The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
Ptonomy has always considered himself an artist. A man of refinement, of strategy. He relies on the brute force of a bullet when necessary, of course, but it’s far from his primary instinct. When faced with an opponent, the enemy must be studied, willingly or otherwise; only then can a correct plan be achieved. The problem therefore lay in knowledge of the enemy's nature.
The acquisition of such knowledge has never been an obstacle for him.
Not until David. Not until...
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
Ptonomy was his mother’s choice of a name. She was a scholar, a great lover of the classics; her life as a military wife gave her few opportunities to give that love back to the wider world, so she passed it on to her son instead. She didn’t impose her thwarted hopes onto him, like so many do to their own children.
He’s seen those kinds of memories play out too many times. Seen the pain of those that suffered under the hopes and dreams of their parents.
No, his mother never did anything but share her love with him. Her books were his garden to play in: pluck a flower, sample a ripe fruit. And if some seeds took root in his own soil, well. How could a mother not water them?
Ptonomy was from the Greek, though his mother penned the word herself. The second half was easy: from -nom, like astronomy, taxonomy. With that she called him a namer of things, a creator of order. The meaning of the other half depended on her mood: if he was good, it was pter-: wings, flight, pterodactyls soaring in the sky. If he was quarrelsome, it was pto-: to fall into misfortune, ruin, or from a great height.
His father, when he could remember his name at all, preferred Paul. That choice had been overruled at the maternity ward, but he used it anyway after she fell to the kitchen floor. Paul was short and easier to recall. More manly. More holy, though neither of his parents cared much for church.
Paul, from the Roman name Paulus, meaning humble.
His father was the man of action, the proud military man, even when that action left his ear and brain a ruin. He wore his wounds like invisible medals, puffed up his chest and snapped his fingers when they afflicted him. He taught his sensitive, scholarly son how to hold a gun, how to cut down the enemy, how to plan a battle and win it. Or at least he tried, through the veil of his mangled body.
David, with his shredded memories, his brute power, his instability. He reminds Ptonomy too much of his father.
David, from the Hebrew, meaning beloved. The great king of Israel, the bringer of peace.
Ptomony's spent a lot of time in David’s memories, in the memories he makes from them. There's little peace in David’s mind, not more than scraps of childhood and his love for Sydney Barrett, but that’s not what weighs on Ptonomy as they drive to Division 3 like headless chickens to rescue David and Amy. Assuming there's anything left to rescue.
Amy, from the Latin amata, meaning beloved. The Haller parents must have loved both their children dearly.
Ptonomy tried to read David after their escape from Walter. That's what he does. He can't read thoughts but he can read memories; if anything, the memories are the more reliable, more truthful of the two. Ptonomy reads everyone all the time. When he was a child it was involuntary, but he's long held full control over his powers. And despite Syd's insistence during their investigation of David's past, he's never seen the point in asking for permission.
When he looked at David, he saw nothing.
Ptonomy walks into a room and everything in that room has a memory. People, furniture, walls. There is never nothing. Never.
He was like a bird crashing into glass, stunned into stillness by the unexpected. David's mind was sealed like the rooms of Clockworks: the doors gone, the walls strong, the patient trapped inside.
If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.
Ptonomy knows other people's memories like the back of his hand. Still he finds himself replaying and replaying, walking in circles through his memories of walking through his memories of walking through David’s memories, searching for an answer.
Ptonomy's seen plenty of damaged minds in his years working at Summerland. Most mutants don't end up at Melanie's without suffering first. It's his job to help them heal. As he strolls through the museums of their pasts, he considers himself a benevolent force, a guiding hand leading the way from trauma to recovery. Helping them forget in a way he never will, to leave their past behind and start anew.
It's not easy work. He's used to bad reactions: stress, panic, resistance. Most patients put up a fight, at least at first. They don't want to know their own truths, the facts of their existence. Their memories are inexact, malleable, built anew with each recollection. This lets them lie to themselves so easily, and most people want the lie. Need it.
Memories of childhood -- with the exception of his own -- are always unreliable. Very young children must learn to perceive the world as they experience it. They forget, they invent, they imagine the reality around them because they don't know how to understand it. When trauma is involved, those inventions can become their only escape, their only means of survival.
David isn't the worst case he's ever seen, but it's close. His dyscopia were endless, suffocating: panic attacks, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, emotional detachment, depression, dissociation.
Ptonomy has seen the devastation of child abuse so many times. Emotional, physical, sexual. It's left him with little faith in humanity -- that the closest bonds of our lives can be formed in such corruption, such agony.
David's childhood trauma must have been severe.
His father, snapping his fingers in frustration, shouting.
Yet most of David's memories of his parents bear no taint of corruption. Grief at their loss, still fresh for his father, yes. And perhaps that is what keeps David from seeing his face. Guilt for his failures as their son, for his sickness, for his inability to attend his own father's funeral. But no history of abuse, no outside threats to explain why was he -- is -- always so afraid. Just a lifetime of terror, free-floating and inexplicable.
David hates himself, in his memories. It doesn't really start until adolescence, but then it's all-consuming. The apparent weakness of his mind: tormenting him with voices, visions, worse; until he snaps and breaks his world. The cycle repeating over and over despite medication, despite therapy, despite all the futile efforts of doctors who were treating his gift like a disease.
He's sick, he tells Amy: in his bedroom, in his kitchen, in a hospital. He's sick, he tells his doctors, and they nod with false understanding. He's sick and he's not going to get better, he says in group therapy in Clockworks; miserable, numb, resigned, the bruises still fading from his throat. He's sick, he thinks, swallowing every pill on command, letting the pills swallow him whole.
He's not sick, Melanie tells him, mere days ago, over and over. That's the old story. You're not sick.
Melanie, from the Greek melania, meaning black or dark. A Roman saint who gave all her wealth to charity, gave of herself to help the needy.
Melanie's motivations have never been so pure. At least when it comes to David. There's been a greedy gleam in her eyes from the moment they detected the massive spike of his psychic powers. She can talk all she wants about the war, about Division 3, about the future. The truth is, she's trapped in that frozen room with Oliver and has been for as long as Ptonomy has known her. She's only running Summerland, rescuing mutants, healing them, telling them to fight -- she's only doing any of that because she believes it's what Oliver would have wanted. He's been a ghost haunting her for over twenty years; he'll probably haunt her forever.
Ptonomy looks across the car at Sydney; she hasn't said a word since the drive began, summoned no more defenses of her man. She and David hve been inseparable since Clockworks, and when apart it seems that all they want to do was snap back together again despite not being able to touch. Two magnets never able to click together. It's beautiful in a tragic way.
He slips into Sydney's memories, smooth as silk, then swallows a gasp at the sudden, unexpected sexuality of David and Sydney naked and entwined. How -- and then he watches her remembering the white room, a constructed reality made just for them. So much power wielded with so little effort. They spent all afternoon there, all evening, fucking like newlyweds, the long-starved granted an overflowing feast. The memory of Sydney's body is alight with sensation and her mind drowns in David, David, David.
How long was David in the Astral Plane? Melanie said that time passes strangely there. Was it long enough for David to master his seemingly infinite powers? To transform himself from a victim to a god, ready to make the world kneel at his feet?
Ptonomy searches through Sydney's memories, hoping to find David explaining what happened to her. What he experienced, how it changed him. What he sees disturbs him. David dismisses any discussion of their investigation into his past. He distracts Sydney with lust, distracts Melanie with grief. It bothers Sydney, just a little, but she's entranced by his sudden confidence, the allure of his power and willingness to use it for her pleasure. Magnetic. But now he's the magnet and she's dull iron, trapped in his pull.
Ptonomy slips back out, even as he tucks a copy of everything he's seen into his perfect, unchanging memories. And he knows with certainty that Melanie is not going to get what she wants.
A week ago, a day ago, David would have helped them. He would have gone back to the Astral Plane and found a way to bring Oliver home again, despite having the barest understanding of his own abilities. But today's David, the David that rescued them from Walter, the David that used his powers effortlessly without any hint of confusion or fear, this David doesn't care about anyone but himself.
Ptonomy hasn't known David long at all, really, hasn't had enough time with him to learn all of his memories, but he's seen enough. He's seen David from the inside and he's certain that David wasn't sick then, wasn't sick before the failed memory work that stranded him on the Astral Plane.
The thing is. The thing that's kept him circling through David's memories, through his own, is that he knows for a fact that David is a liar.
David has lied to everyone about a lot of things for a long time. Being a junkie does that to you, twists you up, makes you steal and lie for just one more hit, for the relief it brings. It's a kind of chemical possession. And David lied to his doctors in self-defense because telling the truth about the things he could see and hear only ever made his life worse. He lied because experience taught him he would always be punished for the truth.
Those were lies of desperation, of survival. The memories of them were thick with self-loathing and justified by fear. What else can you do when your very nature defies what anyone accepts as reality? Every mutant has had to lie for protection. So has every human, every living thing.
Except David lies to himself. Not in the normal way, the way everyone survives on little white lies and even huge ones just to get through the day. David's memory itself lies. Lenny didn't steal a stove to trade for drugs, Benny did. Ptonomy holds memories of two versions of the same event, from David's mind and from Philly's. Two versions, both seemingly true and unaltered memories, and yet they're not the same, not even close.
The tape recorder they found held a memory of unmistakable brutality. Perhaps the cruelty that David wears now has always been there, obscured by heavy psychiatric medication. Perhaps what's changed is that his neurochemistry has slipped back out of its artificial calm.
Maybe David really is sick. Maybe he was always a monster, like Walter. Maybe the drugs were the only thing holding him back.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
They reach the compound and find only horror.
The only thing that Ptonomy can think as they walk through the aftermath of the massacre, the only sense he can find in the widening gyre, is that they made a mistake bringing David in. They should have let Division 3 stop him back when it was even possible, should have let them fry him in that rigged-up swimming pool.
They'd believed David would be a powerful asset; a world-breaker, that's what Melanie called him, if they could make him whole. Powerful enough to change everything forever. But he was a walking time bomb, unstable and ready to go off. Now there's shrapnel flying in all directions, blasting holes in the minds and bodies of everyone around him.
Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.
Sun Tzu was one of the few things that both his parents loved.
They have to stop him, but the truth is that David has won before war could even be declared. Compared to the power of a god, all of their vaunted mutant abilities are little more than card tricks. There's nothing Ptonomy can do to stop him.
But he has to try.
He looks back at his memories again, at the totality of the David within him. At the David before and David now. Nothing connects them, not really. It's a fracture, a glitch.
The David of memory -- fragile and confused, battered by the storm of his mind and the chemistry imposed upon it -- wanted only simple joys. To be somewhere green and quiet, to hold Syd's hand and kiss her, to sit together on a summer night and watch the stars. To be whole, to be loved, to be free. It's hard to see the David from before in the David before him now.
Maybe he still wants those things. Ptonomy couldn't reach him to find out. Couldn't break through the glass.
But he's always been stubborn.
If they can find David, if they can reach him, if Ptonomy can break through that glass wall. If there's anything of the old David left, it's his job to help him, to be the guiding hand. To save him from himself.
If he can't do that, if can't use all his power and artistry and strategy to save David and the world from breaking...
There's always the brute force of a bullet.