But then, what haven't you done that you thought you'd never do?"
Sofia vanished, leaving me to my extremely disturbed thoughts.
Years passed. Jennifer showed up on occasion, but rarely, and less and less often as time went on. I could feel Sofia's mind probing about the place. Nobody else came to see me.
And all that time my monster grew stronger as my morals dimmed, weakened by the realization that Sofia was right about Jennifer. Every visit I probed a little deeper into Jen's being. Every visit I got a little closer to knowing whether what Sofia told me was the truth.
And finally I knew.
Deep down, underneath all that Super Empathy, all the smiles and cheer and joy... sat Jennifer Fahr, every bit as much a monster as I was.
And that's when I realized that there never was a monster.
I was the monster.
And Jennifer had been my morality.
But now Jennifer was dead to me. She was every bit as evil as me, deep down. It was all fake, all an act, all a superimposed personality that didn't reflect who she truly was.
My conscience was gone. Only my evil remained.
Unbidden a memory sprang to mind, words I'd said so long, long ago. "I'd do anything for her. Absolutely anything."
But that was another Jennifer, a fake Jennifer, about whom I'd said that. For the real one... my words meant nothing.
So I committed the one act even that fake Jennifer could never forgive me. I broke my promise to her.
I vanished out of my cage, never to return.
Once more the whispers went out.
Once more the cosmos trembled at my coming.
And this time... this time, I welcomed it.
"It's a cell. I've gotten used to them. Frankly, I've done some of my best writing in places like this. In here, you cannot run from yourself."
--Babylon 5, "Objects in Motion"
"You cannot harm me. You cannot stop someone who's been touched by Vorlons."
"You're not the only one that's been touched by the Vorlons."
--Babylon 5, "The Wheel of Fire"
"A gilded cage is still a cage."
--Lady Hale, in P v Cheshire West and Chester Council and P and Q v Surrey County Council
"What you need is clarity. I can give you that."
--Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Behind the Lines"
«Quell’ anima là sù c’ha maggior pena»,
disse ’l maestro, «è Giuda Scarïotto,
che ’l capo ha dentro e fuor le gambe mena.
De li altri due c’hanno il capo di sotto,
quel che pende dal nero ceffo è Bruto:
vedi come si storce, e non fa motto!;
e l’altro è Cassio, che par sì membruto.
Ma la notte risurge, e oramai
è da partir, ché tutto avem veduto».
--Dante Alighieri, "Divina Commedia"
When it was evening, he came with the Twelve. And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said, "Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." They began to be distressed and to say to him, one by one, "Surely it is not I?" He said to them, "One of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish. For the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born."
When they sow the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind...
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
--William Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"
"Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
--The Dark Knight
Ellie Kare is an original character of Ash Kare, used with permission.
With contributions from delta7447
The "Super Goddess" universe was created by Akane