“Jane Trent,” I thought as my eyes opened, “nearing Lanta, leading the latest mob of Knights on a patrol.”
A long time ago, in what felt like another life, I’d been involved in the medical industry. Not a nurse or a doctor, but a member of the clerical staff. I’d absorbed the jargon. When a patient woke up we liked to ask if they were “oriented 3×3”, meaning that they knew who they were, where they were, and why they were there. I’d made it a habit to get myself oriented every time I regained consciousness.
I was sitting in the front seat of the bus, immediately behind Seth, who was driving. His fellow Knights sat to my right and behind me, skull masks and red robes everywhere I looked. The remainder of the bus was occupied by the translucent forms of my shades, chatting quietly.
Even thinking about the Knights brought a slight snarl to my face. I remember the old world. I remembered them as a pitiful racist group, the dregs of society, cast out and spat upon for their barbaric beliefs. I had to tolerate them, for now, but I didn’t have to like it.
I used my heel to push my sigil up out of my face, and squinted in the sunlight. Late afternoon then. Caitlyn, on my right, started as I moved. She closed a book and slid it into a pocket in her robes. The shades carried on chatting as though nothing was happening, though they’d know that my stirring meant they’d be returning to the reserve in just a few moments.
“Dame Red,” I addressed Caitlyn formally, “I’m not in the business of enforcing Refiner’s ridiculous ban on reading anything he hasn’t written.” I didn’t look to her as I spoke, and I leaned forward as though my attention was entirely on Seth.
Caitlyn didn’t respond, and I peered past Seth out the windshield. I realized immediately what had woken me. We were slowing down, easing to a stop at the point where the wrecked old city’s highway became completely impassible. It wasn’t a barricade or anything, merely the point at which the remains of the cars which infested the highway grew too thick to pick our way through.
I’d considered making the unpowered folk open a path before, but then, as now, it had struck me as pointlessly tyrannical. I could stand to walk an hour or so, and the clog probably had some kind of military application.
I relaxed the tiny, nearly subconscious effort I was expending to keep the shades manifested, and they slid towards me as though they were vanishing down an unseen drain. As they drew near they sort of stretched into me, becoming greasy smears of translucent light that sank into my abdomen, and then were gone. I felt them arrive in the reserve, and take their places in the rotation.
The bus was now empty, save for the living, and the Knights rose about me. Their crimson robes, skull masks and ceremonial scythes might have been intimidating, but they were manifestly impractical, and they made the simplest things into a production. Seth maneuvered his kit alright, but Caitlyn and Corey had some difficulty getting the long, awkward scythes out of the bus without slicing anything.
“Do I need to send out scouts?” I asked the Colonel, inwardly. As always when I communicated with my reserve the rotation cut off before I began to speak, and a thousand or so shades waited for me to finish.
“You know the answer to that, Jane.”
He never called me Haunter, none of the vets from the First Defiance did, and I was grateful. I didn’t have any living friends from before Prevailer’s ascension, and many of the shades from that time had been expended in the decades since.
“Volunteers, then” I said to the reserve at large, “this is lightly hazardous duty, you’ll get double length speaking times in the rotation for a week, and you can move yourself or another ten places.”
The Colonel wouldn’t approve of this, of course, but he’d learned not to question me on it. We had a long standing argument about scouting. He felt that I should leave it to what I thought of as the Vets, shades who had some form of military experience, and whose accessories were martial in nature. They would do a better job, in all likelihood. I preferred to use Tourists, shades who I’d pacted for no particular reason, and who didn’t have valuable items or areas of expertise. They were, to be blunt, more expendable.
I watched the Knights outside the window as the shades began to sort out who would go. Irene was this month’s coordinator, until I heard her mental voice they were still arranging matters. It might take a few minutes.
The Knights were talking in their usual group. They could leave the bus without fear of attack, protected by Refiner’s blessing on their robes, and they were using my absence to chat among themselves. I always worried when I saw them talking together, the irrational fear that they knew of my rebel sympathies surging, but I was pretty sure that Corey and Seth were chiding Caitlyn for the trashy Old World romance novel she’d been perusing.
Left to his own devices, I suspected Corey wouldn’t care. My read on him was that he’d joined the Knights of Purity because they were the only human organization Prevailer allowed, and he was the sort of person who wanted to be part of something larger than himself. Basically, he was KoP since cop was not on the menu.
Seth, by contrast, had horns on his skull mask, signifying that he’d spent some time in Refiner’s retinue. You didn’t do that without either a deep seated hatred for dark skinned folks, or the ability to fake it very well. He’d have been at home in the old KoP, burning signs to scare folks and display his ignorance for all to see. He’d be a stickler for every aspect of Knightly dogma.
Caitlyn…I had no idea why she was in the KoP, or why they had accepted her. Timid and bookish, she was the least likely Knight I could envision. The rotation had come up with some guesses as to what was up with her. ‘Knight Boyfriend’ seemed the most likely. I hadn’t pried. I didn’t really care.
I was putting up with the Knights at Eriko’s urging. My rebel handler thought that Refiner was worth sucking up to. I wasn’t so sure, but the Colonel had bit, eager to have anything to do that might lead to a way to strike back at the Regime.
Irene interrupted my pondering, whispering names into my mind. I manifested them as quickly as she spoke them, shades stepping out of my form and solidifying, accessories in hand. They murmured thanks and filed out of the bus, a few positively bouncing with the joy of being embodied once again.
I couldn’t blame them for their exuberance. While in the reserve they had only the sensations of my body to occupy their minds, and only the rotation with which to speak to one another. Being manifested, even if only to walk wide circles around the bus and watch for rebels or bandits with rifles, was as close as they could get to being alive again. Even the risk of being gunned down, lost to nothingness or God’s judgement, didn’t seem to take the edge off of their glee.
With ten shades dispatched to scout I manifested Sarah and Joe, shades who I considered friends. They stepped out of my body and turned to face me, a study in contrasts.
Joe was a big fat guy, heavily bearded. Even his translucent state couldn’t diminish the solidity of him. He moved with a ponderous, heavy tread, and he tended to settle in one place while not constructively engaged. Sarah, by contrast, was birdlike, bobbing her head about and rolling her shoulders with nervous energy.
“Lanta, huh?” Joe said. “If I’m remembering it right you heard rumors of rebel activity?” He had a disconcertingly high pitched voice. Back when he was alive it caused him to clam up a lot. He’d got over it during his time in my reserve though.
Sarah shook her head. “No, it was innovation. Someone said that they heard that the lights were on again in Lanta, and not just at the Company facility.” She knotted her fingers in her braid as she spoke, emphasizing the important words with twists of her fingers.
“Split the difference,” I responded. “innovation IS rebel activity, if we decide it is. More than just rumors, also, I got it from Adder.” I didn’t roll my eyes as I spoke, and I was carefully not watching their lips. I didn’t have a way to tell when Snitcher was riding my perceptions, but rebel thought at that time was that he could see out of your eyes, not hear what you heard. He could certainly read lips though.
“Too bad you had to bring the Knights”, said Sarah. “Otherwise you could just take off your sigil and blend right in. They couldn’t hide a power source from the populace for any length of time, but a group of them could fool a conspicuous out of town party if they are well organized. Maybe have them wait in the bus?”
Joe objected. “We don’t want to look like we have anything to hide from Refiner’s goons. Take em into the city and give them something to do, then snoop around?”
I nodded, and looked past them to the entrance of the bus. They took the cue and prepared themselves, and a moment later I pulled them back into the reserve. Seth was looming at the front side door of the bus, so I figured it was about time to get myself out.
Before emerging from the bus I took stock of the reserve. A couple thousand inside. Ten manifested and scouting. Irene could give me their names if I needed them. I was wearing five of the Sleepers, shades who’d died while unconscious, whose eternal slumber meant I could rely upon them not to jerk reflexively and impair me at a critical moment.
I stepped down the stairs and out onto the surface of the highway. It was hot and muggy outside of the vehicle, not surprising for late summer in the south. Not for the first time I was glad I’d grabbed a safari hat for a sigil, it kept the sun out of my eyes. I eyed the knights in their heavy red robes. That had to be unpleasant.
“Best behavior everyone.” I told them. “There isn’t a knight chapter in town, and there are only four registered Ultras, aside from the Company guards. It isn’t out of the question that we’ll meet some folks who don’t want us around.”
Seth practically growled. People can’t really form a growl, of course, it’s an animal noise, but he made a deep sound in his throat that was pretty clearly an attempt at emulating one. Then he launched into the call and response.
“Force rules the World!” he said, not quite shouting but well above conversational volume.
“Has ruled it, Shall rule it!” responded Caitlyn and Corey, firmly but not with the same belligerent enthusiasm. All three fell in behind me as we started walking down the road.
“Leave one of my men to watch the transport” said the Colonel. It was a good idea, although I hadn’t ever heard of anyone daring to mess with a Troubleshooter’s ride. I manifested a Vet with a pistol and some bullets, and he jogged out of my back and up into the bus. The Knights were used to shades darting out of my form from time to time. None reacted to the sudden dispatch.
We hiked for a while, trooping our way past the lines of wrecked and abandoned cars in the hot afternoon sun. Despite my years I easily led the way, the strength of the five sleepers making me energetic and tireless. Occasionally I would shove a car to the side, ostensibly to make room for the Knights in my entourage, but honestly it was just fun to exert the strength of 5 worn shades. I got some amusement from the idea of hidden watchers seeing an old woman clearing a path for her minions.
The Knights didn’t take the hike so well. Their training had been the usual New World brutalism, long on indoctrination and arbitrary cruelty, short on cardio. Corey managed best, being the most fit of the three, but the hours took their toll on Seth and Caitlyn. He was too fat, and she too weak, for this kind of exertion. By the time we hit the outskirts of the city proper they were both breathing hard enough for me to hear.
We got down off of the highway and started picking our way through the rubble of the smaller streets. Remover had ‘toppled’ Lanta, sending a wave of her disintegration energies slowly passing through the city at about thigh height. Where there had been buildings there was mostly rubble, but they had generally collapsed in place, so the streets were still the clearest areas. We soon located a foot path, and followed it for another half hour or so into the inhabited downtown area, clustered around the Company facility.
Honestly, folks being present on the street was the first sign that we were entering the city proper, as the outermost dwellings resembled the rubble beyond more than a little bit. The people who saw us kept away, entering dwellings or taking turns as we approached. No one explicitly fled, but I had the feeling it was more because doing so would alarm us than because they lacked the impulse.
After a few streets of this we saw a feeding station up ahead, the crisp right edges of the Company structure distinguishing it immediately from the buildings around it. We headed in that direction, and got our first close up look at the citizens of Lanta as we passed the feed lines out front.
They were the usual grimy frontier specimens, if a bit darker skinned that we had up north. If someone was bringing back Old World civilization in this city the benefits certainly weren’t trickling down to these folks. Still, they weren’t openly hostile, and if they looked away rather than meet my gaze, and sneered at the Knights, I was used to it. A few made the Posture, wrists cross behind their necks like they were tied, but most simply avoided acknowledging that they’d noticed us.
Seth shoved the door open, unnecessarily forcefully, and we stepped into the air conditioned interior. The common room was filled with tables, each of which was occupied by one or more of the townsfolk, eating their paste n’ powder. There wasn’t an empty table, but as soon as we stepped inside several people vacated one for us.
I let the Knights take the table, and headed up to the Company Man who was overseeing the food distribution. Copyers soulless imitations always made me feel uneasy, but it was a good place to start my investigation.
“Greetings, Haunter” he said, eyes blank. “Have you come for a refreshing protein paste?”
I shook my head. Despite the exertion I wasn’t exactly hungry, oddly enough. I could take a set anyway to make it less obvious what I was up to, but I had a feeling that no one would miss the fact that I was questioning the Man.
“Adder told me that he’d had word that there was something going on in Lanta. Power being supplied to Old World structures, general quality of life improvements. Have you seen anything like that?” I asked. There wasn’t any point in beating around the bush with a Company Man.
“Indeed” he responded, cheerfully, hands absentmindedly cleaning nothing where his Copied reflexes indicated a glass should be. “Recently a number of residents have requested Company supplies to light and cool their residences. Additionally, this feeding facility had a recorded performance played in it each night for the last week. An electronic music player was used by the citizen in question.”
I turned and walked back to the table. If there had been anything else he’d simply have continued speaking until he’d told me. They didn’t really converse properly, at least not this far from the Lair.
The Knights were sitting around the table, munching away on protein paste. It was quite the process, getting the paste under the hoods to eat it. Seth was resting his chin on his chest and sliding the spoon up behind the mask. Caitlyn was doing likewise, and Corey had slid his up partway onto his forehead, resting the mask’s chin on his nose and upper lip, allowing him to eat normally. It also left him the only one able to really converse, which was fine by me.
“Apparently, there’s a power grid of sorts here in the city. The Company supplied the wires and such, but someone has an actual power source.” I spoke quietly, but I was almost certainly overheard. There was a conspicuous hush at the tables nearest us.
“Someone found some batteries?” guessed Corey. He didn’t seem terribly interested. “When we talk to the city’s Boss, are you going to make her give them up?”
“Not batteries, they used power to play music, of all things, recently. No one with a finite source would use it on entertainment.”
Seth tried to say something, but Caitlyn spoke first. “A generator? Was there one in the city that they might have repaired? Or perhaps someone went through the Process and became an ultra capable of generating electric energy?” She seemed excited.
That would complicate things immensely. Troubleshooters were expected to find out what powers any new ultras had, and give them the chance to sign up with Prevailer. Electrical powers, however, along with a few others, were on a list She’d given me. Anyone with those powers I was to kill as quickly as I could.
Naturally, when I’d given my rebel contact the list, Eriko had asked me to try and get anyone matching this description into contact with her. It wasn’t a priority, she wouldn’t expect me to blow my cover for it, but it was still… A chance to take action against Her didn’t come up to often.
“More likely a generator” I said, which was a bald faced lie. “but we’ll find out what’s up with it when I talk with the Boss.”
Seth gripped his scythe and rose to his feet. “I can find out right now”, he said, and turned to another table. I really should have seen that coming.
He walked over to a mother-daughter pair, resting his scythe on his shoulder. I began to eat his food, making a large show of not caring what he was up to. Irene, however, was focusing intently on my peripheral vision, and would warn me if he started to rough anyone up.
“What’s going on?” he asked, putting a foot up on a vacant chair and leaning his elbow on it. Looming over them in full regalia he cut an imposing figure.
To her credit, the woman didn’t act like she thought his question was a simple greeting, play innocent or freeze up. She pulled her daughter behind her and answered Seth calmly.
“We got a new boss, Reverter. She can make stuff work like it used to do.”
“Reverter?” he asked. I was pretty sure we hadn’t used that one.
“Her,” she said, and pointed past me at the woman who had just opened the door.